Thursday, 20 May 2010

Interview with Dan Zahavi on Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology

In this post I interview Dan Zahavi, Professor of Philosophy at University of Copenhagen.

VM: In an interesting study published in Qualitative Health Research you used a phenomenological approach to understand the experiences of self, other, and the world in patients who had recently suffered a stroke and were experiencing hemispatial neglect. Could you say a bit more about the study, and expand on the idea that the findings show the importance of meaning and meaningmaking in the process of rehabilitation?

DZ: That study was investigating first person accounts of neglect soon after a stroke. These were the results from open-ended interviews of 12 participants. Stroke is closely related long-term disability and mortality. And many stroke patients experience hemispatial neglect. What happens is that people no longer notice the left side of their body and the perceptual field. Half of the universe looses meaning and no longer exists for them.

But the interesting part is that even when those parts are now outside of conscious reach, they still make an impact on the experience of self, of others and of the patient's world. And this not only impacts the persons' experiences but also those of their families’ and carers.  So when interviewing the patients, we used the guide of phenomenological accounts of embodied subjectivity to explore the impairments that affected the patients’experiences. 

From the findings we gathered that the patient experience several difficulties that challenge their life experience. For example, people struggle to remember events, to incorporate new knowledge. The person notices the difference between her abilities prior to the stroke and after it. These are very strange experiences and the patients were mostly reluctant to communicate their bodily sensations. 
Many of the problems that we found such as failure to recognize the left side of the body and space or strange bodily perceptions were already present in the neglect literature.

But we analyzed the data from a perspective that took into account the impact of changes and loss in interpersonal relations and spatial freedom (all concepts present in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty’ phenomenology) in the embodied experience of neglect. This enhanced the picture that we previously had and supplemented the existing literature for understanding the patients’ subjective experiences.

It is not easy for people to say that they cannot find their hand. People are mostly concerned with being targeted as drunk, delusional, etc. And this not wanting to share unusual bodily sensations creates feelings of alienation from others and loneness. This of course potentially results into the person loosing ability to maintain close interpersonal relationships. So what do we mean when we say that the findings from the phenomenological approach emphasize the importance of meaning and meaningmaking in the entire process of rehabilitation? 

We noticed that the patients’ ability to attend to the left hemispace was enhanced with  reminders that the patient found of some sort of significance. There is the example of a mother with neglect who could hold her baby with the left arm but forgot to attend to other things which were less important and meaningful to her. Some patients responded better to challenges to explore the left when prompts were coming from close friends and family which shows the importance of emotional stimuli. And that is why we propose that people who are experiencing neglect as well as their relatives and close friends need to be able to become more familiar with the manifestations of the experience. And this is possible by understanding patient’s interests, particular life history together with clinical observation.  

VM: So there has been influence of phenomenological analyses on psychiatry and on other disciplines such as psychology, sociology and nursing to help understand experience, perceptions, self-consciousness, action, embodiment, etc. There are also enlightening results from the current interaction between phenomenology and the cognitive sciences. But despite all the results, phenomenology seems to have to constantly defend itself from a supposedly idealist or anti-realist orientation.  These concerns seem to be related to phenomenology’s transcendental commitments. This is an old question but what are your current responses to naturalism?

DZ: This is indeed a recurrent question. I often start answering by saying that it depends on what notion of phenomenology and what notion of nature and naturalization one has in mind. The obstacle for reconciliation is not naturalism’s classical endorsement of some form of physicalism. The real problem has to do with naturalism’s treatment of consciousness as a mere object in the world and with its commitment to metaphysical realism.

If the problem for phenomenology is transcendence, Husserl says  that traditional epistemology has also been confronted with the same issue. And that issue has been how to get outside the sphere of consciousness. But to Husserl, this is a pseudo-problem because it is rooted in a mistake which is to think of knowledge as a relation between mind and world as two independent entities. Mind and world are not distinct entities; rather they are bound constitutively and interdependently together. Husserl  does not see his transcendental phenomenology as an attempt to renounce the realism of the natural attitude. His transcendental phenomenology is an attempt to redeem it.  And this is because a transcendental reflection is necessary if we want to understand the realism that is intrinsic to the natural attitude.

The aim of Husserl’s investigations is not to critically evaluate or justify our belief in reality. He thinks there’s no need for this justification. So instead, he aims to understand the legitimacy of our belief in reality. The transcendent world of human beings;  that of their experiencing, thinking, of doing with one another is not altered  by my phenomenological reflection, it is only understood. That the world exists, that it is given, is beyond doubt. Another completely different thing is to understand this indubitability. That which sustains life and positive science. So here we can understand how the transcendental reduction or  epoché is not to exclude reality from our research. The purpose of the epoché is to focus on reality as a given and only put in question a specific dogmatic (and naïve) attitude towards it. The idea is to investigate reality’s significance and manifestation for consciousness.

So of course this type of investigation is different from a straightforward exploration of the world. But this does not mean that it is not an investigation of reality. In other words, this is not an investigation of mental realm from other world. This turn should allow for a radical investigation and comprehension of the world which to Husserl represents an expansion for our research.
This is why in Krisis performing the epoché is explained as a transition from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional life.

VM: One question about parsimony and transdisciplinarity. There have been discussions concerning the proliferation of terminology in psychology and medicine. This might be the result of recent reexaminations of the symptomatology of different conditions (see Schmidt, 2010 for an example of VE and depression) which led to the suggestion that there are many different terms for a similar phenomenon. This is seen as potential source of confusion. And it is argued that terminology should be simplified for clarity and effective transdisciplinary communication to be reached.  
DZ: phenomenology is typically deeply concerned with preserving the complexity of the phenomena. I don’t think the first priority is to make the work efficiently. I think the first priority is to do justice to the phenomena. So of course we should clarify, but I don’t see why we should simplify. One question one has to ask if we want to have an empirically informed phenomenology for example, is what is it exactly that we have in mind? Is it a phenomenological investigation of specific topics?

If you take shame and you want to do an analysis of shame, we can think about the existing phenomenological descriptions of shame. One of them is Sartre’s description in Being and Nothingness. I think there’s a lot of value in that analysis but it is also obvious that there’s a lot of dimensions to shame that Sartre is not at all engaging with. Because think about developmental psychologists have to say about shame, think about what a gender perspective can include, a cultural perspective can include. We still have a lot to learn from the computer sciences.

Think about how shame might be understood by considering issues like honour in family relations where you feel shame because some member of your family you identify with has done something shameful.  The phenomenon is so much more complex and I think if we as phenomenologists ought to have any chance to do justice to that phenomenon we have to try and understand it in its complexity.

VM: Working with subjective experience and gathering first person data is challenging. As some have noticed (e.g., Petitmengin, 2006), people are not always aware of their subjective experience or can describe it with precision. And of course, then there is the question of the validity of the descriptions. Still, fortunately there’s realization that for the study of cognition it is important to take into account the subjective dimension and new research methods are being explored to better understand it. 

In Self and Other and in a recent article you speak about the possibility of knowing others and how far we can get when pursuing such quest. You say that one has to transcend her own experience to get knowledge of the other. What exactly did you mean when you said that understanding of the other is not of this person’s experience and that yet this does not make my understanding of the other non-experiential?

DZ: I speak of acquaintance. And this is important to understand the concept of empathy. Empathy provides me with an experiential access to you or to your experiences but it doesn’t make your experiences into my experiences because if that was the case, then it would be a self-experience. It is like saying the act of empathy or the empathizing is of course a first person experience but the target of the empathizing let’s say your joy or your embarrassment, my empathy grasps that. And this gives me an access to your experiences rather than just being a question of me inferring what kind of state you might be in.

When I’m confronted in the face to face encounter and I’m confronted with your embarrassment or your joy, I’m  experiencing you being joyful but me experiencing you being joyful doesn’t mean that I’m now joyful or I’m now embarrassed. Had that be the case, those would have become my experiences and then it would no longer be an other experience. So there will always be something that eludes me. There’s a lack of possibility to experience in empathy, in understanding.

 Consider a case where you have heard that a friend of yours is getting a divorce. But then you enter her room and you can see that all her love letters have been torn to pieces and then you infer: “my friend is probably very upset about the divorce”. So this is one way of getting to understand your friend. I would say it is inferential and non-experiential. It is inferential because you find this torn letters and you infer that she’s stressed. Then compare that with a situation where you are having a talk with your friend. You are siting face to face with her. You then mention the divorce and then you see your friend getting more and more upset. She starts to cry and blame her former partner, etc. In this case I would say you have an experiential access to her distress.

Of course you don’t have a first person access to her distress because then it would have become your distress and it’s not you who are distressed. But even when there’s that lack, obviously the face to face encounter gives you an experience of her distress which is totally different from you inferring that she is distressed. Most cases of empathy take place in an embodied encounter so it has to do with the here and now presence of the other. So if you are just thinking about me in my absence, even if you’re using your imagination it won’t be empathy. And that’s of course why some people talk about empathy as social perception.

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