Descartes and phenomenological psychology

(with reference to some of the cases in Yalom’s Love’s Executioner)
Roger Brooke, Ph.D., ABPP
(2008–updated 2014)

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Existential phenomenological psychology is interested in studying the phenomena of psychological life in a way that does not violate the integrity of experience. In order to do this the phenomenologist must “bracket” various theoretical and philosophical assumptions and return “to the things themselves.” One of these philosophical assumptions that tend to obscure experience is Descartes’ dualism.

In the 1640s the philosopher, Rene Descartes, organized Galileo’s scientific project into a philosophical system about the nature of reality (an ontology). He affirmed Galileo’s scientific project, which described what came to be called the “real” world in mathematical terms, and he called this the res extensa. This realm is observable, empirically measurable, and functions according to the natural laws of physics and chemistry. It is an abstracted realm in which there is no subjectivity, or sense of place or meaning, etc. All qualitative differences are obliterated or transformed into only measurable quantitative terms. For Descartes, the human body is merely one object among many in the external world, or res extensa, and it functions according to natural law. In ordinary terms, the body is part of the “outer world.” It is “not me.” Neither is the body the place of experience. For Descartes, the body has no thoughts, feelings, or any experiences at all. A child’s smile is conceptually reduced to physiology, which is reduced to microbiology, which is reduced to chemistry and ultimately physics.

For Descartes, experience does not take place in the world, therefore, or even in the body, which is thought to be an object in the world of other objects (necessary for one’s life, perhaps, but functioning just like other things). Rather, experience takes place within the mind, the res cogitans. This realm, the realm of mind, is subjective, private, and invisible. It is a realm of “ideas,” or representations of a world that is assumed to be “outside.” Strictly speaking, one does not even experience one’s body any more than one experiences the world and other people. One experiences only the mind itself, as a system of representations. One experiences “mental representations” of self and others, or one has only “ideas” of really seeing and interacting with other people.

Cartesian dualism has become a cultural habit of thought through which our understanding of ourselves and the world tends to be organized. In psychology, Descartes’ categories have survived as the unquestioned assumptions underlying most of psychology, across its various schools. For instance, Freud’s model of mind is of an inner realm of “mental representations,” whereas his metapsychology retains the language of his early training in neurology. The id, for instance, is thought of as a mental representation of somatic activity, and the ego is a “mental representation” of one’s embodied sense of self.  (Freud can–and should–also be read in a way that tends to break down those categories, but that is another story).

For another example, psychophysiological research tends to think of the human body only in neurochemical terms. Whatever interesting findings are made, these then tend to be interpreted as the “cause” or “real meaning” of complex experiential phenomena. There is no explicit understanding of the human body in terms of its subjectivity, volition, or, often, even its world-relatedness. (Fortunately new interactive models are emerging,, and are consistent with phenomenology’s presuppositions.)

Behaviorism emerged as an attempt to extend the principles of (Galilean) science into the human field, so any references to subjectivity or experience were rejected as being private, invisible, and as not being accessible to scientific analysis. But this attempt to found psychology empirically in these terms was an endorsement of Descartes’ res extensa, which neglected precisely the human realm from psychological study. Existentialists such as Rollo May point out that this behaviorist project did not mark the supposed end of philosophy in psychology, but rather an endorsement of a particular philosophy, and one that should be questioned on its own philosophical terms.

Finally, all introductory textbooks in psychology include a chapter on perception. They include a diagram of the eye receiving light waves and of the ear receiving pressure waves. These sections describe the “biological bases” of perception. But note again how the assumptions of Descartes have been unquestioningly adopted. What we supposedly “really” see out there in the world of meaningful relations is nothing at all, because everything out there has been defined as physics. What we “really” see and hear are mental representations in our minds, somehow (that word “somehow” is a place holder for an impenetrable mystery) linked to a hypothesized world.

For the phenomenologist, Cartesian dualism is what Binswanger (in May) called the “cancer evil of psychology.” According to Rollo May, it has bedeviled western thought and psychology throughout its history, since its institutional origins in the late nineteenth century. For the phenomenologist, Descartes’ ontology makes it impossible to talk about experience in a way that is loyal to experience, or, in other words, that faithfully represents experience in its conceptualizations.

The many stories we read in Yalom showed over and over again that experience takes place in the world: that is, the lifeworld (Husserl’s lebenswelt) in which we conduct our lives. Thelma’s love was not a representational event in her “mind,” nor something that could be measured mathematically in the external world of empirical facts. It was neither internal nor external. To start with those Cartesian categories is to start on the wrong foot, so to speak. Rather, Thelma’s love was lived and experienced in her lifeworld. So too was Carlos’s cancer: however much it was a medical problem, it was also an experiential problem lived, not in an inner “mind,” but in relation to the people in his world. Betty’s obesity too was not primarily a physiological problem, a problem of the res extensa–although of course it was that too. It was a primarily an existential problem of her being-in-the-world, that is, her lifeworld with its meanings and history. Nor does it help to say that her obesity was a problem in her mind, as though, like the res cogitans, her obesity was utterly interior, private, with no reference to her body and the world. On the contrary, her obesity –yes! right there, physically incarnated in her life–had a story to tell, and the story involved people, places, and meaningful events–all contexts in a world that cannot be reduced to Cartesian categories. Love, cancer, and obesity are all situated existentially as modes of being-in-the-world.

For the phenomenologist, the term being-in-the-world is an ontological answer to the problem of Descartes’ dualism. If psychological thinking starts there, with being-in-the-world, then it can remain faithful to experience. Then we can understand the psychological lives of Thelma, Carols, Betty, and Penny on their own terms, in ways that deepen and enrich our understanding rather than make such understanding fundamentally impossible.

May, R. (1983). The discovery of being. NY: W W Norton and Co.
Yalom, I. (1989). Love’s executioner and other tales of psychotherapy. NY: Harper.