Phenomenology as Description and as Explanation: The Case of Schizophrenia

  • Louis A. Sass


The phenomenological approach in both philosophy and psychiatry has often been characterized as a descriptive rather than an explanatory enterprise. One can understand this statement in various ways. The general idea, however, is that the purpose of phenomenology is to describe and define the nature and varieties of human experience rather than to give an account of the causal mechanisms or efficacious processes that bring it about.

At an early phase of his work, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) - phenomenology’s founder - did indeed present phenomenology as a purely descriptive approach that excludes all concern with both genesis and causation (Bernet et al. 1993, p. 195). In the classic preface to his Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962, pp. vii-viii) characterizes phenomenology as “a matter of describing, not of explaining or analyzing … (as an attempt) to give a direct description of experience as it is without taking account of its psychological origin and the causal explanations which the scientist, the historian, or the sociologist may be able to provide.” Similar views are common in phenomenological psychiatry and psychopathology. The phenomenological psychiatrist, Wolfgang Blankenburg (1971/1991, p. 4, 27), e.g., explicitly denies that his account of the “basic disorder” (Grundstörung) in schizophrenia is intended to have any etiologic significance; he aims, he says, only to capture the “essence” of typically schizophrenic abnormalities (see also Buytendijk 1987, p. 130).


Mental Causation Subjective Life Phenomenological Implication Explanatory Relevance Dissociative Identity Disorder 
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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Louis A. Sass
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Clinical PsychologyRutgers UniversityRutgersUSA

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