Amedeo Giorgi Interviewed by Former Students (Part 3 of 3)
In August 2011, Amedeo Giorgi was interviewed at Saybrook’s graduate conference on themes related to his life’s work in phenomenological psychology. The panel was comprised of four former doctoral students of Giorgi’s at Saybrook: Drs. Lisa K. Mastain, Adrienne Murphy, and Sophia Reinders, and was moderated by Marc Applebaum. This transcript was edited by Amedeo Giorgi and Marc Applebaum.
Reinders: Would you speak a little bit about the realm of areas in which phenomenology can be relevant beyond formal research?
Giorgi: Well, I can say “anything experiential.” If you can experience it and you can describe it, you can do a phenomenological analysis of it. Those of you who have worked with me know, I never dictate the phenomenon you’re going to work with. It’s hard enough to do a dissertation that you better like the phenomenon at least, because the process is long enough! So, over the years as long as I have directed dissertations, I have never dictated the phenomenon. I have let the student choose it, then I have helped them with the research.
Well I have gotten everything…in one sense it’s bad because I’m not building blocks of psychological knowledge that I’m interested in, but on the other hand I have a lot of happy students who study what they’re interested in: so I have, well, Adrienne [Murphy] was with breast-feeding, Sophia [Reinders] was with artistic creation, Lisa [Mastain] was with altruism, Dennis [Rebello] is working with telling life-stories, I’ve had nurses do it—if it is experiential, and you can describe it, you can analyze it. That’s the beauty of phenomenology, it has a tremendous range.
Mastain: Do you think you have to be a [philosophical] phenomenologist to do this, to get it…to read Husserl, et cetera—because there are lots of people who would like to get to the essence without doing all that reading!
Giorgi: Well, obviously the more philosophy you read the easier the process, the better the understanding, the better the free imaginative variation, the better the intuition, so I can never say “Don’t read the philosophers.” The question is, how much do you have to read in order to do reasonably good work? When I was at Duquesne, I was very lucky because the philosophy department was phenomenologists, and any psychology student could take philosophy courses and have them count toward the degree. So our students would get say over six semesters, six philosophy courses in addition to the phenomenology that we worked into our own [psychological] lectures. So they were pretty good, they were in really well-grounded, they were good, they had great background.
When students have less background, the opportunities are not there to the same extent. So in the workshop course I give you the absolute minimum conceptual analysis of the philosophy on day one, but I always say: “Read! Go back, and read!” And I give you good secondary authors, so that you don’t always have to go to Husserl, like Zahavi, or Mohanty, you know, people like that who are good, and you can get a good sense of phenomenology from them, shoring up your background so that your praxis will be better.
The official title of that course is “The Theory and Practice of Phenomenological Psychology.” The theory and practice. If you only practice and you don’t know theory, you won’t do well. And if you only have theory and you don’t practice, that’s not so good either. It’s both. So how can you get both? Well, if I catch a student early and can work with them over six years or seven years, they get good grounding, because there is the opportunity and the time to do that. If I get a student, and they have all their coursework done, they’re at the practicum level, and then they want to do phenomenology, I kind of respond [cautiously] like, “Well, let’s talk about this” because I think you ought to have at least three courses before I will even let you do that, if it’s possible at all. So, the answer to your question is, it’s not good to have no philosophy, I can’t argue for that, but I can argue for at least limited philosophy sufficient for you to do good phenomenological psychology.
And the other problem is it has to be interpreted correctly—reading Husserl can be off-putting…he’s very rigorous, very good, but he’s writing for 19th century people, and unless you know the philosophical problems of the 19th century, you don’t know exactly where he’s going, so you need guidance—in what sections to read, what sections to drop. Merleau-Ponty is far more user-friendly, because he knew psychology better, so if you read Merleau-Ponty, it’s solid stuff too, but he’s very, very much speaking to psychologists as well as philosophers.
So, if you read him…Sartre, the early Sartre, is very good because he’s very psychological—the books on emotion and imagination—and then again sections of Being and Nothingness are quite good, in the descriptions of behavior, not the whole book, you need to know which sections to highlight and read. Heidegger can be very good, but he’s so involved with the question of Being, so unless you know how to back away from that a little bit, you can get lost in Heidegger as well. So, it’s a matter of selecting the readings, and I find today that some secondary sources are getting better and better. I thought in my naiveté—the first generation, if I just explained to people what phenomenology was, they would just come aboard, well, obviously that didn’t happen! [laughter]
And I thought maybe it needs a second generation, when that might get done, but not quite, but I think maybe with the third generation, because some of the philosophers like Zahavi, and Drummond, and some of the younger philosophers who are coming on board now, are writing it in an English idiom which is much more accessible for non-philosophers, it’s getting better. So I think maybe in that third generation…now I can tell people, “Read Zahavi and then do the work,” because he understands Husserl really well, but he writes well and he communicates well, so I think it took so much time because Husserl was so deep and so comprehensive…there is a new two-volume set on Husserl by Mohanty, and it is awe-inspiring to see how much Husserl accomplished. He covers Husserl’s whole life from 1890, The Philosophy of Arithmetic …he died in 1938, and one book is called The Early Years and the other book is called The Freiburg Years…and in the Freiburg years especially, the topics he covered, the distinctions he made…it’s no wonder it’s overwhelming to non-philosophers. If you don’t know the history of philosophy, what he’s speaking to, it’s a very, very hard read. We need someone to interpret him and make him palatable to our task.
And a lot is in there that is good for understanding science, for understanding human beings, for understanding consciousness, but it’s hard to get at without translations of some type. So, I think the third generation might make it far more accessible to non-philosophers, but Husserl himself, as good as he is, I would say quite honestly, if I hadn’t sat in on philosophy courses at Duquesne with expert Husserlian scholars, I would not have gotten him right, on my own: I would have read him, but pulled away with the wrong thing. They were able to tell me: here’s what he’s up against, here’s the problem, here’s what he’s doing, so “Oh, now I see,” but if I’d read it on my own, I wouldn’t have gotten it.
Applebaum: Would you say that reading phenomenology not just an intellectual challenge but an experiential challenge as well?
Giorgi: Sure, you really have to stick with it, and you really have to really understand what they’re saying—not interpret too easily, and say, “Oh, he’s saying this and he’s saying that,” because you run across a familiar word or a familiar phrase. No, you’ve got to lend yourself to their project first, then critically evaluate it. I usually try to recommend Merleau-Ponty because he’s more user-friendly for psychologists. But every mainstream psychologist to whom I said: “Read Merleau-Ponty’sStructure of Behavior if you want to get a sense of phenomenology—they never come back to me! That’s a very difficult text, and it takes time. But they never come back and dialogue with me, but it’s tough, and that’s the whole point—that it’s an experiential challenge as well. And it draws you seemingly away from current psychological issues, but it’s a deepening of those issues, if you know how to come back to them.
Murphy: The research method is obviously central to your life’s work. How would you encourage those of our generation who have studied your work to communicate or propagate it more widely in the community? How can we contribute?
Giorgi: Well, in addition to teaching it correctly to others, that would be one thing, if you have the personality and the stamina, go dialogue with mainstream [psychological] people, you know, because the ideal after all is that psychology itself has to be changed. To me it’s on the wrong track, it’s not well-founded, it’s got to get better founded, and what I see in phenomenology is the proper founding of an authentic psychology. But it’s a task that’s bigger than a lifetime: it simply can’t be done by one person, by himself or herself, so I’d say that the two things are, first, teach the method to whomever is interested, teach it well and correctly, and the second thing is dialogue try to tell them that there is a qualitative method that is as rigorous as any quantitative method…
As I say this, I came across an Australian psychologist named Joel Michell whose book is Measurement in Psychology, he’s a quantitative psychologist, and his point is that the idea that psychological variables can be measured is an assumption and it’s never been proven. He’d like to be the one to prove it, but he hasn’t done so yet and he admits that. He goes back to S. S. Stevens who wrote when I was a grad student in the 1950’s. This handbook of experimental psychology came out edited by S. S. Stephens, and he wrote on measurement where there’s the ordinal scale, and he [Michell] says Stevens got it wrong, he didn’t ground quantification properly, and yet, 50 years of research is based on what Stevens said. And you know what’s happening to him? He’s being ignored as well. I mean, I know where his articles are, but mainstream people are going ahead doing quantitative research, they’re not responding to the critique, so if qualitative research is vulnerable, it’s kind of new, quantitative research is in no better place, he knows philosophy of math and it’s not right, it’s an assumption, so everyone who feels like “I’m really being scientific” [when] it has never been proven that psychological variables are accessible to quantitative procedures.
Applebaum: Another student had asked, how widely is phenomenological psychology being taught, it is being sustained today?
Giorgi: I can name the schools where it is being taught—it is being taught, it is being sustained. My view is that it will never disappear, it will never be mainstream, it’s going to be on the margins somewhere as far as I can envision it. I’m not with it because it is marginalized, I’m with it because I feel it’s true, access to that we don’t see yet, hit and miss. I’m not saying that all mainstream psychology is off, but sometimes the successes are incidental, resistors to mainstream.
I’m also a historian of psychology and I can demonstrate to you that in every decade since 1879 there are people who have criticized mainstream psychology, I could write a history of dissident of psychology, like people like Brentano, Politzer in France, there is a dissident history of psychology, where these people are saying that mainstream psychology is not the best way of understanding psychological phenomena and the difference between them is not as great as the difference between behaviorism and psychoanalysis—that’s a real big difference. The difference between the dissidents is not that great. So, where are we going? In philosophy in America, phenomenology is strong: I just saw the schedule for SPEP, it’s quite strong, it’s good, there are lots of good young American philosophers, the generation succeeding me, good topics and papers. So, I don’t think it will die, I don’t think it will be major or mainstream, I think it will always be present as an alternative, and I think it comes down to an existential choice: do I work with mainstream people or do I work with the marginalized people? And phenomenology today is marginalized socially speaking, but not truth-wise, I think truth-wise it is seeking the essence of psychology.
-- Amedeo Giorgi and Marc Applebaum