What is the phenomenological model and how does it differ from broadly cognitive approaches in psychology and linguistics?
First we need to define what we mean by a ‘cognitive’ approach. Cognitive approaches in disciplines such as psychology and linguistics emerged in reaction to behavioristic psychology. Whereas behaviourism viewed behaviour as a function of determinate stimulus conditions, cognitivist theory asserted that in order to predict the response or learned competence we must posit a rich internal architecture whereby the system is conceived as interpreting the stimulus and then processing this information to generate the appropriate output. This conception resembles the classical Cartesian model of the mind as a thinking self that interprets the data of the senses in terms of its innate capacities for conceptualisation, but allows for non-conscious mental processes, divorcing the notion of cognition from the notion of consciousness. As a result, the conception of non-cognitive processes cannot be in terms of non-conscious, but rather in terms of processes which are directly tied to the stimulus conditions.
Phenomenological research can be viewed as starting out with a critique of the Cartesian model which conceives of the self as a detached observer looking in an objectifying and disengaged way on the external world, as well as self-reflectively on its own mental operations. Instead, it conceives our primary relation to the world as non-self-conscious engagement and absorbed coping. In this non-objectifying mode things come in and out of prominence as we move through our environment and immediately (or non-mediately) respond to the situation. We do not experience things around us as ‘external objects’ or even ‘stimuli’, but rather as things that solicit our responses and provide affordances for us to be able to handle and manipulate them. Thus, rather than the mind being separate from the body, our primary engagement with the things around us is in fact a bodily one and we experience them in relation to our ability to handle them and to attain a ‘grip’ on them.
This immediate and skillful comportment is non-cognitive and is instead based on practical understanding. For example, we do not experience something like a chair or a cup as a thing that we then ‘recognise’ as useful for sitting on or gripping and drinking out of, but rather the sitting on or gripping and drinking out of is inherent in the experience of these things in the sense that these things solicit these responses as part of our experience or perception of them rather than us perceiving them as objects that we then recognise as useful for this or that. Rather, seeing these things as mere physical objects extended in space apart from these responses or uses is a further act of cognition or abstraction that is a further skill that needs to be learned. Thus, what Descartes describes as the thinking self is really a product of a special kind of schooling or training whereby the thinker learns to abstract away from the ordinary practical understanding of things and learns to view them as physical objects extended in space independently of our ordinary everyday practical use of them, that is, to see them outside of their normal social context.
Thus we can already see that phenomenology, while it is not committed to methodological behaviourism, and thus can accept evidence of introspection, posits that in our primary and ordinary skillful mode of operation there is a tight and non-cognitively-mediated connection with the world, such that we respond immediately to things, and our responses are solicited by these things. In that sense, without accepting behaviourist theory, phenomenology does not accept that cognitive processes are involved in ordinary skillful coping even in a non-conscious sense, and posits a tight connection comprising the body-mind-thing system.
How then does phenomenology conceive of the self and cognitive processes? In the ordinary skillful coping there is only the self as an “I” that is immediately responding to the solicitations of things and situations around it. However, there are situations in which this skillful coping encounters contradictions or problems that require reassessment. For example, a friend behaves in an uncharacteristic way and we have to decide whether this was out of character for him or whether our assumption about his character has been wrong all along. Moments of self-doubt or questioning lead to a process of self-objectification in which the “I” looks self-reflectively at the objectified “Me”. What Descartes described as the ‘thinking self’ is in fact the objectification of the “Me”. It is this objectified “Me” that is the subject matter of cognitive psychology which can proceed only by ignoring the “I”.
In a psychological laboratory we treat the person as a ‘subject’ by trying to objectify him or her as a ‘thing’, abstracting from the subjective experiences of the whole person and instead trying to manipulate a narrow set of variables that control some measurable subset of responses. We would not normally accept treating people in this way in ordinary life outside of the laboratory (as this would be viewed as psychopathic), and it is questionable how useful it is to treat them that way even inside the laboratory. In cognitive models it is a methodological assumption that responses and capacities are caused by some specifiable variables such that it is possible to uncover and manipulate these variables in order to predict a specific response or capacity. That is, what cognitivism shares with behaviourism is the assumption of methodological behaviourism whereby behaviour can be predicted on the basis of some specifiable causes, the difference being merely whether these causes are external stimuli or internal cognitive states or processes.
Phenomenology rejects methodological behaviourism by denying that behaviour is the product of such specifiable causes and instead posits a tight unity between the environment, the body and the mind, and instead of seeking out causes proceeds to characterise functionally the world-body-mind system. Instead of viewing the cognitive system as a system of elements whereby we want to try to identify the causal connections, as is the strategy of methodological behaviourism, we begin with the connected whole and then identify its elements through a process of description that utilises our practical understanding. Thus, thinkers as diverse as G. H. Mead and Schutz “stressed that personal consciousness involves no multiplicity of elements needing to be reunited, but rather a unity from which one separates out components, and they each examined the modifications that reflection introduces into the ‘lived stream’, converting an “I” into a “Me”…” and show “how reflection dissolves the self unified in lived action into partial, role-taking selves”.
So, to summarise, the problem of phenomenology is to try to characterise consciousness, the body, and the relations to objects and others in non-objectifying/subjectifying terms. The Cartesian objectifying consciousness is not the normal modus operandi, but rather a special type of intellectual skill that is the product of schooling. In intellectual thought we learn to view things in a disengaged manner as abstract entities extended in three-dimensional space. In ordinary consciousness things do not appear to us in this way, eg., physical objects do not appear to us in some abstract three-dimensional space. Instead, we view them from a particular perspective, from a particular distance, and in relation to our ability to manipulate them, eg., to grasp them with our hand, to attain what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘maximal grip’. We learn what a thing is not by viewing it as an external stimulus that causes certain effects on our mind and behaviour, but rather, as Dewey argues, by actively exploring it and handling it and thus broadning our understanding of it, and thus orienting outselved to it so that it can be best handled, manipulated and used.
Another idea that has emerged from the rejection of Cartesian intellectualism is that there is a level of interaction that lies between purely instinctive behaviour and mature linguistic interaction which is gestural. The view is that the type of reflecting and objectifying skills that characterise cognition are dependent on the development of certain linguistic practices and schooling, e.g., it depends heavily on the development of literacy. This idea of a conversation of gestures as a basic mode of interaction and engagement with the world originates with Wilhelm Wundt’s Volkerpsychologie written in 1900-1920, and has been developed by pragmatist thinkers such as G.H. Mead and Bronislaw Malinowski. On this view gestural interaction marks the tight, non-objectifying relations between individuals or putatively also between individuals and things.