David Morris: Protocol for getting Phenomenological Descriptions out of participants in our experiments

I recently had a very productive conversation with Shaun Gallagher about protocols helpful for the sort of experimental phenomenology that we are doing.

In particular, he directed me to the work of Claire Petitmengin,http://claire.petitmengin.free.fr/topic/index.html, and especially to her article "Describing one's subjective experience in the second person, an interview method for the Science of Consciousness", Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 5:229-269, which you download via the articles link on her site. I encourage you to read this if you are working on the phenomenological experiment issues.

(Tristana, can you send me again your paper on methodology—I can’t seem to find it. And I don’t remember if you had cited her in your summary.)

I think this could be a really powerful—although laborious—method for us. One insight Petitmengin has is that the interviewer isn’t just asking the participant to report on what they already have available or are already ready to describe: the interviewer anchors and scaffolds a process that helps the participant get to an explicate that experience in the first place. In this process it’s important to keep the participant on track and sticking with description rather than presumption. I.e., even a well trained phenomenologist can be diverted, and needs outside help to stay on track. So there’s an interesting notion here that first person reports in fact might be bettered by or even require an intersubjective relation. We could note that Husserl, say, internalizes that intersubjective relation, by checking his experience against that of his presumed reader, and by having his responsibility to his reader always guide focused investigation of experience. I.e., he’s not doing wishy-washy spontaneous introspection, but a sort of ‘self-interview’ that is mega-labourious and endless.

Petitmengin’s procedure to my mind resembles, a bit, a therapy session, where instead of the therapist helping someone unpack a traumatic experience, they are helping them unpack an experience in general. Or, maybe a detective trying to lead an eyewitness through memory of an event by leading them back into it.

I think we could think of a protocol where we have various participants, variously expert or non-expert in movement/perception, go through an experience that we provide and record from the outside, then work them through the above procedure, then let them go back to the experience in relation to our recording, to coordinate their experience with their body movements, and then have a group of participants sit down together in a workshop to get multiple perspectives on this.

What I am thinking of is our obtaining “the experiential correlates of movement,” which is sort of the opposite of the “neural correlates of consciousness.” In the latter, we think the physiological stuff is the hard thing to find, and the consciousness is the easy and obvious thing. We do the opposite—seeing how people move from the outside is the ‘easy thing’, the hard thing is describing what it is that they are DOING.

Conceptually, the issue here is that MOVING IS NOT DISPLACEMENT OF OBJECTIVE BODIES. In terms of relative objective displacement, the situation is the same whether your body moves forward in relation to the walls around you, or whether the walls move backwards in relation to you (as in the sway room experiment with the babies in the middle of a room that moves). But, in terms of EXPERIENCED MOVEMENT, the two situations are different, because in the one case you’re the agent of displacement, in the other the patient of displacement. This is an argumentative opening for needing to study movement through our EXPERIENCE OF MOVING BODILY AGENCY. So we to describe that.