Phenomenological approaches to personality take human experience or subjectivity as their primary focus. Phenomenological theorists assert that obtaining accurate knowledge of another person requires understanding how that person experiences the world. Personal experience constitutes immediate reality. A secondary focus of phenomenological theories is the self. The self is thought of as a cognitive-affective structure through which experience is filtered.
William James’s famous distinction between the “I” (subject) and the “me” (object) can be used to understand all phenomenological approaches to personality. The “I” refers to experience as it occurs for an individual (e.g., what it feels like to win an award). The “me” refers to how a person thinks about her- or himself as an object of knowledge (e.g., what someone thinks about her- or himself for having won an award). In the phenomenological model, the “I” and the “me” interact to give an individual’s self-consciousness its particular form.
Phenomenological theorists focus on two kinds of subjective experience. The first is how people experience themselves in relation to others. An example is how a young girl experiences herself as her parents express disapproval of her behavior. People’s positive and negative experiences with others contribute to how they learn to value themselves, sometimes called self-regard. Carl Rogers was particularly concerned with conditions of worth—or expectations that others have in order for a person to be acceptable to them. If a person receives the message that certain thoughts and feelings are unacceptable to others, he or she may become uncomfortable having those experiences and distort them. When that occurs, experiences of the person’s own spontaneous inclinations are not integrated into his or her self-concept and the “me” becomes less genuine or inauthentic. Such a constrained self is not free.
The second kind of experience is what might be called internal monitoring, or people’s intuitive sense of their own inclinations. According to phenomenological theory, experiences that reflect a person’s truer inclinations always exist in some form and can be recovered, leading to a more authentic sense of the self. Put another way, everyone has an inherent and consciously accessible potential to develop in a healthy way, and people can always learn to connect with that potential. Somewhat incorrectly, psychologists commonly consider this focus on self-actualization to be synonymous with phenomenological theory.
American phenomenological theories are also referred to as humanistic theories because they emphasize the inherent goodness of the individual. In the work of Carl Rogers, personal experience is valued as uniquely genuine and wholesome. People may commit atrocious acts and be quite bad, but Rogers and like-minded humanists reject the notion of an inherent or inborn badness.
The strain of phenomological theory that stresses the human capacity for self-actualization has considerable overlap with 19th-century Romanticism, which focused on the truth value of individual intuition in contrast to the rationally discovered laws of science. Like the Romantics, the proponents of a self-actualization approach are suspicious of an exclusively scientific perspective, particularly one that focuses on technical details and ignores meaning.
A more European version of phenomenological theory, referred to as existentialism, also studies human experience and subjectivity, but the experiences upon which it focuses are loneliness, isolation, and death. Existential theorists believe that such ultimate concerns can be sources of a deeper personal meaning. The awareness of death in particular is considered to be uniquely human.
Existentialist theorists also point out that some people seek constraint. They choose to distort their own experience in order to narrow their world and feel safer. They regard actively choosing a constrained self as self-deception and bad faith.
Strengths and Weaknesses
An important contribution of phenomenological theories is their focus on personal meaning, health, and growth. In many ways they are the immediate ancestors of what is currently called positive psychology. Phenomenological theorists are also psychology’s original advocates of the personality trait known as Openness to Experience. A related contribution of phenomenological theories is their emphasis on the uniqueness of individual persons. This uniqueness is easily lost in the statistical methods of scientific psychology that focus on average types. The narrative tradition in modern psychology emphasizes the individualist aspect of the phenomenological model by telling stories about people. These stories are supposed to contain information that is left out of statistical summaries. Finally, the common tenet of self-structure, where experiences congruent with that structure are accepted and experiences incongruent with that structure are rejected, has gained credence in both psychodynamic and social-cognitive theories of personality.
An important criticism of phenomenological theory highlights its tendency to suggest that individual perception and emotional intuition has some special relationship with truth. In contrast, many psychologists and philosophers cogently argue that the degree of personal conviction with which a belief is held has limited bearing on its accuracy. History offers many examples of propositions that people believed in deeply, but that turned out to be false, such as flat earth theory. Modern science with its emphasis on skepticism and experimental research has taught us to see beyond common sense and individual perception. In the scientific style of reasoning, personal experience has to be mediated by critical analysis.
Since the 17th century, the scientific outlook has contributed to the Western world’s “progressive” character. Criticisms based on Romantic ideas can stand in opposition to the thinking that perpetuates this character. Rogers was quite cognizant of this problem early in his career, although in his later years he seemed to increasingly emphasize individual intuition.
Evaluating the “validity” of phenomenological theories of personality is a substantial challenge because phenomenological theory and the scientific tradition work from altogether different theories of knowledge. Phenomenological approaches are primarily interested in capturing the subjective reality of individual human beings. They propose that abstract concepts such as self-actualization, authenticity, meaning, and spirituality are essential to understanding what it means to be human. Concepts such as these are considered to be legitimate by phenomenology’s standards of validity because they appear in qualitative analyses of human subjectivity. However, the ability to evaluate the validity of phenomenological constructs using quantitative empirical hypothesis testing is limited.
Despite problems in establishing the scientific validity of phenomenological postulates, empirical research does offer some support for Rogers’s personality theory. According to social psychologists, individuals seek out data that verify their preexisting self-concept, even if that self-concept is negative, as in the case of clinically depressed individuals. These behaviors highlight the importance of the self as an organizer of perceptual experiences, but they also cast doubt on the universality of seeking positive regard. Similarly, cognitive psychologists have shown that self-schemas affect how individuals process incoming information, what information they are likely to remember, and what feedback they are likely to accept about themselves. These scientifically confirmed processes offer evidence for the existence of a self-system that is quite similar to what Rogers postulated.
There is also support in clinical psychology. Marsha Linehan, an expert on borderline personality disorder (BPD), has studied the detrimental effects of invalidating environments. In an invalidating environment the subjectivity of a child is actively rejected and devalued. Negative emotions such as anger and sadness are especially devalued. This devaluation renders the child incapable of trusting his or her own subjective perceptions once he or she has reached adulthood. Linehan’s formulation of BPD as involving intolerance of negative affect invokes claims similar to those of Rogers, such as a belief in the power of early interpersonal environments to foster healthy personality development and the value of accepting experiences as they occur.
Phenomenological psychology’s concepts such as self-actualization, authenticity, and congruence have considerable utility in the realm of personality theory and offer a persuasive depiction of human psychological life, but such concepts can become marginalized in the world of quantitative research due to their esoteric nature. Despite the widespread acceptance of the importance self-structure, phenomenological approaches are on the periphery of contemporary personality research. Even so, phenomenological methods of inquiry, such as narrative case studies, continue to provide rich, contextualized information about individual personality.
- Gendlin, E. T. (1982) Focusing (2nd ed.). New York: Bantam. Kohut, H. (1977). The restoration of the self. New York: International Universities Press.
- Linehan, M. (1987). Dialectical behavior therapy for borderline personality disorder: Theory and method. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 51(3), 261-276.
- Markus, H. (1977). Self-schemata and processing information about the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(2), 63-78.
- Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-centered therapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.