International Systemic Constellations Association

Confusing phenomenology with the insights it yields

Phenomenology was also used in the early twentieth century, by Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) German psychiatrist and philosopher, to discover and define symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions in the mentally ill. Many psychiatrists then became confused and called the use of these symptom categories “phenomenology”.  This information was correctly called “descriptive psychopathology” not “phenomenology”. 


This confusion arose because the psychiatrists did not differentiate between the phenomenological method and the information which it revealed. It is as if a blind man was suddenly able to see and saw a dog and then called the dog vision itself rather than one of many things he could now see.

One way of understanding this dilemma is to think of phenomenology as providing a special way of perception that allows us to perceive things otherwise outside of our awareness. In this way phenomenology acts much like a microscope. When we look down a microscope we can see organisms and structures that are otherwise invisible. We are then able to see relationships between the different structures we see.

This analysis of what we see is not the same as looking down the microscope. Even if our analysis is wrong we can still look down the microscope. However what we see is going to be limited by the quality of the microscope. We are able to assess the accuracy of what we see through the microscope by checking our observations through other sources of knowledge such as the known behaviour of the structures we are observing. Similarly the accuracy our phenomenological observations will be limited by the quality of our phenomenological technique. Fortunately our phenomenological observations can also be checked for accuracy in relation to known facts.

When Hellinger used the phenomenological method, he discovered principles that supported the flow of love in families. He called these principles “the orders of love”.  These principles also have been confused with the phenomenological method.  So it is useful to remember the simple aphorism: “When you look down the microscope you can see a micro-organism. But the micro-organism is not the microscope.”

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