Explanation and description in phenomenological psychopathology

L.A. Sass

Department of Clinical Psychology, GSAPP-Rutgers University


The aim of this article is to lay out a number of ways in which the phenomenological approach to psychopathology can be not merely “descriptive”, but contribute as well to the project of “explanation”. After considering some ambiguities and controversies pertaining to the notions of description, explanation, understanding and causality, the article turns to a particular example of psychopathology: schizophrenia. The “ipseity-disturbance” model of Sass & Parnas is presented as a way of illustrating the various explanatory possibilities. The ipseity-disturbance model postulates a two-faceted disorder of minimal or basic self-experience, involving hyperreflexivity (exaggerated self-consciousness, initially of an automatic kind) and diminished “self-affection” or self-presence (decline in the sense of existing as a vital and self-identical subject of experience), together with concomitant disturbances in one’s “grip” or “hold” on the external world (the clarity and stability of one’s experience of external reality). Six kinds of explanatory relationships are described and discussed. Three are synchronic relationships, involving phenomenological implication: equiprimordial, constitutive and expressive. Three pertain to diachronic relationships, involving causal or quasicausal changes over time: basic, consequential and compensatory processes. Whereas the first or synchronic relationships concern forms of mutual implication that clarify the structure of the experiences at issue, the second or diachronic type concerns the development or genesis, over time, of abnormal forms of experience, and related forms of action and expression, in light of the causal or quasi-causal patterns they may demonstrate. These relationships are considered in relation to several philosophical concepts, including Aristotle’s notion of the four causes or explanatory factors (material, efficient, formal, final), Husserl’s notion of “motivational causality”, and the concepts of downward causation, system (or formal) causation, and epiphenomenalism. A final section takes up the self-critical and eminently phenomenological question of the degree to which phenomenological concepts regarding subjectivity can be considered to have an “objective” status, as opposed to being useful ways for us to distinguish aspects or processes of what is in fact a kind of underlying unity. All this helps to clarify the nature of phenomenology’s potentially explanatory role.  

Scarica il PDF