Husserl and Heidegger: Descriptive and Interpretive Phenomenology Revisited

Phenomenology is gaining prominence in psychology research. The purpose of this paper is to review the historical underpinnings of phenomenology and discuss the commonalities and differences noted among the many phenomenological modalities used in contemporary research. The paper reviews the philosophies of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and the research methods that grew from them. The paper considers two phenomenological modalities rooted in Husserl’s philosophy and two research methods based on Heidegger’s principles of psychology. The commonalities and differences between these methods are considered. The rationale for choosing hermeneutic interpretive analysis for a more profound understanding of human experiences is provided. 

With the growing emphasis on human lived experiences as a vital source of data for psychologists, the use of qualitative research methods becomes more widespread. Phenomenology occupies a distinct space in the present-day hierarchy of qualitative research methods in psychology. Back at the beginning of the 20th century, phenomenology, as well as the rise of the qualitative research tradition in psychology became a revolution and, to some extent, a profound deviation from the earlier conceptualizations of the scientific reality. Today, the centrality of phenomenology in qualitative psychology research is praised and recognized. Contemporary psychologists owe their ability to utilize a diversity of phenomenological research modalities to the revolutionary achievements made by two prominent philosophers – Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Their phenomenological philosophies gave rise to more than one phenomenological research method in psychology. Still, it is hermeneutic analysis that allows for the best understanding of human experience.

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Edmund Husserl is fairly considered as the founding father of phenomenological research. He was also responsible for the subsequent transformation of phenomenology into a distinct methodological paradigm. Husserl’s phenomenology was unique and unusual for many of his contemporaries. Nevertheless, it created a fertile ground for the gradual popularization of phenomenology as one of the central approaches to the study of the human nature. The basis of Husserl’s phenomenological philosophy was in his expression that “we want to go back to the things themselves and bring ourselves to the evidence”. That is, Husserl sought to develop a novel philosophy for the scientific inquiry, which would allow researchers to capture the intricacy of the human lived experiences without challenging the historical reliance of research on evidence. It should be noted that what Husserl developed was later conceptualized as “descriptive phenomenology”, with the emphasis made on human consciousness. For Husserl, phenomenology was all about studying a person’s lived experiences from that person’s point of view. Husserl rested on a belief that only in close face-to-face interactions with the research subjects, researchers could grasp the intuitive nature of immediate human experiences, while allowing them to transform into a coherent body of knowledge about human psychology.

Husserl’s descriptive phenomenological tradition gave rise to numerous methods. The Eidetic reduction is one of them. Its central tenet is the so-called free imaginative variation, when the researcher uses a specific example and manipulates its features to gain a profound understanding of the phenomenon in question. Still, the most prominent and outstanding in the interpretive phenomenological discourse is the method and approach developed by Amadeo Giorgi. Giorgi is fairly regarded as one of the most outstanding theorists and researchers in phenomenology. He has developed a comprehensive method of descriptive phenomenological research that features the advantages of quantitative designs but preserve and even protect the uniqueness of qualitative description in the study of the human nature. Giorgi was an outstanding figure, as described by his famous student Frederick J. Wertz. According to Wertz, “Giorgi has combined his background as a natural science methodologist with sophisticated philosophical knowledge, extensive historical scholarship in psychology, and broad experience in applying the methods he has developed”. Those diverse orientations and disciplines ultimately found their reflection in Giorgi’s Husserlian method.  

Martin Heidegger, Husserl’s follower and student, adopted an entirely different view of qualitative research, although he remained within the boundaries of the phenomenological tradition in psychology. Unlike Husserl’s descriptive phenomenology, Heidegger became the founder of interpretive phenomenology. As such, the two methods which emerged from his philosophy were hermeneutic analysis and a dialogal approach. The former rests on the philosophic assumption that the purpose of phenomenological research is to understand rather than simply describe human lived experiences. Hermeneutic analysis incorporates the components of the so-called hermeneutic circle, which exemplifies a sequence of methodological activities that facilitate the construction and evolution of holistic meanings. In contrast, the dialogal approach developed by Halling and colleagues implies a process where several phenomenological researchers come together to explore a qualitative phenomenon through a dialogue. The method empowers phenomenological researchers to negotiate contradictory meanings and develop a collaborative understanding of the phenomenon in question. Unfortunately, little is known about the theorists and psychologists who developed those methods. What is clear is that they sought to deepen the meaning of phenomenology and redirect it away from description towards interpretation. He reinforced the difference between his philosophy and that of Husserl, which ultimately became the two methodological worlds in the field of phenomenology.

The key difference between the two phenomenological schools is in how researchers treat the importance of contextual variables. “For Husserl, context was of peripheral importance; for Heidegger, context was a central concern”. While descriptive phenomenology was used to describe the complexity of human experiences, interpretive phenomenology emerged to facilitate a more detailed exploration of the living essences in context. Additionally, descriptive phenomenology as developed by Husserl positioned self-reflection as a strategy for developing an impartial, unbiased vision of the phenomenon in question. In contrast, Heidegger proposed that researchers would continuously rethink, reconceptualize, and revisit their interpretations of the study phenomenon. These conceptual differences have profound implications for the approaches used to gather and analyze data, as well as the role of the researcher in these activities.

The approaches used to gather and analyze phenomenological data grow from the fundamental assumptions underlying the descriptive and interpretive phenomenological traditions. The role of the researcher in Husserl’s phenomenological analysis is to describe, whereas the researcher using Heidegger’s traditions will seek to dig deeper into the complexity of the target phenomenon. At the same time, most data analysis steps researchers take in phenomenology research would be similar. As Wojnar and Swanson point out, they would comprise data collection, thematic analysis, followed by either description or interpretation. It is possible to assume that, in Heidegger’s phenomenology, researchers will also need to revisit the emerging themes to reinterpret and grasp their most intuitive features. Despite the advantages promised by Husserl’s descriptive phenomenology, it is Heidegger’s interpretive analysis that best suits the study of human lived experiences.

Hermeneutic interpretive analysis creates the best foundation for advancing the goals of phenomenological approaches in psychology research. Researchers in psychology increasingly recognize the importance of interpreting rather than simply describing human living experiences. Wojnar and Swanson cite a phenomenological study, in which researchers used hermeneutic analysis to recreate and re-interpret the living experiences of women with bulimia. Wojnar and Swanson confirm that the use the hermeneutic interpretive analysis enabled the researchers and their female subjects to co-create a reality in which bulimia made sense. Apparently, such findings have profound practice utility, as they can inform the development of meaningful interventions and relieve the burden of psychological problems facing the society in the 21st century.

In conclusion, the relevance of the contribution made by Husserl and Heidegger to the development of phenomenology can hardly be ignored. The two philosophers set a foundation for the rapid popularization of phenomenological methods as an effective framework for studying human lived experiences. Their approaches to studying psychology displayed certain commonalities but also had a number of differences. Today, Heidegger’s interpretive focus best suits the needs of psychology research and analysis.