Phenomenological psychopathology and the neurosciences

G. Catone1,2, J.F. Lindau2,3, M.R. Broome2

1 Department of Mental and Physical Health and Preventive Medicine, Second University of Naples, Naples, Italy; 2 Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, Warneford Hospital, Oxford, UK; 3 NESMOS Department (Neurosciences, Mental Health and Sensory Functions), Sapienza University, Rome, Italy


Phenomenology and neuroscience share an explicit interest in the “mind”, with interest growing as to the inter-relationship between the two disciplines and their object of study. In fact, both aim to explain characteristics of mental life and mental illness. For phenomenology there is often a prioritisation of subjective experience, whereas the neurosciences are primarily interested in brain structure and functioning, but aspire to give a bottom-up account of conscious experience. However, for some authors in the two fields, these disciplines show elements of complementarity. This complex union between the biological and philosophical was already evident in the work of Jaspers and his General Psychopathology, Brentano, and the debate on psychologism that inaugurates Husserl’s work. Jaspers conveys a pluralistic vision of science, and contrasted this complementary approach with one of biological exclusivity in explaining mental phenomena. His thought contains elements of topical relevance such as the difficulty of proving the biological substrate of psychic events and the spatial location of mental events in network systems rather than discrete areas. Phenomenologically-speaking, he constantly re-oriented the focus of the discussion to subjective experience as a means to understand mental illness, alongside somatic accounts. In recent years, the scientific community has experienced a long period in which biological psychiatry has possessed major rhetorical force in disseminating scientific progress in psychiatry, but as has already happened in other historical periods, the interest for phenomenology returns when biology needs philosophy to explain the data and progress obtained. The debate is still ongoing and the aim of this paper is to offer an overview of the main contributions on the relationship between phenomenology, neurosciences and psychopathology. Phenomenology and neuroscience have been trying to find a point of agreement and interconnection, and several authors offer the suggestion of naturalising phenomenology, relating the way we experience the world in time, as embodied agents, to brain function, whereas other authors try to phenomenologise the neurosciences, where the basic principles of philosophy applied to human mind should drive scientific research. Both methods seem to be able to increase the possibility of understanding of psychiatric illnesses. Accordingly, the relationship between phenomenology and psychopathology has an impact on classification systems, and more generally on the science of psychiatry. Herein, the points where neuroscience may benefit from phenomenology are discussed.

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