Peter Wilson – Phenomenology and causal entities in psychiatry

Here is the latest of our recordings from The British Society for Phenomenology’s 2018 Annual Conference ‘The Theory and Practice of Phenomenology’. Rajan Nathan and Peter Wilson are from CWP NHS Foundation Trust & Universities of Liverpool and Chester, and the paper – presented by Wilson – is titled ‘Phenomenology and causal entities in psychiatry’.


Abstract: “Psychiatric training emphasises the need to make sense of the patient’s experience at the symptom and diagnostic level of abstraction. In so far as attention is given to obtaining a representation of mental phenomena, this is a means to satisfy rules that define symptoms and diagnoses. In view of the questionable historical and empirical provenance of these rules, it is not surprising that underlying causal entities have proved elusive.


The authors will draw on their clinical practice and the relevant academic literature to make the case for phenomenological analysis, not only to elucidate psychiatric experiences (in line with the tradition of Jaspers), but also as a process to generate data to explain these disturbances (i.e. extending beyond the limits of Jaspers’ notion of ‘static’ understanding).


In this paper, the authors will demonstrate that neurobiological and phenomenological disciplines can complement each other in explaining troubling psychic events. However, using solely the language of brain structure, chemistry and circuits does not allow description of either what is troubling or psychic. Therefore, a neurobiological account in itself will never be sufficient for understanding.


Additionally, the authors will make the case for identifying causal entities through phenomenological inquiry. The advantage of phenomenology over the traditional symptom enquiry approach will be illustrated by case examples of different types of psychopathology. The authors propose a two-step process comprising (i) phenomenological inquiry to produce a representation of the patient’s experiences without interference from preconceptions, and (ii) an analysis of this representation to identify an explanatory entity using principles emerging from the empirical literature in relation to mental mechanisms. Unlike the common use of existing psychological models in clinical practice, in the second step the psychiatrist must refrain from applying mechanisms that are generally associated with certain experiences and confine his/herself to the data elicited in that case.”


The British Society for Phenomenology’s Annual Conference took place at the University of Kent, in Canterbury, UK during July, 2018. It gathered together philosophers, literary scholars, phenomenologists, and practitioners exploring phenomenological theory and its practical application. It covered a broad range of areas and issues including the arts, ethics, medical humanities, mental health, education, technology, feminism, politics and political governance, with contributions throwing a new light on both traditional phenomenological thinkers and the themes associated with classical phenomenology. More information about the conference can be found at:


The British Society for Phenomenology is a not-for-profit organisation set up with the intention of promoting research and awareness in the field of Phenomenology and other cognate arms of philosophical thought. Currently, the society accomplishes these aims through its journal, conferences and other events, and its podcast. You can support the society by becoming a member, for which you will receive a subscription to our journal:

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