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Phenomenology is a philosophical movement that is normally seen as originating with the work of Edmund Husserl in the early Twentieth Century. It focuses on phenomena, the way the world appears to us. Husserl advocated methods of achieving phenomenological seeing. This was essentially an alternative construction to what he termed ‘the natural attitude’. This was the taken for granted way of perceiving that carries with it cultural prejudices that pre-dispose us to seeing things in a particular perspective. In modern society, the natural attitude is infused with the doctrine of Cartesian dualism that separates subject from object. This has led to epistemologies (philosophy concerning our knowledge of the world) being either materialist or idealist. Materialism emphasises the way in which the world becomes known through our senses while idealism stresses the role of the mind in structuring our perception. This separation of subject and object has proved problematic for many sciences, none more so than psychology. Husserl hoped that phenomenology would become the basis of all scientific inquiry, arguing that the way the world appears must be fully appreciated before scientific explanations are sought.

The generation of phenomenologists that followed Husserl (for example, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre) are referred to as existential phenomenologists. In their different ways, they each emphasised our ‘being-in-the-world’. This hyphenated phrase underlines that the person should not be conceived as a body containing a mind, but as situated in a social and physical context. This was seen by the existentialists as a necessary corrective to what they saw as Husserl’s drift into idealism. The position of being-in-the-world means that all perceptions and constructions are ultimately from a particular perspective in time and space. It is never possible to distil once-and-for-all truths and essences from individuals' constructions. There are strong links here with constructivism (Chiari & Nuzzo, 1996) and some contemporary construct theorists see PCP as fitting most comfortably into the phenomenological tradition (Warren, 1985, 1998; Butt, 2003). Like the phenomenologists, Kelly was concerned with how the world appeared to particular people; with their meanings that required the therapist/interviewer adopting a credulous approach. The pragmatic tradition in which Kelly worked also rejected the Cartesian dualism that haunted traditional philosophy and psychology.

In 'The Psychology of Personal Constructs', Kelly recognised a link between his work and what he termed ‘neo-phenomenology’, which he wanted to balance with the use of ‘a more traditional methodology’. However, in his later writing he distanced himself from phenomenology, which he saw as imprisoning people within their own private worlds. (Kelly, 1969) This confusing of phenomenology with idealism probably came from Kelly associating phenomenology with the work of Rogers and Maslow, both of whom drew very selectively on European philosophers in their ideas about human nature (Holland, 1977). In fact, Kelly’s focus on a psychology of personal constructs can be seen as a phenomenological approach. His suggestions for understanding the person, and in particular, his instructions for analysing self-characterization sketches (Kelly, 1955) provide good examples of elaboration of the phenomenological method.


  • Butt, T.W. (2003) The Phenomenological Context of Personal Construct Psychology. In F. Fransella (Ed) International Handbook of personal construct psychology. London: Wiley
  • Chiari, G. & Nuzzo, M. L. (1996). Psychological constructivisms: a metatheoretical differentiation. Journal of Constructivist Psychology , 9, 163-184
  • Holland, R. (1977) Self in social context. London: Macmillan
  • Kelly, G. A. (1955) The psychology of personal constructs, New York: Norton.
  • Kelly, G.A. (1969) Ontological acceleration. In B. Maher (Ed.) Clinical psychology and personality: the selected papers of George Kelly, London: Wiley.
  • Warren, W. (1985) Personal construct psychology and contemporary philosophy: An examination of alignments. In D. Bannister (Ed) Issues and approaches in personal construct theory, London: Academic press.
  • Warren, W. (1998) Philosophical dimensions of personal construct psychology, London: Routledge.
Further reading on phenomenology
  • Ihde, D. (1986) Experimental phenomenology, Albany: State Univerity of New York Press.
  • Moran, D. (2000) Introduction to phenomenology, London: Routledge.
  • Moran, D & Mooney, T. (2002) The phenomenology reader, London: Routledge.
  • Moustakas, C. (1994) Phenomenological research methods, London: Sage.

Trevor Butt

Establ. 2003
Last update: 15 February 2004