Susi Ferrarello and Nicolle Zapien’s book Ethical Experience: A Phenomenology is an ambitious and thought-provoking attempt to show how philosophy (and, especially, phenomenology) and psychology can collaborate concretely towards the achievement of shared aims.
The book, as a whole, has two core aims. On the one hand, it aims to offer a phenomenological analysis of the experience of decision-making, as it occurs in everyday life and as individuals recognize it in their personal narratives. The authors conceive this approach to moral psychology and the phenomenon of decision-making in open contrast to the approaches of cognitive science and contemporary analytic philosophy (2). On the other hand, the book aims to argue that the understanding of the multiple ways in which individuals approach time and intimacy contributes to shaping our ethical choices and can even improve our well-being (10).
The book is conveniently divided into two parts: Part One is written by Ferrarello and is philosophical in nature; Part Two is written by Zapien, instead, and is (mostly) psychological.
Part One clarifies fundamental methodological and theoretical points, which are mainly taken from Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. In particular, in Part One, Ferrarello illustrates the distinction between different layers of reality, of time, and of identity and thematizes individual approaches to time and intimacy. Crucially, these distinctions and themes will be employed in the philosophical interpretation of the empirical findings of Part Two.
Part Two presents qualitative studies concerning three kinds of ethical decisions (unexpected leadership decisions, parental decisions, and those of individuals who face the choice of engaging in extramarital affairs), as well as offering philosophical interpretations of their findings. The general approach of Part Two involves the application of Amedeo Giorgi’s phenomenological research method for psychology.
Chapter I.1 of Part One opens with an intriguing explanation of the method employed throughout the book – that is, the phenomenological method. More precisely, the phenomenological method is understood as a method that aims towards the reactivation of sedimented meanings or the production of new meanings. It consists of two parts, which should not be considered as chronologically separated moments, but, rather, as complementary halves of one process operating simultaneously: one is the pars destruens and the other is the pars construens. They correspond to Husserl’s static and genetic methods, respectively. The goal of the pars destruens, which is the expression of the static method, consists in grasping the essential traits of the phenomenon whose meaning the phenomenologist aims to question and reactivate. This operation can be accomplished only if the phenomenologist is able to free himself or herself from prejudices and hasty associative habits he or she might have, and to “challenge any previous authority and the meanings that have been accepted in previous investigation” or “by the intersubjective community” (21). The goal of the pars construens, which is the expression of the genetic method, is to relate the new meaning produced (or awakened) with the passive layers of sense. With this goal in mind, the phenomenologist establishes whether the newer meaning can appropriately substitute the older.
Importantly, Ferrarello stresses that the attempt to attribute new meaning to phenomena is not just embedded in a general epistemological goal, but also in a specifically ethical one. According to Ferrarello, there is, indeed, a strong connection between ethics and the project of the amelioration of meanings.
After the clarification of the general methodology employed in the book, Ferrarello moves on to distinguish between three different layers of reality, of time, and identity in Chapter I.2 and Chapter I.3. Such descriptions constitute the theoretical core of the book.
Ferrarello explains that our life features three layers to which correspond three forms of temporality and three forms of identity (or ego). One of these is the layer of the passive, ego-less life, which Ferrarello also describes as the natural or psychological life. This level is characterized by a linear sense of time. Another layer consists of the practical and ethical life of the “just-awoken ego”. This ego, embodied in a “volitional body”, lives and acts in the time of the here-and-now. Lastly, a third level is identified with the layer of the philosophical life; the life lived from an absolute standpoint and from an absolute, timeless time.
The layer of the practical ego or volitional body is particularly important, since without this level it would be “neither ethical awareness nor an actual effort to become responsibly self-reflectively aware of our deeds” (37). However, Ferrarello also claims that these layers are all present in the life of an individual and that, typically, individuals continuously shift from one level to another. Ferrarello’s idea is that the balance that we find between these three layers of reality, time and identity, “is what shapes our sense of goodness, normal behavior and knowledge” (47).
In Chapter I.4, she expands on this idea by reference to the examples of the schizophrenic and the mystic who display, each in their own way, a unique between the three layers of life, time, and identity. For example, people with schizophrenia are not able to float from one layer of reality to another, but they are rather mostly stuck in the layer of absolute, timeless time. Because of this, they lack intimacy with their passive selves and, this, in turn, prevents them from finding a fulfilling meaning for their lives. Ferrarello insists that the schizophrenics’ relation with reality and time should not be stigmatized, because this would intensify the schizophrenics’ struggle to become intimate with their passive selves. On the contrary, it is pivotal to acknowledge that there are a variety of perspectives and ways to relate to reality and time (as that of the person with schizophrenia) so one can develop empathy towards others and be able to build a sense of intimacy with others.
The first part of the book closes with stimulating and original analyses delving into the central issue outlined in Chapter I.2 – that is, the volitional body. More specifically, Chapter I.5 clarifies the notion of practical intentionality introduced in Chapter I.2. Practical intentionality refers to the intentionality displayed in the moment in which the ego awakes and enters into a responsible contact with its passive habits and instincts. Ferrarello clarifies practical intentionality in relation to love and intimacy.
Following Husserl’s phenomenology, Ferrarello claims that that love is the force guaranteeing the true awakening of the ego and putting our passive selves in contact with our active life. Love opens a space of intimacy through which the subject can regain touch with his or her passive self and his or her factual existence, while, at the same time, shaping his or her identity and values. Intimate love allows us to break old habits and, as a result, it finds new sensuous lower matter (90). As such, love is a meaning- and value-giving activity. Unfortunately, the possibility that things take the wrong turn in this regard is an ineliminable live possibility, as in the case of intimacy forced through violence. This issue is explored in Chapter I.6, together with the notion of existential sexuality.
Part Two, the second part of the book, revolves around the analyses of the qualitative psychological studies carried out by Nicolle Zapien. Her research focuses on three kinds of ethical experiences of decision-making: unexpected leadership decisions, parental decisions, and those of individuals who face the choice of engaging in extramarital affairs despite the promise of monogamy. Importantly, the first kind of experience concerns the sphere of external relationships, whereas the second and third kinds concern the private sphere of our life – that is, the first kind concerns a comparatively less intimate dimension of personal relationships with respect to the dimension of the second and third kinds.
In the introduction, Zapien illustrates Giorgi’s phenomenological research method for psychology and the reasons why she decided to carry out her research by employing this method rather than the phenomenological psychological methods of van Manen, Moustakas, and Colaizzi. Moreover, and notably, Zapien carefully reviews all the choices made in the process of collecting and interpreting the data.
Zapien selects and publishes in the book large excerpts of the interviews that she performed, for each kind of the experiences of decision-making that she discusses. As Zapien explains, the participants of the three groups involved in the case studies were interviewed (orally or in writing), and they were left free to choose and explain the experience of decision that they preferred, as it came to their minds.
After the presentation of these personal narratives, Zapien then arranges in the following order: first, her interpretation of the findings; second, the explication of the constituents of the experience(s) at stake; third and lastly, a short philosophical commentary of the relevant experience. Each of Zapien’s philosophical commentaries puts to use the theoretical points that Ferrarello presents and clarifies in Part One of the book.
For example, the unexpected decisions that the leader must face for his or her own good and for his or her employees’ good are interpreted as a transformative experience that helps him or her to come into deeper contact with his or her identity as a leader.
The second case study, which concerns parents’ decisions for their children, makes explicitly evident the relevance of the dimension of time that Ferrarello stresses in Part One of the book. The realization that there is some problem that can dangerously affect their children’s future leads parents to rekindle the meaning of parenting and their identity as parents. This is, once again, a transformative experience that breaks the natural organic relation that parents have with their children and the daily linear time that characterizes such an experience. When facing such problems, parents feel the need – and the pressure – to make choices on behalf of the volitional body of their children, so to protect them and their natural life. If they otherwise refrain from making such choices, they feel that they are bound to lose their identity of good parents (159).
Similar considerations seem to hold with respect to the third kind of experience examined by Zapien – that is, the decisions of individuals partaking in marital relations who decide to engage in extramarital affairs. As for the previously examined cases, Zapien identifies the essential structural elements connecting the narratives of individuals with similar experiences. Specifically, she notes that individuals starting an affair fail to have active access to their passive intentions. Indeed, the volitional body of the person who starts the affair decides to negate active access to his or her passive self, so as to maintain a view on reality that is ethically acceptable to the self (180). The affair is only later acknowledged as such, when it could not be lived passively anymore.
Moving on to the critical assessment of the book, one of its most remarkable elements consists of Ferrarello and Zapien’s intent to engage with the book’s core themes in an original manner and without being afraid to voice their own opinion on these matters. This is clear, among other reasons, from Ferrarello and Zapien’s attempt to rejuvenate Husserl’s analyses, to recover their current relevance, instead of presenting these as valuable for specialized scholarship only. The authors show to have internalized phenomenology’s core points well enough to succeed in this difficult task.
Further, the book is well organized, and the authors take notable care of its pedagogical aspects. For example, the reference apparatus placed at the end of the book is extremely detailed, and it contributes to give solid ground to the claims advanced in the main parts of the book. Moreover, each chapter ends with a summary, and both the introduction and the conclusion summarize both the entire book’s structure and the main theses defended.
Yet, the care that the authors devote to the structure of the book for the purpose of conveying their views in an intelligible way is sometimes counterbalanced by the book’s confusing formulations, which run the risk of hindering the general understanding of the authors’ theses. This risk is also embodied in the authors’ choice to resort to metaphors at crucial points in their analyses, and doing so without further clarification using comprehensible terminology. For example, at the conclusion of Chapter I.4, Ferrarello uses the metaphors of the “static eye” and of the “genetic eye” in relation to the schizophrenic’s experience.
On a related note, one may be puzzled by some of Ferrarello and Zapien’s terminological choices, as, for example, the use of the adjective ‘trinitarian’ in relation to Husserl’s philosophy in a number of parts of the book. This and other theoretical choices should have been better justified.
As far as the content of the book goes, my main concern lies with the authors’ attempt to describe a large variety of experiences related to decision-making, by resorting to only one theoretical device – that is, the multi-layered dimensions of time and intimacy. Surely, the authors demonstrate that their approach has a certain explanatory power, given that the three kinds of ethical decisions investigated by their book permit, indeed, interpretations grounded in the relations occurring between time and identity. One might, however, be left with the impression that more examples of analogous and dissimilar ethical experiences and more phenomenological descriptions relying on a broader variety of theoretical devices would have been necessary to clarify the meaning of the phenomenon in question fully. Ferrarello and Zapien themselves seem to acknowledge the need for further investigations in this regard and, in fact, they explicitly consider some of their analyses presented in Part Two of the book as open-ended and merely provisional in nature.
Overall, Ferrarello and Zapien’s book is a very-welcomed and much-needed attempt to show how phenomenology and psychology can collaborate concretely with each other towards the achievement of a shared aim and how theoretical and applied analyses can be meaningfully combined. The book constitutes Ferrarello and Zapien’s challenge for their contemporary peers – that is, the challenge to develop a comprehensive phenomenological understanding of ethical experiences, such as that of decision-making. Furthermore, it provides a first attempt to rise to this interesting challenge.