Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Phenomenalism is at the heart of positivism as it accepts that physical objects can be known as they appear as perceived phenomena.

explanatory context

Phenomenalism is thus opposed to the idea of a reality behind surface appearances. (This issue clearly separates postivism from Marxism and phenomenology).


Phenomenalism should not be confused with phenomenology.

analytical review

The Basics of Philosophy site (2008–19) states:

Phenomenalism is the view in Epistemology and the Philosophy of Perception that physical objects do not exist as things in themselves but only as perceptual phenomena or bundles of sense-data situated in time and in space. A phenomenon is any occurrence that may be perceived through a person's senses or with their mind, and the theory proposes that we cannot experience anything beyond the phenomena of our perceptions.

Phenomenalism, then, derives from the metaphysical view that objects are logical constructions out of perceptual properties. It is not so much the actual perception that counts, however, but the conditional possibility of perceiving, so that even when there is no one in a particular room to perceive a table, it is enough to say that if there were someone in that room, then that person would perceive the table.

Phenomenalism can therefore be considered a radical form of Empiricism or Idealism.

Critics have argued that, in the process of eliminating material objects from language and replacing them with hypothetical propositions about observers and experiences, it seems to commit us to the existence of a whole new class of ontological object altogether, that of sense-data which can exist independently of experience. Others have argued that the supposition of an irreducibly material observer (or potential observer) necessitates the existence of a second observer to observe the first (and a third to observe the second, etc), leading to an infinite regress. Another objection stems from perceptual relativity (e.g. white wallpaper looks white under white light and red under red light), and asks on what basis are we to decide which of the possible hypotheses is the correct one if we are constrained to rely exclusively on senses.


Encyclopaedia Britannica (2008) states:

Phenomenalism, a philosophical theory of  perception and the external world. Its essential tenet is that propositions about  material objects are reducible to propositions about actual and possible sensations, or sense data, or appearances. According to the phenomenalists, a material object is not a mysterious something "behind" the appearances that people experience in sensation. If it were, the material world would be unknowable; indeed, the term matter itself would be unintelligible unless it somehow could be defined by reference to sense experiences. In speaking about a material object, then, reference must be made to a very large group or system of many different possibilities of sensation. Whether actualized or not, these possibilities continue during a certain period of time. When the object is observed, some of these possibilities are actualized, though not all of them. So long as the material object is unobserved, none of them is actualized. In this way, the phenomenalist claims, an "empirical cash value" can be given to the concept of matter by analyzing it in terms of sensations.

associated issues


related areas

See also



Researching the Real World Section


Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2008, 'Phenomenalism', available at, accessed 12 June 2019.

The Basics of Philosophy, 2008–19, 'Phenomenalism', available at, accessed 12 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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