[What follows are just what the title says, notes, reflections prompted by frustrating disputes over just what ufology’s aim is or should be, what approach or approaches are legitimate, compatible or incompatible, and so forth. As such, they are partial, provisional, fitful, and not always consistent; they trace a process of thought. My first essay (attempt) on the question can be read here. A consequent attempt at clarification, here.
Further reflections are, doubtless, forthcoming, ad nauseum….]
One can distinguish a “scientific ufology” from a “phenomenological ufology”. The former affirms the reality of the UFO and seeks to identify (a philosophically-loaded expression) the unidentified flying object, while the latter brackets the question of whether “flying saucers are real” and attends to the actual and potential meanings of the UFO. The former is exemplified by the investigations of physicists James E. McDonald, Harley D. Rutledge, and Peter A. Sturrock, while Carl Jung’s monograph Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies is one example of the latter.
Phenomenological ufology can be divided, roughly, between a cultural and a philosophical ufology. The former takes as its object the various meanings of the UFO in the psyche, society, and culture, while the latter probes the concepts assumed and implied by the methodology of scientific ufology and by those meanings discovered by cultural ufology. Philosophical ufology, therefore, bridges the scientific / phenomenological divide, but as a purely conceptual, critical, reflective and speculative labour, does not seek to identify the unidentified flying object, to explain it, but only to determine the conditions and implications of putative if not actual identifications.
“Cultural ufology” might be better termed “Psychosocial ufology”, but then this latter expression would have to be newly-minted to avoid interference with its existing reference to a variegated set of speculations that attempt to explain (rather than grasp the meanings of, i.e., understand) the UFO.
Alternatively, different foci, between UFO Reality (for scientific ufology) and the UFO Effect (for phenomenological or cultural ufology) might be posited, too, but, then, these terms, too, are loaded: for is not the UFO Effect “real”? In fact, might it not turn out that the only reality the UFO possesses is in a class of perceptions and experiences, reports, rumours, texts, and myths? In this regard, it might be clearer to refer to an “explanatory” and “hermeneutic” ufology, along the lines drawn in the Nineteenth century by Wilhelm Dilthey between the natural and human sciences, whose respective, contrasting aims are explanation and understanding.
Scientific (explanatory) ufology will always already possess an understanding of the UFO as a condition of seeking an explanation for it, otherwise it would have, as a science, no object to investigate; phenomenological ufology, in both its cultural and philosophical branches need at no point venture from the understandings (meanings) of the object that it discovers or reflects upon toward an explanation of the object itself. Because of this condition, scientific ufology can always be a possible object for cultural or philosophical ufological investigation or reflection.
Ironically, not only is Scientific Ufology an object for Cultural Ufology, i.e., it is a possible object of investigation for it, but the cultural ufologist is closer in spirit to the believer, witness or experiencer, as for none of them is the reality of the UFO ever at stake, though in diametrically opposed ways.
Just how far phenomenological ufology can hold in abeyance committing itself ontologically one way or the other to the reality of the UFO is a serious question. At any rate, methodologically, it need not become embroiled in debates, for example, between proponents of the Extraterrestrial and Psychosocial Hypotheses. But in fact often the researcher (psychologist, sociologist, anthropologist, etc.) proceeds as if the UFO sighted or the contact experience suffered were only subjective. Were the researcher to assume, conversely, the objective reality of what was seen or undergone the character of the research would be radically altered….
There is, of course, no currently existing ufology-as-such; there is hardly even a pseudoscience. There exists, rather only a vulgar, amorphous, incoherent and restless activity with neither direction nor co-ordination. Some serious investigation is carried out, often sub rosa, and more often in the cultural sphere, given its institutional support. One is tempted to abandon all talk of ufology and refer, instead, to physicists, meteorologists, geologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, anthropologists, ethnologists, sociologists, scholars of cultural studies, critical theorists, philosophers, etc. each of whose respective disciplines might take the UFO phenomenon in general as its object, thereby dissolving ufulogy (any study of the UFO) into existing and potential disciplines.
At some point, then, someone might take up the task of writing a Phenomenology of Ufology, after the example of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, which would coherently order and organize all the different aspects of the UFO these individual disciplines develop. That, however, would be a belated exercise, since, in our own times (roughly since the beginning of the Twentieth century) any such underlying unity to the various sciences, natural and humanistic, has been deemed illusory, with all the troubling philosophical consequences such a fact implies, namely, that there is no unity to the world or cosmos, except as what Kant might term a Regulative Idea….
One might posit that the explanatory ufologist is concerned with the nature of what the UFO witness reports and the hermeneutic ufologist with the witness, the report, and everything that flows from that report. But the provisional clarity won by this distinction is quickly dissipated when we recall Jacques Vallée’s very early observation in his Anatomy of a Phenomenon: Unidentified Objects in Space—A Scientific Appraisal (1965):
The phenomenon under study is not the UFO, which is not reproducible at will in the laboratory, but the report written by the witness. This report can be observed, studied and communicated by professional scientists; thus defined, the phenomenon we investigate is obviously real. (vii)