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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Humanities and Social Science - Department of General Education/Philosophy of Education

Phenomenological Educational Science

(Malte Brinkmann)


A table, a glass, a voice, a melody, a sensation, a touch, a problem, a surprise, a sentiment while learning, an experience between parents and child in education – these are topics that phenomenological philosophy and phenomenological educational science are concerned with. They are phenomena perceived sensually and in an embodied way. When they occur, we are involved individually and inter-subjectively at the same time. To the things themselves – this claim by Husserl, the founder of modern phenomenology, is guiding phenomenological practice. Phenomena “show themselves”. They are not objectively given facts but they appear as something in the mode of intentionality. “The formula something as something means that something (actual, possible, or impossible) is linked to something else (a sense, a meaning) and is at the same time separated from it” (Waldenfels 2011, p. 21). In intentionality, something appears as close or distant, strange or familiar, in memory, in taste, touch, or plain view. A plurality of meanings arises according to one’s individual position, interest and context, and in keeping with spatial-temporal, inter-subjective and (im)material structures. Intentional engagement in educational settings is constituted as experience, and many phenomenologists profiled below specifically understand phenomenology as the study and theory of lived experience (Erfahrung). Experience, as Husserl explains, occurs between the active production of meaning and its passive reception, arising both through “active passivity” and “passive intention” (Husserl 2001).


This means that perception directed at phenomena, in which individual sense is formed (Noesis) in the intentional act, is dependent on what shows itself in the act of perception (Noema). This passivity as characteristic for perceiving and experiencing is an important starting point for phenomenological analyses. They include spatial, temporal and embodied conditions and limitations of perceiving, thinking and acting. Experience is thus not considered to be a finished product, or an output, but a process. The “jagged lines of experience” (Waldenfels 2002) show themselves in resistant moments. These are found in things ‘un-ready-to-hand’ (Heidegger), in moments of resistance or in Widerfahrnissen (Waldenfels’ notion of pathos) as well as in human struggle, pain or disappointment (Husserl), irritations, not-knowing, inability (Buck 1989) or crises (Bollnow). They are focussed as life-worldly, inter-corporal and inter-subjective processes marked by differences, ruptures and experiences of foreignness (Waldenfels 2002). Phenomenology starts at concrete life-worldly experiences as they occur historically and systematically earlier than their scientific concepts and methods. These primordial “silent” experiences are pre-verbal, pre-discursive and pre-reflexive (Hua I, p. 77) in the beginning. Phenomenological reflexion aims at respecting different articulations of experiences instead of occupying or colonising them.

Husserl’s thoughts are the basis of Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology of existence, Sartre’s philosophy of existence, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception and his notion of the lived body, Levinas’ ethics of the Other, Plessner’s anthropology of the senses and his theory of eccentricity as well as of Polanyi’s theory of tacit knowledge. Phenomenology significantly influences continental philosophy with exponents such as Foucault, Derrida, Waldenfels, Ricœur and Nancy. It has furthermore become fruitful for other sciences such as sociology, aesthetics, image theory, anthropology, art and literature as well as psychology and philosophy of law.

The orientation towards the life-world gives it a privilege in contrast to cognitivist and rationalist concepts, as it regards the lived body as the elementary dimension of experience in learning and educating. Husserl already determines the lived body as the “origin of all orientation” (Hua IV, p. 158). Husserl’s followers, especially Merleau-Ponty and Plessner, also highlight the dual structure of body and lived body. It is body-thing on the one hand, which means it can be objectified (e.g. in the hospital, in genetic engineering) and it is lived body on the other. It is the medium of our experience of the world and of our self-awareness. The lived body produces meanings and creates tools for “practically” and productively interpreting the world. We then experience our lived body as medium of our perception. Only within and through the lived body can we experience the here and now, up and down, right and left, earlier and later. We always perceive something meaningfully and from a certain perspective. The lived body always appears as something specific, as beautiful, as desirable. When the lived body comes to our attention as something, we experience it as more than just a body, we experience it as lived body, as phenomenon. It is thus not to be regarded as a thing amongst others. It is rather a “transfer point” (Hua IV, p. 286) between the self and the world.

Within pedagogy, phenomenology has a history that is over one hundred years long. From the beginning, Husserl’s main themes – time, lived body, world, Other – are systematically combined with theories and practices of Bildung and education. Most approaches share the descriptive approach to pedagogical experience, to which hermeneutic and social-scientific methods are added. Phenomenological approaches do not have a common denominator. They approach phenomena differently, using methods such as “phenomenography”, developed by Ference Marton, a “descriptive phenomenological method” and a “phenomenology of practice”, developed respectively by Amedeo Giorgi (US). Further approaches are Clark Moustakas’ “transcendental phenomenology” (US) as well as the “interpretative phenomenological analysis”, associated primarily with Jonathan Smith. Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus’ “model of learning” as the gradual acquisition of knowledge and skill also has phenomenological roots. Max van Manen’s “hermeneutic phenomenology” is a phenomenological method for empirical research. Van Manen regards pedagogical experiences as singular relations between adult and child, in which the adult acts intentionally for the sake of the child’s present circumstances and his or her likely future. In this context, the adult’s actions are to be guided by tact, which van Manen characterises in terms of “pathic” understanding: situated, relational, embodied, and enactive forms of “non-cognitive” learning and knowing.

Phenomenological orientations can recently be found in anthropology, early childhood education, aesthetic and cultural education, school pedagogy and school research, and, self-evidently, in educational science. Pedagogical experiences are theoretically and empirically described in their temporal, sensual and mundane dimensions as they occur and are reflected in their respective contexts. They integrate space and time of learning and educating as well as lived body, Other and culture. They are discussed in fields of life-world and foreignness (Lippitz), of re-learning and corporeality (Meyer-Drawe), practice and attention (Brinkmann). Concrete embodied, emotional, social and material aspects are the focus of attention in phenomenological approaches to analyses of learning and educating as experience. These life-worldly embodied experiences can be joy, embarrassment, disappointment and irritation as well as disgust, envy, jealousy and anger – anthropological, social, co-existential and cultural phenomena of learning and educating. Phenomenology is thus to be seen as a practice of opening oneself to “the things” – as “they are given”. It demands composure, attention and attentiveness for things other and foreign, for lived sense and embodied processes. A pathic and passive orientation is required – a phenomenological stance of engaged passivity, which has to be well practiced. The favour of life-worldly experiences, a sceptical distance towards theoretical, scientific, ideological and fundamentalist positions claiming universality, and the approach to find a “third way” (Merleau-Ponty) between positivism and idealism, empiricism and rationalism is required, in order to perceive and describe phenomena in their obstinacy and complexity.