Paul Ilsney & Keith Krasemann: Phenomenological methodology

Phenomenological Methodology


Phenomenology is, in the 20th century, mainly the name for a philosophical movement whose primary objective is the direct investigation and description of phenomena as consciously experienced, without theories about their causal explanation and as free as possible from unexamined preconceptions and presuppositions.

Herbert Spiegelberg ”Phenomenology,” in the Encyclopedia Britanneca 1965:

Phenomenology is at once a school of thought as well as a methodology. ”Phenomenology” became the name of a school of philosophy in the early twentieth century whose members were affiliated with certain German universities, notably Gottingen and Munich. Between 1913 and 1930 this group published a series of volumes of phenomenological studies entitled Jahrbuch Fur Philosophie und Phanomenologische Forschung. The editor in chief of the Jahrbuch was the famous philosopher, Edmund Husserl. Prominent members of this group included Moritz Geiger, Alexander Pfander, Max Scheler, Oscar Becker, Martin Heidegger, Adolf Reinach, and Hedwig Lonrad-Martius.


Alfred Schutz

As a research methodology, phenomenology concentrates on understanding human experience as it is experienced by the person, at the root of consciousness prior to being interpreted or taken for granted. It is used primarily in those areas of inquiry where theory is absent or in which previous research has failed to capture the phenomenon’s essence. At its most basic level, phenomenology is a descriptive investigation of lived experience that precedes attempts to provide theoretical explanations of the phenomena in question. It does this through a descriptive analysis of the relationships of the objects of thought as disclosed in consciousness. This understanding embodies the insight that all human thought is intentional–that is, it has an object. In other words, human thought has, always, the feature of ”aboutness”–if one thinks, one thinks about something. In this regard all consciousness is consciousness-of (e.g. something), Pfander (1967) tells us:

Phenomenology shifts the point of sight of its investigations first into the thinking subject and focuses from this place on the objects within the object world of this thinking subject; it then takes hold of the thoughts and the opinions which the thinking subject harbors about the object and in so doing refrains from taking any stand with regard to these opinions, while taking the objects and the object worlds merely as the counterparts (seen thus or so by the subject) of his thinking consciousness without allowing itself [any claims] to transcendent knowledge of these subjects. (p.66)

Husserl (1900), saw phenomenology as a rigorous, ”presuppositionless science.” For Husserl, the phenomenological method was the only correct way of doing philosophy. Truth is not attained via deductive inferences from prior assumptions, nor is it derived from authority, rather it is ”given”, or disclosed in consciousness and made explicit by way of correct description of the contents therein. The meaning of an experience, object, or an event, in other words, is not contained within, but rather is an aspect of the thinking about the experience, object, or event. Husserl was the most prolific writer of all the phenomenologists. He understood that one’s philosophical journey begins always with the individual embedded within the ’everydayness’ of a life world. Husserl, by way of example, uses the life and work of Descartes to describe philosophy and its problems as a movement to phenomenology.

Every beginner in philosophy knows the remarkable train of thoughts contained in the Meditations. Let us recall its guiding idea. The aim of the Meditations is a complete reforming of philosophy into a science grounded on an absolute foundation. That implies for Descartes a corresponding reformation of all the sciences, because in his opinion they are only nonself-sufficient members of the one all-inclusive science, and this is philosophy. Only within the systematic unity of philosophy can they develop into genuine sciences. As they have developed historically, on the other hand, they lack that scientific genuineness which would consist in their complete and ultimate grounding on the basis of absolute insights, insights behind which one cannot go back any further. Hence the need for a radical rebuilding that satisfies the idea of philosophy as the all-inclusive unity of the sciences, within the unity of such an absolutely rational grounding. With Descartes this demand gives rise to a philosophy turned toward the subject himself. The turn to the subject is made at two significant levels.

First, anyone who seriously intends to become a philosopher must ’once in his life’ withdraw into himself and attempt, within himself, to overthrow and build anew all the sciences that, up to then, he has been accepting. Philosophy–wisdom (sagesse)–is the philosophizer’s quite personal affair. It must arise as his wisdom, as his self-acquired knowledge tending toward universality, a knowledge for which he can answer from the beginning, and at each step, by virtue of his own absolute insights. If I have decided to live with this as my aim–the decision that alone can start me on the course of a philosophical development–I have thereby chosen to begin in absolute poverty, with an absolute lack of knowledge. Beginning thus, obviously one of the first things I ought to do is reflect on how I might find a method for going on, a method that promises to lead to genuine knowing. Accordingly the Cartesian Meditations are not intended to be a merely private concern of the philosopher Descartes, to say nothing of their being merely an impressive literary form in which to present the foundations of his philosophy. Rather they draw the prototype for any beginning philosopher’s necessary meditations, the meditations out of which alone a philosophy can grow originally.

When we turn to the content of the Meditations, so strange to us men of today, we find a regress to the philosophizing ego in a second and deeper sense: the ego as subject of his pure cogitationes. The mediator executes this regress by the famous and very remarkable method of doubt. Aiming with radical consistency at absolute knowledge, he refuses to let himself accept anything as existent unless it is secured against every conceivable possibility of becoming doubtful. Everything that is certain, in his natural experiencing and thinking life, he therefore subjects to methodical criticism with respect to the conceivability of a doubt about it; and, by excluding everything that leaves open any possibility of doubt, he seeks to obtain a stock of things that are absolutely evident. When this method is followed, the certainty of sensuous experience the certainty with which the world is given in natural living, does not withstand criticism; accordingly the being of the world must remain unaccepted at this initial stage. The mediator keeps only himself, qua pure ego of his cogitationes, as having an absolutely indubitable existence, as something that cannot be done away with, something that would exist even though this world were non-existent. Thus reduced, the ego carries on a kind of sophistic philosophizing…

Thus, the task of phenomenology is to reflectively disclose the criteria already implicit in those intentional acts that individuals perform in everyday life through which we come to know this world. Husserl dubbed this the Lebenswelt or ”world in which we live.” Phenomenology allows the thinker to conceptualize what is commonly done in everyday life without one’s knowing how to accurately describe what one is doing. This task is ongoing. In each phenomenological investigation one must first return directly to the phenomena as given directly in consciousness, or as Husserl’s exhortation reminds us, ”Zu den Sachen!” literally translated, this means, ”To the things!” It means, in the widest possible sense, to get back to those objects given in consciousness. In fact, if a German says to someone, ”Zur Sache!” this is an exhortation for that one to ”get down to business!” Husserl’s phrase thus encourages the learner to get back to the proper business of philosophy–i.e., phenomenology


Why A Phenomenological Approach to Educational Research?


Edmund Husserl

The vast expanse of research in education has been conducted by myriad research methodologies, approaches, and strategies, and has been guided by numerous conceptual and theoretical frameworks. Phenomenological research is central to this cause because it permits a researcher to test assumptions anew with consideration of how the phenomena under investigation are consciously realized. And the purposes of educational research have been as varied as the methodologies themselves. Among the more durable prevailing research outcomes is pragmatic conclusion-making. Accordingly, policies, curricula, classroom practices, assessment strategies, and even funding investigations have received attention in recent years. As well, much research has been context-centered, focusing on the norms, values, material traits and issues of people who reside within a particular sub-culture or profession, for example, in order to provide understanding of unique groups or individuals within groups. Some other forms of research seek to yield insights into the socio-political issues of the times, sometimes resulting in new ideas for political or critical consideration. Finally, still other forms of research yield theory, or perhaps more commonly theory-like products, such as developmental models, typologies, and the like. Phenomenology is central to these causes because it prompts a researcher to consider anew and systematically the basic assumptions about a phenomenon, and how those assumptions rest in one’s consciousness.

To what extent has educational research brought us closer to becoming a human science, or perhaps a series of human sciences? The argument is made here that the most certain path toward development of educational sciences is phenomenological. Stanage (1987) puts it this way:

Phenomenologists have long argued that there are kinds of studies which can be called ’human sciences.’ A phenomenological investigation is always a human science.… A human science is an orderly and systematic investigation and description of a person’s (and persons’) felt experiences of direct phenomena through the various forms in which selected and relevant phenomena may appear or be manifested. Realizing, evidencing, and certifying are three of the many possible ways in which we speak of our processes of awareness both of facts within our lifeworlds and of our commitments as persons. Within our adult lifeworlds we learn most fundamentally and lastingly through the assurance of facts situated within our commitments and beliefs. Facts within values; values situating facts–both of these flow inextricably through indeterminately long streams of time and space. (p.41)

Phenomenology goes to the core of a person’s lifeworld as lived and as experienced. This means that many, if not most, of the phenomena under investigation that concern educators can be reached through phenomenological investigation. Phenomena such as learning, wisdom, motivation, profession, equality, diversity, assessment, citizenship, intelligence, career, vocation, skill attainment, aesthetics, enjoyment, individuality, collectivism, and educational technology, when placed within a phenomenological methodology, can be investigated for lived experience. The most fundamental of all phenomena for educators, such as those just listed, are researchable phenomenologically, because they are likely to have both a experiencing factor, that is, they are likely to be lived experiences, and a consciousing factor, or that they may be thought of as discrete and important phenomena.

Of the main reasons for choosing this approach are perhaps they can be narrowed down to three. First, that phenomenology promotes and makes possible new ways of looking at old phenomena. Phenomenology eliminates, insofar as possible, presuppositions and traditionally held assumptions, thus, it enables the investigator to ”see” anew. Certain legitimate ways of understanding time and experience have been dominant for over a century. While this way of understanding time and experience is useful, and will continue to be so, it will not be adequate for life in the twenty-first century.

Secondly, phenomenology provides a more original ”seeing” and, hence, initiates previously unnoticed possibilities and allows one to observe or describe new and different relationships.

Third, a phenomenological method furnishes a way by which to study education as a field of theory and practice. Phenomenology makes it possible to grasp the essential features of education, as given in immediate experience. That is, it can capture basic structures in their arising and bring them to presence in time. Stanage (1987) focuses on the central intersection between phenomenology and education as follows (parentheses ours):

A phenomenological approach to… education opens up new directions for research and uncovers new layers of clarity in perception, conceptions, action, and practices. This means that new ventures in programming, curricula, teaching and research become manifest contextually within all learning/teaching appropriately characteristic of… (people and their lifeworlds). It means, moreover, that the personal ventures of… self-help, of… self-willing and self-motivating decisions, plans and actions, also may come to be seen in clearer focus through phenomenological investigations. (p.45)

To be sure, phenomenology may take into account philosophic, sociological, even historical structures of a phenomenon, as those structures are realized, experienced, and thought. As a methodology phenomenology may also provide a holistic rendition of a phenomenon, away from presuppositions about it, toward analysis of human meaning. Just how phenomenologists apply their methodology is a matter of considerable debate. Moustakas (1994) provides methodological considerations, as he reminds us that inductive inquiry itself involves interpretive and phenomenological stance-making. Those considerations include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. Focus on the whole experience and not merely on the parts.
  2. Search for meaning structures, not merely how things work, or what the rules for cause and effect are.
  3. Understand that investigation of experience is essentially a subjective experience, thus permitting, even necessitating, the use of “I” in accounts. Autobiographical statements attesting to a researcher’s experience, perspective and stake in a subject of investigation are often necessary.
  4. One of the best sources of data comes from inspection of relationships, whether between people and people, groups, norms, institutions, cultures, societies, worlds.

Such considerations are helpful in reminding ourselves what the task is, as well as what the task is not, regarding the doing of phenomenology. It is an empirical examination of experience, relationships, and consciousness of phenomena, in an inductive way. It is not based on preconceived theories about objects of investigation, does not seek to find cause and effect, and cannot be regarded as deductive in nature. But how do phenomenologists avoid the traps of mere speculation, over-emphasis of cause, and instead find a cumulative nature to their work? Indeed, phenomenology is cumulative in nature, often leading, for example to expanded definitions of terms, the use of new tools for investigation, and agendas for future research. A major example of these attributes can be found in the concept of everydayness.

Everydayness as a Phenomenological Tool


Martin Heidegger

The term ”everydayness” is an important term philosophically. It is appropriate here to open up the concept’s meaning because the understanding of the concept of everydayness is central to understanding the structure of a person’s world. Everydayness refers to the absorption of an individual into the world, it is the rhythm of life or surface existence. ”Everydayness” stands for that way of existing in which the human being maintains itself everyday. It is the practical, pre-critical way of being in the world.

Though this ’every day’ is not to be understood calendrically, there is still an overtone of some such temporal character in the signification of the ’everyday’ [”Alltag”]. But what we have primarily in mind in the expression ”everydayness” is a definite ”how” of existence by which Dasein is dominated through and through ’for life’ [”zeitlebens”]. In our analysis we have often used the expression ’proximally and for the most part’. ’Proximally’ signifies the way in which Dasein is ’manifest’ in the ’with-one-another’ of publicness, even if ’at bottom’ everydayness is precisely something which, in an existentiell manner, it has ’surmounted’. ’For the most part’ signifies the way in which Dasein shows itself for Everyman, not always, but ’as a rule.’ (Heidegger, BT 1927, 422)

In everydayness those tendencies within life’s situation (i.e. one’s being-in-a-world) strive for fulfilment. In everydayness occurs the moment by moment battle of saving or losing oneself.
Schutz gives the following account of everydayness:

The wide-awake man within the natural attitude is primarily interested in that sector of the world of his everyday life which is within his scope and which is centered in space and time around himself. The place which my body occupies within the world, my actual Here, is the starting point from which I take my bearing in space. It is, so to speak, the center O of my system of coordinates. Relatively to my body I group the elements of my surroundings under the categories of right and left, before and behind, above and below, near and far, and so on. And in a similar way my actual NOW is the origin of all the time perspectives under which I organize the events within the world such as the categories of fore and aft, past and future, simultaneity and succession. (222-223)

The ”natural attitude,” of which Schutz speaks, is what a phenomenologist would describe as the ”already present attitude.” It is the most basic, pre-philosophical perspective held by individuals in the public, practical world. It is within the context of everydayness that one, for the most part, understands his/her self and world.

Everydayness is the habitual, routine, succession of days and, as it may be, repetitions in life-content. It suggests sameness. Stanage offers the following description of everydayness:

It seems that the phrases ’daily world’, ’daily world of work’, and the ’world of everydayness’ do not of necessity refer to specifically negative features of personal life. The phrases intend the more routine and standard actions– especially those called ’habits’–in which we engage each day. ’everydayness’ presents a blurring of ’past’ days and ’future’ days, a blurring of what we feel we have done with what we feel we expect to do, and all of this with little difference between days to look forward to. This is true even as we recognize the usual desirability of at least some important changes occurring in our lives and of really wanting these to take place.

’Everydayness’ suggests few distinctions between and among our days, every day, even if we understand that the slightest reflection would bring countless distinctions to the foreground. And more reflection would bring them into clear focus. But the days of ’everydayness’ also blur into days which are not yet, days of the ’future’ which have not yet been felt or experienced as those days may be but have not yet been. ’Desires thus far unmet will not be met tomorrow or the next day, either; nor will my expectations for that matter.’ This is a routine part of ’everydayness’, but it does move in a direction of a meaning felt as negative.(Stanage, 1987)

It is from everydayness that both phenomenology and science are able to proceed with new critical distinctions. Everydayness is a matrix, a web of meaningful significations, a description of which provides the most basic description of the adult lived world. It is within this context that adult education operates. It is only when one reflects upon education as education that it becomes an object of study about which critical determinations may now be made.

Phenomenology and Language


Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Ricoeur’s impressive body of work (a biography of over 300 items and catholic in scope) centers on hermeneutics or interpretation. Across the vast landscape of Ricoeur’s interests his systematic and dialectically critical philosophy is guided by his version of a hermeneutic phenomenology. Hermeneutic phenomenology provides a link between the philosophy of language (a central concern of twentieth century philosophy) and an emerging interest in the foundations of the human and social science: at the core of Ricoeur’s hermeneutic phenomenology is metaphor.

In order to get beyond finite and closed-systems of language and thought posed by the challenge of structuralism Ricoeur posits two levels of language. Semiotics constitutes the lower level. At this level language operates within necessary structures and within these limits its structures can be objectified and, its ”universality” evaluated through an analysis of its symbolic structure.

However, this structure which is finite, closed and logical is complemented by a higher level of language that is creative and open. At the highest levels of dialectic the possibilities for human thought, expression and creativity are infinite. The key to this freedom of and in expression is the human speaker. One learns from Merleau-Ponty’s (1962) that the embodied subject is primordially an expressive subject. In his work on ”generative grammar” Chomsky (1980) makes note of the fact that any normal speaker of a language can immediately understand (or speak) a new sentence, one never before uttered. These observations stand as serious challenge to structuralist views of language. It is the saying for Ricoeur which constitutes a unique event, a choice (if you will), the discursive. Ricoeur’s hermeneutic at this second level centers on certain privileged words, namely, the symbolic word.

Ricoeur’s philosophy of interpretation shapes itself around words that have symbolic significance; that is which have a ”metaphorical” structure. In ”Existence and Hermeneutics” Ricoeur makes important remarks concerning his position. He says:

I define ’symbol’ as any structure of meaning in which a direct, primary, literal sense designates in addition another sense which is indirect, secondary, and figurative and which can be apprehended only through the first,… Interpretation, we will say, is the work of thought which consists in deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning, an unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning.

Ricoeur’s Theory of Metaphor


Paul Ricoeur

Ricoeur’s contributions to the recent movement toward ”metaphormania” have been significant. In The Rule of Metaphor (1975) and in his two part work From Text to Action (1986) Ricoeur examines thoughtfully and comprehensively the importance of metaphor and the function of metaphors within a symbolic system. Ricoeur shows that metaphors function both epistemologically and creatively and that metaphors are a form of argument. Because Ricoeur’s views on metaphor are rooted in the semiotics of symbolicity rather than in the social nature of symbolicity, as in Burke’s view (1969); Ricoeur’s theory can admit standards of evaluation to its argumentative form.

The making of metaphors, an act of combination, recombination, and selection which creates new meaning, Ricoeur calls a ”phenomenon of discourse” (ROM 180). He explains it as follows:

First, in all metaphor one might consider not only the word alone or the name alone, whose meaning is displaced, but the pair of terms or relationships between which the transposition operates from genus to species, from species to genus, from species to species, from the second to the fourth term (and vice versa) of a proportional relationship. This has far-reaching implications. As the English-language author puts it, it always takes two ideas to make a metaphor. If metaphor always involves a bind of mistake, if it involves taking one thing for another by a sort of calculated error, then metaphor is essentially a discursive phenomenon. To affect just one word, the metaphor has to disturb a whole network by means of an aberrant attribution. (ROM 21)

The secret of metaphor is in the phenomenon that Ricoeur terms ”unusual syntagmatic liaisons.” Part of this secret lies in the function of metaphor to recontextualize two ideas in a way that creates meaning. Metaphor, Ricoeur (FTA 175) insists is properly seen as semantic innovation; not just mere ornament.

Ricoeur gives us additional insight on metaphor in From Text to Action (1986) where he speaks of the ”impertinent predicates”:

Metaphor is instead a deviant usage of predicates in the framework of the sentence as a whole…The question then concerns the strategy of discourse governing the use of bizarre predicates…as the appropriate means of producing a shock between semantic fields. To respond to the challenge of the semantic shock, we thus produce a new predictive pertinence that is the metaphor. In its turn, this new agreement produced on the level of the sentence as a whole gives rise, on the level of the isolated word, to the extension of meaning by which classical rhetoric identifies metaphor. (FTA 172)

That which allows the language user to tap into the creative power of metaphor in order to create new meanings is the resemblance between the ideas or objects compared.

How does resemblance work? Ricoeur details the role of resemblance in a point by point fashion:

Indeed, resemblance first of all motivates the borrowing; next, it is the positive side of the process whose negative side is deviation; further, it is the internal link within the sphere of substitution; finally, it guides the paraphrase that annuls the trope by restoring the propermeaning. (ROM 173)

Resemblance for Ricoeur creates a multiplicity of tension between the two symbols involved in the making of metaphor. Examples of these tensions include the tension between the terms of the statement, the tension between literal interpretation and figurative interpretation, and tension in the reference between is and is not. What is thus required to resolve this tension is the cancellation of or the bracketing of some of the possible meanings. But, Ricoeur insists that the resolution of these tensions functions as a process whereby metaphorical truth is general.

Analysis of metaphorical discourse centers upon the redescription of reality which issues form the tension created between the literal and figurative use of symbols. Understanding how symbolic tools function and create new meaning is a key to the evaluation of metaphor. As a form of argument, metaphor contextually generates new perspectives about the meaning of words and the meaning of reality.

Speigelberg’s Methodology


Herbert Speigelberg

It is now possible to discuss phenomenological method in light of what we know about everydayness, interpretation, language, and metaphor. While there is no universally agreed upon procedure for phenomenological analysis, nevertheless, Speigelberg (1982) offers a useful seven-step methodology. In this case the word step does not refer to an order, a progression. Rather, the following are mental processes, methods that permit various forms of analytic induction, constant comparison, small and whole analysis, and relationships among essences.

 1) Investigating particular phenomena.

This particular method is designed to identify and describe the unique features of the phenomenon under investigation. As we saw with Husserl, this method of intuiting requires the investigator to ”re-view” old phenomenon with a new look that is as free as possible of presuppositions. This is accomplished via three distinct operations:

a) phenomenological intuiting
b) phenomenological analyzing
c) phenomenological describing

Basically these three processes form the core of Speigelberg’s methodology. By intuiting, analyzing and describing, a researcher finds the terms that best describe the meaning, structure, and relationships of a phenomenon. Through careful analysis of the parts of an object or subject, a researcher can identify the essential structures that exist within and outside the phenomenon under investigation. In other words, the essential features are discovered and separated from those features that are important or merely present.

2) Investigating general essences (eidetic intuiting).

This operation involves identifying essences of a particular phenomenon and noting patterns involved among essential features.

3) Apprehending essential relationships among essences.

This step involves a determination of those features which are absolutely essential to the existence of the particular phenomenon in question. One method which helps determine these essential features is Husserl’s method called ”free imaginative variation.” Some Anglo-American philosophers utilize a similar method called ”counter-example.” In any case, Husserl’s method involves imaginatively adding or subtracting predicates from the phenomenon’s description in order to ascertain whether one still has the given phenomenon in question.

4) Watching modes of appearing.

Here the emphasis is not on ”what” appears in consciousness but ”how” objects appear in consciousness. In other words, the concern in this step deals with the various ways in which things appear. Speigelberg identifies three primary ways in which this appearing occurs:

a) The object of consciousness appears whole.
b) The object of consciousness appears with perspective shading off: for example, this helps explain how an object may appear differently to different people, under different conditions, at various different times.
c) Modes of clarity: Husserl, for example, might draw here from Descartes criteria for certainty, namely, the notion of ”clear and distinct ideas”. Other objects, however are less clear, cloudy, and hence more uncertain.while some objects command the focus of attention in our phenomenological field, others appear on the peripheral areas–what James (1950, p.281) calls the ” fringes.” This method is particularly important in investigating internal time consciousness.

5) Exploring the constitution of phenomena in consciousness.

This particular phase of the phenomenological methodology is concerned to answer the question, how do objects ”constitute themselves” in consciousness? Husserl asks us to reflect upon the way(s) in which a given phenomenon roots itself in our consciousness. In this way, we come to understand the process by which our understanding of an object is built up and structured.

 6) Suspending belief in existence.

This step allows the investigator to retain certain everyday beliefs about an object of consciousness but, requires that, for purpose of phenomenological intuiting, one put these beliefs temporarily aside. Husserl refers to this as ”bracketing.” In fact, Husserl calls this the ”phenomenological reduction.” This process opens the way for new and imaginative understandings of a particular phenomenon.

7) Interpreting concealed meanings.

This operation attempts to hermenuetically ferret out the meanings attached to certain phenomenon by individuals or groups of people.

Now the point can be made that phenomenology is both a school of thought as well as a methodological approach. It also can be seen that phenomenological considerations bolster other forms of research as it encourages deep and systematic, even scientific thinking regarding investigation of phenomena.

Ilsney, Paul J. & Krasemann, Keith W. 2001. Phenomenological methodology. Menetelmäartikkelit


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  1. Metodix ei uudessa versiossa tue varsinaisesti lokalisointia, mutta artikkelien monikielisyyttä kyllä.


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