On van Manen: a philosophical-hermeneutic critique

Max van Manen, a phenomenologist in education theory, breaks down the structure of the phenomenological method into six parts. The sixth, “balancing the research context by considering parts and whole” (30-34), is an explicit reference to the hermeneutic circle made famous by Heidegger in Being and time.

What is offered as the third way between theory and practice in teaching by van Manen – namely thoughtfulness (van Manen 1995, p. ?) – can be ontologically grounded through a hermeneutic appropriation of mindfulness (Besinnung), a very important approach to the fundamental question of being (Seinsfrage) in Heidegger’s later thinking. “Lived experience”, as the central operant in van Manen’s phenomenology, risks forgoing the ontic-ontological differentiation that Heidegger explicates in Being and time is crucial to the retrieval of being (Sein) in phenomenological thought. Grounding the naturalism of experience in hermeneutic-phenomenological formulation, say of pedagogy in van Manen’s case, limits the way of thinking to ethnography, which belongs to the ontic discipline of anthropology.

While van Manen responds with affinity to the pedagogic phenomenon of “Schön shock” in the mid-1990s (see van Manen, 1995, p. ?; and Eraut, 1995, p. ?), which revealed the crisis of the impotence of reflection in the classroom experience of a novice teacher, on the ontological level, the Dasein of teaching, which calls for oneness of theory and practice, is uniquely characterised by what Theodor Ballauf, a 20th century German thinker in education theory (contemporaneous with Heidegger), describes as an educator’s innate ability for self-criticism (Selbstkritik), which in fact forms the a priori structure of reflection (Raha, 2008, p. ?). The potentiality for reflective self-criticism makes possible the attainment of the Aristotelian-Gadamerian virtue of phronesis in Dasein – in any professional discipline where the status of novice is inherent in its understanding of development as in gaining of insight and experience, such as teaching and nursing.

Looking back at the beginnings of the workings of hermeneutic phenomenology in Heidegger before Being and time, it is evident that his phenomenological method then was a sustained response to a challenge similar to the “Schön shock”, namely Natorp’s critique of phenomenology as a self-contradiction in that reflection inevitably changes that which is reflected upon, which in Husserl’s phenomenology is the subjectivity of experience (Zahavi, 2003).


The lack of the dialectics of aletheia in van Manen’s appropriation of Heidegger is the fundamental weakness in his search for a “method” in what he terms “hermeneutic phenomenology” – a term which is absent in Heidegger’s writings, but which is used by Benner and Plager in Interpretive phenomenology (1994) to introduce Heidegger into nursing theory and to secure his hermeneutic circle as research methodology that has its own rigorous standard and requirements. However, while understandable as a rhetorical device to highlight the humanisation of nursing theory through resistance against and overcoming of the history of the holding sway of natural sciences in this academic discipline in the English-speaking world, in terms of methodology, the expression “hermeneutic phenomenology” is a tautology that does not add meaning to Heidegger’s Werke. This is because in Heidegger, hermeneutics already implies an understanding of phenomenology as a universal ontology to which the historicity of existence, or the ontological historicity in the meaning of Dasein, is integral. In his discussion on phenomenology in Being and time, Heidegger warns as follows:

The idea of an “originary” [ursprünglich] and “intuitive” grasp and explication of phenomena must be opposed to the naïveté of an accidental, “immediate”, and unreflective “beholding” (Heidegger, 1996, p. 32).

While intuition is an inherent ability of the human mind, originary or primordial thinking is based on an understanding of being (Seinsverständnis) as being (Sein) and not merely as beings (Seiende): it calls for an awareness of the ontological difference between the two, or the ontic-ontological distinction in methodological thinking. As Heidegger puts it: “As the fundamental theme of philosophy being [Sein] is not a genus of beings [Seiende]; yet it pertains to every being” (Heidegger, 1996, p. 33). Phenomenology is ontology of ontological difference. This means that a reflective or philosophical discipline to resist the ensnarement of the obvious, or the present-at-hand (Vorhandensein), is required; in his later writings Heidegger describe this as mindfulness of being (Besinnung), such that Dasein is understood as a mindful (besinnend) kind of being. Through being mindful of being, Dasein is a being that, in having its being as a primordial question, stands in a clearing of being (Lichtung des Seins) in the manifold world of physis. Dasein, despite its embodiment, is never purely physical but essentially philosophical, which means that it can never be on either side of the nature-culture divide. (Grounded theory, in its complete reliance on the socialisation of human beings, obscures their potentiality-for-being – Seinkönnen – as Dasein. Dasein cannot simply be understood through observation of its core process as appropriation by society, as if its essence can only be objectified this way through what grounded theorists call the “core variable”).

This is why Heidegger can state that there is an ontological priority to hermeneutics.

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