Critique and receptivity of phenomenology and hermeneutics in nursing theory

Paley (1997) is one of the most cited articles in nursing theory on the role of phenomenology in nursing research. The main contention by Paley concerns the suitability of Husserl to nursing theory. While Paley is not a Heidegger specialist, his thesis on the serious difficulties posed by Husserl’s phenomenological method – bracketing out of ordinary consciousness in order to access the region of the essence of beings – is legitimate when it comes to an ontic discipline such as nursing, which integrates insights and knowledge from both natural and human sciences. Nursing science, as Pflegewissenschaft, is in the ideal position of being able to bridge the traditional divide between Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften. Yet, instead of bringing in a woolly notion of “harmony” between these two great domains of human knowledge, a critical reading of Paley enables us to appreciate just how important the ontic-ontological distinction is in the kinds of phenomena that many nursing theorists, inspired by the holistic paradigm mentioned in Kim (2006) and Kim (2010), endeavour to investigate. Paley’s analysis highlights the severe hermeneutic lack in Husserl’s phenomenology which, by virtue of its position in the history of Western philosophy, is still formed (gestaltet) by Cartesian consciousness – an antithesis to the innerworldly essence of Dasein as temporalised being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein). Erlebnis (lived experience) cannot be adequately grasped in reductive phenomenology but belongs to hermeneutics, which concerns itself with the Vor-Struktur of understanding: precisely the “natural attitude” that Husserl rejects, but which Heidegger uses as a pre-philosophical grounding of the phenomenon of understanding, which only Dasein is. Dasein, given its being-in-the-world, is primarily understood through its comportment towards beings. The lack in Husserl to understand and to interpret Erlebnis was precisely the reason why Heidegger turned away from and against his authoritative mentor – not crude anti-Semitism. As argued convincingly in Scharff (1997), a 10-year grappling with Dilthey’s hermeneutic legacy by the young Heidegger in his Freiburg years resulted in a crisis in consciousness that drove him to replace phenomenological reduction with hermeneutic circle. Philosophical hermeneutics was born.



Kim, Hesook Suzie & Ingrid Kollak (Ed.) (2006). Nursing theories: conceptual & philosophical foundations (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Springer Pub. Co.

Kim, Hesook Suzie. (2010). The nature of theoretical thinking in nursing (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Springer Pub. Co.

Paley, J. (1997). Husserl, phenomenology and nursing. Journal of advanced nursing, 26, 187-193.

Scharff, Robert C. (1997). Heidegger’s “appropriation” of Dilthey before Being and time. Journal of the history of philosophy, 35(1), 105-128.

Circularity of hermeneutics

We are back to where we started from, but with a new level of understanding. This return is not to be feared, because it is not the vicious circle of illogic. It is the hermeneutic movement of Dasein projecting itself into the meaning of being, in the primordial act of the understanding of being.

Erlebnis (lived experience) and Verstehen (understanding)

It is through Dilthey that the young Heidegger in his early academic career at Freiburg grasped the connection between hermeneutics and lived experience. In 1923, four years before the publication of Being and time, Heidegger, through the leitmotif of “ontology of facticity”, describes Dasein as human understanding in the mode of “being in” – thus signifying an important turning away from both natural science and traditional metaphysics in the way philosophy can and will be done. Instead of being able to be reduced to either, philosophy, as an intellectual enquiry into “being in”, stands its own ground as the primordial questioning of the what, the who, the how and the when of the “innerwordliness” (Innerweltlichkeit) of being: the individuated “content” of Dasein as being-in-the-world, which is temporalised as being-towards-death and bears the common name of “lived experience”. Experience is ontology – and that provides the ground for the separation of Verstehen and Erklären that Dilthey importantly made to engender the historical possibility of a philosophical hermeneutics.

Heidegger: phenomenology is hermeneutics, or logos as interpretation

In § 7(c) of Being and time, Heidegger takes great care to explain the importance of understanding the essence of phenomenon as making manifest, such that visibility belongs to the very meaning of phenomenon itself. Phenomenology, as the logos of phenomenon, is an investigation into the fundamental visibility of being – a special moment of uncovering which is captured in the ancient Greek term aletheia.

Viewed in this light, it is clear why Heidegger approaches and uses phenomenology as an ontology: for phenomenon to become “phenomenologically relevant” (Heidegger, 1996, p. 33), it has to be accessed in the context of the meaning of being (Sinn von Sein) in beings (Seiende). In being-in-the-world as the primary mode of being on earth, there is only one kind of being that can question the meaning of being – and that is Dasein. This ontological priority of Dasein provides the reason for Heidegger’s introduction of fundamental ontology in Being and time. Phenomenology, in Heidegger’s hands, becomes fundamental ontology. This is the first important standpoint Heidegger takes vis-à-vis the history of Western philosophy. The second important standpoint taken by Heidegger is that, by virtue of the ontological priority of Dasein, phenomenology as fundamental ontology is essentially hermeneutic in method and character. This is because the essence of Dasein‘s comportment to being (Seinsverhältnis) is understanding of being (Seinsverständnis), which Dasein accesses through interpretation – the mediation of “subjectivity” and its “fore-structure” (Vor-Struktur), so to speak. In other words, phenomenology, as fundamental ontology, is hermeneutics.

To quote from § 7(c) what is methodologically speaking the most important passage in Being and time:

Rigour in qualitative research: the philosophical underpinnings

The abundance of new and recent publications on qualitative research is evidence of a resurgent academic interest in the fundamental phenomenon of Dasein as our being-in-the-world that is integral to any thoughtful questioning of the significance of our lived experience in manifold times and situations. For qualitative research that uses the so-called “hermeneutic phenomenology” as its method, the question needs to be asked whether the fundamental ontic-ontological distinction that makes Heidegger’s ontological-phenomenological project possible in the first place is methodologically present and active in a researcher’s self-proclaimed “hermeneutic” approach to investigate the subject matter at hand. Qualitative research aims to make sense of lived experience; lived experience is part of the everyday business of Dasein. This means that all and sundry have at least a pre-philosophical understanding of what “lived experience” is. For the academically trained mind, moreover, the credibility of the lived experience described in a qualitative study is a discernible feature that determines the value and competence of the research in question.

To quote from a new publication on qualitative research held in a nursing library:

The qualitative study report that is written well gives the reader a strong sense that the results are believable. The voices of the participants seem alive and it is easy to grasp their experiences. Although this can be a valuable observation in assessing the quality of a qualitative study, there are additional criteria that must be considered (Rodgers, 2014, p. 180).

Dasein and the call of conscience

Heidegger’s notion of being-in-the-world is the antithesis to the “tranquilising” – a term used by the German philosopher himself in Being and time – effect of the environing of entertainment and “idle talk” – another Heideggerian term from Being and time – that is personified in the anonymous person of the everyday: das Man, rendered as “the they” in the two published English translations of the aforementioned magnum opus – of not only Heidegger himself but of modern hermeneutics. Existentially speaking, das Man is someone but also no one at the same time: society as a faceless stream of collective tranquilisation that Dasein falls into often through curiosity, temptation and simple laziness. What wrests Dasein away from this covering over of the potential for authenticity (Eigentlichkeit) in understanding of being (Seinsverständnis) is one unique mood (Stimmung) known to all: Angst, which is not ordinary fear or anxiety, but an unnameable dread in face of the disclosure of the uncanniness (Unheimlichkeit) of being-in itself, when being-in-the-world, always taken for granted in the fore-conception (Vorgriff) of Dasein, simply stops Dasein from feeling at home. In the moment of Angst, existence itself becomes problematic. Why is there being rather than nothing? What does it really mean to be? Why live and not die instead? Is not Dasein in reality the standing place for nothingness? Instead of who, is it not nothing that is there in the “da” of this most familiar yet primordially the strangest Dasein?

Being as the most universal question: its hermeneutic implications

Heidegger wrote Being and time to address the ancient metaphysical prejudice that being (Sein) is “the most universal and the emptiest concept” (Heidegger, 1996, p. 1). His life-long dedication to address the question of being indicates how difficult it is to overcome this Greek misconception that allowed the forgetfulness of the distinction between being (Sein) and beings (Seiende) to hold sway in the history of Western thought. Where this ontological difference is not retrieved from the history of being, the dualistic metaphysics of subject-object divide takes over the structural whole of thinking.

The uniqueness of Heidegger’s contribution to philosophy, or to thinking as such, is his expansion, through the concept of the hermeneutic circle as explicated in Being and time (1927) but already prior to that in Ontology: the hermeneutics of facticity (1923) – of the Western hermeneutic tradition to include the interpretation of Dasein and its existential temporality as the leading path to the question of being. Being, as encountered by Dasein which is itself a self-interpreting being that has understanding of being (Seinsverständnis) as its essence, is significance: the potentiality for meaning, which differs from the given, in each and every such encounter. Using also phenomenology as passed down to him from Husserl, Heidegger was able to make explicit in his hermeneutic method that understanding of being is the condition for all meaningful interpretations. Understanding of being means that, first and foremost, being (Sein) is capable of being understood by Dasein. Meaning is the existential proximity of being (Sein) to Dasein; hermeneutics is the interplay of nearness and distance in the shifting horizons of interpretation in temporality. Whether in time or in the twinkling of an eye (Augenblick), the opacity of being to consciousness is something that can be overcome; it can be said that meaningfulness becomes the fundamental feature of hope, and the driving force of Dasein‘s comportment to the basic phenomenon of aletheia.

The theme of this hermeneutic investigation is the Dasein which is in each case our own and indeed as hermeneutically interrogated with respect to and on the basis of the character of its being and with the view to developing in it a radical wakefulness for itself (Heidegger, 2008, p. 12).

Losing oneself in the depths of being

In Chapter 1 of Writing in the dark, van Manen gives a phenomenological account – one that is based on “lived experience” – of writing. The Dutch-Canadian phenomenologist details how writing takes place when the writer is lost to the everyday world and instead finds himself or herself in the creative space opened up by words themselves. In other words, writing involves the phenomenon of “entering” (van Manen, 2002, pp. 2-3). This entering, van Manen observes, causes the writer’s self to be “partially erased” (van Manen, 2002, p. 2). Perhaps writing is most inspired and productive when not holding on to oneself with conscious effort and obstinacy, but surrendering it to a “special reflective mood” (van Manen, 2002, p. 2). Writing, phenomenologically speaking, is what Heidegger aptly calls Gelassenheit – release of oneself into being. Hence accomplished writers can speak of the lived experience of “creative release”.

However, being phenomenologically grounded in lived experience, van Manen has the insight to realise that in the actual practice of writing, words often do not come readily to the writer, such that the writing experience becomes one of solitude and disorientation in darkness – hence the title of the book (van Manen, 2002, p. 2). Words’ invitation to enter their space does not come readily; to put this in Heideggerian language, it is definitely not ready-to-hand.

The “hermeneutic phenomenology” claimed to be used by van Manen hence stands before the aporia of non-writing in the lived experience of writing, given how resistant words are to the appropriation, or the claiming as one’s own, by the writer as “self” or “subject”. Perhaps a question concerning methodology needs to be put: is “hermeneutic phenomenology”, which is a term not used by either Heidegger or Gadamer, hermeneutic or phenomenological enough? Given his theoretical standpoint on the lived experience of teaching, it is not surprising that for van Manen, writing, too, which like teaching is a form of skilled practice improved through experience, is a non-reflective activity that differs in essence from thinking.

…the self is affected in an even more fundamental way in writing. A peculiar change takes place in the person who starts to write and enters the text: the self retreats or steps back as it were, without completely stepping out of its social, historical, biographic being. This is similar to what happens when we read a story. One traverses a world that is not one’s own. Here everything is undetermined. Everything is possible. Just as one is no longer oneself when one loses oneself in a novel, so the writer, in writing, seems no longer quite this or that personal self. In a certain sense, the writer becomes depersonalized or a neutral self – a self who produces scripture (van Manen, 2002, p. 3).

In the same chapter van Manen continues as follows:

We step out of one world, the ordinary world of daylight, and enter another, the textorium, the world of the text. In this world of shadows and darkness one traverses the landscapes of language. One develops a special relation to language, a reflective relation which disturbs its taken-for-grantedness. In fact, it may happen that in the attempt to write, one loses one’s very sense of language: one finds it impossible to write. And yet one must write. One is drawn to write. One writes. One has become “one” who writes (van Manen, 2002, pp. 3-4).


It is van Manen’s reflections on text and writing that the hermeneutic inadequacy of his so-called “hermeneutic phenomenology” comes to the fore. Instead of a surrender to the opacity of the textorium, or textual darkness, hermeneutics, true to its historicity and its tradition, calls for the luminosity of understanding – a clearing of being that cannot be reached without the struggle of interpretation, which does not end easily and has a tendency to return in a spiralling movement involving shifting levels of understanding: the movement of aletheia (truth as uncovering of being) together with its shadow, lethe.

Gadamer, in bringing Vollendung to Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle of aletheia, highlights, in his paper The eminent text and its truth, the primordiality of text as the origin of hermeneutic activity (Gadamer, 1980, p. 6). In Europe in the West as well as in the “Aryanised” culture of Tibet in the East, hermeneutics came into being in order to interpret, without the chaos of spiritual degeneration, the truth of sacred texts in religion. Hermeneutics, therefore, owes its birth to the divinely inspired human effort to struggle against the demonology, or Goetia, of untruth and damnation. To quote Gadamer from the same source:

Only when the understanding of something written is disputed do we ask after the precise text or exact wording. It is in this hermeneutic relation that something constitutes itself as text (Gadamer, 1980, p. 6).

Unlike the interpretive approach of van Manen, in hermeneutics it is not accepted that writing and text are events that happen to us, or happenings without the “mineness” (Jemeinigkeit) of Dasein. Instead, hermeneutics brings the perennial human struggle for truth into the midst of the text, such that its being, or textuality, becomes a contested ground for interpretation in the temporal (zeitlich), open-ended spiralling of the hermeneutic circle. Gadamer observes, through Goethe, that writing becomes complete when its author puts a finality to it (Gadamer, 1980, p. 7). The potential perpetuity of communication through words has to end at some point in time in order for it to become Schriften – the written works of an author in either manuscript or published form. Writing is grounded in the temporality of being and its wholeness is based on it. Perpetuity of word production, in contrast, is not wholeness, because as Heidegger explains in Being and time, Dasein finds authenticity only in the finitude of its being-towards-death (Sein-zum-Tode). Writing comes into being through the mortality of its author, even if it can exist indefinitely beyond his or her death. This is the paradox of writing that establishes the existential finitude of hermeneutics.