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.

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