Heideggerian critique of van Manen

Given the widespread adoption of van Manen’s “hermeneutic phenomenology” in doctoral theses in nursing theory, from a Heideggerian perspective it is imperative to point out the actual paucity of hermeneutic method in this Canadian theorist’s popular writings. For example, when it is stated in a recent PhD thesis from the University of Adelaide by Nooredin Mohammadi, A hermeneutic phenomenological inquiry into the lived experience of Muslim patients in Australian hospitals, that a nursing scholar can skip reading the “difficult” texts of Heidegger and Gadamer by turning to van Manen instead, implying therefore that the latter’s work is the culmination of the two German philosophers’ hermeneutic philosophy, nothing is further from the truth. Such methodological naïveté, if not outright error, hampers the growth of authentic hermeneutics in nursing theory and scholarship. In the Australian context, between 1998 and 2012 seven theses, Masters as well as PhD, are listed in the Libraries Australia catalogue (accessed 15 May 2014) as having used van Manen’s “hermeneutic phenomenology”. With one exception, which relates to education theory (van Manen’s own background), all came from the discipline of nursing studies.

The central thesis of van Manen’s “hermeneutic phenomenology” in his famous work Researching lived experience (referred to hereafter as van Manen 1990) is that thematic analysis of a written account of lived experience helps a researcher anchor its meaning. A theme is like a signpost in the narrative landscape of a lived experience that guides the researcher to the oft-hidden region of meaning embedded in the text.

However, can the very notion of “theme” be taken for granted in a hermeneutic approach to lived experience? The answer is no, and it is based on the primacy of ontological difference between being (Sein) and beings (Seiende) in the fundamental ontology (Fundamentalontologie) of Dasein analytic in Being and time (referred to hereafter as Heidegger 1996). In explaining the very question of thematisation (Thematisierung) in fundamental ontology, Heidegger looks at the forestructure (Vor-struktur) of Dasein‘s everyday understanding of being.

In the disclosure and explication of being, beings are always our preliminary and accompanying theme. The real theme is being. What shows itself in taking care of things in the surrounding world constitutes the pre-thematic being in the domain of our analysis. This being is not the object of a theoretical “world”-recognition; it is what is used, produced, and so on. As a being thus encountered, it come pre-thematically into view for a “knowing” which, as a phenomenological knowing, primarily looks toward being and on the basis of this thematization of being thematizes actual beings as well. Thus, this phenomenological interpretation is not a cognition of existent qualities of beings; but, rather, a determination of the structure of their being (Heidegger, 1996, p. 67).


Fundamentally speaking, the existential situation of Dasein is such that the everyday proximity of the ontic distracts Dasein from the deeper question of the ontological meaning of beings that are all around it in its being-in-the-world. The readiness-to-hand (Zuhandenheit) of beings disposes Dasein to view being as essentially pragmata: being as things that have the structure of “in order to”, e.g., the clock is used in our everyday life in order to tell time. This apparent obviousness in meaning actually conceals the ontological question of what it is in the first place that makes Dasein has the comportment towards beings as things. By determining the being of beings as pragmata, the thematisation of being itself withdraws from view. Acculturated as such, Dasein is ensnared by the false security of the forgetfulness of being (Seinsvergessenheit). There is no thematisation as such without ontological difference.

And yet, echoing Gadamer’s affirmation of prejudice (Vorurteil) as a necessary part of the hermeneutic circle, Dasein‘s all-too-ready understanding of the meaning of being as pragmata is not to be rejected outright, but is to be taken into view as an essential fore-sight (Vor-sicht) in its pre-philosophical seeing of being as being-in-order-to: prior to ontology is Dasein‘s comportment to being as homo faber, as a being who uses things to make other things that, too, are useful, in order to ensure survival, i.e., to prevent untimely death, in a hostile world. Simply speaking, the anthropology of Dasein cannot be conceived without the environing Zuhandenheit of beings. Hence the mode of being that is Zuhandenheit belongs to Dasein‘s fore-structure (Vor-struktur) in its hermeneutic engagement with the world and its inescapable being in it.

Kant famously declares in Critique of pure reason that being is not a predicate: this means that being does not provide us with any additional information about anything. It simply posits a thing – that a thing is. In other words, while everybody thinks, rightly or wrongly, that he or she understands what being means, there is something curiously empty about being as well. Being is a determination that does not say anything descriptive about a being, such as a tree or a book. Yet being plays a primordial role in the horizon of human understanding, otherwise Dasein will not be able to tell the difference between being and nothing, which means that philosophical thinking would not have been possible in human history at all. Given that this is not the case, there is something that can be called ontological priority in the universal question of being, as posed by none other than Dasein itself. And it is through Dasein that the traditional metaphysics of representational thinking of being as pragmata can be overcome and another way of thinking pointed at by Heidegger in his life work – which retrieves the question of being through a reflective recalling (andenkendes Denken) (Heidegger, 1998, p. ?) – can be invited into the primordial event of the hermeneutic circle. However, at the same time, Dasein must have the awareness not to reduce itself to a mere subjectivity that metaphysically represents the being of beings only through its own idea and image; the “I think” of Cartesian philosophy, which even phenomenology cannot free itself from in its historic beginnings under the guidance of Husserl, is not the essence, projection and unfolding of being (Sein).

Taking the above hermeneutic reflection into account, it is now clear that van Manen’s methodological reliance on the narrative of lived experience is an example of thinking continuously under the shadow of metaphysics; his nomenclature of “hermeneutic phenomenology” is hollow without the primordial way-showing of andenkendes Denken. Without this primordial way of thinking as indicated by Heidegger in the Greek spirit of daimonion – the inspirational, but also uncanny, shining in the showing in the phenomenon of aletheia that has always accompanied humanity -, there can be no Ereignis: the appropriation that is the coming of being to itself in the turning that is the full circle of ontological fulfilment.


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