What is Phenomenology

Science has always stressed careful observation of phenomena, but recently there has developed a growing need to pay more careful attention to phenomena and to our interpretation of them. Many of our recent environmental issues underscore this need. Hence, today we find a growing interest in phenomenon-centered science or phenomenology, and especially its central role in education.

A simple story
A few years ago, standing in the checkout line of a large store, I noticed a woman and her three-year-old child behind me looking at a simple child's puzzle near the checkout. The puzzle had three or four wooden cutouts that fit nicely into the flat piece of wood from which they had been cut. Each piece was cut in the shape of a barnyard animal and was painted appropriately. "Look," the woman said to the child, "this is a sheep!" With this exclamation she removed a piece of wood that was shaped and painted in the outline of a sheep.

"Wait a minute; that's not a sheep," I thought to myself. "That's only a cut piece of wood painted to represent a sheep. A sheep is much larger, has a particular smell, makes a very characteristic sound, its body is covered with a very unusual material that feels soft, often oily and leaves a funny scent and taste on your hand. Have you ever helped someone try and catch some sheep or helped to shear them? Sheep are fast, skittish, they can jump...These animals have many unusual ways of behaving... this is only a part of my experience of sheep. Please, take the child somewhere where he can have an experience of sheep!"

I never said anything to the woman or her child, but this moment stood out for me as a clear the distinction between a concept that is given and one that arises out of actual sensational experiences. I can understand the plight of the woman and her child. The checkout lines in many stores are often designed to overwhelm you as each item competes for your attention and interest. As an adult, we can develop the capacities to ignore or "tune out" the myriad impressions that bombard us in such an environment; a child cannot. However, without careful discrimination we adults can just as easily begin to "tune out" the many other sense impressions in our world. Under these conditions in our busy, information rich world, we can all to easily lose track of what are essential and important phenomena. Under these conditions, we can lose our connection to not only the world but also ourselves. We need to find a way to discriminate between noise and important information, and to interpret and understand the information correctly, forming meaningful relationships with the actual phenomena. When we learn to do this we will not risk confusing a piece of wood with what we really mean by "sheep." Nor would we think that the concept of an electron simply means a very tiny "thing," similar to a wooden ball only much smaller.

A brief historical view
The roots of phenomenology can be traced back to European Continental Philosophy of the late 17th and early 18th century. While many people familiar with Waldorf schools may know that Goethe (1749-1832) and Steiner (1861-1925) advocated for such an approach, there were parallel efforts by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-1762), Johannes Mueller (1801-1858) and Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). Additionally, in reading any of the writings of the great historical scientists, one finds references to a process that can be described as seeing a "pattern or lawfulness" in observations, that had not been seen before, or simply been overlooked by others. Examples of this can be found in the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, the dialogues of Galileo Galilei and the notebooks of Johannes Kepler. In each of these cases, a deeper understanding of certain phenomena was reached not by accepting the work of their predecessors, but instead, by looking again at the phenomena described by others and then "seeing something new".

For example, in Galileo's time (early 1600's) the commonly accepted view of objects that fall "naturally" (simply dropped) was that a heavier object would fall faster than a lighter one. By carefully reviewing the argument that was made to support this view, Galileo noticed an inconsistency in the argument. Through a combination of intuitions, thought experiments and actual demonstrations he was able to conclude that all "heavy" objects (ignoring feathers, dust, etc.) would fall through the same distance in the same time, that each object's speed (velocity) would increase at the same rate and furthermore, that the rate of acceleration was constant.

The Phenomenological Approach
A phenomenological approach to science begins with the premise that all empirical knowledge must start with sensory impressions. Every concept we form, be it in science or everyday life, must ultimately be based upon sense impressions or a combination of sense impressions and other concepts. Initially we can think of these sense impressions as the basic senses we use every day such as sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. In time we may become conscious of other sense impressions for example our sense of motion, balance, thoughts, etc.

The foundations for such an approach to an understanding of the world was outlined in depth by Rudolf Steiner in his book The Philosophy of Freedom (also titled Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path - A Philosophy of Freedom). One of the central themes in this book might be outlined in the following manner. When we experience a new or unfamiliar environment for the first time, we choose specific observations to focus on and then mentally remove these details from the whole of the environment in which we are observing. There are myriad choices of possible observations but we can only focus on a finite number at any time. Having decided to focus on specific observations, we then find relationships or order within these observations. Relationships also appear between the observations that have been separated and the whole environment from which they were removed. Initially, one can think of the observations as sense-based perceptions and the relationships as thought-based conceptions. Later on, when the capacity to distinguish between perceptions and conceptions is more clearly developed, one can also take thought as the basis of perceptions as well.

The fascinating part of the process outlined above is that the activity of looking for the relationships between the perceptions is not linear nor one that can be arrived at through logic. The process of finding the relationship for the "first time" is often referred to as intuition. Intuition is the process by which one first has an insight into a conceptual framework that can unite a given set of perceptions, or a set of perceptions with other concepts. This is the "aha" or "eureka" experience of the scientist, inventor, artist or investigator. In that moment a new relationship is seen and it is then and only then that logic can be rightly applied to determine if the relationship will hold true in the context of the other relationships that are known. This process of looking for a relationship among phenomena is the true activity of thinking. Thinking is not simply the recollection of previously know facts.

In a phenomenological approach, one consciously strives to have a pure experience of the phenomena and then develop lawful relationships or and order. This process actually cultivates the true powers and capacities necessary for thinking. Here thinking becomes an activity, a dynamic and living process, a verb. In a conventional approach, the known laws or relationships are initially given to the student (or reviewed by the scientist) who then accepts these, builds on them, and is guided by their assumed truth. In this second approach, the students or scientists do not need to utilize their own thinking capacities in the same manner, since they simply need to follow a logical argument rather than having an insight themselves as required in the phenomenological approach. In this second case, thinking is a process of data acquisition and accessing.

What is important to note here is that truly new ideas and inventions in science have usually resulted from conscious or unconscious application of a phenomenological approach. This can unconsciously occur when a scientist is working with an old concept - one that has often been passed down for years - and suddenly sees something new in the phenomena. In that moment, the scientist leaves the conventional view of the problem using pre-established, fixed concepts and instead, becomes interested in some new detail, and suddenly desires to "make sense" of this new situation.

This is the kind of thinking that is needed in the world today - a way of making sense out of what is before us, unhindered by old concepts and habitual patterns. It is the approach today's students, scientists and citizens must cultivate if we are to make sense out of a fast-paced, information loaded, virtual-reality laden world. A phenomenon-centered approach to science give us an opportunity to develop in every person the capacity to encounter a situation, take stock of it by making careful observations, and then make sense of it by finding lawful relationships and forming appropriate concepts.

For more information on the phenomenon-centered approach in science we recommend the following books, which are listed on our Publications Page: The Marriage of Sense and Thought, Being On Earth, and Sensible Physics Teaching.

This essay is adapted from an article about phenomenology and education by Michael D'Aleo, published in 2004 in Renewal - A Journal of Waldorf Education. Click here to access article - (WhatisPhenomenology.pdf)