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Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 36, No.

1, 2004

Reflection on Lived Experience in


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While debate about the meaning of hermeneutics and phenomenology for educa-
tional research continues (Ehrich, 1999; Kerdeman, 1999; Maykut & Morehouse,
1994; Patton, 1990), the notion of lived experience, and its application to reflective
practice, has become a feature of much that goes by the name of phenomenological
within this area. The prevalence of the lived experience model can be attributed in
large part to the influential work of Max van Manen in translating phenomenology
and hermeneutics from the philosophical arena into the context of educational
research. His research model, based on the notion of lived experience, has provided
a basis for educational researchers to reflect on their own personal experience as
educators, educational theorists, managers and policy makers.
Meanwhile, ongoing debates are occurring within higher education on the nature
of reflective practice generally (Bleakley, 1999; Usher & Edwards, 1994; Scott &
Usher, 1996; Ecclestone, 1996; Schon, 1991). A number of these theorists also
draw, like van Manen, on what could be broadly described as phenomenological
or post-phenomenological thought—that of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger,
Hans Georg Gadamer, and, at a stretch, Jacques Derrida. But, while these debates
have included a critique of the role and status of personal experience within knowl-
edge production, this critique does not seem to have been extended into the
context of research on lived experience. Moreover, neither does it appear that
the debate around reflective practice has been taken up in relation to the broader
question of the meaning of phenomenology and hermeneutics for educational
research generally. There is a need to address this hiatus and evaluate the notion
of lived experience in relation to these debates.
Does lived experience offer educational researchers an effective model upon which
to base reflective practice and, moreover, one that fully utilises the potentialities of
phenomenological thought?
This paper will address this question through an examination of how the other
of lived experience, non-lived experience, is constituted within reflection on lived
experience. What are the implications for educational research of how reflection
on lived experience is framed in relation to what does not count as lived experience?
In addressing these questions, an opportunity is provided to rethink the possible
role and scope of phenomenology within educational research.
The notion of lived experience came to prominence within education, as
mentioned above, through the work of Max van Manen, particularly his 1990

© 2004 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia


Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and
350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
58 Robyn Barnacle

volume, Researching Lived Experience. Van Manen attributes his notion of lived
experience to Husserl’s concept of the Lebenswelt, or life-world. A brief account of
Husserl’s notion of life-world will demonstrate the centrality of lived experience to
phenomenology.

Context: Husserl and the life-world


The life-world, or world, is the everyday, intuitive, world of our day-to-day experience,
in contrast to the idealised, cognitive world of the sciences and mathematics. For
Husserl, there are two elements to the life-world. Firstly, the experiential world of
perception, or intuition—that which grounds our activities and interests. Secondly,
the life-world refers to the world as a whole—or that which encompasses the
multiplicity of particular worlds. The world is not understood as an object, or
discrete entity, but rather is the pre-given, always already there, horizon in which
all of our experiences and actions are directed.
In turning to the life-world, Husserl’s intention was to draw attention to the
hitherto unthematised ground of all scientific inquiry (including philosophy),
thereby providing a foundation for science that it itself was unable to provide.
Husserl’s phenomenological project is transcendental, in that it sets out to describe
the grounds for its own possibility. Husserl wrote:
transcendental phenomenology is not a theory … it is a science founded
in itself, and standing absolutely on its own basis; it is indeed the one
science that stands absolutely on its own ground. (1962, p. 13)
Disclosing the nature of the life-world was pivotal for Husserl because it would
provide the basis for science and philosophy—for all of inquiry—to understand
its own possibility as based in the given, everyday world. The life-world consists of
phenomena—things and entities—and it is precisely ‘to the things’, as given, that
Husserl declared the phenomenologist should proceed. The ‘givenness’ of things
in the world is critical to Husserl’s phenomenology because it challenges the
transcendental idealism of Kant and the dichotomy between subject and object of
Descartes. Contra Kant, for Husserl, if something exists—i.e., is a phenomenon—
then it can be presented to consciousness. In the words of Jane Chamberlain:
‘there can be no thing-in-itself lurking unknowably behind the appearance’
(1998, p. 4). For Husserl, all entities are phenomena, and therefore, must be
experienceable. Husserl’s phenomenological method is empirical—that is, it
ascribes meaning on the basis of experience. And this is where he begins to
challenge Descartes, since, for the latter, the only knowledge that can be obtained
with any certainty is that deprived of a sensual basis. Descartes’s famous dictum ‘I
think, therefore I am’ asserts a disembodied rationality as the basis for (any) episte-
mological certainty (Descartes, 2003). The import of Husserl’s phenomenological
model is that in asserting the givenness of all phenomena to consciousness it
counterposes the abstraction of the ego cogito with the concreteness of being in the
world. The lived experience of being in the world becomes a legitimate basis for
knowledge.1

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Reflection on Lived Experience in Educational Research 59

Application: Van Manen’s phenomenology for the human sciences


There is no doubt that it is this feature of the phenomenological model—its
emphasis on our everyday experience of the world—that holds the attraction for
those with interests beyond the philosophical, such as van Manen. His concern
is to develop a phenomenology for the human sciences, as he is interested in the
essence, or nature, of lived experiences had by individuals practising in these fields.
Van Manen’s lived experience is not entirely incompatible with Husserl’s life-world;
whereas the latter is interested in a structural condition, the former focuses on how
this condition is experienced by particular individuals.
Lived experience for van Manen relates to that domain of experience that occurs
in our direct acquaintance with things, as opposed to what occurs secondarily
through abstract reflection. This involves, in the words of van Manen, ‘becoming
full of the world, full of lived experience’ (1990, p. 32). In passages such as these,
the lived experience researcher is proffered a romantic vision, whereby ‘phenome-
nological research requires of the researcher that he or she stands in the fullness
of life, in the midst of the world of living relations and shared situations’ (1990,
p. 32). But this promise of expansiveness and engagement conceals an underlying
more dualistic ontology at work in van Manen’s phenomenology, as the following
passage demonstrates:

Phenomenology is the study of the life-world—the world as we immediately


experience it pre-reflectively rather than as we conceptualize, categorize or
reflect on it. (1990, p. 9)
Immediacy and proximity versus detachment and abstraction is the key dialectic
at work in van Manen’s account of lived experience. And, like all binaries, one pole
tends to be valued over and against the other. This means that, as a research
method, phenomenology is concerned with the qualities, values, and impressions
of experience rather than with the what, when and why characteristic of methods
that promote abstraction and explanation. Van Manen’s human science approach
is descriptive: it describes lived, or existential, meanings, as meanings that occur
in the immediacy of everyday life.
One might wonder, however, how it is possible to engage in description and
interpretation of phenomena without in some sense also moving away from an
original ‘immediacy’ of lived experience. While we shall return to this issue later,
for now van Manen’s caveat needs to be noted. Immediacy does not signal a lack
of reflection. As van Manen states: ‘reflection on lived experience is always recol-
lective; it is reflection on experience that is already passed or lived through’ (1990,
p. 10). Rather than a temporal immediacy, the notion of immediacy in van Manen’s
phenomenology acts as a metaphor for ontological closeness. The aim, according
to van Manen, is for the researcher to ‘(re)unite … with the ground of their lived
experience’, and therefore with ‘the possibility of plausible insights that bring us in
more direct contact with the world’ (1990, p. 9).
What does this mean for the researcher? The appeal of the lived experience
approach is no doubt the value that it extends to a researcher’s own particular

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60 Robyn Barnacle

experience as an educational practitioner. Amongst the various ways that van


Manen suggests one might investigate lived experience are personal experience,
anecdote, experiential descriptions of literature, and writing. It is precisely the
personal nature of these experiences that a rationalist approach would dismiss—
in its search for objectivity—as inadmissible. The strength of the lived experience
approach is that it lends legitimacy not only to a researcher’s own personal experience,
but also to literary and other artistic modes of expression.
But, in the focus on lived experience, what happens to non-lived experience?
The spectre of non-lived experience is a constant companion of research practices
that seek to draw principally upon lived experience as its necessary other. Meanings
that are abstracted from the everyday, or are speculative, are treated as somehow
un-worldly and therefore of less value. Lived experience, that is, tends to get defined
against, or in opposition to, what is not perceived to constitute lived experience. I
provide two examples of this below.

Lived Experience Research in Action


In her work on the transformations of practice arising within bilingual education
Carmen Mercado describes her work as a ‘self-study’ through critical reflection and
dialogue on lived experience (1996). This study takes place within the setting of
a literacy course and locates the lived experience of the researcher in dialogue with
that of the pupils. Mindful of issues surrounding cultural and social diversity,
Mercado’s aim in using a phenomenological approach is to facilitate, what she
calls, ‘a dialogue across differences’. This is achieved by both the students and
researcher exchanging roles and critically reflecting upon their respective experi-
ences in the course.
What does lived experience mean in this context? There are two main features
of the study to which the notion of lived experience seems to refer. Firstly, the way
in which participants were encouraged to reflect on their own personal, or imme-
diate, experience, and secondly, the enduring nature of that period of reflection—
the fact that the study was ongoing over a period of time. In Mercado’s analysis of
the outcomes of the programme, she states that ‘a critical stance toward pedagogy
became a lived experience during an entire semester’. In other words, the research
was ‘lived’ in that it was inhabited as a part of professional life: both personally
and temporally.
While Mercado does not provide a clear account of what is meant by the notion
of lived experience, it is apparent that, following van Manen, it is linked to the
immediacy of an educational practitioner’s personal experience. This theme is also
evident in my next example. Here, however, the epistemological value attached to
such experience is more directly spelt out.
J. F. Donnelly draws on van Manen’s work to argue for a rethinking of the place
of theory and reflection in educational practice (1999). He is critical of what he
sees as the role of the teacher being theorised as a primarily instrumentalist activity,
or one grounded in propositional or representational knowledge. This, according to
Donnelly, overlooks the characteristics of teaching that are not reducible to theoretical

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Reflection on Lived Experience in Educational Research 61

ways of knowing: its phenomenological, or existential, characteristics. Donnelly wishes


to foreground the role of what he sees as teachers’ non-cognitive modes of being.
Such modes of being enact, in Donnelly’s words ‘the centrality of lived experience,
collectively sustained traditions of practice and, perhaps, intuition’ (1999, p. 942).
Here, like Mercado, Donnelly foregrounds the status of an educational practi-
tioners non-theoretical experiences in forming expertise and understanding. Donnelly
questions the role of theoretical conceptions of teaching in favour of the kind of
know-how that a practitioner develops through their own personal experience.
This is knowledge, one might say, that occurs ‘on the job’—or, more broadly, through
doing. Similarly, Mercado emphasises the kind of knowledge that develops through
the personal experience of a practitioner. Both, then, promote lived experience as
a source of knowledge. But is this just any old source of knowledge?

The Privileging of Lived Experience


The answer is clearly no. In both of these examples an opposition tends to be set
up between experience that is lived, or practice based, and that which is non-lived,
or theoretical. Lived experience, therefore, becomes not just an alternative site
of knowledge production, but, rather, a privileged site of knowledge production.
And this tends to work at two levels, or both in terms of how data is represented
and how it is gathered. Just as factual information is rejected, so too is theoretical
investigation. Likewise, just as subjective information is valued, practical experience
is also. This has two key implications for how phenomenology as a research practice
might be understood.
Firstly, the privileging of lived over non-lived experience implies that the former
is valued over and above the latter. The danger here is that the value that is
attributed to what is learnt through personal, or practical, experience is done so at
the cost of what might be learnt through theoretical or abstract reflection—a mere
reversal of rationalism. This raises two key questions about the lived experience
model. One concerns the theory/praxis distinction. How is the phenomenologist
to understand the relationship between practice and theory? The second question
concerns the epistemological claims of lived experience. Is the notion of lived
experience, and by extension, phenomenology, intended to signal an alternative
model of what might be thought of to count as knowledge, or alternatively, of what
ought to count as knowledge?
The tension that exists in the lived experience model between the theoretical and
non-theoretical is recognised not only by van Manen but also by many others who
draw on his approach. As Thomas Nielsen points out:
Phenomenological data representation does not decrease the value of
factual description, nor does it make facts obsolete. … In fact, often a
collaboration between factual and hermeneutic descriptions can support
each other. (2000, p. 11)
This caveat, however, cannot obscure another deeper problem that arises from the
prioritisation of lived experience. This is demonstrated in one of van Manen’s more

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62 Robyn Barnacle

recent papers, ‘From Meaning to Method’ (1997). There, a distinction is made


between theoretical or philosophical phenomenology and what is called engaged
phenomenology, or that conducted by professionals in education, health etc. This
latter group, according to van Manen, are more able to enrich and shed light on
our understanding of the significance of everyday experiences than the former
because they engage with their own lived experience as educators, health profes-
sionals etc. ‘These are the people’, says van Manen, ‘who are able to enrich our
perceptiveness and who contribute to our reflective understandings of the possible
meaning and significance of everyday experiences’ (1997). The implication is that
philosophers merely theorise and therefore are less engaged with the realm of
the everyday.
Whilst it stands to reason that a practising educator could tell us more about
what it is like to teach, does the fact that a person teaches mean that they have
privileged access to the question of what it means to learn, or to the nature of
learning itself ? Van Manen himself is conscious of this tension and recognises
that a phenomenologist must do more than reflect on their own personal
experience:
phenomenology consists in mediating in a personal way the antinomy
of particularity (being interested in concreteness, difference and what is
unique) and universality (being interested in the essential, in difference
that makes a difference). (1990, p. 23)
These remarks indicate that while van Manen recognises that the practitioner needs
more than their non-theoretical experience to gain phenomenological insight, it
is only on the basis of such experience that genuine phenomenological reflection
can occur. The practical experience of the educational practitioner, therefore, is
afforded a privileged status in the lived experience model.
This leads to the second issue that arises from the privileging of lived experience
over and against non-lived experience. There is a danger that the phenomenological
practitioner, by virtue of the immediacy of their practical experience, is treated as
having access to some sort of pure, or unmediated, knowledge or understanding.
In attributing to the practitioner the unique ability to reflect on the immediacy of
their experience, van Manen claims that they are able to come into ‘more direct’
contact with the world. More direct than what? The theoretical? By foregrounding
the immediacy of practical experience in opposition to that which is theoretical,
or detached, is the knowing subject, in this model, being understood as pure and
present to themselves and, therefore, untainted by theory and everything that
it implies; language, culture, history, etc? Is this a case of what Derrida would
describe as the metaphysics of presence?
That phenomenologies of lived experience are open to this kind of logocentric
reading is demonstrated in the following passage by Peter Willis. In his paper,
‘Looking for What It’s Really Like: Phenomenology in reflective practice’, a phe-
nomenologically informed reflective practice is described as seeking ‘presences’ by
getting back to a first level of awareness, prior to engaging in conceptual processes,
and generating:

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Reflection on Lived Experience in Educational Research 63

so called ‘immediate’ knowledge of some thing or event, [by] seeking to


‘bracket out’ received views and namings; … [and] present phenomena as
far as possible as lived, contextual experiences. (1999, p. 93)

While Willis uses ‘scare quotes’ and other such devices to indicate the slippery and
loaded nature of terms such as presence, immediate and bracketing, the logocentric
connotations remain. Moreover, is the problem of logocentrism in lived experience
models of phenomenology merely a matter of terminology or is there a deeper
structural problem?
Perhaps this valuing of practice over theory, and the immediate over the second-
ary, is an inevitable consequence of a model of inquiry that aims to challenge the
ascendancy of rationalism. Clearly, much of the appeal of phenomenology lies in
the fact that it offers an alternative to the positivistic models of inquiry that have
emerged through modern science. And, indeed, phenomenologists should challenge
those epistemological models. What is problematic, however, is that in the division
between what does and does not count as lived experience, a corresponding dichotomy
between practice and theory seems to occur whereby certain types of experience
are promoted—and treated as authentic—at the expense of others.

Personal Experience as Data Source


In their paper ‘Re-theorising Experience: Adult learning in contemporary social
practices’ (1997), Rennie Johnston and Robin Usher critique key assumptions
about experience that are contained in dominant, humanist, models of experiential
learning. What is common to such models, assert Johnston and Usher, is the
privileged place they accord to experience, not only as the site of learning, but
also as that where knowledge is principally produced and acquired. Their claim
is that where experience is conceived as the foundational bedrock of knowledge
and the focus is on how experience becomes knowledge, little attention is paid
to experience per se. Experience itself, Johnston and Usher claim, is treated as
unproblematic.
While phenomenology is not directly cited as an example of educational dis-
course on experiential learning, these comments have resonance in this context.
In particular is the claim that experience cannot be treated as an unproblematic
or privileged site of knowledge production—like some pure or untainted original
source. For Johnston and Usher:

individual, or indeed collective, experience does not and cannot stand alone
as an authentic knowledge source but is constructed and re-constructed
within history, context and discourse. (1997, p. 141)

The approach of Johnston and Usher is to challenge the humanist model by re-
theorising experience as ‘ “always-already” signified and dynamically inter-related
with knowledge and action’ (1997, p. 152). In other words, experience does not
provide a platform from which culture, history and discourse can be observed, as
it is precisely from such things that it itself emerges.

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64 Robyn Barnacle

This critique has been extended to a range of educational models of reflective


practice (Usher & Edwards, 1994; Scott & Usher, 1996; Bleakley, 1999). In the
humanist model of reflectivity, the subject is unproblematically attributed personal
agency and autonomy as if they were natural states. Instead, postmodern and
poststructuralist critiques treat the subject as culturally constituted where, by
extension, agency and autonomy are also understood as cultural products. According
to Alan Bleakley, for example, in his paper ‘From Reflective Practice to Holistic
Reflectivity’, the ‘reflection embodied in personalistic models … fails to “think
against itself ” or become reflexive about is own constitution’ (1999, p. 8).
In treating the practical experience of the researcher/educator as an ‘originary’
source of knowledge, the lived experience model of reflective practice suffers from
this same humanist malaise. The authenticity attributed to a person’s own lived
experience in this model means that the constitution of lived experience is rendered
unproblematic. Indeed, in order to ‘think against itself ’, lived experience would
have to engage in precisely the kind of abstract thinking—the what, when and why—
that it abhors. While this may be a limitation of the lived experience model, however,
is it a condition of the phenomenological and hermeneutic approaches generally?

Existential Phenomenology
This issue takes us back to Husserl and the phenomenological legacy on which van
Manen draws. The polarisation that exists in van Manen’s hermeneutic phenome-
nology between lived experience on the one hand and the theoretical and concep-
tual on the other might be understood as symptomatic of a deeper problem within
Husserl’s notion of the life-world. To understand this we need to turn to Martin
Heidegger, Husserl’s student and successor in terms of making the shift from
phenomenology to what some have called post-phenomenology (Ihde, 1993).
Heidegger was critical of Husserl’s notion of the life-world because he thought
that it lent itself too readily to a subjectivistic model of understanding. That is, he
felt that the emphasis on the subject’s intuitive relation to things perpetuated the
idealism of Descartes—the tendency to treat the world as a world for consciousness.
In contrast, for Heidegger, as subjects with the constitution of Dasein (being-there)
we are always already in the world, and this occurs through a complex nexus of
involvement that cannot be explained merely through reference to one region of
existence alone—such as intuition.
In his early work, such as Being and Time, Heidegger attempts to depart from
the Cartesian model—in which consciousness is treated as somehow separate and
autonomous from the world—by describing Dasein’s everyday comportment toward
the world in terms of use (1996). That is, Dasein tends to approach things primarily
in terms of what they can do, or as equipment. His famous example of this is the
hammer. A hammer is primarily perceived in terms of what it does, and therefore,
in relation to a nail. Hammers are things for hitting nails, while nails are things for
holding surfaces together, and so on ad infinitum. It is only when the hammer
breaks, or we step back from its everyday use that we might begin to abstract the
hammer—or indeed any such instrument—from its everyday context.

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Reflection on Lived Experience in Educational Research 65

While for Heidegger our ordinary everyday interaction with things is primarily
purposeful, this should not be misunderstood as entailing an opposition between
theory and practice. This point has been made by Jeff Malpas, where he claims
that, for Heidegger:
our ordinary involvement in the world would seem typically to call upon
both engaged and disengaged modes of access to things—everyday practice
involves the encounter with things as both Zuhandenes and Vorhandenes.
(1998, p. 94)
The distinction between Zuhandenes, or ready-to-hand, and Vorhandenes, present-to-
hand, is Heidegger’s and it points to the different ways that things (any thing) can
be grasped or encountered. While the former relates most closely to the notion of
direct intuitive engagement, the latter is more characteristic of the disengagement,
or detachment, of modern science. The crucial point made by Malpas, however,
is that for Heidegger the structural feature of our involvement with the world that
this distinction points to is one of unity: the two, while different, are interconnected
and inseparable. In the words of Catriona Hanley:
The two modes of being-in-the-world, theory and practice, theoria and
poiesis, vorhanden and zuhanden, are both rooted in transcendence … [and]
transcendence is the fundamental comportment of Dasein on the basis of
which it can relate to any other being. (2001)
Dasein’s transcendence means that it understands itself in relation, that is, to the
meaning of being. Unlike other creatures, Dasein is able to engage with the possi-
bilities of the world (and, by extension, to have a world at all since the world is
that horizon in which there is possibility). Since for Heidegger theory and practice,
or vorhanden and zuhanden, indicate different ways in which things can be encoun-
tered, both of these modes occur in and through Dasein’s transcendence. Tran-
scendence, as Hanley says, is ‘the primordial praxis of Dasein that roots theory and
practical comportment’ (2001).
Transcendence is the key to understanding the relationship between theory and
practice in Heidegger. This is because it is only in relation to transcendence, or
that which enables Dasein to make sense of the world, that both theory and practice
can be understood as what they are: two integrated parts of the same project:
being-in-the-world, or relationality. It is this point, or insight, that phenomenol-
ogies of lived experience, in prioritising one mode of being in the world over
another, miss. As a consequence, they also fail to fully realise the possibilities of
phenomenological hermeneutics. Lived experience does not designate a subjective
or mental state, but rather, the condition of being in relation (to the Other).

Conclusion
It is not that science and the everyday do not involve different ways of relating to
things; the question is, what is the relation between the two. Indeed, this question
was there at the beginning of phenomenology with Husserl. His purpose was not

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66 Robyn Barnacle

to reject science, but, on the contrary, to radically reinvigorate it. Husserl’s aim
was to recover the forgotten ground of the life-world and, therefore, to ground
science in that from which it emerges. For Husserl, then, the objectivising, theo-
rising and measuring practices of science should not be abandoned, but rather, re-
situated in, and informed by, the world of perception and interest, valuation and
action that constitutes our everyday experience of the world. It is about putting the
two into dialogue.
While my suggestion is not that education research should take up Husserl’s
particular model of phenomenology, I do believe that there is a lesson contained
within it. This is that phenomenology has a role to play in informing as well as
transforming other models of inquiry, such as those abstracting and objectivising
practices promoted by positivism. This gets lost sight of, I believe, in the way that
the notion of lived experience gets set up in opposition to theoretical sources of
knowledge, rather than as a way of problematising that very opposition. There
is an opportunity for phenomenological research to engage more with the tensions
between theory and practice, and abstraction and immediacy, in a way that perhaps
other theoretical frameworks are less equipped to do.
This leaves the question of what becomes of lived experience as a source of data
for educational researchers. The work of Usher, Edwards, Scott and Bleakley,
discussed earlier, offers researchers various models of reflective practice that incor-
porate personal experience without treating it as a privileged—or unproblematic—
data source. It also needs to be noted, however, that lived experience, or what it
points to—the concreteness of everyday being-in-the-world—is itself a privileged
category within phenomenology. Phenomenologists primarily concern themselves with
the structures of experience as they are presented to consciousness without the filter
of theory and deduction. While there may be a tension here, recognising the sig-
nificance of lived experience and, at the same time, its problematical status, does not
seem to me to be incompatible. On the contrary, it may just serve to galvanise in the
mind of the phenomenologist the key problematic at the heart of phenomenology:
that of just how one goes about getting ‘to the things’, as Husserl’s slogan demands.

Note
1. It is perhaps ironic that, for reasons that I will not go into here, Husserl’s phenomenology—
despite the attempt to be grounded in the concreteness of the world—continued the idealism
of Kant and Descartes. Heidegger attempted to address this with his ‘existential’ phenome-
nology, but the tension within phenomenology as idealist or empirical remains.

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