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A Phenomenological Critique of the Theoretical Bases of Science Education



Paper presented at the Annual European Educational Research Association Conference, Ljubljana, September 1998

ABSTRACT: This paper is a phenomenological critique of a particular trend in educational research and practice, which is identified as ”cognitivism”. The basic feature of this trend is a one-sided and exclusive focus on conceptual cognition and concept formation, with a simultaneous neglect of sense experience. It is argued that this kind of thinking is the result of the reception by education of epistemological theories which have an objective alien to that of education, which is the all-round development of human personality. The arguments draw upon the philosophies of Dewey and Merleau-Ponty. In particular, the schema concept of various cognitive theories is critiqued as an expression of the view that consciousness and world are externally related. It is argued that the present, mainstream theories of Science Education need to be complemented with phenomenological perspectives.


It seems that one of John Dewey’s main interests was to find a way out of the dilemma of the apparently necessary choice between inhuman rationality and human irrationality. In order to find a way out of this predicament, the premise of a primary dualism between subject and object had to go (Biesta, 1994). Dewey’s concern could also be rendered in terms of the alienation of man from nature, or from the world in general. If all significant human concerns are conceived as infinitely distant from what is considered to be objective, real, and true, it becomes very difficult for sensitive human beings to feel at home in the ”real” world. The same concern lies behind my arguments in this paper.

In his recently published introduction to Dewey’s philosophical and educational thinking, Boisvert (1998) emphasises how Dewey was committed to ”lived experience” and had a historical, contextual, and qualitative theory of experience which is radically different from the ”sense data” atomism of the British Empiricists. Dewey also identified the ”fallacy of intellectualism” as the assumption that experience as such is a mode of knowing or knowledge. For Dewey, embodied experience is always immediately had, enjoyed or suffered, whereas knowledge is always the mediated product of inquiry. The fallacy of intellectualism also entails a kind of scientific reductionism, in which ”the rich complexity of nature has been reduced to what a single type of inquiry [viz. Natural Science] has to say about it” (ibid., p 19).

According to Boisvert, Dewey identified and rejected three major dogmas of Western thought. He calls them ”the Plotinian Temptation”, ”the Galilean Purification” and ”the Asomatic Attitude” (ibid., p 5ff). The Plotinian Temptation is the tendency to reduce everything to a single, underlying Unity. The Galilean Purification is exemplified by Galileo’s law of free falling bodies, which ignores such factors as the friction of the air and other ”accidents”. The law is useful but the mistake is to take it as more real than the concrete phenomena it refers to. The Asomatic Attitude is the mind-body dualism and assumption that cognition takes place only in and by the mind, not involving the body and the feelings. One of the things I will try to show in this paper is that the Asomatic Attitude and the Galilean Purification both exist in mainstream educational thinking as what could be called ”the primacy of pure cognition”.

Boisvert further recounts how Dewey substituted the classic epistemological dualism between ”subject” and ”object” with a triadic relation between ”subject matter”, ”objective” and ”inquirer”. The same subject-matter can be inquired into with different purposes: scientific, aesthetic, religious, political. Different objectives lead to different knowledge. ”Traditional epistemology tended to think on the model of a spectator viewing a finished picture rather than that of the artist producing a painting” says Boisvert (p 37). From an artistic point of view, the same subject-matter can be pictured in a number of ways. Dewey would certainly hold that an investigation of for instance natural phenomena from the point of view of art and beauty would be as educationally legitimate as a scientific inquiry into them. It would just have a different ”objective”.

However, I would suggest that we can keep the same ”objective” as Science, and still put more emphasis on the aesthetic dimension of knowledge formation.(1) The ”objective” of such an approach to natural phenomena would be not merely to appreciate their beauty, but also to understand them. Nature ”speaks” through the gestures it makes in its forms, colours, sounds, smells, and tastes. From ancient times, human inquiry has always tried to understand this ”language” of Nature. Galileo also wanted to understand what Nature was saying, but for some reason he assumed that the only language Nature was capable of speaking was that of Mathematics. Therefore, after the so called Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, philosophers began to regard non-quantifiable sense experience as irrelevant for true, i.e., scientific knowledge. Philosophers and Natural Scientists started to listen to the voice of Nature through very thick walls as it were, walls which let through only the thin and abstract sound of numbers and formulas. Husserl (1970) called this cultural and historical process the ”mathematization of Nature”. A phenomenological approach to Nature, following Husserl’s imperative to ”return to things themselves”, calls upon us to tear down these thick walls and start to listen to all that Nature has to say. It is as if Nature has a hundred languages, but we have become deaf to ninety-nine of them. In order to (re)discover these voices, we have to intentionally and attentively explore all aspects of sense experience.(2)

Is the Science Education going on in our schools today a part of the deafening process? To the extent that these educational activities are informed by epistemologies and theories of learning which do not pay due attention to the aesthetic dimension of knowledge formation, I believe that it is. The main point of my paper is to deliver a critique of those aspects of such theories, which I believe contribute to an ”anaesthetic” view of the world.

If, as Dewey maintains, all our intellectual pursuits have a specific purpose or goal, then the objective of traditional epistemology would be to give a logically coherent, formal theory of (scientific) knowledge and knowing. Is such an objective altogether in harmony with educational concerns? Perhaps we make a serious mistake if we base all our educational theories on such philosophical grounds. The following section tries to illustrate this mistake.

Kant, Piaget, And The ”Intellectualistic Fallacy”

Kant is sometimes called Newton’s philosopher, because he set out to formulate the epistemological foundations for Newtonian Science. His epistemology was concerned with the foundations of scientific knowledge. Yet, in his writings he most often used examples of everyday knowledge, such as the experience of seeing a dog and knowing that ”this is a dog”, and similar things. As Böhme (1980) has pointed out, Kant’s epistemology fails to distinguish between our everyday knowledge, or ”lifeworld experience” of the world on the one hand, and the purely theoretical knowledge of Science on the other:

Es ist eine generelle Schwäche der kantischen Erkenntnistheorie, daß sie nicht zwischen lebensweltlicher Erfahrung und wissenschaftlicher Erfahrung unterscheidet. Da sie letzten Endes auf die Begründung wissenschaftlicher Erfahrung, speziell der Physik, abzielt, aber beständig mit Beispielen aus der Alltagserfahrung arbeitet, und da Kant immer von ”Erfahrung überhaupt” redet, wird der Eindruck erweckt, als existiere dieser Unterschied überhaupt nicht. ( p 71)

The lack of distinction between these two realms of knowing and experience contributed to the reception of Kant’s epistemology – in particular that of Kritik der reinen Vernunft (KdrV) –as dealing with all kinds of knowledge, not only Science. Thereby he also contributed to what Dewey, and later Merleau-Ponty, criticised as ”the intellectualistic fallacy”, making all experience dependent on theoretical, or conceptual knowledge.

From an educational point of view, it is interesting to observe that a similar confusion seem to have arisen about the works of Piaget, who, by the way, owes some of his central concepts to Kant. (For instance, the concept of schemata was introduced by Kant, and Piaget’s distinction between figurative and operative knowledge is prefigured in Kant’s KdrV.) As Herzog (1991) has pointed out, educationalists in general have not realised that the object of Piaget’s research was never cognitive or psychological development in general, but the psychological genesis of scientific knowledge:

Was Piaget als Psychologe vorgelegt hat, ist nämlich keineswegs eine Darstellung ”der” kognitiven Entwicklung. Von allem Anfang an steht Piagets Analyse der menschlichen Entwicklung im Lichte seiner wissenschaftsteoretischen Fragestellung, die er sich mehr oder weniger unbearbeitet von den Naturwissenschaften vorgeben läßt. (ibid., p 290; my emphases)

Thus, for Piaget, the kind of knowledge constituting modern Science seem to have been the taken-for-granted telos of the individual’s intellectual development. It was from this particular point of view that he described the development of intelligence and knowledge. However, when Piaget’s theory was taken up in education, it was considered as dealing with the development of all kinds of knowledge, not just Science. Sometimes it has even been received as a theory of the general psychological development of children. In this way, I believe, Piaget’s thinking has come to contribute to an ”intellectualistic fallacy” within educational science, and perhaps also in educational practice. I call this fallacy cognitivism.

Theories of the development of scientific cognition are certainly not irrelevant to educational research and practice. They can be of help in fostering the students understanding of Science. Therefore, this paper is not a critique of cognitive theories as such, but of cognitiv-ism. Cognitivism means letting conceptual, theoretical cognition constitute the central theme of all research or practice dealing with teaching, learning and the development of knowledge. The acquisition of concepts then becomes the primary and most important aim of all schooling. As Säljö (1995) has noted, concept formation is almost turned into a ”pedagogical drug”.

In an interview with Martin Wagenschein (Wagenschein, 1981), a well known German Science educator (see for instance Wagenschein, 1965), the interviewer recounts how his little daughter once refused to eat a piece of bread. The helpful father cut the bread in two, meaning to help her eat by making the pieces smaller. But the girl cried out that now she had to eat ”even more” bread. The father ”realised” that this was an expression of the child’s lack of the concept of quantity invariance, as described by Piaget. However, Wagenschein, being a wise educational phenomenologist, answered by pointing out that this was not the only possible interpretation of the girl’s protest. Perhaps she meant that now there was more to eat in the sense that it would take a longer time, or that several more mouthfuls would be needed. What the child really meant could only reveal itself in further dialogue, not by jumping to conclusions from a pre-established theory.

The father’s reaction is a typical example of cognitivism: the child’s behaviour is seen as an expression of a lack of concepts, a conceptual deficiency. This is what her behaviour must look like, if seen from the point of view of our scientific knowledge of Nature. Naturally, the quantity of the bread is the same, whether it is cut up in pieces or in one whole. However, from a qualitative, aesthetic point of view, two pieces of bread are certainly not equal to one piece, even if they are that same piece cut in two. Aesthetically, two pieces are two pieces, not reducible to one piece. In the same way, if I draw a rectangle lying down, and another standing upright, from an abstract, geometrical point of view, there is no difference. Both are rectangles, and the formula for the calculation of their areas is the same. But from a concrete, aesthetic perspective, the two figures are entirely different, because they make different gestures.

Maybe aesthetic thinking and experience is actually rooted in what Piaget calls concrete operational thinking, that is thinking inseparable from sense-perception. By viewing mental development exclusively from a Piagetian, or cognitivistic perspective, we miss the aesthetic possibilities inherent in what he calls concrete operations. The stage of concrete operations then becomes something the child merely has to pass through, and outgrow, in order to reach ”real” thinking, i.e., the capacity for logical and mathematical operations.

In present day theories of education, particularly of Science Education, Piaget’s theory has been assimilated within a more general framework, often called constructivism.(3) Just as Piaget took up central concepts from Kant, so can constructivism be seen as a form of neo-Kantianism (Boyd, 1991). For instance, Devitt (1991) holds that constructivism is based on two Kantian ideas: ”first, that we make the known world by imposing concept, and, second, that the independent world is (at most) a mere ‘thing-in-itself’ forever beyond our ken” (p ix). It seems to me that constructivism in general has a strong cognitivistic bias, due to its narrow focus on ”conceptual change” (cf. Tarsitani, 1996). However, some of the forms it has taken seem not in principle incompatible with a more aesthetic perspective on learning and knowledge formation (see for instance Abercrombie, 1960).

Schematas – Machines Of Experience Production?

Buck (1969, p 15) quotes Kant in KdrV (A1) as saying that experience is ”ohne Zweifel das erste Produkt, welches unser Verstand hervorbringt, indem er den rohen Stoff sinnlicher Empfindungen bearbeitet”.(4) Perhaps this statement was the starting point for Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of Kant’s epistemology. Horkheimer and Adorno (1944) describe Kant’s theory of knowledge in the following way:

Die Sinne sind vom Begriffsapparat je schon bestimmt, bevor die Wahrnehmung erfolgt, der Bürger sieht a priori die Welt als dem Stoff, aus dem er sie sich herstellt. (p 103)

In the same vein, Horkheimer himself later (1985) wrote:

Der Kantische reine Verstand gleicht einer Maschinerie. Er enthält die Formen, die das Subjekt dem Material aufprägt, gleichsam die Kästen und Fangarme für das Rohmaterial. (p 209)

Thus, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, Kant’s philosophy of knowledge is modelled on industrial production. The conceptual schematas we carry in our mind(s) correspond to the machinery in the factories, and the impressions we receive from our senses are like the raw material transported to these factories, where it is turned into marketable goods. Just as a factory brings in raw material to work on in order to produce consumable goods, so our understanding or ”mental apparatus” takes in the ”raw stuff” of sense impressions, which is worked upon by our ”mental schematas” in order to produce - in the first instance - ”experience”. Experience may then be further worked upon, by the schematas of higher order concepts, to produce ”knowledge”.

Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s critique is surely one-sided and unfair, not paying due attention to all the complexities of Kant’s thinking. (For how Kant's KdrV permits several readings, see Neujahr, 1995). In an early essay from 1884, Dewey dealt with a related problem in Kant's philosophy. Dewey admits that Kant's supposition that thought is ”synthetic” only upon material given to it from without may be ”but an arbitrary limitation or assumption” (Dewey 1981, p 19), which he imposed upon himself, or inherited unquestioned from philosophers before him. The content of his philosophy may be seen as correcting this view, but in its form it is still not overcome:

On one side, he had learned that pure thought is analytic; on the other, that the individual is affected with sensations impressed upon it by external objects. At the same time that he corrects both of these doctrines with his own deduction of the categories, he formally retains both errors. (ibid., p 19)

Even though Kant's separation between understanding and sensibility was perhaps purely analytic, it nevertheless seems to have given continued life to the notion that they are externally related, a notion which was common both to the rationalists and the empiricists of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Be all this as it may, I still believe that Horkheimer and Adorno very accurately identified a basic metaphor for the way many people in Western societies tend to picture the relation between intelligence or understanding (Verstand) on the one hand, and sensation or sense experience (Sinnlichkeit) on the other. That is, one tends to see it as an external relation. What we receive through our senses is looked upon as ”data”, which are ”treated” in various ways by our conceptual system(s). This treatment is subconsciously modelled on the image of how raw materials are treated in our factories, to produce commodities. The result of these processes is knowledge or representations (Vorstellungen) of the ”outer world”. Indeed, knowledge is becoming more and more like a commodity in our capitalist economy, being ”packed” and ”sold” like any other marketable goods (cf. Bernstein 1992).

The intelluctualistic fallacy, or what Horkheimer and Adorno called ”Intellektualität der Wahrnehmeung”, is based upon this external relation between the senses and the understanding. Its consequence is a tendency to neglect the significance of more aesthetic modes of experience, as illustrated in the previous section. Such an ”anaesthetic” attitude is basic to cognitivistic approaches. A recent and extreme example of this stance is the connectionistic theory of Paul M Churchland (see for instance Churchland, 1992). Churchland even recommends that we employ ”the plasticity of perception” in order to replace

…the present old-fashioned framework in which, for example, we 'observe the western sky redden' with a more scientifically up-to-date framework in which we 'observe the wavelength distribution of incoming solar radiation shift towards the large wavelengths'. (Bogen & Woodward 1992, p 610)

From such and similar reasoning, Bogen and Woodward (ibid.) come to the conclusion that the distinction between what can be perceived by our senses and what cannot be so perceived ”corresponds to nothing of fundamental epistemological interest” (p 610).(5) Thus, sense experience as an epistemological factor is more or less abolished. The mechanistic stance of such a perspective is revealed by the strong trust in electronic data registrations, and the equally strong distrust of human sense experience:

…many advances in reliability come, not by improving perception at all (and still less by loading it with better theory), but rather by replacing perception entirely with mechanical detection and recording devices, or by redesigning the detection process so that perception plays a less central roll. (ibid., p 608)

The message seems to be, that the more we reduce the role of sense-perception in scientific research, the more reliable will be our knowledge. A more telling example of what Boisvert calls the ”Asomatic Attitude” and the ”Galilean purification” could hardly be found. What will happen, if such ideas are turned into starting points for educational theories of learning? I do not believe that such and similar conceptions are generally accepted, neither among teachers nor among educational thinkers. However, they are logical consequences of an exclusive and one-sided focus on concepts and concept formation.

Sense Experience Reduced To ”Sensory Data Input”

In cognitive theories of learning, the concepts of cognitive structure and schemata are often fundamental. In Head and Sutton (1985) one section is headed ”Cognitive Structures as Mosaics” (p 92). The authors write:

Structures are Built Up from Discrete Parts. We have many different experiences that we make sense of gradually, a bit here and a bit there as we meet them. On some occasions, links can be made between these bits so that a wider sense is made, incorporating previously separated understandings (superordinate learning, in Ausubel’s terms). (p 92)

Cognitive structures are built up from ”discrete parts”. These parts are the ”bits” of meaning that we make out of our (sense) experiences. By making ”links” between these bits, so that more extensive meanings are produced, a cognitive structure arises. Thereby, previously separated ”understandings” are united. The reasons that Head and Sutton want to liken these structures with mosaics are:

  1. each person idiosyncratically builds his own mosaic, and
  2. the tiles employed by the individual are limited in range both by the constraints of language and of personal experience. (p 93)

In the mosaic metaphor, the ”bits of sense” which the individual has produced from previous experiences correspond to the tiles, which the individual puts together according to his/her own mind (although presumably also in communication with others). However, all analogies have a flaw. Head and Sutton point out that the mosaic metaphor is lacking in two respects: it does not consider ”the fluidity of thought” and the ”multi-dimensional connections” between cognitive structures. But there is another weakness with this metaphor, which they do not mention: how do the tiles actually arise? In other words, given that we create structures out of ”bits of sense” from earlier experiences, how are these bits of sense produced? In the quote above, it is only said that we have many experiences ”that we gradually make sense of” – but how?

Cognitivistic discourse appears not to say very much about this basic level of meaning creation. The ”bits of sense” are portrayed as the result of a mental process, but how does this mental process actually occur? A few pages later Head and Sutton write:

Once the new concept has been successfully integrated […] into the individual’s existing, personal cognitive structure, it becomes part of that person’s repertoire of tools used to make sense of the world. (p 95)

Thus, the cognitive structures which have been built out of ”bits of sense” are in their turn used ”to make sense”, to create meaning. This reasoning would be circular if one did not assume that there are a kind of primitive, original cognitive structures that we use in our first sense-making acts. This is where the schema concept comes in. For instance, Rumelhart (1980) assumes that schematas may be broken down into subschemata, but somewhere this process of breaking down must stop:

…there must be a set of schemata that are elementary in the sense that they do not consist of a further breakdown in terms of subschemata. (p 40)

Rumelhart calls these elementary schematas for ”primitives”. However, the supposition that such primitives exist is only a logical consequence of the theory of schematas as a whole. It is an hypothesis ad hoc. Rumelhart gives no empirical evidence that such primitives exist,(6) he only says that ”there must be” such elementary schematas.(7)

Another aspect of the theory of schematas concern their ”filtering” and ”sorting” functions (Howard, 1987, p 34ff). Regarding their filtering function, Howard writes:

Schemata filter out data. We can only absorb a limited amount of information and need some way to extract what is most important for our purposes.[…] (ibid., p 38)

In this quote a different but equally interesting aspect of schematas is revealed: schematas deal with information. This information comes through our senses:

The mass of data coming through our senses has to be filtered, analysed and interpreted, for which a person needs schemata. (ibid.; p 37).

Schematas choose the information which is important for our purpose, analyse it and interpret it. But what is information, if not a form of meaning? Can one imagine information which does not carry any inherent meaning? However, it is precisely our schematas which are supposed to ”make sense”, i.e., create meaning out of our sense impressions. That which is ”conveyed” through our senses and ”treated” by our schematas or cognitive structures, is described as ”information”, or ”data”. Sometimes it is also called ”stimuli”. Howard (ibid.) seems to treat these three terms as synonyms. However, the concept of information can hardly be defined without (at least an implicit) reference to meaning. This goes even for some information theories’ purely mathematical definition of the concept. Such definitions view information in terms of order, but order is an elementary form of meaning. As for ”stimuli”, Howard writes:

There may be many different stimuli present and we may miss some key ones suggesting which schema should be selected. We may misinterpret certain stimuli and pick an inappropriate schema. (1987, p 36)

This quote evokes the following question: how can stimuli ”suggest” which schema to activate, if they do not already have an inherent sense?

In summary, whether what is coming ”into” our mind ”through” our senses is called ”information”, ”data” or ”stimuli”, it must be regarded as already carrying meaning, or ”making sense” to us. However, this basic level of meaning creation is neglected and left unexplained within cognitivistic approaches to learning.

Thus, there is a deeper, more fundamental level of experience which tends to be glossed over by cognitivistic discourse. This level concerns the actual change of the structures of schematas. Following Piaget, such a change is often described in terms of adaptation: the phenomenon is approached by a set of schematas which constitute an anticipated experience. If the actual experience does not conform to this anticipation, the schematas which constituted the anticipation are accordingly restructured. One has then learnt to approach the phenomenon with a new set of schematas, i.e., with other anticipations. But there is something missing in this picture: how does the person know that what (s)he experiences is not in accord with his/her anticipations, if this knowledge can only be constructed with schematas that are not yet available to him or her? If all experience is made sense of by schematas already existing in the individual, this question cannot be answered. At least not as long as one assumes that schematas are ”encoded representations” in the mind for things in the outer world (Bickhard, 1995).(8)

The Phenomenological Alternative

In phenomenological analyses of perception and knowing, above all in those carried out by Merleau-Ponty (1992), the conception of the relation between our conceptual systems and our sense experience is very different from that modelled on industrial production, as suggested by Horkheimer and Adorno. A good part of Merleau-Ponty's work is devoted to overcoming the dualistic and artificial (but fatal) separation between subject and object, man and world. His writings are extensive and complex, and I do not claim to expound the whole and true intent of his work. There is, however, one paragraph in one of his books (Merleau-Ponty 1964), which, to my mind, captures the problem and suggests its solution in a particularly interesting way. It is when he defines the meaning of ”the primacy of perception”, which is…

…that the experience of perception is our presence at the moment when things, truths, values are constituted for us; that perception is a nascent logos; that it teaches us, outside all dogmatism, the true conditions of objectivity itself, that it summons us to the tasks of knowledge and action. (p 25)

Many comments could be made on these few lines of pregnant thought. Concerning the question of the relation between concepts and percepts, we may note first of all the expression that ”perception is a nascent logos”. ”Logos” is meaning, order, structure, knowledge. Perception is thus knowledge in the process of being born. It has not yet come into daylight, i.e., into the clarity of a fully awake consciousness. Thus, perception as such, as pure sense experience, is not yet fully developed knowledge, but it is nevertheless "pregnant" with meaning.(9) The kind of perception that Merleau-Ponty describes here has been called physiognomic (Colaizzi, 1978; McConville, 1978). According to McConville,

…this foundational level of perception has an immanent form of consciousness: it is consciousness which is not yet clear, lucid, self-aware, and objectifying. Characteristically, it is opaque and ambiguous, and lived bodily rather than known cognitively. (ibid., p 105)

Physiognomic perception is, according to McConville, wholistic and synesthetic. It does not restrict itself to one sensory modality at a time. In physiognomic perception, we "see" what a thing sounds like if we strike it, or what it feels like if we touch it, etc. These are examples of the inherent structures of such perception. However, in everyday life, another kind of perception dominates our experience. McConville calls it ”categorial” perception, whereas Merleau-Ponty uses the terms ”empirical” or ”second-order” perception:

There is an empirical or second-order perception, the one which we exercise at every moment, and which conceals from us the former basic phenomenon, because it is loaded with earlier acquisitions and plays, so to speak, on the surface of being. (Merleau-Ponty, 1992, p 43)

He goes on to describe this kind of perception as regulated by the pragmatic needs of everyday life, where we simply identify the general meaning of objects while our practical intention is directed elsewhere. In contrast to this "play on the surface of being", there is a more basic kind of perception:

But when I contemplate an object with the sole intention of watching it exist and unfold its riches before my eyes, then it ceases to be an allusion to a general type, and I become aware that each perception re-enacts on its own account the birth of intelligence and has some element of creative genius about it: in order that I may recognize the tree as a tree, it is necessary that, beneath this familiar meaning, the momentary arrangement of the visible scene should begin all over again, as on the very first day of the vegetable kingdom, to outline the individual idea of this tree. (ibid., p 43-44; my emphasis)

Contemplating something in order to watch its riches unfold – this could be called the intentional cultivation of physiognomic perception. It involves attentive listening to all the qualities inherent in sense experience. In the quote above, such perception takes on the pristine character of the first day of creation: it is seeing as if for the first time, without any of the formerly acquired, familiar meanings interposing themselves as a veil between consciousness and its object. If we possessed this quality of awareness more often, we would certainly not feel alienated from the world and from Nature to the extent that we generally do. Our presence at the moment when truths or values are constituted for us is rare. Yet, I believe that such presence is the basic characteristic of genuine learning and radical insight. At such moments, new conceptions are born, whether new to the whole of mankind, or only to one particular individual.

The phenomenological distinction between categorial and physiognomic perception has a certain parallel in information-processing constructivist terminology, where one distinguishes between a ”top-down” and a ”bottom-up” processing of sensory ”input” (Rumelhart & Ortony, 1977). A top-down processing imposes a pre-established schematic structure on the incoming ”data”. A bottom-up processing, on the other hand,

…occurs when aspects of the input directly suggest or activate schemata which correspond to them and when these schemata themselves activate or suggest dominating schemata of which they are constituents.(ibid., p 128)

Apart from the theoretical difficulties already noted in connection with schema theories of this kind, the existential significance of the radical difference between categorial and physiognomic perception is lost in cognitivistic discourses. However, education has to do with human existence. Therefore, its practice should be informed by theoretical visions in which existential dimensions are not neglected, but, on the contrary, made explicit.

It is said about Kaspar Hauser that in the beginning of his association with people – just after he was discovered – he could distinguish between apple- and peartrees merely by listening to the sound that the wind made in their leaves. His senses were extremely alert and sensitive. However, he gradually lost this capacity as he learnt to speak, write, and assimilated other knowledge. His own writings are a good source for investigating the relations between the pre-social, ”silent” and purely sense-perceptual world, and the socialised world of categorial perceptions that we generally inhabit as grown ups (cf. Mollenhauer 1985).

Educational Consequences

According to Sperry (1983), the human brain functions as one whole, where holistic thinking in images and emotional processes play as significant roles as logical and mathematical analysis. However, in schools only the latter tend to be valued and evaluated, which hinders a development of the whole brain.

Apart from brain physiologists like Sperry, it has been the argument also of some educational thinkers that our conventional forms of schooling are rather poor from the point of view of sense experience and active, conscious use of our senses (Wagenschein 1965, Caraher 1982, Dale 1990, Egan 1988, Jardine 1990, Martin 1974, Murphy 1985). It seems that most teaching and instruction today takes place on the grounds of what Martin (1974) calls ”the spectating experience”, in which ”ideas form the framework within which the thing is fitted”. He contrasts this to the ”participative” mode of experience, in which ”ideas vivify the thing because the thing initiates and controls every idea” (ibid., p 93; my emphasis). The spectating experience rests upon the implicit assumption that our relation to things can only be of an external nature. Our ideas and concepts then function like the Kantian categories, bringing order to the world from without. Order and meaning are ”imposed” on phenomena by the thinking of human beings. The world in itself has no order, no meaning. This more or less subconscious epistemological conception is presumably at the bottom of a large portion of teaching and learning today. It makes for an aesthetically poor knowledge formation, because the elements of sense experience are either disregarded, or only attended to as a passive ”material”, to be structured and put into order by intellectual concepts.

An aesthetically rich knowledge formation, on the other hand, may be said to arise when we ”let the thing think” in us:

Only then will the thing be a thing in its thingliness, a being-Being. Only then will the depth dimension of our world come to presence explicitly in our experience. (Martin 1974, p 92)

This kind of attentive learning, which Martin explains with reference to the philosophy of Heidegger, has, I would claim, its roots in physiognomic perception. ”The thing thinks” in the sense that logos, the meaning which thinking grasps in the thing, is not imposed from without, but born out of the sense experiences that the thing gives rise to in us. This mode of ”thinking Being” is not something ”extra”, without educational or even philosophical significance; ”it is the ground of all other modes, of all experiences” (ibid., p 98).

In his analysis of ”the eye” and ”seeing”, Wulf (1984) distinguishes between two modes of seeing, which both originally and spontaneously belong to the eye: a checking-controlling mode, and a receiving-surrendering mode. These two modes of looking at the world have gradually fallen apart from each other during the history of Western culture, Wulf argues. In Science, and in socio-political institutions of power and control (cf. Foucault 1977), the controlling mode of seeing has become dominant, linked to the idea of a neutral, impersonal observational subject. The other mode of seeing is explored and applied by our media, and sometimes also in the arts. Here the subjective and emotional experiences of looking at sensational images and objects are intentionally cultivated and/or exploited.(10)

As Wulf correctly observes, Johann W Goethe was one of the few (and forgotten) people in the history of Science, who tried to establish and uphold a balance between the two modes of seeing even in the scientific study of Nature. Goethe’s approach to the study of Nature actually has some central features in common with phenomenology (Heinemann, 1934). His idea of ”das anschaunde Denken” - perhaps translatable as ”thoughtful observation” - implies that there is a sensitive (and highly cultivated) surrender to what the eyes ”give” in terms of sense-experience, and at the same time an imaginative (but also sharp and clear) conceptual interpretation of the same experience. That is, thinking and seeing go together all the way, they are never separated.

Bortoft (1996) has further explored Goethe’s theory of knowledge and Science in the context of present day phenomenology and hermeneutics. He comments on Kant’s saying that reason ”must adopt as its guide…that which it has itself put into nature” when researching the natural world:

Thus nature is compelled to provide answers to the questions we set, which means to be frameworked in our conceptual scheme. (p 240, emphasis in original)

The Goethean approach to nature is the opposite, because

…the organizing idea in cognition comes from the phenomenon itself, instead of from the self-assertive thinking of the investigating scientist. It is not imposed on nature but received from nature. (ibid., p 240)

This organising idea is the ”intrinsic necessity” of the phenomenon and it ”comes to expression in the activity of thinking when this consists in trying to think the phenomenon concretely” (ibid,. p 240). To think concretely means that ”my perception itself is a thinking, and my thinking a perception”, as Goethe said (quoted by Bortoft, p 240). Thus, Goethe’s Science is a kind of hermeneutic phenomenology of Nature, where phenomena are understood in terms of themselves, not in terms of imposed ”schematas”. It perfectly illustrates what Martin calls the participative mode of experience, in which ”the thing initiates and controls every idea”.

The implications of such an approach to the study of Nature for teaching and learning have been explicated by Rumpf (1991; 1993). With reference to a Swiss Physics teacher, Peter Stettler, he quotes the collective summary of the experiences of a class of 8th grade students of an experiment with colour formation, informed by Goethe’s Farbenlehre:

Dann haben wir einen weißen dünnen Draht ins Wasser geschmissen. Wenn wir diesen Draht genau von oben anschauen, erscheint er uns weiß. Senken wir den Kopf ein wenig, so hebt sich auch der Draht auf dem schwarzen Boden. Gleichzeitig färbt er sich am oberen Rand blau und am unterem Rand gelb bis rot. Je weiter man den Kopf senkt, desto breiter und deutlicher werden die Farbstreifen. Selstsam ist, daß diese Farben nur an den Rändern sind. Die Farben gehen schön gleichmäßig ineinander über. Geht man mit den Augen auf die Höhe des Wasserspiegels hinunter, so wird das Weiß des Drahtes zusammengedrückt, das heißt, er wird ganz von Farben überdeckt. Es geht so weit, bis das Gelb und das Blau einander berühren. Ganz gute Beobachter entdecken einen grünen Schimmer darin. Diese Farben erinnern stark an einen Regenbogen. (Stettler, as quoted in Rumpf 1991, p 322)

One most probable consequence of such attentive observation and manifold sense experience in learning about natural phenomena is the awareness of the difference between descriptions and interpretations. As Abercrombie (1960, p 85) has observed, students often do not distinguish clearly between descriptions and interpretations of phenomena, yet this distinction is of fundamental importance to Science. This may be taken as an illustration of how categorial perception neglects the potentials of sense experience. As Abercrombie expresses it,

…a conclusion about ‘meaning’ had limited the perception of the observers, causing them to ignore information which did not fit the ordained pattern, the chosen schema. (ibid., p 88)

Scientific classification actually depends upon aesthetic judgement, Abercrombie maintains:

Judgement of the suitability of a system of classification is presumably based on the perception, not necessarily conscious, of a pattern of correlated features, and seems to involve the same kind of processes of æsthetic judgement. (ibid., p 118)

Classifications are not a superficial aspect of Science. They can lead to new discoveries. When Newlands arranged the material elements known at his time according to atomic weight instead of by their initial letters, because it seemed more appropriate to him, he prepared the ground for the discovery of further elements (ibid., p 118). Thus, to constitute a new classification system is not a trivial thing, and it demands a certain æsthetic feeling. At the same time, once constituted and established, such systems become the basis of categorial perceptions, which are the opposite of æsthetic awareness.

The importance of attending to the aesthetic dimensions of Science in teaching has been argued for by Flannery (1992). However, her focus is on the more personal and informal side of scientific research. This is fine as far as it goes, but the Goethean approach, which I have shortly sketched above, goes one step further. It brings aesthetics into the formal and objective aspect of the learning process. More precisely, it establishes an internal, dialectic relation between the personal, subjective aspect, and the formal and objective one.


As noted in the introduction, all inquiry has a purpose, or objective. What then is the objective of a phenomenological approach to education, as opposed to a cognitivistic one? In some texts on Science Education one can sense a certain hidden agenda, viz. to replace original, spontaneously formed ”schematas” with those which Science has established as more correct and ”true”. For instance, Gunstone, White, & Fensham (1988) write:

Research on the effectiveness of a teaching program must therefore not be satisfied in testing for acquisition of new knowledge, but must also ensure that other beliefs have been discarded, a much more difficult measurement task. (p 522; my emphasis.)

In the phenomenological approach to learning, there is no notion of schematas having to be replaced, or even ”developed”. Experience speaks, and inquiry tries to interpret the voice of experience from different angles, with different interests and purposes. The voice of Science is one of many such voices, and children should certainly gradually come to learn to listen to it, even appreciate it. But interpretations other than what is scientifically established as ”correct” must also be allowed to exist and to speak, because it is recognised that one does not know beforehand which interpretations are conducive to the flourishing of a good, fully developed human life. For, as Aristotle said, a human being who thinks well and perceives well, lives well (Oksenberg Rorty, 1980). However, our computerised ”information-society” runs the risk of producing an even greater bias towards purely conceptual cognition, supporting both Galilean purifications and asomatic attitudes. Our sense-perceptual capacities tend to be neglected, and wither from lack of exercise. This, in the end, would mean a lopsided development of the possibilities of human life and experience.

What I have tried to show in my arguments above is that the formal theories of knowledge which have hitherto often been taken as starting points for systematic educational thinking seem to have a content and an objective which is less in accord with this general educational endeavour: to contribute to an all-rounded human development of the growing generation. I have focused on the notion of an external relation between ”concept” and ”percept” as an illustration of this thesis. A central concept emerging from this notion is that of ”sense data” as the ”raw material” which is being ”processed” by our mental conceptual system(s). But, as Hamlyn (1961) has pointed out,

…the notion of a sense-datum was introduced in the first place to fulfil certain logical or epistemological requirements, and these requirements have always seemed more fundamental to sense-datum theorists than the requirement that the notion should be given content by reference to the facts of experience. (p 174; my emphasis)

In phenomenology, on the other hand, it is precisely these ”facts of experience” which are put into focus, elucidated, and interpreted in order that we may better understand them, and ourselves. This is particularly the case with the non-foundational phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, who, unlike Husserl, did not have the ambition to formulate any ”absolute certainties”.(11) The objective of phenomenological reflection is to elucidate and clarify our experience of knowledge and learning, through thinking, feeling, perception, sensation, imagination, or whatever. Such inquiry takes as back to our immediate lifeworld, the ultimate ground out of which all genuine, human learning must grow. Let me finish by quoting from Richard Lewis’ book on ”the imaginative life of childhood” (1998), as a telling example of a more aesthetic, phenomenological and existential approach to teaching:

For the young child, stillness is the advent of something about to happen, about to be spoken. I explore stillness with children when I teach by holding up a leaf found on the ground. Without speaking I move the leaf up to the light. If I ask, ”What might the leaf be thinking?” very few children doubt the sincerity of my question. Most assume that any object, if isolated from the complexity of life, can and does have thoughts. An inborn ability to give feelings to non-human things helps us early to reason that thought is not limited to ourselves. If there are thoughts in a leaf, it must want to speak. Language becomes a means of liberating the silence in things, and bringing them closer to what we want them to say – and what we wish to say through them. Our mythic tradition is based on a human ability to bring alive the languages existing in creatures, plants, moons, suns, and stars – any and all things outside of ourselves. (pp 4-5)


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1. By ”aesthetic” I mean a point of view which puts the qualities inherent in sense experiences of all kinds into focus. I use the term in its original sense, as referring to reflections on sense experience in general, not just dealing with ”art” and ”beauty” (Baumgarten, 1954). The 18th century philosopher Baumgarten inaugurated the discipline of aesthetics as a complement to that of logic. If logic is the description and evaluation of the processes of thinking, aesthetics was to be the description and evaluation of the processes of sense perception. These are not the exakt words used by Baumgarten, but it is the meaning I gather from reading his text. See Schweizer (1973) for a similar interpretation.

2. To say that the main interest of Science is to understand the ”language” of Nature may be an overgeneralisation. The actual interest behind particular scientific investigations probably has to be studied from case to case. For instance, the immediate motive behind Newton’s optics appears to have been the desire to make more effective telescopes (Böhme, 1980). Nevertheless, in a general sense, Galileo’s claim to have discovered the true language of Nature, viz., Mathematics, seems to be approved of by most scientists.

3. Naturally, there are various forms of constructivism, see for instance Steffe and Gale (1995). Here I disregard social constructivism and refer only to those types dealing with mental processes within the individual.

4. In the B-edition, the corresponding statement is rendered as follows, in English translation (1993, p 30):

For how is it possible that the faculty of knowledge should be awakened into exercise otherwise than by means of objects which affect our senses, and partly of themselves produce representations, partly rouse our powers of understanding into activity, to compare, to connect, or to separate these, and so to convert the raw material of our sense impressions into a knowledge of objects, which is called experience. (my emphasis)

5. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, once said that if the materialistic world view inherent in Natural Science will continue to dominate our culture for some generations more,

…so wird wirklich das Rot der Rose verschwinden. Die Menschen werden wirklich die kleinen grauen Atome draußen sich schwingen sehen, die Atomwirbel, nicht, weil der Mensch sie sehen muß, weil sie da sind, sondern weil er sich selber dazu bereitet hat, sie zu sehen. (quoted in Suchantke 1998, p 101)

It seems that Churchland and his adherents are doing their best to make Steiner’s prophecy come true. The psychological consequences of this for our human being-in-the-world can be imagined by reading Boss’s (1978) description of some modern neuroses. He tells about one client, who was suffering from depression, and who could see no beauty in the flowers of a blossoming cherry tree, but only a swarm of molecules.

6. At least not in the text quoted here.

7. Bickhard (1995) delivers a critique of some basic notions of constructivism, which is very relevant to my arguments here. Among other things, he notes:

Usually, an atomic element version is postulated for representation […] in which the presumed grounding encoding elements are taken as the atomic encodings (encodings of basic features, or basic facts, perhaps) – the atomic encodings out of which all other representations are constructed, and in terms of which all other representations are defined. (p 233)

8. Bickhard’s argument is similar but more extensive than mine. He also proposes that the ”radical constructivism” of von Glasersfeld avoids this logical incoherence of ”encodingism”, because it completely abandons the notion that our knowledge constructions correspond to things in the outer world. Criterias of truth are replaced by criterias of viability and adaptivity. In spite of Bickhard’s saying the contrary, to me this view implies the ultimate isolation and alienation of human consciousness from the world it inhabits. It is also doubful whether von Glasersfeld’s constructivism will ever solve its own logical incoherences, which have been very accurately pointed out by Suchting (1992).

9. The metaphor of pregnancy is used by Merleau-Ponty himself (1968).

10. According to Wulf, Kant contributed somewhat to the establishment of this cold, dispassionate scientific observer. In the preface to the second edition of KdrV, Kant says about the ”natural philosophers”:

They learned that reason only perceives that which it produces after its own design: that it must not be content to follow, as it were, in the leading-strings of nature, but must proceed in advance with principles of judgment according to unvarying laws, and compel nature to reply to its questions.[…] Reason must approach nature with the view, indeed, of receiving information from it, not, however, in the character of a pupil, who listens to all that his master chooses to tell him, but in that of a judge, who compels the witnesses to reply to those questions which he himself thinks fit to propose.(1993, p 13,14 [BXII,BXIII])

11. As Madison (1990) puts it:

…the rediscovery of the Lebenswelt underlying the objectifying thought of science furnishes us with the means of overcoming modern dualism. This is precisely the lesson Merleau-Ponty drew from Husserl. However, Husserl’s (never fulfilled) aim was to go on to show how the Lebenswelt is itself the product of a constituting Ego, and this is something Merleau-Ponty refused to accept. (p 60)

This document was added to the Education-line database 02 November 1998