Aconversation withMax vanManen on phenomenology in itsoriginal sense

In this special issue, Nursing and Health Sciences shares arange of qualitative research studies undertaken by newand experienced researchers in the field of nursing andhealth sciences. This editorial is presented as an interviewwith Max van Manen, Emeritus Professor in ResearchMethods, Pedagogy, and Curriculum Studies at the Departmentof Secondary Education at the University of Alberta andAdjunct Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada. Maxvan Manen is renowned internationally for his extensive works:books, papers, presentations, workshops, and courses on phe-nomenology, theory, methodology, and practice. As noted byJanice Morse, in the Developing Qualitative Inquiry series, heis the world’s champion of phenomenological theory and meth-odology in education and the human sciences.

Max has been involved in phenomenology since he was anadolescent in the Netherlands where, at school, he read worksby Sartre, Camus, Bollnow, and other related philosophical,phenomenological, and literary authors fashionable at thattime. He says, “as a youngman I had quite an interest in philos-ophy and phenomenological texts that influenced my laterworking life in teaching and curriculum studies and researchmethods.”As a university professor he soon offered a graduatecourse in qualitative phenomenological research methods withan emphasis on phenomenological writing, and aimed to helpstudents to understand phenomenology in its inceptual(originary) philosophical sense.Max’s clear, articulate, and pas-sionate expositions of phenomenological methodology and thephenomenalities of lived experiences are memorable to thosewho have heard him speak or have read any of his texts.

In this interview, Isabel Higgins and Pamela van der Rietinvited Max to consider the advice he might give to graduatestudents practicing phenomenology. We asked this of Max withconcerns about what is currently being reported as phenomeno-logical research and how to increase the depth of understandingand engagement that is required by researchers to practice phe-nomenology in its original sense and to differentiate it fromother forms of qualitative research.

In the introductory pages of his 2014 book, Phenomenologyof Practice, Max says:

This text is an invitation to openness, and an invitation ofopenness to phenomenologies of lived meaning, themeaning of meaning, and the originary sources of meaning.The phrase, “phenomenology of practice” refers to thekinds of inquires that address and serve the practices ofprofessional practitioners as well as the quotidian practicesof everyday life. For example, a thoughtful understanding ofthe meaningful aspects of “having a conversation” may beof value to professional practitioners as well as anyoneinvolved in the conversational relations of everyday living.

My personal inspiration for the name “phenomenology ofpractice” lies in the work of scholars such as MartinusLangeveld, Jan Hendrik van den Berg, FrederikBuytendijk, Henricus Rümke, and Hans Linchoten whowere academics as well as clinicians and practitioners in thefields of pedagogy, education, psychology, psychiatry, andhealth science… This phenomenology of practice is meantto refer to the practice of phenomenological research andwriting that reflects on and in practice, and prepares forpractice… A phenomenology of practice does not aim fortechnicalities and instrumentalities―rather, it serves tofoster and strengthen an embodied ontology, epistemology,and axiology of thoughtful and tactful action. (p. 15)


Well, to begin, phenomenology is of course one type of inquiryand then there are many others within the qualitative domain.Because phenomenology has been my life interest, my pointof view is that phenomenology is quite different from mostother inquiries. Nearly every day I receive emails from peoplefrom literally all over the world. They ask questions about theirprojects or about methodological issues because they are writ-ing a dissertation or they are involved in some research project.


For example, yesterday I received an inquiry regarding the im-portance and role of “data saturation” for a phenomenologicaldissertation study. Data saturation is a well-known issue inqualitative research: how long do you go with your data explo-ration in order to get to the point of saturation, when no morenewmeaning is discoverable? The method of data saturation isbased on the idea that once the responses (interview or writtentexts) to a research question are saturated and no longer yieldanything new then you do not have to pursue the qualitativemeaning any further. So, this person said in her email: “I havea feeling that data saturation does not go well with phenome-nology, but I am not quite sure.”Of course, questions with regard to issues such as data satu-

ration are related to validity [or trustworthiness in qualitativeresearch]; and, indeed, this practice of saturating the data doesnot make sense when doing phenomenology. It may be helpful

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in other types of qualitative inquiries, but phenomenologicalunderstanding is not a matter of filling up some kind of qualita-tive container until it is full or of excavating a data site of mean-ing until there is nothing left to excavate. The idea that youkeep looking until you have saturated your material, until yourdata are saturated, does not make sense because there is nosaturation point with respect to phenomenological meaning.In phenomenological inquiry, you open up a question, whichbecomes bottomless –so it does not make sense to say thatyou caught all the meaning or meaningfulness of a humanphenomenon. Every phenomenological topic can alwaysbe taken up again and explored for dimensions of originarymeaning and aspects of meaningfulness (see van Manen,2014, pp. 39-41, 52-54). The whole idea of looking for thesame kind of content, like in content analysis – looking,looking, looking for certain words etc., until nothing newcomes – this does not make sense to phenomenology.But interestingly, the contemporary phenomenological

philosopher Jean-Luc Marion (2002) also uses the notionof “saturation” in the phrase of “saturated phenomena;”however, in quite a different sense. In fact, Marion’sapproach to the idea of saturated phenomena has nothingwhatsoever to do with the qualitative technique of datasaturation. His idea is much more profound ontologically.Marion argues that some human phenomena are so satu-rated with excess meaning and intuition that an eidetic ororiginary phenomenological analysis of the meaning of thisphenomenon is not really possible (by means of the reduc-tion). Marion gives the example of phenomena such as thelived experience of an “event,” an “icon,” and the sacredexperience of “revelation” when there is such depth or com-plexity of excess meaning that you will never be able todescribe the essence or meaning of this phenomenon. Forexample, some saturated phenomena may be invisible, suchas the latent meaning of an “event” that only will show itselfmuch later in life.In my book Pedagogical Tact, Knowing What to Do When

You Don’t Know What To Do (van Manen, 2015), I tell [of]such [an] event: At a pleasant social evening some friends are sit-ting around talking about a symphony orchestra that is playing intown. Edward, a retired businessman, expresses his admirationfor the concertmaster. Some other people join in and talk aboutthe challenges of being a successful musician. Then Edwardtakes the floor again: You know, this is a memory that hasobsessed me my entire life. Until recently I have not been ableto talk about it with anyone because it is so hurtful. Even as anadult, sharing it would have brought me to tears. When I wassixteen years old, after studying violin for a number of years,I realized that I could never really be good enough. I justlacked something. I could not really excel. So I decided to giveit up. My father was very unhappy about my decision. He triedto change my mind. But I refused. I told him that I knew that Iwould never be able to play the instrument properly. Angrily,my father took the violin frommy hands. He hung it on thewallof the living room and said, “From now on, whenever you lookat this violin, youwill knowwhat a failure you are inmy eyes.” Ifelt horrible. After several weeks my mother took the violindown from the wall. She felt sorry for me. But the empty spotcould not be taken down. It haunted me: I was a failure in my

father’s eyes. The memory of that moment has troubled meall my life. Therefore, I have always told my own kids that theyshould do whatever they feel is right for them and not whatthey may feel I expect from them. My father never took hiswords back about me being a failure, even though eventuallyI became the successful head of a large company. But now, atthe age of eighty-two, I finally feel that I have dealt with mysecret pain or, at least, that I can share it here with you.

Edward’s story shows how the latency of this event (a peda-gogical moment) can affect us for the rest of our lives, whetherwe are consciously aware of it or not. But obviously theeventiality of the event is relationally, emotionally, and tempo-rally saturated with meaning that may only gradually unfold(see van Manen, 2014, pp. 191- 193). In some sense the satu-ratedmeaning of this event was still not describable by Edwardafter some 60years. Thus, the phenomenality of some event inour childhoodmay still not be graspable [intelligible] until laterin life, when we are beginning to discern its ontological signifi-cance. Other saturated phenomena such as an experience of an“icon” or a spiritual “revelation”may be too enigmatically andexcessively charged with meaning that simply seems inexpress-ible or resist[s] description. In his 2002 book, In Excess: Studiesof Saturated Phenomena, Marion describes this phenomenaldimension of the self-givenness of a phenomenon. Other phe-nomenologists have subsequently argued that, actually, allhuman phenomena are in a sense saturated with meaning, andtherefore inexhaustible to a final and determinable analysis.


For new students to phenomenology, my main aim is always totry to show first what is unique about phenomenological in-quiry, the quest for meaningfulness and originary meaning ofhuman existence and lived or living experience.What phenom-enology tries to understand is this or that lived experience orevent. Pre-reflective or lived experience is the moment orinstant of the “Now” – we are always in the “Now,” and yetwhen we reflectively try to capture the “moment of the Now”we are always too late. So, in a sense, we are always in theNow (how couldwe not be?), but in another sense we are neverin the Now. The presence of the Now is always absent to ourgrasp. This realization is initially rather off-putting and confus-ing for students. But they gradually begin to realize that thiselusiveness regarding the lived meaning of human existence isexactly what makes phenomenological inquiry so wondrous.

So, in the early part of my teachings, in my course on phe-nomenology, I try to explore the basic idea of phenomenologyand the lived experience description – like something that hashappened to you: like meeting someone and forgetting theirname; feeling sick when getting up in the morning; writing anemail message; staying in a hotel room; riding a wave whilesurfing; having a[n] eye-to-eye conversationwith a friend; read-ing a story digitally versus reading it in print, and so forth. Anyexperience we have in our everyday lives can be a phenomeno-logical topic and so, in the research course, we do variouswriting exercises to produce an experiential description: writinga description as a moment of the now – not a generalization,but a description of a specific and unique moment of ourexperience. We try to be very particular and very concrete so

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that [in] the “moment” is what you try to describe. But, ofcourse, a moment can have the duration of a second, a minute,an hour, or even months or years.


In the introduction to thePhenomenology of Practice, I confesswhy I have always been fascinated with phenomenology: apreoccupation with meaning and things we may wonder about– common and exotic, small and immense. Many of us areimpressed with the beauty of the things, the wonder of the uni-verse, the enigma of the big bang and what was before, themystery of dark matter, and such wondrous and amazing phe-nomena. For me, phenomenology is like that. It is the oppositeof religion, which tries to come to a final answer of the divinemeaning of things. Phenomenology does the exact opposite.It also deals with questions of meaning and meaningfulnessbut the questions becomemore andmore troublesome, deeper,and more fascinating and yet in some sense, for me, they havethe function of something deeply human. Phenomenologyalways orients to meaning, livedmeaning, and I can never haveenough of this quest as exemplified in the great writings ofauthors such as Hannah Arendt, Jean-Luc Marion, MichelSerres, Alphonso Lingis, Bernard Stiegler, Jean-Luc Nancy,andmany others. To come to grasp the sense of what friendshipmeans, a real conversation, or what love is, or profound emo-tions of affect – this lies almost in the realm of the spiritual,the enigma of the human spirit.


The importance of writing in an experiential way

Yes, it is important, for example, to understandmethodologicallywhat “reflection” means. You have to select your sources care-fully. I am currently reading a book on reflection by the out-standing phenomenologist Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmannwho was a friend of Eugen Fink and a personal assistant ofHeidegger. According to von Herrmann it is not the cognitive(in a conceptual or theoretic sense) that you need to get at butphenomenology concerns the a-theoretic, it concerns the livingdimensions of our existence.And sowhen you try to get at thingscognitively or theoretically (and for von Herrmann (2013) reflec-tion is already theoretic) you make this living sensibility into anobject, you objectify. He argues that here is where Heidegger de-parted from Husserl. For Husserl, reflection on consciousnesswas his big thing becauseHusserl’s phenomenology aims tomakea phenomenon (lived experience or element of consciousness)transparent. And, thus, you describe the whatness, eidos, or es-sence of something. But for Heidegger, what something “is” ulti-mately eludes and hides itself. What “appears” is a revealing anda concealing in terms of meaning and so this author is trying to

show that with Heidegger; you have to begin to see that it isnot reflection that is Heidegger’s method. Instead, Heideggertries to come to “understanding” of the moment – this is thehermeneutic: not to make experience into a thing or an object,but understanding something as a livingmoment in its livingness.So not objectifying, theoretical reflection but reflection

that ponders, muses, contemplates on the meaning ofthings and on the how of meaning is the hermeneutic ofdescriptive-interpretive phenomenology. It is hard to explicatethis reflective method (Besinnung in German language)because we are so used to making things into objects and toobjectifying things. It is philosophically impossible not to dothis: as soon as we think, reflect, we name the phenomenonand it becomes a “thing.”For example, forgetting someone’s name; everyone knows

this experience. There is so much meaning in this: the ideaof the name (what does it name?), recognizing someone(what dowe recognize in the other?), remembering or forgettingsomeone’s name. What happens in moments like this? But stillwe make a concept out of the experience: “name forgetting.” Itis a concept now, instead of an event or a happening. But whatphenomenology tries to do is to understand whilst it is happen-ing as a moment, and this makes phenomenology different fromany other form of qualitative inquiry. Phenomenology tries tounderstand something as an event, and this makes it differentfrommost forms of inquiry. Phenomenology tries not to objectifywhile aiming to describe the livingness of experience or the livingmoment of the experience. Indeed, you try to avoid objectifyingand yet this is what we constantly do. This is the challenge ofwriting in an experiential way, an evocative analytical way, andnot a theoretical reflective analytical way. When doing phenom-enology, it is the lived meanings that we want to get at.


On the one hand I don’t care how you name your researchmethod, as long as it is a good study – as long as I am fascinatedby it. On the other hand, it does matter what you call it becauseresearchers confuse things so terribly, they intermesh ideas thatshould not be put side by side because the ideas are based onvery different domains of inquiry and on very different assump-tions. Then they thematize – one of the most used and abusedwords in qualitative inquiry is “thematic analysis.” And unfor-tunately for many graduate students, their research themestend to become terribly superficial, simply re-phrasing whatsomeone has already told them.If a study claims to be phenomenological, then it should

not be something else, like interpretive psychological anal-ysis, ethnography, grounded theory, narrative inquiry, orgeneral qualitative description; however worthwhile theseother methodologies may indeed be. Phenomenology doesnot aim to explicate meanings that are relevant to under-standing cultures or social groups. Phenomenology doesnot aim to develop theory. So methods texts, that offerprocedural interpretive phenomenological analysis – withstep one, step two, step three, and so on – do not makesense for original phenomenology. Procedural methodsmay be acceptable for general qualitative and psychologi-cal methodologies in a wider sense, but not for a of

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phenomenology of practice as it is exemplified by authorssuch as van den Berg, Linschoten, Buytendijk, Langeveld,and many others.Reading only secondary or poorly conceived tertiary sources

may be very misleading, leading to the practice of misquotingprimary texts, so that original ideas are watered down, distorted,and sometimes represented rather ludicrous. Phenomenology isrooted in philosophy. The phenomenological researcher doesnot have to become a professional philosopher, but he or sheneeds to develop an understanding of the philosophical sourcesof phenomenology and, therefore, one needs also and impor-tantly to read those primary texts that relate to one’s researchfocus and interest.


This conversation with Max van Manen was largely driven bythe advice hemight give to new students and researchers aboutqualitative research and the practice of phenomenology. In thisconversation he provides several lessons. He shows us howphenomenology is a type of qualitative research and calls uponnew students and researchers to understand, in an originalsense, the methodological distinctions and their differences;their unique epistemologies and ontologies. On the notion of“data saturation,” he highlights the issue as important in allother forms of qualitative research; however, it is inappropriatein phenomenology. On a description of lived experience – thesearch for meaning and writing experientially – he invites usto consider phenomenology’s uniqueness: as wonder, as thesearch for meaning of “lived experience;” the exploration ofhuman existence directly, as primal pre-reflective experience,as life as we live through it, in the moment, in the now. It isthe search and explication of “living meanings.” To practicephenomenology, one needs to be guided by an understandingof the philosophical methodology of phenomenology, to returnto primary sources, not secondary or tertiary sources, in orderto ensure the assumptions that underpin the inquiry are con-gruent. To do otherwise is not phenomenology, and thematicanalysis is not a simple rephrasing from another source.This special edition of Nursing and Health Sciences offers

a range of qualitative descriptive papers. A number of thearticles attend to the vulnerability of human experience ina variety of situations and contexts: maternal age-specific

risks, hypertension, children with cancer, transient ischaemicattack, gastric cancer, and the lived experience of delirium.As researchers in nursing and health care we have a needand desire to understand human experiences, to seek outnew knowledge, in order to be able to make a difference tothe patients in our care.

Max van Manen provides readers with insights that will notonly be valuable to novice researchers practicing phenomenol-ogy, but also to researchers concerned with methodology andqualitative research. Ultimately, his advice, to ensure a deepunderstanding of the roots or primary sources of the methodol-ogy being used, needs to be heeded by all qualitative re-searchers as it impacts the quality and trustworthiness ofqualitative research.

We wish you well and a bright year ahead for 2016.Max van Manen, Isabel Higgins, and Pamela van der Riet


We would like to thank Max van Manen for generously givinghis time. His passion for phenomenology and the wonders ofthe lived world are truly inspiring.

Max van Manen, PhD, EdD Honoris CausaIsabel Higgins, PhD, MN, AssDipNursED, RN

Pamela van der Riet, PhD, MEd, DipED(Nursing), BA, RNInternational Institute for Qualitative Methodology, University

of Alberta, Alberta, CanadaSchool of Nursing and Midwifery, Faculty of Health and

Medicine, University of Newcastle, Australia

REFERENCESMarion J–L. In excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena. Bronx, NY:Fordham University Press, 2002.

van Manen, M. Phenomenology of Practice: Giving Meaning Methodsin Phenomenological Research andWriting.Walnut Creek, CA: LeftCoast Press, 2014.

van Manen, M. Pedagogical Tact: Knowing What To Do When YouDon’t KnowWhat ToDo.Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2015.

von Herrmann, F-W. Hermeneutics and Reflection: Heidegger andHusserl on the Concept of Phenomenology. Toronto: University ofToronto Press, 2013.

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