Phenomenological Psychology


Making meaning of subjective experience

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible experiences and meanings
  • Knowing is … meaning
  • Learner is … an experiencer (individual in social relationships)
  • Learning is … meaning-making
  • Teaching is … prompting reflection of meaning-making




Phenomenology might be better construed as a discourse on “unlearning” than a discourse on “learning.” It begins with the assertion that the world one experiences is not the world as it is, but the world as one has learned to perceive it. Phenomenology is thus critical of “common sense” and what tends to be “taken for granted.” It seeks to break with familiar acceptance of “how things are” and to interrogate what phenomena were like before we learned to perceive them. A century ago, Phenomenology was foundational in raising awareness of and offering alternatives to Folk Theories through its rejection of mind/body, self/other, personal/social, and other commonsense dichotomies.  Associated constructs include:
  • Bracketing (Epoché; Phenomenological Epoché; Phenomenological Reduction; Transcendental Reduction) (Edmund Husserl, 1910s) – a process intended to enable one to scrutinize experience by “suspending judgment” – that is, by identifying the tacit beliefs, popular assumptions, and habitual associations that frame one’s everyday perceptions and interpretations of that experience
  • Double Embodiment (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1950s) – the suggestion that learning and cognition are dependent on both having an a biological body that is physically and perceptually active and being situated in a bio-psycho-socio-cultural setting – that is, in essence, a blending of the key foci of Embodiment Discoursesand Embeddedness Discourses
  • Eidetic Reduction – in Phenomenology, the process of identifying the Essence (see below) of a mental experience. Prominent strategies include:
    • Eidetic Variation – a method to identity essential features of a mental experience, undertaken by varying features of the experience. Only those aspects that transform the experience when changed are deemed as belonging to the Essence (see below) of the experience.
  • Essence – in Phenomenology, the necessary and invariable features that fundamentally define and distinguish a particular experience
  • Quale (plural: Qualia) (C.I. Lewis, 1920s) – from the Latin quālis “of what sort,” an event of direct personal, subjective sensation or experience (vs. a belief about or interpretation of a sensation or experience)
Associated discourses (listed chronologically by decade of publication) include:
  • Hermeneutics – the study of interpretation founded on the principle that human understanding is always already historically framed and culturally conditioned. Hermeneutics comprises several focused methodologies for interpreting texts, artifacts, customs, and concepts.
  • Pheneroscopy (Charles Sander Peirce, 1910s) – often likened to Phenomenology, both a perspective and methodology for the analysis of forms and phenomena, aimed at descriptions and understandings that are free of the biases of any specific observer
  • Phenomenology of Learning (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1950s) – A precursor to Enactivism and Embodied Cognition, Phenomenology of Learning is an attitude toward the study and interpretation of learning that investigates how bodily experience is part of cognition, how intersubjectivity arises, and how the person and the world are mutually constitutive. It attends to both the individual (embodied – cognitive, subjective, emotional, physical) and the situation (collective – socially mediated, culturally formatted, linguistically framed) to make sense of the adaptive and co-adaptive dynamics of learning.
  • Neophenomenology (Donald Snygg, Arthur Combs, 1950s) – an attitude within psychology that emphasizes one’s conscious experience as a vital consideration in studies of personal action
  • Subjective Psychology (1950s) – an approach or attitude in psychological research that emphasizes personal experience, prominently associated with Phenomenology and Introspection (contrast: Objective Psychology, under Behaviorisms)
  • Phenomenography (Ference Marton, 1980s) – oriented by the observation that different learners learn different things when experiencing near-identical circumstances, a framework for research into learning that asserts researchers/teachers should base their understanding of “learning” (1) on students’ actual experiences (2) in relation to specific content (3) being studied in particular situations
  • Carnal Hermeneutics (Richard Kearnery, 2010s) – a blend of Phenomenology and hermeneutics (the study of collective meaning and cultural interpretation). Carnal Hermeneutics is an approach to inquiry that blends and exemplifies core defining principles of Embodiment Discourses and Embeddedness Discourses as it asserts that learning is always and already about interpretation across all levels and all sites of knowing.
There are many strands of Phenomenology, a small subset of which includes:
  • Descriptive Phenomenology (Edmund Husserl, 1910s) – an attitude within Phenomenology that is concerned the “pure” description of subjective experience
  • Existential Phenomenology (Martin Heidegger, 1910s) – a turn from the original focus of Phenomenology, which was to achieve direct apprehension of a phenomenon at its most fundamental level, toward the careful and systematic analysis of the “lived experience” of that phonemenon – that is, to understand the meaning of that phenomenon within one’s world
  • Generative Historicist Phenomenology – the study of how meaning emerges in historical processes and collective encounters
  • Genetic Phenomenology – the study of the emergence of subjective, experience-based meaning
  • Hermeneutical Phenomenology (Hermeneutic Phenomenology; Interpretive Phenomenology; Post-Phenomenology) (Martin Heidegger, 1920s) – an attitude within Phenomenology that emphasized that subjective experience is conditioned and framed by history and collective action.
In addition to those listed above, other strands of and attitudes within phenomenology include: Analytic Phenomenology; Constitutive Phenomenology; Embodied Phenomenology; Linguistic Phenomenology; Material Phenomenology; Naturalistic Phenomenology; Post-Analytic Phenomenology; Realistic Phenomenology; Static Phenomenology; Transcendental Phenomenology.


Phenomenology begins with the convictions that “experience” is more complex than is commonly assumed and that Introspection can serve as the basis of a rigorous qualitative methodology. Criticisms of Phenomenology are typically focused on one of these two points, and usually the latter. Often criticisms are justified, as a great deal of research that is described as “phenomenological” falls short of the conceptual and methodological standards of the perspective.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Edmund Husserl; Jean-Paul Sartre; Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Status as a Theory of Learning

Phenomenology is more a methodology to study subjective experience than a theory of learning, but it has been generative of some key insights into learning that are integral to cutting edge Embodiment Discourses and Embeddedness Discourses.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Phenomenology is not a theory of teaching, although its emphases and methods have been adapted and used in therapy, to support self-awareness, and to inform teaching strategies.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Phenomenology is a core theoretical and methodological discourse in the human sciences. It is (1) explicit about focus, (2) aware of metaphors, (3) supported by a substantial body of validated evidence.


  • Bracketing (Epoché; Phenomenological Epoché; Phenomenological Reduction; Transcendental Reduction)
  • Carnal Hermeneutics
  • Descriptive Phenomenology
  • Double Embodiment
  • Eidetic Reduction
  • Eidetic Variation
  • Essence
  • Existential Phenomenology
  • Generative Historicist Phenomenology
  • Genetic Phenomenology
  • Hermeneutical Phenomenology (Hermeneutic Phenomenology; Interpretive Phenomenology; Post-Phenomenology)
  • Hermeneutics
  • Neophenomenology
  • Pheneroscopy
  • Phenomenography
  • Phenomenology of Learning
  • Quale (plural: Qualia)
  • Subjective Psychology

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2024). “Phenomenology” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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