Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Phenomenology, Education, and the More-than-Human World

  • Patrick HowardEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-532-7_91-1


Eating Disorder Environmental Education Master Narrative Curriculum Theorist Transformative Vision 
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Education has always been interested in the larger living landscape – the biotic, more-than-human natural community. Schools, museums, parks, zoos, camps, youth organizations, and natural history groups facilitate and mediate relationship with place, both natural and built. In formal schooling, nature study, conservation education, outdoor and adventure education, environmental, global, place-based, and education for sustainability are fields across which lines are blurred in their shared goal to more deeply understand the relationship between humans and the environment on which people depend. At this point in human history, there are strident calls for education to be central to efforts to transform the human relationship with the natural world and in so doing mitigate and reverse dire projections of catastrophic climate change and subsequent mass extinction.

Phenomenology is emerging as an important approach to more deeply understand human relationship, the lived experience of being-in-the-world. The experiential focus of phenomenology and its demand for awareness requires close attention to the felt meaning and embodied nature of our experiencing. This to experience takes place within a network of relations with which people have contact. Understanding the pre-reflective experience of place and environment through careful description provides a language by which assumptions, unexamined values, and taken-for-granted horizons of understanding are made comprehensible. Language born of culture and history frames and structures the world. Language is not often critically reflected upon but provides the ever-present background for meaningful contact with the world. Phenomenology can potentially disrupt that language, providing new light and new language by which to understand human relationship with the larger living landscape.

The Challenge for Phenomenology

The destruction of the Earth and the tearing of the very fabric of life in the name of hyper-consumption and the global market economy are not susceptible to easy fixes and solutions. Consumerism fueled by pervasive and sophisticated media manipulation pressures parents to work more, longer and farther afield, depriving children of a stable home and relegating them to the care of strangers in often crowded day care. In developed nations, there is a marked rise in eating disorders and obesity as children spend hours inside in the company of television, video, and computer. A lack of connection to people, community, and place is having a profound effect on children. Research has drawn a link between children diagnosed with ADHD and the lack of opportunities of these children to actively engage in outdoor activities in more natural settings and green landscapes. The phrase “nature deficit disorder” was coined to describe the disturbing trend (Louv 2005, p. 70). Large-scale international education efforts have been organized over the past three decades. The documents lay out detailed global plans to make these issues the central concern of education in the future. However, it is arguable education rooted in Judeo-Christian and eighteenth-century Enlightenment constructs of the self-maximizing individual and an infallible free market is an obstacle to a transformative vision that includes an understanding of human ecology and the development of a planetary consciousness.

The international efforts to transform education unabashedly call for the teaching of values. Education has always been a normative undertaking, and values are implicit in every aspect of the pedagogical relationship. Educational theorists are ever mindful of the postmodern critique and the demise of the master narrative and are uncomfortable with reorienting education to any named purpose. Recently proposed transformative visions of education anticipate the deconstructionist critique and present not a master narrative of any one culture but a story of the ultimate “ground” in any theory – the planetary ecosphere – and develop a powerful visionary context for education, embedding the human community within the Earth community.

The growing initiatives to make sustainability, or environmental education, or whatever name is locally given to an ecocentric reorienting of education lead to the question of how to educate for the values of embeddedness, interconnection, participation, relationality, holism, attunement, awareness, and ecology. In many schools, children learn about the world, their immediate environment, and the landscape outside their windows in the science classroom. Science is a cultural pursuit firmly entrenched in the language of objectivism, reductionism, and rationality. It is rooted in the western philosophical tradition and reflects and reinforces society’s dominant values. Science has provided and continues to provide through the same abstract and reductionistic methodology the conveniences of technology and the advances in medicine that are to be celebrated as great human achievements adding immeasurably to quality of life. Science allows people to understand conceptually the diversity of life and the importance and complexity of life systems. It has educated the world about the dangers of continuing into a future dependent on carbon. Science is powerful; the culture and profession has legitimacy and the confidence of society. Societies have knowledge, data, and facts, but these do not counter growing global crises emerging on many fronts.

Schools may emphasize energy audits, conservation of resources, using efficient lights, turning off computers, and recycling waste. Because of powerful, pervasive cultural beliefs, these learning activities can further reinforce a resourcist position, one predicated on wise use, efficiency, and the value of the natural world to humans, in other words, ever strengthening an anthropocentric orientation. Schoolyard gardens and green space restoration may be understood as making places more pleasant for human use, consumption, and entertainment. Children learn about the natural world by dissecting owl pellets and diagramming the water cycle. The knowledge gained from these learning activities begs the questions, “In what way do our children know the living Earth and what value do they give it?” Wendell Berry (2000) says, “We know enough of our history by now to be aware that people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love” (p. 39). Educators are asking, “Can the technical, resourcist bias of the sciences with its dispassionate, objectifying language make it incapable of bearing the burden that we place upon it?”

Restoring the Relational

Educators are challenged to find means to go beyond the knowledge of science while at the same time being inclusive of it. This life is a particularity, a relationality of embeddedness in place that is unavailable to empiricism and objectivism. There is life, a sentience that engenders care and affection. It calls for a kind of sensitivity, the pathic, the felt, a “living way of knowing” (Jardine 1998, p. 95) that is perhaps not a “knowing” at all. At least not in the sense of knowing as we usually consider it. Things cannot survive as abstractions, as categories on chart paper and poster board, but only as unique, individual creatures, entities living in place. Most often what happens in dissecting the owl pellet is that the owl disappears, the mouse that was her meal disappears. In the quest for empirical certainty, in reducing an entity, a species to its constituent parts, it disappears in abstraction. The creature is lost – the individual and the unique are lost. In the coldly determined intelligence of the categories, the trees are lost to “forestry,” the skeins of fog, and misty droplets to the “water cycle.” In a sense, life is lost. Science cannot show the life in the life cycle of the owl. Its life is a wholeness, part of the totality of experience in a place. It is embodied, experiential, and connected to the life process. Some education researchers interested in uncovering a language to describe the primacy of experience as it is related to growing ecological awareness and a renewed sense of responsibility to the biotic community look to hermeneutic phenomenology to disclose human existence as a network of relations.

But in what sense do educators use the word “ecological”? In paying close attention to the meaning of the word is to address its significance. “Ecology” can be defined firstly as the science of relationships between organisms and their environments and secondly as the relationships between organisms and their environments. The definition itself tends toward objective abstraction by placing the science as a common term with the relationships. When the life of the English word ecology is traced to its roots, it is understood the word is derived from the German Okologie from the Greek oikos, house and dwelling. The original life of the word is tied to relationship, clan, and family. The term dwelling suggests a noun and synonym for house; yet it retains the sense of its verb form, to dwell: ecology as dwelling, as what it means to dwell in place. Heidegger describes the troublesome separation in the West between becoming and being as the artificial separation between what it is “to build” and “to dwell.” It has been argued that society is preoccupied with building at the expense of dwelling. Education curriculum privileges the knowledge of building at the expense of the knowledge of dwelling. In his book Transformative Learning: Educational Vision for the 21st Century (1999), Canadian scholar Edmund O’Sullivan posits that modernity, with all its wonders and advances, has reached the full fruition of its limitations. O’Sullivan believes a new consciousness is called for – “a planetary consciousness” resulting from an educational framework that must be “visionary and transformative and must clearly go beyond the conventional educational outlooks that we have cultivated for the past several centuries” (1999, p. 3). He argues for what he calls a comprehensive and integrated perspective or what was previously known as a cosmology, one that would engender “an ecologically sustainable vision in the broadest terms; what can be termed a planetary vision” (1999, p. 4). This requires reclaiming the word ecology for education to understand that as we build, we must dwell, and the two cohere.

Language and the Dialogical Nature of Reality

Phenomenology begins with particularity, with phenomena, the reality given in lived experience before reflection. Bypassing theory, concepts, presuppositions, and cultural beliefs, phenomenology brackets these and adopts as a method the description of the world as it is lived. Phenomenologists describe the pre-reflective; its focus is experiential and outward into the world; as the great French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty put it, the world is the “natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions” (2002, p. 406). David Abram, the American phenomenologist, finds in Merleau-Ponty ecological implications centered on the inextricable relationality of human perception mediated through the body with the larger living world. Abram says the entire phenomenological endeavor has taken place within a region of inquiry circumscribed by a tacit awareness of the Earth as the ground and the horizon of all of our reflections, and the hidden thrust of the phenomenological movement is the reflective rediscovery of our inherence in the Earth. Abram’s work is seminal, and its importance cannot be understated. He provides a language whereby the biosphere as it is experienced and lived from within by an intelligent body becomes accessible and his work allows for an articulation of the interactive and dialogical nature of reality. It is of value to turn to Abram’s words here,

To touch the coarse skin of a tree is thus, at the same time, to experience one’s own tactility, to feel oneself touched by the tree. And to see the world is also, at the same time, to experience oneself as visible, to feel oneself seen... We can experience things – can touch, hear and taste things – only because, as bodies, we ourselves are entirely a part of the sensible field, and have our own textures, sounds and tastes. We can perceive things only because we ourselves are entirely a part of the sensible world that we perceive! We might as well say that we are organs of this world, flesh of its flesh, and that the world is perceiving itself through us. (Abrams 1996, p. 68)

Educators who turn to phenomenology as a philosophical orientation and a research method are in essence seeking to understand and rethink human relations with the larger living field through an experiential approach. Abram is not only paying attention to the experience of nature but to the nature in human experience. Phenomenology opens a space for a deeper understanding of the interactive and dialogical nature of reality and allows for an experiential approach to give voice to new meanings and possibilities. However, this is often a difficult and challenging task. Curriculum theorist David Jardine writes,

Phenomenology raises the possibility of real hope, i.e. the hope that life as it is actually lived can be faced. It maintains that we as educational ‘theorists’ have living connectedness with the ‘subjects’ of our inquiry. These children in this classroom, this teacher, are not distant objects … they are us, our kind, our kin, and understanding them is understanding our kinship with them, understanding, not severing, the ties that bind us to the Earth, to our lives, to the lives of our children. (1998, p. 24)

David Orr’s (1994) bold statement, “all education is environmental education” (p. 12) is provocative and points to the inherent divide between humans and the natural world that is at the heart of the educational enterprise. Students are taught facts devoid of their larger purposes in transmissive, largely passive classrooms that reinforce the divide between the dominant inside space, the human-built world, to the detriment of the larger, living world outside the walls of the school. Andy Fisher (2002) in his important book Radical Eco-psychology: Psychology in the Service of Life explores the shifts in patterns of identity and relationships that occur when connections to the web of life essential to human well-being are included. Fisher believes phenomenology offers a bridge to span the distance, the alienation, and estrangements and cultivates a deeper understanding of humans as human beings. Inquiring into the strange and unfamiliar is a hermeneutic endeavor. Fisher demonstrates how Gadamerian hermeneutics, particularly, through its central tenet of a “fusion of horizons,” allows for a gaining of self-understanding through an interaction with something other, novel or alien. A person’s horizons are enriched and expanded when prejudices are risked, and assumptions and pre-understandings are examined. Fisher’s work is important as it picks up the work of philosophers like Merleau-Ponty, Eugene Gendlin, and David Michael Levin whose focus on the nature of human nature explicated an embodied intelligence uniquely designed and attuned for relationship with the world. Like Abram, Fisher is a hermeneutic phenomenologist able to demonstrate how nature enters into human experience influencing the body and mind, as we are wholly dependent, deeply embedded in the web of life.

Deepening a Sense of Place in the Biotic Community

Phenomenology and hermeneutics have been used to inform environmental education that is place-based or bioregional and more recently to investigate sustainability education and the perceptions of children of their experiences in both built and natural environments. Heidegger’s work firmly positioned place at the center of the investigation of the meaning of being. Dasein is firmly rooted and is always in the world. Heidegger (1971) writes, “the way in which you are and I am, the manner in which humans are on the earth, is …dwelling. To be a human being means to be on the earth as a mortal. It means to dwell” (p. 147). Place-based or bioregional education is phenomenological in its central premise to learn to “reinhabit” local places, by becoming aware of the particular ecological relationships that operate within and around the place. The very idea of a region in which we “live-in-place” is an elusive concept. The specification of place or bioregion contests a purely topographical definition of place as objective geographic location in a map. A phenomenological approach to learning about place introduces a new geography as experiential, subjective, and storied. It is just this phenomenal, experiential, and lived dimension of the bioregion that offers an opportunity to develop a more complex, subtle picture of the interrelationship between humans and the places they inhabit.

The challenge is to activate and reactivate an attunement and awareness for the bioregions in which people dwell. Phenomenologists Ingrid Stefanovic and Louise Chawla are among those few researchers who inquire into the environmental, place-based experiences of children. Typically undervalued for their naiveté or innocence, the words and experiences of children have been largely overlooked. However, phenomenological research that opens up such lines of inquiry is of particular significance. The hermeneutic phenomenological task of laying bare origins coupled with the often unstructured, unaffected visions of the child suggested profoundly interesting possibilities to understand more fully what it means to live, to dwell in place. A phenomenological lens means deepening a relationship with the biotic community. For urban children, who often live in homogenized and utilitarian landscapes that are ecologically and aesthetically impoverished, exploring a deeper sense of their connection to the life of the bioregion through phenomenology is a research area in need of further inquiry.

At this point in the human story, the relationship between human beings and the earth, the built environments, urban spaces we design to reflect our embodied embeddedness in place, and the education of the young to live in ways that honor both human nature and the larger living biotic communities on which they depend are areas that phenomenology can meaningfully inform and provide direction.

William Pinar (2004) says curriculum theory is “about discovering and articulating, for oneself and with others, the educational significance of the school subjects for self and society in the ever-changing historical moment” (p. 16). More researchers and curriculum theorists are amending Pinar’s “for self and society” by adding “the Earth.” Societies are beginning to seek a vision for the school subjects that includes consciousness of our Earth-centeredness. Phenomenology can be important in more deeply understanding how profoundly informed is human experience by the cycles and rhythms of the larger living landscape. Phenomenology helps describe human dependence on the more-than-human natural world in news ways and provides a deeper sense of educator David Orr’s words, “All education is environmental education.”


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Cape Breton UniversitySydneyCanada