Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Phenomenology of Ethics and Aesthetics

  • Erika Goble
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_93



In education, ethics and aesthetics are more commonly regarded as subject matter to be taught than as essential features of the field. Ethics in education may be conceived as students’ moral education, whether defined secularly or religiously, values to be taught to students and embodied by educators. Aesthetics, in turn, is largely understood as part of the arts’ curriculum; although, in rarer cases, it may be associated with the pleasing (or perhaps not-so-pleasing) physical building in which teaching takes place.

When we consider how education is experienced, however – the curriculum as lived, as opposed to the curriculum as plan (Aoki 2005) – we discover that education itself has important ethical and aesthetic dimensions. Whether one is an educator or a student, one’s everyday experience of education contains fundamental ethical and aesthetic components that are often overlooked, unseen, or taken for granted in our classrooms and our everyday educator–student interactions. These integral dimensions, however, can be revealed when education is considered from a phenomenological perspective.

This entry begins by reviewing the major phenomenological understandings of ethics and aesthetics. We see how, despite common understandings, neither are principles or ideals we employ. Rather, both ethics and aesthetics are relational experiences, arising through simple yet deeply meaningful encounters we have with our world. This entry then considers how the phenomenology of ethics and aesthetics manifests uniquely within the educational sphere, providing shape and depth of meaning to our encounters.

The Phenomenology of Ethics

Ethics is the study of how one should live: what makes life worth living, what principles or beliefs should guide one’s life, how these ideas are established and enacted, and upon what basis they are developed. For phenomenological philosophers, however, to understand ethics is not to examine it as a set of abstract principles or rules that we follow, but rather as something that arises within and becomes manifest through everyday human life. The phenomenology of ethics, then, is a close study of how we live well with others in our world. Specifically, phenomenologists seek to identify those experiences and their meaning that underpin eudaimonia or the good life.

From a phenomenological perspective, ethics is understood as being rooted in our interpersonal relations and intersubjectivity. The most basic relation that we enter into is with another person. This original ethical experience – encountering another – serves as the foundation for all other dimensions of ethics, including the development of ethical principles and systems. The first phenomenological philosopher to articulate this position was Emmanuel Levinas. Indeed, one might say that the phenomenology of ethics is first and foremost a Levinasian phenomenology. This is not to claim that other phenomenologists have not offered other phenomenologies of ethics, only that the majority of subsequent ethical investigations are deeply indebted to Levinas’ ideas.

Responding to and seeking an alternative to Heidegger’s ontology, Levinas demonstrates that there is a profoundly ethical basis to human existence that arises from our first and most simple encounter with another human being: the instant of seeing the other’s face. For Levinas, this moment is our most fundamental ethical experience. It is ethics, as well as the origin of subjectivity and intersubjectivity. It is also where all philosophy must begin.

According to Levinas (1968, 1985), when we see the face of the other, we respond to it immediately because it demands and commands us to. We respond to it – and its injunction not to harm the other, but to defend and protect him or her – before we can think or stop ourselves. And in this immediate, spontaneous response, we experience responsibility for the other. It is a response driven by the naked vulnerability of the other’s face and the power it holds over us. In looking upon the other’s visage, we do not see the face’s physical features but the being embodied there. And in that face, we do not see another like ourselves, but an other, someone who is wholly different to us. The other’s face challenges us because of its difference, and, in that difference, it signifies, it “speaks.” This signification is, for Levinas, the origin of discourse, communication, and community. Moreover, in placing us in relation to and responsibility for the other, it also calls forth an awareness of ourselves, our subjectivity, our humanity, and our being in relation to others in the world. Importantly, however, our response to and the responsibility we experience for the other are unidirectional. Our response and responsibility are not dependent on a similar response and responsibility being returned to us. Although directly emergent from our experience of interrelation, our response – and by extension, our experience of ethics – is initially singularly ours.

Many phenomenologists have expanded upon Levinas’ phenomenology of the face, including Edward Casey, Alphonso Lingis, Ian Thomson, and Max van Manen. From Levinas’ ethics, it can be established how certain actions – such as glances, touches, or inaction – have an ethical character. We can also articulate how what we see when we look upon another – the original ethical act – draws forth an awareness of ourselves as ethical beings and of our world as having ethical (or unethical) features. It further opens up an understanding of how our initial perception and what we perceive has the capacity to change who and how we are in the world. Quite simply, Levinas’ phenomenology of the face allows for the articulation of the ethics of looking, seeing, being seen, being unseen, and responsibility. It also makes possible explorations of the complexity of ethics within particular environments, such as education or health care. Ethics, Levinas shows us, is intimately intertwined with human relationality. It emerges in our relations with other people, with others in a community, with those like us and those unlike us, and even with animals, things, the natural environment, and our world as a whole.

The Phenomenology of Aesthetics

Like the phenomenology of ethics, the phenomenology of aesthetics has a relatively clear and specific foundation. Although phenomenological philosophers since Husserl have used art to gain insight into phenomena – such as Merleau-Ponty’s study of Cezanne’s paintings or Heidegger’s exploration of van Gogh’s painting of shoes – few have undertaken a rigorous and systematic phenomenology of aesthetics. It seems that the experience that historically was associated with the arts and, in particular, with the beautiful proves a challenge to the phenomenological project. And yet, when attempted, such a phenomenology provides unique insights into the affective domain of life.

To fully understand the phenomenology of aesthetics, we must understand how the term has changed over time. Traditionally, aesthetics was conceived as the experience of the beautiful in the arts. In the modern period, however, the concept expanded to include the experience of anything beautiful (such as people, places, or things). In recent years, aesthetics has undergone yet another, more radical transformation to include negative affective dimensions of existence, coming to reflect more accurately the term’s etymological root as being “sense perception.”

Early phenomenologies of aesthetics, not unexpectedly, approached it solely as arising through beautiful artworks. These studies initially struggled with the challenge of understanding the experience of art as being more than mere representation. The first to do so was Roman Ingarden (1961, 1973a, b), who posited that the artwork (for him, the literary work) is a being in itself, which is composed of strata that are experienced by its audience. Combined, the strata create the entity of the work, but each layer carries its own value and unique aesthetic qualities. Meaning arises in the encounter between the audience and the strata within the art object. While human consciousness is required for the experience of the strata, Ingarden insists that consciousness itself is not the creative force in the encounter; such force resides in the object. What is “cocreated,” however, is the object as a work of art; that is, as an aesthetic object.

Building upon Ingarden’s understanding, Mikel Dufrennes (1973) provides the first comprehensive phenomenological analysis of the arts. According to Dufrennes, to understand the art object, one needs to account for it within a lived world. Like his predecessor, Dufrennes differentiates between the art object, which may be encountered in various ways, and the aesthetic object, which is “the work of art perceived for its own sake” (1973, p. 16). Unlike Ingarden, however, Dufrennes’ phenomenology is not limited to viewer and viewed, reader and text. It also recognizes the history and location of the work, as well as the influence of the artist. Indeed, Dufrennes claims that, in our experience of an aesthetic object, the creator becomes manifest in the work as a “quasi-subject.” At play in any encounter, then, is the creator, the created object, and the audience member or viewer within the lived world.

According to Dufrennes, in the relation between the audience and the art object, the aesthetic object emerges. The viewer/audience “responds to the subjectivity of the work through his own subjectivity” (1973, p. 198). In much the same way that ethics arises in the relation between beings, aesthetics emerges in the deep and sensuous bond that forms between the audience and the artwork (specifically the artwork that contains both its object-specific qualities and that manifests its creator). However, where the ethical relation is understood as fully manifesting instantaneously before we can stop it, the aesthetic relation begins from the first encounter but may build and continue to expand over time. For Dufrennes, aesthetic experience fully manifests as expression: affective qualities that form the identity of the aesthetic object over time and that increase and grow with extended reflection. It is expression that gives the object subjecthood as an aesthetic object revealing a fundamental truth.

Although having limited their analysis to art, Dufrenne’s and Ingarden’s phenomenologies form the foundation necessary for conceiving of aesthetics more broadly as the affective, sensuous qualities of phenomena. Indeed, many phenomenological philosophers, both past and present, have demonstrated how the aesthetic dimension of phenomena can reveal truths of our world and serve to supplement more traditional phenomenologies. For instance, Gaston Bachelard’s various considerations of things like nests, drawers, burning candles, embers, and childhood dreams – studies undertaken using the terms “poetics” and reveries – demonstrate how the aesthetic dimension of these small, simple experiences are deeply bound to the larger meaning of human life. Likewise, Roland Barthes’ phenomenology of photography (1981) shows how the meaning of photography is not found in its objective, identifiable qualities – whether the common studium or the more rare punctum – but in what truth of its subject a particular image reveals aesthetically to the viewer.

In recent years, phenomenologists have grappled to articulate a new language to account for this expanded understanding of aesthetics. Michel Henry (2008) posits the affectivity of life (i.e., the feeling of being alive, every instant of every day) to be the proper ground of all experience and any philosophical study. He calls this affectivity pathos. Adopting a more limited scope, Arnold Berleant (2010) introduces the notion of negative aesthetics to complement the traditional positive aesthetics. Like Henry, however, Berleant argues there is an aesthetic dimension to more than just artworks and landscape. It is found in much of life, including urban spaces, social and political action, and even terrorism. In our experiences of various nontraditional aesthetics, Berleant argues there is evidence of a direct connection between aesthetics and ethics: the former often immediately and bodily identifies the latter.

The Phenomenology of Ethics and Aesthetics in Education

Although highly abstract when considered philosophically, the phenomenologies of aesthetics and ethics in education are poignantly revealed in simple, everyday interactions between teachers and students: in the glances and nods, the small words of praise or censure, or things like notes written on assignments. In fact, we can find the richest demonstrations of the ethical and aesthetic components of education in those moments that often go unrecognized by one or both parties or are immediately forgotten.

In education, we generally accept that how a teacher does something is as important as what they do; the how of education can have profound impact. A single glance can recognize someone in his or her singularity or leave the student feeling overlooked and alone. As Max van Manen’s ongoing phenomenological studies of education reveal, small things like the teacher’s tone, tact, or even the ability to remember a student’s name carry great meaning. Speaking kindly when a student needs it, not calling upon a student at a particular moment, or correctly pronouncing a student’s name are all ethical acts. Ethics arises in those momentary interactions; it emerges within the pedagogical relation. The actions may be immediately recognized as ethical or, more likely, go unnoticed, but they each originate from an authentic encounter with the other, the Levinasian response to the face. In encountering his or her student, the teacher has already responded and taken responsibility for that student, even before the teacher chooses to act in a particular way.

Van Manen draws upon the tradition of the Utrecht school and continental pedagogical philosophy, which have long recognized pedagogy as being inherently ethical. These pedagogical moments, however, contain equally important, but less acknowledged, aesthetic components. Students bodily and sensuously experience a teacher’s tact or tone or thoughtlessness. These therefore have innate aesthetic components. The aesthetics of the act give shape, form, and feeling to the encounter. We need only think of those moments where someone apparently says a kind word, but it is insincere. We do not believe them for what we feel belies their words. And yet, we only know the insincerity through what is felt. Similarly, a well-placed nod from an adult can carry volumes of meaning to a youth, much more than could be said or explained, and such an act may be remembered by the individual years later. As Berleant and others note, we often immediately identify that which is ethical or unethical in our world by how it makes us feel.

The aesthetic dimension of education can be found in the affective qualities of these single pedagogical moments, but it is also evident in the larger project, as is ethics. The German pedagogue Klaus Mollenhauer (2014) describes how presentation, what “ways of life” adults present to children (i.e., what we portray to children as we live with them), and representation, what cultural materials are given to a child (i.e., the formal visual and textual educational materials), are equally important in modern pedagogy. The worlds to which children and youth are exposed help shape them and will have both immediate and latent effects. That which appeals and inheres in children, the “pedagogical call,” is likewise both ethical and aesthetic. Manifestations of pedagogical relationality, ethics, and aesthetics are intimately intertwined.


Phenomenology provides us with an opportunity to understand that ethics and aesthetics are not abstract values from a bygone era that have resulted in arbitrary social rules we follow but fundamental components of being human and being human in a world with others. As relational phenomena, they both manifest in the encounter between one being and another. The phenomenologies of ethics and aesthetics show us that, in addition to being relational beings, humans are intertwined with our world and one another. Moreover, we see upon close inspection how the two – lived ethics and lived aesthetics – are intimately connected. They shape and inform one another. When considered in the context of education, the phenomenologies of ethics and aesthetics play important roles in revealing the depth of meaning found in everyday educational encounters. Through their light, we may begin to perceive the rich nature of contemporary pedagogy.



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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ResearchNorQuest CollegeEdmontonCanada