Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Phenomenological Theory of Bildung and Education

  • Malte Brinkmann
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_94



This article provides a historical overview of the most important approaches in German phenomenological pedagogy to the present. Phenomenological pedagogy both as a theory and empirical research aims at redefining traditional theories of Bildung and education in empirical and systematic ways. Within this process of re-definition, the phenomenological methods of description, reduction, and variation have been adopted critically and developed further. Phenomenological pedagogy thus can present an epistemological and methodological program of its own, one which differs from other approaches within the field of the human sciences, including hermeneutics.

Phenomenological pedagogy has a tradition reaching back more than hundred years. From its very beginnings, it has developed its own approaches to a theory of Bildung and education as experiences. Traditional theories of Bildung (or formation: how we form ourselves and are formed by others) and education, as they have been formulated by Humboldt, Schleiermacher, Herbart, Hegel, and Nietzsche, are redefined by a phenomenological approach in ways that are both empirical and systematic.

Phenomenological Description (Fischer)

In his paper Deskriptive Pädagogik, Aloys Fischer (1880–1937) formulates programmatic thoughts on the relation between pedagogy and phenomenology as early as 1914. Fischer is a representative of the Münchner Schule (Munich School) surrounding Theodor Lipps. The Munich School critically rejects the egological conception of consciousness proposed by Husserl by claiming a primordial experience of what they referred to as “reality.” Through this assumption, the Munich phenomenologists break away from Husserl’s subject-centered perspective and anticipate thoughts which are later introduced by Merleau-Ponty under the rubric of “world” or “lifeworld.” This is what is meant by “reality” or Real-Ontologie. The methodic tool to capture the experience of reality is the description. Fischer states:

The basic question of all description is what the Given in the experience is. Every pedagogy and every theoretical school in pedagogy talks about education … every school believes it knows about the matter which is signified as ‘education’ in every detail and is quick to state what and how education should be. […] It seems to me that everyone forgets the description of the matter while they try to define and label it. […] Not the meaning of the words, which is the linguistic clarification of the meaning, but the description of matter either: “in question” or “at hand” is the task which is the foundation of all scientific research; it is the task that makes research possible. (Fischer 1914/1961, p. 144)

Fischer combines the question of methodology with the question of the subject matter of pedagogy as a science, in this case a human science (or Geisteswissenschaft). Pedagogy is not a normative science of practice. It is a descriptive science which tries to grasp the subject matter at hand, before it is defined theoretically. Fischer locates the epistemological problem in the fact that educational science, in contrast to sciences with clearly defined objects of research (e.g., Geology), is notoriously insecure about its own subject matter. This is an insight which many pedagogues have expressed, from Herbart to the present. This could be accomplished by employing phenomenological description. Fischer points out that describing a student’s practice in school needs a highly developed psychological and pedagogical awareness: “(It) comes very seldom as a natural gift and can only be attained as the result of sound practicing” (ibid., p. 140).

The method of description is used as a way to reach intersubjective validation of experiences. Fischer goes on to prove the fruitfulness of this method in his works on psychology and school pedagogy. Fischer supposes that description can be “theory-free” (Ibid., p. 142). He maintains that description can lead to pure facts (Tatsachen) which are free from presuppositions and prejudices, an argument which seems hardly convincing today. Fischer’s approach has a strong tendency to the moral and the normative, without being able to clarify the conditions of this morality and normativity. Fischer thus affirms a model of traditional, normative pedagogy of role models and culture within the relation of the generations. Still Fischer’s thoughts and research became key issues in phenomenological-pedagogical thinking and reflection.

Anthropological Turn (Bollnow)

After the Second World War and the years of Nazi terror, the phenomenological movement was weakened, and a shift from phenomenological to anthropological concepts occurred. Anthropology in this context means the science (logos) of concepts and notions of mankind (Anthropos) and operates in a historical, philosophical, and linguistic perspective. These reflections became important for pedagogy, and pedagogical anthropology was widely spread, even in phenomenology. One of the main representatives is Otto F. Bollnow (1903–1991) who combines Heidegger’s phenomenology with linguistic-philosophical, anthropological, and existential questions (Dilthey and Jaspers) along with a critical reception of existential philosophy and philosophy of life (Lebensphilosophie). Bollnow highlights phenomena that are part of what he calls an “education of discontinuity” (Bollnow 1959), for example, crisis, awakening, admonition, guidance, venture, failure, and encounter. He carries out only a few studies which can rightly be called phenomenological–descriptive. They explore the phenomena of practicing (Übung), human space, and atmosphere in pedagogy. In contrast to Fischer, the ontological dimension is not considered by Bollnow as a fact of education to be described empirically but as an expression of life itself in the sense of Lebensphilosophie. This expression becomes manifest in cultural objectifications (Dilthey) and can be interpreted hermeneutically as a text. Following Bollnow, the understanding of cultural objectivations is reduced to a singular sense. The multiplicity and ambiguity of sense is thus equalized and foreignness is excluded. Looking at Bollnow, we can see how “the pedagogical” is reduced to the pedagogical relation as it was articulated in Geisteswissenschaftliche Pädagogik.

In the 1960s and 1970s, German scholars suggested concepts which develop the phenomenological approach further and stand in critical differentiation from Bollnow’s anthropological and hermeneutical pedagogy. Günther Buck, Heinrich Rombach, Werner Loch, Eugen Fink, and Egon Schütz refer to Husserl, Heidegger, and Gadamer and are able to develop genuinely phenomenological approaches for a theory of learning, Bildung, and education.

Learning as an Experience (Buck)

Günther Buck’s (1925–1983) study Learning and experience, first published in 1967, has become a classic in German pedagogy (Buck 1989). Buck examines the experience of the process of learning from a historical perspective (Aristoteles, Bacon, Hegel, and Husserl) as well as developing his own theory. It is framed by a hermeneutic of practice (Handlungshermeneutik). Buck’s theory of understanding and learning as well as his theory of experience in Bildung is strongly influenced by Gadamer. From a hermeneutic perspective, understanding and learning are situated within a temporal horizon. Referring to Husserl, Buck integrates the notion of intentionality into his theory. Husserl’s analysis of intentionality shows that the structure of experience as a horizon is connected to the circle of anticipation and fulfillment (or disappointment; Enttäuschung) of anticipations. On the one hand, the structure of experience as bound by a horizon is based on previous experience (Wirkungsgeschichte). On the other hand, this “horizon structure” enables change and the openness to that which is new. The horizon can change. In interpersonal understanding, two horizons come together, and they melt or merge together (Horizontverschmelzung) and consequently can change (Horizontwandel).

Following Gadamer and Hegel, Buck defines the concept of negation as the “determinate negation” of a specific anticipation in the sense of Hegel – as a dialectical negation that produces something positive. The negation crosses out an intention and brings a moment of discontinuity into the continuity of experience. By going through a “negative” experience – that is, a disappointment of anticipations in a certain situation – we not only experience something, but we also experience ourselves. As one’s own horizon is changed in an experience, future anticipations change, as well as past experiences.

Learning from experience can then be seen as learning as experience. “Negative” experiences enable us to change previous knowledge and experience, at the same time they open us to new experiences. Given this fact, learning is related to the past as well as to the future. By undergoing “negative” experiences, we are able to become aware of latent attitudes and habits. Learning itself is a reflective moment within the process of experience. By using hermeneutic methods of understanding, we can explicate the latent structures of the sense of experience in learning.

Buck presents a hermeneutic-phenomenological notion of learning and thus contributes significantly to an understanding of learning as a pedagogical concept. His theory of learning has become an important reference point for contemporary German qualitative research and theories of Bildung.

Learning and the Course of Life (Lebenslauf) (Loch)

Werner Loch (1928–2010) developed a biographically based theory of education. Following the ideas of Helmuth Plessner, it is grounded in a non-essentialist anthropology and sees the human being as an open question. Proceeding from this assumption, the phenomenon of education is defined in its structures – both biographically and intergenerationally. It is conceptualized as related to the concept of learning (Loch 2001). In his biographical research, Loch points out various stages of the “curriculum vitae” and differentiates them in relation to learning and educating. Similar to Buck, Loch succeeds in establishing an original, pedagogically significant conception of learning which goes beyond Bollnow’s theory. Learning is related to knowing how and competence and is thus determinable in a way that is both nonempirical and noncognitivist. The lived body then becomes important both as a category of reflection and as a phenomenon. Learning is connected to sedimented habits and the habitus in general. Activity and practice function in the “mode of knowing how” rather than of “knowing that.” To obtain knowing how, supportive and helping educational practices are important, as well as inhibiting and limiting educational practices. Loch differentiates negative from positive inhibitions in learning. While negative inhibitions in learning work against what is to be learned and can be pedagogically suspended, positive inhibitions are to be supported. Loch does not work out this difference systematically, but he works toward a determination of the negative aspects within educational processes, which Buck calls “negativity” and which have attracted attention in current approaches (see below).

In terms of methodology, Loch can point out important differences between diverse approaches in the human sciences. He succeeds in fleshing out the “poetic” and “creative” function of the phenomenological method and contrasts it to methods of hermeneutics and psychoanalysis.

Structures, Operative Concepts, and Co-existential and Existential Elemental Phenomena (Rombach, Fink, Schütz)

By the end of the 1960s, Heinrich Rombach (1923–2004) and Eugen Fink (1905–1975) provided new phenomenological perspectives on Bildung and education as experiences by focusing on structures and elemental phenomena (Grundphänomene) and by using a type of reflection they christened “categorical.”

Heinrich Rombach developed a structural phenomenology (Strukturphänomenologie). He advocated a shift from anthropology to structural anthropology and from phenomenological pedagogy to structural pedagogy. According to Rombach, describing mankind as (a) structure and existing within structures means that one must give up the subject-centered and geisteswissenschaftliche perspective as well as the sociological one (Rombach 1979). Rombach combines the reflection on elemental phenomena with a reflection on experience as pedagogical experience. This enables him to distinguish between various kinds of experience (as opposed to political, economic, aesthetic, or other experience) and to contrast them with the specific dimension of pedagogical experience.

This differentiation, which is important for educational reflection, was introduced earlier by Rombach’s mentor in Freiburg, Eugen Fink. Fink earned his doctorate under Husserl and Heidegger and remained Husserl’s loyal assistant, even when Husserl was persecuted by the Nazis. Fink sees educational science as a cultural practice to be sustained after the collapse of general guiding principles and narratives in the modern and late modern era and the emergence of nihilism (Nietzsche). Education is both: science and practical life lessons (Lebenslehre). Fink poses the question whether educational science could be brought back to lifeworld experience as a lesson or precept for life and whether it is capable of producing guiding principles and ideas. As we do not have an authoritative, final, and universal interpretation of the meaning of the world and society at our disposal, it is the task of pedagogy in particular to produce these interpretations collectively, but only in a provisional way. In his social phenomenology, Fink differentiates in six fundamental co-existential elemental phenomena: play, power, work, love, death, and education. They are connected to social, co-existential, and embodied practices in the time and space of society and as an expression of care about Dasein after the “end of the grand narratives” (Lyotard).

Within education, concern and care, learning, wonder and astonishment, questioning, and counseling become basic practices. Fink’s fundamental thesis sees “man as a fragment,” as someone who does not exist as a complete being or as an object. He can only experience himself in relation to self and world in a fragmentary way. The totality of man and world, or of man and nature as suggested by the Geisteswissenschaften as well as the continuity in the generational succession derived from it, have broken apart.

Fink develops a theory of Bildung on the basis of this social-anthropological description. Bildungcan no longer be Allgemeinbildung or general Bildung in a holistic sense anymore; it has become fragmentary Bildung. In this conception of Bildung, negativity is not an operation of consciousness but an existential trait of experience. Bildung can then be described as coping with this existential plight. In this definition, Bildung becomes a practical-existential experiment of sense under preconditions of a provisional, insecure nature, or, in other words, an existential and co-existential practice as production and provisional creation of meaning. It is also a reflective practice, as the operation of phenomenological variation can mark different modes of experiencing in politics, arts, love, time, and labor as differences, and compare these modes. At the same time, the phenomenological reduction enables us to free ourselves from what is taken as facts and opens a perspective on what is possible.

The concept of education is similarly redefined: Fink calls the educational practice “community of questioning.” This community is determined by power, by society, and by culture and has its reference point in the collective plight of not knowing and not knowing how (Fink 1970). According to Fink, the relation between the generations is marked by foreignness. Under preconditions of foreignness and insecurity, the community of questioning aims at future situations and considers options or possibilities to overcome particular difficulties in their own situation. Education is thus characterized by difference and controversy concerning different interpretations of particular situations. These controversies are those of subjects situated in a sociopolitical space, which means that education becomes a democratic process. Education also becomes a question of productivity, of generating provisional ideas. Fink’s theory of Bildung and education differs from his contemporaries who were oriented toward hermeneutics or Geisteswissenschaften. The differences can be seen in his considerations of the fragmentary nature of the self. Dealing with and relating to these differences are described as practices of Bildung. Apart from the differences in the relation to the self, Fink also considers differences as foreignness between the generations and differences of sociality, democracy, and power. His theory of Bildung and education offers connections to Foucault or Derrida and other poststructuralists who were influenced by phenomenology.

Fink’s student Egon Schütz (1932–2015) has developed this approach into an “existential-critical pedagogy” and deepened it in the context of many studies on anthropology, ethics, and aesthetics (for the following see Eugen-Schütz-Archiv).

Schütz adds five existentials as modes of the human “relationship to being” (Seinsverhältnisse) to the six co-existentials suggested by Fink: freedom, reason, historicity, language, and the lived body. Schütz radicalizes Fink’s thesis of fragmentarity by referring to Heidegger’s criticism of humanism and subjectivity. The “anthropological circle” as fundamental mode of human self-understanding constitutes the center of Schütz’ theory. Theoretical, practical, scientific, and everyday definitions and conceptions (Vor-stellungen) of mankind can never lead to complete self-transparency. Man remains subject to his finiteness and corporality even within the processes of self-formation (Sich-Bilden) and self-imagination (Einbilden). Taking the anthropological circle into account, Schütz describes Bildung as an existentially risky act of limited freedom which takes place under the conditions of finiteness, corporality, and co-existentiality. Schütz sees education as a co-existential experiment, in which man engages in practices of dealing with himself and with the other as incomplete or imperfect beings. He applies the phenomenological methods of reduction and variation: One’s own view as well as different scientific theories and models are critically evaluated in terms of their anthropological presuppositions. These pre-meanings and prejudices are then bracketed in a phenomenological epoché. Following this step, perspectives can be varied, and, stepping back from one’s own approach and others’ theoretical conceptions, enables a variation of different views on the thing itself (Sache selbst).

Seen from the perspective of methodology, we can state that Rombach, Fink, Schütz, and Loch make the phenomenological method of reduction and variation fruitful for a theory and practice of Bildung and education. They succeed in differentiating phenomenological research in education from pedagogical hermeneutics (hermeneutische Pädagogik). Sense, understanding, and interpreting are terms both of hermeneutics and of phenomenology. However, phenomenological description refers to intentional acts, an important way in which it differs from empirical observation and hermeneutic interpretation. Phenomenological description aims at “working out, how a creature like man, who is equipped with a lived body, soul, consciousness and conception of self and thus becomes a self, can express sense-giving intentions at all” (Loch 2001, p. 1198).

Hermeneutics, on the other hand, practices a reconstructive interpretation (Auslegung) of something that is given as a text. Phenomenology strives to put sense into what is perceived, thus performing a productive and prospective task:

Putting sense into the human expressions […] thus becomes the constitutive task of phenomenological description, which consequently obtains the character of an attribution (Zuschreibung). (Ibid.)

According to Fink, this productive and creative dimension is guaranteed by reflectively employing the “operative concepts” of phenomenology (description, reduction, variation).

Thus, phenomenological description not only refers to a description of what is present, visible, and noticeable but also to an analysis of “operative concepts”. Intention and attribution, reduction, and variation are central operative concepts within phenomenology. Only by employing these concepts, one can move from a reconstruction of what is given to a constitution of sense, in the field of education as in any other.

Contemporary Approaches

During the 1980s and 1990s, new and genuinely phenomenological approaches were developed in German educational discourse. Besides Husserl and Heidegger, the new reference points become Merleau-Ponty, Waldenfels, Levinas, Derrida, and Foucault. Phenomena of sociality, corporality, responsivity, alterity, genealogy, and power have been made fruitful for phenomenological reflection on processes of Bildung and education. Within this discourse, special attention has been paid to Waldenfels’ philosophy of responsivity. In reference to Merleau-Ponty and to French poststructuralism, Waldenfels widens Husserl’s concept of intentionality through a phenomenology of corporality, foreignness, and “attentionality” (Waldenfels 2007).

By referring to Husserl’s concept of Lebenswelt, Wilfried Lippitz follows geisteswissenschaftliche, hermeneutic, phenomenological, and socio-theoretical perspectives and critically evaluates them. Following Merleau-Ponty, this endeavor brings Lippitz to a phenomenological definition of learning. To carry out his research, Lippitz redefines the method of description in a hermeneutic-phenomenological perspective under the term of “exemplary description” and, in doing so, refers to Fischer, Langeveld, and Buck. In later works, Lippitz focuses on questions of pedagogical ethics, which he connects to topics of foreignness and alterity. By referring critically to Levinas, he sketches out a relation to self and to the child and the intergenerational relation (which all carry opportunities for processes of Bildung) as ethical relation set in a horizon of alterity and foreignness (Lippitz 2003). Käte Meyer-Drawe also refers to Merleau-Ponty and his phenomenology of intercorporeality, in order to think intersubjectivity within re-learning or learning anew. Besides adapting Merleau-Ponty, she employs theories of Husserl, Buck, and Waldenfels, but also those of Plato and Aristotle and develops an influential theory of learning as experience and learning as a process of re-learning or learning anew. Meyer-Drawe critically examines psychological and neuroscientific concepts in a genealogical analysis. Thus, she is able to describe these approaches in their claims for omnipotence, their reductionism, their discursive power, and their definitional authority. She also succeeds in differentiating them from a pedagogical-phenomenological theory of learning (Meyer-Drawe 2001/1984). Malte Brinkmann makes the phenomenological orientation fruitful for a theory and research of pedagogical experience, by considering epistemological and methodological questions. Based on a phenomenological theory of practicing (Übung), he examines temporal and corporal experiences of power within learning and education by using video research (Brinkmann 2012).


The epistemological question of the subject matter and the core of pedagogy as a discipline and profession on the one hand and the methodological question of an adequate research method in connection with the operative terms of phenomenology on the other can already be found in Aloys Fischer’s Descriptive Pedagogy (1914). Both questions, the substantive and methodological, have become central to phenomenological educational science. Bollnow answers them in a way that is strongly anthropological and ontological in nature. The conservatism and traditionalism of Geisteswissenschaftliche Pädagogik that Bollnow generally affirmed was subsequently overcome by Buck’s theory of learning as experience, Loch’s curricular theory of education, and Schütz’ existential-critical approach. All three redefine learning, education, and existence differently. At the same time, the methodological difference separating the phenomenological approach from hermeneutic and social-theoretical methods becomes evident. The work of Lippitz, Meyer-Drawe, and Brinkmann define the pedagogical relation, educating, learning, and practicing (Übung) as experiences that are defined within the horizons of corporality, responsivity, foreignness, and power and thus differentiated from other approaches within the human sciences and in qualitative research more broadly.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Humboldt-Universität zu BerlinBerlinGermany