Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Phenomenology, Language, and the Unspoken: The Preverbal Dimension of Children’s Experience

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_96



The world of experience, which is the arena of phenomenological research and theory, is not the epistemological, clear world of rational thinking but the messy, entangled, and qualitative world of significations that are complex and hidden and have a pre-personal, latent, general structure. A non-epistemological undercurrent runs through human experience, which is difficult to unearth and raise to reflection. The unspoken in phenomenology does not mean that something cannot be said but that it escapes ordinary attention. In the following, we will explore some of the basic phenomenological insights about the implicit dimensions of perception and meaning and show how in children the unspoken plays out through the body, social life, space, and things and lived time.

Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), the founder of the phenomenological movement, used the example of a cube to illustrate the complexity of a perceptual act: even though we ever see only one side of an object, in our experience, the hidden, concealed sides or profiles are present as constituting absences as well. Without them the cube would not be a cube. Even the ground upon which the cube sits is an essential element of its structure. Situated in space, the cube exists in a web of relationships with other things that are close or distant. Things have dimensions or profiles that we do not perceive directly but that come into play in establishing their reality or being. Husserl spoke of the “fullness,” or the plenum of things, which upon close observation of the perceived world reveals itself. As soon as a thing appears as a figure before the larger background of other related things, places, and events – its horizon – we can no longer think of it as a discrete, closed-off entity. Since even its physical outlines are never completely present, a thing is always more than what meets the eye. It reveals some of its aspects and conceals others, and its existence as a physical object is tied into a larger, more or less perceptually present, web of meaning. Phenomenologists call this web of relationships that constitute the being of things the world and a thing within its worldly horizon a phenomenon (Husserl 1952, 1964, 1969).

If a brief phenomenological analysis of something so simple as a cube results in its appearance as a set of complex and infinite relationships, objects can no longer be defined as simple Cartesian res extensa, materialistic entities, or even Kantian concepts that can be circumscribed and known. Phenomenology begins with an “idealist” understanding of the world, i.e., a world that is as much idea as it is matter. Husserl’s great contribution was to place this idealism back into existence. His rallying call, “to the things themselves,” gave the phenomenological movement the task to investigate not merely the concepts of things, the Cartesian res cogitans, but how objects actually appear to human experience in their situated, spatial, temporal, and relational fullness.

In our ordinary, everyday experience of the world, we encounter our cube, for example, as the library building in our neighborhood. One person says “there is the library,” and the other replies “let’s go and check out a book,” and both assume that they refer to the same building in their shared landscape. Phenomenologists call this the natural attitude, which comprises a set of assumptions and habits, which let us function in the world. We take the world for granted as a world of discrete entities, which we can name and manipulate, and even other people and our own bodies are counted among them. The phenomenological attitude, on the other hand, attempts to go beyond the natural attitude through careful description and analysis of the way things, like the cube of the library building, appear to our experience. The goal is to reclaim more and more of the fullness of a thing’s being and to understand more of what it essentially is: hidden inside the cube is a collection of books on shelves, the repository of past human experience, coded in alphabetic notation, which needs to be disseminated into the minds of the next human generation in order to continue the cultural project which evolved in this location. The task of phenomenology as a research method is to systematically explore the fullness of things that is hidden behind our habitual knowing and understanding. Some of the concealed profiles belong to the perceptual world and others to history and culture. A thing is not a discrete and self-enclosed object but a complex and multi-related phenomenon. The unknown, the mysterious, the transcendent, and the unspoken is not somewhere else: it conceals itself in ordinary, everyday life. It is present as the halo of meaning around things. Some of it can come into awareness and language, but much of it remains concealed and unspoken. This play of presence and absence is at the heart of the phenomenological project, and it reveals itself in every simple act of perception.

The work of the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961) showed that perception and the body’s engagement with its environment are more primary than cognition, and epistemological capacities rest on the foundation of perceptual structures. Prior to concepts and language, human beings are embodied, perceptual beings (Merleau-Ponty 2012). A phenomenological analysis of embodiment shows that the perceiving body has its own nascent intelligence: we do not have to think how to conform our hand to pick up the smooth round of an apple or how to adjust our gait when walking downhill. The body has a precognitive knowledge and implicit rationality, and meaningful interactions with the perceived world can be found already in animal life. Perception − animal or human – has to be thought as a radically non-dualistic continuum between the body and its particular environment: the structures of perception and the structures of the perceived world belong together and form a whole. In his later work, Merleau-Ponty would call this intertwining of body and world the chiasm. The challenge, according to Merleau-Ponty, is to show how cognition and language arise out of the perceptual substructure of human existence and how thinking and speaking are shaped by and indebted to it.

Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of perception has been very productive for researchers in cognitive neuroscience, child psychology, and education. His question, “how do cognition and language come about?” led him to an intense interdisciplinary study of animal behavior and child psychology in order to understand the relationship between perception and thinking (Merleau-Ponty 2010). Child development offers a special lens through which to see the relationship between perception and the acquisition of symbolism and abstract cognition. Like animal consciousness, infant consciousness begins as perceptual consciousness, and child consciousness in general is closer to the perceived world than the adult mind. Merleau-Ponty provides us with an epistemological framework for understanding that human consciousness – in early human development and across cultures – can be structured differently than Western adult consciousness, which has been the unquestioned model of what it means to be human in Western philosophy. His challenge to cognitivism and Piagetian epistemology is to look at the child (and the adult) not only as an epistemological being that develops its thinking but as an ontological being that has a profound experiential relationship to others, places, things, and time. One way of summarizing this attitude is to say that ontology precedes epistemology: we are perceptual, meaning-seeking beings before we have logic and symbolism. Another way of capturing the primacy of perception is to widen our understanding of thinking toward a “wild thinking” or “nascent cognition,” where meaning and understanding, though differently structured, are already present in pre-symbolic animal behavior.

If we bring together the phenomenological insight into the fullness and concealedness of things and the search for pre-symbolic, perceptual, situated consciousness, a specific task arises for phenomenological psychology and pedagogy (Simms 2008). If the young child is primarily an experiencing being, what are the structures of child perception and cognition? How do developing human beings act within the horizon of the world that is meaningful to them? Merleau-Ponty and other phenomenologists have developed a hermeneutic strategy for exploring the complex field of human experience by focusing on some of its fundamental and irreducible structures: embodiment, social relationships, spatial situatedness, things, and temporality. Phenomenology, and particularly the phenomenology of childhood, explores the world as it is experienced, the life world: the lived body, the lived relationship with the other, the lived space and things, and the lived time. With respect to children:
  • The focus on the experience of the developing lived body reveals children’s perceptual, motor, and semiotic capacities (semiotic, meaning making).

  • The focus on the experience of lived social relationships reveals the entanglement of self and other within the growing circle of human relationships and the introduction of culture and language.

  • The focus on the experience of lived space and things reveals the physical environment as it intersects and structures perception, emotion, and cognition.

  • The focus on the experience of lived time reveals the rhythms of nature, relationships, and culture, which provide the larger framework for human development and history.

Body, others, space, and time are existential a prioris or facticities because their structure is foundational to all human experience. All human beings are embodied, social, temporal, and live in places, even though there is a wide variety in how these essential structures are taken up by individuals or by cultures. The experience of the body cannot be separated from the experiences of others, space, and time because they always appear together, but for the sake of understanding, we can train our lens on one or the other aspect.

The Body: The Preverbal Foundation

The body as lived and experienced is not the anatomical body, which is an abstraction and conceptualization that reflects the perspective of the body as seen from the outside by the other. The anatomical body is a scientific construct that homogenizes and standardizes the body. As a lived body, on the other hand, we can experience ourselves as “all ears” or “all thumbs,” or a toothache can concentrate bodily reality in one cheek and make it proportionally large. This principle of differential bodily signification becomes especially apparent in children’s drawings: if you tell young children to draw a soccer game, there is a good chance that the players in the drawings will have large feet and no or very undifferentiated hands; if you instruct them to draw children playing catch, the reverse is true, and hands will be large and fingers visible. Children’s drawings reveal that in the experienced body, size is not a matter of mathematical extensiveness but of signification: big people or body parts are more important than others in the experienced situation.

The lived body finds itself engaged with people places, and things and lives itself as an unreflected presence with them – unless its smooth transcendence and projection into the world as its action space is interrupted. A child follows the trajectory of a ball thrown to her, and her hands configure themselves to catch it. Her repeated practice in catching is not a cognitive, reflective act but the gradual adaptation of bodily structures to environmental events through repetition. Adults shape and define the meanings of children’s body parts and body actions intentionally: the girl might be forbidden to practice with the ball at all, or to run, or to venture outdoors because of her parent’s personal fears or cultural restrictions. Psychologically, the human body can have a more expansive or more limited perception of what it is able to do, and what kind of world it is competent in. Simone de Beauvoir (2011) saw the social training of girls into a limited body action space and the following loss of the sense of “can do” openness and transcendence as the key issue for women’s liberation. Bodies are disciplined and/or rewarded through situated, often subtle cultural practices within family, neighborhood, school, and peer group. But bodies can also be liberated through subtle reclaiming of gestures and action spaces. Merleau-Ponty thought that much of our bodily life is latent and hard to access consciously, but that the body is also the pivot where nature and consciousness meet.

Social Life: The Mystery of Self and Others

The latent dimensions of social life exert a powerful influence on human development from the very beginning. Prior to being independent individuals, human beings are born into social relationships. Infants come from a womb, and without the care of others, they do not flourish. Attachment, love, and desire form the trajectory that pulls the human infant toward the other. The earliest relationship with the other has a personal and a cultural dimension because it sets the patterns for how a particular child relates to the physical and social world, as we saw above.

A phenomenological analysis of the relationship of self and others reveals that the clear boundaries between them, which habitual consciousness presupposes, are not so clear after all. Merleau-Ponty (1948/2004) thought of self and others not as interior, self-enclosed entities but as unique styles of conduct in the world. Most of the time, the self is submerged in its activities and not aware of itself, and the other appears as a co-actor inserted into the fabric of a child’s world. But in early childhood, the self acquires the ability to sometimes look at itself as if through the eyes of the other and become self-reflexive and aware of its own unique being. Only if the self can look at itself from the perspective of the other can human beings acquire distance from the magical flow of the perceptual world and reflect and think about the world – and themselves. The self is indebted to the other because it receives its first nourishment, its name, its validation as a person, its ability to see possibilities and think, and its language through others. But it also receives the demands and injunctions of others and the distortions and injuries that socialization brings along the path of love. The other has a core that remains impenetrable, but even the self – because of its formation through the other and because it lives through a body – can never be completely self-transparent. Human beings will always have an irreducible gap or lacuna in them that is impenetrable to reflection and knowledge.

Space and Things: Moods, Play, and the Disciplining Power of Spatial Forms

Things, as we saw in our example of the cube, are not mere objects, but to experiencing consciousness, they are phenomena, i.e., focal entities within a horizon of meaningful relationships. This is particularly the case for children: early childhood transitional objects, like blankies or teddy bears, are experienced as animated and intentional and have a deep emotional presence. Things have a physiognomy, i.e., their perceivable and imaginary structure invites a child to respond and act. The bouncing ball calls the body to stretch out its arms and run forward, the small space under a drooping bush is irresistible and invites sitting quietly, the drawer wants to be opened and closed, the box needs something in it, and the long, smooth hallway beckons running and sliding. Things are evocative and they inspire different moods: comfort, excitement, uncanniness, and fear.

As a child, the writer Annie Dillard found an old dime in the alley behind her house, and she spent the next weeks digging up the alley in order to find more hidden treasure. She felt like an adventurer or treasure hunter on a quest. Her father had told her that old cities like Rome, where old coins can be found, were half buried under ground, and she kept digging deeper in order to find more of the treasures hidden in the earth. Children are often intensely sensitive to the hidden, secretive profiles of things, and their imaginative play responds to, brings out, and reveals possibilities that belong to the concealed dimensions of the fullness of the world (Van Manen and Levering 1996).

Things are the markers of place in the expansion of space, and they are related to other things through spatial nearness and distance. The phenomenology of lived space shows that space is structured as a horizon around the body. The body inhabits a particular place, the “here,” which through habitual daily engagement, becomes the center around which the nearness and distance of places is structured. The “here” is familiar, and the “there” is arranged in growing circles of distance and unfamiliarity around it. Lived space, however, is not homogenous in its extensiveness but consists of islands of familiarity that are independent of measured distance. The alley behind a person’s house can be the most distant and unfamiliar place because it does not exist on his or her experiential map, while a hotel room in a distant rainy city can quickly become too near and familiar.

Spatial forms, as we saw above, interact with the body and are the other side of bodily gestures: without the ground, there would be no upright gait; without things to reach for, there would be no hands; without the illumination of things through light, there would be no eyes. This intertwining of body and space implies that bodily consciousness can be shaped and manipulated through spatial arrangements. The arrangement of school furniture, for example, disciplines children’s bodies into gestures of solitary calmness, containment, and focused attention. Educational spaces are predetermined by adults and support the socialization of children into the knowledge and values of their culture (Langeveld 1983a,b). They are a good example of the preverbal communication between body and spatial affordances, and teachers and children usually participate in a habitual way without registering the coercive power of space.

The preverbal, spatial field provides the subtle but tangible encounter with a particular culture and its history: places and their things precede our individual lives and carry the material record of a culture’s past products, intentions, and values inscribed into their structures.

Lived Time Versus Clock Time

Lived, experienced time has a different flow than clock time. While the clock gives the illusion of time as a homogenous, forward moving stream from past to present to future, the phenomenology of lived time shows time to be experienced as nonlinear, fragmented, and tied to movement in space. Piaget’s observations and research showed that time for young children is tied to the sequence of events: his daughter complained that it could not be afternoon since she did not yet take her nap! Past, present, and future do not line up in a neat sequence but are entangled: the past can loom ahead and a future that was imagined can fall behind. The duration of time is not a matter of measure, but of the fullness of events.

The present. Young children assume that the present time is not homogenous for all beings but that each lives in its own time, which can shrink or expand depending on particular activities. Children – unreflective about themselves and turned toward the world – strongly sense the flow of ambient becoming, where things move through time alongside the child’s own being. To be in the present means to be co-temporal now and with others in action space. Children easily let go and forget what is no longer part of their direct experience of ambient becoming. In the world of the young, there is no central time master who assures that all are governed by the same abstract time frame.

The future. Children assume that the future does not continue infinitely: when a person has reached the fullness of her or his being, time seems to stop. Parents are just old and do not get older for a long time, and if I eat more, I will be older than my older brother. In children’s conception of time, growth is not homogenous and time not continuous. On a more visceral level, the young are directed toward the future in their desire for coming things. The range of the future, the width of its horizon, and the openness it provides to the child’s initiative are strongly determined by parental presence. The strength of the child’s reach toward what is coming has its foundation in the trust and hope a healthy adult environment inspires. Freedom for the child means to be granted the opportunity of meeting oneself in a future that is created, in safety, through one’s own initiative and imagination. The future is the realm of the possible, and it exists for human beings always as a purely imaginary dimension.

The past. Children participate in their culture’s past through family narrative and the education process. Family narratives shape children’s early memories of their own lives, and it becomes impossible to separate what a person remembers first hand from memories generated by intense, imaginative participation in other people’s narratives. Even the untold or repressed family stories are part of the total fabric of a person’s history. Narrative participation creates a sense of cultural belonging and allows the child’s life to transcend its own generation. In the education process, the child is inserted into the officially sanctioned narrative of a culture’s past. Education is the transmission of cultural memory accumulated by past generations.


The preverbal, unspoken dimension of human experience can be accessed through the rigorous process of the phenomenological method, which penetrates the veil of habitual, everyday, unreflected experiences and reveals the power of the interwoven structures of embodiment, social relationships, space, and time.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Duquesne UniversityPittsburghUSA