“What Is phenomenology?” Reduced & revised for clarity from 2003 article by Michael D’Aleo

Reduced and revised for clarity from “What Is phenomenology?”  Article written by Michael D’Aleo originally published in the Waldorf Science Newsletter, Volume 10, #19 Fall 2003. In 2017 the original still available at http://www.waldorflibrary.org/articles/597-what-is-phenomenology

Phenomenology is the way human beings come to understand the world through direct experience… (Littlejohn & Koss, 2011, p. 47)

… Phenomenology does not have its origin in Waldorf education. It comes from European Continental Philosophy of the late 17th and early 18th century.

While people familiar with Waldorf schools know Goethe (1749-1832) and Steiner (1861-1925) advocated such an approach, parallel efforts exist by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-1762), Johannes Mueller (1801-1858) and Edmund Husserl (1859-1938).

Q: Is Goethean-Seinerian Phenomenology limited to just a few dead geniuses?

A: Not at all. In reading the writings of any of the great historical scientists, one finds references to their process. They each saw a new “pattern of lawfulness” in repeated personal observations, lawful relationships-connections which had not been documented before; often, simply overlooked, often for decades.

Goethe-Steiner phenomenology in many ways advocates nothing at all new if we posit as natural and healthy two-pronged approach to expanding human knowledge: an objective experiential approach, an Outer Game component (documenting repeated objective observations); and, an Inner Game component (journals, drawings, diagrams, recorded voice notes casting about for new connections). This characterizes perhaps the most common method by which human knowledge expands.

Da Vinci’s phenomenology

A clear advocate for an experiential approach is found in da Vinci’s notebooks. He describes the difficulties he had with the scholars of his day. In his time, about 1600, much scholarly university activity and debate focused on how to interpret work left behind by Greek and Roman “masters.” Original, contemporary individual inquiry into real-time phenomena, into the world around them was not yet within the academic purview of 1600.

For example, in Galileo’s time the commonly accepted view of objects “naturally dropped” (simply dropped), was a heavier object will (can, must) fall faster than a lighter one.

Galileo wished not to take this on authority of the ancients. Thru careful experiments of his own devising, he considered the assertion to be only a testable theory. In his experiments, Galileo noticed inconsistencies. Through a combination of intuitions, thought experiments and actual demonstrations, he concluded all “heavy” objects (ignoring feathers, dust, etc.) fell through the same distance in the same time; and, each object’s speed (velocity) increased at the same rate. Furthermore, the rate of acceleration for both small and large weights was constant. This example is often used in the 10th grade Waldorf Physics block in the study of Mechanics.

In The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci as translated by Edward McCurdy (Reynal & Hitchcock, New York, 1938), the first entry reads:

[Rather than] quote from ancient authors as [contemporary] scholars do, it is a far bigger and more worthy thing to read by the light of experience, the instructress of their masters. [Contemporary scholars] strut about puffed-up and pompous, decked-out and adorned not with their own labors but with those of ancient others. They will not even my own labors [a fair hearing]. If they despise me who am an inventor, how much more should blame be given to themselves, who are not inventors but trumpeters and reciters of the work of others.

To use a word NOT of Da Vinci’s choosing, he applied “phenomenology,” keen objective observation backed up by intense internal Thinking and Feeling, towards perceiving “patterns of [already existing natural] lawfulness.”

Consciously observing the phenomena of the world, this is the starting point for the middle school science curriculum.

Phenomenology in middle school science

We begin with the premise all empirical knowledge must start with attending to sensory impressions. Every concept we form, be it in science or everyday life, must ultimately be based on a combination of sense impressions; which later, are elaborated (woven) into concepts.

No natural sensing is excluded from our observing. Sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. With practice, we may exercise additional sense impressions: our sense of motion, balance, thoughts, etc.

The foundations for such an approach to understanding the world, was outlined in depth by Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf educational methods, in his book The Philosophy of Freedom or Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path.

One of RS’s central themes in his book might be outlined in the following manner. When we experience a new or unfamiliar environment for the first time, we choose specific observations to focus on. Then mentally we remove (extract) these details from the whole of the environment [we limit our attention] to a finite number of sense impressions.

Having decided to focus on specific observations, we then find relationships or order within our observations. Relationships also appear between observations which have been separated out; and even, with the whole environment from which they were removed.

One can think of our observations as sense-based perceptions. The relationships we later perceive as thought-based conceptions. …

The fascinating part of the process outlined above is looking for relationships between our perceptions is not linear; nor, one which can always be arrived at through logic.

The process of finding the relationship for the first time is often referred to as “intuition.” Intuition is the process by which one first has an insight into a conceptual framework which can unite a given set of perceptions, or one set of perceptions with other concepts. This can be the “aha” or “eureka” experience we’ve all had, making sudden big new connections. In this moment a new relationship is perceived. Then and only then can logic be rightly applied to determine if the relationship will hold true in the context of other known relationships. This process of looking for new relationships among phenomena is a true activity of thinking. Contrast this with “thinking” defined as simple recollection of previously known facts.

Herein lies the biggest distinction between a phenomenological approach to science and more conventional educational approaches. In a phenomenological approach, one strives to give students a sensory experience of phenomena first; then, have them wrestle to connect within themselves perceived thoughts and feelings. Finally, have them bring their processed perceptions into order, ideally in an artistic product: journal, drawings, sculpture, music, theatrical play, etc. …

In this we invite students to compose-assemble their own conception of the world instead of relying on the world-view of dead people, regurgitating the past, as scholars in Da Vinci’s time were prone to do. …
The phenomenological process cultivates individual and powers and capacities necessary for independent-critical thinking. Thinking becomes an activity, becomes a verb, something dynamic and living.

Along conventional academic approaches, the laws or relationships are given initially. then the student is guided through a proof of why they are supposed to hold true. In this approach, students are not tasked to use their own thinking capacity in a healthy exercise. They simply need to follow a logical argument. They are not primed to have an original insight themselves as encouraged by a phenomenological approach. This is why in conventional education, thinking becomes mere data acquisition and data processing.

Goethean-Steiner phenomenological approach

What if almost every new idea and invention in science, resulted from a person consciously or unconsciously using a phenomenological approach?

Consider: a scientist considers an old concept, one passed down “as is” for decades. Suddenly our individual scientist perceives something new in the phenomena not represented in the existing-traditional concept. In this moment, the scientist leaves convention, stops viewing the problem thru old, fixed concepts. Instead, our individual becomes interested in new detail(s). They naturally desire to “make sense” of the new in light of the old–if possible.

This is precisely the kind of thinking we wish to lead students in a Waldorf school to. Whether they choose to become scientists later in life is immaterial. The sciences give everyone opportunity to flex their thinking muscles, develop capacity to see things anew, to enter existing situations, take stock of what is known, what is present now (make observations); and then, be free to uncover new relationships, connections forming new concepts of the whole of the situation. …

BIO (2003) ~ Michael D’Aleo teaches Physics and Physical Sciences at the Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs in Saratoga Springs, NY and is an instructor in the summer high school teacher-training program at The Center for Anthroposophy in Wilton, NH. After being a class for teacher for grades 6–8, he co-authored a book with Stephen Edelglass, Sensible Physics Teaching, a guide for teaching Physics in grades 6-8. Prior to teaching, Michael worked as a design and development engineer in the electronics industry and is listed as an inventor on seventeen U.S. Patents. He is currently the director of research for SENSRI, a non-profit scientific research group investigating methods and applications of phenomena based science.

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