ToP Phenomenology


1 - An Overview of Phenomenology as a Discipline

While phenomenology has roots in the work of Kant, Hegel and Brentano, the discipline as we

know it today was first formally announced by Edmund Husserl in his book, Logical

Investigations, in 1901 and more clearly described in Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology

and to a Phenomenological Philosophy in 1913. Philosophers key to the development of

phenomenology include Martin Heidegger, Max Scheler, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul

Sartre, Paul Ricoeur and a wide variety of others.

The word phenomenology is a combination of phenomenon and logos, the study of that which

appears to us. The purpose of phenomenology is to try to grasp the meaning of something

through reflection on our actual life experience. Phenomenology examines the full range of

human experience. It looks at physical sensations and perception, thought, memory, imagination,

emotion, desire, language, will and volition, action, and social activity. It can be used in the

formation of understanding, insight and meaning as well as more practical things like problem

solving, organizing and planning. The scope of issues, concerns and situations this methodology

can address is, therefore rather vast.

Phenomenology has taken many forms, often described as movements or traditions.

Transcendental phenomenology ‘stands beyond’ human experience to observe and describe it.

The existential movement is focused on the ontology of lived experience and ways of being in the

world. Hermeneutical phenomenology is concerned with meaning and interpretation. Ethical

phenomenology focuses on forms of responsibility and vocation as life purpose. When applied to

a professional discipline such as psychology, medicine, education, nursing or counseling, it is

called a phenomenology of practice. ToP methodology is one of many specific applications that

use the insights, approach and methods of phenomenology.

Martin Heidegger describes phenomenology by saying its purpose is to “ let that which shows

itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself.”1 This small sentence

points to three critical aspects that form the foundations of phenomenology as a discipline,

intentional focus, radical openness and methods of inquiry.

Intentional Focus

The first is intentional focus. It is referred to by phenomonologists as intentionality. In this usage,

the word intentional means our consciousness is always directed toward something, whether it is

as simple and direct as a traffic light or as ephemeral as an experience, a feeling or a memory. It

may be a concern, a question or an idea, but consciousness is always focused on something.

All human experience is grounded in "care." We show up in the world and we show up with care –

our consciousness is always focused on something, the things that are important to us. It is not

that we should care. There is no particular imperative to care, we just do. Care is an indicative –

the most foundational dimension of what it means to be human. To be is to care. To live is to

have concerns about our life, our family, our work and our world. These everyday cares are not

simply what we must live with, but they are the very places we find meaning and purpose in our

lives. It is within the multitude of the real cares in this world that each of us discovers what it

means to be human.

[1 Heidegger, Martin – Being and time p58]

That care can be described, because it always appears as care about something tangible in our

situation. Rudolph Bultman describes our normal care in stages ranging from the most basic care

for sustenance to our sense of duty and purpose.2 He says we are driven into life in the form of

these cares and life itself leaves them finally unfulfilled. Yet they remain, and we find ourselves

still focused on our concerns; things we care about. They may be internal, like the quality of our

character or ways to resolve a personal issue. They may be external like a concern about water

quality or a way to make a project more successful.

“The thing itself”, the specific concern, is the ground and focus of an inquiry. Our attention and

consciousness are brought to bear on a very real something we are concerned about and exists

within a socio-historical context. If an inquiry is to reveal something of significance, it begins with

a concrete, real aspect of our experience. We seek to gather what information we can about it as

it is and our experience of it.

For example, if we are concerned about the quality of our meetings, a group may reflect on the

experience of a difficult meeting, a so-so meeting, a great meeting and, most helpfully, all

varieties of our experience. We describe those real experiences and ground our conversations in

lived reality. Those specific experiences become our reference point for further examination of

what could improve meetings and choices about how we will conduct future meetings.

Radical Openness

The second is radical openness in which we let the focus of our inquiry “speak for itself in its own

way.” We examine it as it is without assumptions, presuppositions or expectations. We stand

aside from and examine conventional wisdom, allowing us to see life as it is. This "bracketing" or

“parenthisizing” all understanding of truth so the object of our inquiry can be described and

examined on its own merits is one of the core aspects of phenomenological inquiry. We make a

separation between our thoughts and our thinking. That is to say that we step aside from our

thoughts; so we can examine them in their appropriate context.

We stand aside from our assumptions about what constitutes an ideal chair, including the

common assumptions about construction, comfort and style, so we can focus on the chairs we

experience. We stand aside from various aspects of our life in order to observe, examine and

make new choices.

When we are involved in an inquiry, assumptions, judgments, theories, presuppositions, beliefs,

ready-made, pre-fabricated interpretations and solutions are all set aside in order to focus on the

object of the inquiry itself without interference. When we suspend our assumptions and

judgments, we move closer to the reality itself and are able to make much more direct contact

with our experience. When we objectify our feelings, preferences and expectations about

something, we can observe our relationship to a concern as it is rather than as we think it should

be. We become open to our own reality.

This suspension involves attention, listening and looking and is essential to exploration.

Suspension involves exposing reactions, impulses, feelings and opinions in such a way that they

can be seen and examined in relation to the topic. This suspension, then, allows them to be

examined as they are. There are several aspects of this intentional suspension.

We bracket all taken-for-grantednesses and the common social constructions of how we are and

should be. If we are to awaken a profound sense of wonder and look for the genuinely new in a

situation, we must let go of the ways we have interpreted reality. All clichés go by the wayside.

We let go of all the ways we have been taught we should feel about something. We intentionally

examine the connections and associations that are commonly made about something. When we

[2 Bultman, Rudolph – Essays: Philosophical and Theological – SCM Press, London, 1955]

do, we are able to be surprised and amazed. We are much closer to our own selves and our

interaction with the world. We are better able to discern what is new and fresh in the situation.

We bracket all of the current assumptions about a topic. We bracket the things we know or think

we know about the topic. It does not mean that we have know nothing, but that we hold what we

know up for examination and do not allow our previous judgments to affect what we actually see.

We engage in the inquiry as if there are no pre-existing explanations. We engage in the inquiry in

order to allow the situation itself to speak to us. In order to consciously surface and examine the

foundational aspects of a topic, we look at our understanding of reality without the filter of past

assumptions. Without the noise of our thoughts, we are able to be much more attentive to reality

and more open to discovery.

We bracket existing knowledge, theory, conclusions and solutions. If an inquiry is to be open, we

seek answers rather than beginning with them. We work through an inquiry without knowing the

resolution. We enter into ambiguity purposefully in order to form interpretations based on

examination of reality. We seek meaning related to the realities we have discovered. The purpose

of an inquiry is to explore possibilities for an appropriate resolution.

Metaphorically, we bracket or temporarily step out of our situation in the world and who we are in

order to understand it, envision its future and make choices about it. We recognize that we are

not fixed entities that never really change. When we do, possibility is open to us in ways that are

unhindered by current grasp of who we are. As we are able to see the world as our construction

of it, we are able to generate new ideas, thereby renewing and refreshing the way we understand

our world and ourselves. Phenomonologists call this an ontological reduction. As Jean-Paul

Sartre puts it, we must nihilate3 our current situation and enter into the open, reflective, value

forming, and choice-making dimension of ourselves.

More recently, David Bohm, Donald Factor and Peter Garrett used the idea of bracketing in their

paper, “Dialogue - A Proposal.” The methodology derived from Bohm’s work is often called “Open

Dialogue. They use the term “suspension” to describe this activity.

‘What is essential here is the presence of the spirit of dialogue, which is, in short, the

ability to hold many points of view in suspension, along with a primary interest in the

creation of common meaning’4

Radical openness is one of the key conditions for an open inquiry. Without it, it would be a closed

inquiry, susceptible to leading us to believe a certain predetermined thing, live our lives in a way

that is already defined or make choices that were articulated, even tacitly, prior to the

conversation. It would be like beginning a problem-solving session with an answer rather than a

question. Without this phenomenological reduction, we fall prey to ideologies and misuse of

dialogue as a sneaky form of persuasion.

Methods of Inquiry

The third, methods of inquiry, focuses on the processes used to explore a topic. It combines what

phenomonologists call eidetic and hermeneutic reductions. Reduction, from Latin reducere, ‘to

lead back’, points to a series of reflective steps that leads one to grasp the core characteristics,

meaning and significance of a topic.

[3 “Nihilate” is the English translation of a word invented by Sartre. Not found in any dictionary, it means,

“to make nothing” or to intentionally take something out of being.]

[4 Bohm, D., and Peat, D. (1987) Science, order, and creativity, New York: Bantam. The work of Bohm and

his colleagues has done a great deal to popularize the formation of the phenomenological attitude.]

It begins with what is termed a methodological reduction in which each inquiry is viewed and

approached as unique and methodological approaches are developed for each unique situation.

We begin with the human concerns we are considering and the core questions we are trying to

answer. There is no single, universal set of steps to go through. In keeping with the nature of the

discipline, the specific steps, procedures and questions are only found in relation to the nature

and purpose of the inquiry itself.

Kierkegaard said, ”I always reason from existence, not toward existence, whether I move in the

sphere of palpable fact or in the realm of thought. I do not, for example, prove that a stone exists,

but some existing thing is a stone.” Husserrel talks about ‘being as experience.’ What he calls

the ‘principle of all principles’ goes, “Every originary presentive intuition is a legitimizing source of

cognition, that everything originarily offered to us in intuition is to be accepted simply as what it is

presented as being, but also only within the limits in which it is presented there.”5 Memory,

associative mental connections, imagining, and other similar acts of thought can reveal as much

about the world as the objective observations and experiences to which they are related.

That is all to say that objective and subjective information both have real validity within a given

contextual framework and that various forms of information must be seen as they present

themselves to us. We grasp the world through not only observations from our five senses, but

also our sensual, emotive and relational experience of it. We take all of our observations,

perceptions, feelings, memories, associations, hopes, fears and desires into account as we

approach any topic. At this stage of an inquiry the focus is on the most basic information needed

to resolve the questions we have posed.

An approach to gaining greater insight into something has been called ‘imaginative free variation’

in which we examine a variety of related ideas. We take aspects of what we perceive and

substitute corresponding alternatives allowing us to see the essential character of our focus.

Extrapolation of possibilities is another approach to discovering meaning in a topic of concern.

One steps beyond the obvious and imagines what might be possible and generate options. One

may place the focus on understanding the key aspects of something. Questions are posed that

attempt to isolate and identify the core meaning and significance. Thematic analysis as a

phenomenological approach to qualitative research seeks to discover the essential elements of

something. This involves listing all the elements one can discover, coding them into categories

and synthesizing them into themes that, together, present a whole understanding of the topic in

question. An anthropologist or a sociologist may be searching for the core understandings and

practices of a specific culture or cultural phenomenon, for example. An educator might do the

same in order to discover the ways children learn.

Finally, one must actually describe what has been gained or discovered in the exploration and

determine its implications. Obviously, this will take a wide variety of forms. In some cases, the

result is pure description of the phenomenon called a structural description. In others, it may be

the selection of an option or the synthesis of several possibilities in one model. It may involve

making personal choices or recommendations for social policy. In some cases, the description

takes the form a literary narrative or a poem or a work of art as Heidegger suggested in his later


[5 Husserl]

2 – The Journey toward ToP Methodology

ToP methodology is applied phenomenology, what has been termed a ‘phenomenology of

practice’ and ‘experiential phenomenology.’ Since its inception and because of its contentless

nature, experiential phenomenologyit has been applied to a wide variety of professional fields.

While its roots were in academia and it is used in research and writing projects in many fields, it

has been applied to in many professions as the major approach to their practice. The earliest was

psychology and psychiatry, closely followed by education, various aspects of health and medicine

as well as community and organizational development, management consulting and many others.

ToP methodology has been primarily focused on organizational and community development and

public consultation, dialogue and engagement. A consistently applied approach to

phenomenology led to the formation of a unique methodology through a series of major steps.

This description focuses on the formation and development of ToP as applied phenomenology.

The Human Factor

The Regions of Being

One perspective on this comes from Jean Paul Sartre, who talks of two ‘regions’ of being, “Being-

in-itself – l’etre en-soi” and “Being-for-itself - l’etre pour-soi.” In talking about regions, he is using a

spatial metaphor in order to articulate a mental model of human consciousness.

“Being-in-itself – l’etre en-soi”

“Being is. Being is in-itself. Being is what it is.”6

We are given life and we are exactly who we show up in the world being. Heidegger uses the

term ‘thrown’ to indicate it is as if we are randomly catapulted into our given situation. Being-in-

itself is our very existence, the totality of our givens at any moment, that which is. It is what it is

and does not even have the capacity to be anything other than what it is. It is substantial and real.

It is our circumstances – the facts of our lives – the events that happen in our world. It is our

history and life experience. It is the objective reality of our lives at any given moment. It’s my

profile and my history. This is me as an entity; a human person.

In the cartoon, Popeye the sailor says, “I am what I am and that’s all that I am. I’m Popeye, the

sailor man.” He can, in that statement, only see himself as he exists. He is aware that he exists,

but rather than reflectively intend to be a sailor, he simply takes his givenness as his identity. He

makes no claims to self-consciousness or any possibility of creating himself.

Consciousness in this region of being is directed toward the immediacy of living in the moment. It

is not self-reflective and no aware of itself as a consciousness. Our awareness is in itself and

limited to navigating our way through life. It can be intelligent and it can be honed through

experience, but it is entirely in itself.

“Being-for-itself - l’etre pour-soi.”

“The being of consciousness is a being such that in its being, its being is in question.”7

We live in the world in our own situation impacted by the events around us. This happens at the

most mundane and specific level as well as, and in dynamical interaction with a “meta” or global

level. That experience triggers within us an internal crisis and raises questions for us at the most

existential level. We seek to escape from those questions, and we can take an authentic

[6 Jean-Paul Sartre – Being and Nothingness – Washington Square Press - 1941]

[7 Jean-Paul Sartre – Being and Nothingness – Washington Square Press - 1941]

relationship to them. Being-for-itself, the self-conscious, relationship-taking dimension of our life is

activated. It is non-substantial, fluid, moving and changing in dynamic ways related to the

situation and choices we make. It is, as Sartre puts it, a “nothing”; in that it is pure possibility. It is

pure dynamic activity. Being-for-itself, - “pour-soi” is the self-consciousness that allows us to

transcend the givens of our situation. It is the self-conscious relationship I take to the objective

reality of my life. It is, as Kierkegaard says, the relating itself.

If we are to alter our relationship to our situation, our current identity and sense of who we are

has to be let go; so ‘being-for-itself’ can take the stage. It is only being-for-itself that can do that.

We step into an empty space every time we contemplate, make and act on a self-conscious

choice. We continually recreate our self, our beingness all the time. These dynamics of being

interact all the time because being is alive. Our being is constantly striving to be a self. As it does,

the ‘in-itself’, our presence in the world, changes. It dies and is reborn in a new form. It is the

activity of self-conscious living. Sartre says we do this as a “presence-to-self” in that we have the

capacity to stand aside from our selves, observe what we are feeling, thinking, doing and

choosing as we do it.

So being-in itself is the thing itself, be it the self or something in the world. It is what it is, whatever

it is and has its own characteristics and properties. Being-for-itself is the attitude or relationship I

take to the object of my consciousness. In the ToP approach to phenomenological inquiry, we

look at the object of our focus as it is and begin by simply describing what we grasp with our

senses. When we metaphorically step back from it, we activate the consciousness of being-for-

itself to discover and articulate our relationship to it. We step beyond basic consciousness to

become conscious of our relationship to the reality of our focus. This fundamental human

capacity enables us to transcend our immediate situation and reflect as a self-conscious person.

The Dynamics of Being

Another of the earliest sources for what we know as ToP methodology came for the work of

Soren Kierkegaard. In Sickness unto Death, he says,

“The Self is a relation, which in relating it to itself and willing itself to be itself, is grounded

transparently in the power that posits it.”8

The sentence can be broken down into 3 distinct parts.

 Beginning - The Self is a relation,

 Middle - which in relating it to itself and willing itself to be itself,

 End - is grounded transparently in the power which posits it.

We will look at this through these ideas.

The Self is a relation

I have always though of myself as a guy descended from European peasants, born to a farm

family with a certain history, shaped by specific influences, possessing certain characteristics,

[8 This shortened sentence summarizes Kierkegaard’s thought. The original, much more complex statement

is “Man (a human person) is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a

relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that relation (which accounts for it) that the relation

relates itself to its own self; the self is not that relation, but (consists in the fact) that the relation relates

itself to its own self.” He concludes by saying, “This then is the formula which describes the self when

despair is completely eradicated - by relating it to itself and by willing itself to be itself, the self is grounded

transparently in the power which posited it.”]

abilities and beliefs. I have done and said certain things and have formed certain relationships

with others. I can be described physically, historically, psychologically and sociologically at any

point in my life. I live out of social and cultural narratives, norms and routines. I try to improve my

situation by doing things that will alter some of the factors. I go to university, get a job and build a

family. I am defined by the world’s standards. That’s me in the world. It’s me in my situation at

any moment. Any perceptive observer can say a lot about me and that description can be

exhaustive and detailed. This self is a noun and exists as a fact within a social context.

Kierkegaard says,” The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self. . . .” and later in the

sentence he says, “. . the self is not that relation, but (consists in the fact) that the relation relates

itself to its own self.” Another way to say that might be that the Self consists in the fact of the

activity of relating to itself. Relating is a non-physical activity that makes connections, forms

attitudes toward and exercises will. So the Self exists in an act of consciousness. The idea that

who I am not that person, but an act of consciousness is a lot harder for me to grasp. If I am not

the sum of the aspects of my situation, who am I?

When my father died, I realized I would have to take on a different role in the family. I was able,

with no substantial effort on my part, to view the person I had been, envision the demands that

would be placed on me and see that I would need to be different. It happened in a flash and it

happened over a period of about a month. The death was the catalyst that activated an existential

question in my life. It was not the me in that situation, but my inner self who raised the question

about who I was to be and my relationship within our family. I discovered my Self within myself or,

to put it another way, a deeper dimension of myself. Looking back, I discovered, at that point, that

I was free to make some choices; that I could direct my will from a deeper place.

This Self is a verb. The Self that I am is a self-conscious, dynamic, living reality that forms

intentions. When I reflect on myself in the world, I am metaphorically standing outside my self-in-

the-world looking at my self in as I am in the world. I can observe my activities, characteristics

and experience and the ways I have been with others. I can see what is happening around me

and I can sense my own reactions to the events in my life and in the world around me. I like some

things. I am fascinated by some and appalled by others. I form certain ideas and make certain

choices. The “I” that is the Self is self-conscious and that consciousness is the central

characteristic of being a Self. That is the Self that relates to myself in the world and can move

beyond myself as I am now.

Acts of Self-consciousness

Kierkegaard describes two movements in the process of becoming what we might call a realized

self.. We don’t just run out and become a fully realized “self” straight away. There is no instant

spirit in a box, just add water, here. For Kierkegaard, it’s a two-act play and they are acts. He

uses spirit and self as active words, because they represent activities of the self. Our deepest self

is not a noun, but a verb. It is not a “being” like being a certain thing or a certain person, but “be-

ing” like a dynamic activity or a process. It has two aspects, attentionality and intentionality.

Act 1 – Attentionality - the self relates itself to itself.

In Act 1, the self faces the reality of itself in its personal and social context. This has to do with

observing and understanding ourselves, grasping the realities of our situation and our responses

to it. We look at how we react and respond to it. We look at our situation in our family, with our

friends, our workplace and colleagues, our profession and career, our life in our community and

society. We observe what is happening and gain a sense of our lived experience. We seek to

gain a sense of our feelings and attitudes toward our situation. We seek to understand how we

have related to the various aspects of our life. We look our life right in the face and acknowledge

our situation as it is. It is not an easy thing to do and often takes a lot of time; plenty of prods and

is often triggered by a crisis or the surfacing of an existential question in our lives. In as much as

we do it with honesty, we say yes to our situation. We may not like everything we see or discover,

but we acknowledge our situation as it is and grasp the naturally occurring indicatives of our

reality. John Baggett, in “Times of Tragedy and Moments of Grace”, talks about this step as “the

willingness to face reality.”

Attentionality is paying attention to life as it confronts me in my situation. We pay attention, give

attention and we attend to our situation. When we examine facts about a topic, so we can see

each topic and situation as it is. We recall the events and activities in our life experience as they

actually happened. We grasp the realities of our situation. We also step beside our immediate

experience to note our reactions and immediate responses, the feelings, connections and

associations we naturally make as we are confronted with the reality in our situation. We are

exercising our attention.

Act 2 – Intentionality - the self wills itself to be itself.

In Act 2, the self actually embraces reality and, stepping beyond acknowledgement, affirms one’s

real situation and decides to live in that reality in particular ways. We bring the major pivot points

in our lives into alignment. Our foundational understandings become related to the every detail of

conscious life. Our values are reflected in our thinking, organization and action. We actually

intend to be the person we are in the situation we are given. Baggett calls this act “the grace to

embrace reality.” We say yes to being the Self that is in this situation.

In this act we form our most foundational attitudes and intentions toward our real situation in the

world. This act forms our will. We make choices and decisions. This is where the deepest

“change of mind” takes place. Our most foundational images of the world, our identity and the

most core attitudes that shape our decisions and actions are formed in this act.

This Self is free to direct its will. We take it for granted that history is created. We know our

actions on a micro and macro level shape our world and our situation. As we develop strategies

and approaches to our own life situation, our workplaces and the world’s socio-economic-cultural

challenges, we catalyze and see changes take place. We know it. We see it. We know we are not

simply fated to evolve in either a willy-nilly or a specifically predetermined manner. We know, like

we have never known in human history that we can make a profound impact on the way our world

is shaped in the future. Without directing our will, we flow along with the stream of ordinary life

without much reflective self-consciousness, bound by the narratives and conventions of our


Intentionality is taking a relationship to and taking initiative in responding to life as it confronts me.

We are more than beings composed of body, soul and faculties. We are thinking, willing,

ceaselessly in pursuit of life in some specific, concrete form. We are forever choosing among a

vast array of possibilities open to us at any moment. We are always pursuing our selves, finding

ourselves, projecting our self toward a new self forged out of the possibilities of the present. We

live in intentionality, in a never-ceasing process of tending toward the future through our choices.

Intentionality is grasping life’s imperatives and forming them into self-conscious intentions toward

our situation in the world. To live humanly is to be in a crisis of decision at every moment

The always-present capacity for active self-consciousness, to perceive, reflect, interpret and

make choices is a dynamic force that is alive. We are that intensified consciousness, the

relationship-taking capacity toward our givenness at any given moment in any situation. To lead

an authentic life, a person must choose a life, not live one merely shaped by the world. To be

human is to participate intentionally in shaping one’s future.

The self is grounded transparently in the power which posits it

As a Christian theologian, Kierkegaard is talking about the Christian God. He does not say so

directly, nor does he say we must make any specific confession of belief or that we must act in a

certain way, because his focus is to describe the activity that eradicates despair and gives us

authenticity. Indeed, he says we are grounded transparently, without conditions or external


When we go through those movements or processes, we act in ways that allow that which gives

us life and takes it away to come through everything we do. We become authentically and

unconditionally connected with, oriented toward and rooted in that reality which placed us in our

situation as self-conscious beings.

We step beyond and are unbound from the forces that keep us in a state of separation and

despair. We can face our life and our situation with a clean slate. We grasp ourselves as

unconditionally accepted as we are and free to make new life choices. Our orientation is toward

the future.


ICA’s founders in the Faith and Life community used and developed methodologies of

participation through adult education and training work beginning in the 50’s. Their work began in

the classroom where the origins of a unique phenomenological approach to teaching and

experiential learning took shape. It involved presentations, individual and group study, and group

discussion and was focused on the full cycle of learning, insight, spirit formation and action.

Twentieth century theologian Rudolph Bultmann worked with sacred literature in an effort to

enable people to find real meaning in texts that were written in mythological language and based

on the worldview of bygone eras. For people in the 20th century, things like a three-story universe,

a snake talking to a woman, fruit that illuminates the knowledge of good and evil, God writing on

stone tablets with fire, virgin birth, resurrection, ascension into heaven and sitting on a throne in

the sky simply do not compute in a contemporary understanding of the world. It is equally true for

the idea of a rainbow coloured snake shaping and populating the land, waters and sky of

Australia. Can we really imagine Hanuman, a monkey God, flying to Lanka to defeat Ravana, the

personification of evil, and rescue Sita, the symbol of goodness and purity. Does it make sense to

us in the 21st century that the Sumerian god, Enki or Ea, a fish that sometimes walks on land in

human form created the first human out of mud? Bultman was very clear that mythologies of all

faiths can have relevance and meaning in our moment in history, but the metaphors in

mythological language often prevent us from seeing them in ways we can take them seriously.

The purpose of mythology is to tell a story in a way that the unworldly and divine appear as

worldly and human; to bring transcendent into our everyday reality.

He, along with others, created a new method of interpretation or “hermeneutics” in order to

understand sacred literature as relevant for people living out of the urban, scientific and secular

view of the world in the 20th century. He used a phenomenological approach to deconstruct

sacred literature into layers of meaning in terms of one’s life situation, describe their meanings in

historical context and demythologize the language and symbols, translating them into existential

understandings that have meaning and application in contemporary life. Bultman’s

methodological approach to demythologizing drew heavily on the hermeneutical and existential

phenomenology of Martin Heidegger. If we are to derive meaning from sacred literature and

mythology or, for that matter, any text or work of art, we must go through a process that enables

us to find truth that addresses our real, existential questions and illuminates meaning and

significance in our lived lives.

Fred Gealy9, in an essay called “Encounter and Dialogue”, suggests we begin our dialogue with

sacred literature by first asking what the writer actually says, allowing authours to speak for

themselves rather than beginning with our beliefs, assumptions or someone else’s interpretation.

We let them “have their say.” We look for the actual words and phrases themselves.

He then says we need to ask what happened in the story, because much of the world’s sacred

literature takes a narrative form. We break out the steps taken and find the elements of a given

story or passage. What were the events? He calls them “happenednesses.” He asks us to look at

the historical, economic, political, social and cultural context. What was really going on? We find

the objective occurrences and set them in context. We are called upon to isolate and identify the

human dynamics in the story.

His next step suggests that we ask our own questions. In light of what happened in the stories,

we surface the questions that are raised in our own very real lives today, the “existential

questions” that strike deep into the core of our beings and raise foundational questions about our

very nature. These are the questions that do not go away. They trigger an inquiry or a search for

the answers that will enable us to self-consciously shape our lives. We draw relationships

between the happenednesses and our own situation. It is easy to see this as two distinct steps.

The first is a reflective self-examination. The second is relating our own life experience to the


It is only then, Gealy says, that it is appropriate to ask about the message we take from the story

or text. How does it impact me in my real situation? How do I come up with answers to the

questions I face? How do I determine my sense of identity and purpose? It is these pressing

questions that focus the message and make it personal. It is the answers that provide a

framework for authentic meaning and significance for each person.


One of ICA’s study methods is Charting. “How to Read a Book”10 by Mortimer J. Adler and

Charles Van Doren describes four levels of reading.

1. Elementary reading, which involves basic reading skills like vocabulary and grammar. At

this level, we become literate; so we can understand what is being said.

2. Inspectional reading, which they describe as “skimming systematically.” It is a very quick

look in order to gain an overview.

3. Analytical reading is reading in depth for the sake of understanding.

4. Syntopical reading or comparative reading in which the reader seeks to analyze a topic

through the reading and analysis of several works.

Charting was developed primarily from levels two and three. Without going into great detail, it

begins with their level two, skimming the given work and highlighting key words, phrases and

ideas. In the section on analytical reading, Adler and Van Doren advocate creating an outline of a

book. Their examples of outlines follow the traditional, vertical format.

In ICA’s application, the page is turned on its side in order to create a horizontal outline or a

‘chart.’ In an essay, for example, one numbers each paragraph in sequence. A horizontal line is

drawn a third of the way down the paper and that line is divided into the number of paragraphs in

the essay or the chapters of a book. This immediately creates a graphic that allows one to see

the whole of the essay in one ‘picture.’

[9 Gaely – While there were many specific approaches taken to this form of phenomenological

hermeneutics, Professor Gaely’s description is a good example of the process as it has been applied.]

[10 How to Read a Book]

The key words and ideas in each paragraph are written under the line. This is done quickly by

skimming; so one can get a sense of the whole work. The next major step is to find the major

sections within the work. Each section will focus on a distinct topic. The sections are given titles

that reflect the major focus or point. Often these sections can be combined, so a long essay may

be made up of several major topics and each major topic may be made up of sub-topics. This will

provide the reader with a unified image of the major points the authour is making in the given

work. Finally, the whole work is given a title that summarizes what the authour is saying. This has

been referred to as a “topical” chart. As Gaely says, speaking of reading the Christian New

Testament, “Integrity demands that we attempt to discover, impartially, what Matthew, Mark, Paul,

John and Luke have to say – to allow them to speak for themselves.” The Baghavad Gita or the

Torah or a novel by James Joyce can be viewed in the same way.

The same work may also be charted functionally. That is to say, one identifies the role and

function each part plays in the whole in order to understand the structure of the writer’s thought.

This facilitates a deeper understanding of the authour’s thought structure. It would be a very

useful too for literary criticism, analysis and interpretation.

Likewise, following Adler and Van Doren’s approach, one can create a ’propositional’ chart. In this

form, one works through the sections and states the authour’s points in their own words. Finally,

one creates what has been called an existential chart in which the reader describes the impact of

each part and the whole on their own life. These have been called “levels” in the charting

process, as each level reveals more to us.

Charting enables a state of openness as we set aside or ‘bracket’ all previous understanding,

suspend our assumptions, and prepare to listen. One looks at what is actually being said in order

to allow the writer to reveal new insight and make an impact on the reader. It is at that point that

one is prepared to relate to the work contextually and existentially. The reader allows their being

to be altered in the encounter with another and describes the impact of the ideas and the choices

they believe they must make.

The Seminar Methodology

The combination of demythologizing and charting led to what has been called the seminar

methodology. Its primary use was applied to the group study of books and essays. Briefly, the

method involves several steps.

 A seminar begins with an objective text like an essay or a chapter from a book.

 The group creates a topical chart.

 The individuals in the group express their intuitive impressions and reflective responses.

 Together the group explores the context and engages in interpretative dialogue.

 Individuals and, perhaps the group as a whole, determine the significance for their own

life, their decisions and commitments in relation to the topic.

The charting step begins the seminar with each person creating a chart of the essay. This is

usually done solitarily; so each individual does their own work and works through the essay on

their own. The facilitator then works with the whole group to create a common topical chart that

serves as a point of reference for the rest of the seminar. In this step, individuals share the key

words and ideas as well as they way they divided the article into sections as well as their titles for

the various parts of the paper. The group is able to quickly grasp the basic content of the article

and summarize it. It enables the authour to “have their say.”

Following this, group discussion begins and progresses through the sections of the article. The

facilitator guides the conversation enabling the participants to explore initial impressions,

associations and responses. Once people are clear about what the authour is saying and they

become conscious of their response, the discussion moves to interpretation.

In this stage, the context is explored and individuals express insight into the meaning,

significance and implications of the article’s message in relation to their own existential questions.

They engage in contextual interpretation. If the group is one that has a common sense of identity

and purpose, they will likely discuss an article as it impacts them and their work together as well

as interpreting it as individuals. A group of random individuals, such as a class, will likely focus on

the meaning for them individually. The final step involves questions that enable each individual to

determine the impact of the ideas on their own lives and make their own decisions in relation to it.

Tthe primary leadership role was teacher, often referred to as a ‘pedagogue.’ It was a distinctly

new approach to teaching in that it was highly participatory and the teacher adopted methods of

engaging the students in self-examination and dialogue that led to insight and its application in

one’s life.

The Conversation Method

These processes are not in any way restricted to the study of academic texts, sacred literature

and mythology. They can also be applied to poetry, narrative literature art and music as a way of

exploring what it means to be human. Susanne Langer explored the human mind's continuous

process of meaning making through the power of “seeing” one thing in relation to another. She

said there is a basic and pervasive human need to symbolize, to invent meanings, and to invest

meanings in one’s world. In some cases, meaning is signified through language and some cases,

it is expressed through dreams, myths, rituals, visual arts, literature and poetry. She saw power in

the arts that can release feeling, insight and vision.

Through art, we are able to ‘experience our experience’ because of its capacity to trigger

reflection. She said, “The arts objectify subjective reality and subjectify outward experience of

nature.” By nature, she was pointing to our experience in the world. We become conscious in

distinct ways in our interaction with the arts. When we interact with art, we participate in a

‘trialogue’ including the artist, the work and ourselves as the observers. As we look or listen, we

observe not only the work of art, but our own interior responses. We take in the elements and we

note our surprise, revulsion or delight. Bringing our responses and intuitions to consciousness

enables us to more deeply feel the experience and peel back the layers to discover meaning.

As this method was developed, various art forms were used as the concrete beginning point for

conversations that enabled participants to see themselves more clearly through interaction with a

work of art. Painting, sculpture, poetry, narrative literature, drama and film were all used as

gateways to insight, and as a vehicle through which people are able to relate to their life situation.

The methodology, in this case, takes the form of a conversation that guides people through the

layers of meaning.

The conversation begins with a clear object of focus and explores an individual’s perceptions,

responses and associations as a gateway to profound reflection on the dimensions of ones own

life illuminated by the particular art form. Similar to the Seminar Method, it began with something

tangible like a poem, a story, a painting, sculpture or a movie. People respond to questions that

allow them to observe the object of their focus and articulate what they actually heard or saw in

the same vein as allowing an authour to “have their say.” Subsequent questions enable one to

look just as seriously at their own responses, feelings, memories and associations triggered by

the work as well as the personal questions that are raised for them. That reflection provides the

platform of exploring insight and meaning and leads to deeper understanding and substantial


Developed in the later 50’s, it became known as the “Art Form” conversation.” It has been used in

a myriad of ways with many and varied beginning points and topics over the years and is now

known as the Focused Conversation Method. It was this method that most clearly and simply

crystallized a unique method of inquiry involving successively deeper questions.

As such, it reveals the core methodology most clearly. This application of phenomenology

focuses on lived experience and the challenges associated with it ranging from the most pressing

existential questions we face all the way to the most practical problems we are driven to solve in

our daily life and work. It has been used within, beside and apart from faith contexts and yet

enables the kind of in-depth conversation most often associated with crafting a life of authenticity.

The Workshop Method

In the early 1960’s, ICA moved to a ghettoized inner city neighbourhood in Chicago and

expanded its focus to include participatory community development. Most of ICA’s work and

application of phenomenological methods had been focused on what Karl Mannheim calls

‘substantial’ thought. In its rational form, these are acts of thought that reveal insight into a

situation. This is the kind of thinking we do when we are trying to understand something, clarify

our situation, build mental models or define our goals for something. The irrational form of

substantial thought, he says include things like impulses, urges, emotions and wishes that are

not, in themselves, related to logic. Irrational thought would extend into areas like faith and

experiences of ecstasy. The methods of study, reflection and discussion practiced by ICA were

almost entirely of this nature.

Mannheim also described what he termed ‘functional’ thought to describe the way we think when

we are engaged in practical planning. Forming a sense of purpose, and setting goals would be

considered substantial thinking. Once we begin thinking of how to do something, we enter into

functional thinking. The rational aspect of this would focus on the small, simple plans we make as

we navigate our way through daily life. It extends to large complex plans made by groups and

organizations. As we face and as we carry out plans at every level, things break into our world of

experience to disrupt our carefully ordered thinking.

In the earliest days, because of the nature of their work, our colleagues placed their focus on

what Mannheim calls substantial thought. The purpose was to enable a process of insight and

spirit formation. The same core methodology is applied, in its own way, to functional thought. It

was one of the ‘giant’ steps taken along this journey and it happened quite naturally when the

question was raised of how to relate to our world and our situation in an authentic way.

The earliest examples of the process that evolved into the ToP Consensus Workshop Method

happened in the early to mid 60s. In order to understand the situation in this ghettoized

community, residents were asked about the practical, life problems they faced. The original

question raised for residents was, “What problems are you facing in your life in this community?”

The central question was focused on the real cares and concerns of the people in that situation.

The core phenomenological principles and methods were applied to the practical, concrete

challenges and activities of engaging residents in the wholistic development of their own


The immediate result was an overwhelmingly long list that covered every aspect of living in an

inner city community. The challenge was to make sense of this long list of urgent issues and

human concerns. The phenomenological step taken was to find specific concerns could be

clustered to reveal a larger issue. As they looked at the list, they were able to find sets of

problems that were similar to each other in their basic character. When they were able to say,

“This one is like this one”, they began to isolate larger issues. Through an iterative series of

steps, the group created what was called a “problemat”, a single, complex way of identifying the

core issues facing the community. Once the community gained a deeper grasp of the key

concerns, a similar process was used to develop responses and solutions to the key problems

they experienced.

As they examined these key concerns, they began asking how they related to each other. What is

the human experience of each of these core issues? What is it like to live with this issue? Which

ones were clearly related or connected? Which of these concerns generated other problems?

Which presented barriers to healthy, productive living? How do these concerns affect each other?

What keeps theses problems alive and active? Over time, this process revealed many insights

about the challenges of living in this inner-city neighbourhood. By asking how this community’s

experience was similar to other inner-city communities, the group was able to describe what it

meant to live as a person in this kind of social setting and generated a great deal of insight into

the practical sociology of inner-city life.

Using Kenneth Boulding’s insight that human behaviour is guided by one’s most basic images of

themselves in relation to the world, the question of how people in this situation view themselves

was raised. As a community made up almost entirely African Americans who recently migrated to

Chicago from the rural south and were affected deeply by their history of slavery, segregation and

discriminatory practices, the pervading self-image was one of being a helpless victim without the

possibility or power to affect their situation in a positive way. The exercise of actually participating

in dialogue and discussion of their real lives and experience and generating their own solutions

enabled people to see themselves in entirely new was as people who could make a real

difference in their own life situation.

This rather remarkable three-step process has become one of the key aspects of ToP


The initial step in this process is what has been termed brainstorming; a creativity technique

popularized by Alex Osborn in this 1953 book Applied Imagination. Osborn said brainstorming

should address a specific, open-ended question because multiple questions in a brainstorming

session will lead to unrelated responses and closed-ended questions do not require a brainstorm.

He said we should focus on quantity, assuming a greater the number of ideas generated will lead

to a greater chance of producing a radical and effective solution. He also said we should withhold

judgment and criticism; so participants will feel free to generate unusual ideas. To get a good and

long list of ideas, unusual ideas from different perspectives are welcomed.

The second step is focused on bringing order to the list and making sense of the patterns of

thought in the group. Osborn also said that once a group has a list of ideas, those thoughts can

be combined and improved. One of the sources for this process is found in Jean Piaget’s insight

that capacity for classification is a significant step in cognitive development that enables us to

bring a sense of order to our world. We actually create classes of things as we encounter them. In

some cases, we begin with a set of concepts and sort things into already established categories,

like fruit, vegetables, dairy products, grains and meats. We also classify things together that look

alike or have obvious, physical similarity such as shapes or the words in a phrase. The various

kinds of metal used in building a car may be classed separate from the fibres and fabrics used.

The four phrases that use a term such as synthesis as a noun might be grouped together without

any thought to the full meaning of each phrase. We also create classes of phenomena that have

a similar meaning or share a distinct thematic relationship. Household items may be classed in

grouping like things for cleaning, cooking and repairing. They can be further classed into sub-sets

of each of the major classes. The four phrases about synthesis may be classed into other, more

meaningful classes of ideas in a larger set.

Another view came from Max Wertheimer who introduced the concept of gestalt. The German

word, gestalt, means shape, form, figure, configuration, appearance and originates from ‘stall’, to

place or arrange. Sartre refers to gestalt as an indissoluble unity. Wertheimer said a gestalt is:

“A physical, biological, psychological, or symbolic configuration or pattern of elements so

unified as a whole that its properties can not be derived from a simple summation of its


". . . the essence or shape of an entity's complete form"

The focal point of Gestalt theory is the idea of relating specific elements to see a pattern of

thought. The "whole" we see is more structured and cohesive than a group of separate particles.

Wertheimer, says,

“There are wholes, the behaviour of which is not determined by that of their individual

elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the whole.”

“When a group of people work together it rarely occurs, and then only under very special

conditions, that they constitute a mere-sum of independent Egos. Instead the common

enterprise often becomes their mutual concern and each works as a meaningfully

functioning part of the whole.” 11

Consistent with the nature of phenomenological inquiry, a true gestalt does not make any

assumptions about the relationships among data. Those assumptions are intentionally and

methodologically bracketed. There are no categories until they are identified and named. Gestalt

and all phenomenological inquiry are oriented toward forming new understanding. If the process

is merely categorizing elements using typologies of information, a true “gestalt” has not

happened. A gestalt creates a new picture and a new understanding of a given reality.

Michael Polanyi addresses this in his 1966 book, The Tacit Dimension. Polanyi identifies two

terms of tacit knowing: proximal and distal. The proximal or the term nearest to us is the

particulars of a situation. The distal term, furthest from our immediate experience, is the whole. In

the functional aspect of tacit knowing we move from the specifics to the whole as we observe

connections and associations among ideas. In the phenomenal aspect we are aware of the

specifics as we look at the larger context within which the question appears. It is the larger topic

and the big picture that provide the core question that elicits specific responses. The semantic

aspect comes into play when certain relationships are perceived and an overall image is formed.

This is the intuitive nature of gestalt. We see the larger picture as we see patterns in the

specifics. The phrase "The whole is greater than the sum of the parts" is often used when

explaining gestalt. It is about seeing ‘patterns of meaning’ in a whole set of ideas given in relation

to a specific question. The individual responses to the focus question will, hopefully, be

comprehensive in addressing the question. The task is to discern the major themes of thought or

distinct answers to the given question. There may be many connections and associations among

the ideas. There may be causes and effects. There may be words that are similar or seem to

have similar meanings. The key factor, if useful meaning is to be distilled from this process, is the

question used as the guide, the focus question. It focuses the generation of ideas and it is the

question that guides discernment of the thought patterns of the responses. The question

becomes the fundamental reference point for a whole inquiry and all of its parts. The patterns are

named as the group’s response to the focus question.

The third step is to articulate the nature of each identified thought pattern and the relationships

among them. It reveals the group’s major answers to the question. The group discusses each

cluster of ideas and identifies the common theme, the central idea they represent and gives each

cluster a name or title that describes it as a unique part of the whole. When this is complete and

all of the themes are named, the group has created a new image of their response to the

question. This is an almost magical event. This step moves the information from individuals’ ideas

to the ideas of the group. In a very real way, the individual give their ideas to the group and they

become, to use an economic metaphor, the property of the whole. It is a gifting or a kind of

surrender. From a long list of ideas that respond to the question in different ways, the group

[11 Max Wertheimer - Hayes Barton Press - An address before the Kant Society, Berlin, 7 December 1924]

creates a meaningful understanding of its response to the question. They have discovered their

commonality of thought and within it, the major elements.

This method, along with other efforts and approaches at the time, led to a new form of bottom up,

grassroots community development that has become one of the primary approaches to poverty

alleviation and integration of marginalized populations in to mainstream society.

The primary leadership role in conversations and workshops became even more facilitative and,

by the early 70’s, the basic principals, methods and practices of ToP phenomenology were

translated in to methods focused on participatory planning, implementation of practical community

development activities. The facilitator was usually referred to as ‘the leader’ of a particular

conversation, a meeting or workshop. The task of the leader became one of eliciting participation

and asking the questions that enable people to relate to their own situation. The common line,

“The leader has nothing to teach” indicated a strong step toward facilitator neutrality.

Phenomenology as Method

Combining the methods used in demythologizing with the insights of Langer and others led to the

creation of a unique approach to phenomenological inquiry. ToP phenomenology seeks to

examine our experience and derive meaning from it. It responds to a question by enabling a

group to look at the most basic about the topic. This step is referred to as the objective level,

because it enables people to look at any reality in an objective manner. It may involve observing

an activity, noting the key ideas in an article or generating ideas in response to a question. The

next step explores the associations, connections, relationships and feelings related to the topic

and the basic facts of the situation. It may involve examining one’s immediate responses to a

question, articulating feelings or looking for similar ideas within a larger list. This is called the

reflective level, because it enables people to step back for their observation and examine their

own responses. The third step examines the significance, meaning, importance, options and

implications of their central focus. It is referred to as the interpretive level in that it takes yet

another step back and enables people to make sense of their experience. The fourth step

enables people to come to conclusions, form consensus and make decisions. This is called the

decisional level, because, in whatever form it appears, it allows people to take a self-conscious,

and purposeful relationship to their life situation. This core methodology is a unique approach to

phenomenological inquiry and has provided the foundations for many, many applications.
Topic revision: r6 - 18 Jul 2015, GordonHarper
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