Studying the Intentionality of Human Being

Through the Elementary Meaning of Lived Experience

In: Journal of Phenomenological Psychology
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  • 1 Assistant Professor, Department of Communication and Psychology, Aalborg UniversityDenmark
  • | 2 Associate Professor, Department of Public Health, Section for Nursing, Aarhus UniversityDenmark
  • | 3 Associate Professor, Department of Learning and Philosophy, Aalborg UniversityDenmark
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Based upon a brief outline of existential-phenomenological ontology we present a theoretical and practical understanding of human being, which is suited for a methodologically reflected approach to qualitative research. We present the phenomenological distinction between three dimensions of corporeal intentionality (structural, generative and dialectic intentionality) that form elementary events and structures of meaning. Various aspects of human being are better scrutinized with these concepts of intentionality, such as the association of individual being or collective being (e.g. groups) with the less differentiated anonymity of human being. The aim of our framework is to support the qualitative researcher in grasping the experience of the human life in closer accord with how this being actually unfolds and is lived. Application of the presented framework is illuminated with empirical examples from educational, health and psychological contexts. Finally, we discuss the methodological implications that our approach has for qualitative investigations of human being.


Based upon a brief outline of existential-phenomenological ontology we present a theoretical and practical understanding of human being, which is suited for a methodologically reflected approach to qualitative research. We present the phenomenological distinction between three dimensions of corporeal intentionality (structural, generative and dialectic intentionality) that form elementary events and structures of meaning. Various aspects of human being are better scrutinized with these concepts of intentionality, such as the association of individual being or collective being (e.g. groups) with the less differentiated anonymity of human being. The aim of our framework is to support the qualitative researcher in grasping the experience of the human life in closer accord with how this being actually unfolds and is lived. Application of the presented framework is illuminated with empirical examples from educational, health and psychological contexts. Finally, we discuss the methodological implications that our approach has for qualitative investigations of human being.

1 Introduction

When practicing existential phenomenology and developing phenomenological qualitative research it may seem overwhelming to relate to the philosophical tradition in all its complexity. The phenomenological tradition has often been divided into distinct and irreconcilable branches and positions, such as the descriptive phenomenology and the transcendental phenomenology of Husserl, the ontological phenomenology of Heidegger, the existential phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, the philosophical hermeneutics of Gadamer and the hermeneutical phenomenology of Ricoeur. These divisions, however, do not help us in understanding or practicing phenomenology as qualitative researchers.

Following Merleau-Ponty, the diverse phenomenological branches are in this article understood as divergent, inclusive and interconnected positions en route1 in a movement that indicates a common field of questions and phenomena. In this sense it is possible to speak of the unity of phenomenology, since they all understand phenomenology as the practicing of the phenomenological method: going back to and inquiring into the phenomenon as experienced. In this perspective, phenomenological philosophy can be viewed as a course of development, initiated by Husserl as an epistemological phenomenology, developing into an existential and hermeneutical phenomenology, and leading to the ontological phenomenology that focusses on being as such (i.e. not specifically human being). Not least the second phase of this development in phenomenology is relevant to psychology and qualitative research since it takes the existence of the human being—the concrete being that is particular to humans—as its focal point. Certainly, the main figures driving this continuing process of uncovering ‘new phenomenological land’ are Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, who were masters of phenomenological discovery through analyses and description (i.e. the method of reduction), while others (e.g. Sartre, Gadamer, and Ricoeur) had their merits more as interpretive thinkers and ‘system builders’ within the existential phenomenology. Husserl’s role in the progression of the phenomenological movement is not confined to his founding position and epistemological analyses. He also introduced important notions and concepts of lifeworld, embodiment, passivity, and so on that influenced the existential-hermeneutical phase of phenomenology. Heidegger mainly contributed to the second and third phases, and the same can be said of Merleau-Ponty. Over the years, many phenomenologists have emphasized aspects of this continuity—with different foci—of the phenomenological movement2. As early as in 1934, Levinas presented a distinction between three phenomenological phases (slightly different from our suggested division) that formed a natural course of development, where the next phase did not simply replace the former but marked a change of orientation in which the former position preserved its ‘sustenance’ to philosophers (Levinas, 1998: 39). Primarily represented by Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Gadamer and Ricoeur, the existential stance in phenomenology is based upon the concreteness of our being (rather than the sphere of transcendental consciousness) and is characterized by the appreciation of the ontological primacy of meaning and of the lifeworld (Dastur, 2017: xiv, 152; De Waelhens, 1947: 38, 55). Still today, this original thrust of existential phenomenology offers decisive—and rather unexplored—contributions to the development of a coherent and inclusive approach to qualitative inquiry and analysis.

The topic we are addressing in this article is how the researcher is theoretically and methodologically supported by existential phenomenology in the endeavor to study lived experiences. We assert that the qualitative researcher always draws on some kind of ontological understanding of human being, whether this is explicitly reflected upon or not. However, by thematizing the ontological foundation the researcher can significantly qualify his or her study of the topic researched. In continuation of this, the qualitative researcher needs, secondly, a methodological approach to the theme and phenomena of the empirical study. As argued e.g. by Ashworth the richness of the phenomenological concept of intentionality calls for further contemplation in relation to phenomenological methodology (Ashworth 2017: 39, 44). In this article, we suggest to apply the phenomenological distinction between three dimensions of intentionality (structural, generative and dialectic intentionality) in order to highlight individual being or collective being together with the more basic anonymity of human being. This holistic understanding of human experience and meaning gives the qualitative researcher an overview that supports the planning of empirical inquiry as well as the sensitive distinction of details that may be experienced through the empirical study.

Our presentation of this approach follows in four steps: Firstly, we outline the existential phenomenology that took up the ontology of human being as a phenomenological topic. Secondly, we elaborate on the phenomenological notion of corporeal intentionality as elementary meaning, which comes in three diverging dimensions of spontaneously formed ‘coherence’ and ‘orientation’. Thirdly, we present three cases that exemplify how each of the dimensions of intentionality can come to the fore of qualitative empirical inquiry of human being. Finally, we briefly discuss some methodological topics of focusing on the corporeal intentionality in qualitative research.

2 Outline of the Phenomenology of Human Being

Existential phenomenology offers an understanding of intentionality as a ubiquitous directedness or orientation, which goes beyond and transforms the general notion of intentionality as directed consciousness that is central to Husserl’s thinking. Fundamentally, according to Merleau-Ponty (2012), intentionality is a corporeal (bodily and fleshly) structuring of experience and meaning, which he uncovered in elementary forms of perception, emotion, and expression. This intentionality remains, he pointed out, as implicit components of the more differentiated and elaborated forms of sense and significance applied in reflective thinking and spoken language. Though the vocabulary of the existential phenomenologists varies, they have similar conceptions of experience and meaning as spontaneously and always-already structured with one or another kind of orientation. Often misunderstood or neglected today, this ontological stance implies that human being must basically be conceived of as a being that transcends any notion of itself as a delimited entity. Intentionality is not coextensive with consciousness or with conceptual constitution; it is our primary absorption in ‘the concrete’, in ‘the situation’ and in ‘the context’, which marks the human existence as transcendence. This is what Heidegger was aiming at in his insisting on calling human being ‘being present’ (Dasein) and in claiming that being-in-the-world is the ‘fundamental constitution’ of Dasein (Heidegger, 1927). The notion of existence takes on a new meaning within existential phenomenology. Existence is understood as a concurrent distinction from other people and connectedness with others: It denotes somebody’s appearance from ‘something’ that seems associated with or akin to—but less differentiated than—the appearing somebody, like a figure on a background. This existential phenomenological understanding differs from common notions of human existence as an individual being (as in Kierkegaard) or as a transcendental ego (as in Husserl). In our direct and spontaneous experience, we are decentered at the very outset, when something captures us and makes even the most rudimentary form of sense; whether we are occupied by an appearing (real or fictive) Gestalt, absorbed in a situation, or we are touched by an event or a theme (Waldenfels, 1983: 7.7). So, first we are there, present in a field of unfolding meaning (Dasein), and only secondly can we differentiate and reflect upon our own being as a single, particular point, part, or entity within the scene of experience (Keller, 1999: 93). The primacy of ‘being there’—the immediate presence of an oriented field of unfolding meaning—is the most significant and promising discovery that existential phenomenology offers to scientific as well as cultural and political understandings of the human being (e.g. Gadamer, 2004: 248–9). From within experience itself, our being is conceived as not really starting with itself as a distinct entity, but always already ‘thrown’ into the world, with the subsequent possibility of ‘waking up’ and standing out to take up or take on the current situation.

The phenomenological core concept of intentionality was treated recurrently in the works of Merleau-Ponty, which led to his ontology of ‘flesh’. Thus, the conceptualization of the corporeal intentionality also indicates, how the ontology of human being can be studied as a phenomenological topic, which is in no way an uncomplicated matter. In The Visible and Invisible Merleau-Ponty (1968) acknowledges the need for a reflective sensitivity in order to explicate ontologically ‘the flesh of being’ and ‘our mute contact with the things’, which appear in intertwinements and reciprocity of seeing and the seen, of touching and the touched, and in our intertwinements and reciprocity with events and beings in the world. He concurred with Heidegger’s emphasis in Sein und Zeit (1927) that we do not experience ontological being in a direct manner, though we can access the ontological (related to the that or existence of any phenomenological being) through ontic being (related to the what or essence of any phenomenological being). Phenomenological ontology, therefore, explores the ubiquitous enigma of the ‘invisible within the visible’, the immediate perception of sense and significance that does not really appear directly. Previous to any synthetic or otherwise subjective act, the convenience of the chair at the table is perceived as such, not abstractly as a cultural or mental judgement that associates with physical matters extended in a geometrical space. And we do not perform any actual reflection to perceive the gesture of this uniformed person in front of us as a police officer directing us to the left. This perceptual and expressive incorporation of social and cultural life as ‘second nature’—that is often lived without being thought—is part of the reason for Merleau-Ponty to speak of a ‘negative philosophy’ or indirect ontology of fleshly being (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 88, 179). ‘Flesh’ is to be understood almost like the ancient Greek notion of ‘element’: It is a new, monistic concept of elementary meaning that is always-already given in our lived experience in the sense that it structures the ‘horizon of being’, independently of reflective consciousness (Keller, 2012: 22; Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 139, 237).

2.1 Levels and Aspects of Our Being

In everyday life, we fluctuate between experiences of individual and collective being in various forms (Waldenfels, 2015). However, both our individual and collective existence stands out from a background of being that is more anonymous. We necessarily fluctuate between neglect and recollection of our being as specific selves when we take part in any (real or imagined) kind of communication or social interaction. Varieties of the anonymous, pre-personal being that Heidegger associated with das Man (in English best indicated, perhaps, as ‘the common’) and Merleau-Ponty with our bodily existence, are at play in trivial as well as creative forms of social relations, roles, and positions. This is the case, for instance, in dramatic and mythical shapes of social relations such as those of ‘winner and loser’ or ‘us and them’. We share meaning and experience all the time, when we have each other’s attention or through the joint recognition of a situation, not to speak of the spontaneous occurrence of some extent of sympathy or empathy. Thus, when the context is given, we understand an expression like “It is so funny!” or “That was scary!” without having to know explicitly to whom the utterances are referring as having these experiences. This stems from a level of shared, undifferentiated experience and practice. Only as derived, reflected stances do we recognize others and ourselves as precisely differentiated in accord with the linguistic scheme of pronouns in singular or plural and in first person (I/we), second person (you), or third person (he/she/they). Very often, we are simply a common ‘somebody’ (das Man), and this aspect of our being is never completely absent in the background of everyday experience: The differentiated forms of individual and collective being can only take place as structuration and reflection of our less differentiated, anonymous being. Existential phenomenology thus suggests distinctions between collective and individual aspects of being. These distinctions may be differentiated to largely the same extent but in different directions, e.g. intergroup relations in one social context and interpersonal relations in another social context. But distinctions between our being at less differentiated and more differentiated levels of human existence are equally important. A common third of implicit meaning and experience contextualizes the intersubjectivity of a conversation between two people as well as e.g. the interplay between two sports teams: Anonymous, less differentiated aspects of being are structurally and dynamically implied as the sense giving background of any collective experience or action. In the same way even the most individual action or experience rests on the anonymous being, which unites us in a shared lifeworld of experience as a common third (Feilberg, 2014: 29,46; Mølbak, 2012: 186, 192). This ontological point is of empirical as well as theoretical importance. In order to explicate the relevance to qualitative researchers of these levels and aspects of human being, we need to look a little closer upon the phenomenological concept of intentionality.

3 The Intentionality of Human Being

Merleau-Ponty has distinctively noticed and discerned the three dimensions of elementary, corporeal intentionality, which have been thematized broadly in various contributions from existential phenomenologists and others (Keller, 2005a). Corporeal intentionality is elementary and ubiquitous; it is the basic directedness and orientation of sense in any field. Conceptually it is necessary to distinguish between three dimensions of corporeal intentionality: a structural dimension, a generative dimension, and a dialectic dimension. The continuous formation of a presence and a lifeworld unfolds in these three dimensions of corporeal intentionality (Keller, 2005a: 189). They instantaneously orient our presence in any empirical or imaginary field of unfolding meaning. This happens spontaneously in both the generative and time-related dimension, the dialectical dimension of difference and relation, and the structural figure-ground dimension.

3.1 The Generative Dimension of Intentionality

Ricoeur (1992) has pointed out two very different ways in which personal being and the singular self has been understood in continental philosophy: as idem (identity) and as ipse (self). Inspired by Ricoeur’s distinction we will explicate characteristics of the generative and the dialectical dimensions of intentionality, respectively.

The concept of idem—‘the same’—is particularly relevant to matters of development, teleology and interplay of duration and change over time. According to Ricoeur idem relates to the development of a person’s narrative identity, the developments of a particular social field or ‘world’, as well as the summing up of a person’s identity and social world (e.g. gender perception or academic skills) at a specific time (Ricoeur, 1985, 1992). To denote this dimension of intentionality we use the concept of the generative in the above sense: processes of unfolding potentials, occurring events and changes, as well as lasting adoption and adaption. This includes Husserl’s genetic branch of transcendental phenomenology that focuses on time consciousness, judgements, and syntheses as sense constituting powers and acts of the ego (Welton, 2003). The generative dimension of intentionality invites us to thematize potentials, the development of something, the processual dimension of something, or the summing up at a specific time and place of previous and more elementary stages of experience3. The last-mentioned notion, of course, indicates a momentary reorganization of intentionality across various levels of differentiation, rather than the generative dynamics through which these levels were originally established. In his late philosophy, Merleau-Ponty (1968) talked—with inspiration from Husserl—about this form of the generative dimension as ‘verticality’ to emphasize the lived nature and historicity whereby our immediate experience incorporates a kind of ‘instituted eternity’ out of previous stages of development together with bare (or ‘wild’) human life.

Within a generative dimension of intentionality, it is possible to address collective as well as individual aspects of being, for instance developments of the individual identity of a person, or the characteristics of a group’s collective identity.

3.2 The Dialectic Dimension of Intentionality

Ipse (self), according to Ricoeur, relates to social differentiation and distinction in our human being. In ipse we thematize ourselves as different from others, but at the same time and necessarily understood through the relations with others or as responsive towards others (Ricoeur 1985, 1992). The self only emerges through these relations, as pointed out by Hegel and furtherly elaborated through the phenomenological themes of intersubjectivity and responsiveness (Waldenfels, 2007, 2011).

This dimension of intentionality we denote ‘dialectic’, inspired by Merleau-Ponty’s (1968) use of this term. He emphasizes the microscopic intertwinement and interplay that completely exclude the possibility of fixing anything or anybody as an in-itself-meaningful entity. Formation of sense and order in the dialectic dimension is best described with the German word Spiel, or the French jeu, which includes both ‘play’ and ‘game’ in English. Spiel highlights the dialectic formation of relations and dynamics, and it encompasses the relations that Merleau-Ponty conceptualized as reversibility and chiasm together with the dynamics that he called ‘responsiveness’ and ‘hyperdialectic’ (Keller, 2005a; Merleau-Ponty, 1968).

In the dialectic dimension of intentionality, we may thematize the differences and relations of social positions, groups, or persons interacting dynamically across time and space. For instance, when traumatic experiences of the past ‘interfere’ with the new life I try to live today.

3.3 The Structural Dimension of Intentionality

In his early work, Ricoeur (1957, 1967) summarized and emphasized a dimension of intentionality in human being, which unfolds—not as the identity of idem or the self of ipse—but as existence. In the individual as well as the collective differentiations of our being, existence is the formation of a Gestalt that concretizes the coherence of something unique and something typical. There is no contradiction, for instance, between being a unique person (figure), and being a person like everyone else (background). Both uniqueness and shared characteristics must be present to create a concrete gestalt.

The concept of structure that characterizes this dimension of intentionality denotes something stable within an experience or phenomenon. Thus, the structural dimension of intentionality invites us to thematize reproducible, definitive or essential qualities of elementary meaning and experience (Giorgi, 2009; Keller, 2001). In the early works of Merleau-Ponty, structure “refers to the perceptual (or the existential) structures which are given in immediate experience” (Kockelmans, 1993: 141). However, the spontaneously ‘given’ sense is always a coherence of directly and indirectly implied meaning, explicit and implicit experience, which Merleau-Ponty conceives as horizontal figure-ground and centre-periphery structure4 (Keller, 2001; Merleau-Ponty, 2012). When the structural intentionality is conceived as a horizontal organization of meaning, it emphasizes a characterization of the current level of experience like a momentarily fixed, landscape-like coherence of sense and significance. In Merleau-Ponty’s later works, structure is often associated with expression and social phenomena.

The structural dimension of intentionality always creates a coherence of centre and periphery. It is a perspective orientation, which distinguishes some kind of focal figure from its background, just to let this figure and background elucidate one another. The pre-conceptual formation of meaning and significance through structural intentionality spontaneously organizes contrasting coherencies of the unique (e.g. a particular painting) and the typical (the trend or tradition that the picture expresses), which is indicated not least in the phenomenological notion of ‘style’ (cf. Merleau-Ponty, 2012). This structural organization happens as soon as something is explicated through an example or when anything new or particular is noticed.

3.4 Overview of the Intentionality in Differentiated Human Being

Table 1 below summarizes our rendering of corporeal intentionality at anonymous levels and at differentiated levels of human being. The table is a tool for the qualitative researcher to distinguish between notions of human being (identity, existence, self) that are all too often mixed up in theoretical as well as practical approaches to issues and topics concerning our being, for instance in psychology.


Predominant forms of corporeal intentionality in differentiated human being


The table can be read from the inside (i.e. one of the six cells) and out to clarify how, for example, a particular kind of collective existence is the differentiated being of a shared ‘we’ that predominantly implies the structural dimension of corporeal intentionality and thereby reflects and expresses (i.e. precisely: differentiates) the being of a more anonymous human gestalt. The table can also be read from the outside (i.e. the designations of the columns and rows) and in, whereby the qualitative researcher can notice how the more and the less differentiated levels of our being can be associated in different ways. Indeed, a more differentiated level of experience has to be associated in one of these ways with less differentiated levels of meaning for anybody to attain a predominant experience of, for example, an individual self (ipse), which (as elaborated above) differs radically from the predominant experience of individual existence (person-gestalt) or identity (idem).

While the rows of the table refer to the distinction between the dimensions of corporeal intentionality, which belongs to the ‘state of the art’ of contemporary phenomenological thinking, the columns could be further divided in various ways. For example, several distinct levels of differentiated individuality might be discerned (between entirely anonymous singularity and unique personality), and interpersonal relations, particular kinds of groups, organizations, societies, or cultures might be highlighted. The table serves the distinctive phenomenological purpose of turning to ‘the matter itself’ (die Sachen selbst), which means that our theoretical and conceptual level of understanding should always relate as closely as possible to the direct, pre-theoretical and pre-practical experience of the phenomena. It was from this concern that Merleau-Ponty (2010) developed a rich conception of institutions as the largely anonymous experience of sedimentary and nourishing cultural meaning: Institutions are pre-personal structures of meaning implied as a historical foundation and a cultural background in the here-and-now experiences of groups and individuals. Thus, our anonymous being encompasses the social and historical life that surrounds the concrete, intersubjective interactions of people, and this in the form of cultural norms, habits and customs (cf. Keller, 2010).

The table above indicates six different possible focal points of empirical research on differentiated human being. Qualitative description and interpretation can take place with one or more of these foci. So, they are helpful for the specification of a research question and planning in the preparatory phase, for orientation during the acquisition of empirical material, as well as for the analysis of that material. Now, let us illustrate this with some examples.

4 Examples

With the following examples, we want to emphasize how human being can be studied on its various levels—and in particular below and behind the conceptual and discursive forming of our experience. These levels include pre-practical kinds of understanding that may be difficult to communicate deliberately and precisely, though they are always perceptual, expressive, and emotional—and often saturated with fascinating or even ‘contaminating’ dramas and myths. We first present an example that focuses on collective being as carried predominantly by structural (horizontal) intentionality. Then a study where in particular a dialectic intentionality can be uncovered behind individual being. And thirdly, an example of individual being that is formed mainly from generative (vertical) intentionality.

We have already pointed out that any lived experience is an unfolding of meaning in each of the three dimensions of intentionality. Still, many phenomena are marked by one of the three kinds of intentionality, which implies that the two other kinds are just involved as more or less trivial foundations and as rather subordinate aspects.

4.1 Psychology Students’ Group Structures during their Project Work

This example will thematize the collective aspect of being, with an emphasis on the structural dimension of intentionality. The empirical material was collected through participant observations, interviews and document analysis (Feilberg, 2014: 354–370). The example is about collaboration and teamwork and team challenges. It is well known that myriads of conscious and unconscious processes and dynamics arise from teamwork. Concerned with the challenges and time pressure of the work tasks, the group is also influenced by such factors as how it is formed as a team with respect to its members’ mutual positions, styles of communication and interactions among the individuals within the group. For instance, psychoanalytical theory applies a distinction between the reflective level of the individual, the unconscious life of the individual, and the group as a collective with an unconscious life (Bion, 1961).

In the following higher learning case study, students’ project work exemplifies the both unique and typical collective processes and experiences that characterize groups during project work. The study emphasizes the dynamics and challenges that the students faced as part of developing and completing the project work. Our example describes group experience in a figure-background perspective as formed in the structural dimension of intentionality where the sense and significance of the empirical material presents itself like an unfolded landscape perceived with one or another focus.

In existential-phenomenological terminology, within the structural dimension of intentionality, we focus on the group as a Gestalt phenomenon—a distinct entity—that emerges only as the distinction of a figure of the group from a background of the group. The figure is a differentiated being, the ‘we’ of the present group that the students experience, and the background is composed of more undifferentiated levels of being at which the members’ earlier experiences with groups are manifested. The distinct relationship of figure and background accentuates the significance of the background, as the group’s figure of ‘we’ is pervaded by loosely structured meaning, earlier experiences of groups (e.g. within family, sports), common narratives of group work as well as hopes, unconscious wishes and pre-understandings surrounding group work.

With a focus on the structural dimension of intentionality, the below description emphasizes how the student group perceives themselves as a distinct entity, and how they understand the specific existence of this collective being in the light of formerly experienced ways of being a group. Analysis of the example interestingly pointed to a typology with three different ways of being a group: a conflictual group, a pleasant group, and a discussion group. As it appears, the students tend to identify the current group with one of these types, while they perceive it on a background of group experiences in which the other types of groups may be of major significance.

The example describes a 5th semester project group, called the student group, which consisted of six female students (Rose, Randi, Ruby and three others). During the project work the group had to independently identify a problem and a research question in the light of social psychology and personality theory, under supervision from Sara. Prior to this semester, all but one group member had experienced very unpleasant instances of conflicts, where group members e.g. showed a condescending and negative tone during discussions and feedback, resulting in conflicts during the group work. These conflicts sometimes resulted in members leaving the project groups and in one instance some weeks of sick leave. Several members of the group also had past experiences with bullying.

4.1.1 All Seems to Be Well …

The student group had agreed on the topic of soldiers’ experience of dilemmas of war. But the real guiding interest was to form a group in which the members could experience a constructive and ‘pleasant’ project work process together. As Rose put it in the early phase: it is a group that can ‘contain’ the diversity of the group members, and where people do not ‘overrule each other’. In the early stages of the project work the group spent considerable time discussing earlier experiences and presenting their hopes for this new group, emphasizing that they should not negatively criticize each other. Rather they should encourage each other and so forth. So, it was a collective aim for the group that the time they spent together was pleasant. During the first six weeks they developed a strong social bond with each other; they dined and partied together, they stayed for four days in a writing camp together at a friend’s summer cottage. An important part of this development was founded on the students’ sharing of previous experiences with project work and group discussions.

4.1.2 … But Problems are Lurking in the Background …

The student group’s non-conflictual attitude had implications for their academic endeavor into the existential dilemmas of soldiers. The collective existence of the group developed over time from a respectful and cautious attitude to a socially playful and symbiotic atmosphere but combined with a watchful attitude towards conflicts. The group members were highly attentive of the emotional life and each other’s reactions, avoiding potential conflicts and actively adjusting to what they perceived as the current norms of the group. Randi later described a situation where her divergent understanding of a central piece of literature went undebated:

Randi: I actually recall a situation, where … Ruby and I had together been reading Frankl, and … I interpreted him differently, and … where I found it a little hard to say ‘but it is not quite that way I interpret it’ in a nice and non-offensive way…. This difference of opinions was never discussed, which it probably would have been in groups where the members did not take care of each other the same way we did.

Randi describes it as ‘unpleasant’ to give voice to a different interpretation from Ruby’s, and she therefore avoided it. This avoidance of important academic observations and questions is characteristic of the group’s later project work and oral examination.

4.1.3 … And the Background Turns Out to be Directing

During the final phase of writing the group faces problems with respect to the quality of their discussions and reflections in the written project report. At a meeting the academic supervisor, Sara, points out that the project group must elaborate their discussions more. It is presently unfocussed and undecided, she says: “You do not develop an argumentation that leads to a standpoint”. “You leave it to the reader to take a stance”. Sara would also show them a page where she had underlined eleven instances where the word “maybe” figured.

During the following group meeting, the members set out to rewrite their project discussion, line by line on a big screen. However, even though the members often repeat Sara’s request, they are only on two occasions able to make up their minds and articulate it in clear academic writing. As a participant observer of the three-hour long meeting, the field researcher (Feilberg) experienced strong emotions between the members even though they kept a pleasant tone of speaking and discussing. But just when they were about to formulate a clear position in the text, they would either soften it through consensus seeking that blurred any position, or worse, they would take turns to ‘do nothing’ during important moments of position refinement so that the writer would lose track and the text would end at the starting point. The project group was in situ unable to take a clear academic stand.

This difficulty taking a stand was also evident in several of the students’ shared oral defense of their written project report. As Randi and Rose put it during the retrospective group interview:

Randi: “… when I look back upon those group processes [of previous project groups], which I don’t recall as pleasant at all …, but when we got to having these discussions …, then these disagreements created something cool, which has been of use to us. But we [in the current group] have just been so synced….”

Rose: “Perhaps we were unwilling to go into these discussions, because what if [a disagreement arose], then ...”

Randi breaks in and finishes Rose’s sentence: “... we would not have been friends anymore at the following lunch, you know completely unconsciously. Yes.”

The group members ‘sync’ as a way of avoiding discussions and conflicts that bring about an unconscious fear of exclusion from the group.

4.1.4 The Structural Dimension of Intentionality in the Example

During a later interview with Rose, she described a way of acting as a group that differed from the current group. Rose described earlier experiences with group work where the group exercised ‘intense discussions’ among the group members in a respectful way during project work. These groups were characterized as having ‘RUC discussions’. (“RUC” is Roskilde University.) According to Rose, RUC discussions are characterized by intense and extensive discussions with personally engaged participants, often from very opposite positions, in the pursuit of a shared understanding. This illuminates how the current project group takes on its sense and significance in perspective of an entire landscape of shared experiences concerning groups and social relations, some of which are rather specific to the university students while others are very commonplace.

The distinction between a pleasant group, a conflictual group and a discussion group creates a gestalt in the group’s experiences of themselves as a group. The structural dimension of intentionality and the collective aspect make it possible to thematize the pleasant and caring group as a figure that becomes unique in the group’s experience of themselves as a group. However, this figure only stands out on the basis of the typical group (a more or less specific background), in this instance first and foremost 1) the conflictual and harmful group, and 2) the RUC discussion group, neither of which are represented by one person’s experience in particular. Instead the conflictual group and the RUC discussion group act as more or less specific shared experience (background), on the basis of which the group members understand themselves as a group, namely the foreground and figure characterized by a pleasant and non-conflictual environment with respect to academic discussions.

4.2 Adjusting to the Loss of a Leg

This example is derived from a descriptive phenomenological investigation of patients’ lived experiences of losing a leg and becoming a prosthetic user (Norlyk et al. 2013, 2015). Six men and two women participated in the study. The participants had undergone amputation due to different causes. Some participants were amputated due to arteriosclerosis, they had had poor walking ability for some years and were prepared to the fact that amputation might be unavoidable; while others were acutely amputated due to trauma or unexpected deep vein thrombosis. Complications such as prolonged wound healing often delayed the participants’ start-up of prosthetic training for several months. The empirical material was collected through three in-depth interviews with each participant during the first year post amputation.

Initially after the amputation, the participants described how their life changed dramatically. Former taken-for-granted everyday acts now presented themselves as problems and became strenuous. The limitations of everyday life were associated with despair, deprivation and loss. The participants were no longer capable of resuming their former activities. They described a loss of freedom at many levels due to the limitations imposed by their reduced physical mobility, which influenced their jobs, hobbies, homes, social activities etc. Being unable to do the same things as before or being a potential burden to relatives gave rise to feelings of inferiority. The participants struggled to keep their dignity and to regain their former way of life. The prosthesis gave them hope of becoming more independent and of returning to their former way of life.

The empirical manifestation of dialectic intentionality, which the current example serves to illustrate, is very much about the ‘hyperdialectic’ that interplays the sense and significance of two successive stages of development, so that the experience of one of them inescapably points to the other. The phenomenological dialectic unfolds a play of meaning in which the position of perception and expression does not ‘rest in itself’. Rather than a linear intentionality between subject and object or agent and structure, there is circular dynamics and a spiral intentionality between objective conditions and subjective initiatives, ‘structured and structuring’ (in Bourdieu), or ‘rules and resources’ (in Giddens).

Mastering recognisable everyday routines was important stepping stones for the participants on the road towards establishing a new acceptable role and to a certain degree re-establishing the former life. But participants also recognized that the prosthesis was not a quick fix. Becoming a skilled prosthetic user took its toll and they described how this process required committed training, courage and stamina. Being able to walk with the prosthesis, however, regenerated experiences of freedom and independence. The participants strived to reconquer a daily life that resembled their previous lives and they described how the success in resuming previous activities or traditions was a victory every time. At the end of the first year some participants regained a high degree of mobility and were able to walk without a stick, others had to use a walking stick while some participants had just started their prosthetic training.

4.2.1 Caught in an Interplay of ‘before’ and ‘after’

Our example below reflects the experiences of a 70-year-old man, Peter, who lost his leg below the knee due to a sudden blood clot. Peter is a former craftsman and still an active sportsman and he used to play golf several times a week. Due to prolonged wound healing, Peter spent the first five months in a wheelchair. When Peter started his prosthetic training, he was very determined. During the next 6 months he learned to walk without sticks or with one stick. Despite this increased mobility however, Peter realized that his life had changed for ever as he was still disabled. Peter struggled to achieve a new identity as a disabled person and his struggle took place in a dialectic relationship between his former identity and self-understanding as an active craftsman and sportsman and his new life with a restricted mobility and a loss of freedom. During this process of achieving an identity as a disabled person Peter’s integrity was under pressure. He stressed that he was still the same person although he now had one leg.

Initially after the amputation the loss of mobility and the dependence on help led Peter to feelings of restricted freedom. Although it soon became a routine to get about in his home in a wheelchair, this was a huge transition. Everything was more difficult and took more time. Having difficulties in getting outside of the home contributed to experiencing his home as a prison, in which he felt isolated and confined. The consequences of losing a leg gradually materialise as he realised how the loss of mobility separated him from his former active life. His restricted physical mobility prevented him from carrying out his customary role in everyday life and led to changes in his social relations, and a change of role and self-image. He now adopted a more passive, recipient role in everyday life—a role he perceived to be less meaningful and that influenced his self-perception negatively.

It is terrible no longer to be able to do what you used to do, … you get into situations, where you are sad because the wife for instance says: “The handle fell off the bathroom door.” I am a skilled labourer, and have always been able to fix things around the house, and now I suddenly cannot do very much …

Peter also missed his former golfing activities and one day he got the opportunity to visit his golf friends, when sitting in a wheelchair. However, again Peter experienced this particular ‘now’ in the light of his former capability as a skilled golf player and to be confronted with his new and limited possibilities was painful.

I was down at the golf course driving a buggy behind some of the people I used to play with … I almost envied them their legs … I sat there looking at their legs … I was looking at their bloody legs, I didn’t even notice their golfing … I was so envious of their legs. No, it is bloody hard to accept.

To Peter the waiting time between the amputation and the start-up of the prosthetic training was exhausting. The prosthesis gave Peter the hope of regaining personal independence and mobility. It became a lifeline to his former active life.

Well, you know, it is a long process … you gradually come to realize that you can no longer play football with your grandchildren, no longer fix the drains, no longer help with different matters as you used to…. It is really tough when you realize what you can do no longer … But then comes a time when you start thinking ‘Luckily, I can get a prosthesis and then I’ll be able to walk.’

The first time Peter was standing upright wearing the prosthesis was a huge victory. However, Peter soon realized that his main challenge was to become confident with the prosthesis and to integrate it as a natural extension of his leg. Walking on the prosthesis acquired new physical skills and habits to achieve his former unreflective and infant learned walking ability. The process of being able to walk changed from being a natural bodily movement to a planned movement with the prosthesis, which then eventually again became a natural movement. Initially Peter divided the walking movements into many smaller sections that should be remembered.

At first walking with the prosthesis was extremely difficult … I walked between two handrails to support me…. You sure don’t let go of the handrails the first time … It is hard to walk when you can no longer feel your lower part of your leg and toes … you have no sensations of movement in your big toe or your heel and so on ……. You have to learn to walk with your back straight and kick your leg a bit forward like kicking the snow off the tip of your shoe … But I don’t think about it anymore … I’m getting used to it … that’s how things are … it has become a habit.’

Peter described himself as a quick learner compared to other patients he met during his prosthetic training and he explained this with reference to his former abilities as an active sportsman. During the next three to four months Peter incorporated the new prosthesis routines.

Being able to walk with the prosthesis regenerated experiences of freedom and independence to Peter. Succeeding in resuming previous activities like mowing the lawn and playing football with his grandchild, but now as the goalkeeper, was a victory. At the end of the first year Peter gradually experienced he was moving towards a recognisable everyday life. Although it was a different kind of everyday life it was an everyday life that reflected his former life. In spite of the many positive aspects, Peter also realised that life with a prosthesis would never be the same as before and he experienced this as a serious disappointment.

When I waited for the wound to heal, I thought, well, when I get the prosthesis, then I will be able to do everything,… but it is just not true, because you are still disabled … when for instance you have to get out of bed at night and either have to use the leg or the wheelchair … then it is like … oh damn, I will never be the way I was …

The above narrative reflects Peter’s existential experience of being betwixt and between his former life and his new life as a disabled person. Peter felt disconnected from his usual life and not yet integrated in the life changes that required him to cope with daily life in new ways due to the dependency of prosthesis or appliances. He felt a kind of homelessness in his own lifeworld, and he strived to re-establish his usual lifeworld. The dialectic aspects of intentionality highlight how an interplay of the two positions—a radically new, unfamiliar life and the former usual life—dynamically defines Peter’s being. The dialectic dimension thus illustrates how two irreconcilable positions are mutually referring to and delineated through each other: Peter’s former life and his new life. Peter’s former life is still a part of him; it is his frame of reference to his altered life as a disabled person. Despite Peter’s major life changes he struggled to integrate parts of his former lifestyle into his new life. This encompassed changes in his self-perception and self-esteem.

The dialectic dimension of intentionality thus unfolds how Peter’s specific existence as an amputee takes place in a continuous movement between his former life and his new life as a disabled person. In other words, the dialectic intentionality explicates how our historical situatedness often structures the lived horizons of past and future very differently from any objective time-line of past-present-future. For Peter there doesn’t seem to be much space for an independent ‘now’ in-between a future that refers all too much to the past and a past that seems to be without much weight in confrontation with the future.

4.3 Developing through a Psychotic Breakdown

A young man in his mid-twenties—let us call him Poul—gave an interview about his life experience, which was marked by crises culminating in a badly treated psychotic collapse through several years (Keller, 2005b). It is well known that the personal identity is structured as a biographic narrative5, which is marked by substantial first-hand experience intermingled with stories and perspectives on yourself that were largely adopted from significant others. Like early childhood, psychotic experience is lacking the direct life-historical orientation in which we recognize ourselves on the way from a known past towards a more unknown future (Keller, 2008; Riemann, 1987). This came out in the present interview as well. Clearly, Poul was now in an early stage of reorganizing his view of himself and the course of his life. The interview was a long one (more than two hours) in which we did return to various issues in order to attain further clarification. In that way, the interview probably to some extent became part of the process it was thematizing. And, of course, the briefness of the following rendering gives an even more streamlined picture of Poul’s life story.

Poul was the first child of a very young couple, who were clinging to their youth. Their everyday attitude of letting the baby cry to get used to a low level of attention was amplified at the frequent parties where Poul was brought along and left alone in a room. A few years old he could react with anger and despair when the parents were receiving guests, lying on the floor and banging his head into it. The childhood for Poul is associated with an impression of being helpless and alone in the close presence of others who do not care about him. At the age of five-six years he was tyrannized systematically and often beaten by an older boy in the neighborhood. In his own description, the terror that Poul experienced was not least his subjective associations that expanded on the actually ongoing persecution. Poul’s earliest remembrance of a person really standing up for him was his grandfather (living close by) who was furious when he heard about the harassment that Poul was going through. The grandparents made his mother address the parents of the offending child, and this stopped the persecution of Poul. In kindergarten and at school he was mostly doing well and liked by his classmates. However, he was quite anxious of entering into new and unfamiliar situations. At school Poul was very dedicated, to the extent that teachers and pupils were at times shocked witnessing him having breakdowns in despair when facing tasks that he could not solve. In upper secondary school he became highly interested in satanism, which on one hand gave him nightmares about demons and devils, and on the other hand channeled a lot of anger, hatred, and contempt towards others. This obsession was replaced with his association with a criminal group, which was engaged in narcotics, fraud, illegal debt collection, and violence. Though never a leading figure, he now took part in a persecution that resembled what he had himself been subject to as a young boy. In the interview, Poul considers it a coincidence and pure luck that he was never involved in doing serious physical harm to anybody; “I could have risked becoming a murderer …” he says.

Still involved with the criminal environment he maintains his intellectual ambitions and starts at the university. At this time, he is moving frequently, often in and out from his parents’ home, and several times in the hope of getting out of his criminal bindings. In his youth he had not had long lasting friendships on equal terms, but a number of shorter relations with someone he looked up to—and who led him into satanism, the criminal environment, and the university milieu, respectively. Female relations were ephemeral and mostly associated with alcohol, apart from having a girlfriend in a difficult relationship through about nine months. Asked about it, Poul does not recall having had any social relations in which he is embraced and having received comfort from the other. Gradually, settings with many people become scaring to him, even the shopping in a super market. Clearly, the confrontation between the criminal and the academic environments becomes too much for him to handle. For some time, he is studying hard and is accepted by his fellow students for his contribution to the study groups, though often exposed to their different mentality and opposed attitude towards him. He gets access to some pills against anxiety and starts a process of self-medication. Still, he becomes increasingly anxious and gets serious sleeping problems that prevent him from keeping up with his study groups at the university. He sees a doctor and gets some strong pills to help him sleep and later also a tranquilizer against anxiety. But the problems of anxiety and sleeplessness escalate. Worn-out by these problems, one day in a large railway station he sees threatening ‘black rays’ coming against him to destroy him, and he runs away to escape by the first train. A few weeks later, the same ‘attack’ happens at the same place, but this time he is unable to flee. Poul falls down crying out loudly in panic. He faints. When he wakes up, he is unable to feel his body or to move and in panic thinking that he is about to die. Two people are sitting by him, one of them a woman who is able to calm him down (and later lets him know that she had herself been going through anxiety attacks). This episode leads to his hospitalisation in a psychiatric ward and a course as a psychiatric patient for more than four years.

Poul describes this treatment as focused on medication and without any psychological therapy. He is heavily doped with various drugs, and at times he intervenes in the course by taking less or more of the prescribed medicine. Looking back upon his entire process of suffering, Poul regards the anxiety as the basic problem, but more psychotic symptoms also appear in addition to the devastating ‘black rays’. These include paranoid thoughts about aliens from outer space, CIA and hidden snipers who all want to kill him, recognizable voices (such as his father’s) from persons who were not present, anonymous ‘inner’ voices who kept on harassing him with “we don’t like you” or ordering him to kill his younger sister. He describes the situation as ‘chaotic’ and ‘a living nightmare’ in which he got worse and worse, and then began to faint frequently. It turned out that his liver could not endure the heavy medication. So, his psychiatrist had to reconsider the entire treatment. Reluctantly, after Poul had put his foot down, the doctor accepted to gradually cut down the medication and offer psychological treatment together with a social psychiatric support. When the interview took place, Poul had been without medication and without symptoms for more than a year.

A narrative such as Poul’s life story attains its form as a generative coherence of vertical intentionality. This means that the spontaneous and ubiquitous unfolding of corporeal intentionality, the elementary desire and pleasure of being alive and experiencing, is gradually framed and focused with certain linear orientations that indicate increasingly specific themes and plots of generative development. Events and circumstances that initially appear as ambiguities and coincidences obtain a mark of life history and destiny-like determination, since they are sedimented as the factual and necessary basis for subsequent orientations and developments of the individual experience (Bourdieu, 1990; Merleau-Ponty, 2012). This narration is, however, anything but definitive or static. And our focus on the prehistory of a psychotic breakdown and recovery emphasizes certain aspects that may appear more or less differently in another, concurrent or ensuing, perspective. However, a narrative theme clearly stands out in which social life comprises challenges to the consolidation of Poul’s personal identity and other people signify a continuing threat to him. The questions of embedding safely in the social environment seems to establish an intrusive and crucial topic in his life. Through their remarkably weak support of Poul in his meetings with new social contexts his parents have only been able to mediate a meager notion of the near family as a safe haven. Apart from that, he remembers being taught about decent formal and material appearance (being polite, clean, well dressed, etc.) as being very important in social life. In addition, he has learned the powerful social technique of associating with a psychologically stronger and more experienced person in the social environment in order to find foothold and fortify his position in the new social settings that he has to cope with: First his grandfather when Poul is terrorized by the older boy in his neighborhood. Later on, he builds particular friendships and singular alliances within the drug environment, his criminal involvement, the university milieu, the patients in the psychiatric ward, and finally, the psychosocial help that he receives. Importantly, he has also learned to count on his fine intellectual skills, which emerge at school, in the gang environment, as well as at university, and then again in his confrontation with the psychiatric system. Still, the story of his life is about the feeble and vulnerable constellation of a social identity that remains very open for the opaque and overwhelming dramas of anonymous social being. Every time he attempts to acquire his position in a new social environment, this vulnerability threatens to throw him back into the helplessness and persecution anxiety that he experienced as a small child. The turning point in his development is the psychological annihilation that follows from the psychotic state together with the psychiatric treatment. Luckily, he survives the life-threatening medication and is able to invest his intellectual authenticity to obtain, finally, a course of psychosocial treatment. Thus, there are several converging and diverging lines of generative development that culminate in Poul’s psychiatric medication and psychotic breakdown, threatening to end his life after halting his personal development, but turning at the current end of this narration into a positive and life-affirming course.

4.4 Discussion of the Examples

The three presented cases of empirical phenomenology were selected from previous work to show how our understanding of existential phenomenology can be unfolded in concrete studies. Our empirical studies were planned and performed in parallel with—not on the basis of—clarifying the proposed coherence of ontological, epistemological, and methodological perspectives. The overall aim is to indicate the potentials of qualitative studies into the intentionality of human being when such studies are based upon existential phenomenology. The point of our examples is to illustrate how a single form of intentionality often calls for particular attention when we render the experience or the meaning of some remarkable aspect of the social life, regardless if this rendering takes place in an everyday setting of in a scientific context. It must be maintained, however, that the two other forms of intentionality could also be highlighted in each of the examples, due to the complexity of sense and significance in any noticeable human comportment or understanding. In the example of the student group, one could throw light on courses of generative development or on aspects of dialectic intentionality that emphasize the interplay of two intertwined notions of a project group (the conflictual and the pleasant), instead of the structural focus on the current group that figures on a background of varied group experience in general. Depending upon the research interest and the research question of the inquiry, the example of leg amputation could, correspondingly, be investigated as to typical phases of development or with attention to how the factuality of a lost leg stands out as a significant gestalt within the personal notion of a human being. To spell out the point a little more, we can turn to the example of Poul’s breakdown where the narrative of a development process so obviously presents itself. Still, the generative formation of experience is not at all the sole form of intentionality to be found in this case. Structural and dialectic orientations compose the meaningful framework within which the storyline of his individual life concretizes. His particular narrative is, in fact, very much about his continuous absorption in the pre-personal being of his childhood, since he remains susceptible to be drawn back into such stages of affectively overwhelming experience. In this sense, the problem of his life is to stand out as not just a human being like anybody else, but a particular person able to cope with his own concrete life situation, i.e. an ever-present, ‘static’ challenge formed with structural intentionality. Likewise, his interplay with significant others—the parents, the grandfather, the few special friends that he associates with one by one, and the particular figures who terrorize him or are terrorized by him—is to be understood most thoroughly as intertwined events or reciprocal and responsive positions, i.e. as matters of dialectic intentionality. Moreover, subordinate aspects of structural and dialectic intentionality enter in many ways the dominant formation of generative (vertical) intentionality. This happens whenever Poul is encouraged through the acquisition of a new or fortified social experience of being one of a kind and when he establishes an attachment with some significant other.

The three examples served to show how empirical studies conceived in terms of the existential-phenomenological ontology can orient the uncovering, the description, and the interpretation of significant and urgent topics of human being. Of course, field specific perspectives and pre-understanding of the researched phenomenon add important conceptual contributions to the empirical planning, knowledge acquisition, and analysis of the research material (Feilberg & Keller, 2013; Ricoeur, 1991). Preparing and unfolding a qualitative study with an existential-phenomenological approach implies that description and interpretation of the empirical material can always refer to the formation of meaning and experience in the three dimensions of intentionality. However, in addition to the ontological foundation the qualitative researcher needs epistemological and methodological clarification in order to connect with the domain specific knowledge of the research field. The intentionality involved in this connection between ontology and empirical field—that was just taken for granted in our examples—must now be explicated.

5 Intentionality in the Qualitative Methodology

Studying human being implies that two different stances of intentionality are going to meet: that of the field studied and that of the studying researcher. This task must be taken into consideration throughout the research process, in the planning phase as well as by the acquisition and analysis of the empirical material. Gadamer’s emphasis on discerning the otherness of the text in relation to our own pre-understanding suggests what this is all about:

… we need to become conscious of the fore-understanding that is always operative in any case about which we use the word “scientific” in a serious sense.

Gadamer, 2004: 542

The empirical material must, therefore, be interpreted on basis of the critically focused or openly wondering research interest that led to the directing research question as well as the overall plan or ‘design’ for the research project. This requires, not least, the art of fusion of the horizons of the researched participant’s lived experience with the researcher’s objectifying approach.

The intentionality that carries any research project is primarily of a structural kind, since it always has to freeze a picture of the reality that it renders, somewhat like the horizontal view of a landscape. The theory (basically: ontology) and method (basically: epistemology) employed aim at objective—i.e. intersubjectively recognizable—depiction of some facticity of the researched field. No matter how processual and complex the studied matter is, any scientific approach requires the objectification that lays the studied matter bare in a static and horizontal view through conceptualized description and explication. Actually, this objectification happens in all three dimensions of intentionality: Similar to the horizontal objectification of structural intentionality as a landscape, generative intentionality is ‘frozen’ and objectified as a vertical formation of simultaneously implied meaning at different levels of differentiation, and dialectic intentionality is ‘frozen’ and objectified as a particular and delimited play or game of sense and significance6. To such (rather simple) notions of empirical science, the phenomenological approach has two refining additions, one of which is about application of the phenomenological concept of structural intentionality as a perspectival formation of meaning, and the other is about methodological reflections concerning all of the three kinds of intentionality.

First, the structure of any experienced field must be recognized in its spontaneous orientation, which is perspectival, meaning that a figure stands out on a ground (mostly with a more detailed foreground than background). Phenomenology cannot be satisfied with any ontology of isolated entities that are all unique and singular or all similar and common. There is no contradiction at all in the basic experience of a figure as unique and at the same time one of a kind. Concrete experience often distinguishes a rather detailed foreground from the more blurred background; it does not present meaning as abstract entities (such as the idealized objectification that various ‘scientific’ stances hypostatize as representations of reality). That is why phenomenology urges the qualitative researcher to reflectively understand the perspectival character of immediate experiences, which is to say that it is both unique and commonly recognizable in the light of a shared lifeworld.

Secondly, empirical phenomenology is not fixed to any particular level of description and explanation of objectifications. Inspired by Heidegger’s (1988: 23) distinction between “three basic components of phenomenological method”—reduction, construction and destruction—we understand all phenomenological research as related to description, but we also emphasize the importance of interpretation and conceptual criticism to qualitative methodology7. Ricoeur (1991) has developed our conceptualization of interpretation. As Ricoeur (1991) has made it clear, phenomenology is bound to hermeneutic analysis in which our objective findings are held up against the lived experience and understanding of human life that we are all enclosed and engaged in pre-scientifically. The interpretation that is the outcome of a qualitative research project must be conceived as a vertical (generative) and dialectic angling that complements the structural objectification. Ricoeur’s hermeneutics is an epistemology for cultural (i.e. human and social) science, which straightforwardly delineates a methodology for qualitative studies (Feilberg, 2014: 52–60; Feilberg & Keller, 2013). The levels of comprehension and explication of a text that Ricoeur (1991) points out—immediate understanding, objective explanation and reflected interpretation—can be regarded in parallel with the main phases of the empirical investigation. After the first phase of planning on the basis of pre-understanding, the acquisition and descriptive analysis of the empirical material follows, and the process ends with interpretative analysis in which the empirical findings are critically and constructively related to the broader conceptual understanding of the research field. According to Ricoeur, the shared pre-personal lifeworld of the researcher and the research participant forms a rich—though rather commonplace and undifferentiated— foundation of sense and significance on which the phenomena under study are understood directly and concretely. In a next reflective step, an explanatory methodic approach is applied, for instance in empirical science: Aspects of the pertinent phenomena are objectified in accord with theoretical explanation in order to make them accessible to the research measures of description and analysis. Interpretation, finally, denotes the critical analysis that relates our objectifying explanation back to the lived understanding to clarify what is lost or distorted through the translation of understanding into explanation—and thereby combines these different perceived levels of reality into a more profound and reflected comprehension of the phenomena under study. The point of this is not far from the reflexivity and objectivation that Bourdieu instructs us to apply in empirical work (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992) or from the earlier mentioned thematization of fusion of horizons in Gadamer (2004).

In the planning phase of a research project, it is important to consider the priority given to the study of each dimension of intentionality. Unaware of central characteristics of the phenomenon that we plan to inquire into, our research design risks missing it during the phase of empirical acquisition. This is a matter of carefully considering how far our preunderstanding takes us and where the empirical questioning starts, and in this regard, phenomenology is in the same position as other approaches to qualitative studies. There is not one but many balances between preconception and discovery, as well as between interpretation and description, to remain aware of. However, it is important to remember that any planned investigation goes in a certain direction and does not pursue other possible directions. This includes the possibility of a very open, preliminary inquiry that cannot go into much detail with anything, and of course, it is always conceivable to come across such interesting surprises that you decide to redesign the ongoing study in order to uncover this emerging aspect more fully. Still, the literature on research design8 makes it clear that significant findings about comparative, processual, essential or ideal typical matters can only occur when we are systematically looking for it. If one for example aims to inquire into the development of self-perception through a lifespan it is mandatory to implement a focus on the generative dimension of corporeal intentionality in which any sense of idem is formed (identity, being ‘the same’). Instead, if the research topic is more about some kind of play or interplay of two or more positions—such as an event, a personal relationship, a situation, a dialogue, a praxis, an intervention or a change from one state to another—the dialectic kind of intentionality comes to the fore. Furthermore, structural intentionality would be in focus if the subject matter of the research project is about belonging to or standing out from a surrounding field, for instance a single case of some kind: a personal being or the singularity of a community, an organisation, an institution, a network, a society, or a culture.

Actually, there are certain similarities between well-known types of qualitative research design and the dimensions of intentionality thematised as topics of inquiry. Process studies, of course, call for attention to generative intentionality, and case studies are based upon the notion of an example, which we have accentuated in order to explicate what structural intentionality is all about. When noticed that both differences and similarities are of significant importance in comparative studies, the pertinence of dialectic intentionality is already indicated. Leaving the closer discussion of this topic for another occasion, it must suffice now to emphasize that the elementary and omnipresent character of corporeal intentionality does not at all contradict or prevent taking it to a highly complex and distinct level as the focal theme of a research project. We ‘swim’ in examples and effortlessly understand very much through them, which is also taken advantage of when a qualitative research project is designed as a case study and when the exemplarity of the qualitative study is considered (Keller, 2016). Undoubtedly, other kinds of research designs will focus on combinations of the three forms of intentionality.

In what ways is the corporeal intentionality relevant for the evaluation of the solidity of the research project as a whole? The space of this article does not allow us to go into details about this complex question. So, we will just indicate in keywords how the existential-phenomenological approach is also maintained as the very foundation of qualitative research methodology. The criterion of reliability—which in qualitative research is often and rightly understood as a question of the research process transparency—can certainly be regarded as a matter of self-critical dialogue with an imaginary as well as real research community, i.e. a play of dialectic intentionality. The criterion of validity—sharpened in phenomenological approaches as the basic principle of turning to ‘the matter itself’—is indeed an appreciation of the identity or ‘essence’ of the studied topic, which should be uncovered and preserved through the research project’s objectifications and interpretations, i.e. a vertical intentionality across various levels and stages. Finally, the criterion of exemplarity—that is misconceived in qualitative research when mixed up with generalizability—is a methodological ‘must’ (in distinction from the methodic ‘can’ of an exemplifying case study). Methodological exemplarity is required in order to secure the relevance and significance of a qualitative empirical study beyond the boundaries of the singular, directly investigated setting.

6 Conclusion: Attending to the Primacy of Lived Experience

Applying the above sketched ontology and methodology of existential phenomenology to empirical research is an approach that opens the studied field for thorough investigation and reflection. It is the aim of this approach to support the qualitative researcher in remaining faithful to the profundity and richness of the being of the human being, e.g. with respect to our decentering in anonymous social spaces and a shared world. In light of the existential-phenomenological ontology, human being is studied and explicated more authentically as lived experience. The researcher must, therefore, develop and maintain a sensitivity toward the human phenomena as they are really experienced by oneself as well as by the human beings researched. This is required not only for purposes of description and discursive explication, but in particular when attending to the levels of immediate and unreflective experience, which remains perceptually and expressively active behind our practical actions and cognitive undertakings.

As we have pointed out, this methodological requirement can be met through notice and explication of the corporeal intentionality in its depth and ambiguity. Thus, the qualitative researcher must appreciate the pre-theoretical and pre-practical meaning and experience, i.e. the aesthetic and affective level of sense and significance where our corporeal intentionality appears originally in its three dimensions. It is characteristic to existential phenomenology to illuminate thereby the anonymous and more or less undifferentiated being from which our various forms of individual and collective existence stand out.


We are grateful to the anonymous reviewers and Editor-in-chief James Morley for valuable comments on a previous version of this article.

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Dastur (2017: xiii); Feilberg (2012: 53; 2014: 17–18); Keller (2012: 13); Merleau-Ponty (2012: Ixxi).


Dastur (2000: 80; 2017: 151–156), De Waelhens (1947), Gadamer (2004: 248–249; 1976: 156–157, 169–173), Levinas (1998), Merleau-Ponty (2012), Patočka (1991: 284; 2016: 184), Ricoeur (1967), Waldenfels (1983, 1992), Zahavi (2002).


Keller (2010); Merleau-Ponty (2010); Steinbock (1995).


This structure is not the same as Husserl’s conception of horizon as noematic content of acts of consciousness.


Baumeister & Newman (1994); Hammack (2008); MacIntyre (1984); McAdams (2001); Ricoeur (1992).


Such a dialectic is conceived for instance in Giddens’ notion of ‘rules and resources’ that form the social life, cf. Giddens (1984).


Feilberg (2014: 36); Keller (2012: 24); Feilberg & Keller (2013).


Blaikie (2009); Denzin & Lincoln (2017); de Vaus (2004); Eneroth (1994); Flick (2009); Kvale (1996).

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