Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Prereflective experience is an inexhaustible source of lived meaning.


Once we get deeply involved in a phenomenological topic we may make an amazing discovery: we seem to encounter instances and manifestations of our intrerest all around us. For example, when I was studying the phenomenon of personal secrets in the life of people, young and old, I may see examples everywhere. Indeed, prereflective experience is an inexhaustible source of lived meaning. The difficulty of phenomenological inquiry is not to find sources of meaning but to find access to these sources. And access to meaning lies in the phenomenological question, in our attentiveness to the concrete, and in the use of reflective memory. The more deeply a question is understood the more readily examples and insights present themselves.


Here are some illustrative examples of various types of secrecy experiences. I became aware of these small incidences once I began to reflect on the question of the meaning of secrecy in children’s lives. Helpful insights may be gained from a study of such ordinary, maybe even seemingly trivial, often innocent, or small secrets that remain part of people’s childhood memories. The power of these “ordinary” stories of secrecy lies not in the fact that they are abhorrent, unbelievable, strange, and bizarre, but precisely in that they are recognizable, common, and continuous with everyday experiences of secrecy that we all may have had and still have. Here are some examples from everyday lived experience:

Mark is in grade five and he really likes Anita. Anita really likes Mark, but neither dare to admit that they have a secret place in their hearts for each other. In class Mark often quietly observes Anita. In the playground Anita cannot keep her eyes away from Mark. The only time that Anita and Mark tip the veil of their secret is when they leave school for home. Then, almost imperceptibly, Anita waves to Mark, and Mark shyly lifts his hand to Anita. “Bye!”


After having been tucked in and before falling asleep, that is the time when the child’s soul breaks the fragile surface tension of shame, anxiety, frustration, or guilt that tends to cover the small secrets of the day’s happenings. At bedtime Hans confides to his Mom some of the things that he is able to keep inside during the day: how his friends had called him names at school; the low mark he received on the spelling test; that he almost got run over by a car on his bike.


Almost every night, before she goes to sleep, Jan writes in a note book entitled “Secret Diary.” Her parents know where she keeps the diary on a shelf. One day, when talking together about Jan, the father comments that he would feel it as a violation if he were to open Jan’s diary; the mother admits that she has been secretly reading it.


The teacher is mediating an animated discussion amongst the students in class. Laurie is not saying much although she seems inwardly quite involved. “Well, Laurie what do you think about this issue? Is there anything you want to add to the discussion?” the teacher asks. “No, not really!” says Laurie, but the teacher cannot help notice a suppressed smile hovering around the corners of her mouth.


Bedtime. “I hope you brushed your teeth!?” admonishes mother, while walking into the bedroom. The child feels the nagging tone and uncomfortably answers: “Yes.” But almost immediately the child feels a pang of guilt because she had not. She continues to feel restless. When an hour later sleep still has not come yet, the child quietly slips out of bed and brushes her teeth. Back in bed she falls asleep instantly.


The French teacher is practicing oral skills and she calls upon this student and then that one to ensure that they are paying attention and to check their ability to answer in French. She notices that Billy is trying hard to make himself invisible behind the backs of the students in front of him. When she picks him out with a question, Billy’s response is utterly hopeless. He shrugs his shoulders and awkwardly stutters some broken French words. He feels stupid and embarrassed. Some children snigger and giggle. Billy is not very good at French conversation.


Jason slips into the classroom. It is obvious that he is carrying something that he is trying to hide from view. He sneaks toward his desk. “Hi, Jason, what are you up to?” his teacher queries. “Oh, nothing,” Jason says quickly. But his face reddens somewhat, and he awkwardly shoves the object in the storage space of the desk.


Margot is doing really well in math this year. The parents praise her for the way she applies herself to her schoolwork and for her excellent grades. But her younger sister, Jane, blurts out what she thinks is the real motivation behind Margot’s industriousness: “Margot has a secret crush on the math teacher; she is just trying to make the teacher think that she is so fantastic!”


A grade one teacher, in a whispering tone, finger on her lips, urges the children to be quiet, to keep their thoughts inside until she will call on them. At the end of the day a little child, with a puzzled frown, comes up to her: “How is it possible that I can keep thoughts inside my head? and why do you want us to do that?” Now the teacher too is puzzled. How do we keep things inside? And is it a good thing to do so?