Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

After completing a primary and secondary teacher education program, Jan Hendrik van den Berg entered medical school. In 1946, he completed his doctoral work with a dissertation on schizophrenic psychosis. Van den Berg studied in France and Switzerland and received a lectorate in psychopathology in 1948. In 1951, he was appointed to the Chair of Pastoral Psychology at the University of Utrecht. Van den Berg’s writings were an important contribution to the reputation of the Utrecht School. His publications have been widely translated into many languages. His book Het Ziekbed (1952) was published in English as The Psychology of the Sickbed (1966); but the French title says most about its content: Conseils au Visiteur d’une Malade Alit (Advice for Visitors of Bedridden Patients) (1969). The Phenomenological Approach to Psychiatry (1955) was reissued as A Different Existence (1974), which still is an excellent introduction to the phenomenological approach. In addition to many phenomenological studies in psychology and psychiatry, he also wrote several lucid methodological introductions, such as Zien: Verstaan en Verklaring in de Visuele Waarneming (Seeing: Understanding and Interpretation in Visual Perception) (1972).


Jan Hendrik van den Berg has been especially conscious of the historical and cultural embeddedness of phenomenological psychology. In fact, he was far ahead of the later postmodern critique of the dangers of foundationalism, essentialism, and historical and cultural universalism. He argues that the very project of all phenomenology is contextualized by limits of language, culture, time, and place. According to van den Berg, phenomenological psychology does not claim to have found a universally valid approach to human phenomena; rather, it is always self-conscious of its anthropological starting point. Van den Berg became especially known for the development and application of a historical phenomenological approach that he termed the metabletical method. Metabletica is a word derived from the Greek meaning “to change.” His book Metabletica: Principles of a Historical Psychology (published in English in 1961 as The Changing Nature of Man) describes the changing relation between adults and children many years before a similar work by the French historian Philipe Ariès. For example, Van den Berg describes the process of the infantilization of adulthood and the appearance of puberty as a historial and cultural phenomenon. The special feature of the metabletical method is that it approaches its object of study not diachronically, as development through time, but synchronically, from within a meaningful constitution of relations among different events during the same shared period. For example, in Leven en Meervoud (1963) (published in English in 1974 as Divided Existence), he provides a concrete portrayal and a surprisingly early postmodern interpretation of the development of the human psyche by connecting it with a variety of simultaneous developments in the surrounding culture, showing how the sense of self-identity is increasingly fragmented, divided, and determined by externals.