Pathic Writing: What is it? What is it for? How do I do it?

Van Manen, M. (2007) Phenomenology and Practice. Phenomenology & Practice, 1, 1. pp. 11-30.

N.B. all other references in here are secondary ones for the purpose of signposting myself to other good stuff.

Here’s what I got from Max Van Manen’s paper on furthering understanding of lived experiences through reading and writing about practice; so-called ‘pathic’ writing.

What is the point of pathic writing? 
It would appear that if you’re hoping to get something specific out of it, or to solve a particular problem with it, then you’ve got the wrong attitude. Heidegger (2000, p.12) suggests that phenomenology never makes things easier, but only more difficult. And – seemingly paradoxically – that phenomenology lacks utility if one hopes to do something useful with it. Rather, we have to let ourselves be shaped by phenomenology – to be the things being acted upon – in order to benefit from it:

You can’t do anything with philosophy…. but maybe philosophy can do something with us? – Heidegger 2000, p.13

Van Manen presents one purpose of pathic writing as the ethical correction of technological or calculative ways of being; an antidote to our preoccupation with the engineering of solutions to problems. It is driven by fascination; a desire to see into the heart of things. Writing this takes me back to the first EdD workshop we had in September when Linet and Ian asked us what we wanted to get out of the course and ultimately our research. Paul and I were both adamant that we wanted to be better teachers – to become more effective at improving our practice. I still felt rather the same on writing my RRW1 assignment. I have to admit I am now wavering… on one hand it still seems selfish and exclusive to focus on the creation of knowledge that only those with similar qualifications will be able to access and appreciate. On the other, getting to see into the heart of things sounds wonderfully exciting and I suspect becoming a happier, more fulfilled teacher is just as noble a goal as becoming a ‘better’ one (a technological/calculative notion). Maybe I will turn into a nihilist and not care about becoming either…

Another thing Van Manen seems to like about phenomenological descriptive views of practice is that they can bridge the epistemology of Husserl (based on a prereflective, impressional consciousness that incorporates retentional and protentional aspects), and the ontology of Heidegger (the idea that we have to decontextualise phenomena to experience them in their ‘bare’ or ‘pure’ state – e.g. without the meaning we would usually ascribe to them). I think what this means is that pathic writing enables us to situate our experience temporally (perhaps enriched by what came before and after?), and in a purer state, away from its existential context.

For the reader, the symbolism required in pathic texts, which refer beyond the realm of what can be said clearly and distinctly (Kocklemans 1987, p.ix) can be highly evocative; it stimulates mental imagery that can move and change us.


The characteristics of pathic writing:

This is perhaps a dangerous subheading… I am a little worried that rather than gaining a deep understanding of pathic writing I will end up mimicking it, like the reflective writing assignments satirised by Macfarlane and Gourlay in their chucklesome 1999 paper:

Macfarlane, B. & Gourlay, L. (2009) The Reflection Game: Enacting the Penitent Self. Teaching in Higher Education, 14, 4. pp455-459

So, I’ll just do a little notepad-dump of all the bits and pieces I got from Van Manen’s paper for now. Later on I will cross-reference them with the examples David gave us, in the hope that I’ll be able to see how the various characteristics correspond to specific moves in the text (that doesn’t sound strategic at all… does it?!):

Pathic writing…

    • is free from theoretical, prejudicial and suppositional intoxication
    • is free of calculative rationality
    • does not intend to resolve problems
    • constitutes sober (thoughtful) reflection on the lived experience of practice
    • acknowledges emotion without being emotional
    • is relational, situational, corporeal, temporal and actional <resist temptation here to scream ‘it’s like greased lightning’>
    • explores the non-cognitive dimensions of professional experience; moral, emotional, personal, etc.
    • uses symbolism to convey that which escapes clear definition
    • does not have to be entertaining, or an ‘easy read’.

Something that does confuse me rather is that, while pathic writing seemed initially to me to be a subset of reflective writing, Van Manen describes it as pre-reflective, pre-theoretic and pre-linguistic. Being confronted by an idea of committing something to words without or before actually reflecting on it forces me to question what reflection is (or at least what I believe it to be). Over the years I’ve been blogging, typing has become part of my reflective process; for me, the two have become synchronous.
So… how do I go about doing pathic writing?
I guess the first thing is to choose a topic. Pathic writing is about:

    • Sense and sensuality
    • Our encounters with others
    • Our responses to things, situations and relations

I could brainstorm the above categories… or start by asking myself – what am I fascinated by? What do I want to see into the heart of?

Clearly I need to avoid drawing upon calculative ideas of ‘good practice’, ‘excellence’ and ‘quality’. Maybe a nihilistic attitude will help with this… although generally it sounds like a recipe for disaster…

I was quite inspired by the paragraph about Jacques Derrida; his admission of the philosophical tensions between his personal and scholarly life, and the ides that he explores and formalises – rather than excuses – his own contradictions in his teaching; for example the idea that he desires presence and voice because they do not actually exist. I thought it might be fun to explore a tension or inconsistency between my personal and scholarly beliefs, actions, etc… if I can think of one.

Presumably it is also important that I bring retentional and protentional aspects into this pathic writing task – I will check for that in the examples too.

Finally – Van Manen describes pathic aspects as residing or resonating in the body. Bachelard (1964, p.xxii) uses the metaphor of ‘reverberation’, seemingly for similar ends. I tend to use the word ‘resonate’ a lot in my writing. It’s a way of saying that a stimulus has made me feel something strongly – perhaps unexpectedly – without having to analyse exactly what that feeling is. As a metaphor, mechanical resonance works on several levels. It is a scientific concept that is easily observed but still incredibly mysterious. It is accepted to the point where it is entirely unremarkable unless we start to think really deeply about it. Perhaps if I search for all the times I’ve claimed that something has ‘resonated’ with me, that might give me an idea upon which to base a piece of pathic writing.

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5 Responses to Pathic Writing: What is it? What is it for? How do I do it?

  1. Wayne Solomon says:

    Lindsay, I was resetting up my mobile with various apps for Twitter and LinkedIn etc. when I came across a tweet you made about this blog. I love it! I have skimmed all the entries and read some of them thoroughly I had a flashback to a particular philosophy prof’s class when I was reading your post about ontology and epistemology. Really enjoyed that! Thanks!

    Glad to see you are doing so well with academia! I look forward to your next posts. 🙂

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