John Paley's Challenge


John Paley's ‘Heidegger, lived experience and method’ (2013) challenges phenomenologists who rely on Heidegger for theoretical support and guidance to review, critically, their grounding assumptions. If Paley's critique ‘holds’, it could be that the argumentative coherence and, by implication, usefulness of a considerable number of supposedly Heideggerian informed studies collapse. Moreover, the manner in which Paley's challenge is met may tell us much – for good or ill – about the rigour and status of nursing scholarship. This aspect of Paley's challenge is underdeveloped in his paper and it is this aspect of his work that I discuss here.

Paley's argument falls into two parts. First, he proposes that fundamental Heideggerian concepts (e.g. Dasein and lived experience) have been misunderstood by phenomenological nurse researchers. Second, Paley highlights empirical research that appears to support Heidegger ‘properly’ understood (i.e. studies that discount the ability of participants to recall, accurately/truthfully, their lived experience of past events). Paley could be wrong. However, his argument looks credible; therefore, it merits attention.

If a substantive and robust theoretical base is necessary to support the claims that are built on it, phenomenological studies that rely on, but misread Heidegger, are seriously flawed because – if Paley is right – their theoretical base is unsound. Alternatively, if Paley is mistaken, the theoretical basis of those who invoke Heideggerian concepts in the way Paley argues against may or may not have a defensible theoretical base (discounting Paley's challenge on this point neither proves nor disproves alternative readings of Heidegger). Lastly, even if Paley is wrong about Heidegger, researchers who wish to continue with ‘current practice’ should (a normative claim) recognize and respond to questions generated by research evidence that Paley proposes support his reading of Heidegger.

What is to be done with Paley's argument? Different interpretations of the same data/evidence are often possible and Paley could be dismissed insofar as he offers merely another viewpoint. However, while we can acknowledge the existence of contrasting perspectives, it is also the case that some explanations simply are better (i.e. provide greater explanatory power/scope) and, moreover, given the clarity and potential significance of his claims, a dismissive response seems inadequate. Let us then grant that, since Paley's reading of Heidegger has prima facie legitimacy (it may be broadly correct), this is not a reading that can easily be ignored.

Phenomenologists who rely on Heidegger might respond to Paley by either establishing that his reading is demonstrably inaccurate or, if this is not possible, they might move to downplay or sever the importance of theory–research linkages. Thus, as science can and has occurred in the absence of an overt or developed philosophic grounding (Rose 2006), it might be argued that ‘okay’ Paley is right ‘but’ we can still proceed as per usual, albeit that we must discard previously held theoretical embellishments. However, given that phenomenologists invoke Heidegger to structure and give form to their work, we might assume that these researchers have already conceded the pivotal role that theory plays in research of this sort and, therefore, the above move is not available to them.

Furthermore, while Paley ‘only’ talks about one branch of phenomenology, he nonetheless prompts all of us to think through the role that theory performs in nursing research/scholarship. For example, do we invoke theory because it is integral to the argument being presented, or, is theory sometimes ‘confettied’ onto research haphazardly to meet publication expectations? I want to assume that researchers mean what they say and, therefore, citing Heidegger (or any other theorist) indicates that researchers have meaningfully engaged with and generally agree with the position being advanced. Others may demur.

The manner in which Paley's challenge is met by those it affects might thus tell us something important about the nature and quality of nursing scholarship. Normal science (to use a crude ‘shorthand’ term) progresses insofar as ideas and theories are proposed and, in the light of new evidence and thinking, these theories are – through time – tweaked, amended, revised, argued about and discarded in favour of alternative and more robust ideas. Achinstein (2001), among others, offers historical examples of this process in physical science where, over the long run, few, if any, theories survive unchanged. And, while this ‘progressive’ interpretation of science can be critiqued, it is curiously difficult to see this type of thing happening in nursing. Fads come and go. But Paley's argument, if taken seriously, potentially presents an instance of the sort of creative ideational destruction that is the very lifeblood of other scientific disciplines (and I assume here that nursing is, in part at least, one such discipline).

For this to occur, Paley's argument must be strong enough to resist rebuttal and his standpoint must become widely accepted so that the now discredited interpretation is dropped and changes in argumentative form and research practice ensue. (This may involve the procurement of new theoretical supports.) Granted, descriptors such as ‘rebuttal’ and ‘acceptance’ clearly underestimate the complexity involved in historically situated sociocultural ideational contest. Nonetheless, these sorts of processes are evident in Achinstein's (2001) discussion of evidence and there is no reason to assume they do or cannot occur in nursing.

To conclude, if Paley's challenge to existing ways of thinking about and doing Heideggerian phenomenological research is credible, then those who advance the critiqued position should and probably must try to counter his challenge. And, if Paley's argument cannot be defeated, radical changes ought to be made to the way these researchers operate. Moreover, ignoring Paley's challenge is not, I suggest, a valid option. Disregarding Paley's argument concedes theoretical legitimacy without a fight and, more significantly, simply turning away from awkward claims diminishes nursing scholarship more generally. I look forward to reading the responses that Paley's paper generates.


This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

Conflict of interest

No conflict of interest has been declared by the authors.

Author contributions

All authors have agreed on the final version and meet at least one of the following criteria [recommended by the ICMJE (]:

  • substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data;
  • drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content.