by stronged

Bold text is my emphasis.

This article by Seamon hits the nail on the head of my understanding of what phenomenology is all about. At least, how I am choosing to utilise it for my research project. Particularly this question: ‘in other words, if the thing could speak, what would it say? How would it describe itself?’ By constructing a K-Film in a manner that allows for a nonlinear assemblage of the BOI, I hope to allow this place to breathe; to communicate back to us (the user) to prompt rumination and contemplation of each singular element as well as the entirety of the environment as whole.

WIthout further ado, here’s the article:

This article was originally published in Voices on the Threshold of Tomorrow, Georg Feuerstein and Trisha Lamb Feurstein, eds., Wheaton, Illinois: Quest, pp. 84-87. The article was reprinted in The Scientific and Medical Network Newsletter53 (December 1993): 11-13.



by David Seamon

The important thing
Is to pull yourself up by your own hair
To turn yourself inside out,
And see the whole world with new eyes.
                                               –Peter Weiss, Marat-Sade

 “We are too late for the gods and too early for Being,” wrote the German phenomenological philosopher Martin Heidegger, by which he meant that we can no longer believe divine word, yet we are unable to see the world as it is. Here lies a central dilemma for the new millennium: How, without unquestioned belief, can we know? How, without blind faith, can we be certain that what we see or understand is really so?

The twentieth century’s hope for resolving these questions lay largely in positivist science, which sought to determine exact logical truths through cause-and-effect relationships identified materially and measured quantitatively. The results of positivist science, particularly in regard to technology, were beneficial in that they provided a freedom from time, space and environment that earlier generations could never have imagined. At the same time, however, positivist science helped to create many unintended but difficult problems‑-for example, nuclear weapons, the ecological crisis, and a global capitalistic system that regularly values economic and institutional requirements over the needs of particular people and places. If the world is to become more just and humane, we have come to realize that the knowledge provided by positivist science is not enough.

Where, then, might the new millenium turn for guidance? One bright hope is the many new ways of knowing that have begun to appear in the last few decades. These possibilities‑-some radically new, some innovative versions of earlier traditions‑-seek to see and to understand in a receptive, kindly way. The aim is a thoughtful empathy that provides an opening where knower and known meet and know that they both belong.

Nominally, these new ways of knowing may seem far apart but, in fact, they are neighbors. For example:

  • the existential phenomenology of Heidegger and philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty;
  • The Pattern Language of architect Christopher Alexander;
  • The deep ecology of philosophers Arne Naess, Bill Devall, George Sessions, and Warwick Fox;
  • The phenomenologies of place and environmental experience provided by scholars like Edward Relph, Yi-Fu Tuan, and Belden Lane;
  • The phenomenological science of Goethe and his present-day followers like Theodore Schwenk, Wolfgang Schad, John Wilkes, Henri Bortoft, Mark Riegner, and Craig Holdrege;
  • The sacred geometries and architectures of Keith Critchlow, Robert Lawlor, and Robert Meurant;
  • The somatic therapies of Ida Rolf, F. M. Alexander, and Stanley Keleman;
  • The efforts of Gurdjieffian philosopher John G. Bennett to use the qualitative and symbolic significance of number to understand wholes.

Though different in their topical emphases, these works are kin in that they all seek ways to allow being to break forth and to heal the wholes that have long since been fractured into parts.  And if we can find ways to allow things to be what they are and to place themselves where they belong, then they will more likely give us allowance and kindness in turn. Where there were parts, there might be wholes. Where there was separation, there might be neighborhood and relationship. We each find ourselves but find ourselves together. Diversity and commonality become one.

With what word to identify this hopeful possibility? Perhaps the best label is phenomenology. There are many versions of phenomenology, but the heart of the phenomenological style that I emphasize here is kindly seeing‑-in other words, if the thing could speak, what would it say? How would it describe itself? Phenomenology, explains John Harvey is “an imaginative sympathy that is receptive without ceasing to be critical.” Phenomenology, says Edward Relph, is “an attempt to understand from the inside‑-and not to dismiss from the outside‑-the whole spectrum of experience which we generally call `reality’.”

If the first step in phenomenology is to describe the thing in a fair but thoughtful way, the next step is to use that description to identify commonalities that underlie the specific descriptions and relate them to some larger pattern or whole. In this regard, Relph explains that phenomenology is “the gathering together of what already belongs together even while apart.” For example, there is a growing body of studies that explore the phenomenology of place. This work asks why places are crucial in human life and what happens in a society like ours where placelessness, geographical mobility, and environmental destruction regularly overwhelm community, rootedness, and ecological responsibility grounded in local care and concern?

One way to answer these questions phenomenologically is, first, to have many different people of different backgrounds describe a place important in their lives. These descriptions then provide a base for identifying more general qualities that characterize many of these places in an accurate but broader way. A striking effort to explore place phenomenologically is Relph’s masterful Place and Placelessness, which demonstrates that places are “fusions of human and natural order and the significant centers of our immediate experience of the world.” The essence of place experience, says Relph, is the degree to which a person feels inside place: “To be inside a place is to belong to it and to identify with it, and the more profoundly inside you are, the stronger is the identity with the place.”

From one perspective, the growing malaise, societal disintegration, and environmental deterioration in our postmodern Western world relates to the erosion of place and the resulting loss of communal and ecological responsibility that place otherwise insures automatically. My larger point is that the new ways of knowing indicated above all seek, in various ways, to explore their subject matter in the style of phenomenology, whether implicitly or directly. Taken-for-granted aspects of human experience, like place, are given attention; the tacit and unnoticed are asked to speak. The result may be that we see “with new eyes.” This style of vision and the understandings it evokes may offer one of the few viable ways to avert, on one hand, global ecological collapse and, on the other hand, escalating social and economic inequities and divisions.


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