Lifeworld - Lebenswelt - Umwelt

RELATED TERMS: Metalepsis; Ontological Metalepsis; Diegesis; Diegese; World-forming, world-making, world-building; World, world of the story and world of the narrative environment; Affordances; Dasein; Everyday; Storyworld; Design History; Ontological designing; Phenomenology; Arendt

Narrative environments, as designs, can be understood to bring together:

*the (material-semiotic) world of the story (diegesis or diegese); *the (imaginary) storyworld generated by the interaction of (a) that semiotic materiality and (b) the reader-participant’s own (imaginary, intellectual) identity-consciousness; and *the (symbolic-real-embodied) lifeworld, or Lebenswelt, that the human participant carries with them into the designed environment.

Together, they give rise to a field of interaction or, more theoretically, a field of agential potential (actantiality). The interesting questions for the design of narrative environments arise arise when this seemingly straightforward nested hierarchy of determinations, with the lifeworld at the bottom, determining the storyworld in the middle which, in turn, determines the world of the story at the top becomes tangled so that the world of the story, as the that which has been authored-narrated, becomes the author in a newly emergent hierarchy. A good example of this tangling is that of genetic engineering. In this example, the human genome is taken as the author, narrated by the geneticist as scientist (narrator), who tells the story of human evolution and human behaviour, as the narratee. The possibility of what has been termed ‘gene editing’, which treates the genome metaphorically as a ‘text’, means that the the geneticist, as her-him-self one of the narrated human beings, can become the author of the genome, that is, the author of the author. Such isues are discussed under the headings of metalepsis and ontological metalepsis.

As this example shows, a theory of actantiality is needed so as to be able to grasp how the genome can be understood as author, as having a kind of agency that both determines human evolution and human behaviour to some extent but which nevertheless itself has come within the sphere of human agency to act upon it. Its agency over millennia has become recognised (more-than-human agency) and, at the same time, ‘personified’ (rendered accessible to human agency). To paraphrase Scott, with the insight of Eco (1976) [1] (a sign is anything that can be used to lie): ‘Oh, what a tangled web we ply, when first we aim to signify.’

Care needs to be exercised in using the term lifeworld (Lebenswelt). Lifeworld should not be considered to designate a homogenous domain of experience nor understood to be introducing a universal horizon. It is not “a changeless foundation of ‘lived’ intentionalities.” (Sandywell, 2004: 168).

The notion of lifeworld was introduced in the posthumously published second volume of Husserl’s Ideas, under the heading of “Umwelt”, translated as “surrounding world” or “environment”. Husserl there characterizes the environment as a world of entities that are meaningful to us in that they exercise motivating force on us and present themselves to us under egocentric aspects. For Husserl, it is this subjective-relative lifeworld, or environment, that provides the ground of the more objective world of science, and indeed any other theoretical, symbolic system, such as narrative. Scientific or other theoretical views constantly flow into the way one understands the everyday world.

While Husserl spoke of a ‘Lebenswelt’ (lifeworld) to stress the solidness of the human encapsulation within reality, it was Heidegger who made this ‘grounding’ yet more defined. Heidegger called this worldly entrenchment In-der-welt-sein, or ‘Being-in-the-world’, a condition which he named Dasein, there-being or being-there (or, alternatively, here-being and being-here). With this concept, Heidegger called attention to the fact that a human being cannot be taken into account except as being an existent in the middle of a world amongst other people and amongst ‘things’.

For Heidegger, Dasein is ‘to be there’ and to be human is to be located, embedded and immersed in the physical, literal, tangible, everyday world. Heidegger rejected Husserl’s psychological orientation and developed his own phenomenology as an ontology. For Heidegger the world is here, now and everywhere around us. We are totally immersed in it, an insight which Sloterdijk, among others, pursues.

Husserl’s phenomenology brackets the lifeworld, which he treats as the ‘natural’ or unreflective attitude involved in everyday conceptions of reality. The lifeworld is, however, not a pure, interpretation-free world. It is a social, historical, and cultural world loaded with various interpretations and value perspectives. The life-world includes individual, social, perceptual, and practical experiences. Lifeworld denotes the way the members of one or more social groups, for example, cultures, linguistic communities, use to structure the world into objects.

In analysing and describing the lifeworld, phenomenology attempts to show how the world of theory and science originates from the lifeworld, strives to discover the mundane phenomena of the life-world itself, and attempts to show how the experience of the lifeworld is possible by analysing time, space, body, and the very givenness or presentation of experience.

Sandywell (2004: 163) highlights potentially problematic uses of the notion of lifeworld. If it is reified into existential presuppositions, as in the ‘structures of the life-world’, it can then be said to sustain the ‘paramount reality’ of social coexistence and co-ordinated world-work. Sandywell points out that the concepts of lifeworld, world of daily existence, and so on are polemical concepts. They signify the world in which we live and which for us, or for some other group, constitutes reality in contrast to the world which science constructs.

Thus, Sandywell (2004: 167) argues that,

“The phenomenological concept of an aboriginal ‘Lebenswelt’ functions as a barely disguised nostalgia for the sustaining source of meaning, of primal significances occluded by the rise of modern science and technology. This forms the basic premise for a ‘phenomenology of the social world’ and theories of the lifeworld contrasted with the colonizing logics of systems (Schutz 1967, Habermas 1987).”

Sandywell (2004: 167) proposes rejecting the notion of,

“an originary, unitary and homogeneous ‘lifeworld’ set against multiple, differentiated ‘spheres’ that announce the inception of modernity (the Kantian triumvirate of science, morality and art as Lebenssphären (‘spheres of life’) being the most influential differentiation paradigm in social theory).”


[1] “Thus semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used ‘to tell’ at all. I think that the definition of a ‘theory of the lie’ should be taken as a pretty comprehensive program for a general semiotics.” (Eco, 7)


Beyer, C. (2015). Edmund Husserl. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .Available from [Accessed 18 June 2016]

Eco, U. (1976 ) A Theory of semiotics. Bloomimgton, IN: Indiana University Press.

Hornsby, R. (2002). What Heidegger means by being-in-the-world. a personal blog. Available from [Accessed 18 June 2016].

Sandywell, B. (2004). The Myth of everyday life: toward a heterology of the ordinary. Cultural Studies, 18 (2), 160–180. Available from [Accessed 22 November 2015].