RELATED TERMS: Feminism - Material feminism); Philosophy; Arendt; Heidegger; Affordances; Ontology; Placiality and Spatiality; Present-at-hand (Vorhanden) and Ready-to-hand (Zuhanden); Lifeworld (Lebenswelt; Umwelt)

If it is accepted that the human is one of the main constituents or domains of actantiality in the realisation of a narrative environment, then the relevance of phenomenology becomes apparent, as a tool for grasping the nature of that human actantiality or performativity.

This is particularly so because of phenomenology’s concern for the lifeworld, with its emphasis on the human body, especially the moving body, the recognition of embodiment as intersubjectivity and inter-corporeality, in its relation to narration and temporalisation, on the one hand, and to environing and spatialisation, on the other hand, themselves conceived as forms of actantiality or performativity. As Thomas Sheehan (2014) expresses it in an interview, phenomenology is about the meaningful presence of things within contexts of human concerns and interests.

Phenomenology, from the Greek word phainomenon, itself derived from phainein, meaning to show, is “the study of givenness, of the world as it is lived rather than the world as it is objectified, abstracted, and conceptualized.” (Garner, 1993: 448)

A phenomenological approach recognises that the essentially analytic space of Euclidian geometry, Cartesian philosophy or Newtonian physics is very different from lived, or inhabited, spatiality, with its perceptual contours and structures of orientation. (Garner, 1993: 448)

In investigating affective, aesthetic and action-oriented experience as it is influenced and informed by environmental factors and by actual and potential bodily movement, and by exploring the ways that our physical and social environments matter for experience, cognition, problem-solving and for shaping our intersubjective and social interactions, phenomenology can be a very useful resource for research in narrative environment design.

Within phenomenology, spatiality, as lived space, is felt space. Lived space is a category for inquiring into the ways we experience spatial dimensions of our everyday existence, alongside the other themes of lived body (corporeality), lived time (temporality), and lived human relation (relationality or communality). Lived time (temporality) is subjective time as distinct from clock time or objective time.

As Jennifer Bullington (2013: 20) and Dermot Moran (2000) explain, phenomenology is the central strand of 20th-century European philosophy. It stems from the works of Edmund Husserl, 1859-1938, who announced it in 1900-1901 as a bold, radically new way of doing philosophy. To Husserl, it sought to bring philosophy back from abstract metaphysical speculation, with its attendant pseudo-problems, in order to return to concrete living experience. The term ‘phenomenology’ means the logos, or inherent meaning or order, of phenomena, i.e. the meaning of that which appears or shows itself to human beings. How human beings perceive, understand and live the world is the subject matter of phenomenological study.

Phenomenology does not make statements about how the world is in-itself, outside of human beings’ experiences of it. The subject matter of phenomenological studies is an examination of various human phenomena, such as, for example, perception, time consciousness, sexuality, religious and cultural practices, the body, the experience of the Holy and so on, from the point of view of meaning constitution. The central motif of phenomenology is the phenomenological description of things as they are, in the manner in which they appear (Moran, 2000: xiii).

In his later years, Husserl thought that phenomenological practice required a radical shift in viewpoint, one that suspended or bracketed the everyday natural attitude and ‘world-positing’ intentional acts which assumed the existence of the world. In this way, the practitioner will be led back to the domain of pure transcendental subjectivity (Moran, 2000: 2).

When this is done, Husserl further argues that we find two poles of experience: the streaming of consciousness, which he called noesis or noetic acts; and that to which consciousness attends, which he called noema or noematic objects. In place of the objective ‘real’ object we find, under the phenomenological reduction, the streaming of consciousness towards the object-as-meant. This bracketed realm of noesis and noema is the study proper of phenomenology, in this phase of Husserl’s thought. (Bullington, 2013: 22)

However, many of Husserl’s students were unconvinced by the value of this reduction or the possibility of carrying it out, and felt that Husserl had lapsed back into the very Neo-Kantian idealism from which phenomenology has originally struggled to free philosophy (Moran, 2000: 2).

This brings to attention the recognition, as explained by Moran (2000: xiv), that phenomenology cannot be understood simply as a method, a project or a set of tasks. In its historical form, it is primarily a set of people, beginning with Husserl and his personal assistants, Edith Stein, Martin Heidegger, Eugen Fink and Ludwig Landgrebe, and extending to his students, Roman Ingarden, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, Marvin Farber, Dorion Cairns, Alfred Schutz and Aron Gurwitsch, as well as others including Max Scheler and Karl Jaspers. Moran also points out that phenomenology changes when introduced into a new language and philosophical climate, such as when it was interpreted by Emmanual Levinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Michel Henry and Paul Ricoeur in France, a tradition that was itself later deconstructed by Jacques Derrida.

For a discussion of Heidegger’s objections to Husserl’s reductions, the transcendental and the eidetic, Taylor Carman’s (2006) chapter on The Principle of phenomenology is particularly useful. By taking human existence as mere objective presence, Heidegger points out, Husserl infers that the essence of intentionality can be grasped apart from any interest in existence. For Heidegger, we do not understand things, least of all ourselves in such an objective fashion. Rather,

“we make use of things, we rely on them, we avail ourselves of them, we take them for granted by manipulating, adjusting, wearing, stepping on, and ignoring them. Only rarely do they stand over against us as mere objects. In short, we do not simply intuit them as “occurrent” (vorhanden), we treat them as “available” [zuhanden] (Carman, 2006: 109).

For Heidegger, the eidetic reduction suppresses what is most essential to intentionality, that is, its existential moment, because our existence is constitutive of our self-understanding. The bracketing of existence in favour of essence blinds Husserl to the distinctive ontological character of Dasein (human being), whose essence lies in its existence. The traditional concepts of essentia (whatness) and existentia (thatness) fail to capture the way in which the very being of human beings is inextricably bound up with what they take themselves to be.

One of the major French exponents of the practice begun under the heading of phenomenology was Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1908-1961, who implicitly endorses Husserl’s opposition to scientific realism. That is, they both reject the view that the privileged status of the natural sciences provides descriptions of the real nature of the world, however much these depart from our pre-scientific, common sense conceptions of it. Husserl maintains that the ‘real’ world is a world of phenomena, i.e. of things that appear to us; but not of ‘appearances’, in the sense of that behind or beyond which lies ‘the real’. Nor are those ‘phenomena’ the sense-data of empiricism: colour-patches, shapes, sounds, and so on. Rather, they are the objects as they appear to us, objects-for-consciousness. Conversely, our consciousness is (always) of objects. In other words, it is ‘intentional’, aimed or directed at something.” (Keat, 1982: 1)

Merleau-Ponty calls the lived unity of the mind–body-world system ‘the lived body’. The body understood as a lived body is both material and self-conscious, physiological and psychological. These terms, Merleau-Ponty argues, are not as dichotomous as may be imagined: there is mind in the body and body in the mind. The lived body is always oriented towards the world outside itself, i.e. towards otherness, in a constant reciprocal flow (Bullington, 2013: 25).

That otherness, in the context of narrative environment design, is understood both in terms of temporality, as narrating, and spatiality, as environing.

Allan Parsons, revised April 2021


Bullington, J. (2013). The Expression of the psychosomatic body from a phenomenological perspective. In: The Expression of the Psychosomatic Body from a Phenomenological Perspective. Dordrecht, NL: Springer, 19–37.

Carman, T. (2006). The principle of phenomenology, In The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, 2nd ed., edited by Charles B. Guignon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Garner, S.B. (1993). ‘Still living flesh’: Beckett, Merleau-Ponty, and the phenomenological body. Theatre Journal, 45 (4), 443–460. Available from [Accessed 5 February 2018].

Keat, R. (1982). Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenology of the body [Online paper]. _Russell Keat.ne_t [Website]. Available from [Accessed 22 March 2016].

Moran, D. (2000). Introduction to phenomenology. London: Routledge.

Phenomenology Online [Website]. Available at [Accessed 23 March 2016].

Sheehan, T., Polt, R. and Fried, G. (2014). No one can jump over his own shadow. 3:AM Magazine, (8 December). Available from [Accessed 1 September 2016].