RELATED TERMS: Design practice and functionalism; Phenomenology; Genealogy - Nietzsche; Heidegger; Human Actantiality; Dasein; Epistemology; Ontology; Poeisis; Nihilism


“The point is not to gain some knowledge about philosophy but to be able to philosophise.” Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology.

The word philosophy derives from from the Greek term philosophia which means love of knowledge,pursuit of wisdom or systematic investigation. It is a combination of two roots: philo-, meaning loving and sophia meaning knowledge orwisdom.

Susan Stephenson (1999: 5) argues that, “Philosophical enquiry begins with problems that arise concretely within the life of a particular individual. It procedes through a process of dialectical confrontations with different answers to how these problems can be addressed.”

The value of philosophy for narrative environment design and analysis is perhaps best demonstrated with reference to Gregory Fried’s (2011: 240) characterisation of philosophical practice. While acknowledging that there is no consensus on what constitutes philosophy, Fried suggests that philosophy can be thought of as having three moments, moments which are perhaps also present in design practice, as will be discussed below.

The first moment, as articulated by Aristotle in the Metaphysics, is that philosophy begins with a sense of wonder (thaumazein in Greek). That wonder is the experiencing of something as deserving or demanding our attention because it is delightful, puzzling and enticing. [Equally, it could be argued that philosophy might begin with a sense of horror or trauma, which may be similarly demanding of our attention, but not for reasons of delight. The crucial point is that philosophy begins with experience and perhaps heightened experience of some kind].

The second moment is the formulation of a philosophical question, an act that requires an intense focus on precisely what is at issue on our wonder [or horror or trauma], as we open to and admit the questions that confront us out of our own individual lived experience, through the embeddedness of the self in the life world. By posing questions, we begin to philosophise through what seizes us and what challenges our world.

The third moment is answering, albeit however provisionally, or responding to the question and, indeed, possibly reformulating the question in responding to it. Modern academic philosophical practice tends to focus on this last moment. The proper work of philosophy is seen, from this perspective, to be the production of results, in the form of rigorous arguments with clear conclusions. However, as Fried argues, fixating on the moment of giving answers as the sole or primary work of philosophy distorts the full scope of what thinking demands of us.

Parallels can be drawn between this characterisation of philosophical practice and design practice. These parallels might be recognised more readily if one takes Martin Heidegger’s (2009) suggestions that,

“The two questions asked in philosophy are, in plain terms: 1. What is it that really matters? 2. Which way of posing questions is genuinely directed to what really matters.”

For narrative environment design, those questions may need to be extended, to become 1. What is it that really matters, to whom, for whom, in what ways(s), in what situation(s), of what duration? 2. Which ways of posing questions are genuinely directed to what really matters to whom, for whom, in what way(s), in what situation(s), of what duration?

More generally, like philosophy, design practice is not simply problem solving or answer-giving (moment three in Gregory Fried’s scheme), although, similarly to philosophy, most contemporary design practice is focused on this third moment of giving answers to problems, i.e. providing design solutions. However, to echo Fried, fixating on this moment of providing solutions, in the form of constructed artefacts or designed systems with explicit functions or uses, as the sole or primary work of design distorts the full scope of what design thinking and practice demands of us.

Design practice, like philosophy, needs to work on all three moments. Without good design questions, that are founded in experience and heightened awareness (e.g. wonder, horror, trauma) and a questioning of that experience in relations to the processes of the material (social, economic, political, environmental) world, such proffered solutions may lead to situations that are more problematic than the initial one.

Design practice, then, like philosophy, does not begin with answers/solutions and the production of results but with a sense of wonder, or perhaps horror or trauma, and the posing of questions arising from and within that experience. Crucially, it is the formulation of the design question (or questions) that is key to arriving at valuable ‘results’. The question does not determine the precise result but it does, however, orient the direction of the problem solving activity.

One question might be whether such (philosophical or design) thinking can be systematised or made into a method. In response, it could be said, as does Friedrich Schlegel in his Athenaeum Fragments, that philosophy is a way of trying to be a systematic spirit without having a system, a position similar to that of Hannah Arendt.

More conventionally, students of Plato and other ancient philosophers divide philosophy into three parts: ethics (the <span More conventionally, students of Plato and other ancient philosophers divide philosophy into three parts: ethics (the principles and import of moral judgment), epistemology (the resources and limits of knowledge) and metaphysics (the rational investigation of the nature and structure of reality). While useful for pedagogical purposes, however, no rigid boundary separates the parts.

David Woodruff Smith (2013) states that traditionally philosophy includes at least four core fields or disciplines: ontology, epistemology, ethics and logic. He suggests that phenomenology can be added to that list. On that basis, he provides elementary definitions of the field of philosophy as follows:

Ontology is the study of beings or their being — what is.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge — how we know.

Logic is the study of valid reasoning — how to reason.

Ethics is the study of right and wrong — how we should act.

Phenomenology is the study of our experience — how we experience.

Other domains of conventional academic philosophical investigation are those of of semantics, which concerns the relationship between language and reality, and aesthetics, which concerns notions of sensory perception and beauty.

All of these domains (ethics, epistemology, metaphysics or ontology, semantics, aesthetics and phenomenology) may be of value in design thinking, so long as the focus is not simply or solely on producing results but also on experiencing and questioning.


Fried, G. (2011). A Letter to Emmanuel Faye. Philosophy Today, 55 (3), 219–252. Available from [Accessed 29 August 2016].

Smith, D.W. (2013). Phenomenology. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available from [Accessed 5 September 2016].

Stephenson, S. (1999) ‘Narrative, identity and modernity’, in ECPR workshop ‘The Political Uses of Narrative’ Mannheim, 29-31 March, 1999, pp. 1–18. Available at: (Accessed: 31 March 2021).