How writing rescues us from being dull and blind

Of the experience in writing phenomenology, van Manen says, “it is like falling into a twilight zone, where things are no longer recognizably the same, where words are displaced, where I can lose my orientation, where anything can happen.” A partial loss of self is how van Manen describes his experience of writing. Yet, if we wish to discuss this as one’s relationship to oneself, I think it is not an experience of loss but of suspension and adaptation. We are somewhere other than our Körper place. We are in the space of our Leib self; sensing and animated without the threats of material life and death.

Below is an example from one of Behnke’s phenomenological experiments in perceiving kinaesthetic affectivity. In simple terms, it is an observation made from a practice that creates a space of bodily openness. In this space intersubjective empathetic responses to other bodies can move from being anonymous, or ignored, to being seen and observed. When you read this passage, imagine Behnke gently walking around parts of her urban environment with an awareness of her self as a body and the bodies of nearby ‘anothers’. We enter the description as she is pushing open a door in readiness of walking through the doorway.

“On closer examination, however, one can begin to sense, for instance, how one’s hand is already holding a door open rather than letting it go, in a way whose timing is already coordinated with the movement of others who are about to go through the same door. Or one can feel the pressure of the shopping cart’s handle against one’s hands as one is already checking its motion to make way for another shopper even before consciously ‘‘steering’’ one way or another. (Behnke)

The push of your hand on a shopping trolley, or door-knob, in a named consciousness towards other nearby bodies she calls “interkinaesthetic civility” which “weaves a fabric of reciprocity”. Even without the complicated back-of-house phenomenological theory this description is beautiful and stands with strength on its own. How did Behnke achieve this? How does she write such insightful passages?

In describing a phenomenon we may not know what needs to be chosen and highlighted from the infinitude of experience until the choice is made. Such selections are felt in the process of writing. As we scrawl, one sentence another follows; a sentence is not an idea or meaning but a metaphor (literally a carry-over). As Ingarden insightfully saw, when we describe an aspect of an object we do not describe the object.  “In fact, it is quite the opposite. If the aspects were described, then what is represented in the work would be, not the objectivity that is to appear in them, but the aspects themselves… and the corresponding object would either totally disappear… or would belong to the work only as something that is indirectly represented”. Phenomenology as a practice of writing description is our path around anonymity, dull consensus and predictability to the phenomena as it essentially appears. We can begin to see the truths of the world not through observation but through written description and that is the practice of phenomenology.


[Buy me a coffee]


Behnke, E. A., 2008. Interkinaesthetic Affectivity: A Phenomenological Approach. Continental Philosophy Review, Volume 41, pp. 143-161.

Ingarden, R., 1973. The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

van Manen, M., 2002. Writing in the Dark: Phenomenological Studies in Interpretive Inquiry. London(Ontario): University of Western Ontario.


8 thoughts on “How writing rescues us from being dull and blind”

  1. I have a question (and forgive me if it is a profoundly ignorant one):
    If phenomenology is the practice of seeing the truths of the world through written description, wouldn’t that mean that the things we observe -and the truths- are dependent on the one doing the observing? And thus that truths are, in a way, subjective?
    I know, it is a relativist argument, but I’m curious.
    Brilliant post on phenomenology; I’d never heard of it before. Thank you for this introduction!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your questions. A useful way to approach this area is to get clear on why we assume subjectivity is an inadequate foundation for observation. What premises (or presuppositions) are you bringing to bear in your chain of questions?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, for one thing, how can my opinion be considered superior to someone else’s? An observation from my point of view will be distorted by my life, my experience. Thus, it is only but one truth. If a group of people got together and agreed on an observation however, wouldn’t that have more value than a single subjective viewpoint? (I’m playing devil’s advocate here to better understand)


      2. While agreement between people may seem to offer a kind of truth, there are many instances where consensus is actually only an act of power, not a reliable truth. Groups of people agreed, for example, that keeping human slaves was morally permissible. I think one vs the many isn’t a trustworthy tool in phenomenology.
        We all have a subjectivity. We all have a flesh body. We all have an experience of the world. Looked at in this way, these subjective elements are powerful. They bind us. We are conceptually accustomed to dismissing subjectivity (as inferior to objectivity, for example) but the foundations of that dismissal are invalid in many circumstances.
        Rich knowledge is ‘located’ in subjective experience. Describing these experiences in a full and frank manner (phenomenologically) can be a useful knowledge. There are many things in life that we can only know through such means.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. May I offer you an example that may answer your question? Here is my translation of the phenomenologist Husserl who is writing about subjective interpretation of looking at a cathedral–

        “In the setting of everyday life there is a consciousness in having by one’s self, of Objects, as a direct having-over-against, a consciousness of the bodily presence of the cathedral. If beside me is another person, directing his view to the cathedral, then I understand this without any further ado. His seeing, which I empathise, is the same as my direct having-over-against, the Object is directly given. With each step that I take, the ‘view’ of the cathedral, its orientation, changes, but I see it itself directly.”

        In this example, to perceive the cathedral is in some way to hold the experience of the cathedral within one’s self, or, to be given over to the cathedral. We have an experience of cathedralness. Further, to watch a nearby friend transubstantiate from ‘friend’ to ‘friend-cathedral-person-like-me-cathedral-person’ is to become a friend-in-perception while still maintaining one’s other-me perception.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s