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.


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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.


Phenomenology & Description II

Writing a phenomenological description is ‘poem-ing’. The experience of poem-ing is evident in the act of writing down a phenomenological description. We must not confuse this experience with writing words, nor characterise it as words. We tend to over-emphasise the importance of words in a written work. Experientially, words play an important but slight role in the act of phenomenological writing compared to other characteristics of description.

Roman Ingarden, stratifies the place of words in his phenomenological investigations of literature. Ingarden’s broad project is to analyse the shared characteristics within a group of written works (“literary art”). He argues for essentially present properties that operate in relational strata within a given work. In this, the qualities of words are only one of four strata that constitute a written work.

Ingarden’s third stratum, schematised aspects, offers the interesting concept of ‘held-in-readiness’. Schematised aspects in a literary work are the qualities and actions that build an intentional object. The intentional object of a wickerman, for example, is built through the described coherent aspects such woven sticks, eerie bearing, vast height and inner cavity. We perceive aspects in a concrete way, as sensations within our body and imagination, in the absence of a corresponding material object.

Aspects, as complex descriptions, are held-in-readiness. It is as if they are prepared for the opportunity to be thought and imagined in consciousness. Waiting in the wings to be given over in intentionality. Aspects (appearances), held-in-readiness, move from possible to actual in a written work; however, it is not the “…actuality of a concretely experienced aspect, nor is it simple potentiality” (Ingarden). Holding-in-readiness has a peculiarly unreal-real quality. The unreal quality we easily understand: the written lacks a Körper aliveness but exhibits a Körper existence. Holding-in-readiness has an experience of non-material dimensionality felt materially.

Holding-in-readiness is the space for ‘from’. We are being in the holding, we are held as we write, until we achieve those moments where the writing is from, not of. Once we are writing from, we are there. Held in the space-process of poem-ing. Heidegger says poetry is the unconcelament of being – it is the ‘how’ of how we get to ‘there’ in our ‘here’. In an example of phenomenological writing from Langveld, we can begin to see the influence of this manifold of poem-ing.

In this extract, Langveld is reaching into the secret, still world of children by describing the magic and experience of certain types of solitary hiding.

“How deep is the stillness behind the heavy curtains even when the room is full of noise and conversation. All the more reason to keep oneself quiet and still. For just as the transparency of the window pane opens up both the outer and the inner world, so the curtain allows sounds to pass through. And just as through the window one sees and is seen, so behind the curtain one hears and is heard. So much more reason to be quiet and unobtrusive behind the curtain. All that this curtain shows us -its snake-like boundary at the floor, the unpredictability even of this shifting and easily moved border, its pliancy, which betrays one at the slightest movement-all of this urges us to remain quietly within our boundaries. Don’t move! Don’t touch the curtain!” (Langveld).

The held-in-readiness is clearly sensed in this slice of description. We can sense the held-in-readiness of each aspect as it meets us. We are then in that room where the writing-reading corridor leads; where the body can sense in material ways the aspects of non-material spaces.


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

Langveld, M. J., 1983. The Stillness of the Secret Place. Phenomenology + Pedagogy, 1(1), pp. 11-17