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.


Writing description as ‘doing’

Phenomenological writing can be extraordinary, sumptuous and insightful. Listen to this taste of Lingis exploring lust,

“Encrusting one’s body with stones and silver or steel, saturating one’s skin with cream and lubricants till they glisten like mucous membrane, sinking into marble baths full of champagne bubbles or into the soft mud of rice paddies, feeling the grasses of the meadow or the algae tingling one’s flesh like nerves, dissolving into perfumed air and not flickering twilight, lust seeks the transubstantiations of matter with a body in transubstantiation (p64-5).

How do we we write good phenomenological description?

Let’s think of ourselves observing a pyramid, perhaps a desk ornament that sits upon our flat open palm. We hold the pyramid looking at the plane facing our null-point of ‘here’. We can see the drawn away-ness of the sides. We co-give the rear that we cannot directly perceive. After this, can we say that we have conducted a phenomenological investigation? Or is it only here, in these scratchings, these “black marks,” that phenomenology can be said to be done? Must we make a material ‘object’ of the perception? To an extent, to act phenomenologically is a process that incorporates recording, conveying, connecting. If we only ‘investigate’ through observation and do not write thereafter, we cannot claim that phenomenology has been ‘done’. Yet, phenomenology is also not a mere ‘report back’ from observation.

Typically, the object of classical phenomenological study is a written object. While there is much authored about writing as a general pursuit, this literature does not channel into a stream of practical writing about the creation of concrete phenomenology. Max van Manen is a practitioner in this field. Van Manen lists half a dozen verbs for describing what he calls “the act of phenomenological writing”. They include drawing, entering, gazing, seeking, touching, traversing. His description of phenomenological writing is not exceptionally phenomenological; it makes sense as a description but it does not capture, precisely, the phenomena of “the act of phenomenological writing”. Of interest for our purpose, however, is van Manen’s consistent use of verbs in categorising phenomenological writing. Van Manen is not using abstracted concepts or adjectives to describe the phenomenological writing process; he uses words that refer to an active state of being.


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Lingis, A., 1996. Sensation Intelligibility in Sensibility. New Jersey: Humanity Books.

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