“Experience” is important because experience is the basic unit of our existence. Despite the unlimited potential of what we can experience, our awareness of how we experience, however, is constrained by our past experiences and the limitations of our personalities. Yet, these factors are dependent on contextual circumstances. Each experience in the same environment for the same person will be unique due to temporal and environmental changes. Moreover, awareness is correlative. We are only aware of what we can be aware of until we learn to see things in a different way. Accordingly, we are only able to express  what we are aware of to others in the same manner until we learn to shift our way of seeing the world. The study of phenomenology mitigates this conundrum of understanding awareness by contextualising and de-contextualising experience.

Note: This post is an updated version of a blog post from my old site poignantlandscapes.wordpress.com (Original date: Aug. 8, 2017).

Experience as phenomenon

For four years during my doctoral studies, I worked as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course that focused on phenomenology. It was not meant to be a philosophy course, so naturally, the students came into course a bit confused. For anyone not interested in philosophy or even psychology, phenomenology can seem like a difficult and abstract topic to define.

Usually, I simply describe phenomenology as the study of experience. But depending on the branch of study, phenomenology can be interpreted differently. Phenomenology has been approached by famous philosophers in several different ways. New perspectives add on to past theories to create a more comprehensive study of experience. However, instead of looking at famous philosophers right away, I will start here with the basics.

From the etymological perspective, phenomenology is…the study of…phenomena. But what does that mean? Broadly speaking, anything can be a phenomenon. Then, is phenomenology the study of everything? Well, I’d say yes, it is, and also, no it’s not. A phenomenon is something that happens, appears, and is something we are concerned about. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t even register the event as relevant in our consciousness. Therefore, every thing, event, relationship can be a phenomenon if we consider it to be one.

Experiences occur, or in other words, phenomena happen, regardless of whether we want them to. But when we want to understand them, then we need phenomenology. Phenomenology is a methodology to “objectively” study “subjective” experiences or phenomena as they appear before us. Phenomenology is, therefore, paradoxical, because experience is always subjective, yet our investigation aims to be objective. 

But objectivity and subjectivity doesn’t really exist when we are talking about pure experiences. That’s why my first PhD supervisor had unofficially banned me from using the words objective and subjective. The paradox of phenomenology is really only a paradox within Cartesian thinking, that is, a perspective that believes that consciousness can be split into an internal and external realities.

person standing in middle of a road in front of northern lights

Northern lights: a sky phenomenon. Photo by Jonatan Pie on Unsplash


A simplified history of phenomenology 

Below is a simplified trajectory of theories in Western philosophy that has lead to major theories in phenomenology relevant to landscape design:

René Descartes (1596-1650): “I think, therefore I am.” Human subjective existence is “proven” because of our ability to think.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): “There is nothing higher than reason.” As human beings, we have a set of cognitive faculties that are fundamental to knowledge and being. Things exist as they appear (phenomena) and as they are themselves (noumena). We can never know about noumena because our experiential world exists in our minds.

G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831): “The history of the word is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” All reality is part of an absolute (knowing, idea, spirit) and is understood by a self-identity and a consciousness.

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938): “To the things themselves.” Phenomenology is the attempt to see things for themselves (as opposed to Kant’s inaccessible noumena) by bracketing experiences (aka the “phenomenological reduction”) to eliminate preconceived knowledges, assumptions, judgements, etc.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976): “Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of Being.” Humans have a pre-ontological understanding of being in the world (aka “Being” or “Dasein”) because of having been “thrown into the world” at birth. Existence happens through experience that is embedded in language, thoughts, and practices.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961): “The body is our general medium for having a world.” Perception is an embodied experience. We understand ourselves in context by our bodies. There is an entangling (aka “chiasm”) between bodies of things that reciprocates, producing an intangible “flesh” of interrelationships or phenomenological experiences.


Why does this all matter to environmental design?

While phenomenology can cover everything and anything, how is it then relevant to landscape architecture or landscape design? Or any kind of environmental design, for that matter? Since designers often attempt to choreograph spatial movement, so for starters, phenomenology is useful to environmental design in the following areas: 

  • Consideration the relationship that exists between a body and the space its in
  • Consideration of any element in the material world (as opposed to thoughts and feelings)
  • Consideration of a place’s aura or atmosphere

But since every experience is unique to each individual and each occurrence, there are no guarantees that an intended experience in a design is actually delivered through the product of the design. And since experience is not only a result of material and space, but also a result of thoughts, values, narratives, and feelings, which are part of social, historical, cultural, and personal worldviews, our worldview would change the way we experience place. Phenomenology, therefore, is also useful towards more social aspects of environmental design, such as:

  • Understanding place in relation to time and memory, including collective memories (i.e., the cycles of material life, the cycles of nature, historical and cultural narratives)
  • Awareness of assumptions and prejudices based on personal upbringing, social conditioning, or political contexts

One psychological assumption that dominates our Cartesian way of perception is that the world exists as binaries (e.g., either-or, good-bad, black-white, etc.). Therefore, phenomena that do not fit into existing dualism are usually ignored or considered invisible because of their incomprehensibility. Phenomenology, as a means to return us back to our experiences themselves, broadens our field of vision so that we can become more aware of these phenomena.

Consequently, by opening our perspectives and shifting the way we perceive, we can make things that were once the same seem different.

Because we are changing the way we see, we can literally make things that were invisible become visible. 

Therefore, we can change a mechanized process of being in the world into to an experience of magic. Isn’t that enticing?

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