By Mona Sakr

Getting to grips with the philosophical approach of phenomenology

When you work with/in embodiment, you come across so many concepts that feel almost impossible to get a true grip on. Beautiful ideas, like phenomenology, roam free and can be intimidating as a result. In my role at MODE, I am currently contributing towards a glossary of terms that are used in embodiment research. It’s a fantastic way of working out what’s really important when you’re first engaging with a new concept or approach. After writing the first draft of the glossary entry for ‘Phenomenology’, I decided to test myself. Without looking at a single book, paper or webpage, what could I say that I knew about phenomenology? The result was the following:

10 things I know about phenomenology

  1. Phenomenology is the study of lived experience.
  2. The founder of phenomenology was the German philosopher Husserl, who lived and wrote at the turn of the twentieth century.
  3. Heidegger, Husserl’s student, was fundamental in developing the field of existential phenomenology.
  4. In 1927, Heidegger wrote Being and Time, a central text in phenomenology.
  5. In Being and Time Heidegger made the distinction between tools that are ‘present-at-hand’ and ‘ready-to-hand’. Tools that are ‘ready-to-hand’ can be used without thinking, without awareness. Although familiarity usually leads to tools becoming ‘ready-to-hand’, our awareness of them may be drawn back to them if they suddenly stop working (Heidegger uses the example of the pen that breaks while you are writing).
  6. In 1945, Merleau-Ponty wrote a book called Phenomenology of Perception. It is another central text in phenomenology.
  7. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty presents the body as the hub of all meaning-making. Physical touch represents a ‘chiasm’ (a crossing-over) between subjectivity and objectivity. Bodies are both capable of touching and are tangible.
  8. Dreyfus (1992) built on Heidegger’s ideas towards technology use in his critiques of artificial intelligence. He has argued that AI algorithms and devices only make sense through the implicit and tacit knowledge that a user brings to them. Studying interactions with technology are therefore as much about studying the user as they are about studying the object.
  9. How do you collect data as a phenomenologist? Phenomenologists typically access lived experience through interviews and participant reflections (either written or oral). An interview approach called Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) is one example of a methodological framework that uses phenomenology as its starting point.
  10. Phenomenological enquiries are likely to foreground the lived experience through four ‘lifeworld existentials’ (Veletsianos and Miller, 2008): body, time, space, relations with others.

At the end of this exercise, the questions I’m left asking are:

What are the glaring gaps in my breakdown of phenomenology?

Is this a positive exercise or does it lead to the reduction of ideas?

What concepts/approaches in embodiment would I struggle to do this exercise for?