Human Life And World: On the Insufficency of the Phenomemological Concept of the Life-World
W. Kim Rogers
Gurwitsch has written that "the disclosure of the life-world [by phenomenology is] an accomplishment of permanent significance." (1974, 12) But is such a claim justifiable? I believe it is not. I shall briefly examine first the way transcendental and then existential phenomenologists understand the meaning of "world" or "life-world" and how the "world" is to be experienced as such, and I shall critique the views of each in turn.
The appropriate philosopher with which to begin an examination of any major phenomenological theme is most certainly Husserl. We as objects and subjects find ourselves in our conscious activities in a pre-given world existing for all in common according to Husserl. This world, always already there, is the universal field of all actual and possible praxis, not as an object but as horizon, into which all our experiences and outward actions are directed. It is from the world which we have in wakeful consciousness that we come to be affected by pre-given objects, which affections "transform themselves in each case into actions." (1970, 144)
"To live," Husserl said, "is always to live-in-certainty-of-the-world...being constantly and directly 'conscious' of the world and of oneself as living in the world, actually experiencing and actually effecting the ontic certainty of the world." (1970, 142) To live in the world, however, is always also co-living, a living with one another in the world, "and the world is our world, valid for consciousness as existing precisely through this 'living together.'" (1970, 108) This shared world is "a universal mental acquisition, having developed as such and at the same time continuing to develop as the unity of a mental configuration, as a meaning construct." (1970, 113) The world is always given to us as "the world in which we or others have already been logically active, in judgment and cognition." (1970, 142) This life-world owes to us, "as a subjectivity bearing within itself, and achieving, all of the possible operations to which this world owes its becoming." (1970, 142)
One of the students of Husserl who wrote extensively about the life-world and our experience of it was Gurwitsch. For Gurwitsch, by the term "life-world" is to be understood "the world in which we pursue our goals and objectives, the world as the scene of all our human activities." (1966, 120) Access to the life-world is through perceptual consciousness, it is only through these acts of consciousness that the world presents itself to us. "Consciousness...is the universal medium of access to whatever we may be dealing with." (1966, 13) On the other hand, human existence has to be considered within the frame and against the background of the life-world into which one is inserted. We are objects but also subjects with respect to the life-world in so far as its meaning derives from our collective mental life, as it is a mental acquisition. Our intentions, designs, and activities interlock and interlink with those of others "in throughgoing mutuality and interplay." (1966, 420) (But note that this is said only in reference to fellow human beings, not the other affairs we encounter as parts of our life-world.)
Nothing at all is gained towards an understanding of what living in our surrounding world means when reflectively, the life-world is said to be disclosed to us as a (collective) mental acquisition. One does not need to go as far as Feuerbach did ("Man is what he eats") to recognize that the physical world has more than an existence and meaning in consciousness for living beings. The world as that wherein are met demands upon us which must be met if we are to continue living cannot just be considered as a mental acquisition. (Note: I did not say "be a mental acquistion" but "be considered as....")
Perceptual consciousness, Gurwitsch said, is the sole means by which we establish contact with the life-world. What is wrong with this statement is the disconnection of our experiences from our actions and the actions of the world upon us. Experience is the inseparable companion of action, not its predecessor. How else do we experience anything except when we act and are acted on? On the one hand, the agency of the life-world, or rather, of the affairs of which it consists, is completely ignored by an approach which treats the life-world as "horizon" into which our acts are directed. On the other hand, to view our consciousness rather than our own agency as the way in which the world presents itself leaves out the exploring and coping actions by which life in the world is realized by us, upon which our going on living depends. Action is in fact always interaction.
In Dewey's view, wherever there is life, the organism "does something to the environment as well as has something done to itself." Indeed, he affirmed that "the interaction of organism and environment is the primary fact." (Dewey, 1957, 85, 87) Ortega similarly wrote that "Things happen to me just as I happen to them, and neither has a primary reality other than that determined by this reciprocal event." My life, he declared is "a dynamic dialogue between I and my circumstance." (Ortega, 1975, 67, 55) Thus in their views and also in mine, organism and environment, I and my circumstance, are poles of an interactive event-series, are engaged in mutual and reciprocal processes.
John Shotter holds that living beings act in accord with what their environment offers or demands of them--an environment that takes form precisely from the sorts of actions which their organic structure makes possible: "Just as the animal's activity works (by making differences) to specify which of all the conditions in the environment at large (if any) constitutes a response's proper stimulus, so the conditions selected will work back upon the animal to specify the response's value (by making a difference to the animal)...." (Shotter, 1984, 204) In other words, the interaction of a living being and its environment is describle as reciprocally address and response, as mutual acts of constitution and communication.
In the interaction between a living being and the affairs which comprise its environment, something is made which does not exist within either, or in itself, in the making of which each comes to be complemented and completed by the other. Living is not just a matter of the organism existing beside some affairs. Rather it is the existing of the organism and these affairs in tension and of its negotiations with them, a dynamic dialogue which is charactized by polarity and mutuality.
Schutz-Luckmann in Vol. I of Structures of the Life-World appear to have gone beyond the consciousness-centered approach of the preceeding phenomenologists. The life-world is described here as "the region of reality in which man can engage himself and which he can change...at the same time, the objectivities and events which are already found in this realm (including the acts and the results of actions of other men)...place him up against obstacles...as well as barriers...." (1973, 3) Further, not only can I act upon my fellowmen but also they can act upon me. "The life-world, understood in its totality as natural and social world, is the arena, as well as what sets the limits, of my and our reciprocal actions....The life-world is thus a reality which we modify through our acts and which, on the other hand, modifies our actions." (1973, 6) Vol. II of Structures of the Life-World begins in a similar way, describing the life-world as a reality that is experienced, endured, and mastered by action and on which our action fails. We engage it by acting and change it by our actions. There we meet pre-given realities with which we must try to cope if we wish to continue living.
So far I strongly agree with the position they have taken. However, they then asserted that encounters with affairs and events in the life-world have no real meaning. Meaning is not a particular experience or a quality ascribeable to experience itself. "They obtain meaning only in reflective, subsequent performances of consciousness." (1989, 3) Further, action is described by them now as a subjective performance of consciousness, to be distinguished from conduct, a physical occurance in space and time. Schutz-Luckmann have thus introduced a Cartesian-like distinction between acts of consciousness and engagement in the everyday life-world that contradicts or calls for a radical reinterpretation of what they have said earlier.
Let us consider, by way of an example, that a tree has fallen across the road ahead of the car I am driving (at the legel speed limit of 55 MPH, of course). It may later be an interesting object for reflective acts of consciousness, but right now it is something to be immediately avoided if possible. Here the tree certainly contributes to the meaning of myself and my present and future experiences as well as calling for my reponsive action.
For Existentialism the starting point, the basic reality, is a human life. Existentialism, and since 1914, this includes existential phenomenology, is centrally concerned with metaphysical problems, more specifically, with understanding the manner of being of human life or "existence." A human life in the view of the existentialists is a matter of being-in-relation. Kierkegaard declared that human beings' existence is merely their relation to others, and that what they are, they are by virture of this relation. Ortega held that existing is first and foremost coexisting, and he meant the same thing.
As Ortega saw it, human life is the basic reality, in the sense that all the others must in one way or another appear within it. However, at the same time that self and others are so connected, they also exist and must exist in mutual externality. As Buber put it, the principle of human life is two-fold, a two-fold movement of such a kind that the one movement is the presupposition of the other. The first movement is 'the formal setting at a distance' and the second 'entering into relations.' Contemporary existential phenomenology, one may say, has discovered that for human beings the fundamental reality is the inescapable co-presence of self and others, in a reciprocal relation of dependence, in inseparable correlation, which is called human life. But what are these "others" with which a self is essentially correlated? The "others" are all those affairs which make up the world.
Ortega, for example, considered the basic and undeniable fact not to be my existence (a la Descartes) but my coexistence with the world. The one does not exist without the other. The meaning of one's existence cannot be understood by reference to a self-sufficent self, however independent, that is, irreducible to the world, that self may be, for on finding myself I always find a world confronting me. A human being, in Ortega's view, is a part of a dual fact whose other part is a world. He held that as between the world and self, there is no priority; neither comes first but both come at the same time. Nor is the one or the other nearer us.
A similar position is expressed early on by Heidegger. In this vein Heidegger affirmed in Being and Time that being-in-the-world is something that belongs essentially to the existence of a human being, its being-there is found in its being-in. The world-structure is that wherein human existence (Dasein) as such already is, since ontologically, "world" is a characteristic of human existence itself. The world belongs to that which constitutes being-human and vise versa. The world and human beings are ontologically correlates. In this regard, one should remember, too, the statement in his "Letter on Humanism," wherein Heidegger speaks of being-in-the-world as the basic trait of the "humanitas of the homo humanus." On the basis of statements such as these, the center of Heidegger's thinking is often, but mistakenly I think, believed to be the question concerning the original and immediate world-relationship of human beings. (Cf., Landgrebe, L., Major Problems of Contemporary Philosophy, 1966.)
Other examples of this position are also to be found in the works of Jonas, Straus, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. In Jonas' view, the world is "a horizon of co-reality." (1966, 84) Straus said "In sensory experience I always experience myself and the world at the same time." (1958, 148) Sartre has written of human beings and the world that they are relational beings, indeed, that the principle of their being is the relation. And Merleau-Ponty held that human beings are through and through compounded of relationships to the world.
What does it mean to say that one experiences an objective world which surrounds one as a perceptual whole? Straus said of the world that it becomes visible to us in seeing as the one world which we find facing us as the other and yet at the same time as that to which we in our corporeality belong as parts. As sensing subjects we both have a world and are aware of our selves as parts of the world. Each individual experiences the world in particular aspects which are exclusively one's own--aspects of always the same world--but observers are interchangeable because each of them can direct themselves to the other as the one world which encompasses everything. The relation between the individual and the world is not the result of putting together single, fragmentary aspects, for the relationship rather constitutes the ground of all discrete experiences which as such can only be understood as so many delimitations of this totality.
Sartre seemed to sense the need for an explanation of how the world which in its totality can never as such be presented in the individual's experience, nevertheless can belong to human experience, let alone be the ground of all one's experiences. Thus he offered an account of our experience of a world that is based upon the opposition of a human being and the rest of things. The presence of a self or conscious being (pour-soi) to being as totality comes from the fact that, insofar as the self makes itself be as an upsurge against all which is not itself, all beings stand before it as an all which the self is not. The self, by denying that it is any and every other being, makes there to be a world. This explanation, however, appears to be too facile for it seems concerned with logical or perhaps even grammatical considerations--a totalizing negativity: one is not everything one is not--than experience and hence can only hardly be made to bear on any question concerning one's concrete experience of a world as such.
Merleau-Ponty affirmed of the world that it is not an object of human making--as the outcome of a series of syntheses--but is the first object for all one's thoughts and perceptions, in relation to which one is constantly situating himself. It cannot be a matter of whether we really perceive a world, but we must instead say that the world is what we perceive. Subsequently, however, he rightly asked "how is it possible for me to experience the world as a positively existing individual [object], since none of the perspective views of it which I enjoy exhaust it, since its horizons are always open...?" (1962, 330) The world, he concludes, is, in the full sense of the word, not an object. But then is the world as experienced, as Ortega thought, only an ever shifting liminal phenomenon, a mere apperceived horizon of latent experienceables?
We must, Merleau-Ponty said, not look for a creative thought which embodies the framework of the world, or illumines it through and through, for in looking for what makes that experience possible we should be unfaithful to our experience of the world. The world is not what is thought of but what is lived through. Our relation to the world, Merleau-Ponty declares in the name of Husserl, cannot be any further clarified by analysis. The world is, to use Marcel's terminology, a mystery which cannot be dispelled by some solution, for it is on the hither side of all solutions.
However, for some such as Landgrebe, Strasser, and Ortega, the problem of the appearance of the world in human experience ought not even be approached in individual terms as such, for the world is something which is not found first in the life of an individual human being. Landgrebe wrote that to the sense of givenness of the world belongs the sense of it as something not only for me but also for others. It is, Strasser said, through the mediation of the "you" that I know that there are things worth touching, looking at, listening to, smelling, tasting, or that are manipulatable for my use. The world in which we live is essentially world-for-us. Ortega pointed out that the world in which one is going to live is from birth first of all a world composed of men and one understands everything else through them.
The correlation of human beings and their world is a fundamental principle of existential phenomenology. Human life is not something which human beings already possess in themselves but something to be made together with others, through their actions in and about their world. The world affords various possible kinds of human life and determines the limits within which a particular human life can be realized. Human beings give meaning (interprete) their world in and through their actions. But before human beings have to do with the world of things, they have to do with other human beings and they see those things through their relations with those others. To the giveness of the world of things belongs the sense of it as something for others and shaped by others as well as oneself. Through their relations with other human beings they first learn that there is a world to be explored by perception and that can have practical uses.
Looking back over these existential phenomenologists' views of the meaning of the world, they all deal with the world as a reality not independent of human actions and experience. That is, the world is not treated as the "natural world," the object of scientific investigation, but as the human Umwelt (Uexkull) or circum-stance (Ortega). The "worldliness" of the world for them consists in its being the human environment without which human beings cannot exist and vice versa. The presence in human experience of the world as a whole, a concrete totality, is treated by the existential phenomenologists as a problem which cannot be solved by any approach which objectifies the world, that is, which would treat the world itself as a perceived or perceiveable object. The world, one may say somewhat poetically, rather manifests itself and hides itself at the same time. To this Ortega and others have added that the world cannot be present in any manner in the experience of the individual alone, but it is given through one's relations with others to one as essentially world-for-us.
For these existential phenomenologists human life is co-existing, is the correlative existence of living beings and the others which comprise their surrounding world. And they characterize the co-existing of human beings and their surrounding world through the use of such metaphors as encounter or meeting, dialogue, and call and response. However, the development of their ideas is focused upon a human being's choice of oneself (of what one will do) and one's treatment of the other as a subject or object. Rather than explicating the mutual complementing and completing of human beings and world through their interaction, the agency of the world virtually disappears from view. The meaning of human life is often reduced to the individual's achievement of an authenticity, independent of the actions of others.
Both the transcendental and existential phenomenologists (the later works of Merleau-Ponty excepted) treat the world, or rather, the affairs which comprise it, as passively present, whose meaning depends solely upon the individual's (consciousness') actions. But living is not just a matter of one's existing beside some affairs. Rather living in the world involves the interaction between living beings and their environment. It is the existing of the living being and these affairs in tension and of one's negotiations with them, of their activities inciting one to action and one doing something about them. Living beings as living must attempt to come to terms with what their environment offers or demands of them. As Dubos expressed it in a formal way: "Life manifests itself only in the form of complex structures in which a host of mutually dependent processes are integrated according to an orderly and unique pattern." (1962, 35) If we are to really speak of life, then we must acknowledge the mutual and reciprocal activity of living beings and world.
Dewey, John, Reconstruction in Philosophy, Boston, 1957.
Dubos, Rene, The Torch of Life, New York, 1962.
Gurwitsch, Aron, Studies in Phenomenology and Psychology, Evanston, 1966.
Gurwitsch, Aron, Phenomenology and the Theory of Science, Evanston, 1974.
Husserl, Edmund, Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Evanston, 1970.
Jonas, Hans, The Phenomenon of Life, New York, 1966.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Phenomenology of Perception, London, 1962.
Ortega y Gasset, Jose, Phenomenology and Art, New York, 1975.
Schutz, Alfred, and Luckmann, Thomas, Structures of the Life-World, 2 vols., Evanston, 1973 and 1989.
Shotter, John, Social Accountability and Selfhood, Oxford, 1984.
Straus, Erwin, "Aesthesiology and Hallucinations," in Existence, ed. by May, Angel, Ellenberger, New York, 1958.