Three Aspects of Space


The geometrical conception of space is a quantifiable phenomenon characterized by the point, the line, the curve, the surface, and the figure: the distance between point A and point B equals some exact measurement. By contrast, our premathematical understanding of space is not a matter of pure points, lines, or shapes; that is, it is not a formal or analytic conception of the phenomenon. Our premathematical or phenomenal experience of space is not primarily quantitative, but qualitative. It is characterized not by the point but by place, not by measurement but by orientation. For expediency’s sake, let us provisionally adopt the phenomenologically inadequate concept of subjectivity and posit phenomenal space as subjective. How do we disclose this space thematically as a phenomenon?

Phenomenal space constitutes our premathematical understanding of space. Although it is obviously experienced, phenomenal space is not empirically experienced. Empiricism, as a concept, presumes a scientific orientation. But our everyday experience of space is not scientifically oriented. It is, by necessity, not scientific and therefore not empirical. The everyday experience of human beings is oriented neither toward scientific observation nor experimentation. This it shares with geometry, which, as an analytic and a priori formal discipline, is also not empirically oriented. Above all, the phenomenological understanding of space is not mathematical, and that is one reason why it fundamentally differs from any geometrical understanding. Phenomenal space must be inhabited. By contrast, geometrical space, being purely formal, can never be inhabited but only applied (for example, in surveying).

Academic disciplines are broadly divided into the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, formal sciences, and applied sciences (or professions). The humanities are sometimes incorrectly called the human sciences. Under our current system, we place philosophy under the humanities, and phenomenology under philosophy. Geometry we classify under mathematics, and mathematics under the formal sciences. The plethora of disciplines teaches us a very important lesson when it comes to the nature of existence. The world is so multifaceted that no single discipline can adequately define or encompass it, neither physics nor biology, economics nor environmental science. When working within a particular discipline, it is hard even to begin to conceive of everything that the discipline excludes, such is the narrowness of focus. A theory of everything in physics? Hardly.

Even one and the same phenomenon, in this case space, has many facets, and facets can fall under different disciplines. So distinct can these facets of the same entity be that it is often hard to say whether we are dealing with one and the same phenomenon. Here we will explore an aspect of space that is not covered (or not uncovered, to speak more perceptively) by science at all. We locate this study of space squarely within the humanities. As we already noted, strictly speaking the humanities are not sciences. We emphasize this to ensure that there is no confusing phenomenological space with space as understood by physics or geometry. If geometrical space cannot be inhabited, and if the physical conception of space does not require that it be inhabited, the phenomenological understanding of space absolutely requires habitation.

Once we say that phenomenological space must be inhabited — and, indeed, there is no sense in which this notion of space can be said to exist without being inhabited — we seem to be moving further and further away from physics, perhaps toward biology. By “space” here, don’t we really mean a habitat, an environment?

These concepts of the habitat and of the environment in a sense do come closer to the phenomenological conception of space than any notion of space we find in geometry or physics, but we would be led astray if we believed that phenomenal space is a topic for environmental science or indeed for any scientific discipline.  The notion of space in the natural sciences is derived from the physical conception of space, which focuses on a particular aspect of this entity. Phenomenology focuses on an entirely different facet.

Let us take a passage in which a phenomenological understanding of space is taken for granted. In Of Grammatology, Derrida writes:

Finally, if one notes that the place of writing is linked…to the nature of social space, to the perceptive and dynamic organization of the technical, religious, economic and other such spaces, one realizes the difficulty of a transcendental question on space…A new transcendental aesthetic must let itself be guided…by the possibilities of inscriptions in general, not befalling an already constituted space as a contingent accident but producing the spatiality of space[,]…inscription as habitation already situated…A transcendental question on space concerns the prehistoric and precultural level of spatio-temporal experience which furnishes a unitary and universal ground for all subjectivity, and all culture, this side of empirical diversity, as well the orientations proper to their spaces and their times (p. 290).

Here Derrida conceives of a space produced, at least partly, by inscriptions, a space at once inhabited and oriented. In other words, space is ordered by orientations. However, it is ordered and defined by orientations only because it is inhabited. Moreover, Derrida mentions that these orientations are “proper to their spaces and their times.” What notion of space can he possibly have in mind? What do inscriptions have to do with space? Isn’t space identical in all places and at all times? Why are different orientations of space proper to particular places and particular historical epochs?

To be sure, inscriptions help orient us within space. However, because Derrida does not simply have space in mind here but the spatiality of space, inscriptions must in some sense not just exist within a preexisting space but be necessary for an adequate conception of space; they must help open it up. Certainly, this way of thinking about space makes no sense in relation to the astro-physical understanding of space, the space produced by the expansion of the universe. Neither does it make sense within geometry. But it makes perfect sense given the phenomenal aspect of space.

In the same paragraph, Derrida reminds us that “the Husserlian project put all objective space of science within parentheses.” It is yet another reminder that we are not dealing with space as science understands it. Whether or not this “objective space of science,” which is outside of consciousness, actually exists in itself, or whether it needs a conscious being to inhabit it in order to give it its being as space, is a question that only tangentially concerns us right at this moment. The important point here is that objective space is bracketed, set aside altogether, “put…within parentheses.” We phenomenologists merely want to focus on space as it appears “to” or “within” consciousness. We do not deny the objectivity of space as one of this entity’s aspects, but that is not what phenomenology thematizes.

But what is the phenomenological understanding of consciousness? Going into this question in any depth would inevitably result in a much longer essay. Within the scope of this entry, let us content ourselves with a single indication, which is this: just as the phenomenological conception of space brackets objective space, the phenomenological understanding of consciousness puts out of play any reference to neuroscience. It not only need not make reference to the brain, as any scientific study of consciousness normally would, it should not do so. At the point where we begin speaking about neurological processes, we have ceased doing pure phenomenology and begun taking a multidisciplinary approach.

As we observed above, just as a phenomenological description of consciousness need not and usually ought not have recourse to the brain, a phenomenological description of space does not refer to any objective notion of space that we would file under physics. It is precisely the latter “objective space of science” that is bracketed by phenomenology and set aside as a matter of adhering to proper phenomenological method.

A phenomenological description of space is a good way to understand what phenomenology is in general. Now that we have specified what a phenomenological conception of space is not, we are ready to see what it actually is. A good description of this phenomenon can be found in Heidegger’s Being and Time. That will be the focus of the next entry.


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