Phenomenology of Space


We have identified three aspects of space: the geometric, the physical, and the phenomenal. What differentiates phenomenal space from the others is that it cannot be measured. About this kind of space, Heidegger writes:

[The] orientation toward…measured distances obscures the primordial spatiality of being-in. What is supposedly ‘nearest’ is by no means that which has the smallest distance ‘from us.’ What is ‘near’ lies in that which is in the circle of an average reach, grasp, and look. Since Da-sein is essentially spatial in the manner of de-distancing, its associations always take place in a ‘surrounding world’ which is remote from it in a certain leeway. Thus we initially always overlook and fail to hear what is measurably ‘nearest’ to us. Seeing and hearing are senses of distance not because of their scope, but because Da-sein, de-distancing, predominantly lives in them. For someone who, for example, wears spectacles which are distantially so near to him that they are ‘sitting on his nose,’ this useful thing is further away in the surrounding world than the picture on the wall across the room. This useful thing has so little nearness that it is often not even to be found at all initially (99).

What is nearest to us is not what is objectively closest; rather, what is nearest is that alongside which our circumspect heedfulness dwells. In Heidegger’s example, the overlooked eyeglasses which are sitting on our nose have so little nearness to us that they can’t even be located. We search everywhere and finally find them on our face. Subjectively, they are farther away than what they bring into focus. This is in part because useful things such as eyeglasses possess the important phenomenal quality of inconspicuousness, which we will discuss in more detail below. We don’t just look through the eyeglasses; we look right passed them.

We can lose track of the eyeglasses right before our eyes only because, thanks to our senses, we are “initially never here, but over there. From this over there [we] come back to [our] here” (100). Subjective spatiality is such that we do not start from where our body is; we begin from an “over there,” where our senses are dwelling at any given moment, usually “in the circle of an average reach, grasp, and look.” The over there is initially nearest. We have to make our way back to our here, that is, to our body’s actual physical location, from the over there where our circumspect heedfulness and attention have been dwelling. This is how we can be closer to the painting on the wall than to the eyeglasses sitting on our nose, the eyeglasses which, subjectively speaking, are so far removed that they are not even noticed.

When I say that the glasses on my nose (contact lenses are an even better example) have less nearness in relation to me than the picture on the wall, the “me” here clearly does not refer to my body. Obviously, the glasses are closer to my body than the picture is. Neither are we in any way denying that mechanical processes of perception are at work behind the scenes. But the key phrase is “behind the scenes.” The subjective experience that actually comprises the scene (and we have no qualms about using the expression subjective reality here) is such that the picture is closer to me than the overlooked glasses. Often, the physique of the other, of the beloved, has more nearness to us than our own body. The self and the body are distinct phenomena. When we say “my body,” we acknowledge this distinction, speaking of the body not as synonymous with the self but as the self’s possession. If “me” no longer refers to my body, there is no objective way to measure distances in relation to the self. This is especially true if the self starts off from an over there that is distinct from the here of its body.

The referential totality of the universe of useful things that surround us structures the space inhabited by our heedful circumspection. To illustrate this, Heidegger gives an example of the spatiality of being-in-the-world in which he refers to the street as “a useful thing for walking.”

Useful things for seeing, and those for hearing, for example, the telephone receiver, have the inconspicuousness of what is initially at hand. That is also true, for example, of the street, the useful thing for walking. When we walk, we feel it with every step and it seems to be what is nearest and most real about what is generally at hand; it slides itself, so to speak, along certain parts of our body — the soles of one’s feet. And yet it is further remote than the acquaintance one meets while walking at the ‘remoteness’ twenty steps away ‘on the street.’ Circumspect heedfulness decides about the nearness and farness of what is initially at hand in the surrounding world. Whatever this heedfulness dwells in from the beginning is what is nearest, and regulates our de-distancing (99).

Let us elaborate the example. Suppose I am walking down a bustling city street and spot a friend striding toward me. Let us say my friend is twenty feet away. Nevertheless, in terms of my subjective experience of space based on my heedful circumspection of my surroundings, he is closer to me than the complete stranger five feet to my right, whom I barely notice. What’s more, let us posit a third person walking two feet behind me. The person behind me is thus objectively closer to “me” (that is, to my body) than both my friend twenty feet away and the person five feet to my right. But if, in this instance, I don’t even see, or in any way sense, the person directly behind me, the person who is objectively closest to my body is subjectively the farthest away from me (as distinct from my body). Although person x is only two feet behind, here we are talking the equivalent of an infinite distance, assuming we never realized the person was even there. We can see by this example that the kind of relative distance we are talking about is not a quantitative phenomenon. What objectively speaking is the furthest thing away from us can be subjectively the nearest, and what is objectively near can be subjectively quite far.

How did we convey a sense of distance in a premathematical age, and how do we still convey it when we are not quantifying our surroundings? By relating distance not to numbers but to familiar activities.

In the calculative sense these estimations may be imprecise and variable, but they have their own thoroughly intelligible definiteness in the everydayness of Da-sein. We say that to go over there is a good walk, a stone’s throw, as long as it takes to smoke a pipe. These measures express the fact that they not only do not intend to ‘measure,’ but that the estimated remoteness belongs to a being which one approaches in a circumspect, heedful way. But even when we use more exact measures and say ‘it takes half an hour to get to the house,’ this measure must be understood as an estimation. ‘Half an hour’ is not thirty minutes, but a duration which does not have any length in the sense of a quantitative stretch. This duration is always interpreted in terms of familiar, everyday ‘activities.’…[R]emoteness is initially estimated circumspectly…This even implies that the paths we take in our associations to remote beings are of different lengths every day…On these paths Da-sein does not traverse, like an objectively present corporeal thing, a stretch of space, it does not ‘eat up kilometers’; nearing and de-distancing are always a heedful being toward what is approached and de-distanced. An ‘objectively’ long path can be shorter than an ‘objectively’ much shorter path which is perhaps an ‘onerous one’ and strikes one as infinitely long. When it ‘strikes’ one thus, however, the actual world is first truly at hand. The objective distances of objectively present things do not coincide with the remoteness and nearness of what is at hand within the world (98-99).

Human consciousness does not get from point A to point B the way a line in a geometrical figure does. It does not traverse miles or meters, inches or centimeters, does not traverse an objective length of space at all. On the contrary, it traverses a subjective length of space. Initially and for the most part, the spatiality of consciousness does not disclose a quantitative stretch. It is precisely the qualitative space that gets quantified when it becomes non-circumspectly observed, when it becomes an object of investigation instead of circumspectly encountered. We do not live in a worldly space that is made up of objects objectively organized into objective distances; we live in a world that concerns us, consequently in a space constituted by our own heedful circumspection.

This means that human beings are not in space the way bodies are in space. Of course, we can think of the human being as merely a body, an organism, as we do in biology. In this sense, human beings are in space the way every other object is in space. But human consciousness does not inhabit space objectively. The “in” here is a dwelling, an inhabiting. Consciousness becomes the medium in which things get spatialized. Naturalistic thinking may claim this is merely an illusion, but this is the kind of illusion that carries a reality all its own, one that is more real to consciousness than atoms, molecules or any particle.

We said that phenomena often have the quality of being inconspicuous. On the other hand, any inquiry into space requires that space be taken as an object of investigation, which means making it conspicuous. By doing so, we emphasize space over other facets of existence, which are “dimmed down” in proportion as we narrow the field of inquiry down to space. But this is in stark contrast to the way space gives itself under normal circumstances. In everyday life, space never presents itself alone or even in relative isolation. Actual space is always part and parcel of a multifaceted whole, the whole of existence as it appears before the delineation of specific areas of investigation. To understand the phenomenological conception of space, we must therefore keep the idea of wholeness in mind, the idea that space is never given by itself. Space is there in relative inconspicuousness for our heedful circumspection. Of course, circumspection can include measuring a certain length of space, but even here space remains inconspicuous: what we focus on when we measure out a certain length is actually what we are measuring the space for. In our heedful circumspection, absorbed in things at hand, we are not measuring space per se.

To illustrate the phenomenon of inconspicuousness more clearly let us consider an ordinary doorknob. The doorknob starts out as what it is, that is, it is not yet conceived of as an empirical object, but as a useful thing for… It is for opening the door. What it is for in a certain sense constitutes what it is as a doorknob. Moreover, the doorknob is not just in any random location. Its location is determined by its character of being for something. It has its place within a referential context of all the useful things that surround it, most immediately in relation to your hand, but also to the door, wall, floor, and so on. All these things should not initially be conceived as objects. Their “objectivity” is still veiled within their character of being ready-to-hand. Even nature discloses itself to us at first within this context of being ready-to-hand (“wind is wind in the sail”) and not as an empirical object simply there for observation and analysis. Phenomena do not start out as objects that get colored by a subjectivity that comes along after the fact; their character as objects is a modification of their readiness-to-hand, of being there for a subject. Something that is there for nobody is not an object but rather what Kant called the thing in itself. It is, in principle, unknowable (without meaning or significance) until it gets constituted as an object by subjectivity and for it.

Assume now that we get up in the morning and open our bedroom door. Normally, we do not even think about the doorknob as anything to be observed or investigated in its own right. To the extent that we do not single it out as anything out of the ordinary, the doorknob remains within the total referential context of equipment: bed, lamp, table, wall, door, floor, ceiling, hallway, faucet, bathtub, soap, towel, mirror, etc., which in turn constitute the furnished room, the furnished house — i.e., our actual environment. Outside: driveway, street — these are still useful things. We keep encountering other useful things such as the car, the steering wheel, the radio knob, street signs, traffic lights, etc. The same holds at work, within the city in general, or even out on the farm. This is not a world of objects, but a world structured by things ready-to-hand.

What we are calling useful things, which are there in their readiness-to-hand for our heedful circumspection, are closer to us, more immediate, than what we call objects. This means that objective scientific thinking starts out with phenomena that are not primordial. Formal objectivity begins with empirical objects, which are first unveiled not for our heedful everyday circumspection, which for Heidegger constitutes our primordial way of being in the world, but for what he calls the “just looking” of the theoretical gaze. We can look at the keys on a typewriter, or we can start typing. The phenomenal character of the keys when we’re typing and when we’re just looking at the them is completely different.

In any case, useful things do not stand alone but in relation to each other. They indicate each other, forming a web, a context, of references, and they all have their respective places relative to each other within this referential context. Space is structured by this context. For heedful circumspection, things are initially never just a set of objects in a preexisting homogeneous space. Inside a room, what is primary is not any single piece of equipment but the totality of equipment, the context as a whole with all its significance, significations, and meaning relations. Everything is an inscription, a sign, pointing beyond itself, telling us something. The room itself is made up not just of physical things but of the references between and among things. It’s really the sign-structure, not the objects, that makes up the room. Only out of this referential totality do we locate individual items.

But now let us say the doorknob gets stuck, refusing to budge, hindering us from being able to open the door. Now we explicitly focus on the knob itself. At once, it loses its primordial quality of relative inconspicuousness. Not only does it become conspicuous, it becomes obtrusive. Now it “juts out,” so to speak, protrudes from the referential context, shattering the original context. The doorknob does not physically change its appearance, but its mode of presentation alters. Now lighted up, we inspect it. (“Why won’t it turn? Let me investigate.”) Having lost its inconspicuousness, it finally gains the possibility of becoming an object of investigation, and with that possibility also the possibility of becoming an object of scientific investigation depending on how we structure the investigation and how far we take it. To a certain extent, the doorknob has lost its handy quality and is just there as an object. This does not mean that it has completely lost its handiness nor that our circumspection simply vanishes; we can still try to force the knob to turn, rattle it, etc. But it has lost its primordial inconspicuousness. This is the existential origin of science, which, after all, is a way of being of human beings.

Just as with the doorknob, space can lose its inconspicuousness. In contrast to the primordial spatiality uncovered by heedful circumspection, space can be discovered non-circumspectly by “just looking at it.” When space gets objectified, “the regions of the surrounding world get neutralized to pure dimensions” (104). This is the origin of objective space.

The places and the totality of places of useful things at hand, which are circumspectly oriented, get reduced to a multiplicity of positions for random things. The spatiality of innerworldly things at hand thus loses its character of relevance…[When space is considered non-circumspectly,] ‘the world’ as a totality of useful things at hand…become[s] a connection of extended things which are merely objectively present. The homogeneous space of nature [Derrida’s ‘objective space of science’] shows itself only when the beings we encounter are discovered in such a way that the worldly character of what is at hand gets specifically deprived of its worldliness (ibid).

The “homogeneous space of nature,” that is, space as theoretically conceived, is a function of just looking at it non-circumspectly. Just as we never perceive pure sound waves but instead hear the patter of the rain or the approaching footsteps, so with space. We never perceive pure space, a pure up or down or behind. Instead:

The ‘above’  is what is ‘on the ceiling’ [or flying overhead], the ‘below’ is what is ‘on the floor’ [or in the grass], the ‘behind’ is what is ‘at the door’ [or moving behind the bush]. All these wheres are discovered and circumspectly interpreted on the paths and ways of everyday associations, they are not ascertained and catalogued by the observational measurement of space (96).

At any given moment, we don’t begin with empty, homogeneous space but with regions constituted by meaning and significance:

The structured nearness of useful things means that they do not simply have a place in space, objectively present somewhere but as useful things are essentially installed, put in their place, set up, and put in order…The actual place is defined as the place of this useful things for … [and] in terms of a totality of the interconnected places of the context of useful things at hand in the surrounding world (95).

The circumspection that reaches out for and takes care of things at hand first discovers space as structured nearness. The importance of nearness for human spatiality is evident in another important spatial characteristic:  Ent-fernung (de-severance, de-distancing). Understood in an active, transitive sense, it is like a crease in space (the spatial counterpart of the fabled wrinkle in time). It is not just something humans do; it defines human being in an important way:

Initially and for the most part, de-distancing is a circumspect approaching, a bringing near as supplying, preparing, having at hand…All kinds of increasing speed which we are more or less compelled to go along with today push for overcoming distance. With the ‘radio,’ for example, Da-sein is bringing about today de-distancing of the ‘world’ which is unforeseeable in its meaning, by way of expanding and destroying [altering] the surrounding world (98).

Technology has continued de-distancing the world, but we would be mistaken if we thought that de-distancing was merely a consequence of technology. We are de-distancing ourselves in so far as we are spatial beings. We constantly de-distance as well as carry the distance to be de-distanced along with us like a horizon we constantly walk toward without being able to bridge the distance:

As being-in-the-world, Da-sein essentially dwells in de-distancing. This de-distancing, the farness from itself of what is at hand, is something that Da-sein can never cross over…[In walking from here to there, so] little has Da-sein crossed over its de-distancing that it rather has taken it along and continues to do so because it is essentially de-distancing, that is, spatial…Da-sein is spatial by way of circumspectly discovering space so that it is related to being thus spatially encountered by constantly de-distancing (100).

(All quotations from Heidegger’s Being and Time are from the Stambaugh translation.)


One response to “Phenomenology of Space

  1. Pingback: Textimony 20130216 « Reason & Existenz·

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