Introduction to phenomenology (for landscape architecture studies)

After exhausting all the posts on landscape art and imagery, I have come to a point where despite my reluctance, I should introduce the topic of phenomenology. I would have loved to skip this post altogether and go straight into details of theories, archetypes, case studies, Heidegger, etc., but that would be confusing and defeating the purpose of bringing philosophy together with landscape architecture.

I never majored/minored in philosophy and am also a picture-person, so reading philosophy books (or truthfully, most theory books) make me feel like this:

reading-but-not-studying
Image Source: TORCH Alumni Network

Nonetheless, with what I understand consciously, what I absorbed by “osmosis” in my studies, and with the help of the internet, here is my attempt to simplify and parcel the ever-elusive topic of phenomenology as it relates to landscape.

Phenomenology is such a difficult and abstract topic to define. Depending on the branch of study, phenomenology can be described as different things. Etymologically, it is the study of phenomena. However, it seems like anything can be a phenomenon. Then, perhaps phenomenology is the study of everything? Well, it is and it is not. A phenomenon is something that happens, appears, and is something we are somewhat concerned about. Therefore, under these considerations, every-thing can be a phenomenon if we consider it as one. The common factor is that phenomenology is about experiences, or more precisely, the objective study of subjective experience, or the scientific study of phenomena as they appear before us. There is a paradox here, as experience is always subjective but the investigation aims to be objective. This paradox, however, is what keeps phenomenology a mystery and a fascination.

I consider the following ideas as the simple historical/philosophical context behind phenomenology (as relevant to my scope of study):

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 the world exists through 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 consciousness.

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938): “To the things themselves.” Phenomenology attempts to see things in themselves (as opposed to Kant’s inaccessible noumena) by bracketing experiences (i.e. the phenomenological reduction) to eliminate preconceived knowledge, 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 (i.e. Being) because of having been “thrown into the world.” Existence is through experience embedded in language, thoughts, and practice.

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 (i.e. chiasm) between bodies of things that reciprocates, producing “flesh” or phenomenological experiences.

So why does this all matter to landscape architecture?

While phenomenology can cover everything and anything, how is it relevant to landscape architecture? For starters, if phenomenology is the study of experience from the 1st person perspective, then it means that everyone’s experience is unique. A phenomenon can appear for one person while it remains invisible for another. Similarly, a landscape can be beautiful, productive, special, worthy, magical for me, but it may not be for someone else. However, perception is malleable. My main objective for phenomenology in the context of landscape architecture is to trigger broadening perceptions. Areas where phenomenology is particularly relevant in landscape design include:

  • The body and spatial experience
  • Experience and consideration of the material world (both living and non-living things)
  • Understanding of place, in relation to time (cycles of material life, cycles of nature, historical narratives) and memory (including collective memories)
  • Perception of aura and atmosphere
  • Awareness of assumptions and prejudices of experience based on personal upbringing, social conditioning, political contexts

Broadening our field of vision, allows for greater possibilities both in the design and appreciation of landscapes (and life in general…). By opening and shifting the way we perceive, we can literally make things that were once invisible visible; make things that were always the same seem different; see with more depth; and effectively, create and experience more magic!

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