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Related theorists as ‘narrative environments’: Hannah Arendt, Henri Lefebvre, Peter Sloterdijk

The work of Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) is of great relevance to the design and analysis of narrative environments because it deals with spatio-temporal ways of being in the world and contains concepts such as Dasein (ex-sistence), present-at-hand and ready-to-hand, which might be of value in design contexts, so long as they are not uncritically appropriated.

Heidegger’s work is also of relevance because of its influence on others, such as Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault and Peter Sloterdijk. For example, even as Lefebvre distanced himself from Heidegger, seeing Heidegger’s Holderlin-inspired poetic critique of habitat and industrial space as a critique from the right, nostalgic and old-fashioned, Lefebvre’s emphasis on space is indebted to Heidegger’s inauguration of space as a problematique, while Foucault took Heideggerean ideas forward in his analysis of the relation between history and space (Elden, 2004).

However, use of his work can only proceed with great caution. Firstly, he held a mostly negative view of modernity, the processes of modernisation and the modern world, and therefore his work will be of limited value in discussing modern and contemporary issues. He idealised rural life in late-19th-century Germany and experienced discomfort at the flourishing of German science and technology after 1860.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, a major difficulty in using Heidegger’s work lies in his involvement in politics, and the relation of that involvement to his philosophy. It is a topic that has generated acrimonious disagreement [1].

One central question is whether Heidegger’s Nazism was a passing aberration or a lasting commitment. There can be little doubt that his politics are connected to some enduring elements of his philosophy. Heidegger believed that a moment of communal authenticity, as discussed in section 74 of Being and Time, had arrived. Utilising his understanding of historicity, he held that a movement based on a particular people’s heritage was truer and deeper than any politics based on universal, abstract principles, such as liberal democracy or communism, as he understood them (Fried and Polt, 2014: xiv).

However, this is not to conclude that his philosophical ideas can only lead to fascist politics or that his ideas are exhausted by such politics. Heidegger distanced himself increasingly from Nazism, or rather from the actual practice and dominant mentality of the movement, as distinct from its “inner truth and greatness” (Heidegger, 2014: 222). By 1940, Heidegger had developed a metaphysical critique of standard Nazi ideology, without drawing closer to a liberal or leftist position.

In his thinking from the mid- to late-1930s, Heidegger shifts towards a new, historical understanding of Being: being is to be grasped as a fundamental happening, the appropriating event (das Ereignis). The event can found Dasein by opening a time-space or site of the moment where Dasein is appropriated. Genuine selfhood can then be achieved and people can learn to shelter truth in particular beings, such as works of art, but only if truth is understood as openness to the meaningfulness of things, not as a set of correct propositions about the world that we hide away and safeguard.

It was such an appropriating event that Heidegger had been hoping to find in the National Socialist revolution. Nevertheless, in Contributions to Philosophy, a text written in the mid-1930s but not published until after his death, Heidegger submits the typical Nazi worldview to strong criticism, insisting that a Volk is never an end in itself. From this point onwards, Heidegger begins to look less towards politics and more toward poetry, specifically that of Holderlin, in order to consider new ways for the Germans to seek themselves. Heidegger’s late writings move even further from the domains of wilful action and power, emphasising the need for patience.

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In the speeches, lecture courses and seminars from his year as rector of the University of Freiburg in 1933-1934, Heidegger speaks as an enthusiast of National Socialism. By the time of writing Introduction to Metaphysics in 1935, his enthusiasm is waning and he has become engaged in an internal critique of National Socialism, in an effort to be more radically revolutionary than the Nazi revolution itself. Fried and Polt (2014: xviii) suggest that the question of whether Heidegger is a Nazi in Introduction to Metaphysics, because he surely is, is less interesting than the question of what it means to be a Nazi, a question which Heidegger raises in that text, as well as broader questions about what it means to be German, to be Western and to be human.

While the lines of questioning he begins are irreducible to a particular political party’s programme or ideology, the text nonetheless resonates with the most terrifying aspect of the Nazi movement, its readiness to commit violence and murder against its perceived enemies. Heidegger explores the idea that human beings, or at least great ones, are uncanny and violent. They must fight against other beings and against Being itself until they are inevitably and tragically crushed by the overwhelming power of Being. Throughout the mid-1930s, Heidegger seems to celebrate creative conflict (creative destruction). He seems also to believe that National Socialism may find an appropriate way to spur such creativity and revive an ancient understanding of techne a a forceful and disclosive struggle (Fried and Polt, 2014: xx).

However, with his turn away from power and will, and his development of a critique of modern technology, Heidegger develops a less violent understanding of human greatness, as he continues to explore the dimensions of what he considers to be primordial phenomena: beings, Being and Dasein or ex-sistence. Thomas Sheehan (2014) is of the view that Heidegger did not get beyond the essence of human being as ex-sistence, a term that Sheehan prefers to Dasein. Human ex-sistence, Sheehan explains,

“consists in our being made to “stand out ahead” of ourselves as a groundless “openness” or clearing.” Within this openness we can synthesize this object here with that meaning there and thus understand the thing’s current “being,” i.e., what it currently is for us or better, how it is meaningfully present to us. Thus our essence as ex-sistence is what allows for all forms of “being”… “

This, Sheehan concludes, answers Heidegger’s basic question: “Whence the ‘being’ of things?”


[1] To find out more about Heidegger, philosophy and politics, the following books are of great value:

Farias, V. (1989). Heidegger and nazism, edited by J. Margolis and T. Rockmore. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Faye, E. (2009). Heidegger, the introduction of Nazism into philosophy in light of the unpublished seminars of 1933-1935. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fried, G. (2000). Heidegger’s polemos: from being to politics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ott, H. (1993). Martin Heidegger: a political life. Hammersmith, London: HarperCollinsPublishers.

Rockmore, T., & Margolis, J. (1992). The Heidegger case: on philosophy and politics. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Safranski, R. (1998). Martin Heidegger: between good and evil. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wolin, R., ed. (1993). The Heidegger controversy: a critical reader. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

For a recent evaluation of Heidegger scholarship, see:

Sheehan, T. (2014). Making sense of Heidegger: a paradigm shift. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.


Elden, S. (2004). Between Marx and Heidegger: politics, philosophy and Lefebvre’s The Production of Space. Antipode, 36 (1), 86–105. Available from http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/j.1467-8330.2004.00383.x

Fried, G. and Polt, R. (2014). Translators’ introduction to the second edition. In: Introduction to metaphysics, 2nd ed., by Martin Heidegger. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Heidegger, M. (2014). Introduction to metaphysics. Revised and expanded translation by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt, 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Sheehan, T., Polt, R. and Fried, G. (2014). No one can jump over his own shadow. 3:AM Magazine, (8 December). Available from http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/no-one-can-jump-over-his-own-shadow/ [Accessed 1 September 2016].

edited 25 March, 2018 by Allan Parsons

Associated Practices

As noted elsewhere, for example in the ‘Narrative environment design’ entry and the ‘Theoretical practice’ entry, a narrative environment may be said to constitute a world, and its approach to design could be considered ontological. The philosophical sources for this kind of thinking can be found in phenomenology, notably in the work of Heidegger, Arendt, Merleau-Ponty and Sloterdijk.

Thus, as Lemmens (2013) explains, like Heidegger, Sloterdijk conceives of humans as world-forming beings. For Sloterdijk, however, humans are never in the world nakedly or without protection, so to speak. They always reside in spheres. Another difference between them is that while Heidegger was principally engaged in the analysis of human being-in-the-world, Sloterdijk is more interested in the process of coming-into-the-world. Picking up on the theme of natality from Hannah Arendt, Sloterdijk emphasises that we all have to come to the world in order to be in it. We are born, but too soon (Elden and Mendieta, 2009: 5).

In Arendt’s (1958: 96) view, ‘world’ emerges from the work of homo faber, which she distinguishes from the labour of the animal laborans. Thus, Arendt argues,

“Human life, in so far as it is world-building, is engaged in a constant process of reification, and the degree of worldliness of produced things, which all together form the human artifice, depends upon their greater or lesser permanence in the world itself.”

For Sloterdijk, coming-into-the-world essentially consists in the process of sphero-poiesis, the creation of protective, immunising inner worlds or inner spaces. Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy presents a grand cultural-historical panorama of the process of the sphero-poietic “coming-into-the-world” and, thereby, the “coming-into-being”, of the human being as the ek-sisting and world-disclosing being Heidegger described in Being and Time.

Rauschenbach further explains that, from Sloterdijk’s point of view, the ontological starting point of human existence is the womb of the mother. Therefore, co‐existence precedes existence. There is no being without being‐in‐something, initially in the uterus. Life is always life‐in‐between‐of‐life. From the beginning and at all times, the human being is surrounded by something that cannot appear as an object. It is the indiscernible complement of one’s own existence, with which one forms a pair.

To contain the infiniteness of space and to create spaces in which sharing can be experienced, Sloterdijk suggests speaking of human spheres (contexts of and for understanding). The shared space is isolated from the rest of the infinite space. Within the sphere, the space can be manipulated. These manipulations can result in specific climates (2004, p. 309). Sloterdijk uses the term climate not only to denominate a meteorological state, but also to refer to nine dimensions, which altogether characterize the climate of human spheres (2004, p. 362).

Sloterdijk conceptualizes the human sphere as a nine‐dimensional greenhouse (chirotope, phonotope, uterotope, thermotope, erotope, ergotope, alethotope, thanatotope, nomotope) in which human beings are able to survive and consequently can develop complexities beyond their animalistic heritage. Each of the nine dimensions can attain different degrees of implicitness and explicitness. An individual on its own is not able to survive. It depends on being part of a sphere, populated by others. Sloterdijk’s ontological starting point is therefore unthinkable without the other as it is the collaborative mode with the other that allows for positively influencing the climate within a sphere.

Such thinking can also be used to consider and gain a critical appreciation of the contemporary global conjuncture which, Escobar (2016) contends, can be best characterised by the fact that we are facing modern problems for which there are no longer modern solutions. Ontologically speaking, Escobar continues, one may say that the crisis is the crisis of a particular world or set of world-making practices, the world that we usually refer to as the dominant form of Euro-modernity, i.e. capitalist, rationalist, liberal, secular, patriarchal, white, and so on.

Furthermore, of particular relevance to narrative environment design, such world-making, world-forming or world-building practices are design practices.


Arendt, H. (1958). The Human condition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Elden, S. and Mendieta, E. (2009). Being-with as making worlds: the ‘second coming’ of Peter Sloterdijk. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 27 (1), 1–11. Available from http://dx.doi.org/0.1068/d2701em [Accessed 7 September 2016].

Escobar, A. (2016). Thinking-feeling with the Earth: territorial struggles and the ontological dimension of the Epistemologies of the South. AIBR, Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana, 11 (1), 11–32. Available from http://www.aibr.org/antropologia/netesp/numeros/1101/110102e.pdf [Accessed 5 September 2016].

Lemmens, P. (2013). Review essay: Sloterdijk. ID: International Dialogue, a Multidisciplinary Journal of World Affairs, 3 101–114. Available from https://www.academia.edu/15683426/Peter_Sloterdijk_You_Must_Change_Your_Life._On_Anthropotechnics_Peter_Sloterdijk_In_the_World_Interior_of_Capital._For_a_Philosophical_Theory_of_Globalization_Peter_Sloterdijk_Globes._Spheres_II [Accessed 9 January 2016].

Rauschenbach, R. (2011). How to govern the universalizing community: Peter Sloterdijk’s concept of co-immunism. In: 6th ECPR General Conference, University of Iceland, 25th – 27th August 2011. Reykyavik: University of Iceland. Available from http://ecpr.eu/filestore/paperproposal/360087b2-c31f-413c-b33d-88b69534e9ab.pdf [Accessed 25 August 2014].

edited 25 November, 2016 by Allan Parsons

It could be argued that a narrative environment forms a complex ‘whole’, a ‘totality’ or a ‘system’ of some kind, one that involves human, non-human and environmental value systems, for which suitable conceptual frameworks that encompass all these dimensions satisfactorily are difficult to find, as is discussed by Frederiksen et al. (2014). One way of expressing this ‘wholeness’, that is not a unity but an ensemble or assembly, is that it constitutes a ‘world’

Although an output of design thinking and design practice, a narrative environment is not simply a ‘whole’ in the form of a ‘product’, ‘commodity’ or ‘artefact’; nor is it a ‘whole’ in the form of a ‘media product’ or a ‘service’ in any simple sense. In other words, designing a narrative environment is not simply product design, media practice nor service design; and, furthermore, while narrative environments deploy typography and graphics, nor is it a version of graphic design, for example environmental graphics or wayfinding. In many ways, the design of narrative environments is closer to such practices as interaction design (now that it has moved away from its initial focus on computer interface design) and experience design (but, again, not necessarily in such forms as user-experience design or UX design, which is mainly organised around advertising and brand experience).

The general argument articulated here is that narrative environments ‘act’ and have effect on people in the world, i.e. they are ‘practical’, but they are not simply functional or instrumental in their mode of action; nor, indeed are they simply ‘aesthetic’. This requires a subtle understanding of (social) ‘practice’, which requires a theory of actantiality, incorporating agency and potentiality.

In seeking to find methods and concepts for thinking about the design of narrative environments as ‘wholes’, other than those which resort to a distinction between form (as ‘aesthetics’) and function (both as purpose and as mode of action), it may be valuable to think of narrative environments as ‘open systems’. Other metaphors which may prove useful in the initial stages of thinking about the openness of narrative environments are dynamic systems, networks, spheres, worlds, societies, communities or situations. In this context, while a narrative environmental ‘whole’ may contain structures, they are part of more dynamic processes which, in some way, operate together to form a (more or less temporary) ‘whole’.

From a methodological perspective, in the early stages, it is important not to think of modes of action of this narrative environmental ‘whole’ in empiricist terms, e.g. not to think of a narrative environment as a building, a museum, a school, a factory, an office, a home, or indeed, a city or a country. To do so is potentially to foreclose design thinking and design practice around existing functionalist aesthetics from which it would be difficult to break free, without an extensive critical practice, for example, ‘deconstructing’ (Derrida) the existing ‘distribution of the sensible’ (Ranciere) to enact a re-distribution of the sensible (as in some forms of avant-garde art practice). It is also important not to think of this narrative environmental ‘whole’ in universalist terms, which assumes an abstract universality of time and space, a singular humanity and a common experience, all of which would be misleading. A finer-grained approach, incorporating plurality and diversity, is needed.

In other words, an approach to the design of narrative environments is needed which can, on the one hand, question the taken for granted assumptions of existing categories and practices; and, on the other hand, allow for the plurality of human experiences. It is also important that such design thinking and practice admits that the outputs are open to ‘chance’ or ‘happenstance’, that its mode of action and effectuality cannot be fully foreseen or foreclosed.

Thinking about such matters as how ‘wholes’ are constituted has been underway at least since the end of World War Two. One of the initial problematics being tackled in that post-1945 period was the issue of ‘totalitarianism’, i.e. of the constitution of a ‘whole’ which was so deterministic that it left no room for freedom of action and interaction, no matter whether this took the form of ‘communistic’ regime or of a ‘fascistic’ regime, such as is raised by the work of Hannah Arendt.

Since that time, a whole range of theories have emerged that seek to address this issue of a ‘whole’ that not a totalitarian unity (e.g. post-Marxist thinking and new materialist thinking) nor a universal uniformity (e.g. post-Humanist and post-structuralist thinking). In more recent times, since the early to mid-1970s, several new problematiques have arisen around the notions of ‘globalisation’, ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘neoconservatism’, with their concerns to define a single, unified ‘world’ governed by the principles of a presumed (and presumptuous) capitalistic ‘free market’.

For example, the design of narrative environments could valuably be thought through in terms of their possibly being:

distributions of the sensible (Ranciere)

apparatuses or dispositifs (Foucault, Deleuze, Agamben, Barad)

biopolitical regimes (Foucault, Agamben)

actor-networks (Latour, Callon, Law)

actant-rhizome ontologies (Latour)

rhizomes (Deleuze and Guattari)

machinic assemblages (Deleuze and Guattari)

socio-techical assemblages (Schatzki)

agencements (Deleuze and Guattari)

story worlds (world-making #1) (Jenkins; Tsing)

autopoietic systems (Luhmann, Maturana and Varela)

spheres, bubbles and foam (Sloterdijk)

assemblages (De Landa, Braidotti)

fields of actantiality (Greimas, Latour)

fields of spatial (social) practice (Lefebvre)

fields of habitus (Bourdieu)

learning environments (Tovey)

nature-cultures (Haraway)

onto-epistemologies (Haraway, Barad)

cybernetic organisms (Haraway)

open systems (e.g. Ludwig von Bertanlanffy)

world systems (e.g. Wallerstein)

world, Liebenswelt, Umwelt (world-making #2) (e.g. Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty)

complex systems

dynamic systems

As may now be obvious, the assumption behind employing the above kinds of theorisation is that they become necessary when one recognises that narrative environments are never neutral. Attention must be paid to the ways in which they invite, welcome, include and promise some people and are uninviting, unwelcoming, exclusive and unpromising to others, a situation which may be part of a larger scale processes of ‘othering’ more generally. Furthermore, one cannot assume a neutral ‘outside’ or ‘common ground’: as one exits one narrative environment, one enters another, even if this is new domain is defined as ‘public space’.

A narrative environment, as an outcome of design thinking and design practice, is a response to a situation, and in the form of its responsiveness it evinces a ‘philosophy’, both in the sense of a ‘methodology’, i.e. a characteristic way of using it, realised through a set of practical interactions, but not simply reducible to them; and in the sense of an ‘atmosphere’, a characteristic way of feeling or experiencing it.

In thinking about narrative environments in this way, as open systems that require come kind of theorisation to understand the nature of their openness and connectedness, you will be able to articulate them within appropriate theoretical horizons, albeit possibly shifting horizons, thereby incorporating insights from such domains as feminist theories, post-Humanist theories, New Materialist theories, speech act theory, complexity theory, chaos theory and post-Marxist theory and possibly even insights from Buddhist thinking.

In short, you will be able to approach the design of narrative environments with an array of suitable critical and creative thinking methodologies in the form of ‘philosophies’ and/or ‘tools’ for thinking through what is happening and may happen.


Fredriksen, A. et al. (2014). A conceptual map for the study of value. An initial mapping of concepts for the project ‘Human, non-human and environmental value systems: an impossible frontier?’ LCSV Working Paper Series. Manchester, UK: School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester. Available from http://thestudyofvalue.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/WP2-A-conceptual-map.pdf [Accessed 28 May 2015].

edited 2 April, 2018 by Allan Parsons


“The point is not to gain some knowledge about philosophy but to be able to philosophise.” Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology.

The word philosophy derives from from the Greek term philosophia which means love of knowledge, pursuit of wisdom or systematic investigation. It is a combination of two roots: philo-, meaning loving and sophia meaning knowledge or wisdom.

The value of philosophy for narrative environment design and analysis is perhaps best demonstrated with reference to Gregory Fried’s (2011: 240) characterisation of philosophical practice. While acknowledging that there is no consensus on what constitutes philosophy, Fried suggests that philosophy can be thought of as having three moments, moments which are perhaps also present in design practice, as will be discussed below.

The first moment, as articulated by Aristotle in the Metaphysics, is that philosophy begins with a sense of wonder (thaumazein in Greek). That wonder is the experiencing of something as deserving or demanding our attention because it is delightful, puzzling and enticing. [Equally, it could be argued that philosophy might begin with a sense of horror or trauma, which may be similarly demanding of our attention, but not for reasons of delight. The crucial point is that philosophy begins with experience and perhaps heightened experience of some kind].

The second moment is the formulation of a philosophical question, an act that requires an intense focus on precisely what is at issue on our wonder [or horror or trauma], as we open to and admit the questions that confront us out of our own individual lived experience, through the embeddedness of the self in the life world. By posing questions, we begin to philosophise through what seizes us and what challenges our world.

The third moment is answering, albeit however provisionally, or responding to the question and, indeed, possibly reformulating the question in responding to it. Modern academic philosophical practice tends to focus on this last moment. The proper work of philosophy is seen, from this perspective, to be the production of results, in the form of rigorous arguments with clear conclusions. However, as Fried argues, fixating on the moment of giving answers as the sole or primary work of philosophy distorts the full scope of what thinking demands of us.

Parallels can be drawn between this characterisation of philosophical practice and design practice. These parallels might be recognised more readily if one takes Martin Heidegger’s (2009) suggestions that,

“The two questions asked in philosophy are, in plain terms: 1. What is it that really matters? 2. Which way of posing questions is genuinely directed to what really matters.”

For narrative environment design, those questions may need to be extended, to become 1. What is it that really matters, to whom, for whom, in what ways(s), in what situation(s), of what duration? 2. Which ways of posing questions are genuinely directed to what really matters to whom, for whom, in what way(s), in what situation(s), of what duration?

More generally, like philosophy, design practice is not simply problem solving or answer-giving (moment three in Gregory Fried’s scheme), although, similarly to philosophy, most contemporary design practice is focused on this third moment of giving answers to problems, i.e. providing design solutions. However, to echo Fried, fixating on this moment of providing solutions, in the form of constructed artefacts or designed systems with explicit functions or uses, as the sole or primary work of design distorts the full scope of what design thinking and practice demands of us.

Design practice, like philosophy, needs to work on all three moments. Without good design questions, that are founded in experience and heightened awareness (e.g. wonder, horror, trauma) and a questioning of that experience in relations to the processes of the material (social, economic, political, environmental) world, such proffered solutions may lead to situations that are more problematic than the initial one.

Design practice, then, like philosophy, does not begin with answers/solutions and the production of results but with a sense of wonder, or perhaps horror or trauma, and the posing of questions arising from and within that experience. Crucially, it is the formulation of the design question (or questions) that is key to arriving at valuable ‘results’. The question does not determine the precise result but it does, however, orient the direction of the problem solving activity.

One question might be whether such (philosophical or design) thinking can be systematised or made into a method. In response, it could be said, as does Friedrich Schlegel in his Athenaeum Fragments, that philosophy is a way of trying to be a systematic spirit without having a system, a position similar to that of Hannah Arendt.

More conventionally, students of Plato and other ancient philosophers divide philosophy into three parts: ethics (the principles and import of moral judgment), epistemology (the resources and limits of knowledge) and metaphysics (the rational investigation of the nature and structure of reality). While useful for pedagogical purposes, however, no rigid boundary separates the parts.

David Woodruff Smith (2013) states that traditionally philosophy includes at least four core fields or disciplines: ontology, epistemology, ethics and logic. He suggests that phenomenology can be added to that list. On that basis, he provides elementary definitions of the field of philosophy as follows:

Ontology is the study of beings or their being — what is.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge — how we know.

Logic is the study of valid reasoning — how to reason.

Ethics is the study of right and wrong — how we should act.

Phenomenology is the study of our experience — how we experience.

Other domains of conventional academic philosophical investigation are those of of semantics, which concerns the relationship between language and reality, and aesthetics, which concerns notions of sensory perception and beauty

All of these domains (ethics, epistemology, metaphysics or ontology, semantics, aesthetics and phenomenology) may be of value in design thinking, so long as the focus is not simply or solely on producing results but also on experiencing and questioning.


Fried, G. (2011). A Letter to Emmanuel Faye. Philosophy Today, 55 (3), 219–252. Available from https://www.academia.edu/2613554/A_Letter_to_Emmanuel_Faye [Accessed 29 August 2016].

Smith, D.W. (2013). Phenomenology. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/#5 [Accessed 5 September 2016].

edited 12 July, 2018 by Admin

If it is accepted that the human is one of the main constituents or domains of actantiality in the realisation of a narrative environment, then the relevance of phenomenology becomes apparent, as a tool for grasping the nature of that human actantiality.

This is particularly so because of phenomenology’s concern for the lifeworld, with its emphasis on the human body, especially the moving body, the recognition of embodiment as intersubjectivity and inter-corporeality, in its relation to narration and temporalisation, on the one hand, and to environing and spatialisation, on the other hand, themselves conceived as forms of actantiality. As Thomas Sheehan (2014) expresses it in an interview, phenomenology is about the meaningful presence of things within contexts of human concerns and interests.

Phenomenology, from the Greek word phainomenon, itself derived from phainein, meaning to show,  is “the study of givenness, of the world as it is lived rather than the world as it is objectified, abstracted, and conceptualized.” (Garner, 1993: 448)

A phenomenological approach recognises that the essentially analytic space of Euclidian geometry, Cartesian philosophy or Newtonian physics is very different from lived, or inhabited, spatiality, with its perceptual contours and structures of orientation. (Garner, 1993: 448)

In investigating affective, aesthetic and action-oriented experience as it is influenced and informed by environmental factors and by actual and potential bodily movement, and by exploring the ways that our physical and social environments matter for experience, cognition, problem-solving and for shaping our intersubjective and social interactions, phenomenology can be a very useful resource for research in narrative environment design.

Within phenomenology, spatiality, as lived space, is felt space. Lived space is a category for inquiring into the ways we experience spatial dimensions of our everyday existence, alongside the other themes of lived body (corporeality), lived time (temporality), and lived human relation (relationality or communality). Lived time (temporality) is subjective time as distinct from clock time or objective time.

As Jennifer Bullington (2013: 20) and Dermot Moran (2000) explain, phenomenology is the central strand of 20th-century European philosophy. It stems from the works of Edmund Husserl, 1859-1938, who announced it in 1900-1901 as a bold, radically new way of doing philosophy. To Husserl, it sought to bring philosophy back from abstract metaphysical speculation, with its attendant pseudo-problems, in order to return to concrete living experience. The term ‘phenomenology’ means the logos, or inherent meaning or order, of phenomena, i.e. the meaning of that which appears or shows itself to human beings. How human beings perceive, understand and live the world is the subject matter of phenomenological study.

Phenomenology does not make statements about how the world is in-itself, outside of human beings’ experiences of it. The subject matter of phenomenological studies is an examination of various human phenomena, such as, for example, perception, time consciousness, sexuality, religious and cultural practices, the body, the experience of the Holy and so on, from the point of view of meaning constitution. The central motif of phenomenology is the phenomenological description of things as they are, in the manner in which they appear (Moran, 2000: xiii).

In his later years, Husserl thought that phenomenological practice required a radical shift in viewpoint, one that suspended or bracketed the everyday natural attitude and ‘world-positing’ intentional acts which assumed the existence of the world. In this way, the practitioner will be led back to the domain of pure transcendental subjectivity (Moran, 2000: 2).

When this is done, Husserl further argues that we find two poles of experience: the streaming of consciousness, which he called noesis or noetic acts; and that to which consciousness attends, which he called noema or noematic objects. In place of the objective ‘real’ object we find, under the phenomenological reduction, the streaming of consciousness towards the object-as-meant. This bracketed realm of noesis and noema is the study proper of phenomenology, in this phase of Husserl’s thought. (Bullington, 2013: 22)

However, many of Husserl’s students were unconvinced by the value of this reduction or the possibility of carrying it out, and felt that Husserl had lapsed back into the very Neo-Kantian idealism from which phenomenology has originally struggled to free philosophy (Moran, 2000: 2).

This brings to attention the recognition, as explained by Moran (2000: xiv), that phenomenology cannot be understood simply as a method, a project or a set of tasks. In its historical form, it is primarily a set of people, beginning with Husserl and his personal assistants, Edith Stein, Martin Heidegger, Eugen Fink and Ludwig Landgrebe, and extending to his students, Roman Ingarden, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, Marvin Farber, Dorion Cairns, Alfred Schutz and Aron Gurwitsch, as well as others including Max Scheler and Karl Jaspers. Moran also points out that phenomenology changes when introduced into a new language and philosophical climate, such as when it was interpreted by Emmanual Levinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Michel Henry and Paul Ricoeur in France, a tradition that was itself later deconstructed by Jacques Derrida.

For a discussion of Heidegger’s objections to Husserl’s reductions, the transcendental and the eidetic, Taylor Carman’s (2006) chapter on The Principle of phenomenology is particularly useful. By taking human existence as mere objective presence, Heidegger points out, Husserl infers that the essence of intentionality can be grasped apart from any interest in existence. For Heidegger, we do not understand things, least of all ourselves in such an objective fashion. Rather, 

“we make use of things, we rely on them, we avail ourselves of them, we take them for granted by manipulating, adjusting, wearing, stepping on, and ignoring them. Only rarely do they stand over against us as mere objects. In short, we do not simply intuit them as “occurrent” (vorhanden), we treat them as “available” [zuhanden] (Carman, 2006: 109).

For Heidegger, the eidetic reduction suppresses what is most essential to intentionality, that is, its existential moment, because our existence is constitutive of our self-understanding. The bracketing of existence in favour of essence blinds Husserl to the distinctive ontological character of Dasein (human being), whose essence lies in its existence. The traditional concepts of essentia (whatness) and existentia (thatness) fail to capture the way in which the very being of human beings is inextricably bound up with what they take themselves to be.

One of the major French exponents of the practice begun under the heading of phenomenology was Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1908-1961, who implicitly endorses Husserl’s opposition to scientific realism. That is, they both reject the view that the privileged status of the natural sciences provides descriptions of the real nature of the world, however much these depart from our pre-scientific, common sense conceptions of it. Husserl maintains that the ‘real’ world is a world of phenomena, i.e. of things that appear to us; but not of ‘appearances’, in the sense of that behind or beyond which lies ‘the real’. Nor are those ‘phenomena’ the sense-data of empiricism: colour-patches, shapes, sounds, and so on. Rather, they are the objects as they appear to us, objects-for-consciousness. Conversely, our consciousness is (always) of objects. In other words, it is ‘intentional’, aimed or directed at something.” (Keat, 1982: 1)

Merleau-Ponty calls the lived unity of the mind–body-world system ‘the lived body’. The body understood as a lived body is both material and self-conscious, physiological and psychological. These terms, Merleau-Ponty argues, are not as dichotomous as may be imagined: there is mind in the body and body in the mind. The lived body is always oriented towards the world outside itself, i.e. towards otherness, in a constant reciprocal flow (Bullington, 2013: 25).

That otherness, in the context of narrative environment design, is understood both in terms of temporality, as narrating, and spatiality, as environing.


Bullington, J. (2013). The Expression of the psychosomatic body from a phenomenological perspective. In: The Expression of the Psychosomatic Body from a Phenomenological Perspective. Dordrecht, NL: Springer, 19–37.

Carman, T. (2006). The principle of phenomenology, In The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, 2nd ed., edited by Charles B. Guignon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Garner, S.B. (1993). ‘Still living flesh’: Beckett, Merleau-Ponty, and the phenomenological body. Theatre Journal, 45 (4), 443–460. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3209015 [Accessed 5 February 2018].

Keat, R. (1982). Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenology of the body [Online paper]. Russell Keat.net [Website]. Available from http://www.russellkeat.net/admin/papers/51.pdf [Accessed 22 March 2016].

Moran, D. (2000). Introduction to phenomenology. London: Routledge.

Phenomenology Online [Website]. Available at http://www.phenomenologyonline.com/ [Accessed 23 March 2016].

Sheehan, T., Polt, R. and Fried, G. (2014). No one can jump over his own shadow. 3:AM Magazine, (8 December). Available from http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/no-one-can-jump-over-his-own-shadow/ [Accessed 1 September 2016].

edited 16 January, 2020 by Allan Parsons

Associated Terms

As one particular understanding or interpretation of ‘lifeworld’ or ‘being-in-the-world’ or, indeed, the everyday, the notion of Dasein may be of particular interest in the design and understanding of narrative environments. It may also be of use in seeking to grasp the character of human action, whether understood in the form of will, agency, performativity or actantiality, in the context of an articulated narrative world (diegesis, storyworld) and lifeworld (e.g. actant-network ontology or actant-rhizome ontology).

Dasein is a German word that translates literally as ‘there [da] being [Sein]’ or ‘being there’. While Dasein’s root meaning is usually rendered in English as ‘Being there’, it is equally valid to translate it as ‘Being-here’. Dasein means inhabiting and existing as a Here, a site within which Being and beings can meaningfully appear (Fried and Polt, 2014: xi).

In everyday German, the word Dasein is used just as the word ‘existence’ is used in English. However, Heidegger viewed the Latin term existentia as misleading and superficial. In Being and Time (1927) Heidegger, gives the term a specific philosophical significance. Prior to Heidegger, Dasein commonly referred to the being of persons. Heidegger follows and intensifies the common usage.

Dasein is defined in Being and Time as that being for whom Being itself is at issue, for whom Being, especially its own Being, is in question. For the most part, for Heidegger, this being is the human being although, as Fried and Polt (2014: xi) note, Dasein not simply equivalent to humans. It may help to think of Dasein, Fried and Polt suggest, as a condition into which human beings enter, either individually or collectively, at a historical juncture when the Being of beings becomes an issue for them, or Being as the event of meaningful disclosure takes place for them.

As distinct from the mode of being of a present-at-hand entity (object or artefact) or a ready-to-hand entity (tool or instrument), Dasein is by existing as a self-related being, for whom its own Being, as an individuality through a collectivity, is at issue as it goes about inhabiting the world. Each of us interacts with artefacts, instruments and other human beings in terms of some possible ways for us to be, such as being a doctor, being a teacher, being a parent or being a craftsperson.

Usually, we do not choose our identity, but behave in the way ‘one’ does in the community to which one belongs, in short one conforms to (or struggles with) the norm. However, experiences such as anxiety and the call of conscience can shock or provoke one into choosing who one is, in the face of one’s own mortality. One then exists ‘authentically’, at least for a time.

An authentic individual, in this account, lives in a way that is appropriate to a temporal being, a being who has always already been thrown into some situation, who project possibilities, and who dwells among other beings in a present world. Our temporality is historical, as each of us is a member of a community with a shared inheritance. Through communicating and struggling (agonism), a people or community may find a way to forge a future from its past (Fried and Polt, 2014: xii).

As Mitcham (2001: 28) explains,

“Heidegger undertakes an extended phenomenological analysis of human experience, concluding that Dasein is being-in-the-world characterized existentially as care, concern, solicitude – both about its own being and about the being of the world. That is, underlying all of Dasein’s modes of being and fundamental to it is the experience of care or worry, uncertainty.”

While this general orientation to Dasein may be accepted, in which matters of fact are understood simultaneously as matters of concern, to adopt a Latourian (2004) expression, difficulties arise in the interpretation of what Heidegger means by saying that Dasein is a question of ‘being-thrown’.

Thus, Mitcham (2001: 29), for example, argues that when Heidegger hyphenates the German word Da-sein, he does so in order to emphasise the specificity, as this-ness or there-ness, of the human as that which finds itself thrown into a particular body, dwelling in this country, now at this specific historical period, as well as the care or concern that arises in the specific human being about so finding itself.

Basing himself on the assumption that this is what Heidegger suggests that the term Da-sein implies, Mitcham contends that only from such ineluctable particularity may one be truly human, may one think authentically. It is this sense of grounded being or being-in-the-world, in an individual body, in a unique place, and with an exclusive history, that Mitcham emphasises by adopting the term.

Peter Sloterdijk attempts a similar specification of the notion of Dasein when he argues that ‘being thrown into the world’, is to be thrown into an envelope of some kind, To define humans is to define the envelopes, the life support systems, that make it possible for them to breathe, to live.

Such interpretations, however, assume that the condition of ‘being thrown’ implies a sense of ‘being thrown into the world’, rather than a more prolonged contingency, i.e. simply that of being in a condition of thrownness, without cessation, without origin, without arrival, without destination, without telos, or without ground, so to speak.

This may lead to a further interpretation of the sense of anxiety of which Heidegger speaks, in that the human subject may recognise both its groundedness, in a specific body, in a specific place with a specific history, and its groundlessness, as an unending passage of being-as-thrownness. Expressing the matter in this way opens it to a potential relationship with some postmodernist writings, i.e. post-high-modernist or post-1945 writings, for example, Samuel Beckett and other authors of the literature of the absurd, who undertook to subvert the foundations of accepted modes of thought and experience so as to reveal the meaninglessness of existence and the underlying “abyss,” or “void,” or “nothingness” on which any supposed security is conceived to be precariously suspended (Abrams, 1999: 168-169).

Although Heidegger would not use this terminology, the groundedness of Dasein lies in its inter-subjectivity and inter-corporeality. Thus, as Dalmayr (1989: 393) writes, the “worldliness” of Dasein entails inter-human linkage, an aspect discussed in Being and Time under the heading of “co-being”, of “being-with”, or Mitsein. Heidegger repeatedly insists in Being and Time that the ontological construal of being-in-the-world implies that the world is “always a world already shared with others: the world of Dasein is a co-world; being-in signifies a co-being with others.” (Dallmayr, 1989: 394)


Abrams, M.H. (1999). A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th ed. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Dallmayr, F. (1989). The discourse of modernity: Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger (and Habermas). Praxis International, 8 (4), 377–406.

Fried, G. and Polt, R. (2014). Translators’ introduction to the second edition. In: Introduction to metaphysics, 2nd ed., by Martin Heidegger. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Latour, B. (2004). Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical Inquiry, 30 (2), 225–248.

Mitcham, C. (2001). Dasein versus design: the problematics of turning making into thinking. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 11 (1), 27–36. Available from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1011282121513 [Accessed 20 August 2014].

edited 30 August, 2016 by Allan Parsons


the everyday – le quotidien – Alltaglich

In some respects, narrative environment design could be considered to be a critical, creative and reflexive practice within and about everyday life, interested not just in the ordinary but also the extraordinary. However, at first, it might not seem that the everyday is fertile ground for narrative environment design, particularly if, for example, one begins from the proposition articulated by Maurice Blanchot (1987: 17) that,

“The everyday, where one lives as though outside the true and the false, is … without responsibility and without authority, without direction and without decision, a storehouse of anarchy, since casting aside all beginning and dismissing all end. This is the everyday.”

Yet if one is attentive to Blanchot’s qualification, that it is “as though” this is the case, then it can be seen that the issues with which narrative environment design is concerned are indeed present in the everyday: truth and falsehood or authenticity and inauthenticity; responsibility and authority; direction and decision-making; order and disorder; beginning and ending.

The everyday, everyday life or daily life, is the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the habitual (Perec, 2008), that which is taken for granted, that which all too familiar and therefore goes unnoticed and is overlooked. The everyday is that which slips into the background; or, as Maurice Blanchot (1987: 12) puts it in an essay section heading, “The Everyday: What is Most Difficult to Discover”.

Agnes Heller (1985), from a different perspective, suggests that the everyday might be understood as the most fundamental ontological category of society, albeit one that is not an unchanging essence but has to be continually re-constructed. For Heller, the everyday constitutes the shared life experience through which the world is intersubjectively constituted.

In terms of an actantial model of narrative environments, the everyday environs; that is its primary mode of actantiality: it becomes an unrecognised and unrecognisable part of the atmosphere, unless disrupted and brought (back) to attention.

For this reason, the everyday may be of great significance in thinking about the design of narrative environments because, similarly to the interventions of neo-avant-garde artists, a narrative environment can provide a way of “ensuring that the details of everyday life, the random constellations of objects that surround us, stop going unnoticed”, as George Brecht, conceptual artist and member of Fluxus, expressed it. Appropriating Zen and other forms of Mahayana Buddhism for their own ends, the work of neo-avant-garde artists and composers, such as the ‘anti-art’ of George Maciunas, a central figure in Fluxus, and the ‘situation art’ of Tom Marioni, rejected orthodox modernism in favour of the sheer immediacy and authenticity of everyday life.

Everyday life is a central, highly diverse and problematic theme for modern philosophy and social theory and, since the mid-1990s, has become persistent topic within art practice. The analysis of the everyday has been undertaken by such thinkers as Dilthey, Wittgenstein, Simmel, Husserl, Schutz, Heidegger, Dewey, Lefebvre, Kosik, Bakhtin, Benjamin, Bloch, Habermas, Garfinkel, Debord and de Certeau.

As Lefebvre (2014: 679) points out, this represents a radical change of focus for philosophy, because,

“In the past, philosophers excluded daily life from knowledge and wisdom. Essential and mundane, it was deemed unworthy of thought. Thought first of all established a distance (an epoche) vis-a-vis daily life, the domain and abode of non-philosophers.”

By changing its focus thus, Lefebvre suggests, philosophy is seeking to renew itself by overcoming speculative abstraction, an endeavour which has been ongoing since Marx, Husserl, Heidegger, Lukacs and others.

As Gardiner (2006: 207) highlights, the theorists mentioned above set out to problematise everyday life, to expose its manifold contradictions, effects and determinations, as well as its hidden potentialities. This problematisation is accomplished through various techniques of the alienation effect, estrangement or defamiliarisation whose aim is to unsettle the state of habitualised, perpetual distraction that, it is argued, constitutes the everyday life of modernity, thereby jolting it into a condition of active awareness or mindfulness.

Such approaches, therefore, differ from mainstream sociological studies, in which the everyday is the realm of the ordinary. In the alternative sketched out by Lefebvre and others, the everyday is treated  as incipiently extraordinary. As Gardiner (2006: 207) explains,

“The ordinary can become extraordinary not by eclipsing the everyday, or imagining we can arbitrarily leap beyond it to some ‘higher’ level of cognition, knowledge or action, but by fully appropriating and activating the possibilities that lie hidden, and typically repressed, within it. Such an enriched experience can then be re-directed back to daily life in order to transform it.”

In line with the Marxian dictum in the Theses on Feuerbach, the goal is to elevate lived experience to the status of a critical concept, not simply in order to describe it, but in order to change it (Kaplan and Ross, 1987: 1). The French understanding of the everyday, Schilling (2003: 24) comments, incorporates the avant-garde injunction to “change life” which runs through the left-wing politics of Lefebvre, the disruptive interventions of the Situationist International and the popular tactics of resistance articulated by De Certeau and which was adapted by the Surrealists from Rimbaud and Marx.

Everyday life undoubtedly does display routinised, static and unreflexive characteristics, as Schütz and other sociologists have noted. Nevertheless, the work of Lefebvre and others leads to the recognition that everyday life is also capable of surprising dynamism, penetrating insight and unbridled creativity. Everyday lives and knowledges thus demonstrate an irreducibly imaginative and dynamic quality. They cannot simply be written off as trivial, inconsequential and habit-bound (Gardiner, 2006: 207). In this sense, the French-derived thinking about the everyday differs from German-language reflections on Alltaglichkeit, such as in Lukacs’ Metaphysics of Tragedy and Heidegger’s Being and Time, which characterise the everyday as the domain of inauthenticity, tiriviality and error (Schilling, 2003: 24).

Michael Sheringham (2006: 3) emphasises the importance of French thought in the post-World War Two period (post-1945) in bringing the notion of the everyday, or the quotidien, to prominence. He argues that from the mid-1950s onwards a cluster of closely-related ways of thinking about and exploring the everyday developed which led to the notion of the everyday being positioned at the centre of French culture from the 1980s onwards, and into the 21st century. Since the 1980s, investigations and explorations of the everyday have become prominent in France certainly, but also elsewhere.

Prominent amongst those paying attention to the everyday in the French context are Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes, Michel de Certeau and Georges Perec, in dialogue with such thinkers as Edgar Morin, Jean-Luc Godard, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault and those included under the banner of Situationism. In turn, these writers draw common inspiration from ideas about the everyday at large in the writings of Karl Marx, Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris, Raymond Queneau and Walter Benjamin, as well as the Surrealists (Sheringham, 2006: 4).

Thus, the work of critical neo-Marxist writers, such as Guy Debord, Henri Lefebrvre, the early Jean Baudrillard and Edgar Morin, articulating a ‘critique of everyday-life’, formed a unique contribution to the construction of a sociology of the quotidian, which examined everyday life as a site of capitalist domination characterised by ‘alienation’, ‘reification’ and ‘commodity fetishism’, or what Debord called the ‘society of the spectacle’ (Evans, 1997:223).

For Marx, the everyday is the site of political struggle, towards which philosophy should direct its attention; and is also the object of critique in certain forms of literary studies, as noted by Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak (2002: 30):

“In Marx’s text philosophy must thus displace itself into the everyday struggle. In my argument, literature, insofar as it is in the service of the emergence of the critical, must also displace itself thus.”

In being conceptualised as a site of struggle, i.e. within an agonistic framework, the everyday can be understood narratively as a set of dramatic conflicts taking place in specific environments for specific kinds of actants and, therefore, thinking about the everyday is of interest in the design of narrative environments.

Brooker (2003: 96-97) suggests that references to everyday life can be taken to express an emphasis upon the forms and meanings of a common or popular culture. The assumption behind this position is that, as Raymond Williams argues, culture is ordinary, rather than the exclusive province of an elite. In turn, this underlies a broadly political perspective on cultural production and consumption, enabling the routine or banal in daily life to be recognised as a complex field of contested cultural meanings.

If, as Maurice Blanchot (1987: 13) suggests, the everyday constitutes, “a utopia, and an Idea, without which one would not know how to get at either the hidden present, or the discoverable future of manifest beings”, then the task of the narrative environment designer, as critical theorist of everyday life, becomes that of practising a utopian humanism.

Such a practice celebrates the intrinsic, although often invisible, promises and possibilities of ordinary human beings and the inherent value of common sense forms of making sense and knowing. It also recognises, nonetheless, the shortcomings of the mundane world as currently constituted. It is therefore attuned to the transgressive, sensual and incandescent qualities of everyday existence, whereby the whole fabric of daily life, in its sociality, materiality, spatiality and temporality, can take on a festive character, akin to that of a work of art (Gardiner, 2006: 207).

Good places to start researching how the study of everyday has developed are:

Cultural Studies, volume 18, issue 2/3, 2004, and

Yale French Studies, no. 73, 1987.

See also the entry for Situationist International

See also Painting the everyday in Europeana

Selected readings

Blanchot, M. (1987). Everyday speech. Yale French Studies, 73, 12–20.

Brooker, P. (2003). A Glossary of Cultural Theory, 2nd ed. London, UK: Arnold.

Evans, D. (1997). Michel Maffesoli’s sociology of modernity and postmodernity: an introduction and critical assessment. Sociological Review, 45 (2), 220–243. Available from http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/1467-954X.00062 [Accessed 7 May 2016].

Heller, A. (1985) The Power of Shame: A Rational Perspective. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Johnstone, S., ed. (2008). The Everyday. London: Whitechapel Gallery

Lefebvre, H. (1995). Critique of everyday life. Volume 1: Introduction. London, UK: Verso.

Lefebvre, H. (2014). Critique of everyday life. Volume III: From modernity to modernism (towards a metaphilosophy of daily life). In: Critique of everyday life. The one-volume edition. London, UK: Verso.

Gardiner, M.E. (2006). Everyday knowledge. Theory, Culture & Society, 23 (2-3), 205–207. Available from http://dx.doi.org/0.1177/026327640602300243 [Accessed 6 May 2016].

Perec, G. (2008). Species of spaces and other pieces. London, UK: Penguin Books.

Sandywell, B. (2004). The Myth of everyday life: toward a heterology of the ordinary. Cultural Studies, 18 (2), 160–180.

Schilling, D. (2003). Everyday life and the challenge to history in postwar France: Braudel, Lefebvre, Certeau. Diacritics, 33 (1), 23–40. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3805822 [Accessed 7 May 2016].

Sheringham, M. (2006). Everyday life: theories and practices from Surrealism to the present. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


edited 18 September, 2016 by Allan Parsons

Specific narrative environment designs may be said to be ‘political’ or to have political effects in some sense. In order to define more clearly what might be meant by this kind of assertion and to understand how a narrative environment might be said to act ‘politically’, it is worth pondering the distinction often made by contemporary political theorists between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’.

Politics or policy (la politique in French, Politik in German), refers to concrete policy-making, decisions and actions, the struggle for power and its exercise; while ‘the political’ (le politique in French, das Politische in German) refers to the frame of reference within which ‘politics’ occurs, implying the notion of polity or political unity. This distinction, awkward in English, has made its way into Anglo-American political theory via European philosophy.

Oliver Marchart (2007) traces the history of this ‘political difference’ in Ricoeur, Arendt, Schmitt and Mouffe, through to Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe, with diversions into Wolin, Sartori and others.

The theoretical differentiation between politics and the political occurs for the first time in German political thought with Carl Schmitt, while the habit of differentiating between these two concepts started in French thought in 1957, with Paul Ricœur’s essay ‘The Political Paradox’. This led Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe to adopt the differentiation which, in turn, motivated other theoreticians such as Claude Lefort and Alain Badiou to reformulate their own theory in terms of the political difference.

Ricoeur was responding to the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956. He was shocked by the unexpectedness of the Budapest uprising and the severity of its suppression by Soviet troops. In his view, the event demonstrated the autonomy of the political as a domain of human experience, distinct from other domains such as the moral, economic or aesthetic. The political domain has own particular problems, dynamics, modes of action and normative criteria (Schaap, 2013).

The concept of the political is frequently invoked by post-Marxists and theorists of radical democracy. Reacting against the Marxist view of politics, both Schmitt and Arendt, as does Ricoeur, insisted on the autonomy of the political. French post-Marxists,  including Claude Lefort, Étienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière, have drawn on these debates about the political to critically appraise the liberal human rights consensus that emerged in the wake of the Cold War as a basis for examining how human rights might be mobilised for an emancipatory politics (Schaap, 2013).

For Lefebvre, the difference between le politique and la politique enables a distinction (i.e. not a disassociation nor a separation) between the thinking of the political and political action.

In the work of Chantal Mouffe, ’the political’ refers to the dimension of antagonism that can take many forms and can emerge in different social relations. ‘Politics’, she takes to refer to the ensemble of practices, discourses and institutions that seek to establish a particular order and to organise human co-existence in conditions which are always potentially conflicting, because they are affected by the dimension of ‘the political’.


Chambers, S.A. (2011). Jacques Ranciere and the problem of pure politics. European Journal of Political Theory, 10 (3), 303–326.

Marchart, O. (2007). Post-foundational political thought: political difference in Nancy, Lefort, Badiou and Laclau. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1965). The Political Paradox. In: History and Truth, translated by. Charles A Kelby. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 247-270.

Schaap, A. (2013). Human rights and the political paradox. Australian Humanities Review, 55, 1–22.

edited 3 May, 2017 by Allan Parsons


Some design discourses have made use of the terms ‘present-at-hand’ and ‘ready-to-hand’, derived from Martin Heidegger, to discuss artefacts, entities, interactions and systems such as, for example, in human computer interaction (HCI), interaction design, game design and systems design (Ferris, 2003; Dourish, 1999; Dourish, 2001; Martin, 2012; Karlstrom, 2007; Tanenbaum, Antle and Bizzocchi, 2011). Such concepts, then, may be of value for the design and analysis of narrative environments, bearing in mind the difficulties of extracting concepts from the context of one particular mode of thought and translating them to other contexts, particularly in the case of Heidegger’s thought.

Heidegger defines present-at-hand and ready-to-hand as modes of being, in contrast to Dasein, which is by existing as a self-related being, for whom its own Being is at issue as it goes about inhabiting the world.

Thus, for Heidegger, what it means for a present-at-hand entity to be (i.e. to become or come into existence as a temporal, historical being) is to be given as an object to a theoretical gaze (Fried and Polt, 2014: xii). This includes both the ‘objects’ of science and the ‘objects’ of everyday perception.

A ready-to-hand entity, such as a tool, is (again, becomes or comes into existence as a temporal, historical being) when it fits into a meaningful network of purposes and functions, i.e. when it becomes part of a world of practice.

This means that such entities do not exist in some essential, a-temporal, a-historical or universal way as present-at-hand or ready-to-hand but have a temporal, historical, inter-active or relational mode of being. Thus, as Paul Dourish (1999) explains, Heidegger argued that the ontological structure of the world is not a given, already there to be found, discovered or revealed, but arises through interaction, through unfolding. To explain Heidegger’s position Dourish considers the example of the computer mouse.

Once one has learned to use it, the mouse, in a sense, ‘disappears’ from conscious attention. One acts (‘im-mediately’) through the mouse as an extension of one’s hand as one selects objects, operates menus, navigates pages, and so on. The mouse is, in Heidegger’s terms, ready-to-hand, i.e. it fits (‘seamlessly’) into a meaningful network of actions, purposes and functions. In being part of one’s action, it becomes part of ‘oneself’, ‘one’s body’, part of a domain of ‘ownness’ or ‘mineness’.

However, on occasions such as when the mouse ceases to function, for example, because of a failure of the connection between mouse and computer, one’s orientation towards the mouse changes. The mouse ‘reappears’ to conscious attention. One becomes conscious of the mouse mediating one’s action. One moves from a sense of im-mediacy and seamless connectivity to one of mediacy and failure of connectivity. The mouse becomes problematic, as one acts to solve or resolve the problem. When one acts on the mouse in this way, being mindful of it as an object of my activity, as an objector a theoretical (problem-solving) gaze, the mouse is present-at-hand.

Dourish points out that,

“Heidegger’s concern with this distinction is not simply to observe that one has different ways of orienting towards objects; his observation is more radical. He argues that the mouse exists as a mouse only because of the way in which it can become present-at-hand. The origin of ontology, and the existence of entities, lies precisely in the way those moments make objects apparent.”

Otherwise, the mouse is invisible or imperceptible because it immediately and seamlessly is part of one’s flow of actions and inter-actions.

However, when an entity becomes present at hand, for example because problematic in relation to one’s actions and inter-actions, it is not simply that it is revealing itself, or as if it was waiting there all along to be discovered. Rather, it is through this moment of becoming present at hand that the object takes on an existence as an entity, whose meaning is determined by the character of the theoretical gaze to which it is subjected. This happens through involved, embodied action, and thus changes its relation to Dasein, i.e. the way in which one acts an handles ’things’. In this way, it can be recognised that action is constitutive of ontology, not independent of it.


Dourish, P. (1999). Embodied interaction: exploring the foundations of a new approach to HCI [Unpublished draft paper]. Available from http://www.dourish.com/embodied/embodied99.pdf [Accessed 28 August 2016].

Dourish, P. (2001). Where the action is: the foundations of embodied interaction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ferris, T.L.J. (2003). Exploration of the application of ‘ready-to-hand’ and ‘present-to-hand’ in the design of systems. In: Australia and New Zealand Systems Society Conference, 2003. Available from http://www.anzsys.org/anzsys03/yis3000061_2.pdf [Accessed 28 August 2016].

Fried, G. and Polt, R. (2014). Translators’ introduction to the second edition. In: Introduction to metaphysics, 2nd ed., by Martin Heidegger. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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edited 14 June, 2017 by Allan Parsons