Phenomenology and Process Ontology: Evan Thompson, Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead, and the Growing Together of the Flesh of the World

I had a friendly exchange yesterday with the cognitive scientist and philosopher Evan Thompson about his debate earlier this year with another cognitive scientist Owen Flanagan. The two distinguished thinkers disagreed about whether physicalism as currently understood can provide an adequate account of consciousness. I wanted to revisit several of the themes Evan and I discussed in our comment exchange. I suggested in a comment that, while I agree the transcendental/phenomenological perspective provides a knock-down argument against any sort of objectivist explanation of subjectivity, I’m not as certain that, having laid such dogmatism to bed, Husserlian phenomenology is capable of helping us re-construct a less naive, more robust form of ontological realism (although I do try to push the late Husserl toward such realism in this paper on ecophenomenology).

Maybe Evan isn’t as interested as I am in a post-transcendental attempt at realism. I have a lot of sympathy for the more constructivist enactive paradigm he, Francisco Varela, and Eleanor Rosch first articulated in The Embodied Mind (1993). But since my fateful encounter with the thought of Alfred North Whitehead [which occurred just about the same time I was reading Evan’s next book, Mind in Life (2007)], I realized I needed to think constructivism ontologically, rather than epistemologically. Which is to say, I needed to think being as a process of self-construction, rather than being constructed by thought.

Now to be fair, as I understand the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy that Varela and Thompson draw upon in their articulation of enactivism, nothing is to prevent us from interpreting the “dependent co-arising” of all things in ontological terms. Whitehead himself acknowledged that in certain respects his “process-relational” ontology bears more resemblance to certain stains of Indian and Buddhist than to Western thought (see Process and Reality, pgs. 244, 342-343). For Whitehead, every actual occasion of experience is internally related to every other actual occasion. This means that there is nothing in the universe that can exist independently of anything else (for Whitehead, this includes even God). Everything there is emerges in concert with everything else. On the other hand, I’ve repeatedly argued against the over-simplification that Whitehead reduces individual occasions of experience to their global relations (HERE, HERE, HERE). Like Varela, who attempts to displace the old substantialist self with a more flexible conception of an emergent “virtual selfhood” or “subject-pole” (as he describes it in this paper just before his untimely death in 2002), Whitehead articulates individuality in terms of the “subjective form” of each occasion–an occasion’s unique feeling-toned concern for and response to the data it receives from the past occasions out of which it emerges. In this sense there is a lot of overlap between a process ontology and enactivism.

Here is what Evan had to say in a comment under my last post about his debate with Owen Flanagan:

…in my own work I follow the trajectory that arises in the later Husserl and continues in Merleau-Ponty, and that calls for a rethinking of the concept of “nature” in a post-physicalist way—one that doesn’t conceive of fundamental nature or physical being in a way that builds in the objectivist idea that such being is intrinsically or essentially non-experiential. But, again, this point doesn’t entail that nature is intrinsically or essentially experiential (this is the line that panpsychists and Whiteheadians take). (Maybe it is, but I don’t think we’re now in position to know that.) All I want to say for now (or think I have grounds for saying now) is that we can see historically how the concept of nature as physical being got constructed in an objectivist way, while at the same time we can begin to conceive of the possibility of a different kind of construction that would be post-physicalist and post-dualist–that is, beyond the divide between the “mental” (understood as not conceptually involving the physical) and the “physical” (understood as not conceptually involving the mental). This is what I had in mind when I invoked “neutral monism” or “neutral non-dualism” in the exchange with Owen.

Evan also mentioned that he plans to read Isabelle Stengers‘ recently translated book Thinking With Whitehead, at which point he’ll have a better sense for exactly what prevents him from following Whitehead all the way. I look forward to his reflections on that front. For now, I’m encouraged by his invocation of “neutral monism,” a position that William James fleshed out more than a century ago and that had a tremendous impact on Whitehead’s philosophical development. James’ notion of some substratum of “pure experience” from out of which subject and object, mind and matter, emerge and constellate themselves into more or less stable patterns of perceptual habit is very close to Whitehead’s own brand of panexperientialism.

I’ll leave you with this lecture by David Kleinberg-Levin on Merleau-Ponty’s late thought, including his understanding of the elemental flesh of the world. Thinking with Whitehead, I’d argue, can help us follow the late Merleau-Ponty’s desire not only to unify the mind with the flesh of the body, but mind and body with the flesh of the world. In this way, as Levin puts it, things become a prolongation of my body, just as my body becomes a prolongation of the world. (The authors of the recently published Nature and Logos: A Whiteheadian Key to Merleau-Ponty’s Fundamental Thought agree with the tremendous potential for cross-fertilization of these two thinkers).


Logos of the Lived Body: Remembering the Way Home

Logos of the Lived Body:

Remembering the Way Home


By Matthew Segall

Fall 2009

Buddhist Philosophical Systems

Prof. Steven Goodman





“Embodiment is: emerging into this world of light and sound…confinement to a body as a constantly changing piece of luggage, always a surprise to look down and it has sprouted hair or breasts, become fat, wrinkled, thin, peeling, saggy…becoming afraid that this will end…frustration of mind-never-still standing square in the way of Mind…wonder of using mind-that-can-grow-quiet to encounter Mind, body-that-can-sit to realize Body…” –Jan Chozen Bays (Being Bodies: Buddhist Women and the Paradox of Embodiment, p. 171-172)



The fact that I exist at all strikes me as unendingly weird (German: werden– ‘to become’; wer– ‘to turn, bend’); but, what at first pass seems like the most stubborn and persistent of facts may, after the careful inquiry and practice of re-turning (i.e., bending back to look again), reveal itself as a fleeting appearance. Perhaps, if my self-query is sufficiently penetrating, the seeming fact of my separate existence will dissolve entirely into the blissful radiance of Śūnyatā. Who and what am I, really? How is it, exactly, that I exist in this wonderfully weird world (W3)? And why should my mysterious existence continue to come into being at all? These questions—the who, what, how, and why of existence—will guide me along this hopefully homeward bound philosophical holzwege (‘wood path’). My walk along this unknown wood path is risky (wagen– ‘to risk’), because I know not from where I came nor when I will end—I simply (and often quite confusedly) find myself thrown here amongst others without memory of my whence and without clear sight of my whither. All I know is that the path I walk is motivated by a heartfelt concern, not for the proper definition of abstract concepts, but for the ultimate significance of my and my fellow’s being-toward-death. I am compelled by this uncanny situation to develop a coherent account of my body-as-lived that is adequate to the task of guiding my journey home (i.e., homing) through such a W3.


The practice of re-turning is also one of remembering, of making the self-body-world complex whole once more through a process of anamnesis: I must call to mind again that in me which is aware of the original universal current of intelligent energy (Logos). The body (Sarx) and its intimate relations are the place of my concern and the mandalic center of significance around which all my existential thoughts will revolve.


“The body,” says Guenther,


“acts as an orientational point in terms of which and around which the surrounding world in all its richness and variety is structured and organized” (Matrix of Mystery, p. 22).


My holzwege will be translated by alphabetic magic into vessels of visible sound, and so must function for the reader as a grammatical walk through tangled webs of English syntax, rather than a bodily sojourn across earthly trails. You cannot literally walk by my side into the invisible landscapes that I seek to traverse, but nonetheless, the written words that mark my movements are originally bodied forth as speech, and speech is the site where my “ethically agitated altruistic intent” (Goodman, 12/7/09) for self and others first fully emerges into the world. As a sentient being of human incarnation, my “authentic utterances” (MoM, p. 67) serve as mediators between the actual and possible worlds that my heart-mind aspires to know and dwell within. As per the demands of discursive investigation, despite my heartfelt concern for concrete matters of life and death, the perspectival power of abstraction and conceptuality must be called upon. I lay down this path in walking home not to outrun the mind’s tendency to grasp-at-in-attempting-to-contain the rich perceptual flow of experiential reality,[1] but to consciously engage these mental tendencies in an attempt to transform them, making of the thinking process a spiritual ally.


As Guenther says,


“Concepts imply selection; that is, some aspects of what we perceive are contrasted with others, some are even suppressed, and the emotions assist in further distorting that which is perceived, because they, too, are denied their scope. In the context of our body this state of affairs is termed the body of sedimented drives and tendencies initiated by and filtered through a system of concepts and discursive ventures” (MoM, p. 25).


In being explicit about the telos of my current task (remembering the way home), I hope to avoid the distortion that might be caused by drives and tendencies that remain sedimented and suppressed. I will select and contrast the perceptions provided by my earthly embodiment, being careful along the way to avoid fruitlessly constructing a castle of systematic thought which in the end serves only to cast an enormous shadow over the nearby shack where I find myself still living.[2] I desire not a new textual representation of the body’s place on the path, but a praxecology[3] applicable to actual life on earth with others.


In a topological sense, the universe is a seamless garment of excitatory intelligence whose energy can, through “bending and twisting,” be “stepped down” and worn by an endless variety of sentient beings even while maintaining the “dynamic invariance” of its “formal gestalt” (MoM, p. 27). The universe remains eternally whole even while impermanent particulars are constantly being born and dying as expressions of its “cosmic evolutionary force moving in an optimizing direction” (MoM, p. 33).


“There is a twisting or going astray of the gestalt into the shape of a body,” says Guenther,


“such that a vast expanse is crumbled into a tight sheath and a transparent and open presence is mistaken (misread) as something which, as an isolated or more exactly self-isolating system, now begins to exert its gravitational pull” (MoM, p. 27).


The nature of this misreading is of great concern to me, as the ignorance and isolation it produces are the chief sources of suffering in my life. That the open transparency of the vast expanse is mistaken by a self-isolating system suggests that only I am to blame for the suffering (dukha– ‘crowded space’) associated with Samsāric experience. This realization leads not to resignation, but to the insight that Nirvāa, too, is potentially my karma (i.e., my responsibility): Through the non-arising (nirodha) of a mistaken reading of reality (and a mistaken identity), dharma can shine through the twisted garment of excitatory intelligence making up my body, thereby revealing the anti-gravitational pull of “pristine cognitiveness” lighting the path home (MoM,p. 10). The body-as-lived Samsārically is like a burdensome piece of luggage dragged along by an alienated ego whose lack of substantial existence necessitates its forever-thwarted attempts to have a life (as if it were not life that always already has it). I do not have a body or a life, but continually become a lived body thrust into and drained out of the intrinsic emptiness of being by the mysterious and intelligent dynamics of our W3. Let us now turn to the task of remembering how this weirdness bodies forth so that the Nirvāic impulse, having gone astray, can find again its homeward way.


Bhāvanā: Meditations on the Spirit of Birth and Death


I first entered this world not out of my own desire, but that of my parents. Twenty-four years ago, Eros’ arrow hit its mark and the ancient biological ritual of genetic transfer was successfully accomplished. A seed was fertilized and began to grow within the womb of my mother. I have no conscious recollection of gestating within her for those formative enneadic months, but the warmth and comfort I feel laying in bed beneath blankets each night evokes dim and distant memories. Upon falling asleep, my lungs are once again breathed for me as my waking life in this W3 is submerged into dreams and darkness. The entire sequence of birth, life, and death is fractally enfolded in each and every day-night cycle. Laying in bed while dreaming, I inwardly re-imagine the world—my limp body vegetating as if still afloat in the maternal waters of pre-creation; waking to the light of morning, I am born again into the gravitationally-restrained motility of life on earth; when of my own weight I grow weary in the evening, I retire to pass once more into the cleansing fires of deep sleep, forgetting all that seemed burdensome and heavy beneath the harsh light of day.


“Twilight is intimate,” writes Erwin Strauss,


“because here nature veils the boundaries separating things from one another as well as the distances that divide us from them” (PP, p. 19).


In sleep, the body is lived again as an undivided whole, temporarily escaping the tumult of daily life. I become again an unborn, still nascent consciousness weaning at the teat of the mother matrix. But all things turn, and in time this side of the earth rolls over to face the sun for another round of wakeful life. If the sleep-wake cycle and the life-death cycle are analogous, then life, as an integral whole, is rounded by birth and death. These events represent the horizon surrounding my presence on earth as a lived body. Birth raises my lived body into the light of the world until death decays it, returning it to the dirt out of which it was grown. Unlike the vegetative sentience of plants, however, my animate life as a human being presents me with a most auspicious occasion for fully awakening.


The place and time of my bodily birth was karmic, the fruit of the conditions surrounding past parental action. Guenther suggests that it is through my body that I “actively [engage] in and with [the] world”—through my body that I am “in touch with” both touching (noesis) and touchable (noema) (MoM, p. 115).By right of birth, my lived body, despite its apparent spatial and temporal limitations, shares in the mysterious indestructible intelligence of the seamless garment of ever-excitable pluripotentiality constituting Being itself (MoM, p. 114).The self-organizing “ensemble” of my body, speech, and mind functions as a unique expression of this universal source, free to participate in but also to seemingly stray from the vast flowering continuity of our cosmogenesis. Seemingly losing our way through the forests of the formal gestalt is possible because of the self-isolating nature of ignorance (avidyā) and our “inveterate human tendency to lose touch and forget, err and stray, stumble and fall” (Levin, p. 257). Losing touch is the result of an overly rigid embodiment leading to a loss of responsive motility and sensitivity.


What is required is a “transition from rigidity to fluidity,” according to Guenther, wherein


“the body as me-as-embodied is experienced as a process of embodying which, in the last analysis, turns out to be the spiritual richness that pervades the whole of Being…Thus every individual is an intentional structure in which the inseparability of mentation, speaking, and embodying occurs as an undivided and indivisible totality” (MoM, p. 196).


Though it may at times appear as if my mind and body, thoughts and speech, lose contact and become fragmented, it remains the case that underlying my personhood is a process of embodiment whose intrinsic motivation is for growth toward wholeness.[4] The garment of excitatory intelligence seems to become tangled and restrictive only superficially, if viewed through occluded eyes or approached with an attitude of ungrateful resignation. The seamless fabric of reality cannot tear, nor can knots in its fibers remain for long before their tension unravels back into the void.


Guenther writes in relation to this inevitability of our awakening that,


“Our internally constituted sense of reality (comprising our embodiment, speaking, and mentation) and our externally constituted sense of reality (comprising the totality of phenomena) are felt as a phantom-like fabric, emerging out of nothing, yet unfolding as something—this ‘something’ being attested by the fact that there is a coming-into-presence, and the ‘nothing’ by the fact that this coming-into-presence never occurs as a reifiable domain” (MoM, p. 79).


No body that has been born can avoid returning to the emptiness from which it came. Death is part of the bargain of embodiment, the energetic payment for life’s temporary far-from-equilibrium adventure as a self-isolating space-time event (or sentient autopoietic being). All forms are empty of substantial existence, even while emptiness remains itself overflowing with an infinite variety of potential forms, each one awaiting its chance to participate in the choreography of cosmic coexistence (tToK, p. 248).


I am born into this W3 again each morning refreshed, having sloughed off the cellular sacrifices whose living offspring continue to generously body forth an organic dwelling place for that in me which is aware and was so even before my mother and father crossed the chromosomes that unfolded into my spatiotemporal form of becoming. Physical reality offers no stable ground for my lived body, but “experience-as-such, having no root, is the root of all that is (MoM, p. 79).


What am I?

What is my body? It appears that all the myriad forms of intentionality that I experience in daily life and dreaming, including my own flesh, are impermanent: grasper and graspable arise together, neither able to sustain objective stability independent of its shifting relation to the other. I thrive as my body not by clinging to an illusory stasis, but by passing away gracefully. Enlightened life as a particular body (Nirmaṇakāya) is the art of decaying willfully while radiating love to others (as the sun consumes itself to warm the earth). My body’s purpose in life is to suffer for the love of others. In this case, my bodily telos is sacrificial service—my body a vessel to be filled-until-overflowing with compassion (Mahākaruṇā).


What is my speech? It seems that all the melodic sounds that I hear or utter, while intrinsically meaningful, nevertheless recede as quickly as they emerge. Meaning cannot remain the same for long, because it emerges from the ongoing dance of differences, the rhythmic call and response of intelligent dynamism. Dogmatic doctrines that once conveyed truth become fossilize with time. Only images evoked with living words and symbols manage to communicate the timeless joys of creative play underlying the manifest universe (Sambhogakāya). The topology of Being is like a text, a logos, always open to fresh interpretation (Levin, p. 260). My speech’s purpose in life is to sing with others in poetic praise of our “interbeing” (Thich Nhat Hahn), that common body in which each contains all (Being Bodies, p. 9).


What is my mind? It appears that all ideas and emotions mentally conceived are but clouds floating through an open sky of“ceaseless pristine cognitiveness” (MoM, p. 79). Through all this conceptuo-emotive commotion, experience transparent to the open expanse of Śūnyatā endures unbroken, undisturbed. The mind is the “directedness of awareness” that, when purified of the desire to possess its intended objects, provides the spiritual momentum underlying the continuous authentic voicing of signifiers relevant to the unfolding character of the encompassing “meaning-saturated gestalt” (MoM, p. 196). An enlightened mind unveils the absolute reality of complete, ever-present emptiness (Dharmakāya) underlying all form. Not a mere heap of thoughts and emotions, the mind is the guiding thread unifying the autopoietic processes[5] linking speech, body, and world.


What am I? I am not a thing, physical or mental, but an


“action of resonating concern…embodied [as a] locus of experience…installed in a world with respect to which I…can engage in various ‘world’-related endeavors” (MoM, p. 195).


In body, speech, and mind, I engage the world because I care. I care because I know the eternal presence of Being can be so easily misread and ignorantly experienced as a dualistic realm of subjects/beings over and against objects/environments. I cannot be separated from my body, my voice, or my mind—nor from the phenomenal world these open me toward; I am aware of but not contained by any of these.


It seems I am not a what—I am a who. As a who, as opposed to a what, I cannot be chained to any particular substance, quality, or idea. As is written in the gSang-ba snying-po:


“…there is [nothing] that could be called a fetter;

Nor is there anyone to be fettered!

Fettering is done by the divisic notion which holds to a self

Tying and untying knots in the open sky” (MoM, p. 31).


A who is not an immutable essence, but a mandalic concentration of energy representable as a cross-cap (2-D), sphere, (3-D), or toroidal vortex (4-D) that forms an extensionless point of origin attended by an appreciative surrounding audience.


“In this manifestation of the point,” says Guenther,


“a departure from its source is indicated, and this departure expresses itself in the experienced (relished) relationship of the central (‘original’) point and the peripheral (‘moving’) point becoming an arc which, as it closes on itself, becomes the circle of (‘encircling’) attendants. Thus, it appears as an enlivening geometrical configuration imbued with the experience of beauty [see title page for visual representations]” (MoM, p. 43).


I am the site of mutual concern where self and other arise together as conspirators in the intrinsically ordered and marvelously coherent unfolding of the universe. I am Dasein, the cosmos as it happens “here” (Goodman, 11/30/09). But here is also “there”; I cannot be without you. In the dependent co-arising of our being-with one another, we participate in the further development of “an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” (Corpus Hermeticum, 3rd century). As a who, I am the experiential event horizon created by the folding of the garment of Being back upon itself. Each who emerges as a center attended by a surrounding audience of others with their own unique perspectives (“…center is everywhere…”). This twisting of the universe into multiple centers of perspective prevents any final closure on the identity of a particular being. I remain always open to reinterpretation or even reinvention depending on the company I find myself sharing. The universal contains all particulars (there is no outside to a universe whose “circumference is nowhere”—all things share in unbounded oneness), even while each particular represents a unique once-occurant emergence onto the world stage.


If I truly am a who of such infinite significance, it must be possible to fully embody the deathless state in this life. The section to follow records my recollection of the home I’ve never left.


Embodying Nirvāa


Nirvāṇa is the deathless state that naturally arises with the extinction of Samsāric existence as a being-toward-death. It is the realization of the unfettered bliss of eternal life. Opening to the possibility of deathlessness requires confronting the end (i.e., telos) of my embodiment: death. An embodied life lived awakened (as a Buddha) or asleep (as a sentient being) ends all the same with old age, sickness, and death. What attains deathlessness is not the body, but a pure awareness of and as Śūnyatā that, while alive, may or may not have become transparent to itself despite the apparent restraints of embodiment.


The analogy between sleep and death provides a conceptual aid to support a deeper understanding of the wholeness underlying the life-death cycle. While my body has not yet perished on the physical plane, I have fallen asleep to its presence here/there many times.


“If authentic being-toward-death dwells in angst,” says Corey Anton,


“authentic being-toward-sleep opens humanity to the abiding joy of a more inclusive ground of being. It takes courage to endure the angst of authentically reckoning with death, but we take blissful comfort when we understand that, as alive, existence is always already less than the whole of who we are. To fall asleep is to give up momentarily on the individuated project of resolute existence; it is to let all cares fall to oblivion” (Anton, p. 194).



But individuation is not so easily escaped. The analogy between death and sleep is stressed by the temporary duration of the sleeping state. We lay our bodies down at night only to rest for the coming of a new dawn. The death of the body would appear at first glace to be permanent; however, with the realization of the deathless state beyond the body, reincarnation becomes not a return to bodily entrapment, but an awakening to the responsibility of compassionate coexistence. This is so because, as Nāgārjuna has written, emptiness is not other than form, nor Nirvāṇa other than Samsāra. The truly enlightened (those awake to the pristine cognitiveness underlying their bodily incarnation) do not choose heaven over earth, but forego eternal bliss for the sake of the holier work of easing the suffering of others. Full realization of the emptiness of the deathless state is immediately followed by an outpouring of compassion for all who live and die upon the earth (all sentient beings). Buddhahood reaches its apex not with Nirvāṇa, but with the boddhisatvic vow of willful service to others.


The difference between an arhat and a boddhisatva might be clarified by examining their spatial and temporal backgrounds. Space as the unconditioned openness underlying all apparently material existence provides every body with an opportunity for awakening to the freedom of its intrinsic emptiness. The arhat has realized this spatiousness by letting go of all attachments to the realm of ever-changing forms. But the time dimension is not overshadowed by space; if emptiness is not other than form, the unfinished evolution of the manifest cosmos from origin to Omega calls the enlightened back into human history to participate in the eventual redemption of the world. The boddhisatva hears this calling and responds wholeheartedly. No longer identified merely with the physical body, with its self-centered concerns of pleasure and pain, of having and getting, the boddhisatva is motivated instead by the project of midwiving awakening in all sentient beings through loving kindness and skillfully compassionate action. Embodying deathlessness is not an end in itself, but a catalyst for self- and other-transformation in a life no longer defined in opposition to death. Death, like sleep, is integral with the spiritual purpose of life: only by reckoning ourselves with the temporal destiny of our lived body can the blissful eternal presence of spaciousness be brought forth into the earthly realm in service of all who still suffer through the tangled confusions of Samsāra.



Home Again

The body can seem at times a chore and a burden. But the seed of unfettered existence lies hidden even in the most uncomfortable of circumstances. Never truly isolated, the body remains always arrayed within the “formal gestalt” of a universal coherence. This gestalt is not fixed, but evolutive, and so the body’s seeming instability and excitatory inclination is a “stepped down” expression of the universe’s seamless current of intelligent energy. Returning home is making of this bodily incarnation a temple to the intelligence at work within all things.[6] Through all my earthly travels and ordeals, I remain attuned to the intrinsic wholeness and beauty of our shared adventure of cosmogenesis. My bodily form is a gift, a house where Being is granted a clearing through which it can become present to itself and others.


My holzwege has not been straight or exhaustive; much has been left unexplored, and perhaps some of the discursive trails I’ve traced end only in thickets. I end only where I began, with the awareness that the only home I’ll ever know is already here. But a home without the company of others lacks warmth and good conversation. I’d rather continue my eternal wanderings through this W3 in search of those friends whose heart burns with the same passionate flame that has brought light to my path. Perhaps together we can work to make a home expansive and transparent enough for all to dwell. The earth awaits this most marvelous of divine deeds.




Works Cited

1) Anton, Corey. Human Studies. Volume 29 (2006). ‘Dreamless Sleep and the Whole of Human Life: An Ontological Exposition’

2) Grof, Stan. Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. 2000.

3) Guenther, Herbert. Tibetan Buddhism in Western Perspective. 1989Matrix of Mystery. 1984.

4) Levin, David Michael. Ed. by Graham Parkes. Heidegger and Eastern Thought. ‘Mudra as Thinking: Developing our Wisdom-of-Being in Gesture and Movement.’ 1987.

5) Maturana, Humberto and Varela, Francisco. The Tree of Knowledge: Biological Roots of Human Cognition. 1988.

6) Straus, Erwin. Phenomenological Psychology. 1980.

[1] Perhaps there is no other kind than experiential reality. If reality is trans-experiential, it would make little sense to worry myself about it.

[2] See Kierkegaard’s Journals, where he levels a similar critique against Hegel.

[3] Praxecology is a neologism whose meaning was first articulated in my essay, Logos of the Living Earth: Towards a Gaian Praxecology (2009). I invoke it here to continue to build upon its meaning, which “is not theory or praxis alone, but human understanding-as-participation in the meaningful cycles and evolutions of the earth community…[and] larger cosmogenic whole” to which all sentient beings belong (p. 4).

[4] See Grof’s work, which suggests the psyche (i.e., sentient being) is inherently holotropic (PotF, p. 2).

[5] First order autopoiesis occurs in each of the hundreds of trillions of cells composing our human bodies; second order autopoiesis maintains the metazoic form of our human bodies (see Maturana and Varela, 1988). A non-organic, primordial autopoiesis might be attributed to atoms, and a third order, social autopoiesis could be said to allow human bodies to consensually coordinate their intentions and behaviors via the enactment of domains of linguistic significance. Each of these microcosmic orders of nested autopoiesis shows an organizational similarity to the macrocosmic Being of the universe as an “atemporally operative dissipative structure” (MoM, p. 40). See title page for visual representation of this toroidal form.

[6] “You must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within—the Spirit you have received from God. You are not your own. You have been purchased, and at a price. So glorify God in your body” -1st Corinthians 6:19-20. Compassionate coexistence with others is the only proper payment for the gift of individual existence.

Unearthing the Earth: A Phenomenological Excavation

Unearthing the Earth: A Phenomenological Excavation of our Being-on-the-Earth

By Matthew Segall

“Eco-phenomenology offers a methodological bridge between the natural world and our own, or rather the rediscovery of the bridge that we are and have always been but—thanks to our collective amnesia—have forgotten, almost irretrievably. It is not enough to disguise our forgetting; there is also a matter of remembering—remembering the earth.”

-Charles S. Brown and Ted Toadvine (“Eco-phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself,” p. xx).

Phenomenology was laid down by Edmund Husserl as a path for thinking deeper than the superficial thought of objective natural science. It could be said that thought opens the world to human consciousness; thought, when spoken, builds the home I dwell in. Naturalism, on the other hand, prevents the blossoming of thought as the flower of the mouth by alienating consciousness from the body, from the earth, from the sky, and from the divine.

Heidegger says, “Being-on-the-earth…remains for man’s everyday experience that which is from the outset habitual…we inhabit it…” (MHBW, p. 349). It is, in other words, as easy to forget one’s earthly situation as it is to forget one is breathing. Earth is often taken for granted, becoming the unthought background of daily life. Commonsense is therefore naturalistic, paying attention only to the surface while forgetting the hidden face that lies beyond the horizon. As technological “advancement” swallows more and more of the lifeworld, consciousness finds itself falling deeper into exile from Being. Naturalism is a framework that conceives of the world, including the human body, as “consisting entirely of extensional properties related to each other within a causal matrix,” (EP, p. 3). There is nowhere for me—for consciousness— in the nature of naturalism.

The early Husserl was as of yet unaware of his embodiment and being-on-the-earth and so concerned himself not so much with saving nature as such from naturalism, but with saving human consciousness from its nihilistic implications. As Brown and Toadvine put it, for many, Husserl’s phenomenology “is a reduction of the world to meaning, and of meaning to [human] subjectivity,” (ibid, p. xiv). While Husserl’s early work may be a noble attempt to preserve human freedom and values from the onslaught of scientism, it offers only a point of departure when it comes to bridging the gap between humanity and nature that lies at the root of the ecological crisis (perhaps his later work, explored below, goes further). It is clear that if a true eco-phenomenology is desired, it must reject naturalism not only to recover the meaning of human existence, but to recover the meaning of humanity’s being-on-the-earth.

I will attempt in this essay to uncover the roots of human consciousness in the earth—to recontextualize the human being as a being-on-the-earth. This excavation will require both a conceptual examination of the four most general categories of nature as conceived of by naturalism (space, time, matter, and energy), and an experiential exploration of how these abstractions are originally revealed to us as embodied earthlings. Before I actually begin, however, I must establish the possibility of the unearthing of experience by way of the phenomenological method by responding to an important criticism.

Phenomenology may be described, after Heidegger, as a mode of speech (logos) that lets things (phenomena) show themselves. Any return to the things themselves is thus always already in relation to language. Gregory Nixon (after Derrida) has argued, that “outside of language there is nothing to which we can directly refer, since all language is indicative only of itself,” (VFW, p. 258). If Nixon is correct, it would seem that all attempts to bridge the nature/culture gap in the service of alleviating the alienation of consciousness from earth must fail, as “knowledge outside of language [or culture] is literally unthinkable,” (ibid). Nixon’s view is that human conscious experience is the result of linguistic reflection, that “the consciousness we experience is possible only because we have culturally invented language and subsequently evolved to accommodate it,” (ibid, p. 257). He admits to the possibility of pre-linguistic, pre-cultural experience, but maintains that bringing it to consciousness has already changed it: to consciously experience anything, I must already have “drawn it into the inescapable web of the hermeneutic enclosure of language,” (ibid, p. 258).

Such a grim picture of language as “enclosed,” I believe, neglects its poetic potential to let things show themselves by opening us to an originary experience of our being-on-the-earth. Language need not be a sticky, solipsistic web of self-referential signs, but can, by re-establishing its relation to the body and what Eugene Gendlin calls the “felt sense” of embodied meaning, become a bridge that carries us back to the earth itself. Gendlin argues that “bodily experience cannot be reduced to language and culture…[because] our bodily sense of situations is a concretely sensed interactional process that always exceeds culture, history, and language,” (UE). Experience is always more intricate than language, and while language can never contain the whole of our experience, it can aid in, as Gendlin puts it, “carrying forward” our meaning. Nixon’s sharp distinction between conscious human experience and unconscious pre-linguistic experience neglects the possibility of a liminal space in between, where a bodily feeling of what Gendlin calls the “responsive otherness” of implied meaning gives rise to the sentences we speak (NPCF). The implied meaning is never fully transformed into the words, but the words nonetheless carry it forward, thereby allowing meaning to develop and expand as new words come. In Gendlin’s view, “Words mean the change they make when they are said… The change happens implicitly in the situation,” (ibid.). Instead of reducing the meaning of a word to the other linguistic signifiers it points to, Gendlin’s way into language reveals that meaning arises out of the “implicit intricacy” of the bodily and inter-bodily situations in which words are spoken. Our knowledge of any given situation comes not from the words we use to describe it, but from the meanings these words imply for our sentient, situated bodies.

In the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “the words most charged with philosophy are not necessarily those that contain what they say, but rather those that most energetically open upon being, because they more closely convey the life of the whole and make our habitual evidences vibrate until they disjoin,” (VI, p. 102). Philosophy must, if it hopes to remain alive in our dark age of amnesia, forego the habit of representing experience abstractly with arbitrary signs and instead rediscover a way of speaking poetically from experience, such that what is said sheds light on the subtleties of existence heretofore covered over by the sedimentary layers of language long dead.

Having thus established that language, despite the fact that its inauthentic and naturalistic use can and has obscured the life-world, nevertheless possesses the potential to become what Heidegger, after Hölderlin, called “the flower of the mouth” (thereby re-connecting human experience with the soil out of which it was born and will return), I can now proceed to uncover the earthly roots of consciousness by phenomenologically grounding the naturalistic abstractions of space, time, matter and energy in bodily (and earthly) experience. If I succeed, consciousness will no longer seem a transcendental ego precariously, if at all, related to an objective, external nature, but will have become a unique flower blossoming out of a living planet.


Rilke, speaking of those in poverty—of the homeless—writes:

“Has the earth, then, no room for them?

They need only, as a tree does,

a little space in which to grow.”

(RBH, p. 229).

If we follow a Cartesian (or early Husserlian) path of thought, pure consciousness “in here” comes to be directed toward extended objects “out there.” Consciousness is always of or about objects. The shortcoming of this way of thinking is that it covers over an original experience of the spatiality of our being-on-the-earth. As a Cartesian ego, extended space seems to be an object “out there.” Yet, as Kant realized, space cannot be conceived of objectively, but functions for the ego as a form of intuition pre-structuring all experienced objects. It might be said that Kant took the first steps toward a phenomenological account of space by showing how extension is not simply given to an entirely aloof subject; rather, the subject actively provides space as a form of intuition. But Kant’s account remains an abstract conception too tied up in the tired language of tradition to let space show itself originally in experience. While he reveals the necessity of space for experience, he fails to adequately account for the relationship between space, the body, and the earth.

Returning to immediate experience, space appears as the possibility for bodily movement. I do not at first encounter space, but rather sense the possibility of moving from here to there. Any such movement of my body from one place to another, before it is travel through empty space, is walking across stable ground. This ground is the earth. As David Abram says, paraphrasing the later Husserl, “the earth itself is not in space, since it is the earth that, from the first, provides space,” (SS, p. 42). So much is implicit in this most radical of statements that it would pay to dwell upon it, dwell in the double sense of think it deeply and live within it. How is our experience of space transformed by remembering the constitutive role played by the ground beneath our feet?

Before exploring the answer, it should be made clear just how radical Husserl’s claim is in comparison to the naturalistic attitude of science, which sees earth as one among many planetary objects suspended in the void. Since the Copernican Revolution, the centrality of earth has come into question and the lifeworld has given way to a concept of nature as independent of experience. No other scientific finding is more responsible than the heliocentric theory for creating the apparent disagreement between perception and reality. Descartes would, a century after Copernicus, reify this disagreement into an ontological chasm separating subject from object, rational intellect from experiencing body (SS, p. 43).

Returning again to the question posed above, it appears that the scientific conception of space as a container is groundless, the product of uprooted reflection. Space is not that which provides the possibility of extended matter; rather, the earth provides the “un-get-around-able” materiality that makes space a possibility (EP, p. 157). Space is not simply given, but is born out of the earth and our experience as earthlings dwelling on its spherical surface.

Husserl writes that, “the original ark, earth, does not move,” (SS, p. 42). By this, he seems to imply that earth, as the source of both space and life, provides the basis out of which later scientific abstractions are derived. The earth provides the unmoving mark (unmoving only because its movement carries us) that allows the body to perceive motion relative to itself. Though it is undoubtedly true that the earth orbits the sun, the ability to understand such a truth rests in a more primordial experience of being-on-the-earth. As our bodies are of the earth, so too is space of the body. As Heidegger says, “I am never here only, as this encapsulated body; rather, I am there, that is, I already pervade the space of the room, and only thus can I go through it,” (MHBW, p. 359). Distance depends on where we stand in relation to one another, and is not a function holding true of any “space” independent of our relation. The earth is not in space with the other planets and the sun, but participates with them in providing space for one another.

As an example of the relativistic space articulated here, it should be pointed out that the appearance of the sun and the other planets from the surface of the earth remains the same regardless of our conception of how they are actually related to earth. There is, therefore, no conflict between perception and reality so long as it is acknowledged that any explanation of experience arises out of that experience. The discovery of earth’s position in the solar system does not contradict our experience as earthlings; it merely deepens our experience of the dimensional possibilities of space as provided by earth. We say the sun rises as we say the eye sees, and neither is wrong even while both are incomplete. It must be added that the earth shows itself to the sun and that the eye is seen.


“You are the future,

the red sky before sunrise

over the fields of time.

You create yourself in ever-changing shapes

that rise from the stuff of our days—

You are the deep innerness of all things,

the last word that can never be spoken.”

-Rilke (RBH, p. 177)

Before moving on from space to time, it should be noted that each of the categories under examination are only separable in the abstract. Space and time form a single continuum in lived experience, and though space alone was considered in the prior section, time was implicated in every step.

Time is perhaps the most elemental of experiential elements, not easily covered over by the forgetfulness of the naturalistic attitude. The physical conception of time as a linear series of causally symmetrical instants entirely neglects what, after David Wood, may be called the “plexity,” or complex relationality, of our embodied experience (EP, p. 213). Time-as-lived is asymmetrical, meaning it flows irreversibly from past to future, unlike the equations of physics.

Lived time, when situated on the earth, becomes not only an irreversible unfolding, but an unfolding coordinated by a variety of interwoven planetary rhythms, such as the day/night cycle and seasonal shifts. The rhythms give time a certain experiential texture, such that it becomes tied up in the very substance of existence, rather than being an arbitrary measure of homogenous change.

Clocks measure, but it is not time that they catch—for the clock itself is aging, too embedded in the stuff of time to provide a fixed point of reference. Time knows no fixed points, as experience endures: the body moves not from one discrete moment to the next, but carries with it the events of the past into a present always opening to the possibilities of the future. The present is not a bare “now,” an instantaneous “here,” nor is it a rudderless raft pushed along by the current of the past. The present is endlessly pregnant with the past, perpetually giving birth to the future. What is born becomes again the seed for further unfolding.

Space and time reunite in our being-on-the-earth not through a spatialization of time, but a temporalization of space. Space finds its origin in place, and place in the temporality of an event. I am here, breathing with/as the rhythms of time, in what is always a place becoming, a happening. Never does my being here cease to become in time, as my situation is temporal before it is spatial. I arrive at a café as I have the same way on many a day, but because the past I carry with me today differs, so too does my experience of the café. Similarly, the earth as spherical place provides spatial depth only thanks to the tempo of time. The earth was once a cloud of dust, and only after time allowed it to take shape could it provide a place for space to surround.


Rilke writes, again of the homeless:

“Is there by the banks

of the pond’s deep dreaming

no where they can see their faces reflected?”

(RBH, p. 229).

The aforementioned formative influence of time in the shaping of the earth should not be taken to mean that the substance of the earth, matter, is merely a passive recipient of spherizing form. This conception of matter as raw stuff shaped by immaterial ideas has a long history in Western thought. The ordinary naturalistic attitude conceives of matter as inert and objective, something that exists extended in space. But as we saw above, matter is not “in” space, but when given time and present in sufficient mass (relative to sensate beings arising from its body), provides space. The formative influence of time should be understood as being of the same substance as the materiality of the earth itself. The spherical shape of the earth is an echo of the primordial “un-get-around-able” essence of materiality.

Materiality conceived naturalistically appears as the flat, extended surface of earth (at least until recently when a view of earth was revealed “from” space) and the closed surfaces of all the bodies upon it. The interior of surfaces (i.e., the sentience of bodies) is neglected by such a forgetful way of thinking (and dwelling in) the world.

Perceived via the self-sentience of the body, materiality is the weight of our own inner existence—that which embeds us in what would otherwise remain a world of mere surfaces but for the fold that is our face and the clearing it opens for us to behold and be held by the earth. The human body is not the whole of our mass, or even wholly our own, but a temporary gift from the mass of the mother earth to which we belong. The reason matter and mind, or the body and human consciousness, have been so opposed to one another for much of the history of philosophy may be uncovered in the precarious relationship between our identity (our face) and materiality conceived naturalistically (surfaces as such).

Jacques Lacan described the human ego as the human being’s internalized image of itself as reflected in a mirror. The ego is, in other words, my idea of what I look like from the outside, as a surface. But if it is true that matter is the “un-get-around-able,” then this egoic identity always remains a fantasy. I cannot fully identify with my skin-bounded body, because there is always a topological gap that prevents my internalizing it as a complete body. Materiality cannot be fully thought precisely because we are ourselves material.

Though Lacan’s mirror stage may be necessary for further development, our perspective on ourselves may become more authentic if the locus of identity widens from our individual body to the earth-body. Only recently have photographs of the earth from space given humanity the opportunity to inhabit it as our own body, just as the infant is given the opportunity to identify with its body after being placed before a mirror. The difference is that identification with the sphericality of the earth requires embracing the “un-get-around-able” materiality of our existence, unlike identification with a planar image reflected upon a mirror. The mirror image gives a false impression of wholeness, as its flat surface shows only as much as can be shown to it. The earth, on the other hand, provides a genuine face (not a surface) that more authentically grounds identification in a sense of wholeness not found in flattened images. In this way, my bodily identity can come primarily from the face of the earth, and only secondarily from my image of myself as an earthling living on its surface.

Questioning who I am is first a question of Being itself, and as such has an undisclosed origin that can never be fully articulated because it is always already assumed (the “is” in the question “what is Being?” must already be understood). But we are forgetful of this implicit understanding, and so we are lead, in answering the question, to settle on identifying with our own inverted image (an outside, made superficially because incompletely, inside). Objectifying nature alienates consciousness from its own naturalness, hampering its ability to fully be. But the very same naturalistic attitude that covered over our relationship to Being and lead to the false identification with the ego also ignited the rockets that took us beyond the senses to the stars, turning our eyes back upon the body of the earth for the first time so that we might rediscover the meaning of being home.

Being-on-the-earth is also being of the earth, identifying with its living materiality. Earth becomes Gaia when we become again as children, regaining our primordial attunement to the life of things, though now an attunement that is expressed through speech like flowers reaching from the soil to the sky. In this way, language becomes a bridge built to carry we mortals back to the earth, and from earth, with creative inspiration, to the divine. As Rilke says to the earth, “There is no image I could invent that your presence would not eclipse,” (RBH, p. 121).


“And weapons against all that breathes,

In an incessant pride, the human being carries;

In torment he consumes himself

And the flower of his peace,

The tender one, does not bloom long.”

– Hölderlin (from “Das Mench”)

Energy has become a concept of central importance for the current ecological crisis. Cries abound for sustainable sources of energy, for technologies that extract energy for human consumption without destroying nature. But technology can never extract energy from the earth in a sustainable way, because to think in terms of the naturalistic conception of energy already enframes nature, such that it becomes a mere standing-reserve awaiting human use, a means to our ends.

Nature conceived of as a source of energy enframes nature in that it “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such,” (MHBW, p. 320). Technology seems to be the means to this end. However, Heidegger argues that the essence of technology is not its instrumentality, but its mode of revealing by enframing. To reveal by enframing is to challenge-forth “energy” in the abstract, as something separable from the life of the earth. Heidegger contrasts this mode of revealing with that of poïesis, which brings-forth of itself. The best example of such bringing-forth is physis, “the irruption belonging to bringing-forth, e.g., the bursting of a blossom into bloom, in itself,” (ibid, p. 317). Physis reveals the way in which energy and nature are originally united as the self-generating capacity of the living earth. A conception of “energy” independent of earth, extractable from earth, is the result of an enframed way of thinking only interested in quantifying what can be challenged-forth from nature. The danger in relating to earth in such a way (as a “calculable coherence of forces,” ibid, p. 326) is that, eventually (if not already), even the human being becomes the standing-reserve of industry, which “[drives] on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense,” (ibid, p. 321).

Energy becomes, for the naturalistic attitude, the most neutral of names for the essence of nature. Nothing could be further from the truth. The earth does not originally show itself as a resource, as a standing-reserve, but becomes so only because of the technological way of being that forcibly reveals it as such. That technology nonetheless reveals is what makes it so dangerous, as all revealing (aletheia) is truthful. Energy does show itself as a quantifiable substance, but only after the earth is inhabited instrumentally. Both the revealing that is poïesis (or physis) and the revealing that is enframing provide a kind of truth; but enframing goes on for the most part unconsciously, because everyone assumes that the essence of technology is merely instrumental, that it is neutral but for how the human being puts it to use.

We do not realize that our technological presence on the earth has the potential, not only to forever forestall self-generating capacity of nature, but to forever alter human nature, as well. We risk losing touch with our own poetic roots in the soil and with the inspiration that lifts our language to new heights. Ours is a crisis not only of the ecosystem, but of the humanity dwelling within it. If the essence of technology remains hidden, and nature continues to be used up as mere energy, the human being will become a mere battery for the machines that replace us, homeless upon a dead earth.


“This is what the things can teach us:

to fall,

patiently to trust our heaviness.

Even a bird has to do that

before he can fly.

-Rilke (RBH, p. 173).

Heidegger warns not only of the dangers of technology, but after Hölderlin (“…where danger is, grows/the saving power also…” MHBW, p. 340), heralds also its potential to re-establish our being-on-the-earth, though in sublated form. This saving power is realized only if the essence of technology is understood. For Heidegger (as well as Husserl), scientific naturalism owes its existence to the technological method of enframing. This reverses the commonsense idea that science brought-forth technology. The great success of the scientific/naturalistic approaches is not the result of the metaphysical truth of their objectivism, but rather of the practical value of their methods. This method, made possible by the enframing of the earth as mere energy for instrumental use, has depleted its body of the life-giving qualities that created and provide for our human existence. It is the shock of this near suicide, however, that has given us the opportunity to truly stand watch over this earth as the only home we’ll ever have.

The mythical fall from grace and eviction from the garden of Eden can only be overcome by taking to an extreme the alienating way of inhabiting the earth that caused the fall to begin with. We cannot turn back—we cannot put humpty dumpty back together again. Our destiny had to be lived out—our process of maturation could not be prematurely reversed. But in a typical enantiodromic twist, our rush to remake the planet technologically has lead to an opening that, if seen, will allow us to remember our original identity as earthlings, now capable of either destroying or saving the earth. For the first time, we can truly become aware of and responsible for the ground beneath our feet.

As Heidegger says, being-on-the-earth already means being beneath the sky (MHBW, p. 351). And to be beneath the sky means to behold the stars, whose divine energies remain forever out of reach of we mere mortals. But instead of energy, we may find “something waiting inside [the things themselves], like an unplayed melody in a flute,” (RBH, 167). Only a way of thinking/dwelling upon the earth that grants such melodies their say, and that safeguards their becoming, can save us from the total annihilation of ourselves and the rest of the community of life upon this planet.


SS -Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage. 1997.

EP – Brown, Charles S. and Toadvine, Ted (Ed.). Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself. SUNY Press: Albany. 2003.

NPCF – Gendlin, E.T. (2004). The new phenomenology of carrying forward. Continental Philosophy Review, 37(1), 127-151. From

MHBW – Krell, David Farrel (Ed.), Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. Harper: San Francisco. 1977.

RBH – Macy, Joanna and Barrows, Anita. Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Penguin Group: New York. 1996.

VI – Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible. Northwestern University Press: Chicago. 1969.

UE – Roger Frie (Ed.). Understanding Experience: Psychotherapy and Postmodernism, pp.100-115, Routledge. 2003

VFW – Varela, Francisco and Shear, Johnathan (Ed.). The View From Within: First-Person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness. Imprint Academic: Bowling Green. 1999.