One of the classic definitions of the philosophy of phenomenology is ‘the study of how phenomena appear to the consciousness’. In other words of how things in the world appear to us, in human experience, as distinct from what they are ‘in themselves’. In considering the ways in which contemporary cities are experienced, it seems natural that phenomenology would have something to offer. In fact, each of the key thinkers from the phenomenological tradition – Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty – provide insights into the nature of perceptual experience that might shed light on the phenomenon of urban vertigo. Heidegger’s notion of anxiety as a key characteristic of being-in-the-world, and Husserl’s understanding of time as a complex layering of past, present and future, both suggest that our grasp of the ‘larger scheme of things’ is not something immediately given in experience but rather something that has to be continually worked for. Likewise Merleau-Ponty’s description of the role of the body schema as a constantly developing range of skills for coping with the world highlights the fact that even our sense of basic bodily orientation exists in a state of fundamental instability and with the constant risk of breakdown.
Recent research in so-called ‘embodied cognitive science’ also leans heavily on this earlier work in phenomenology, particularly on the notion of human intelligence as it emerges from – and is framed by – the particular form of human embodiment. One of the most significant writers in this emerging area is the cognitive philosopher Andy Clark, whose influential work on the ‘extended mind’ has explained how the environment offers a kind of cognitive scaffolding to our ongoing mental processes. His recent research on ‘predictive processing’ further suggests how the brain is able to deal more effectively with the ongoing flow of sensory information by projecting forward its expectations about what is about to appear in perception. This may go some way to explaining the difficulty of handling rapidly changing and unpredictable urban environments.
Jonathan Hale is an architect and Associate Professor & Reader in Architectural Theory at the University of Nottingham. His research interests include: architectural theory and criticism; phenomenology and the philosophy of technology; the relationship between architecture and the body; digital media in museums and architectural exhibitions. Jonathan is currently working on a book on the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty for the Routledge series Thinkers for Architects, due to be completed in 2015. Previous publications include Museum Making: Narratives, Architectures, Exhibitions, co-edited with Laura Hanks and Suzanne Macleod (Routledge, 2012); Rethinking Technology: A Reader in Architectural Theory, co-edited with William W Braham (Routledge 2007); and Building Ideas: An Introduction to Architectural Theory (Wiley, 2000).
Jonathan is currently Head of the Architectural Humanities Research Group and, previously, founding Chair of the international network Architectural Humanities Research Association. He is an active member of the interdisciplinary Science Technology and Culture research group at the University of Nottingham, as well as the Sense of Space group, a collaboration with the departments of Philosophy, Psychology and Sociology.
3 Circuit Labyrinth by Jim Buchanan, University of Nottingham. Photo by Jonathan Hale