Merleau-Ponty, Perception, and Environmental Embodiment: Implications for Architectural and Environmental Studies

I am delighted to be able to publish the following paper by Professor David Seamon who is  an environment-behavior researcher and Professor of Architecture at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. His research and writings focus on the ways that the natural and built environments contribute to human well-being.

David Seamon

It is interesting as I started off in product design in the early 90s at the laboratories of British Telecom. There we developed what we called The Customer Experience, and much of this work appears to be very similar to what current designers refer to as Design Thinking. However, in the last few years I have come to discover Phenomenology through teachers such as Henri Bortoft and Arthur Zajonc who taught me on my masters degree, and other teachers such as David through his book Goethe’s Way of Science – A Phenomenology of Nature, which he co-edited with Arthur.

What I now feel is that while Design Thinking has certainly served its purpose, we need a more profound way of knowing the world, and we can experience this directly through the teachings of phenomenology, hermeneutics and Goethe’s way of science which David discusses in his paper. Phenomenology gives us a new way of seeing the world, and this new perspective is I feel the way forward, since it enables us to see the authentic wholeness of systems, a dynamic wholeness which our current mechanistic systemic way of seeing prevents us from comprehending.

David Seamon. 2006.  Interconnections, Relationships, and Environmental Wholes: A Phenomenological Ecology of Natural and Built Worlds, in Melissa Geib (ed.), To Renew the Face of the Earth: Phenomenology and Ecology (pp. 53-86). Pittsburgh: Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center.

Click here to download the paper: Merleau-Ponty, Perception, and Environmental Embodiment


In this chapter, I draw on Merleau-Ponty‟s philosophy to explore environmental embodiment—the various lived ways, sensorily and motility-wise, that the body in its pre-reflective perceptual presence engages and synchronizes with the world at hand, especially its architectural and environmental aspects. First, I consider Merleau-Ponty‟s interpretation of perception, giving particular attention to his claim that perception involves a lived dynamic between perceptual body and world such that aspects of the world—for example, the heavy hardness of a granite block or the cool smoothness of a chrome railing—are known because they immediately evoke in the lived body their experienced qualities.

Second, I consider the architectural and environmental significance of what Merleau-Ponty calls body-subject—pre-reflective corporeal awareness expressed through action and typically in sync with and enmeshed in the physical world in which the action unfolds. I focus on the taken-for-granted sensibility of body-subject to manifest in extended ways over time and space. I ask how routine actions and behaviors of individuals coming together regularly in an environment can transform that environment into a place with a unique dynamic and character—a lived situation I term place ballet. For both perception and body-subject, I consider how qualities of the physical and designable world—for example, materiality, form, and spatiality—contribute to the lived body‟s engagement with and actions in the world.

David’s paper discusses both Goethe’s theory of colour and also the philosophical work of Henri Bortoft, whose new book Taking Appearance Seriously I will be reviewing next week. This paper will therefore be of interest to those students I have taught Goethe’s way of science and Henri’s philosophy of phenomenology and the history of science to over the last couple of years. I am extremely grateful to David for giving me permission to publish his paper.

And just while you are waiting for my full review, here is David’s personal endorsement of Taking Appearance Seriously:

Bortoft’s aim is to help readers see and understand the world and human experience in a more integrated, compelling way. He explores the confounding relationship between parts and whole: that to understand the whole, one must understand the parts, but to understand the parts, one must understand the whole. Drawing on phenomenology, hermeneutics, and Goethean science, Bortoft demonstrates convincingly that the key to circumventing the parts-whole paradox is a shift in attention from what is experienced to the experience ofwhat is experienced. In a writing style that is both accessible and penetrating, Bortoft explains how we can ‘step back’ from what is seen into the seeing ofwhat is seen. In this way, the whole comes to presence within its parts, which are the place for the presencing of the whole. In other words, the parts show the way to the whole, which can be encountered nowhere else except through the parts. By teaching ourselves to become more sensitive to this dynamic reciprocity between parts and whole, we learn to ‘take appearances seriously’.

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