Sunday, October 24, 2004

Finitude and the Phenomenology of Wholeness

The Truest Measure

The truest measure of spring is not the chorus of green peepers calling beyond the fold of the river, nor geese lamenting northward, nor the sound of their wings. These are memories only. But last night, after a rain, I stood on the step and listened to earthworms drawing leaves into the soil beneath the lawn. This sound is the slow repair of the season, the truest measure of spring. ("The Truest Measure", copyright Amy Lavender Harris, 2004

In a review of Christopher Alexander's The Phenomenon of Life (Berkeley: Centre for Environmental Structure, 2003; one of the four volumes of The Nature of Order), phenomenologist David Seamon writes, "According to Alexander, humanmade wholeness in the past largely arose unself-consciously through the doing of the making itself." (Seamon, David, 2002. A World More Robust and Kind: The First Volume in Christopher Alexander's "Nature of Order". Originally published in the Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter, vo. 13, no. 1) Seamon criticizes Alexander for (in the first volume, anyway) focusing excessively "in terms of parts" and underemphasizing "the underlying degree of global interconnectedness". Seamon's criticism (which may be addressed in the later volumes of the set; they had not yet been issued at the time Seamon wrote his review, and I have not yet had the opportunity to read them either) point to an important but overlooked tension in understandings of nature. The shortcomings of a world-view that understands nature only in terms of its parts are routinely described by writers in the ecological tradition. Yet, notwithstanding all these worthy injunctions toward wholeness, we return continually to an analysis of parts.

In Nature's Chaos, James Gleick writes about the disappointments of fractal geometry used only as a form of pattern recognition, the "trick" that reduces the world to a series of static shapes. The human view, Gleik contends, tends to overlook the complexity of rhythms that do not repeat, of "flows [that] escape our perception, because they are too slow or too grand in compass." Instabilities. The pressing demands of time. The "wavering, lurching, animating harmony" of nature. "In death," Gleik comments, "an organism's personal version of maximum entropy -- the complex lacework ... begins to unravel. Dried wind-strewn grasses, leaves crumbling into the soil -- the patterns slowly fade again into the background." But into what?: Yeats' rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born. As it must. Why stop at the end of the single entity? As Gleick acknowledges, "we see nature in glimpses, even as we live within it." But why should the only seeing be our own? Might we reach toward wholeness by acknowledging, initially, that there are things we cannot count, cannot measure, cannot contain? That perhaps the cosmos carries us along in much the same manner as worms draw leaves down into the soil?

It is my view that so many of our philosophical and spiritual difficulties with death stem from an inability to get away from the self. And so we ponder whether there might be an experience after death, or some form of immortality, hinging always on some element of the individual persisting. We conceive of the soul only as the zephyr of the self, and never as the shadow of something larger. And so too do we fail to preserve the earth in its essence. Philosopher Bernard Dauenhauer argues (in a commentary on Heidegger's work on Nietzche's Zarathustra) that "only he who is capable of death can be a genuine spokesman" for the earth:
he is simply a spokesman, one who has been given something to speak for but who never owns what he has been given. He is truly a spokesman only if he always serves at the pleasure of that for which he speaks. The spokesman, throughout his tenure as spokesman, must then not merely have the possibility of perishing, but must be capable of dying, of yielding back to the Arch of Nothing that for which he has spoke[n].(Dauenhauer, Bernard, 1997. Heidegger, Spokesman for the Dweller. Southern Journal of Philosophy. Vol. xv, no. 2)

So much of our terror at death is wrapped up in the fear of the dissolution of the self. But what if we truly thought of our lives and works as offerings to the cosmos? Might there be something immanent in our creations, in our dwelling and building? Something not confined to our selves as transient parts, but instead offered toward the whole as whole?

Related Texts

Alexander, Christopher, 2002. The Nature of Order, Volume 1. The Phenomenon of Life. Berkeley, California: Centre for Environmental Structure. (see also Volume 2: The Process of Creating Life; Volume 3: A Vision of a Living World; and Volume 4: The Luminous Ground)

Bortoft, Henri, 1996. The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way to a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarme Press, Random House.

Dauenhauer, Bernard, 1997. Heidegger, Spokesman for the Dweller. Southern Journal of Philosophy. Vol. xv, No. 2: 189-199)

Gleick, James (text) and Eliot Porter (photographs), 1990. Nature's Chaos. Boston; New York; London: Little, Brown and Company.

Marshall, Alan, 2002. The Unity of Nature: Wholeness and Disintegration in Ecology and Science. Imperial College Press.

Doing Phenomenology: Sources on Phenomenological Method (and Qualitative Research related to phenomenology)

Additions welcome.

Available Online

Seamon, David, 2000. Phenomenology, Place, Environment, and Architecture: A Review of the Literature.
An excellent review of how phenomenological approaches might contribute to environmental studies.


Creswell, W.W., 1998. Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Traditions. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

Kvale, S., 1996. Interviews: An Introduction to Qualitative Research Interviewing. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

Marshall, C. and G.B. Rossman, 1999. Designing Qualitative Research. 3rd Edition. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

Morgan, D.L., 1988. Focus Groups as Qualitative Research. Newbury Park: Sage.

Moustakas, C., 1994. Phenomenological Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, Sage.

Patton, M.Q. 1990. Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods. 2nd Edition. Newbury Park, California: Sage.

Seidman, I.E., 1991. Interviewing as Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in Education and the Social Sciences. 2nd Edition. New York: Teachers College Press.

Spiegelberg, H., 1982. The Phenomenological Moment. 3rd Edition. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nojhoff.