The Life-World

I have been reading David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, once recommended by Charles Leiden, and I am, so far, very pleased with it. I may well be posting more about it in future, but today I wanted to extract a fairly lengthy passage on “the life-world” that strikes me as being particularly important. The life-world (or die Lebenswelt) is a concept introduced by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938), founder of Phenomenology, and to my mind one of the most important philosophers of all time. It is Husserl who coined the phrase “life-world” — the world of our immediate experience.

“The life-world is the world of our immediately lived experience, as we live it, prior to all our thoughts about it. It is that which is present to us in our everyday tasks and enjoyments — reality as it engages us before being analyzed by our theories and our science. The life-world is the world that we count on without necessarily paying it much attention, the world of the clouds overhead and the ground underfoot, of getting out of bed and preparing food and turning on the tap for water. Easily overlooked, this primordial world is always already there when we being to reflect or philosophize. It is not private, but a collective, dimension — the common field of our lives with which our are entwined — and yet it is profoundly ambiguous and indeterminate, since our experience of this field is always relative to our situation within it. The life-world is thus the world as we organically experience it in its enigmatic multiplicity and open-endedness, prior to conceptually freezing it into a static space of ‘facts’ — prior, indeed, to conceptualising it in any complete fashion. All of our concepts and representations, scientific and otherwise, necessarily draw nourishment from this indeterminate realm, as the physicist analyzing data is still nourished by the air that she is breathing, by the feel of the chair that supports her and the light flooding in through the window, without her being particularly conscious of these participations.

The life-world is thus peripherally present in any thought or activity we undertake. Yet whenever we attempt to explain this world conceptually, we seem to forget our active participation within it. Striving to represent the world, we inevitably forfeit its direct presence. It was Husserl’s genius to realize that the assumption of objectivity had led to an almost total eclipse of the life-world in the modern era, to a nearly complete forgetting of this living dimension in which all of our endeavors are rooted. In their striving to attain a finished blueprint of the world, the sciences had become frightfully estranged from our direct human experience. Their many specialized and technical discourses had lost any obvious relevance to the sensuous world of our ordinary engagements. The consequent impoverishment of language, the loss of a common discourse tied to the qualitative nuances of living experience, was leading, Husserl felt, to a clear crisis in European civilization. Oblivious to the quality-laded life-world upon which they themselves depend for their own meaning and existence, the Western sciences, and the technologies that accompany them, were beginning to blindly overrun the experiential world — even, in their errancy, threatened to obliterate the world-of-life entirely.” (pp. 40 – 41)

As you may appreciate, this passage from The Spell of the Sensuous accounts for the existence of The Chrysalis. It’s a perfect summation of the meaning of this blog, and is very, very rich in other respects as well.

The “life-world”, so described, is also Jung’s “collective unconscious”, and important to both is the notion of “the field”. The “life-world” is also what Jill Bolte-Taylor described in her amazing TED talk on her “stroke of insight” as “The Life-Force Power of the Universe”. This “life-world” is the “oceanic” — often symbolised by the sea or ocean — and is that which is described in the comparison of the ego-consciousness, or the personal identity, as a wave on the ocean or as a cork floating upon the sea. As Gebser also observers, the soul is very often symbolised as the sea or the ocean. This “life-world” is what Iain McGilchrist’s “Master” mode of attention is always in immedate contact with and is also identical with it, and is that also from which the “Emissary” or ego-consciousness, emerges, just as what we call “Nature” is emergent from the life-world. The life-world is also identical with what, in Castaneda, is called “the nagual” as contrasted with “the tonal” which is the consciousness of the Emissary or ego-nature. It is that “field” in which we live, move, and have our being, and which ever precedes our mentating, our calculating, our explaining, our intellection, our analysing, our reflection, and so on. This life-world is both Gebser’s primordial “archaic” consciousness as well as “ever-present origin”. The “life-world” is also called “Indra’s Net” or “web of life”.

All these descriptions are simply synonyms for Husserl’s “life-world”. And it is this life-world, as matrix of our individual and collective being, that is symbolised by the Sacred Hoop and by Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality”. In those terms, and as Abram correctly points out, language itself does not run counter to the life-world, but is also emergent from that life-world. This “life-world” is also what Nietzsche called “Dionysos” and the Dionysian.

This life-world is described as “ambiguous” and “indeterminate”, or, in other words, “paradoxical” and “boundless” or “probablistic”. The life-world is the Heraclitean flux, or, as Castaneda percieved it, “energy as it flows in the universe”. The life-world is what is given immediately, as “truth”, rather than mediately, as “fact” or “facticity”, or as description or explanation. Facts are always derivative, not primary.

It is the “life-world”, as Indra’s Net, that is also described by Nicholas of Cusa and Hermetic Philosophy as a “circle whose circumference is nowhere and whose centre is everywhere”.

All these terms and meanings may be subsumed under the term “life-world”.

Terms like “inter-subjectivity”, or “inter-being” or “inter-connectivity” or “inter-dependency” are only attempts to point to the indivisibility of the life-world. It is estrangement and alienation from the life-world that is the meaning of the parable of the Prodigal Son, and is the meaning of that statement by Blake that graces the header of The Chrysalis: “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern”.

It is the final ominous sentence in Abram’s description of the life-world, and our estrangement from it, that informs Walter Benjamin’s remarks on fascism and self-alienation in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”,

Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.




10 responses to “The Life-World”

  1. Steve Lavendusky says :

    Our analytical age has isolated human experience from the world of science, the subjective from the objective, the creative spirit from nature. We need a participatory, non-dualistic epistemology and Goethean approach to nature for an earth-friendly revisioning of science. The capacity to recognize immaterial realities is dead, it seems to me. The queen of sciences used to be theology. But things, as Yeats said, have fallen apart since then. I very much recommend David Abram’s books.

    And new Philosophy calls all in doubt,
    The Element of fire is quite put out.

    • Steve Lavendusky says :

      There is a game for players still to play,
      Pretending that the board was never lost.
      But still the painted counters will decay
      And knowledge sit alone to count the cost.

      Mark Van Doren

    • Scott Preston says :

      There’s a statement in Abram’s book that I find poignant: “the recuperation of the sensuous is a rediscovery of the Earth”.

      If you recall from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he said there much the same:

      “For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at tree of life; and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy, whereas it now appears finite and corrupt.
      This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment.”

      This is often taken, by some, to mean the erotic. But that’s not the entire meaning of the sensuous. Abram is clearer on this.

      Basically, too, “mindfulness” practice is all about a return to the sensuous as well, even though many probably don’t understand it that way. And in many ways, Husserl’s maxim for Phenomenology — “to the things themselves” — is just another statement on the practice of mindfulness.

      • Steve Lavendusky says :

        A choleric enthusiast,
        Self-educated William Blake
        Who threw his spectre in the lake,
        Broke off relations in a curse
        With the Newtonian universe,
        But even a child could pet
        The tigers Voltaire never met,
        Took walks with them through Lambeth, and
        Spoke to Isaiah in the Strand,
        And heard inside each mortal thing
        Its holy emanation sing.

  2. abdulmonem says :

    We are all emanations of the holy, provided we learn how to sing
    detachment from the mundane,the lowly vision of the sunk
    walking with the true humans on the endless flight to the one
    the non-erotic sensuous flight from the corrupt and finite to the infinite and holy
    our art is borrowed not created as the soul of Jeremy Soule resounds
    the Goethean approach rekindled the light of unification where the part returns to its whole and appreciate his given consciousness.
    realizing his surrender,after retracing the light to its origin
    god is the only energetic source,out of whom, all the seven major attributes of our existence emanate
    life,knowledge,will ability,speech .sustenance and balance
    naked in front of the god,may he covers our nakedness,before it is covered by the dust.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Tell me more about the seven attributes. Does ibn Arabi speak of these?

      The reason I ask is because Blake wrote (and painted) about the “seven eyes of God”, which I find a little enigmatic.

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        I seriously need to re-read Blake.

        No idea how it might relate to the seven attributes mentioned, but perhaps the “seven eyes” might correspond to the seven chakras? Then again,
        my Eastern-Western wires are forever crossed, so maybe not. Blake, of course, was working with the “seven eyes (or spirits)” mentioned in the Bible.

        For behold the stone that I have laid before Joshua; upon one stone shall be seven eyes: behold, I will engrave the graving thereof, saith the Lord of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day.

        In that day, saith the Lord of hosts, shall ye call every man his neighbour under the vine and under the fig tree. ~ Zechariah 3:9-10

        Neville Goddard‘s take is here, but I’m not sure how much it helps. “Lucifer cut down to the ground” seems more appropriately described as “em>rooted in the Earth,” but that’s a chakra reference again when, in this context, it probably does indicates having fallen into a state of being.

        The reason I get the “chakra system” feeling from Blake, however, is this:

        When on the highest lift of his light pinions he arrives
        At that bright Gate, another Lark meets him & back to back
        They touch their pinions tip tip: and each descend
        To their respective Earths & there all night consult with Angels
        Of Providence & with the Eyes of God all night in slumbers
        Inspired: & at the dawn of day send out another Lark
        Into another Heaven to carry news upon his wings
        Thus are the Messengers dispatchd till they reach the Earth again

        Back to Goddard on the seventh:

        [W]hen, as you look through the seventh eye…you see only the good of another and glory in that beyond what is only for yourself. Then you will begin to see through the eighth eye of God…. So you take everyone, for he has only fallen into a state…and to the degree that you use the seventh eye will the eighth come out of the “forest of Albion.”

      • abdulmonem says :

        Yes Scott Ibn Arabi does speak of the seven emanations, not only him but all the Sufis and they rearrange the other names of the divine in groups around these basic seven. We do not know his essence but we come to know him through his names the landmarks of all concepts used by the humans. The source of all what we know and come to know once we stay still in his presence and activate the basic alephabetical formations revealed in his book. It is a cosmos of vibration that never know stoppage,in continual creation and recreation.

  3. Charles Leiden says :

    Scott. I felt much the same when I read The Spell of the Sensuous but you are very good at articulating ideas. Thanks for that gift. Good book. I am not a academic, just a curious seeker. I, like many others, couldn’t accept the orthodox ideas of science. I just learned the idea of inter-subjectivity about a year ago reading some ideas of Husserl. I like his insight that “perception is intentional.” Consciousness does’t passively reflect the world, but actively grabs it. Most people forget.

    Steve articulates my thoughts

    Our analytical age has isolated human experience from the world of science, the subjective from the objective, the creative spirit from nature. We need a participatory, non-dualistic epistemology and Goethean approach to nature for an earth-friendly revisioning of science.

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