The Phenomenology of Being (snippet from a book I'm writing)

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Hello again! So I thought I might share another snippet from the philosophy book I'm writing, which is a 'guided tour' to how minds acquire valid knowledge about Reality. A central focus of the book is how our minds turn Reality into a meaningful world for us to reside in through a process I'm calling world disclosure.

In this section I'm articulating a phenomenological approach to ontology (ontology is the study of Being, and phenomenology is a way of scrutinizing our direct experience), and contrasting it to what I'm dubbing a 'metaphysical approach' which tends to misconstrue Being as a type of substance that things are 'made out of'. Much of this is a synthesis of insights from ontological phenomenology and embodied cognition, with a peppering of my own thoughts sprinkled in throughout.

As always, thoughts and feedback are very welcome.



As we continue onwards through this first part of our 'guided tour', what remains is to tie what we’ve learned about world disclosure to the directness of our lived experience within the world. To that end, what we’ll be piecing together over the following pages is an investigation into Being. If your eyes glazed over at the mention of such a seemingly abstract subject, I’m right there with you dear reader. But if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to make a case as to why an exploration of this subject doesn’t have to be a form of armchair navel-gazing that’s disconnected from everyday life. Rather, our own approach will be rooted in uncovering how an understanding of Being is foundational for comprehending Reality, and how this primordial form of knowledge connects to our ability to navigate daily life. What we’ll come to discover is that far from being superfluous to the concerns of daily life, Being is instead a direct consequence of our concernful absorption within a world that matters to us.

To illustrate what it is that an understanding of Being actually does for us, let’s return to our guiding metaphor of how our minds create homes for us within Reality. When we think of what a home is, what sorts of feelings do we normally associate with it? Well, for those of us who are fortunate enough to have a relatively healthy living situation, a large part of what we tend to associate a home with is a sense of comfort and familiarity. Another way of stating this is that homes are a place that we can feel at ease within the world. Think of the effortlessness with which you’re able to perform hundreds of ordinary interactions in your home every single day, whether that’s turning on a light switch, brushing your teeth, or grabbing a snack from the kitchen. Actions that we’re so habituated to that they’re for all intents automatic.

Well there’s a good reason for this, and much of it has to do with how world disclosure grants us access to a prereflective and nonconceptual form of understanding which makes all of this exceedingly easy for us. For what’s imparted through a world that’s disclosed to us in terms of our interests and capacities is a an understanding of Being. Being can be thought of as the most foundational type of knowledge that it’s possible to have about Reality, since it’s what allows us to make basic discernments about what we come across within the World. It’s through Being we’re able to understand a tree as a tree or  a person as a person, in a direct and immediate way. 

As to what understanding a tree as a tree or a person as a person actually means, it’s that trees and people are disclosed to us in our lived experience as distinct entities that we can relate to in some way, whereby they can become meaningful for us. When we mention an understanding of Being, this is what we’re referring to.

Importantly, when we speak of the Being of trees or people we are not referring to the particular substances these entities happen to be made of (in the way that molecules are made of atoms, for instance). This is because Being isn’t a substance. Rather, it’s far more accurate to think of Being as a form of understanding for a particular someone. Or to put it another way, Being is an aspect of how we experience Reality; and because of this, it can’t exist outside of the immediacy of our lived experience anymore than our thoughts and emotions could. 

The misconstrual of Being as synonymous with ‘what things are made of’ is at the heart of the metaphysical approach to ontology, which attempts to explain Being from an ‘outside-in’ vantage point. And while understanding what things are made of is of course very useful knowledge to have, this represents just a small aspect of what Being is all about. This is because our observations about what things are made of is itself derived from a far more foundational form of knowledge which allows people, places, and things to be comprehensible as distinct entities in the first place.

The advantages of a world that’s disclosed to us through Being is that it allows us to understand a great deal about the world around us prior to any conscious effort or deliberation on our part. Indeed, this primordial way of relating to the world normally functions so well that it tends to be invisible to us in our daily lives, in that it forms the basis of the tacit knowledge that’s foundational for navigating daily life.

For instance, assuming that you don’t suffer from prosopagnosia, or face blindness, have you ever wondered how you’re able to instantly and effortlessly recognize the faces of your friends and family? Or how, when you’re surveying the contents of an unfamiliar dining room table, the question of which objects are food and which aren’t is normally so immediately obvious that you never even think to question it? Or that interacting with doorknobs and chairs and eating utensils is normally so automatic that our interactions with these items tend to be transparent and invisible to us?

If we want to understand how such a wide range of interactions are so exceedingly easy for us, recall for a moment the guiding metaphor of this chapter, that minds turn Reality into a home for us through world disclosure. Also recall that the primary function of world disclosure is to create meaningful worlds that come pre-arranged in terms of our needs and capacities. Being, then, is the means by which the things we encounter within Reality become meaningful for us. Which is to say that doorknobs and tables and cups aren’t just “neutral” things we happen to come across within a bare Reality. Rather, our understanding of the Being of these entities makes them meaningful to us. 

Earlier we gave a brief explanation of how our worlds contain affordances for us to interact with the things we come across in particular ways. In that chairs offer affordances for sitting, cups offer affordances for drinking, and so on. It’s precisely because we understand the Being of chairs and cups, that these entities are meaningful to us in some way, that the affordances which arise out of these entities are possible at all.

For something to be meaningful to us, it must be both intelligible, or clearly identifiable as a distinct type of thing, and it must be relevant to us in some way. (For our present purposes, we can also think of ideas, processes, and events as types of ‘things’). Yet the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of things that we could conceivably encounter within Reality fulfill neither of these criteria; thus they tend to be excluded from the types of world disclosure we normally experience. 

Scientific knowledge tells us that we live in a Reality that’s saturated with radioactive decay, subatomic particles, and relativistic time dilation. And that’s all true enough. But in the vast majority of situations that we encounter throughout the course of daily life, these aspects of Reality are not usually connected to our interests and capacities, and may as well not even exist as far as our lived experience is concerned.

This begins to make a good deal of sense when we realize that experiential worlds which are disclosed to us in terms of Being serve an important survival function. The role that Being plays within world disclosure is that it allows us to quickly and easily make basic discernments about what we come across within the world. And it’s only because world disclosure creates homes for us within Reality that come pre-arranged around our particular survival adaptations that Being can function in this way. 

If our ancestors didn’t have access to an understanding of Being that let them quickly and easily understand what aspects of their local Reality were relevant to their survival, we wouldn’t be here today. As wonderful as our rational faculties are, the truth is that rational deliberation is far too slow and cognitively expensive to be of much help when a predator is jumping out at you from the bushes. 

With this adaptive purpose in mind, we can perhaps better understand how Being is referring to something altogether different than what ‘things are made out of’. In particular, the mistake that metaphysical approaches which treat Being as a substance are making is a type of category error. Category errors occur when something is mistaken for a fundamentally different type of thing than what it truly is. Perhaps my favorite example of a category error comes from possibly apocryphal stories of audiences reacting with panic at film depictions of oncoming trains, back when the technology for motion pictures was brand new.

As our phenomenological account has hopefully made more clear, Being is really just an aspect of our lived experience that arises out of our interactions with Reality. Similar in some ways to how sense perception is an aspect of our lived experience that arises from the interaction between a body-mind and its environment. Nothing more, nothing less. 


Having familiarized ourselves with the role that Being serves in our daily lives, we can at last delve down to the core foundation upon which Being rests, which is a capacity for Care. What Care refers to is our concernful absorption within a world whose outcomes matter to us. So far we’ve explored at length the role that residing within a meaningful world plays in our ability to navigate Reality.  As we wrap up this first leg of our journey, we’ll be exploring how a capacity for Care serves as the canvas upon which all forms of meaning are painted. And along the way we’ll also uncover how this capacity is indispensable to our survival.

Edited by DocWatts

I'm writing a philosophy book! Check it out at :

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I fell asleep while reading this.

Edited by Sucuk Ekmek

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