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5 Existential theories

5.1 Existential phenomenology

It is possible to decribe a human being in terms of anatomy. However, it is highly improbable that anyone asked to describe oneself would give such an account. This is analogical to the description of a place. Instead of a merely physical account one has to try to understand the place in question. This has traditionally been the task of humanistic geography. In geography, humanism can be seen as sensibility to human feelings in geographical settings (Bailly 1990: 161). The theoretical base for this is often said to be 'existential phenomenology', understood as a combination of the theories of phenomenology and existentialism (see e.g. Buttimer 1976: 278).

Neither phenomenology nor existentialism is a simple set of axioms nor are they easy to describe. The paradigmatic thinker of phenomenology is Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), and that of existentialism Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). Classification of some other thinkers like Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), or Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) under these two labels is not easy. They all used the concept of 'phenomenology' in their writings--and so did Sartre--but they changed the emphasis of their study from the strictly epistemological stance of Husserl towards understanding the human life-world. This makes them existentialist, too, at least in some respects.

The original slogan of phenomenology is 'Back to things themselves!' It was a critique of academic philosophy, especially neo-Kantianism, and a chance to finish mere analyzing of concepts but to make a fresh philosophy of things (Whitford 1998: 49). The major question dividing the stances of Husserl and Heidegger, according to Jean-Luc Marion (1998: 2), is whether the 'return to things' means returning to their objectivity, or to their Being. The first leads to epistemological cogitations, while the latter leads to more existential settings. Geographers have usually found the latter one more fruitful for their studies.

Entrikin (1976: 623) defines 'existential phenomenology' as a 'combination of the phenomenological method with the importance of understanding man in his existential world'. In philosophy the same concept is used to refer to the modes of existentialism that have phenomenological foundations--e.g. philosophies of Sartre, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty--and to separate them from the modes of phenomenology that do not have the same foundations, namely the philosophies of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche (see e.g. Compton 1998: 175; Cooper 1999: 5-6).

Pauli Tapani Karjalainen (1986: 55) compares the 'positivistic' and 'existential' spheres of geography saying that while the first one is practical--or ontic--the latter one is ontological. The existential is therefore the foundational level on which the practical level is based. He says that 'existential understanding is ontologically directed', and means that human beings are the foundation of environmental relations in the empirical world. On the other hand, ontology is not necessary existential. Any ontological system without a viewpoint (e.g. Casati & Varzi 1999), however, is irrelevant in geography--as pointed out by Barry Smith and David M. Mark (1998). They insist that topological and mereological means, while adequate in the 'table-top world', are not sufficient in describing the ontology of geographic kinds. What they propose instead is, however, a set of 'special mereotopological theories that depart in crucial ways from standard topology'.

Yi-Fu Tuan (1975: 152) proposes that experientally place is a continuum between locations in abstract spatial systems and centers of strong visceral meanings. As both extremes are rare or nearly non-existent, most of our place experiences lie somewhere in the middle range. The difference between ontologies proposed by Karjalainen (1986) and Smith and Mark (1998) is that they pick up different things of the world. Their fundamentality is an open question but for practical needs it seems to be sufficient to choose one that picks up the kinds needed in the study under consideration. The purpose of Smith and Mark is, for instance, to develop ontological tools for geographic information systems (GIS), a goal that differs in great extent from understanding human being in a lived world.

Augustin Berque (1998: 442), on the other hand, compares the subjective and the objective in human milieu. He says that there is a difference between them in the system of logic. Physically, all things are as they are and follow the logic of subject. But they exist only through symbolic systems and techniques of humanity that follow the logic of predicat. The first is the classical Western system of logic where P cannot be not-P, and the latter is more a metaphoric logical system dealing with the process of P coming not-P (Berque 1998: 441). These two systems of logic are not contradictory, however. They just look at the world from different points of view.

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