Arthur C. Danto


When the philosopher Edmund Husserl urged philosophy to address 'the things themselves', Dem Sachen selbst, he meant the things of ordinary life as they present themselves to human consciousness in what he came to call 'the Life World.' Die Lebenswelt is the world as we find it, ready-made, already there, full of the things of life - houses, streets, trees, dogs, automobiles. This is the world, to quote his French disciple, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 'in relation to which every scientific schematization is an abstract and derivative sign-language, as is geography in relationship to the countryside in which we have learned beforehand what a forest, a prairie or a river is.' We must, Merleau insists, 'begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world of which science is the second-order expression.' I sometimes wonder, though, whether the language of the Lebenswelt is not itself a second-order expression. 'A forest, a prairie, or a river' are fairly general designations, remote from our 'basic experience' of them, which is often made up of feelings too personal and primitive to have become part of our language unless we have at our disposal the resources of art.

Consider the word 'house,' and reflect for a moment on what it means to live in a house. Descartes said 'I am not in my body the way a pilot is in a ship,' by which he meant, I think, that my relationship to my body is not merely spatial. I am not in my body the way a pot is in a pantry. But neither, when I live in a house, am I in my house that way. The house has, rather, become part of me, and I carry the experience with me as a living memory when I move away. In truth, I live in a city that way as well. My city is invisible to others, even though they can see the streets and doorways that are my Lebenswelt and not theirs. Think of Proust's Lebenswelt as it was returned to him, by the magic of an awakened memory, in the taste of tea-steeped madeleine. Think of La maison de Tante Leonie as he has recaptured it for us, in contrast to a description of that same property, posted for sale in the window of a realtor in Illiers. The house as lived in, dense with memories, is not for sale. The house for sale is so much space, an abstract shell. 'House' and 'city' are abstract nouns, but our city, our house, are spiritual presences in the world as we live it.

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