Vol. 6 No. 1 (2024): January - June 2024
Humanistic therapy

The phenomenal field: the origin of the self and the world

Published 2024-03-01 — Updated on 2024-03-07



  • phenomenal field; Gestalt psychotherapy; organism-environment

How to Cite

Francesetti, G. (2024). The phenomenal field: the origin of the self and the world. Phenomena Journal - International Journal of Psychopathology, Neuroscience and Psychotherapy, 6(1), 1–5. https://doi.org/10.32069/PJ.2021.2.218 (Original work published March 1, 2024)


From the broad debate on the definition of the field in Gestalt psychotherapy, many questions emerge that often reflect diverse conceptions present since the cultural and scientific background from which this model was born. Beyond the differences, all attempt to move beyond a conception of the human being as an isolated and isolable individual. Among the many cruxes of this discourse, I believe that a central question for discriminating the definition we use - implicitly or explicitly - is this: is the field different for each subject, or is it a common dimension for those in a given situation?

This question cannot find an answer unless we first specify what we mean by "field." My argument is that there is a definition of the field for which the field is individual (organism-environment field) and another definition for which the field is a common dimension (phenomenal field). Obviously, each allows us to grasp some aspects that the other leaves in shadow. And I consider the two conceptualizations as an expression of the insoluble tension and oscillation between an individualistic perspective and a pre-personal one.

In the atmosphere of incredible cultural ferment in Germany in the 1920s, the drive to go beyond an individualistic conceptualization of the human being involved many movements and modes of exploration: in philosophy, psychology, sociology, politics, and psychoanalysis. A glowing crucible rich in possibilities and nuances, an emerging state in which attempts to move beyond a mechanistic and reductionistic view of the world and human being moved in sometimes contradictory ways. Gestalt psychotherapy has deep roots in this environment, developing its therapeutic potentials and bringing with it some theoretical ambiguities. One of these concerns precisely the conceptualization of the field: indeed, there were circulating conceptualizations of the field as predominantly individual attribute, as well as as a totality that involves everyone and constitutes the very root of life.


Jean-Luc Marion notes that one of the characteristic and constitutive traits of our culture is the removal of genesis, that is, how the self and the world come into being, take shape. They are given and not problematized. Marion emphasizes that what is given is donated and problematizes: given as, when, where, by whom? In order to use the concept of the individual as the center of the world, as Western modernity has done, it is necessary to 'forget' its origin, as if there has always been a separate, independent, even self-sufficient subject. Center of the world and measure of all things. Already posing the question is therefore somehow subversive.

If the self is an emergent phenomenon that in the making of experience differs from a world, to explore its genesis we need a theory of experience. Gestalt psychotherapy elaborates this theory starting from Gestalt psychology and American Pragmatism, another profound influence for the birth of this approach. In particular, it was Paul Goodman, a librarian at the University of Chicago, who brought the concepts of William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead into the foundation of Gestalt psychotherapy. This is not the place to delve into the complexity of this theory of experience, and we refer to the founding text for a thorough description [3] and to subsequent texts [4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9] for the clinical and psychopathological implications of this process. It is enough to remember here that experience is a process that arises from an undifferentiated background and in which a boundary of contact gradually emerges that separates and unites a self and a world. From this original dimension, subjects and objects emerge: "Neither the object, nor the subject are placed" [10].

Here we are grappling with a phenomenon that is difficult to describe and easily neglected: as Bernhard Waldenfels writes, only apparently paradoxically, "we originate from elsewhere, in a place where we have never been and will never be." We emerge from a background in which we are not yet constituted as distinct subjects in a distinct world. We are here in the auroral chiaroscuro of experience. Object and subject are nominal precipitates - they have become 'things' - as a result of a historical transformation of their linguistic connotation: until the Middle Ages they were considered a process in which a sub-jectum was thrown here and an ob-jectum was thrown there [12]. This origin is the place of the vague and the confused, of the undifferentiated, of the chiaroscuro, of the indefinite [13]: a place that Descartes discarded indicating a method of inquiry based on clear and distinct ideas and that positivist science then swept away, producing as an effect the disenchantment of the world where everything is mechanically knowable and transparent [14]. There is therefore a dimension "neither subjective nor objective" [15], a dimension "prior to the subject and the world" [16], mostly neglected in modernity. Indeed, this removal is constitutive of the very birth of modernity.


Merleau-Ponty calls this emerging dimension the "phenomenal field" [10]: this is the undifferentiated field - before the poles of the subject and the world are defined - from which phenomena emerge. It is the threshold of the world and the self. In this field (just as in Maxwell and Faraday's electromagnetic field and in Einstein's conceptualized gravitational field) there are forces that condition the emergence of phenomena. These are the intrinsic tensions of the field - the intentionality of the field. Intentionality can be understood as a force that belongs to individuals, but this is not the meaning we refer to here. We refer to the anonymous intentionality that precedes individuals, as conceptualized by Merleau-Ponty: "We are only a place of passage" [10]. As Martin Heidegger argues: "In the heart of consciousness there is always a depersonalization." They are anonymous (that is, not yet mine or yours) and they are functional (that is, they produce effects) [10].

Experience therefore arises from the undifferentiated, a place where the poles of the subject and the world have not yet been defined. Infant research [17], neuroscience [18], phenomenology, and phenomenological psychopathology [19; 20] also agree on this.

Attempting a definition as clear and operational as possible, I define this phenomenal field as the horizon of probability of emergence of phenomena in the current situation. This definition allows us to explore field theory in the light of complex systems theory, see Sarasso et al. [25, in press]. Phenomena (or we can also say figure-ground processes) emerge depending on the forces that make them more or less probable or improbable. These forces bend the horizon, deform it, and open or close possibilities. For example, at a party among friends, it is more likely that jokes and laughter, moments of joy, and feelings of lightness will emerge, during which time will tend to pass quickly. In a funeral wake, on the other hand, it is more likely that feelings of heaviness, slowing down or rarefaction of time, gloominess, and stillness will emerge. In black holes, the force that bends the event horizon is gravity; in the phenomenal field, it is the intentions at play that bend it. In the therapeutic encounter, these forces - embodied intentions - move both the patient and the therapist, who are functions of them. In this paradigm - where the self is not a structure but a process that emerges in the situation - the forces of the phenomenal field are in motion before the subjects are differentiated and defined. Therefore, we can say that the therapist and the patient emerge, "are made," within the situation and are moved by the forces of the field. The phenomenal field is pathos: it is undergone and not chosen [11; 21]. The phenomenal field is not "a thing," it is not reifiable: it is a horizon and it changes - more or less - at every moment.


The phenomenal field acts here and now, and just like a gravitational field, I can grasp it by sensing its effects. The gravitational field here and now is common; the effects on each of us are different. Conceptualizing the field as an organism-environment field helps us not to abstract the organism from its environment but maintains an individual centrality; conceptualizing the field as a phenomenal field helps us to highlight the forces to which we are all subjected in a given situation. The phenomenal field (horizon of probability) therefore results from the set of forces acting in the situation; these give it its limits and transformative potentials. They are the dynamic forces activated in a given situation. It is important to remember that the phenomenal field is in turn influenced by the emergences that develop; for this reason, it is a constantly changing process. Again, we can use the gravitational field as an example: bodies subjected to the influence of the gravitational field also influence the field itself, in proportion to their mass. In the clinical encounter, patient and therapist are therefore subjected to the forces of the field and at the same time influence them, in a process of circular complexity not reducible to simple cause-effect schematizations.

One way to grasp the phenomenal field is to pay attention to the atmosphere of the situation. An atmosphere is the affective quality that permeates a space. It is a concept that we have explored starting from its interesting characteristic of resisting and challenging Cartesian dichotomies: an atmosphere is neither solely in the environment nor solely in the subject, it is neither solely subjective nor solely objective, neither solely agentive nor solely suffered. Let's leave aside the broad and lively debate on the theme of atmospheres in clinical practice and instead take up a quote from Kurt Lewin:

"To adequately characterize the psychological field, specific elements must be taken into consideration, such as particular objectives, stimuli, needs, relationships, as well as more general characteristics of the field such as atmosphere (for example, friendly, tense, or hostile atmosphere) or the amount of freedom. These characteristics of the field as a whole are as important in psychology as, for example, the field of gravity for explaining events in classical physics. Psychological atmospheres are empirical realities and are scientifically describable facts" [23, author's translation, emphasis in the original].

The gravitational field is not just a metaphor for the phenomenal field: it is one of the forces that act in the phenomenal fields from which we emerge and that curve the probabilities of the emergence of phenomena. Just imagine if the field were to change as in a spacecraft: other experiential phenomena - sensory and motor - would emerge. The fact that it is a common field does not negate that it has different effects for each individual: the effects of the gravitational field are different for each of us, just use a scale to measure them. Yet we are all subject to the same force. In turn, we influence the field itself, imperceptibly for gravity, potentially significantly for other types of acting forces. In a depressive field present in a given situation, we are all subject to depressive forces - that is, forces that pull us down - and we may experience slowed time, or conversely, manic reactivity or binge eating or alcohol abuse, or countless other possibilities. But the forces of the depressive phenomenal field influence all those who find themselves in the situation.


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