For Erik’s class we read a chapter from Peter-Paul Verbeek’s What Things Do, which presents some pretty interesting ideas relating Heideggerian concepts like “present to hand” to the  sustainability of products. He also claims to draw on the perspective of postphenomenology. Since Wikipedia was no help, I’m wondering if Jeff or someone else can explain the significance of adding the prefix ‘post’ to this philosophical tradition? As far as I can tell from the text it has something to do with ‘mediation’.


  1. Tyler Pace


    Thank you for asking this question. Verbeek offers a quick and loose definition at the end of the chapter that I found largely unfulfilling.

  2. jeffreybardzell

    I’d like to respond to this, but I’m presently guessing what the answer is, as “postphenomenology” is not a term I’ve heard before. Naturally, I’ll be asking you all what the postepistemology of postphenomenology is. Seriously, could you type up his definition here? Then I will respond to this (and also answer some other issues that have come up).

  3. Dave Roedl

    I think he actually develops a definition in the earlier chapters. Also, according to wikipedia, Don Ihde wrote a book in 1993 called Postphenomenology.

    Heres what Verbeek says in the chapter that I have(7):

    “A suitable framework for thinking from the perspective of things can be provided by a reinterpretation of phenomenology in a way that can be called postphenomenological. In this perspective the relation between human beings and their world takes center stage, and are viewed as mutually constituting each other — human beings are what they are thanks to the ways in which they are present in their world. This relation happens “via” things: human beings act with the help of artifacts and perceive through them. This role of things can be characterized as “mediation.” Thanks to their mediating roles things help to shape the way in which human beings are involved with their world and interpret it. Things–and in our current culture especially technological artifacts–mediate how human beings are present in their world and how the world is present to them; they shape both subjectivity and objectivity.”

  4. jeffreybardzell

    OK, I’ll try to give this a real response later, but the quick and dirty version is that Verbeek seems to mean phenomenology in the era of postmodernism, where the individual isn’t given, but is constructed on the fly in contexts. It is a view where environments condition the subject, a topic that Foucault explores in depth in Discipline and Punish and later in his incomplete History of Sexuality. We’ll get to these things in a couple weeks.

  5. jeffreybardzell

    There are historical issues that we haven’t talked about in class. Heidegger’s Being and Time was first published in 1927. The heyday of phenomenology as a philosophical system was replaced by existentialism in the 1950s, which in turn gave way to poststructuralism at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, which in some ways can be seen as the convergence (clash?) between structuralism and phenomenology.

    The issue is that it often takes decades for people to figure out how to use these philosophies outside of philosophy. Paul Dourish derides computer science for relying on a pre1930s philosophy. Yet he replaces it with a pre-1950s one! If I am successful in my present research, I’ll manage to move HCI all the way to 1970.

    At the same time, people develop research strategies, like contextual inquiry and activity theory, which are grounded on these philosophies. But they follow behind the original philosophies much later.

    So I have a two-part claim for this class. First, if we in HCI attend to philosophy seriously, we can close the gap so we aren’t 70 years behind. Second, if we attend to philosophy, we are better able to understand the strengths and limitations of our methods and also even innovate on methods more thoughtfully.

    This, I guess, is what Verbeek is up to when he talks about postphenomenology: he’s trying to use a more up-to-date philosophy to drive his method/thinking, but he also wants to remain connected to phenomenology, since it’s been so productive in HCI. That’s my guess, since as I’ve made clear, I’ve never read the dude.

  6. davidroyer

    lol – I was re-reading Verbeek for a paper, and I just googled postphenomenology to learn more and I came across this.

    Jeff, you say ” Paul Dourish derides computer science for relying on a pre1930s philosophy. Yet he replaces it with a pre-1950s one! If I am successful in my present research, I’ll manage to move HCI all the way to 1970.”

    – Do you think we can talk about some of these more recent philosophical developments in class (maybe on the last few days or something). I REALLY like Verbeek’s idea of postphenomenology and would love to learn more about other more recent philosophies and how they apply to design/HCI.

  7. jeffreybardzell

    I was being a little snarky–a personal first!–when I said that about 1970. We will look at some more recent theory in the class, in particular some evolutionary/complex systems theory. Also, much of the poststructuralist theory we’ll look at is very much in use, e.g., at the AoIR (Association of Internet Researchers) conference I just attended in Vancouver.

  8. davidroyer

    Very nice – I am working up a post on postphenomenology, with a diagram and all.


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