Being Present

Presence has been (historically) defined as the sense of “being there” (Held and Durlach, 1992) and “the subjective experience of being in one place or environment, even when one is physically situated in another” (Witmer & Singer, 1998).

It has also generally been treated as comprising multiple dimension, for example, Lombard and Ditton (1997) have identified six different aspects including: the sense of having been transported, of being immersed and of being in a social medium while Schloerb (1995) distinguishes between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ presence. Presence has been theorised about factor-analytically (Schubert et al., 2001); has been treated as a biological phenomenon (e.g. Revonsuo, 2006); as a consequence of evolutionary pressures (e.g. Waterworth and Waterworth, 2001; Riva et al., 2004) and as an embodied phenomenon (e.g. Biocca, 1997). Presence research has received relatively little philosophical consideration, an exception being Zahorik and Jenison (1998) who, as with the current discussion, relate it to Heidegger’s being-in-the-world. More recent definitions have tended to treat presence as a conjunction of different psychological and physiological states. For example, Slater (2004) has made a strong case for presence comprising engagement with elements in the real or virtual environment and spatial presence - the sense or experience of being located somewhere specific.

In contrast to these positions, as we have already noted, we propose that presence is a primordial state – in that it cannot be reduced to more primitive states – which we define as the readiness to respond echoing Riva and his colleague’s evolutionary account (discussed above). While theirs is an interesting and potentially compelling argument it presents two related problems for our account of witnessing.

Firstly, for Riva et al. the environment is an undifferentiated “black box” (or grey smudge) - please see figure 1 which has been reproduced from their original paper. This lack of differentiation is at odds with our position regarding the availability of that which is witnessed, Gibson’s account of affordance, current ecological psychological thinking, their own account of organisms actively solving problems and, not least, people’s everyday experience of being in the world.

In short, we experience the world as a meaningful Gestalt and not as a source of undifferentiated sensory data. We daily demonstrate our presence (and familiarity with the world - see Turner, 2008a and 2008b for a fuller discussion of familiarity) by coping with situations, tools and objects by our understanding of world as a coherent whole. For example, Heidegger has argued that when we encounter a room we experience it as a whole, as a Gestalt (though he actually uses the Kantian term manifold) “… from which the individual pieces of furniture and what is in the room stand out’ (Heidegger, 1985 section 187). From there ‘our practical everyday orientation’ allows us to cope with whatever is there. Our familiarity with these everyday worlds ensures that when we return home we see the kitchen, one’s spouse, the cat, the unpaid bills and that half bottle of wine from last night. We do not perceive a jumble of surfaces, strangers, printed paper, animals and half-empty bottles. We skilfully engage with this world by walking into the kitchen, embracing our spouse, feeding the cat, ignoring the bills and pouring a glass of wine. We actively engage with the world rather than merely processing of sensory information. But more than this, as we have argued elsewhere (Turner, 2007) presence, by this view, is necessarily transitive – that is, it needs a predicate. We are present somewhere specific; we are engaged with those things which are available, and we witness specific events.
A second issue concerns the direction of the arrow in the figure which appears to portrays people as passive (and possibly puzzled) information processors whereas we have argued that presence is intentional which would suggest that the arrow points the other way, i.e. from the individual to the environment. It was Franz Brentano (1838-1917) who revived interest in intentionality, St. Thomas Aquinas having introduced the concept in the 13th century, by recognising that most of our mental states (including attitudes, affective states and so forth) are directed towards things and events in the world. Brentano defined intentionality as the main characteristic of mental phenomena, by which they could be distinguished from physical phenomena (Brentano, 1995). The word itself is derived from the Latin tendere, which means being directed towards some goal or some thing.[3] Accepting that presence is intentional suggests that the arrow in figure 1 may be pointing in the wrong direction.

So what is intentionality? We now consider two contrasting though mutually sympathetic accounts. The first is based on the work of Merleau-Ponty which takes as its starting point our corporality and the second draws on the neurological work of Walter Freeman.

Note 3: The everyday use of the term intentionality meaning intending, intentions or motivations such as the intention to drink a cup of tea should be distinguished from the concept’s philosophical sense.

Phil Turner