Spatiality and Agency: A Phenomenology of Containment

Kirsten Jacobson


In this essay, I consider how spatial experience is fundamentally connected to the development and maintenance of “existential healthy” agency. More specifically, I examine how our formation as choosing, active, and self-defining persons is dependent upon the spatially-thick and interpersonally-interwoven “gestures” through which we develop a lived sense of space as supportive and cooperative or hostile and threatening. I conclude from this both that existentially healthy agency is always already a relational capacity, and, more central to my focus here, that it depends in significant part upon the cultivation of an appropriately supportive spatial environment.

Peer review process: Guest edited


phenomenology; spatiality; existential health; agency; subjectivity


Acredolo, Linda P., Anne Adams, and Susan W. Goodwyn. 1984. “The Role of Self-produced Movement and Visual Tracking in Infant Spatial Orientation.” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 38: 312–27.

Ahmed, Sabeen. 2018. “From Threat To Walking Corpse: Spatial Disruption and the Phenomenology of ‘Living Under Drones.’” Theory & Event 21 (2): 382–410.

Ahmed, Sarah. 2006. “Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12 (4): 543–74.

Arrigo, Bruce A., and Jennifer Leslie Bullock. 2008. “The Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prisoners in Supermax Units: Reviewing What We Know and Recommending What Should Change.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 52 (6): 622–40.

Bandura, Albert. 1988. “Self-efficacy Conceptions of Anxiety.” Anxiety Research 1: 77–98.

Bredlau, Susan M. 2010. “Respectful World: Merleau-Ponty and the Experience of Depth.” Human Studies 33: 411–23.

———. 2018. The Other in Perception: A Phenomenological Account of Our Experience of Other Persons. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Carel, Havi. 2008. Illness: The Cry of the Flesh. Stocksfield, UK: Acumen Publishing.

Casey, Edward. 1991. “‘The Element of Voluminousness’: Depth and Place Re-examined.” In Merleau-Ponty Vivant, edited by M.C. Dillon, 1–30. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———. 1997. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Charmaz, Kathy. 1983. “Loss of Self: A Fundamental Form of Suffering in the Chronically Ill.” Sociology of Health and Illness 2: 168–95.

Dyck, Isabel. 1995. “Hidden Geographies: The Changing Lifeworlds of Women with Multiple Sclerosis.” Social Science and Medicine 40 (3): 307–20.

Febbraro, Greg A.R., and George A. Clum. 1995. “A Dimensional Analysis of Claustrophobia.” Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment 17 (4): 335–51.

Frakt, David R. J. 2011. “Mohammed Jawad and the Military Commissions of Guantánamo.” Duke Law Journal 60 (6): 1367–411.

Gehl, Raymond H. 1964. “Depression and Claustrophobia.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 45: 312–23.

Gerardi-Caulton, Gina. 2000. “Sensitivity to Spatial Conflict and the Development of Self-Regulation in Children 24-36 Months of Age.” Development Science 3 (4): 397–404.

Grassian, Stuart. 2006. “Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement.” Journal of Law & Policy 22: 325–83.

Grassian, Stuart, and Nancy Friedman. 1986. “Effects of Sensory Deprivation in Psychiatric Seclusion and Solitary Confinement.” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 8 (1): 49–65.

Guenther, Lisa. 2011. “Subjects Without a World? An Husserlian Analysis of Solitary Confinement.” Human Studies 34: 257–76.

———. 2013. Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Haney, Craig. 2003. “Mental Health Issues in Long-term Solitary and ‘Supermax’ Confinement.” Crime and Delinquency 49 (1): 124–56.

Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell.

———. 1971. Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row.

Honkasalo, Marja-Liisa. 2000. “Chronic Pain as a Posture Towards the World.” Scandanavian Journal of Psychology 41: 197–208.

Husserl, Edmund. 1989. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, Second Book: Studies in the Phenomenology of Constitution (Ideas II). Translated by Richard Rojcewicz and André Schuwer. Boston: Kluwer.

———. 1997. Thing and Space: Lectures of 1907. Translated by Richard Rojcewicz. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Jackson, Michael. 1983. Prisoners of Isolation: Solitary Confinement in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

———. 2001. “The Psychological Effects of Administrative Segregation.” Canadian Journal of Criminology 43 (1): 109–16.

Jacobson, Kirsten. 2004. “Agoraphobia and Hypochondria as Disorders of Dwelling.” International Studies in Philosophy 36 (2): 31–44.

———. 2006. “The Interpersonal Expression of Human Spatiality: A Phenomenological Interpretation of Anorexia Nervosa.” Chiasmi International 8: 157–73.

———. 2009. “A Developed Nature: A Phenomenological Account of the Experience of Home.” Continental Philosophy Review 42: 355–73.

———. 2010. “The Experience of Home and the Space of Citizenship.” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 48 (3): 219–45.

———. 2011. “Embodied Domestics, Embodied Politics: Women, Home, and Agoraphobia.” Human Studies 34: 1–21.

———. 2017. “Neglecting Space: Making Sense of a Partial Loss of One’s World Through a Phenomenological Account of the Spatiality of Embodiment.” In Perception and Its Development in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology, edited by Kirsten Jacobson and John Russon, 101–22. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 2003. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kermoian, Rosanne and Joseph J. Campos. 1988. “Locomotor Experience: A Facilitator of Cognitive Development.” Child Development 59: 908–17.

Krause, Sharon R. 2015. Freedom Beyond Sovereignty: Reconstructing Liberal Individualism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Laing, R.D. 1969. The Divided Self. London: Penguin Books.

Leder, Drew. 1990. The Absent Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 2004. “Imprisoned Bodies: The Life-World of the Incarcerated.” Social Justice 31 (1–2): 51–66.

———. 2016. The Distressed Body: Rethinking Illness, Imprisonment, and Healing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lugones, María. 2003. Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1963. The Structure of Behavior. Translated by Alden Fisher. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

———. 1964. The Primacy of Perception. Edited by James M. Edie. Translated by William Cobb. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

———. 1968. The Visible and the Invisible. Edited by Claude Lefort. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

———. 1993. “Eye and Mind.” In The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, edited by Galen A. Johnson. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

———. 2012. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald Landes. New York: Routledge.

Morris, David. 2004. The Sense of Space. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Moussaïd, Mehdi, Dirk Helbing, and Guy Theraulaz. 2011. “How Simple Rules Determine Pedestrian Behavior and Crowd Disasters.” Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences (PNAS) 108 (17): 6884–88.

Noë, Alva. 2004. Action in Perception. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Piaget, Jean, and Bärbel Inhelder. 1956. The Child’s Conception of Space. Translated by F.J. Langden and J.L. Lunzer. London: Routledge.

Profusek, Pamela J,. and David W. Rainey. 1987. “Effects of Baker-Miller Pink and Red on State Anxiety, Grip Strength, and Motor Precision.” Perceptual and Motor Skills 65 (3): 941–42.

Russon, John. 2003. Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———. 2009. Bearing Witness to Epiphany: Persons, Things, and the Nature of Erotic Life. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Russon, John, and Kirsten Jacobson. 2018. “Existential Medicine and the Intersubjective Body.” In Existential Medicine: Essays on Health and Illness, edited by Kevin Aho, 191–204. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Shafran, Roz, Richard Booth, and Stanley Rachman. 1993. “The Reduction of Claustrophobia--II. Cognitive Analyses.” Behavior Research and Therapy 31: 75–85.

Simms, Eva. 2001. “Milk and Flesh: A Phenomenological Reflection on Infancy and Coexistence.” Journal of Phenomenological Psychology 32 (1): 22–40.

———. 2014. “Intimacy and the Face of the Other: A Philosophical Study of Infant Institutionalization and Deprivation.” Emotion, Space and Society 13: 80–86.

Slatman, Jenny, Kristin Zeiler, and Ignaas Devisch. 2016. “Can You Restore My ‘Own’ Body? A Phenomenological Analysis of Relational Autonomy.” The American Journal of Bioethics 16 (8): 18–20.

Svenaeus, Fredrik. 2011. “Illness as Unhomelike Being-in-the-world: Heidegger and the Phenomenology of Medicine.” Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 14 (3): 333–43.

Thompson, Evan. 2007. Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press.

Thompson, Evan, and Dan Zahavi. 2007. “Philosophical Issues: Phenomenology.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, edited by Philip D. Zelazo, Morris Moscovitch, and Evan Thompson, 67–88. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Todres, Les, and Kathleen Galvin. 2010. “‘Dwelling-mobility’: An Existential Theory of Well-being.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being 5 (3): DOI: 10.3402/qhw.v5i3.5444.

Todres, Les, Kathleen Galvin, and Karin Dahlberg. 2007. “Lifeworld-led Healthcare: Revisiting a Humanising Philosophy That Integrates Emerging Trends.” Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 10 (1): 53–63.

Toombs, S. Kay. 1987. “The Meaning of Illness: A Phenomenological Account of the Different Perspectives of Physician and Patient.” The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 12 (3): 219–40.

Trigg, Dylan. 2017. Topophobia: A Phenomenology of Anxiety. London: Bloomsbury.

———. 2018. “From Anxiety to Nostalgia: A Heideggerian Analysis.” In Existential Medicine: Essays on Health and Illness, edited by Kevin Aho, 43–57. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1974. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc.

United States v. Jawad. 2008. Military Commission Guantánamo Bay 1: 334.

Valdez, Patricia, and Albert Mehrabian. 1994. “Effects of Color on Emotions.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 123 (4): 394–409.

Valentiner, David P., Michael J. Telch, Diana C. Petruzzi, and Molly C. Bolte. 1996. “Cognitive Mechanisms in Claustrophobia: An Examination of Reiss and McNally’s Expectancy Model and Bandura’s Self-efficacy Theory.” Cognitive Therapy and Research 20 (6): 593–612.

Van den Berg, Jan Hendrik. 1966. The Psychology of the Sickbed. New York: Humanities Press.

———. 1972. A Different Existence: Principles of Phenomenological Psychopathology. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

White, Josh. 2008. “Tactic Used After it Was Banned: Detainees at Guantanamo Were Moved Often, Documents Say.” Washington Post. Accessed August 8, 2020.

Willoughby, Roger. 2001. “‘The Dungeon of Thyself’: The Claustrum as Pathological Container.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 82 (5): 917–31.

Winnicott, Donald W. 1971. Playing and Reality. New York: Routledge.

Zeiler, Kristin. 2018. “On the Autós of Autonomous Decision Making: Intercorporeality, Temporality, and Enacted Normativities in Transplantation Medicine. ” In Existential Medicine: Essays on Health and Illness, edited by Kevin Aho, 81–100. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Full Text: PDF


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2020 Kirsten Jacobson

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.