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Phenomenology At The Beach

Chad Engelland philosophically analyses the experience of being at the seaside.

At the beach, we soak up some sun, frolic in the surf, and swim with the waves – to name just a few of the activities possible. Apart from doing anything, though, it is exhilarating just to be at the beach. Why? What is the contemplative appeal of that place where the ocean meets the land?

In contrast to the tidy closeness of the interior of our houses, or of suburban and urban landscapes, the sea opens up enormous, unobstructed distances. We are engulfed, swallowed up by the scene. Know thy smallness, O human! Here, it seems, we come face-to-face with the infinite. Yet the human glimpse of the infinite is in fact the clearest manifestation of our finitude. What we’re coming up against is a stark definition of the limits of our own sphere of experience.

Cutting clear across our field of view is the horizon line, where ocean meets sky – the straightest and truest line that we ever experience in nature. Ordinarily, the horizon line is obscured by things such as trees and buildings, or mountains and hills. In this case, however, there is nothing but air and light. In the wideness of the waters we have a clear sense of openness and of a clearing; but it is a bounded openness and a delimited clearing. We can embark on a ship and travel out towards the horizon; but even though the land will retreat behind us, the horizon will remain resolutely there where it always is, coming not a nautical mile closer to us. We can of course venture so far out that we meet the opposite shore. Yet the horizon of perception remains the horizon of perception even as that which lies on the horizon changes – trees and hills obscuring the open sky.

Seaside image by Paul Gregory

But with the horizon bare at the beach, we get to see something we rarely otherwise see – the definite beginning and ending of our day appear in the rising and the setting of the sun. The setting sun delights us not only with the beautiful and fascinating plays of color and movement, but also with the significance of what we watch: the natural marking-out of our limited days upon this earth. In this the full temporality of our experience relative to the present position of the sun across the sky comes to presence. The full spatiality of experience relative to our bodies also comes to presence. So what one sees at the beach is how things look from here and now; and what one runs up against at the beach, is the very hereness of the here and the nowness of the now.

The temporal horizon and the spatial horizon, so splendidly displayed beachside, also illuminate the more pedestrian experiences that unfold in our ordinary urban and suburban environs. In fact, each and every experience involves spatial and temporal horizons. The songs we listen to have notes and lyrics that come to presence from beyond the horizon of our present awareness. The words of a friend, come to us one by one, slowly letting the friend’s thought appear before us. As each note or word rise, other notes and words set, retained only by our memory.

Ordinary objects similarly involve horizons of experience. In a meal shared with friends, for example, there is the presentation of each new dish, and the flow of tastes at work in each bite – including the refreshing opening, the surprising middle, and the delightful taste that lingers when the eating is done. And there is a higher movement, too, as the hors d’oeuvre gives way to the entrée, and the entrée eventually gives way to the dessert; as well as the movement of the conversation from one exchange and topic to another. Even non-dynamic elements involve horizons of exploration. The dinner table, for instance, has present sides that face you and hidden sides that do not, yet a bit of movement on your part changes the content of the experience – the absent sides become present, and the present sides become absent – without, however, changing the fact that there are limits to experience.

Of course the beach is a dynamic place, where wave after wave advances, crashes, and retreats, loudly and incessantly. The waves are both inviting and frightening in the awesomeness of their power. The movement draws us in even as it threatens us: Come play with me – if you dare! As surfers and boogie boarders know, there is a thrill here for the taking. Swim out into the swells, paddle hard into the rising wave; and then, if you’re lucky, be enthralled by the wild force of the wave carrying you effortlessly and happily toward the shore!

Some waves turn out to afford us the gentlest or most exhilarating rides of our lives; others knock us down and crush us in their wrath. But each wave emerges from beyond the horizon of our experience: we anticipate it and roll with it. The horizon of our experience, glimpsed in the horizon where the sea meets the sky, in there is each experience at the beach, including the experience of each and every wave. The infinitude of the ocean is an index of the finitude of human experience. This, I think, is part of the draw of the beach. Wonder, O human, at the glories of thy finitude!

© Prof. Chad Engelland 2021

Chad Engelland is Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Dallas. His book, Phenomenology, was released by MIT Press in 2020.

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