“The objective world, the world as representation, is not the only side of the world, but merely its outward side; and it has an entirely different side the side of its inmost nature its kernel the thing-in-itself.” — Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

The term phenomenon has enjoyed a wide variety of use by diverse philosophers, scholars, scientists and artists throughout the history of western thought. In the most general terms, a phenomenon is simply something which can be observed. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first definition: A thing which appears, or which is perceived or observed; a particular (kind of) fact, occurrence, or change as perceived through the senses or known intellectually; esp. a fact or occurrence, the cause or explanation of which is in question. From this vague (and thus seemingly all-inclusive) starting point, it is necessary to untangle certain specified meanings and connotations that have been attached to the term and to realize their differences and similarities in order to come to a comprehensive understanding of not only what a phenomenon is but also how the term is utilized in contemporary language [link], and media theory. Specifically in regards to the latter, we may at once consider all media as phenomena which we can observe, while simultaneously regarding all phenomena as a kind of mediation which exists between subject and object. This is not to propose that phenomena and media are the same thing, but rather to exhibit the ways in which phenomena may be interpreted as media and vice versa, a functionality the understanding of which is critical to a comprehensive account of phenomena.

In scientific discourse the word phenomenon refers to anything which may be a subject of observation. It is on the basis of observed phenomena that hypotheses are drawn and later, based on the perception of specific phenomena in controlled settings, that conclusions are deduced. Thus, a physicist may witness the phenomenon of a ball which rolls down a hill before stopping at a certain spot and, via experimentation, determine a particular chain of causality for the phenomenon of the ball’s motion.

In popular usage, the term is often reserved especially for things which seem exceptional or extraordinary, a distinction which it gained in the eighteenth century. Colloquially, referring to a ‘natural phenomena,’ for example, now implies some degree of spectacle or wonder about the occurrence, e.g. lightning, the aurora borealis or St. Elmo’s fire. Similarly, one can note the appearance of the word in mass media journalism, which continually refers to any individual (such as a politician or musician) who attains an exceptional level of fame and popularity as a ‘phenomenon’. In this way, the term no longer indicates a specific singular occurrence, but instead becomes a way of defining an individual simply on the basis of his or her presence within a certain cultural context. Thus, a media phenomenon is still “a thing which appears,” yet the question of to whom this appearance is made becomes problematic. The perceiving subject of a media phenomenon is not an individual but instead a larger societal collective, and so the term denotes the existence of an element within the differentiated realm of mass media as opposed to the personal domain of individual experience.

The English word phenomenon derives from the ancient Greek word phainomenon which is the noun form of the verb phainesthai “to appear,” itself in turn the passive form of phainein meaning “to show”. Thus, we may understand a phenomenon as that which shows itself. To say something is a phenomenon is to ascribe to it a quality which is based not on being, not on the object itself, but rather the presence of a knowing subject. By definition, a phenomenon cannot exist in isolation, but rather its status as phenomenon is entirely dependent on the presence of an observer. However, objects are not themselves phenomena, but rather phenomena are that which can be observed about the objects in the world. As may be obvious, such a distinction necessarily creates a system of binary opposition which divides objects into that which is phenomena and that which is the elusive thing-in-itself. This duality is then once again replicated by the act of mediation, in which the representation is defined against the ‘true object’ by its necessary difference. For example, the phenomenon of a chair which I perceive may be differentiated from the chair itself. If I then paint this chair as I perceive it then the painting, the mediated form, must be doubly dissociated, not only from the object itself, but also from its original perception as understood under the Platonic forms. However, one must also account for the perceiving subject of my painting, for whom it will yet again appear as phenomenon. Thus, we may regard phenomena perhaps as the necessary intermediary steps of mediation which allow for the inclusion of a subject.

Immanuel Kant deserves the most credit for establishing the philosophic usage of the word phenomenon, especially in regards to its contrast with the ‘thing-in-itself’, the latter which Kant termed ‘noumenon’ (the re-definition of which was not without its criticism). As he writes in his Critique of Pure Reason:

…when we designate certain objects as phenomena or sensuous existences, thus distinguishing our mode of intuiting them from their own nature as things in themselves, it is evident that by this very distinction we as it were place the latter, considered in this their own nature, although we do not so intuit them, in opposition to the former, or, on the other hand, we do so place other possible things, which are not objects of our senses, but are cogitated by the understanding alone, and call them intelligible existences (noumena).

Thus, for Kant, phenomena are necessarily in opposition to noumena, both of which are essential to an object. Phenomena function as a sort of middle ground between object and subject; essentially they are textual media of reality which allow an individual to interface with true objects. Since the definition of phenomena is something which is observed, which “shows itself,” the observer, or subject, is just as necessary as the object being observed. Furthermore, those rules which we consider the framework of reality, such as space, time, and causality can only be applicable in reference to the phenomenological world, and not to the ‘true’ world which lies beneath.

This schematic of differentiation, between phenomenon and true object, is reproduced in a vast array of different fields of thought. In linguistic theory, for example, the dual nature of the sign– signifier and signified – expresses this dichotomy, with the sound-image of the former being a phenomenon which appears as an observable manifestation of the latter. However, there is an important distinction to be made: while a signifier refers to a signified concept which may be known (indeed, must be known in order for the sign to function as a whole) phenomena (under the Kantian definition) are unable to reveal anything of the inner nature of things. This difference though is not concrete and has been challenged first by the discipline of Phenomenology, which claims that phenomena can reveal the true inside nature of the world, and later from the other direction by deconstruction which, by elucidating the continual delay of meaning and endless chain of signification, questions whether the sign may ever be completed.

In Plato’s allegory of the cave the shadows of true objects, which chained prisoners mistake for reality, can be interpreted as instances of phenomena. Plato decries these shadows as ‘mere appearance’ and attempts to see beyond them. One would be remiss to speak of phenomenon, without making some mention of phenomenology (which can be seen as a diametrical opposition to Plato), and the relationship between the discipline and the term from which it gets its name. The birth of phenomenology can be linked with the dawn of the 20th century and the publication of Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations. Essentially, Husserl claims that the true nature, the inner face, of the world can be grasped via a study of the phenomena of the world. Necessarily, this view begins from a first-person perspective, which informs a comprehensive understanding of the actual world. Husserl’s ideas would later be refined and popularized by Martin Heidegger in his Being and Time, in which the state of being is touted as a precondition which shapes the perception of phenomena.

While all phenomena are media—tools of transmission between object and subject—media, in the more traditional sense (radio, television, the internet, etc.), also exist as “cultural phenomena,” essentially, the external observable facets of our society which, when viewed through a phenomenological lens, can reveal, after due study, something of the inner nature of our cultural existence. This approach to media studies, which looks at media themselves only inasmuch as they provide evidence of something which exists behind media, can be contrasted with the perspective of Marshall McLuhan who views media as their own justification, for which any ‘content’ is only a means of expediting their output. Regardless of this distinction however, we may view phenomena as the perceivable (and therefore perceived) exterior of the world which we inhabit.

Patrick McWilliams


Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Tr. Meiklejohn, Miller Dow. Henry G. Bohn, 1887.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Onions, C. T.. “Phenomenon.”The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. 1966.

“Phenomenon.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005.

Plato, The Republic. Tr. Bloom, Allan. 2nd ed. Basic Books, 1991.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. Tr. Payne, E. F. J.. New York: Dover Publications, 1966.

Sokolowski, Robert. Introduction to Phenomenology. 7th Ed. New York: Cambridge Press, 2000.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. “Nature of the Linguistic Sign.” Course in General Linguistic. Tr. Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw Hill.