Johanna Bolton – Circle or Oval?

Circle or Oval?: Concepts, Non-identity and the Lifeworld


At the starting point, when investigating matter, one has the (subjective) power to choose which concepts and definitions to use. But once a concept is formed, we also seem to become restricted by it. Flusser and Bec suggest that we can no longer discern phenomena that we have no concept for and our models then obscure reality.

Edmund Husserl, in the critique of the Western scientific tradition he presented in his Crisis of the European Sciences, pointed out how the gap between idealised geometric shapes and the experienced Lifeworld creates a situation where mathematical models become autonomous constructs divorced from the real and perceived reality.

In this paper I explore how changing the concept, using it as a form of viewpoint, allows one to move around an object looking at it from different angles. The aim of such a process would be to glimpse other, formerly hidden aspects. The ‘other’ here is something akin to the ‘Nonidentity’ Adorno writes of, the part of any object that “eludes capture by the concept.”

The object my discussion is based around is an elastic band, an object which is roughly and variably round without ever being perfectly circular. If the definition of a circle is an idealised construct that does not exist in the material world, then the maybe round shapes formed by elastic bands should all be described as oval. However, in actual everyday language, we all apply different concepts of what counts as a circle or an oval. My discussion of the elastic band’s roundness is motivated by the desire to investigate this particular uncertain state by creating a new (subjective) definition of circle- or oval-ness based on Lifeworld experience.

Johanna Bolton is a Associate Lecturer at the Royal College of Art