Phenomenology is a philosophy of experience. For phenomenology the ultimate source of all meaning and value is the lived experience of human beings. All philosophical systems, scientific theories, or aesthetic judgments have the status of abstractions from the ebb and flow of the lived world. The task of the philosopher, according to phenomenology, is to describe the structures of experience, in particular consciousness, the imagination, relations with other persons, and the situatedness of the human subject in society and history. Phenomenological theories of literature regard works of art as mediators between the consciousnesses of the author and the reader or as attempts to disclose aspects of the being of humans and their worlds.
The modern founder of phenomenology is the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), who sought to make philosophy “a rigorous science” by returning its attention “to the things themselves” (zu den Sachen selbst). He does not mean by this that philosophy should become empirical, as if “facts” could be determined objectively and absolutely. Rather, searching for foundations on which philosophers could ground their knowledge with certainty, Husserl proposes that reflection put out of play all unprovable assumptions (about the existence of objects, for example, or about ideal or metaphysical entities) and describe what is given in experience. The road to a presupposition-less philosophy, he argues, begins by suspending the “natural attitude” of everyday knowing, which assumes that things are simply there in the external world. Philosophers should “bracket” the object-world and, in a process he calls epoché, or “reduction,” focus their attention on what is immanent in consciousness itself, without presupposing anything about its origins or supports. Pure description of the phenomena given in consciousness would, Husserl believes, give philosophers a foundation of necessary, certain knowledge and would thereby justify the claim of philosophy to be more radical and all-encompassing than other disciplines (see Ideas 95-105 and Meditations n-23).
Later phenomenologists have been skeptical of Husserl’s contention that description can occur without presuppositions, in part because of Husserl’s own analysis of the structure of knowledge. According to Husserl, consciousness is made up of “intentional acts” correlated to “intentional objects.” The “intentionality” of consciousness is its directedness toward objects, which it helps to constitute. Objects are always grasped partially and incompletely, in “aspects” (Abschattungen) that are filled out and synthesized according to the attitudes, interests, and expectations of the perceiver. Every perception includes a “horizon” of potentialities that the observer assumes, on the basis of past experiences with or beliefs about such entities, will be fulfilled by subsequent perceptions (see Meditations 39-46).
Extrapolating from Husserl’s description of consciousness, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) argues that understanding is always “ahead of itself” (sich vorweg), projecting expectations that interpretation then makes explicit. In the section “Understanding and Interpretation” in Being and Time (1927), Heidegger argues that inherent in understanding is a “forestructure” (Vorstruktur) of assumptions and beliefs that guide interpretation. Heidegger’s account of the interdependence of understanding and expectations is in part a reformulation of the classic idea that interpretation of texts is fundamentally circular, inasmuch as in interpretation the construal of a textual detail is always necessarily based on assumptions about the whole to which it belongs. His theory of understanding also reflects his own assumptions about human existence, which he describes as a process of projection whereby we are always outside of and beyond ourselves as we direct ourselves toward the future. Heidegger’s conception of the anticipatory structure of understanding is important for later versions of phenomenology that focus on interpretation and reading. Hermeneutic phenomenology (especially as developed by Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur) explores further the role of presuppositions in understanding, and phenomenological theories of textual reception (especially the “Constance school,” led by Hans Robert Jauss and Wolfgang Iser) investigate how literary works are understood differently by audiences with different interpretive conventions.
Heidegger extends Husserl’s concern with epistemology into the domain of ontology and in the process, according to some critics, departs from phenomenology’s original methodological rigor and cautious avoidance of speculation. Being and Time provides a description of the structures of human existence (Dasein, or “being-there”), which can be seen as an application of Husserl’s investigations of consciousness to other regions of experience, including relations with others, the meaning of death, and history. Heidegger’s descriptions of existence as a “thrown project” (geworfener Entwurf) and of “care” (Sorge) as the founding structure of human being are the basis of the theories of such existential phenomenologists as the Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger and the French philosophers Jean Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Heidegger’s own conception of human existence is guided by his concern with the “ontological difference,” the relation between “beings” and “Being.” He defines human being as that being for which Being is an issue, although he also finds that for the most part in everyday life the question of Being is neglected or forgotten. In Being and Time he explores everyday existence for indirect evidence of Being. In his later work, Heidegger turns to the study of language, which he regards as the “home of Being,” and especially to poetry, which has in his view special powers to disclose Being (see “Origin”).
Merleau-Ponty (1908-61) retains many of Heidegger’s existential analyses while rejecting his metaphysical speculations. He also corrects the early Husserl’s tendency toward idealism by insisting on the primacy of perceptual experience and the ambiguities of the lived world. In his most important work, Phenomenology of Perception (1945), Merleau-Ponty situates consciousness in the body. His notion of “perception” as the situated, embodied, unreflected knowledge of the world rejects splitting the mind off from the body or treating the body mechanistically as a mere object. Consciousness is always incarnate, he argues, or else it would lack a situation through which to engage the world, and Merleau-Ponty’s awareness of the necessary situatedness of existence makes him emphasize the inescapability of social and political entanglements in the constitution of subjects. The experience of embodied consciousness is also inherently obscure and ambiguous, he finds, and he consequently rejects the philosopher’s dream of fully transparent understanding. Reflection cannot hope for a complete, certain knowledge that transcends the confusion and indeterminacy of unreflective experience. The activity of reflecting on the ambiguities of lived experience is always outstripped by and can never ultimately catch up with the fund of preexisting life it seeks to understand. For Merleau-Ponty, the primacy of perception makes philosophy an endless endeavor to clarify the meaning of experience without denying its density and obscurity.
Roman Ingarden (1893-1970), the founding father of phenomenological aesthetics, also rejects idealism, and he wrote his pioneering studies of The Literary Work of Art (1931) and The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art (1937) as contributions to resolving the opposition of the real and the ideal. Works of art originally attracted his attention because they seemed to belong to neither realm. Unlike autonomous, fully determinate objects, literary works depend for their existence, he argues, on the intentional acts of their creators and of their readers. But they are not mere figments or private dream-images, because they have an intersubjective “life.” Yet their apparent ideal status as structures of consciousness does not make them like triangles or other mathematical figures, which are truly ideal objects, without a specific moment of birth or a history of subsequent transformations (see Work 331-55).
Ingarden describes a literary work as “an intersubjective intentional object” (Cognition 14). It has its origin in the acts of consciousness of its creator that are preserved in writing or through other physical means, and these acts are then reanimated (although not precisely duplicated) by the consciousness of the reader. The work is not reducible to the psychology of either the author or the reader, however. It has a history that goes beyond the consciousness that originated it or the consciousness of any individual reader. The existence of a work transcends any particular, momentary experience of it, even though it came into being and continues to exist only through various acts of consciousness. Ingarden argues that the work has an “ontically heteronomous mode of existence” (Work 362), because it is neither autonomous of nor completely dependent on the consciousnesses of the author and the reader; rather, it is paradoxically based on them even as it transcends them.
Ingarden finds that the literary work is a stratified formation. It consists of four related strata, each of which has its own characteristic “value qualities”: (1) word sounds, (2) meaning units, (3) “schematized aspects” (the perspectives through which states of affairs are viewed), and (4) represented objectivities. The work as a whole is “schematic,” he argues, because the strata (especially the last two) have “places of indeterminacy” that readers may fill in differently. In a successful work, Ingarden argues, the strata combine to form a unified whole that provides a “polyphonic harmony of value qualities” (369-72).
Ingarden distinguishes the reader’s “concretization” of the work from the work itself. The “aesthetic object” the reader produces is correlated to the “artistic object” the author created but necessarily differs from it. Not only will readers with different experiences respond differently to the possibilities left open by the work’s indeterminacies or to the value qualities available in the various strata but the cognition of a work is an inherently temporal process, so that “the literary work is never fully grasped in all its strata and components but always only partially,” in “foreshortenings” that “may change constantly” (334). Like other objects that present themselves through aspects (Abschattungen), the work itself is available only “horizontally,” through an array of incomplete and perspectival views—in various experiences over the duration of a single reading, or in the variety of different ways in which it may be “concretized” over its history. Ingarden maintains, however, that “certain limits of variability” constrain a correct or adequate concretization, and he claims that these limits are predetermined by the structure of the work (352).
Ingarden has been extremely influential in the development of phenomenological reader-response theories, but his views have also been subjected to extensive criticisms and revisions, particularly by Wolfgang Iser (b. 1926). Iser faults Ingarden for limiting excessively the variability of permissible concretizations. According to Iser, Ingarden posits “a one-way incline from text to reader and not … a two-way relationship,” which can take many unpredictable, possibly irreconcilable forms (Act 173). Reading is a more variable and dynamic activity than merely filling in blanks, Iser argues, and as a result “a wTork may be concretized in different, equally valid, ways” (178). Iser also faults Ingarden for holding a limited, “classical” aesthetics of value, which privileges “harmony” and fails to appreciate the disruptions and dissonances through which many (especially modern and postmodern) works achieve their effects. For Iser, reading is a process of discovery in which the surprises, frustrations, and reversals brought about by the disjunctions in a work have the power to provoke reflection about the reader’s presuppositions.
Iser’s appreciation of disjunction also leads him to criticize Georges Poulet’s description of reading as a process of identification. For Poulet (1902-91), the mystery of reading is that the barriers ordinarily dividing selves are overcome: “My consciousness behaves as though it were the consciousness of another” (56). According to Iser, however, reading is more paradoxical than Poulet suggests, because “the real, virtual ‘me'” never completely disappears even as “the alien ‘me'” governing the text’s world emerges (Implied 293). Reading therefore entails a duplication of consciousnesses, which can give rise to new self-understanding as a result of the juxtaposition of my habitual ways of thinking with those required by the text. Hans Robert Jauss (b. 1921) goes so far as to equate the “aesthetic value” of a text with its demand for a “change of horizons” in the reader due to the disparity between the audience’s “horizon of expectations” and the horizon of the work (25). Jauss suggests that as literary works become familiar (e.g., through canonization), their value may decrease, because they lose their ability to shock, surprise, and challenge the reader.
Phenomenology has produced many studies of the imagination, and among the most original of these are the works of Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962). Bachelard regards the poetic image as a privileged place in which new meaning emerges and through which being discloses itself. “The poet speaks on the threshold of being,” Bachelard claims, and the originality of the poetic imagination testifies to human freedom by displaying “the unforeseeable nature of speech” (xii, xxiii). Bachelard asks that readers, in order to open themselves up to the revelations of the image, lay aside preconceptions and cultivate a capacity for wonder. “One must be receptive,” he says, and “reverberate” with the poem in order to experience “the very ecstasy of the newness of the image” (xi). In works like The Poetics of Space (1957), Bachelard attempts to exemplify the practice he advocates by playfully allowing his own imagination to resonate in response to images of various kinds. He is particularly drawn to images of “felicitous space,” which suggest the “human value” of places and objects (xxxi). Bachelard’s attitude toward images can be contradictory, however. At his best he regards images as evidence of the lived meaning of space, but at times he descends beneath experience and seeks the origins of images in the timeless, unconscious archetypes of Jungian psychology. In any case, Bachelard’s reveries about images of place are themselves lyrical demonstrations of the creative possibilities of speech.
Interpretation and language have been the central themes of the most recent phase of phenomenology. In order to prevent its reflections from becoming solipsistic and ahistorical, Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) calls on phenomenology to take a hermeneutic turn and to direct its attention, not toward individual consciousness, but toward cultural objects, which provide social, historical evidence of existence. Because “the cogito can be recovered only by the detour of a decipherment of the documents of its life,” reflection must become interpretation, that is, “the appropriation of our effort to exist and of our desire ‘to be’ by means of the works which testify to this effort and this desire” (102). Hermeneutic phenomenology must also explore the conflict of interpretations, because the possibility of “very different, even opposing, methods” of understanding is a fundamental aspect of our experience as interpreting beings (99). A concern with how new, different modes of understanding and expression emerge leads Ricoeur to pay special attention to creativity in language, especially the semantic innovations of metaphor. Phenomenology denies that structure alone can adequately explain language, because new ways of meaning can only be introduced through events of speech, which may extend or overturn the limits of existing conventions. Phenomenology also denies that language is self-enclosed. As Ricoeur argues, “Texts speak of possible worlds and of possible ways of orientating oneself in those worlds” (144). Language and interpretation are not stable, closed systems for phenomenology, because meaning, like experience, is endlessly open to new developments.
The inherent incompleteness of any moment of experience is the basis of Jacques Derrida‘s influential critique of Husserl’s version of phenomenology. Questioning Husserl’s dream of a presupposition-less philosophy, Derrida (1930-2004) finds “a metaphysical presupposition” in the very assumption that a realm of “original self-giving evidence” can be found, a “self-presence” that is simple, self-contained, and prior to signification (4-5). Using Husserl’s own theories about time and intersubjectivity, Derrida demonstrates that “nonpresence and otherness are internal to presence” (66). Because knowledge is always perspectival and incomplete, the present depends on memory and expectation (the no-more and the not-yet) to make sense of the world; elements of absence must consequently be part of presence for it to be meaningful. Furthermore, my assurance that my selfreflections reveal generally shared structures of knowledge and existence rests on the tacit assumption that another consciousness would experience this moment as I do, but this assumption is yet again evidence that the presence of the self to itself lacks the self-sufficiency Husserl sought in his quest for a solid foundation for philosophy. According to Derrida, Husserl’s commitment to a view of knowledge as necessary, certain, and guaranteed by indubitable intuitions prevented him from recognizing the falsity of this ideal even though his own theories about consciousness and experience implicitly contradict it. Derrida concludes: “Sense, being temporal in nature, as Husserl recognized, is never simply present; it is always already engaged in the ‘movement’ of the trace, that is, in the order of ‘signification’ ” (85). There is no getting beneath the repetitive, re-presentational structure of signification, Derrida argues, because supplementarity— the replacement of one sign or “trace” by another—is the structure of self-presence.
Contemporary phenomenology has for the most part abandoned Husserl’s dream of finding indubitable foundations for knowledge. His quest for a presuppositionless philosophy now seems an example of what Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) calls “the fundamental prejudice of the enlightenment,” namely, “the prejudice against prejudice itself, which deprives tradition of its power” (239- 40). Although some prejudices may be misleading, constricting, and oppressive, understanding is impossible without pre-judgments (Vor-urteile) of the sort provided by cultural conventions and inherited beliefs. According to Gadamer, “The overcoming of all prejudices, this global demand of the enlightenment, will prove to be itself a prejudice, the removal of which opens the way to an appropriate understanding of our finitude” (244), including our belonging to history, culture, and language. Largely due to the influence of Gadamer, hermeneutic phenomenology and reader-response theory have turned their attention to the role of customs, conventions, and presuppositions in the constitution of the human subject and its understanding of the world. What remains distinctive about phenomenology is its focus on human experience, but recent phenomenologists have stressed the inherent entanglement of experience in language, history, and cultural traditions.
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Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.