Phenomenology and Hermeneutics

Phenomenology is a philosophical method, first developed by Edmund Husserl (HUHSS-erel), that proposed "phenomenological reduction" so that everything not "immanent" to consciousness must be excluded; all realities must be treated as pure "phenomena" and this is the only absolute data from which we can begin. Husserl viewed consciousness always as intentional and that the act of consciousness, the thinking subject and the object it "intends," are inseparable. Art is not a means of securing pleasure, but a revelation of being. The work is the phenomenon by which we come to know the world (Eagleton, p. 54; Abrams, p. 133, Guerin, p. 263).

Hermeneutics sees interpretation as a circular process whereby valid interpretation can be achieved by a sustained, mutually qualifying interplay between our progressive sense of the whole and our retrospective understanding of its component parts. Two dominant theories that emerged from Wilhelm Dilthey's original premise were that of E. D. Hirsch who, in accord with Dilthey, felt a valid interpretation was possible by uncovering the work's authorial intent (though informed by historical and cultural determinants), and in contrast, that of Martin Heidegger (HIGH-deg-er) who argued that a reader must experience the "inner life" of a text in order to understand it at all. The reader's "being-in-the-world" or dasein is fraught with difficulties since both the reader and the text exist in a temporal and fluid state. For Heidegger or Hans Georg Gadamer (GAH-de-mer), then, a valid interpretation may become irrecoverable and will always be relative.

Key Terms:

Dasein - simply, "being there," or "being-in-the world" - Heidegger argued that "what is distinctive about human existence is its Dasein ('givenness'): our consciousness both projects the things of the world and at the same time is subjected to the world by the very nature of existence in the world" (Selden and Widdowson 52 - see General Resources below).

Intentionality - "is at the heart of knowing. We live in meaning, and we live 'towards,' oriented to experience. Consequently there is an intentional structure in textuality and expression, in self-knowledge and in knowledge of others. This intentionality is also a distance: consciousness is not identical with its objects, but is intended consciousness" (quoted from Dr. John Lye's website - see suggested resources below).

Phenomenological Reduction - a concept most frequently associated with Edmund Husserl; as explained by Terry Eagleton (see General Resources below) "To establish certainty, then, we must first of all ignore, or 'put in brackets,' anything which is beyond our immediate experience: we must reduce the external world to the contents of our consciousness alone....Everything not 'immanent' to consciousness must be rigorously excluded: all realities must be treated as pure 'phenomena,' in terms of their appearances in our mind, and this is the only absolute data from which we can begin" (55).

Further references:

  • Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs.
  • Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Crossroad, 1982.
  • Habermas, J├╝rgen (JUR-gen HAH-bur-mahs). Communication and the Evolution of Society.
  • Halliburton, David. Poetic Thinking: An Approach to Heidegger.
  • Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
  • Hirsch, E.D. The Aims of Interpretation.
  • Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Trans. David Carr. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1970.
  • Magliola, Robert R. Phenomenology and Literature: An Introduction.
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. London: Routledge, 1962.
  • Palmer, Richard. Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schliermacher.
  • Ricouer, Paul. The Conflict of Interpretation: Essays in Hermeneutics.

Suggested Websites:

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