UViews Phenomenology and Literature

Peyman Vahabzadeh


When Edmund Husserl originally launched his phenomenology in 1900, and rethought it twice more as his central questions radicalized, he had no way of envisioning the vast potentials of his philosophy. Of course, the impulse “toward the things themselves” remains the universal expression of phenomenology. This impulse serves as its deepest and most elusive objective, as it enables us to see the world, at least for the duration of epoché, as it is, in its facticity—that is, stripped of the historical values and cultural constructs attached to the world. By 1927, Husserl’s creative protégé, Martin Heidegger, a figure rising as a stellar scholar in his own right, who would transform the future course of western philosophy in the decades to come, reformulated his mentor’s “transcendental ego” into the specific context of Dasein, thereby radically rethinking the long-misunderstood concept of Being. When Dasein, the entity for which Being is an issue, is understood in terms of its comportment toward death, Being reveals itself in terms of time, or—to fast-forward to the ideas of the later Heidegger and express it through historical perspective—Being reveals itself in terms of unconcealedness according to principles of epochs, each identified through its supreme referent (φύσις, Natur, God, ego cogito).  If the “there” (da-) of my being (sein) is always here, situated and actual, it is also always there, projected and possible, as well.  “Higher than actuality stands possibility,” writes Heidegger in Being and Time. “We can understand phenomenology solely by seizing upon it as a possibility” (36). Among numerous other links, Heidegger’s notion of possibility lays bare phenomenology’s profound connection with literature, although the latter term remains unsustainable, phenomenologically speaking, since the designation “literature” amounts to an imposed category (from Greek κατηγορία, “accusation”) of narrative/speech/language whose mode of revealing, as literature, depends only on a community’s received prejudice as a “deep common accord” (Hermeneutics 7), to quote Hans-Georg Gadamer.  To the dismay of students of literature, who are accustomed to, before they even begin their research, having methods—such as psychoanalysis, structuralist theory, or deconstruction—available to them for deciphering literary works, the dismantling of “literature” proper is the task of phenomenology. 


This point is perhaps best understood through Heidegger’s post-metaphysical thought. If, since Plato, western philosophy1 has been steered by the idea of securing foundations for thought that would produce normative measures and methodological steps to “harness” Being’s unconcealedness according to the a priori principles of intelligibility in each age—a mode of inquiry that has been called First Philosophy—then exposing metaphysics would amount to the “end of philosophy.”  These epochal but fantasmic hegemonic principles of intelligibility, the principles that govern acting, to quote Reiner Schürmann, serve to “console the soul… [and] consolidate the city” (“Difference” 31).  Philosophy’s end, however, requires a radical departure from foundational (or fundamentalist) thinking.  The open expanse of Being, now “released” from normative expectations, will only allow for one “way” of thought: poetry.  For Heidegger, therefore, poetry does not refer to a literary genre, rhymed or rhythmic words, or artistic expression of inspiration. In our age, poetry becomes thinking as such.  It is through poetic thinking that the world appears to us, or to put it technically, the world phenomenalizes itself without regard for our epistemological shortcomings, normative expectations, or literary sensibilities.  The emergence of the new in its own terms, in terms irreducible to any other, touches profoundly not just poets and thinkers, but also their companions in Heidegger’s expansive metaphor-wilderness, forest rangers and woodcutters. Heidegger’s approach to the arts, and the craftsmanship within the work of art, follows the poetic mode of revealing as well, as objects of art stand out (or ek-sist, in Greek) as the singular material configurations of poïesis and techné, the things that hold the world together. Literature, therefore, can only be understood with respect to its connection to poetic thinking, that is, to the question of whether it allows the possible to emerge out of the actual.  


“Language is the house of Being,” (On the Way 5) Heidegger famously declared. No longer understood as the “ground” of thought, Being instead reveals itself through language.  In Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutic philosophy, “the being that can be understood is language” (Truth and Method xxxiii).  Yes, Being is not “reducible” to language, but language provides access to Being as we understand ourselves in our being-in-the-world. Language is therefore always the reservoir of tradition as well.  Here is where the problem of “hermeneutical circle” is confronted.  Hermeneutical circle refers to the act of interpretation of the part through the whole through the part, ad infinitum.  But this is not necessarily a vicious circle as in each interpretation, in Gadamer’s hermeneutics, the new is revealed through our interpretive acts.  Interpreting requires, inevitably, that one interprets the text, in our case the literary work, through one’s situatedness, through one’s “thrownness” (Being and Time 169) or “insertedness” (“Difference” 20), or more tangibly, through one’s “standpoint,” (12) a term phenomenological sociologist Alfred Schutz used (in 1932) to describe our historically specific being-in-the-world, which feminist scholars made popular (without citing the original source) decades later. By interpreting the literary work, one also always already interprets one’s own preconceptions and prejudices, in fact, one’s own self through the epochal horizons of understanding—that is, the sensibilities, values, and modes of “projectedness” (Being and Time 143) that are available to us within our age. In interpreting the literary work, what is achieved is self-reflection, enabled through hermeneutical act.  In short, every understanding becomes a self-understanding.  The work of art or literature, confronting us as mystery and thus inciting interpretation, has a language of its own, a language that is not linguistic.  Interpretation, thus grasped, allows for the advent of the new from the ordinary, as new possible readings grow and cover over the older and sanctified readings that in a certain literary school’s reasoning constitute a work of art or literature, or a categorical set of them, as canonical. What this entails is that not every hermeneutical circle is vicious. 


Interpretation reveals the illusion of meaning, one of the deepest western idioms or koiné. According to the greatest living hermeneutic philosopher, Gianni Vattimo, in an age in which “all that is solid melts into thin air” (The Communist Manifesto 38), when Being is longer anchored to a supreme referent (or more accurately to a phantasm), interpretation becomes a nihilistic vocation. In trying to hold on to this long-held delusion, positivist or objectivist social sciences maintain the concept of meaning by anchoring it to solidly established facts extracted through pre-given methods. What Vattimo points out is that these facts are not only open to interpretation, they are interpretations in and by themselves, because the mode of revealing of these self-acclaimed “Truths” is already determined by the methodology that has enframed the world in a certain way, thus overshadowing other possible interpretations.  To paraphrase Nietzsche’s declaration in The Gay Science: there are no facts, only interpretations, and that is also an interpretation (xxi).  With the depletion of Being in the postmodern age, the diversity of interpretations undermines Truth.  When Truth can no longer be maintained as matter-of-fact, as pre-given, the claims of arts and literature to obtain Truth emerge.  In the work of art, truth reveals itself without being anchored to a phantasm and before it withdraws in light of a new interpretation. The “epochal poets,” those who capture the essence of time in their work, allow the truth of their age to reveal itself.  Due to the diversity of our age, this truth remains inevitably contested. Hence the necessity of re-interpretation and counter-interpretation. Poetry—properly understood—lets truth shine forth, Vattimo maintains, and it achieves this by “setting up” the work, by framing the truth in the way that is unique to the work. The meaning of the literary work or the work of art is no longer tied to the transcendental or foundational Truth of an age.  Through the work, in other words, the world worlds.   


How does language deliver?  The student of literature would likely say, through the commonly understood medium of “literary devices.”  But metaphor, symbol, allegory and other such implements are not “devices”: phenomenologically, they are not means to an end; they are not utensils lying idly in a literary toolbox ready for the purposive exploits of a literary genius or phantasmic meanings.  It has been long since structuralist Roland Barthes declared the “death of the author” (142), and it would be best to leave the dead undisturbed.  In the present moment, meaning is exposed as the deep but unsustainable prejudice of metaphysical age. This leaves us to appreciate the wonders of Being in language.  There is something strangely familiar about it. In the words of Reiner Schürmann,

On the shore of a lake surrounded by pine trees, I say ‘this lake is surrounded by pine trees.’  As soon as the words are spoken, immediacy is lost.  Wherever I turn, words are already there... The technician rejoices at this.  It is by means of words that he organizes, transforms, and fabricates what he calls the universe of things. (“Praxis” 52)  

Inserted in a world that is already established through words, I can retrace the world to the originary experience. But how?  Symbols, these “plenary words,” allow me access.  They take the common word and render it uncommon, thereby taking the listener to the world that is different from the one sanctioned by received conventions.  Symbols open up the difference within words, and they do so by means of gathering of meaning, and thus take us from the ordinary to the sacred.  Symbol is a word or a noun, as opposed to myth, which is an element; an allegory, which alludes to the unsaid; a metaphor, which annuls itself to establish meanings otherwise than literal; or analogy, whose double meaning is artificially constructed.  Therefore, the “region of language whose structure is determined by double meaning and mystery is the symbol” (“Difference” 21). Being reveals itself through symbols in language, and the reference here is of course to Heidegger’s “ontological difference”—the difference between Being and beings (entities).  Literature, thus understood, is the abode of symbol, the node through which ontological difference is revealed and held together in a specific configuration until further notice.  Literature stands out as that which is higher: the possibility of phenomenalizing the world through the literary gaze.



Works Cited


Barthes, Roland. Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978. Print.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Philosophical Hermeneutics. Berkeley/Los Angeles: U of California P, 1976. Print.

---. Truth and Method. Trans. J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall. New York: Continuum, 1996. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. J. Stambaugh. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996. Print.

---. On the Way to Language. Trans. P. D. Hertz. San Francisco: Harper, 1971. Print.

---. Poetry Language Thought, Trans. S. Hofstadter. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1971. Print.

Marx, Karl and Friedrick Engels. The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition. Trans. Frerderick Engels. Ed. Eric Hobsbawm. New York: Verso, 2012. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Josefine Nauckhoff. Ed. Bernard Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. Print.

Schürmann, Reiner. “Symbolic Difference.” Trans. Ch. T. Wolfe. Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 19.2-20.1 (1997): 9-38. Print.

---. “Symbolic Praxis.” Trans. Ch. T. Wolfe. Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 19.2-20.1 (1997): 39-65. Print.

Schutz, Alfred. “William James’ Concept of the Stream of Thought Phenomenologically Interpreted.” Collected Papers III. The Hague: Springer, 1970. 1-14. Print.

Vattimo, Gianni. Art’s Claim to Truth. Trans. L. D’Isanto. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Print.

---. Beyond Interpretation: The Meaning of Hermeneutics for Philosophy, Trans. D. Webb. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997. Print.



Peyman Vahabzadeh received his BA in Sociology and Anthropology and his PhD in Sociology from Simon Fraser University (2000). Between 2001 and 2003, Dr. Vahabzadeh held a SSHRC-funded Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Department of Political Science, University of Victoria.

He has taught sociology, political science, CSPT, and humanities at SFU, UVic and Brock University. Dr. Vahabzadeh’s lifelong interest is in human (collective) action and social movements. He continues to study the generative power of social movements for societal renewal and the conditions under which individuals become actors, activists, or agents—in short, the historical individual. He uses a rather unique approach to study this vast and complex area. His approach is called radical (or temporal) phenomenology, a recent extension of the long tradition of phenomenology and phenomenological sociology. Radical phenomenology places acting and thinking in epochal frames, showing that truth has a temporal character, conditioned by different eras offering different, and changing, possibilities for acting and thinking. Combined with his interest in Continental European thought in the nineteenth and twentieth century, phenomenology has become the guiding theory that informs the scholarly and non-scholarly works of Dr. Vahabzadeh.



[1] Heidegger repeatedly declared that his thought is entirely geared toward western tradition and made no claim to eastern or other non-western thoughts.




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