Philippe P. Haensler, Kristina Mendicino, Rochelle Tobias (Eds.): Phenomenology to the Letter: Husserl and Literature

Fermín Paz

Phenomenology to the Letter: Husserl and Literature Book Cover Phenomenology to the Letter: Husserl and Literature
Volume 7 in the series Textologie
Philippe P. Haensler, Kristina Mendicino, Rochelle Tobias (Eds.)
De Gruyter
Hardback 109,95 €

Reviewed by: Fermín Paz (CIN / FFyL - UBA)

Phenomenology to the Letter. Husserl and Literature (2021), is a collection of thirteen essays that make explicit multifaceted theoretical implications between literature and Husserlian phenomenology. Volume number 7 of the collection Textologie by De Gruyter is edited by Philippe P. Haensler, Kristina Mendicino, and Rochelle Tobias.

Each of the papers making up this work present an original insight. Together they advance a common goal: a deep exploration of the immensely rich work of the father of phenomenology, tracing back what, in the words of the editors, are logical and poetological (1) implications between literature and his writing. Through the different articles that constitute it, this volume presents a broad and varied series of issues. In each essay, phenomenology and literature are presented as fields that are not a priori differentiated, but branch from diverse modes and axes of analysis.

The position the book confronts is characterized in the introduction by the editors: from the formula “to the things themselves” as key to Edmund Husserl’s proposal, phenomenology would have been accused of being “negligent” about language and other forms of mediation. Phenomenology to the Letter draws a historical line to characterize this reaction against phenomenology that has its more characteristic points in the deep oblivion of the language (abgründige Sprachvergessenheit) as proposed by Gadamer (1986, pág. 361), up to the Foucault’s accusation about the logophobie of phenomenology (1971). Moreover, this differentiation can also be read in the linguistic turn of analytic philosophy, or in the post-structuralist philosophy of Derrida. This work aggregates this accusation and highlights its incorrectness by linking Husserl with classic rhetoric, modern literature, aesthetic theory, and cultural criticism. However, the goal of the book implies a task that is not easy to solve. The response to these 20th Century accusations is not provided from a theoretical reconstruction of an exegesis of Husserlian corpus, but with a reading proposal from the collaborators of this volume that updates and explores the own limits of the phenomenologist’s task.

The logical and poetological implications of Husserlian writing are analyzed from a conjunction of literature and phenomenology. This conjunction not only revisits the inscription itself of the very same Husserlian letter as theoretical and textual corpus but also analyzes a phenomenological inscription in a wide range of literary works. Thus, this volume analyzes an implicit link between modern writers as Proust, Flaubert, Kafka, Rilke, Benjamin, Beckett, Olson, and Blanchot with certain modes of inquiry in the operations of the conscience, specifically phenomenological ones. The link between phenomenology and literature is not unilaterally constructed “outwards” from the Husserlian phenomenology towards the literary work, instead this volume draws a relation of reciprocal involvement that vindicates a literary task within the construction of phenomenology. The editors even discuss phenomenography[1], as they argue that for Husserl, “literature constitutes the medium in which the phenomenological analyses of transcendental subjectivity attain objective existence” (4). In this sense, literary language itself constitutes an immanent question to phenomenology as “both the method and existence of phenomenology depend upon a literary medium that cannot but be foreign to it” (5).

In its structure, the book is divided into four parts, each part addresses specific topics with a group of essays. In the first part, Husserlian phenomenology’s own language is thematized. Then, the second part discusses the relationship between experience and language, and the enrichment or challenges that the latter imposes upon the former. The third part focuses on the relationship between experience and literary works, fusing phenomenology and literature. Lastly, the problem of fiction is further explored as central to the methodological determination of phenomenology.

The first part of the book, Rhetoric and Thought: The Language of Phenomenology, addresses the issue of phenomenology’s own language in four essays that focus specifically on Husserl’s writing. The first part offers a series of explanations between Husserlian language and the developments of his phenomenology.

The first article is entitled Husserl’s Image Worlds and the Language of Phenomenology, by Michael McGillen. The author resumes the concepts used by Husserl to present his phenomenological method to establish that the technical language of phenomenology is built from a metaphorical language. McGillen suggests that the linguistic and pictorial aspects of images are briefly connected. To focus on this relation, the author resumes the theory of image consciousness by Husserl and proposes its applicability to literary metaphors. Thus, he links the experience of a metaphor with the experience of image-consciousness. In this point, it may be argued that the application of Husserl’s theory of image consciousness to metaphors or textual images requires further clarifications in light of the loss of frame (Bild) as a shared character between the object and the subject of the image. Nevertheless, this problematic parallel between metaphor and image, letter and experience, anticipates the theoretical position that guides the book proposal. 

In Au Coeur de la Raison: la phénomenologie, Claude Romano claims that material a priori can only be conceived from a theory that fundamentally has an anthropological base for essential determination. In the essay Auch für Gott: Finitude, Phenomenology and Anthropology, Tarek R. Dika argues that Romano holds two mutually contradictory theses: firstly, that the negation of material a priori necessities is inconceivable and secondly, that these necessities, due to their anthropologic bases, are only conditional and therefore, their negation must be conceivable. If the Husserlian material a priori is postulated as a necessity for any kind of experience, it is done to disengage the sense of experience from the sense of language. Only then can phenomenology propose a prelinguistic sense. Dika’s argumentation in favor of a priori material à la Husserl is a reassurance for the cornerstone of the phenomenological experience: informed perception with a prelinguistic sense, described with pretension of universality.

The third essay, irgend etwas und irgend etwas: Husserl’s Arithmetik and The Poetics of Epistemology, is written by Susan Morrow, who reads Husserl’s first published monograph, Philosophy of Arithmetic, accused of psychologism as a poetics of epistemology. This work establishes a relationship between the concerns of a young Husserl, focusing on the analysis on the concept of multiplicity, to the ones of maturity, that focus on the historicity of geometry and science as such, revealing a certain consistency. This consistency allows Morrow to articulate her reading proposal from a key term for the book proposal as a whole: the status of a poetics of the epistemology is supported by a reading that traces poetological implications in the arithmetic’s justification of the philosopher that pursued a rigorous science.

The last work, by one of the editors, Philippe P. Haensler, is titled Fort. The Germangled Words of Edmund Husserl and Walter Benjamin. With great erudition, Haensler’s comparative reading between Husserl and Benjamin chases a twofold goal: on the one hand, to reveal Benjamin’s anticipation of certain Husserlian developments, and on the other hand, the essay establishes for Husserl’s phenomenology a deep interest in the question of literary translation. Haensler reads      Husserl’s transhistorical concern for the foundation of sense and Benjamin’s messianic reconceptualization of the relationship between an original and its translation as “two pieces of the same vessel” (85).  However, this essay is not limited to the historical reconstruction of mutual readings between Husserl and Benjamin. With the presence of Jaques Derrida as a key mediator between the two authors, Haensler evidences for phenomenology, translation as a trans-performative act,      and the letter of the father of phenomenology as a subject for discussion in itself.

The second section, Phenomenology and Incommensurability: Beyond Experience is concerned with the issue of an experience possible through language, one that defies (and, in some cases, even exceeds) the limits of the described experience from a strictly phenomenological perspective.

This section begins with the work of Jean-Sébastien Hardy, Beyond Experience: Blanchot’s Challenge to Husserl’s Phenomenology of Time, who finds in the concept of disaster (desastre) by Maurice Blanchot a key for what the author calls a “phenomenology of anticipation”. Hardy maintains that Husserlian expectation has traces of an implicit prophetic paradigm and that the affectivity of protension may well be a product of an institution that is at the same time, original and historic. Meanwhile, the Blanchotian disaster as something that is “outside experience, outside the realm of phenomena” (Blanchot, 1986, pág. 9) does not answer to any expectation and constitutes a challenge for Husserl. Hardy wonders if the immanent consciousness of temporality is really as pure as Husserl desired or whether a radically different temporalization is possible (118). In line with Blanchot, Hardy concludes that our intern and immediate sense of time “is not so much constituted as it is instituted, when it comes to the anticipation of what is about to come” (130).

In the next essay, Absehen – Disregarding Literature (Husserl/Hofmannsthal/Benjamin), Henrik S. Wilberg reads Husserl’s famous letter to Hofmannsthal, retrieving the frequently exposed link between the phenomenological method and the purely aesthetic attitude, as both imply a deviation from the natural attitude. The artist and the phenomenologist share before the world the neutralization of the positionality of the objects of experience. What is new in this article is the incorporation of a young Benjamin into that dialogue. Wilberg affirms that “when the Young Benjamin first enters into the orbit of phenomenology, he does so accompanied by the same figure who – and the same text that – occasioned Husserl’s reflections on the relation between literature and philosophy” (139/140). The historical reconstruction of mutual readings between authors is at the service of the “poetized” as the foundation of the experience of reading. There is therefore a link between the Husserlian modification of neutralization with what Benjamin calls Gedichtete as the indecipherable, the unanalyzable, specific to a reading experience. Benjamin’s reading of Husserl goes beyond direct mentions and is in the notion of “poetized” where affinities with Husserl can be read, a notion used to characterize a new dimension of the poetic. For Wilberg, it is in this state or in the modification of the view of the reader towards the poeticized of the poem where the potentialities of the Husserlian modification of neutralization comes into play, transcending the explicit comments of Husserl himself.

This conceptualization of a      reading experience       shares its goal with the work of another editor, Kristina Mendicino. In Drawing a Blank – Passive voices in Beckett, Husserl and the Stoics, Mendicino links Husserl’s phenomenology with Stoicism on the basis of the theorization of the material aspect of language, finding the most extreme consequences of the position that both schools would share in The Unnamable, by Beckett. That concern that Beckett takes to the extreme is homologated with the Stoic notion of lékton, which characterizes the discursive instance as an ambivalent phenomenon. If the materiality of language offers an experience that surpasses the meaning of language, both for Husserl and for the Stoics, the link with Beckett can be read when he affirms that “the things that language speaks of may always be elsewhere, speeches may seduce with their movement, and words can take wing so as to fly from the strictures or comprehensive grasp” (150). Mendicino recognizes the links between Frege, Bolzano, Meinong and, evidently, Husserl, with the Stoics. However, the Beckettian way acquires a new sense within this volume. Beckett’s reference to the Stoics is made in poetological terms. In the Stoics, Mendicino traces back an importance to the thetic character within phenomenology and inherent to perception: “between sense and expression comes a moment of making sense that resists translation into categorial forms of predication and whose logical character cannot be rendered with a predicative syntax” (167). The author finds an “aphenomenal páthos of language” (171), being the use of the passive voice in Beckett the master expression of a poetology of the experience of language.

The link between literary works and phenomenology is more strongly established in the third part of the book. In Phenomenology of the Image and the text Corpus, literature appears as a corpus with which a wide group of theoretical developments of phenomenology is faced. At the same time, the link between the experience of the image and its description in a literary language is further analyzed.

The first work is Charles Olson: Phenomenologist, Objectivist, Particularist by Stefanie Heine exposes the poetry of Charles Olson as a complement of Husserl’s philosophy of language in Logical Investigations. The essay reconstructs in Olson a theoretical development inseparable from the practice of writing, taking as a starting point the work of unpublished manuscripts, transcribed or attached in this book. Even though Olson echoes Merleau-Ponty, this work shows Olson’s complement to Husserlian phenomenology, borne from his interest as a poet, of considering words as physical entities, and of taking the word as Leib before taking it as Körper in the specific moment of writing. On the one hand, is the sensible experience of words that comes at play in his “poeticness”. On the other hand, the Husserlian notion of “Wort-Leib” is revealing for the execution of Olson’s writing, where language is left behind to grasp the material sense of the physical word, the gap between words, and even shapes, and written lines that are not associated with specific words.

In the second work, Icon as Alter Ego? Husserl’s Fifth Cartesian Meditation and Icons of Mary in Chronicles of the Teutonic Order, Claire Taylor Jones examines two chronicles of the Teutonic Order: Chronica terrae Prussiae (1326) and Kronike von Pruzinlant (1340). These texts offer a narrative of the conversion to Christianism from an experience of acknowledging the suffering and spiritual agency in icons of the Virgin Mary. Taylor Jones finds in these chronicles, taken as literary corpus, issues for the perception of the alter ego that Husserl describes in the Fifth Cartesian Meditation. From artistic cultural objects, imbued in certain “saintly presence” in this case, the distinction between Leib and cultural objects must be revisited. The author finds in these texts a challenge to the Husserlian theory that demands a new description of intersubjectivity, one that does not rest in the apperception of an animated body, but recognizes this apperception of suffering, that does not require movement in order to be perceived.

Complements to Husserlian phenomenology can also be read in the cultural critique, as Thomas Pfau illustrates in the last work of this section: Absolute Gegebenheit: Image as Aesthetic Urphänomen in Husserl and Rilke. The author reads Rilke’s texts about Rodin and Cézanne’s letters, where he finds a phenomenology of image experience that would complement Husserl’s one. If, as Pfau asserts, Husserl focuses on the noematic pole of experience, it is the noetic dimension that Rilke centers his attention on when he reflects on the aesthetic experience. In the Rilkenian comments on Cézanne’s works Pfau reads an anticipation of the idea of transcendental reduction. The point here is that the epistemological contribution to the theory of image occurs, as demonstrated again and again in the volume reviewed here, in poetological terms, intended as a supplement to phenomenological description.

The funding relation between phenomenology and fiction insistently tematized in this volume finds greater depth in the fourth and final section of the book: Fictional Truths: Phenomenology and Narrative.

The section is inaugurated with The Virtuous Philosopher and the Chameleon Poet: Husserl and Hofmannsthal, by Nicolas De Warren. De Warren rereads Husserl’s letter to Hofmannsthal, in which the philosopher reveals the inspiration he received from the poet for his phenomenological method. However, De Warren’s reading examines how Husserl imagined this source of inspiration, and from that conception, offers an aesthetic for Hofmannsthal’s work. De Warren reconstructs the context of the encounter between Husserl and Hofmannsthal, the poet’s assistance to the reading of the phenomenologist, and the epistolary exchanges between these figures. The point that De Warren makes is that Hofmannsthal’s silence demonstrates that his aesthetic would have been a source of inspiration for the phenomenological method merely imagined by Husserl himself. The importance of this reading lies in putting the attention on fiction as a basis for Husserlian inspiration, while the letter could itself be read as literary fiction. De Warren undertakes this task, carrying out a detailed analysis that evidently could be described as literary, from Husserl’s letter to Hofmannsthal and reconstructing in that same letter the appearance of elements belonging to the philosophical method that Husserl would have arrived for his phenomenology.

The second paper of the section is A Now Not toto caelo a Not Now: the “Origin” of Difference in Husserl, from Number to Literature, by Claudia Brodsky. The paper draws a historical path in Husserlian thinking in which, through a series of “steps”, Brodsky explains that the understanding of the notion of number is achieved in relation to other concepts. For the author, this overlapping of theories, in a formal excursus of Husserl’s conscience, is quite similar to the developments made by Lukács and Proust. In their formal aspects, there would be common issues between Husserl and the literary theory.

The last essay of this volume is written by its third editor, Rochelle Tobías. In Gregor Samsa and the problem of Intersubjectivity, the author exhibits how The Metamorphosis by Kafka presents certain issues to the Husserlian perception of the alter ego. The challenge to the Husserlian theory is not found in the acknowledgment of another body as an alter ego, but in the recognition of another conscience like mine. Tobias’s paper does not focus on this difference of positions, but on the fiction as a privileged mode of representing other minds in the third person. Thus, what is thematized is a method for thinking based on fiction as proposed and shared by Kafka and Husserl.

As I have outlined thus far, Phenomenology to the Letter does not directly answer the concerns presented in its introduction. The aim of the book is achieved through a comprehensive reading that implies a work from the reader that does not demand little effort. On this point, it is important to highlight that each one of the parts neither offers a justification of the articles assembled therein nor a conclusion that determines an explicit conjoint thesis. To be able to answer the accusation put forward in the introduction, it is necessary to undertake a global reading that surpasses the questions posed by each essay. Thus, the enormous project proposed in this volume loses the strength of a joint individual answer. This is not however a limitation, but rather a demonstration of the fruitful possibilities of relating Husserlian phenomenology with literature, via a multiplicity of papers that address various goals and issues. This book clarifies that there is no oblivion of the language but rather that language, literature, writing, and fiction are present from the origin and during the development of the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.

Phenomenology to the Letter is not a book about literature and phenomenology in general: there is no development of the conception of language by Merleau-Ponty or Heidegger, nor is there an offering of the problems of a phenomenological aesthetic that recovers Dufrenne’s, or an ontology of literature as Ingarden thematized. This volume focuses specifically on the Husserlian work and when links are established with other authors, they do not properly belong to the phenomenological school. The rejection of the phenomenological thematization of literature following its greatest exponent, Roman Ingarden, explains the general proposal of the book. According to the editors, Ingarden starts from phenomenology, when, as read in this volume, it is all about mutual implications between phenomenology and language, to the point of claiming a philological complement for phenomenological investigation.

While the essays contained in this book are written at a sophisticated academic level, including quotations in their original languages and detailed works in a scholar register, the volume offers something beyond a series of exegetical articles about phenomenology. Still with Husserlian phenomenology as a topic, the novelty of this volume is neither a proposal of building a Husserlian literary theory, a treaty about language theory by Husserl, nor is limited to a series of examples of Husserlian theory within the literature. To my understanding, the methodological proposal that guides these essays has an interdisciplinary character; what is pursued are the theoretical constructions in fields that are traditionally separated, without abandoning the specificities of each one.

This volume offers then, an actualization of Husserlian thinking. The philosophical importance of Phenomenology to the Letter nowadays, claim its editors, lies in its proposal facing biological and psychological paradigms that dominate praxis and current thinking. It is not only a proposal of actualization of phenomenology or the determination of an aesthetic movement, but rather a path to rethink affections, experience, and language. A proposal can be read to extend the Husserlian contributions so present today in the cognitive sciences and the neurosciences, whose     approach to “the mind” confront several Husserlian warnings, as the editors state. The challenge to mind studies has its weight from fantasy and fiction as the cornerstone of the phenomenological method, both for the eidetic variation from the Logical Investigations as well as the reduction from Ideas I. In sum, the starting point for this book can be read in Husserl’s affirmation in Ideas I: “‘fiction’ is the vital element of phenomenology, as all its eidetic knowledge” (Hua III/I, 148).

In thirteen essays, Phenomenology to the Letter achieves its goal where the relationship between phenomenology and literature has been at the heart of reflection and it has not been seen as a point of arrival. The specificity of the issues that each essay addresses, together with a great variety of resources and different textual corpora does not introduce a relation between Husserlian phenomenology and literature, it simply puts it into evidence. The project proposed by the book is accomplished not by the refinement of each essay in light of the objectives established separately but rather because of the reading as a whole they offer, made possible by the excellent job of the editors. The reader is offered a collection of essays that implies an astute reading exercise, an essential task whose effort can be well compared to the reading of a literary work.


Blanchot, M. 1986. The Writing of the Disaster. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Foucault, M. 1971. L’orde du discours: Leçon Inaugurale au Collège de France prononcée le 2 décembre 1970. Paris: Gallimard.

Gadamer, H.-G. 1986. Destruktion und Dekonstruktion. En H.-G. Gadamer, Gesammelte Werke. Vol 2. (361-372). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Husserl, E. 1976. Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie I: Allgemeine Einführung in die reine Phänomenologie, 2nd edn. Den Haag: Nijhoff.

[1] Following Detlef Thiel. 2003. “Husserls Phäenomenographie” in Recherches Husserliennes 19: 67 – 108.

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