What Is Phenomenology in Literary Theory?


Diego Sanchez

Phenomenology in Literary Theory: Understanding the Essence of Literature

Phenomenology is a philosophical approach that focuses on the study of conscious experience and the way it shapes our understanding of the world. In literary theory, phenomenology explores how we experience literature and how it affects us as readers. This article will delve into the basics of phenomenology in literary theory, including its history, key concepts, and its application to literary analysis.

History of Phenomenology

Phenomenology was first introduced by Edmund Husserl in the early 20th century as a way to understand consciousness and subjective experience. He believed that by examining our perceptions and experiences, we could better understand the nature of reality. Husserl’s ideas were further developed by philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Key Concepts in Phenomenology

At its core, phenomenology is about understanding subjective experience. It emphasizes the importance of perception and how we make sense of the world around us. Here are some key concepts to keep in mind when studying phenomenology:

  • Intentionality: This refers to the way our consciousness is always directed towards something. In other words, our thoughts are always about something.
  • Noema/Noesis: These terms refer to the object or thing that we are experiencing (noema) and our subjective experience of it (noesis).
  • Eidetic Reduction: This is a method used in phenomenological analysis to get at the essence or core of an experience.
  • Hermeneutics: This is a way of interpreting texts that emphasizes understanding them through their cultural context.

Phenomenology and Literature

So, what does phenomenology have to do with literature? Well, literary texts are often seen as a way of exploring subjective experience.

By examining the way characters perceive and experience the world around them, we can gain insights into our own experiences as readers. Phenomenology can help us understand how literature shapes our understanding of the world and how it affects us emotionally.

The Role of Perception in Literature

Perception is a key concept in phenomenology, and it plays an important role in literature as well. When we read a novel or a poem, we are experiencing the story through the perceptions of the characters. We see the world through their eyes, and this shapes our understanding of what is happening.

For example, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the narrator Nick Carraway’s perception of Jay Gatsby influences how we see him as readers. Nick’s admiration for Gatsby colors our interpretation of his actions and motivations.

Hermeneutics and Literary Analysis

Another key concept in phenomenology is hermeneutics – the idea that we can better understand texts by interpreting them through their cultural context. When analyzing a literary work from a phenomenological perspective, we must take into account not just the text itself but also its historical and cultural context.

For example, when reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, we must consider not just the events of the story but also its significance in relation to early 20th century Ireland. Understanding this context helps us better appreciate Joyce’s exploration of subjective experience through his characters’ perceptions.


Phenomenology offers an important perspective on literature that emphasizes subjective experience and perception. By analyzing literary works from a phenomenological perspective, we can gain deeper insights into our own experiences as readers and the way literature shapes our understanding of the world. Whether you’re a student of literature or just someone who loves to read, understanding phenomenology can enhance your appreciation of literary works and help you see them in a new light.