Phenomenology and Literature

Phenomenology and Literature

Encountering the Text: Literature and Phenomenology

  • What happens when we encounter a literary text?
  • How does this encounter compare with other day-to-day experiences?
  • How can phenomenology help us to interpret literary texts?
  • How can literary texts help us to better understand phenomenology?

In order to answer these questions, this project reconsiders the act of reading through phenomenology and, conversely, reconsiders phenomenology through literature. As the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty states, ‘phenomenology can be practised and identified as a manner of thinking’ (1945). This ‘manner of thinking’, unlike traditional scientific thinking, is focused on understanding our direct subjective-and-embodied experience of the world, rather than on understanding the objective, material structure of the world. Building on, and moving beyond, the recent resurgence in phenomenological interpretations of literature and the largely-forgotten phenomenological criticism of the 1960s-70s, this interdisciplinary project gains insights from a range of fields and professions, from anthropology to psychotherapy.

As outlined by Pol Vandevelde in the introduction to his 2010 edited collection, phenomenological approaches to literature can be (broadly) split into five historical trends: ‘literature as a field of application’, ‘literature as object of aesthetic reflection’, ‘literature as world-disclosure’, ‘existential themes and problems’, and ‘literature as a reserve of narratives’. The fourth trend – ‘existential themes and problems’ – is proving especially popular. Scholars of modernism, in particular, have been focusing on the presence of the phenomenological themes of embodiment, intersubjectivity, and the self/world relationship in literary texts. Exemplars of this approach are Gosetti-Ferencei’s monograph (2007), Maude and Feldman’s edited collection (2009), Bourne-Taylor and Mildenberg’s edited collection (2010), Mildenberg’s monograph (2017), and my own monograph (2017). These recent works engage with phenomenology but they do not step back to examine the wider relationship between phenomenology and literary studies; there is now, therefore, an urgent need to critically re-assess this relationship, to reconsider the ways in which phenomenology can aid the practice of literary criticism and vice vera.


  • To investigate readers’ subjective, embodied experience of texts
  • To learn from and utilize the methods and perspectives of phenomenologists working in a variety of academic fields and professions
  • To delineate a new phenomenological practice for encountering literary texts

Expected outputs

Edited collection – Phenomenology and Literature: Theory or Practice?

Journal article – ‘The Literary Text: Between Subject and Object’


I convened a workshop on this topic in January 2016, featuring short talks by Dr Elizabeth Barry (University of Warwick), Dr Carole Bourne-Taylor (University of Oxford), Professor Maximilian De Gaynesford (University of Reading), Dr Ulrika Maude (Bristol University), and Dr David Nowell Smith (University of east Anglia). Photos from the event can be viewed at the top of this webpage.

I shall run a second workshop, in collaboration with the University of Warwick, in April 2018. Details to follow…