Phenomenological criticism: A type of literary criticism based upon phenomenology, a philosophical school of thought and method of analysis founded by late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century German philosopher Edmund Husserl whose proponents postulate that objects attain meaning only as they are perceived in someone’s consciousness. In other words, phenomenologists reject the notion that objects have inherent meaning and instead argue that objects have whatever meaning a given subject perceives in them. They also believe that all consciousness is intentional, that is, directed toward an object.
Roman Ingarden, a Polish thinker, was one of the first critics to incorporate phenomenology into literary theory. In The Literary Work of Art (1931) and The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art (1937), Ingarden borrowed the phenomenological concept of intentionality in arguing that a literary work: (1) has its beginnings in the intentional acts of its author’s consciousness; and (2) represents those acts, that consciousness, so that the reader apprehends them by experiencing the work both as an object and as his or her own consciousness. According to Ingarden, readers must, however, perform “active readings” to “concretize” works; the author’s perceptions are not automatically transferable — and therefore comprehensible — to the reader. Instead, the reader must engage in a “co-creative” reading that bridges gaps and may even resolve ambiguities in the work. For Ingarden, then, readers are not passive receptacles of an author’s perceptions but active partners in realizing the work in their own consciousness.
Phenomenological criticism is most often associated with the Geneva School, a group of literary critics who approached the text passively, sympathetically, and meditatively in an effort to achieve an intuitive understanding of the unique consciousness of its author. Geneva critics attempted to disregard any references external to the text, including their own presuppositions and beliefs, in order to experience the author’s Weltanschauung, or worldview, more completely and accurately.