Advances in Literary Study
2013. Vol.1, No.2, 10-13
Published Online April 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Defending Husserlian Phenomenology from Terry
Eagleton’s Critique
Bailan Qin
Institute of Cross-Cultural Studies, School of Interna ti onal Studies, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China
Email: .cn
Received February 12th, 2013; revised March 14 th, 2013; accepted April 9th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Bailan Qin. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribu-
tion License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and r eproduction in any medium, provided the original
work is properly cited.
This article develops, illustrates, and defends Husserlian Phenomenology from a critique in Terry Eagle-
ton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction second edition (1996). Husserlian Phenomenology is construed as
a methodology of philosophical hunt for certainty and universal essences by pure perception through
“phenomenological reduction”. Eagleton’s charge that Husserlian Phenomenology is a form of methodo-
logical idealism necessarily committed to a science of subjectivity and an imaginary solution to the world
that leads to the sacrifice of human history. But Husserlian phenomenology insists that meaningful and
potentially efficacious certainty must be connected to relevant entity and consciousness internal to the
culture or social order at which the criticism is directed. Thus, to our defense, the complaint that pheno-
menological demand will likely limit actual historical background where criticism is denied, and the abil-
ity of Husserlian Phenomenology to develop from pure phenomenon to unphenomenological thinking is
defended and demonstrated.
Keywords: Terry Eagleton’s Critique; Historical Construct; Husserlian Phenomenology;
Unphenomenological Thinking
Terry Eagleton (born 22 February 1943, Salford) (hereinafter
E) is perhaps the most influential British literary theorist of the
living literary critics. For over 30 years he has unveiled a steady
stream of publications developing his particular take on social
or historical theory that was informed by works of Marxists, as
well as his mentor Raymond Williams who was a left-wing
literary critic at Cambridge. In literary critiques, E’s thought
seems to have become especially influential, often critically, in
a number of literary and theoretical works. This article sets out
to examine and critically evaluate E’s critique of phenomenol-
ogy as presented in his Literary Theory: An Introduction sec-
ond edition (1996). Since it is not possible to properly under-
stand E’s critique without situating it within the context of his
broader theoretical orientation, the introduction begins with a
brief exploration of some of the key concepts underpinning his
version of Marxism-flavored critique. Of particular importance
for this article is his notion of social and historical stance util-
ized in 1996 book. E recognized social and historical back-
ground as what is continuously offered as neutral, natural, uni-
versal and obviously proper form of expression as writing or
cultural production. As he announces this theme that dominates
his first chapter, The Rise of English, thus: the so-called literary
canon, the unquestioned great tradition of the national literature,
has to be recognized as a construct, fashioned by particular
people for particular reasons at a certain time (p. 11).
Having reviewed E’s central social or historical construct,
the article turns to discuss his critique of phenomenology in the
next two sessions. For E’s critique, to be brief, it concludes
with two points: a simplified review of how Hussserl’s phe-
nomenology, while at times richly significant, can itself be
criticized for being an overly deterministic rendering of human
thought, i.e. idealism; and a call for phenomenologists to re-
think the doomed drawbacks referred as “sacrifice of human
history”. Following this to begin our argument, some of the
problems with his critique are examined in light of the work of
Edmund Husserl. Thus, to develop our defense against E’s criti-
que, the following sections are to focus on: 1) essence of phe-
nomenology (a more detailed and thorough literature review of
Husserlian Phenomenology); 2) defending Husserlian Pheno-
menology (a step-by-step defense from E’s elaborate critique).
Essence of Phenomenology
Phenomenology is portrayed as the study of essences (Mer-
leau, 1962), the science of phenomena (van Manen, 1997), and
the exploration of human experience (Polkinghorne, 1989).
Spiegelberg (1982) opined that phenomenology is a moving
philosophy with a dynamic momentum, determined by its in-
trinsic principles and the structure of the territory it encounters,
composed of several parallel currents, related but not homoge-
neous, with a common point of departure but not a definite and
predictable joint destination. Discussions of the work of Hus-
serl, Heidegger, and Merleau Ponty, must recognize that phe-
nomenology changed considerably within each philosopher’s
work, as well as across the different philosophers (Cohen,
1987). However, when examining phenomenology, one par-
ticular point we need to pay attention is though phenomenol-
ogical philosophy melds into methodology in many above dis-
cussions, it may not be completely delineated from method.
And the methodological consideration is especially typical
within basic argument in Husserl’s pioneer attempt, which at-
tracts loads of continuing criticism. And this article focuses
thus on the main components of the phenomenological stances
of Husserl.
Husserl rejected the extreme idealist position (the mind cre-
ates the world) and the extreme empiricist position (reality
exists apart from the passive mind). He sought to forge a path
that would ground and confirm the objectivity of human con-
sciousness as it relates to the life world (Kearney & Rainwater,
1996). He stated that sciences of experience were sciences of
fact in his effort to develop a science of phenomena, of es-
sences as they appear through consciousness (Husserl, 1913/
1952). For Husserl (1913/1952), the World existed prior to con-
sciousness and his phenomenology encompassed notions of
pure consciousness: “It is then to this world, the world in which
I find myself and which is also my world-about-me, that the
complex forms of my manifold and shifting spontaneities of
consciousness stand related” (p. 103). Husserl’s goals were
strongly epistemological, and he considered experience the fun-
damental source of meaning, of knowledge. Three key concepts
of Husserlian phenomenology included essences, intentionality,
and phenomenological reduction (bracketing). He stated that
phenomenology should return “to the things themselves”, to the
essences that constitute the consciousness and perception of the
human world, the very nature of a phenomenon that makes a
some “thing” what it is—and without which it could not be
what it is (Husserl, 1913/1952). Husserl spoke of a division
without any real separation “between two different sections of
our inquiry, the one bearing on pure subjectivity, the other on
that which belongs to the constitution of objectivity as referred
to its subjective source... the intentional reference of experi-
ences to objects” (p. 234). In Husserl’s transcendental approach,
he believed that the mind is directed toward objects, conscious-
ness was to be the “consciousness of something”, and he called
this directedness intentionality (Koch, 1995). Husserl devised
phenomenological reduction or bracketing as a technique to
hold subjective, private perspectives and theoretical constructs
in abeyance and allow the essence of the phenomena to emerge.
Defending Husserlian Phenomenology
From the above introduction, we might clearly sense what
phenomenology, particularly Husserlian phenomenology, is.
Husserl, the father of phenomenology, primarily concern phe-
nomena as the passage to understanding phenomena itself even
the essence lying deep or behind them. One way to achieve the
goal is basically relying on human conciousness, which can
ideally combine the outside “thing” with the inward “thinking”.
In one word, Husserlian phenomenology is never constructed
upon mere thinking without verifying specific phenomena out-
side in the material world. It is no idealism at all. Nevertheless,
it is once or more being attacked again and again as idealism
with all gun power centered on it in E’s critique.
E starts with a background introduction, where WWI broke
out and a wave of social revolutions rolled across Europe. All
insurgency and social disorder shook the ideologies which
turned to be in deep turmoil. When further leading to Husser-
lian phenomenology, E precisely explains its aim and working
mechanism because such understandings and principles are
widely shared, they are commonly invoked in ordinary discus-
sion and conversation, argument, and debate. But to our argu-
ment, “against natural attitude” and “seek for essences” serve,
often contradictorily, on one hand to explain or justify its unin-
tuitive nature, while on the other hand to criticize it by arguing
its fatally intuitive characteristic which results in irrationalism,
an authoritarian theory, and a consoling doctrine. Such expla-
nations and normative arguments take for granted the rational-
ity and/or normative worth of the assumptions, beliefs, and
principles he deploys. Hence apparently, E’s critique is inher-
ently conventional and conservative because it regards his tar-
get as valuable, but deploys directly, historically dominant un-
derstandings and norms to pinpoint the so-called drawbacks. As
noted earlier, Husserl’s phenomenology is to some point resis-
tant to E’s form of critique, for his project is focused upon ex-
plicitly using the phenomenological reduction (epoche) to pe-
netrate the unquestioned acceptance of the “natural attitude” in
order to reveal the fundamental structures of consciousness that
underlie it. In other words, Husserl attempts to use the phe-
nomenological reduction in the service of determining the gen-
erative structures of consciousness that underpin an individual’s
taken-for-granted world of lived experience. It is therefore
theoretically and practically inserted well into E’s opposite opi-
nion, thus E’s argument is actually self-blinded. When valuable
connotation in norms like essences and intentionality are vio-
lated, or when worthwhile practices like phenomenological re-
duction are debased, appeals to just historical arguing—to self-
prevailing Marxism values and standards. The ideas in Marx-
ism are often helpful reminders, and effective correctives to E’s
In order to address E’s critique, and mostly importantly, in
order to develop an adequate account of Husserlian Phenome-
nology, it will prove helpful to begin by drawing once more on
the salience of social and historical consideration bracing all
E’s deduction. “Historical roots” is identified at the preface of
E’s first-order critique. In phenomenological critique, social or
historical context justify almost all argument by claiming that it
conforms to, embodies, or serves prevailing charge to pheno-
menology. These arguments either include or presuppose inter-
pretations of those practices that identify and describe their
social meaning, purpose or point, an intrinsic and/or instrumen-
tal value. Exaggerated claims about essentially idealism to ge-
nuinely intuitive thinking and change are often given as reasons
for recommending putatively social or historical modes of nor-
mative reasoning. The underlying premise is that such historical
modes of reasoning enable escape from the always confining
and usually essential ground of unphenomenological thinking
in Husserlian phenomenology, and the underlying promise is
that one (favored) mode of such reasoning will secure ultimate
truth or wisdom sufficient to do what Husserlian phenomenol-
ogy fails to do, namely, induce non-evaluative even pure ideal-
istic reflection. Now, that the truth might make us free is not an
unfounded idea, and it is certainly possible to argue that just as
truth about the natural world are likely to alter human thinking
and conduct, so too normative truth can engender change in the
ignorant and misguided. In this regard, E’s critique is just a
typical case.
After concerning the front-back contradictory premise of E’s
critique, his later common and radical critique are these: that it
is a flux of random phenomena that, therefore, committed to
uncertainty; that it is inherently intuitive; and that it is subjec-
tive, and its results all sound “intolerably abstract and unreal”.
Against each charge, E shall argue that his critique is the best
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 11
antidote to explanation of Husserlian phenomenology because
this philosophical method demonstrates that no conventional
norms or practices are beyond question and challenge. More-
over, against each charge, he contends that phenomenology is
compatible with and open to the possibility of conscious as well
as concrete deep-structural norms, though it rightly assumes
that all such norms require intuition and thinking in order to
gain reliable knowledge and substantive truth. And he shall do
so, in part, by distinguishing between first-order explanation
and second-order critique. He concludes:
It should be obvious even from this brief account of phe-
nomenology that it is a form of methodological idealism, seek-
ing to explore an abstraction called “human consciousness” and
a world of pure possibilities.
By “articulating” the final account—that is, by describing,
classifying, elaborating, illuminating, and uncovering the more
or less unarticulated definitions, sentiments and values, and
standards and self-understandings embodied in the critique of
Husserlian phenomenology—E argues that pre-view of Kant
and back-view of Leavis further instantiate virtues and goods
about dogmatism which intuition is increasingly collaborative
and right. Immediate sensation works to develop a global the-
ory, which “is bound to be an authoritarian theory, since it de-
pends wholly on intuition”. But because such accusation cham-
pioned by intuition resonate too well with extreme words like
dogmatism, irrationalism and subjectivity, E’s observation thus
put itself increasingly at risk by dogmatic conclusion which on
the contrary serves simultaneously as a defense of Husserlian
phenomenology. To our defense, phenomenology rightly avers,
what we call intentional theory of conciousness, and what I am
calling a truth like an existing straw easily attacked by wind but
never fell down. Husserlian phenomenology can “serve a criti-
cal function” while yet being “constructive and conserving”.
As E finally transfers to the contribution phenomenology has
offered to literary criticisms, he shows that the approach is not
necessarily, or even characteristically, conservative with its in-
fluence on the Russian Formalists. With his presentation, Rus-
sian Formalism is just “like” Husserlian’s methodology, in
which poetry is bracketed off real objects and goes back to the
poetry itself. Apart from that, Geneva school is also sided in
with a form just following suit:
As with Husserl’s “bracketing” of the real object, the actual
historical context of the literary work, its author, conditions of
production and readership are ignored; phenomenological critic
is aims instead at a wholly “immanent” reading of the text, to-
tally unaffected by anything outside it. The text itself is reduced
to a pure embodiment of the author’s consciousness: all of its
stylistic and semantic aspects are grasped as organic parts of a
complex totality, of which the unifying essence is the author’s
mind. To know this mind, we must not refer to anything we
actually know of the author-biographical criticism is banned but
only to those aspects of his or her consciousness which mani-
fest themselves in the work itself. Moreover, we are concerned
with the “deep structures” of this mind, which can be found in
recurrent themes and patterns of imagery (p. 51).
Against the final charge, I intend to admit the phenomenol-
ogical analogy E has described in Geneva school, and that
something like subjectivity, are characteristic features of the
approach, but I shall refuse to see this methodological concern
as a critical problem. Subjectivity seems to me inevitable, a
reflection or result of the human condition and not of the ap-
proach, and it should lead theorists, on the one side, to recog-
nize and respect human diversity and, on the other, to admit to
the role of consciousness, and thus to immediate relationship
between truth and phenomena. Transcendental structures can
not be gained without reasoning. But the universal essences like
love, beauty and compassion are often felt and conducted by all.
Human beings are in states of ongoing reciprocity with their
environments. Life processes evolve irreversibly and unidirec-
tionally along the space-time continuum. Humans are homeo-
dynamic, as they seek stability and balance in their dynamic
forward motion. Humans are characterized by their capacity for
abstraction and imagery, language and thought, sensation and
emotion. Pattern and organization individuate and identify per-
sons, families, and communities and reflect their innovative
wholeness. Subject and object are two sides of one coin. In this
regard, subjective/objective distinction is what Husserl so as-
siduously attempted to abolish. But E contends that the justifi-
cation and criticism of phenomenology and phenomenological
practices and practical norms are filled with flaws. I thus regard
his critique as unjustified or self-vindicated norms and practices
that apparently cohere with the most plausible account of phe-
nomenology, especially, the ideally step-by-step account of Hus-
serlian phenomenology, and practically regard it as unsatisfac-
tory and unjustified methodological truth that works against
itself as well as literary criticism. One metaphorical example, I
should argue, is that as long as one commits a crime, evidence
unavoidably is left. So does phenomenological method. As long
as your conscious is intentionally towards deep structures, you
must first meet phenomena. That can make all those so-called
essence, truth, principle, discipline and law of our world justi-
fied, and particularly appropriate, for we are human beings,
given our liberal traditions and ideals. Such an appeal to extant
humankind traditions and ideals constitutes, or more accurately
presupposes, an interpretation of phenomenology that is sup-
posed to make plausible the claim that the principle of immedi-
ate phenomena and the practice of looking through phenomena
“fit” particularly well their character and aspirations, and this,
in turn, is supposed to warrant the claim that the principle and
the practice are justified or rational.
These brief illustrations, of E’s reasoning for the critique of
Husserlian phenomenology and of his fundamental historical
stance, provide evidence for thinking that E’s critique can be
quite radical. “A thoughtful critic can always draw attention to
radical ideas and possibilities, even if only by transgressing
conventional understandings or taboos; and he or she can al-
ways find creative ways to defend those possibilities on more or
less conventional grounds, even while challenging, revising,
transforming, and/or rejecting elements of the conventional.”
(Sabia, 2010: p. 704) Hence it is not true that visions of Husser-
lian phenomenology is “nothing less than a science of subjec-
tivity itself” will likely be “parochial” if we adopt as more tho-
rough observing approach to his target and possibly he will
change his critique and its interpretative methods. Parochial
visions, to be sure, will be the fruit of basic stance E has alway s
took, but what I have tried to argue here is that the notion of a
historic culture in E’s argument is in the final analysis an in-
vention that ignores the extent to which phenomenology itself
is rooted in cultures and languages, and the individuals who
inhabit and employ them, are complex, contestable, and muta-
ble constructions. Seemingly strong tilling of these fertile fields
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 13
insures against E’s critique while providing the most persuasive,
and the most authoritative, grounds for our anti-critique of
norms and practices that they can have. Put in ways that will
need qualification, the interpretation of the phenomenology E
presupposed in this kind of argument is the monologue of an
interpretation of its overall meaning or central themes, and the
claim that phenomenology suits particularly well idealism and
is therefore criticized.
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