Towards a critical phenomenology of sensibility: transforming transcendence with Husserl, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty

Djursaa, Ida Caroline (2023) Towards a critical phenomenology of sensibility: transforming transcendence with Husserl, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


Contra the privileging of perception in phenomenological accounts of bodily existence, this thesis develops a notion of sensibility which, it argues, is needed in order to account for the contextual structuring of the ways in which our bodies come to move, feel, and touch. From a feminist perspective, it begins to develop a critical phenomenology of sensibility through a tracing of the notion of transcendence such as this operates in the works of Edmund Husserl, Emmanuel Levinas, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Transcendence is argued to work most basically at the level of bodily sensibility rather than consciousness or perception. Sensibility is defined as a pre-reflective and pre-perceptual dimension through which the body is open to material and historical change and transformation. It is argued that whilst sensibility does not ‘appear’ in any traditional phenomenological sense, it is precisely this notion of sensibility that unlocks the critical and political potential of a phenomenology of bodily life. This argument is demonstrated in three parts. Part one on Husserl uncovers a notion of sensibility that is operative in Ideas II and investigates the temporality of sensibility through a critical transposition of his theory of time to the level of bodily movement. Part two develops the notions of assimilative and non-assimilative sensibility through an ontological, rather than ethical, reading of Levinas. Taking a feminist critical approach, it engages his late thinking on diachrony in order to formulate a notion of the body as an original intercorporeality through the fact of having been born. Part three argues, contra Merleau-Ponty’s claim that perception is primary, that a notion of sensibility is operative in the Phenomenology which pushes this work towards the ontology of the flesh. In dialogue with the feminist literature on sex and gender, it analyses the contextually specific structuring of the erotic as a modality of sensibility. This excavation of transcendence as sensibility is in each part shown to push classical phenomenology towards its own transformation from within. Thus, the thesis lays the groundworks, from within ‘classical’ phenomenology, for a critical phenomenology of sensibility which, it argues, can account for the ways in which bodily existence and experience is structured in interaction with material, social, and historical factors that are not themselves ‘given’ in experience.

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