Phenomenology and Race (or Racializing Phenomenology)

Authored by: Gail Weiss

The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Race

Print publication date:  December  2017
Online publication date:  November  2017

Print ISBN: 9780415711234
eBook ISBN: 9781315884424
Adobe ISBN:


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The major influence that the phenomenological concepts introduced in the early twentieth century by Edmund Husserl had upon many of the most famous philosophers of the twentieth century, including Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, has been well documented. Although each of these thinkers took up and transformed Husserlian phenomenology in remarkably innovative and productive ways, the publication in 1952 of Frantz Fanon’s Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks) broke new ground in its revolutionary application and critique of Husserl’s phenomenological method. Indeed, the philosophical upheaval produced by this amazing text continues unabated today, over a half century after its original publication. More specifically, Fanon’s work has played a central role in inaugurating what Lisa Guenther calls a “critical phenomenology,” a rigorous philosophical mode of inquiry that abandons the meta-level of “pure” subjective description advocated by Husserl, and directly addresses the constitutive social, political, psychological, economic, historical, and cultural dimensions of the phenomena under investigation. As Guenther observes, “[b]y critical phenomenology I mean a method that is rooted in first-person accounts of experience but also critical of classical phenomenology’s claim that the first-person singular is absolutely prior to intersubjectivity and the complex textures of social life” (Guenther 2013: xiii).” Subjectivity, critical phenomenologists emphasize, develops in and through our intersubjective experiences, not apart from them. Thus, there is no way to inoculate one’s own first-person perspective from the influences of others since the former is always already mediated by the social world(s) in which one lives. This core insight regarding the essential intersubjective dimensions of subjectivity, while implicit in Husserl’s own work, has played a central role in phenomenological accounts such as Fanon’s that seek to address the first-person experience of racial oppression.

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