Bodies and sensings: On the uses of Husserlian phenomenology for feminist theory

Continental Philosophy Review 43 (1):13-37 (2010)
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What does Husserlian phenomenology have to offer feminist theory? More specifically, can we find resources within Husserl’s account of the living body ( Leib ) for the critical feminist project of rethinking embodiment beyond the dichotomies not only of mind/body but also of subject/object and activity/passivity? This essay begins by explicating the reasons for feminist hesitation with respect to Husserlian phenomenology. I then explore the resources that Husserl’s phenomenology of touch and his account of sensings hold for feminist theory. My reading of Husserl proceeds by means of a comparison between his description of touch in Ideas II and Merleau-Ponty’s early appropriation of this account in the Phenomenology of Perception, as well as through an unlikely rapprochement between Husserl and Irigaray on the question of touch. Moreover, by revisiting the limitations in Husserl’s approach to the body—limitations of which any feminist appropriation must remain cognizant—I attempt to take Husserl’s phenomenology of touch beyond its initial methodologically solipsistic frame and to ask whether and how it can contribute to thinking gendered and racialized bodies. The phenomenology of touch, I argue, can allow us to understand the interplay between subjective, felt embodiment and social-historical context. In opening up Husserl’s account of touch to other dimensions—intersubjective and affective—sociality is revealed as residing within, and structuring of, touch. Such touch can allow us to think embodiment anew.

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Alia Al-Saji
McGill University


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