115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Empathy and Immanent Other: Richardson, Husserl, and the Moral Implications of Discovering a “Not-Self” within the Subjective Sphere

Rebecca Rauve-Davis, Antioch University

Edmund Husserl showed how an objective world can be constituted from a starting point of absolute subjectivity; Dorothy Richardson depicted a complex fictional world without breaching the confines of her protagonist’s mind. Both grappled with the paradox of the immanent other.  Employing a Husserlian reading of Pilgrimage, this paper explores two questions: How can a real other can be discovered within a purely subjective realm? And what response does such a discovery demand?


Both Dorothy Richardson and Edmund Husserl grounded their work in the premise that absolute subjectivity provides the foundation from which all else is derived. Though criticized for their solipsism, both realized that others, complete with their own subjective realities, do appear within the subjective sphere, and both grappled intensely with the ethical implications of that appearance. In this paper, I will argue that both Richardson and Husserl show that recognizing the underlying oneness of all consciousness does not preclude an ethical response to the other, but in fact demands it.

I will begin by establishing the similarities between Husserl’s account of empathy in Cartesian Meditations, and Richardson’s presentation of the immanent other in Pilgrimage. Husserl says that when the body of another person appears within the sphere of immanence, we grasp that appearance “with actual originariness,” in the same way that we experience objects including our own bodies (CM 124). However, understanding that the other has his or her own subjective life is more complicated. By means of an “analogizing apprehension,” a mental act that occurs prior to any thought, we grasp that the other body is, like us, engaged in a process of “primal instituting.” We observe that this process goes on for the other person “in a livingly effective manner” (CM 112), just as our own subjective processes do for us. From there, we can infer that the body of the other has its own inner life.

In Pilgrimage, the initial absence of boundaries between Miriam and others around her is underscored by a variety of devices. These include descriptions of her felt experience of others’ inner life, and extend to accounts of mind-reading and the sensing of auras. I will review these phenomena and touch on the problems that this merger of self and other creates. Miriam’s recognition of the reality of the immanent other comes in stages. The process begins when Shatov, her first lover and intellectual partner, confronts her with her own prejudices. It continues when she moves to a working class neighborhood where she is confronted with lives far less fortunate that her own, and she must acknowledge her privileged status. A third pivotal moment occurs during her break-up with Shatov, when she is forced to recognize her own totalizing impulses. She sees that a new way of being in relationship is called for.

In Cartesian Meditations, Husserl acknowledges the moral imperative of the immanent other by his stress on community and communion. The self loses its privileged position—Husserl says, “there is implicit a mutual being for one another, which entails an objectivating equalization of my existence with that of all others” (129). In Pilgrimage, the Quaker community is presented as a model of community that recognizes the oneness of humanity, yet respects difference and embraces the moral imperative to act on behalf of others in need. Near the end of the book, Miriam adopts a devout Catholic as friend and mentor. This friend’s stated goal, “‘To love everyone about me,’” is sustained by an inner practice: “Incessant orientation of her spiritual compass toward the love that is the centre and gaiety of the universe” (March Moonlight, IV, 579). I will argue that Pilgrimage’s final scene implies that Miriam has accepted the challenge to transform her inner life to be a similar expression of unconditional love.

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