16 Aug 2016

Collected summaries of Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach”


by Corry Shores


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Collected Summaries for


Wolfgang Iser


“The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach”





Brief summary of the whole text:

From a phenomenological point of view, a literary work has three main components: {1} the text itself, which provides the concrete phenomenal givens, {2} the reader who is reading the text itself [and perhaps here it is appropriate to add the author, who crafted the text in a way meant for the reader to have a certain experience], and {3} the ‘virtual’ literary work itself as being the product of the reader’s creative phenomenal collaboration with the author, where the reader contributes the connecting and gap-filling contents to the literary work on the basis of the fragments and intentional gaps that the author provides. In a sense, the literary work lies between the reader and the text and is constituted by the union of the author’s and the reader’s phenomenal consciousnesses. In the reader there are a number of faculties or operations that work together so that the reader’s consciousness can help craft the literary work. One element is their imagination, which brings to their awareness the sensible features of the situations that were left out of from the text’s descriptions. The second element is the structure of time-constituting consciousness, by which the past, present, and future of the story, as it unfolds, is shaped and related by means of shifting interpretations in the present that revise understandings and configurations of the past and revise [previse?] expectations of future events. The third main element is an inferential faculty or activity whereby the connections of the work’s situations and events are configured in an orderly, logical, and coherent way. This cognitive activity is not different from what we bring to bear in everyday life, only in the case of the literary experience, instead of our normal perceptual givens, we instead work with the textual givens. This also means that we learn from our literary experiences in the same way that we learn from our everyday experiences. And literary experience, in this regard, has an advantage over normal experience: when we read a literary text, we adopt the foreign consciousnesses of the author and characters. This forces us to experience things in ways that are normally not part of our everyday palate of experience, and thus we are more apt to learn new valuable things through the literary experience.








For any literary work, we have two poles of its reality: the text and the reader. But the literary work itself cannot exist exclusively on either pole. If it is just text without reader, it is meaningless scribbles. But if it is reader without text, then there is nothing in the reader’s mind that is substantially related to that work to begin with. The real literary work, then, is found at the intersection between reader and text, when the reader engages with the text and brings it to life through their imaginative and interpretative activities. This elusive existence of the literary work means that it has a virtual reality rather than a substantial actuality. This also means that readers are not passive receivers of the literary work. Rather, they play an artistic, creative role as well, since they must fill in gaps and add senses, significances, and meanings to the work wherever they are not explicitly given. Writers, then, are often aware of the vital role the reader plays in the creation of the literary work, and so they intentionally leave much out of the text so that the reader may contribute more productively to the work’s realization.







Phenomenologically speaking, to each sentence we read in a literary text there is a mental experience providing conscious content corresponding to that sentence. This content we may call the intentional correlates of the sentence. Each correlate gives us a part of the story’s world. But these parts in sum do not make up that world, because they are not inherently inter-connected within a fully coherent and complete system of facts. Rather, our minds creatively generate that coherence by filling in gaps in the story-world and in its series of events. The way we construct that series of events can be understood in terms of Husserl’s analyses of time consciousness, in which he identified three inter-penetrating layers of our awareness: {a} awareness of current mental contents, or intentions, {b} awareness of passed contents, or retentions, and {c} awareness of future contents, or protentions. In Iser’s terminology, these three are perspectives, recollections, and preintentions, respectively. Just as in our everyday time-constituting consciousness that provides the temporal coherence to our world, this process of story-world realization is under continual modification across all three temporal dimensions as we proceed through the text. For, new events cause us to modify our understanding of past ones and to anticipate certain other ones to come. When we reread a text, we know the outcomes. However, we still constitute the text using the same process, only this second time we see the events under a new light, which alters again with each subsequent rereading.







The literary work of art is not merely an objective given. It arises through the imaginative interaction of the reader with the raw text. It is important for the author to leave out details so that the reader’s imagination is activated and put to the artistically creative task of determining those story features for herself. Thus the exact same text will be imaginatively pictured and conceptually interpreted in different ways by different readers and also in different ways by the same reader upon additional readings. But the reader’s becoming artificially and imaginatively aware  of the perceptible features of the story’s elements is not the only important component of the imaginative literary experience. As well there is the awareness of what would need to be different from the reader’s given reading experience in order instead to have the experience of the story elements. So for example, to read about a mountain that is mentioned in a text involves not only creatively picturing that mountain’s details in one’s own particular way. It also involves becoming aware of what about our current situation (reading the book in a chair, for example) would need to be different in order for us to have the experience of seeing that mountain (as for example realizing the way we would be awed by it and influenced by the other perceptual and emotional components of such an experience.)







The literary work is created when a reader takes the givens of the text and fashions a coherent world with them. But that fabricated coherence of the fictional world is something open to constant reconfiguration. The author leaves out gaps in the plot and in the descriptions of situations, events, and characters. The reader, then, by using imagination and logical inference, fills in those gaps to generate an interpretation of what they think the author wants the reader to conclude at that point of the text. The reader thus supplies elements that are not given in the text, and since these parts are not given, they can be thought of as illusory. The reader oscillates between a mode of immersing themself in these illusions they fabricate and a mode of standing outside the illusory world to question the viability of its interpretational connections and to reconfigure the world as new inferences compel the reader to believe that alternate interpretations are more appropriate.







When we read a literary text, our interpretations are acts of creation. And they are phenomenological in the sense that we experience what it is like to be a participant in the described situations. But these situations and the characters in them are unfamiliar to us. So when we read, we absorb that unfamiliarity into our own conscious life, as if we are living it for ourselves. By doing so, the reader’s own consciousness is modified in such a way that it is as if it is really the consciousness of the character or of the author. The reader’s own personal subjectivity is placed in the background, while an “alien me” comes into the reader’s direct awareness. By means of this structure, not only do readers, by reading literary works, have new sorts of experiences that they learn from, they also develop their own personalities, as they integrate into their inner lives the lessons and ideas they learned by adopting the foreign consciousness provided by the text.





Wolfgang Iser. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History 3 (1972): 279-99.


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