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Epiphanies of finitude: a phenomenological study of existential reading Open Access


Other title
literary reading
cognitive science
empirical study of literature
existential reading
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Sopcak, Paul
Supervisor and department
Miall, David (English & Film Studies and Comparative Literature)
Kuiken, Don (Psychology and Comparative Literature)
Examining committee member and department
Bortolussi, Marisa (Modern Languages and Cultural Studies)
Burch, Robert (Philosophy)
Miall, David (English & Film Studies and Comparative Literature)
Kuiken, Don (Psychology and Comparative Literature)
Oatley, Keith (Human Development & Applied Psychology)
Comparative Literature

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
A prominent hypothesis in literary studies is that readers, especially those that are fully immersed, engage empathically with fictional characters. This dissertation provides a critique of the Cartesian assumptions embedded in contemporary (cognitive scientific) models of empathy and then goes on to provide an alternative account of empathy based on especially Husserl’s and Heidegger’s phenomenology. According to this alternative, empathy does not establish but rather discloses in reflection an already present intersubjectivity from which it is derivative. It is also held that readers who are fully empathically engaged in a literary text lose self-awareness. I provide a critique of this view and present a Husserlian model according to which full engagement with the other and continuation of a certain kind of self-awareness occur simultaneously. This phenomenological alternative is based on the notion that an experiential self-givenness or “mineness” accompanies all my experiences and is prior to any objectifying forms of self-awareness. I then critique Cartesian models of (self-)reflection and self-modification in literary reading and with the help of Heidegger suggest a phenomenological model within which the distinction between modification of beliefs and the modification that is inherent in experiencing becomes understandable as contingent on the form of ontological interrogation that Merleau-Ponty terms “radical reflection”. Finally, I present a series of empirical studies investigating whether the preceding theoretical distinctions are borne out in the experiences of actual readers of literary texts concerned with human finitude. Phenomenological methods, (Kuiken, Schopflocher, and Wild; Kuiken and Miall, “Numerically Aided Phenomenology”) were employed to 1) identify several distinct types of reading experience, 2) spell out how one of those types instantiates ‘existential reading’ as conceived here, and 3) provide convergent and discriminant validation of this type of reading experience. Of particular interest was whether a form of existential reading can be understood as an event during which readers engage the text through a form of empathic engagement that is grounded in an a priori intersubjectivity, that retains an experiential self-awareness or “mineness” simultaneously with empathic engagement, and that supports a non-Cartesian form of “radical reflection” that opens onto an ontological consideration of finitude.
License granted by Paul Sopcak ( on 2011-01-30T18:55:52Z (GMT): Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of the above terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis, and except as herein provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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