The Big Idea: A Phenomenological Encounter in the World of Social Justice

Geraldo Scala is a current OHMA student. In this post, he links phenomenology and social justice through Wesley Hogan and Charlie Cobb's presentation, Who Gets to Tell the Story?: A Fresh Approach to Collaborating with Activists to Create Archives.

Is there still room for big ideas in the field of social justice? This question has permeated my mind ever since I attended Who Gets to Tell the Story?: A Fresh Approach to Collaborating with Activists to Create Archives, on April 14, 2016, part of a bi-weekly oral history workshop at Columbia University. The guest speakers were Wesley Hogan, director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, specializing in the history of youth social movements, African American history, women’s history and oral history; and Charles E. “Charlie” Cobb, Jr., a Washington, D.C. native residing in Jacksonville, Florida. Cobb served as Mississippi field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1962 to 1967 and is currently a Visiting Scholar Activist at Duke. I was moved by the stories of their activism and struggles against racism, and I could not help but see a direct connection between their work and mine, which at first glance seems far more abstract. This essay is a nascent attempt to link phenomenology and social justice. 

For the past few months I have been working on a theoretical construct I call “existential cathexis.” The term existential I borrowed from Martin Heidegger and John Paul Sartre (2008 & 1987). My hybrid of their term combines both of their meanings.  In the former’s sense, it is a phenomenon to which all humans have access, i.e. an existential characteristic of human experience.  In the latter, it refers to any idea, object, or place that has the ability to add existential meaning to one’s life. Generally, the term existential is analogous to pure potentiality, which means we have the ability to create new meaning in our lives. “Cathexis” is a term borrowed from the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (2010). It refers to the investment of mental energy in any person, place, idea, or object. Therefore, “existential cathexis” is the experience of any thing—object, person, idea, or place—in one’s world that has the ability to focus one’s prolonged attention and transform one’s reality. The experience of existential cathexis is an existential characteristic of human experience to which we all have access.

On the night of the workshop, after some formal introductions, Hogan related a story about her childhood. The story can be heard in the audio clip provided below. As it turns out, her first encounter with racism was in her own home at the age of seven. Hogan’s grandmother forbade her from inviting an African American girl—schoolmate and fellow athlete—to her birthday party. This experience left a lasting impression on Hogan. For years she struggled to understand entrenched racism in a racially segregated Philadelphia. As Hogan entered college, she began to forge a new reality for herself and make a lasting impact on her community. Her most profound revelation occurred when she started interviewing Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members from the 1960s. Hogan claims that those dialogues changed her life and recentered her values.

The story Hogan told connected her life experience to the work I had been doing in phenomenology. The way I see existential cathexis is the following: for whatever reason an individual might feel uneasy in their world. In Hogan’s case, it was because of the racism of the 1980s and 1990s in Philadelphia. Slowly, a person might begin to engage with new ideas, objects, people, or places. As Hogan entered college she began to work with activist groups, but it was in her encounters with SNCC veteran activists that the true transformation occurred. Hogan, ontologically speaking, entered into a new world where she could feel good about herself and her mission in life. This is a perfect example of existential cathexis. Unhappy with her native environment, Hogan, figuratively speaking, created a new world for herself. She entered a world that had a long tradition of activism and struggle. This in turn allowed her to become who she is today—a scholar and champion of human rights. Hogan’s activities are characteristic of the way she is in the world. In other words, she is part of a world in a particular way, i.e. as an activist and professor.  

According to John Paul Sartre, “existence precedes essence” (1987; 15). Men and women first appear on the scene, and then they define themselves. In Sartre’s view human subjectivity presupposes a type of absolute freedom to choose for ourselves; in choosing for ourselves, we choose for all humanity (1987; 20). For instance, Hogan chose to fight the segregated world of which she was a part. She could have easily ignored it and assimilated to ‘the way it is.’ Sartre’s existentialism suggests that our worlds are our own to fashion. If people choose to oppress others, we will live in an oppressive world; if we get together and vote, we might live in a democratic world. If we choose to share the means of production, we might live in a socialist world, and so it goes.

We know very well that the right to choose is a Western ideal that is always and everywhere constrained by various circumstances. There is no doubt that Hogan’s world is full of such constraints. At times our choices are even made for us.  Perhaps I do not fully agree with Sartre, in that the subject is absolutely free to choose. I do, however, believe that agency, while culturally bound, is full of possibility—the ability to create meaning, which is prior to any choice. The world of social justice is full of such potentiality.


Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotion. Reissue edition. New York: Citadel, 1987. Print.