Franz Kafka and the Genealogy of Modern European Philosophy: From Phenomenology to Post-Structuralism

Author: Allan, Neil
This study explores a coalition of philosophy and literature in the work of Franz Kafka. The initial stage of this identification consists in a reading of Kafka’s output informed by an account of his study of the “descriptive psychology” of Franz Brentano and associated thinkers. This examination provokes a vision of his work as constituting a subversive exploitation of this early form of phenomenology. Moreover, the nature of this appropriation seems to be that which renders his writing so conducive to recent post-structuralist approaches.

The test hence moves on to an analysis and critique of the post-structuralist reception of Kafka, alighting upon thinkers such as Barthes, Blanchot, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari. The work of the latter two theorists intersects in surprising and suggestive ways with the reading of Kafka formulated with reference to his phenomenological studies. Connections between positions conventionally regarded as incompatible are thus forged.

Little attention has been paid to Kafka’s engagement with Brentano’s school, and the study is the first to relate its influence to more recent philosophical approaches, arguing that it is the paradoxical nature of Kafka’s response to early phenomenology that renders his work so amenable to post-structuralist interpretation. The analysis furnishes critiques of many literary-theoretical orthodoxies and a “genealogy” of twentieth-century European philosophy. It suggests new ways of reading Kafka and of staging the encounter between philosophy and literature. Ultimately, it aims to articulate philosophically the irreducible enigmas of Kafka’s world.


“In recent years the interests and enthusiasms of the young Kafka have come to attract the attention of critics and commentators keen to revise the image of a writer too exclusively identified with transcendental homelessness and prophetic insight into the horrors of twentieth-century history. The starting point of this study is one such interest, the work of the Austrian philosopher Franz Brentano and the circle of thinkers around him, which formed the subject of a discussion-group that Kafka attended from 1902 to 1905. Although Kafka's friend and literary executor Max Brod denied that Brentano had any significance for Kafka's writing, Neil Allan is able to show how widely the thinking of the Brentano school resonates in his fiction. This is not to propose a philosophical key to unlock the enigmas of the texts, but rather to explore the intersection of philosophy and literature and to show how Kafka's engagement with Brentanian ideas helps account for the extraordinary literalism of his fiction. It also throws light on the ways in which that fiction proves to be both attractive and resistant to much of the post-structuralist criticism that proliferates later in the twentieth century. Kafka's narratives invite philosophical perspectives and have a particular appeal to the philosophical mind, to that 'ruhig einteilenden Verstand', that calmly dividing and ordering mind that Josef K. in The Trial tries to maintain to the very end. They frequently adopt the rhetoric of logical argument or seek exhaustively to enumerate all the possible meanings of a statement or action; but all that ratiocination runs finally into the sand and never arrives at a firm foundation of meaning. Kafka both incites and frustrates interpretation in the same gesture; a gesture as enigmatic as Josef K.'s final action of raising his hands and spreading out all his fingers - in appeal or surrender, reaching out in hope or succumbing to despair? While carefully grounding Kafka's fiction in its philosophical context and lucidly exploring the subtleties of post-structuralist readings, Allan remains sensitive to this abiding elusiveness and critical of all attempts at reductive interpretation. It is as networks of open-ended connections that Kafka's texts can most fruitfully be read, and in proposing such a reading and in finding new and illuminating connections, this closely but clearly argued study will serve both the philosophically-minded and the non-philosophical reader alike.” - (from the Commendatory Preface) Dr. John Rignall, Senior Lecturer in English and Comparative European Literary Studies, University of Warwick

“… Allan’s book will be deservedly welcomed by all admirers of Kafka, not only those with a professional interest in this remarkable writer.” - David E. Cooper, Professor Philosophy, University of Durham

“This is an original, philosophically informed study of Kafka’s work which illuminatingly situates it in relation to some of the major European philosophical traditions of the 20th century … A fascinating study of Kafka, and through him, of the intersections and tensions between philosophy and literature.” – Dr. Peter Poellner, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Warwick

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Kafka and the Brentano School
3. Authorship, Genre, Language
4. Interpretation
5. Power/Desire
6. Reading Kafka