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The Phenomenological Reduction: A Story of Misunderstandings

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3. The Phenomenological Reduction: A Story of Misunderstandings


Among the methodological devices of Husserlian phenomenology, that which undoubtedly has attracted most criticism, even among the first generation of his students, is the so-called phenomenological (or ‘transcendental’) reduction. Husserl developed this procedure in lectures from 1907 onwards and it finds its first canonical statement in Ideas I:
Everything belonging to the natural world that comes experientially to consciousness prior to all thinking […] has the character: ‘there’, ‘actually occurring’ [vorhanden] – a character which essentially permits an explicit (predicative) existential judgement based upon it […] This general thesis that pertains to the essence of the natural attitude we put out of action; we place in brackets all and everything that it embraces ontically, […] I practise the ‘phenomenological’ , which disallows any judgement about spatiotemporal existence. Thus I suspend [schalte aus] all the sciences relating to this natural world […] I make absolutely no use of its valid claims […] consciousness has in itself its own being, which in its absolutely own essence is not affected by the phenomenological suspension. Thus it remains as ‘phenomenological residuum’[…] (Id 1, §§ 31-32, pp. 53/57-8, 56-7/61, 59/65).

And thus we ask quite generally, keeping in mind these suspensions, what is ‘inherent’ in the whole ‘reduced’ phenomenon. Well then, what is inherent in a perception is also this, that it has a noematic sense, its ‘perceived as such’: ‘this blossoming tree there in space’ – understood with the quotation marks – that is, the correlate essentially pertaining to the phenomenologically reduced perception. […] The ‘bracketing’ which has been applied to the perception prevents any judgement about the perceived reality […] But it does not prevent a judgement that the perception is consciousness as of a reality (whose thesis must now not be ‘gone along with’, however); and it does not prevent a description of this perceptually appearing ‘reality as such’, with the specific modes in which it is conscious, e.g. […] appearing in this or that orientation, etc. […] we must now take care not to attribute anything to the experience than what is essentially contained in it, and to ‘attribute’ this to it just as it actually is ‘inherent’ in it. (Id 1, § 90, pp. 187-8/220-1).


The two central methodological demands expressed in these passages are that the philosopher qua phenomenologist must

  1. give faithful explicative analyses of the experiences under investigation and of their objects just as they are experienced, without recourse to scientific-theoretical interpretations, and

  2. suspend any ‘judgement about spatiotemporal existence’.

(1) will turn out to be relatively straightforward and I shall therefore address this demand first. The idea runs like a red thread through Husserl’s writings that phenomenology must be ‘presuppositionless’ in not using any premises, and not relying even implicitly on assumptions from scientific, metaphysical, or common-sense ‘theories’ (see e.g. LI, Introduction, § 7; EJ; § 10). Its motivation is twofold. First, there is the problematic ‘Cartesian’ motif we have already encountered: no such theoretical claims can claim apodictic status. Husserl’s second motivation for the demand for theoretical abstemiousness is, however, independent of, and more compelling than, his commitment to a Cartesian ideal of knowledge. Scientific and metaphysical theories are intended as explanations of the phenomena of our everyday life-world. Their explanatory power in part depends on correct descriptions of these phenomena – a theory putatively explaining a phenomenon that has been significantly misdescribed is not an explanation of that phenomenon at all. But any ‘theoretical’ assumptions entering into the description of phenomena themselves are liable to promote such erroneous descriptive characterization of the explananda. For example, the idea, shared by common sense and the physical cognitive sciences, that consciousness of objective properties of the world depends upon causal impacts which instances of these properties, or causal powers associated with them, have upon the organism’s peripheral nerve endings, creates a theoretical pressure to construe properties for which no appropriate causal role or mechanism can be found – such as the Lockean secondary properties, or value properties – as ‘subjective’ in the sense of ‘intramental’ (non-world-involving), and their instances as analogous to sensations or raw, non-intentional ‘qualia’. But this construal, hardly less wide-spread today than in the days of Locke, necessitates a radical misdescription of the very phenomena allegedly explained by the theory:


It is a bad legacy of the psychological tradition since Locke that the sensible qualities of the bodies genuinely experienced in our everyday perceptible environment […], which are perceived as in the bodies themselves, are continually conflated with […] ‘sense data’ [a conflation which results in] the fundamentally mistaken view […] that what is immediately given are ‘sense data’. (Crisis, § 9b, pp. 27-28n/30n)
This example illustrates one potentially critical dimension of phenomenology as conceived by Husserl: no theory that is incompatible with a correct description of the phenomena can be adequate as an explanation of those phenomena. A necessary condition upon theoretical adequacy is that a theory should ‘save the phenomena’.

The demand that the phenomenologist must aim to describe the ‘given as it is given’, purified of any theoretical prejudgements, does not commit Husserl to a version of what Sellars called the ‘myth of the given’ – the thought that epistemic justification has its foundation in pre-theoretical, in the sense of non-conceptualized, data or impressions.15 On the contrary, phenomenological analysis shows that such data are not discretely present in normal, attentionally focused experience at all:


The world in which we live and […] out of which everything that can become a substrate of possible judgements affects us, is always already pre-given as pervaded by sedimentations of logical accomplishments; it is never given otherwise than as a world in which we or others, whose experiential acquisitions we take over through communication, learning, tradition, have been logically active in judgements and cognitions. (EJ, § 10, p. 39/42)
Every object of simple (schlicht) conscious awareness, e.g. of sense perception, is necessarily presented as exemplifying a ‘generality of a determinate type. Its appearance awakens protentional anticipations regarding its being thus-and-so’ (EJ, § 22, p. 114/105). Husserl’s reasons for this claim are extremely perceptive, but a discussion of them will have to wait for another occasion. The important point in the present context is that he agrees with Kant that any completely non-conceptual experience would not be experience of objects at all and could have no possible epistemological role to play; it would be, in Kant’s words, ‘a blind play of representations, less even than a dream’ (Critique of Pure Reason, A112). But what, then, does his distinction between ‘theoretical interpretation’ and ‘describing the given just as it is given’ come to? The passage just cited provides a clue to the answer. Some conceptualizations of objects, events or persons in our environment have the character of what Husserl calls ‘sedimented’ ‘familiarities’ for us (EJ, § 10, p. 39/42; § 22, p. 114/105); this means, for one thing, that those items are perceived by us non-inferentially under the aspects registered through the concepts in question. Having received the appropriate training and cultural immersion, one can non-inferentially recognize, for example, certain bodily movements as expressions of anger. To say that this conceptualization is ‘sedimented’ in a subject’s very perception of another’s behaviour is to say, first, that the applicability of the concept is not consciously inferred from the applicability of other concepts. The subject does not reason: this person is knitting his brow, clenching his fist, and stamping his foot; such behaviours are normally signs of anger; therefore this person is (probably) angry. Rather, ‘being angry’ is a basic perceptual concept (for this subject and in this situation). Secondly, the conceptualization ‘this person is angry’ is ‘sedimented’ in that it is involuntary rather than the result of an active decision, or even of reflective deliberation, on the part of the subject. So, when Husserl calls for a ‘theory-free’ description of what is given as it is given, he means by this a description of it as it non-inferentially, involuntarily, and pre-reflectively presents itself to us.

(2) The second essential component of the phenomenological reduction as Husserl conceives it is the suspension of ‘any judgement about spatiotemporal existence’. I shall again postpone the question of the motivation for this requirement and shall first try to elucidate what it actually commits its practitioners to. Phenomenology is to describe consciousness and its objects just as they are presented to consciousness without entering into any commitments about the real existence of either consciousness (Id 1, § 33, p. 57/63) or any of its objects, such as human bodies and their physical environment. The ‘phenomenological residuum’ that is claimed to remain after this ‘bracketing’ of existential commitments Husserl sometimes calls ‘transcendental consciousness’, and the task of phenomenology as envisaged by him is the investigation of its structures. This investigation he also refers to as phenomenological (or transcendental) reflection. What is distinctive of such ‘reflection’? Ordinary (‘natural’ or ‘psychological’) reflection is defined by Husserl as an attending to (‘thematizing’) the experiential quality (the ‘noetic moment’) of some current intentional experience. Consider the experience expressed by the following sentence:


I am imagining Odysseus’s coming on shore in Ithaca.
Psychological reflection on this experience involves attending to one’s current imagining (rather than perceiving, wishing for, regretting, remembering, etc.) the state of affairs which is its intentional object and which happens in this case to be a fictional object.16 Transcendental reflection, unlike such natural reflection, abstains from any theoretical or existential commitments concerning what is being reflected upon. Moreover, again unlike natural reflection, its focus is not necessarily on what is intra-psychic, subjective or ‘inner’ – i.e. it is not originally ‘introspective’ – for transcendental reflection involves not only a thematizing of the subjective, noetic moment of a current experience but, necessarily prior to this, of its noematic component, that is, the intentional object just as it is experienced (Crisis, §§ 50, 51).17 Through transcendental reflection and the faithful description of what is revealed in it, the phenomenological investigator is said to acquire a knowledge of consciousness and its objects qua appearances, that is, of their actually experienced phenomenal character, whatever the metaphysical significance of these appearances may be. It thus seems that Husserl believes that a reflective, conceptualized self-consciousness, terminating in the acquisition of various true beliefs about the subject’s ‘pure’, that is, metaphysically uninterpreted, experiences and their conscious contents is possible without committing the investigator to any beliefs about the existence of a physical or otherwise ‘external’ world. Many critics of the transcendental reduction therefore tend to charge Husserl with subscribing to a version of ‘Cartesian’ content internalism, according to which the contents of (self-) consciousness are in principle independent of consciousness’s being embedded in a world of real spatial objects. To give just two recent examples of this criticism, Mark Rowlands says that
for Husserl, it is possible to make the transcendental role of experience into an empirical item […] he does believe that consciousness – experience in both empirical and transcendental roles – is logically prior to the physical world. Consequently, he also believes that an investigation of the structure of consciousness is methodologically prior to an investigation of the physical world. 18
Similarly, Thomas Baldwin asserts:
Husserl […] requires that [the philosopher] should not think of himself and his thoughts as elements within the natural world at all. He is not to suppose that his thoughts are the thoughts of a human being, located in objective time and space and standing in causal relations with other physical objects […] It is this thesis, that there is a domain of pure consciousness […] not conceptually dependent upon the natural world, which is distinctive of Husserl’s phenomenology.19
I believe that these familiar, indeed orthodox, interpretations of the phenomenological reduction as implying a form of Cartesian content internalism or methodological solipsism are mistaken. My qualified defence of it as, in its essentials, unobjectionable from a moderate externalist perspective, and indeed as potentially fruitful, will proceed in three stages. First (i), I shall show that most of Husserl’s more problematic formulations in this context allow for a philosophically less contentious reading; secondly (ii), I shall argue that the results of Husserl’s own first-order analyses of the contents of intentional experiences and their ‘order of foundation’ actually commit him to a type of content externalism; thirdly, I shall suggest (in Section 4) that the phenomenological reduction is not only philosophically unexceptionable, but that it can be a useful methodological device.
(i) Another Look at the Textual Evidence

There are indeed formulations by Husserl which prima facie support the interpretation of his position as a form of content internalism according to which, like Descartes in his First Meditation, a subject can in principle have thoughts, including reflective thoughts about its own consciousness, even if it has no well-grounded beliefs about a world of spatial objects causally affecting it. These potentially misleading formulations are mostly found in Ideas I, rather than in the later detailed discussions of the transcendental reduction in Erste Philosophie and Crisis. In Ideas I Husserl says, for instance, that as phenomenologists ‘we keep our gaze fixed on the sphere of consciousness and what we find immanently in it’ (Id 1, § 33, p. 59/65). ‘Pure consciousness in its absolute intrinsic being […] remains as the “phenomenological residuum” we were looking for; it remains although we have “suspended” [ausgeschaltet] the entire world with all its material objects, living organisms, humans, ourselves included’ (Id 1, § 50, p. 94/113). In this last sentence, the method of phenomenological reduction seems to be fused, in a deeply problematic way, with Husserl’s advocacy, in Ideas I and subsequently, of a metaphysics of transcendental idealism, according to which consciousness has ‘absolute being’, while the physical world exists only relative to consciousness of it. Apparently continuous with this metaphysical view, in a notorious passage, he claims that even if there was no world of relatively persisting and re-identifiable spatial things representable by a consciousness, this consciousness could still continue to exist (‘albeit necessarily in a modified way’), for transcendental consciousness is ‘a nexus of absolute being into which nothing can penetrate and out of which nothing can slip; which has no spatiotemporal exteriority and which is not situated within a spatiotemporal context, which can neither be causally affected by any thing nor affect any thing – provided that causality here is understood in the normal sense of natural causality, as a relation of dependence between [spatiotemporal] realities’ (Id 1, § 49, p. 93/112).

Let me take the three centrally problematic points in these formulations in turn. First, there is the idea that phenomenology focuses exclusively on what is ‘immanent’ in consciousness. In Husserl’s terminology, ‘immanence’ in the strict sense names the relation between a reflected-upon experience (Erlebnis) and an experience of reflecting upon that experience, for example the relation that obtains between a pain I am feeling and my attending to this pain (cf. Id 1, § 38, pp. 68-9/79-80). The pain, as it is now thematically experienced by virtue of my reflection upon it, is ‘fused’ with this attending to it, such that it – this very pain – could not continue to appear as it does without this act of reflection. The pain is, in this ‘objectified’ mode of presentation, ‘really contained within’ (reell beschlossen) the act of reflection and does not, in this objectified form, exist outside or beyond (‘transcend’) the reflection. Clearly most of the objects of phenomenological analysis are not ‘immanent to consciousness’ in this sense. For most types of object (e.g. physical things), the noematic ‘object as experienced’ is ‘transcendent’ relative to any individual experience of it (Id 1, § 76, p. 142/171-2; § 97, p. 202/237), and the universal phenomenal properties and structures which are the ultimate objects of phenomenological study are necessarily thus transcendent (see also note 17 above). As Husserl puts it, they are transcendent objects within ‘immanence’ (CM, § 47). A phenomenal item’s being ‘immanent’ to consciousness here has the much looser sense of ‘manifesting itself in its constitutive phenomenal properties to the investigating consciousness’. And Husserl’s dictum that phenomenology proceeds ‘immanently’ then amounts, not to some kind of methodological introspectionism, but to nothing more controversial than the idea that phenomenology is to limit its investigations to what shows up within the first-personal perspective of the investigator’s (transcendentally ‘purified’) consciousness in an appropriately ‘intuitively fulfilled’ manner. This idea by itself is only ‘internalist’ in an invidious Cartesian sense on the phenomenologically unwarranted theoretical assumption, which Husserl has precisely asked us to leave aside (see above), that the intuitively accessible, phenomenal properties of objects are merely intramental effects of those objects and thus ontologically distinct from them.

Much more problematic is Husserl’s conflation in some places of the requirements of the reduction with the idealist thesis that consciousness has ‘absolute being’, since it cannot be dependent on any objects absolutely external to it, actual objects being only conceivable as relative to some actually existing consciousness.20 To be sure, this idealist thesis by itself does not, pace Baldwin (1988, p. 30), make Husserl a content internalist, since it may well turn out that for Husserl, as for Kant, conceptualized contents of consciousness and self-consciousness are only possible for a subject that has good reasons for thinking of itself as embedded in a world of objects empirically external to it.21 But it is still clear that Husserl, by his own requirement of ontological presuppositionlessness, is not entitled to metaphysical characterizations of the results of the reduction, such as we find in his talk about transcendental consciousness being a region of ontologically ‘absolute being’ (Id 1, § 49, p. 92/110). While there is nothing illicit about a phenomenologist also doing metaphysics, any metaphysical claims, by Husserl’s own injunctions, should be posterior to the use of the method of the reduction, and the latter must therefore be logically independent of them. Husserl, on his own terms, is at the fundamental level of his philosophical enquiry barred from a metaphysical reading of his assertion that the transcendental consciouness yielded by the reduction is ‘a nexus of absolute being […] which can neither be causally affected by any thing nor affect any thing’ (Id 1, § 49, p. 93/112). What he is entitled to is only an epistemological variant on this, to the effect that in the phenomenological attitude produced through the method of transcendental reduction, consciousness and its phenomenal objects are only considered as correlates, and the question of whether this entire correlation or nexus is an effect of natural, physical causes, cannot yet arise – for this metaphysical causal question is, as it were, downstream from the transcendental constitutive questions with which phenomenology at the basic level concerns itself. Husserl’s articulation of this very point in Crisis serves as a useful corrective to the more questionable, occasionally misleading, formulations in Ideas I:


Obviously what is required first of all is the epoché with respect to all objective sciences. This doesn’t simply mean abstracting from them […] Rather, what is meant is an epoché of […] the critical stance in which we are interested in their truth or falsity […] (Crisis, § 35, p. 138/135).

[T]he exclusive and persisting direction of our interest lies in how […] the world gets constituted for us […] (§ 38, p. 147/144).

Through the radical epoché every interest in the reality or unreality of the world is […] put out of play. And in the pure correlationist attitude created by it, the world […] itself becomes something subjective in a special sense (§ 53, p. 182/179).
While the idealist elements in some of Husserl’s descriptions of the reduction are thus easily excised without significant loss, there remains his notorious claim that consciousness could exist even if the world of physical objects were ‘annihilated’ (Id 1, § 49, pp. 91-2/109-110). But there is no need to take his point here to be any stronger than that it is conceptually possible for there to be some kind of rhapsodic phenomenal consciousness even in the absence of a world empirically external to it. His qualification that such a consciousness would be ‘necessarily modified’, ‘soul-less’ and ‘non-personal’ (Id 1, § 54, p. 105/127) may be taken as signalling his sympathy with the Kantian thought that such a consciousness would not have the resources to entertain conceptual, objectifying representations of anything at all, including itself.
(ii) Husserl’s Commitment to Content Externalism

I maintained earlier that many of Husserl’s own positions in fact commit him to a moderate version of content externalism. It is now time to make good this claim. As understood here, such an externalism about the contents of thoughts of certain types is the view that thoughts of these types – for example thoughts about physical objects, or thoughts about oneself or one’s experiences – are necessarily unavailable to a subject unless that subject has well-grounded beliefs about a world of spatial objects causally affecting it. In this sort of externalism, the necessity operator is interpreted in terms of a stronger-than-nomological, ultimately conceptual necessity. It is difficult to see how such a thesis could be vindicated unless thoughts of the relevant types are necessarily dependent upon – are ‘founded upon’, in Husserl’s terminology – thoughts about such external objects, and if, furthermore, the fundamental thoughts of the latter type are co-constituted by items which we have good reasons to regard as real external objects.22 In the kind of externalism I have in mind, the fundamental type of thought about external objects is often considered to be perceptual demonstrative thought, for example the thought expressed by ‘this is spherical’, entertained about an object singled out perceptually by the subject from the ambient array. The demonstrative ‘this’ here expresses an incomplete sense, which is, in the case of fully successful demonstrative thoughts, completed by the item pointed to itself, that is, in this instance, by a particular spherical object in the thinker’s environment as this is perceptually available to him. Thus the phenomenal object pointed to can be said to be itself a constituent of the thought expressed by ‘this is spherical’ on that occasion. If (a) perceptual thoughts are best analysed as presumptively object-involving in this sense, and if (b) they constitute a fundamental class of thoughts about external objects, without which such thoughts would not be possible at all, and if (c) other kinds of thoughts are in turn necessarily dependent on thoughts which we have good reasons to take to be about external objects, then this entails content externalism as articulated above.

It is clear, albeit not often remarked upon, that the mature Husserl subscribes to all these propositions. With respect to (a), it is one of Husserl’s fundamental claims that all genuinely perceptual presentations present their objects directly, rather than through epistemically mediating items. Indeed, for him this is a definitionally true, since he defines (genuine) perception as the (usually only partial or aspectual) self-givenness of the phenomenal object. (LI 6, §§ 23, 45) True thoughts articulating the content of ordinary sensory perceptions are for him genuinely perceptual thoughts in this sense. If they did not present their objects in an epistemically direct way, they would have to do so either via signs (symbols) that were, at some stage, arbitrarily chosen to stand for these objects, or via ‘images’ or ‘pictures’ (Bilder) taken as resembling their objects.23 But nothing can function as a sign or as a pictorial representation of an object for me unless it is taken (aufgefasst) or used as such (sich seiner bedient) by me (LI 5, appendix to §§ 11 and 20, II/1 pp. 421-25/ II pp. 125-8) . What is characteristic of the articulated content of ordinary sense perception is precisely that it is not taken in this way, and that it is, on the contrary, sharply distinguished from the awareness or conscious use of something as a sign or as a representational image (see below).

If genuine perception is defined as the mode of intentional consciousness which presents its object without epistemic intermediaries, this entails that its content is most adequately expressed by the use of demonstrative expressions like ‘this’. Although Husserl only explicitly acknowledges this consequence in later writings, he already articulates the reasons for it in Logical Investigations. In the perceptual use of demonstratives, only ‘the actual circumstances of utterance’ themselves suffice to give the expression a determinate sense (LI 1, § 26, II/1 p. 81/ I p. 218), for demonstratives, unlike non-indexical symbols, here necessarily refer to the object ‘directly (that is, without any attributive mediation)’ (LI 6, § 5, II/2 p. 19/ II p. 198). The last point implies that no image, sense datum, or other representational item can stand for the object in perceptual demonstrative thought, for if it did, the reference to the object would have to be ‘attributively mediated’, for example through a definite description like ‘the F-thing causing this sense datum’. Phenomenologically, perceptual demonstrative thoughts establish, when circumstances are propitious, a direct contact with the object referred to, and this is why ‘without the perception […] the pointing would be empty, without determinate differentiation, in concreto not even possible’ (LI 6, § 5, II/2 pp. 18-19/ II p. 198).24 In successful sense perception, then, we make precisely such direct contact with worldly objects, so that it makes no sense to speak of the content of sense perception as we actually enjoy it without adverting to the worldly objects presumptively presented in it.

What is it that establishes this contact? To put the question slightly differently: what enables the expression ‘this’, in its perceptual demonstrative use, to refer to some wordly object without ‘attributive mediation’? Husserl’s answer is that what establishes referential contact with a perceptually presented item, and what therefore essentially underpins the knowledgeable use of demonstrative signs, is conscious perceptual attention (EJ, §§ 17-18; Id 1, §§ 35, 37). In accordance with his ‘principle of principles’, the relevant notion of attention can of course not merely be a functionalist one, along the lines of ‘whatever selects items of information from the perceptual field for further cognitive processing at the personal level’25, but must itself be cashed in phenomenological terms – as a structure of experience. While I cannot go into the details of Husserl’s extensive phenomenological analysis of selective perceptual attention here, let me just briefly mention three of its features that are central in the present context. First, selective attention is a focussing of consciousness upon some part of a pre-attentive perceptual field. Pre-attentive or ‘background’ consciousness is not simply a ‘chaos of sensations’, but rather presents a field which has a phenomenal structure or contour – there are, among other features, qualitative contrasts in it, our pre-attentional consciousness of which may make us ‘turn towards’ them (zuwenden) – i.e. they draw our attention to them (EJ, § 16). Thus, the ‘passively pre-given’ perceptual field is neither completely devoid of conscious intentionality, nor is it ‘inner’, unlike its deeply problematic counterpart in Husserl’s earlier account of intentionality, namely ‘hyle’ or ‘sense data’ (EJ, § 13, p. 64/62). Rather, the pre-attentive perceptual field is simply some part of the (phenomenal) world as it affects us prior to our taking notice of it. Thus what is essential to the phenomenon of attention is a foreground-background structure of consciousness.26 Secondly, attention is an activity of the subject. It is, as Husserl puts it partly by invoking Kantian terminology, the most basic form of ego-activity, spontaneity at work within receptivity (EJ, §17). Thirdly, through the activity of attention the ego consciously directs itself towards (zuwendet) and ‘thematizes’ some part or aspect of the passively pre-given perceptual field, thereby making it possible for objects to become ‘constituted’ for – i.e. to be consciously representable by – it. Selective attention is thus a necessary, albeit not sufficient, condition for the individuation and constitution of intentional objects.

But is Husserl right to claim that when an object is directly presented (‘self-given’), as in successful sense perception, the object itself enters into the content of the intentional experience,? Might not the content of, for example, the sensory perception of a particular object be both epistemically direct and adequately characterizable without adverting to a relation, attentional or otherwise, to that very object itself? An opponent might argue that the correct way to articulate the content of the direct perception of a particular is not, say, ‘this is spherical’, but: ‘there is now an object straight in front of me which is spherical’. While this obviously still contains an indexical component, the latter is not used for the object perceived. The object itself is characterized entirely in general terms, involving an ontological category (object), a relational property (straight in front of x), and a perceptible intrinsic property (spherical). But we must ask: how are these general contents, which supposedly supply the object-constituting components of the perception, supposed to be grasped, if perception is to be a direct presentation of a particular object? If they themselves were grasped indirectly, for example through linguistic symbols taken as referring to them, or by means of images taken as resembling them, they obviously would not be suitable as essential core-constituents of perceptual content in Husserl’s sense at all, since the object would then not be self-given through these general contents. So, for this account as an account of genuinely perceptual content even to get off the ground, the general features would themselves have to be perceived.27 But, leaving aside the objection that such a perception would also not be appropriately expressed (as proposed) by an existentially quantified proposition, Husserl insists, very plausibly, that if universals such as sensory properties are perceptible, they are so only in intentional experiences which are ‘founded on’ the simultaneous intuitive presence, in perception or imagination, of actual or possible particulars exemplifying them (LI 2, §§ 1-4; EJ, §§ 87-88). If a perception of general features is possible, it therefore presupposes an intuitive acquaintance with particulars, and it thus cannot itself be our basic mode of access to such particulars. Consequently, if the direct perception of external objects were to be analysed in this manner, it could not be our fundamental way of consciously representing external particulars.

However, as against this latter idea, Husserl also concurs with (b): direct, perceptual presentations of external objects are fundamental such that, necessarily, thoughts about external particulars would not be available at all without them. This is a thought that is familiar from current discussions of the foundational role of perception for conscious representation of a spatiotemporal world. For example, Bill Brewer has argued, developing a point originally made by P. F. Strawson, that without something like perceptual demonstrative thought that picks out environmental objects directly, there could be no thoughts about particulars at all. For the only remaining form of linguistic reference to particulars would be by way definite descriptions – in Husserl’s terminology, cognitive access to them would be ‘mediated’ through ‘attributive’ characterizations. But for any true definite description, no matter how complex, it is conceivable that it should be satisfied by more than one thing. It is conceptually and epistemically possible that there should be a twin world symmetrical with this world in which every particular is duplicated down to the minutest detail. But if it is thus possible, for any definite description applying to a particular, and for all the subject can tell, that the description should be satisfied by more than one particular, then definite descriptions cannot be a rational subject’s fundamental way of referring to any one particular at all, even if the possibility of global duplication fails to be actualized.28

While the Strawson-Brewer thought experiment shows that definite descriptions cannot play a foundational role in thought about particulars, it does not explain why this should be so. Now, the later Husserl reaches the same conclusion,29 but by a quite different route which does explain why perceptions of particulars with object-involving contents are constitutively fundamental for any thought about a real external world. Husserl’s reflections illuminate what it is about conscious, personal-level thought that makes such perceptions necessarily basic, and other forms of representation, such as definite descriptions, asymmetrically dependent upon them. His point of departure is that all personal-level representation of objects requires a vehicle or bearer with phenomenal properties (LI 6, §§ 25, 26, 58). We can classify different generic ways of consciously relating in thought to objects, in terms of their types of vehicles. There are, Husserl argues, three such possible generic ways. We may, firstly, have objects directly, perceptually, presented to us such that, when we take the contents of these presentations at face value, we take the object to be itself present, without any epistemic intermediary we are taking as standing for it or representing it – in these cases, the object itself is the vehicle of thought. As we have seen, sense perception presents spatial objects in precisely this way, albeit necessarily incompletely. Secondly, we may represent an object by way of other objects we interpret as representations of it, without taking them, ‘pre-theoretically’ (in the sense defined earlier), as resembling it. This is ‘empty’, signitive, or symbolic representation, a class which includes all fully linguistically encoded representations. Thirdly, there are representations on the basis of pre-theoretically recognized relevant similarities of some representative item distinct from the object represented with that object. The two more specific types of representation by similarity that are important here are imaginative or ‘fantasy’ representation (phantasiemäβig), and pictorial or ‘image’ representation (bildlich).

With respect to our question regarding external, spatial objects that are ‘transcendent’ to any intentional experience representing them, Husserl now claims that the two generic types of indirect representation of such objects cannot be autonomous, but that they are essentially dependent on the availability of direct, ‘perceptual’ representations of what we must believe, and have good reasons to believe, to be such objects.30 This implies that we could not even think about such objects without standing in appropriately direct perceptual relations with items we reasonably take to be such objects. And if this is the case, the phenomenological reduction cannot coherently require us to give up all beliefs that such direct perceptual relations in fact obtain. Without endorsing some such beliefs, the phenomenologist could not coherently investigate any thoughts or representations about external spatial objects at all. This would, at the very least, severely curtail the range of possible phenomenological enquiry and would arguably (see below) render it impossible tout court.

In what way are ‘indirect’ representations, such as fully encoded (i.e. non-indexical) linguistic representations of particular spatial objects necessarily dependent on perceptions? It is the essence of an object-referring symbol that it stands for something else not identical with it, yet not by virtue of being taken to be relevantly similar to it. To grasp the sense of such a symbol is, in part, to grasp what it stands for. Such a grasp necessitates knowing what would render a categorical assertion deploying the symbol true, what would conclusively ‘verify’ it. And knowing this requires, for a basic class of cases including representations of external objects,31 being able to encounter or to envisage the verifying object(s) or state(s) of affairs in an ‘intuitively fulfilled’ way (CM, § 24, p. 93/58), which in most cases is possible only incompletely (e.g. ‘x is a house’) or by way of analogies (‘Napoleon crowned himself Emperor’). Symbolic representation is thus only intelligible in relation to intuitively fulfilled representations, such as perceptions and imaginations. While it is a moot point whether all object-referring symbols need to be cashable in perceptual or imaginative-analogizing ways, if a core repertoire of such symbols were not intuitively fulfillable, then we could not understand anything as a symbolic representation at all.

What about imagination (Phantasie)? Might it be conceptually possible to entertain thoughts about external objects utilizing, in addition to symbolic representations, only phantasiemäβige images? A phenomenological analysis of imagination shows that this is not possible. Husserl argues that imagination is closely analogous to ‘thetic’ or ‘positing’, i.e. belief-involving, ‘presentifications’ (Vergegenwärtigungen), of which episodic memory is a paradigm case. But just as the thetic component in sense perception is neutralized in the awareness of something as a perceptual illusion, so imagining is a form of ‘presentifying’ something absent where the belief component of episodic memory is lacking (Id 1, § 111). Just as in episodic memory I recollect not just some past event, but also witnessing that event, so in imagination I imagine some intentional object ‘as if’ it had been seen, or believed, or desired (in the light of some belief), etc., from the conscious perspective of some, perhaps indeterminate, subject. Thus there is in imagination a ‘reference’ to, and dependence on, other, and ultimately on ‘thetic’ modes of conscious representation, such as sense perception or pictorially fulfilled belief (although this dependence may be indirect, as when I imagine someone else imagining being present at the battle of Salamis). Moreover, it is constitutive of imagination that the ‘images’ it involves should be experienced as clashing with perceptual representations, and thus as ‘occluding […] something in reality’ (HUA 23, appendix 51, p.485). Yet this occlusion is only ever incomplete and the perceptual world clashing with the imagined contents nevertheless remains ‘continually present’ to consciousness, it only ‘nearly disappears’ and remains poised aktuell to impinge upon me as soon as my imaginative activity slackens. Wherever this experienced conflict with current perceptual experience is lacking, we are no longer dealing with Phantasie, but with hallucination (HUA 23, § 20, pp. 42-3). Finally, Husserl rightly emphasizes that imaginative contents do not actually present particulars at all, but at most highly determinate types (‘eidetic singularities’). What individuates a real spatial particular is its objective spatiotemporal position (EJ, § 40, p. 203/173; § 91, p. 430/355). An imagined material object or state of affairs involving such objects has not even a determinate position in objective time (EJ, § 39, p. 197/169) without which localization of an item in objective space is not possible (EJ, § 38, p. 191/164-5). Thus ‘fantasy’ images cannot serve to individuate particulars: ‘here there is no possibility for speaking of several [qualitatively identical] objects or of the same singular object merely repeatedly represented’ (EJ, § 39, p. 197/169).

If symbolic, including linguistic, representation and imagination do not suffice to enable thoughts about real external particulars, might we improve the situation by adding picture-like representation? According to indirect realism as classically stated by Locke, ordinary sense perception is of this kind.32 We have already seen that Husserl rejects indirect realism as an account of our actual sensory awareness of the world. But is it not at least conceivable that our fundamental mode of thought about external objects should be bildlich? No, for it is constitutive for pictorial (as opposed to imaginative) representation that some features of a perceived object are taken as representing another object distinct from it by virtue of resemblance, as we can see paradigmatically in painting or in film images. If one construed the foundational perception as itself pictorial, this would lead to an infinite regress (LI 5, appendix to §§ 11 and 20, II/1 p. 423/ II p. 126). Moreover, every conscious taking or using an item as a pictorial image (without which it could not be such an image at all) necessarily involves an awareness of a discrepancy between the space occupied by the physical thing that functions as the bearer of the representation, and the quasi-space within the representation (HUA 23, no. 1, § 14, esp. pp. 32-3). Thus, like imaginative representation of spatial particulars, pictorial representation of them is essentially dependent upon direct perceptual representation. And since not all of a subject’s perceptual experiences could be devoid of the doxic character of non-reflective belief, which simply takes the object to be as it perceptually appears to be, it follows that there could be no thoughts about real, external, spatial things without an at least implicit commitment to the belief that there are such things.

It might be objected that the argument just given leaves open the possibility that the directly perceived objects serving as the bearers of the pictorial representation might have quite different properties from those of the objects represented (as they do to some extent in the Lockean version of indirect realism), and thus pictorial thoughts about a world of external objects might still be possible without having perceptually based beliefs about many, or perhaps any, of the fundamental properties of those objects. However, an item can only function as the bearer of pictorial representations if it allows for the exemplification of properties that are appropriately similar to those of the target objects. Therefore no perceptual item can successfully serve as a Bild of causally effective, relatively persisting, three-dimensional spatial things without itself exemplifying persistence and causal efficacy, and having spatial features. The phenomenological reduction therefore cannot, on Husserls own terms, require the philosopher to regard all perception-based beliefs about real spatial objects as dispensable, and it consequently cannot coherently be intended as a ‘Cartesian’, internalist manoeuvre. We should therefore take Husserl seriously when he says:
It is a matter of course, presupposed by all scientific thought and all philosophical questions, that the world exists […] Objective science also only poses its questions on the basis of this world that always exists in advance, in pre-scientific life. Science presupposes the world’s being, just like all praxis does (Crisis, § 28, pp. 112-3/110; first emphasis mine).
Could the phenomenological philosopher even thematize herself qua subject of experience (‘transcendental’ or otherwise), or her experiences and their structures, without remaining committed to beliefs about a real external world? Husserl explicitly denies this: ‘Reality and subjectivity […] essentially require each other’ (Id 2, § 30b, p. 64/69). ‘Real’ objects, in Husserls terminology, are objects characterized in terms of phenomenal properties, non-inferentially perceived as spatiotemporal, and experienced and conceptualized as having causal properties (Id 2, § 15, esp. pp. 41-5/44-9). Thinking of oneself as a subject, or having the concept of an experience, is only possible on the basis of warranted beliefs about a real, external world in this sense (Id 2, § 47, p. 170/179). Even in an early text like Logical Investigations, where some of the issues relevant here are obscured by his implausible assumption of reell immanent sense data, Husserl says unequivocally that ‘all act-characters are ultimately founded on external sensory contents’ (LI 6, § 58, II/2 pp. 179-80/ II p. 304; see also EJ § 29, p. 153/139). A subject cannot entertain contents of empirical reflection (‘inner objects’) at all without having had intentional experiences in which some item has been presented as empirically external in the Kantian sense, that is, as having spatial (and causal) properties.33 Why should this be so? From the many scattered considerations offered by Husserl in support of this view, I here want to reconstruct only one line of argument.34

Thinking of myself as a subject of intentional experiences implies the ability to think about intentional experiences as such. But I evidently cannot think about experiences as intentional experiences without being able to distinguish them from that which they are experiences of – from their conscious (‘intentional’) objects. But what is it to think of something as an object of consciousness? We can paraphrase Husserl’s conception of an intentional object as follows:


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fac -> soc -> philosophy
fac -> Aristotle on Slavery and Household Management
fac -> Timothy Edward Pytell
fac -> Human behavior dr. Elizabeth buchholz
fac -> Biological explanations: Atavistic form ao1
fac -> Biological Theories The Earliest
fac -> What is temperament?
philosophy -> 21st-Century Theories of Literature: Ethics, Tropes, Attunement University of Warwick, 6-8/4/2017 Thursday 6/8, Humanities Building


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