Consciousness, Self and World: Husserl and the Phenomenological Turn in Philosophy

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Intentional Object (Def.): X is a conscious, or intentional, object for a subject S at time t just in case (a) S at t is conscious of X through an experience E1, and (b) S at t has the ability become conscious of X again, without modifying it, in other experiences E2, E3, …, differing in respect of their qualitative (noetic) moments, and (c) S at t has the ability to become thus conscious of X as the same across these different experiences of it (see esp. EJ, § 13; also HUA 26, pp. 49-53, pp. 62-9).
This definition entails that consciously represented physical things, phantoms, fictional individuals, properties, states of affairs, and experiences as thought about, all fall under this broad Husserlian understanding of objecthood. Being able to represent an item as identically the same across different experiences of it is essential to the concept of an object of consciousness. Representing something as an object therefore necessarily involves the ability to represent it as actually or potentially absent – as not currently ‘self-given’ in, e.g., sense perception. The thought here is that, if I could only become conscious of X when actually perceiving it, I would not yet have ‘objectified’ it, for I would not be able to re-cognize it, on later perceptual encounters with it, as the same X that was perceived earlier. But the very possibility of thinking of a particular item as currently absent, as not directly intuited, in turn requires a capacity to think of it as being somewhere else in time or space. It thus requires more than the egocentric, or purely perspectival, conception of time and space which is characteristic of sense perception, in which items are given as (implicitly) relative to the subject – as ‘now’ or ‘earlier’ (Time, A, §§ 10, 17), or as ‘here’, ‘in front’, ‘to the left’, ‘up’, and so forth (Id 2, §§ 41a, 42).35 What is needed for the conscious representation of an object is thus a non-egocentric, and in this (weak) sense objective, conception of time and space which allows the subject to think about an item as retaining its own position in time or space even when it is not currently perceived or experienced by the subject. It is in fact only its occupying such a position that individuates an item as a particular (EJ, § 91, p. 430/355; § 43b, p. 219/186). But the idea of an item as itself occupying a determinate spatiotemporal position in a non-egocentric, objective, frame of reference implies the notion of its having causal properties. Only in so far it has dispositions causally to affect and be affected by other items external to it can it actually ‘fill’ or ‘occupy’ its own spatiotemporal position. It is such causal properties that essentially distinguish a real external thing from a spatial phantom (Id 2, § 15b-c, pp. 36-45/39-48). While there are meaningful questions about spatial phantoms which allow for true or false answers (Id 2, § 15b, p. 36/39), such appearances have no objective (non-egocentric) spatial location, and even the ascription to them of a position in objective time presupposes their being conceived as occurring in some subject’s experiential history. Hence they cannot be part of the constitutive story explicating the conditions that make the conception of such a subject and its experiences possible in the first place. Husserl emphasizes that a subject’s conception of an intentional object as real – as having causal properties – essentially requires thinking of it as potentially interacting with the subject. This in turn is conditional upon the subject’s being able to think of itself as a real object – to objectify itself as ‘the point of intersection of real causalities’ (Id 2, § 18, pp. 62-5/67-70). This ‘intersection’ is experienced paradigmatically in perceptions as of particulars which normally, unless there are special reasons to the contrary, are, and must be, taken (aufgefasst) by the subject as a being-affected by the object (LI 5, § 27, II/1 pp. 442-3/ II pp. 137-8; EJ, §§ 7, 17; ), and in spontaneous, self-moving action – as Husserl puts it: in the experience of the ‘I do’ (Id 2, § 18, p. 58/63; § 15, p. 39/42; § 38).

What are the reasons behind Husserl’s claim that only a wordly, ‘mundane’ subject – a subject that represents itself (objectifies itself) as a part of the real world – can have a conception of such a world at all? It seems clear that it is motivated by an application of his view that a conception of any property that is constitutively fundamental for the conscious representation of a world – such as the property being a cause – presupposes an acquaintance or imaginative quasi-acquaintance with something exemplifying the property. If one holds the view, for which there are strong independent reasons, that the concept of causality is not just that of functional co-variation, but that something like the idea of efficacy or causal power is needed to capture the priority of the cause relative to the effect,36 then Husserl’s claim about the necessary self-mundanization of the subject follows, assuming that he also holds that the concept of efficacy or causal power is only ‘intuitively fulfillable’ in a subject’s purposive action on an environment offering resistances to it. There are indeed passages suggesting precisely such a view, although Husserl gives us little detail in this regard:

Impact and pressure cannot strictly be seen, one can only see the spatial and gestalt processes accompanying it. Even through mere touching one cannot experience pressure, traction, or resistance. One has to ‘tense the muscles’, ‘press against it’, etc. (Id 2, § 15, p. 39/42)37
As this passage indicates, Husserl takes the subject’s agency that is implicated in any representation as of real spatial objects as necessarily involving a phenomenal body, experienced and conceived of as having causal powers: ‘The lived body on the other hand cannot be lacking. Even a ghost necessarily has a ghost’s body’ (Id 2, § 21, p. 94/100). This is so partly, but not only, for the reason just outlined, namely that the thought of interaction with a real world requires a self-objectification as a possible cause, and it is not clear how such a self-objectification should be possible without, ultimately, a self-ascription of spatial properties.

A second reason for Husserl’s tenet that subjects are necessarily embodied can be found in the implications of the necessarily perspectival character of spatial phenomenal objects. A spatial object cannot even in principle be directly presented to a possible perceiver all at once, but only through profiles which include adumbrations or horizonal characteristics indicating to the perceiver, sometimes quite indeterminately, the object’s other profiles not currently sensorily given – e.g. the back of a house one is currently perceiving (Id 1, §§ 41-42; EJ, §§ 8, 83a). Husserl now argues that the very possibility of perceiving different profiles or sides of a spatial objects as sides of the same particular object is conditional upon the possibility of grasping the thought of oneself moving through space so as to perceive different profiles of the object in continuous succession (e.g. when walking around the house). But any such grasp of the idea of myself moving through space and thereby potentially gaining perceptual purchase on different parts of objective space (as opposed to the contents of my egocentric space changing) necessitates some system of subjective indices which allow a conscious registering of my movements (Id 2, §§ 18a, 38), Anticipating Gibson’s ‘ecological’ theory of perception,38 Husserl thus arrives at the idea that spatial perception requires necessarily not just the processing of information about the subject’s environment, but also and correlatively about the subject itself. In order for this information to be available to the subject, it needs, of course, to be consciously registered. Husserl calls these necessary subjective indices of self-movement ‘kinaestheses’. In the case of human subjects, they include such things as the proprioceptive awareness of our eye movements, or the feelings we have of our muscles, joints, and tendons when walking. But they also include experiences of acting which, Husserl insists rightly, distinguish voluntary bodily actions from passive or reflex movements potentially involving the same proprioceptive sensations (Id 2, § 41-42, pp. 159-61/166-69).39 The systems of kinaestheses constitute what Husserl calls the ‘lived body from within’ (Innenleib). His claim, then, is that any representation of particular spatial objects by a subject implies the subject’s grasp of the possible self-movements which make available different profiles of the object in a continuous ‘sensory synthesis’. But for this to be possible, there have to be functional correlations between the subject’s systems of kinaesthesis and the set of object profiles encountered. I cannot rationally take myself to have actively moved around a house and now to be perceiving the back of it, unless I have experienced, or believe I have experienced, an ordered series of appropriate kinaestheses in correlation with successive object profiles.40 But since, as we saw above, a conception of myself as interacting with real spatial objects requires me to also to objectify myself – to think of myself qua causal agent as a spatial object – it is necessary that the kinaestheses which go to constitute my subjective self-movement should be ascribable by myself to this spatial object. Thus, for Husserl, the possibility of a consciousness as of real spatial objects necessitates a twofold bodily self-consciousness. I need to experience myself kinaesthetically as Innenleib, but also to be able to think of these kinaestheses as pertaining to, and located in, a physical object. It thus emerges that, for Husserl, possession of the very concept of a subject of experience ultimately involves a self-conception as an embodied spatial agent in interaction with real spatial objects.41 To put it differently: the ego, considered in its transcendental role in the phenomenological reduction, must eo ipso be considered as necessarily ‘objectifying itself’ as an embodied being within the phenomenal world (Crisis, § 54b):
Clearly it belongs to the essence of the world that is transcendentally constituted in me […] that it is, by virtue of essential necessity, also a world of humans [i.e. of socialized embodied beings] (CM, § 56; p. 158/130)
How plausible are the transcendental claims we have just reconstructed? As Husserl rightly insists, the subject of consciousness is not thinkable without reference to its intentional experiences, and the latter cannot be individuated without reference to their contents. It is indeed difficult to see how a subject should be able to objectify itself as an entity which, through having experiences, is enabled to interact with the world, without entertaining something closely analogous to spatial intentional contents.42 Up to this point, Husserl’s argument is very powerful. He is clearly also correct in insisting that a subject can have no such self-conception without conceptualising itself as a source of agency.

What is surely more problematic, however, is his thesis that such agency must also take the form of bodily, kinaesthetically indicated, self-movement. Why should a subject only be able to think of an object as having other, currently unperceived, aspects which could be perceived from other perspectives, if it can also think of itself as potentially moving to take up those other perspectives? This does not seem to be an a priori truth. There might conceivably be subjects which, while embodied, are paralysed from birth and cannot think of themselves as actively moving through space at all, and which might yet think of their surrounding world as consisting of spatial particulars with aspects unperceived by them, but perceivable from somewhere else.43 After all, in the parallel temporal case, we can uncontroversially think of events having objective temporal properties (e.g. Napoleon studying his maps for one hour on the eve of the battle of Jena) which we can neither directly witness, nor gain any clear conception of what it would be to ‘move ourselves’ to a temporal position from where we could witness them.44 The claim about the role of bodily self-movement thus seems to be one instance where Husserl does not so much analyse the constitutive conditions for any subject’s having representations of a certain (here: spatial) type, but rather the way in which certain kinds of subjects, namely humans, in fact represent the world thus. Husserl’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding, this is arguably not part of a transcendental story valid with ‘strict universality’, but of a phenomenology of the specifically human world.45

4. An Alternative Interpretation of the Phenomenological Reduction

It should be clear from the arguments so far that the phenomenological reduction is not the misguided methodological device of a Cartesian content internalist. We should take seriously Husserl’s consistent protestations that what comes (logically) first in the phenomenologist’s investigations, having performed the reduction, is the ‘simply [i.e. pre-categorially] given life-world’ (Crisis, § 50, p. 175/172), that in the phenomenological attitude this life-world ‘remains in its own essence what it previously was’ (Crisis, § 50, p.177/174), and that in the attitude shift of the epoché the philosopher ‘loses nothing of its [the natural world’s] being and its objective truths, and indeed none of the mental acquisitions of his life in the world’ (Crisis, § 41, pp. 154-5/152; cf. Id 1 , §§ 50, 88).

But if the phenomenological reduction is not a Cartesian manoeuvre, what is it and what does it positively do? Some formulations suggest that what the reduction makes possible is a conscious reference to – as Husserl would say, a ‘thematizing of’ – the sense or mode of presentation in which a given object is presented. Any intentional object involving an actual or possible particular, with whatever ‘noetic’ quality it is presented in an intentional episode (whether it is imagined, perceived, judged, desired, etc.), is necessarily presented under some aspect or mode of presentation, as such-and-such, or from such-and-such a point of view. Husserl calls this mode of presentation of the object the sense (Sinn) of the intentional experience in question. Thus he can speak, for example, not only of the sense of a linguistic presentation such as a sentence token, but also of the sense of a perception (Wahrnehmungssinn). Indeed, given the basic role of perceptual representation for Husserl, this is a logically more fundamental application of the concept of Sinn than its application to language. The sense of the perception of an apple tree in bloom in the garden is, in a minimal interpretation, the tree just as at is perceived, that is, from a certain angle, distance, with a certain seen shape, a certain apparent play upon its leaves of light and shade, and so forth (Id 1, § 88). Husserl sometimes characterizes the phenomenological reduction is essentially no more than an unprejudiced, ‘theory’-free thematization of – an attending to – the sense of an intentional experience, the way in which whatever is presented becomes conscious in it (ibid.). What the phenomenologist should investigate is the ‘sense’ of both the noetic (experiential) and the noematic (intentional content) components of intentional life, and their essential correlations (cf. Crisis, § 50). But while this formulation is in some respects correct, there are pitfalls here. To begin with, the notion of sense is originally introduced by Husserl to capture the aspectual mode of givenness of intentional objects (LI 1, §§ 12-15). This notion therefore applies naturally to the noematic component of intentional experiences, but not to the noetic, experiential component. Husserl, despite some prevarications, ultimately believes that the noetic moment of an intentional experience (its being a perceiving, desiring, etc.) is itself not an intentional object of consciousness in its fundamental mode of presentation, namely when the experience is actually pre-reflectively ‘lived through’ (erlebt) (Id 1, § 38, p. 67/78; § 45; Time, A, appendices 6, 9, 12).46 If the phenomenologist is to describe faithfully ‘what is given as it is given’, she must take appropriate account of this pre-objective aspect of experience as it is actually lived. She thus needs a notion of sense which is broader than Husserl’s official definition of it, one which does not tie it quite so directly to the concept of an intentional object – she needs to understand ‘sense’ roughly as the experienced phenomenal character of whatever may be present to consciousness, whether that is an intentional object or not.

Secondly, the phenomenological thematization of Sinn should not be understood as analogous to the Fregean change of the reference of an expression when it occurs in quotation marks or in oblique contexts. In such contexts, the expression refers not to its normal referent, but to its normal Sinn, which for Frege is an ideal (‘abstract’), self-subsisting, non-spatiotemporal entity ontologically distinct from its referent.47 I suggest that Husserl’s talk about sense cannot at the fundamental level (and arguably not at any level) be understood in this Fregean manner. Leaving aside other problems with the Fregean approach for the moment (but see note 49 below), it is clear that if interpreted in this way, Husserl’s phenomenological reduction would, even in its initial move, ‘lose the world’ of particulars, and the phenomenologist would not actually make direct evidential contact with the spatiotemporal world at all. But it is clear that the move towards the consideration of essences or other universals (the ‘eidetic’ reduction) is for Husserl a ‘founded’ accomplishment, presupposing the transcendental reduction made possible by the epoché and quite distinct from it (cf. HUA 24 p. 224; also Crisis § 52, p. 181/178), and moreover presupposing the phenomenologist’s continuing to have some exemplifying or instantiating particular intuitively or imitatively present to her.48 Husserl, unlike Frege, is precisely not a Platonist, for he does not believe that universal (ideal) items, whether they be sensory properties, categorial features, or objectified concepts, can in principle be directly encountered or ‘grasped’ by themselves (rather than perceived in and through particulars exemplifying or instantiating them).49

So if talk of the phenomenological reduction as essentially an attending to the ‘sense’ or mode of presentation of conscious experiences or their contents is potentially misleading, can we do better? We should take our lead here from Husserl’s insistence that the reduction involves an investigation of the world itself ‘just as it was previously for me and as it still is’ (Crisis § 41, p. 155/152), and not of some item ontologically distinct from it, but that it investigates this very world with a ‘special habitualized direction of our interest’ distinct from the interests of the ‘natural attitude’ (Crisis § 35, p. 139/136). The epoché consists in the philosophising subject’s adopting a different attitude to the world and its denizens, rather than disclosing or thematizing a different set of objects. In the natural attitude as understood by Husserl we are interested in the truth-values of our representations of the world. It matters to us whether our perceptions are veridical, whether our judgements are true, whether our pre-reflective evaluative responses and our emotions are adequate or appropriate to whatever elicits them (Crisis, §§ 40-41, pp. 152-5/149-52). By contrast, in the attitude constitutively involved in phenomenological investigation we are, for the duration of that investigation, not concerned with the truth-value, or with the appropriateness to their objects, of our sample representations. It is irrelevant to us whether the representations we are using to elucidate, say, the essential structural components of the perception of spatial objects are veridical perceptions or whether they are hallucinations, for in so far as the phenomenal character of a hallucination is indistinguishable from that of a corresponding veridical perception, and indeed is ultimately parasitical on the character of (defeasibly) veridical perception, it can serve the phenomenologist just as well.50 Similarly, if the phenomenologist is investigating the structure of value and evaluative representation, he ‘brackets’ or suspends his ‘natural’ interest in whether his samples satisfy whatever normative constraints he may, in his everyday ‘natural’ life, think appropriate to evaluative representations. In the phenomenological attitude,
just as the perceiving is correlated with the perceived as such, in a sense which rules out the question after the reality of what is perceived, so the valuing is correlated with what is valued as such, and again in such a way that the being of the value (of the valued thing and of its actually being valuable) remains out of question. (Id 1, § 95, p. 198/232)

Any interest in being, reality, or non-being of the world, that is, any theoretical interest directed at knowledge of the world, but also any practical interest in an ordinary sense […] is barred to us. […] How could we make perception and what is perceived […], also art, science, philosophy, into our transcendental themes without experiencing them through samples […]? […] In a certain manner the philosopher in the epoché also has to ‘live through naturally’ natural life […]. Every kind of praxis is really or empathetically [im Nachverstehen] lived through by the phenomenologist […]. [But] through the radical epoché any interest in the reality or unreality of the world (in all modalities, including possibility, conceivability, or decidability of such matters) has been put out of play. (Crisis, §§ 52-3; pp. 178-82/ 175-79)

The phenomenologists temporarily suspends his interest in the truth value or veridicality of the sample representations used in his enquiry, not in order to turn away from the actual world (ibid., pp. 178-9/175-6), but in order to understand it more adequately qua phenomenon, focusing exclusively on the details of how it is presented to consciousness.51 This is a quite different operation from the ‘neutrality modification’ whereby a content that was previously judged or asserted is now merely entertained (Id 1, § 31, p. 55/60). If the phenomenologist wants to investigate the noetic component of intentional experiences, for example what it is to perceive an object, he needs to present to himself, or at least to simulate, also the ‘thetic’ character of (in this case) perception – the element of belief or conviction normally involved in it – yet somehow also not go along with it: to ‘put it out of action’ (ibid.). An empirical analogue to the cognitive attitude Husserl has in mind here, taking again the specific example of perceptual experience, would be a subject’s attending to his own tendency to be perceptually taken in by a perceptual illusion (e.g. the spikes of a fast-turning wheel stubbornly seeming to stand still) while also, in this empirical case due to countervailing knowledge, not ‘going along’ with his tendency to believe the appearances.52

When the phenomenologist investigates the noematic side of intentional experience – for example what it is for an object to be presented as valuable, or simply as a real spatial object – the reduction commits her to an attitude which is indifferent to whether the sample instances through which she conducts her analysis are really valuable, or are veridically perceived spatial objects (as opposed to hallucinated ones). In the latter, perceptual example, such indifference implies suspending any belief that the sample, such as Husserl’s apparent apple tree in the garden (Id 1, § 88), is a real apple tree, for this does not matter for the purpose of the phenomenological analysis. It is only in this sense that the tree becomes a ‘phenomenon’, is not taken as a spatiotemporal reality (Id 1, § 49, p. 93/112), and is consequently not considered as a node of real natural forces causally affecting the subject (Id 1, § 88, p. 182/215).

Contrary to widely held opinion, then, Husserl’s transcendental reduction does not involve an abandoning the world in favour of some Cartesian ‘immanent’ – empirically subjective – sphere of consciousness, nor does it by itself (i.e. without the distinct ‘eidetic’ reduction) purport to disclose a set of ideal, non-spatiotemporal objects. What it does involve is rather, (a) the temporary suspension of interest in the truth, veridicality, or correctness of the representations of particular samples it investigates, and (b) an attention to these samples that is purified of ‘theoretical assumptions’ in the sense elucidated earlier, with the ultimate aim of disclosing their general phenomenal structures or properties. In some passages Husserl does indeed go further and suggests not only that the actual being or non-being of the world and its denizens is of no interest in the phenomenological attitude, but that from a philosophical, reflective perspective, its non-being is conceivable (Id 1, § 46; ). But rightly understood, these remarks are also entirely compatible with his content externalism. We saw that for conceptualized self-consciousness to be possible, we must have well-confirmed beliefs in a world of real spatial objects, and also that it is not possible, when in the natural attitude, globally to suspend our prereflective beliefs (Urdoxa) in the veridicality of our perceptions. But, with respect to the first of these points, the specific contents of our beliefs, both common-sense and scientific, about the real world are in all cases defeasible, although what is not defeasible is the general belief that there is an empirically real world. Like Hume, Husserl maintains that a complete breakdown of the specific regularities of experience that have so far governed and indeed constituted the phenomenal world for us is conceivable; although, contra Hume, he seems to think that the thoroughgoing ‘consonance’ (Einstimmigkeit) of past experience does provide rational grounds for dismissing this theoretical possibility as unlikely to be actualized (ibid.). This implies that, secondly, while the veridicality of the specific contents of our perceptual beliefs can globally and intelligibly be doubted at the philosophical reflective level (although not at the immersed level of the ‘natural attitude’), such doubts are rationally unmotivated (EJ, § 78, pp. 370-1/306-7).

I have argued that Husserl’s method of transcendental reduction is misunderstood when interpreted as a form of Cartesianism in a philosophically objectionable sense, and that, on the contrary, Husserl is committed to an externalist theory of intentionality. But while the arguments offered here may have shown the reduction to be philosophically undamaging, we may still ask: what positive contribution does the reduction make to philosophical understanding? For Husserl, its crucial contribution lies in making it possible to understand explicitly or transparently how the world is constituted in – how it can manifest itself to – consciousness in the natural attitude. It is only through adopting the stance of the phenomenological reduction – even if only intermittently and for short periods of time – that the natural attitude itself and its objects – at the basic level the objects constituting our life-world – become adequately transparent to the subject. Its achievement is thus ultimately to make possible the self-explication of subjectivity and its necessary correlate, the (defeasibly) real world as it shows up for the subject. The reason why the natural attitude cannot itself achieve such self-transparency is that it is, as Husserl defines it, necessarily concerned with the objects of consciousness (Crisis, §§ 38, 40). In ordinary sense perception we are focussed on some part of the perceptual environment, in everyday linguistic judgements we are interested in the states of affairs they represent and whether they represent them truthfully, in everyday evaluation we are concerned about whatever it is that we value. But this very focus on the objects precludes any explicit understanding of the aspectual modes of presentation which are necessary for these objects to manifest themselves as they do to consciousness. This is so for two reasons. First, because a simultaneous thematizing of the objects and of the ways in which they are consciously presented would involve a bifurcation of thematic interest in a single intentional experience or project which would be tantamount to a self-division of the subject:53 I cannot simultaneously focus on, say, answering the question of whether a current experience as of an apple tree is veridical – a project which might involve various tests to confirm the experience – and on answering the question of what in the experience makes it the case that the apparent tree can appear to me as a spatial object at all, for the attempt to answer the latter question forces me into an entirely different direction of investigation. For Husserl, the importance of this realization and of its implications for philosophical method can hardly be overestimated, although it has only been inadequately recognized in the philosophical tradition. Secondly, and just as importantly, many intentional comportments in the natural attitude involve ‘senses’ (i.e. conscious aspects or ‘moments’) which are implicit, that is unthematic, if the comportment is to be what it is – think of the bodily self-awareness involved in skiing down a slope, or of the phenomenon of self-deception. One of the central tasks of phenomenology as Husserl conceives it is the explication of what is implicit in the life of (necessarily embodied) consciousness (CM, § 20, esp. pp. 83-5/46-8).54 But any such explication obviously requires a certain stepping back from those ‘absorbed comportments’ while yet also retaining a grip on what is presented in them as it is presented. Husserl himself sometimes describes this mode of attention to the manner of givenness of experience and its intentional contents as ‘disinterested’ (CM, § 15, p. 73/35) and thus aligns it with a traditional characterization of aesthetic experience – a faithful attention to what is given as it is given, engaged in ‘for its own sake’, but contributing to the ultimate goal of ‘authenticity’ in Husserl’s sense: the self-clarification of the subject and of its correlative phenomenal world.

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