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

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5. Conclusion

The aim of this paper has been to show that Husserl’s often misunderstood methodological theses do not stand in the way of a serious engagement with his substantive first-order analyses and claims. In particular, they do not commit the phenomenologist to Cartesian content internalism, but explicitly recognize the necessarily embodied nature of potentially self-conscious subjectivity, and the fundamental importance of agency for subjecthood. But there is surely an as yet unaddressed basic question invited by Husserl’s phenomenological project and the conception of philosophy associated with it. Why, you may ask, should we be prepared to follow Husserl in considering the investigation of the structures involved in the conscious manifestation of the world to subjectivity to be the fundamental philosophical issue? From a more traditional, epistemologically or metaphysically motivated, perspective, the central question would instead appear to be how these putatively correlative structures of subjectivity and phenomenal worldhood relate to the ‘world as it is in itself’. After all, with respect to the subject’s relation to the world, all that Husserl’s transcendental efforts, if successful, have shown is that a potentially self-conscious subject has to have, and to be able to think of itself as having, a body with phenomenal properties, experienced and conceived as having causal powers, located in an environment of other such bodies. It does not tell us how all these phenomenal objects relate to a metaphysically accurate account of the real world, or indeed to scientific accounts of subjectivity in terms of computational or neurophysiological properties. To be sure, Husserl also gives us a (transcendental idealist) metaphysics, but I have argued that this is in principle separable from the phenomenological analyses which make up the great bulk of his work. Husserl’s metaphysics is, both in principle and in terms of the actual thematic focus exhibited by the overwhelming majority of his writings, evidently extraneous to his main philosophical pre-occupations. Irrespective of his later self-interpretation as, ultimately, also a metaphysician, the actual prevailing emphases of his work consign metaphysics to the margins, and his practice is therefore in this respect comparable to what we find in central texts of existential phenomenology, such as Heidegger’s Being and Time and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. How might one justify this ‘phenomenological turn’ - the shift of philosophical orientation from issues of factual epistemology (‘what can we know about the actual world?’) and from metaphysics to, ultimately, a phenomenology of the human world? The issue becomes particularly pressing if one regards Husserl’s own explicit aim – the provision of an apodictic foundation for objective science, including the empirical sciences – to be neither particularly compelling nor attainable.

In order to understand the deeper reasons of why phenomenology came to dominate much of 20th century continental European philosophy, quite independently of what Husserl’s own explicit motivations may have been, it is crucial to bear in mind that it is not in competition with a scientific understanding of the physical correlates of consciousness. While Husserl resists the conflation of empirically ‘genetic’ (i.e. causal) questions with constitutive questions, this does not impugn the legitimacy of the former in their own domains. For example, when we try to cure a person’s depression, the best and most useful kind of account for this person’s condition may sometimes be one couched, not in terms of phenomenal consciousness and conscious motivating reasons, but in terms of a deficiency of neurotransmitters like serotonin or catecholamine in the brain. In other cases, neurophysiological accounts and psychological theories making use of phenomenological concepts may usefully complement each other. The general point here is that the application in empirical psychology, or indeed in everyday ‘folk psychology’, of concepts developed in a transcendental-phenomenological context does not conflict with scientific neurophysiological explanations of mental phenomena just in case the phenomenal properties adverted to in the former kinds of explanation are strongly supervenient on (i.e. co-variant with) scientific properties simultaneously exemplified.55 And there is absolutely nothing in Husserl’s phenomenology that commits him to denying strong supervenience of phenomenal on scientific properties at the empirical (‘natural’) level of enquiry.

What does, however, de facto cease to be of focal concern to philosophy influenced by the phenomenological turn initiated by Husserl, are purely theoretical questions, pertaining neither to phenomenology nor to science, that continue to dominate much of analytic philosophy – questions about what might metaphysically explain such supervenience relations. The philosophical reasons which render this relative indifference to such traditional metaphysical questions most compelling can arguably not be found in Husserl, nor in the Heidegger of Being and Time, but in the work of Nietzsche, and they lie beyond the scope of this essay.56 Consonant with these, and whatever Husserl’s own explicit motivations may have been, one of the most fruitful ways of understanding the broader significance of the phenomenological turn he inaugurated may, in the end, have been expressed by the existentialist Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. According to Husserl, as Camus understood him:

thinking is not unifying or making the appearance familiar under the guise of a great principle. Thinking is learning all over again to see, directing one’s consciousness, making of every image a privileged place. In other words, phenomenology declines to explain the world. […] [From this] apparent modesty of thought that limits itself to describing what it declines to explain […] results paradoxically a profound enrichment of experience and the rebirth of the world in its prolixity […] It affirms solely that without any unifying principle, thought can still take delight in describing and understanding every aspect of experience.57

Translations from Husserl’s writings are mine. Where page references to Husserl’s writings are given in the essay, the first of these in each case refers to the German edition of the relevant text cited below. In those cases – the majority – where there is also an English edition, a second page reference, separated from the first by a slash, refers to this edition, details of which are given below next to the German edition.
CM Cartesianische Meditationen, ed. E. Ströker, (Hamburg: Felix Meiner,

1995). English edition: Cartesian Meditations, trans. D. Cairns, (The

Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977).

Crisis Die Krisis der Europäischen Wissenschaften und die Transzendentale

Phänomenologie, ed. W. Biemel, (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1962).

English edition: The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental

Phenomenology, trans. D. Carr, (Evanston: Northwestern University

Press, 1970).

EJ Erfahrung und Urteil, ed. L. Landgrebe, (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1985).

English edition: Experience and Judgement, trans. J. S. Churchill and

K. Ameriks, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973).

FTL Formale und Transzendentale Logik, (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1981).

English edition: Formal and Transcendental Logic, trans. D. Cairns,

(The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969).

HUA 8 Erste Philosophie (1923/24). Zweiter Teil: Theorie der

phänomenologischen Reduktion, ed. R. Boehm, (The Hague:

Martinus Nijhoff, 1959). (Husserliana, vol. 8).

HUA 23 Phantasie, Bildbewusstsein, Erinnerung, ed E. Marbach, (The Hague:

Martinus Nijhoff, 1980). (Husserliana, vol. 23).

HUA 24 Einleitung in die Logik und Erkenntnistheorie. Vorlesungen 1906/07,

ed. U. Melle, (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1984). (Husserliana, vol. 24).

HUA 26 Vorlesungen über Bedeutungslehre. Sommersemester 1908,

ed. U. Panzer, (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987). (Husserliana, vol. 26).

Id 1 Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen

Philosophie, Erstes Buch, (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1980).

English edition: Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology

and a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book, trans. F. Kersten,

(Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1982).

Id 2 Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen

Philosophie, Zweites Buch, ed. M. Biemel, (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff,

1952). English edition: Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and a

Phenomenological Philosophy, Second Book, trans. R. Rojcewicz and

A. Schuwer, (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1989).

LI 1-6 Logische Untersuchungen, (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1980).

English edition: Logical Investigations, trans. J. N. Findlay, 2 vols,

London: Routledge, 2001).

Time Zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins (1893-1917),

ed. R. Boehm, (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966). English

edition: On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal

Time (1893-1917), trans. J. B. Brough (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1990).

TS Ding und Raum. Vorlesungen 1907, ed. U. Claesges, (The Hague:

Martinus Nijhoff, 1973). English edition: Thing and Space. Lectures

of 1907, trans. R. Rojcewicz, (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997).

Baldwin, T., ‘Phenomenology, Solipsism and Egocentric Thought’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supp. vol. 62 (1988), pp. 27-44.

Bell, D., Husserl (London: Routledge, 1990).

Bermúdez, J. L., ‘Nonconceptual Content: From Perceptual Experience to Subpersonal Computational States’, Mind and Language 10 (1995), pp. 333-67.

Block, N., ‘On a Confusion about a Function of Consciousness’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 18 (1995), pp. 227-47.

Brewer, B., Perception and Reason (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999).

Campbell, J., ‘Sense, Reference and Selective Attention, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supp. vol. 71 (1997), pp. 55-74.

Campbell, J., ‘Joint Attention and the First Person’, in A. O’Hear (ed.), Current Issues in Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Campbell, J., Reference and Consciousness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002).

Camus, A., The Myth of Sisyphus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975).

Carr, D., ‘The “Fifth Meditation” and Husserl’s Cartesianism’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 34 (1973-4), pp. 14-15.

Claesges, U., Edmund Husserls Theorie der Raumkonstitution (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964).

Dilthey, W., ‘Beiträge zur Lösung der Frage vom Ursprung unseres Glaubens and die Realität der Aussenwelt’, in Gesammelte Schriften (Leipzig: Teubner, 1923), vol. 5, pp. 90-138.

Dreyfus, H., Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).

Drummond, J. J., ‘On Seeing a Material Thing in Space’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 40 (1979-80), pp. 19-32.

Drummond, J. J., Husserlian Intentionality and Non-Foundational Realism: Noema and Object (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1990).

Dummett, M., ‘Frege’s Myth of the Third Realm’, in Frege and Other Philosophers (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Dummett, M., Origins of Analytical Philosophy (London: Duckworth, 1993).

Eilan, N., ‘Perceptual Intentionality. Attention and Consciousness’, in A. O’Hear (ed.), Current Issues in Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Evans, G., The Varieties of Reference (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982).

Føllesdal, D., ‘Husserl’s Notion of the Noema’, Journal of Philosophy 66 (1969), pp. 680-7.

Frege, G., ‘The Thought’, Mind 65 (1956), pp. 289-311.

Gibson, J. J., The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1979).

Gurwitsch, A., The Field of Consciousness (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1964).

Heidegger, M., Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962).

Heidegger, M., History of the Concept of Time (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1985).

Kant, I., Critique of Pure Reason (London: Macmillan, 1950).

Kern, I., Husserl und Kant: Eine Untersuchung über Husserls Verhältnis zu Kant und zum Neukantianismus (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964).

Kim, J., Supervenience and Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Locke, J., An Essay concerning Human Understanding (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

Mackie, J. L., The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974).

Martin, M. G. F., ‘Setting Things before the Mind’, in A. O’Hear (ed.), Current Issues in Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

McDowell, J., Mind and World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).

Merleau-Ponty, M., ‘Phenomenology and the Sciences of Man’, in The Primacy of Perception (Evanston: Northwestern University Press).

Mulligan, K., and Smith, B., ‘A Husserlian Theory of Indexicality’, Grazer Philosophische Studien 28 (1986), pp. 133-63.

O’Shaughnessy, B., The Will: A Dual Aspect Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 2 vols.

Philipse, H., ‘The Problem of Occasional Expressions in Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations’, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 13 (1982), pp. 168-85.

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Rowlands, M., Externalism (Chesham: Acumen, 2003).

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Sartre, J.-P., Being and Nothingness (London: Routledge, 2003).

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Soteriou, M., ‘The Subjective View of Experience and its Objective Commitments’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 105 (2005), pp. 177-90.

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2 Particularly influential here has been Hubert Dreyfus, Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1.

3 For a conceptualist version of this claim, see John McDowell, Mind and World. Husserl’s anticipation of this general type of approach was made more widely known in an analytic context by Michael Dummett’s Origins of Analytical Philosophy, a study whose interpretation of Husserl suffers, however, from a number of misunderstandings and from its exclusive focus on the early Logical Investigations.

4 For an influential interpretation of Husserl’s theory of intentionality as involving a commitment to such Fregean mediating entities, see David Woodruff Smith and Ronald McIntyre, Husserl and Intentionality.

5 This and all subsequent translations from Husserl are mine. Husserl’s conception of philosophy here contrasts markedly with much of the mainstream of modern philosophy since Descartes, where either metaphysical questions (‘how do our subjective representations relate to what there really is?’), or questions of factual epistemology (‘how can we attain knowledge of the actual world?), have tended to be taken to be fundamental. It is not my intention here to provide a defence of the motivations for the philosophical re-orientation, the ‘phenomenological turn’ initiated by Husserl, but some suggestions on this score will be made in the conclusion.

6 Cf. Zahavi, Self-Awareness and Alterity, p. 51.

7 One of the many important distinctions here – empasized by Husserl but often conflated in contemporary discussions – is the distinction between the phenomenal properties of experiences and those which objects appear as having when experienced (e.g. the red surface colour of a tomato). As Michael Martin notes, a great deal of qualia talk in current debates equivocates on these different meanings of ‘what it is like’. See Martin, ‘Setting Things before the Mind’, pp. 158-66.

8 One illuminating account of subpersonal representation is J. L. Bermúdez’s, who argues that states of an information processing system can count as representational if they satisfy the conditions of (a) plasticity and flexibility in relation to environmental stimuli, (b) cognitive integration with other states of the system, (c) compositional structure, and (d) the possession of correctness conditions defined in terms of proper or improper functioning. None of these conditions require the presence of phenomenal consciousness. (J. L. Bermúdez , ‘Nonconceptual Content: From Perceptual Experience to Subpersonal Computational States’, pp. 333-67).

9 ‘Evidence’ (Evidenz) is a technical term in Husserl, signifying, in the wider sense relevant in the above citation, the direct presentation or ‘self-givenness’ of the intentional object in experience (see EJ, § 4). An item X is directly presented (self-given) in consciousness just in case there is no conscious epistemic intermediary representing or standing for X. Husserl also calls direct presentation (or self-givenness) ‘originary’ presentation.

10 Ned Block, ‘On a Confusion about a Function of Consciousness’, pp. 227-47. The analogy is not precise, however, since Block also allows contents to be access-conscious in certain circumstances where the subjects ‘entertaining’ them in fact possess no concepts relevant for using the contents in inference (p. 246).

11 Related arguments can be found in Naomi Eilan, ‘Perceptual Intentionality. Attention and Consciousness’, pp. 182-4; and Bill Brewer, Perception and Reason, pp. 44-5.

12 Cf. Ernst Tugendhat, Der Wahrheitsbegriff bei Husserl und Heidegger, pp. 194-5. Some commentators have denied that this ‘Cartesian’ theme continues to motivate Husserl in his final period, since it does not appear prominently in his last work, the Crisis (1936). (See e.g. Iso Kern, Husserl und Kant: Eine Untersuchung über Husserls Verhältnis zu Kant und zum Neukantianismus, p. 236. Also David Carr, ‘The “Fifth Meditation” and Husserl’s Cartesianism’, pp. 14-15.) But the emphatic presence of the Cartesian requirement of indubitability from the middle period Ideas I (1913) to the late Cartesian Meditations (1929) seems to me to tell against such interpretations. In fact, even in Crisis, while the theme is indeed no longer prominent, Husserl still insists on the apodicticity of phenomenological claims. See Crisis § 15, p. 73/72.

13 These general structures also include the formal structures of objects qua objects, which ultimately ground the basic truths of logic. I shall not discuss in detail Husserl’s view that not only particulars, but also general features and structures, such as sensory properties and relations, or categorial properties, can be perceived on the basis of the presence of particulars exemplifying or instantiating them. Similarly, I shall not discuss his later methodological development of this idea – the so-called eidetic reduction (see Id 1, §§ 65-70; Crisis, § 52). What is important in our context is only Husserl’s demand that the outcome of phenomenological reflection on the basis of particulars should be appropriately universalised. Phenomenological claims should not concern, say, the structure of this temporal object, but the necessary structure of all temporal objects qua temporal objects. The details of this process of intuition-based universalisation (‘ideation’), which he analyses differently at different stages of his career (LI 2, §§ 1-4, and EJ, §§ 87-88), and indeed differently for different types of universals (EJ, § 64d), need not concern us here. Let me just briefly remark that the tenet that there can be an ‘intuition’ – a perception – of universals on the basis of particulars exemplifying them is originally developed by him as the only plausible answer to questions such as: what is it we do when we judge, on the basis of current experience, that a is red, or square, or smaller than b? His answer is that we express our noticing of a general feature, a way of being or universal, which is such that the very same universal can also be exemplified by indefinitely many other particulars. Husserl’s theory of a perception of properties and categorial structures is fraught with difficulties, although Husserlians would argue that this holds for any theory in this area and that even greater problems are in store for rival theories which seek to dispense with such a notion. For a perceptive independent defence of parts of the Husserlian position, see T. L. S. Sprigge, Facts,Words and Beliefs, chapter 2.

14 The demand that phenomenology should offer elucidations of the intrinsic features of its target objects makes for an obvious contrast with

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