Phenomenology – Lecture 3

Of all the precursors to Heidegger’s Being and Time, phenomenology is probably the most obvious. Unlike with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, its source is not hidden. Indeed Being and Time is dedicated to Husserl.[1] Again due to constraints of time, we cannot hope to cover all of Husserl’s work (which is very extensive in itself), but only focus on that material useful for our reading of Being and Time: namely, the critique of psychologism and the natural attitude through the phenomenological reduction, and the intentional structure of consciousness that emerges from such a distancing from psychologism and the natural attitude. We shall end with Heidegger’s critique of the presuppositions of Husserl’s phenomenological method and thus how he saw his own fundamental ontology going further and deeper.

In the Prolegomena, the first part of Husserl’s Logical Investigations, Husserl offers a sustained argument against psychologism in logic, which he believed had come to dominate the philosophical scene in the early part of the 20th century (2012, pp.9–160). This is not merely a parochial issue for Husserl, for it is a matter of the status of philosophy itself. Psychology, or the domination of psychology, which is a natural science, marks an extreme danger to philosophy that could have the consequence of its own disappearance. This unease should not be misunderstood as an expression of hatred against science or that the sciences themselves do not tell us something true about reality (Husserl remains deeply committed to the scientific project of the 17th and 18th century, and this commitment in some sense marks the difference between him and Heidegger), but the belief that science ought to be limited to its own proper area of investigation. When science does exceed these limits it becomes a myth or an ideology. What do mean by science exceeding its limits. For example, Steve Hawking in his introduction to modern cosmology, A Brief History of Time, argues that the physico-mathematical theories of the universe that he and his other colleagues have uncovered are a representation of ‘God’s mind.’[2] We need to be clear that science can tell us nothing about God, and the statement that physical theories are a representation of God’s mind are not scientific but mythical.

What matters for Husserl, however, is not just what scientists say or do not say, but the relation between science and philosophy. He makes two fundamental claims: one, philosophy is not a science, and two, science is impossible without philosophy. There are perhaps many who would agree with the first statement, because they would think that philosophy is more akin to literature than anything scientific, or more pejoratively, that philosophy is just metaphysical claptrap, which we don’t need at all. But the second claim makes it clear that Husserl would not agree with this dismissal of philosophy. Rather, he wants to insist that science cannot ground itself scientifically. In other words the natural sciences require philosophy in order to be legitimate, even though philosophy itself is not science in their terms:

Man should admit that truths which have their roots in the concepts which constitute the objectively conceived Idea of Science cannot also belong to any particular science. They should see that such truths, being ideal, cannot have their home-ground in the sciences of matter of fact, and therefore not in psychology. (Husserl 2012, p.172)

But why should the sciences require philosophy in order to be properly grounded or legitimated? The answer is logic. All the sciences require the truths of logic in order to put forward properly constituted arguments. This is why we can see that there arises a conflict between philosophy and psychology. For psychologism is the belief that logic is based in human psychology. Psychology is just one more natural science (though Husserl will say that is not a well formed natural science), and if psychology could demonstrate the basis of logical truth, then the sciences no longer require an extra-scientific discourse in order to legitimate themselves. To save philosophy from this redundancy Husserl must show that logic cannot be validated legitimately in psychology and thus philosophy is still necessary to the natural sciences.

There are three, Husserl argues in introduction to the Prolegomena, primary explanations of logic: ‘psychological, formal and metaphysical’ and, as we have seen, the first, the psychological has gained the ascendancy (2012, p.3). Psychologism can be defined as follows: laws that regulate the mental must themselves have a mental basis. The regulative principles of knowledge must be grounded in the psychology of knowledge. Take, for example the law of non-contradiction that P cannot be P and not P at the same time. The psychologist would say that this certainty of this law was grounded in the feeling of certainty of the person whose thought it is (perhaps today we might speak of MRI scans). Now Husserl’s argument against this is not a factual one (that there could be, for example, a better factual account of our minds), but that these psychologists have made a fundamental mistake about semantics. This error does not invalidate their scientific accounts, but it does call into question their ability to determine the status of logical truths from facts about the human mind.

The source of Husserl’s theory of semantic is Bolzano. Like Kant, he argues that all knowledge is representation and representations can be divided into concepts and intuitions. There are two meanings to representation: on the one hand, mental states of the soul, which are the states of my mind when I perceive something, which is a subjective representation, and on the other side, there is the inter-subjective representation, which is not a representation in us, but a representation in itself; that is to say, an ‘objective representation.’ This difference can be made sense of in the following way: each grammatical unity (a word) is associated with a host of subjective representations, but with only one objective representation. There are many subjective representations of the word ‘nothing,’ for example, but only one meaning of the word ‘nothing.’ Whereas subjective representations are real, objective ones are not. The subjective ones are real because they exist in the psychological state of the mind, the objective ones are ideal because they do not require a subject and cannot be said to exist. There is also a distinction between objective representation and the object of representation. The meaning of ‘table’ should not be confused with actual tables.

We can see what Husserl’s critique of psychologism might be. It is the confusion between meaning and the psychological state. Or, in other words, they believe that meaning and the activity of the mind belong to one and the same region of being, reality or nature, which is to be understood through the same causal laws. But this is to fail to make the distinction between real and ideal being. Husserl would speak here of a difference between the content of thought, which is nothing real, and the activity of thought itself, which is something real. Take his example of the number 5 again in the Prolegomena. No one would think that the concept or the meaning of 5 is the result of their own counting or someone else’s. The number five is not the result of the activity of thinking (or what Husserl’s calls ‘presentation’) by this or that person rather it is a possible object (‘object’ here not meant as a real object, but as an ideal object) of any activity of thought or presentation. In the activity of thought, we can, Husserl’s argues, make an abstraction, from the actual event of thinking itself, which takes place in a certain time and certain place, to what is being thought, which is not dependent on certain time and place. This ideal meaning tells us nothing about reality, to use the example of the number 5 again, the actual activity of counting, or the thinking the number, or objects in the real world, which might be counted through the concept of the number 5 itself.

The critique of psychologism is negative. It attempts to show that we cannot give a scientific account of our understanding of the world because we need a non-natural account of meaning. We need a positive account, however, what it means to do philosophy if we reject the natural attitude. Husserl’s description of what it means to do philosophy he calls the reduction.

I see the table in front of me. Now it seems clear to me that this table exists. But what do I mean by the word ‘exists’? I mean possibly that it is something real. That is to say that it is not a dream, an illusion or a hallucination. But what do I mean by the word ‘real’? This word seems just as obscure as the word ‘exists’. Perhaps I mean by this, taking into account my reference to illusions and so forth, that is has a physical existence. And what is something physical? It is something that is made of matter, and if I have some passing knowledge of physics, I might add that this matter is made of atoms and energy that can be described by quantum mechanics.

What of the world that things are in? Is that too a thing? From a scientific point of view, we might think of the world as the totality of things, which would be nature ruled by causal laws. The difficulty comes when we speak of the scientist itself. What is she or he? In one sense they are just like the chair about which they speak. They too are things. We would want to say, however, that they are much more than that.  Unlike things, they think (they are scientists after all), and like the rest of us, they have hopes and desires, which chairs do not have. Thus we must make a distinction between what is psychical and what is physical, and to each we could say, there belongs a corresponding world: for the world of things, nature, and for people, the mind.

This vision of a world split into two, the physical and the psychical, is already an interpretation and one perhaps that is even the more distorting and powerful because we just take it as obvious. First of all we need to go back, Husserl would say, to our most fundamental and basic relation to things, and therefore to the world in which they belong, and that is perception before we make metaphysical or even scientific speculations. We ask ourselves ‘how does the thing appear to us?’

Let us go back to our table again. There are two sides to our experience of this table. One side is transcendent and the other is immanent. The natural attitude only ‘sees’ the transcendent side of the object. What is meant by transcendence here? It is the object conceived as something real that lies outside of consciousness conceived of as something mental. From the perspective of the natural attitude knowing something is to go outside of oneself towards the object and to bring it back to the mind. Here consciousness is conceived of as a bag that contains the representation of the objects passively. And yet there are great difficulties with this theory. How would one know that the picture one had of the object was the same as the object itself? Moreover it is clear that my perceptions can be disappointed. I think that I seeing a chair, but on closer inspection it is a stage prop. It is clear that these questions themselves are not scientific ones, for what matters here is not knowledge of this or that object by a subject, but knowledge in general, that is to say, the relation between the subject and object, rather than the subject and object in themselves. Moreover, even if I were never deceived, does not this image of knowledge beg the question? How can I make the reality of external things the basis of knowledge when this is the very thing that I am trying to prove? The phenomenological reduction, which Husserl says is the very beginning of the philosophical method, brackets any claim to the external transcendent reality of things:

We put out of action the general positing which belongs to the essence of the natural attitude; we parenthesise everything which that positing encompasses with respect to being: thus the whole natural world which is continually there for us on hand, and which will always remains there according to consciousness as an actuality, even if we choose to parenthesise it. (Husserl 1980, p.61)

What need to underline here, and make sure that it is completely understood, that this is not a theory about the non-existence of the world: that everything is a dream, and that nothing exists except consciousness. For these claims themselves would be metaphysical and thus outside the reduction. Rather, it is a matter, of methodology. This is clear in the above quotation. The very being of the external world is one of actuality, and it is not as if the phenomenologist will put his or her hand in the fire after the reduction, because he or she know believes that the world does not really exist. I ask myself if the knowledge of exterior things cannot be the basis of knowledge itself, is there anything left if I discount this knowledge from my own procedure? You would think that the quick answer to this question would be nothing. For if I can no longer used the facts and material obtained by the natural science, or even my everyday experiences, then they must be nothing left over.  For I still see my consciousness as an empty bag that need to be filled with the things outside of it, and once I have got rid of these things, then all I am left with is something useless and null.

Yet consciousness is certainly not a thing, and this is what Husserl wants us to see above all, and moreover if I take out the transcendent object, then I am not left with nothing, rather everything remains, but with a different status.  What I am left with after the reduction, what Husserl calls the ‘phenomenological residuum,’ is the immanent object. In The Idea of Phenomenology, Husserl refers to Descartes to make sense of this idea. Cartesian doubt leads us to the cogito as something self-evident, for even if I doubt everything I cannot myself doubt that I doubt. But the evidence, of the cogito extends over all conscious acts. If I remember something, I cannot doubt that I remembering it and if I desire something, I cannot doubt that I desiring it. The immanent object remains, even if the transcendent one does not:

I might reach such a degree of sceptical despair that I finally say: Nothing is certain, everything is doubtful. But it is at once evident that not everything is doubtful, for while I am judging that everything is doubtful, it is indubitable that I am so judging. […] And likewise with every cogitatio.  Howsoever I perceive, imagine, judge infer, […] it is absolutely clear that I am perceiving this or that, and as far as the judgement is concerned that I am judging of this or that, etc. (Husserl 1964, p.23)

Now the content of the immanent object must be exactly the same as the transcendent object, though the latter is a real object and the former an ideal one. For the real object, external to consciousness can be in reality be destroyed, whereas the ideal object cannot; it only exists immanently within the consciousness. It is Husserl’s argument that the immanent object is given absolutely. Thus there is no possibility that I can doubt it. If I am thinking of a chair then I am thinking of a chair, whether the chair exists or not, or whatever the chair is made of.

The reduction opens up a field of the phenomenological analysis of immanent objects. But we do need to be careful to understand how far we have got here. We still do not know what the relation, if there is any, between the immanent and transcendent object is, and how we are to grasp the meaning of the world after the reduction. Do we simply return to the distinction between the subject and object, as Descartes does after the proof of the existence of God, or is the relation between immanence and transcendence far more complex than this? An answer to this question will only be found by a closer analysis of the difference between transcendence and immanence, and this can only be attempted after a deeper look into the structure of consciousness that will only be obtained after a discussion of perhaps Husserl’s most important and central concept, intentionality.

How things present themselves, rather than how we might wish them to present themselves, has to do with the intentional structure of consciousness. Like Kant, Husserl would argue that consciousness is not just a passive recipient of information from the external world, but already determines shapes and constitutes the object we see. Consciousness is not just opposed to the object, but constitutes the relation between the self and the object. These two ‘subjects,’ however, cannot be thought as identical. The first subject is the actual empirical subject, whereas the second subject, which cannot be identified with any actual living person, is ideal and transcendental. The analysis of intentionality is the description of its essential structure.

The notion of intentionality has its roots in medieval investigations of signification, but the immediate source for Husserl was his philosophy teacher Brentano, who made intentionality a distinction between mental and physical phenomena. Mental phenomena, for Brentano, are to be divided into the act of presentation, such as hearing a sound or seeing a colour, but also expectation, hope, judgement, love, happiness and joy, and the content of the presentation of the things or matter which is aimed at in the act of presentation. This ‘presentation’ is not to be confused with any actual thing or state of affairs (Brentano 1973, pp.77–81).

Brentano’s account is still empirical (different ways that we are conscious of the world) however, whereas Husserl’s is transcendental (what does it mean to have a consciousness of the world at all?). To explain intentionality, let us return to the distinction between immanent and transcendent objects Transcendent objects, or real objects, are given to us, Husserl argues, only through a continuum of profiles, perspective or adumbrations (these are not only spatial, but temporal):

Of necessity a physical thing can be given only ‘one-sidely,’ and that signifies not just incompletely or imperfectly in some sense or another, but precisely what presentation by adumbrations prescribes. (Husserl 1980, p.94)

Yet it is equally clear, Husserl would say, if we simple reflect upon our perception of things, we do not just see aspects and profiles, rather there is another element. I always see one and the same thing. Take the example of the table described in the Ideas:

Let us start with an example. Constantly seeing this table and meanwhile walking around it, changing my position is space in whatever way, I have continually the consciousness of this one identical table as factually existing ‘in person’ and remaining quite unchanged. (Husserl 1980, p.94)

We are continuously conscious of this one and the same table as really existing yet our perceptions of it change. My perceptions of the object are perspectival, whilst I am conscious of the table in person as being there as one thing. We can, therefore, also make a fundamental distinction between appearing and appearance. There is one and the same appearance, Husserl would say, though the appearing of this appearance is always changing. The one and the same appearance is the immanent object, and the changing manner of the appearance is the transcendent object.

We confuse objectivity with the transcendent object, but it is this object that is continually changing and therefore could never be the ground for scientific knowledge. It is the immanent object that gives unity and sense to our experience of things in the world. It is this unity that is valid meaning of objectivity. This unity provided by the immanent object already organises, or synthesises Husserl would say, our experience of the world, prior to any theoretical or scientific judgements that I might make of it. It is because the world is already organised by the immanent intentional structure of consciousness that we see things as having such and such meanings and therefore can make judgements about them. My experience of the world is already organised by the structure of intentionality before I have any sensations.

The world is not something outside of us, in the sense of nature in the scientific or common-sense attitude; rather the world should be understood as the network of meanings, which is the horizon in which we encounter objects. The world is this region of sense in which we are orientated. This world for Husserl is identical to the immanent life of consciousness. It is constituted through it. The key to understanding this claim is to no longer to see the world on the analogy of a natural thing, but in terms of language. For the self-same and identical appearance that appears at the heart of appearing is sense or meaning. It is not a natural thing, and nor does it have any basis in nature, yet it is the ground and possibility of our experience and judgements about nature.

What then did Heidegger take from Husserl’s phenomenology and what did he reject? First of all, it goes without saying, that not one page of Being and Time can be understood without it. It is phenomenological through and through. Heidegger himself is very clear about this when he describe the phenomenological method on Being and Time in section 7 (which we will describe in greater detail when we get to it). What is more difficult is seeing where Heidegger wanted to distance himself from Husserl. Here lectures that Heidegger gave on Husserl’s method, called The History of the Concept of Time, can be very useful.

In the third part of these lectures, he gives what he calls an ‘immanent critique’ of Husserl (Heidegger 1985, pp.90–131). The problem with the earliest conception of phenomenology is how it conceived our relation to the world. For Husserl, at least, this relation was primarily epistemological and his ideal was the sciences, even if, as we have seen, these sciences could not ground themselves. We can talk about tables other things around us and ask how it is that we know them, but is this really the primary and most important way that we relate to the world? For Husserl it seems that it is, such that any subsequent relation to the world must be built from it. What Husserl takes for granted is that we are nothing but consciousness and this is how we relate the world. What evaporates in this relation is the very concrete lived being that is consciousness and who must be the basis of any conscious act. The aim of Being and Time is to show that the there is a more elemental relation to the world than this conscious self-reflective one whose dominance is historical rather than phenomenological. Heidegger’s method could be described as a double reduction. A reduction of Husserl’s reduction so as to discover the concrete life it takes for granted. The latter, Heidegger, describes as a ‘fundamental ontology’ whose method is still phenomenological even though it rejects the primacy of the theoretical attitude (1962, pp.33–4).

Works Cited

Brentano, F., 1973. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint;, London: Routledge.

Hawking, S., 2009. A Brief History Of Time: From Big Bang To Black Holes, New York: Random House.

Heidegger, M., 1962. Being and Time, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Heidegger, M., 1985. History of the Concept of Time : Prolegomena, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Husserl, E., 1980. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, The Hague: M. Nijhoff.

Husserl, E., 2012. Logical Investigations D. Moran, ed., Routledge.

Husserl, E., 1964. The Idea of Phenomenology, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Rockmore, T., 1997. On Heidegger’s Nazism and Philosophy, University of California Press.


[1]Though shamefully Heidegger removed this dedication whilst he was rector of Freiburg and also banned Husserl from using the library. For a thorough account of Heidegger’s ‘turn to Nazism’, see the chapter ‘The Nazi Turning and the Rectoral Address’ in On Heidegger’s Nazism and Philosophy (Rockmore 1997, pp.39–72).

[2] ‘However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God’ (Hawking 2009, p.136).

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