Levinas and Heidegger Lecture 2

December 9, 2018

Levinas told his students, and everyone else, that you really need to read Heidegger, and especially, Being and Time, and he also tells us that he would have written a book on this work, after his book on Husserl, if the events of the war, and Heidegger’s complicity in them, had not intervened.[1] Indeed, without reading Heidegger, and especially Being and Time, much of what Levinas writes is incomprehensible, since Levinas’s own philosophy is written in dialogue with him. He simply takes it for granted that his readers have read Being and Time and know this text intimately. This does not mean that Levinas is a scholar of Heidegger, for then he would not be an original thinker in his own right. If you are looking for a detailed, nuanced, and even sympathetic reading of Heidegger, then you would not come to Levinas. But is that no true of any philosopher who has anything interesting to say. She only creates her own thought by misunderstanding or even caricaturing those who have preceded her, otherwise she would be, no matter how important they are to the dissemination of knowledge, only a scholar herself.[2] This lecture will mostly be about Heidegger’s argument in Being and Time, and will end with a few brief remarks about Levinas’s disagreement with it. In next lecture on Levinas’s ethics, we will speak in more depth about his own philosophy.

Levinas’s writings, precisely because of the war, where he ceases really to engage with Heidegger’s later philosophy, are predominately focused on Being and Time. When Levinas’s speaks or writes of Heidegger’s concept of being, then he is, for the most part, referring to question of being in Being and Time.[3] It opens with a quotation from the Sophist:

For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression ‘being’. We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed [Sophist 244a].

The situation is worse for us than it is for the stranger. For at least he was perplexed by the question of being, but we do not even hear it as a serious question at all. We don’t even know what someone means by the question of being. The reason, Heidegger, tells us, is because the history of philosophy has obscured this question. Either we think know the answer to it, being is the most general and obvious concept, or we think it is indefinable, and it is not a serious philosophical question at all.

Against this indifference, how will we renew the question of being? Heidegger’s answer to this question is that we must focus on that being whose being, whose existence, is an everyday concern for them, and that is us. Heidegger does not use the term ‘human being’ to designate us, because he thinks that it is too overloaded with metaphysical and scientific connotations that have concealed the question of being from us in the first place. Rather he describes us by the expression Dasein. Most translators leave this word untranslated, which gives it a kind of mysterious air, but Heidegger wants us to read it literally. In German, Dasein means ‘being-there’, rather than just the technical meaning ‘existence’ that we might find in a dictionary. What is unique to us, Heidegger will argue, is that our ‘being there’ matters to us, and it matters to us in a specific way that could be a clue to the meaning of being in general.

Science, and we do live in a scientific age, so we generally think that science has all the answers, investigates the meaning beings. Chemistry analyses and studies molecular structures, physics, matter, and biology, life. In each case, the being of these things, is not a serious question for them. If they worried about the being of these things, then they would not be doing science but philosophy. To do science, you must accept that these things exist to even get started. It is only when science goes into a crisis that it might start doubting the fundamental reality of the basic components of its scientific paradigm.

We can also think of ourselves as objects of scientific investigation. We can be studied biologically, psychologically, or even anthropologically. In each case, the human being is analysed as certain kind of being, as life, mind, or culture. Philosophy, however, for Heidegger, does not take for granted what kind of being we are, but asks a rather different question. It asks what kind of understanding of being already exists such that a being is taken to be in certain way. The first kind of study, the obviously scientific one, Heidegger calls ontic. It is the study of things as things without questioning their fundamental nature. If we were going to use a Kuhnian vocabulary, we might call it ‘normal science’.[4] The second kind of question is ontological.

The difference between us and things is that we already relate to our being, even if for the most part we do so in an unthinking way. A stone does not ask itself what it is to be a stone, nor does super nova, or dolphin. It is perfectly possible for me, at any stage of my life, or at any moment of the day, to wonder who I am. What is ontically distinctive about us, is that we are ontological:

Dasein is an entity which does not just occur among other entities. Rather it is ontically distinguished by the fact that, in its very Being, that Being is an issue for it […]. Understanding of Being is itself a defining characteristic of Dasein’s Being. Dasein is ontically distinctive in that it is ontological [BT 12].

What Heidegger is not interested in is the way we might think of ourselves as the ‘dust of the stars’, since these scientific pictures of ourselves, common in much popular science, already smuggle in too much metaphysics. Rather what matters to him is how we appear to ourselves in our everyday lives. Philosophy is very much about the everyday for Heidegger, and this is perhaps what excited his students about his teaching.[5] How do understand ourselves? We understand ourselves as existence. Heidegger does not mean this in a technical sense, as when some says, ‘the chair exists’ or ‘black holes exist’, because these are ontical questions, rather than ontological ones, but existence as possibility. My existence, and it is always my existence, is made up of possibilities (shall I go the lecture today, shall I do the reading, should I take my studies more seriously, will I become a teacher and so on). Most of the time the existential structure of these possibilities, how I live my possibilities, is not visible to me. I just concern myself with the daily stuff of life (I must make sure that I buy my train ticket), or maybe with bigger projects (what will I do when I finish my degree?), but I don’t think about how these possibilities are. That is a philosophical question that Heidegger hopes to answer and forms most of Being and Time, which in the end remained an unfinished project.

If our existence is the object of investigation, what then is our method? How are meant to uncover the meaning of our existence? There are two sides to Heidegger’s method in Being and Time. One is negative and the other is positive. The negative side is hermeneutical. Hermeneutics was originally the study of biblical texts, but for Heidegger it has a very specific meaning.[6] It is the ‘destruction’ of the philosophical tradition handed down to us that obscured the meaning of being that he describes in the opening pages of Being and Time. This too has its own negative and positive side. On the one hand, it has to show how the philosophical tradition from Plato onwards has prevented us from thinking about being in a meaningful way, because it takes a certain meaning of being for granted, but on the other hand, in the very same tradition, it has to show how philosophy, sometimes in the very same text or page, fights against its own self-limitation.[7] Yet if we do not know what the phenomenon is that we are attempting to save from the tradition, how do we know what has been lost? Thus, we need a positive method that is distinguished from this ‘negative’ one, if that word is not in some sense inadequate. That is function of phenomenology for Heidegger.

Heidegger’s definition of phenomenology, like the rest of the book, is very peculiar. It is not a description of a technique, but of a way of doing philosophy. Rather than go back to Husserl, who was Heidegger’s teacher, and explain phenomenology that way, he does through the etymology of the word itself. Phenomenology is made of two Greek words, φαινόμενων (phainomenon) and λόγος (logos). The meaning of the first word is:

Phenomenon signifies that which shows itself in itself, the manifest. Accordingly the phainomena or ‘phenomena’ are the totality of what lies in the light of day or can be brought to light [BT 28]

A phenomenon is therefore something that show itself or makes itself visible. On the other hand, the word λόγος originally means ‘to make manifest what one is talking about in one’s discourse [BT 32]. The primary meaning of discourse is not judgement, but to ‘letting something be seen’ [BT 32]. The meaning of phenomenology is, therefore, a combination, of the original sense of these Greek expressions:

Thus ‘phenomenology’ means…to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself…. But here we are expressing nothing else than the maxim formulated above: ‘To the things themselves!’ [BT 34].

To bring to light that which shows itself is not an easy task because it lies in concealment. What is closest to Dasein is its own being, but for the most part, it is this being which it is most in the dark about. I can tell you what a look like or what I do for a living, but if you were to ask about ‘being’, I might be left speechless. The phenomenologist should uncover what is ordinarily and nearly continuously in the dark. This covering up is even more difficult to expose, because the tradition that is handed down to us prevents us from seeing what is closest to us, either because it says that it is the most obvious concept (we exist in the same way that any other object exists), or is not a serious problem at all.

Heidegger’s understanding of phenomenology is directly linked to is conception of truth. Ordinarily we think of truth of as judgemental. There is statement about the world and this statement is either true or false if it agrees with a state of affairs in the world. I say that wall is blue, and if the wall is blue, then my statement is true. Heidegger does not disagree with this propositional idea of truth, but he asks whether that notion of truth is fundamental. Heidegger uses the example of someone who has their back turned to a wall and who makes the true assertion ‘the picture on the wall is hanging askew’. The truth of the statement is demonstrated when the person turns around and sees that the picture is indeed askew. Assertion, then, is a way of relating to the world. To be able to assert something, I must already have a relation to that thing. In other words, the thing must be already visible to me in some way or other (which goes back to the original meaning of the word ‘phenomenon’ as a kind of original self-disclosure) such that I could make an assertion about them. This disclosure comes first and is the condition of the assertion. Truth must first be defined as an ‘uncovering’ (Entdeckend), but uncovering is only possible because there is being whose relations to things in the world brings them out of their concealment. This being is ourselves. This ontological meaning of truth, as way of relation to things in the world, and bringing them to light, is the original meaning of truth expressed by the Greek word for truth as ἀλήθεια (aletheia).

‘Being-true’ (‘truth’) means Being uncovering […]. But while our definition is seemingly arbitrary, it contains only the necessary interpretation of what was primordially surmised in the oldest tradition of ancient philosophy and even understood in a pre-phenomenological manner […]. Being-true is aletheia in the manner of apophainesthai – of taking entities out of their hiddenness and letting the be seen in their unhiddenness (their uncoveredness) [BT 261-2].

If Dasein is understood as existence, and the meaning of existence is to be uncovered by the phenomenologist, how then does this existence show itself. Heidegger makes the distinction between the being of things and the being of Dasein. One, he calls categorical, which goes back to Aristotle, and the other existential. We continually misunderstand the being of Dasein because we understand its being categorically rather than existentially. We think that Dasein is a mysterious thing, which has a soul, or a thing like anything else, that is made up same stuff as the rest of matter. In the first case, we have a theological understanding of Dasein, and in the second, a scientific one, but what is common to both ways of understanding is that they both think of Dasein in a categorical way.

One way in which Heidegger thinks of the difference between categorical and existential being is the proposition ‘in’ (and propositions tell us a lot about how we are in the world). We imagine that Dasein is ‘in’ its world in the same way that water is ‘in’ a glass, but this is not the case. Such a way of thinking about Dasein in terms of the spatiality of things already requires an abstract way of thinking about the world. I am not in my world in this way. I do not live in Bristol in the way that water is in a glass. Rather I am familiar or at home in Bristol, and this ‘being at home’ is far closer to my way of being than the representation of space.

This does not mean that Dasein cannot be understood as ‘thing’, as something ‘present-to-hand’ to use Heidegger’s vocabulary, but in that way it is being treated as a thing, and not as what it is primordially speaking and in its own way of being. We take being present at hand as the general meaning of being, such that we start interpreting ourselves as present to hand like everything else, but this way of approaching things has been handed down by tradition. It is not the way our existence reveals itself to us in our everyday being in the world.

Things and other people only matter to me because I care about them. They are not first representations, concepts or categories. This relation to things comes afterwards and is already reliant on the world in which I find myself and exist. The table is something to put my cup of tea on, the house for living in, the computer for writing this lecture on. In my involvement with them, these things are not present to hand at all, but ready to hand and disappear in their use. The door that I use every day to enter my house is not visible to me when I use it, still less, like some kind of AI, do I have to represent it to myself to use it. I enter the house and walk through it. It is part of everyday world, which I am comfortable with.

This world too is not a thing that contains the things of the world. Rather than a thing, it is my way of being. The world, then, or ‘being in the world’, is not categorical, but existential. The everyday world Heidegger calls the ‘environment’ (das Umwelt). Again, like Dasein, environment can sound like a highly technical term, but he means the world that surrounds us, the world that we feel at home in, and which we can lose, for example, if we go to a foreign county, and no longer know our way about, or is something unexpected happens to us, and we no longer feel comfortable where we live. In this world we don’t encounter things as perceptual objects, which is the way that philosophy likes to talk about things since Plato, as though perception were our original access to the world. We do not first of all perceive things. They are part of world as things we use. What Heidegger calls ‘equipment’ or ‘tools’ (das Zeug). I use the bed in order to sleep in, I use the shower to wash, the toothbrush to clean my teeth, the stove to make coffee, the ticket machine to catch a train in order to get to work. One characteristic of tools is that they are part of a series of ‘in order to’s’ that point to an ultimate ‘for the sake of which’. I have described to you my working morning whose ultimate ‘for the sake of which’ is that I am a teacher of philosophy. This role is the ultimate project that orientates my existential possibilities and this chain of ‘in order to’s’ is my world. When you ask me, perhaps you encounter me in the train station, ‘how are you?’, you are asking about this world. It is this world, Heidegger says, that I live in, and it would be a profound misunderstanding of this world, to think that I live in it as water is in a glass, or that this world is place on Google maps.

For the most part this world is invisible to me, which is why it is difficult, phenomenological speaking, to bring it to light. It is only when things do not work that the world can reveal itself. The bed is uncomfortable, the shower is cold, the oven does not light, the ticket machine does not work, and the train is late. Suddenly, after these disasters, my everyday existence and world can show itself to me, and I might even question my project of being a philosophy teacher that it the ultimate goal of all these activities.

In my world, I don’t just encounter things but other people. I might not buy my ticket at machine, but speak to a someone behind the ticket counter. Traces of others are there everywhere in my world, whether I pay attention to them or not. Heidegger’s describes the relation to others as ‘being with’ (Mitsein). I am not with others in the same way that I with things. We have seen that things are either ready to hand or present to hand, but other are not present in that way (that does not mean that others cannot be present in that way, but then I am precisely not relating to them as others at all, but as things). For unlike things, others have a world like me and because they have a world like me we share that world. Others, then, do not stand apart from me. I have intimacy with others that is not at all like the ‘being in’ of things.

By ‘Others’ we do not mean everyone else but me – those over against whom the ‘I’ stands out. They are rather those from whom, for the most part, one does not distinguish oneself – those among whom one is too…. [t]he world is always the one that I share with Others. The world of Dasein is a with-world (Mitwelt) [BT 118].

We must distinguish between the ontological and epistemological relation to others. It is only in the epistemological relation to others that solipsism becomes a problem where I might wonder whether they are real or not, or whether there are ‘other minds’ at all. For Heidegger, at the level of your existence, you do not have to think your way to others, since you are already involved with them and my world is already something that I share with others. Even if I choose to live in isolation, then this is already decided in relations to others (in world without others, being solitary would not make any sense at all). The philosophical problem of how I bridge my existence to the existence of others is therefore a false problem, since ontologically speaking there is no bridge to be crossed.

For the most part my relation to others is a matter of indifference. This is not a moral issue for Heidegger, but just expresses our everyday being. Most of the people that I encounter in my world are not ‘there’ for me at all.

Being for, against, or without one another, passing one another by, not ‘mattering’ to one another – these are possible ways of solicitude. And it is precisely these last named deficient and indifferent modes that characterise everyday, average Being-with-one-another [BT 121]

There are, however, two ways in which others do matter for me. One is that I seek to dominate and control them, and the other is when I liberate them for their own possibilities. In this case we are speaking about others who are present to me in one way of other. The bus driver I get angry with because I am late, or the student who I hope to inspire by writing a lecture about Heidegger. Generally, Heidegger thinks that our relation to others is one of indifference. It is in this indifferent relation that others can come to dominate me, rather than I them.

This domination is a very different from the domination of control. It is not a matter of an action or result, but the insidious stripping away of possibilities. I begin to understand myself in terms of the anonymous others, such that I can lose the very sense of my own individuality. In this indifferent relation everyone becomes the same and we talk of others as the ‘they’ (das Man).

We take pleasure and amuse ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back; we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The ‘they’ which is nothing definite and which all are, though not as sum, prescribes the kind of being of everydayness [BT 126-7].

This closing down of possibilities to lowest common denominator Heidegger calls the ‘public’ (die Öffentlichkeit), and, if we are honest, for the most part, this is what our everyday existence is. Rather than authenticity, or individuality, being the way that we exist, we live lives that are similar or identical to the lives of everyone else, even though none of us are really sure when this way of life first began or originated. Being-with, then, is a kind of conformity. Yet if authenticity was not possible, then Being and Time would not have been written, since the authenticity necessary to writing philosophy, requires to some extent or other that the question of Dasein’s being becomes an issue to them, and this is precisely what is not an issue in everyday being. What matter there is merely what everyone else understands and takes for granted. This is the purpose of the famous analysis of ‘being-towards-death’ (Sein-Zum-Tode) in Being and Time. It shows how authenticity is possible.

The task of Being and Time, as we know, is to reawaken the question of being. But this question can only be formulated by that being whose being is an issue for it, which is ourselves. Yet for most of the time, as the description of the everyday being of Dasein shows, our being is not an issue for us. We are so involved with the world of things and others that our own being does not become a question at all. It can do so only if Dasein has an authentic relation to its being, but all that we have described, which Dasein for the most part is, is the inauthentic being of the everyday. We must show, then, how authentic being can rise out of inauthentic being as a modification of the latter. This is the purpose of the description of ‘being-towards-death’.

We have already shown that Heidegger understands the existence of Dasein as possibilities. My existence is nothing but my possibilities. Death too is one possibility amongst others, but how are we to think this possibility as way of uncovering Dasein’s authenticity? Death as a possibility is not an event like any other. In that way you are not thinking of death as a possibility at all, but an actuality. Death is a fact of life like other facts of life, one that is more extreme and frightening perhaps, but still nonetheless a fact. Every day when I read news, I hear of countless deaths as facts or actualities. This is not how Heidegger is thinking about death. He is not describing death as the end of a process that is still outstanding, but as a possibility. This is the meaning of ‘towards’ in the expression of ‘being-towards-death’. Rather than imagining death as fact that comes at the end of your life, you should be aware of it a permanent possibility that surrounds your life at any moment. In this sense, Heidegger says, my death is a peculiar possibility that is the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Dasein’ [BT 250].

What is revealed in this relation to death is nothing factual, but only the existence of Dasein as a whole. It is not death as fact that makes me anxious, this is rather an object of fear, but my existence that is revealed to me in ‘being-toward-death’. It rips me from the tranquillity of everyday existence and forces me to stand in front of my life as a whole. If I were to die now, in this instance, would my whole life have been a failure and a waste? It is this recognition that we flee from when we avoid death as a possibility. We can see that death as an actuality, something that happens at the end of my life and about which I do not have to concern myself now, is in fact a way of resisting and avoiding death as a possibility. Only through death as a possibility can I discover the courage to authentically be myself by seizing the possibilities that have been given to me.

To understand Levinas, and we will do so positively in the next lecture, rather than negatively in comparison to Heidegger, is to see how far he breaks with this ontological analysis of Dasein as it is presented in Being and Time. In one sense he agrees with Heidegger’s break with Husserl’s too cognitive understanding of consciousness, as though the only relation to the world were one of knowledge and representation, and he says so in his thesis on Husserl.[8] Yet he argues, in Totality and Infinity, whether this analysis goes far enough. The world that is described in Being and Time is the world of work where I have projects and outcomes, but is this really the first world in which I exist? Before I relate to the world as one of accomplishments, I enjoy the elements, the warmth of the sun against my face, the wind in my air. This world is not the world of my personal being as described in Being and Time, but the impersonal world of nature, where my happiness can be snatched away in an instant by floods and earthquakes. The house I build, which is described in Being and Time, as the example of the ready-to-hand’, is built against this world. It is second not first. Moreover, Levinas claims, this house depends on a radically different relation to others than the one described in Being and Time. Not one that is determined by me in relation to my own being, whether others matter or to do matter to me in terms of my own existential drama, but an ethical encounter where the other radically calls into question my existence and my place on this earth. This ethical other is not a being at all, in any ordinary sense, whether we mean by that categorically or existential being, but beyond being, what Levinas will call ‘transcendence’. If the other is not ontological but ethical, then my relation to death is not merely one of actuality or possibility. Why should it be the case that the death of other is merely a ‘fact’ for me of no more significance than any other fact in the world, and why should my relation to death be only one of authentically choosing my own possibilities. If death is the possibility of impossibility, it is not also the impossibility of possibility, where dying, through illness and suffering, strips me of the power to be, and where the discussion of being authentic makes no sense whatsoever (what would authentic being-towards-death be in a concentration camp)?

Levinas wants us to consider, whether ontology must have the last word and whether we can only speak in the language of ontology. If ethics does appear in Being and Time, then it does so only in marginal way and subordinated to the ontological question. This is even the case in Heidegger’s later work, when he says that until we know what it means to be a human being, then we cannot even begin to understand what ethics could be. Yet what if ethics were not an ontological category at all, and the other were not a being, neither present-to-hand, or ready-to-hand, and rather than appearing within my world, where to completely call this world into question, even beyond my death.

Works Cited

Derrida, J., 1978. Violence and Metaphysics, in: Bass, A. (Tran.), Writing and Difference. Routledge, London, pp. 97–192.

Gadamer, H.G., 1994. Heidegger’s Ways. SUNY Press.

Glazebrook, T., 2000. Heidegger’s philosophy of science. Fordham University Press, New York.

Grondin, J., 1997. Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics. Yale University Press.

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

Kuhn, T.S., 2012. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Levinas, E., 2012. Signature, in: Hand, S. (Tran.), Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp. 291–5.

Lévinas, E., 2000. God, death, and time. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif.

Lévinas, E., 1973. The theory of intuition in Husserl’s phenomenology. Northwestern University Press, Evanston [Ill.


[1] For Levinas’s own autobiography of his intellectual journey, see (Levinas, 2012).

[2] The classic account of Levinas’s creative misreading of Heidegger, and other philosophers, like Husserl and Hegel, is still Derrida’s first, and highly detailed and complex, extended essay on Levinas’s work, ‘Violence and Metaphysics’ (Derrida, 1978). It too would be a misunderstanding of this essay to think that it was a mere critique.

[3] Levinas’s own lectures on Heidegger concern the arguments of Being and Time (Lévinas, 2000).

[4] In The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Kuhn makes a distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary science’, which echoes Heidegger’s differentiation of the ontic and ontological basis of science in Being and Time (Kuhn, 2012). For a detailed account of Heidegger’s philosophy of science, see (Glazebrook, 2000).

[5] Gadamer, perhaps one of his most famous students, bears witness to the effect of Heidegger’s teaching, in his book on Heidegger, Heidegger’s Ways (Gadamer, 1994).

[6] For an good introduction to the history and meaning of hermeneutics from a Heideggerian perspective, see (Grondin, 1997).

[7] Some of the missing divisions and parts of Being and Time were meant to include these ‘destructions’, but we find them in many of the lectures that were published afterwards.

[8] ‘One can reproach Husserl,’ Levinas writes, ‘for his intellectualism. Even though the attains the profound idea that, in the ontological order, the world of science if posterior to and depends on the vague and concrete world of perception, he may have been wrong in seeing the concrete world as a world of objects that primarily perceived’ (Lévinas, 1973, p. 119).


Levinas and Phenomenology. Lecture 1

October 28, 2018

husserlOne of the most important sources of Levinas’s philosophy is the phenomenology of Husserl. 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 Levinas’s essay  ‘God and Philosophy’: 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 Levinas’s critique of the presuppositions of Husserl’s phenomenological method and thus how he saw his own ethics 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), but the belief that science ought to be limited to its own proper area of investigation. When science does exceed these limits, it becomes an unthinking metaphysics. 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.’ 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 is not scientific but metaphysical.

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 to be properly grounded or legitimated? The answer is logic. All the sciences require the truths of logic to put forward properly constituted arguments. Therefore, we can see 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 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 brain.

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; 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 plural, objective ones are not. The subjective ones are plural, because they are many ways to represent something, but there is only one way in which something is meant.

We can see what Husserl’s critique of psychologism might be. It is the confusion between meaning and subjective representation, which is then thought of in terms of psychological state of the brain. 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 the content of knowledge and the act of knowing. 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 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, considering 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 this matter is made of atoms and energy, which 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, my perceptions can be disappointed. I think that I am seeing a chair, but on closer inspection it is a stage prop. 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 now 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 am remembering it, and if I desire something, I cannot doubt that I am 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 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 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, and this is true also of perception. If I am perceiving a chair, then the chair is given as a perception as it is. I do not need to speculate about metaphysical chairs that somehow exist outside of consciousness. There is the chair given to me in my conscious perception of it.

The reduction opens 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 consideration of the structure of consciousness, which 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 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 example of perception. Perceptual objects, are given to us, Husserl argues, only through a continuum of profiles, perspectives, 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 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 sense through which I take up the immanent object, and the changing manner of the appearance is how I perceive that object. Both these objects are immanent to the subjective activity of perceiving something as something.

We confuse objectivity with the perceptual object, but it is this object that is continually changing and therefore could never be the ground for scientific knowledge. It is object that is meant 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 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. I always see something as something. I always take up my perceptions in a meaningful way, and this is the case, even if my perceptions are confused or unclear.

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 perceptual 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 Levinas take from Husserl’s phenomenology and what did he reject? First, Levinas’s method is phenomenological. His description of the experience of the other, which is the basis of his ethics, is a description of how the other is given in concrete experience. His distance from Husserl, however, is the ubiquity of intentionality. There is no doubt that Husserl gives precedence to intentionality, and thus representation, in all aspects of human experience. Thus, even if I love something, then that person must be represented intentionally for me to have to say that I love them and not someone else, and this is true of every subjective act, whether I am speaking of thinking about someone, remembering someone, or wishing to be with someone.
For Levinas, representation is not the primary way in which we relate to the world. Rather the world already must be meaningful for me to have representations of objects in the world. The existence of the world is dependent on my relation to others with whom I share the world, but these others are not first representations. There is an experience of the other, which is non-intentional. Rather than my act of consciousness constituting the meaning of the other, it is the immediate presence of the other in the words they speak that calls my possession of the world into question. It is this demand that is the basis of ethics, not the understanding of a duty or obligation.

One way of understanding the difference between Husserl and Levinas is their approach to sensation. For Husserl, sensations are part of our lived experience, but they are only meaningful when they are taken up through an intentional content. I am looking at the Eiffel tower, but this perception is only a perception of the Eiffel because I take up all my sensations through a unity of sense. It is only because we go beyond the different sensations that we can say perceive one and the same thing, even though I might see it from different perspectives and orientations. For Levinas, the relation to other can be a relation of thought in this sense. I can say that I see a person in the same way I perceive the Eiffel tower. I can experience then objectively. Yet this is not the only, nor the primary relation to others. They can break through their objectifying relation through their singular and individual presence. This other here before me now, and not as a meaning. My sensations are therefore given a different orientation or direction. Not towards a thought or representation, but the embodied presence of the other who speaks to me. This sensation of the presence of the other is not a mutilated thought, but has a unique meaning to itself, an ethical meaning.

Works Cited
Brentano, F., 1973. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint; Routledge, London.
Hawking, S., 2009. A Brief History Of Time: From Big Bang To Black Holes. Random House, New York.
Husserl, E., 2012. Logical Investigations. Routledge.
Husserl, E., 1980. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. M. Nijhoff, The Hague.
Husserl, E., 1964. The Idea of Phenomenology. Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.