One 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.
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.