Thursday, March 15, 2007

Would Husserl Believe in Qualia?

Recently I’ve been trying to work out what Husserl might have thought about qualia. Since I work on Husserl, and since I'm congenitally put off by the notion of qualia, I’ve been trying hard to convince myself that Husserl would also have rejected the idea. I’m now pretty sure that this is right. Here’s one part of my overall case.

There are three reasons why people--both specialists and nonspecialists in Husserl--assume that Husserl was (or would have been) a believer in qualia: his commitments to 1) the irreducibility of consciousness; 2) the immanence of intentional states; and 3) the presence of nonrepresentational content--usually referred to by Husserl as ‘hyletic data’--in experience. I limit my remarks to the third reason because it is the most likely to be of interest to nonHusserlians.

Most defenders of qualia define a quale as a nonrepresentational feature intrinsic to experience and accessible to introspection. Husserl’s (early) notion of hyle seems to fall under this category. From the beginning Husserl rejected the notion that sensations (either of the Humean, or of the Moorean/Russellian sort) were primary objects of intentional consciousness. This was an essential consequence of Brentano’s discovery of intentionality: the objects of our experience go beyond those experiences themselves. (Phenomenologists refer to this as the ‘transcendence’ of intentional consciousness; it is one reason why no analysis of the actual contents or parts of a mental state, either in terms of phenomenal content--eg red patches, high tones, rough feels--or physical states--eg neural states--will ever get at the contents conscious states are conscious of--a special method is needed for that, namely phenomenology). Hence, sensations might be essential means by which I am aware of perceptual objects, but they are not themselves the objects of which I am aware. Still, in Husserl’s early theory (primarily in Logical Investigations), raw sense-data are interpreted through intentional, objectivating acts as presenting perceptual objects. This picture is broadly Kantian. When we analyze any given experience, we find that there is an intuitional, or sensory component, and then a conceptual framework which, when applied to that sensory content, ‘animates’ that content into the representation of an object. Hence, such sensory content is not by itself representational. Yet when we reflect upon our experiences the presence of such nonrepresentational content is evident. Thus, there seem to be for Husserl nonrepresentational features intrinsic to every experience and evident to introspection. Husserl calls this stuff hyle, but it seems very much like what is now referred to as qualia.

Now, qualia theories of all sorts are committed to the following proposition: there can be a change in the sensory or phenomenal features of an experience without there being any change in the representational content of that experience. For instance, as I stare at a tomato, the particular red hue of the tomato might alter some, and though this alteration is a change in my experience, I am still seeing the same tomato, Thus, despite changes in the sensory components of my experience the representational content of that experience has not changed. I suspect that when fully fleshed out, even Husserl’s earlier theory would not support this claim. That is to say, even given Husserl’s concept of hyle, I suspect that changes in hyletic data would for Husserl always signal corresponding changes, however trite, in the representational content of that experience. But this exegetical claim is not one I am interested in defending here, and that is because Husserl ends up rejecting this picture altogether and for good reason.

In Husserl’s later theories he replaces the concept of hyletic data with the concept of affective unities. Affective unities are so called because they are passive unities, aspects of an experience not constituted by ‘spontaneous’ acts. (This distinction may seem troublesome to some, but really, it is more or less just how McDowell and Sellars understand the difference between perception and judgment). Husserl began to make this switch around the time that he began to concentrate seriously on the phenomenology of time consciousness. Obviously I am not willing to go over that entire development here, though suffice it to note that an upshot of that analysis is the rejection of even the notional coherence of a discrete, isolatable, self-contained ‘now’ point; all temporal consciousness (and hence, all perceptual consciousness) essentially involves a dynamic field of retentions and protentions by means of which consciousness of the present is constituted. But if there is no discrete now, there is also no discrete sense-datum (because there is no discreteness period). Second, he argues that these affective unities are kinaesthetically (or ‘enactively’) realized. A battery of stimuli to the sense organs does not constitute perceptual experience. Perceiving the environment rather is knowing how to navigate within the environment in response to changes in that environment, and knowing what changes to expect. ‘Knowing’ in this case is obviously a sort of know-how, and can still be considered ‘passive’ only in the sense that no conscious judgments need be involved.

Back to Qualia: If the notion of affective unities in perception is coherent and correct, they make appeals to brute sense-qualities of experience (the blueness of the ocean, the sting of a needle prick) pretty incoherent. There simply is no brute, raw sense data (and hence, nothing that it is like to have such sense experiences). The kinaesthetic theory of perception, on the other hand, manages to get what one wants from a qualia theory without the qualia. Despite their mysticism, qualia theories do get right that there is an important difference between the appearing of an object and the object that appears. They then try to explain this difference by distinguishing between the representational content of an experience (the object that appears) and its phenomenal qualities (the appearing of the object). But consider this same distsinction from within the kinaesthetic framework: modes of presentation (the appearing of an object) are a function of one’s relation to the object. A coffee can appears rectangular from a direct horizontal angle, then appears circular as I raise my gaze to over top of it. As I move, I am only conscious of the same coffee can, and I do not suppose that it mysteriously morphs from rectangular to circular. This is because (to borrow a notion from Alva Noë) my experiences do not only represent objects, but they also represent my relations to objects, where I am--bodily--in respect to the object in the environment. These relations, let me iterate, are real; they really exist, and my experience really presents them. Thus, being presentational, even the features of an experience which are not part of its representational factual content are still representational. And this obviously contradicts the fundamental proposition of qualia theory: for while a change in my relative position towards an object would change the sensory content of that experience without changing the representational content, it will most certainly (by definition) affect the presentational content of my relation to that object. Thus, the kinaesthetic theory does not have any room for a change in sensory content not amounting to a change in representational content. Thus, it would be wrong to interpret the appearing of the object as opposed to the object which appears as describing qualia.

I realize of course that I have hardly made any arguments in defense of these views. But that was not my point. My point rather was only to make the case that Husserl, especially in his later works, develops a notion of experience which has no place for qualia. IF Husserl does indeed develop in the direction I claim, and IF indeed the theory in this direction both gets rid of qualia while managing to explain the single meager thing qualia theory gets right, then I have made my case. That's all.


  1. i take it that in 3) by non-representational content you don't mean *content* in the technical sense of that term but rather just to mean what is in consciousness. Since there seem to be many people who use the term qualia just to mean any introspectively accessible aspect of phenomenal consciousness, that here you are just arguing against the view that husserl thinks phenomenal experiences are non-intentional?

  2. sorry, let me clarify that second sentence- forget the word qualia, which seems to be used differently by different people but which most generally just means any introspectively accessible aspect of phenomenal consciousness. Is it your intention here to argue that Husserl's position is that there is no phenomenal property that is not intentional or world presenting? I may have misunderstood...

  3. Sorry to be tardy. Let me respond. Yes, I did mean to argue that, for Husserl, there are no phenomenal properties of experience which are not intentional, ie which are not about something or object-presenting. And you're right, I think: the term qualia is a bit of a grab-bag, which is why I decided to focus my remarks on one specific notion of qualia: non-representational features of conscious experience. I had in mind arguments like Peacocke's: suppose there are two trees in your visual field, on closer, one further away. It does not appear to you that the tree further away is grossly smaller than the nearer tree, even though, considered as a delineated object on your visual plane, it is. Your experience 'represents' the trees as roughly equal in size. Peacocke calls this latter feature a 'sensational property,' of your experience, and then calls this qualia. It is a real feature of your experience, but it is nonrepresenting. I would disagree, and following Noe, argue that this latter feature is representative (or better, just 'presentative'), in that it presents your relation to the objects. And more importantly, I think Husserl would say the same thing.

  4. what does husserl have to say about pain, scent and emotional qualia with respect to intentionality?

  5. Re: Smells and feels.
    Early on Husserl did not, pace Brentano, simply identify consciousness and intentionality. So, he allows that there can be conscious states which are not intentional, ie presentational. (This is stated explicitly in the opening sections of the fifth investigation) Smells are presentational, and so would not fall within this class of mental states, but pain, anxiety, etc., are mental states, and they are not about anything. That said, I'm not convinced that he's right about this, and I'm not sure that we'd want to call these qualia anyway. I've come across some papers on the former issue, but cannot recall the specific arguments. I'll try to dredge some of those up. Per the latter issue, if we want qualia (as most qualia theorists do) to count as non-presentational features of EVERy experience, then 'qualia' doesn't apply here. The question is whether nonpresentational experiences are eo ipso qualia. And here I believe that the time arguments applies: if qualia are necessarily discrete features, and if the time analyses show that there is no such thing, then they show a fortiori that there are no qualia. I have to admit this seems a bit casuistic to me, but that's my off the top o' head response.

  6. did husserl hold that the qualities that appear in consciousness are qualities that are internally constituted, or are they necessarily qualities of actual objects? If the latter, then Husserl could not have been a representationalist, right? Do you think that Husserl was a representationalist? (if not, is he then an idealist?)