I have been trying to come up with a short, pithy expression that aptly frames my interpretation of Husserl, and I’ve decided on this one: transcendental realism. Rather than make a defense of this doctrine, I would just like to give a brief description of what I take to be its most salient features. I am curious if anyone finds this theory attractive (and no, it’s not all that new, even if there’s no school—that I know of—of ‘transcendental realists’).
Let’s start with realism: There are many sorts of realisms: moral realism, material realism, Platonic realism, conceptual realism, and so forth. Realism as I use the term is just the idea that objects have the properties that they do regardless of whether or not they are present to any given mind—in other words, objective properties are radically mind-independent. Different realism differ on how wide or how narrowly, and in what way, to understand ‘object.’ Material realism would hold that only material, physical objects are really objects in any proper sense, whereas a Platonic realist holds that only Ideas or Forms are really in any proper sense objects, while a conceptual realist might be a realist about both physical objects and concepts. I interpret Husserl very widely on this point, because I think that Husserl has a very wide definition of object. Every thought intends towards an objectivity, and thus everything that we think about is an object (note that the converse of this is not implied: everything that is an object is not necessarily thought about—although, transcendental realism would entail that everything that is possible (including the actual) is thinkable, and everything that is thinkable is possible).
Let’s now interpret realism phenomenologically, for this will frame the second term, transcendental. Phenomenology, as I understand it, is the study of intentional content and the invariances, ie laws, obtaining in them. More colloquially, phenomenology is the study of appearanings. Note that appearings are not the same as appearances. Appearances are themselves objects that appear in certain ways. Phenomenology is not an explanation of what, but a description of how what appears appears. This ‘how’ is just what phenomenologists mean by ‘meaning.’ Meaning in this sense certainly contains semantic and conceptual content, but is not exhausted by these. The best way to keep track and to frame this collection of concepts—objects, laws, appearings, appearances, etc.—is with the concept of intentionality.
As Husserl I think was the first to really emphasize, intentionality names an essentially three-fold structure, comprised of a mental act, intentional content, and intentional object. This structure is latent in other thinkers on the issue, some of them predating Husserl, but mostly—as Husserl systematically lays out in the 5th logical investigation, and in more detail elsewhere—there is confusion as to how these three moments are involved in one another and the sorts of relations that can obtain among them (the framework for Husserl’s discussion of these relations is grounded in the mereology he lays out in the 3rd Investigation). Perhaps the most common mistake is to confuse the term 'intentional' in 'intentional content' and 'intentional object' with 'mental.' The intentional object is just an object; it might be something physical, like this table or an electron within this table, or it might be ideal, like the number 4. The properties of such objects, as appear as the content of thoughts about them, are of them, not the mind that thinks them. Intentional content, while not independent in the way that the intentional object is, is nontheless not a real part of the mental act either. Husserl tried to make sense of this notion by labelling such intentional contents 'irreelle.' The difference is one of dependence on the mental act (as I get to just below). Intentional contents are irreelle, dependent moments of a mental act. Intentional objects are real or irreelle independent parts of a mental act. Intentional objects, I should stress, are not in any sense 'outside' of the acts that grasp them, while they are independent of such acts. Husserl's transcendental realism is, as it were, direct. (see Willard).
This threefold structure clears up some of the more intractable issues in the rationalist tradition. For instance, Kant was led to believe that arithmetic was a synthetic a priori science because he confused arithmetical judging with the arithmetical judgment. Within the framework of intentionality, we can distinguish between the subjective, synthetic acts involved in performing an arithmetical judging (adding two plus two), from the content of that act (the judgment itself, two plus two equals four), and again from the object of that same act, the categorical state of affairs themselves. Hence, for the realist, the objects, and the properties true of them, obtain whether or not someone is performing a judging about them, and these properties themselves are in no way mental properties (modifications of mind-stuff).
Now, while the objects themselves are not modifications of mind, the contents of judgings (perceivings, rememberings, wishings, etc.), are the ways that things appear to a mind, and the acts are the mental performances of a mind that apprehends the structures and laws of these appearings. Both are thus founded on a subsistent ego (myself, a subject, a first-person point of view, etc.). Here is what is meant by ‘transcendental.’ This is not transcendental in Kant’s sense. Kant’s use of ‘transcendental’ pertains to conditions of possibility. Husserl’s use of transcendental, instead, just means that the irreelle or ideal contents of mental acts are founded—and thus, are dependent for their existence upon—a real conscious ego. Without real conscious egos actively thinking, perceiving, asserting, etc., there are no meanings, no idealities—just as without extension there is no brightness, or color, or tint. This is not, I reiterate, a claim about objects, but only about the meanings (defined phenomenologically) of objects.
Some distinctions between transcendental idealism and transcendental realism: there is no room in transcendental realism, as I understand it, for any sort of noumenal realm. Kant was led to posit a noumenal realm insofar as it seemed to him that objects of presentations could not exist outside of the acts of presenting. Kant did not make Berkeley's mistake, and hold that space and time were modifications of the mind (as if the the idea of square itself had four sides), but he had no room for an object's existence wholly independent of the mind. Husserl does. Physical objects, like this computer, exist in a physical world, and would continue to exist even if all humans were eradicated by man-bear-pig. But the apprehension, the meaning, of this computer, the content of judgments about it, these only exist so long as I do, and am thinking about the computer.