Friday, December 14, 2007

Husserl's Transcendental Realism (I)

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.


  1. Nice post. I am wondering about the conclusion, though.

    What does it mean to say that this computer, this physical object, exists entirely independently of the mind, while its meaning is dependent on mind? It doesn't make much sense to say that the object itself, independent of mind, is a physical object, a computer. It can only be these things given particular meanings. But the meanings are mind-dependent.

    So it seems that the object that exists independently of mind is a physical object and a computer only in relation to the mind-dependent meaning bestowed on it. Taken apart from that meaning, the object may well be real, but nothing can be said about it. It is an object of pure, indeterminate, thought: a noumenon.

    In other words, I don't understand what you're saying in your last paragraph. It seems like you are saying that the physical object, the computer, exists entirely independently of any ego. But that would mean that meaningful objects exist independently of any ego. And the ego is then a pure receptivity with no constituting activity of its own. I'm pretty sure that's not Husserl.

    By the way, as I'm sure you know, Husserl is generally read as inquiring into conditions of possibility. I'm not clear on why you think this isn't right. Aren't the laws of appearings conditions of possibility for appearances?

  2. Let me start with the last point, because I think it gets at the earlier points: Husserl theory is transcendental. I take this to mean only that meaning is world-independent and ego-dependent. I'm not comfortable describing Husserl's transcendental project in Kantian terms, as an enquiry into conditions of possibility, for the following reason:

    According to Kant, the conditions for the possibility of meaning are at the same time the conditions of possibility for the object. This is why Kant's transcendentalism is ideal. Kant is forced into a transcendental idealism because he defines concepts as functions, and functions as the synthetic activity of an ego: concepts are activities that egos perform on the received aesthetic content (this interpretation of course is not without its controversy, but so be it). Objects are what result from this activity.

    For Husserl, by contrast, concepts are objective. They do not shape or alter or distort aesthetic content; they are presented objectively along with it. The apprehension of this meaning occurs for particular subjects at particular times, and how such contents appear is the subject of phenomenology. But the ego has no role in the creation of the object; concepts are not functions that an ego applies to nonconceptual material. Concepts are present there along with the nonconceptual material. Since the conditions of meaning do not set conditions for the object, Husserl's transcendentalism is not idealistic; it is a realism.

    So, I don't impose the concept of causality onto the contents of my experiences, nor that of substance. Causality and substance are already there, present in my experience. I 'discover' these concepts, and when I state this in my phenomenology, I'm not explaining, but describing...the thing itself!

  3. Hmm... Michael, I'm not really sure I follow you. Are you making a distinction between concepts that are "there" and meaning that is "subjective"? If you are, then how do you draw the line? How do you decide that some features really belong to the object, while others are subjectively imposed on it? (The classic primary/secondary qualities issue.) Particularly when you get into meanings that are shared by all perceivers, this seems to get messy.

    Further, what's the difference? Obviously Kant doesn't think concepts--at least the originary concepts--are alterable. To have a human perceptual apparatus just is to have these concepts. So insofar as the concepts structure objects, the objects are going to appear the same to all perceivers. The very same objects can be accounted for metaphysically by (1) concepts that are somehow, magically out there in the objects, (2) concepts that are part of the structure of the perceiving mind, or (3) concepts that are in a third realm, mediating between objects and perceivers. It seems like phenomenology has to remain completely neutral among these three alternatives, since each of them will grant exactly the same "things".