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GUBAT, Bennet A.

Philosophy 114 X5

HUSSERL’S REALITY: A MOVEABLE FEAST (forgive me Hemingway)

Husserl’s call for a correct study of the structures of consciousness – Zu den

Sachen selbst (back to the things themselves) – has long been heard but oft

misinterpreted. A naïve view will be that Husserl is proposing for realism to become the

underlying worldview by which the sciences and all related search for truths be founded.

None could be farther from the actuality. It is this paper’s intent to show that Husserl’s

phenomenology is in fact subjectivist in nature and is quite unrelated, if not exactly

opposite the views of realism.

Initially, we will define subjectivism and realism and delineate the senses which

are applicable to our purposes. Then we will perform an exposition of Husserl’s

phenomenology starting with his concept of επσχή (epoché), his theories on intentionality

and givenness, to end with an overview on his theories of perception.

Each section will show Husserl’s thought and identify the marks by which we

classify it as leading to subjectivism. We will end with a summation to the effect that

Husserl’s phenomenology suspends, if not actually negating, the realist view that objects

exist independently of the consciousness.


On Subjectivism and Realism

Subjectivism, simply put, is the doctrine that emphasizes subjective experience as

the measure of anything, whether it be knowledge, morality, truth, &c.1 For our purposes,

we will here use the following sense of subjectivism. With Wittgenstein in his Tractatus:

The subject doesn’t belong to the world but it is a limit of the world.

Taken in this context, this view holds that objects and their essences are wholly

within perception. An extreme view will be that there exists no objective reality apart

from what is constituted within perception or consciousness. To take it further, reality is

only what is contained in consciousness, internal to it.

Such a view stemmed from Rene Descartes’ concept of the Cogito, which is seen

as the container of all possible knowledge and of all essences. In his Meditations II:

“… bodies themselves are not properly perceived by the senses nor by the

faculty of imagination, but by the intellect alone; and since they are not perceived

because they are seen and touched, but only because they are understood [ or

rightly comprehended by thought ], I readily discover that there is nothing more

easily or clearly apprehended than my own mind.”2

Also, in Meditations VI:

“And although the perceptions of the senses were not dependent on my

will, I did not think that I ought on that ground to conclude that they proceeded

from things different from myself, since perhaps there might be found in me some

1
Extrapolated from various sources. The Encarta Dictionary defines subjectivism as a theory
stating that people can only have knowledge of what they experience directly. Webster’s Online
on the other hand defines it as a theory that limits itself to subjective experience.
2
René Descartes. Meditations on First Philosophy.
http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/descartes/meditations/meditations.html (accessed 23
May 2007)
faculty, though hitherto unknown to me, which produced them (mind).” (my

italics)3

Descartes method of doubt was taken further to include everything that is not

apprehended by the mind alone. In the light of his “Brains in a Vat” story, reality then is

nothing that is outside of the minds conceiving it.

This is diametrically opposed to realism, which is the viewpoint that accords to

the objects of knowledge an existence that is independent of whether anyone is perceiving

or thinking about them.4 At first glance, to one who is unfamiliar with Husserl’s

phenomenological methodology, die Sachen selbst could easily mean that there are outer

things-in-themselves from which we should extract our knowledge of essences. We will

henceforth examine Husserl’s concept of επσχή as the starting point of his reduction, and

why this starts to lead us away from realism.

What World? (On επσχή)

Husserl’s phenomenology was an attempt to find a way to lead us from what

manifests itself actually in the derived acts to the original objects of our most primordial

acts.5 We have to abandon the prejudices of the positive sciences and must try to reach

reality as it is immediately given in primordial experience.6 One of the methods involved

is the application of phenomenological reduction, and primarily, the phenomenological

επσχή. Επσχή is that “bracketing” of the thesis of the natural standpoint so as to suspend

3
Ibid.
4
Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9108671/Realism
(accessed 23 May 2007)
5
Joseph Kockelmans. “What is Phenomenology,” Phenomenology and Physical Science, Henry
J. Koren, trans. (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1966)
6
Ibid.
all judgment regarding the existence or being qua being of the intended object. This then

allows us to correctly examine how our knowledge of the world comes about – in effect,

leading us to examine the objects as they are apprehended by consciousness.

As επσχή does not immediately negate the existential thesis of the natural world,

and Husserl himself does not completely deny the existence of this natural world, one is

compelled to think that Husserl enjoins realism after all. This is not the case. This

disconnexion or bracketing of the thesis reduces the being of the natural world to mere

contingency or relativity.

Harmon Chapman takes it in another view. Husserl’s idea of bracketing, although

similar to the Cartesian methodical doubt of the world’s existence, proceeds beyond

Descartes judgmental suspension – suspending the judgment “the world exists – to

actually suspend the existence of the natural world.7 Perhaps we can clarify this further

by looking at Husserl’s words themselves. For him, the General Thesis of the natural

standpoint does not posit the world as something apprehended, but as a fact world that

has its being out there… [It] does not consist of course in an act proper, in an articulated

judgment about existence, it is and remains something all the time the standpoint is

adopted.8 To doubt this will be to doubt “Being” qua being of some form or other… it is

clear that we cannot doubt the Being of anything, and in the same act of consciousness,

bring what is substantive to this Being under the terms of the Natural Thesis.9 A

judgmental suspension at first glance; however, as this judgment is basically what posits

existence to the objects of the natural standpoint, the suspension of this judgment entails

7
H. Chapman. Sensations and Phenomenology, (Indiana University Press, 1966), p. 124-125
8
Edmund Husserl. “The thesis of the Natural Standpoint and Its Suspension,” Ideas: General
Introduction to Phenomenology, W.R. Boyce Gibson trans. (London: George Allen and Unwin
Lrd., 1931)
9
Ibid.
a radical transvaluation of the judgment and the objects themselves. Judgment is

transvaluated to proposition, natural object thence too to perceptual object.

The world is not something absolute in itself…, but it is nothing at all in the

absolute sense…, it is essentially something which cannot be but intentional, something

we are conscious of, … a phenomenon.10

What then is absolute? And on what grounds shall we base our knowledge of the

world and things-in-the-world? We have introduced the concept of perceptual object.

This we shall examine further in the following section.

Where are the clowns? Ober der, ober der! (On Intentionality and Givenness)

The notion of intentionality as being the directedness of consciousness towards

an object originated from Franz Brentano. In his attempt to differentiate between physical

and psychical phenomena, he said of the latter that they are those phenomena which,

precisely as intentional, contain an object in themselves.11 Husserl made use of this same

concept while veering away from Brentano’s original psychologistic definitions.

Intentionality, instead, is that class of mental facts (acts) which have the peculiarity of

presenting the subject with an object.12 Furthermore, to each act of consciousness there

corresponds a noema, namely, an object such, exactly and only such, as the subject is

aware of it and has it in view.13 When we perceive say, a solved Rubik’s cube, and look
10
E. Husserl. Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie,
citation from H. Philipse. Barry Smith and David Woodruff Smith, ed. “Transcendental
Idealism.” The Cambridge Companion to Husserl (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press,
1995)
11
Franz Brentano. Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkte, from an article on
Phenomenology, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-
68553/Phenomenology
12
Aron Gurwitsch. “On the Intentionality of Consciousness.” in Martin Farber, ed. Philosophical
Essays in Memory of Husserl (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940)
13
Ibid.
directly at one of its sides, we intuit that we apprehend an object that is six-sided, that we

are viewing it from one of its sides, that it is at a certain distance from us, that it has the

character of being manipulated to show a mixture of colors from all its other sides, that

we know we apprehend a Rubik’s cube and not the Pyramids of Giza, this is the what he

calls noema.

Every act of consciousness intends something (object).14 But if we are to perform

the process of reduction, we can see that what is intended is not the external object qua

being an object in the outer world but actually the perception-senses of the thing as given

by its noemata. These noemata are multitudinous in number, dependent upon the many

possible perspectives in which we may view a thing (spatial, as well as temporal,

although Husserl only gives an account of spatial adumbrations - Abschattung), and are

transcendent of the stream of consciousness.15 Our act of apprehending these noemata,

the noeses (sing. noesis) are within consciousness itself – immanent. We want to note

here that these noemata can not be perceived from the natural standpoint; only if we

perform the process of transcendental reflection can we view that which is, not natural,

existent or real but, posited as natural, existent or real.

Husserl, in his Ideas, presents to us an example:

Let us assume that we are in a garden, looking at a blossoming apple tree.

In the natural standpoint the apple tree is for us an existing thing in the

transcendent reality of space, and the perception… is a psychical state belonging

to us as real people. … it may happen that the perception is a mere hallucination,

that the perceived apple tree before us does not really exist. In this event, the real
14
E. Husserl. Logische Untersuchungen, citation from J. Kockelmans. Phenomenology and
Physical Science.
15
Harmon Chapman. Sensations and Phenomenology, (Indiana University Press, 1966)
relation, which was previously meant (gemeint) as really obtaining, is now

disturbed. The perception alone remains; there is nothing real out there to which

it relates.16

We can see from here at this point that Husserl now distinguishes between two

types of object - those outer objects, which are problematic as above shown, and those

immanent objects, that with phenomenological reduction are apodictic, as they are

basically the things-as-they-are-given to our consciousness. Here we see another

departure of the view vis-à-vis realism, from the suspension of the naturalistic thesis to

the positioning of perceptual objects to an elevated point above their natural counterparts.

See No Evil… (On Perception)

We have seen how Husserl treats the objects of our perceptions and how they are

reduced to what he calls noema. We would now like to examine the process by which

these noema are apprehended by the subject.

Husserl treats the act of perception mainly as to have sensations. K. Mulligan

summarizes:

To “the objective moments of unity, which belong to the intentional

objects and parts of objects, which in general transcend the experiential sphere”

there correspond the phenomenological moments of unity, which give unity to the

experiences or parts of experiences (the real phenomenological data). Thus, to

the different moments of colour in perceived things, there correspond, for

example, colour sensations to the monadic and relational moments of form, there

16
E. Husserl. Ideas, H. Chapman cit., Ibid.
correspond form sensations. And to the way moments hang together in and

between what we see, there correspond sensations which are relational.17

Sensations are however, not the noema yet. What constitutes the noema is our

interpretations of various simultaneous sensations. By themselves, sensations do not yet

present or represent: It is these sensations “in their interpretation” which have the

“relation to corresponding objective determinations,” which is re-presentation.18 To

interpret raw sensations is to actually perceive an object, like the Rubik’s cube above, a

tree, a flower, etc. These interpretations also include within them a series of implied

perceptual aspects that correspond to further noemata (what is included within the

subject’s internal horizon). But mind that interpretations are not just the influx of new

sensations.19 They are instead act-character(s), a way(s) of being conscious, of

“mindedness.”20 Hence, Husserl distinguishes noema from the act, and the object of

perception.

What then is this noema? Apparently, it is an unreal or ideal entity which belongs

to the same sphere as meanings or significations. This is the sphere of sense (Sinn).21 To

experience an act is the same thing as to actualize a sense.22A corollary of this is that in

actualizing senses, what we are merely doing is objectifying our internal horizons, our

internal tendency to impose interpretations on the raw sensations. As Kockelmans

interpreted:

17
E. Husserl. Logical Investigations, Kevin Mulligan cit. Barry Smith and David Woodruff
Smith, ed. “Perception.” The Cambridge Companion to Husserl (New York, NY: Cambridge
University Press, 1995)
18
Ibid.
19
Ibid.
20
Ibid.
21
Aron Gurwitsch. “On the Intentionality of Consciousness.” in Martin Farber, ed. Philosophical
Essays in Memory of Husserl (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940)
22
Ibid.
the object is co-determined by the character of the act in which the object

appears… the intentional act is essentially an act that gives meaning. Thus the

object of any act is an inseparable aspect of the meaning phenomenon itself. In

Husserl’s philosophy the object appears as essentially determined by the

structure of thinking itself; this thinking itself first gives meaning to the object

and then continues to orient itself to the pole of identity which it itself has already

created.23

Here we can see in full effect the subjectivist leanings of Husserl’s

phenomenology. It is not concerned with the reality of outer objects vis-à-vis the natural

standpoint. His intention is to find the meaning within the objects of consciousness

themselves. “Back to the things themselves” then is not a call to emphasis on the outer

“real” objects but instead as to how these objects give themselves in consciousness.

All Good Things… (to conclude)

The three different points explained above show how Husserl’s Zu den Sachen

selbst is not a call to realism, but instead borders more on the subjective conscious

experience. It is not hardline subjectivism in the sense that all reality is based on the

internal subject, rather a Radical Cartesianism, as some authors labeled it, due to his

method of suspending the existence of the real world through the phenomenological

επσχή. Furthermore, seeing that intentionality is merely that function or quality of

consciousness that provides itself with objective noema, whether the correlate “real

object” be one outer or inner, we see that what Husserl defines as the focal point of his

23
Joseph Kockelmans. “What is Phenomenology,” Phenomenology and Physical Science, Henry
J. Koren, trans. (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1966)
phenomenology is the object as it is actually presented to the subjective consciousness,

and the various interpretative objectivating acts as they happen within it. Here, within

consciousness is where we find meaning.

One may still actually espouse the hardline view and hold, as Chapman did, that

the world is internal to consciousness. If one did that, however, what is one to call that

container of outer objects from wherein we gather perceptual data? Descartes doubted

this world altogether, so as to hold it in a very paranoiac view, thus trusting only to

subjective experience. What Husserl merely did was suspend the postulate of its

existence, and thus, does not contradict nor oppose the theses of realism, so much as to

evade, or suspend the question altogether.

Thus we have cleared the misinterpretation that Zu den Sachen selbst exhorts us

towards realism. What we are concerned with in Husserl’s phenomenology are the

structures and objects of our subjective consciousness, and that meaning as to be found in

our analyses of them.