Category: Philosophy Click For Printable Version
Finding the Noema

Edmund Husserl was notable for his insistence that the primary work of the philosopher was finding things. Most importantly, the philosopher has the task of finding the 'things' that philosophers themselves talk about, in order to see if they really are as represented in philosophical discussions. The recommended flight to the "things themselves," for which Husserl became famous, is precisely a flight originating from how those things had come to be represented. Once this flight is accomplished, we then have the task of clearing up terminology to fit things as they are. Only so can the intersubjectivity that characterizes scientific work be achieved. As we do our philosophical work we cannot be forever staring at essences. We want to think as well, and to interact with each other about our subject matter.

Thus: "In phenomenology, which aims to be nothing else than essence theory confined to pure intuition, we accordingly carry out direct intuitions of the essences given within samples of transcendentally pure consciousness, and we fix those intuitions conceptually, that is, terminologically. Science is possible only where results of thought are retainable in the form of knowledge and are available to further thinking in the form of a system of assertions: assertions which are intelligible as to logical sense, but can be actualized without the clarity of underlying presentations, and thus without insight and in the manner of the judgment....To this end it is necessary that words and sentences which are identical be univocally tied to certain intuitively graspable essences that make up their 'fulfilling sense'."1 This should be done with such force that in all further uses the terms in question will retain the concepts assigned and lose their capacity to associate with any other conceptual essences. However, the realities of discourse are such that one must frequently check to see that established meanings are the ones really operative in new contexts, and to re-clarify and re-establish terminological connections where necessary. (Ibid)

What we see here, from 1913, is by no means new to Husserl at that point. It is a standard part of his method at least from 1891 on. In Chapter VII of Philosophie der Arithmetik he examines Frege's attempt to found arithmetic upon formal definitions. He points out that only what is logically complex can be defined. When we come upon ultimate, elemental concepts of any domain, another method of exposition must be followed: "What one can do in such cases consists only in pointing up the concrete phenomena from or through which the concepts are abstracted, and in laying clear the nature of the abstraction process involved. One can, where it proves necessary, rigorously mark off the concepts in question by means of repeated paraphrases, and thus prevent the confusion of them with related concepts. What can reasonably be required of the presentation of such a concept in language (e.g., in the exposition of a science which is based upon it) would accordingly be this: It should be well-suited to place us in the correct attitude for picking out those very abstract moments in inner or outer intuition which are intended, and for reproducing in ourselves those psychical processes that are requisite for the formation of the concept."2

Back to 1913, in the "Introduction" to Ideas I we find Husserl commenting at length on the various terms he has used in this book to express key concepts. In the concluding paragraph he remarks that it is not appropriate to choose terms wholly foreign to traditional philosophical discourse. Yet, he continues, "the fundamental concepts of philosophy cannot be defined through rigorous concepts specifiable whenever you please on the basis of intuitions directly accessible." Rather, "their definitive clarification and determination generally requires lengthy preliminary investigations," and in these investigations "it is often necessary to combine phrasiologies in such a way that several expressions used with close to the same sense, in the ordinary ways of speaking, are arranged around their terminological distinction from one among them."

Now I doubt that Husserl always strictly followed his own advice, but I also suspect that failure to keep in mind this part of his descriptions of how phenomenological work is to be carried out causes a great deal of confusion about his views--and, more importantly, about the subjects of his inquiries. In particular one must keep in mind his conviction that he can help us toward philosophical understanding only by moving our minds toward intuition of exactly whatever that is which we wish to understand--by getting us to look at it, to turn our attention to it. And toward that end we will have to consider different contexts in which the subject is discussed by him, and weigh carefully the different terms and formulations used with reference to it.

Here our aim is to apply this approach, utilizing his texts, to one of the most contested of Husserlian concepts: that of the noema. So we shall not go directly, as is usually done, to the passages where the "noema" terminology is introduced. Rather, we shall do our best to locate in the relevant phenomena what the concept associated with the term "noema" is supposed to "fit"--its "fulfilling sense." This purpose is served by looking at some Husserlian passages where the word "noema" does not even occur, but nevertheless the phenomenon is dealt with and discussed utilizing various other terms, all of which have their own contribution to make to the elucidation of the phenomenon. We begin with subsection 17 of the Vth "Logical Investigation," first edition of 1901.3

The Vth "Logical Investigation" is devoted to an analysis of the 'act' of consciousness (the intentional experience as such) and of its "contents." After securing the basic point that there are segments of the conscious life, the "intentionalen Erlebnissen," which have "aboutness" or direction upon an object as their class-defining characteristic (subsection 13), subsection 16 proceeds to distinguish between the real (reellen) content of the act, the stuff that literally makes it up, and its intentional content: that which through the act is before consciousness, its object. At the end of subsection 16 Husserl distinguishes three senses of the phrase "intentional content" that play a role in discussions then current. "Intentional content" may refer to the "matter" of the act, its characteristic of being directed upon its specific object as qualified in a specific way. Secondly, it may refer to this matter plus a certain "quality" of the act (belief, doubt, hope, etc.): the "propositional attitude," we might now call it, that in the act is taken toward the object. Matter and quality together make up what he calls "the act's intentional essence." They are "the absolutely essential and so utterly indispensible constituents of an act." (subsection 21)

Now such "intentional contents" as these obviously are a part of the very stuff that makes up the act. But in a third sense the "intentional content" is not a constituent of the act. It is the object of the act, that whereon it is directed, what it is about. This is what he calls the intentional object of the act. (subsection 16) "When we represent a house, for example, the intentional object is precisely the house." And he regards the earlier discussions in the Logical Investigations as having firmly established "that the intentional object in general does not fall within the real (reellen) content of the respective act." (subsection 17) Thus we have what we may call the three "in's" of phenomenological analysis. Something may be in an act as its part, as its property, or as its object.

But a further distinction must be drawn within the "intentional content" as object of the act. "We must distinguish between the object as it is intended, and the object which is intended. In each act an object is 'represented' as determined thus and so; and, precisely as such, it may be the point of reference of various intentions: of judgment, of feeling, of desire, and so forth. Contexts of (actual or possible) knowledge wholly extrinsic to the act itself can, nevertheless, assign to the represented object objective properties which leave the intention of the act on hand completely undisturbed. Or various new representations may arise, all of which can, precisely in virtue of the objective unity of knowledge, lay claim to represent the same object. In all of them, therefore, the object which is intended is the same. But in each the intention is different. Each one means the object in a different way." (Ibid)

Husserl proceeds to illustrate this with reference to the representation, Emperor of Germany. Its object is presented as an emperor and as emperor of Germany. The same object also is represented in other ways, e.g., as the grandchild of Queen Victoria. He concludes that with reference to a given representation "one could speak quite consistently of the intentional and the extra-intentional content of its object. Indeed, without recourse to technical terms, many an expression that is fitting and not misleading is relevant here, e.g.,'the intended in the object,' and so forth." After some discussion of related matters Husserl concludes subsection 17 with the suggestion that "in all cases where the intentional object is meant, we do best never to speak of 'intentional content,' but rather precisely of the intentional object of the act concerned."

Thus "the object as intended" shows up as a certain "difference" with regard to representations directed upon one and the same object. It is a difference in what is marginally present to the mind in contemplating an object. It is not the only type of difference to be observed in representations having the same object; but it is one characteristic difference, and a very important and troubling one. In finding it we have in fact found what is later given the name "noema." But it is yet far from clear exactly what it is that we have found. This stands out above all in Husserl's statement later on in the Vth "Investigation" that "the intentional object of a presentation is the same as its actual object, and on occasion as its external object, and that it is absurd to distinguish between them." (Appendix to subsections 11 and 20) What he means to say here can be successfully reformulated, I think; but, on the other hand, the intentional object as the-object-as-given certainly cannot be the same as the intentional object as that which is represented. This is clear from the cases where the object is given as such and such but is not such and such or possibly does not even exist. In cases where the object does not exist or is not as it appears it nonetheless may be present to consciousness and will certainly appear as such and such. This is the solid core of the doctrine of the noema in Husserl. (cf. Ideas I, subsection 90, BG 262) And he further holds that the object as given has properties that do not belong to the object which is represented. Not least, the object as given has the property of representing (being of), precisely, the object which is represented: a property which the object represented certainly does not have. This is later recognized, and integrated into the fully developed doctrine of the noema. But as of 1901 he simply has not mastered the intricacies of this undeniable "difference" in the phenomena of consciousness.

In his 1907 lectures on The Idea of Phenomenology, Husserl uses the word "Erscheinung" ("appearance") to refer to this "as given" dimension of difference in the act/object nexus. In the Vth lecture he discusses the point that within "the Cartesian sphere," which he also calls "transcendental subjectivity," objects of all types are "constituted" or brought before the mind. There is something that goes on in the sphere of the mind that permits objects to be present to it. This implies, he holds, that its contents "do not, as it first seems, lie in consciousness as in a box. Rather they always present themselves in the form of something like 'appearances'." [in so etwas wie "Erscheinungen"] Now "these appearances are not themselves the objects and do not contain the objects as constituents." But "in their fluctuating and most remarkable structure they as it were 'produce' the objects for the ego--provided of course that the structure incorporates appearances of the right type and formation--thereby laying before us what 'givenness' here means."4

The house-appearance, for example, is unmistakenably given to us as it surfaces and disappears again in the stream of consciousness where we see or recall a house. In this "house-phenomenon," as he also calls it, there are phenomena (appearances) of redness, extension, etc. "But is it not also evident that in the house-phenomenon it is precisely a house that appears, precisely in virtue of which it is said to be a house-perception? And not a mere house in general, but rather exactly this house, so and so determined and appearing under such determinateness. Can I not make the evident judgment that as appearing, or in the sense of this perception, the house is so and so--of brick, with a slate roof, etc.?"5

Even if I fantasize the knight St. George killing a dragon, Husserl continues, there is an "appearance" or fantasy-phenomenon involved which evidently represents precisely St. George, and thus something outside of consciousness. "We can make evident judgments here not only about the stuff that makes up the phantasy appearance [den reellen Inhalt der Phantasieerschei-nung], but also about the object which appears, in this case a thing....It is evident that this object, St. George the knight etc., lies in the sense of the appearance and declares itself in it as 'the given' of the appearance." (Ibid)

Thought that is merely symbolic, as with 8 + 23 = 31, or that is of the utterly absurd, also requires that the object be "given" in a specific way. The famous round square, for example, certainly will not be found in the stuff that makes up the thought of it. But the object as intended, thus the "intentional object" in that sense, is required as an aspect of every act/object nexus, and so of these as well. "What the 'intentional inexistence' really amounts to, and how it stands with reference to the literal stuff [reellen Gehalt] of the thought phenomenon," are matters which in 1907 are yet to be cleared up, as are the essence laws which govern the correlation between "appearances" and the corresponding "realities" of the various types.

The "appearance" language is still used in the earlier sections of Ideas I. In subsection 41 Husserl is once again contrasting the stuff that literally makes up the act--in this case the act of ordinary sense perception--with what stands over against it as object. This is a part of his attempt here to clarify the relationship between consciousness and the world of nature (Part II, chapter 2), which in turn is to help us understand the "phenomenological reductions." (All of Part II) "What then is it," he asks, "which belongs to the literal stuff of the perception itself? Not the physical thing, for obviously that is completely transcendent--transcendent even with reference to the entire 'world of appearance'. But however much this latter is said to be 'merely subjective', it too, with all of its particulars and processes, does not belong to the literal stuff [reellen Bestande] of the perception, but is 'transcendent' over against it." So we now have two transcendent realms with reference to the parts and properties that compose the substance of the act of perception. And when we reflect on the perception itself, and how it brings together the many appearances of its object into one act of consciousness of the object, we see that the perception and its object are not the same kinds of things and are not inseparable in fact. But it becomes equally clear that the appearances of the object somehow belong with the perception and not the object. Let us follow his description of a case.

Looking at this table here, I am continuously conscious of it being right here before me, one and the same table, as I walk around it, look under it, closely examine its surface, and so forth. My perception of the table, however, is continuously changing. I may even close my eyes for a while, and upon opening them again the 'same' perception returns--not, of course, the same mental act, but an act with the same object, the table. We are conscious of it as the same "in the synthesizing consciousness which links the new perception up with the recollection" of the same object. (Continuing in subsection 41) "The thing perceived can exist without being perceived at all," and "without undergoing any modification" from the removal of perception. The perception itself, however, endures through time in the form of a multi-dimensional continuum of experience-stuff: "The perception-now is constantly transforming itself into the accreting consciousness of the just-past, and at the same time a new 'now' stands out."

A similar sameness/difference structure emerges in relation to the parts of the table. Husserl comments: "As with the perceived thing as a whole, so every one of its parts, aspects and moments are necessarily transcendent to those of the perception, regardless of whether we are dealing with primary qualities or secondary. The color of the seen thing is, as a matter of its essence, no literal element (reeles Moment) in the consciousness of color. It appears, but while it is appearing the appearance of it can--and in an experience (Erfahrung) that verifies something it must--change with continuity. The same color appears 'in' a continuous manifold of color perspectives or adumbrations." (Abschattungen)

Depending on the lighting available, in seeing the white paper here the color seems gray at dusk, and various "off-whites" at other times of day or given variations in the light upon it. Its appearance changes with my movements relative to it. In seeing the white paper I experience it as gray etc. I do not, however, see gray paper. Seeing gray paper would constitute a visual error. Not so with seeing the white paper that appears gray. Similar points are to be made with all of the sense-perceptible qualities of the object. I see a round table though it appears to be of varying elliptical forms. I do not see an elliptical table, which would be quite a different perception than the one I actually have. (Imagine people walking into the room and seeing elliptical tables instead of round ones!) The Gestaltabschattungen are essentially involved in the perception of the table. Without them there would be no such perception. But they are not what I see--although they obviously are somehow 'present' to me within the act of seeing the table. I can attend to them.

For simplicity sake Husserl considers in this passage an object that remains unvariable throughout our perceptual examination of it. The application of his findings to an object itself changing while perceived, e.g. a wheel rotating or a car driving by, is obvious. Although some objective aspects of the object are changing, in these cases, the object remains the same while the Erscheinungen or Abschattungen flow out in a continuous stream of change.

Husserl thinks this description opens to our view what falls within the literal stuff (reellen Bestande) of the concrete intentional processes here called "perceptions of a thing." Not the things, of course, and not the objective parts or aspects thereof. But the patterns of appearance or Abschattungen have "a determinate qualitative substance in their own right, one which is correlated by essence law" to the object perceived. (subsection 41) This means that such an object can only be perceived by an act in which it appears in definite ways. The appearances have a Was, a nature, which alone permits the essential function they have in this act of perceiving that object.

In this passage, interestingly enough, the "Adumbrations" of shape, color, etc. are treated as "sense impressions" (from the various "sense fields"). Within the concrete unity of the perception these "data" are said to be enlivened or besouled, "in a way not to be described more closely here," by "interpretations" ("Auffassungen"). "Subjected to this besoulment they exercise the 'presentive function'; or in union with it they make up that which we call 'appearance of' color, form, etc. Interwoven with yet additional characteristics, the data plus their interpretations make up the literal stuff of the perceptual act." (Ibid) This act is consciousness of 'the one and self-same thing' in virtue of the one overall 'interpretation' dominant in the act, which interpretation itself is grounded in the 'sub-interpretations' associated with each appearance phase.

It is important for Husserl to insist that the sense impressions or data are themselves radically different in nature from the corresponding aspects or "Moments" in the thing perceived. The latter, the Abgeschatteten, are spatial, while the former, the Abschattungen, is experience (Erlebnis) and hence non-spatial in nature. The systematic differentiation of the various literal aspects (reellen Momente) within the perception as an act of cognition (over against the aspects of the cognized transcendent to it), and their characterization in terms of their often subtle defining properties is a vast undertaking which Husserl does not take up in this passage.

In fact, a very great deal more about our subject is to be learned from a close study of Section II, Chapter ii of Ideas I. However this Section is a presentation limited to the relationship between consciousness and the world of physical nature. Section III, Chapter ii, by contrast, brings us to the completely "General Structures of Pure Consciousness," as its title reads, and it is at this level of analysis that "appearance" or "adumbration" loses its usual sense, associated with the empirical consciousness of physical objects. We need a new term for the completely general type of "difference" that shows up in consciousness of the same object, without regard to the particular kind of object we may be dealing with, whether sense perceptible or not. That term, of course, is "noema." Of the eight "general structures" discussed by Husserl here, beginning with the "in principle" accessibility of every Erlebnis to reflexion (subsection 77), the noesis/noema contrast, discussed last (subsections 88ff), is most important for his career-long intention of elucidating the essence of knowledge (Erkenntnis). Thus it is the primary subject of the long passage running from Section III, Chapter ii through Section IV, Chapter i of Ideas I.

Here once again Husserl focusses upon "the distinction between the literal components (reellen Komponenten) of intentional experiences and their intentional correlate or the components thereof." (subsection 88) He refers back to the exposition in Subsection 41, which we have discussed above. There he was interested in contrasting the "stuff" of the act with that of the world of nature. Now he wishes to examine more closely the precise character of what lies in the realm left over after the epoche, and how it functions in making cognition in general possible. To this the rest of Ideas I is devoted.

What most stands out, now, in this definitive treatment of the act and its intentional correlates is the primacy of the noetic. I have elsewhere discussed the noema at some lengths in relation to the noesis, and spelled out in detail the threefold priority of the noetic over the noematic in Husserl's analysis of consciousness: in the order of research, ontologically, and eidetically.6 For our present purposes it is necessary to note the following:

The noesis is the animating "grasp" or "interpretation" already noted above. Subjected to this grasp something--sense data in the discussion above, but there are other possibilities to be noted in what follows--becomes meaningful or itself directed upon an object that, conversely, is then presented by means of it. (subsection 85, BG 249) This is what the noesis is. It is the "taking" of something within the domain of transcendental subjectivity in such a way that there is superimposed upon what is taken an intentional bearing which it would not have in itself. The "taking" may be of a mass of "data" which are themselves already "taken," as with the "adumbrations" or "appearances" of the table above, in which case the superimposed intentional bearing of that whole mass is upon the table itself. Or it may be of the sense data corresponding to objective moments in the table, in which case the intentional bearing is upon the objective moments in the table--which, though present after a fashion in the seeing of the table, are not the objects of that act.

The "noesis" is explicitly identified by Husserl with the "act character" of the Logical Investigations, which also had the function of "animating" sense data.7 He now finds the word "act" unusable. One also might refer to the noetic aspect of Erlebnissen as the "psychical," as "awareness," "the moment of consciousness," or the "intentional moment." But all of these are also unusable because of various equivocations. (subsection 85, BG 249) Nevertheless, such terminology plays an indispensible role in pinning down the phenomenon: the "noetic" dimension of differences in acts with which we are concerned.

The result of the noetic grasp is a new "ofness" which belongs to what is grasped. This yields "the essential bilaterality [Doppelseitigkeit] of intentionality in terms of noesis and noema." (subsection 128, BG 359) There is both an intentionality of the act and an intentionality of the appearances which arise in the course of the act. Appearances are obviously appearances of an object. They have this quality, just as acts themselves are always of objects. The noetic phases of consciousness are "ways of being conscious," while the noematic phases are "ways in which that of which we are aware itself and as such presents itself." (subsection 99, BG 291) "There is, as it were, a noematic intentionality over against the noetic intentionality. The latter bears the former in itself as correlate to consciousness, and its intentionality passes in a certain manner along the line of the noematic and out beyond it." (subsection 101, BG 295) The primacy of the noetic is clearly asserted here. The "appearances" come and go while the act endures. Moreover, as he elsewhere says, the esse of the noema, e.g. the seen tree as such (as seen, that is), "consists wholly in its 'percipi'." (subsection 98, BG 287) Acts themselves are only "in principle" perceivable, perceivable on demand, but noemata or appearances simply cease to be when not functioning in an act of cognizing some relevant object. They do not lie about, inside the mind or out, waiting to be used, but come into existence in the course of the various types of objective consciousness. Indeed, they are not "used" at all in the acts where they serve. Reflection on them may allow them to serve our purposes in yet other acts: of verification, logical analysis, artistic creativity, etc. How something seems must serve as our guide to how it is. But in the acts of which they are the noemata, they just occur and play an essential role in how those acts unfold. But we do not patch acts of consciousness together from whatever appearances happen to be on hand.

Nevertheless, the noema can be seen for what it is. Our mental glance can turn to it, as in fact occurs with such descriptions as that of the table perception above. "In spite of its dependent status the noema can be considered in its own right, compared with other noema, investigated in terms of its possible transformations and so on." (Ibid) Since it actually has properties and relations--it must, in its own way, exist.8

But what is the noema, the object as given to consciousness? Husserl claims that we receive the answer to this question "through pure surrender to the essences given," and that it is then possible "to describe the 'appearing as such' correctly and with perfect Evidenz." (end subsection 88, BG 260) The pages which follow this statement in Ideas I, however, and the continuing controversy over the nature of the noema, must make one wonder whether that really is so.

Subsection 89 emphasizes the difference between the object as perceived and the perceived object. "The mere tree, the thing in nature, is nothing less than it is this perceived tree as such which, as perceptual sense, belongs inseparably to the respective perception. The mere tree can burn up, be resolved into its chemical elements and so forth. But the sense--the sense of this perception, something necessarily belonging to its essence--cannot burn up, has no chemical elements and no physical powers or properties." (Ibid) We learn from this something about what the noema is not, but nothing about what it is.

Subsection 90 provides another negation, this time with reference to the "literal stuff," as we have been calling it, of consciousness itself, of the Erlebnissen. The "too easy" suggestion is considered that the noema lies in the literal stuff of the act as one of its parts. Husserl replies--along lines traced out by him many years earlier--that the act of consciousness has only one object, and it is not literally in the act. It also is false to suppose that a little "tree image" is a part of the act and that consciousness of it somehow gives rise to consciousness of the tree, as consciousness of this picture here founds a consciousness of my daughter. The tree as seen is not an image, though, for Husserl, there are acts which utilize images in their intentionality. But to describe perception as essentially involving image consciousness is to replace it with something else. The tree as seen is not an image, and, more generally, is not a part of the literal (reelle) stuff of the act.9 That is why he chooses the term "irreelle" as a characterization of the noema. (subsection 97, BG 285) But note once again that this is a negative term. As the noema is not the object nor a part or property thereof, so it also is not the act nor a part or property thereof. As noted above, the appearance is in its own unique way "transendent" to the psychic flow, though still within the "Cartesian sphere." It is, according to Husserl, an entity or stream of entities that shows up parallel to the literal phases of the act and in systematic dependence upon them.

Thus Husserl comments that "the reelle experience-unity of hyletic and noetic constituents is something totally different from the unity of noematic constituents which 'comes to awareness' in it, and is totally different again from the unity which unites all those reelle experience constitutents with that which, as noema, comes to consciousness through and in them." (subsection 97, BG p. 285) The noema or appearance "transcendentally constituted on the basis of" the psychical stuff and "through" the noetic function is indeed found before us, and evidently so "when in pure intuition we faithfully describe the experience and what is noematically present with it. But it quite certainly belongs to the experience in a totally different sense than does the reellen and consequently literal constituents of the experience." (Ibid)

Something of a side comment is required at this point due to common misunderstandings now current. The irreele is not, for Husserl,the same as the Ideal. Perhaps the misunderstanding is in part caused by the fact that for Husserl the Ideal falls in his domain of the irreal--please note the spelling--that of the "non-natural" or "non-worldly" in general, which includes the Ideal (universals, both those that may be instanced in mental acts and those that cannot be), the reelle (temporalized mental stuff), and the irreelle (temporalized events and entities transcendent to the reelle, but still in the "Cartesian realm").10 The irreelle, like the reelle and the real, consists of individual entities which come into being, endure and pass away. Husserl has come to be regarded in various circles as a nominalist or at best a conceptualist because of readings taken from certain post-Husserlian philosophers, most noteably Derrida, which equate the Ideal with the irreelle or noematic, and compound the error by regarding the noematic as something we "produce." We cannot here trace out all of the terminological and conceptual distinctions and relations that need to be drawn, but for the sake of our present concerns we must point out that the irreelle is not the Ideal--though like the real and the reelle it of course has an eidetic structure peculiar to it.11

Difficulties about the precise ontological status of the noema, which seem to be much more pressing than Husserl's statements suggest, do not, however, suppress the real difference in acts of consciousness or in the act object/nexus discussed by Husserl under that name. What in subsection 90 of Ideas I he describes as "that which alone has clearly stood forth" in the investigation of the noesis/noema distinction up to that point is still standing, I think, when the rather vain attempts to say what the noema is are forgotten. "The intentional experience is without doubt so formed that, when suitably considered, a certain 'way' ('Sinn') is found in it. The circumstance that defines this 'way' for us is this: that the non-existence (or subsequent persuasion of the non-existence) of the 'mere object' represented or thought cannot deprive the representation concerned (and likewise for the respective intentional experience in general) of its represented, its thus and so presented as such, and that the two must therefore be distinguished." Surely Husserl is right in saying that this "circumstance" simply could not "remain hidden." (subsection 90, BG 262) And if the "as such" side of this distinction is the noema, then there certainly is a noema, regardless of how hard it may be to spell out its ontological status.

Husserl himself constantly swings back to sense perception of objects in the natural world in discussing the noema. I suspect that this is because "appearance" with respect to such objects is the most intuitively convincing case of "the object as such." But is is crucial to the understanding of mental acts and cognition, as well as Husserl's views about them, to understand that the noema is present with every act of every type to be found in the cognitive life. What this means is simply that wherever we are conscious of an object in any way it also is present to us under a certain "sense." Subsection 91 of Ideas I opens with the statement that the noematic 'object' is found with "all types of intentional experiences." With memory the remembered as such, with expectation the expected as such, in creative phantasy the phantasized as such, and so forth. There is a qualitative mark in the way the object is presented, corresponding to every difference in the nature of the act. The rabbit phantasized coming around the corner appears different from the one expected to come around the corner. (Try it out and see.) "These differences are characteristics which we find in the perceived, phantisized, remembered, etc. as such," in the way they are present to us, and in a necessary correlation with noetic characteristics of the experience. (Ibid)

Even the degree of attention paid, which is an element in the act, correlates with the degree of force or clarity or 'brightness' in the object as given. (subsection 92) More importantly, the objects of higher-order acts, acts which occur in superimposition on other acts, all have in "the objectivity as presented" in them corresponding noematic traits. (subsections 93ff) These acts involve what Husserl calls "founded essences." In judgement, for example, which is founded on representation, the object judged about appears characteristically different from the same object merely perceived or represented. The "judgment as passed" alters how the object "looks" to us. The same is true for acts of feeling, valuation and choice, for acts with varying degrees of certainty in belief, or acts not involving belief (thus with the "neutrality modification," as Husserl calls it). Some of the most gratifying phenomenological studies provided by him are in his discussions of the unification and superimposition of acts to generate other more composite acts with their distinctive objects and corresponding noemata. (subsections 99-135 of Ideas I) The role of language (logos) in determining the "how" or "sense" of the presence of objects of all types is very important, of course, since it is responsible both for great accomplishments as well as great distortions in our cognition of the world. (subsections 124-127) Husserl's position is that all of these differences in "how" the object is present to us are observable in necessary (ideal law) correlation with modifications in the corresponding acts of consciousness--observable, at least, to the phenomenologically competent eye and will. I am inclined to think there is something substantial to what he says in this respect, but unclear about how much.

But such differences in how objects 'look' or are presented are not supposed by him to be merely interesting descriptive points for the cataloging phenomenologist to note down. Rather, it is only the law-governed interplay of noemata, senses, ways-present-to that makes knowledge (Erkenntnis) possible for Husserl, and only eidetic insight into the nature of this interplay will permit us to understand how knowledge is possible. "Here," he says, in the irreelles "is the ultimate source of the only conceivable solution to the deepest problems about knowledge: those which concern the essence and possibility of objectively valid knowledge of the transcendent" reality lying entirely outside of the "Cartesian sphere." (subsection 97, BG 285) It is the "sense" which transcendent objects have as given that guides us into fuller knowledge of those same objects, and ultimately, given the right factual circumstances, into knowledge of what they are in themselves. To understand this was always the central aim of Husserl's philosophical work,12 and that is why the doctrine of the noema becomes such a hugely important thing in his thought.

Husserl moves to this great issue, which also was the topic of the IVth "Logical Investigation," at the very end of subsection 135 of Ideas I. How, he there asks, is the phenomenologist "to describe, noetically and noematically, all of the relationships in consciousness which necessitate the mere object (which in common language always means an actual object), precisely as it is in its actuality?" (BG 377) The concern is not, however, merely with actualities in the "worldly" sense, but with the being of objects of any and every type whatever. So Husserl re-formulates the question: "When is the noematically 'intended' identity of the X an 'actual' instead of 'merely' intended identity? And what does this 'merely intended' mean in general?" (Ibid)

Now the answer to this question is to be provided by a "Phenomenology of Reason," which is the title of the chapter immediately following. Such a "phenomenology" is a discussion, in general terms, of the justified belief, of the belief which is rational, or of rationality as such. The meaning of "rational consciousness in general" is stated by Husserl precisely in terms of the degree of the act's closeness to a "seeing" the relevant object, a having of "the thing itself bodily present" just as it is in itself--so far as that is possible for the type of object in question. (subsection 137) To be at all conscious of any object it must, as we have seen, present itself to us in a certain way or sense. That "sense" always incorporates indications of how we can apprehend the same object in different ways, whether the sense is the designation of a number by an equation or the visual appearance of a round, white thing on the beach. Every general type of object "specifies a rule" for how an object falling under it "is to be brought, according to its sense and mode of givenness, to complete determinateness, to adequate and ultimate givenness." (subsection 142, BG 396) It is by working with its different "ways" of being present that the object is ever more fully brought before us. When, now, belief is motivated by an overall, appropriate order in our experiences of the same thing, then it is rational. Moreover: "To every object that 'truly is' there corresponds in principle (in the a priori of unconditional generality of essence) the idea of a possible consciousness in which the object is graspable ultimately (originaer), and thus with perfect adequacy. Conversely, if this possibility is guaranteed, then eo ipso the object truly is." (Ibid) It is through properly ordered appearance and only through appearance--noemata, senses, ways of being present--that reality is attained. And when the appropriate "appearances" are realized, reality, the relevant object, is attained with the assurance of eidetic necessity.

So our conclusion must be that there is a difference in the act/object nexus corresponding to Husserl's term "noema." It is findable, and its function is clearly of fundamental importance in the life of consciousness. Moreover, a very great deal can be said, on the basis of reflection on our conscious acts, about how this "difference" operates to make Erkenntnis possible. All of this seems right, and of course it opens many doors for specific explorations of the intricacies of cognition, especially with regard to the many important structures and objects of acts of "higher order." But the exact ontological status of this "difference" in the act/object nexus--what the precise nature of the 'noema' might be--remains quite puzzling. Husserl in the end succeeds only in characterizing it negatively, and in urging us to wait in "pure surrender" before it in hopes of a revelation of its essence. This is far from satisfactory, and makes one wonder if it might not be possible to account for the "difference" as well or better than he does, do as good or better job of describing the 'facts,' by attempting to treat it in terms of a sufficiently elaborate version of noetic intentionalities alone.



  1. Ideas I, subsection 66, BG 193. I have provided my own translations of Husserl's texts, sometimes translating rather freely for emphasis. My references are by subsections of the works referred to, and to an English translation where available. "BG" followed by a number indicates the page number of the hardbound edition of the Boyce Gibson translation of Ideas I. I have worked from the 1950 German edition of this text.  Return to text.

  2. Philosophie der Arithmetik, 'Husserliana XII', Den Haag: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970, p. 119.  Return to text.
  3. Logische Untersuchungen, Zweiter Theil: 'Untersuchungen zur Phaenomenologie und Theorie der Erkenntnis,' Halle a. S.: Max Niemeyer, 1901.  Return to text.
  4. 'Husserliana II," Den Haag: Martinus Nijhoff, 1958, p. 71; English translation by W. P. Alston and George Nakhnikian, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973, p. 56.  Return to text.
  5. 'Husserliana II,' p. 72; English p. 57.  Return to text.
  6. "A Critical Study of Husserl and Intentionality," in Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, Vol. 19, No. 2, May 1988, pp. 186-198 and Vol. 19, No. 3, October 1988, pp. 311-322.  Return to text.
  7. Ideas I, subsection 84, "Note on Terminology," BG 244; cf. subsection 97, BG 284.  Return to text.
  8. Subsection 98, BG 289; cf. subsection 90, BG 262.  Return to text.
  9. Subsection 97, BG 283. Husserl uses the term "reelle" as early as his first publication in 1887 to describe the stuff that goes into the makeup of a representation. (See 'Husserliana XII', p. 324.) I feel certain that he does not originate this usage, but have been unable to do the research into its background.  Return to text.
  10. See subsection 65 of Erfahrung und Urteil, as well as the final paragraphs of the "Introduction" to Ideas I, BG 45.  Return to text.
  11. See J. P. Moreland, "Was Husserl a Nominalist," in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 49, June 1989, pp. 661-674. Also my paper, "Is Derrida's View of Ideal Being Rationally Defensible," to appear in a volume edited by Lester Embree on Phenomenology and Deconstruction, from Kleuwer in 1992.  Return to text.
  12. See Chapter I of my Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1984.  Return to text.