Review: Back to Things in Themselves, by Joseph Seifert

Back to Things in Themselves: A Phenomenological Foundation for Classical Realism, New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul. ISBN 0-7102-0711-5. This review appeared in Canadian Philosophical Review, IX, #2, 1989, 66-69.


‘Phenomenology' is understood in this book as `the method which leads us to see essences in what they themselves are' (24; cf. 10-11, 30, 321f). Thus, `The Aristotelian distinction of four types of causes is a masterful example of phenomenological analysis of things themselves, as they give themselves from their own nature' (26). Working within `Phenomenology' thus understood, `this essay attempts to refute...transcendental idealism in any form or shape' (316). Positively stated, the aim is to reaffirm an ontology of substantial individuals, including the human self, realms of universals, a causally ordered real world (including final causation in human history), and a personal God--all open to a corresponding realist and foundationalist (61) epistemology.

Historically, the author aligns himself with the first wave of 20th Century Phenomenologists that formed around Husserl in his Goettingen years, including especially Reinach, Scheler and Pfaender, but, more than anyone else, with Augustine (323)--and with Descartes, insofar as he coincides with Augustine in arguing from the self and self knowledge.

The book is divided into three Parts: the first a critical re-thinking of the Husserlian slogan, `"back to the things themselves' (5-117), the second an examination of the `motives' which moved Kant and (allegedly) Husserl to idealism (121-215), and the third a `further critique' of Husserl and Kant through a more detailed discussion of the meanings of `things in themselves' and knowledge thereof.

The only sustained piece of philosophical argument occurs on pp. 303-317, where Seifert purports to prove "an inner contradiction in any idealist position." (319) This argument is phrased in terms of acts constituting their objects, where `constituting' means making, not just making-present. The author argues that any act of constituting an object presupposes, precisely, an act and a subject which is not constituted, and hence is `in itself.' And: `if the evident fact that at least the subject and act of transcendental constitution is "in itslf" is recognized, then the idealist position collapses.... Then it would be precisely recognized that there is a "being in itself" which is independent of constitution and autonomous.' (308) But if this argument proves anything, it only proves that a given act constitutes an object only if that act already exists. It does not prove that the act is not itself constituted (`made') by another act directed upon it, nor does it prove that there is no all-constituting consciousness such as a personal God of the Berkelian variety. And in any case, the `being in itself' which the author purports to prove is itself of quintessentially idealist type.

As to the deeper criticisms which have been brought against cogito arguments for the existence of a self, the author shows no awareness of the vast literature. He simply re-runs the Augustinian/Cartesian arguments, and proceeds to deduce (or at least suggest) the general world view of classical realism therefrom.

By far the larger part of the book is devoted to attacks upon the later Husserl, with somewhat less attention paid to Kant. Husserl seems to be concentrated upon, not because he has anything to contribute to the main thesis of the book, but because his errors are most threatening to the author's position. The charges brought against Husserl are really quite astonishing, especially in the light of the fact that the earlier Husserl is conceded to have largely avoided the errors in question. It is hard to imagine how anyone who could make such mistakes as are here attributed to Husserl could also be worthy of extensive critical attention, or how he could have had any significant historical effect. He is charged with developing a method (epoche) which leads to `the radical suspension of any link of the order of essence to existence' (85), and with separating the ideal from the real in such a way that real events can be `subject only to empirical laws,' so that `it seems unthinkable that the real acts of thinking of empirical subjects could ever attain the sphere of the ideal.' (142; cf. 171-2) These points, like numerous others brought up by Seifert, are old points to which Husserl convincingly replied (see e.g. Husserliana XXII, 152-161) They, and others about the relations between concepts and species (165-167), indicate, to my mind that the author simply does not understand Husserl's basic ontological schema and how it applies to mental acts and their objects.

This may be related to the fact that, in this book, he provides no careful expositions of Husserlian texts, nor does he engage in actual phenomenological description of cases. It seems to be his view that such is not required, that all is needed is abstract arguments on various points, together with appeals to alleged immediate revelations of essence connections to consciousness. This, it seems, is what he takes Phenomenological method to be. He quotes at considerable lengths, but his lack of exposition permits him often to quote as Husserl's views statements clearly intended by Husserl to represent views he actually opposes This is most notable with the repeated references to The Idea of Phenomenology, where statements of `natural' or even `sceptical' thought on the impossibility of knowing what is not immanent to our mind are taken as expressions of Husserl's `later' position (25-26, 63, 116, 137, 143, 312), even though in this very work Husserl proceeds to explain, precisely, how we may understand the possibility of such knowledge of the transcendent. The last three chapters of Ideas I are wholly given over to explaining how the rational grasp of reality `in itself' is to be understood.

What I regard as the author's misunderstanding--widely shared--of the world according to Husserl, as noemata, without real existence, and as the only objects of consciousness, has to be placed over against Husserl's clear claims (i) that objects simpliciter stand under radically different genuses, while noemata all belong in one genus (Ideas I, subsection 128), and (ii) that the noema (appearance) and the act of consciousness have the same object (Ideas I, subsection 129)--which will obviously not be the noema itself. Seifert's suggestion that Husserl even allows `some corporeal image' to make knowledge of transcendent objects impossible certainly goes much further than most who adopt his interpretation.

But the most basic issue between Seifert and Husserl lies in the interpretation of `constitution.' Seifert is aware of the reading of constitution as `making present' (348), but rejects it, and insists that `the many quotes in this essay demonstrate' that Husserl means making when he speaks of constitution. Against this one must assert that the quotes do not demonstrate this at all, and that we should have been very much obliged to the author if he had somewhere stated the argument by which the quotes demonstrate his view of Husserlian constitution.

In fleeing from constitution, Seifert himself fails to have any account of the structure of the act of consciousness and intentionality. As a result, though he speaks of Phenomenological method, there really is very little in his book that can be identified as such, except his appeals to direct insight into essences. In this regard he remains faithful to that naivity for which Husserl criticizes his own early followers.

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