Why Husserl Never Became an Idealist

A paper presented at the American Philosophical Association's Central Division meeting, Feb 15-18, 2012


It is widely thought that in his earlier career Edmund Husserl adopted a Realist theory of knowledge, represented by his Logical Investigations, and that he later modified his theory in such a way that it became an Idealist theory. For the later Husserl, the real world is, supposedly, nothing but “a constituted noematic unity”—a unity of appearances or “senses”—existing for the pure transcendental Ego. Physical objects, in particular, become mere “intentional correlates” of groups of cognitive acts. In this paper I want to examine a line of thought (possibly the main line of thought) that might have led Husserl through such a revolutionary transformation, and thus have paved the way for a broader “phenomenological movement” headed in precisely the opposite direction from that of his earlier concerns.

For Husserl, the perception of an ordinary physical object consists in an extremely complicated network of interdependent intentionalities, some few directed upon aspects of the respective object that are “themselves given,” but many also upon aspects of it which are not given (not “directly viewed) at any one moment in perceiving the object. For example, when we see a table under ordinary circumstances, most of the properties and parts we see it as having are not “directly” seen. Perhaps the color and shape of the top surface are directly presented to us. But we don’t just see surfaces. Most of the table aspects not directly given to us at any particular moment are, nevertheless, somehow before our mind as we see the table. They are intended by means of “empty” sub-intentionalities that are parts of the whole act of seeing the table. These can in some measure, and in a definite order, be transformed into “fulfilled” intentionalities by varying our relationships to the table. (The underside is not seen now as the top side is, let us suppose, but I can, by varying my position, “look at” the underside as I am now looking at the top. Etc., etc.) All of this is no doubt well-known to students of Husserl’s works, but here is a statement from his earlier period:

“All perceiving and imagining is, on our view, a web of partial intentions, fused together in the unity of a single total intention. The correlate of this last intention is the thing, while the correlates of its partial intentions are the thing’s parts and aspects. Only in this way can we understand how consciousness reaches out beyond what it actually lives through <über das wahrhaft Erlebte>. It can so to speak mean beyond itself, and its meaning can be fulfilled.” (LI 701).1


It must be emphasized that in these and many similar statements Husserl took every such perception to be a perception of the object itself and as it is in itself. “It is a part so-to-say of a percept’s inherent sense to be the self-appearance of the object. Even if, for phenomenological purposes, ordinary perception is composed of countless intentions, some purely perceptual, some merely imaginative, and some even signitive, it yet, as a total act, grasps the object itself, even if only by way of an aspect…. This common relation to the object ‘in itself’, i.e. to the ideal of adequation, enters into the sense of all perception.” (LI 713)

Now in my opinion Husserl never changed his view as expressed in this last statement. But he certainly did something that made many people, including some of his best students and closest associates, think he had radically changed that view. His continuing investigations of consciousness of objects, and especially of physical objects in the ‘natural’ world, turned up additional features of perceptual consciousness, or developed features already acknowledged, in such a way, that occasion was given for Idealist interpretations of his views. The main explicit and novel developments, beyond the position of the VIth Investigation, that seemed to point to the Idealist interpretation were: introduction or elaboration of the noema, further development of the theory of constitution, and the employment of the phenomenological reduction. But as Roman Ingarden points out in his piece “On the Motives which Led Husserl to Transcendental Idealism” (p. 70).2 none of the further developments after the Logical Investigations, nor all of them together, logically entail Idealism with reference to the natural world. Moreover, as Ingarden also points out (p. 8), Husserl does not at any point explicitly advance an argument in favor of Transcendental Idealism, though he says things that many have taken to imply it. If that is true it would seem we have to decide whether Husserl made a gigantic logical error or in fact never adopted Idealism. I believe the latter is the case.

Now I cannot here take up the entire scope of the discussion relevant to Husserl’s alleged Idealism, and, in any case, this has been done in an excellent way by Ingarden himself. Here I shall concentrate upon a single line of argument for Idealism that might arise from the fact, cited above, that physical objects in their nature are not and cannot be “fully given” to perceptual consciousness. Further, what is given or “directly viewed” is said, on this line of thought, to not be “in itself,” but to be only for a viewing consciousness at a time and a place. Even the thing’s qualities that seem to be given are, upon reflection, only present in various ways, or via certain “adumbrations” (Abshattungen, perspectives), depending upon circumstances. E.g., a white sheet of paper at dusk “appears” grey, though what we see is a white sheet of paper as well as its ‘whiteness’. And from a certain angle a square table top “appears” to be rhomboidal. Etc. The appearance of whiteness and the squareness, as well as of the sheet of paper and the table—the “appearances” of physical things as well as of their qualities—are all that is fully present to us within pure consciousness. Or so the story goes. These ways of being given, then, are the “noemata”—the manners of being given, the “senses” of the object—that come to play such a huge role in Husserl’s analyses of cognitive acts generally.

There is no doubt that of those senses or noemata we have, according to Husserl, absolute knowledge. They are fully present to us (when they are present) and would be what they are regardless of whatever further experiences might occur, and regardless of whether or not the corresponding “external” things and their properties exist or are, in some or most respects, what we in perception take them to be. The “appearances” are therefore dependent upon the conscious act before which or within which they stand. They are relative to it. Their esse is percipi. (Ideas I, §98) “Idealism” or mind dependence with reference to them is obvious. If, then, material things are identical with some combinations of them, Idealism with reference to them and the physical world seems to follow.

But can one really think that physical objects, as they are intended, meant, or come before the mind, are identical with some combination of noemata—given what those objects are presented as and given how they are presented (through adumbrations, perspectives)? What could allow, much less lead, anyone to think that a physical object could be a string of noemata, or that the perceptual consciousness directed upon a physical object could be perceptual consciousness of a string of noemata. Elementary phenomenological description would seem to rule that out. It would seem that in the two cases we are dealing with radically different kinds of objects, and that the perceptual consciousness in the two cases is of radically different kinds. The intentionalities and their objects are simply different in the two cases. They have radically different properties.

As Ingarden constructs the presumed line of thought from the nature of sense perception to the “mental” nature of physical objects, it goes something like this: Following out how physical objects are (and are not) explicitly given to sense perception, it is not possible to know what the thing perceived really is in all those respects not genuinely given in a perception of it. (E.g., the bottom side of the table top is not given when the table is viewed from above.) Knowledge gained from outer perception is, then, necessarily qualified by an uncertainty that cannot be removed by further perceptual examination of the same thing. We can never exclude the possibility that even the very “whatness” or nature of a perceived object is different from what we take it to be at the moment. The “what” of the perceived thing—a table, an animal—as we grasp it at any point in our experience may only be a phenomenon resulting from how we have organized a particular set of perceptual experiences, and therefore may be something that exists only “for us.” It is then nothing “in itself” and certainly nothing in “the thing itself.” Ingarden summarizes the point as follows:

“A doubt can be raised whether the notion of such an ‘in itself’ with a nature of its own and qualifications of the object founded in the thing itself, is not a principally erroneous thought which is to be replaced by the thought that every thing is ‘for the subject’ possessing certain perceptions and is nothing ‘in itself’. Thus we find ourselves again at the gates of idealism.” (p. 19)


So any categorical assertion about the physical object is basically unjustified unless qualified by some such phrase as “according to experience thus far.” But then of course the object we are dealing with is not assigned “being in itself.” It is relativized to experiences of it, and the objects of sense perception are then only “intentional correlates” of perceptual experiences. Thus we have the assertion Ingarden reports as repeatedly made by Husserl in the middle years of his teaching: “If we exclude pure consciousness then we exclude the world.” That certainly looks like Idealism, without need of any additional elaboration or additions from Husserl’s developing views: such as the phenomenological reduction, the theory of constitution, issues in formal ontology—all critically discussed by Ingarden. But I shall not touch on these other points here, because I think the argument we have just looked at is really the heart of the matter. I want now to go back and reflect on it.

Ingarden provides a number of brilliant criticisms of presumed lines of argument for Idealism in the later Husserl, including the one just stated. He then states that “The arguments I have scrutinized are either unsatisfactory or quite wrong.” (p.70) That may be so, but it seems to me that the only thing which could turn Husserl into an Idealist is the simple identification of the physical object, as given to consciousness of it, with something essentially involved in the consciousness of it. I want to emphasize a few points that do not commonly receive sufficient attention in this discussion. I hope in this way to approach the question of whether it was possible for Husserl to have believed what he would have had to believed in order to become an Idealist in the manner commonly attributed to him—not least by Ingarden himself!

First, I think there is a certain phenomenological falsification involved in the idea that the intention (“aboutness”) directed upon a physical object in perception of it could actually be an intention directed upon a noematic or “sense” complex. The characterization of thing perception quoted above certainly could not be correct if that were so. This identification of the object in thing perception with an ordered group of Abshattungen or senses of the object forces a reinterpretation of the intentionality (or ‘aboutness’) of the usual perceptions of a physical objects, which objects clearly are not intended (present to our minds) as mere intentional correlates of acts of perception. I think Husserl never questioned that. A related point is that the intentional correlates or noematic senses involved in thing perceptions are not themselves given in profiles or empty intentions, and in general their properties as intended (when they are intended) are not properties of physical objects (bricks, flowers) as they are intended. Let us assume that there is a genuine phenomenon in the perception of physical objects that corresponds to the “intentional correlates” or noemata of which Husserl speaks. Still, that phenomenon simply is not what the perception of a physical object is a perception of. It is phenomena of this noematic sort that establishes the “sense of being”—i.e. what it would be for the object perceived to exist or be—but they are not what the act of perception involving them is of or about.

It seems right that these “mere intentional correlates” are essential to the act’s being about what it is about. An act of perceiving a brick or flower essentially must be about its object in a certain “way,” a part of which would be the respective “senses,” “adumbrations,” or “noemata.” But we in ordinary sense perception see the physical object and do not see how the object is given to us. To “see” those “ways,” ways of being given—to bring them directly before consciousness—requires special acts of reflection that clearly are not perceptions of bricks, flowers, etc. In them we are not living in perceptions of physical objects. Moreover—and of utmost importance—in perceiving the physical object the noematic senses involved do not “come between” the perceptual consciousness and its object. The “appearances” play an essential role in directing the act of perception toward its proper object. That seems a matter of eidetic insight. There are rigorous conditions on what could be an appearance or noematic correlate of what. But the point I wish to insist upon here—please forgive the repetition—is that those correlates are a radically different kind of thing from physical objects, and any intentionality directed upon them must be of a radically different kind from an intentionality directed upon a physical object. Most obviously, intentionality directed upon them will not be persepectivalized in the matter of intentions directed upon physical objects. This is a dramatic difference that Husserl did not overlook, and certainly could not have overlooked if he found himself tending toward identification of bricks and flowers, on the one hand, and the noematic syntheses involved in their perception on the other.

We have his well known statement from §89 of Ideas I: “The tree plain and simple, the thing in nature, is as different as it can be from the perceived tree as such, which as perceptual sense belongs to the perception, and that inseparably. The tree plain and simple can burn away, resolve itself into its chemical elements, and so forth. But the sense—the sense of this perception, something that belongs necessarily to its essence—cannot burn away; it has no chemical elements, no forces, no ‘real’ properties.”

Certainly Ingarden sees this point clearly. He states that “synthetic intentions” (noemata) cannot be “identically the same as things or other kinds of objects appearing in these sense unities and <that to hold> that these <physical> things are, therefore, something ‘phenomenal’ that exist only by ‘giving sense in correspondingly assorted acts of consciousness’ seems to be quite unjustified.” (p. 48c) That is to put the matter very mildly, I think. But is one to think that Husserl was unaware of this? I cannot imagine it. But if not unaware, how could he then have soberly maintained that physical or “real” things were really just synthesized “senses” or noemata? Irreele things? Ingarden and many others apparently thought he did this. I must disagree. An awareness of the gap between physical objects and corresponding “senses” is surely what prevented Husserl from explicitly advancing an argument for Idealism in the sense here at issue, though he makes many statements which might seem to imply it.

Now the next logical step for any project of delivering the later Husserl from Idealism would be to go systematically over the various assertions or uses of language in his texts that seem to imply Idealism, and to show why and how they do not actually do so. For example, we would have to look at what he means by the absolute being of pure consciousness and the essentially relative being of the spatio-temporal world (Ideas I, §§ 49, 55, etc.), at the sense in which he repeatedly and emphatically rejects “Realism,” at what it means to say that “all real unities are ‘unities of sense’” (§ 55, etc.), and at the nature of the “constitution” of the various objectivities. Whether or not it is possible to succeed in smoothing all this out in favor of my reading of Husserl, I cannot do it here. But I can comment on what I take to be the underlying problem which seems to constantly overshadow efforts to understand the relationship between consciousness and its objects. It is a problem that I believe Husserl to have solved. This is the view that in bringing objects before consciousness they are always modified from what they are “in themselves”—that is, from what they were ‘before’ consciousness came to bear upon them. This assumption leads to the position that what they are is not, or at least may not be, what they seem to be, or even that they may not exist. I have elsewhere labeled this, for obvious reasons, “Midas Touch Epistemology.” According to it there is no possible “outside” to consciousness (or language), and if there were it would not be accessible to consciousness. Husserl’s understanding of “intentionality” or meaning established precisely the opposite. There is an “outside,” and in significant cases it can be both viewed and viewed in its relations to consciousness of it. This is what makes his work so important for efforts to understand consciousness (or language) and its objects, and what imposes upon us the burden of getting his views right.

Dallas Willard Ministries is a crowd-funded non-profit organization

The resources on this website are available to you absolutely free because of the generosity of our supporters. Click the donate button if you'd like to join us in helping people live more fully in the Kingdom of God here and now. All contributions are tax deductible. Thank you!

Related Resources

You may also like...