World Well Won: Husserl's Epistemic Realism One Hundred Years Later

One Hundred Years of Phenomenology, D. Zahavi and F. Stjernfelt (eds), Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht and Boston, 2002, pp. 69-78.


By "epistemic realism" I understand the view that the objects of veridical thought and perception both exist and have the characteristics they are therein discovered to have without regard to whether or not they are in any way actually present to any mind of any type.

The possibility of realism in this sense is, for Husserl, the same as the possibility of knowledge. As he indicates at the end of the first lecture in The Idea of Phenomenology, as well as at various places in the Logical Investigations, in the course of Modern thought,

"the ability of knowledge to make contact with an object has become enigmatic.... What becomes questionable is the possibility of knowledge, more precisely, the possibility of knowledge making contact with an objectivity that is, after all, what it is in itself. At bottom, what knowledge accomplishes, the sense of its claim to validity or justification..., is in question; as is, on the other side, the sense of objectivity, which is and is what it is whether it is known or not, and yet as an objectivity is an objectivity of a possible knowledge, in principle knowable even if it has as a matter of fact never been known or will be known...." 1

Epistemic realism in this sense is entirely consistent with Husserl's statement elsewhere that " as ever I hold every form of current philosophical realism to be absurd, as no less every idealism to which in its own arguments that realism stands contrasted, and which in fact it refutes." 2

In my view, Husserl had resolved in principle all of the issues about the possibility knowledge in the sense of epistemic realism by the time he finished the Logical Investigations, and he never later retracted the basic position which he there worked out. I realize, of course, that many disagree with this interpretation of his so-called "development," but here there is no possibility of taking up the many subtle issues involved in our disagreement.


A few years after its appearance, Wilhelm Dilthey referred to Husserl's Logical Investigations as an "epoch making" book.3 Questions could be raised as to what makes an epoch, and in one sense of "epoch" I suppose that the LI did not make one. So far as the outward historical form of philosophy as a social reality is concerned, perhaps the LI has created (so far) something more than a major stir, but also something less than an "epoch," in the manner of Descartes and Kant, for example.

In terms of philosophical illumination of the major surface problem of modern philosophy since Descartes, however--the mind's grasp of its world--I believe the LI was and is epoch making. What it did, for those who thought it through, was to restore the rich manifold of the objectivities of human existence (from the objects of the most spontaneous experiences of nature and social relations to the highest levels of scientific abstraction, as well as the texture of human experience itself) to the status of true being. These no longer had to be things which in one way or another were explained away. To the juggernaut of reduction or nothing-but-ism, arising from thinkers such as Galileo and Hobbes, Husserl replied (and showed) that by far the most of what they wished to deny or to neglect as not truly being--or else to falsify in its essence by shoving it into the mind: all of that had its own right to existence, which could be fully demonstrated or observed in the proper circumstances.

Husserl was, of course, not the only great thinker of his day who was troubled about the reductionist outcome of Modern thought. Bergson and Whitehead were two of his contemporaries who were primarily committed to overcoming reductionism, and who, at least to their own minds, had overcome it. But they (and others who shared their concern) failed to provide anything like Husserl's exquisite analysis of thought, perception and knowledge, and hence their case is almost totally one built upon the supposedly absurd consequences of reductionism and analysis of some of the misunderstandings that lead to them. They have little to say about the precise structure of acts of consciousness in relation to their various kinds of objects.

Thus, in discussing how Galileo, Descartes and Locke dealt with "secondary" qualities, Whitehead remarks that, on their views,

"...the mind in apprehending also experiences sensations which, properly speaking, are qualities of the mind alone. These sensations are projected by the mind so as to clothe appropriate bodies in external nature. Thus the bodies are perceived as with qualities which in reality do not belong to them.... Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves: the rose for its scent, the nightingale for his song, the sun for his radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly." 4

In fact it might be said that a major lesson of Modern thought is that, if you can't salvage "secondary" qualities, all will soon be lost. The reasons which lead to treating them as "mental" will soon force everything into the mind. As Sartre sharply pointed out in a little essay of 1939, the illusion of Modern philosophy is: "to know is to eat.""We have all believed," he says,

"that the spidery mind trapped things in its web, covered them with a white spit and slowly swallowed them, reducing them to its own substance.... The simplest and plainest among us vainly looked for something solid, something not just mental, but would encounter everywhere only a soft and very genteel mist: themselves." 5

Sartre understood that "Against the digestive philosophy of empirico-criticism, of neo-Kantianism, against all 'psychologism', Husserl persistently affirmed that one cannot dissolve things in consciousness.""...Consciousness is an irreducible fact which no physical image can account for, except perhaps the quick, obscure image of a burst. To know is to 'burst toward', to tear oneself out of the moist gastric intimacy, veering out there beyond oneself,..." (p. 4)


Hume, it will be recalled, had taken up the question of "Why we attribute a continued existence to objects, even when they are not present to the senses; and why we suppose them to have an existence distinct from the mind and perception." 6 He concluded, as is well known, that it is neither sense nor reason, but only imagination "that produces the opinion of a continued or of a distinct existence," 7 and that we have no evidence of the existence of anything apart from "the mind and perception."

This view of Hume, though supported by him upon assumptions and descriptions not generally shared by other great Modern philosophers, can, not unfairly, be regarded as an outcome of the Modern period of Western philosophy, and as one which, though formulated in significantly different ways, still dominates contemporary thought as we enter the 21st Century. This is true even though "mind and perception" is not usually now conceived of in the highly individualistic sense of Hume and other Modern philosophers prior to Kant. The "genteel mist" encountered is no longer the individual mind, but transcendental forms, history, language and culture, which are thought of as somehow fundamental to the individual (not it to them) and which perhaps even "construct" the individual.

Nevertheless, the basic Humean view carries over to most of philosophy after the "linguistic turn," as it is sometimes called, and in some form to much of continental philosophy after Husserl.

Donald Davidson characteristically comments: "Yet if the mind can grapple without distortion with the real, the mind itself must be without categories and concepts. This featureless self is familiar from theories in quite different parts of the philosophical landscape.... In each case, the mind is divorced from the traits that constitute it."

Now of course, as Davidson himself insists, the mind simply cannot be divorced from the traits that constitute it. Nothing can. But the point to be taken from his statement quoted is that, if the mind has "categories and concepts," it must distort "the real" when it comes to "grapple" with it. But on the other hand it must have them so to "grapple." Hence the mind must distort its objects and therefore never has access to undistorted objects, i.e., to things as they are apart from the distorting caused by the grappling with or toward things "in themselves." 8

Richard Rorty takes an even stronger position than Davidson, rejecting the idea that different "conceptual schemes" grapple with the same "matter.""The suggestion that our concepts shape neutral material no longer makes sense once there is nothing to serve as this material." 9 The whole idea of alternative conceptual frameworks and corresponding worlds loses its sense. Rorty simply rejects the idea of a world and, taking a page from Nietzsche's book, replaces that idea with some constraint placed on beliefs, and especially new beliefs, by the "vast body of platitudes, unquestioned perceptual reports, and the like," which are already in place. This "vast body" of course has no contactable "outside" any more than does Hume's "mind and perceptions." Hume admitted that belief in independent and continued existence can never be eradicated, "nor will any strained metaphysical conviction of the dependence of our perceptions be sufficient for that purpose." 10 I think Rorty would agree. And the basic Humean view carries over to most of philosophy after the "linguistic turn," as it is sometimes called, and in some form to much of continental philosophy after Husserl.

Indeed, I often hear from people who are experts on Husserl's thought that he adopts a version of the same view: that he too holds to some very elaborate version of the epistemically encapsulated mind. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I think this view of the encapsulated mind is precisely the one Husserl successfully overturned in the Logical Investigations and presumes to be refuted in all his later works. A good way to appreciate Husserl's contribution is to emphasize that he believed Hume could be shown wrong, given the analysis of the act of consciousness which Husserl himself provides. A distinct and continued existence apart from consciousness is indeed possible for objects of consciousness of various types, especially the physical.



The possibility of recovering authentic knowledge of the amazing richness of manifold fields of being, including the human self, and especially the inexhaustible ideal realms of essence, resulted in a powerful surge of philosophical interest and activity among Husserl's younger associates. Indeed, the possibility of knowledge is tied very directly to the possibility of philosophy itself--which of course has been seriously in question among philosophers themselves for a century or so. If Husserl was right, there was hope. Something of significance could be done. Accomplishments, results, were possible. This hopeful outlook may have been what Jean Hering had in mind by speaking of a "phenomenological springtime." 11 In the Preface to the English translation of Ideas I Husserl speaks of the discovery of a new Atlantis, and, mixing his metaphors, of his having "actually wandered in the trackless wilds of a new continent and undertaken bits of virgin cultivation." 12 And, further mixing his metaphors, he speaks of "the infinite open country of the true philosophy, the 'Promised Land', which he sees, but himself will never set foot in." 13


There are two major points in Husserl's analysis of cognition that provide the basis for his epistemic realism and the corresponding hopefulness.

  1.  His theory of concepts (and propositions).
  2. His understanding of the polythetic or many-rayed nature of some--indeed most--acts of consciousness.


Concepts have usually been thought of in one two ways: as acts of minds upon objects, or as objects that stand before the mind. The former is the way of Kant and of the second Wittgenstein and, obviously, Davidson, Putnam, Rorty and many (perhaps most) others.

The latter is the way of Locke, Frege, Russell and Alonzo Church. On this latter view the concept may also be the result of an act, a creation of the mind, as in the case of Locke and similar Empiricists, or it may not be, as with Frege and Church. But whether or not it is created, it is essentially an object of the mind and the theory never explains how the concept, which is to bring other things before the mind, is itself before the mind without a further concept that makes it so, and so on in infinitum. It also has great difficulty in explaining how the concepts brings things other than itself before the mind. These are some of the difficulties that lead Husserl to reject the "object" view of concepts--though of course they can become objects in special acts directed upon them. As to the former view of concepts, Husserl early on rejected the idea that the act of thought or language or its components did things to objects or made things.

On his view, the concept (which may become the meaning of a linguistic expression but need not do so) is not an object of the (mental or linguistic) act within which it functions, but rather is a property or characteristic of that act. (Similarly for the proposition or the judgment-in-the-logical-sense.) Husserl explains his view on this point in several places, most notably in §34 of the 4th chapter of the Ist LI (pp. 332) and in his review of Palagyi, where he credits Lotze's interpretation of Plato's 'ideas' with enabling him to make sense of Bolzano's Vorstellungen an sich, or concepts, by taking them as species.

As a property--the intentional bearing or specific aboutness--of a mental or linguistic act, the concept does not explain how the act is of or about its object. Rather, it is the ofness or aboutness, the specific intentionality, of the act for its object, and as a property it is repeatable in instances and shareable between persons, as one would have to expect of a property. One can find certain necessary conditions of an act being about or of specific objects, such as totalities or physical objects or other persons. But specific intentionality or meaning, the bearing of an act on an object or objects, which is the relevant concept, is a descriptive ultimate that cannot be defined or explained. (§31 of the IInd LI, p. 400) It is a "natural sign."

Since the concept is a property of the act, it does not intervene between the act and its object, and does not close the mind off from the very objects or world that it was supposed to make accessible. It does not encapsulate the mind or its contents, any more than the properties of other things or events encapsulate them.

But, for Husserl, the concept also is not an activity of "making," shaping or using something (a sensation, image, or symbol) in a certain way. The Locke/Kant/Davidson picture of the mind forming something to produce objects is out of place for Husserl. In the important footnote to §13 of the Vth LI (563n) Husserl echoes Paul Natorp's caution against taking seriously talk of "mental activities" or "activities of consciousness," and adds: "We too reject the 'mythology of activities': we define 'acts' as intentional experiences, not as mental activities." And in passages already cited he comments that concepts, like numbers, "neither spring forth nor vanish with the act," but "are an ideally closed set of general objects, to which being thought or being expressed are alike contingent." 14 Of course if they were acts of shaping, forming or creating this would not be true. The concept would "spring forth and vanish" with the act, for it would be the act.

Much more needs to be said about Husserl's view of the nature of concepts, especially because it is so contrary to prevailing ideas. But these few remarks must suffice for now.

The second basic point in Husserl's realist analysis of cognition was his understanding of the polythetic or many-rayed nature of most acts of consciousness. This makes possible--given that concepts and propositions (or representations and judgments) do not close us off from realities as they are--the experience of the fulfillment of an act, eventually by its object, and hence makes possible Evidenz, the Erlebnis of truth, the grasp of the correspondence of a thought with its object.

That is, we are capable of finding, at least in some cases, an object to be precisely as we thought it to be--or not--and of finding for every case of thought that is veridical some significant degree of fulfillment or verification. And since our thought does not by being of an object change it from what it is apart from thought, we can know that the object apart from our verifying thought will be exactly what it is when we are not conscious of it--precisely what Hume said we could not know. Hume was, therefore, mistaken, and supported his view only through systematically misdescribing the objects of consciousness.

The capacity to find something to be as we thought it to be is the result of the polythetic character of acts of fulfillment and, based thereon, clarification. In one act we find the object to be as we thought it to be, which is fulfillment; and we may then also clarify our concept of the object by matching--in Hume's language, but not with his meaning--our "ideas" to their corresponding "impression."

And, indeed, a metaphysics now becomes possible for the first time. Husserl has his own version of a "prolegomena for any future metaphysics," and that was central to his project. For we can clarify what it is for the objectivities of various kinds to exist or be, and then develop appropriate methods for determining whether they do in fact exist.

Now of course there is a view widely and strongly held that it is impossible to compare an object with a concept, representation or judgment (proposition), to see if the object is as it is represented or judged to be. This is always based, so far as I can tell, upon the theory that when we turn to the object we only get another representation or judgment about the object and not the object itself. The Kant/Davidson view would yield this result, for sure, and interesting variants of it are found in Quine ("Ontological Relativity") and Wilfrid Sellars (the famous "Myth of the Given," etc.).

But this theory of the impossibility of comparing concept and object is based upon views of the concept and "judgment" that Husserl rejects. Hence, given an adequate complexity and interweaving of the mental act, it is possible under appropriate conditions to compare the concept (representation, judgment) with its object to see if the object is or is not as it is represented. Denial of this is entirely based upon the assumption that concepts change things or block them from view, so that we can never experience them as they are when we are not experiencing them. (Of course we can't experience them without experiencing.) That is precisely the view that Husserl rejected. The mind is not only open to what transcends it, but it can in certain cases establish that what it opens upon is really there and genuinely exists as it is conceptualized--since conceptualization in no way effects it. Critique of knowledge (in Husserl's manner) therefore even "puts us in the position of being able to give an accurate and definitive interpretation of the results of the positive sciences with respect to what exists." 15


Does realism, in the sense I have been discussing it, really matters? In the United States, at least, Richard Rorty and his literary counterpart, Stanley Fish, are famous for maintaining a form of pragmatism which says to this issue, "Who cares?" And Fish pretty well captures Rorty's point of view by asserting that anything goes if and so long as it can be made to go: that is, so long as it successfully takes on all criticisms and is left standing in the arena of discussion. "The arts, the sciences, the sense of right and wrong, and the institutions of society," Rorty says, "are not attempts to embody or formulate truth or goodness or beauty. They are attempts to solve problems--to modify our beliefs and desires and activities in ways that will bring us greater happiness than we have now." 16

So why could one not just be content to go with the flow of history, language and culture at both macro and micro levels: the level of one's society or the world at large as well as the level of the manifold micro cultures that make up one's concrete existence?

I think there may be good reason for saying there is more to it than the flow, "successful" or not.

In the first place, it is very hard to dismiss the thought that how things are is not the same thing as successful discourse in the context, and that successful discourse could still be mistaken. Take Rorty's (and other pragmatists') discussions of language, mind and the world. Rorty argues that the Kant/Davidson picture of cognition, as involving receptivity (or intuition) and spontaneity (concept) interactively engaged with one another to produce a "world" (or alternative worlds given alternative conceptual frameworks), is false. He tries to show that this is not how things are with respect to the human being and its environs. He tells us in his writings how things really are, essentially are. And in my opinion that is entirely proper. But not in his. His practice is inconsistent with his own theory.

Now of course Rorty and other pragmatists could simply assert in response that they are not trying to tell us how things really are with thought, language and world, but only talking, and trying to make their talk stand up, or not be dismissed, as best and as long as they can. Whenever the tide turns strongly enough against them in the appropriate cultural settings, those views will no longer be "true," or whatever the appropriate term is.

This raises the difficult question of how far, if at all, a thinkers remarks about his or her own assertions should be admitted in determining the logical content or the actual meanings of his or her statements. I cannot help believing it would be disingenuous of any pragmatist to claim that they are not telling us how things really are with mind and world, irregardless of how anyone may or may not, successfully or unsuccessfully talk about them. If so, that opens the way for and requires Husserl's primary project, and for a critical understanding of the possibility of knowledge of objectivities of various sorts as they are independently of consciousness and of how they, the very same things, are grasped by knowledge. In short, the pragmatist must, to be taken seriously, engage in the same enterprise as Husserl.

But this is an ad hominem point, some will reply. And it is, but there is more to be said.

It is a fact that views which have long had acceptance--been "successful"--have later been found wrong or mistaken or false. For example, it was accepted for many years among philosophers (Kant, etc.) that logic as a completed science. Then it was found, in the relevant micro-culture, to be an incomplete science. Now it was not a completed science during all those years when the claim that it was could be made to stand up. Therefore, claims that stand up successfully in the cultural flow can be simultaneously mistaken or false.

Moreover, the views that "succeed" in the relevant macro and micro cultural settings can involve errors about human existence and life in general, and these can be fairly disastrous. Husserl's longstanding concerns about historicism and naturalism express his acute awareness on this point. In particular, the capacity of discourse borrowed from the physical sciences to "stand up" and to defeat claims of knowledge from all other sources--even when directed upon areas where the actual sciences have no established, relevant competence--has led to a situation in Western culture where there is no longer an accessible body of moral knowledge that can serve as a basis for our individual or corporate existence. That is one way of describing the "Crisis" with which Husserl was deeply concerned during his final years. His younger contemporary, Michael Polanyi, turned from his own scientific labors in the field of chemistry to devote his life to problems arising from misunderstanding and misapplications of the physical sciences. He produced a body of work closely aligned with Husserl in its concerns, but unfortunately, not in method. Of special significance, in comparison with Husserl, was a late essay titled, "Why We Destroyed Europe," a reflection on the two world wars.

This is getting a little to grandiose for contemporary academic philosophers, no doubt, but at least we can safely assert that not only are views that can be made to "stand up" in the cultural context frequently wrong, but it is at least possible that they be disastrously wrong.

The issue of realism, in the sense here explained, is therefore a live one today, and one of vital human significance. It was precisely through rejecting the traditional theories of intuition and concept (receptivity and spontaneity) and replacing them with a view of concepts, experience and objectivities that allows us to discover a world as it is without regard to our thinking, perception, etc., that Husserl opened the possibility of our dealing with reality (and realities) in its (their) own terms without losing life and self in the process. A World well-won indeed.


I have not said much about the Ideal in this talk, but without Husserl's strongly realistic view of the ideal (of universals, Ideen in his special, non-Kantian and non-Empiricist sense) none of the points I have made about concepts and acts would amount to much for his purposes. As he states in the little "Introduction" to the IInd Logical Investigation, "meanings make up the domain of pure logic, so that to misread the essence of the species to strike at the very essence of logic." Therefore one must work out a theory of abstraction, the concern of the IInd Investigation, "so as to assure the basic foundations of pure logic and epistemology by defending the intrinsic right of specific (or ideal) objects to be granted objective status alongside of individual or real objects. This is the point on which relativistic, empiricistic psychologism differs from idealism <Platonic idealism>, which alone represents the possibility of a self-consistent theory of knowledge." To talk of "idealism," he continues to say, "is not to talk of a metaphysical doctrine , but a theory of knowledge which recognizes the 'ideal' as a condition for the possibility of objective knowledge in general...." 17

"The laws of pure logic are truths rooted in the concept of truth," he had earlier said (Prol. §50, p. 192), "and in concepts essentially related to this concept." And "The idea of this agreement <"between meaning and what is itself present, meant, between the actual sense of an assertion and the self-given state of affairs"--his words> is truth, whose ideality is its objectivity. It is not a chance fact that a propositional thought, occurring here and now, agrees with a given state of affairs: the agreement rather holds between a self-identical propositional meaning and a self-identical state of affairs. 'Validity' or 'objectivity', and their opposites, do not pertain to an assertion as a particular temporal experience, but to the assertion in species, to the pure, self-identical assertion 2 X 2 = 4, etc." (Prol. §51, p. 195) In this same section he maintains that the distinction between the real and the ideal (with the distinctions subordinate to it) is "the most fundamental of epistemological distinctions." If it is not correctly discerned, nothing can go right in the theory of knowledge after that. Chapter two of Ideas I should be read for even more forceful statements along these lines, especially §21 and §22.

The reasons I do not think the noematic can handle the Ideal are, mainly, these two:

  1. Husserl explicitly says of the noema that its esse is percipi. (§98 of Ideas I) It exists in being perceived or thought. He explicitly denies this of the ideal (see §22 of Ideas I and §32 and §35 of the Ist Investigation). Therefore the ideal or universal cannot be the noematic.
  2. The noematic falls under ideal laws, is what it is because of the essences which it exemplifies and the idea-law connections between them. Rather than ideal beings (universals) depending on or being derived from the noematic, the noematic depends on and is derived from them.18


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