Husserlian and Existential Phenomenology

Phenomenology in the tradition stemming from Husserl is a prime example of what Habermas called subject-centered philosophy. Though a much more serious philosopher than Descartes, Husserl explicitly adopted a Cartesian perspective, and on this basis wanted to trace all meaning back to a foundation in intentional acts of a transcendental Ego. Existential phenomenology tried to soften Husserl’s Cartesianism, and favored analysis of more concrete experience over Husserl’s foundational concerns (see Primacy of Perception?; Phenomenology of Will).

I’ve been developing a strong distinction of actual adverbial subjectivity from any posited unitary Subject standing behind it, while also sharply separating empirical “subjectivity” from transcendental Subjectivity. I’d like to recover some of the detailed insights of both Husserlian and existential phenomenology for a broadly semantic perspective that addresses subjectivity in a modular way, and hence has no use for a monolithic Subject, be it transcendental or existential. (As usual, by “semantic” I have in mind the combination of Aristotelian and Brandomian concerns developed here.) Then with respect to the matter of subjectivity, I’d like to achieve an Aristotelian mean between coherence and pluralism. Meaning is neither a single tree nor a collection of atoms, but mostly constituted at the level of intermediate structures that build coherence.

Unlike the Aristotelian/Brandomian approach favored here, the phenomenological tradition avowedly aims at a sort of hermeneutic genealogy of perceptual and other mental representations rather than of reasons. Nonetheless, any serious, in-depth tracing of layers and dependencies of meaning can be reconstructed in terms of reasons, and then combined with other materials directly derived from a genealogy of reasons.

Husserl aimed at a subjective discipline of direct observation of pure forms of appearance. Initially interested in the foundations of mathematics, in early work he developed a critique of psychologism in logic. He went on to recommend a radical “reduction” or suspension of ordinary assumptions, in two interdependent moments — epoché, a putting in brackets of putative existence behind appearances, and in general of what we ordinarily think we know or practically act as if we know; and the phenomenological reduction proper, which would be the recognition of everything that has been put in brackets as what Brandom would call a taking.

Husserl’s close collaborator Eugen Fink characterized the reduction as an extensive and rigorous meditative discipline that would take us back to an original astonishment characteristic of genuine knowing. According to Fink, when carried through rigorously, the reduction eventually shows itself as a “self-meditation” that would lay bare the transcendental Ego as the material ground of all science. What remains after the reduction is an “unhumanized” pure “reducing I”.

This bears some resemblance to the Kantian “I” as bare index of the unity of a unity of apperception, but unlike the Kantian “I”, the Husserlian Ego is not fully abstract. For one thing, it is supposed to be the agent performing the reduction, and it seems to be assumed that it is appropriate to speak of “the” agent in this role.

For another, Husserl stressed that the reduction should provide access to what he called pure essences, understood as pure forms of intentionality grounded in acts of the transcendental Ego. This makes it clear that Husserl’s transcendental Ego is supposed to be contentful, not purely formal like the Kantian “I”. Correlatively, Husserl’s essences, while nonpychological and free of empirical content and the presuppositions that go with it, are what they are by virtue of their complete and unilateral subordination to a foundational Subject that has supposedly been not merely posited, but discovered via the meditative process of the reduction. By contrast, the determination of content in a Kantian unity of apperception is purely a matter of coherence. (See also Transcendental Field; Error.)

In my youth, though already viewing the Ego as a reification, I was attracted to the idea of a meditative discipline and a focus on improving the knower by shedding presuppositions. While still seeing some value in this, I have come increasingly to think not only that such discipline is insufficient by itself, but that such a focus can easily be taken too far, implicitly reflecting an undesirable ascetic and effectively subjectivist turn away from serious open-ended inquiry about the larger world. A sole focus on improving the knower is too narrow. (Husserl did at one point have a motto “to the things themselves”, and certainly was far too serious to be subjectivist in the crude sense. His Ego would be purely transcendental. However, his “things themselves” seem to turn out to be intentional acts of the Ego.) Nonetheless, I remain fascinated by Husserl’s detailed descriptions of the stream of consciousness with all its passive syntheses, margins of awareness, implicit back sides of things, and so on. (See also Phenomenological Reduction?; Ricoeur on Husserl on Memory; Ricoeur on Husserl’s Ideas II.)