Active and Passive

“What strikes us now is the ambiguity in speaking of a decision that come[s] to pass on its own or in the matter itself, namely, as undergoing a decision that just arises, and the deciding position-taking that is carried out on the part of the ego as the ego’s reaction” (Husserl, Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, p. 92).

At this point in his lectures on passive synthesis, Husserl is beginning to explicitly consider the interrelation of passive and active aspects in perception and judgment, which had already implicitly arisen earlier. He rightly recognizes that there is an important relative distinction between preconscious and conscious dimensions of the overall process.

Already at the outset, though, it appears again that the active aspects seem to be straightforwardly attributed to the ego. A bit later, the shorthand phrase “egoic acts” that troubled me in the previous post gets repeated and elaborated. I still think it would be less prejudicial to attribute the (more) active aspects to something like “conscious deliberation and judgment”, and leave the postulated underlying ego-agent out of it. As Beatrice Longuenesse put it in her discussion of Kant’s treatment of related subject matter, “I who affect myself from within by my own representative act am forever unknowable to me”. I prefer to speak of the process of continually approaching and re-approaching a teleological unity of apperception, rather than punctual acts of an ego. But this is Husserl, who is well known for believing in a unitary rational ego. Luckily, most of his development does not really depend on this.

The other worry that occurs to me here is that the above-quoted passage is far from unique in emphasizing the place of decision on the active side. For instance, he says, “Judging is always deciding this or that…. In all these actions, judging is always only a process of conferring or denying validity that stems from the ego” (p. 93).

I much prefer an Aristotelian emphasis on an extended process of deliberation, and the point of view that it is the rational course of the deliberation that drives the eventual conclusion or choice, rather than a punctual, “free” decision. Larger patterns of activity, I say, are far more important than punctual acts, and subsume anything that can be explained by punctual acts. I had been hoping Husserl would come closer to this.

“[T]he ego passes judgment on its own position-taking…. We will see shortly that this position-taking or this group of position-takings are completely non-independent from the standpoint of intentionality, namely, insofar as they presuppose passive doxa [belief]…. The ego does not always take a position judicatively in this strict sense [e.g., when] it simply perceives, when it is merely aware” (ibid).

I very much like the non-independence part, but the last part raises a new problem, in that it is said to be the ego that perceives and is aware. I prefer to simply say that we have perception and awareness, rather than that we have egos that have perception and awareness.

“[Our position-takings] are completely non-independent insofar as they have their motivation founded in what goes on in perception itself, in perception’s proper and potentially purely passive course. Perception has its own intentionality that as yet does not harbor anything of the active comportment of the ego” (p. 94).

The part about perception having its own intentionality seems to have been a guiding inspiration for Merleau-Ponty. However, Husserl’s reference to the “potentially purely passive” character of perception seems surprising in light of his important point about perceptual “adumbration”.

“‘Active acceptance’ is what carries out a peculiar appropriation, determination, thereby establishing this being as valid for me from now on and abidingly” (p. 95).

This way of putting things seems perfectly fine as it stands, though it is followed by a long ego-centric elaboration. The ego talk continues into the part on “questioning as a multilayered striving”, where, e.g., he refers to questioning as “an activity that is obviously peculiar to the ego” (p. 100).

I would say that questioning is an activity peculiar to rational or talking animals, not to their putative egos.

“[T]he cognitive life, the life of logos, indeed like life in general, runs its course in a fundamental stratification. (1) Passivity and receptivity. We can include receptivity in this first level, namely, as that primordial function of the active ego that merely consists in making patent, regarding and attentively grasping what is constituted in passivity itself as formations of its own intentionality. (2) That spontaneous activity of the ego (the activity of intellectus agens [agent intellect]) that puts into play the peculiar accomplishments of the ego, as was the case with judicative decisions” (p. 105).

I contrast “spontaneous” with “deliberate”, seeing the former as more tied to preconscious synthesis and the latter to conscious synthesis. Spontaneous activity of an ego identified as the agent of deliberate conscious synthesis therefore makes no sense to me. Husserl is not alone in this strange usage of “spontaneity”; Kant, though he doesn’t talk about an ego, seems to have preceded him in speaking of a spontaneity of reason. In both cases, I think the motive was to separate rational motivation from psycho-physical causality, which I do support. (See Spontaneity.)

Here Husserl also explicitly identifies the ego with agent or “active” intellect. It’s unclear to me what Aquinas would think of this identification, but it would only make sense on the broadly Thomistic view that intellect is a proper part of the soul and is the basis of our conscious awareness. I’m guessing Husserl was unaware of the subtleties of scholastic debates about intellect, in which potential intellect in fact played a greater role. (I’ve been suggesting that in Aristotelian terms, imagination rather than intellect is the main basis of consciousness, and attempting to relate this to the Kantian idea of a productive synthesis of imagination, which Husserl identifies as a predecessor of his own notion of passive synthesis.)

All in all, I’m disappointed with this part of Husserl’s text. In spite of his recognition of a sort of active receptivity that is intermediate between activity and passivity, this part repeatedly suggests a rather sharp duality between activity and passivity. Instead of a “fundamental stratification” between passive and active synthesis, I want to imagine a more dynamic interleaving working itself out over time, in which no part is completely passive or completely active. In particular, through shared access to memory, I think the more passive aspects may build on past results from the more active aspects.

It appears initially that the remainder of Husserl’s text does not have the “egocentric” character that bothered me in this part.