Passive Synthesis: Conclusion

Husserl’s initial discussion of associative synthesis seems to me to be the climax of his lectures on passive synthesis, resulting in a great simultaneous genesis of the experience of time, self, world, and objects. He had indicated that the next frontier would involve taking more account of the content of things as opposed to the mere genesis of their identities, but I confess I found the follow-through disappointing. Here he follows conventional treatments of association that emphasize similarity as the main basis of particular associations. In hindsight, I’m inclined to doubt whether association really ought to be the main theme governing what I just called the great simultaneous genesis.

There is a discussion of affection that I also found disappointing. Curiously, it is separated from another later section that touches on feeling. Feeling he treats only as a function of the ego, outside the scope of “passive” synthesis. I see feeling as deeply bound up with the imagination and spontaneous belief involved in preconscious synthesis. I would prefer to see the ego treated as a function of feeling, rather than vice versa.

I do think he succeeds in developing the overall notion of preconscious synthesis in a somewhat more concrete way than Kant, who already greatly fleshes out this territory in comparison with Aristotle’s brilliant but obscure hints that I take to imply a kind of synthesis at work in the “common sense” and “inner sense”. As I mentioned in the last post, the very fact that Husserl here considers subjectivity as something constituted and not only as something constituting other things is also of great importance.

I was disappointed that so much of the discussion was limited to beliefs arising out of sense perception. In his early Logical Investigations, Husserl was engaged with a much broader inquiry into meaning as something not merely subjective or psychological. At the level of what he calls passive synthesis, I would hope to see much more about the linguistic side of our being.

When Husserl was working, Sellars and Brandom had not yet developed the rediscovery of concrete meaning-based material inference. Just as much of our immersion in language is at a preconscious level, I think we make many material inferences at a preconscious level, and this provides a far richer basis for the shaping of experience than similarity-based association. (See also Phenomenological Reduction?.)