Socratic Wisdom

“I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him — his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination — and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him” (Plato, Apology, Jowett trans.).

The greatest wisdom a human can have is to recognize what we don’t really know. This can be a touchy point, because people who think they just know things they imagine to be true usually don’t like to be told otherwise. But in most areas, the best we can aim for is well-founded belief, which is to say belief that is capable of responding resiliently and in good faith to open-ended Socratic questioning or dialogue, and thus is responsive to the space of reasons. (See also The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle).

Sellars on Kantian Imagination

The analytically trained Kantian pragmatist Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989) is increasing recognized as one of the greatest American philosophers of the 20th century. It has been said that he played a central role in taking analytic philosophy from its empiricist beginnings to a new Kantian stage. He is known for his critique of the “Myth of the Given”, his work on material inference, and his concept of the space of reasons. I found an essay of his on the Kantian productive imagination.

He begins by contrasting two approaches to perceptual judgment. First is a standard empiricist notion that goes as far as possible in reducing judgment to grammatical predication, to the point where the perception itself is treated as a bare this, and all the cognitive work of judgment is concentrated in applying a predicate to the bare this.

“Traditionally a distinction was drawn between the visual object and the perceptual judgment about the object…. This suggested to some philosophers that to see a visual object as a brick with a red and rectangular facing surface consists in seeing the brick and believing it to be a brick with a red and rectangular facing surface: ‘This is a brick which has a red and rectangular facing surface’…. Notice that the subject term of the judgment was exhibited above as a bare demonstrative, a sheer this, and that what the object is seen as was placed in an explicitly predicate position (“The Role of Imagination in Kant’s Theory of Experience”, in In the Space of Reasons: Selected Essays of Wilfrid Sellars, Scharp and Brandom, eds., p. 455).

Rather than pretending that perception gives us only a bare this, we should recognize that at least we talking animals live always already immersed in meaningful content. The most primitive human sense perception involves taking something not just as this, but as something with definite characteristics. This will turn out to be what Kant calls a schema, as distinct from a concept.

“I submit, on the contrary, that correctly represented, a perceptual belief has the quite different form: ‘This brick with a red and rectangular facing surface’. Notice that this is not a sentence but a complex demonstrative phrase. In other words, I suggest that in such a perceptually grounded judgment as ‘This brick with a red and rectangular facing side is too large for the job at hand’ the perceptual belief proper is that tokening of a complex Mentalese demonstrative phrase which is the grammatical subject of the judgment as a whole. This can be rephrased as a distinction between a perceptual taking and what is believed about what is taken…. From this point of view, what the visual object is seen as is a matter of the content of the complex demonstrative Mentalese phrase” (ibid).

In a nonessential decoration of the argument, he mentions “Mentalese”, a term used by analytic philosophers for inner speech. We need not concern ourselves here with whether or not there is a “mental language” distinct from, but patterned on, natural language, as this term suggests. The important point is that in every human perceptual “taking”, there is a kind of linguistic or language-like articulation, which we can express with a phrase consisting of classifying terms and syntactic relations between them.

“We must add another distinction, this time between what we see and what we see of what we see…. How can a volume of white apple flesh [hidden inside the apple] be present as actuality in the visual experience if it is not seen? The answer should be obvious. It is present by virtue of being imagined (p. 457).

“Before following up this point, it should be noticed that the same is true of the red of the other side of the apple. The apple is seen as as having a red opposite side. Furthermore, the phenomenologist adds, the red of the opposite side is not merely believed in; it is bodily present in the experience. Like the white, not being seen, it is present in the experience by being imagined” (ibid).

Here he seems to recall Husserl’s perceptual “adumbrations” or foreshadowings. Sellars is a bit more straightforward and explicit in attributing these to imagination.

“Notice that to say that it is present in the experience by virtue of being imagined is not to say that it is presented as imagined…. Red may present itself as red and white present itself as white; but sensations do not present themselves as sensations, nor images as images. Otherwise philosophy would be far easier than it is” (pp. 457-458).

When we imagine something to be the case, we are most often not aware that we are doing so. We simply think or believe that it is the case. As soon as we already have experience, what Sellars in the thin modern sense calls the “actual” presence of the imagined content comes to us as primitively mixed in with that of the perceived content. It takes work to analytically separate them, and any such separation always has a hypothetical character.

“But while these [hidden] features are not seen, they are not merely believed in. These features are present in the object of perception as actualities. They are present by virtue of being imagined” (p. 458).

As with Husserl’s “presentified” contents, the contributions of imagination are not theoretical constructs, but part of the experience itself.

“We do not see of objects their causal properties, though we see them as having them…. To draw the proper consequences of this we must distinguish between imagining and imaging, just as we distinguish between perceiving and sensing…. Roughly imagining is an intimate blend of imaging and conceptualization, whereas perceiving is an intimate blend of sensing and imaging and conceptualization” (ibid).

I like the way Sellars recognizes the interweaving inherent to these “intimate blends” of imaging and conceptualization.

“Notice that the proper and common sensible features enter in both by virtue of being actual features of the image and by virtue of being items thought of or conceptualized. The applehood [by contrast] enters in only by virtue of being thought of (intentional in-existence)” (pp. 458-459).

“The upshot of the preceding section is that perceptual consciousness involves the constructing of sense-image models of external objects. This construction is the work of the imagination responding to the stimulation of the retina…. The most significant fact is that the construction is a unified process guided by a combination of sensory input on the one hand and background beliefs, memories, and expectations on the other. The complex of abilities included in this process is what Kant called the ‘productive’ as contrasted with the ‘reproductive’ imagination. The former, as we shall see, by virtue of its kinship with both sensibility and understanding unifies into one experiencing the distinctive contributions of these two faculties” (p. 459).

Here we have a very basic Kantian point about the nature of experience — all perception involves imaginative construction. Objects are not just given to us fully constituted.

“Notice once again that although the objects of which we are directly aware in perceptual consciousness are image-models, we are not aware of them as image-models. It is by phenomenological reflection (aided by what Quine calls scientific lore) that we arrive at this theoretical interpretation of perceptual consciousness…. Thus we must distinguish carefully between objects, including oneself, as conceived by the productive imagination, on the one hand and the image-models constructed by the productive imagination, on the other” (pp. 459-460).

In common with Plato, Kant is at pains to point out that everything we experience — including everything we apprehend in inner sense — is appearance. I would say we also have “contact” with reality underlying the appearances, but we do not easily get knowledge of that reality.

“Kant distinguishes between the concept of a dog and the schema of a dog…. [O]ur perceptual experience does not begin with the perception of dogs and houses…. But though the child does not yet have the conceptual framework of dogs, houses, books, etc., he does, according to Kant, have an innate conceptual framework — a proto-theory, so to speak, of spatio-temporal physical objects capable of interacting with each other; objects — and this is the crux of the matter – which are capable of generating visual inputs which vary in systematic ways with their relation to the body of the perceiver ” (p. 460).

Here he explains the important Kantian notion of a schema. Concepts express nonperspectival essences, but schemas are perspectival, involve potentially sensible content, and implicitly include a relation to a perceiver.

“Consider the example of a perceiver who sees a pyramid and is walking around it, looking at it. The concept of a red pyramid standing in various relations to a perceiver entails a family of concepts pertaining to sequences of perspectival image-models of oneself-confronting-a-pyramid. This family can be called the schema of the concept of the pyramid…. Notice that the pyramid-schema doesn’t follow from the concept of a pyramid alone. It follows from the complex concept of pyramid in such-and-such relations to a perceiver” (p. 461).

In a Kantian context, we have no access to a sensible world apart from a perceiver’s perception of it.

“However thin — as in the case of the child — the intuitive representation may be from the standpoint of the empirical concept involved, it nevertheless contains in embryo the concept of a physical object now, over there, interacting with other objects in a system which includes me. It embodies a proto-theory of a world which contains perceivers of objects in that world” (p. 465).

Here we have the basis of Kant’s “transcendental deduction”, which aims to show that perception and imagination effectively already presuppose the same categories that govern understanding. This is how Kant recovers the possibility of objectivity.

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?.)

Associative Synthesis

We have reached the heart of Husserl’s passive synthesis lectures, a long subdivision on associative synthesis. This is Husserl’s re-visioning of the classic notion of association that empirical psychology ultimately derived from Locke and Hume. For Husserl, it will provide the key to the constitution of subjectivity overall.

Rather than treating association in terms of a notion of psycho-physical causality, he wants to explain it as as a product of synthesis. As Husserl now reminds us, he has been implicitly working under the phenomenological reduction, which puts “in brackets” all questions of external existence and natural causality. He focuses on what to my Aristotelian eye look like questions of form and of a kind of teleology immanent to the subject matter.

Here he again refers to Kant’s discussion of synthesis in the Critique of Pure Reason (see Capacity to JudgeFigurative Synthesis). Husserl claims that he will go further than Kant in explicitly discussing synthesis of immanent contents of consciousness, as well as apprehensions of objects of external perception. For both Husserl and Kant, all this is closely bound up with the constitution of our experience of time. Memory and expectation will again play a key role.

“[T]he path is cleared from here toward a universal theory of the genesis of a pure subjectivity, and in particular, initially in relation to its lower level of pure passivity. Phenomenological eidetic [form-oriented] analyses of consciousness constituting a temporal objectlike formation already led to the beginnings of a lawful regularity of genesis prevailing in subjective life. We see very quickly that the phenomenology of association is, so to speak, a higher continuation of the doctrine of original time-constitution. Through association, the constitutive accomplishment is extended to all levels of apperception” (Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, p. 163).

“The doctrine of the genesis of reproductions and of their formations is the doctrine of association in the first and more genuine sense. But inseparably connected to this, or rather, grounded upon this is a higher level of association and doctrine of association, namely, a doctrine of the genesis of expectations, and closely related to it, the genesis of apperceptions to which belong the horizons of actual and possible expectations. All in all, it concerns the genesis of the phenomena of expectation, that is, of those specific intentions that are anticipatory” (p. 164).

Association, as Husserl analyzes it, is constituted from memories of things similar to the present object. In turn, it is from particular associations that particular expectations are constituted. Now we see memory and expectation linked together in a larger process that is precisely one of association.

“But it is precisely the analysis of associative phenomena that draws our attention to the fact that consciousness must not necessarily be a consciousness of a single object for itself, and accordingly, we touch on a new problem here: how a consciousness of something particular and how a consciousness of explicit particulars becomes possible as a consciousness of a multiplicity and a consciousness of wholeness; namely, a comparative analysis also shows the opposing possibility of many [elements], indeed, a multiplicity being continually fused into a unity within one consciousness, [implicitly], such that consciousness is not a consciousness of a multiplicity, a consciousness that becomes aware of separated particulars in a unitary and yet separate manner” (p. 165).

Here he is leading up to the central role of the experience of time, simultaneity, and streaming in the constitution of subjectivity and in turn of external experience, already foreshadowed above.

“We realize, then, that it really concerns nothing else than clarifying the fundamental problem, the basic, essential conditions of the possibility of a subjectivity itself. What must belong to it so that a subjectivity can have the essential sense without which it could not be subjectivity, [namely,] the sense of an existing subjectivity being for itself, and precisely thereby of a subjectivity constituting itself as being for itself? Certainly, a complete phenomenology of reproductive awakening concerns and exhausts this problem only with respect to the one side, namely, with respect to the constitution of one’s past, or rather, the constitution of the self-having-been in endless immanent time. But we will see that the supplementary part, the other half of the problem, is the realm of the phenomenology of inductive, anticipatory association. Here we will make clear the essential conditions of the possibility of a subjectivity that can know itself as identically one, having its inherent endless future life” (p. 169).

“Awakening” seems to be Husserl’s preferred term for the activation of memory that is somehow relevant to what is present. This may relate to a distinction I have found obscure so far, between memory as “empty” intention and “intuitive” memory. My difficulty has been that no memory, insofar as it is of the past, concerns a present object, so it seems to me as though all memory then would be what he calls empty intention. But perhaps the “intuitive” memory is a memory of a past object insofar as it is related to an intuited present object.

“Clearly, what is presupposed is the synthesis that is continually accomplished in original time-consciousness. In the concretely full, streaming living present we have present, past, and future life already united in a certain mode of givenness. But this manner in which subjectivity becomes conscious of its past and future life along with its inherent intentional contents is an incomplete one. The aforementioned manner would be meaningless for the ego if there were no awakening, for the retentions are empty and even sink into the undifferentiated retentional background. Our consciousness of the protentional future is especially empty. On the other hand, there would be no progress at all without this beginning. In the ABCs of the constitution of all objectivity given to consciousness and of subjectivity as existing for itself, here is the ‘A’. It consists, we might say, in a universal, formal framework, in a synthetically constituted form in which all other possible syntheses must participate.”

As in Kant, the experience of time for Husserl is a synthetic construct that anchors things like identities of objects, as well as the overall shape of consciousness.

“Still many other types of syntheses are transcendental in the special sense, as apodictically [demonstrably] necessary for the genesis of a subjectivity (which is indeed only conceivable in genesis). As we said, these syntheses run their course together with the synthesis constituting the temporal form of all objects, and thus must co-relate to the temporal content, the temporally formed content of the object” (pp. 170-171).

“Since the spatial world is constituted through consciousness, since it can only be there for us as existing and can only be conceived at all by virtue of certain syntheses carried out in immanence, it is clear that the constitutive problems of the world presuppose the doctrine of the necessary, most general structures and the synthetic shapes of immanence that are possible in general” (p. 171).

Working under the phenomenological reduction, he is not concerned with the transcendent existence of external objects, but only with the more particular ways in which they are immanently determined or determinable as meanings for us.

“What is constituted universally through these syntheses is known under the rubric of coexistence and succession of all immanent objects in relation to one another” (p. 172).

The universality here has to do with the generality of the form of the experience of the flow of time.

“Accordingly, corresponding to every Now is a universal synthesis. Through this synthesis, a universal concrete present is constituted, a present into which all particulars that are set off from one another are integrated. Further, the fact that the Now streams in and through temporal orientations implies at the same time another universal synthesis in constituting life whereby we are conscious of the presents coursing as a sequential unity” (p. 173).

The integral Now and the streaming sequence of Nows are in effect the outermost frames in which all concrete experience is constituted as coherent.

“This is the most general and the most primary synthesis that necessarily connects all particular objects of which we become conscious…. But naturally, the synthesis of time-consciousness also contains (and already as a presupposition for possible coexistences and succession) that synthesis in which one object is constituted as identically one or (what amounts to the same thing) as enduringly one in streaming manifolds…. [T]ime-consciousness is the primordial place of the constitution of the unity of identity or of an objectlike formation, and then of the forms of connection of coexistence and succession of all objectlike formations” (ibid).

“But what gives unity to the particular object with respect to content, what makes up the differences between each of them with respect to content…, what makes division possible and the relation between parts in consciousness, and so forth — the analysis of time alone cannot tell us, for it abstracts precisely from content. Thus, it does not give us any idea of the necessary synthetic structures of the steaming present and of the unitary stream of the presents — which in some way concerns the particularity of content” (p. 174).

The implicit distinction between the constitution of identities of objects in the quotation before last, on the one hand, and that of their unities with respect to content in the quotation immediately above, on the other, is not yet clear to me. It makes sense that the general forms of time, coexistence, and succession do not tell us the whole story about particular concrete objects. I do not see, however, how it would be possible to constitute the identities of concrete objects — in Aristotelian terms, their surface status as “substances” in the sense of things persisting through change — without taking into account their content, or their deeper substantiality in the sense of “what it was to have been” the things in question. I expect that he will have more to say about the content in what follows, so hopefully this will be clarified.

The very idea of treating subjectivity as something constituted opens up a huge new territory that later authors like Foucault, Ricoeur, and de Libera have substantially developed, and in which I have been tremendously interested. The works that Husserl published in his lifetime seemed to me mainly to focus on the constitution of objects by a subjectivity that was somewhat taken for granted. That Husserl in fact went beyond this is important to recognize. (See also Passive Synthesis: Conclusion.)

Intention and Intuition

Husserl continues his passive synthesis lectures with more discussion of intuition as a confirmation of the concordance of intentions. It now seems pretty clear that intuition for Husserl is all about the “presentness” of presentations, and unlike the common usage does not involve any leaps. He distinguishes between intuitions that are “self-giving” (principally, external perceptions), and those that are not self-giving, but instead involve a “presentification”, like memories and expectations. He discusses at some length the question whether it is possible in advance to know which of our general intentions and presentations can potentially be confirmed in intuition.

He speaks of intentions “wanting” and “striving” to be fulfilled in present intuition, but contrasts this with a wish or will. Instead, it seems to be a more elemental directedness toward filling in the metaphorical hole in what he calls the “empty” intentions that are not correlated to a present object in intuition from external perception. Preconscious beliefs about an external object are subject to a kind of preconscious corroboration by comparison to direct impressions from sense perception.

I like the quasi-personification of intentions and intuitions here, as “wanting” or “giving themselves” (see Ideas Are Not Inert). Plato in the Republic compared the soul to a city or community of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, thus suggesting that the kind of unity the soul has is comparable to the kind of unity a concrete community has. All our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions thus need not be attributed monolithically to a single, central agent; rather, our agency as individuals is the combined effect of numerous specialized, more or less cooperating but somewhat decentralized agencies.

All our intentions “want” to coalesce into the unity of a world.

“That we have a consciousness of our own life as a life endlessly streaming along; that we continually have an experiencing consciousness in this life, but in connection to this in the widest parameters, an emptily presenting consciousness of an environing-world — this is the accomplishment of unity out of manifold, multifariously changing intentions, intuitive and non-intuitive intentions that are nonetheless concordant with one another: intentions that in their particularity coalesce to form concrete syntheses again and again. But these complex syntheses cannot remain isolated. All particular syntheses, through which things in perception, in memory, etc., are given, are surrounded by a general milieu of empty intentions being ever newly awakened; and they do not float there in an isolated manner, but rather, are themselves synthetically intertwined with one another. For us the universal synthesis of harmonizing intentional syntheses corresponds to ‘the’ world, and belonging to it is a universal belief-certainty.”

“Yet as we already mentioned, there are breaks here and there, discordances; many a partial belief is crossed out and becomes a disbelief, many a doubt arises and remains unsolved for a time, and so forth. But ultimately, proper to every disbelief is a positive belief of a new materially relevant sense, to every doubt a materially relevant solution; and now if the world gets an altered sense through many particular changes, there is a unity of synthesis in spite of such alterations running through the successive sequence of universal intendings of a world — it is one and the same world, an enduring world, only, as we say, corrected in its particular details, which is to say, freed from ‘false apprehensions’; it is in itself the same world. All of this seems very simple, and yet it is full of marvelous enigmas and gives rise to profound considerations” (Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, pp. 145-146).

Intuition, Presentation, Time

The first part of the detailed discussion of “evidence” in Husserl’s passive synthesis lectures expands on his previous remarks about the interrelations between present intuitions and “presentifications” of what he calls “empty” intentions, which seem to be those pertaining to things that are non-present, but somehow relevant to what is present. It somewhat clarifies what he means by intuition; begins to develop important ideas about the role of time in the synthesis of experience that have some analogy to similar themes in Kant; and introduces Husserl’s reinterpretation of association, which will probably turn out to be the centerpiece of these lectures overall.

There seems to be a two-sided character to Husserl’s development here. On the one hand, he starts with a strong bias in favor of presence and immediacy. On the other, he quickly and repeatedly points out that every present intuition “points beyond its own content” by means of a related horizon of “empty” intentions of contents that are not directly present, but are implied in or by what is directly present. It is this latter aspect that I find especially interesting.

Another term he uses, which seems to subsume both present intuitions and “presentifications”, is “presentation”. Husserl says “Thus there are intuitive presentations of something present that are surely not perceptions of that present something” (Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, p. 110), and these are the presentifications of empty intentions, as in memory and expectation. The suggestion seems to be that no presentation is self-sufficient; as was said above about present intuitions, every presentation also intrinsically points beyond itself. This I would wholeheartedly endorse.

I note here that Husserl says we have intuitive presentifications of memories and expectations that are not themselves present intuitions. I think the idea is that these are synthetically joined together with present intuitions that point to them, and this is what explains the “intuitive but not intuition” status he attributes to them. So far at least, I am not aware that Kant ever spoke of concrete memories or expectations as “intuitive”. Kant did say that general intuitions of space and time are presupposed by our intuitions of the sensible manifold.

Does Husserl think we have intuitions of objects? Does Kant? I think that in both cases, positive answers involve equivocation on what an “object” is. We saw that Husserl speaks of loosely of “objects given to consciousness” by the senses, and refers to an object “in the flesh” that we always have, before quickly pointing out that what we definitely have in the flesh is highly indeterminate. Similarly, I see commentators on Kant sometimes referring to objects being “given” in intuition, but only in an indeterminate way.

It has been pointed out that German has two words that get translated as “object”: the cognate Objekt, and Gegenstand, which literally means “something standing against”. The “standing against” one seems well suited to the indeterminate case, and this would be helpful in resolving this kind of ambiguity about objects.

I think that at least in the context of Kant, it would be wrong to say that intuition gives us proper objects, because I don’t think we have a proper object in Kant until a concept (a universal) is applied. What Kantian intuition gives us is a raw manifold of particulars that can potentially be discriminated into proper objects once concepts are applied.

Husserl says, “[W]hat is past extends unaltered into the future in the manner of an object for consciousness. This future proceeds from the reproduced past and does so in such a way that this future is at the same time co-present, relative to our current perceptual present to which these things here in our current perceptual field belong…. Obviously, expectations are not always like this, merely extending the perceptual moment continuously into the future. Something unknown, something singular never yet experienced can also be fore-seen, like an event that is indeed expected, but yet is singularly new” (p. 111).

“The problem of evidence led us back to the distinctive syntheses of coinciding that forms identities, namely to such syntheses in which intuitions and empty presentations (or intuitions and intuitions) are synthetically united, but whereby empty presentations and their fulfillment once again play an essential role” (ibid).

Here we have the vital point that identities of things are not given to us; as we experience them, they are results of passive synthesis.

“[T]he primary task becomes elucidating the founding level of the passive syntheses of ‘verification’ lying at the basis of all active verification. To do this, however, one must gain deeper insights into the structures of the intuitions and empty presentations that may be functional here…. We will be led to insights into the most universal lawful regularities of essences, to the most universal lawful regularities of structure concerning the unity of transcendental inner life, but also to the most universal lawful regularities of genesis” (p. 112).

“In all of this we find internal structural intertwinings…. Only when we understand them in their structural interrelatedness can we also understand how they function in synthetic interrelatedness, including here, as well, how they can function as confirming or confirmed” (pp. 112-113).

Again, every presentation points beyond itself.

“[I]n the synthesis, we gain an evidence-consciousness, a consciousness that exactly the same [object] that was meant in an empty manner is there in intuition in a genuine way, as the same [object] actually presented…. This is certainly the first aspect of the fundamental lawfulness of the constitution of original time-consciousness: that every lived-experience, speaking most basically, every Now-phase that arises in a primordially impressional manner is continually modified in retention” (p. 114, brackets in original).

Now we have explicit mention of the “constitution of original time-consciousness”. This was an extraordinary idea of Kant that Husserl took up, that our experience of time itself is not something given to us, but is the product of a passive synthesis.

“In our analysis of perception, which was in this regard an analysis of the temporal modes of givenness, we have already touched upon the essentially new role of protentions over against the role of retentions. The rubric, protention, designates the second aspect of genetic primordial lawfulness that strictly governs the life of consciousness as the time-constituting unitary stream” (p. 115).

“In spite of its pure passivity, we spoke of protention as an expectation, with the colorful image of the present meeting the future with open arms. Accordingly, we already speak this way in pure passivity, which is to say, even prior to [actively] grasping and viewing the perceptual object. We did not use such expressions, and we could not use such expressions with respect to retention. In this connection, there is a difference in the way protention and retention function in mindful perception, when we take note [of something] and grasp it. We are mindfully directed, purely and simply, toward the present object, toward the ever new Now that emerges as fulfilling the expectation; and in and through it, it is directed further toward the approaching object. Mindful perceiving follows the protentional continuity. The directedness-ahead, which already lies in passive perception itself, becomes patent in mindful perceiving. On the other hand, there is however not a directedness in the retentional continuity; there is not a directedness that would follow the trail of pasts being pushed back further and further” (p. 116).

This assymmetry between protention and retention tracks with the distinction that we experience time as moving continuously forward, but never backward.

“In order to clarify all this it will do us well initially to go beyond protentions as intentions of expectation, and to draw upon other empty presentations that are structurally related to them, and that are at the same time different from all mere retentions. We have in mind making co-present, memories of the present as forms of intuitive presentations, alongside memories of the past and memories of the future” (pp. 116-117).

He doesn’t explain the reference to “memories of the future”. I can only suppose that what is meant is something like a reproduction of an expectation.

“If we now consider the genetically more original modes of making co-present, then at issue, e.g., for every perceptual object, are its entire horizons that are constitutive of it, horizons that belong immediately to it…. We recognize this peculiar feature with respect to all such presentations: that they exist with other presentations in a synthetic nexus of a special kind, namely, in a synthetic nexus that lies entirely outside of the genre of identifying syntheses or syntheses of coinciding” (p. 117).

He speaks of horizons and pointings-beyond as constitituting the object. They are not some sort of optional decorations that we could choose to ignore, and still have the object. This is vitally important.

“If, from the very beginning, we remain focused most simply on the realm that already has our exclusive interest now, the realm of passive presentations as the material for passively emerging syntheses, then we will be concerned generally speaking with such syntheses in which a presentation points beyond itself to another presentation. The latter gains a new inner character that it otherwise could not have. It is the character of the specific ‘intention’, that is, of teleological directedness, of being-intended, of meantness” (p. 118).

Here we have a genesis in passive synthesis of the famous Husserlian intentionality.

“For want of terms at our disposal, we will avail ourselves of the apposition, ‘passive’, passive intention. And from here on we will speak only of passively intending presentations. At the outset we also want to name the synthesis in which this intention arises: associative synthesis” (pp. 118-119).

I am not greatly enamored of this use of “passive” for something that is really only relatively more passive than something else, but for this exposition I’ll continue following Husserl and use it. I prefer “preconscious”.

We’ll hear much more about the associative synthesis associated with directedness and intentionality later on. For now, it’s worth remarking that its very characterization as a form of synthesis separates it from the more common psycho-physical causal notion of association.

“Indeed, even retentions, those emerging originally, synthetically cohere with one another and with the primordial impression, but this synthesis proper to original time-consciousness is not a synthesis of association; retentions do not arise through an associative awakening directed backward from the impression, and thus, they do not have in themselves a directedness radiating out from there toward the emptily presented past” (p. 119).

Here we have a sharp distinction between the synthesis responsible for our experience of the flow of time and the associative synthesis that generates intentionality.

“I said that retentions, as they arise in their originality, have no intentional character. This does not rule out that in certain circumstances and in their own way they can assume this intentional character later…. Now, how does a retention get this oriented structure? By a subsequent association, of course” (p. 120).

Husserl on Evidence: Introduction

Returning to Husserl’s lectures on passive synthesis, we have reached the subdivision on what he calls evidence. Naturally, this will be a phenomenological kind of evidence, different from that with which scientists or lawyers are concerned. This is closely bound up with what he calls “intuition”. He begins with a nice summary of the ground covered so far. After that, I’ll add some general background on this new topic of intuition and evidence.

“By undertaking a systematic study of perceptions we came across the moment of belief, of passive doxa, and attended to the modalizations of belief. Naturally, what was demonstrated here is mirrored mutatis mutandis in each mode of intuition and accordingly in remembering, which in itself is characterized as a re-perceiving, as it were. We then contrasted with these doxic events occurring in the passive sphere, the functions of higher judicative activities that are founded in them” (Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, p. 106).

“While carrying out our analysis of perception we had to point out its synthetic character as something fundamental. Perception is a process of streaming from phase to phase; in its own way each one of the phases is a perception, but these phases are continuously harmonized in the unity of a synthesis, in the unity of a consciousness of one and the same perceptual object that is constituted here originally. In each phase we have primordial impression, retention, and protention, and unity arises in this progression by the protention of each phase being fulfilled through the primordial impression of the phase that is continuously contiguous to it” (p. 107).

“We also speak of fulfillment in other respects within the sphere of mere presentations to which we restrict ourselves now, within mere receptivity…. We expect something to happen — now the very thing occurs, confirming the expectation…. We can also say that we are making an initial study of the nature of evidence…. [This] concerns a synthesis of a presentation that is not self-giving with a presentation that is self-giving” (pp. 107-108).

“Meanwhile, every external perception harbors its inner and outer horizons, regardless the extent to which perception has the character of self-giving; this is to say, it is a consciousness that simultaneously points beyond its own content. In its fullness it simultaneously points into an emptiness that would only now convey a new perception. The self-givenness of a spatial thing is the self-givenness of a perspectival appearing object that is given as the same in the fulfilling synthesis of appearances intertwining and devolving upon one another…. Thus, where there is no horizon, where there are no empty intentions, there is likewise no [synthesis of] fulfillment” (p. 108).

This last point about horizons and pointing beyond is important, because it suggest that the implications of what he misleadingly calls “empty” intentions (in contrast to the “fulfilling” intuitions associated with external perception) may really be as essential to verification as the intuitions that seem to be emphasized at first glance.

“It is of fundamental importance to distinguish between the different possible syntheses pertaining here to intuitions and empty presentations, and to characterize them in more detail” (p. 109).

I’d like to provisionally situate Husserlian intuition in the context of a few other notions of intuition. To begin with, I would say that in common usage, “intuition” is a knack for hitting upon things that happen to be true, by means of unexplainable leaps. This is a real thing that happens sometimes.

“Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without recourse to conscious reasoning”, as Wikipedia puts it. Here I would substitute “true belief” for “knowledge”. I follow Aristotle in reserving the term “knowledge” for an understanding of the why of things. Merely that something is so by itself, without any reason, could not be knowledge, but at best a true belief. For me, no freestanding categorical judgment “A is B” by itself could count as knowledge. I even think the well-foundedness in what I call well-founded belief has to do with an understanding of the why, though it may depend on assumptions. A true belief that is not well-founded really just happens to be true in the sense of correspondence with something external.

Husserl on the other hand aims to ground knowledge in a phenomenologically disciplined intuition that helps explain something else. Husserlian intuition is supposed to be concerned with clear and present witnessing evidence, and does not so far seem to involve anything like a leap. In a later post we’ll explore what this looks like.

He seems to give present intuition a privileged epistemic role in the verification of knowledge that I think Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Brandom, and Ricoeur, among others, would dispute. But once again, his detailed development is keeping me interested, and the complementary emphasis on “empty” intentions is a mitigating factor.

Kant and Hegel considered leaps of so-called intellectual intuition — i.e., intuition that purports to discover truths beyond any possible experience — to be a huge source of bad philosophy, and therefore wanted to ban intellectual intuition altogether. It is possible that the evidentiary use that Husserl makes of intuition is completely distinct from this, but at this point I am unsure. Unlike Kant, Husserl does not seem to limit intuition to our preliminary apprehension of the sensible manifold, but gives it a larger epistemic role. Also unlike Kant, he speaks of perceptual objects as given in intuition, rather than only the raw manifold.

Husserl’s contemporary Henri Bergson also claimed that intuition could be the basis of a disciplined method, but I have not dwelt enough on Bergson to compare Bergsonian intuition at this point.

The epistemic role of Husserlian intuition has a few points in common with the evidentiary role that a certain kind of disciplined mathematical “intuition” plays in so-called intuitionistic or constructive mathematics. Husserl did work in the philosophy of mathematics, and several early contributors to intuitionistic mathematics had a considerable interest in Husserl. Intuitionistic mathematics was originally broadly inspired by Kant’s views on the intuitive (as opposed to real or conceptual) character of space and time, but in the later 20th century its scope was unexpectedly discovered to exactly coincide with the scope of what is computable, as independently defined in computability theory by Church and Turing. Inspired by this conjunction, the intuitionistic type theory of Per Martin-Löf formalizes intuitionistic mathematics in a computable form. Intuitionistic type theory is distinguished by having no axioms (therefore depending on no assumed truths), and by its requirement of witnessing evidence in exactly specifiable forms for all valid assertions. This notion of witnessing evidence seems far removed from the relative indeterminacy of Kantian intuition — to the point where I’ve ironically called it to myself “intuitionism without intuition” — but it may still have some relation to Husserlian intuitive evidence.

Husserl makes a fundamental distinction between intuition as a kind of direct relation to currently present external perception, and the “presentification” of contents that are not currently present, but are anticipated or remembered. I am apprehensive about the emphasis on presence here, but reserving judgment for now.

Presentification and some aspects of Husserlian intuition together seem to have much in common with Aristotelian “imagination”, which I have suggested would be the main basis of consciousness from an Aristotelian point of view. Closer examination will be required to see what the differences are.

Aristotelian imagination at root seems to involve an experiencing of potentially sensible contents that need not depend on current sensation. It is said to ground memory, dreams, waking fantasy, and other visualization or analogous operations based on the other senses, but also and importantly the synthesizing functions of the so-called “common sense” and “inner sense”, which Aristotle mentions only sketchily. Aristotelian imagination may include sensible traces of things that go beyond sensation, like language or people’s characters.

By comparison, at this point I’m not sure whether Husserl would include dreams or fantasy under presentification. He might go further than Aristotle in including things that go beyond sensation — like mathematical objects — under presentification or intuition.


Aristotle flourished before the great flowering of Greek mathematics that gave us Euclid, Ptolemy, Apollonius, and Aristarchus. In his day, mathematics amounted to just arithmetic and simple geometry. In spite of the famous Pythagorean theorem that the square constructed from the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal in area to the sum of the squares constructed from the other two sides, the historic reality of the Pythagorean movement had more to do with number mysticism, other superstitions, and curious injunctions like “don’t eat beans” than it did with real mathematics.

I think Aristotle was entirely right to conclude that arithmetic and simple geometry were of little use for explaining change in the natural world. I’ve characterized his physics as grounded in a kind of semantic inquiry that Aristotle pioneered. We are not used to thinking about science this way, as fundamentally involved with a very human inquiry about the meaning of experience in life, rather than predictive calculation. For Aristotle, the gap between natural science and thoughtful reflection about ordinary experience was much smaller than it is for us.

Aristotle invented the notion of cause as a semantic tool for expressing the reasons why changes occur. Aristotle’s notion is far more abstract than the metaphor of impulse or something pushing on something else that guided early modern mechanism. Even though the notion of cause was originally developed in a text included in Aristotle’s Physics, the “semantic” grounding of Aristotelian physics places it closer to logic than to modern physical inquiries.

I think the discussion of the kinds of causes could equally well have been grouped among his “logical” works. In fact, the form in which we have Aristotle’s works today is the result of the efforts of multiple ancient editors, who sometimes stitched together separate manuscripts, so there is room for a legitimate question whether the discussion of causes was originally a separate treatise. We tend to assume that there must be something inherently “physical” about the discussion of causes, but this is ultimately due to a circular argument from the fact that the more detailed version of it came down to us as part of the Physics (there is another, briefer one that came down to us as part of the Metaphysics).

Since Hume and especially since the later 19th century, many authors have debated about the role of causes in science. Bertrand Russell argued in the early 20th century that modern science does not in fact depend on what I have called the modern notion of cause.

More recently, Robert Brandom has argued that the purpose of logic is “to make explicit the inferential relations that articulate the semantic contents of the concepts expressed by the use of ordinary, nonlogical vocabulary”. I see Aristotelian causes in this light.

I want to recommend a return to a notion of causes in general as explanatory reasons rather than things that exert force. This can include all the mathematics used in modern science, as well as a broader range of reasons relevant to life. (See also Aristotelian Causes; Mechanical Metaphors; Causes: Real, Heuristic?; Effective vs “Driving”; Secondary Causes.)


Spontaneity has a technical meaning in Kant and Husserl that is at odds with common usage. In ordinary speech, we are said to do something “spontaneously” when we do it on the spur of the moment, without a previous plan. But Kant and Husserl call everything guided by reason “spontaneous”, even though reason is involved with conscious deliberation and thinking things through.

According to an older usage, things in nature were said by some to occur “spontaneously” when they had no discernible cause. In the scholastic tradition, others argued that “nothing comes from nothing”, and rejected the assumption that things with no discernible cause really happen without a cause, as was purported to occur in what was called “spontaneous generation”.

Leibniz embraced and codified the “nothing from nothing” argument as the principle of sufficient reason. The principle of sufficient reason does not itself imply the kind of particular providence associated with the popular expression “everything happens for a reason”. It just says that everything has some kind of reasonable explanation, not that what we subjectively perceive as cosmic injustice is part of a divine plan, even though Leibniz separately argued for that as well.

Of course, it matters a lot what kinds of causes or reasonable explanations we recognize. In Leibniz’s time, the notion of cause had already been greatly contracted by early modern writers, who further transformed the late scholastic notion of efficient cause in a mechanistic direction, while accentuating the late scholastic tendency to reduce all other causes to efficient causes. Leibniz himself recommended the use of only mechanistic explanations in natural science, but did not see natural science as all-encompassing, and defended the use of teleological explanation in broader philosophy. He compensated for the narrowness of mechanistic causality by speaking of sufficient reason rather than sufficient cause, and kept a place for form and ends as reasons.

Kant ultimately also defended a kind of teleology, especially in biology and in his account of beauty, but he was much more reserved about using it in general explanation than Leibniz, due to his scruples about grounding all “theoretical” explanation in experience. However, he assigned all ethical matters to a separate “practical” domain, which he wanted to exempt from the kind of narrow causal explanation that he considered the norm for physics, and he argued that for us humans, “practical” reason is more fundamental.

Human action for Kant belongs to the practical domain, which he famously argued is governed by “spontaneity” and “freedom”. I now think “spontaneous” and “free” for Kant simply mean not subject to mechanistic explanation. Thus insofar as we are positively motivated by moral imperatives or values, he would say we act spontaneously and freely. I think he also believed that all human thinking is ultimately motivated by ultimate ends, and therefore called it spontaneous and free.

Kant confused generations of scholars by borrowing voluntaristic rhetoric, which he did with the aim of emphasizing that human thought and action are not reducible to mechanistic physics. But freedom and spontaneity in Kant do not mean arbitrariness, as they effectively do for defenders of voluntarism. Rather, they are meant to allow room for positive motivation by moral imperatives or values.

Another confusing move Kant made was to argue for a special “causality of freedom” that he never explained adequately. Due to its contrast with physical causality, it sounded at times like a kind of supernatural break in the natural order he otherwise recognized. Many commentators thought Kant contradicted himself in arguing both that the natural order is self-contained and that there is a separate causality of freedom. I think these problems are ultimately explained by the narrowness of the mechanical concept of causality in nature. The “causality of freedom”, I want to say, simply means motivation by moral imperatives or values rather than by impulse. Kant considered impulse to be within the realm of natural-scientific causality, and therefore opposed it to spontaneity, whereas contemporary common usage associates “spontaneity” with acting on impulse.

(Aristotle, with his much broader notion of cause that essentially identifies causes with any kinds of “reasons why”, would treat values and moral imperatives as one kind of final causes, or what I have been calling “ends”.)

Husserl’s way of speaking about these matters is to contrast human motivation with causality. For him, “causality” is exclusively the causality of modern physical science, but human thought and action are to be explained by “motivation” rather than causality. Husserl’s use of “spontaneity” is related to that of Kant, and applies to everything that he explains in terms of motivation. (See also Kantian Freedom; Kantian Will; Allison on Kant on Freedom; Freedom Through Deliberation?.)

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.