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.)

Beings

When I talk about beings, or us as beings, I mean this in a very ordinary, pre-philosophical way. It seems to me that to informally qualify as a “being”, something must have a degree of coherence; a degree of resilience or persistence in the face of change; and relations to other beings.

We might form a notion of something absolutely singular or self-contained, but it would not be a notion of a being. The classic notion of something absolutely singular was the One of Plotinus, which for him explicitly preceded all being. For Plotinus, we should only begin to talk about being when we have something that is “both one and many”.

If we speak of beings, it makes some sense to inquire about the being of beings. To me, though, this just means a higher-order consideration of the ordinary “being a being” of ordinary beings. It does not imply some very different “Being with a capital B” that gives being to all ordinary beings.

When Aristotle inquired about “being as being”, he reached two main conclusions. First, “being is said in many ways”. That is to say, being is not a univocal concept; it has multiple meanings. More profoundly, what we nonetheless informally call being itself is itself analogous to something that is nonunivocal rather than univocal. The non-self-containedness that seems to be characteristic of beings means that if we look closely, what we call individual beings do not have univocal identity, but rather are “identified” by a kind of family resemblance to themselves. Beings do not have sharp edges that would unambiguously separate an inside from an outside, and sometimes they change profoundly. Second, being a being nonetheless always involves being some way that is distinguishable from some other way. Calling something a being or saying it “is” in any sense thus expresses a kind of commitment on our part, and as Aristotle and Brandom would both remind us, the very nature of commitments implicitly commits us to abstain from or correct other incompatible commitments.

Being a being in whatever sense thus involves both a determinateness and an openness. Determinateness and openness in turn have to be understood in ways that permit their coexistence. (See also Equivocal Determination; Openness of Reason; Bounty of Nature.)

I want to say that everything important about being a being belongs in the register of “whatness”, or what was traditionally called essence. Contrary to the great arguments of Aquinas as well as to the 20th century mystique of existentialism, I don’t find value in an allegedly separate register of existence. Some people have argued that Aristotle did not have a proper concept of existence, as if this were a shortcoming. I find Aristotle’s direction of our attention to the “what” of being to be noninflationary in a quite salutary way. (See also Substance; Platonic Truth; Meant Realities.)