Husserl on Passive Synthesis

Volume IX of Edmund Husserl’s collected works is entitled in English Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis. It consists of lectures given between 1920 and 1926, supplemented with various contemporary unpublished notes and manuscripts. Husserl explicitly offers his notion of passive synthesis as a successor to Kant’s idea of a productive synthesis of imagination (see Capacity to JudgeFigurative Synthesis). As usual when I read Husserl, in spite of reservations that some more global concepts he uses seem “too strong”, I am reveling in the richness and originality of his detailed developments.

The term “passive synthesis” has an air of paradox about it, but I have been very interested in the way both Aristotle and Kant deal with aspects of human sentience and sapience that are neither entirely active nor entirely passive, and this is the real significance of this whole topic. In a more general context, Hegel and Paul Ricoeur (who was an acute reader of Husserl) both also have much of value to say about such mixed forms. I tend to think that nothing in the human sphere is ever entirely active or entirely passive.

In spite of Husserl’s pains to distinguish what he called “transcendental” subjectivity (in a sense somewhat different from, but related to, that of Kant) from “psychological” subjectivity — and his early sharp criticism of “psychologism” — translator Anthony Steinbock’s introduction points out that during the less known stage documented in this volume, when Husserl began speaking of a “genetic” phenomenology, he also wrote extensively in the area of philosophical psychology. The material on passive synthesis could be considered a prime instance of this.

For Husserl, all philosophy — and indeed all science, if it is really doing what he thinks it should — ought to make us wiser and better.

He begins with some leading points from what he calls transcendental logic. With extremely broad brush, this is concerned with neither formalization nor real-world inference, but rather focuses on the constitution of meanings.

The main section on passive synthesis begins by noting some aspects of perception that are commonly passed over, including “perspectival adumbration of spatial objects”; “fullness and emptiness in the perceptual process”; how our acquired knowledge can be freely at our disposal; and the relation between being and being perceived.

Next he develops an unusually broad notion of modality, as a kind of modification of the sense of contents. This includes negation, but Husserl is not concerned here with ordinary logical negation. Under negation he discusses things like “disappointment as an occurrence that runs counter to the synthesis of fulfillment”; “partial fulfillment”; and “retroactive crossing out in the retentional sphere and transformation of the previous perceptual sense”. Then he treats doubt, including its origin in conflicting apprehensions and its resolution. Next comes the more standard modality of possibility, which he transforms by dividing it into “open” possibilities and “enticing” possibilities that motivate us. He concludes this subdivision by discussing relations between passive and active modalization, including “position-taking of the ego as the active response to the modal modification of passive doxa [belief]” and “questioning as a multilayered striving toward overcoming modalization through a judicative decision”.

The following subdivision is concerned with the notion of evidence. Here he discusses the “structure of fulfillment” as a “synthesis of empty presentation”; then “passive and active intentions and the forms of their confirmation and verification”, including “picturing, clarifying, and confirmation in the syntheses of bringing to intuition”, “possible types of intuition”, and “possible types of empty presentation”; “intention toward fulfillment [as] the intention toward self-giving”; “epistemic striving and striving toward the effective realization of the presented object”; and “the different relationships of intention and the intended self”. This subdivision concludes with “the problem of definitiveness in experience”, including “the problematic character of a verification that is possible for all intentions and its consequence for belief in experience”; “development of the problem of the in-itself for the immanent sphere”; and “rememberings as the source for an in-itself of objects”.

A long subdivision is devoted to association. Here he will be concerned with motivational relations rather than the psycho-physical causal relations with which “association” is associated in the empiricist tradition. A partial list of the contents includes “presuppositions of associative synthesis”; “syntheses of original time-consciousness”; “syntheses of homogeneity in the unity of a streaming present”‘; “the phenomenon of contrast”; “individuation in succession and coexistence”; “affection as effecting an allure on the ego”; “the gradation of affection in the living present and in the retentional process”; “the function of awakening in the living present”; “retroactive awakening of the empty presentations in the distant sphere”; “the transition of awakened empty presentations in rememberings”; “the difference between continuous and discontinuous awakening”; and “the phenomenon of expectation”.

The final subdivision of the section on passive synthesis is devoted to the stream of consciousness. This includes “illusion in the realm of remembering”; “overlapping, fusion, and conflict of rememberings of different pasts”; “the true being of the system of the immanent past”; “confirmation of self-givenness by expanding into the outer horizon”; “the primordial transcendence of the past of consciousness and the idea of its complete self-giving”; “the problem of a true being for the future of consciousness”; “disappointment as an essential moment of expectation”; and “the constitution of the objective world in its significance for the determinate prefiguring of futural consciousness”.

This is followed by a section on active synthesis, which also treats of “a transcendental, genetic logic”. Voluminous appendices further expand on the topics treated. (See Husserl on Perception; Crossing Out; Enticing Possibilities?; Active and Passive; Husserl on Evidence: Introduction; Intuition, Presentation, Time; Intention and Intuition; Associative Synthesis; Passive Synthesis: Conclusion.)

Democracy and Social Justice

Through most of the 18th century, democracy was mainly associated with what would today be called the far left (see Enlightenment). Historian Richard Hofstadter reports that in the debates that led to the American constitution, worries were expressed that the people might just vote to redistribute wealth. This led to an elaborate system of checks and balances designed essentially to limit democracy. (Of course, I am oversimplifying. Democracy can have serious issues, as Plato would remind us, and a constitution is a good thing overall, as Aristotle would remind us. See also Justice in General; Authority, Reason; The Autonomy of Reason; Freedom from False Freedom; Honesty, Kindness; Intellectual Virtue, Love.)

The American and French revolutions temporarily gave the cause of democracy more of a mainstream status. But after the 1848 events in Europe led to more worries over possible redistribution of wealth, further progress in the direction of democracy again depended on mainly the activity of the left. (See also Fragility of the Good; Economic Rationality?; Rights; Stubborn Refusal.)

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the strongest support for democratic advances worldwide actually came from the socialist movement, which had an amazingly vibrant and fertile tradition of rational debate on principles of theory and practice. (After Stalin and Mao and their imitators and successors substituted cynical, corrupt, and repressive nationalist populism for the ideals of socialism, it may be hard to remember this. Stalin brutally suppressed all debate and especially exterminated criticism from the left, while systematically betraying everything the movement had stood for. Mao was even further removed from the historic rational tradition of left-wing social democracy. But all such monstrosities do nothing to invalidate the rational ideas of social justice they travestied.)