Enticing Possibilities?

After the interesting discussion of the “crossing out” of previous beliefs, Husserl continues his lectures on passive synthesis with a discussion of doubt and possibility.

In contrast to the “crossing out” that implements negation in lived experience — where a previous expectation is definitively refuted by a new apprehension — the mode of doubt represents a condition in which we experience conflicting apprehensions side by side in a modally weakened state, and the conflict remains as yet unresolved.

The mode of open possibility involves a different kind of modal weakening in which some more general frame has the status of “normal” perception and the associated subjective “certainty”, but unlike the simple case of normal perception, the associated halo of additional expectation does not converge on a single outcome, but rather diverges into alternatives, and nothing motivates us to preferentially expect one alternative rather than another.

What Husserl calls an enticing possibility, on the other hand, is one that we feel drawn to believe in. It is still only a possibility, and we may end up in doubt because conflicting alternative possibilities each entice us to some degree. I find this notion of “enticing possibility” highly intriguing.

“Motivation prefigures something positively, and yet does so in the mode of uncertainty” (Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, p. 81). “Let us look back to the phenomenon of doubt. Whenever we speak of doubt, we also speak of propensities to believe. What occurs in the front side that is seen, together with its apprehended sense for the back side, may prefigure something determinate. But it does so ambiguously and not unequivocally. This happens when we become unsure whether what we see is a complete thing or a piece of scenery, for example…. In this way the normal egoic act of perception is modalized into acts we call enticements to believe. From the side of the objective senses, from the side of the objects given to consciousness, we also speak here of enticements to be, which is to say that affection issues from the side of the object, that the object exerts on the ego an enticing demand to be…. The sense itself has the propensity to be” (p. 82).

I was a bit surprised by the sudden introduction of an “egoic act of perception” out of the blue here. At minimum, any such reference takes us outside the sphere of passive synthesis. But Husserl means to discuss not only passive synthesis but also how it is interleaved with active synthesis, and he has already implicitly broadened the scope in speaking of belief, doubt, and judgment.

My lingering concern is that I consider anything like an ego to be a teleological tendency, and I don’t take a teleological tendency to be the kind of thing that could exercise simple agency. Perhaps the agency implied here is not really meant to be simple. I do think that all real-world agency is non-simple (i.e., involves a mixture of activity and passivity), but Husserl hasn’t discussed the nature of agency, and his references here seem to suggest the simple kind that I consider suspect. I hope this will be clarified later.

Similarly, I was surprised by the reference to “objects given to consciousness”. Perhaps I am being too literal here, but his earlier discussion of “adumbration” in perception seems to me to rule out any simple givenness of objects as objects. The best connection I can make for a givenness of objects is to the earlier discussion’s mention of the object “in the flesh” that we always have, but that discussion makes clear that the “object” we have in the flesh is far from completely determinate. But what exerts an enticing demand was first of all a determinate possibility.

I think he is saying “object” in more than one way here. The object that exerts an enticing demand to be is not the “object” given in the flesh.

His statement that “The sense itself has the propensity to be” is also intriguing, and seems less problematic to me. If we substitute “sense” for “object”, it makes good sense to me that “the sense exerts… an enticing demand to be” (see Ideas Are Not Inert).

“Let us call these new possibilities problematic possibilities or questionable possibilities. We do this because the intention to make a decision arising in doubt between one of the enticing factions of doubt is called a questioning intention. We speak of questionableness only where enticements and contraposing enticements play off of each other” (p. 83).

“It is now clear that we have determined a closed and exactly limited group of modalities from a primordial mode of straightforward naive certainty” (p. 84).

Here he seems to be claiming it is “clear” that the modalities discussed so far are the only possible ones that could modify naive perceptual certainty. I don’t immediately have any other candidates, but “closed and exactly limited” is a strong claim that seems to come out of the blue.

“We can continue our exposition of problematic possibilities by noting that they and only they appear with a different weight. The enticement is more or less enticing; and that also holds particularly when comparing all potentially diverse problematic possibilities that belong to one and the same conflict and that are bound synthetically through this conflict.” (ibid).

I generally like the analogy of comparing weights here, though it is not clear to me that the intrinsic “weights” of all enticements would be commensurable.

“Such opposing enticements, opposing possibilities, can have differing weight; they exercise a stronger or weaker pull, but they do not determine me. Determining me in belief is just the one possibility for which I am resolved, for which I have decided earlier, perhaps in a process of passing through doubt” (ibid). “Different witnesses speak and present their testimonies, having different weight. I weigh them and decide for the one witness and his testimony. I reject the other testimonies” (p. 85).

“Yet I can potentially mark the differing weights without deciding in favor of one of the enticements…. For example, a cloudy sky together with humidity speak in favor of a thunderstorm, but not ‘for sure'” (ibid).

“[T]he fact that I let myself ‘willingly’ be drawn in, that I am about to follow it, is still something new phenomenologically. However, here this ‘following’ can be inhibited by opposing propensities, or not be ‘efficacious’ at all…. It is not merely the case that the one testimony whose enticement is privileged is stronger: We lend it validity, believing in it in our subjective certainty…. We can then speak of presumption or of a presumptuous certainty in a specific sense…. In itself, in its own phenomenological character, this presumptuous certainty is characterized as an impure certainty…. Obviously, this impurity, this murkiness, has its degrees” (p. 86).

An anticipation of this new dimension of our weighing, willingness, lending of validity, and “presumptuous certainty” is probably what underlay the earlier sudden reference to “egoic acts”. I have no issue with this more concrete development. The fact that he refers to presumption, impurity, and murkiness here provides a reassuring weakening of what earlier seemed overly strong.

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.)

Gueroult on Descartes

Having been greatly impressed by Martial Gueroult’s two extant volumes on Spinoza’s Ethics, I wanted to challenge myself to get some sense of the detail of his magisterial Descartes selon l’order des raisons (1968). Sometimes called a “structuralist” in the history of philosophy, Gueroult systematically developed the fine grain of argument in Spinoza’s demonstrations, and here he does the same for Descartes’ Meditations.

Beginning with a distinction between understanding and explanation, Gueroult announces his intention to subordinate the former to the latter (p. 9). Here “understanding” is a sort of intuitive or imaginative grasp of the whole, whereas “explanation” develops the details in their interrelation. I am reminded of Paul Ricoeur’s great theme of the value of the “long detour”.

Gueroult says Descartes viewed “isolated thoughts” with a sort of horror. This is already interesting. I have long puzzled over Brandom’s treatment of Descartes as a proto-inferentialist, when Descartes has seemed to me on the contrary like an arch-representationalist who plucked “truths” out of thin air. Both Gueroult and Brandom take Descartes’ “method” very seriously. Brandom’s work previously set me on a path that led me to radically change my views of Kant and Hegel. Perhaps I’ll have to revise or modulate some of my judgments of Descartes as well.

For Gueroult, it is objective structures of argument that distinguish philosophy from poetry, spiritual or mystical elevation, general scientific theory, or mere metaphysical opinions. He says that even while “excommunicating” the history of philosophy, Descartes nonetheless formulated a good principle of reading, rejecting eclectic tendencies to pull out this or that idea from a great author, in favor of a systematic approach. Descartes is quoted saying the “precious fruit” must come from “the entire body of the work” (p. 11). This is an important complement to his one-sided insistence elsewhere on beginning with what is simple. However, Descartes is also quoted insisting that all conflicts of interpretation are due to shallow eclecticism and deficiency of method, and that wherever there is such a conflict, one side must certainly be wrong (pp. 13-14).

This insistence on univocal interpretation is one of my big issues with Descartes. It works well for things like geometry, but much less well for sorting out arguments about power or potentiality, for instance. Pushing univocal interpretation as far as it can go can be a very valuable exercise, but as soon as we leave pure mathematics, it also shows its limits. I think that while mathematical necessity can be understood as something we “ought” to recognize for a multitude of reasons, sound ethical judgment must in principle reach beyond what can be expressed with certainty by formal equations. Much as I admire a good mathematical development, I therefore think ethics is more fundamental for us humans than mathematics, and philosophy is more ethical than mathematical.

According to Gueroult, the seminal idea guiding all of Descartes’ work is that human knowledge has unavoidable limits due to the limits of thought, but within those limits it is capable of perfect certainty (p. 15). For Descartes, we do not know thought by things, but we know things by thought. As a matter of principle, we should doubt everything that does not come from the certainty of thought. We are thus offered a stark division between that which is supposed to be certain beyond question, and that which is vain and useless. I think this results both in a treatment of too many things as certain, and in a premature dismissal of aspects of human reality that are uncertain, but nonetheless have real value.

I agree that mathematical reasoning is capable of (hypothetical) certainty, but I contend that we humans live mainly on middle ground that is neither certainty nor mere vanity.

Descartes Revisited

Descartes is among my least favorite of those conventionally termed great philosophers. My treatment to date has been mainly limited to a few dismissive remarks. Here I’d like to add a few “historiographical” points of demarcation.

Insofar as there is general consensus among scholars, Descartes (1598-1650) first and foremost has claim to fame as a very influential promoter of something recognizably close to modern scientific method. He is often credited with the invention of analytic geometry, based on an early recognition of the systematic isomorphism between geometry and algebra. Galileo (1564-1642) had already taken up an approach to natural science based on mathematical analysis, which Descartes enthusiastically adopted. Descartes particularly promoted a methodology based on clear and distinct ideas, which he held to give certain knowledge. He advocated an orderly progression from the simple to the complex.

On a broad social level, Descartes is remembered for promoting the independence of scientific investigation, particularly from the doctrinal concerns of the Catholic Church. But he was also a religious thinker. While confessing in a private letter that he did not literally believe various details of received scripture, he was very engaged with proofs of the existence of God.

Numerous scholars have pointed out that outside the domains of mathematics and natural science, Descartes in many ways remained close to the Latin scholasticism of which he has been commonly regarded as the slayer. In Descartes and the Modern Mind (1952), for example, Albert Balz argued at length that the thought of Thomas Aquinas was an essential precursor to Descartes. I note that Augustine had already emphasized the importance of the interpretive role of reason, even in matters of faith. On Aquinas’ account, God gives us not only revelation, but also the natural light of reason. In Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas addressed questions of philosophy and theology entirely from the point of view of that “natural light”, while aiming to show that the natural light of reason independently leads to many of same truths he attributed to revelation. Descartes makes great use of a similar concept of the natural light of reason.

Both Descartes and Aquinas thought the natural light of reason, properly understood, gives us truths, full stop. I think it gives us invaluable criteria for judgment and interpretation, while always in principle leaving room for discussion about what conclusions should be drawn. I also think the “natural light” itself comes to us in degrees, and is never a simple or unproblematic possession.

A different strand of Latin scholastic thought tended to claim that all human knowledge originates in sensible images, while attributing such a view to Aristotle. (I think this is overly strong, and that Aristotle only meant to defend the pragmatic value of sensation against Platonic skepticism about all deliverances of sense.) Descartes famously argued that sensible images are not the only source of knowledge, and I think that is true, as far as it goes.

Here is where Descartes’ theses about clear and distinct ideas come into play. A methodological discipline based on examining whether our ideas are clear and distinct is an important source of human knowledge. Again, this much I can agree with, but I think clarity and distinctness are relative criteria and not absolutes. As relative criteria, they have been implicitly employed by most if not all serious thinkers. I take such evaluations to have been a major implicit concern of Platonic and Aristotelian dialectic, which in part aims to discern meanings that are more clear and distinct.

Descartes effectively claimed that clarity and distinctness are absolute, decidable properties of ideas. One of the broadly scholastic views he sharply criticized was that our best knowledge of sensible things is only “probable”. Descartes claimed that the results of his methodological analyses were certain, in the same way that mathematical conclusions follow with certainty from their premises. This goes well beyond the claim that there is practical value in such methodology.

Building on arguments of Augustine and Avicenna, he also famously gave great importance to the claim that immediate contents of the mind give evidence of unconditional certainty of the abstract existence of something. The very possibility that I could be deceived implies the abstract existence of an abstract something that could be deceived. Further, if something in any way appears to me to be such and such — even if I am wrong about all the details — independent of all the details, the barest fact of the appearance implies that some appearance generically “exists”.

The “I” that is in this way proven to exist and the appearance that is proven to exist are both extreme abstractions. Even Descartes did not claim that either of these existences by itself gives us any further knowledge. From this basis alone, I could still be entirely mistaken about the kind of being that I am, and about every detail of what appears to me to be the case. In spite of the famous Cartesian doubt, Descartes actually wanted to makes strong claims of certainty and to refute skepticism. Many readers have concluded, though, that he opened the door for a new, more global form of skepticism, because what he clearly establishes as certain seems so utterly lacking in content.

I would hasten to add that unreasonable, excessive skepticism about human knowledge is best refuted by successful achievements of goals in real-life situations. Only a hypocrite could claim to live in the world with no well-founded beliefs whatsoever. The ancient Skeptics were only “skeptical” about theoretical accounts of things, not about practical concerns of everyday life.

By setting the bar too high and aiming at absolute certainty, Descartes actually opened the door for more radically subjectivist views that no one in the ancient world would have taken seriously (and not just because ancient people were naive). At the same time, he was very impatient with “dialectic”, and tended to foreshorten discussions of meaning and interpretation, in favor of claims that certain contents are unequivocally clear and distinct. Thus the ultimate result of his thought oscillates unstably between extremes of “Cartesian” skepticism and dogmatism.

Another point on which Descartes has been very influential is his strong representationalism. For Descartes, strictly speaking we never have practical knowledge of things in the world, only knowledge about contents of our mental representations, insofar as they are clear and distinct. In particular, we only know bodies through our mental representations of them. Rather than consisting in an interpretive stance of a situated being in the world, the Cartesian cogito achieves its purely subjective certainty in a way that is supposed to be peculiarly “outside” the real world altogether.

Unlike the representationalism of Locke, which is grounded in a kind of empirical psychology, that of Descartes is closely bound up with an ontological mind/world dualism more radical than anything Plotinus, Augustine, or Avicenna ever contemplated. For Plotinus, Augustine, and Avicenna, the soul was a very special kind of “something” existing in the real world, even if for Plotinus and Augustine it was not a “subject” in the sense of something underlying something else. For Locke — the other great early modern promoter of representationalism — our mental worlds are ultimately contained within the natural world. For Descartes, there is the world and there is the soul, and never the twain shall meet. The soul has its own mental world where it seems to relate directly only to God, and human knowledge occurs only in that mental world.

It is due to this unprecedentedly radical mind/world dualism of Descartes, I think, that virtually no one — even among his admirers — wants to uphold his metaphysics. This is an extreme example of what Hegel called “alienation”.