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.

Crossing Out

In the passive synthesis lectures, Husserl has a very original treatment of modality from an experiential point of view. First come varieties of negation, which most logicians do not treat as a modality.

“[I]n the normal case of perception, all fulfillment progresses as the fulfillment of expectations. These are systematized expectations, systems of rays of expectations which, in being fulfilled, also become enriched; that is, the empty sense becomes richer in sense, fitting into the way in which the sense was prefigured.”

“But every expectation can also be disappointed, and disappointment essentially presupposes partial fulfillment; without a certain measure of unity maintaining itself in the progression of perceptions, the unity of the intentional lived-experience would crumble. Yet despite the unity of the perceptual process occurring with this abiding, unitary content of sense, a break does indeed take place, and the lived-experience of ‘otherwise’ springs forth” (Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, p. 64).

At a very broad level, I would note that the tenor of this discourse resembles that of Aristotle’s discussions of processes fundamentally driven by ends, and of complex patterns of activity. I am also reminded of Brandom’s treatment of the experience of error in Hegel, and of the Kantian unity of apperception as a task rather than a fact.

“Naturally, this does not take place in explicit acts; but if we were to go back actively, we would necessarily find the altered interpretation explicitly and consciously, that is, the continual concordance that has been produced. But layered beneath this is something that does not accord with it, and actually what does not accord pertains to the entire series that has been flowed-off insofar as we are still conscious of the old apprehension in memory…. [A]nd with it the substratum itself, the thing itself, which in the original perceptual series bore [one] sense determination…, is in this respect crossed out and at the same time reinterpreted: it is ‘otherwise'” (p. 65).

“In the case of normal perception, the perceived object gives itself as being in a straightforward manner, as existing actuality” (p. 66). Here Husserl is using the thin modern notion of actuality as “what is the case”, rather than the teleologically charged notion I’ve been concerned to elicit in Aristotle.

He continues, “But that ‘being’ can be transformed into ‘dubitable’ or ‘questionable’, into ‘possible’, into ‘supposed’; and then ‘non-being’ can also occur here, and in contrast to this, the emphatic ‘it really is’, the ‘it is indeed so’. Correlatively, (i.e., in a noetic regard), one speaks of a believing inherent in perceiving; from time to time we already speak here of judging, that is, of judicative perception” (ibid).

He refers back to the thin notion of logical judgment in Mill and Brentano, which he has criticized elsewhere. “Here the source of really radical clarifications is perception…. [T]he modalities occur precisely here, and it is no coincidence that perception and judgment have these modalities in common. From there we will be able to show that the modes of belief necessarily play their role in all modes of consciousness” (p. 67).

The empiricist tradition had treated perception as a purely passive reception, and consciousness as a kind of mirror or transparent medium of representation. Husserl is clearly at odds with both of these conceptions.

I am a bit wary that he nonetheless seems to treat consciousness as a universal common denominator of human experience. As I read Hegel, the latter sharply distinguishes what he misleadingly calls “self-consciousness” (which essentially involves ethical relations with others) from simple “consciousness” of objects. Hegel seems to me to locate most of being human such as believing and judging in already ethical self-consciousness, and to leave only the rather abstract and elementary sphere of objects in the realm of “consciousness”. This seems right to me.

“Here a conflict occurs between the still living intentions, and — emerging in newly instituted originality — the contents of sense and the contents of belief, together with the horizons proper to them.”

“But there is not only a conflict. By being presented in the flesh, the newly constituted sense throws its opponent from the saddle, as it were. By covering it over with the fullness of its presentation in the flesh as the sense that is now demanded, it overpowers the former, which was only an empty anticipation” (p. 68).

“But it does it in such a way as to characterize the conflicting moments of the old prefiguring as void. However, insofar as these moments of sense are mere moments of a unitary sense organized in a tight uniformity, the entire sense of the series of appearance is altered modally, and this sense is at the same time duplicated. For we are still conscious of the previous sense, but as ‘painted over’, and where the corresponding moments are concerned, crossed out” (p. 69).

“Belief clashes with belief, the belief of one content of sense and one mode of intuition with a belief of a different content in its mode of intuition. The conflict consists in the peculiar ‘annulment’ of an anticipating intention…. And specifically, it is an annulment that concerns an isolated component, while the concordance of fulfillment advances where the remaining components are concerned” (p. 70).

“[T]he original constitution of a perceptual object is carried out in intentions (where external perception is concerned, in apperceptive apprehensions); these intentions, according to their essence, can undergo a modification at any time through the disappointment of protentional, expectational belief” (p. 71).

“But if we compare the unaltered consciousness, on the one hand, with the consciousness that is altered by being crossed out, on the other hand, and if we make this comparison in view of the content of sense, then we will see that while the intention is indeed transformed, the objective sense itself remains identical. The objective sense still remains the same after being crossed out precisely as a crossed out sense” (ibid, emphasis in original).

Certainly it is true that if we analytically distinguish the previous sense from the operation of crossing out that is applied to it, that sense remains the same. He seems to be treating the intention as a subjective factor in contrast to the objective sense, and this fits with the way he is approaching modality here overall. But now it occurs to me that this seems to presuppose that the operation of crossing out — or the application of modality in general — does not also result in a new objective sense that includes the crossing out or the modality, as if modality were only something subjective. I am intrigued by this whole discussion, but I also think modality corresponds to something objective in the sense of really real, and indeed plays a key role in our progressive reaching toward the real (which is always an end, and never a possession).