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).

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.)

Multiple Explanations

One of the great strengths of Aristotle’s approach to things is the way it makes use of multiple, complementary kinds of explanation. The paired modalities of actuality and potentiality and the four “causes” (ends and means, form and materiality) all interweave together to create rich tapestries of understanding. Aristotle famously said that to know is to be able to explain, and his notion of explanation is clearly hermeneutic and expansive, rather than reductive. (See also Interpretation; What and Why.; Difference; Classification; Definition.)

The Importance of Potentiality

I think modern philosophy generally is handicapped in its thinking about the empirical world by its lack of a notion like Aristotelian potentiality. To build context, I need to first say a bit more about the role of actuality.

The modern concept of a factual, existing world is relatively close to Aristotelian actuality, but the first big difference is that it is not paired with anything. The modern concept of a factual world is something that is supposed to be complete in itself, whereas for Aristotle, actuality in the world is always complemented by some correlative potentiality. Aristotle did not consider actuality alone to be sufficient to account for the world as we experience it.

Actuality also does not exactly correspond to a state of things, but rather expresses what is effectively operative. This is semantically a bit deeper than a notion of state. At the same time, it does not have state’s strong implications of complete determination. It also does not have the monolithic unity of a state. Actuality in the world consists of many coexisting things. Further, it is not intended by itself to provide all the resources needed to account for change and what happens next. This is related to the fact that for Aristotle, the operative determination of things is not entirely univocal. (See also Equivocal Determination.)

Enter potentiality. Potentiality is exactly what is not univocal in the actual determination of things. It corresponds to multiple alternative concrete possibilities of realization already implicit in current reality. This is a far more specific notion than mere logical possibility. Potentiality is closely tied to and informed by the current actuality, in that it exactly occupies the real gaps or holes in the actuality’s incompletely univocal determination. For each aspect of things where there is not univocal determination, there are instead multiple potential alternatives. This correlates with the fact that, for Aristotle — in contrast to Poincaré’s classic formulation of modern determinism — the present does not completely determine the future.

Poincaré famously claimed that from the state of the universe at any arbitrary point in time, its entire future is completely determined. This resembles the Stoic notion of fate, transferred to a modern event-based model of causality. For both the Stoics and Poincaré, the world is completely univocally determined. Like Aristotle, they emphasized the intelligibility of the world and of change in the world, but they made the very strong assumption of complete univocal determination. Aristotle did not.

Aristotle’s notion of intelligibility was broadly semantic, whereas Poincaré’s was mathematical. With semantic interpretation, there is always a question of how far we develop the account, which in principle could be extended indefinitely. It thus naturally lends itself to an account of incomplete determination, corresponding to some stopping point. Aristotle does not claim any more determination than he can show. Poincaré’s approach, by contrast, requires that we assume there is a complete univocal determination of the world by mathematical laws, even though we can never even come close to knowing enough to show it. This assumption leaves no room for anything like potentiality. Potentiality, it seems to me, could only have a place in a semantic approach to intelligibility.

The modern factual world is usually considered as something that just is, without modal qualification, but I have increasingly begun to doubt whether for Aristotle there is any non-modal account of the world. I read actuality and potentiality both as modal concepts, and everything in the Aristotelian world as parsable into actuality and potentiality.

What’s important about this is that potentiality is not just some mysterious “metaphysical” concept that we could maybe do without. It is a distinct logical/semantic modality supporting multiple virtual alternatives for the same thing. It allows us to intelligibly account for the incomplete determination we really experience, rather than treating real-world incompleteness and ambiguity as if it were a kind of flaw. (See also Structural Causality, Choice; Values, Causality; Structure, Potentiality.)

Potentiality, Actuality

Potentiality and actuality are Aristotle’s indispensable modal tools, providing resources for a variety of sophisticated analyses. Notable applications include a nonreductive, “dialectical” interweaving of is and ought that allows conditional “oughts” to be constructed subsuming applicable details of a contextual “is”. This allows something like structural causality to coexist with something like Kantian freedom.

Modern discourse on the relation of “is” and “ought” has generally oscillated between a reductive ethical naturalism that explains “ought” exclusively in terms of “is” on the one hand, and an unexplainable dualism of “is” and “ought” on the other.

With his explicit distinction between modes of potentiality and actuality, Aristotle had a better way. He also talked about the typical modern modalities of abstract possibility and necessity, but concrete potentiality and actuality are the crown jewels of Aristotle’s modal discourse. (See also The Importance of Potentiality.)

Nietzsche, Ethics, Historiography

Nietzsche famously criticized received notions of good and evil, and pointed out the inglorious role of “reactive” and resentful thinking about morals. To negatively frame our notions of goodness and virtue in terms of emotional reactions to bad things done by others is not an auspicious beginning for ethics. It results in a bad order of explanation that puts negative judgments of others before positive consideration of what is right.

Nietzsche pointed out that this occurs more often than we might think. A recurring emphasis on negative, blaming attitudes toward other people over affirmative values is unfortunately all too common not only in ordinary life and actually existing religious practice, but across what passes for the political spectrum. We ought to distance ourselves from this, and develop our values in positive rather than negative terms. We should aim to be good by what we do, not by contrasting ourselves with those other people. As an antidote to resentment, Nietzsche recommended we cultivate forgetfulness of wrongs done by others. I would add that we can have strong concern for justice without focusing on blame or revenge.

Like Aristotle, but without ever mentioning the connection, Nietzsche emphasized a certain sort of character development, and effectively advocated something close to Aristotle’s notion of magnanimity, or “great-souledness” as contrasted with small-mindedness. But in common with some modern interpretations of “virtue ethics”, Nietzsche tended to make whatever a presumably great-souled person might in fact do into a criterion, and consequently downplayed the role of the rational deliberation jointly emphasized by Aristotle and Kant.

Unfortunately, Nietzsche seems to have been so outraged by what he saw as widespread hypocrisy that he sometimes failed to take his own advice to avoid dwelling on the negative. This comes out in his tendency to make sweeping historical generalizations. Thus, he presented all religion in a negative light, and even went so far as to blame the “moralism” of Socrates and Plato for many later historical ills, while failing to note his own partial convergence with Aristotle.

Even at the peak of my youthful enthusiasm for Nietzsche, this negative judgment of Socrates and Plato always seemed wrong to me. Textual evidence just does not support the attribution of primarily “resentful” attitudes to either of them. On the contrary, Socrates and Plato began a completely unprecedented attempt to understand what is good in positive terms, and took great care to avoid prejudice in the process.

Partly as a consequence of his sweeping rejection of Socrates and Plato, Nietzsche looked for alternate heroes among the pre-Socratics, especially favoring Heraclitus. (In the 20th century, with different motivations, Heidegger expanded on Nietzsche’s valorization of the pre-Socratics over Plato and Aristotle, claiming that Heraclitus and Parmenides “had Being in sight” in ways that Plato and Aristotle did not. This seems to me like nonsense. As distinct from poetry and other artistic endeavors (which I value highly, but in a different way), philosophy is not about primordial vision or its recovery; it is about rational understanding and development toward an end, starting from wherever we actually find ourselves. While the pre-Socratics are important in a sort of prehistory of philosophy, the level of rational development they achieved was minimal. Extended rational development first bloomed with Plato, and then was taken to a yet higher level by Aristotle.)

Nietzsche also denied the reality or effective relevance of anything like Aristotelian potentiality, claiming that only what is actual is real. The semantic or expressive category of potentiality underwrites logical and linguistic modality, which among other things in turn underwrites the possibility of expressing objective judgments of “should”, as well as of causality, of which Nietzsche seems to have taken a Humean view. The general role of potentiality and modality is independent of all issues of the correctness or possibly prejudiced character of particular judgments.

Nietzsche’s denial of potentiality is thus related to a denial of any objective good and evil. It is akin to other views that attempt to explain values by facts. He thought mostly in terms of actually occurring valuations, and did distinguish better from worse ones, but mainly in terms of a kind of ad hominem argument from great-souledness or small-mindedness.

In my view, he should have been content to point out that many particular judgments are prejudiced or incorrect, and at any moment we have no sure way of knowing we accurately recognize which these are. Objectivity in ethics cannot be assumed as a starting point, but that does not mean there can never be any. Where it occurs, it is a relative status that is the product of a development. (See also Genealogy.)

Nietzsche’s poetic notion of the Eternal Return does in a way partly make up for his overly strong denial of any objective good or evil. The Eternal Return works especially as an ethical, selective thought that distinguishes purely affirmative valuations from others. I used to want to think this was enough to recover something objective that acts like a notion of good as affirmativeness, but that is contrary to what he says explicitly.

Why Modality?

Why should we care about something as seemingly esoteric as modality? Without modal concepts like necessary, possible, and should, there could be no knowledge beyond mere acquaintance with particulars, and no ethics at all. Nothing we said could have any force. We could not really even form any general concepts. Nothing would really follow from anything else. The fact that necessary or should is sometimes applied in too strong a way — or that possible is sometimes applied in too abstract a way — does not negate their essential role.

I want to say that modal concepts are properly meaningful only when bound to a context. It is only the lack of proper binding to a context that makes their application too strong or too abstract.

This relation actually goes both ways. Modal assertions not limited by context sound like dogmatism or would-be despotism; but equally, an emphasis on context with no consideration of modality at all would lead to bad relativism or particularism. Modality and context have a kind of complementarity, and need to go together. Either one without the other causes trouble, but the two together ground ethics, knowledge, and wisdom. Their combination is another good example of an Aristotelian mean. (See also Modality and Variation.)

Modality and Variation

David Corfield suggests that modality has to do with ranges of variation. This seems extremely helpful. He connects Brandom’s notion of ranges of counterfactual robustness with mathematical analyses of variation. Corfield approvingly cites Brandom’s argument that in order to successfully apply empirical concepts at all, we must already be able to apply modal concepts like possibility and necessity. This always seemed right to me, but the talk about possible worlds made me worry about what sounded like impossibly strong quantification over infinities of infinities. Corfield also points out that Saul Kripke originally cautioned against uncareful extension of his possible-worlds talk.

It now seems to me that Brandom’s counterfactual robustness and Corfield’s mathematically analyzable variation together can be taken as an explanation for modal notions of necessity that previously seemed to be simply posited, or pulled out of the blue. Modality suddenly looks like a direct consequence of the structure of ranges of variation. Previously, I associated both structure and Brandom’s modally robust counterfactuals with Aristotelian potentiality, so this fits well.

Corfield also relates this to work done by the important 20th century neo-Kantian, Ernst Cassirer, on invariants behind the various systems of Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry. He points out that Cassirer thought similar concerns of variation and invariance implicitly arise in ordinary visual perception, and connects this with Brandom’s thesis that modality is already there in our everyday application of empirical concepts.

The British Empiricist David Hume famously criticized common-sense assumptions about causality and necessity, preferring to substitute talk about our psychological tendencies to associate things that we have experienced together. Hume pointed out that from particular facts, no knowledge of causality or necessity can ever be derived. This is true; no knowledge of necessity could arise from acquaintance with particular facts. But if necessity and other modalities are structural, as Corfield suggests, they do not need to be inferred from particular facts, or to be arbitrarily posited.

The kind of necessity associated with structural determination is quite different from unconditional predestination. I want to affirm the first, and deny the second. Structural determination only applies within well-defined contexts, so it is bounded. If we step outside of the context where it applies, it no longer has force. (See also New Approaches to Modality; Free Will and Determinism.)

Leibniz is more familiar to me than Kripke, so when I hear “possible worlds”, I have tended to imagine complete alternate universes à la Leibniz. “Worlds”, however, could be read much more modestly as just referring to Corfield’s ranges of variation.

Modality

Modality is a way of formally, logically talking about what I would call the higher-order aspects of the ways of being of things. It is most commonly associated with necessity and possibility, but I think these are actually atypical examples that may give a misleading impression of what modality in general is, because necessity and possibility both have a kind of extreme all-or-nothing character that does not hold for modality in general.

I don’t believe quantification across all possible worlds could be interpretable by any process of interpretation, so I don’t consider it even intelligible in an acceptably strong sense, and I also don’t believe in unconditional necessity. Anything real or any truth about it, as well as anything I would accept as a legitimate formal construction, has conditions, even if they are only implicit. So, standard modal logic concerned with operators for these unconditional things — technical interest aside — does not seem very useful to me, because the resulting propositions would be too strong.

I am a bit surprised that Brandom is so charitable toward formal possible-worlds semantics, given his reservations about formalism in general. Technically innovative as it was, this approach seems like an extravagant extreme of infinitary classical representationalism.

Modality itself should be safe from these concerns. At a handwaving level, I imagine an indefinite number of modalities related to particular specifiable conditions, and expressing structural “degrees” or “flavors” of more specific necessity or possibility based on those conditions.

Wilfrid Sellars suggested that modalities should be understood as specific forms of normative bindingness. This seems very helpful as an alternative to extensionalist possible-worlds formalisms. (See also Why Modality?; Modality and Variation; New Approaches to Modality; Deontic Modality; Redding on Morals and Modality.)