Intuition, Presentation, Time

The first part of the detailed discussion of “evidence” in Husserl’s passive synthesis lectures expands on his previous remarks about the interrelations between present intuitions and “presentifications” of what he calls “empty” intentions, which seem to be those pertaining to things that are non-present, but somehow relevant to what is present. It somewhat clarifies what he means by intuition; begins to develop important ideas about the role of time in the synthesis of experience that have some analogy to similar themes in Kant; and introduces Husserl’s reinterpretation of association, which will probably turn out to be the centerpiece of these lectures overall.

There seems to be a two-sided character to Husserl’s development here. On the one hand, he starts with a strong bias in favor of presence and immediacy. On the other, he quickly and repeatedly points out that every present intuition “points beyond its own content” by means of a related horizon of “empty” intentions of contents that are not directly present, but are implied in or by what is directly present. It is this latter aspect that I find especially interesting.

Another term he uses, which seems to subsume both present intuitions and “presentifications”, is “presentation”. Husserl says “Thus there are intuitive presentations of something present that are surely not perceptions of that present something” (Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, p. 110), and these are the presentifications of empty intentions, as in memory and expectation. The suggestion seems to be that no presentation is self-sufficient; as was said above about present intuitions, every presentation also intrinsically points beyond itself. This I would wholeheartedly endorse.

I note here that Husserl says we have intuitive presentifications of memories and expectations that are not themselves present intuitions. I think the idea is that these are synthetically joined together with present intuitions that point to them, and this is what explains the “intuitive but not intuition” status he attributes to them. So far at least, I am not aware that Kant ever spoke of concrete memories or expectations as “intuitive”. Kant did say that general intuitions of space and time are presupposed by our intuitions of the sensible manifold.

Does Husserl think we have intuitions of objects? Does Kant? I think that in both cases, positive answers involve equivocation on what an “object” is. We saw that Husserl speaks of loosely of “objects given to consciousness” by the senses, and refers to an object “in the flesh” that we always have, before quickly pointing out that what we definitely have in the flesh is highly indeterminate. Similarly, I see commentators on Kant sometimes referring to objects being “given” in intuition, but only in an indeterminate way.

It has been pointed out that German has two words that get translated as “object”: the cognate Objekt, and Gegenstand, which literally means “something standing against”. The “standing against” one seems well suited to the indeterminate case, and this would be helpful in resolving this kind of ambiguity about objects.

I think that at least in the context of Kant, it would be wrong to say that intuition gives us proper objects, because I don’t think we have a proper object in Kant until a concept (a universal) is applied. What Kantian intuition gives us is a raw manifold of particulars that can potentially be discriminated into proper objects once concepts are applied.

Husserl says, “[W]hat is past extends unaltered into the future in the manner of an object for consciousness. This future proceeds from the reproduced past and does so in such a way that this future is at the same time co-present, relative to our current perceptual present to which these things here in our current perceptual field belong…. Obviously, expectations are not always like this, merely extending the perceptual moment continuously into the future. Something unknown, something singular never yet experienced can also be fore-seen, like an event that is indeed expected, but yet is singularly new” (p. 111).

“The problem of evidence led us back to the distinctive syntheses of coinciding that forms identities, namely to such syntheses in which intuitions and empty presentations (or intuitions and intuitions) are synthetically united, but whereby empty presentations and their fulfillment once again play an essential role” (ibid).

Here we have the vital point that identities of things are not given to us; as we experience them, they are results of passive synthesis.

“[T]he primary task becomes elucidating the founding level of the passive syntheses of ‘verification’ lying at the basis of all active verification. To do this, however, one must gain deeper insights into the structures of the intuitions and empty presentations that may be functional here…. We will be led to insights into the most universal lawful regularities of essences, to the most universal lawful regularities of structure concerning the unity of transcendental inner life, but also to the most universal lawful regularities of genesis” (p. 112).

“In all of this we find internal structural intertwinings…. Only when we understand them in their structural interrelatedness can we also understand how they function in synthetic interrelatedness, including here, as well, how they can function as confirming or confirmed” (pp. 112-113).

Again, every presentation points beyond itself.

“[I]n the synthesis, we gain an evidence-consciousness, a consciousness that exactly the same [object] that was meant in an empty manner is there in intuition in a genuine way, as the same [object] actually presented…. This is certainly the first aspect of the fundamental lawfulness of the constitution of original time-consciousness: that every lived-experience, speaking most basically, every Now-phase that arises in a primordially impressional manner is continually modified in retention” (p. 114, brackets in original).

Now we have explicit mention of the “constitution of original time-consciousness”. This was an extraordinary idea of Kant that Husserl took up, that our experience of time itself is not something given to us, but is the product of a passive synthesis.

“In our analysis of perception, which was in this regard an analysis of the temporal modes of givenness, we have already touched upon the essentially new role of protentions over against the role of retentions. The rubric, protention, designates the second aspect of genetic primordial lawfulness that strictly governs the life of consciousness as the time-constituting unitary stream” (p. 115).

“In spite of its pure passivity, we spoke of protention as an expectation, with the colorful image of the present meeting the future with open arms. Accordingly, we already speak this way in pure passivity, which is to say, even prior to [actively] grasping and viewing the perceptual object. We did not use such expressions, and we could not use such expressions with respect to retention. In this connection, there is a difference in the way protention and retention function in mindful perception, when we take note [of something] and grasp it. We are mindfully directed, purely and simply, toward the present object, toward the ever new Now that emerges as fulfilling the expectation; and in and through it, it is directed further toward the approaching object. Mindful perceiving follows the protentional continuity. The directedness-ahead, which already lies in passive perception itself, becomes patent in mindful perceiving. On the other hand, there is however not a directedness in the retentional continuity; there is not a directedness that would follow the trail of pasts being pushed back further and further” (p. 116).

This assymmetry between protention and retention tracks with the distinction that we experience time as moving continuously forward, but never backward.

“In order to clarify all this it will do us well initially to go beyond protentions as intentions of expectation, and to draw upon other empty presentations that are structurally related to them, and that are at the same time different from all mere retentions. We have in mind making co-present, memories of the present as forms of intuitive presentations, alongside memories of the past and memories of the future” (pp. 116-117).

He doesn’t explain the reference to “memories of the future”. I can only suppose that what is meant is something like a reproduction of an expectation.

“If we now consider the genetically more original modes of making co-present, then at issue, e.g., for every perceptual object, are its entire horizons that are constitutive of it, horizons that belong immediately to it…. We recognize this peculiar feature with respect to all such presentations: that they exist with other presentations in a synthetic nexus of a special kind, namely, in a synthetic nexus that lies entirely outside of the genre of identifying syntheses or syntheses of coinciding” (p. 117).

He speaks of horizons and pointings-beyond as constitituting the object. They are not some sort of optional decorations that we could choose to ignore, and still have the object. This is vitally important.

“If, from the very beginning, we remain focused most simply on the realm that already has our exclusive interest now, the realm of passive presentations as the material for passively emerging syntheses, then we will be concerned generally speaking with such syntheses in which a presentation points beyond itself to another presentation. The latter gains a new inner character that it otherwise could not have. It is the character of the specific ‘intention’, that is, of teleological directedness, of being-intended, of meantness” (p. 118).

Here we have a genesis in passive synthesis of the famous Husserlian intentionality.

“For want of terms at our disposal, we will avail ourselves of the apposition, ‘passive’, passive intention. And from here on we will speak only of passively intending presentations. At the outset we also want to name the synthesis in which this intention arises: associative synthesis” (pp. 118-119).

I am not greatly enamored of this use of “passive” for something that is really only relatively more passive than something else, but for this exposition I’ll continue following Husserl and use it. I prefer “preconscious”.

We’ll hear much more about the associative synthesis associated with directedness and intentionality later on. For now, it’s worth remarking that its very characterization as a form of synthesis separates it from the more common psycho-physical causal notion of association.

“Indeed, even retentions, those emerging originally, synthetically cohere with one another and with the primordial impression, but this synthesis proper to original time-consciousness is not a synthesis of association; retentions do not arise through an associative awakening directed backward from the impression, and thus, they do not have in themselves a directedness radiating out from there toward the emptily presented past” (p. 119).

Here we have a sharp distinction between the synthesis responsible for our experience of the flow of time and the associative synthesis that generates intentionality.

“I said that retentions, as they arise in their originality, have no intentional character. This does not rule out that in certain circumstances and in their own way they can assume this intentional character later…. Now, how does a retention get this oriented structure? By a subsequent association, of course” (p. 120).

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.

Ricoeur on Husserl on Memory

For Ricoeur in Memory, History, Forgetting, Husserl was simultaneously a source of valuable insights and the “apex” of a “school of inwardness” (p. 97) that threatened to make any social dimension of memory unintelligible.

On the positive side, Husserl clearly recognized that our experience of “now” is not just a point moving along a line, but involves a series of overlapping durations.  He is quoted saying “Since a new now is always entering on the scene, the now changes into a past; and as it does so the whole running-off continuity of pasts belonging to the preceding point moves ‘downwards’ uniformly into the depths of the past” (p. 34).  His other nice image for this was that the now is like a comet with a tail.  The metaphorical comet’s tail corresponds to what Husserl called “retention”, and what I have referred to as a kind of thickness of the present.  This is distinct from the “reproduction” that occurs after recollection or spontaneously.  At least at a first level of approximation, retention is a feature of perception, whereas reproduction involves a reconstruction in imagination.

“The reproach that can be legitimately made to Husserl, at this preliminary stage of his analysis, is to have enclosed the phenomenology of the present within perceived objectivity at the expense of affective and practical objectivity” (p. 33; emphasis added).

Reproductive memory for Husserl belongs to a broader family of intuitive “presentifications”.  Ricoeur suggests that experience of the temporal present for Husserl is inseparable from some form of presentification.

At a certain point in Husserl’s lectures on internal time-consciousness, Ricoeur says, Husserl’s gaze shifted from the constitution of memories with objective content to the constitution of the temporal flow itself within consciousness.  Ricoeur had applauded the earlier emphasis on objective content, and characterizes this shift to the temporal flow itself as a “retreat”.  Husserl is quoted speaking of “absolute subjectivity” in this context (p. 111).  

Ricoeur suggests that this paved the way for Husserl’s later “egological” moves that seemed to completely reverse his early motto “To the things themselves!”  The self-constitution of the internal time flow is associated with a solitary “I”.  “The primacy accorded in this way to the self-constitution of the temporal flow does not make immediately apparent the obstacles raised by this extreme subjectivism to the idea of the simultaneous constitution of individual memory and of collective memory” (p. 114).  

Ricoeur thus seems to suggest that the later Husserl’s theory of intersubjectivity, though containing valuable points of interest, ultimately fails — at least in Husserl’s own version that is tied to an egological foundation — to sufficiently shift the center of gravity back away from the egological dimension.  I think Ricoeur wants to say that an adequate account of subjectivity needs to take intersubjectivity into account from the beginning, and not treat it as an add-on.

According to Ricoeur, Husserl’s shift from “objective” to purely reflexive analysis of memories leads to a reduction of memory and memory’s directedness toward objects to purely internal retention, and the reduction of memory to retention results in a dubious “triumph of presence”.  

Turning to Husserl’s discussion of intersubjectivity in his Fifth Cartesian Meditation, which Ricoeur translated early in his career and on which he previously wrote a detailed study, he notes that Husserl speaks of the “reduction of transcendental experience to the sphere of ownness” (p. 118).  Ricoeur comments, “This forced passage by way of the sphere of ownness is essential to the interpretation of what follows” (ibid).  “[M]ust we begin with the idea of ownness, pass through the experience of the other, and finally proceed to a third operation, said to be the communalization of subjective experience?  Is this chain truly irreversible?  Is it not the speculative presupposition of transcendental idealism that imposes this irreversibility, rather than any constraint characteristic of phenomenological description?” (p. 119).

This methodological emphasis on “ownness” seems to be a result of the historical influence of Locke. “Plato… did not ask to whom the memory ‘happens’.  Aristotle, investigating the operation of recollection, did not inquire about the one who performs the task” (pp. 125-126).  Strawson in his analyses of ordinary language argued that “if a phenomenonon is self-ascribable, it is other-ascribable….  We cannot be doing the one without doing the other” (p. 127).  This sounds like something Brandom might also say.

For Ricoeur, the possibility of multiple ascription presupposes the possibility of suspension of ascription.  It is therefore incompatible with a Lockean insistence on the necessary priority of ownness.  He notes that Alfred Schutz developed a phenomenology that put the experience of others on an equal footing with the experience of self.

He closes this section with a suggestion that close relations with others form a sort of middle ground between the individual and the abstractly social.  (See also Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation; Ricoeur on Augustine on Memory; Ricoeur on Locke on Personal Identity; Husserlian and Existential Phenomenology; Phenomenological Reduction?; I-Thou, I-We.)