Husserl on Perception

“External perception is a constant pretension to accomplish something that, by its very nature, it is not in a position to accomplish. Thus, it harbors an essential contradiction, as it were. My meaning will soon become clear to you once you intuitively grasp how the objective sense exhibits itself as a unity in the unending manifolds of possible appearances; and seen upon closer inspection, how the continual synthesis, as a unity of coinciding, allows the same sense to appear, and how a consciousness of ever new possibilities of appearance constantly persists over against the factual, limited courses of appearance, transcending them.”

“Let us begin by noting that the aspect, the perspectival adumbration through which every spatial object invariably appears, only manifests the spatial object from one side. No matter how completely we may perceive a thing, it is never given in perception with the characteristics that qualify it and make it up as a sensible thing from all sides at once. We cannot avoid speaking of such and such sides of the object that are actually perceived. Every aspect, every continuity of single adumbrations, regardless how far this continuity may extend, offers us only sides. And to our mind this is not just a statement of fact: it is inconceivable that external perception would exhaust the sensible-material content of its perceived object; it is inconceivable that a perceptual object could be given in the entirety of its sensibly intuitive features, literally, from all sides at once in a self-contained perception” (Husserl, Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, pp. 39-40).

Adumbration is something like foreshadowing.

While many of his contemporaries were caught up in the logical empiricist enthusiasm for literal “sense data” as the supposedly rock-solid foundation for knowledge, Husserl was taking an extremely original approach to a more classical view of the inherent limiting and “transcending” features of sense perception, explicitly bringing out implicit characteristics of any possible seeing of physical objects that seem clear as soon as we bring them into focus and reflect on them.

We need not take something like Plato’s refusal to treat sensation as a source of knowledge as a case of repugnance toward physicality. With Husserl’s help we can “see” a more specific grounding of Plato’s view in reasons inherent to the subject matter. Husserl’s exceptionally clear examples in the realm of visual perception also provide a kind of model for understanding something like Hegel’s frequent complaints against “one-sided” points of view.

“When we view the table, we view it from some particular side…. Yet the table has still other sides” (p. 40). “It is clear that a non-intuitive pointing beyond or indicating is what characterizes the side actually seen as a mere side” (p. 41). “In every moment of perceiving, the perceived is what it is in its mode of appearance [as] a system of referential implications…. And it calls out to us, as it were, in these referential implications: ‘There is still more to see here, turn me so you can see all my sides, let your gaze run through me, draw closer to me, divide me up; keep on looking at me over again and again…'” (ibid).

“These indications are at the same time tendencies that push us toward the appearances not given…. They are pointers into an emptiness since the non-actualized appearances are neither consciously intended nor presentified. In other words, everything that genuinely appears is an appearing thing only by virtue of being intertwined and permeated with an intentional empty horizon, that is, by virtue of being surrounded by a halo of emptiness with respect to appearance. It is an emptiness that is not a nothingness, but an emptiness to be filled-out; it is a determinable indeterminacy” (p. 42).

“In spite of its emptiness, the sense of this halo of consciousness is a prefiguring that prescribes a rule for the transition to new actualizing appearances…. This holds time and again for every perceptual phase of the streaming process of perceiving…. There is a constant process of anticipation, of preunderstanding” (pp. 42-43).

“[A]s soon as a new side becomes visible, a side that has just been visible disappears from sight….But what has become non-visible is not cognitively lost for us…. Having already once seen the back side of an unfamiliar object and, turning back to perceive the front side, the empty premonition of the back side now has a determinate prefiguring that it did not have previously” (pp. 45-46).

“The fact that a re-perception, a renewed perception of the same thing, is possible for transcendence characterizes the fundamental trait of transcendent perception, alone through which an abiding world is there for us, a reality that can be pregiven for us and can be freely at our disposal” (p. 47).

Here “transcendence” just refers to the various characteristics of the incomplete perception of spatial objects he is pointing out.

“[W]e see that every perception [implicitly] invokes an entire perceptual system; every appearance that arises in it implies an entire system of appearances” (p. 48). “What is already given to consciousness in a primordial-impressional manner points to new modes of appearance through its halo which, when occurring, emerge as partly confirming, partly determining more closely…. Advancing along this line, the empty intentions are transformed respectively into expectations” (p. 49).

Perception gives us the very opposite of isolated sense data. Every perception is connected to other perceptions.

“If we ask, finally, what gives unity within every temporal point of the momentary appearance… we will also come across reciprocal intentions that are fulfilled simultaneously and reciprocally” (p. 50).

Substance in the elementary sense of something persisting through change emerges from networks of mutually reinforcing cross-references.

“We can never think the given object without empty horizons in any phase of perception and, what amounts to the same thing, without apperceptive adumbration. With adumbration there is simultaneously a pointing beyond what is exhibiting itself in a genuine sense. Genuine exhibition is itself, again, not a pure and simple possession on the model of immanence with its esse = percipi [to be = to be perceived]; instead, it is a partially fulfilled intention that contains unfulfilled indications that point beyond” (p. 56).

“[I]n the process of perceiving, the sense itself is continually cultivated so in steady transformation, constantly leaving open the possibility of new transformations” (p. 57).

Everything we perceive reaches beyond itself, raising new questions.

“We always have the external object in the flesh (we see it, grasp, seize it), and yet it is always at an infinite distance mentally. What we do grasp of it pretends to be its essence; and it is it too, but it remains so only in an incomplete approximation, an approximation that grasps something of it, but in doing so also constantly grasps into emptiness that cries out for fulfillment” (pp. 58-59).

I suggested above that what Husserl illustrates so clearly about visual perception can serve as a model for other things. In particular, I think both facts and beliefs share the perspectival character of visual perception of spatial objects, because they revolve around analogous issues of correspondence with something external.

The very best and most complete facts about anything at best resemble a collection of still views of a tree from different angles, like the sides of the table in Husserl’s example. The virtue of facts is that they are supposed to be individually self-contained, and individually verifiable by correspondence to states of affairs. Even leaving aside all questions of interpretation that tend to unravel this putative self-containedness, by virtue of their isolation all individual facts still remain “one-sided” or perspectival, like individual still views of the tree.

Even the most complete collection or sequence of still views fails to capture the simultaneous many-sided unity-in-diversity of the concrete tree. The real concrete unity of the tree is not factual but teleological and “transcendental”, forever out of reach of a merely factual approach.

If this is true of the best possible facts, I would say it must also be true of the best possible beliefs, because both revolve around a kind of correspondence to states of affairs. The difference is that beliefs are just assertions of correspondence between what we say and what “is”. But to qualify as a fact, an assertion must also be verifiable by correspondence.

But verification by correspondence can only apply to what appears, not to what “is”, so facts only apply to what appears about states of affairs. Facts in effect just are verifiable appearances. They are an instance of what Plato called “true opinion”. They are objects of justified true belief, and potentially of a kind of subjective “certainty”.

Beliefs on the other hand usually reach beyond appearances toward what is, so although they assert a kind of correspondence, they cannot in general be verified by correspondence. Their well-foundedness in the general case has to do with a goodness of reasons. Well-foundedness by reasons falls short of certainty in one way, but it reaches deeper. It is potentially less subject to perturbation, because it does not directly depend on appearances or correspondence.

I think knowledge is something stronger than well-founded belief. Unlike facts and beliefs, I want to say that knowledge in the proper sense has nothing to do with correspondence to something outside itself. Also, well-founded beliefs may depend on assumptions that could eventually be refuted, but “knowledge” in the sense I want to give it does not depend on any assumptions either.

Contrary to common usage, then, I want to say that facts are not knowledge, and even certainty about appearances is not knowledge.

Judgments of correspondence — including beliefs and facts and certainties about appearance — seem to me to be inherently perspectival in the way that Husserl talks about. On the other hand, that rare thing called knowledge, in the way I am using the term, would be immune to perspectival limitations, because it does not depend on correspondence at all. (See also Husserl on Passive Synthesis; Opinion, Belief, Knowledge?; Sense Certainty?; Taking “Things” as True; Berkeley on Perception; Platonic Truth; Everyday Belief; A Criterion for Knowledge?; McDowell on the Space of Reasons; The Non-Primacy of Perception.)

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.)

Figurative Synthesis

I wanted to extract a few more key points from Beatrice Longuenesse’s landmark study Kant and the Capacity to Judge. She strongly emphasizes that judgment for Kant refers to a complex activity, not a simple reaching of conclusions. She especially stresses the role of a capacity to judge that precedes any particular judgment and is grounded in a synthesis of imagination. (See Capacity to Judge; Imagination: Aristotle, Kant; Kantian Synthesis.)

At issue here is the very capacity for discursive thought, as well as “the manner in which things are given to us” (p. 225, emphasis in original), which for Kant involves what he called intuition. (See also Beauty and Discursivity).

Through careful textual analysis, Longuenesse argues that Kant’s claim to derive logical categories from forms of judgment makes far more sense than most previous commentators had recognized. For Kant, she argues, the “forms of judgment” are not just logical abstractions but essential cognitive acts that reflect “universal rules of discursive thought” (p. 5).

She recalls Kant’s insistence that the early modern tradition was wrong to take categorical judgments (simple predications like “A is B“) as the model for judgments in general. For Kant, hypothetical and disjunctive judgments (“if A then B” and “not both A and B“, respectively) are more primitive. These correspond to the judgments of material consequence and material incompatibility that Brandom argues form the basis of real-world reasoning.

Another distinctive Kantian thesis is that space and time are neither objective realities nor discursive concepts that we apply. Rather, they are intuitions and necessary forms of all sensibility. Kantian intuitions are produced by the synthesis of imagination according to definite rules.

“[I]ntuition is a species of cognition (Erkenntnis), that is, a conscious representation related to an object. As such it is distinguished from mere sensation, which is a mere state of the subject, by itself unrelated to any object…. One might say that, in intuition, the object is represented even if it is not recognized (under a concept).” (pp. 219-220, emphasis in original).

Before we apply any concepts or judgments, “Representational receptivity, the capacity to process affections into sensations (conscious representations), must also be able to present these sensations in an intuition of space and an intuition of time. This occurs when the affection from outside is the occasion for the affection from inside — the figurative synthesis. The form of the receptive capacity is thus a merely potential form, a form that is actualized only by the figurative synthesis” (p. 221, emphasis in original).

“[A]ccording to Locke, in this receptivity to its own acts the mind mirrors itself, just as in sensation it mirrors outer objects…. Kant shares with Locke the conception of inner sense as receptivity, but he no longer considers the mind as a mirror, either in relation to itself or in relation to objects…. Just as the thing in itself that affects me from outside is forever unknowable to me, I who affect myself from within by my own representative act am forever unknowable to me” (p. 239, emphasis added).

The point that the mind is not a mirror — either of itself or of the world — is extremely important. The mirror analogy Kant is rejecting is a product of early modern representationalism. We can still have well-founded beliefs about things of which we have no knowledge in a strict sense.

“Kant’s explanation is roughly this: our receptivity is constituted in such a way that objects are intuited as outer objects only in the form of space. But the form of space is itself intuited only insofar as an act, by which the ‘manifold of a given cognition is brought to the objective unity of apperception’, affects inner sense. Thanks to this act the manifold becomes consciously perceived, and this occurs only in the form of time” (p. 240, emphasis in original).

She develops Kant’s idea that mathematics is grounded in this kind of intuition, ultimately derived from the conditions governing imaginative synthesis. In particular, for Kant our apprehensions of unities and any kind of identification of units are consequences of imaginative synthesis.

“Extension and figure belong to the ‘pure intuition’ of space, which is ‘that in which the manifold of appearances can be ordered’, that is, that by limitation of which the extension and figure of a given object are delineated. Therefore, space and time provide the form of appearances only insofar as they are themselves an intuition: a pure intuition, that is, an intuition preceding and conditioning all empirical intuition; and an undivided intuition, that is, an intuition that is presupposed by other intuitions rather than resulting from their combinations” (p. 219, emphasis in original).

“According to Locke, the idea of unity naturally accompanies every object of our senses, and the idea of number arises from repeating the idea of unity and associating a sign with each collection thus generated by addition of units…. But for Kant, the idea (the concept) of a unit is not given with each sensory object. It presupposes an act of constituting a homogeneous multiplicity…. Thus the idea of number is not the idea of a collection of given units to which we associate a sign, but the reflected representation of a rule for synthesis, that is, for the act of constituting a homogeneous multiplicity. When such an act is presented a priori in intuition, a concept of number is constructed.” (p. 260, emphasis in original).

“Mathematics has no principles in the absolute sense required by reason. Axioms are not universal propositions cognized by means of pure concepts. They may be universally and apodeictically true, but their truth is based on the pure intuition of space, not derived from pure concepts according to the principle of contradiction” (p. 287).

Incidentally, Longuenesse thinks it does not follow from Kant’s account that space is necessarily Euclidean, as many commentators have believed and Kant himself suggested.

Form vs Action

Lately I’ve been assembling materials for a contrast between two different “root metaphors” that have been used in making sense of life, the world, and things — one a notion of form associated especially with Aristotle, and the other a Latin scholastic and modern notion of action. This is also related to the historical transformation of the notion of efficient cause and of causality in general.

The first thing to note is that these are families of metaphors rather than uniform applications of the “same” two concepts. Literal shapes, linguistic meanings, and patterns of activity are all called “forms”, but do not reflect the same concept. The “action” of creation from nothing and that of mechanical impulse are two entirely different concepts.

The unifying themes, I think, are that “action” is supposed to be something more or less simple, immediate, and instantaneous, supporting what is supposed to be a kind of bottom-up, foundational explanation of things, whereas “form” always involves some “intensional” complexity and mediation; may involve extension in time and space that further ramifies that intensional complexity and mediation; and supports a kind of “middle-out” explanation that begins with reflection on middle-sized elements of actual experience, rather than a posited foundation of ultimate simple constituents.

(For some additional complications regarding the above simple picture of action, see A Thomistic Grammar of Action.)