Associative Synthesis

We have reached the heart of Husserl’s passive synthesis lectures, a long subdivision on associative synthesis. This is Husserl’s re-visioning of the classic notion of association that empirical psychology ultimately derived from Locke and Hume. For Husserl, it will provide the key to the constitution of subjectivity overall.

Rather than treating association in terms of a notion of psycho-physical causality, he wants to explain it as as a product of synthesis. As Husserl now reminds us, he has been implicitly working under the phenomenological reduction, which puts “in brackets” all questions of external existence and natural causality. He focuses on what to my Aristotelian eye look like questions of form and of a kind of teleology immanent to the subject matter.

Here he again refers to Kant’s discussion of synthesis in the Critique of Pure Reason (see Capacity to JudgeFigurative Synthesis). Husserl claims that he will go further than Kant in explicitly discussing synthesis of immanent contents of consciousness, as well as apprehensions of objects of external perception. For both Husserl and Kant, all this is closely bound up with the constitution of our experience of time. Memory and expectation will again play a key role.

“[T]he path is cleared from here toward a universal theory of the genesis of a pure subjectivity, and in particular, initially in relation to its lower level of pure passivity. Phenomenological eidetic [form-oriented] analyses of consciousness constituting a temporal objectlike formation already led to the beginnings of a lawful regularity of genesis prevailing in subjective life. We see very quickly that the phenomenology of association is, so to speak, a higher continuation of the doctrine of original time-constitution. Through association, the constitutive accomplishment is extended to all levels of apperception” (Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, p. 163).

“The doctrine of the genesis of reproductions and of their formations is the doctrine of association in the first and more genuine sense. But inseparably connected to this, or rather, grounded upon this is a higher level of association and doctrine of association, namely, a doctrine of the genesis of expectations, and closely related to it, the genesis of apperceptions to which belong the horizons of actual and possible expectations. All in all, it concerns the genesis of the phenomena of expectation, that is, of those specific intentions that are anticipatory” (p. 164).

Association, as Husserl analyzes it, is constituted from memories of things similar to the present object. In turn, it is from particular associations that particular expectations are constituted. Now we see memory and expectation linked together in a larger process that is precisely one of association.

“But it is precisely the analysis of associative phenomena that draws our attention to the fact that consciousness must not necessarily be a consciousness of a single object for itself, and accordingly, we touch on a new problem here: how a consciousness of something particular and how a consciousness of explicit particulars becomes possible as a consciousness of a multiplicity and a consciousness of wholeness; namely, a comparative analysis also shows the opposing possibility of many [elements], indeed, a multiplicity being continually fused into a unity within one consciousness, [implicitly], such that consciousness is not a consciousness of a multiplicity, a consciousness that becomes aware of separated particulars in a unitary and yet separate manner” (p. 165).

Here he is leading up to the central role of the experience of time, simultaneity, and streaming in the constitution of subjectivity and in turn of external experience, already foreshadowed above.

“We realize, then, that it really concerns nothing else than clarifying the fundamental problem, the basic, essential conditions of the possibility of a subjectivity itself. What must belong to it so that a subjectivity can have the essential sense without which it could not be subjectivity, [namely,] the sense of an existing subjectivity being for itself, and precisely thereby of a subjectivity constituting itself as being for itself? Certainly, a complete phenomenology of reproductive awakening concerns and exhausts this problem only with respect to the one side, namely, with respect to the constitution of one’s past, or rather, the constitution of the self-having-been in endless immanent time. But we will see that the supplementary part, the other half of the problem, is the realm of the phenomenology of inductive, anticipatory association. Here we will make clear the essential conditions of the possibility of a subjectivity that can know itself as identically one, having its inherent endless future life” (p. 169).

“Awakening” seems to be Husserl’s preferred term for the activation of memory that is somehow relevant to what is present. This may relate to a distinction I have found obscure so far, between memory as “empty” intention and “intuitive” memory. My difficulty has been that no memory, insofar as it is of the past, concerns a present object, so it seems to me as though all memory then would be what he calls empty intention. But perhaps the “intuitive” memory is a memory of a past object insofar as it is related to an intuited present object.

“Clearly, what is presupposed is the synthesis that is continually accomplished in original time-consciousness. In the concretely full, streaming living present we have present, past, and future life already united in a certain mode of givenness. But this manner in which subjectivity becomes conscious of its past and future life along with its inherent intentional contents is an incomplete one. The aforementioned manner would be meaningless for the ego if there were no awakening, for the retentions are empty and even sink into the undifferentiated retentional background. Our consciousness of the protentional future is especially empty. On the other hand, there would be no progress at all without this beginning. In the ABCs of the constitution of all objectivity given to consciousness and of subjectivity as existing for itself, here is the ‘A’. It consists, we might say, in a universal, formal framework, in a synthetically constituted form in which all other possible syntheses must participate.”

As in Kant, the experience of time for Husserl is a synthetic construct that anchors things like identities of objects, as well as the overall shape of consciousness.

“Still many other types of syntheses are transcendental in the special sense, as apodictically [demonstrably] necessary for the genesis of a subjectivity (which is indeed only conceivable in genesis). As we said, these syntheses run their course together with the synthesis constituting the temporal form of all objects, and thus must co-relate to the temporal content, the temporally formed content of the object” (pp. 170-171).

“Since the spatial world is constituted through consciousness, since it can only be there for us as existing and can only be conceived at all by virtue of certain syntheses carried out in immanence, it is clear that the constitutive problems of the world presuppose the doctrine of the necessary, most general structures and the synthetic shapes of immanence that are possible in general” (p. 171).

Working under the phenomenological reduction, he is not concerned with the transcendent existence of external objects, but only with the more particular ways in which they are immanently determined or determinable as meanings for us.

“What is constituted universally through these syntheses is known under the rubric of coexistence and succession of all immanent objects in relation to one another” (p. 172).

The universality here has to do with the generality of the form of the experience of the flow of time.

“Accordingly, corresponding to every Now is a universal synthesis. Through this synthesis, a universal concrete present is constituted, a present into which all particulars that are set off from one another are integrated. Further, the fact that the Now streams in and through temporal orientations implies at the same time another universal synthesis in constituting life whereby we are conscious of the presents coursing as a sequential unity” (p. 173).

The integral Now and the streaming sequence of Nows are in effect the outermost frames in which all concrete experience is constituted as coherent.

“This is the most general and the most primary synthesis that necessarily connects all particular objects of which we become conscious…. But naturally, the synthesis of time-consciousness also contains (and already as a presupposition for possible coexistences and succession) that synthesis in which one object is constituted as identically one or (what amounts to the same thing) as enduringly one in streaming manifolds…. [T]ime-consciousness is the primordial place of the constitution of the unity of identity or of an objectlike formation, and then of the forms of connection of coexistence and succession of all objectlike formations” (ibid).

“But what gives unity to the particular object with respect to content, what makes up the differences between each of them with respect to content…, what makes division possible and the relation between parts in consciousness, and so forth — the analysis of time alone cannot tell us, for it abstracts precisely from content. Thus, it does not give us any idea of the necessary synthetic structures of the steaming present and of the unitary stream of the presents — which in some way concerns the particularity of content” (p. 174).

The implicit distinction between the constitution of identities of objects in the quotation before last, on the one hand, and that of their unities with respect to content in the quotation immediately above, on the other, is not yet clear to me. It makes sense that the general forms of time, coexistence, and succession do not tell us the whole story about particular concrete objects. I do not see, however, how it would be possible to constitute the identities of concrete objects — in Aristotelian terms, their surface status as “substances” in the sense of things persisting through change — without taking into account their content, or their deeper substantiality in the sense of “what it was to have been” the things in question. I expect that he will have more to say about the content in what follows, so hopefully this will be clarified.

The very idea of treating subjectivity as something constituted opens up a huge new territory that later authors like Foucault, Ricoeur, and de Libera have substantially developed, and in which I have been tremendously interested. The works that Husserl published in his lifetime seemed to me mainly to focus on the constitution of objects by a subjectivity that was somewhat taken for granted. That Husserl in fact went beyond this is important to recognize. (See also Passive Synthesis: Conclusion.)

Intention and Intuition

Husserl continues his passive synthesis lectures with more discussion of intuition as a confirmation of the concordance of intentions. It now seems pretty clear that intuition for Husserl is all about the “presentness” of presentations, and unlike the common usage does not involve any leaps. He distinguishes between intuitions that are “self-giving” (principally, external perceptions), and those that are not self-giving, but instead involve a “presentification”, like memories and expectations. He discusses at some length the question whether it is possible in advance to know which of our general intentions and presentations can potentially be confirmed in intuition.

He speaks of intentions “wanting” and “striving” to be fulfilled in present intuition, but contrasts this with a wish or will. Instead, it seems to be a more elemental directedness toward filling in the metaphorical hole in what he calls the “empty” intentions that are not correlated to a present object in intuition from external perception. Preconscious beliefs about an external object are subject to a kind of preconscious corroboration by comparison to direct impressions from sense perception.

I like the quasi-personification of intentions and intuitions here, as “wanting” or “giving themselves” (see Ideas Are Not Inert). Plato in the Republic compared the soul to a city or community of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, thus suggesting that the kind of unity the soul has is comparable to the kind of unity a concrete community has. All our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions thus need not be attributed monolithically to a single, central agent; rather, our agency as individuals is the combined effect of numerous specialized, more or less cooperating but somewhat decentralized agencies.

All our intentions “want” to coalesce into the unity of a world.

“That we have a consciousness of our own life as a life endlessly streaming along; that we continually have an experiencing consciousness in this life, but in connection to this in the widest parameters, an emptily presenting consciousness of an environing-world — this is the accomplishment of unity out of manifold, multifariously changing intentions, intuitive and non-intuitive intentions that are nonetheless concordant with one another: intentions that in their particularity coalesce to form concrete syntheses again and again. But these complex syntheses cannot remain isolated. All particular syntheses, through which things in perception, in memory, etc., are given, are surrounded by a general milieu of empty intentions being ever newly awakened; and they do not float there in an isolated manner, but rather, are themselves synthetically intertwined with one another. For us the universal synthesis of harmonizing intentional syntheses corresponds to ‘the’ world, and belonging to it is a universal belief-certainty.”

“Yet as we already mentioned, there are breaks here and there, discordances; many a partial belief is crossed out and becomes a disbelief, many a doubt arises and remains unsolved for a time, and so forth. But ultimately, proper to every disbelief is a positive belief of a new materially relevant sense, to every doubt a materially relevant solution; and now if the world gets an altered sense through many particular changes, there is a unity of synthesis in spite of such alterations running through the successive sequence of universal intendings of a world — it is one and the same world, an enduring world, only, as we say, corrected in its particular details, which is to say, freed from ‘false apprehensions’; it is in itself the same world. All of this seems very simple, and yet it is full of marvelous enigmas and gives rise to profound considerations” (Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, pp. 145-146).

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.)

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.

Neoplatonic Critique of Identity?

A common theme of much 20th century continental philosophy was criticism of presumed identities of people and things. Writers like Theodor Adorno and Michel Foucault, to name but two, systematically questioned the role of identity in our understanding of the world. Edmund Husserl had recommended suspending judgments of existence in favor of the concrete description of essences; starting especially from a historiographical point of view, Foucault recommended suspension of judgments of pre-existing unity in favor of a concrete description of differences.

Later neoplatonism like that of Proclus (412-485 CE) is commonly associated with an extreme “realist” multiplication of metaphysical entities that implicitly had their own presupposed identities. The positive side of this is a rich view of differentiation metaphysically underpinning the diversity of concrete being. But the neoplatonic technical term hypostasis is the etymological source of our verb “to hypostasize”, which basically means to attempt to artificially impose more unity on something than it really has.

But especially if we go back to Plotinus (204/5 – 270 CE), and also in later authors, there is a strong strand of what might be called “negative henology” in neoplatonism. Plotinus was the main originator of so-called negative theology in the West. Negative theology indirectly gives meaning to the notion of transcendence by pointing out how every definite description falls short of adequately characterizing God. Hen is Greek for “one”, so by analogy with negative theology, a negative henology would be an account of how everything falls short of the pure unity of the One — in other words, how things that we think of as pre-existing unities are less unified than we suppose.

Hand in hand with this perspective comes the recognition that unity has many degrees. There are a few strong unities and many weak ones, and many degrees in between. As Plotinus recognized, nothing real has the pure unity of the One. (See also Power of the One?Plotinus Against the Gnostics; Subjectivity in Plotinus.)

Droplets of Sentience?

One somewhat speculative theme I’ve been developing here is the suggestion that our basic sentience or awareness has only a very loose unity, like that of a liquid. The idea is that sentience attaches primarily to our concrete thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, which can then flow together like droplets of water. Consciousness is not a matter of being a spectator of some internal theater. It attaches directly to the action of the play, so to speak. (See Ideas Are Not Inert; Imagination: Aristotle, Kant).

William James famously spoke of the “stream” of consciousness. I take this to be quite different from the unity of apperception that Kant talked about. The unity of a stream of consciousness is very loose and constantly changing, but that loose unity is a matter of fact. The unity of a unity of apperception on the other hand is quite strong, but it is a teleological tendency or a moral imperative, and not a matter of fact.

When we say “I”, that refers primarily to a unity of apperception — our constellation of commitments. This has much greater relative stability than our stream of consciousness. It is also what I think Aquinas was reaching for in claiming a strong moral unity of personal “intellect”. By contrast, one of the great modern errors is the equation “I am my consciousness”.

Personhood

We intuitively grasp a kind of unity of each human person, but have no special, privileged mode of knowledge of persons as individuals. Common sense tends to be rather dogmatic, and glosses over many distinctions in such matters. Plato compared the soul to a city, a sort of community of thoughts and desires — a kind of unity to be sure, but a relatively weak one. In Kantian terms, human persons seem to be distinguished from everything else by somehow being the nexus of combination of otherwise very distinct empirical and transcendental domains.

Considerations of change over time further complicate the picture, but may also provide a kind of guiding thread. A factual “me” is mainly a retrospective construction. A normative “I” on the other hand has both retrospective and prospective aspects. Brandom’s and Pippin’s readings of Hegel emphasize that we should think of agency and acts as always comprising both a partially constituted, retrospectively constructed past and a yet-to-be-determined future. Ricoeur has developed a temporally extended, retrospective and prospective notion of self as an ethical aim or promise rather than an existing actuality. Such an aim or promise, it seems to me, can have a much stronger unity than we could legitimately claim as an existing actuality.

Rather than conflating the empirical and transcendental, as in the Latin medieval notion of an “intellectual soul” — or inflating a notion of empirical self to fill the whole space of subjectivity, in the common modern way — we can tie the unification of empirical and transcendental elements to that prospective aim or promise, without asserting it in the present. (See also Empirical-Transcendental Doublet?; Two Kinds of Character; Narrated Time; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Hegel on Willing.)