Arguably the most central aspect of Husserlian philosophy is the concept of intentionality, a concept that Husserl developed from his teacher Franz Brentano, who in turn ultimately derived it from medieval scholastic philosophy. So, what is intentionality? Husserl’s notion of intentionality should not be confused with the ordinary use of the word “intentional,” which means something deliberate or by choice. In essence, intentionality for Husserl refers to the truth that all consciousness is, explicitly or implicitly, of something. As philosopher and historian Dermot Moran writes, “Our consciousness always has directedness.”1 For example, perception is always the perception of a perceptible object, remembering is always the remembering of a remembered object, judgment is always judgment about a judged state of affairs, etc. The most important implication of intentionality is that there is no such thing as “free-floating consciousness”: consciousness is not a container.
Intentionality sets Husserl apart from most of the modern philosophers. For thinkers such as Rene Descartes, John Locke, and David Hume, awareness is roughly comparable to a box which is filled with ideas and sensations.
This view of consciousness leads directly to the famous “egocentric predicament”: if consciousness is a container, and we are only directly aware of our own thoughts that fill this container, then how can we have any certainty about the real world outside of us? How do we know if our ideas correspond to anything objective, since we can only know our own ideas and thus cannot compare them to anything else?
Husserl answers these questions by denying their foundation. As philosopher and Husserl-scholar Robert Sokolowski writes, “Phenomenology shows that the mind is a public thing, that it acts and manifests itself out in the open, not just inside its own confines.”2 For Husserl, consciousness and reality are like the two poles of a magnet: they are correlated to each other. As you cannot have a game of chess without two players, so you cannot have consciousness without both subject and object. In short, to be conscious is to already be aware of the world.
What do you think about intentionality and the claim that consciousness is not a container? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section.
1 Dermot Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, (New York: Routledge, 2000), 157.
2 Robert Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 12.