My journey into the world of the transcendental

[This is a rather long post, and it may be somewhat obscure to those unfamiliar with Husserlian phenomenology. I apologize for any obscurity, and I promise to elucidate more fully in the future the many topics touched on here.]

I started reading Edmund Husserl’s texts seriously several years ago when I was in the middle of my Master’s studies in philosophy. Of course, even before that I had a certain familiarity with Husserl, but it was only when I took a Modern and Contemporary Philosophy course that I began taking notice of Husserlian phenomenology. I was initially intrigued by Husserl: he was willing to seriously engage with modern philosophy and yet his approach to philosophy was essentially different from that of the modern philosophical tradition. For example, I was fascinated by the differences and similarities between Immanuel Kant and Husserl. Husserl’s mature philosophy is overtly a form of “transcendental idealism” (that is, it considers consciousness to be a necessary condition for the emergence of the world as real), and much of Husserl’s important vocabulary is adopted from Kant. However, in opposition to Kant, Husserl maintains that we can have direct insights into the “essences” of things (that is, into what things are, their general forms or innate possibilities), and Husserl sharply criticizes Kant for his notion of the “thing-in-itself” and for his apparent “anthropologism” (that is, for reducing truth to merely human categories).

After the Modern and Contemporary Philosophy course concluded, I still felt far from satisfied with my understanding of Husserl. Indeed, I realized I had barely scratched the surface, and so I started reading Husserl’s major works and taking notes. It was not long before I knew that I wanted to write my future Master’s thesis on something related to Husserlian phenomenology. This, combined with the fact I had been studying Aristotle for many years, eventually led me to choose as my thesis topic a comparison between Aristotle and Husserl on the relation between consciousness and the world. In particular, I was intrigued by the similarities and differences between Husserl’s transcendental idealism and Aristotle’s “epistemological realism” (that is, the view that the world is in some sense independent of consciousness although it is knowable by it).

I began my investigation of Husserlian phenomenology unsure about Husserl’s epistemological stance as well as about his philosophy in general. I knew there was a debate among scholars as to whether Husserl was an idealist or not, and it cannot be denied that certain passages in Ideas almost seem to imply that the world of experience is constructed by the mind. However, Husserl also explicitly denies that he is a traditional idealist, and even in my first reading of Ideas, Husserl’s philosophy reminded me of Aristotle’s in many ways: he defended the existence and knowability of essences, he argued against naturalism, etc. So, I continued to read and reread Husserl. Then, several months into my studies, I came across renowned scholar Karl Ameriks’ paper entitled “Husserl’s Realism.” In it, Ameriks surprisingly argues that Husserlian transcendental idealism is essentially a form of epistemological realism. That paper is what really “opened the door” to the possibility that Husserl’s philosophy might indeed be largely compatible with that of Aristotle. Ameriks offers explanations of many of the apparently idealist passages in Husserl, along with arguments for Husserl’s realism. However, one short paper could not define a great and complex philosopher like Husserl, and so I continued to research the issues. Indeed, on the other side of the debate, I discovered that several of Husserl’s students took him to be a traditional idealist, such as Edith Stein. Reading her “Excursus on Transcendental Idealism”, in Potency and Act, was quite intriguing, and it definitely made me think more carefully about Husserlian phenomenology.

However, then I discovered and purchased Robert Sokolowski’s The Formation of Husserl’s Concept of Constitution and John Drummond’s Husserlian Intentionality and Non Foundational Realism. These books are comprehensive and they explore all the important issues relating to Husserl’s view of the relation between consciousness and the world. In his book, Sokolowski traces the development of Husserl’s notion of “constitution” (that is, how subjectivity allows objectivity to emerge as real) from the Philosophy of Arithmetic to the Cartesian Meditations and Formal and Transcendental Logic. I found it quite fascinating to follow the maturation of Husserl in terms of constitution, particularly because it is so pertinent to the issue of realism vs. Idealism. Sokolowski argues repeatedly that consciousness for Husserl is not the sufficient condition for the sense and reality of the world, simply its necessary condition. Furthermore, Drummond, through his exploration of intentionality and especially of the “noema” (a topic for a future post), argues quite persuasively that Husserl’s philosophy is epistemologically realistic. Yes, all objectivity is constituted by subjectivity, and yes higher order objectivities are not “ready made” in the world, but all knowledge is rooted in intuition, the direct contact with being.

Parallel to my investigations of Husserl, I was also studying Aristotle. My main purpose was to determine the extent to which his philosophy is compatible with Husserl’s, and I began with uncertainty. After all, on the surface, a contemporary transcendental idealist like Husserl seems very far removed indeed from an ancient moderate realist like Aristotle. Their methods seem different, their starting points seem different, and their results seem different as well. However, as I read and reread the Metaphysics, the Organon, and especially De Anima, I become convinced that Aristotle’s philosophy was as unlike modern empiricism as it was unlike modern idealism. Indeed, I realized that Aristotle sees consciousness and the world as essentially related to each other. Being is inherently transparent to consciousness, neither sensation nor intellection are merely passive recipients of the world, and things have an intrinsic orientation toward manifestation in consciousness.

Through all of that, I learned a great deal about this issue and related ones. Primarily, I have come to be convinced that the cores of Aristotle and Husserl’s philosophies are compatible. Husserl does advance a realism, albeit a realism not fully identical to any other realism before him. Further, I have come to learn that although Husserl is a modern philosopher, he truly does rediscover many of the ancient truths, such as direct contact with essences. It is fascinating to me that, although by all accounts Husserl did not spend a great deal of time studying Aristotle, he nonetheless reached many of the same conclusions and grasped many of the same truths as Aristotle. Moreover, in this process of research, I have come to agree with Husserl’s own assessment of himself, that from his book Philosophy of Arithmetic onward he continually purified his philosophy more and more fully of “psychologism” (that is, the notion that logic can be reduced to psychology). Thus, since I would argue that psychologism and naturalism in general are opposed to Aristotle, there is a real sense in which Husserl’s later works are closer to Aristotelian philosophy than his earlier ones.

Now, as I was coming to these conclusions, I had to ask myself: why is it that some of Husserl’s students such as Edith Stein misunderstood the nature of his transcendental idealism? I think the answer to that question is not entirely straightforward. For, in many ways, Stein does not misunderstand Husserl; for example, by the time she wrote Potency and Act, it seems that Stein was looking at philosophy from more of a Thomistic perspective (i.e., following Thomas Aquinas), although she certainly was still a phenomenologist. Thus, she sees the real differences between Husserl and the medieval scholastic tradition, since after all, Husserl was certainly not a Thomist. In drawing attention to some of these differences and even in arguing for the superiority of the Thomist position, Stein makes perfectly valid points. Further, I think Stein also sees certain deficiencies in Husserl’s philosophy, such as perhaps an under-emphasis on the world in relation to subjectivity. Sokolowski makes the claim that the world is a necessary condition for consciousness just as consciousness is a necessary condition for the world. I believe that this insight is not inconsistent with or even entirely lacking from Husserl’s philosophy, but Husserl perhaps does not focus on it or develop it to the extent that it merits. Therefore, in many ways, Stein’s thoughts on Husserl are not incorrect. However, I do believe that Stein as well as numerous other scholars have misunderstood Husserl’s transcendental idealism.

Why is this? Well, I think one of the main roadblocks to the proper interpretation of Husserl (both in his own day and now) is the fact that he calls himself an “idealist” and that he repudiates all contemporary forms of realism. These kinds of statements certainly did not assist Stein and others in the correct understanding of Husserl’s position. Further, Husserl’s ideas are generally rather complex, and his positions are often nuanced to the point where interpretation is quite difficult. This is compounded by the fact, I think, that the tendency is to interpret a philosopher according to set positions and established lines. Husserl, however, does not follow the normal paths of modern philosophy. Indeed, as I said before, I think in some ways he is closer to ancient philosophy than to modern. And yet, he employs and redefines modern terminology and he engages with the modern tradition. This certainly makes him difficult to interpret sometimes. And this is particularly true of his transcendental idealism. Husserl’s idealism is unlike any other idealism. The closest another self-proclaimed idealist philosopher comes to Husserl is, I think, Kant. This makes sense since both of them advance transcendental idealism. For Kant, there is a direct awareness of the phenomenal world, and so in my opinion Kant contrasts with most of the modern philosophers who accepted epistemic mediation between consciousness and the world (that is, that we do not know the world directly; we can only reach it indirectly through inference). However, as Husserl points out, Kant ultimately fails to adequately protect and correctly explain the natural realism of our everyday lives. The Kantian thing-in-itself and Kant’s anthropologism are fatal flaws of Kant’s system, in my opinion. All of this to say that interpreting Husserl as a conventional idealist, as Stein seems to do, is entirely understandable given the parallels between Husserl and Kant, the fact that Husserl explicitly affirms transcendental idealism, and the fact that Husserl often did not make his writings easy to interpret. However, in my opinion, Husserl’s transcendental idealism adopts the insights that Kant had without the errors which ultimately undermine Kant’s philosophy.

Therefore, through the process of studying Husserl for my Master’s thesis, I have come to deeply respect and value his philosophy. Indeed, Husserl has influenced my own philosophical views more deeply than almost any other philosopher. This is why I started the Edmund Husserl Society. Through it I hope to realize Husserl’s conviction that, in spite of the fact that by the end of his life Husserlian Phenomenology was often dismissed or ignored in favor of Logical Positivism and Existentialism, yet nonetheless future generations would eventually rediscover him.1

1 Robert Sokolowski, Husserlian Meditations, (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1974), 179.


4 responses to “My journey into the world of the transcendental”

  1. AJOwens Avatar

    I know only enough about Husserl that I feel the need to know more, to help with my own explorations of panpsychism or pan-experientialism. Thanks for another enlightening post.

    1. mteoli777 Avatar

      Thank you! I’m very happy that you are enjoying the posts. Pan-psychism and pan-experientialism are certainly intriguing philosophical topics, and I am confident that you will find much that is relevant in Husserl’s philosophy. The relation between consciousness and the world is particularly fascinating to me, and so I look forward to more interactions with you in the future.

  2. Blanche B Avatar

    I think Husserl’s background as a mathematician puts him in a unique position as a phenomenologist. Phenomenology gets a bad rap sometimes because atheistic thinkers like Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir who were known for their ‘existential angst’ used phenomenology as their epistemology, and also the post-modernist thinkers such as Derrida who are notoriously known for being absurdly obscure and dedicated to ‘dismantling all forms of Western intellectual hegemony’. I notices that many of these anti-religion, anti-establishment thinkers do not really have a background in the sciences, so maybe that is why they are seemingly more concerned about theorizing their personal and political convictions than explore the foundations of knowledge and logic. However, those in the analytic philosophy school, like Wittgenstein, despite their claims to be scientific, logical, and objective, I think went to the extreme end of reducing the world to logical atomism and was worse than Cartesian skepticism. So, I think Husserl was straddling between two worlds that would only become more divergent later (continental vs analytic schools): he was committed to a scientific analysis of the workings of knowledge and consciousness (epistemology), and at the same time not divorcing it from lived social reality (the importance of the other / intersubjectivity.

    1. Michael Teoli Avatar

      This is a very interesting analysis of the difference between Husserl on the one hand and analytic and continental philosophers on the other. I certainly agree that Husserl’s mathematical background was crucial for shaping his philosophical vision. Thank you very much for the comment!

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