Essences and Imaginative Free Variation

In my last post, I outlined the meaning of phenomenology for Husserl. Specifically, I focused on the nature of phenomenology as a descriptive science of consciousness. Husserl argues that phenomenological description is possible as a foundational philosophical method primarily because of the capacity to have direct insights into essences. What are essences? Husserl maintains that individual objects are not merely individuals but that each “has its own proper mode of being, its own supply of essential predicables which must qualify it.”1 In other words, all individuals are instances of essences, viz, they can be specified in terms of categories and possess properties common to other individuals. Anything I can point to, or otherwise refer to, can be articulated as an example of an essence. Put simply, the essence of a thing “discloses to us ‘what’ it is.”2 This closely parallels Aristotle’s understanding of essences. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle explains that a being’s essence is what it keeps on being in order to be at all.3 Hence, for both Aristotle and Husserl, essences are not concepts in the sense of mental constructs: essences are discovered, not fabricated. 

This reality that all individuals have essences allows for a transformation of “empirical or individual intuition” into “essential insight (ideation).”4 In other words, the direct experience or beholding of individuals can become the direct experience or beholding of essences. This eidetic insight or intuition is not some kind of mystical feeling. Rather, just as it is possible to directly see this particular tree or this particular color in individual intuition, so is it also possible to directly see in eidetic insight that trees are essentially spatial and that colors are essentially different from sounds. Husserl argues that sensory experience and essential intuition parallel one another in that the latter, just like the former, is the consciousness of “an ‘object’, a something toward which its glance is directed, a something ‘self-given’ within it.”5 The central way in which this eidetic intuition is obtained is through “the free play of fancy” or “imaginative free variation.” A thing is altered in imagination as much as possible until one runs up against a feature which is impossible to alter without simultaneously destroying what the thing is.

Let me describe an example of imaginative free variation so that you can here and now experience eidetic intuition. Imagine a body in nature. It makes no difference whether this body is a rock, a tree, a dog, a man, or even a centaur: all that matters is that it is a material object. Now, imagine that its entire surface is covered by a single color, e.g., red. So far, so good. Finally, by altering the imagined physical body in any manner you desire, attempt to conceive of it as colored over its entire surface by two colors (e.g., red and green) simultaneously. You will discover that, no matter how you change the shape, size, or features of your imagined body, it is impossible to conceive of it as simultaneously covered entirely by two colors.

What is the relevance and importance of this exercise? Fundamentally, it allows us to have a direct insight into what it means to be a material body. As scholar John Rogove writes, “It is by trying simultaneously to presentify red and green covering the same surface that I learn that these phenomena cannot be combined in the same way that, say, red and rough can be combined.”6 This discovery is seemingly trivial, and yet I would challenge anyone to prove the truth of it by formal logic alone. In other words, the proposition “a body cannot be entirely both red and green simultaneously” is not a tautology: its opposite (i.e., “a body can be entirely both red and green simultaneously”) is not a formal logical contradiction. There is nothing in the definitions of green or red that would rule out the possibility that they both could simultaneously cover an entire surface. However, as we all can see, to assert this would be counter-sensical. Indeed, an assertion like this would be similar to maintaining that a square can be circular: there is no formal logical contradiction, and yet there is no unity of meaning; “circular squares are possible” does not make any coherent claim. Thus, Husserl would maintain that our exercise in imaginative free variation above gives us an intuition of an essence.

Some might object to this, arguing instead that imaginative free variation reveals nothing more than the limits of the human imagination. But, this objection would be based on a misconception of both imagination and imaginative free variation. We often limit the value of imagination to the construction of a mental image, and we often use terms like “picturing” to be synonymous with “imagining.” This would lead us to suppose that the example of imaginative free variation described above simply means that we cannot picture a surface that is simultaneously covered by two colors entirely, not that this is actually impossible. However, as stated above, making such an assertion is counter-sensical, and so actually asserts nothing. Further, this view of imaginative free variation is incorrect, according to Husserl. For, just because we cannot construct an accurate mental image of something does not mean that we cannot conceive of it or have insight into its essence. For example, it is only possible to picture a triangle as either an equilateral triangle, an isosceles triangle, or a scalene triangle: we cannot construct a mental image of pure triangularity or of a general triangle. However, we can conceive of the triangle pure and simple, and we can have insights into triangularity that apply equally to all three kinds of triangles (Heron’s Formula is an example). By altering the shape, size, angles, etc., of a triangle in imaginative free variation, we can arrive at essential insight into what it means to be a triangle. Hence, according to Husserl, imaginative free variation does not primarily reveal the limits of the human imagination: rather, it reveals the essence of the object.

What do you think about essences? Do you agree with Husserl and Aristotle that essences are real and knowable? Share your thoughts in the comment section and subscribe for future posts.

1 Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, I, 1, §2, trans. W.R. Boyce Gibson (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2017), 53.

2 Husserl, Ideas, I, 1, §3, trans. Gibson, 54.  

3 Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1031a, trans. by Joe Sachs, (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Green Lion Press, 1999), 125.

4 Husserl, Ideas, I, 1, §3, trans. Gibson, 54.  

5 Husserl, Ideas, I, 1, §3, trans. Gibson, 55.  

6 John Rogove, “The Phenomenological a priori as Husserlian Solution to the Problem of Kant’s ‘Transcendental Pyschologism’,” in Husserl, Kant, and Transcendental Phenomenology, ed. by Julian Apostolescu and Claudia Serban, (Boston: De Gruyter, 2022), 62.


3 responses to “Essences and Imaginative Free Variation”

  1. Blanche B Avatar


    – essence (Husserlian term)

    – substance (Aristotelian term)

    essence = substance

    Is this correct?

    1. Michael Teoli Avatar

      Excellent question! Actually, both terms (“essence” and “substance”) are widely employed by Aristotle, and “essence” is in fact a word that Aristotle coins. The two terms, as used by Aristotle, are related but not equivalent.

      The Greek word usually translated as “essence” literally means “what anything keeps on being, in order to be at all.” Thus, “essence” for Aristotle signifies that which makes a thing what it is, that which is necessary and actual in a thing. For example, the essence of man, for Aristotle, is “rational animal.”

      The Greek word usually translated as “substance” is better translated “thinghood.” Aristotelian scholar Joe Sachs writes this about “substance”: the term indicates “the way of being that belongs to anything which has attributes but is not an attribute of anything, which is also separate and a this.” (from his translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, page lviii) Thus, for Aristotle, substance or thinghood signifies primarily individual, self-subsisting things (e.g., Socrates, a particular dog, that tree out there in the garden). In a secondary sense, substance signifies universal categories like “man” or “dog” or “tree”.

      So, in short, for Aristotle, the terms “essence” and “substance” pick out different but related aspects of a thing. Substance or thinghood contrasts with accidental, changeable features of a thing (its color, size, etc.), whereas essence contrasts with a thing’s individual matter. Another way of looking at it is that the term “substance” focuses on that which remains permanent throughout change, while “essence” focuses on that which corresponds to the definition of a thing.

      Husserl’s understanding of essences largely parallels Aristotle’s in many ways. And while, Husserl does not use “substance” nearly as often as he uses “essence,” I think that this Aristotelian concept also has clear parallels in Husserlian phenomenology, such as in the Husserl’s notion of an “individuum.”

      1. Blanche B Avatar

        Well, I do remember one time in class a discussion about Aristotle’s ‘primary substance’ vs ‘secondary substance,’ although I never really quite understood it back at the time. This makes sense now. Thank you for the clarification.

Leave a Reply