Can we see essences? Immanuel Kant and Edmund Husserl

My last post discussed Husserl’s understanding of essences and eidetic intuition. In this post, I am going to examine an important consequence of this. Specifically, Husserl’s view of eidetic intuition reveals a fundamental difference between Husserl and Immanuel Kant.

Kant maintains that intuition is only and always either of sensible individuals or of the forms of sensibility (space and time), and that concepts are simply rules for the use of intuitions. In other words, for Kant, we can only have direct “beholding” of sensory particulars, not of essences, and concepts in Kantian philosophy simply allow the understanding to identify and organize intuitions. All of this necessarily leads to the famous problem of the possibility of necessary knowledge of nature. For, if intuition is only of sensible individuals, then it follows that any knowledge derived from experience is contingent and limited, not necessary or universal. And yet, for Kant, we have non-contingent knowledge of nature in mathematics and physics. How is this possible? Kant’s solution to this problem is that universal and necessary judgments about experience are possible only because phenomena are shaped and organized by the forms of sensibility and the categories of understanding. This means that for Kant the phenomenal world is in some sense constructed by consciousness, and hence that we only have knowledge of things as they appear to us, not of things in themselves.

Husserl, however, by maintaining that intuition can also be of states of affairs and of essences, overcomes this problem in another way. He argues that every region of being has its “regional essence,” e.g., material thing, object of value, etc.1 By beholding and describing these regional essences, Husserl maintains that we can discover “regional axioms” and “regional concepts,” truths which “express in eidetic generality what must belong ‘a priori’ and ‘synthetically’ to an individual object of the region.”2 In other words, universal and necessary knowledge about the world can be obtained without merely finding in the world what our minds have imposed on it. Through the direct experience of essences, we can discover apodictic truths about the world. Thus, naturally, Husserl rejects Kant’s notion of the “thing-in-itself,” writing that there is “no room for ‘metaphysical’ substructurings of a being behind the being intentionally constituting itself in actual and possible achievements of consciousness.”3 Therefore, while Husserl recognizes the importance of Kant as the first philosopher who clearly saw the realm of transcendental subjectivity, he is by no means a Kantian. Indeed, I would argue that Husserl is able to clarify and improve many aspects of Kantian philosophy.

What do you think about this disagreement between Husserl and Kant? Feel free to comment below and to subscribe for future posts.

1 Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, I, 1, §9, trans. W.R. Boyce Gibson (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2017), 64.

2 Husserl, Ideas, I, 1, §16, trans. Gibson, 78.  

3 Edmund Husserl, “Kant and the Idea of Transcendental Philosophy,” trans. Ted E. Kein and William E. Pohl, Southwestern Journal of Philosophy 5, no. 3 (1974), 14. 


One response to “Can we see essences? Immanuel Kant and Edmund Husserl”

  1. Blanche B Avatar

    I agree: Husserl improved Kantian epistemology by not accepting his distinction between noumena vs phenomena.

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