Immanence and Transcendence: consciousness and world

In my last post, I examined Husserl’s understanding of the phenomenological reduction. I ended by stating that for Husserl, the reduction is the “bracketing” or “disconnecting” of all transcendent objectivities. In this post, then, I will discuss what transcendence and immanence mean in Husserlian phenomenology. For Husserl, “immanence” refers to that which is really contained in one stream of consciousness, whereas “transcendence” indicates that which is not so contained. Said another way, immanent objects are “perceivable through immanent perception,”1 whereas transcendent objects are not. Husserl explains that in immanent perception, “perception and perceived essentially constitute an unmediated unity, that of a single concrete cogitatio.”2 Simply put, then, conscious experiences are immanent, while things, states of affairs, and even essences as instantiated in the world are transcendent. Husserl explains that immanence and transcendence are irreducible to each other, writing that there is a “basic and essential difference…between Being as Experience and Being as a Thing.”3 So, why does Husserl think that the philosopher must “bracket” all transcendencies? The reason, according to Husserl, lies in the truth that the immanent is absolute while the transcendent is relative and phenomenal.4 

What does this mean? Karl Ameriks explains that, for Husserl, immanent experience is absolute because it gives us the “whole experience,” whereas the appearances of transcendent objects are necessarily “inadequate, incomplete.” The latter are given perspectivally, through appearances and profiles, while the former is not.5 In other words, it is impossible in principle to perceive a spatial thing all at once. For example, a piece of music played on the piano sounds different depending on whether one is standing next to the piano, across the room, or outside. Further, a structure, regardless of its size, cannot be actually seen in its entirety: even if I am walking around it as I look at it, its aspects are continually coming to presence and then passing away into absence. Take a look at these pictures of different aspects of the Eiffel Tower. No matter how many news ways the Eiffel Tower is perceived, one can never reach completeness in perception.

By contrast, a feeling or sensation does not have sides and cannot present differing perspectives. And even the act of experiencing a transcendent thing, an act of perception for example, is given with a wholeness that the thing cannot be. Now, it is important to note that Husserl is not saying that transcendent things are given perspectivally because of our human limitations. On the contrary, Husserl argues that even an ideal observer could only perceive material things through incomplete appearances. The reason for this is that if a thing could be given without perspectives, it would then be immanent, i.e., part of the same stream of consciousness as the ego which perceives it.  Yet, in that case, it would no longer be a thing in any recognizable sense.6 

From this it follows that no transcendent object is given indubitably, whereas every immanent object is. In other words, any real thing that I take to exist can show itself to be mere illusion, while it is impossible to doubt that I am presently perceiving or judging, etc. As Husserl writes, “If reflective apprehension is directed to my experience, I apprehend an absolute Self whose existence (Dasein) is, in principle, undeniable.”7 Husserl argues that even a consciousness which was populated only by fictions and fancies would not for that reason be illusory. He writes, “That which floats before the mind may be a mere fiction; the floating itself, the fiction-producing consciousness, is not itself imagined.”8 Indeed, as I have explained in a previous post, for Husserl essential truths can be drawn from fancies and fictions through imaginative free variation, which entails that even a consciousness containing only imaginations could reach apodictic insights.  Thus, Husserl maintains that the thesis of the pure ego is necessary whereas the thesis of the world is contingent. He writes, “All corporeally given thing-like entities can also not be, no corporeally given experiencing can also not be.”9 

Hence, Husserl argues that the phenomenologist must “bracket” all transcendencies in order to uncover a region of being on which he can found the first philosophy. This region of being is pure immanence. However, this is not the only reason for “disconnecting” the transcendent world. Husserl also uses the terms “absolute” and “relative” to indicate a relation of dependence between transcendence and immanence. Robert Sokolowski writes that for Husserl, “Consciousness can be conceived apart from reality, but reality cannot be conceived apart from consciousness.”10 In other words, in the core of every real transcendent thing is a reference to consciousness. This use of “absolute” and “relative” builds on the previous one, since the indubitability and completeness of immanence indicates its ontological priority over that which is transcendent. For, consider: if a transcendent object by its very essence can only be given incompletely and in a manner that is open to correction, then this suggests that transcendent things are not self-sufficient or independent. Said another way, transcendent things do not have a point of view on the world: only consciousness has a perspective, and so only consciousness can be absolute. This, then, is the second reason why Husserl asserts that philosophy must begin with immanence: transcendent being is simply “intentional being,”11 i.e., being for consciousness. What this means is that what all transcendent realities ultimately are is objects of actual and possible consciousness: they are “related unreservedly to consciousness.”12 Thus, for Husserl, immanence is independent of transcendence, whereas transcendent things depend in some sense on immanence.

This entails that transcendental phenomenology for Husserl is not the study of a subsection of the world or of a reality: it is rather the study of that which makes the emergence of the world and all reality possible.13 And so, through the phenomenological reduction, we do not lose the world nor do we deny the natural attitude. Because of the intrinsic relation to consciousness in all transcendent being, the disconnected transcendencies remain immanently but ideally or irreally within consciousness just as they are experienced.14 In other words, since all transcendent things are actual or possible objects of consciousness, even when we suspend our participation in the positing of their existence, we can still contemplate them insofar as they are or could be given to consciousness. For example, whereas the botanist investigates the tree from the natural standpoint as a thing out there in nature, the phenomenologist considers the tree as it is given to consciousness, as a phenomenon. Thus, John Drummond writes, “When we reflect phenomenologically, it is the world itself upon which we reflect…  We consider the world in a different light, as a sense or significance for consciousness.”15

Now, these last few paragraphs sound very much as if Husserl is asserting that consciousness in some sense constructs the world. This would leave him open to the accusation of “idealism.” So, in my next post, I will examine the realism vs. idealism debate and its implications for Husserlian philosophy.

What are your thoughts on immanence and transcendence? Do you agree with Husserl that transcendent things presuppose consciousness in some manner? Share your thoughts below, and feel free to subscribe.

1 Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, II, 2, §42, trans. W.R. Boyce Gibson (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2017), 133. 

2 Husserl, Ideas, II, 2, §38, trans. Gibson, 124.

3 Husserl, Ideas, II, 2, §42, trans. Gibson, 133. 

4 Husserl, Ideas, II, 2, §44, trans. Gibson, 139.  

5 Karl Ameriks, “Husserl’s Realism,” Philosophical Review 86, no. 4 (1977), 501. 

6 Husserl, Ideas, II, 2, §43, trans. Gibson, 135-136.

7 Husserl, Ideas, II, 2, §46, trans. Gibson, 143. 

8 Husserl, Ideas, II, 2, §46, trans. Gibson, 144. 

9 Husserl, Ideas, II, 2, §46, trans. Gibson, 145.

10 Robert Sokolowski, The Formation of Husserl’s Concept of Constitution (The Hague, Netherlands: M. Nijhoff, 1970), 127.

11 Husserl, Ideas, II, 3, §49, trans. Gibson, 153.

12 Husserl, Ideas, II, 3, §49, trans. Gibson, 152.

13 Husserl, Ideas, II, 3, §51, trans. Gibson, 155-157. 

14 John J. Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality and Non-Foundational Realism: Noema and Object, (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990), 174. 

15 Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality, 172.  


2 responses to “Immanence and Transcendence: consciousness and world”

  1. Blanche B Avatar

    I think this is a really great distinction and concept of understanding reality. It avoids the naturalist attitude, which can be quite detrimental when examining non-tangible phenomena (e.g. opinions, feelings, social norms, cultural beliefs, religious phenomena, etc).

    I think phenomenology is practically applied in the social sciences especially when doing qualitative research, since being able to suspend any pre-formed biases or judgements when trying to understand social phenomena is important for seeing the big picture more objectively and spot trends that may have been amissed with pre-research bias. Moreover, although social phenomena is more qualitative than quantitative, it is still a science that requires systematic methodologies.

    Well, I just learned about qualitative research as a career and its actually one of the few fields that values Ni insights and big picture deep thinking lol

    Awesome post as always!

    1. Michael Teoli Avatar

      Thank you for your insightful comment! I agree: phenomenology certainty has far reaching implications for disciplines other than philosophy. The phenomenological method, as well as the elucidations and clarity discovered within phenomenological philosophy, are not only helpful but essential to all the sciences of the natural attitude, such as the social sciences.

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