Transcendental Idealism: the guardian of natural realism

In a previous post, I argued that Edmund Husserl does not hold to any form of traditional idealism. On the contrary, I suggested that Husserl’s position is in some ways closer to epistemological realism. So, this naturally raises the question: If Husserl subscribes to some kind of realism, why then does he explicitly and persistently advance transcendental idealism? For, Husserl does not merely mention transcendental idealism in passing, as if it is his view but is ultimately incidental to phenomenology. No, Husserl unequivocally states that that phenomenology and transcendental idealism are essentially joined. He writes, “Only someone who misunderstands either the deepest sense of intentional method, or that of transcendental reduction, or perhaps both, can attempt to separate phenomenology from transcendental idealism.”1

What is the reason, then, for this centrality of transcendental idealism in phenomenology? Various explanations could be given. Perhaps the most initially appealing reason is that Husserl is following in the footsteps of Kant. After all, Husserl does adopt certain terms and ideas from Kant, and he sees phenomenology as clarifying and correcting Kant’s central insights. However, as I have made clear in previous posts, Husserl is not a Kantian. Husserl rejects Kant’s notion of the “thing in itself” and his apparently psychologistic account of consciousness. Thus, while Husserl is certainly following in the footsteps of Kant, this cannot be the chief reason for his transcendental idealism, since Kantian philosophy differs so much from Husserlian philosophy.

In order to understand the meaning of Husserl’s transcendental idealism, it might be helpful to analyze the terms “transcendental” and “idealism.” “Idealism” is generally juxtaposed against “realism,” and the “transcendental” stands opposed to the “empirical.” At the most basic level, “idealism” indicates the priority of the ideal in some way, whereas realism generally ascribes some kind of priority to the real. In other words, one thing all idealists in common is the view that consciousness has in some sense a primacy over non-conscious being, while realists would deny this. In the second edition of the Logical Investigations (published in the same year as Ideas), Husserl explains his own use of the term “idealism”: “To talk of ‘idealism’ is of course not to talk of a metaphysical doctrine but of a theory of knowledge which recognizes the ‘ideal’ as a condition for the possibility of objective knowledge in general, and does not interpret it away in psychologistic fashion.”2

Further, “empirical” simply indicates something factual and individual in experience, whereas “transcendental” points to the conditions for the possibility of experience. In a posthumous note to Ideas I, Husserl explains that transcendental subjectivity is “not a partial region of the total region of reality named universe. It is on the contrary fundamentally separated from it and all its special regions. However it is not at all separated in the sense of a limitation, as if it would be bound in a complementary way with the world, as if it would build with it a global whole… The absolute or transcendental subjectivity ‘bears in itself,’ namely through real and possible ‘intentional constitution,’ the real universe…”3

Thus, using these two dichotomies, we can come up four different epistemologies. First, there is transcendental realism. Fundamentally, this is the view that real, transcendent objects out in the world have absolute being. In other words, transcendental realism operates on the presupposition that from the view of the ideal observer transcendent objects would not have appearances, that in themselves they are not inherently perspectival. Second, there is empirical idealism. This can be summarized as the view that the direct objects of knowledge are ideas in the mind. Empirical idealism often goes hand in hand with transcendental realism. For example, Descartes can be considered a transcendental realist in that he seemed to see objective scientific things in the world as absolute and utterly independent of consciousness; however, he is also undeniably an empirical idealist, in that he maintains that we are directly aware only of our own ideas, from which we can infer the existence of things outside us. Third, there is empirical realism. This is essentially just the thesis of the natural attitude expressed without interpretation: we are immediately (non-inferentially) aware of things out in the world, and these things are not merely subjective states of our consciousness. Fourth, there is transcendental idealism. Just as transcendental realism and empirical idealism are connected, so the flipside of transcendental idealism is empirical realism. From the natural standpoint, empirical subjectivity is within the world among other things which are independent of it; from the phenomenological standpoint, transcendental subjectivity is the only theater in which reality emerges, the loom on which the world weaves itself. Moran and Cohen write, “The essence of transcendental idealism for Husserl was the a priori correlation between objectivity and subjectivity.”4

This all means that transcendental idealism is not like subjective idealism (a form of empirical idealism) in being inherently opposed to natural realism. Transcendent being includes an intrinsic reference to transcendental immanence and so can only be explained by it and in it, but the two are distinct and irreducible. Indeed, even Kant’s transcendental idealism advances a direct relation between consciousness and the phenomenal world, and is thus in a certain sense more realistic than is the realism of Descartes or Locke.5 Yet, Kant’s notion of the “thing in itself” and his pyschologism fatally undermine his empirical realism. However, in my opinion, Husserl’s transcendental idealism avoids both of these flaws.

Hence, I maintain that the primary reason why Husserl advances transcendental idealism is precisely to provide a sure foundation for realism. As Husserl writes in the first draft of his Encyclopedia Brittanica article: “Phenomenology’s transcendental idealism harbours natural realism entirely within itself.”6 For, by arguing that the world is the “correlate of consciousness,”7 viz, irreducible to and yet inherently for consciousness, Husserl is able to justify the direct contact with reality that we find in the natural attitude. Indeed, for Husserl, any of the “realisms” of his day (whether empiricism, representationalism, or scientistic realism) actually undermine the very epistemological character that they attempt to defend. Transcendental idealism, then, is for Husserl the only way to effectively preserve and comprehend natural realism as well as to defeat naturalism. Husserl’s transcendentally idealistic accounts of the phenomenological reduction, immanence and transcendence, and intentionality actually advance natural realism. Indeed, as I shall endeavor to make clear in subsequent posts, the very aspects of Husserl’s philosophy which make him appear to be an anti-realist are in truth that which best demonstrates his realism. 

What are your thoughts on transcendental idealism? Feel free to comment and subscribe.

1 Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, IV, §41, trans. Dorion Cairns, (The Hague, Netherlands: M. Nijhoff, 1977), 86.

2 Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, introduction to vol. 2, trans. J.N. Findlay, (New York: Routledge, 1970), 238.

3 Edmund Husserl, quoted in “The Meaning of the Transcendental in the Philosophies of Kant and Husserl,” by Veronica Cibotaru, in Husserl, Kant, and Transcendental Phenomenology, ed. by Julian Apostolescu and Claudia Serban, (Boston: De Gruyter, 2022), 36.

4 Dermot Moran and Joseph Cohen, The Husserl Dictionary, (New York: Continuum, 2012), 330

5 J.M. Bernstein, “Introduction to the Transcendental Deduction,” (lecture, Kant: Critique of Pure Reason,, 22 February 2006).

6 Edmund Husserl, quoted in “Phenomenology, Idealism, and the Legacy of Kant,” by James Kinkaid, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 27, no. 3 (2019), 594. 

7 Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, II, 3, §47, trans. W.R. Boyce Gibson (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2017), 147. 


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