Into the Wilds of Thought: the Hunt for the Elusive “Noema”

In a previous post, I briefly discussed Husserl’s understanding of intentionality. This concept came to Husserl from the scholastics a la Franz Brentano, and it sets Husserl apart from most of the early modern philosophers. In essence, intentionality refers to the truth that all consciousness is, explicitly or implicitly, of something. As Dermot Moran writes, “Our consciousness always has directedness.”1 Perception is always perception of a perceptible object, remembering is always the remembering of a remembered object, judgment is always judgment about a judged state of affairs. Hence, as John Drummond writes, “An intention establishes a relation between a conscious subject and an object.”2

This doctrine of intentionality allows Husserl to distinguish between the conscious act as an act (the-consciousness-of) and the objective correlate (what the consciousness is about). The first, Husserl terms the noesis. Drummond explains that the noesis of an act of consciousness refers “to those features really or immanently contained in the act by virtue of which the act is intentionally directed or referred to an object.”3 Now, in normal experience, i.e., the natural attitude, what consciousness is of is simply the object out there in the world. However, after the phenomenological reduction, in which one’s participation in the beliefs of the natural attitude are suspended, the object in the world becomes a mere phenomenon for the subject. So, what is left over or uncovered, on the objective side, after the phenomenological reduction? Husserl terms it the noema. Husserl writes that the noema of a perception is the “perceived as such,” the noema of a judgment is “the judged as such,” etc.4 In other words, the noema is something that is revealed only after the phenomenological reduction, and it is simply that which is experienced as it is experienced.

This initially seems straightforward enough, and yet the precise nature of the noema has been intensely debated for decades. In this post, I will introduce this debate. Dermot Moran distinguishes various distinct interpretations of the noema, which can be grouped into two main categories.  

For adherents of the “Fregean interpretation,” including scholars such as Dagfinn Føllesdal, the noema is for Husserl a mediating entity between the act of consciousness and the intended object in the world. This conclusion was based on Føllesdal’s studies of Gottlob Frege, a contemporary of Husserl, as well as of Husserl himself. Frege famously distinguished between “sense (Sinn) and reference (Bedeutung).”5 The former is the “mode of presentation” of the latter, whereas the latter is “what is being referred to” by the former. For example, Frege explains that “morning star” and “evening star” are both senses that point to or present the same referent, viz, the planet Venus.6 Føllesdal, then, sees Husserl as essentially adopting Frege’s theory and some of his vocabulary. For Føllesdal, the noema is closely related to Frege’s “sense” (Sinn). Føllesdal elucidates his general view of the noema when he writes: “The impulses that reach us from the outside are insufficient to uniquely determine which object we experience; something more gets added. The something more that gets added, Husserl calls the noema. The noema is a structure.”7 Hence, according to Føllesdal’s interpretation, the noema is ontologically distinct from the intended object in the world and in some sense mediates the awareness of objects. It is kind of like the way we interpret objects, or the manner in which consciousness reaches them.

To support their interpretation, Føllesdal and his followers appeal to several kinds of passages from Husserl’s texts: passages in which Husserl claims that the noema is a “sense” or “meaning,” passages in which Husserl seems to be attributing instrumentality to the noema, and passages in which Husserl appears to be making a distinction in being between the intended object and the noema. For example, Husserl writes, “Every noema has a ‘content’, namely, its ‘meaning’, and is related through it to ‘its’ object.”8 Here, Husserl seems to be saying that consciousness reaches its intended object by going through the noema as an intermediary. One of the strongest passages in apparent support of the Fregean interpretation is the following: 

“The tree plain and simple, the thing of nature, is as different as it can be from this perceived tree as such, which as perceptual meaning belongs to the perception, and that inseparably. The tree plain and simple can burn away, resolve itself into chemical elements, and so forth. But the meaning—the meaning of this perception, something that belongs necessarily to its essence—cannot burn away; it has no chemical elements, no forces, no real properties.”9 Here, Husserl identifies the noema in some way with meaning, and he seems to be asserting that noema and object are essentially independent entities.  

The second category of Husserl interpreters argue that the noema is in some way to be identified with the intended object in the world. In other words, the noema is not an abstract mediating entity between act and object, as the Fregean interpretation maintains. One scholar in this second category is Aron Gurwitsch. Gurwitsch asserts that object and noema must be understood in terms of Gestalt wholes and parts. In other words, for Gurwitsch, the noema is simply “the object as experienced,” and the relation between noema and object simpliciter is that the latter is “an identical whole presented through each of the many noemata which are its aspects or parts.”10 In support of Gurwitsch’s interpretation, passages can be appealed to in which Husserl implies that the noema is the intended object as intended, such as Husserl’s claim that the perceptual noema is the “perceived as perceived,” the memorial noema is “the remembered as remembered,” etc. Indeed, Husserl indicates that when one describes “that which appears as such,” one is describing “perception in its noematic aspect.”11 Thus, Drummond argues that Husserl is making “some sort of identification between the appearance as such and the noema.”12 This would entail that the noema is not ontologically distinct from the intended object, since the appearance of an object is “not an entity distinct from the appearing object” but is simply “that object’s appearing activity.”13 The ultimate conclusion of Gurwitsch’s interpretation is that the intended object out in the world is the ideal system of noematic aspects, viz, the “organized totality of parts” or the “whole complex of appearances.”14 In other words, Gurwitsch advances a form of phenomenological phenomenalism

Thus, in regard to the noema, there are at least two distinct interpretations, both of which apparently have a great deal of support from Husserl’s own texts. So, which, if either, is correct? And what is the real relevance of this debate? In future posts, I will explore this issue more fully. 

1 Dermot Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, (New York: Routledge, 2000), 157. 

2 John J. Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality and Non-Foundational Realism: Noema and Object, (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990), 11.  

3 Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality, 56. 

4 Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, III, 3, §88, trans. W.R. Boyce Gibson (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2017), 258.

5 Moran, Phenomenology, 159. 

6 Moran, Phenomenology, 159. 

7 Dagfin Føllesdal, “Husserl on Evidence and Justification,” In Edmund Husserl and the Phenomenological Tradition: Essays in Phenomenology, ed. Robert Sokolowski, (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 108.

8 Husserl, Ideas, IV, 1, §129, trans. Gibson, 361.

9 Husserl, Ideas, III, 3, §89, trans. Gibson, 260. 

10 Aron Gurwitsch, quoted in Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality, 73. 

11 Husserl, Ideas, III, 3, §88, trans. Gibson, 260.

12 Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality, 86.

13 Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality, 86.

14 Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality, 95-97. 


2 responses to “Into the Wilds of Thought: the Hunt for the Elusive “Noema””

  1. Michael M. Kazanjian Avatar
    Michael M. Kazanjian

    Michael, enjoyed your post. In a hurry right now, so briefly, I have submitted to a book publisher a book I hope to do on Ricoeurian approach to resolving what I call time dualism, or act-actuality dualism. I see phenomenology as static and dynamic. I am fascinated by Husserl’s intentionality, reacting against positivism (e.g. cf. Kant’s Ding on Sich). Intentionality seems akin to Ding fur mich. Kant makes a simplistic mistake with restricting himself to Ding on Sich and Ding fur mich. There is also Ding fur uns. My email is

    1. Michael Teoli Avatar

      Michael, thank you very much for your comment. Your books sounds very intriguing; once it is published, I would definitely like to read it!

      You make an excellent point about Ding fur uns. Husserl spends a lot of time in his later writings dealing with intersubjectivity and how the world is constituted by the community of subjects. After all, no object in the world is given as something merely for me: it is given as something for us.

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