The “noema” continued: difficulties with interpreting Husserl

In my last post, I introduced the concept of the “noema,” outlining two very different interpretations of it. On the one hand, the Fregean school of thought maintains that the noema for Husserl is essentially a mental entity that mediates our awareness of objects in the world. On the other hand, Gurwitsch argues that the noema is simply the appearance of the object and that the object is just the system of appearances. In this post, I am going to explore various problems with both of these ways of interpreting the noema.

John Drummond argues that the main problem with Gurwitsch’s view is that it entails phenomenological phenomenalism. In other words, it turns objects in the world into nothing more than complexes or systems of appearances. Thus, Drummond maintains that Gurwitsch’s view of the relation between objects and noema as that of wholes to parts is both untenable as a theory and incorrect as an interpretation of Husserl. For, Husserl maintains that the object is given in and through its appearances; Drummond summarizes Husserl, writing, “the object intended in the perceptual experience is the identical object itself posited as actually existing.”1 In other words, in each appearance of an object, we actually experience the object. However, this would be impossible if Gurwitsch is correct, since for him each appearance is just a part of the object. In other words, for Gurwitsch, we only experience the appearance of an object with “horizonal references to other, co-given appearances.”2 In other words, I perceive this side of the tree, and in so doing, I am also emptily intending the other, unperceived sides. Yet, since the object for Gurwitsch is simply the sum total of its appearances, this horizonal intending is not enough to actually give the object, if Gurwitsch’s view is correct. For, as Drummond writes, appearances “are categorially different from objects.”3 Thus, according to Gurwitsch’s theory, only a complete experience of all the appearances of an object would allow us to actually experience the object, a notion that directly contradicts a central tenant of Husserlian philosophy. In short, then, Drummond maintains that the fatal flaw in Gurwitsch’s interpretation is that it posits a whole-part relationship between noemata and objects.4 

In this rejection of Gurwitsch’s phenomenalism, Drummond and the Fregean interpreters of Husserl are in agreement. However, Drummond also maintains that interpreting the noema along the lines of a Fregean sense both misrepresents Husserl and is a flawed view of intentionality. Drummond considers the issues and analyzes the texts comprehensively and at length, and so it is not possible here to outline every argument he makes. However, several important points can be highlighted. First, historically, it is clear that Husserl’s understanding of the relation between consciousness and reality is far less similar to Frege’s than the Fregean interpreters make it out to be. For, Husserl himself draws a distinction between his own terminology and that of Frege, and there are various important differences between how each philosopher articulates the relevant ideas. This becomes increasingly apparent subsequent to the first edition of the Logical Investigations. For, while it is arguable that the notions of meaning and intentional content in the first edition of the Logical Investigations were influenced by Frege, there is good evidence that Husserl’s views changed by the time of Ideas and the second edition of the Logical Investigations.5 

Second, the Fregean interpretation is unable to reconcile Husserl’s various ways of speaking about the noema. Specifically, while Husserl often writes that the act of consciousness reaches the intended object “through” the noematic sense, he also speaks of the object as “in” the noema. In other words, he seems to be saying that the noema is both a mediating epistemic instrument and also the intended object. Moreover, as seen in the texts quoted in my last post, Husserl uses language which implies that the noema is both a “meaning” or “sense” and the object of the act just as it is intended in the act. The Fregean interpretation inevitably ends up dismissing or ignoring the second member of each of these pairs of terms. In other words, the Fregean interpretation emphasizes the “sense” and “through” language, at the expense of the “object” and “in” language.6 Hence, Drummond argues that an accurate interpretation must take into account all the ways in which Husserl speaks of the noema and that the Fregean interpretation does not do this.

In my next post, I will examine Drummond’s alternative explanation of the noema, one which incorporates the truth found in both Føllesdal’s and Gurwitsch’s interpretations.

1 John J. Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality and Non-Foundational Realism: Noema and Object, (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990), 97. 

2 Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality, 97. 

3 Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality, 98. 

4 Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality, 98. 

5 Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality, 124-126.

6 See Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality, 135-138.


Leave a Reply