Biagio Tassone – The Future of Husserlian Phenomenology

The Future of Husserlian Phenomenology

Biagio Tassone

In attempting to restore a notion of genuine science (Wissenschaft) centre stage to the philosophical program, Husserl was following a deep-seated impulse of the Western metaphysical tradition.  Since long before the systems of Plato and Aristotle philosophers have sought to explain the world through necessary concepts or principles. Husserl’s phenomenology took up this very challenge and attempted to push the intellectualist impulse of Western thought to its farthest extreme.  Although, ultimately, I think Husserl’s attempted transformation of philosophy into a strict and rigorous science must be deemed a failure, the important point is not that a scientific philosophy is impossible but rather that there are real lessons to be learnt from its unfeasibility.  As it seems currently fashionable to disparage the quest for ultimate foundations for knowledge or any kind of essentialism, nonetheless, Husserlian phenomenology may gain in credibility upon realization of the salubrious proposition that it is not at all clear how intellectual movements based on principles that move away from truth (at least as a transcendent ideal) and from metaphysics in general will leave us with any lasting intellectual satisfaction or remove and mitigate the human need for cognitive transcendence. In order to understand what propels the above Husserlian phenomenology can provide considerable insight.
This is because Husserlian phenomenology can help to shed light on what we can label, “the problem of cognitive transcendence;” indeed the basic starting point of transcendental phenomenology is nothing less than what Husserl himself called: “the riddle of transcendence”. (1) In what follows therefore we must attempt to explore and provisionally defend Husserl’s unique contribution to philosophical practice: the transcendental phenomenological reduction. The reduction and epoché (that leads to it) as Husserl’s self-proclaimed greatest achievements should naturally be viewed as of central importance to any evaluation of the continuing worth of Husserlian phenomenology.  As a mode of attending to the “eidos,” (the essential properties of reality) and establishing an ultimate ground for their explication, i.e., transcendental subjectivity, the phenomenological reduction is important not so much for how Husserl formulates it as for what motivates him to do so. (2) Edward Marbach is certainly correct when he claims that: “[t]he distinction between sciences of fact and sciences of essence, which constantly reappears in Husserl’s general deliberations on the theory of science, is rooted in his doubtlessly “Platonically inspired” conception of the relationship between facts and essences”. (3) In Husserl’s case this Platonic conception of science gets radicalized as the ultimate essential insights are claimed not to be of timeless forms participating in being but rather into the ground of all appearances as they manifest themselves (the self-mundinization of the omni-temporal, self-constituting, inter-subjective flux of experience, later called the “life-world”).  Husserl’s thought dealt persistently with this relation of consciousness to world and more specifically with the constitution of both meaning and objective knowledge in the intentional correlation of subjectivity to transcendent objects.
  Intentional analysis begins with the relational structure of consciousness, which Husserl also viewed as the ultimate source of Evidenz for cognitive transcendence within immanence. This transcendence is precisely what the reflective thematization of consciousness in the reduction was supposed to make intelligible. The givenness of objects to consciousness can be explored naturalistically; (4) Brentano’s original reintroduction of the problem of intentionality was not opposed to such a treatment. However, as a transcendental philosophy, Husserlian phenomenology is ultimately interested in the possibility conditions and foundations for justified knowledge (what Kant called the quid juris of our knowledge); not factual, empirical, descriptions of psychological processes.  Can this approach still be of significance for contemporary thought?
  At this point let us reflect that modern cognitive science is currently very far from able to account for all the properties of what makes consciousness intrinsically self-aware or provide any purely physicalist model to which consciousness can be reduced.      Subsequently, some analytic philosophers are becoming interested in the irreducible and non-objectifiable aspects of the first-person perspective which consciousness provides and are also taking very seriously the possible role that this elusive aspect of mental life may provide in accounting for anything remotely approaching a complete account of our place in the world and [the totality of] our knowledge. (5) It goes without saying that Husserl’s phenomenology is an excellent candidate to contribute to this contemporary debate. As we have stated above, the relational essence of consciousness (its intentionality) is explored by Husserl under the aspect of a transcendental reduction to its essential structures on the model of a noetic-noematic correlation of intended objects in a horizontal manifold.  These intended objects can be directly experienced (as emptily intended) or seen as possessing a further potential, i.e., that of being intuitively given. The mode of givenness with or without evidence, within their horizons, is the ultimate ground upon which, for Husserl, ontological questions are formulated. These insights, which were the fruits of Husserl’s phenomenological intentional analyses, also lead to many still relevant studies on the nature of internal time consciousness. (6) The popular, static conception of Husserl’s phenomenology, therefore, betrays (as many contemporary studies have made explicit) the actual sophistication of his methodology and the viability of his phenomenological epistemology. (7)
    In effect, within Husserlian thought we are presented with an elaborate reformulation of earlier representationalist models of perception and cognition. The sense datum theories of mental life, postulating transcendent “objects” (somehow) out there beyond our immediate awareness and entering into consciousness [the latter viewed as a private inner space] is not the Husserlian model of cognition.  As a non-natural phenomenon, Husserl views consciousness as incapable of spatial extension, and, therefore, unable to be reduced into a causal relationship with natural entities. Husserl’s intuitive method on the one hand expands on an earlier modernist, Cartesian project of absolute enquiry and the subsequent status of philosophy as a foundational (rigorous) science however this balanced, on the other hand, by Husserl’s transcendental Kantian project of securing an ultimate epistemic ground in experience. In effect, Husserl reformulates Kant’s idealism as a teleological metaphysics of inter-subjectivity. Furthermore, building on the (originally) Kantian project of transcendental idealism, Husserlian phenomenology helps to clarify Kant’s ambiguous transcendental deduction (8)
    The above accomplishments aside, however, we gain a first intimation into why Husserl’s project is problematic when we investigate his methodological strategy in detail. The relation that is characteristic of the intentionality of consciousness to the worldly structures it manifests, as Levinas has pointed out, leads Husserl to a new conception of being. (9) The phenomenological conception of being is nothing less than a determination of all being by the transcendental structures of conscious life.  This relational structure of being –said by Husserl to be constituted ultimately by a multiplicity of intersubjective monads in the “life-world”- is supposed to disclose (in immediate intuitive fullness) the structures of transcendental subjectivity but breaks down both conceptually and metaphysically when we inquire into the ultimate ground for the intentional relation of transcendental (inter-) subjectivity to world itself.  The ground for the being of intentionality must be a more general being, and must be conceived as existing beyond the being of any singular ontic terms even as they are presented in the reduction. (10) The evidentially disclosed ground for beings (the noetic-noematic correlation precisely as it is disclosed within the transcendental phenomenological reduction) can never be intuitively given in the way a proper ground or foundation, in accordance with Husserl’s own theory, should be. The transcendental ego, as the consciousness within which all objectivity is constituted and upon which experience of all temporality and thus of constitutive analysis itself is founded cannot be made explicit to subjectivity. (11) Husserlian phenomenology therefore is revealed to have certain limitations inherent to it within its own conceptual framework.
    While some may take the above conclusions as a confirmation that Husserlian phenomenology is a relic from the past and of (at best) merely historical interest, it is the present writer’s contention that Husserl’s thought, with its philosophically rich view of the proper use and limits of objective or scientific knowledge, despite its shortcomings, is still of considerable contemporary relevance.  I contend that the main value of Husserl’s writings today lies precisely in the very approach they offer to understanding scientific or positive knowledge as knowledge of contingent entities constituted vis-à-vis their relation to a subject in the world. Without accounting for the constitution of knowledge for a cognizant subject, the problems of meaning and reference necessary for a philosophically valid epistemology may never move forward. Phenomenology was one attempt, a fruitful if unsuccessful one, within modern philosophy to restore a viable framework for our justification of knowledge of the absolute.  Husserl’s approach to the theory of knowledge is one that can still serve as a viable alternative to any merely naturalist or conventionalist and pragmatic approach to epistemological problems and philosophy of science. Husserlian phenomenology is also (in the present writer’s opinion) an advance, in many respects, on earlier neo-Kantian and positivist approaches to the same problems.  Essential to the continuing influence of Husserlian phenomenology on contemporary thought will be the acknowledgement of its failure as a presuppositionless propaedeutic method to a “truly scientific philosophy,” and an incorporation of the Husserlian project into the broader tradition of transcendental philosophy. As a philosophy of reflection, Husserlian phenomenology still has much to offer.


(1) Husserliana II. Die Idee der Phänomenologie. Fünf Vorlesungen. Edited by Walter Biemel, (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1950), translated by Lee Hardy as E. Husserl, Collected Works VIII: The Idea of Phenomenology (Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999), p. 43.
(2) The question of motivation, of course, is one that drives Husserl’s thought from his early Logische Untersuchungen [Husserliana XVIII. Logische Untersuchungen. Erster Teil. Prolegomena zur reinen Logik. Text der 1. und der 2. Auflage. Halle: 1900, rev. ed. 1913. Edited by Elmar Holenstein. (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1975).Husserliana XIX. I-II,  Logische Untersuchungen. Zweiter Teil. Untersuchungen zur Phänomenologie und Theorie der Erkenntnis. In zwei Bänden. Edited by Ursula Panzer. Halle: 1901; rev. ed. 1922. (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1984)] period into his mature phenomenology of genetic reconstruction; teleological sense of history and explorations of the Lebenswelt in Die Krisis der europäischen  Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie.  As a non-causally explainable phenomenon, Husserl maintained that the main form of motivation for consciousness is the process of association and the subsequent laws that distinguish this process from the causality that typifies the behaviour of natural phenomena. (cf., Husserliana XI: Analysen zur Passiven Synthesis. Aus Vorlesungs- und Forschungsmanuskripten 1918-1926. Edited by Margot Fleischer (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1966, for details). The above aspect of Husserlian phenomenology, i.e., its recognition of the strong and irreducibly normative nature of conscious thought is also certainly an aspect that deserves greater recognition by contemporary philosophers-however it is a subject unfortunately beyond the context of the current essay to explore in any detail.
(3) Bernet, Rudolf, Kern, Iso & Marbach, Eduard. An Introduction to Husserlian Phenomenology (Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1993), p. 81.
(4) In this way Husserl’s thought can even be made compatible with the linguistic turn, where a psychological model is made the ultimate ground for meaning and where the “hard problems” of consciousness are avoided or declared not worthy of serious consideration.  I would maintain that the lasting legacy of Husserlian thought however (one developed from his early writings onwards), will be his insight that norms cannot be naturalized and reflection in itself cannot be reduced to an act of theoretical self-objectification.
(5) Cf., Nagel, Thomas. The View From Nowhere (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986), Chalmers, David J. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (New York & Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996), Shoemaker, 1996, & Pihlström, Sami. “Recent Reinterpretations of the Transcendental”, in Inquiry, 47 (2004), pp. 289-314.
(6) That is, Husserl’s intentional analyses lead him ultimately to the insight that all intentional experience [intentionale Erlebnisse] is essentially a modification of temporal intentionality, cf.,  Husserliana X. Zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstesens (1893-1917), Edited by Rudolf Boehm (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1969), Translated by John Barnett Brough as Collected Works Vol. IV. On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893-1917). (Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991).
(7) Contemporary studies have done a great deal to emphasize the genetic, historical as well as the transcendental developmental aspects of Husserl’s thought (See for example: Bernet, Kern & Marbach 1993, Bernet 1994, Steinbock, Anthony J. Home and Beyond: Generative Phenomenology after Husserl (Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1995), Welton, Donn. The Origins of Meaning: A Critical Study of the Thresholds of Husserlian Phenomenology (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff Press, 1983) & The Other Husserl: The Horizons of Transcendental Phenomenology (Bloomington, Indiana Uuniversity Press, 2000), and  Zahavi, Dan. Husserl and Transcendental Intersubjectivity: A Response to the Linguistic-Pragmatic Critique, Translated by Elizabeth A. Behnke (Athens, Ohio University Press, 2001) & Husserl’s Phenomenology (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2003), to list only a few.
(8) Cf., Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason, translated and edited by Paul Guyer and Allen Wood (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998) A 250-251.
(9) Cf., Levinas, Emmanuel. The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology (Second Edition) (Evanston, NorthWestern University Press, 1995). p. 17.
(10) Here we follow a Heideggarian criticism cf., Heidegger, Martin. Sein und Zeit (Tübingen, Neomarius Verlag, 1927), Translated as: Being and Time, by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (New York, Harper & Row, 1962). §§ 7, 27, etc., however the actual relation between Husserl’s transcendental and (the early) Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology is a complicated one to which most   comparative studies do not do full justice, cf., Crowell, Steven G. “Husserl, Heidegger and Transcendental Philosophy: Another Look at the Encyclopaedia Britannica Article” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. L, No. 3, March 1990.  Also, “Does the Husserl/Heidegger Feud Rest on a Mistake? An Essay on  Psychological and Transcendental Phenomenology” Husserl Studies 18: 123–140, 2002.


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