Sunday, October 18, 2015

Edmund Husserl's Ideas - A Paradoxical Ontophenomenology


In Ideas (1913, hereafter cited as 'ID' Gibson trans. 1931), Husserl defines phenomenology as the “science of essential being” that is meant to establish “knowledge of essences” (Wesenserkenntnisse). He contrasts phenomenology with psychology, which he alternatively defines as the “science of facts” (Tatsachen) and the “science of realities” (Realitaten) that “belong in the one spatio-temporal world.” Phenomenology is thus distinguished from psychology by its purportedly pure and non-empirical ‘essences’ or ‘eide’. These essences are the universal categories with which the phenomena are constructed into phenomenology. Husserl writes: “As over against this psychological "phenomenology", pure or transcendental phenomenology will be established not as a science of facts, but as a science of essential Being (as "eidetic" Science).” (ID 44) Since only phenomenology describes essential Being, Husserl’s distinction between eidetic phenomenology and empirical phenomenology further implies that where the entities of the physical world (including psychology) are real, the entities that comprise the pure essences of phenomenology are not-real, or ‘irreal’. The irreal is not opposed to, but simply the non-affirmation of the necessity of the real. (ID 45) Husserl promises that phenomenology may disclose the “transcendentally purified ‘experiences’” of irreal essences that are “excluded from every connection with in the ‘real world’” for the purpose of discovering the essence of “Absolute Knowledge”, which he describes as the “perpetual precondition of all metaphysics and other philosophy.” (ID 46)

For this positive purpose, Husserl proposes, first, to (a) bracket, suspend, and annul the necessity of all propositional-judgments of mental phenomena in a general ‘phenomenological reduction’; then, from the ‘phenomenological residuum’ of ‘pure consciousness’, (b) abstract the pure essences from empirical facts; and, finally, (c) to synthesize together all pure essences in ‘eidetic connections’ to re-construct ‘Absolute Knowledge’. Husserl defines ‘the world’ as that natural cognition which “begins with experience and remains within experience.” The ‘objects of possible experience’ are known by natural cognition to be totally contingent “matters of fact” as a consequence of their total separation from the essential forms. (ID §1 52) Bracketing (a) does not annihilate but purports to merely withhold affirmation of necessity from any contingent phenomenon. Husserl first brackets the ‘natural attitude’ along with every being of the natural world. (ID §7 61) Then he brackets all of the positive sciences constructed from the empirical facts of the natural world. (ID §7 62) Finally, Husserl prohibits himself from accepting any of the un-bracketed standards of science relating to the natural world. (ID §32 111)

Once the world and all scientific standards have been bracketed “out of action” there remains nothing except the bare “phenomenological residuum” of the pure consciousness. (ID §33 114)  Husserl describes this ‘pure consciousness’ as a ‘ray’ of intentional relations “shooting forth anew with each new cogito and vanishing with it.” (ID §57 172) It is meant to intentionally posit “the whole spatiotemporal world” through the medium of “a merely intentional being.” (ID §49 153)  This intentional relationship is described as the relation of the intentional noesis (thinking) that gives meaning to its intentional noematic (thought) object. (§88 257) Every perceived noematic object exists as an intentional object for consciousness, but where the Fichtean Ego had posited objects (i.e. the non-Ego), Husserl brackets, suspends, and effectively un-posits every object so as to disclose the “fundamental field of phenomenology.” (ID §50 155) Husserl describes, like later Schelling, how the “ray of the pure Ego… goes through one noetic stratum” after another to excavate, from the surrounding noetic layers, the “central “core” and “nucleatic noema” from “the primitive germ of visible nature” (WA 8:243) 

Husserl hoped to re-construct this “fundamental structure of all possible cognition” on the phenomenological ground of ‘regional ontologies’ (ID §17 78) He thus arranges all sciences into ontological regions to construct a grand ontology of phenomenology, which we may call Husserl’s ‘ontophenomenology’. It first purports to extract the eidetic essences from individual and empirical ‘matters of fact’ by a process of ‘ideation’ of ‘abstraction’, in an opaque process by which the essence is distinguished, separated, and ‘objectified’ as an independent intentional object. (LI §67) Self-sufficient essences are then described as ‘concretum’; the essences which are not self-sufficient are ‘abstractum’; and a material essence that is a self-sufficient concretum is an ‘individuum.’ Empirical facts correspond to a material genus, while essences correspond to a formal genus. The regions of material genera, likewise, have their essential theoretic foundations in the regions of the formal genera designated by essences. Each essence is placed within a genus-species hierarchy descending from the broadest generality to the narrowest specificity. The narrowest species are the infirmae species of eidetic singularities that have no more particular species ‘under them’. Every eidetic connection implies an eidetic participation since each part is contained or subsumed in the whole. All noetic (thinking) intentionality and noematic (thought) intentional objects are thus linked together by eidetic connections that are “hierarchically built up on one another” and “encased in one another”, so that noetic consciousness actively produces noematic theses; then combines these correlations of noesis-noema into composite syntheses; and combines all composite syntheses into a “total synthetical object is constituted in synthetical consciousness.” (ID §§120-121 338)

Husserl never fulfilled his promise of re-constructing the first philosophy and ‘Absolute Knowledge’ of all science because his phenomenological method of (a) bracketing and (b) analysing all phenomena into essences could never - according the lights of its own method - succeed in (c) synthesizing the essences of bracketed phenomena into a “systematically rigorous grounding and development of this first of all philosophies.” (ID 46) Although he denies that he intends to bracket the phenomena all at once, he never furnishes any methodological criteria to determine the bracketing of the phenomena. Once he has prohibited himself from accepting any un-bracketed criterion, he could not honestly admit any prior methodological criteria to select which particular phenomena to bracket and analyse. (§32 111) Since, moreover, Husserl’s ‘phenomenological reduction’ also suspends any possible recollection (cf. Plato’s Meno Paradox) of an eidetic standard (or paradigm) for a completed synthesis, he can neither know that he knows (nor even that he does not know) any particular synthesis, but must successively re-posit partial syntheses and un-posit every eidetic connection in a serial devolution of (a) bracketing and (b) analysis. This devolution of all syntheses annuls every analytic distinction between the irreal essences of phenomenology and the real ‘matters of fact’ of empirical psychology in the collapsing centre of Husserl’s phenomenology.

Martin Heidegger recognized that Husserl’s ontophenomenology was no less ontological than Plato’s ontology of eternal Ideas: while Husserl denied that he was guilty of a “perverse ‘Platonic hypostatization’” (ID §22 83), and purported to distinguish between real and non-real, irreal, or ideal intentional objects, the collapse of every one of Husserl’s analytic distinction implies that he merely succeeded in constructing an inverted and ‘irreal’ reflection of Plato’s real ontology. Husserl’s ontophenomenology is thus schizophrenically defined by the imminently collapsing opposition between the ontologies of irreal phenomenology and real psychology: each ontology is continually distinguished by bracketing and analysis, even as each is continually blurred together in the collapsing centre of Husserl’s ontophenomenology. Husserl can only maintain the supposed scienticity that has been secured for phenomenology through this distinction by an infinite repetition of un-positing and re-positing of essences. But this infinite repetition produces a further paradox in which every re-constructed ontology is immediately de-constructed, and ontophenomenological re-construction infinitely devolves into de-construction. This paradox collapses Husserl’s distinction between a pure eidetic science of phenomenology and an impure empirical science of psychology, renders all phenomenological descriptions psychologistic, and “draws us into infinities of experience” in a bad infinite regress that Husserl himself calls idealiter in infinitum. (§100 293)

For more a fuller critique of Husserl and phenomenology, see my essay Plato Against Phenomenology

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