The Noesis and Noema

William Large

We start with the everyday conception of reality.  We start with the world, which is made up of external beings.  There are two kinds of beings that we encounter: things and other people.  This world exists really outside of us.  We ourselves are also a thing, which we think in analogy with the other things that surround us.  But there is also something present to us which is not a thing, and that is our own self awareness, the thoughts that we are thinking, what we call consciousness.  Thus we seem to have two regions of being: physical being and psychological being each of which are a part of a larger category that we call nature.

Husserl’s question to us is whether this third thing we are aware of, our consciousness, really is a thing in the way that we accept that other persons and external things are, that is to say whether our inner life, or what Husserl calls ‘lived experience’ (die Erlebnis)  really is one part of a broader whole that we call nature.  Of course it would be absurd to say that without the brain, which is a physical thing, there would be consciousness, but this is not to say that the subjective content of our thoughts is identical to what is occurring in the brain.  This seems clear for what every brain activity is going on at the moment, the meaning that I am aware of when I think about something, or remember it, imagine it, and so on cannot be reduced to it.  No matter how much I look at a brain scan it will tell me nothing about the meaning of a Shakespearean sonnet.

Surely this meaning that I am speaking about, however, is only something subjective and the scientific description is something objective. For what is meaningful is only meaningful for me in the moment that I think since it is in my consciousness and not in yours, whereas as the scientific description is the description of something actual which is independent of the observers.  The question you have to ask yourself is whether anything is actually actual, that is to say real, or ‘there’ for us that does not have a meaning, and if it does have this meaning from where does it come.  Does it come from the thing itself, as in the realist view that believes that the sense of the object is the result of its external proprieties some how entering the mind from afar, as though the meaning ‘red’ was the result of a red property entering one’e s mind (ask yourself how something can be red for us before the concept  ‘red’). Or would it be more correct to say that the meaning that is immanent to consciousness determines, shapes or constitutes our relation to the object.  Not of course really, in the sense that the meaning of the word ‘red’ actually places red in the object, as though the reality were the result of a conscious act, but ideally in the sense that it is the way that we grasp things that determines how they appear to us?

But wouldn’t this make everything subjective, since all you are left with is your consciousness with all its contents?  Husserl has to show that the individual consciousness already contains in itself objective content, and it is this objective content that is the basis of our intersubjective world which in turn is the condition for the natural sciences.  How are we to reach this objective content?  Through the method of the reduction.  We set aside everything that is external, and the prejudices that we associate with the reality of the world, and concentrate only on the inner content of our conscious acts.  What is remembered in the act of remembering, imagined in the act of imagination, perceived in the act of perception and so on.  In this intuition of the content of consciousness we can distinguish the immanent object of the act from the actual object, or what Husserl calls the transcendent object.  Take for example the act of perception.  There is act of perception itself with its own essential structure, the manner in which the object appears in this structure, and what appears in this manner of appearing.  The structure of perception for Husserl is the three dimensionality.  The fact that no object is given completely, but always through profiles and perspectives.  But nonetheless immanent to this appearing, is what appears itself, which unlike the appearing is given completely and without any remainder.  I can, to use Husserl’s example from the Logical Investigations , see the box appearing in many different profiles and adumbrations, but nonetheless the same box, which is not identical to the infinite series of possible appearances, appears as something identical:

‘I see a thing, e.g. this box, but I do not see my sensations.  I always see the one and the same box, however it may be turned and tilted.  I have always the same content of consciousness. Very different contents are therefore experienced, though the same object is perceived.’[1] 
Later, Husserl asks how it is possible that all though at the level of perception itself the content of consciousness itself is always changing we nonetheless still see the same thing.  He answers that we can do so because we take all this different content in the same sense. Thus is meaning of the object that we see, though this meaning is not identical to the perceived object itself.  Moreover it is this meaning that gives unity to our experience.  To use Husserl’s vocabulary, it is the meaning  of sense of the object that constitutes the order and unity of our perception of the world, and not the perception of the world which constitutes meaning:
‘For we experience a ‘consciousness of identity’, i.e. a claim to apprehend identity.  On what does this consciousness depend?  Must we not reply that different sensational contents are given, but that we apperceive or ‘take’ them ‘in the same sense’, and that to take them in this sense is an experienced character through which the ‘being of the object for me’ is first constituted?’ 
It is this notion of sense that means that the immanent stream of consciousness already points outside of itself.  For meaning is something different from the subjective appearance of objects to me, since it is something objective.  Although how the box appears is subjective, the meaning ‘box’ that gives a identity to this experience, is intersubjective and already determines my experience of the object before my own individual act of perception.  In the experience of something,
as Merleau-Ponty observes, we always experience more than we actually experience.  This ‘beyond’ is the transcendence that is immanent to the intentional relation:
‘The positing of the object, therefore makes us go beyond the limits of our actual experience which is brought up against and halted by an alien being, with the result that finally experience believes that it extracts all its own teaching from the object.  It is this ek-stase of experience which causes all perception to be perception of something’ [2] 

In Husserl’s second major publication, the Ideas, he no longer speaks of intentional acts and contents, but noesis and noema, and it is this distinction, which describes the essence of consciousness, that we shall look at today.  As we shall see, however, although Husserl has introduced a new vocabulary, the relation between the noesis and noema is identical to the intentional relation as it was described in the early work,  Logical Investigations

First we must ask ourselves why does Husserl introduce such a strange vocabulary with words like noesis and noema?  Philosophers do not introduce words for no reason at all, and if they do make a linguistic innovation, it is usually because they believe that the usual or old words are preventing us from seeing something.  In this case, I believe that Husserl introduces these expressions so as to prevent us from reifying intentionality.  Thus he is not interested in the actual subject that is seeing the object, nor the that objects itself, but the object as meant, and the intentional act that presents the object as meant.  To call the former the noema and the latter noesis is to get us away from the distinction between subject and object that is still enmeshed, for Husserl, in the old difference between the physical and psychological sphere of nature.  The noema and noesis, if you like is what is left of the subject and object after the methodological decision of the reduction.

Let us now go through this distinctions in more detail.  There are two sides to intentionality:  the noesis and the noema.  The noetic is that which gives sense to the immanent object of consciousness through the position that the pure ego maintains.  Examples of such noeses are believing, remembering, valuing and so.  Correlative to the noesis is the noema.  In the act of perceiving, there is the perceived as perceived, in the act of judging, the judged as judges, and so on.  The noema is not to be confused with the object.  Noema is the sense which is immanent to the noesis.

In the Ideas, Husserl gives the example of the apple tree in the garden [3]. We must distinguish between three things:  The act of perception, the perception itself, and the tree itself.  We say what is perceived is the apple tree, but the transcendent tree, the actual tree is quite different from the sense, and the psychological state of remembering, believing and judging is quite different from the noesis.  There is a real external relation between the actual tree and the actual person, but the noesis and noema are not real, and moreover there relation is not external, but the noema is internal to the noesis.  In the phenomenological gaze we bracket the real world, and we ask what is immanent to the noetic processes.  Even though we have placed the real relations in suspension, nonetheless there still emerges a new type of relation between the perceiving and the perceived.  The content is the same, but now it is viewed in an immanent manner.  What then is the perceived in this new relation?  It is not longer a transcendent thing.  The task of phenomenology is to describe this immanent ‘tree’ as it is given in consciousness itself.

In the reduction we no longer see a tree, which we take for granted as being out there as it is in itself, but we see the tree as a tree, and it this ‘as a tree’ which is the marker of the immanent content.  For this second tree, unlike the real tree, cannot be burnt up.  It is not made of anything and has no ‘real properties’.

Is this second tree, therefore some kind of mysterious tree with magical and mysterious properties?  This would only be the case if were to think the real tree and the tree as something meant as though they were the same kind of thing.  But the ‘tree as something meant’ is precisely not a thing at all, and not even some special kind of thing, rather it is a meaning, or what Husserl call sense (der Sinn).

The object as it is meant, what we have call the immanent object, is in no way dependent on the actual object.  This should not lead us however, to think that there are two real objects or that the immanent object is the image or reflection of the actual object (this again is the mistake of thinking both as though they belonged to the same order, which would be the error of Platonism).  What is perceived as what is meant or intended in the act of perception is not the same in any way as the actual or transcendent object, and therefore cannot be a copy or image of it.

To say that the immanent object is a copy of the transcendent object is merely a metaphysical addition which has no basis in lived experience.  The task of phenomenology is stay with what is given in the noesis itself, and not go outside it in dogmatic statements about reality.  What we find when we look at the noesis is that inherent to it is always a noema.  The ‘apple tree’  as opposed to the real apple tree. 

Having made this distinction between transcendent and immanent objects, we can make investigation of the essential relation between the noema and the noesis.  First of all the noema and the noesis are radically different, though they are always a necessary correlation of one another.  More interestingly, however, the pure structure of the noesis effects the noema.  The apple tree remembered appears differently than the apple tree perceived.  On the other hand, even though there is this difference, we can still that over different noetic acts, there is part of the noema that remains the same.  This Husserl calls the noematic core.  It is that which remains the same over different intentional relations. That part of the noema the ‘apple tree’ that remains the same, whether it is perceived, remembered, judged and so on.  This is what we mean by the sense of the object.  The meaning of the apple tree does not change whether we thinking of this apple tree perceived, remembered, or even liked.

When we think of the world, therefore after the reduction that reveals this whole network of relations between noetic and noematic, we realise that the natural attitude is in error to think the starting point is an opposition between the subject and an object, and where the subject’s understanding of the world is given by the object through sense impressions.  Rather the relation to the world is already directed in advance and what directs me or guides me the world is the noemata. 
I never just see a thing, rather I always see something as already embodying a meaning, which is immanent to consciousness, and this meaning guides my gaze.

[1] Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations , trans., J.N. Findlay, (London: Routledge, 1976), p. 565-66
[2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, (London: Routledge), p. 70
[3] Husserl Edmund, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book, translated by F. Kersten, (Dordrecht: Kulwer Academic Publishers, 1982), pp. 214-215.

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