READING GUIDE TO: Husserl E (1973) Cartesian Meditations (trans. D. Cairns), the Hague: Martinus Nijhoff
Dave Harris


We need to renew Descartes’ amazing project in “The Meditations” — to find a secure grounding for all sciences. Descartes’ proceedings are described briefly here. The project needs renewing because philosophy is in a hopeless conflict of different approaches, with little intercommunication and much “prejudice”. We should use Descartes’ approach but avoid his mistakes [largely: (a) using geometry as the model of all philosophical enquiry, and (b) ending with “transcendental realism”]


Radical doubt must involve a rejection of the model of enquiry embedded in science, even a rejection of formal logic. Husserl explores the notion of “evidence” — “evidence” is a.state of affairs which correspond exactly to a judgement (so closely, preferably, that these “affairs” simply index or “recover” truth itself). On exploring this notion, though, we find there is a “pre-predicative” element in this [i.e. a pre-logical aspect, a presupposition or assumption, etc.] The “pre-predicative” element concerns both the “state of affairs” and the judgement.

[So already we’ve demolished naive scientism. Scientific procedures involve not only logical manipulations but pre-logical cognitive processes - e.g. perceiving, recognising, etc. These must be investigated if the ideals of science re. evidence and grounding are to be achieved. Apart from anything else, we cannot now take Descartes’ approach of just choosing geometry as a model of science. Here, Husserl is stating by asking what the essence of scientific models are in the first place]

We seek apodictic certainty as our unshakeable foundation for philosophy. [“apodicticity ... is absolute indubitability ... apodictic evidence .... [involves]…the absolute inconceivability of its non-being” pp.14 & 15]. Now apodicticity cannot be achieved by empirical activities. Sense-data are not apodictic, indeed the existence of the external “real world” is itself eminently doubtable, as Descartes shows. Apodicticity is associated with the indubitable “thinking ego”, as in Descartes. Husserl wants to go further to explore exactly what this thinking ego does and how it works.

The thinking ego bestows truth or falsity upon the “real world”. Now we go beyond Descartes. It is not the natural ego that does the real analysis and interpretation of the world. There is a “transcendental ego” - a philosophising ego which proceeds by reflection, and by abstaining from belief in the “real world” (and in the activities of the “natural ego” generally). This abstention from belief does not dismiss or ignore the natural ego or the natural world - it treats them as “mere phenomena”. [The necessary reflective abstentions from belief is called “performing the epoche” – pronounced  ee-pok-ee, and from the Greek word meaning to ‘empocket’, or place in a pocket. This is usually translated as ‘putting things into brackets’. This made no sense to me for a while until I remembered the Continental habit of using odd brackets shaped like this -- << -- to indicate quotation marks. Putting things into quotation marks does make sense to a Brit – it is a way of expressing a doubt about something, as when one refers to a colleague as an “expert”, meaning a so-called expert – not that I ever would, of course]

The “transcendental ego” is the one that ultimately performs the pre- predicative cognitive processes we began with. It bestows, or constitutes, the reality of the natural ego and its world. But the transcendental is antecedent, it is presupposed by natural being [as the realm that produces, or constitutes it as phenomena], it is the only realm where one find apodicticity.

The transcendental ego is not a “thing” with its own real existence [which prevents Descartes’ mistake of reintroducing realism]. Nor is the transcendental ego located in the individual “personality” [the first of many denials that studies of cognition can be performed within psychology - phenomenology is NOT psychology! This is not the ordinary sort of “ego” or thinking or perception or consciousness -- it is transcendental ego, etc].

[If you’re puzzled by bits of this, keep reading — the first meditation. really just lays out the bare bones of it all. Many of the issues get discussed more extensively in the later meditations]


The newly discovered realm of transcendental experience or knowledge leads to a new transcendental philosophy. It is a philosophy of possibility [studying not actual processes, actual “objects” but, by going back to the sources of these processes/objects, uncovering new possibilities, etc. This for me is where the critical potential of phenomenology lies, although Husserl gets very conservative and talks about structural limits to possibilities later - e.g. in the 4th meditation]

All we know of this transcendental realm so far is that it stretches around our own personal transcendental ago. It looks like we are headed for solipsism as a result of our radical doubt. For now, lets just describe the transcendental realm as our own personal transcendental ego sees it a deal with the issue of other egos later [in the 5th meditation.].

Let’s explore how consciousness works, how we become aware of phenomena [not how we receive impressions of “facts” as in mere psychology]. We can explore, say, perception. We use our own personal transcendental ego as a “disinterested onlooker” to see how our own natural ego perceives “things”. In this way we can explore what is seen, describe it purely as seen, and exactly how it is seen [without making any additional inferences about the “reality” or “objectivity” of what we perceive as does science]. We undertake with our transcendental ego a criticism of consciousness (p.35). We criticise [critically examine] the perceived intentional object (noematic criticism), and the processes of perception (noetic criticism) (p.36). We extend our criticism to the way in which our natural ego makes judgements about the validity, reality, ontological status, etc. of both noema and noesis. 

So we don’t ignore the “real world”, we study it, but as an object of thought. The study of particular “objects”, on their own and as part of a universe of “objects” becomes a study of how objectivity is constituted and what the characteristics of so constituted objects are. [“Objects” then have no real independent existence outside of the activities of consciousness e.g. perception. Husserl draws upon the concept of intentionality as developed by Brentano to support this view. “Intentionality”, briefly refers to the stance or attitude of an actor towards an “object” which affects just what he will notice or perceive about that “object”. There is no “pure” perception clear of the subjective effects of the actor’s intentions — at least, not in the natural ego].

There are infinite possible ways of constituting objects. Actual concrete “objects” are simply particular products of constitution [only one possibility, if you like]. Even then, these partial and particular “objects” [reifications one might call them?] are not simply “data” as in simple descriptions or definitions -- even natural egos recognise that “objects” have “horizons” (unexplored characteristics). Actual particular “objects” are connected together into an entire world of “objects”. Their interconnections lie not in the “objects” themselves, though, but in the unity of perceptions in the ego. Different perceptions by the ego are synthesised into patterns, continuities, etc. (pp.40,41). The forms of this synthesis are the phenomenological [not psychological] study of consciousness and its operations [including the concept of “inner time”, so nicely expanded by Schutz to reveal how actors “unite in inner time” memories and present perceptions in order to understand “new” situations, etc.]. 

We have to carefully explore these synthesising or constituting processes of consciousness, using “new methods” [one of which is the “eidetic variation” technique — trying to imagine various possible perceptions in order to realise exactly how “real” perceptions come to take on the special status they do].

[At this state (p.43) we have an interesting problem raised by Husserl himself. It is a problem of infinite regress connected with this technique of using the transcendental ego to comment on and analyse the activities of the natural ego as it goes about synthesising, constituting objects and so on. The snag is that the transcendental ego’s analysis involves its own synthesis of the natural ego’s activities, its own constituting activity, its own processes of perception, its own inner time, etc. If we are to understand this, do we not need a third level of ego that will comment upon the transcendental ego as it comments upon the natural ego? Husserl flannels about this problem, promising to clarify it later (dunno where). He also hints at a final “apodictic” level, a level of pure intuition, a level which we somehow know about directly — and this is the transcendental level, luckily, so we can stop the infinite regress after all. Fishy, though, isn’t it?]. 

Anyway, luckily we don’t have to begin entirely in the abstract when exploring these processes of consciousness. It so happens that when we look at the natural world we find it constituted in definite ways — it is not seen as a world of infinite possibility, but as a world already possessing definite classes of “things” (e.g. living animals, inanimate matter, etc.) organised in typical ways (e.g. things exist in space and objective time, etc.). If we study the natural world then, it provides us with definite “transcendental clues” to the ways in which consciousness actually selects among all the possibilities of constitution at its disposal. In practice then, it seems that despite the infinite possibilities, there are only a limited number of “structural types” of constituting, synthetic processes of consciousness. Phenomenology confines itself to investigating these, perhaps with an attempt to develop a general notion of how the world is constituted, but no more.

[The realm of possibility is used only as an investigative device as in eidetic variation? Seems a shame, a conservative cop-out, and it lets in Marxists like Marcuse who want to argue that phenomenology “leaves the world as it is”, just as they do with Hegel’s restrictions of the possible, etc. I do think Husserl should have explored why there are these structural limitations. I don’t think the limitation is a necessary one — it’s a product of Husserl’s chosen project which is to develop a science of this world. I think it would be possible to devise other projects from phenomenology which would lead to critical investigations in a political sense. I don’t know enough about Marxist attempts to engage with phenomenology to comment further. Finally, N.B. the possibility here of a “structuralist” reading of Husserl, God save us!]


[Briefer, and my stamina is giving out]. One key type of constitution involves all those activities known as reason (e.g. all the modes of verifying the truth of objects, etc.). Truth is thus nothing but a “harmonious synthesis” [of perceptions] that resists new interpretations. Truth looks like it is a product of the empirical world, it seems as though truth involves an externality which resists individual reconceptualisations. In fact, it is consciousness which is restricting the possible reconceptualisations, consciousness which produces the externality and endurance (p.62). So naive ontology, with its apparently “eternal” categories like space, time, etc. is rejected. As in the 2nd meditation, the categories are to be seen as “clues” to guide us to the ways in which consciousness is so structured as to produce agreed “eternal”, “objective” categories as characteristic of the “real world” as it is constituted.


The discussion on how objects are constituted leads us to see how individual human beings are constituted by consciousness. How do I come to constitute myself as a distinct personality, a subject, a natural ego? My sense of myself is an unusually permanent one, but again this permanence is simply a product of a closely-knit unity of perceptions and conscious processes. I am aware of making thousands of syntheses during my activity. These become “habitualised” as components of my personality, they produce my sense of permanent self. Thus individuals, selves, are “substrates” [or embodiments] of the properties of consciousness. It is this processes of consciousness that constitute human beings as “monads”, [as individual concrete knowers, agents, etc. in the world]. As with the constitution of “objects”, all this presupposes a transcendental realm of possibilities which are concretised. With concrete individuals, not all possibilities can co-exist. A unified coexistence (“compossibility”) of perceptions etc. involves us in analysing inner time, and in analysing motives [which is where Schutz begins]. Until we establish the existence and characteristcs of other egos, we shall have to use our own personal egos as “clues” to explore this further.

The generative/synthetic activities of egos are either “active” or “passive”. “Active” synthesis is best seen in the “works of reason”. Even here -- e.g. in science -- there are practical motives and intentions involved, and a social, intersubjective element too. In “works of reason” new “objects” can be produced [a possibility realised?] which readily become “habitualised” [appearing as factual, with the generative processes forgotten, reified?] For such products to become part of the natural world, there must be some agreed acceptance of them as natural [some stable, shared perceptions]. Hence transcendental intersubjectivity is assumed by descriptions of the “works of reason” [never analysed by positivism, of course, but a problem for Husserl too as we’ll see in the 5th meditation]. “Passive” synthesis is unreflected synthesis — e.g. as in the way infants learn to perceive a “real world”, etc. These syntheses are “essentially necessary”, they are “governed by eidetic laws” (p.79) [i.e. they are structured as in the 2nd meditation?]. They can be penetrated by reflection, though, and shown to be really “active” after all [Strong shades of Hegel’s critique of positivism here, although in a very different framework?]. [Such considerations again expose the poverty of psychology with its odd theories of learning such as “association” etc.-- kids do not learn by associating concepts with things, says Husserl, what we have here is a subjective intentionality which structures both the “things” and the knowledge about the “things”].

So far, everything has been developed using my own [our own] ego(s) as clues. It’s all been solipsistic, “egological”. Can we talk about others, still retaining our apodictic starting point, and simply extending the implications by reflection, etc?  Some preliminary considerations:

(i) If I constitute the world as described above, I can argue that the world must be constituted in a similar way for others, no? (p.82)
(ii) The notion of transcendental subjectivity offers me a way out of my personal consciousness into the world of others. If transcendental subjectivity constitutes me, it can also constitute intersubjectivity. It is, in fact, the only route to the constitution of intersubjectivity [there is no shared world of empirical objects as common reference points, no metaphysical realm of “things in themselves” to provide an Absolute - as we’ve seen, radical doubt dispells these, and the investigations of conciousness shows that these categories are produced (p.86)].
(iii) The realm of the transcendental and transcendental idealism can be demonstrated by logical reflections and by actual investigations in phenomenology. No speculative [or non-apodictic] element is involved (p.86). No naive realism is involved either [unlike as in psychological attempts to develop “theories of others” by empirical demonstrations of communications, etc. — these are “transcendental but within a natural realm” - and hence junk (p.86)].


Phenomenology is often accused of relapsing into solipsism — but it doesn’t [so there!]. The main danger is that confining phenomenology to the activity of my ego lets in realism again [my thoughts can proceed happily simply as part of the world (p.90). Husserl here is not discussing idealistic solipsism at all  --  that says the world is nothing but a product of my ego]. Anyway, so far we’ve been solipsistic for explanatory purposes -- let’s try to see if we can definitely allow in other egos, without abandoning radical doubt, etc.

Otherness as constituted by my ego provides a “transcendental clue”. Noematically, others are not just objects but active subjects, as we’ve seen [4th Meditation]. Similarly, the natural and social worlds are noematically intersubjective. What makes others subjects? The solution involves seeing how I am constituted as a subject —then we can maybe apply this to others.

The answer lies in two areas:

(1) discussing how I arrive at categories like “mine” versus “alien” [or “other”]. 
(2) discussing how I experience belonging to a shared world which provides me with a common “stratum of the phenomenal world” [a basic human nature] (p.96).

(1) My “ownness”, my concept of self is constituted as in the 4th meditation I perform syntheses which are unified. I synthesise my own “objects”. They form my own (recognisable) world -- the “primordial world”. It is in this sense that I am (p.105). Now this actually presupposes a notion of “otherness”. It is this otherness that enables me to transcend my initial primordial world (to synthesise new products as in the works of reason in the 4th meditation)). I can infer an initial otherness -- others must have helped me “add sense” to my world. These other elements are not real entities which I simply discover - they are produced by other men. The other parts of the world are really a “collective idea” (p.107). [This dense stuff is further unpacked as below].

(a) Otherness of human beings is not directly accessible. Indeed if we could simply access otherness by reflection etc. it would show it really belonged to our personal essence all along. We have to discover it. Now we discover new knowledge about objects by a process of “appresentations” [or “apperception’]. We perceive, say, the front of a house as it is presented, but this presentation involves a necessary rear view of a house [we don’t perceive this directly but we deduce it from our perception - we apperceive it]. We can verify this appresentation by further perceptions [we go round the back and 1ook]. We can’t do this for human others, though (p.109). We have to use a special kind of analogy rather than simply adding on perceptions. We use simple analogies all the time - e.g. in understanding newly presented objects, we say that they are the same as (analogous to) previously experienced objects (p.111). Again, with other people it’s not that easy -- it’s a special kind of analogy that’s needed.

(b) We get closer to this special analogy by considering the issue of “pairing”. I can “pair” the body of the other human with mine [!]. The pairing relationship “transfers sense (meaning)”. So: if the other’s body is similar to mine, I can transfer meaning from my understanding of my body to their body - e.g. we both have similar bodies with similar movements, etc., I know mine is animated (alive) so I can transfer this meaning and conclude that the other’s body is too.
Can I transfer my understanding of my consciousness? Again, I know my concrete body “contains” transcendental consciousness. The other can demonstrate that they are the same. To do this they have to present me with certain behaviour. The behaviour has to be unpredictable, beyond my control and this guarantees its genuine otherness [Stone me! This is rather like Willis on the advantages of using ethnographic research to generate “surprise” – see file]. Yet it has to take on the form of a “harmonious synthesis” as it flows over time [just like mine does as in the 4th meditation]. If both these criteria are fulfilled, I can see this behaviour as an analogue of my own activity - I can conclude that the other is a subject -- modifying, synthesising and concretising the world just like I do (pp.114,115) [Convinced? Schutz isn’t! One small problem I have is this: the unpredictability bit is supposed to guarantee otherness, but what if it’s really mine all along and I either have forgotten I made it, or I don’t understand that I am producing it? O.K. reflection should uncover these cases eventually. Anyway, the real problem is: are analogies as apodictic as the reflections, so far?].

(c) Reciprocity gives another clue. Humans see the world from a definite “here” -- but they can shift their vantage points -- any “there” can become a “here” for me if I move. Now I can see if the other is a genuine other or not, be perceiving how he [ sorry – all these pronouns are gendered] acts when he is there, and then going there myself and seeing if it’s the same. If my perception of his actions bring to mind the way I would look if I were there, I can conclude that his world is an analogue of my world  [and that, therefore, he is a subject like me]. This is “assimilative apperception” (p.118).

(d) We still have a problem. Even if we now recognise the existence of others, we still haven’t explained how they can communicate with each other. We have concluded, by observing the physical presence (the body) of the other that he exists as a body. We can use this presentation of his body to infer his full unity as a person. With objects, as we saw, appresentation takes place -- we apperceive the object as a 3-dimensional unity even if we only see one aspect of it. With humans we apperceive a different sort of unity -- we apperceive them as bodies united with consciousness, in the same way we know we are united entities with bodies and consciousness. Again, we cannot assume the other’s consciousness is identical to ours [in terms of contents, as it were] because if so it would not be genuinely other. But we can infer his consciousness has an identical (transcendental) structure.

(2) All is well now that we have a potential for communication, and we know that there is intentional communication. There is thus a community among men [sorry again] -- a man is an other for me and vice versa. [Plural relations are merely multiples of dyadic relations – lots for sociologists to discuss here!]. Exploring the analogy, just as individual egos have a transcendental ego, so the community has a transcendental intersubjectivity (p.130). This transcendental intersubjectivity has infinite possibilities which concretise out into particular cultural communities (p.133). Concretisation is structured for the intersubjective realms just as it is for the individual. Thus we can understand “sociality” ((the structures of the life-world)) by reference to the structuring of transcendental intersubjectivity (and enter Schutz

[The rest of the 5th Meditation applies all the previous stuff on the individual to the community etc. — e.g. p.140,141, particular cultures are seen as concrete variations of a transcendentally-constituted common world. Psychology is bashed again, pp.142—147. Solipsism is denied again, p.148]


[Much self-congratulation at having out thought Descartes, etc. then .....]  Positivistic science, like common-sense is naive, filled with paradoxes and crises, bedevilled with “unclarified intentionalities”, etc. So is formal logic (p.153). Phenomenology will develop general concepts which are prior and fundamental for all sciences — a “universal concrete axiology”. The first level of being is intersubjectivity. The route to knowledge is via self-knowledge, self-reflection, then exploring inter- subjectivity. Hence there is a new point to St. Augustine’s slogan “Noli foras ire, in te redi in interiore homine habitat veritas”  -- Do not wish to go outside:stay inside.Truth dwells in the inner man.
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