Dr William Large

We have already come across this topic many times in these lectures and this ought not surprise us, for the idea of intentionality is the centre of phenomenological research.  We already mentioned Husserl’s famous slogan, or the 
slogan of the phenomenological movement itself, ‘back to the things themselves!’

This might first be interpreted as a demand to return to a supposedly simple knowledge of things against the distortions of philosophical speculation.  We now know that what ever is meant by the expression 'the things themselves'  does not mean the simple apprehension of things, if what is meant by 'apprehension'  is the direct unmediated knowledge of things.

Nor does Husserl wish to play common sense off philosophical acuity, as philosophy were always a matter of jettisoning common sense; rather common sense is what philosophy must salvage, and usually does so against common sense's own beliefs.  For it believes that it has no opinions at all, but is simply presented the things are they really are.  But such a 'presentation' includes much philosophical baggage that seriously distorts any claim to direct apprehension.  What actually presents itself, Husserl would argue, cannot of itself fit the common sense picture of the world. Thus the phenomenological attitude is not the rejection of the world, as some have thought the methodological reduction entails, but its direct engagement in the manner in which it presents itself in the 'how'  of this presentation.

How things present themselves, rather than how we might wish them to present themselves has to do with the intentional structure of consciousness.  Like Kant, Husserl would argue that consciousness is not just a passive recipient of information from the external world, but already determines, shapes and constitutes the object that we see.  Thus the place of the subject in the cognitive relation is twofold.  One, on the side of the actual subject, which is opposed to the object, the other as the relation between the subject and the object.  These two ‘subjects’, however, cannot be thought as identical.  The first subject is the actual empirical subject, whereas the second subject, which cannot be identified with any actual living person, is ideal and transcendental.  The analysis of intentionality is the description of its essential structure.

The notion of intentionality has its roots in medieval investigations of signification, but the immediate source for Husserl was his philosophy teacher Brentano, who made intentionality a distinction between mental and physical phenomena.  Mental phenomena, for Brentano are to be divided into the act of presentation, such hearing a sound or seeing a colour, but also expectation, hope, judgement, love, happiness and joy, and the presentation of the things or matter which is aimed at in the act of presentation.  This ‘presentation’ is not to be confused with any actual thing or state of affairs [1].

This distinction between three different orders, the actual thing, the act of prsentation, and what is presented, are the fundamental elements of Husserl own theory of intentionality. The great difference between him and Brentano, though, and Levinas makes this very clear in his book on Husserl, is that Brentano, as the title of his own work suggests, is still working within the field of psychology, whereas for Levinas the proper study of intentionality requires a phenomenological analysis that has left behind the prejudices, which are necessary for its own success and work, of the natural sciences.  We have already seen that for Husserl that the content of mental acts is not a part of reality.  What then can be said of Husserl’s own theory of intentionality?  At first glance, in content alone, it is very similar to Brentano’s, the difference is that Husserl’s is a transcendental argument, whereas Brentano’s is merely a typology of different kinds of phenomena, psychical and physical.  We shall also discover that the clue to understanding this transcendental status of the intentional relation is language, though Husserl himself might not have directly put it in this manner.

To explain intentionality let us return to the distinction between immanent and transcendent perception that we discussed last week.  Transcendent objects, or real objects, are given to us, Husserl argues, only through a continuum of profiles, perspective or adumbrations (these are not only spatial, but temporal): 

Of necessity a physical thing can be given only ‘one-sidely,’  and that signifies not just incompletely or imperfectly in some sense or another, but precisely what presentation by adumbrations prescribes.(Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book, translated by F. Kersten, (Dordrecht: Kulwer Academic Publishers, 1982), 

What Husserl means is that it belongs to the essence of physical things to be presented in this way, because they are three-dimensional, and we should not be looking to find some perfect essence of the physical thing behind the so called inadequate appearance.  Husserl would go far as to say that even God must see physical things in this way, due to the very fact that they exist in space, and could be present in no other way, unless they cease to be physical things.  But it is equally clear, Husserl would say, if we simple refelct upon our perception of things, they we do not just see aspects and profiles, rather there is another element. 

We need to stress again and again in Husserl, and it this which distinguishes him from the two world view of the metaphysics of subjectivity, as in the case in Descartes, and even in Kant, despite is critique of the intellectual intuition, is that he does not oppose appearance to essence.  For Husserl, on the contrary essences appear. The essence of the object, the immanent object appears co-extensively with the transcendent object.  This, however, does not mean, as we shall see, that the immanent and transcendent object are equivalent, for the transcendent object, in quite the opposite direction of the 'natural attitude'  is dependent on the immanent object.  

To grasp these distinctions I am going to use the example of the perception of the table in section 41 of the Ideas .  Husserl writes:

Let us start with an example.  Constantly seeing this table and meanwhile walking around it, changing my position is space in whatever way, I have continually the consciousness of this one identical table as factually existing ‘in person’ and remaining quite unchanged

The claim, therefore, is that we are continuously conscious of this one and the same table as really existing yet our perceptions of it change. My perceptions of the object are perspectival whilst I am conscious of the table in person as being there as one thing.  We can, therefore, also make a fundamental distinction between appearing and appearance.  There is one and the same appearance, Husserl would say, though the appearing of this appearance is always changing.  The one and the same appearance is the immanent object, and the changing manner of the appearance is the transcendent object.  It is in this way of distinguishing between what appears and the appearance of what appears that we can see how phenomenology does not fall into the metaphysical opposition of appearance and essence, where the manner of the way something appears is supposed to me a sign of a deeper essence that is only available to intellectual intuition; that is to say the eyes of God.

What is the aim of phenomenological analysis is the structure of appearance.  For it is this that gives a coherence and objectivity to our experience.  We confuse objectivity with the transcendent object, but it is this object which is continually changing and therefore could never be the ground for scientific knowledge.  It is the immanent object that gives unity and sense to our experience of things in the world.  That I see this table as a table, even though its aspects are continually changing.  It is this unity that is valid meaning of objectivity.  This unity provided by the immanent object already organises, or synthesises Husserl would say, our experience of the world, prior to theoretical or scientific judgements that I might make of it.  It is because the world is already organised by the immanent intentional structure of consciousness that we see things as having such and such meanings and therefore can make judgements about them.  Husserl is very much against the empiricists’ view of knowledge that we first of all have sensations and then this sense data are secondarily organised into to recognisable objects.  My experience of the world is already organised by the structure of intentionality before I have any sensations.  Thus I do not hear noise outside my window, which I then in a second moment construct into the sound of a car, but straight away I hear a car.  This is why my perceptions can always be disappointed, because my expectations might be disappointed. It is not a car, but the sound of the wind and so on.  Appearing is already meaningful, it does not require an act of judgement or the understanding to make it so.  

We might be gaining some insight, therefore, into how the phenomenologist sees the world.  It is not something that is outside of us in the sense of nature in the scientific or common-sense attitude, rather the world should be understood as the network of meaning, or essences, which are the horizon in which we encounter objects.  The world is this region of sense in which we are orientated.  This world for Husserl is identical to the immanent life of consciousness.  It is constituted through it.  The key to understanding this claim, is to no longer to see the world on the analogy of a natural thing, but in terms of language.  For the self same and identical appearance that appears at the heart of appearing is sense or meaning.  It is not a natural thing, and nor does it have any basis in nature, yet it is the ground and possibility of our experience and judgement about nature.  H. Hall make clear this transcendental function of consciousness in the following passage:

What Husserl’s generalisation of the notion of meaning comes to is the claim that consciousness can and must be understood as active or interpretative in all its functions.  Experience is never just the passive registering and subsequent associating of independently meaningful data.  It involves the bringing to bear by consciousness of intensional structures or meanings (noemata) through which the systematic organisation of some less meaningful or relatively unstructured material is accomplished. (H. Hall, ‘Was Husserl a Realist or an Idealist?’  in  Husserl Intentionality and Cognitive Science, ed. H. Dreyfus, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982), p. 172)

[1] See Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, (Routledge, 1973), pp. 77-81. 

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