Husserl Studies

, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 63–81

Seeing Meaning: Frege and Derrida on Ideality and the Limits of Husserlian Intuitionism


    • Department of Culture and CommunicationSödertörn University

DOI: 10.1007/s10743-010-9085-3

Cite this article as:
Ruin, H. Husserl Stud (2011) 27: 63. doi:10.1007/s10743-010-9085-3


The article seeks to challenge the standard accounts of how to view the difference between Husserl and Frege on the nature of ideal objects and meanings. It does so partly by using Derrida’s deconstructive reading of Husserl to open up a critical space where the two approaches can be confronted in a new way. Frege’s criticism of Husserl’s philosophy of mathematics (that it was essentially psychologistic) was partly overcome by the program of transcendental phenomenology. But the original challenge to the prospect of a fulfilled intuition of idealities remained and was in fact encountered again from within the transcendental analysis by Husserl himself in his last writings on geometry and language. According to the two standard and conflicting accounts, Husserl either changed his earlier psychologistic program as a result of Frege’s criticism, or he was in fact never challenged by it in the first place. The article shows instead how Husserl continued to struggle with the problem of the constitution of ideal objects, and how his quest led him to a point where his analyses anticipate a more dialectical and deconstructive conclusion, eventually made explicit by Derrida. It also shows not only how this development constitutes a philosophical continuity from the original dispute with Frege, but also how Frege’s critique in a certain respect could be read as an anticipation of Derrida’s deconstructive elaboration of Husserl’s phenomenology.


Ideal objectsIntuitionPsychologismGenetic phenomenologyDeconstructionHusserlFregeDerrida

The very endeavor of philosophy is intimately connected to the discovery of the ideal, the idea, as the stable pattern and ratio that can be visualized (idein), contemplated and preserved in logos. The most astonishing example of a sphere of idealities is mathematics, the geometrical and arithmetical shapes and relations, the ideal patterns that permit us to contemplate, calculate and anticipate the stable ratio behind and beyond temporal becoming and destruction. In and through mathematics, the finite, mortal human mind can appear to take part in that which seemingly has no time, which is beyond time, movement, and death.

What is the nature and being of these idealities, and what is the nature of the bond that ties them to human, finite thought? This was Plato’s question, and it is also the question that first motivated Husserl to devote himself to philosophy. It is the question which led him to develop the unique mode of philosophical analysis attempted in the Philosophy of Arithmetic from 1891, the work which, despite its many misgivings, deserves to be recognized as the genuine starting point of phenomenology, even though the term itself was not properly introduced until in the Logical Investigations nine years later.

The first book was the object of the famous long review by Gottlob Frege in 1894, where he accused Husserl of a philosophically confused “psychologism”.1 The analysis and assessment of Frege’s criticism and its possible effect on Husserl’s subsequent development eventually became a research topic in itself, starting with the publication of Dagfinn Føllesdal’s 1958 essay Husserl and Frege, and continuing up until today, breaching in some respects the whole geopolitical spectrum of the phenomenological and analytical divide. At the same time that Føllesdal was drafting his essay during a stay in Göttingen in the mid 1950s, a young French-Algerian scholar in Paris, born the same year, was completing what was to become his advanced diploma thesis on Husserl, The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Phenomenology, under the supervision of Maurice de Gandillac and Jean Hyppolite. This first work by Jacques Derrida, which was not published until 1990, was the blueprint for the critical confrontation with phenomenology that eventually resulted in the theoretical adventure of “deconstruction”. It was also the starting point for a long sequence of critical and counter-critical readings of Husserl, which continue to play a significant part in the contemporary assessment of phenomenology, as witnessed notably in the work of Dan Zahavi and Rudolf Bernet, and in a recent critic such as Martin Hägglund in his Radical Atheism from 2008, and in Joshua Kates’ important study on Derrida’s early development, Essential History from 2005.2

As we commemorate and cultivate Husserl and his phenomenology today, we are doing so in the context of a philosophical situation that is partly structured and guided by these two readings, their momentum and their critical aftermath. Still, these two debates rarely cross each other’s orbits. In Derrida’s book on The Origin of Geometry, Frege is not mentioned. Nor is he addressed, except in passing, in the subsequent famous confrontation with Husserl, Speech and Phenomena from 1967. In the 1954 thesis, however, there are a few condensed passages that do in fact confront the Frege/Husserl controversy in such a way as to motivate a further exploration of this—on the surface—improbable encounter between traditions and philosophical styles.3

The itinerary here is first to summarize the Husserl/Frege controversy, and the general outline of how it has been received and elaborated in the subsequent literature. Then it moves to Husserl’s famous late essay on “The Origin of Geometry” in order to show how its account of the genesis of ideality through language and writing reactivates the original dilemma once pointed out by Frege in regard to the Philosophy of Arithmetic. In this reading the critical interpretation performed by Derrida is used to open up a philosophical space in which the conflicting claims and ambitions of Frege and Husserl can be heard in a new way. The deconstructive reading of Husserl will thus be shown not only to have relevance for reassessing this original and constitutive conflict between the early stage of phenomenology and analytical philosophy. It is also shown how the deconstructive interpretation of the genesis and realization of ideality points to an inner limit for the very possibility of reaching a completed intuitive account of the meaning of the ideal object.

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I will begin by rehearsing some fundamental points from Husserl’s early aspirations and his confrontation with Frege. Most of what is said here is known to anyone with a rudimentary training in phenomenology and its history, but it is nevertheless worth recapitulating as a starting point.

It all begins with the question of the nature of mathematical and formal logical reasoning. What is mathematics? Mathematics could be described as a rule-governed system of thought, a kind of mental technique that is performed with the help of strictly defined and correlated symbols. In order to perform well in mathematics one does not necessarily have to have a sophisticated and reflexive knowledge of the meaning of the symbols. It is not incidental that mathematical reasoning has proven to be one of the human practices most easily implemented in machines. Mathematical calculations can be converted into purely syntactical, and thus digital, form.

The time when Husserl comes into contact with the philosophy of mathematics is also the time of the great attempts to formalize arithmetic, by Frege and subsequently by Russell, Hilbert and others. Husserl’s own relation to this whole field of research is ambiguous from the start. On the one hand, one can read his earliest works as attempts in the same spirit, namely to fix and articulate the most basic expressions for primitive mathematical notions, such as number. It is this attempt that leads him to develop a logical terminology around such basic concepts as whole and part, multiplicity and singularity, and their relations. But at the same time one can read his attempts precisely as an implicit criticism of the project of formalism and logicism. Unlike several of his contemporaries, Husserl was not looking for a consistent meta-language to describe in axiomatic form the field of mathematical reasoning. What he was looking for, from the very start, was rather a kind of immediate and intuitive articulation of mathematical thinking, on a level beyond or below the established technical symbolism. Whereas the logistic project, with its extensional orientation, can cut its ties to any kind of psychology, Husserl’s aspirations inevitably led him close to psychology, so close in fact that he risked becoming entangled with it entirely. This becomes obvious both in the first essay on the concept of number from 1887 and in the Philosophy of Arithmetic, where the goal is precisely to provide a foundation for the concept of number with the help of “psychological” analysis. A central concern is to unveil the emergence of multiplicity through a unifying and connecting act (Verbindung) on singular entities, according to the model 1 + 1 + 1, etc. In his own words, this analysis amounts to a “psychological” characterization of abstraction and multiplicity (Hua XII, pp. 16f.).

Yet, in this tentative and thematically still limited approach we can sense the nucleus of genetic phenomenology as it eventually came to the fore in the later works. The idea is to clarify abstract idealities through an analysis of the types of acts that presumably engender them, and thus to establish a bridge between what is immediately given in intuition (Anschauung) and that which is more complex and which involves layers and strata of givenness. This is also how Derrida saw it in his early analysis from 1962 on the “Origin of Geometry”. At the very outset of this 200 page analysis of Husserl’s last writings on the history of idealities, he writes that The Philosophy of Arithmetic could just as well have been called “The Origin of Arithmetic”, for despite its deviation towards psychology in a more narrow sense, its goal was already from the start concerned with the “reactivation of the primordial meaning of arithmetic ideal unities by returning to the structure of perception and the acts of a concrete subjectivity” (Derrida 1962, p. 6/28).4

It was the methodological ambiguity in this first attempt to establish an act-theoretical analysis of the constitution of ideal entities that prompted and motivated Frege’s critical engagement, as this was articulated in the long, critical, and in some respects even satirical review from 1894. There are a couple of points from this review that I would like to recall here, as an introduction to my comparative argument. First of all, for Frege the very idea of founding multiplicity in terms of a peculiar mental “act” is misguided. Singularities cannot be transformed into multiplicities by means of a psychic act, and yet remain the same. Instead, the multiplicites should be seen as actually existing ideal entities, to which the mathematical concept of multiplicity refers. To think that we could actually construct or constitute them from within the psychic act amounts to what Frege repeatedly characterizes as putting them in the “psychological washtub” (Frege 1894, p. 315). The whole genetic approach to him is “naïve”, which is how he characterizes every opinion “according to which a number-statement is not an assertion about a concept of the extension of a concept” (Frege 1894, p. 315), and that instead makes of the objective something that is a Vorstellung, a mental representation. Indeed, Frege declares, expanding his sarcastic criticism: “the moon would be hard for consciousness to digest” (Frege 1894, p. 316). If we instead presume the existence of those entities to which the complex numbers and concepts refer we can do without the ultimately inconsistent genetic-constructive-psychological approach.

Throughout the review Frege reiterates the need to separate the meaning of words and their extensions from that of their representation (Vorstellung). A linguistic expression has a meaning, and it is in virtue of this meaning that it refers to its object, its extension, or in Frege’s terms, its Bedeutung. How a specific individual represents an object is according to him a psychological question, which may have its psychological relevance, but it is not relevant for logic and the philosophy of mathematics.5 For Frege, logic is in no way part of psychology, nor are thoughts psychological processes, and neither is thinking an inner producing and shaping of idealities. Thinking should be seen as the apprehension of ideal and objective thoughts and their correlates. Logic is for Frege the grasping and systematization of these objective idealities and the development of the appropriate language for expressing them. In this sense it is not different from the exploration of any regional ontology. We would not, he concludes in another famous pun from this article, take seriously an oceanographer who tried to explain the origin of the oceans from within the human psyche.

In Frege’s conception, there is thus a gulf between the psychologists and the mathematicians. The former are concerned with meanings and representations (that they do not clearly distinguish), and the latter are concerned with the things themselves, namely the objective correlates of mathematical concepts. To believe that we could somehow account for the emergence of collectivity, on the basis of a given singularity, without already presuming the existence of the collectivity, is inconsistent. Frege’s anti-psychologistic (and anti-idealistic) argument is presented in a kind of robust lucidity with a tint of parody in it. It testifies to Husserl’s modesty of spirit that he did not react with bitterness to this review. Instead, the sparsely preserved correspondence and resumed scientific dialogue in subsequent works testifies to a respectful level of philosophical controversy, and also to Husserl’s own willingness to practice self-criticism.

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How should we view today the philosophical core of this early standoff between a nascent phenomenological and an analytical account of the nature and meaning of ideal entities? Much of the discussion has revolved around the initial thesis put forth by Føllesdal in his 1958 study, according to which it was precisely Frege’s devastating critique of the psychologism in the early work that led Husserl to abandon his first approach, and then to return in the Logical Investigations with a non-psychologistic and objective account of ideal objects. According to some interpreters who endorse this assessment, he then eventually gave way again to a new kind of psychologism with the introduction of transcendental phenomenology in 1913, or perhaps already as early as 1905.

But the suggestion that it was Frege’s critique of psychologism that triggered Husserl’s passionate attack on contemporary psychologism in the Prolegomena has since been thoroughly explored, critically assessed, and refuted by a number of scholars, notably Mohanty, who in his excellent Husserl and Frege (1982), provided an account of this complex philosophical confrontation.6 Mohanty showed how Husserl did in fact clearly separate representation, meaning, and object, already in a review article several years before Frege’s attack. Already at this stage he had a clear sense of the objectivity of the ideal object. He understood geometrical thinking to consist not in operations with signs, since these were only supports for handling the ideal concepts and their contents. Mohanty could therefore conclude, at the outset of his study, that “Husserl was already on his way, independently of Frege’s 1894 review, toward the objective conception of logic in the Prolegomena” (Mohanty 1982, p. 7). And already in the theory of meaning as ideal species, instantiated by the individual act, this objectivist understanding of meaning was fully developed.

Unlike some of the other critics of Føllesdal’s thesis, Mohanty does not stop with the somewhat rigid conclusion that Husserl on his own developed a theory of the objectivity of meaning, independently of Frege’s critique.7 Mohanty also has a clear sense of the initial philosophical differences of the two projects. Whereas Frege was ultimately seeking an extensional logic with truth as its primary concept, to be implemented in a consistent Begriffsschrift, Husserl was from the very beginning concerned with something else, with critically understanding and clarifying meaning through an analysis of the constituting role of psychic acts, eventually explicitly conceived of as intentional life (Mohanty 1982, p. 16). For this reason, Mohanty continues, it is wrong to view Husserl’s project as foundational in the same sense as that of Frege and Hilbert. Instead its deeper motivation was to reach a clarification and understanding of ideal meanings and of the possibility of idealization in general. And whereas Frege’s theory was remarkably sophisticated as a logical and semantic theory, Mohanty notes that it was fairly naïve as a philosophy of mind (Mohanty 1982, p. 37). Husserl’s central concern, on the contrary, was to understand how individual, subjective acts of consciousness can have and reach something like objective and ideal meaning or sense. It was this grasping of the ideal, as also a forming and manifestation of the ideal for a subject, that Husserl aimed to clarify from the very start.

Mohanty also provides an interesting quotation from Frege that shows how he was not in fact as insensitive to the relevance of this problematic as one could conclude from his review. In one of his posthumously published texts Frege speaks of the possibility of the grasping of the ideal in singular acts of judgments, as “perhaps the most mysterious of all”.8 However, even though Frege toward the end of his life may have become more attentive to the relevance and difficulty of the problem of the realization or actualization of idealities, he never saw how it could be handled without falling back again precisely into psychologism. For a strictly extensional logic and semantics, the problem of grasping, enacting and realization of sense, will either be a non-issue, or ultimately an issue which places the whole conceptual clarity of its theory in peril.9

In the important essay, “Thought” (1918), Frege developed the same argument, stating that the only carrier of truth is a thought, which is distinct from “representation”. Whereas the latter has its place in an individual consciousness, the former belongs to a “third region”, a non-sensual and yet trans-subjective domain (Frege 1918, p. 69). In this text we can see how he really struggles with Husserl’s problem, in that he states that the grasping of a thought does indeed require someone to grasp it. Yet this active agent, he writes, is the carrier of thinking, not of thought. In other words, even though it takes consciousness to have thoughts and to have truths, these thoughts are not part of consciousness as such. In the end it is with the help of these somewhat strained conceptual distinctions that Frege tries to salvage logic from dissolving into psychology, by construing a schematic transcendental-empirical divide.

In Husserlian terms, Frege’s “thoughts” would still amount to already constituted ideal entities, which are in need of clarification in terms of how they are enacted by consciousness. And it is on the possibility, relevance, and ultimately necessity of this peculiar kind of clarification that the whole adventure of phenomenology ultimately rests. Whereas Frege would always hold that this way of founding something in terms of constitutive acts gives into psychologism, for Husserl it was instead the sine qua non of a fully responsible philosophical approach.

It is thus insufficient to conclude the Frege/Husserl debate by insisting only on the fact that Husserl had already developed a clear sense of the objectivity of ideal entities before Frege’s criticism, and thus that his subsequent anti-psychologism was of his own making. Instead it is important to understand that the critical and pejorative senses of “psychologism” that they refer to are in fact different from the start. For Frege, psychologism—as he makes very clear in his review—is the idea that we can clarify, explain or ground mathematical and logical concepts by referring to how they are represented and enacted in consciousness. For Husserl in the Logical Investigations psychologism is the equivalent of naturalism, in the sense that the whole sphere of idealities is equated with psychological being in the empirical-psychological sense, and thus something that can be studied psychologically. Despite Frege’s criticism, and despite his own self-criticism of the earlier work, Husserl never recognized the psychological analyses in Philosophy of Arithmetic as having been psychologistic in the same sense which he later disawoved in the Prolegomena. Instead he would later say that it was designating these analyses as “psychological descriptions” that contributed to the lack of clarity of the earlier work.

In the preface to the 1913 edition of Logical Investigations, he states that it was only with the strict distinction between a psychological and a phenomenological analysis that the project could reach its full clarity. In a genuinely phenomenological analysis all connections to actual experiences of empirical persons are cancelled. And the route to opening up the proper field of phenomenological and eidetic descriptions passes through the reduction. This preface is written in the wake of finishing Ideas, a work in which phenomenology is defined as a discipline which, through pure intuition, explores and describes pure transcendental consciousness, basing its findings only on what can be intuited in pure immanence (Hua III:1, p. 127). It is henceforth from the perspective of this methodology that all forms of knowledge, all forms of intentional relation, can be explored systematically.

Having reached this point in the recapitulation of the Husserl/Frege controversy, there is nevertheless still a risk that we content ourselves with a too simple conclusion; namely, that Husserl from the start was after something entirely different from Frege, and that Frege’s criticism never had a decisive influence in the first place. But the real philosophical difficulties do not end here; rather it is here that they really begin. For what does it mean, for Husserl and in phenomenological terms, to clarify through intentional analysis the status and meaning of an ideal object such as mathematics or geometry? Neither in the Logical Investigations nor in the Ideas did Husserl come to a fully satisfying solution to this problem. Instead, he would continue to work on this theoretical dilemma to the very end of his life. Indeed, we could read his very last writings as a vivid testimony to the persistence of this intellectual struggle. This is why the discussion concerning Husserl and ideal objects needs to be taken beyond the horizon established by the critics of Føllesdal’s original thesis. And in this respect Derrida’s reading of Husserl, and in particular his interpretation of the last writings on geometry, could help the discussion move forward—in part by reestablishing an unexpected link to the original Fregean challenge.

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In the posthumously published essay on “The Origin of Geometry” from 1936 Husserl states that the task is to return to the question of the “original meaning” of geometry, as an ideal necessity, which nevertheless has the form of a historical event (Hua VI, pp. 366f). In the earlier terminology we could almost substitute the sense of psychology with history here, in all its prevailing and inevitable ambiguity. For we are not, Husserl argues, interested in the actual first geometer, an imaginary Thales, but with an essential origin, the uniquely originary as eidetic figure. Geometry, he continues, “must have emerged out of first acquisition (Erwerben), out of first creative activity”.10 It is this eidetic necessity of the singular emergence which characterizes the uniqueness of Husserl’s approach. For Kant, and for Frege, this moment, and the theoretical retrieval of its nature, could not teach us anything important about the nature of geometry as a body of ideal truths. At best it could give us the historical equivalent of a psychological investigation into the experience and representation of geometry. But Husserl demonstrates the continuity of his guiding question and concern in this particular essay, by insisting precisely on the relevance of posing the problem of ideality in terms of a historical-genetic question. Geometry consists of a body of universal and atemporal truths, of idealities that can be communicated, understood, and serve as the basis for further idealizations. But the problem we find ourselves in today, as he repeatedly states in the essay, is that this ideal sense has become weakened and corrupted through an increasingly passive, technical-mechanic transmission of its doctrines. What is needed is therefore a reactivation of its original sense of ideality.

Up to a certain point Frege could probably have followed him also in this last pursuit. Frege was also critical of a purely formal-technical conception of mathematics and logic, one that does not realize the prevailing ideal truth of the content of mathematics and logic. But unlike Husserl, he found it irrelevant to try to ground this ideal meaning in and through an investigation into its psychic, historical, or any other kind of genesis. For Husserl, however, the problem of the origin and preservation of ideality is a problem of both greater complexity, and also a problem of the most acute urgency. At the time of the 1936 essay, this pursuit had become not only an internal affair for philosophers of mathematics, but an issue of a profound cultural-political nature with great repercussions. For if a culture is not able to return, in a reactivating mode, to the originally motivating and founding layers of its basic meanings, it will lose its orientation, as well as its potentiality for renewal. In the Vienna lecture this cultural dimension of the genetic phenomenology of idealities is articulated in unambiguous terms, as a question of the life or death of the spiritual form of Europe, understood as an open rationality with infinite goals.

But how is this reactivation of a presumably original meaning of geometrical truths to be performed? We need to look closely at some of the formulations in this important late essay, for it is in the details of its argument that the whole problematic is located. The question to which Husserl is seeking an answer is very clearly articulated at the outset of the essay, namely: what is the most original meaning in which geometry once arose? This question could at first appear to be precisely only the historical-empirical question of who actually discovered a specific geometrical truth. But this quest for “an imaginary Thales” is not what concerns Husserl. The question is instead how we should understand the general and essential possibility of something like geometrical ideality on the basis of a necessary (but empirically irrelevant) individual beginning, of this first acquisition and creative act of a practicing geometer. In Husserl’s own words: “This process of projecting and successfully realizing occurs, after all, purely within the subject of the inventor […] within his mental space. But geometrical existence is not psychic existence […] it is the existence of what is objectively there for ‘everyone’ […] Indeed, it has, from its primal establishment, an existence, which is peculiarly supertemporal […] an ‘ideal’ objectivity.” But what is the mode of existence of this ideality? It exists, Husserl, continues, “in a certain way objectively”, but—and this is a very decisive but—“only as the capacity to be repeated, and to be incorporated” (Hua VI, p. 367f/160).

The question posed by Husserl could be restated as follows: “how do the idealities that have their origin in an empirical psychological act, reach out from their first intra-personal origin?” From the perspective of a Fregean critic, this is a question that we can ask a psychologist, a historian of mathematics, or perhaps a linguist, but it does not reveal or contribute to clarifying the meaning of the ideality itself. The decisive point for Husserl, however, is precisely that this question does concern the meaning of the ideal content itself.11 There is not first an ideal meaning existing objectively—as a “thought” in some “third dimension” of being—and then the question of how this ideality is grasped by the individual geometer. For it is the meaning of the being of the ideality itself that is here at stake, and this question can only be answered in terms of a genetic exploration of how the at first only semi-ideal psychic construction of the unknown proto-geometer reaches the status of a fully ideal object, in the sense of something that is eternally—at least in principle so—repeatable.

Husserl’s solution to this question is: language (Hua VI, p. 368/161). It is through language that the individual content obtains its objectivity. How can we describe this event phenomenologically? We cannot simply take for granted the existence of language as a system for designating communicable idealities. Then we would again be succumbing to a passive reception of what is non-reflectively given. Instead, we must push our phenomenological reflection in the direction of trying to account for the very genesis of this objectification in and by language. To follow Husserl’s struggle with this event of the very birth of ideality is extremely fascinating, supposing of course that we take the project seriously and that we can truly assess the difficulty—and in the end also the peculiarly aporetic nature—of the pursuit. It is aporetic partly for the reason that what we are asking for must already from the start be recognized as partly a fiction. There is no original meaning in place, but only a retroactive retrieving of the possibility of its constitution, as always already in place.12 For what Husserl is doing here is trying to phenomenologically express in language that very moment when language begins to communicate, when it becomes the means of a shared world.

There are two steps in this process. The first horizon that makes possible the designating of an anticipated ideality is, as Husserl writes, the function of “empathy and fellow mankind”, the anticipated possibility of sharing and communicating with another (Hua VI, p. 371/163). But this projection in the direction of sharing and communicating does not mark the full constitution of meaning. Something else is needed, namely the possibility of writing. It is, he declares, the most important function of written language that it enables messages without any particular address, without the anticipation of any particular recipient. Linguistic signs, just like spoken signs (words), have the capacity, “to awaken their familiar meanings”.13 The whole ethos of phenomenological genetic analysis rests on the idea that it is these passively transmitted meanings that must again be reawakened. But what Husserl has invited through his own analysis is the conclusion that the very emergence of that which is to be reawakened, namely the original ideality, is precisely something that in its very heart and essence is dependent on language, and on written language in particular. From the perspective of the original geometer, the ideality of the ideal truth is not even in him a fully objective ideality until it is instantiated in linguistic form. Linguistic form is thus what co-constitutes it as an ideality as such, and in the first place. In the words of Derrida’s commentary, which really just spells out in more vivid language the logic of Husserl’s own analysis: “From then on, writing is no longer only the worldly and mnemotechnical aid to a truth whose own being-sense would dispense with all writing-down. The possibility or necessity of being incarnated in a graphic sign is no longer simply extrinsic and factual in comparison with ideal Objectivity: it is the sine qua non condition of objectivity’s internal completion” (Derrida 1962, p. 86/88f).

In this formulation we can literally follow the emergence of a deconstructive conception of meaning and language, not directed against Husserl but rather as a kind of critical explication and extension of his own analysis. There is a certain element of passivity on the part of the original inventor that can never be entirely eradicated and changed into activity. There is an inner structural limit to the very project of sense-reactivation, one that does not necessarily have to be considered as a deficiency but could just as well be described as a positive finding. Reactivation here also means encountering a level of constituting passivity on the level of linguistic meaning-formation and preservation itself. We can also phrase it in the form of a critical question: Is there a level to be retrieved, where the geometrical, mathematical, logical, or any formal truth is at the same time proper, active, and ideal? Or has the phenomenological investigation itself revealed a kind of fundamental passivity, one that could be activated not as a constructing act, but as an act of passively receiving the idealizing function of a shared means of communication, of a written, communicable language?

In suggesting such a conclusion I am recalling Derrida’s reading of these passages, but from within Husserl’s own formulations.14 In Derrida’s interpretation, Husserl’s own suggestions initiate a kind of leakage of meaning, where the facticity of community, group, history, and language come forth as a passive co-founding context of transcendental subjectivity. Thus it also opens the whole project of a completed grounding towards its exteriority. At the same time, however, Derrida is attentive to the fact that Husserl does not regard this conclusion as the discovery of a negative limit for his own project. For the historicity revealed in this reflexive exploration is rather the discovery of the historical dimension of meaning as such—in other words a transcendental historicity, which can precisely become the theme of a phenomenological investigation and even a necessary task for a phenomenology that wants to go to the ground of the meaning of the idealities (Derrida 1962, p. 142/131; translation modified).

Toward the end of his commentary, Derrida makes explicit the connection to the problem of time and temporality. The living now is the source from within which and towards which every actualization takes place. But this living now contains an inner separation, constituted by a structure of repetition (retention) and protention, which makes present both what is present and what is absent. It is within such a structure of repetition and repeatability that the ideal is also constituted, as an unlimited possibility of repeating itself and thus also of losing itself. The eternity of the ideal, Derrida writes, “is only its historicity” in the sense of “repeatability and incorporability” (Derrida 1962, p. 156/141). In other words, to be eternal and ideal is not to exist outside the scope of time but to have the ability to be endlessly repeatable in and through time. And “the Idea, like Reason, is nothing outside the history in which it displays itself, i.e., in which (in one and the same movement) it discloses and lets itself be threatened” (Derrida 1962, p. 156/141).

According to the same interpretative logic, Derrida can suggest that historicity is the equivalent of meaning. Meaning is historicity, in the sense of permitting itself to appear in a necessarily threatened possibility of repetition. In relation to this historical conception of meaning, the reduction can be reinterpreted as the pure thought of the deferral of meaning. For what the reduction opens up is the space of an awareness of the origin as always already deferred from itself. And the transcendental, as Derrida writes on the last pages of the essay, is perhaps another name for that certainty of a thought which can only approach the telos which already presents itself, by pulling closer to the origin which endlessly withdraws—a thought that has therefore never understood that this origin is and will always remain to arrive (Derrida 1962, p. 171/153).15

These are the final words of the long interpretative essay that first outlines what eventually will be labeled a “deconstructive” mode of textual analysis. But—and as I have tried to show in my recapitulation of its argument—it is a reading not performed against Husserl and the phenomenological attempt to establish an original meaning-fulfillment and retrieval of meaning. On the contrary it shows very carefully how Husserl’s analysis moves up toward a certain interior limit for how far the transcendental excavation of original constitution of meaning-structures and foundations can proceed. In his study on the late essay on geometry Derrida does not yet make references to any “metaphysics of presence.” Instead he shows, through meticulous readings of Husserl’s own writings, how the internal deferral is part of presence itself, and of the retrieval of meaning. In his subsequent book on Husserl, Speech and Phenomena from 1967, he refers essentially to the same argument, but here he casts it in a more explicitly critical guise, suggesting that phenomenology is “tormented, if not contested from within” by its own descriptions of the movement of temporalization and the constitution of intersubjectivity, as a certain constitutive and “irreducible non-presence” manifests itself (Derrida 1967, p. 5/6).

I want to make two points here in relation to this complex and much debated controversy: first, the analysis leading up to this position does not constitute a definitive break with phenomenology on the part of Derrida; rather it seeks to develop an inner logic of the phenomenological analysis itself, an assessment that has been argued previously in different ways by, e.g., Rudolf Bernet, Len Lawlor, and Joshua Kates. But secondly—and this is the more original claim—this deconstructive articulation of Husserl’s conclusion also opens a way of recalling from a new angle Frege’s original polemical challenge to phenomenology. In a concluding section I will now try to develop this claim through an explicit comparative reading of Frege and Derrida as readers of Husserl and of the problem of the constitution and meaning of idealities in its relation to language. From the viewpoint of the deconstructive reading of Husserl’s account, we can interpret Frege’s critical intervention in a new light, as responding to a kind of structural limit to the whole enterprise of genetic excavation of idealities. Even though Frege’s response eventually leads him to affirm a more rigid form of metaphysical objective idealism, his critical remarks can nevertheless be read as pointing in the direction of the deconstructive interpretation, as is also shown through Derrida’s appreciative references to his work.

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In Speech and Phenomena Derrida mentions Frege in passing when introducing the distinction between Sinn and Bedeutung as a distinction that Husserl does not yet make in Logical Investigations (Derrida 1967, p. 18f/18f). But there is a passage in this book where we can hear the echo of a theme from his critical review. This is in the chapter on “Wanting to Speak and Representation”, where Derrida discusses the tendency in philosophy to do away with the sign as something mediated and mediating, in favor of the direct realization of meaning in a making-present of the ideal meaning. The immediate presentation of something in the sense of Vorstellung will turn out to rely on the possibility of its repetition, and the possibility of presentation will rest on its re-presentability. Thus one derives, Derrida writes, “the presence-of-presence from repetition and not the inverse.” The ideality that should be the intended content of a presenting act will in the end be the name of the permanence of the same and the possibility of its repetition. In other words: “Absolute ideality is the correlate of the possibility of indefinite repetition” (Derrida 1967, p. 58/52).

Derrida is well aware that what Husserl wanted to get beyond was a conventional Platonism, also of a Fregean kind, according to which idealities simply exist and prevail in a topos ouranios. But in wanting to grasp the genuine sense of the ideal as a lived and enacted ideality, Husserl is pushed toward the recognition that this ideality itself rests on a presupposition of the repeatability of the sign. The original meaning-giving representation, the Vorstellung, cannot carry the weight of the ideality, whose meaning points precisely toward the anticipation of its eternal repetition of a self-sameness in an intersubjective, transmittable form.

It is here that the original criticism of Frege can be heard again, if still in a deferred and different tonality. On one level, Frege could be described simply as the Platonist and Platonizing logician that Husserl’s transcendental phenomenological mode of analysis sought to transcend from early on. But when the Husserlian constitutive analysis of idealities, as in the essay on the origin of geometry, is led to confront the irreducibility of the sign and its intersubjective repeatability, Frege’s criticism takes on a new phenomenological relevance. For if the immediate and intuitive realization of the meaning of ideality cannot fulfill this meaning, except by bringing it into an originally given sphere of what is communicable and signified, then his depiction of Vorstellung as a “magical washtub” reemerges as a genuine challenge. We could then say that what Derrida discovers, through a more careful and perceptive reading of Husserl’s text, is a point different in scope and philosophical sophistication but still strangely related to Frege’s original reproach. It is a point that could be phrased as follows: the discovery of an inner limit for the very possibility of a genetic account of the meaning of idealities through a fulfilled intuition of their intentional realization. It is in this respect that we can read Frege’s critique as a kind of proto-deconstruction.

When assessing this argument it is important to note that it does not aim to present Derrida as a Neo-Fregean thinker in disguise. It is clear from how he develops his argument that it derives from Husserl’s own analysis and could be described as a grafting of a critical perspective onto Husserl’s own suggestions, rather than as recalling Frege’s original reproach. When, later in the book, Derrida speaks of this origin of the possibility of repetition as “trace,” and when he names this structure a “more originary originarity,” and even an “ultra-transcendentality”, he clearly continues to move in the precarious space delineated by the aspiration for a phenomenological activation of meaning, as well as by the irreducibility of the sign (Derrida 1967, p. 75/67). Nor is my point to imply that Frege would have felt comfortable with Derrida’s mode of reasoning. If Frege, in an imaginary world, had been confronted with Derrida’s post-Husserlian analysis of ideality as “trace” and “transcendental repeatability,” he would probably have reacted with a skepticism similar to that of John Searle, who, in the famous Glyph debate with Derrida from 1977, persistently refused to recognize the validity of the argument for a necessary repeatability as more fundamental than the ideality and identity of the linguistic meaning itself.16 Against Derrida’s repeated claim that ideal meaning presupposes a possibility of repetition, Searle persistently held on to the idea that only that which is identical can be repeated, for repetition is not repetition if not of the same.

The point of my analysis is rather to show that the original challenge posed by Frege to Husserl nevertheless contains the seed of an inner tension within the phenomenological-constitutive analysis of ideality, a tension that is never laid to rest. It is this inner tension that Derrida will pick up and develop in his readings, thereby giving voice again to the original dilemma that first initiated the philosophical discordances between Husserl and Frege. The claim, then, would be that the intuiting interiority—which for Husserl was to serve as the ground for the meaning of formal idealities, and which Frege saw only as a lapse into psychologism—cannot be secured and delimited as a self-sufficient and foundational space, but will always point toward and imply the givenness of the objectivity of the shared linguistic sign.17 However, it is only through the deconstructive elaboration of Husserl’s own argument that we can fully visualize the philosophical space in which this dialectics of the ideal is bound to unfold.

In Speech and Phenomena Frege is mentioned only once in passing, and in the essay on “The Origin of Geometry” he is not mentioned at all. But in view of the comparison suggested here, it is striking to note that in Derrida’s first work on the problem of genesis in Husserl’s philosophy, written in 1954, Frege and the criticism of his form of logicism does in fact play an explicit role in the his argument. To begin with, Derrida shows how already in Philosophy of Arithmetic Husserl argues for the necessity of a genetic-constructivist analysis of mathematical concepts. Since complex mathematical concepts rest on originary intuitions, the purely logicist definition is illusory, as Derrida quotes him saying (Derrida 2003, p. 24). But the problem posed by Husserl, when insisting on the genetic constitution and constitutability of every fundamental mathematical essence, is more difficult than that. And Derrida goes right to the root of this problem when he refers to Frege’s critical remark that a theory of number must be able to account also for the constitution of the one and the zero, in other words being and nothingness. But the zero cannot simply be constructed as a limiting of the one. No psychological genesis can really account for a logical objectivity whose essence is negation.18 Here Derrida essentially follows Frege’s criticism from the review, when he asks by means of “what miracle the empirical juxtaposition of an element will transform into a totality a plurality that is not even aimed at as such” (Derrida 2003, p. 25). If a synthesis is possible a priori, then the psychological genesis will not produce it but will depend on it. In Derrida’s reading, Frege can be seen as pointing toward an aporia or antinomy according to which the mathematical object cannot be accounted for in terms of a psychological synthesis, since it must already presuppose the essence of a number. On the other hand, in order for this essence to have a meaning, it must both already have been constituted, and it must be actualized.

Husserl would claim to get beyond this aporia by arguing that collective association and abstraction are genuine acts, which are indispensable for a number to exist. But for Derrida the question remains: Is not the essence of that generality that founds every concept in fact irreducible to a genesis? Supposedly genesis determines meaning, but in fact meaning would seem to determine genesis (Derrida 2003, p. 28). According to Derrida’s early reading of the material, it is precisely this Fregean provocation that drives Husserl toward the genuinely phenomenological—and eventually transcendental—sense of the ideal as existing in a neutral sphere of experience, available through the phenomenological intuition of categorial objects. But the shaping of this domain, which should preserve both the apriori objectivity of the ideal and its possible and constitutive experience in primordial intuition, nevertheless contains an element of confusion and perhaps even a contradiction. In saying this, Derrida also recognizes that the paradoxical description of an ideality as both constituted and constituting remains true to its phenomenal essence, the “simultaneous possibility of an objectivity and of an empirical genesis of number, of a ‘real’ creation of meaning and of its original ‘appearance’ to consciousness” (Derrida 2003, p. 30).

The elaboration of a theory of intentionality permits Husserl to move beyond what not only Frege, but also he himself, would later refer to as a certain “naiveté” in the first book on arithmetic. But what Derrida so clearly shows is that the problem once pointed out by Frege remains, and that it continues to “haunt” phenomenology also in its continued struggle, namely “the irreducibly dialectical character of a genesis that is at the same time productive and revealing of a meaning, preceding and constituting, that appears as necessarily already there” (Derrida 2003, p. 32). For this reason, too, the logical, non-psychological transcendental constituting subject of Husserl’s mature phenomenology also proves to be insufficient to constitute objectivity in the sense hoped for.

In this particular assessment of Husserl’s development, it is noteworthy that Derrida’s argument displays a certain affinity with Føllesdal’s contemporary interpretation, more so than with the later critics who insisted more definitively on Husserl’s own ability to see beyond the confines of the naively psychological approach. Nevertheless Derrida’s more “Fregean” approach ultimately takes him in a different direction. Unlike Frege, and also unlike Føllesdal, he sees how the transcendental motive in Husserl’s thought, despite its perhaps aporetical conclusions, is at the same time both legitimate and even philosophically inevitable. After a long discussion of the theme of genesis and genetic constitution throughout Husserl’s work, he can therefore write at the end of his study that “this philosophy of history, bringing to a close the system of transcendental phenomenology, at the same time and at the same moment sanctions the unsurpassable depth and the irreducible insufficiency of Husserl’s philosophy of genesis” (Derrida 2003, p. 149). In relation to the last texts, he sees the problem very clearly—and partly in Fregean terms—when he asks: “how can the idea of an infinite task be instituted in a pure finitude? Is it not necessary that, in some way, the infinite was already present in human finitude? And if it was thus, why should it be revealed in the finite?” (Derrida 2003, p. 159).

Summing up our argument, Derrida’s thesis could first be stated in the following way: The transcendental phenomenological analysis of the constitution of idealities is insufficient to the extent that it believes that it could ultimately found them in a reenacted intuiting self-presencing act. For in the end the excavation of the meaning of ideality will take us up against the objectivity of meaning as the presupposition of a linguistic repetition that we can never fully master. Phenomenological meaning-explication will therefore necessarily have the character of a retroactive and post-factual reenactment of givenness. The real philosophical challenge also for a critical phenomenology will be to confront in the most appropriate way this interminable dialectic of active and passive, and to learn to receive what presents itself without either rashly objectifying it or believing that it could be fully founded in a completed grasp of its original and unique enactment-meaning in consciousness, understood as a self-transparent intuiting interiority.

When the original debate concerning the meaning and constitution of ideal objects that first set Husserl and Frege apart is viewed from the perspective of the radicalized phenomenological self-critique articulated by Derrida, we can also anticipate the possibility of a new perspective on some of the subsequent debates in the philosophy of language, meaning, and mind—including the debate between Derrida and Searle and its aftermath. In his reading of the problem of the genesis of idealities, Derrida is not moving outside or beyond the space of the original phenomenological problematic. Nor is he leaving behind established modes of rational philosophical argumentative practices. On the contrary, we can see him carefully elaborating the inner dialectic of the problem. But in doing so he can be seen to reactivate in certain ways the original dilemma first pointed out by Frege in his critical review. Through Derrida’s argument we can therefore sense how the map of twentieth-century philosophy of language could be drawn somewhat differently, namely, partly as the effect of what shines forth as a persistent and irreducible inner dialectic in the very mode of being and manifestation of ideality itself. This is a consequence anticipated by Husserl but articulated in a more explicit way through Derrida’s critical interpretation. By viewing these interventions from the perspective of Derrida’s first book, we can also see how the problem highlighted by Frege not only remained a living provocation within Husserl’s work, but also served as one inspiration for Derrida’s analysis.

In contrast to a common and persistent refusal in much of the post-Fregean tradition to recognize the validity of Husserl’s original challenge—as well as his attempt to meet it in the form of a transcendental, genetic, and intuitive exploration of the constitution of ideal meanings—Derrida always recognized not only the legitimacy but also the philosophical inevitability of this pursuit. For this reason it is also important to keep in mind that the deconstructive legacy is not cultivated properly when it is used to demonstrate the absolute priority of language, as a differential system of signs, over against the possible intuitive retrieval of original and ideal meaning. What Derrida showed—and this is the prevailing contribution of his readings—is that Husserl’s quest for an intuitive reactivation of original meaning-formations, when brought to its fulfillment, will reveal not the futility of the phenomenological approach but rather the discovery of an irreducible dialectic, a genesis that is both creating and revealing of meaning, that both precedes and constitutes, and that will appear as always already there. It is to this structure that he gives the name of arche-writing and trace, and which he will eventually call différance, signaling an active ongoing operation.

What is the nature and status of this phenomenon, and how does it stand in regard to what Husserl has to say about consciousness, meaning, and language? To what extent does the discovery of language as a differential and differentiating system of signs, supposedly more primordial than consciousness, change the perception of the reach and legitimacy of the whole transcendental phenomenological enterprise in regard to ideality? This is the question and the living provocation that still resonates from Derrida’s early readings. But in much of the post-Derridean literature, the original question concerning the nature and reality of ideality and of meaning is neglected in favor of other themes. My point here has been to show that this particular issue was never “solved”, nor entirely abandoned, but that its possible articulation was transformed through the introduction of the repeatability of the sign as a co-founding movement of idealization. And it is through this conceptualization of the whole situation that we can see how Frege’s original challenge to genetic phenomenology in its preliminary version does point to an internal limit for how far the constitutive analysis can reach. While Frege chose to stop before this limit, positing ideality as an absolute and original sphere of being, Husserl moved forward, exploring the possibilities of genetic phenomenology for an understanding of the very genesis of ideality. In the end he came to a point of articulation where the very tension between an objectivist and a transcendental-phenomenological conception of ideal meaning is revealed as co-constitutive of both.

The continued contemplation and exploration of this evanescent space remains a valid task not only for deepening the comparison and dialogue between philosophical traditions and approaches, but also for addressing the Sache of the being and possibility of ideality as such.


Frege (1894). The present essay was first delivered at the Nordic Society for Phenomenology 2009, in Tampere, organized by Leila Haaparanta, whose work on Husserl and Frege has been a source of inspiration for many younger scholars in the Nordic countries. I dedicate this article to her. It was later also presented at the yearly meeting of the Japanese Society for Phenomenology 2009, and at a graduate course in phenomenology and cognitive science in 2010 in Copenhagen, organized by Søren Øvergaard and Dan Zahavi. I am grateful to the participants at these events for productive comments, and also to the anonymous reviewer of Husserl Studies, whose careful reading of the text motivated many clarifications.


Kates (2005) insists on the necessity of going back again to Derrida’s early work on Husserl in order to understand properly the emergence of philosophical deconstruction. Kates does not have a clear appreciation of the relation to the debate with Frege, but especially in his second book on Derrida (2008), he has a very interesting reading of Jacob Klein and his philosophy of mathematics in comparison with Husserl, which touches on the problem of mathematics and the origin of ideality that could have been developed in this context as well.


The only person of whom I am aware to pay any philosophical attention to this relation before is Kauppinen (2000, pp. 83f).


I have here changed the translation from “sense” to “meaning” for the French sense. Throughout the article I try to be consistent in using “meaning” to designate German Sinn, which is what Derrida is mostly referring to also with the French sense.


Cited in Mohanty (1982, p. 118). Already in the letter he wrote to Husserl in 1891, after receiving a copy of The Philosophy of Arithmetic, Frege emphasizes what he takes to be the difference between them in terms of how they understand the meaning of words (ibid.).


After Mohanty, Føllesdal’s original proposition has been critically elaborated further, notably by Guillermo Rosado Haddock and Claire Ortiz-Hill, and also by Barry Smith. See especially the anthology edited by Leila Haaparanta (1994), which contains contributions from the most important researchers on this topic. See also Ortiz Hill and Rosado Haddock (2000), which gathers and expands the results of their extensive work on this issue.


At the same time, Mohanty also recalls a comment from Husserl to Boyce-Gibson that confirmed the extent to which he had indeed been positively affected by Frege’s criticism. And to this one could add that when reading the preface to the first edition of Logical Investigations, it is difficult not to hear an implicit response to this particular criticism.


Mohanty (1982, p. 37), quoted from Frege (1979, p. 145).


As Claire Ortiz-Hill (2000, Chap. 1) has suggested, it was to some extent the strictly applied extensionalist paradigm that eventually also propelled Frege into the paradoxes and inner contradictions of his theory, as disclosed to him—to his great despair—by Russell. The same extensionalist program eventually encountered its limits also in Hilbert’s attempts to provide a complete axiomatization of arithmetic, as displayed in Gödel’s famous article. Already in his 1962 study of Husserl’s essay on “The Origin of Geometry”, Derrida has a similar assessment. He notes correctly that the internal inconsistencies of the logistic and formalistic program, as well as Gödel’s subsequent critique, never really touched Husserl’s project. The reason for this is that Husserl did not seek this kind of definitive conceptual mastery of the field, but rather—in a gesture no less ambitious—sought to ground the very possibility of axiomatization in the exploration of the historical-genetic “constitution of the objective thematic field of mathematics”, as a field of objective idealities at large and where the very problem of decidability and non-decidability obtains its meaning in the first place. See Derrida (1962, p. 39/52).


Hua VI, p. 367; cited in Derrida (1962) (English translation by David Carr in Derrida 1978, p. 159).


As Derrida (1962, p. 52) points out in his commentary, this question almost literally repeats one of the most persistent concerns of his early lectures, “The Idea of Phenomenology” from 1907.


On this point, cf. Derrida (1962, p. 55).


Hua VI, p. 371, “…als Sprachzeichen wecken sie ebenso wie Sprachlaute ihre vertrauten Bedeutungen”.


From Derrida’s perspective this is the point where language also emerges as a kind of structural limit within Husserlian phenomenology, as pointed out at an early stage both by Fink and by Heidegger. Cf. Derrida (1962, pp. 59ff/69f).


At this point it would be worthwhile to go a bit deeper into the more principal discussion concerning the ontological status of the various forms of non-presence that Derrida finds and explores in the periphery of Husserl’s work. Thomas Seebohm (1995) has argued for the need to see this constitutive absence as “apodictic absence” and not as “accidental happenings”, in other words as principal absence as co-constitutive of the present. He is of course correct in insisting on the non-empirical nature of these absences. This is probably how Husserl himself would have phrased it as well. But their exact ontological status is more difficult to determine than Seebohm suggests, since it appears to be a kind of strange middle ground, a kind of transcendental-empirical in-between, toward which Derrida is signaling, and which he finds anticipated already in Husserl himself.


The debate took place in the Journal Glyph. Derrida’s texts, including extensive quotes from Searle’s replies, were later reprinted in Derrida (1988), and only in 1990 published in French.


This is also the point where we could bring in Heidegger and the analysis in Sein und Zeit §32 of how the objective meanings are the “in-direction-of-which” that the worldly, self-transcending subjectivity of Dasein always already occupies. They cannot be restored to their pristine sense by bringing them home to subjectivity, for subjectivity is always already on the way toward them, also in its very attempt to understand itself.


As Derrida remarks in his footnotes, this is handled differently by Heidegger when the latter tries to understand nothingness on the basis of the affectivity of anxiety, as the original manifestation of loss. But for Husserl it is a genuine problem.



Preparing this article for publication was made possible by the research program time, memory, and representation (Riksbankens jubileumsfond).

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