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Husserl’s Theory of Belief and the Heideggerean Critique

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I develop a “two-systems” interpretation of Husserl’s theory of belief. On this interpretation, Husserl accounts for our sense of the world in terms of (1) a system of embodied horizon meanings and passive synthesis, which is involved in any experience of an object, and (2) a system of active synthesis and sedimentation, which comes on line when we attend to an object’s properties. I use this account to defend Husserl against several forms of Heideggerean critique. One line of critique, recently elaborated by Taylor Carman, says that Husserl wrongly loads everyday perception with explicit beliefs about things. A second, earlier line of critique, due to Hubert Dreyfus, charges Husserl with thinking of belief on a problematic Artificial Intelligence (AI) model which involves explicit rules applied to discrete symbol structures. I argue that these criticisms are based on a conflation of Husserl’s two systems of belief. The conception of Husserlian phenomenology which emerges is compatible with Heideggerean phenomenology and associated approaches to cognitive science (in particular, dynamical systems theory).

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  1. “Theory of belief” is a convenient but somewhat inaccurate way to designate the phenomenological concepts I wish to focus on. In using the phrase I mean to refer to Husserl’s many and varied analyses of how subjects can take the world to be certain ways, from cases of focused theoretical contemplation (“I believe that door is exactly four feet wide”) to cases of tacit understanding of how things work (I implicitly understand that my body can fit through that door). However, Husserl himself does not refer to a unified “theory of belief,” and he would not apply the term “belief” (Glaube) in all the contexts I consider below.

  2. For further references to work on the Husserl–Heidegger relationship, and insightful commentary, see Crowell (2002), and Luft (2005). My take on the issue is probably closest to Føllesdal (2000).

  3. Indeed, these contrasts were extremely prominent, often marking separate subdivisions of major works. Examples: Philosophie der Arithmetik is divided into two parts. Part 1 discusses “Authentic Concepts of Multiplicity, Unity, and Whole Number” while part 2, “The Symbolic Number Concepts and The Logical Sources of Cardinal Arithmetic,” discusses symbolic developments of the more fundamental experiences discussed in part 1. Husserl’s lectures on “Passive and Active Synthesis” are divided, as the name suggests, into separate treatments of passive and active synthesis. Formale und transzendentale Logik, again as the name suggests, separately treats formal logic and its grounding in everyday life, as well as (in part 2) the transition “From Formal to Transcendental Logic.” Erfahrung und Urteil is divided into three parts, where part 1 covers “Pre-predicative (Receptive) Experience” and part 2 covers “Predicative Thought and the Objectivities of Understanding.”

  4. Lotz (2007, p. 156), makes a similar distinction. Also see Barber (2008, pp. 86–87).

  5. The concept of intentionality is of obvious relevance here; however, the discussion of intentionality is so rife with controversy (much of which does not overlap with the phenomenological problematic being pursued here) that I bracket the term and associated controversy as much as possible in this article.

  6. In referring to our expectations about a thing Husserl seems to prefer “Intentionen” to “Erwartungen.” In English “intention” connotes purpose, and so I will prefer “expectation” or “tacit expectation” here. Other relevant concepts include anticipation (Antizipation) and adumbration (Abschattung).

  7. Husserl not only says that doxic belief certainty is based on perceptual coherence; he also claims that “modalization” (Modalisierung) away from belief certainty is based on failures of perceptual coherence. In modalization, “simply pregiven” things turn out to be otherwise than we initially thought: “Modalizations of simple certainty of belief into conjecture, probability, and the like are modifications of an original simple believing consciousness, which is the medium in which all existents as objects of experience are at first simply pregiven for us” (Husserl 1973, Sect. 7). Initially that thing in the distance was just a bush, but when it moves in an unusual way my tacit expectations are violated, I am momentarily confused and think that it may be a person in the shadows. I no longer simply take that to be a bush in belief-certainty, and the doxic modality of the percept is changed to doubt. This modification is in turn based on frustration, where our tacit expectations conflict with our subsequent perceptions. As Husserl says, when perceptual expectations “come into conflict with one other, then the belief proper to self-giving is inhibited” (Hua XI, pp. 99–100; 2001, p. 144).

  8. The primary discussion of active synthesis is contained in Hua XXXI, translated in Husserl (2001). An interesting discussion in the secondary literature is in Gurwitsch’s exchange with Dussort at the French Society of Phenomenology (see Gurwitsch 1966, p. 171ff). Gurwitsch is insistent that the primary function of active synthesis is to constitute new forms of objectivity from materials themselves constituted in passivity, and that this function should not be confused with that of attention. The position I take here—supported in the main text of this article—is that active syntheses as understood by Husserl involved both (1) the constitution of new forms of object and (2) the operation of attention. However, Gurwitsch is right to distinguish the two, and I think that interdisciplinary work along the lines suggested in the conclusion could tease apart these various aspects of passive and active synthesis—e.g., dissociating degree of attention from the function of constituting new forms of object—giving rise to something more complex and nuanced than a simple “two-level” account.

  9. Compare Arp (1996, p. 165ff), Lotz (2007, p. 156ff), and Føllesdal (2000, p. 252ff).

  10. More recently, these have also been described as “refrigerator light” illusions: We assume that all experience is the way it is when we attentively focus on it, just as someone could assume that the refrigerator light is always on, based on its being on whenever the door is open (O’Regan and Noë 2001).

  11. Similar arguments are given by Arp (1996, p. 163ff).

  12. This kind of argument has also played out in the empirical literature on consciousness, where Crick and Koch (1990, p. 72) are critical of the notion that consciousness is dominated by a spotlight of attention: “Would such a mechanism not lead to a sort of ‘tunnel vision,’ in which the currently attended location appears in vivid detail with its associated perceptual attributes while everything else is invisible?”

  13. For example, according to Mack (2003, p. 182), researchers have, by a variety of ingenious means, “shown that under conditions of inattention, basic perceptual processes, such as those responsible for the grouping of elements in the visual field into objects, are carried out and influence task responses even though observers are unable to report seeing the percepts that result from those processes.”

  14. An important precursor to the comments below is Ronald McIntyre’s “Husserl and the Representational Theory of Mind” (1986). Let me briefly say how our two projects relate. McIntyre sets out, as I do, to show that Dreyfus’ assimilation of Husserl to AI is problematic. Moreover, McIntyre shows that horizon structures associated with intentional states (which account for the “positing” character described above) do not have the linguistic structure attributed to them in AI and cognitivism. Thus far the projects overlap. However, McIntyre’s critique of Dreyfus has different emphases. McIntyre argues, convincingly, that for Husserl meaning is not reducible to formal syntax in the way it is for some computationalists. My emphasis is not on reducibility or even (focally) meaning, but rather on the structure of belief and the perceptual processes that support it. I ask whether the rules involved in horizon meaning are discrete and finitely denumerable, as they are in an AI system.

  15. Compare Arp (1996, pp. 167–171), and Føllesdal (2000, p. 253). Also note that there are some genuine (and I believe, non-problematic) parallels between Husserl and the project of symbolic AI, in particular, those described in McIntyre (1986).

  16. Perhaps the locus classicus in this literature is Paul Smolensky’s The Proper Treatment of Connectionism (1988), which argues that high level symbolic processes are a kind of statistical approximation of lower level “sub-symbolic” processes characterized by “slowly shifting harmony landscapes” (p. 22). However, Smolensky thereby treats symbolic processes as simply a high level description of what is fundamentally a low-level dynamical process. More recent evidence suggests there is actually separate circuitry (in the prefrontal cortex) that subserves symbolic forms of cognitive processing. For review of these more recent approaches, see Munakata and O’Reilley (2000, Chap. 11).

  17. Other philosophers and debates are relevant here, e.g., Cussins (1992), and the recent exchange between McDowell and Dreyfus (see Dreyfus 2006, and the papers collected in Inquiry 50:4). The terse, later rounds of the exchange, which focus squarely on the question of the extent to which conceptual structures function in simple perception, are especially relevant. Barber (2008) is also important, since it takes up these same questions regarding conceptual structure in an explicitly Husserlian framework. Barber argues, rightly I think, that Husserl’s phenomenology of perception enriches and expands the Sellarsian tradition McDowell is a part of.


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Versions of this article were presented at California State University, Stanislaus and at a session of the California Phenomenology Circle. I am grateful to both audiences for valuable feedback. I would also like to thank several anonymous referees, Charles Siewert, and especially Michael Shim for their comments on drafts of this article.

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Correspondence to Jeffrey Yoshimi.

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Yoshimi, J. Husserl’s Theory of Belief and the Heideggerean Critique. Husserl Stud 25, 121–140 (2009).

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