Understanding and Simple Seeing in Husserl

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Husserl’s Logical Investigations has undergone explicitly conceptualist and non-conceptualist interpretations. For Richard Cobb-Stevens, he has extended understanding into the domain of sensuous intuition, leaving no simple perceptions that are actually separated from higher-level understanding. According to Kevin Mulligan, Husserl does in fact sunder nominal and propositional seeing from the simple or straightforward—and yet interpretative—seeing of particulars. To see simply is not to exercise an individual meaning or a general concept. Arguing that Logical Investigations provides evidence for both views, I endeavour to show that the account of perceptual consciousness in Husserl’s subsequent work is far more clear and consistent. It is one of growing beyond the situation portrayed by Mulligan and into the one explicated by Cobb-Stevens. Though they are notionally separable, pre-conceptual syntheses at the passive and noematic levels are inevitably interwoven with conceptual and categorial articulations in a developed consciousness.

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  1. 1.

    Indications do not involve the grasping of necessary connections, even if they serve to convey these connections without their being grasped properly, this, through rational insight. Thus when I chance upon the first line of an arithmetical proof, it may indicate the conclusion to me by way of memory, without my currently having the knowledge of how that conclusion was demonstrated rationally. In the case of natural indications, demonstration in this sense is always lacking, so that if my conclusion happens to be correct, there is no relationship of necessary entailment that obtains for me to reactivate in my awareness. Our smoke may in fact have come from a chimney rather than from a forest fire, and our puddle of water from a stream that has burst its banks. Accordingly, Husserl draws a firm distinction between “demonstration” as confirming an indicative linkage (Hinweis) and as the rational comprehension of a proof involving ideal and necessary relationships (Beweis), stressing the lack of insight in indications. Hua XIX/1, pp. 32–34; 2001a, pp. 184–185.

  2. 2.

    Translation slightly emended.

  3. 3.

    See also Locke (1975, pp. 298–301).

  4. 4.

    See also Hua XI, pp. 5–6; 2001c, pp. 42–43.

  5. 5.

    Cobb-Stevens (1990, p. 149). Categorial intuition is not confined to fulfilment in predicative being. Husserl claims here that the statement that the paper is white means that the white paper is, that I am referring to an objectively actual fulfilling situation without making being itself into a real predicate.

  6. 6.

    I employ and grasp categorial forms in my ordinary perceptual life, but without having to know that I am doing so. The thematisation of categorial form as such is the function of a subsequent act of reflective abstraction. See Hua XIX/2, pp. 690–693; 2001b, pp. 292–294. Husserl describes this derivative intuition of a form as a “universal seeing,” and in his transcendental phase will describe it a particular mode of eidetic or essential intuition (Wesenschau). It is true, however, that in this earlier work he fails “to stress clearly enough the difference between the oblique intuition of a categorial surplus, and the thematic intuition of a universal that is named as the subject of a predication.” Cobb-Stevens (1990, p. 153).

  7. 7.

    See also Kant (1933, pp. 268–275).

  8. 8.

    It should be added here that an object does not have to be a particular thing aspect or part within this. One can simply intend a plurality, though Husserl states that at this sensuous level we cannot intend it as such: “[w]e must guard against confusing the straightforward percepts of sensuously unified manifolds, series, swarms etc., with the conjunctive percepts in which alone the consciousness of plurality is itself properly constituted … the sensuously unifying characters … serve as points d’appui for the signitively mediated cognition of plurality as such, and of plurality of the kind in question—which cognition now has no need of an articulated grasp and knowledge of individual items, but does not therefore as yet possess the character of an authentic intuition of the collection as such.” Hua XIX/2, pp. 689–690; 2001b, pp. 291–292.

  9. 9.

    See also Sokolowski (1981, p. 129).

  10. 10.

    On the same page, he cites Taminiaux on “this strange parallelism, in which the founded is in turn founder and excessive with respect to that upon which it is founded.” Taminiaux (1985, p. 102).

  11. 11.

    This term is borrowed from Heidegger (1957, p. 130; 1962, p. 170).

  12. 12.

    David Woodruff Smith states that when I see “this dog,” the sense of my experience is a perceptual individual content, whereas when I see that “this dog is a bearded collie” the sense of my experience is a perceptual propositional content. A propositional act is one whose sense involves predication, whereas a pre-predicative act is one whose sense is attributive. The latter is seeing “this bouncing dog” rather than that “this dog is bouncing.” Smith (2007, p. 265). It can be noted that Cobb-Stevens is happy to accept these different senses and their relevant fulfilments, but not their independence. He might add that Smith’s use of the phrase “this dog” is revealing if it is perceived as a dog.

  13. 13.

    See also Hua XIX/2, p. 676; 2001b, p. 283.

  14. 14.

    We assume, according to Husserl, that the proper name is of a known person, and hence functioning normally. It is not functioning in the indirect sense of a certain person called Schultz, which is complex. Hua XIX/1, p. 309; 2001b, p. 53. But if the word is tacitly understood as the name of this person, its meaning is already mediated by conceptual grasping. And once it is granted that there is a limited range of what will count to us as satisfying it, the name cannot amount to an absolutely rigid designator in awareness.

  15. 15.

    In the Fifth Investigation, Husserl goes on to state that there are some single-rayed objectifications that are not primitive in some ultimate sense, being built on earlier categorial syntheses such that they contain “in a peculiarly modified, indirect sense, implicit articulations and synthetic forms.” Yet these too can be analysed backwards into primitive terms free of categorial form. Hua XIX/I, p. 502; 2001b, p. 161.

  16. 16.

    Husserl certainly sees the employment or expression of a common name in a perceptual situation as an act of classification. When I say “my inkpot” and see the relevant particular “[t]he relation, as one of naming, is mediated, not merely by acts of meaning, but by acts of recognition [Erkennen], which are here also acts of classification. The perceived object is recognised for an inkpot, known as one, and in so far as the act of meaning is most intimately one with an act of classification, and this latter, as recognition of the perceived object, is again intimately one with the act of perception, the expression seems to be applied to the thing and to clothe it like a garment … the recognitive experience of this thing as “my inkpot,” is nothing but a recognition which, in a definite and direct fashion, fuses an expressive experience, on the one hand, with the relevant percept, on the other.” Hua XIX/2, pp. 559–560; 2001b, pp. 201–202. He stresses here that the perceptual object is being classified, not the perception itself. Classification is being attributed to the acts of recognition, not to the meaning that is itself being employed, which is taken as fused with the perceptual object in a definite, direct fashion. The question is whether the acts of recognition can themselves function without involving a typifying species meaning or meanings.

  17. 17.

    See also Hua XIX/1, pp. 483; 2001b, pp. 151, 166.

  18. 18.

    See also Dretske (2000, p. 100ff).

  19. 19.

    Translation emended.

  20. 20.

    This is the only citation that is taken from the second edition of Logical Investigations. It is to be stressed that all the other citations in this paragraph and in the single paragraphs that precede and succeed it respectively are common to both editions.

  21. 21.

    Translation slightly emended.

  22. 22.

    See also Hua III.1, p. 206; 1982, p. 217, following Drummond’s emendation.

  23. 23.

    Drummond points out here that in the static account of Ideas I the pure X, whilst found in the noematic sense, is nonetheless formal. It is in Husserl’s subsequent genetic phenomenology that the manifest continuity of the innermost core is emphasised, though the theses in Thing and Space already allow for it.

  24. 24.

    Here Husserl harks back to a facet of traditional empiricism: “[t]he psychical facts in which the notion of indication has its ‘origin,’ i.e. in which it can be abstractively apprehended, belong to the wider group of facts which fall under the historical rubric of the ‘association of ideas.’ Under this rubric we do not merely have those facts which concern the ‘accompaniment’ and ‘reactivation’ of ideas stated in the laws of association, but the further facts in which association operates creatively, and produces peculiar descriptive contents and forms of unity. Association does not merely restore contents to consciousness, and then leave it to them to combine with the contents there present, as the essence or generic nature of either may necessarily prescribe. … If A summons B into consciousness, we are not merely simultaneously or successively conscious of both A and B, but we usually feel their connection forcing itself upon us, a connection in which the one points to the other and seems to belong to it. To turn mere coincidence into mutual pertinence, or, more precisely, to build cases of the former into intentional unities of things which seem mutually pertinent, is the constant result of associative functioning. All unity of experience, all empirical unity, whether of a thing, an event or of the order and relation of things, becomes a phenomenal unity through the felt mutual belongingness of the sides and parts that can be made to stand out as units in the apparent object before us.” Hua XIX/1, pp. 35–36; 2001a, pp. 186–187.

  25. 25.

    The temporal objects of experience can be constituted because every living present or current perceptual phase of consciousness involves the retention or primary memory of the just lapsed moment, and the protention or primary expectation of the moment about to be with this or that content. Without this internally synthesised relationship to past and future, the impressional present of perception would be nothing. Hua X, pp. 39–40, 90–93; 1991, pp. 41–42, 95–98. This recognition of the constituted temporality of an intentional act, as Drummond reminds us, lets Husserl proceed from a part and whole analysis to an identity-in-manifolds analysis. It is not just that the successive and adjoining views of an object are presented, but that the interrelationship of these views can be experienced. Drummond (1990, p. 151).

  26. 26.

    Translation emended.

  27. 27.

    The later Husserl adds the qualification that, at the very earliest stages of life, some configurations—including olfactory ones—are only apprehended because they are called upon by instinctual biological drives. A. D. Smith has drawn attention to his specific claim that, in the play of instincts, there is recognition of a datum as the content of a satisfying enjoyment. It is Husserl’s position that such configurations are constituted initially as bare interest-formations (Interessengebilde) that are not habitually accessible or understood as being there for me as valuable physical existents. Cf. Manuscripts C 13 I, 6, 10b; A VI 34, 35a, 36, cited in Smith (2003, p. 152). The preferential filtering in passive synthesis depends on the compliance of a manifold. Husserl is well aware that the rousing of the ego need not involve any prior need or interest, since the sheer intensity of an event can force its way into awareness, as with a blast of hot air from a vent, the sharp report of a firework or the searing blue flash from a welder’s torch.

  28. 28.

    Translation slightly emended. Cited in Barber (2008, p. 86).

  29. 29.

    In Ideas II this thesis is reaffirmed and set out at greater length: “[r]eality in the proper sense, here called materiality, does not lie in the mere sensuous schema and could not be attributed to the perceived, if something like a relation to ‘circumstances’ did not apply to the perceived and had no sense for it; rather, it lies precisely in this relation and in the corresponding mode of apprehension … [c]orresponding to the changed apprehension is a changed correlate. That is to say, in the thing-apprehension the schema is not perceived as an extension filled merely sensuously, but is perceived precisely as primal manifestation or ‘documentation’ (originary manifestation) of a real property and, precisely thereby, as a state of the real substance at the point in time involved … if the thing is, then it is as the identical real something of its real properties, and these are, so-to-say, mere rays of its unitary being. It is as such an identity that the thing is posited, in a motivated way, by every experience, be it ever so imperfect and leaving so much still open … reality (or what is here the same, substantiality) and causality belong together inseparably. Real properties are eo ipso causal ones.” Hua IV, pp. 41, 43, 45; 1989, pp. 44, 46, 48.

  30. 30.

    See also Hua XI, p. 172; 2001c, p. 221 and Hua XXXI, pp. 40–41; 2001c, pp. 312–313.

  31. 31.

    See also Hua I, pp. 100–101; 1960, pp. 66–67 and Hua XI, pp. 52–53; 2001c, p. 93.

  32. 32.

    My italics.

  33. 33.

    See also Hua III.1, p. 581; 1982, p. 53. Such is the conceptual and intersubjective character of perceptual experience for a developed consciousness that the sense of objects in general has to be changed in Husserl’s notorious reduction to the sphere of ownness in the Fifth Cartesian Meditation. Here one abstracts “from all determinations of the phenomenal world that refer by their sense to ‘others’ as ego-subjects and, accordingly, presuppose them. For example, all cultural predicates … [f]urthermore, the characteristic of belonging to the surrounding world, not merely for others who are also given at the particular time in actual experience, but also for everyone, the characteristic of being there for and accessible to everyone, of being capable of mattering or not mattering to each in his living and striving—a characteristic of all Objects belonging to the phenomenal world and the characteristic wherein their otherness consists—should not be overlooked, but rather excluded abstractively.” Hua I, p. 127; 1960, pp. 95–96.

  34. 34.

    See also Hua XI, pp. 28–29, 37; 2001c, pp. 66–67, 76.

  35. 35.

    Husserl states elsewhere that, once knowledge has been acquired actively “[i]n the initial view of a later new perception, this view is given to consciousness of course with the empty horizon of acquired knowledge … The developed consciousness, the consciousness of the subject that has already operated with respect to all types of objects as explicating consciousness, will hardly be able to have objects given that are not already apprehended in such a ‘logical structure,’ that is, that are not already apprehended at least in the empty form of determinability, as the substrates of properties that are prefigured in protentional indeterminacy as chains of properties that can be explicated. Every object now harbours, in apprehension, an implicit horizon of properties, of familiar and unfamiliar ones. But this implication is entirely different from that of objects that we must conceive as found in a still undeveloped consciousness, as entering into the first original determinations.” Hua XXXI, pp. 23–24; 2001c, p. 296.

  36. 36.

    In the potentiality of the perceptual background, according to Husserl, there will be “in part, well-known objects that we got to know little by little in previous acts. They have sunken into the background with their structure constituted in activity, and if we are able to take note of them again, we then encounter them with the character of familiarity … In part, they will be objects that are strange to us, objects that nevertheless can have the apperceptive mint of actively constituted objects insofar as the apperception already followed in the background, so to speak, the model of the previous activity. No object can be given to developed consciousness without such a prefiguring.” Hua XXXI, p. 15; 2001c, pp. 287–288. But again, perceptual discriminations can run ahead of broad and loose conceptualisations. In this regard Barber has pointed to Husserl’s view that one can always enquire into the unthematised meaning of what is in the unexplored and undefined background or outer horizon of a perceptual experience. Earlier on in the evening, I heard a dog barking. Following McDowell, it could turn out that remembering other marginal things to which I was not attentive at the time would turn up a whole new series of conceptualised experiences. Thus I could come to recall that the aural background of the barks was characterised by the chirping of crickets, the rustling of leaves, and the hum of a passing car. Yet the entire process of recuperation in memory suggests, according to Barber, that there is always more that can be conceptualised in the unconceptualised horizon that accompanies any conceptualised experience (as that from which any singling out occurs). This would be a “surplus content (as opposed to the non-conceptual content McDowell finds objectionable) on the fringes of conceptual focusing, without which such focusing would not be possible.” Barber (2008, pp. 94–95).


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Mooney, T. Understanding and Simple Seeing in Husserl. Husserl Stud 26, 19–48 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10743-009-9063-9

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  • Perceptual Sense
  • Logical Investigation
  • Perceptual Object
  • Perceptual Content
  • Emend