Surrogates and Empty Intentions: Husserl’s “On the Logic of Signs” as the Blueprint for his First Logical Investigation


This paper accomplishes two tasks. First, I examine in detail Edmund Husserl’s earliest philosophy of surrogates, as it is found in his 1890 “On the Logic of Signs (Semiotic)”. I analyze his psychological and logical investigations of surrogates, where the former is concerned with explaining how these signs function and the latter with how they do so reliably. His differentiation of surrogates on the basis of their genetic origins and degrees of necessity is discussed. Second, the historical importance of this text is disclosed by showing how Semiotic serves as both the inspiration for, and the foil to, Husserl’s 1901 First Logical Investigation. Husserl not only adopts the idea that linguistic signs can function via association, but also maintains that such signs can motivate me to execute one of two experiences. The key difference between the texts is that Husserl abandons his theory of surrogates in 1901, instead holding that I can experience absent objects by means of empty intentions. The reasons why Husserl found it necessary to transform this tenet of his philosophy are discussed at length.

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  1. 1.

    While all translations are mine, I will provide references to the corresponding English translation where available, following a slash after the Hua page number. Quotes from the Logical Investigations always come from the First Edition.

  2. 2.

    The reader can validate the fact that Husserl, in PA, is content to employ the terms, “Surrogat“, “surrogieren”, and “ersetzen” as they are ordinarily understood by looking at any of the twenty-one times he uses them in the context of describing how a sign replaces its signified. To provide one example, when Husserl first uses the term “Surrogat”, he provides no clarification but merely postulates that operation. He writes, “Accordingly, the symbolic presentation serves us as a provisional representation, and, in cases where the authentic presentation is inaccessible, even as a enduring one” (Hua XII, p. 194/206).

  3. 3.

    If one assumes Ierna’s dating (2005, pp. 36–40), Husserl wrote LZ immediately after composing his letter to Carl Stumpf, within which he admitted that the project of his forthcoming Philosophy of Arithmetic, to ground mathematics in the concept of number, was fundamentally misguided (Hua XII, pp. 244–251/1994c, pp. 12–19). In contrast, if one follows Willard’s (1980, pp. 111–116) or Hopkins’ (2002, pp. 60–71) interpretations, he composed LZ even prior to the correspondence with Stumpf! In either case, Husserl’s focus on logic and language in LZ demonstrates that his philosophy was already undergoing great shifts at a much earlier date than has been accounted for in the literature. For example, Robin Rollinger writes that it was only subsequent to Husserl’s 1893 attempt to provide a philosophy of space that he, “became more and more concerned with logic instead of the more restricted area of arithmetic and geometry” (1999, p. 44). For another case, Ierna asserts that Husserl’s criticism of Brentano’s theory of judgment, found in his 1896 Logic lectures, constitutes the decisive turning point in his work toward a focus on logical analyses (2008, pp. 58–60).

  4. 4.

    To the best of my knowledge, there are six articles that discuss the tenets of LZ in some detail. These are: D’Angelo (2013), Ierna (2003), Majolino (2010, 2012), Zuh (2008, 2012).

  5. 5.

    In LZ, Husserl also examines two different ways linguistic signs can motivate me to execute authentic or inauthentic presentations. On the one hand, there are external signs, which refer to but do not characterize or describe their objects (Hua XII, p. 341/1994d, p. 21). They passively impel me to a one-ray, direct, and immediate awareness of the object. On the other, conceptual signs motivate me to execute presentations that relate signified characteristics or objects (Hua XII, pp. 342–344/1994d, pp. 22–23).

  6. 6.

    In both LZ (Hua XII, pp. 341–342/1994d, pp. 21–22) and PA (Hua XII, pp. 193–194/205–207) Husserl states, but never clarifies, that linguistic signs can serve as surrogates. My future research is dedicated to demonstrating why Husserl cannot maintain this doctrine in either text, as it would, at best, be inconsistent with, and at worst, contradict almost all of what he says about the replacement operation in LZ and PA.

  7. 7.

    For a fully correct appreciation of this case, one must assume that I had not heard or thought about cups, nor had I seen any images of them before I received this gift. This is to say that I never formed an inauthentic presentation of a cup prior to my perception (authentic presentation) of this one. Cases where I do construct an inauthentic presentation of an intentional object before having an authentic presentation of it, which Husserl terms “genetically primary surrogates” (Hua XII, p. 354/1994d, p. 33), will be discussed in Sect. 2.2.

  8. 8.

    Some examples of these higher and lower pairs are presentations in fantasy or sensation, presentations of more abstract or more concrete objects, presentations of relations or of absolute content, presentations of multiplicities or singularities, and presentations of psychical acts or objects (Hua XII, p. 352/1994d, p. 31).

  9. 9.

    Concerning this replacement process Husserl, in LZ, uses the example where the presentation of the word “sphere” associatively guides me to a presentation of a ball, which functions as the sphere’s surrogate (Hua XII, p. 353/1994d, p. 33). I have chosen instead to use the example of the circle surrogating for the coffee cup because the case where the ball replaces the sphere is quite complex, since it concerns a genetically primary and principally necessary surrogate. Only after the analysis, in Sect. 2.2 below, of these kinds of inauthentic presentations could the ball and sphere example be properly explicated.

  10. 10.

    Husserl emphasizes that it is the direction of my interest that serves as referee for the replacement process. Depending upon my interests at the moment, the same presentation can serve as a surrogate for distinct signified objects, and the same intentional object can be inauthentically presented via different replacements (Hua XII, p. 353/1994d, p. 32).

  11. 11.

    As it is easy to miss the radical nature of this doctrine of surrogates by reading LU back into LZ, three preemptive comments concerning the relationship between the two texts are necessary. The reader should keep these in mind while reading Sect. 3 below. First, a surrogate does not function like any of the cases in Sect. 18 of the First Investigation, where Husserl calls them a “foothold for the intellectio [Anhalt für die intellectio]” (Hua XIX, p. 70/1970, p. 208). He introduces a line drawn on a chalkboard as one such foothold for the awareness of an ideal straight line. The intuition of this sketched line does not present me with the concept or meaning of a straight line, but rather serves as the “natural starting point for geometrical idealization” (Hua XIX, p. 70/1970, p. 208). According to the Husserl of 1890, if the drawn line served as a surrogate for an ideal straight line, my mistaking of the former for the latter would, in contrast, be the end point of this experience. When experiencing an inauthentic presentation, I am not, as is the case with motivating signs, impelled to authentically present the signified object. Second, the fact that the surrogate can appear “instantaneously” (blitzschnell) (Hua XII, p. 353/1994d, p. 32) and then disappear just as quickly does not contravene the first point just laid out. The surrogate would still provide me with all of the information pertinent to my interest, despite its limited appearance. In LU, Husserl explicitly criticizes this doctrine from LZ, writing, “If one claimed that phantasy operates in these cases, but in an exceptionally transitory manner [in großer Flüchtigkeit], such that an image appears, only immediately to disappear, then we answer that, as the complete understanding of the expressions, their complete, living sense, can still persist after the images have vanished, the understanding of the expressions cannot persist in these images” (Hua XIX, p. 69/1970, p. 207). Finally, surrogates are not entirely similar to the “analogical intuitions” Husserl describes in Sect. 52 of the Sixth Investigation. While they function in very similar manners, that which is analogically intuited is presented—so states Husserl in 1901—in full knowledge of the fact that I am not given the signified in that experience (Hua XIX, pp. 690–693/1970, pp. 292–294).

  12. 12.

    “For the most part, we do quite well when we judge by utilizing surrogates (and the vast majority of all of our judgments are of this kind)” (Hua XII, p. 358/1994d, p. 37).

  13. 13.

    To be clear, the red circle cannot serve as a surrogate for the coffee cup in this case because I am only interested in the color of the latter. If I were interested in determining the shape of the lid of the cup, the red circle may function as a perfectly fine replacement, since it can disclose to me the relevant information (that the lid is circular). The range of approximation is thus only restricted in accordance with my interests at the time.

  14. 14.

    Here we should note a serious problem with Husserl’s explication. I could only know that the color of the circle was unlike the color of the coffee cup by having both presented to me and then comparing or contrasting them. If Husserl had recognized this point, he would also have seen that his theory collapses. Recall that the reason why I utilize a surrogate is to save mental energy. Yet, since both the replacement and replaced would have to be given for the (reliable) functioning of the surrogate, it is clear that the surrogative process would actually require more mental energy than that of a simple authentic presentation. Instead of presenting the surrogate and the referent and then checking the former against the latter, my thinking would be more efficient, and I could still correctly know the signified object, by performing an authentic presentation. While it is important to recognize that Husserl’s description of surrogates is flawed, this in no way changes the fact that this 1890 theory serves as the groundwork and inspiration for the First Investigation, as we shall show below.

  15. 15.

    To be emphasized: Husserl’s thought did not undergo a radical shift in 1901, as if he immediately jumped away from his 1890 theory of surrogates at that later date. Instead, as is always the case with Husserl, his philosophy evolved slowly over time. The following juxtaposition of these two works is a presentation of the results of Husserl’s decade-long endeavor to attain clarity with regards to signitive experience. I refer the reader to two texts in particular, within which Husserl’s new philosophy of signification, as a reaction to LZ and also PA, began to crystalize: “Anschauung und Repräsentationen. zur Klassifikation der Repräsentationen (1893–1894)” (Hua XII, pp. 406–11/1994b, pp. 452–458), and, “Psychologische Studien zur elementaren Logik (1894)” (Hua XXII, pp. 92–123/1994e, pp. 139–170). For further information on the gradual transformation of Husserl’s philosophy during this time, see Schuhmann (1990).

  16. 16.

    In his unpublished dissertation, Micah Tillman (2011) also explains how Husserl reformulates authentic and inauthentic presentations into intuitive and empty intentions. However, his descriptions never extensively draw from LZ.

  17. 17.

    “To form that which belongs together from that which is merely co-existent—or more precisely: to form from mere co-existence an intentional unity, which belongs together—, that is the continual psychological contribution of the associative function. All experiential unities, as empirical unities of things, of events, or of thingly orders and relations is a phenomenological unity by means of the felt mutual belongingness of the parts and sides of the appearing object, which can stand out as units” (Hua XIX, p. 36/1970, p. 187, emphasis mine).

  18. 18.

    “The being of the sign does not motivate the being, or more precisely, our conviction of the being of the meaning. What serves as an indication must then be perceived as existent […] The non-existence of the word does not disturb us. Moreover, this non-existence also does not interest us. The function of the expression as an expression in no way depends on the existence of the sign” (Hua XIX, pp. 42–43/1970, p. 191).

  19. 19.

    “It is clear: If ‘authentic’ presentations are to be mirrored truly in the sphere of the meaning-intentions of ‘symbolic’ presentations, then it must be the case, as it is so a priori, that each form on the side of presentations, which can potentially undergo fulfillment, corresponds to a form on the meaning side of the intention. And if it should also be the case that speech in its verbal material truly mirrors all a priori possible meanings, then language must have at its command grammatical forms which give distinguishable expression to all of the distinguishable forms of meaning” (Hua XIX, p. 313/1970, p. 55). For further discussion on the isomorphism established in the Fourth Investigation, see Bar-Hillel (1957), Drummond (2002, 2003), Edie (1972) and Sokolowski (1968).

  20. 20.

    While Husserl only briefly discusses what I have called the first or associative function of words in LU, he does dedicate great efforts to examining it in his revisions to the Sixth Logical Investigation from 1913/14 (Hua XX/1–2). He there details how, when I see the word, an impersonal “should” (Sollen) is placed upon me to execute the meaning intention. He writes, “We can also say: The habitual sign is a carrier of a practical demand, and truly an impersonal demand, which is no longer the conscious realization of previous willing. Instead of me commanding myself or someone else commanding me, it is the sign which so commands me, and it commands me purely in and of itself and not as a correlate of a personal demand” (Hua XX/2, p. 86).

  21. 21.

    Correctly stated, before a meaning-intention lends the words their meaning, they are not words but rather physical scribbles on a page or noises that one can hear. Only once the scribble or sound has been given its meaning can it be called a word or expression.

  22. 22.

    With regard to this point, Husserl is clearly under the influence not only of Brentano, but also Alexius Meinong. As I am unable to discuss the significant, but also contentious relationship between Husserl and Meinong, I refer the reader to Ierna (2009), Rollinger (1993, 2004, 2009), and Schubert and Luise (1978).

  23. 23.

    Working from this insight of the First Investigation, Husserl will even go on in the Fifth and Sixth to assert that empty meaning intentions are those that primarily and always endow an expression with its meaning (Hua XIX, pp. 570–572/1970, pp. 209–210, Vol. II).

  24. 24.

    While this article has disclosed LZ as the palimpsest for the First Investigation, the 1890 text holds even further value for understanding the evolution of Husserl’s thought. In my forthcoming work, “Husserl’s early semiotics and number signs,” I apply Husserl’s analysis of signitive experience in LZ to his discussion of number signs in PA, which casts that seminal 1901 book in a new light. By placing the latter text in the context of the former, Husserl’s conclusions concerning the authentic and inauthentic presentations of numbers via number signs, and his explanation of the genesis of and need for the number system, are clarified in novel ways.


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I would like to thank Ullrich Melle, Julia Jansen, Carlo Ierna, Diego D’Angelo, and Claudio Majolino for their most helpful comments on this essay.

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Byrne, T. Surrogates and Empty Intentions: Husserl’s “On the Logic of Signs” as the Blueprint for his First Logical Investigation. Husserl Stud 33, 211–227 (2017).

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  • Logical Investigation
  • Intentional Object
  • Associative Link
  • Mental Energy
  • Linguistic Sign