Act Psychology and Phenomenology: Husserl on Egoic Acts


Husserl famously retracted his early portrayal, in Logische Untersuchungen, of phenomenology as empirical psychology. Previous scholarship has typically understood this transcendental turn in light of the Ideen’s revised conception of the ἐποχή, and its distinction between noesa and noemata. This essay thematizes the evolution of the concept of mental acts in Husserl’s work as a way of understanding the shift. I show how the recognition of the pure ego in Ideen I and II enabled Husserl to radically alter his conception of mental acts, coming to understand them all in terms of genuine acts (doings or performances) in a way that had been essentially precluded for descriptive psychologists (Brentano, Natorp, and the early Husserl) so long as the pure ego was denied. This reading challenges a widespread assumption in the secondary literature that “mental act” is a merely technical term or misnomer.

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  1. 1.

    Similar claims appear in Brunswik (1952), Corsini (2002), Eysenck et al. (1982), Gurwitsch (2010), Müller-Freienfels (1935), Smith (1995), Titchener (1922).

  2. 2.

    All claim Brentano and his pupils – Husserl especially, but also often Meinong, and von Ehrenfels – endorsed AP. Disputed proponents of AP were James, Messer, Külpe, Stumpf, Stout, Witasek, and Ward. See sources cited in fn.s 1 and 3.

  3. 3.

    Boring (1950) portrays AP as forerunner to the Berlin school of Gestalt Psychology, Brunswik (1952) as forerunner to American functionalism. Brett (1930) and Flugel (1951) portray AP as a return to nineteenth- century faculty psychology, whereas Müller-Freienfels (1935) rejects this reading.

  4. 4.

    There has been confusion on this point. Brentano mentions a “soul” in Book I Part I of Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt, then sets the notion aside as irrelevant for his empirical psychology. See Hickerson (2007) or Sheredos (2016) for a clear discussion.

  5. 5.

    As I discovered in the late stages of preparing this article, Susanna Schellenberg (forthcoming) now defends a view of consciousness as arising through mental activity. Note how “radical” and “new” the view is taken to be in contrast to the mainstream.

  6. 6.

    I use Searle’s claims here to give voice to the general view, though he grants that “doing arithmetic in your head and forming mental images” are mental acts (Searle 1983, p. 3).

  7. 7.

    Peter Geach treats as equivalent: “mental acts or mental events or what happened in a person’s mind” (1957, p.2). In Tim Crane’s usage, “all intentional objects are the objects of intentional states or acts. (By ‘act’ I mean a mental phenomenon that has an object and has a place in a time-series, like an act of judgement, or a decision)” (2001, p. 342, my emph).

  8. 8.

    An early type-(i) reading of Brentano is provided in Oskar Kraus’ overbearing footnotes, appended to the 1924 edition of the Psychologie (see McAllister’s p. 79 fn.1 and p. 271 fn.1). See likewise George and Koehn (2004), who suggest that the concept of a mental act goes back to Aristotle, and who move comfortably between that locution and talk of “mental states” (cf. pp. 29-30). For challenges to this reading of Brentano, see Sheredos (2016).

  9. 9.

    Gallagher and Zahavi say this in reference to Brentano but offer no re-appraisal of Husserl’s own concept elsewhere in the text, and thus apply this gloss to both authors.

  10. 10.

    A similar challenge was raised also by Russell (1921, p. 16ff), as Hickerson is aware.

  11. 11.

    Citations to Husserl’s work provide the page number in the Husserliana edition, follow by the page number in English translations. I cite the 2001 re-issue of J. Findlay’s translation of LU. Below I cite Dahlstrom’s 2014 translation of Ideas I, and Rojcewicz and Schuwer’s 1989 translation of Ideas II.

  12. 12.

    This is a strange citation: Natorp is arguing that we should not distinguish mental acts (in any sense) from mere content at all – but this is required for Husserl’s distinction between intentional and non-intentional experiences. Natorp serves as Husserl’s foil just a few sentences later (see Hua XIX, pp. 394/102).

  13. 13.

    Smith and Woodruff Smith are perhaps ambivalent here, if one reads “experiences” without an active construal. This is another way to put the point at issue.

  14. 14.

    Likewise, Mohanty sometimes claims Husserl pursues “a delimitation of the idea of consciousness to intentional experiences or acts” (1995, p. 55). Elsewhere Mohanty treats the pure ego as “the ego as apprehended in the actual performance of an intentional act” (1995, p. 56, my emph). It is a mystery how this first conception of acts relates to the second.

  15. 15.

    On this notion of “motivation” see Walsh (2013), Walsh (2017) and also Hua III-1, footnote on p. 101/86.

  16. 16.

    Here I deviate from Dahlstrom’s translation. Husserl’s phrasing (“Der aufmerkende Strahl”), along with others like it, demands a nominalization of the “ray” or “radiation” throughout this passage, as Gibson and Kersten each provide in their translations. Dahlstrom’s translation (“Attention radiates”) resists this. Gibson treats the Ich here as “personal,” which is infelicitous given that the personal ego has been bracketed in the ἐποχή.

  17. 17.

    Husserl: “Der Strahl trennt sich nicht vom Ich, sondern ist selbst und bleibt Ichstrahl.” I follow Kersten in employing the term “ego-ray” for Ichstrahl. Dahlstrom: “The radiating is not separated from the ego but instead itself is and remains the ego radiating.”

  18. 18.

    Husserl: “Eine Stellungnahme, die den Ichstrahl in sich trägt” Dahlstrom: “A stance taken, that bears the radiating of the ego itself.”

  19. 19.

    I have again replaced Dahlstrom’s translation (“what radiates from the ego”) with Kersten’s term, ego-ray. I have also re-arranged some English phrases in the last sentence to make clearer where “Ichzugehörigkeit” appears.

  20. 20.

    Garrett Bredeson deserves great thanks for bringing this complication to my attention. This entire section of the paper came into being only in response to his thoughtful comments on an earlier draft.

  21. 21.

    Husserl’s English introduction was included in neither Dahlstrom’s 2014 edition, nor in Kersten’s 1983 edition, and so I cite the Gibson translation. The original German is reproduced as Nachwort in Husserliana V.

  22. 22.

    First possibility : mental acts presuppose temporal intentionality. Protention and retention might be taken as primordial forms of intentionality, presupposed by the kinds of intentional directedness which characterize mental acts in time. Some remarks in Brough (2010) suggest such a reading. If Husserl understands prototypical mental acts in terms of both the pure ego as active subject, and as presupposing a form of intentionality, this might be regarded as a type-(iii) view.

    Second possibility : mental acts presuppose ego-directedness as a distinct form of intentionality. Husserl himself recommends a distinction between two kinds of intentionality. One kind is present in both attentive egoic acts (cogitos) and inattentive acts (halo-consciousness). A distinct kind of intentionality is involved in “position-taking [Stellungnahmen], comportment toward the objects [Verhalten zum Gegenstande]”, and the most basic of such comportments is the “turning of attention [der Hinwendung der Aufmerksamkeit]” (Hua IV, p. 278/291). This opens the possibility that mental acts (intentional experiences) might cohere with a traditional view not only because the pure ego is (potentially) their active source, but also in that (thereby) they essentially presuppose a form of intentionality (i.e., ego-intentionality).


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Clinton Tolley and Garrett Bredeson provided very helpful feedback on earlier drafts. Earlier work leading up to this paper also benefitted from discussion at the 2013 meetings of the North American Society for Early Phenomenology (NASEP), and the Seminar in Phenomenology and History (SIPHOP). I am most especially grateful for the feedback and encouragement of Hanne Jacobs and other organizers of the 47th annual meeting of the Husserl Circle, where an earlier draft was awarded the 2016 Center for Advance Research in Phenomenology Director’s Memorial Prize in Honor of José Huertas-Jourda.

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Sheredos, B. Act Psychology and Phenomenology: Husserl on Egoic Acts. Husserl Stud 33, 191–209 (2017).

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