Modality Matters: Imagination as Consciousness of Possibilities and Husserl’s Transcendental-Historical Eidetics


The paper contends that transcendental phenomenology is a form of radical immanent critique able to explicate the necessary structures of meaning-constitution as well as evaluate our present situation through the historically traditionalized layers of concrete, lived experience. In order to make this case, the paper examines the critical dimension of phenomenology through the lens of one of its core conditions for possibility: the imagination. Building on—yet also departing from—Husserl’s own analyses, the paper contends that the imagination is both self- and lifeworld-constituting. The imagination is anchored in our everyday senses of self and world as well as able to distance itself from being naively moored in normalized and deeply sedimented commitments. It is precisely this ‘anchored distance,’ rather than a sweeping doxic and ontic neutrality and negative freedom, that reveals the critical dimension of the imagination.

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  1. 1.

    For rich discussions of the points of resonance and dissonance between Kantian and Husserlian projects, see Carr (1974), Dodd (2004) and Jansen (2015).

  2. 2.

    For full references to the Husserliana volumes (Hua hereafter), please see the shared bibliography for the Husserl Studies special issue this paper is part of.

  3. 3.

    Husserl’s emphatic position regarding the immanent dimension of phenomenology is directly opposed to a (still) widely circulating misconception that Husserl advocated for a ‘disinterested’ and ‘detached’ spectator who, as it were, puts herself ‘outside’ matters (rather than in the midst of them).

  4. 4.

    For a discussion of how this distancing work differs from the shift in attitude at work in the reductions, see Aldea (2020).

  5. 5.

    I use ‘possibilization’ and ‘possibility constitution’ interchangeably.

  6. 6.

    It is unclear throughout Husserl’s analyses what other forms of neutral consciousness there are in the natural attitude. For more on this point, see Aldea (2019). Husserl describes the neutrality pertaining to the imagination in broad terms, which is what the ‘doxa’ refers to here. Willing, emotions, judgements, memories and all acts founded on imagining acts likewise exhibit this neutrality. Phantasiemodifikation and neutrality modification share this sweeping neutralizing feature.

  7. 7.

    Acts involving both positional and non-positional apprehensions, such as Bildbewusstsein, retain this conflict at their core (see Aldea 2013).

  8. 8.

    If we acknowledge, with Husserl, the interconnectedness of all noetic-noematic correlations in the life of consciousness as a whole, we can at most deem the imagination indirectly and passively as lifeworld-constituting.

  9. 9.

    While Husserl uses ‘Stellung,’ the term refers narrowly to various acts’ (e.g., memory) orientation (‘positioning’) toward determinate objects (the accomplishment of what, in his Fifth Logical Investigation (Hua XIX/1, LU V, §20), Husserl refers to as ‘Materie’). Often Husserl uses Stellung and Einstellung interchangeably. I opt here for Stellung rather than Einstellung in the attempt to stress the difference between ‘stance’ as I understand it and Husserl’s notion of ‘attitude.’

  10. 10.

    I use ‘imagination’ and ‘imagining stance’ interchangeably.

  11. 11.

    Cf., Hua VI, §§9, 15. Heinämaa (2019) convincingly explicates the kind of unity pertaining to the lifeworld in terms of a distinctive transformative openness as opposed to a mere infinity.

  12. 12.

    For an insightful account of our sense of ‘I cannot’ through the lens of ‘affective closure,’ see Al-Saji (2014).

  13. 13.

    In fact, these modal qualifiers are all noematic layers corresponding to ‘I can’ and ‘I cannot’ understood as noetic layers of all experiences.

  14. 14.

    While it is true that the German term for ‘conceivability’ (Denkbarheit) Husserl opted for does suggest a predicative reading, we should avoid an intellectualist interpretation, see Aldea (2019, 2020) .

  15. 15.

    See Husserl’s synthetic-genetic analyses of positional constitution (Hua XI), communalization and intersubjectivity (Hua XIII-XV), his historical and genetic Crisis discussions of lifeworld-constitution, and concordance (Übereinstimmung; cf., Hua IV, §18c-d).

  16. 16.

    The notion of naturalization I rely on here should not be confused with Husserl’s usage of the term ‘naturalistic,’ which refers to the attitude largely pertaining to the natural sciences and to their objectivistic methods (cf., Hua IV, §§ 34, 49).

  17. 17.

    Husserl captures the complexity of such processes in his analyses of modality modification, especially his analyses of doubt (Hua XI, pp. 229-30, Husserl 1973, §67).

  18. 18.

    Recall here Husserl’s own description of the ‘small sphere of freedom’ pertaining to positional consciousness (Hua XXIII, pp. 535/641–42).

  19. 19.

    For an insightful discussion of renewal and culture-constitution, see Steinbock (1994).

  20. 20.

    For a careful account of possibility kinds, see Zhok (2016). Elsewhere, I delve deeper into these issues, see Aldea (2019).

  21. 21.

    Take, for instance, the power of regulative and teleological fictions, esp. in socio-cultural and political contexts.

  22. 22.

    Husserl did touch on imagining conceivability—my sense of ‘I can’ in imagining consciousness (Hua IX, p. 205; Hua I, §§27, 55). However, here, too, the sense is of quasi-conceivability.

  23. 23.

    For a discussion of Ichspaltung as rift, see Cavallaro 2017. I examine this important notion of Ichspaltung in a forthcoming piece on self-variation, which further stresses the claim that all imagining is self-imagining..

  24. 24.

    For the distinction between the emergence of possibilities and instantiation, see (de Warren 2009, p. 199 and Zhok 2016, p. 231).

  25. 25.

    This is not to say that in the case of objects such as Husserl’s ubiquitous centaur, the modification at work in the imagining experience does not involve ontic and doxic neutrality. My point is, rather, that even in the case of quasi-spatial, irreal objects, much more is at work than what Husserl’s analyses of Phantasie as Vergegenwärtigung allow.

  26. 26.

    For a discussion of the dynamic between imagination and memory see Hua XXIII, No.12 and Appx. 33; see also Bernet (2002).

  27. 27.

    Husserl recognized our ability to orient ourselves in this ‘uncertain’ manner in his discussions of valuation and renewal (Hua XXVII, p. 29).

  28. 28.

    I argue in Aldea (2021) that all transcendental-eidetic work necessarily involves transcendental self-variation.

  29. 29.

    Husserl entertains this very idea through his paradoxical concept of the historical a priori in the Crisis and related manuscripts. Unfortunately, as David Carr right points out (Carr 1970, p. xxxv), Husserl’s unpacking of this concept, which lies at the crux of his most sophisticated critical method, remains wanting.

  30. 30.

    For references to primary resources (Husserl texts and materials), see the shared bibliography for the Husserl Studies special issue this paper is part of.


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I would like to especially thank Sara Heinämaa, Julia Jansen, David Carr, and Fredrik Westerlund as well as the participants of the Helsinki Phenomenology Research Seminar, of the Philosophy Seminar at University of Jyväskylä, and of the KU Leuven workshop that launched this special issue project. Many thanks also to the Fulbright Finland Foundation, the Kone Foundation, and the University Research Council at Kent State University for making this research possible.

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Correspondence to Andreea Smaranda Aldea.

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Aldea, A.S. Modality Matters: Imagination as Consciousness of Possibilities and Husserl’s Transcendental-Historical Eidetics. Husserl Stud 36, 303–318 (2020).

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