Peripheral Experience and Epistemic Neutrality: Color at the Margins


I argue that Husserl’s account of passive synthesis can be developed into a phenomenology of peripheral experience. Peripheral experiences are not defined by their location in visual space but by their phenomenal and intentional character, by what these experiences are like and how they present things in the world. Further, I argue that peripheral experience is of a piece with our most basic background convictions about the world. As such, the periphery is epistemically neutral, but not therefore empty of meaning. It is meaningful as holding open the possibility of further activity, both practical and intellectual. I explore these ideas by focusing on peripheral color experience. Husserl’s discussions of associative synthesis, affection, and doxic and nondoxic forms of attention prove key to detailing peripheral color experience. I end by arguing that at the periphery, intentional content and phenomenal content come apart.

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  1. 1.

    Hua XI, 1996 p. 345/634.

  2. 2.

    Hua XI 1996, p. 130/176.

  3. 3.

    “Everything in a present that is prominent and at the same time homogeneous is connected. Accordingly, every sense-field is a unitary field for itself: Everything visual is connected through visual homogeneity, everything tactile through tactile homogeneity, everything acoustic through acoustic homogeneity, etc. We speak of unitary sense-fields in the broadest sense. They are heterogenous, and accordingly are only united by the temporality of the living present.” (Hua XI 1996, 138/184).

  4. 4.

    “If we take any sense-field, that is, a field of coexistent homogeneity, then its stock of data will be a stock of concretely existing data: concrete, not only with respect to momentary coexistence, which cannot be anything for itself, but rather also with respect to succession” (Hua XI 1996, p. 139/186).

  5. 5.

    “In the visual field, however, we do not always have all data in [an interconnected series], in an identical linear order; rather, various series of [interconnected series] can be formed simultaneously, originally, such that many lines are contained within the field as systems of local positions; they appear filled out, now with this content of the object, and another time with a different content of the object, making order possible for it in advance, and all of these linear local systems go together to form this one field-form, just as a detailed analysis teaches us” (Hua XI 1996, 136/183).

  6. 6.

    Hua XI 1996, p. 153/200.

  7. 7.

    Hua XI 1996, p. 151/199.

  8. 8.

    “But if we reflect upon the essential character of affection which is obviously relative, whereby something noticeable can become unnoticeable, and something unnoticeable can become noticeable, then we will hesitate in interpreting something unnoticeable as something that does not exercise affection at all.[…] That something should gain an affective force at all where nothing of the sort was available; that something which was not there at all for the ego – a pure affective nothing – should become an active something for the first time, precisely that is incomprehensible” (Hua XI 1996, p. 163/211). See also Husserl (1970, p. 109).

  9. 9.

    Hua XI 1996, p. 150/198.

  10. 10.

    Husserl 1970, §28; Hua XI 1996, §47.

  11. 11.

    Here, I am following a line of interpretation suggested, and developed in much greater detail, by Welton (1983, pp. 220–253; 2000, pp. 165–197).

  12. 12.

    “We call these movements, which belong to the essence of perception and serve to bring the object of perception to givenness from all sides insofar as possible, kinaestheses. They are consequences of perceptive tendencies, ‘activities’ in a certain sense, although not voluntary actions. In doing all this I do not (in general) carry out voluntary acts. I move my eyes, etc., involuntarily, without ‘thinking about my eyes.’ The kinaestheses involved have the character of an active, subjective process; hand in hand with them and motivated by them goes a sequence of visual or tactile changing ‘images,’ which ‘belong’ to them, while the object is still ‘given’ to me in an inactive duration or alteration. My relationship to the object is on the one hand receptive and on the other hand definitely productive” (Husserl 1973, p. 84).

  13. 13.

    See note 8.

  14. 14.

    He does, however, make a distinction between a strongly affecting stimulus and coaffecting stimuli. He writes: “Through its intensity, the datum stands out from a multiplicity of coaffecting data. This occurs, for example, when in the sensuous sphere, there is a sound, a noise, or a color which is more or less powerful or weak, as the case may be” (Husserl 1973, p. 76).

  15. 15.

    Hua I 1950, p. 112/142; Hua XI 1996, §28; Husserl 1973, p. 323.

  16. 16.

    The phrase “background conviction” is inspired by John Searle’s argument that our belief in the external world is not a belief in the usual sense, but a background presupposition. This is because “one can show that this or that claim corresponds or fails to correspond to how things really are in the ‘external world,’ but one cannot in that way show that the claim that there is an external world corresponds to how things are in the external world” (Searle 1995, 178). The question of correspondence already assumes that there is an external world. Thus, Searle draws a distinction between conditions of intelligibility and truth conditions.


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My thanks to Donn Welton for his mentorship and support of the dissertation project from which this essay is drawn. Thanks also to an anonymous referee, whose incisive comments helped bring the argument of the last portion of the paper into focus, and to Whitney Howell, who was kind enough to read the penultimate draft on short notice and offer helpful suggestions. This project was supported by the Dr. Nuala McGann Drescher Leave Program.

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Diaz, E. Peripheral Experience and Epistemic Neutrality: Color at the Margins. Husserl Stud (2020).

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