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Husserl on Eidetic Norms

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Edmund Husserl often characterizes essences and eidetic laws in normative terms. Many of his statements to this effect are however highly puzzling as they appear at odds with Husserl’s general understanding of normativity. In this paper I focus on this puzzle and I argue that we can reconcile most of the apparent tensions between these two dimensions of Husserl’s philosophical thought. In the first part of the paper, drawing on the contemporary literature on kinds of norms, I focus on Husserl’s work on the varieties of normativity. I submit that, on his view, essences and eidetic laws are never intrinsically normative, and that not all essences and not all corresponding eidetic laws can function as norms for their instances. Crucially, however, I argue that, according to Husserl, essences and eidetic laws can function as norms for a range of the subject’s acts. In the second part of the paper I further examine this thesis, thus explaining in what sense Husserl thinks that essences and eidetic laws can have this function. I show that formal eidetic laws can engender deontic and evaluative norms for correct or rational judgments, evaluations, desires, and acts of the will. I also contend that material essences and material eidetic laws also have a normative function for judgments. I conclude that this shows how Husserl’s view makes room for norms that are not context-dependent or subjectively grounded.

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  1. On Husserl’s view, an essence is an ideal object consisting of the properties that all of the individuals of a certain kind necessarily have; and an eidetic law is a synthetic a priori truth grounded in some essential property or properties. Due to space limitations, I cannot elaborate on the nature of these in full. For insightful examinations of essences, eidetic laws, and eidetic phenomenology in general, see Jansen (2017), Majolino (2015) and Sowa (2007).

  2. Note that in this paper I will use the terms ‘norm’ and ‘rule’ as synonymous, unless otherwise indicated.

  3. For further textual evidence, see Husserl (1985, p. 429/1973 p. 354): “Pure generalities […] have reference to empirical actuality as far as they “prescribe rules to every actual thing”. See also (Hua III/1, p. 177/1989 p. 189), where Husserl writes: “Every description of essence […] expresses an unconditionally valid norm for possible empirical existence”.

  4. Specifically, Husserl writes in (Hua V, p. 28/1980, p. 25): “[A]ny pure eidetic truth having its ground in these essences prescribes in general an unconditionally valid norm [eine unbedingt gültige Norm] for possible objectivities of such a sense.”

  5. For further textual evidence, see (Hua III/1, p. 333/1989, p. 344), where Husserl writes: “It is itself a phenomenological fact that […] positing consciousness is ruled by norms in every genus; the norms are nothing else than eidetic laws.” In (Hua V, p. 60/1980 p. 52) Husserl even uses the expression ‘normative essences’ (normierenden Wesen). Analogously, in (Hua XLI, p. 333), we find the term ‘Wesensnorm’.

  6. Specifically, as Husserl writes in the Prolegomena, ideal laws are laws “based purely on concepts (ideas, pure conceptual essences [begrifflichen Wesen])” (Hua XVIII, p. 168/1970, p. 106, translation modified).

  7. See also (Hua XXIV, p. 2 and p. 27/2008, p. 4 and p. 27). For example, as Husserl writes in (Hua XXIV, p. 2/2008, p. 4): “Norms, however, do not say ‘universally it is so’, but rather ‘so it should be’”.

  8. Specifically, in (Hua XXXVII, p. 141), Husserl writes: “Denn Wesensgesetze der Sachen kann niemand durch sein Handeln verletzen, er kann nur urteilend sich über sie tauschen. Normgesetze aber können verletzt werden durch unser Handeln und werden es beständig.” In (Hua XXXVII, p. 142), he writes: “Niemand kann gegen ein Sachengesetz praktisch verstoßen […]. Andererseits, gegen Vernunftgesetze kann man sehr wohl verstoßen, obschon man auch hier die Wesenheiten nicht ändern kann, die in sie eingehen.”

    Relatedly, let us note that Husserl holds that norms can only regulate the province of the spirit [Geisteswelt]; that is, subjective operations, cultural objects, or cultural phenomena. Specifically, in (Hua XXXVII, p. 145), Husserl writes: “Die Geisteswelt allein ist und ist überall normierbar. Die Natur ist das Reich des Ungeistigen und daher nicht Normierbaren”. In support of this thesis, see also (Hua XXXVII, p. 314) and (Hua Mat. III, p. 193). The thesis that norms only concern the province of this spirit obviously implies that essences or eidetic norms concerning nature can never be norms, and so it also appears at odds with some of the statements that I consider as endorsements of the First Thesis.

  9. For a seminal discussion of the notion of constitutive norm, see Searle (1964, esp. p. 131). See also Conte (1988) and Zelaniec (2013). As Glüer and Pagin (1999) and Fassio (2013, p. 204) have noted, there is another notion of constitutive norm in the literature, which is discussed by Ralph Wedgwood and Timothy Williamson. In this paper I will not take the latter notion into consideration.

  10. See Zelaniec (2013) for a deep dive into issues concerning the nature of constitutive norms.

  11. See Zelaniec (2010, 2013) for a careful examination of the interaction between deontic norms and constitutive norms.

  12. Note that, despite its current popularity, the phrase ‘evaluative norm’ is of recent introduction in the literature. Indeed, von Wright (1963) uses the term ‘ideal rules’ to refer to evaluative norms. In this paper I rely on the contemporary terminological distinctions. For a comparison of von Wright’s terminological distinctions with Husserl’s understanding of normativity see Heinämaa (2019).

  13. Philosophers often distinguish between at least two species of evaluative norms. Each of these two species relates to one of two senses of ‘good’: the attributive sense and the predicative sense. We may thus distinguish between evaluative norms that relate to attributive goodness and evaluative norms that relate to predicative goodness. Norms of the first species define the conditions that a token of a type ought to satisfy for it to be a good token of its type. One of the paradigm examples is ‘A knife ought to be sharp’. Evaluative norms of the second species state instead that a certain state of affairs ought to obtain, or that something is valuable or good in a certain sense (but not as a token of its type). Consider, for example, ‘There ought to be world peace’.

  14. For a deeper dive into this issue, see Fassio (2013, pp. 202–204).

  15. Others who think that standards of correctness are neither deontic nor evaluative conclude from this that they are not normative. Here I am only concerned with the position held by those who consider standards of correctness to be genuine norms.

  16. For the identification of the term ‘Sollen’ with the fundamental normative notion, see, for example (Hua XVIII, p. 53/1970 p. 33) and (Hua Mat. III, p. 11).

  17. We may even consider Husserl to be one of the first to pioneer the distinction between these two senses of ‘ought’.

  18. For further textual evidence, see (Hua XXIV, pp. 27/2008 p. 27), where Husserl writes: “The normative discipline has, as it were, a basic standard, a basic set of requirements to measure up to. Its propositions, therefore, state the qualities something must have in order to satisfy these basic requirements, for example, the qualities a work of art must have in order to be able to be considered to be aesthetically beautiful, to be a work of beautiful art in the genuine sense, the qualities an act must have to be able to be considered moral, etc.”

  19. Specifically, in (Hua XVIII, p. 57/1970 p. 36), Husserl writes: “In relation to a general underlying valuation, and the content of the corresponding pair of value-predicates determined by it, every proposition is said to be ‘normative’ that states a necessary, or sufficient, or a necessary and sufficient condition for having such a predicate.”

  20. In support of this point, see also Husserl’s lectures entitled ‘Introduction to Logic and Theory of Knowledge’ (1906–1907), where he states that “a normative discipline becomes practical when it does not merely aim at criteria for setting standards, but also at rules of practical realization, namely at producing or furthering models conformable to these normative criteria” (Hua XXIV, pp. 27/2008 p. 27). This claim suggests that normative disciplines have priority over practical disciplines, and so that evaluative norms come first and in turn ground deontic norms. For further evidence in favor of this point, see (Hua Mat. III, p. 11).

  21. Mulligan (2017, p. 504) also defends the thesis that correctness is a normative notion on Husserl’s view, since he unpacks the notion of correctness in terms of ‘ought to be’. On this and other related issues, see also Mulligan (2004).

  22. The following passage illustrates well Husserl’s view on the relation between value-predicates, correctness, and instances of ‘ought to be’: “Im Gegensatz dazu sagen die Gesetze, auf welche die Endabsicht der normativen und praktischen Disziplinen gerichtet ist, statt eines Seins ein Seinsollen aus; sie sagen: So soll es sein, so muss es sein, wenn es ‚richtig‘ sein soll, näher: wenn es den in der Idee der betreffenden normativen Disziplin maßgebenden Anforderungen gerecht werden soll. Die normativen Gesetze sprechen also Regeln der Abmessung an ein festgesetztes normatives Grundmaß aus, z.B. an die Idee der Wahrheit, der Güte, der Schönheit, an die Idee eines guten Staatswesens, an die Idee eines guten Soldaten usw.” (Hua Mat. III, p. 11).

  23. More precisely, in (Hua XXVIII, p. 127) Husserl writes as follows: “Der Vorsatz, der sich ein Gutes vorsetzt, hat (an und für sich betrachtet) seine Richtigkeit. Und da jeder richtige Akt als richtig selbst ein axiologisches Gut ist (nach einem allgemeinen axiologischen Gesetz), so kann man auch sagen, ein Vorsetzen und Tun, das auf Gutes geht, ist selbst axiologisch betrachtet gut, ein Wollen des Guten ist gut, ebenso Wollen des Schlechten ist schlecht, des Gleichgültigen gleichgültig”.

  24. In support of this point see (Hua XLIII/2, p. 538), where Husserl claims that it is possible to normatively assess something (normieren) not only on the basis of a general rule or proposition (Satz), but also on the basis of a general measurement (allgemeinen Maß). This does not imply, however, that non-propositional norms are not amenable to being converted into more traditional normative statements.

  25. In the Prolegomena Husserl claims that “one must always distinguish between laws that serve as norms for our knowledge activities, and laws which include normativity in their thought-content, and assert its universal obligatoriness” (Hua XVIII, p. 159/1970 p. 101). On Husserl’s view, norms have a genuinely normative character, while ideal laws—and so eidetic laws—can only function normatively (Hua XVIII, p. 162/1970, p. 102). Husserl expresses this idea in other terms, too. For example, when he states that ideal laws frequently appear in normative clothing (in normativem Gewand) (Hua XXVIII, p. 6). Further, he also claims that ideal laws very often take (annehmen) the meaning of norms (Hua Mat. III, p. 194).

  26. One could argue that Husserl espouses an outdated conception of normativity, and that, if he had endorsed a more modern view, he could have considered eidetic laws, including material eidetic laws, as akin to or as functioning as constitutive norms for the instances of the relevant essences; and so that, in a sense of the term ‘norm’, all eidetic laws could be or function as norms for the instances of the relevant essences.

    I think, however, that that would be very hard to argue. First, we should consider no eidetic law, let alone material eidetic laws, as akin to a constitutive norm. Even if Husserl theorized a notion of norm akin to that of constitutive norm, he would never concede that eidetic laws are part of that kind of norms, because, if he did, he would admit that at least some ideal laws are akin to norms, and so he would undermine his distinction between ideal laws and norms. In other words, the constitutive sense of ‘ought’ would be a genuine normative sense of ‘ought’, but, at the same time, it would be the expression of a law-like relation, and that is simply impossible given that the distinction between ideal laws and norms is a cornerstone of Husserl’s understanding of normativity. Second, it is unclear how material eidetic laws could function as constitutive norms. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how the norms engendered from the normative transformation of material eidetic laws could ever be constitutive norms for the relevant essences. How could they define what counts as taking part in a certain practice or activity?

  27. Similarly, Rudolf Bernet interprets the norms that arise from the normative transformations of logical laws as evaluative norms. As he (2002, p. 26) writes: “the purely logical law […] becomes a basic norm of value estimation”.

  28. Logical laws are eidetic laws inasmuch as they are grounded in the essences of logical objects. Interestingly, in a letter to Lipps dated January 1904, Husserl states that logical norms are nothing but the normative version of certain eidetic laws. Specifically, as he writes in this letter: “Diese normativen Wendungen der genannten Wesensgesetze (die in sich nichts von Norm enthalten) sind die gewöhnlichen ‘logischen Normen’” (Hua Dok. III/2, p. 127).

  29. Specifically, Husserl writes in (Hua XVIII, p. 161/1970, p. 102): “It is clear that any theoretical truth belonging to any field of theory, can be used in a like manner as the foundation for a universal norm of correct judgment. The laws of logic are not at all peculiar in this respect. In their proper nature, they are not normative but theoretical truths, and as such we can employ them, as we can the truths of all other disciplines, as norms for our judgment.”

  30. I have taken the two statements that I use as examples from (Hua XXVIII, p. 98) and (Hua XXVIII, p. 78), respectively.

  31. One may worry that an ought-statement such as ‘One should think of perception as perspectival’ cannot express a deontic norm because deontic norms are such that we can always violate them, but, if perception is essentially perspectival, we could never fail to comply with this rule. This worry is, however, misplaced. On the assumption that perception is essentially perspectival, it will never fail to be perspectival. But, at the same time, it would be clearly possible for one to entertain the thought that perception is not perspectival or to mistakenly think of perception as not perspectival, exactly as we can entertain the thought of a round square or mistakenly think that a square is round.

  32. For further textual evidence in support of this point, see (Hua XXIV, pp. 234–235/2008, pp. 230–231), where Husserl writes: “If sounds are, if they exist as individuals, in whatever manner, in whatever connection, then these individually existing sounds cannot deviate from that without which sounds would just no longer be sounds. If I, therefore, have a right to empirical judgments, I have a right to assume nature, or to assume a heaven with angels, and to consider the thoughts of possible living beings other than natural ones, then I can say that wherever living beings, beings with minds, may be found, whether on earth or in heaven, whether in empirical reality or in a make-believe, possible reality, they can only judge correctly if they judge sounds the way I judge. Sounds cannot occur to them that do not exhibit that without which sounds would just not be sounds. What holds for these trivial laws of sounds holds for all laws of essences.”

  33. For another passage in this spirit see (Hua XLI, p. 108). In this passage Husserl writes as follows: “Und […] kann ich auch reine Begriffe von dem Verworrenen als Verworrenen bilden in jeder Sphäre und kann alles Denken und alle Gedanken durch reine Wesensbegriffe normieren.” See also (Husserl 1985, pp. 426–427/1973 pp. 352–353), for yet another passage in support of the view that material essences ground laws for their instances, and norms for the subject who judges. In it, Husserl writes: “What can be varied, one into another, in the arbitrariness of imagination […] bears in itself a necessary structure, an eidos, and therewith necessary laws which determine what must necessarily belong to an object in order that it can be an object of this kind. This necessity then also holds for everything factual: we can see that everything which belongs inseparably to the pure eidos color, e.g., the moment of brightness, must likewise belong to every actual color. […] Every actuality given in experience, and judged by the thinking founded on experience, is subject, insofar as the correctness of such judgments is concerned, to the unconditional norm that it must first comply with all the a priori ‘conditions of possible experience’ […].”

  34. As far as I see, it is of crucial importance to underline the possibility that essences themselves can function as evaluative norms as a consequence of normative transformations in relation to one species of assessment—that is, in relation to the assessment of concepts. Elaborating on this issue in full, however, greatly exceeds the scope of this paper. I hope to delve into this topic in another paper.


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I presented the first draft of this paper at the Phenomenology of Action and Volition conference at Czech Academy of Sciences in May 2018. Thanks to all of those who participated on that occasion for their feedback including the organizers Guillaume Fréchette and Hynek Janoušek. Thanks also to Francesco Praolini for his generous help and to an anonymous referee of this journal for their excellent and detailed comments on the paper manuscript. Work on the material of this paper was supported by a research grant from the Österreichischer Austauschdienst (OeAD), which allowed me to carry out a research stay at the University of Graz. I am grateful to Sonja Rinofner-Kreidl and the other members of the phenomenology unit at the Institute of Philosophy for hosting me and for our invaluable discussions on many of the issues presented in this paper.

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Carta, E. Husserl on Eidetic Norms. Husserl Stud 37, 127–146 (2021).

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