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Husserl’s struggle with mental images: imaging and imagining reconsidered

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Husserl’s extensive analyses of image consciousness (Bildbewusstsein) and of the imagination (Phantasie) offer insightful and detailed structural explications. However, despite this careful work, Husserl’s discussions fail to overcome the need to rely on a most problematic concept: mental images. The epistemological conundrums triggered by the conceptual framework of mental images are well known—we have only to remember the questions regarding knowledge acquisition that plagued British empiricism. Beyond these problems, however, a plethora of important questions arise from claiming that mental images are structural moments of imaging and imagining. Any attempt to clarify the structure and conditions for the possibility of aesthetic experience must first provide an unambiguous account of pictorial depiction—a task unattainable through the mental images discourse. Similarly, exposing the import of the imagination for theoretical scientific inquiries (be they positive or eidetic) requires an initial explication of the structure of this consciousness; this explication, however, must address our ability to imagine non-spatially determined objects—something the conceptual framework of mental images utterly fails to accomplish. In this paper I argue against Husserl’s reliance on mental images in his phenomenological analyses of imaging and imagining and propose an alternative structural account for both. This account is free of this reliance and able to steer clear of its insidious implications for epistemology, aesthetics, and methodological reflections. By closely following the development of Husserl’s account I suggest alternative descriptions while building on Husserl’s important work.

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  1. One of these differences was the lack of a perceptual founding apprehension in Phantasie.

  2. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, p. 86; I refer to all of the Husserliana volumes as Hua.

  3. For these accounts, see esp. Experience and Judgment §87 cf., Husserl (1948), Phenomenological Psychology §9 cf., Hua IX (1962), and Formal and Transcendental Logic §98 cf., Hua XVII (1974). For a more detailed discussion of eidetic variation, see Hua XLI (2012).

  4. I am currently in the process of finalizing a monograph that focuses primarily on the structure and conditions for the possibility of Husserl’s mature eidetic inquiry. There I discuss the sub-processes upon which this theoretical higher order process is founded.

  5. I would like to thank my anonymous reviewer for their insightful comments. They have triggered much thought and have helped me offer a stronger case for my claim regarding mental images.

  6. I use imagining, imagining consciousness, Phantasie, and imagination interchangeably.

  7. If anyone loves a paradox, one can really say, and say with strict truth if one will allow for the ambiguity, that the element which makes up the life of phenomenology as of all eidetic sciences is ‘fiction’, that fiction is the source whence the knowledge of ‘eternal truths’ draws its sustenance (Hua III/1 1976, §70; translated by Boyce Gibson (1972, p. 184; translation modified).

  8. Translated by Webber (2004, p. 59). The error, widely committed by the British empiricists, consists of importing objective properties (such as those pertaining to ‘copies’ of objects) into consciousness, the latter thus becoming a receptacle or ‘container’ for what is fundamentally different from its nature.

  9. I use ‘artificial’ here in Husserl’s sense to distinguish between experiences we naturally have the ability to undergo and experiences we will and craft based on these natural abilities. Various theoretical methods and processes as well as artistic experiences fall in this category.

  10. I use ‘idealizing description’ here instead of ‘eidetic inquiry’ since Husserl’s work on imaging and imagining predates his clear delineation of the eidetic method (1913 and onward). Nevertheless, as early as the Investigations, Husserl was already very much concerned with offering an a priori apodictic account of the structure of consciousness.

  11. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, Appx.1, §16.

  12. Cf., Hua XI (1966), §17.

  13. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, Appx.1 (1898) and No. 1 (1904/05), pp.17–18, 47–48.

  14. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, p. 16ff. and No. 1, Appx.9 (1905).

  15. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, 1904/05, pp. 17–18, 21–25, 25–34, 63; cf., also Hua XXIII, No.8 (1909), No. 15 h (1912).

  16. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, 1904/05, pp. 17–18, 82.

  17. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 18–20, 29–34; see also, No. 1, Appx.5 (1905), No. 17 (1912), p. 489.

  18. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 17–18, 23–25.

  19. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 25–27, 45. This structure of apprehension is also typical of symbolizing and signifying consciousness. The first apprehension is that of the symbol or the word, the second, that of what is meant by the symbol or the word. But there is a difference between these two latter cases of presentification (Vergegenwärtigung) and physical imaging since its image-object does not function as analogon the way symbols and words do. According to Husserl, there is no resemblance (necessarily) between the analogon and that which it points to, whereas there is necessarily a resemblance between the image-object and the sujet of physical imaging (Hua XXIII 1980, No. 1, 24–25).

  20. If one solely focused on the canvas and the paintbrush traces on it one would experience this object in perceptual consciousness. The object would be given directly as physical and transcendent, as part of the objective world of reality. For an analysis of aesthetic consciousness see Hua XXIII 1980, No. 1, §§17, 19, 25; cf., also, No. 15 h, and Appx. 40, No. 15c–d). For discussions of Husserl’s analysis of the relation between physical imaging and aesthetic consciousness see Brough (1992), Haardt (1995), Caeymaex (1996), Sepp (1996), Fernández-Beites (2001), Lotz (2007).

  21. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No. 17 (1912).

  22. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 19–20.

  23. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, p. 54ff.; cf., also, Hua XXIII (1980), No. 17.

  24. All acts and types of consciousness are present and real in so far as they are part of the internal stream of consciousness. This reality Husserl labels as ‘reell’—it is the immanent presence of all cogitationes (i.e., intentional experiences, cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No. 15, p. 330). ‘Real’ on the other hand refers to reality as transcendent, as external. It is the reality pertaining to physical things as things in the natural and objective world.

  25. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, p. 46.

  26. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No. 16 (1912), No. 17 (1912), and No. 17, Appx.52.

  27. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1 (1904/05), pp. 46–47, and No. 1, Appx.1, (1898).

  28. Husserl himself seems to suggest this approach in his 1907 Thing and Space lectures (Hua XVI 1973, Section I, §9, pp. 23–25).

  29. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), Nos. 12–14.

  30. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No.1, §§24, 32. On this controversial issue and on Husserl’s success or lack thereof in analyzing physical imaging (or Bildbewusstsein) see Rang (1975), Marbach (1989), Sepp (1996), Volonté, (1997, 1999), Fernández-Beites (2001), and Lotz (2007).

  31. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), Nos. 16–17.

  32. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, p. 49.

  33. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, p. 51, and Hua XI, §18.

  34. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, p. 35; cf., also No. 1, Appx.4 (1904/05).

  35. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 25–27, 43ff, 51ff, 54ff; cf., also Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, Appx.2, 7, 9, 12, 13; Hua XXIII (1980), No. 4 (1908), No. 15 g, No. 15, Appx.40, Nos. 16–17.

  36. Husserl employs the term Perzeption to refer to the perceptual moment or foundational apprehension at work in image consciousness. He distinguishes between Perzeption and Wahrnehmung—the latter refers to the act of perception, which has its own content (sensation) and simple/singular apprehension (cf., Hua XXIII 1980, No. 16, 1912).

  37. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No.4.

  38. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, Appx.9, pp. 151–152.

  39. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 47–48.

  40. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 25–27, 32, 54–63, 82–83.

  41. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, p. 26; cf., also No. 1, Appx.7, and No. 17.

  42. For a discussion of the relationship between imaging and aesthetic experience, see de Warren 2010.

  43. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, p. 33.

  44. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 39–41.

  45. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 47–48.

  46. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, p. 51.

  47. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, p. 49; cf., also No. 1, Appx.2.

  48. I say ‘almost’ because the real and the irreal cannot be simultaneously intuited. They can at most be simultaneously intended but never fully given at once.

  49. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 45–46, No. 1, Appx.1, 9, and Nos. 17–18.

  50. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 16, Appx.51, p. 482.

  51. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 82–83, and Nos. 16–17.

  52. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 40–41, No. 16, Appx, 51, No. 17, p. 490.

  53. If I were, image consciousness would cease and I would be convinced it all occurred in perceptual consciousness.

  54. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 47–48.

  55. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 17 (1912).

  56. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, p. 44ff.

  57. For a very interesting discussion of Phantasie and Bildbewusstsein in the context of time-consciousness see de Warren ch.4 (2009).

  58. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 3–4, 42, and No. 15a (1912).

  59. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 2, Appx.14.

  60. His position with respect to this act and type of consciousness did not fluctuate much throughout his extensive work on presentation. For an interesting discussion of Husserl’s image theory, see Brough (2011).

  61. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), Nos. 15–18. For further discussions of the Phantasie-perception juxtaposition, see Fernández-Beites (2000), Elliott (2002), and Jansen (2005).

  62. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 16–18.

  63. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 3–4, 12, 16–18, 67–69, 82ff., 102–103, and No. 1, Appx. 1, 10, 13.

  64. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 5–7, 24, 34, 47–48, 80–81; cf., also, No. 1, Appx. 8, 12, 13.

  65. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 3–4, 5–6, 47–48, 29–30.

  66. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 64–71, and No. 1, Appx.10.

  67. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, Appx.10.

  68. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 64–71, and Nos. 16–17 (1912).

  69. Phantasie, like perception, does not exhibit the double apprehension structure of physical imaging and of sign consciousness. For discussions of image and sign consciousness, see Volonté (1999), Jansen (2005), and Wiesing (2005).

  70. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, §§5, 38, No. 1, Appx.9.

  71. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 4 (1908).

  72. No claim is made about the object’s ontic status.

  73. The object is given as existent and certain. This initial doxic stance, i.e., the protodoxa, can always be challenged along with the object’s positive ontic stance—the latter may become ‘being-questionable’, ‘being-probable’, and even ‘non-being’.

  74. For Husserl in 1904/05, sensation and phantasma as contents lack an intentional character; they gain it through apprehension, i.e., through their being interpreted (cf., Hua XXIII 1980, No. 1, §§5, 39).

  75. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, §§37, 51–52, No. 5 (1909).

  76. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, §§5, 7, 35.

  77. The difference between them stems from what Husserl refers to as Phantasiemodifikation.

  78. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, §32.

  79. Husserl mentions a type of picturing (Ausmalung) in the context of realizing vacillation and expectation – different options are being considered or engaged in this picturing (Hua XI 1966, 79–82, p. 211ff.). However reine Phantasie, or imagination proper, is not the vehicle of such picturing; it is radically divorced from the real and the realizing attitude while Ausmalung is positional (Hua XI 1966, p. 97). I would suggest that any fulfillment of perception that appears to occur through imagining consciousness is actually a type of Ausmalung in so far as it is drastically bound by the parameters of perceptual contents, expectation and memory, and the motivation of perceptual consciousness. This does not imply that Phantasie cannot cooperate with the positional-realizing attitude.

  80. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, Appx.8–9.

  81. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No. 16 (1912).

  82. Irreality is not ‘quasi-actuality’ just as much as it not the negation of reality. The language of the ‘quasi-’ permeates Husserl’s account of physical imaging (cf., Hua XXIII 1980, No. 1, Hua XXXI, §3); he utilizes it in analyses (early or late) to also refer to the non-positionality of Phantasie (cf., Erfahrung und Urteil, §14). Whether the usage of the ‘quasi-’ in the context of Bildbewusstsein is legitimate or not, is one question (cf., Jansen (2005); Lotz (2007)) in so far as the image object is given through perception yet it points toward the irreal. However, the employment of ‘quasi-’ as way of expressing the non-positionality and irreality of Phantasie is definitely problematic in so far as Phantasie, along with its irreality and non-positionality, is radically distinct from perception. If conceived as reproduction (cf., Hua XI 1966, §§26, 40–41; Hua XXXI, §3)—it is a different kind of reproduction than memory or expectation. If we refer to Phantasie irreality in terms relative to perception we miss the radical dichotomy that Husserl ultimately seeks to bring forth between Phantasie and Wahrnehmung. The language of ‘quasi-’ is most suitable for positional presentifications such as memory and expectation because their link to reality and actuality and to the motivational structure of perception is significant (cf., Hua XI 1966, Appx. 22 to §35, 423–424).

  83. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, §§26–27, 42, 49–50; cf., also No. 1, Appx.7, 10, 13; No.2f, No.2, Appx.22, No.17 (1912).

  84. “Die Phantasieerscheinung, die schlichte, mit keiner daraufgebauten Bildlichkeit beschwerte, bezieht sich ebenso einfältig auf den Gegenstand wie die Wahrnehmung” (Hua XXIII 1980, No. 1 (1904/05)), §42, p. 85. “The phantasy appearance, the simple phantasy appearance unencumbered by any imaging built on it, relates to its object just as straightforwardly as perception does” Brough (2005, p. 92).

  85. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No. 8 (1909).

  86. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, §9, pp. 19–20.

  87. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No.1, Appx.1.

  88. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 18–20.

  89. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 21–23.

  90. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 23–25.

  91. Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 25–27.

  92. Hua XXIII (1980) No. 1, pp. 49, 54–63, No. 1, Appx.8–9.

  93. Cf., Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 58–59.

  94. Brough (2005, p. 60); “[w]ie erscheint es also? Erscheint es wirklich in der Weise eines Bildes? Konstituiert sich wirklich in der Phantasie ein Bildobjekt, durch das hindurch ein Bildsujet angeschaut wird? Ich muss gestehen, das ich hier immer wieder von ernstem Zweifel ergriffen wurde” (Hua XXIII 1980, No. 1, p. 55).

  95. Brough (2005, pp. 22–23) and Hua XXIII (1980, No. 1, p. 21). Cf. also, Hua XXIII (1980), No. 17, pp. 489–490, and No. 17, Appx.50.

  96. In 1904/05 at the time of his first extensive study of Phantasie Husserl is adamant about distinguishing between mental image and appearance in Bildbewusstsein and emphasizes the same distinction in the structural context of Phantasie also (Hua XXIII 1980, No. 1, p. 68).

  97. Brough (2005, p.23; emphasis mine). Also Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, p. 22.

  98. These insights are even able to assuage the main worries surrounding resemblance accounts of depiction voiced by Goodman (1976) in his Languages of Art. For Goodman, resemblance cannot be the condition for possibility of depiction since resemblance is multifarious (there are many respects in which a thing resembles another), ubiquitous (pictures resemble other pictures more than they resemble their subjects), reflexive, and symmetric—none of which are features of depiction (see esp. Chapter 1).

  99. For a discussion of meaning in aesthetic experience, see Fink (1966).

  100. Cf., Hua XIX/1, LU II, and Hua XXIII (1980), No. 1, pp. 22–23. At the time when Sartre wrote his Imaginary he had had access to Husserl Ideas I and his Logical Investigations, but not the material subsequently published in Hua XXIII (1980). Sartre’s accusation that Husserl falls prey to the ‘illusion of immanence’ (cf., Webber (2004, p. 59) is not however justified despite his lack of access to this material. There is plenty of evidence in both Ideas I (cf., Hua III/1 1976, §90) and in the Logical Investigations (cf., Hua XIX/1, 436ff.) that Husserl dismissed the position that claimed the inclusion of mental images in consciousness; for Husserl consciousness is not a box or a container and the above mentioned texts, available to Sartre during the 1930 s, make that perfectly clear. There is further evidence for this in Hua II (1950) (11, 29–39). For an elaboration of immanence and transcendence in Hua II (1950), see Brough (2008). For discussions of the imagination in Husserl and Sartre, see Wiesing (1996), and Flynn (2006).

  101. Brough (2005, pp. 22–23) and Hua XXIII (1980, No. 1, p. 21).

  102. Ibid.

  103. Cf., Hopkins (1998).

  104. Cf., Lopes (1996).

  105. There is a substantial history of trying to unpack the structure and conditions for the possibility of seeing something in something else (i.e., ‘seeing-in’) in the Analytic tradition. For earlier discussions of depiction and seeing-in, see Wollheim (1980, 1987), Walton (1990).

  106. Much remains to be said about the freedom and neutrality of irreal possibilities as the correlates of imagination. This discussion is also important for any attempt to analyze the status of post-phenomenomenological reductions residua as well as the status of the variants of ideation.

  107. A monograph and several articles on this issue are in preparation.

  108. Cf., Elliott (2005, pp. 57, 115f.). I would like to thank my anonymous reviewer for pointing out the necessity of mentioning the import of productive imagination and for this particular reference. Given the scope and goals of this paper, this notion cannot be fully explored here.

  109. At the existential-positional level objects are intended and intuited as real (present, past, or future); the objects of the essential-positional level are non-positionally engaged with respect to their reality or existence and positionally intended and intuited qua essences or universals. This is the level of eidetic inquiry—be it subjective phenomenological or objective (mathematical, logical, etc.)


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Aldea, A.S. Husserl’s struggle with mental images: imaging and imagining reconsidered. Cont Philos Rev 46, 371–394 (2013).

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