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The Noema as Nash Equilibrium. Husserlian Phenomenology and Game Theory


The noema is one of the most daring and controversial concept of the Husserlian theory of intentionality. It was first introduced by Husserl in 1912, within some research manuscripts, but was only fully developed in Ideen. In this paper I claim that the noema is an ambiguous notion, the result of a theoretical operation, the epoché, whose aim is contradictory. In an effort to keep open the epoché, and therefore maintain distance with respect to every transcendent object, Husserl is forced to multiply intentional objects and complicate the notions of sense and noema. Given that, I propose to overcome the paradoxes of noema through the language of game theory. Game theory offers a very fruitful descriptive model that allows us to save the original Husserlian approach without the contradictions of the epoché. For this reason, I propose to re-interpret intentionality as social game, and the noema as Nash equilibrium. By replying to possible objections, I will show that this approach gives us many theoretical advantages. The general aim of the paper is a global reformulation of the phenomenalogical method.

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  1. Information can be about 1) the context, 2) the play of the game, 3) the strategies, 4) other features about players (what are the other players thinking). See Pacuit and Roy (2015). For the technical analysis of information set in game theory, see Mashler et al. (2013, 39).

  2. Husserl’s work is an enormous philosophical continent. Every approach is necessarily limited (in an intensive sense) and partial (in an extensive sense). In these pages, I will focus only on some passages of the Ideen to define the central issue of noema. Obviously, this issue is part of a broader and more complex problem (historical, philosophical, etc.). Analyzing it is not my purpose here, so I will not take into consideration any of other Husserl’s fundamental works, such as Formale und transzendentale Logik, Erfahrung und Urteil, or Krisis. For a more general approach to Husserl see Moran and Cohen (2012), Smith and Smith (1995), Wellton (1983), Costa et al. (2002), and Bégout (2000). On the topic of intentionality and critique of the theories of intentionality, see Benoist (2005). Benoist conducts what he calls a “recontextualization of intentionality”, bordering between the classical approach to phenomenology and analytic philosophy. I limit myself to reading Husserl. This means that I will not consider the immense debate on intentionality in other authors or traditions.

  3. “A coordination game occurs whenever the utility of two or more players is maximized by their doing the same thing as one another, and where such correspondence is more important to them than whatever it is, in particular, that they both do” (Ross 2014, 13). Lewis (1969) describes coordination games in the following way: “Two or more agents must each choose one of several alternative actions. Often all the agents have the same set of alternative actions, but that is not necessary. The outcomes the agents want to produce or prevent are determined jointly by the actions of all the agents. So the outcome of any action an agent might choose depends on the actions of the other agents. That is why […] each must choose what to do according to his expectations about what the others will do. Some combinations of the agents’ chosen actions are equilibria: combinations in which each agent has done as well as he can given the actions of the other agents. In an equilibrium combination, no one agent could have produced an outcome more to his liking by acting differently, unless some of the others’ actions also had been different. No one regrets his choice after he learns how the others chose. No one has lost through lack of foreknowledge” (8). Then Lewis adds: “This is not to say that an equilibrium combination must produce an outcome that is best for even one of the agents (though if there is a combination that is best for everyone, that combination must be an equilibrium). In an equilibrium, it is entirely possible that some or all of the agents would have been better off if some or all had acted differently. What is not possible is that any one of the agents would have been better off if he alone had acted differently and all the rest had acted just as they did” (p. 8). In coordination games, “coincidence of interest predominates” (14). Therefore, “let me define a coordination equilibrium as a combination in which no one would have been better off had any one agent alone acted otherwise, either himself or someone else. Coordination equilibria are equilibria, by the definitions. Equilibria in games of pure coordination are always coordination equilibria, since the agents’ interests coincide perfectly. Any game of pure coordination has at least one coordination equilibrium, since it has at least one outcome that is best for all. But coordination equilibria are by no means confined to games of pure coordination” (14).

  4. “We may achieve coordination by acting on our concordant expectations about each other’s actions. And we may acquire those expectations, or correct or corroborate whatever expectations we already have, by putting ourselves in the other fellow’s shoes, to the best of our ability” (Lewis 1969, 27). Coordination is achieved by replicating the expectations of the other player. The concept of expectation becomes fundamental in Lewis’s argument. “Coordination might be rationally achieved with the aid of concordant mutual expectations about action. […] coordination may be rationally achieved with the aid of a system of concordant mutual expectations, of first or higher orders, about the agents’ actions, preferences, and rationality” (33).

  5. Of course, clarity is relative to each player, but this does not affect our explanation at all. If the two players communicate, the scaling of clarity and payoffs is established by mutual agreement; however, this is not always necessary.

  6. See Giorgi Japaridze’s Computability Logic page:

  7. I do not consider the solution that Husserl gives of this problem satisfactory, or at least I consider it incomplete. Following Ricoeur’s thesis, I claim that “la phénoménologie s’est acculée elle-même très lucidement au paradoxe du solipsisme: seul l’Ego est constitué primordialement ; d’où l’importance de la Ve Méditation sur la constitution d'autrui que Husserl a re-travaillée plusieurs années ; cette constitution joue le même rôle de l'existence de Dieu chez Descartes pour consacrer l'objectivité de mes pensées” (Ricoeur 1986, 18). The problem identified by Ricoeur is structural. Structurally, Husserlian phenomenology cannot recognize the other subject in its complete otherness. “Mais si l'Ego ne paraît pouvoir être transcendé que par un autre Ego, cet autre Ego doit être lui-même constitué précisément comme étranger, mais dans la sphère de l'expérience propre de l'Ego. Ce problème est une des grandes difficultés de la phénoménologie husserlienne ” (Ricoeur 1986, 19).


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Possati, L.M. The Noema as Nash Equilibrium. Husserlian Phenomenology and Game Theory. Philosophia 48, 1147–1170 (2020).

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  • Phenomenology
  • Intentionality
  • Noema
  • Game theory
  • Nash equilibrium