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From the “Still Covered” to the “Pure Primordial” Phenomena and Back: The External World in the Phenomenology of Conrad-Martius

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Hedwig Conrad-Martius

Part of the book series: Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences ((WHPS,volume 8))

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This chapter addresses the two questions HCM poses at the opening of her first great treatise, “On the Ontology and Doctrine of Appearance of the Real External World” (HCM, 1916): “In which real mode are perceived “essences (Washeiten)” given to us, in more or less big definiteness (Bestimmtheit)? And where do we encounter them in their concrete realization?” (HCM, 1916, 356). These questions initiate the problematization of the given and thus pose a clear limit between the immediate appearance of the external world and its real being, which in HCM’s opinion are not identical (HCM, 1916, 427). The philosopher deals with the first through a careful investigation of what she calls “feeling givenness” (Empfindungsgegebenheit) and the second through a keen observation of the givenness of “manifest-appearance”. These two tracks are woven together, and thus, the phenomenology of the external world moves simultaneously in two opposing directions: by following the line from the “still covered” to the “pure primordial” phenomena we are looking for the ideal reality that brings about the reality of things. This reality does not manifest itself on the phenomenal level but transpires as covering or hiding reality as such. However, since the phenomenon of the external world is not an idea, while moving from the “primordial” to the “covered”, we search for the reality that transcends its ideal boundaries—a transcending that is embodied in the fundamental essence of reality achieving external dimensions. The real transcendence of the external world to human consciousness is revealed in these opposing directions, and thus, the reality of the phenomenon of the external world is confirmed.

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  1. 1.

    See, for example: Husserl (1970a/1900, 168; 1984a/1901, 10). Much has been written about this statement, which became phenomenology’s slogan. See, for instance: (Seifert, 1995, 92–98; Kuhn, 1969, 397–399). The Circle was composed of a group of philosophers the first generation of phenomenologists, whose prominent members were: Alexander Pfänder, Johannes Daubert, Moritz Geiger, Theodor Conrad, Adolf Reinach, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Maximilian Beck, Max Scheler, Jean Hering, Alexander Koyré, Roman Ingarden, Edith Stein, and Hedwig Conrad-Martius. For further reading about the circle, see: Avé-Lallemant (1975).

  2. 2.

    The Munich Circle philosophers drew their inspiration from Husserl’s struggle, in Logical Investigation, against psychologism, relativism, and various forms of reductionism Husserl (1970a/1900, §23 51, §31 74; 1975, §23 82, §31 117), and especially from his fundamental argument that it is possible to observe the conditions of consciousness and to study them in isolation from the thinking subject Husserl (1970b/1901, 10–13, 1984a/1901, 240–245). See also (Walther, 1955, 190; Schmücker, 1956, 31). HCM declares the influence of Logical Investigation on her current study, see: HCM (1916, 355 n. 1). The principles of observation directed at the object were formulated by Hering. See: Hering (1921, 496). HCM stated her agreement with Hering’s approach, see HCM (1923, 162). For a detailed discussion of the object-directed approach in the Munich Circle, see (Avé-Lallemant, 1959, 89–105; Schmücker, 1956, 3–8).

  3. 3.

    Heinemann argues that the disturbance in the process of the appearance also involved the disintegration of the foundation layer of the spirit, which as such “rises from the phenomenon and returns and sinks into it in order to embody itself there”. Thus, restoring the phenomena naturally involves an appropriate understanding of the spirit (Heinemann, 1960, 184). Indeed, one of the most important achievements of HCM’s realistic phenomenology deals with the formation of a realistic perception of transcendentalism. This perception requires a separate discussion that exceeds the scope of this article.

  4. 4.

    See also HCM (1965c, 377; 1965d, 347). For further discussion regarding the issue of the phenomenological method of essence intuition, with particular emphasis on the role of the realistic school within it, see (Reinach, 1913, 1921b; Pfänder, 1913, 2005, 1–13; Schmücker, 1956, 1–33; Ebel, 1965, 1–25).

  5. 5.

    The Circle’s members often wrote about the unique essence intuition that guided them. See Avé-Lallemant (1988, 69; Walther, 1955, 21; Reinach, 1951, 21–73; Schapp, 1910, 12; Pfänder, 1913; Ebel, 1965, 1–25; Schmücker, 1956, 1–33).

  6. 6.

    See here also Husserl (2002, 63–65; 1952b, 58–59). For the realistic phenomenologists, the main difficulty in a defining approach concerns the lack of certainty regarding the actual meeting with the object. On the differences between essence intuition and a defining approach, see: Ebel (1965, 15–19).

  7. 7.

    HCM explains that it is a mistake (common in positivistic literature) to identify between an “existence independent of consciousness” and the real external world, see: HCM (1916, 391).

  8. 8.

    HCM clarifies the title “Doctrine of Appearance” as referring to the realm of the object between “nature” and “the essence of life” that stands in relation to the perceiving subject that has existence within it HCM (1916, 352–354 n. 1). However, nature as such is not discussed in Doctrine of Appearance and remains, to a great extent, a hidden layer that would only be developed in her later writings see in particular HCM (1965b/1961). Doctrine of Appearance is a development of the first chapter in an early essay from 1912, “The Epistemological Elements of Positivism” HCM (1920a/1912, 10–24). This essay was awarded a prize by the Philosophy Faculty of Gottingen University and was later termed the “prize essay” (Preisschrift). The subtitle of Doctrine of Appearance—“Regarding the Criticism of Positivistic Theories” and the polemic with positivism that appears throughout the discussion HCM (1916, 345–347, 352, 357–358, 361–365, 378, 382–386, 390–391, 398–400, 423, 425)—clearly indicate its roots in the essay that preceded it. On 3 July 1912, an expanded version of the first chapter of the prize essay was printed and submitted as a dissertation in a form almost identical to Doctrine of Appearance and recognized as a doctorate by Pfänder at Munich see Avé-Lallemant (1965/1966, 212). In the Postscript added to a special printing of the essay in 1920, HCM established her shift to ontology-oriented studies and seems to know that her original plan to develop the rest of the chapters in her essay on positivism will not be realized HCM (1920b, 130). See here also: Avé-Lallemant (1971, 213). Avé-Lallemant, her assistant, the curator of her estate, and the editor of her writings, told me in conversation with him (4 July 2003, Munich) that Doctrine of Appearance received positive responses upon its publication.

  9. 9.

    Heinemann expressed very similar ideas to HCM’s in his article on concrete phenomenology. He mentions her article “Phänomenologie und Spekulation” HCM (1965c/1956), see Heinemann (1960, 185 n. 2). However, he does not refer to her most relevant treatise to his discussion, Doctrine of Appearance, with which he was undoubtedly familiar.

  10. 10.

    This argument also applies to studies dealing with HCM’s perception of the world, such as Ales Bello (2004). Exceptions to this statement include Schmücker, who mentioned Doctrine of Appearance once in his dissertation, defining the essay as a “decisive breakthrough” Schmücker (1956, 39 n. 1), and Ebel (1965, 16 n. 42, 17, 22 n. 48, 42). However, both these researchers lack a systematic and comprehensive discussion on the range of issues handled in the essay.

  11. 11.

    Regarding the “semblance of reality (Aussehen einer Realität)” typical of objects of representation, see HCM (1916, 356, 441 n. 1).

  12. 12.

    Helmut Kuhn (1969, 399) well described it as follows: The things to which the gaze is directed are always known in advance. We do not start from the zero point. They show themselves to us, but they are covered. They are placed before us as known but also as riddles, and force upon us a distinction between what the things are in their origin and the essence that reveals the observation that penetrates them. In this context, see also Husserl’s “The principle of all principles” Husserl (1952a/1913, §24; 2012/1913, §24), in which alongside establishing the value of the primordial givenness there is also recognition of the fact that things are given to use under certain restrictions.

  13. 13.

    For more on the phenomenological given, see Spiegelberg (1984).

  14. 14.

    In Doctrine of Appearance, HCM refers critically to skepticism in various contexts in which she discusses positivism. See, for example: HCM (1916, 358, 398).

  15. 15.

    See especially: HCM (1916, 355, 370, 398, 407, 413, 418, 423, 446, 496, 500, 513). Husserl understood skepticism as a denial of the apodictism, meaning the necessary and universal truths essential for a theory to have meaning. He distinguished between three forms of skepticism: logical, “noetic”, and metaphysical; see: Husserl 1970a/1900, 134–143, Husserl (1975/1900, 214–226; 1970a/1900, 134–141). Husserl, and like him, HCM in Doctrine of Appearance considered metaphysical skepticism to be the most problematic. For further discussion of the issue of skepticism in phenomenology, see Wachterhauser (1996). On certainty in Husserlian phenomenology, see Kołakowski (1975).

  16. 16.

    The distinction between these two types of objects has important implications for the issue of the I: the overt objects require the restricting and restraining of the I, while the covert objects necessitate its active involvement. As mentioned, the issue of the I exceeds the scope of this paper.

  17. 17.

    HCM continued to deal with the relation between the object’s thusness and its selfness in her other writings. See, for example, HCM (1957, 57). In this context, see the critique of Ebel (1965, 42) regarding the realistic direction in phenomenology, including that of HCM, which he did not believe could posit true realism: reality becomes a mere “phenomenon” of reality for them, and therefore, it is precisely not real Ebel (1965, 2). More favorable approaches to this school appear in Seifert (1995, 97–98), who focused their contribution on the thusness-experience (Soseinserfahrung), and Heinemann (1960), who noted the importance of focusing on the appearance.

  18. 18.

    Hermann Krings, who was professedly influenced by HCM, explains that focusing on the object as existing real reality is not simply equivalent to reversing the Kantian beginning in which the existing is directed in its self to consciousness. The premise here is that there exists a real relation between the existing and the essence referring to it; however, this assumption does not include an argument regarding the possibility of consciousness. See Krings (1960, 193–195).

  19. 19.

    Like HCM, Spiegelberg too addressed the justification of relying on sensory data within a realistic perception. In his opinion, a critical phenomenological examination of the immediate phenomena of reality themselves could remove the most common objections regarding the reliability of perception mediated by the senses. See Spiegelberg (1975, 153).

  20. 20.

    Spiegelberg explains that the phenomenon and reality do not exclude each other, meaning that what is real exists within itself and from itself, and it can be presented to us in its very reality. This means that actual things in the world can remain exactly as they are even when they enter into relations with us and are presented to us. Spiegelberg calls the phenomena in which we are involved “subjectival”, not in the sense that they do not have real existence or that they are deceptive, but that they are objective parts of the subject and of his world, see: Spiegelberg (1975, 134–135). Moreover, in his opinion, the reality of the subjectival phenomena is completely certain Spiegelberg (1975, 149). In any case, the subjectival reality constitutes only a very small part of our total reality and of reality as a whole Spiegelberg (1975, 135).

  21. 21.

    Like HCM, Spiegelberg also emphasizes that what can be referred to as the “claim” for reality entailed in real existence. In this context, he defines a “phenomenon of reality” as one where the phenomenal object presents itself along with the argument about its being real. Therefore, a reality-phenomenon is one that is both positioned as real and distinguished from “mere phenomena” that do not claim reality. See Spiegelberg (1975, 133).

  22. 22.

    In “Real Ontology” (Realontologie), in her discussion of materiality, HCM returns to the concept of the “surface”. Her argument in principle is that the material entity has depth and internality, but only its surface reaches sensory appearance. What is outside is the lighted part, and what is inside, in the depths, is the dark and closed part. She states that there is a causal relation between these two components of the material entity, so that just because there is depth there is also a surface. See HCM (1923, §55–§56 205–206). In this essay, she refers to the concept of the surface also in other places, see: HCM (1923, §37 194; §57–§61 206–209; §72 214; §107 235–236).

  23. 23.

    Spiegelberg explains that the very lack of dependence on the subject is “a very fundamental and essential consequence of reality” (except for cases of real actions of the subject, which of course depend upon him); see: Spiegelberg (1975, 132 n. 2).

  24. 24.

    See here the discussion of the matter in the introductory section and in: HCM (1951, 10–11).

  25. 25.

    Spiegelberg (1975, 148) presents objects’ lack of probe-resistance to our will as a hallmark, sometimes significant, of their reality.

  26. 26.

    HCM clarifies that the innovation is not in such a perception being capable of misleading, but in the foundation of this experience not “really” being in faith, that the material feltness has direct relations with the external world HCM (1916, 433), but that these relations actually exist.

  27. 27.

    At this point too, Heinemann’s position is very similar to that of HCM. In his opinion, the primordial phenomenon of the human being is not consciousness but appearance, meaning the entry of appearance and change within appearance (humans live within pictures before they know it). In contrast, consciousness is an epiphenomenon or a phenomenon in retrospect, which, as such, denotes a reflective action that takes place only after the appearances collapse. Thus, he determines that the meaning of phenomenology is “the doctrine of appearance”. See Heinemann (1960, 186–187).

  28. 28.

    Spiegelberg characterizes the peripheral field of our perception as “marginal openness” (Spiegelberg 1975, 147), meaning that this field is never sharply cut like its boundaries. However, he stresses that peripherality does not denote unreality. What we perceive at the periphery of the perceptual filed is not just vague configurations but usually well-defined structures subject to reduced clarity. We can still see the phenomenon itself, through these modifications, and understand its structure prior to it being subjected to influences. More importantly, the structural openness of what exists in the periphery of our perceptual field indicates that reality does not reach its end in accordance with the end of our field, meaning that it does not cease at its periphery but continues beyond it. Thus, openness shows, in his opinion, that the phenomena of reality are self-standing.

  29. 29.

    One of the typical arguments of the realistic phenomenological approach deals with the temporal gap between the real way in which the thing exists and the way in which it is perceived (see: Geiger, 1930, 170). Spiegelberg claims that the situation is identical for any sensory perception, which, in his opinion, “can never give what is present, but only what has just passed. And since the past no longer exists, we can never see the original object itself but only its “trace”, which means its cast or likeness” (Spiegelberg, 1975, 157).

  30. 30.

    In order to reach greater accuracy in presenting the felt, one should tackle questions that exceed her main discussion in Doctrine of Appearance, such as what is the nature of the I that allows itself to be framed (einrahmt) through the body-entity (körperlich Entität), so that it is really restricted by it? And how do the relations between the I and the living body describe themselves phenomenally? (HCM, 1916, 541–542).

  31. 31.

    The discussion will revolve only around existences that appear in a strict objective manner and not around what HCM calls “the loose givenness of a sensorially manifest material”, which she grants marginal space in Doctrine of Appearance (HCM, 1916, 504–505).

  32. 32.

    In this context, see also: Husserl (1970b, 17–18; 1984a, 253–255).

  33. 33.

    In the literature, the “quale” denotes the contents of the subjective experience of mental states, usually excluding any intersubjective aspect. Thomas Nagel characterized the quale as “feeling itself in a certain way” Nagel (1974). Unlike HCM, some philosophers deprived the qualia of existence Dennett (1993), but most philosophers and natural scientists believe that the existence of the contents of the subjective experience is undoubted (see: Beckermann, 2001, 358). This puzzling term has appeared in the philosophical discourse already since Descartes, has been repeated by Locke and Hume, and has frequently been mentioned in the twentieth century. See in particular: Lewis (1991, 89 ff.).

  34. 34.

    We should distinguish between the term “play” here, which does not express detracting from the reality of the appearance, and “playing with the reality of objects”, which is typical of the perceptual state and expresses the weakness of the dimension of reality within it (see: HCM, 1916, 379).

  35. 35.

    See here also HCM’s references to “an appropriate ‘receptacle’ (Gefäβ)” of the real thing HCM (1923, 215, 217, 219).

  36. 36.

    Spiegelberg, who characterized the sensory organs as “phenomena of reality in themselves”, is helpful in illuminating the problematic HCM handles here as follows: “Is there a way back, as it were, from the retina via the cortex and mental processes to the original object outside which supposedly started the whole chain of physical and physiological processes?” Spiegelberg (1975, 150). He adds that this problem is meaningful only if you assume that the physical objects, as conditioned by our sense perception, our sensory organs, and the physiological processes involved in them, are proven realities, and that one can know real objects Spiegelberg (1975, 151).

  37. 37.

    HCM argues that these aspects of the sensorially manifest appearing are similar to those reflected in primitive observation. Yet, apparently due to their assumed diminished sophistication or even manipulation by consciousness, she finds them as revealing a correct façade of the sensorially manifest appearance (see: HCM, 1916, 478–479).


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Miron, R. (2023). From the “Still Covered” to the “Pure Primordial” Phenomena and Back: The External World in the Phenomenology of Conrad-Martius. In: Hedwig Conrad-Martius. Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences, vol 8. Springer, Cham.

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