Perception and Its Causes

  • Gail Soffer
Part of the Contributions to Phenomenology book series (CTPH, volume 24)


According to received opinion, causal and intentional theories of perception are opposed and even incompatible. From which one might expect that Husserlian phenomenology—as the intentional theory of mind par excellence—would also be causality’s harshest critic. Indeed, support for this view can be found throughout Husserl’s writings, from the early descriptive phenomenology, and its “bracketing” of causal questions along the lines of the Brentanoian distinction between descriptive and explanatory psychology; to the later transcendental phenomenology, with its notorious Weltvernichtung and claim that absolute consciousness is neither causally related to nor causally dependent upon anything in the world.


Causal Theory Naturalistic Attitude Intentional Object Personalistic Attitude Physical Causality 
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  1. 1.
    This is the conception of causality that is at work, for example, in Berkeley’s assertion that God is the “cause” of the entirety of the phenomenal world, by immediately creating perceptions of it in the human mind. The Berkeleyan God-mind interaction is a non-ambiguous case of pre-critical causality: God is real and capable of altering the state of another real existent (the human mind), but without phenomenality. Another possible example is the interaction between the thing-in-itself and the mind in Kant, although this is complicated by Kant’s restriction of the legitimate use of “existence” and “cause” to the phenomenal world, from which it follows that the thing-in-itself is not “real” or a “cause” in the legitimate (i.e., critical) sense. However, arguably, even for Kant the thing-in-itself is a cause in the pre-critical sense (especially in the ethical domain), although he holds this sense to be epistemically illegitimate. Other famous models of causal theories of perception (that of Descartes and Locke, for example) are less obvious, but, as will be discussed in what follows, I believe that they operate with the pre-critical concept.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Das Schema der Ursache und der Kausalität eines Dinges ist überhaupt das Reale, worauf, wenn es mach Belieben gesetzt wird, jederzeit etwas anderes folgt. Es besteht also in der Sukzession des Mannigfaltigen, insofern sie einer Regel unterworfen ist,” Kritik der reinen Vernunft,A144/B183. (All translations are my own.)Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Kant’s own failure to distinguish between law-like critical causality and a looser phenomenal regularity parallels his merging of nature as understood by natural science and the lifeworld. Beyond Kant and Husserl, versions of a critical conception of causality can be found also in Hume and Berkeley (for “causality” within the phenomenal real, as opposed to divine causality), and arguably even in Aristotle.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Both the anschauliche Dingwelt and the mathematical-logical world appear in the Crisis as well, but in a different form. Here the anschauliche Dingwelt is an abstract, dependent layer of the concrete lifeworld (it is the lifeworld with cultural predicates suspended) and the world of physical science is always the mathematical-logical world. By contrast, in Ideas II,the very “same” sensible material nature is presented as an absolute, independent world, with no essential reference to phenomenality or subjectivity. This is because the Ideas II analysis is carried out from the point of view of the naturalistic attitude, which absolutizes a realm that for the (phenomenologically elucidated) persoanalistic attitude is only an abstract layer.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    For an explicit equation of the personalistic and the natural attitudes, see IV: 183/192. 9 The requirement that motives be perceived could seem problematic in light of Husserl’s acknowledgement of “hidden,” subliminal, and unconscious motives. However, he argues that even unconscious or subliminal motives are perceived in a sense (i.e., “unconsciously” or non-thematically), and indeed, must be so perceived in order to exercise their causality. That they are perceived can be subsequently demonstrated by procedures which bring them to thematic consciousness: peripheral images by recollection or hynopsis, unconscious affects by psychoanalysis, etc. The same is not the case for physical causes, which can exercise their effects whether they are or can be perceived. For Husserl’s discussion of unconscious motives in Ideas II,see IV: 169// 78,230/242.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    Husserl himself even speaks of physical causality in the pre-mathematized sense as perceived. See, for example, IV: 169// 78,230/242.Google Scholar
  7. 15.
    See for example, IV: 141–2/149, 189/198–9.Google Scholar
  8. 16.
    Kant’s argument in the Fourth Paralogism is against the skeptical idealist—who holds the existence of the external world is dubitable, since we deduce it by reasoning from perceptual effects to their alleged cause. Kant’s reply is that the relation of the mind to its object is not a (pre-critical) causal but an intentional one; or in Kantian language, the object is itself only a representation (i.e., an intentional object), and not a thing-in-itself.Google Scholar
  9. 18.
    Bei genauer Betrachtung wird sich sogar herausstellen, daß…die naturalistische Einstellung sich der personalistischen unterordnet und durch eine Abstraktion oder vielmehr durch eine Art Selbstvergessenheit des personalen Ich eine gewisse Selbständigkeit gewinnt, dadurch zugleich ihre Welt, die Natur, unrechtmäßig verabsolutierend” (IV: 183–4/193).Google Scholar
  10. 19.
    This basic conception of the real as the causal, and the corresponding reduction of the contents of intentional life to semi-reality, is clearly at work in Descartes and Locke. Here the assertion that perception of secondary qualities is caused by objects with mathematical-mechanical qualities is inextricable from the claim that the mathematical-scientific world is the “really real” and ontologically basic realm, whereas the lifeworld, the world of everday experience, is ontologically dependent and not “really real.” A further sign that these thinkers understand reality as causality is the special status they accord the mind. For here the mind too is a”cause,” although not a physical one, in that it judges and connects ideas into new ideas. Correspondingly, although secondary qualities and with them the entire lifeworld is reduced to semi-realities, this is never the case for the mind. The mind, for Descartes, is substance, and does not depend upon physical nature or the brain for its existence. I would argue that this assertion of the qui-priority of the mind with physical nature (a position which would seem absurd to most contemporary proponents of the 17th centuty-style cause theoty) is the result not (or not only) of theological views about the soul and its immortality, but of the causal role of the mind, and the correlation of reality with causality.Google Scholar
  11. 20.
    For a more detailed discussion of this phenomenological version of scientific realism, see my paper, “Phenomenology and Scientific Realism: Husserl’s Critique of Galileo,” Review of Metaphysics 44:1, September, 1990. On the priority of the lifeworld, see my Husserl and the Question of Relativism ( Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991 ), 165–71.Google Scholar
  12. 21.
    Denken wir uns monadische Subjekte und ihre Bewußtseinsströme, oder vielmehr denken wir uns das denkbare Minimum von Selbstbewußtsein denkbar, das gar keine `Welt’ gegeben hätte, also ohne entsprechende Regelungen im Auftreten vom Empfindungen, ohne motivierte Möglichkeiten dinglicher Auffassung,” (IV: 290/303).Google Scholar
  13. 22.
    Es wäre denkbar, daß es gar keine Leiber gäbe und gar keine Abhängigkeit des Bewußtseins von materiellen Vorkommnissen in der konstituierten Natur; also auch keine empirische Seele, während doch das absolute Bewußtsein übrig bliebe als ein schlechthin nicht Wegstreichbares,” (IV: 294 n.1/308 n.1).Google Scholar
  14. 23.
    I would like to thank my fellow participants at the CARP research conference “Issues in Husserl’s Ideas II” for their stimulating and helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gail Soffer
    • 1
  1. 1.New School for Social ResearchUSA

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