Phenomenology and the content of thought

So in Lecture 2 I talked about the act/content distinction and the way it’s set-up within Husserl, with a view to understanding the critical role of a thought-content for our later investigations into Husserl’s phenomenological method. These are notes from that lecture and are a quite quick and ‘formalised’ account of Husserl. In other words, the account I’m presenting is a specific version intended to guide us in our reading – it is not a detailed nor a particularly critical account. There could be some radical alternatives found in other presentations and there are a number of features – notably to do with what we might call ‘linguistic referentials’ or ‘things the words refer to’ – that I’m glossing over quite heavily here. The point of lectures like this is not to give you a full and finished account but to open up the texts for you to read yourself and develop a critical understanding of. If something I’m saying here and something you think after reading Husserl doesn’t seem to match then ask in the seminars. We will also be returning to some of the same distinctions numerous times as we fill in our understanding through the ongoing discussion of Husserl and the Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty’s development of phenomenology in their own directions.

Let’s begin then by recalling the elements Husserl draws from Franz Brentano. (Here I am drawing on an account given in the book Husserl by David Bell, Routledge 1990 – for further reading you are welcome to turn here, in particular to the first section of Bell’s book ‘Prolegomenon’).

Remember, Husserl’s two big influences are the foundations of mathematics (what makes it secure and certain as a form of knowledge) and the newly forming science of psychology. Brentano, then, is part of the psychological legacy within Husserl. Brentano argued that:

  • CLAIM1: all phenomena are mental phenomena
  • CLAIM2: mental phenomena are acts with content

which establishes this radical distinction between act and content as well as establishing that what we’re interested in is things as they appear, phenomena. the things themselves, to which Husserl urges us to return, are recovered precisely by attending to the things as they appear or perhaps things as appearances or even the appearing (or appearance) of things. These varied ways of putting the matter are all part of the difficulties we need to unravel in understanding Husserl. Suffice it to say that for now we are going to take Husserl as an idealist, though it is important to note that he thinks his kind of idealism is the condition for idealism and realism and so has a different sense than we might at first assign to it. In effect, though this is a little too simplistic, the question of the physical world and of some relation of subject to object (as though one was ‘in here’ and the other ‘out there’) is negated by defining all phenomena as phenomena of consciousness. Objects are immanent (contained within) to an existing mental act. How does this occur? What is the basic reason for this? It has to do with the way in which Husserl begins to understand the concept of ‘thing’ and ‘experience’ and ‘consciousness’ and occurs by shifting the notion of ‘content’ towards something like a notion of ‘meaning-content’.

An object is immanent to an existing mental act (an object is, to some extent at least, contained within the mental act) because the object is something that means something for us. We do not encounter an ‘anything whatsoever’ or a ‘blank object’ but always an object with a particular meaning, always something as something – we encounter something as a tree for example. (This ‘as a’ structure (qua) in the sentence is worth noticing and paying attention to since a lot of critical thought needs to be applied to this as we go along.) It is because we encounter an object always within a particular meaning that we can say the pure notion of a ‘content’ that could contain a pure and blank concept of an ‘object’ (or ‘thing’) is removed and a more definite and specified concept of a ‘content’ as a ‘meaning-content’ is applied by Husserl.

The following claims or sub-claims (further important facts but which seem derived from more basic claims and which I’ll letter A, B etc) also seem to be interesting and derive from a Brentanian legacy:

  • A) all mental phenomena are mental acts (by definition, from CLAIM2)
  • B) physical phenomena are contents of mental phenomena (if all phenomena are mental phenomena – by definition, from CLAIM1 – then what we call physical phenomena – such as sensations or impressions – are in fact the contents of mental phenomena since this is the only place for them to go in this schema.)
  • CLAIM3: mental phenomena can be contents of mental phenomena (this looks like a third claim so I’ll call it CLAIM3)

Now with some of this basic model of how consciousness is structured in place, let’s look again at the question of ‘the given’ as it was raised in Lecture 1. The critique (by which I mean, an exploration of the rational limits of what we understand by a concept and the establishment of criteria for a best way of understanding a concept on the basis of the knowledge of its limits) of ‘the given’ is central to that critique of ‘sensationalism’ (the view that sensations are what is experienced) that lies at the heart of the attack on the ‘Epistemological Project’ (EP). For the EP the structure of an experience is ‘an experience of a sensation’ and both sense-data and thoughts are conceived as something ‘out there’ or separate from the experiencer. (Think of the ‘Homunculus’ problem we discussed in class in the seminar on the reading from Hume’s ‘Enquiries‘ – (Section XII, Part 1, marginal number 118) – this was also called the ‘doubled experience’).

Husserl wants to replace the {object – sensation – experience} model of the EP (the doubled experience) with an experience that is understood as simply {act – content} – experience has what we might call both form and content but is singular (the experience itself) rather than doubled.

What is going on?

At this point it’s worth taking a step back to ask, why is this act/content distinction important? What philosophical implications can it have? After all, at first sight it seems like little more than a hypothesis about the structure of experience, which looks almost empirical and would somehow need to be tested or discarded in favour of some other hypothesis that could be experimentally verified through observation. The distinction is not empirical however – it is the starting point for a major philosophical (conceptual) argument about the necessary structures of consciousness.

In particular two key concepts will arise from the act/content distinction:

  • the concept of the ‘ideal object‘, which is a content that is objective – in other words, a content that is given to us rather than one which we produce (such as an imaginary object of our dreams) but which is given to us as an ideal object not an empirical object. The very notion of an object is going to be extended by Husserl to explicitly include the reality of both empirical objects (chairs, tables and the like) and ideal objects (essences or truths).
  • the concept of ‘intentionality‘ which is going to posit the idea that consciousness is not a self-contained receptacle but is instead an active ‘going outside of itself’ – that is, consciousness is always a consciousness of …. – a consciousness of the chair, a consciousness of the content in the most broad sense. Here the act (consciousness) and the relation to the content (consciousness of…) are intimately related.

I will post more on the relation of these distinctions to the role of certainty and inner evidence as we go along. The discussions in class contained a lot more on this but these notes are intended to try and enable the background to Husserl to be more clearly grasped, as we investigate the problem that motivates his thought, and so may not always cover everything in class in the same order and weight it was discussed there. I also want to await our seminar this week with its discussion of ‘inner evidence’ and truth.

For class : for the seminar please make sure you have read through the second reading from Logical Investigations, section 51 – The decisive points in this dispute pages 193-196.

Think through questions such as:
(1) when something is encountered as a ‘self-evident truth’ (logical, such as the law of material implication; mathematical, such as the proposition 2+2=4; philosophical, such as ‘tomorrow there must be a future’ or ‘I doubt, therefore I am thinking’) what grounds might we have to reject it? Can we doubt everything and still be either consistent or coherent?
(2) Inner evidence is not a feeling Husserl argues (S51 extract) but the experience of truth. How would we be able to distinguish the ‘experience of truth’ from the ‘experience of error’? Pay attention here to p195 and the discussion of an ‘experience of agreement’.

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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