Thursday, August 6, 2009

Where Have All the Essences Gone?

When someone finds themselves influenced by a historical thinker, one takes up positions counter to others along shared beliefs with the philosopher in question. However, sometimes, what strikes me most about Husserl is what little is said about a key issue, and the problem left in its wake has an effect. Consider for a moment what we can glean from Husserl's phenomenology about ideal objects, or what I take essences to be.

Essences are eternal, apodictic and eternal. They are non-temporal, and are only described by phenomenology since phenomenology is the descriptive science of phenomenological essences. The descriptive focus is the most attractive thing for being a phenomenologist; it allows me to get to the concrete matters of our lived experience whereas other more naturalistic philosophies often conceal over the elements of our lived experience in which decisive data for philosophical problems can be gleaned (this is the source of dialectic tension between the broad landscape of naturalists in Anglophone philosophy with my non-natural leanings). However, this descriptive emphasis avoids the metaphysical problems associated with ideal objects. These essences have no ground other than they occur within our experience of consciousness in the world and are describable.

At first, I always never thought of these essences as anything more than realized intuitions that appear to us at the end of phenomenological reduction. I thought of them as byproducts, and easily regard them as a coherentist would a series of representations and non-inferential intuitions that mesh together in a series of propositions. For me, the intuition of these essences consists nowhere but their apprehension. I was left with just ideal objects looming in Husserl's system (esp. in Ideas I where Husserl talks about the world could vanish and as long as there appears before consciousness phenomena, phenomenology would be a viable enterprise), and him denying possible grounds, or hypostases as we might call them Julian Marias confirmed this shared suspicion with his chapter on Husserl. I like how he divcides them up:

1. Psychological hypostasis would locate ideal objects in the mind; their existence would be mental and they would exist in my thought.

2. Metaphysical hypostasis would state ideal objects are entities located in an immaterial place, e.g. Platonism

3. Theological hypostasis would locate ideal objects in the mind of God who is constantly thinking them. (Marias, p. 406, The History of Philosophy)

Now, given that Husserl rejects all of these but still maintains the existence of ideal non-temporal objects/essences, then where exactly can we put essences in our ontology? While I think Husserl would avoid the metaphysics of the issue, there is a decisive advantage to 1. For whichever theory of pscyhology pans out as the truest in the discourse of psychology, we could wait for theoretical consensus and be consistent with the result of the science to say we've only been describing the world the whole time. However, that might have the dogmatism of the natural attitude all over it.

If we indulge in 2, committing to a immaterial plane, then the immateriality of God in 3 is but one step away given our interpretation will eventually require God, I think. Yet, the decisive advantage is that we gain that truth is guaranteed by relating to an ultimate Absolute, very much in the spirit of the American philosopher Josiah Royce. For he claimed that truth only occurs by being in reference not to a contingent world of nature, but to an Absolute ground. Our experience of the world would be limited unless it refers to a reality that outstrips it. Husserl would, I think, reject 3 clearly in thinking that emphasizing that ideal objects are the absolute reality we lose a connection to the lived-experience of the concrete world in the very same way that the natural attitude operates. Ideal objects become presentations of God's mind, and we no longer can follow the Husserlian motto: To get back to things themselves if the things themselves (ideal objects) become something other than they are. For Husserl, we are strictly limited to our consciousness of the world, and how it constitutes phenomena. That's it. Plain and simple.

Therefore, it would seem we are left with 2 as long as we don't read into the immateriality of ideas. We would be left with the same place we started from, only sure that what is required is a loosely-based Platonism without any commitment to the content of the ideal object's ontological nature. All we can know of them is that they are epistemologically required via phenomenology qua philosophy. For the other options 1 and 3 lead us away from the very insight as to why we practice phenomenology in the first place.


mark said...

another interesting post...I like Husserl too, his idea that "we are strictly limited to our consciousness of the world, and how it constitutes phenomena."
I don't see what's wrong with psychological hypostasis--what is the "dogmatism of the natural attitude"?..."immaterial" is a concept to express the nature of our understanding of reality, no?--not a feature of reality itself, which precedes concepts of it...I am just thinking aloud...

Pre-Carbondale Philosopher said...

Well Mark, I'm not sure the list is exhaustive, but I'm currently unaware of any other list of alternatives.

Perhaps, a problem arises with the psychological hypostasis when we think that in order for psychology to get off the ground, psychologists must make many phenomenological and philosophical commitments. In fact, a great deal of psychology has to assume a level of semantic content to our representations in subjective reports, and it would seem that what is assumed gets passed off as fact. This can be quite exacerbated when we talk in terms of Anglophone philosophy where the social pressures to make one's conceptual scheme employed compatible with the sciences--much gets passed over when it is the fact that consciousness constitutes a lot of the assumed meanings.

Finally, I have always used immaterial as a predicate to attach onto reality, thinking it a feature of the world that is inferred as necessary from a philosopher. I have never thought it as a nature from our understanding. Even if I follow the latter, I still regard it as a feature of reality don't I?

I, too, am fond of thinking out loud...

Khadimir said...

I note that you give a spatial metaphor to your list of three. That appears to be just wording, for you violate the root metaphor in your subsequent comments. Ask yourself a fundamental question along the lines that you have already asked yourself. Must an "essence" as such "exists?" According to some accounts, no. My point is that category 2 can be much wider than you might presuppose, and your comment already widened it.