Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ideas 1 Part 2

In this post, I will offer an interpretation about section 49 in Ideas 1. This section does not establish a form of idealism in Ideas 1.  This came about from a recent confusion I've had about sections 49, and why Husserl thought that if the physical world were annihilated, then phenomenology as a research project could continue unhindered. At worst, it is an attempt as one friend put it "to out Descartes Descartes." By this account, Husserl extends the Cartesian moment not simply to negate individual beings so that certainty can be gleaned by the cogito's reflexivity, but to doubt further to the point that phenomenology can be valid even if our substantively the world is idealistic.

In Ideas 1, Husserl says this of Descartes, "his attempt to doubt universally is properly an attempt to negate universally" (p. 59) Within that project, Descartes only carries out the moment of doubt to the point he reaches reflexivity. He does not bracket enough the world to see what is given. In Husserlian terms, Descartes only negates the existence of the world, but does discover that the world, or perhaps nature "is possible only as an intentional unity motivated in transcendentally pure consciousness by immanental connections" (p. 115) . Employing the phenomenological reduction requires the connection of the world in the same fashion "in which colors are inconceivable without extension" (p. 115). There is an "involvement with Nature" to such an extent that phenomenology is inconceivable without thinking that mental processes have as their directedness the world at large. Elsewhere, Husserl suggests a connection with the world in perception:

The physical thing is also essentially capable of being perceived, and it is seized upon in perception as a physical thing belonging to my surrounding world (p. 99)

My reading is that perception puts us into contact with a world. This world has no other status for concrete living subjects than having meaning primarily disclosed to us from the first-personal standpoint, the phenomenological attitude. Strictly speaking, however, this description of a physical thing linked with our capacities describable in the first-person does not suggest a type of idealism. In fact, I would not think an idealist would say anything of this kind at all.

Instead, I interpret section 49 as offering a conceivability point in relation to the status of the world found within phenomenology. Husserl identifies through phenomenological description the limit of what we can know through experiential life of being conscious. Through phenomenological description we are not entitled to think away consciousness but must insist upon its own self-contained reality. I find this point similar to Hume showing what is really involved with causal judgments as being simply associative  conjunctions of customary experience. Hume exposes the naive assumption that there are necessary connexions between cause and affect. By analogy, Husserl exposes the naivety of the world. The sense our world has for Husserl beyond its appearance is always shaky in regards to its certainty. This is a product of phenomenology paying attention to structures of experience as they appear to us in our experiential life. Once we bracket our presuppositions about the world, we find that the natural world could simply be pure appearances. In this way, I interpret the annihilation of the world as a point of conceivability, that is, it is conceivable that if there were only appearances, phenomenology is still a conceivable research program. In this way, section 49 is not a tantamount proposal for some form of idealism.

However, even though the world is connected in our involvement through intentionality, the point of raising the conceivability point is that self-consciousness is a valid standpoint from which to glean structures of our experience with its own standards of evidential validity apart from the natural attitude supplied by the "involvement of Nature". In order for consciousness to be a source of legitimate knowledge, that is, eidetic cognition, consciousness requires that it exist as a "strictly self-contained domain" (p. 116).

Now, if what I have said is true, then my interpretation would not follow the same previous citation where Husserl also says,

In its [consciousness's] essence, it is independent of all worldly, all natural being, nor does it need any worldly being for its existence. The existence of nature cannot be the condition for the existence of consciousness, since Nature itself turns out to be a correlate of consciousness: Nature is only as a being constituted in regular concatenations of consciousness. (p. 116)  

Some will further object that "independent of all worldly, all natural being" above supports reading Husserl as offering a transcendental idealism in which the correlate of consciousness is constituted to such a degree, that the world is fundamentally mental, a mere accomplishment of a fundamentally mental world. Under this interpretation, consciousness makes possible our knowing the sense of the world, and the world is ontologically equivalent with what brings it into being to have meaning. Such a reading, as I understand it, of thinking that Husserl is offering a version of idealism relies on the a metaphysical reading of intentionality while losing sight of the world Husserl links with it. In an idealistic interpretation, the constitution of intentionality is not an operative concept, but one that only engenders our knowing the fundamentally mental world; the whole enterprise of phenomenology would then reify the objects under phenomenological investigation.

This reading might further press onward, citing that ultimately Husserl collapses the distinction between subject and object with the metaphysical reading of intentionality. However, the simple fact that consciousness has its own presence and this interpretation takes it to be fundamental does not suggest that consciousness alone should be given any more ontological weight than the world of physical things. It's just that physical things belong to the possible determinate order it could have for me, but to read possibility for me as a consciousness is only half the story. It is only because there is a world at all that a determinate order of possibilities that physical things can be perceived for Husserl (p. 91). It is the fact that Husserl is the first to connect up consciousness with the this-ness of a particular perceptual object in the world. As such, one must remember that those passages which talk of the world as a correlate of consciousness are not offering an idealistic reading, but explaining that consciousness is its own legitimate source of knowledge apart from the naturalistic interpretations found within the natural attitude that would reduce or eliminate subjectivity altogether. It is on evidential grounds that Husserl so often speaks of consciousness apart from the world, not on offering us a metaphysics.

Everything I have said here should not simply point to Husserl as the philosopher who defends a foundational account of subjectivity against the world. It should be no surprise that Husserl speaks of transcendence. There are structures of experience that are shared between I and We, e.g. as the founding of values shared by our continual renewal to abide by communal norms. . Husserl should generously be read as offering various descriptions of structures of experience such as the previous example. In order for phenomenological descriptions of structures of experience to be intersubjective, belonging to a sense of the first-person plural 'We' that involve also intersubjectivity and the transcendence, such structures of experience require a shared intentionality, a co-founding a simultaneous unfolding of various constituting intentional subjects to bestow-meaning on our conduct. In this way, Husserl offers us ways of speaking about transcendence about one particular example. His efforts are not simply concluding a foundationalism of the subject that grounds all experience. In fact, if anything Husserl's project is about subjectivity and the transcendence required to make sense of our lived-experiences in the world.

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