Husserl Impressionism Joy


Husserl is actually a beautiful writer. I was not expecting that. Joy proves to be the major affective mode dominating Ideas. Joyousness is an element in the free flowing flux of thought. “For instance, in vivid intuition (imaginative, if you like it), we picture ourselves in this or that act, in joy, it may be over  a theoretical train of thought that is running its free and fruitful course.” And it is joy that becomes an object of reflexion, as we distinguish between “what is experienced and not noticed, and the joy that is noticed.” (pp.198-9),

What should one make of this difference between Husserl and Heidegger, the difference between joy versus angst, pure streaming flow versus the kind of stoppage that stops one dead in a clearing or around one group of objects like a pair of peasant shoes? I love in Ideas the appearance of trees (an apple tree?), paper, whiteness, tables, and the sight of Husserl wandering through the Dresden galleries.

I’m betting it’s this. Heidegger was a German Expressionist, whereas Husserl was a more cosmopolitan type of fellow, a French Impressionist. This became clear to me here, where  Husserl writes about how to follow joy in all its temporal phases, and to the mode of that joy “declaring itself: to the modus of the actual “Now” and to vanishing of that now into “ever-new just vanishings of the just vanished, and so forth (pp.217-18). What struck me suddenly as Impressionism was the attention paid by Husserl to “impressional phasings,” the “continuous chain of retentions of retentions,” “form [receiving a continually fresh content,” and finally, “the impression” continuously transforming itself into retentions, and modified impressions.

Husserl’s use of the terms “impressional” and “impression” combined with all the flow and flux reminds me of the sunlight reflecting off intentional objects in Impressionist painting, the same free play and limpid impression. Husserl published Ideas in 1913. There’s a beauty that you won’t find in the Expressionism that was already on the scene, or in Heidegger, who was soon to enter the scene. It’s clear that this Impressionism was not going to be able to stand up to the shock to consciousness registered by the First World War.

It’s unclear for how long this streaming kind of joy can last, but is this not also the kind of “experience” to which consciousness always comes back for however long it can sustain itself?

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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4 Responses to Husserl Impressionism Joy

  1. Gail says:

    Very nice.

  2. efmooney says:

    I love the way you let painting characterize the tone or mood of this writing. Howie W speaks of “impressionistic theology” in his book on Religious Experience. I think phenomenology got to be a scholastic playing field and the original poetic impulses got lost — and you’re unearthing them. Thoreau says early on that “joy is a condition of life” — and of thinking (not angst, as you point out, nor disappointment, nor wonder, nor outrage).

  3. Randy says:


    Our mutual friend directed me here. My sense is that the best “thinking” about affective life is less its conceptualization than its very enactment–its demonstration, its showing–in writing, and I very much enjoyed your thinking this in relation to painting. (Photographically, I do have the impression that there is some strong electrical tape holding Husserl together. Just saying.)

    A few years ago, when I finally felt able to approach Husserl, I was a bit surprised at the felt engagement with his writing–and I found this to be especially so in the second book of Ideas which is so beautifully on bodily being. I probably tend to think of Husserl more in connection with what I would call the wonder of science which has not yet fallen into scientism. The tension I experienced in reading him stems from the striving I sense within his writing to turn the impressions of wonder into some foundational precisions for thinking–a philosophy that would be a ground for science– which for me so easily stifles the wonder it strives to preserve.

    I do recall a brief moment of “joy” in Heidegger from oh so many years ago in his characterization of anticipatory resoluteness: “Anticipatory resoluteness is not a way of escape, fabricated for the ‘overcoming’ of death; it is rather that understanding which follows the call of conscience and which frees for death the possibility of acquiring power of Dasien’s existence and of basically dispersing all fugitive Self-concealments. … Along with the sober anxiety which brings us face to face with our individualized potentiality-for-Being, there goes an unshakable joy in this possibility.” (pp. 357-8, Macquarrie and Robinson translation). While Heidegger is perhaps more at home in angst and boredom, there are at least hints towards a different painting which for the most part remains silent, remains invisible.

    As you may recall, those are the moments I would want to go to the luscious French impressionism of Merleau-Ponty, who I think in many ways reclaims and builds upon the perhaps more subdued affectivity of Husserl.

    Thanks for this and hope you are well, Randy

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