Transcendental, Psychic, Spiritual — Husserl Ideas II


Philosophy friends, please help me out with this quick takeaway from Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to A Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, Second Book, where Ideas II surpasses Heidegger’s critique (most likely formed on the Logical Investigations). Two summers ago, I read through as much of Ideas I as made sense to me. What struck me then was a kind of philosophical Impressionism based on streaming and interconnecting flows of consciousness. In Ideas II, it seems especially the case that the transcendental ego stands out not as a stand apart concept, but forms part of a much larger phenomenological model. Most discussions of Husserl focus on the positioning of the subject as transcendental ego, a stable and stabilizing center of intentional consciousness. But what grabs my attention reading him in Ideas II and also in Ideas I as more important is the consistent framing by Husserl of consciousness in terms of flow and modification, his devotion to aesthetic delight, and a playful, tongue-in-cheek, serious but non-committing openness to theological-metaphysical-spiritual  speculation. For now, I want to limit this post to something more basic:

The concerns of Pure Phenomenological and Phenomenological Philosophy are broken into three parts: [1] the constitution of nature (in which bodies are conceived as a mere thing, inanimate and physical vis-à-vis the aesthetic body and the transcendental Ego). [2] the constitution of animal nature (in which the ego is presented as “soul,” a psychic ego, a cognitive-psychological subject that remains unindividuated, dissolved into a system of forces). No longer abstracted from the body, the soul is constituted in relation to body and bodies. [3] The constitution of the spiritual world (in which we see the emergence of an individuated ego, the fullness of a person free in its relation to the world and in excess to material reality). As spirit the ego is considered as human, position taking, valuing, acting, etc.

In part I, The physical world of nature is already conceived as dynamic and dynamizing vis-à-vis different attitudes of consciousness. The constitution of nature, Husserl posits the objectivity of intentional acts of lived experience implicit in attitudes of feelings. These base-form intentional acts of consciousness belong to the pure and abstracted transcendental ego, as a pre-personal stratum. The modification of consciousness basic to this stratum is the shift between the attitude of (aesthetic) delight and the attitude of theoretical cognition (10-16). It’s at this base and undeveloped level that a thing appears as an object that maintains a basic form of identity through the manifold of shifting appearances, in which the world is experienced as intersubjective.  (83-9, 91). The thing appears as a continuously and discretely filled space in sates of constant motion. We sense qualities without qualities (89). That’s why we can’t attribute actuality to appearing things with qualities in themselves. The important thing to note is that the thing appears not as a simple unity, but as a unity of states (91). Things are defined as mobile, alterable, capable of fragmentation and subject to vibrations. (Things split into pieces, animals and people don’t {33,36}). For their part, psychic states are spatial-corporeal. They have “something like spread,” including “empty horizons of possible perceptions” and “new appearances” (36, 42, 38).

In Part II, we see that the pure transcendental ego is not the endpoint or end product of Husserl’s phenomenology, but rather its point of origin; and again, not as a fixed stable point, but posited as different types of streaming lived experience. These includes perception, fantasies, thoughts, valuations, willing) and modified by these different intentional acts. Again, there’s a unity, but it’s not a simple one (104-6, 110). At first abstracted from the body, the transcendental ego mutates, even as it stays itself (110). But in chapter 2 of part II, Husserl proceeds to the human or animal subject as a concrete unity of body and soul. It’s the reality of this unity that Husserl contrasts with merely material reality (146). Here and in chapter 3, it’s made clear, however, that the focus is not on the abstract transcendental ego, but as psychic phenomenon as understood in the natural sciences, dissolved of any individuality into a nexi of bodies (149-50, 180).

In Part III, the spiritual appears finally as spatial and emergent. The spiritual stratum that appears in or as human consciousness is presented as an excess of realty beyond the “merely” physical. It’s in the physical and cannot be separated from it, acquiring thereby spatial determination (186). Unities appear that are no longer unities of nature (187). Not simply transcendental and not psychological-cognitive, the personal ego is a spiritually individuated and individuating formation that emerges out of primitive sensation and intentional relatedness (225-7), latent possibility (264), quasi perceptions (275, 278) and habitual comportments and relations with other people (281ff).

In light of this, I don’t see how it makes sense to keep saying about him that Husserl’s project is based purely on the transcendental ego. That looks like a philosophical straw person.


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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