At last year's Central meeting of the American Philosophical Association (A.P.A.) in Chicago and last year's meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (S.P.E.P.) in Arlington Virginia I presented a paper entitled "Phenomenology and the Problem of Universals". I was up to a lot of different things in both the short (S.P.E.P.) and long symposium (A.P.A.) versions of that paper and several of those projects are beginning to more clearly differentiate themselves and develop in directions of their own. One such project concerned my conviction that Husserl can not justify his faith that the Transcendental Ego has structure or, indeed, any fixed characteristics or processes. I have since come to appreciate that this was the founding insight of Sartre's life work as found in both The Transcendence of the Ego and Being and Nothingness. In this post I would like to say a little about this subject.
I will very briefly present the basic shape of the argument I have made more extensively in my work concerning Husserl. It is pretty clear that Husserl intends transcendental phenomenology to be the study of the manner in which the Transcendental Ego constitutes experience. More specifically it is a study derived from the experience, arrived at through the epoche and eidetic reductions, of the Transcendental Ego constituting experience. Such a study, Husserl insists, yields universal laws and the direct experience of stable essences. These laws and essences are derived from, indeed must be derived from, stable processes and structures within the transcendental ego. To put it bluntly, stability in the transcendental ego explains the reality of universal laws. I have argued that, in the sense that the stable structure of the transcendental ego is what stands-below or underlies all objects, Husserl presents us with little more than a renovation of substance ontology. In other words, the central dogma of substance ontology is the necessity of a grounding structure or stability for any existent thing. Allow me to provide a bit of text from Husserl's Cartesian Meditations to support some of these rather blunt claims:
"Types of objects... were found to be clues for transcendental investigations, which belong together on account of their themes. The fact is that the constituting multiplicities of consciousness - those actually or possibly combined to make the unity of an identifying synthesis - are not accidental but, as regards the possibility of such a syntheses, belong together for essential reasons. Accordingly they are governed by principles, thanks to which our phenomenological investigations do not get lost in disconnected descriptions but are essentially organized. Any 'Objective' object, any object whatever (even an immanent one), points to a structure, within the transcendental ego, that is governed by a rule." (Husserl, Cartesian Meditations Second Meditation section 22, emphasis is Husserl's own)
I have argued that the reasons Husserl gives us for believing in universal laws, among them the supposed direct and indubitable experience of universal essences he claims we can arrive at through eidetic variation, fail to provide any experience of the obviously or necessarily universal. In the case of eidetic variation we find that the power of variation itself depends upon idiosyncratic, not universal, capabilities. The power of variation, call it imaginative power, is directly comparable to sight and it is precisely the universal which sight does not provide experience of. Beyond this, however, the very existence of stable structures in the transcendental ego would be an unexplained and unexplainable mystery for transcendental phenomenology. To paraphrase a line from my paper, what reason could there be that the transcendental ego must behave in a certain way? From whence would it derive its necessary structures? If these structures and limitations are self-imposed what reassurance could we ever have that they will be consistently maintained over time? A Humean point seems appropriate here, based on observation of the constituting activity of the transcendental ego we would have the ability to generalize about past experience but we would never be justified to presume the future must conform to the past. Talk of universal laws and essences in phenomenology is, then, based purely on the dogma that there must surely be something constant that grounds the seeming stability of reality. I find this dogma utterly unconvincing.
Apparently I am not alone in this. Enter Sartre who, as early as 1936, had this to say about Husserl's dogma:
"Husserl, too, discovers the transcendental consciousness of Kant, and grasps it by the epoche. But this consciousness is no longer a set of logical conditions. It is a fact which is absolute. Nor is this transcendental consciousness a hypostatization of validity, an unconscious which floats between the real and the ideal. It is a real consciousness accessible to each of us as soon as the 'reduction' is performed. And it is indeed this transcendental consciousness which constitutes our empirical consciousness, our consciousness 'in the world', our consciousness with its psychic and psycho-physical me.
For our part, we readily acknowledge the existence of a constituting consciousness. We find admirable all of Husserl's descriptions in which he shows transcendental consciousness constituting the world by imprisoning itself in empirical consciousness. Like Husserl, we are persuaded that our psychic and psycho-physical me is a transcendent object which must fall before the epoche. But we raise the following question: is not this psychic and psycho-physical me enough? Need one double it with a transcendental I, a structure of absolute consciousness?
The consequences of a reply are obvious. If the reply is negative, the consequences are:
First, the transcendental field becomes impersonal; or, if you like, 'pre-personal', without an I.
Second, the I appears only at the level of humanity and is only one aspect of the me, the active aspect.
Third, the I Think can accompany our representations because it appears on a foundation of unity which it did not help to create; rather, this prior unity makes the I Think possible.
Fourth, one may well ask if personality (ever the abstract personality of an I) is a necessary accompaniment of a consciousness, and if one cannot conceive of absolutely impersonal consciousnesses.
To this question, Husserl has given his reply. After having determined (in Logische Untersuchungen) that the me is a synthetic and transcendent production of consciousness, he reverted in Ideen Zu Einer Reinen Phanomenologie Und Phanomenologischen Philosophie to the classic position of a transcendental I. This I would be, so to speak, behind each consciousness, a necessary structure of consciousnesses whose rays would light upon each phenomenon presenting itself in the field of attention. Thus transcendental consciousness becomes thoroughly personal. Was this notion necessary? Is it compatible with the definition of consciousness given be Husserl?" (Sartre The Transcendence of the Ego p. 35-37)
As an aside, it is very interesting to note that Sartre, like Heidegger before him, thought that Husserl was really on to something in the Logical Investigations which he gave up on with his later turn to the Transcendental Ego. Heidegger saw in the Logical Investigations, especially in its concept of categorial intuition, an exciting new path to a new form of realism which, sadly, was not at all what Husserl likely intended.
Sartre himself will go on to insist on the reality, and foundational constitutive activity, of a pre-reflective non-personal consciousness. His rejection of the Transcendental Ego is a rejection of at least two ideas. First, that transcendental consciousness has any necessary structures and, second, that transcendental consciousness can be objectified such as to be experienced as "ego" or as "mine". There is, then, a fundamental difference between the ego reflected upon and the consciousness doing the reflection. For these reasons any supposed structures of the self, of the me or I, are neither known with certainty (the "I" is an object which transcends consciousness much as material objects do, such that we only ever have fallible hypotheses about their characteristics) nor structures of the pre-reflective consciousness by which they are objectified (consciousness always escapes the ultimate grasp of its own gaze and knowledge). For this reason Sartre asserts the same conclusion I drew in my paper. Husserl, if he were consistent and honest, should have asserted that we do not know for certain that any of the transcendental ego's processes are, or will remain, stable over time. For this reason at best we have only hypothetical, and arguably unconvincing hypothetical, knowledge of supposedly universal laws. At worst we have good reason to think that the idea of the very existence of the universal is incoherent. Sartre puts this very nicely in Being and Nothingness:
"It is futile to try to invoke pretended laws of consciousness of which the articulated whole would constitute the essence. A law is a transcendent object of knowledge; there can be consciousness of a law, not a law of consciousness. For the same reasons it is impossible to assign to a consciousness a motivation other than itself... We should fall into that too common illusion which makes consciousness semi-conscious or a passivity. But consciousness is consciousness through and through. It can be limited only by itself. This self-determination of consciousness must not be conceived as a genesis, as a becoming, for that would force us to suppose that consciousness is prior to its own existence. Neither is it necessary to conceive of this self-creation as an act, for in that case consciousness would be conscious (of) itself as an act, which it is not... One will perhaps have some difficulty in accepting these conclusions. But considered more carefully, they will appear perfectly clear. The paradox is not that there are 'self-activated' existences but that there is no other kind. What is truly unthinkable is passive existence; that is, existence which perpetuates itself without having the force either to produce itself or to preserve itself... Consciousness has nothing substantial, it is pure 'appearance' in the sense that it exists only to the degree to which it appears. But it is precisely because consciousness is pure appearance, because it is total emptiness (since the entire world is outside it) - it is because of this identity of appearance and existence within it that it can be considered as the absolute." (Sartre Being and Nothingness p. 15-17)
Sartre's own conception of radical freedom will follow directly from this unbridled unlaw-bound nature of consciousness. Freedom is always possible, and all determinations fail to be necessary determinations, because no worldly influence or motivation ever touches upon the free purely active nature of primordial pre-reflective consciousness. But this gives us precisely the world I insist Husserl leads us to but is afraid to enter, a world in which transcendentally constituting consciousness is without structure, limitation or law and, therefore, a world which is similarly without structure, limitation or law.
If, however, we begin to move away from consciousness and look instead to the sense in which the supposed experience of consciousness is derived from more basic worldly practice we begin to see where Heidegger will lead us. It is a world of non-stable historical essences found in shifting social practices and traditions.