Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Husserl and Sartre on Transcendental Structure

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.


  1. Thanks for putting up such a suggestive comparison of Sartre and Heidegger as they relate to Husserl! I always enjoy posts that are not afraid to extend themselves a little bit in order to touch upon something worthy of further reflection.

    I have more respect for Husserl than for Sartre, but whatever interest I have in either thinker is, if I am to be completely honest, predominantly an offshoot of my immersion in Heidegger. Guided by these prejudices, there are a couple of small points I 'd love to hear you expand upon.

    The first regards your account of Sartre's rejection of Husserl's transcendental consciousness. In the second item of Sartre's critique, you focus on precisely what is unacceptable in the objectification of the transcendental ego, namely that it should result in the experience of consciousness "as an ego or as mine." I am unclear as to whether you mean two distinct results of objectification or two designations for what is essentially the same result. But more important than that clarification is, it seems to me, the larger question in which it is relevant, namely: Do you think Sartre, precisely in this critique, has shown enough of his own positive alternative understanding of consciousness to sharply and irreconcilably distinguish himself from Heidegger. What I mean here is this: Doesn't Heidegger undermine the notion of subjectivity in Sein und Zeit not by equating or equally rejecting but by rigorously distinguishing between an "ego" or transcendental subjectivity, and Jemeinigkeit? We may even go as far as to say Heidegger makes mineness as an existential seinsverfassung of Dasein exclusive of, yet explanatory of the misconceived "ego"; mineness, as the possibility of pursuing or forgetting itself that remains an essential seinsmoglichkeit of Dasein, is the proximate condition for the hermeneutic-apophantic "as" which appears --innocently enough --in the observation "that transcendental consciousness can be objectified such AS to be experienced as "ego" or as "mine". If this is the case, than the difference between Sartre's and Heidegger's rejection of Husserl's transcendental ego can be decidedeven before referring to the domain of practice...and, I might also add, that there similarity of their rejection my not be able to be found in an appeal to history ---if that is, such a conception of jemeinigkeit can be shown to be inseparable from Heidegger's understanding of time. Just a thought, and perhaps somewhat obvious, considering Heidegger's own repudiation of Sartrean "existentialism", but I was eager to hear your own formulation of the matter...

  2. Good to see you! Wow, I just reread my post and noticed how often I repeat the phrase "for this reason" in one of those paragraphs. I do proofread but I need to be more careful about late night postings in the future.

    For a long time I was also more fond of Husserl than Sartre, in fact I had a long-standing distaste for Sartre. However, last spring semester I taught an existentialism class during the course of which I very carefully worked my way back through Sartre's philosophy and I arrived at a new appreciation for some of what he is up to. I also noticed frustrating similarities to some of what I am up to. And I too come to my interest in both thinkers mainly through a focus on Heidegger.

    As for the small question of clarification, I distinguish between taking consciousness as ego or as mine because it seems to me that there are other ways in which I can take something as mine without taking it as ego. Sartre will dedicate a lot of time making clear that not only is pre-reflective consciousness not ego, it is also not something like the subconscious which (if we accept its existence) can also be viewed as primordial, constitutive of experience, and mine.

    I think that ultimately Sartre is very different from Heidegger. The foundational role played by consciousness in Sartre just couldn't be farther from Heidegger. As I read Heidegger, consciousness as Husserl and Sartre conceive of it is derivative. I think the way you have formulated the situation works very well, mine-ness is clearly pre-subjective and pre-ego in Heidegger. The "pre" here doesn't even do the point justice because ego and subjectivity as we understand them do not simply inevitably come along at some later stage but are, rather, contingent localized and, arguably, distortive historical developments.

    I don't, however, think that it is entirely right to say that the difference between Sartre and Heidegger can be determined before we even get to the domain of practice and history. This is going to wander into areas where I take a less commonly held position, but I do not believe that Heidegger is presenting us with something like "the transcendental structures which make practice and history possible". To be blunt, I don't think of Being and Time as a transcendental project and I interpret Heidegger's use of the terminology of transcendental argumentation as a step in the process of undermining and de-structuring the transcendental tradition. So, when we describe being-in-the-world or lay out the characteristics of Dasein we describe a specific historical clearing, a very particular totality of practices. The analysis of mineness, then, just is an analysis of historical practices. In effect the importance of the transcendental ego for Husserl is its a-historical universal nature and it is this, ultimately, that I believe Sartre maintains in his empty untouchable consciousness and Heidegger rejects with the conception of Dasein as being-in-the-world.

    I will stop there for now, I hope some of this made at least a little sense.

  3. Thanks for a thorough and thoughtful response! (It is probably all too obvious that proofreading on a computer is not my strong suit either --so I tend to try to be at least half as charitably ignorant of others' grammatical glitches as I am of mine!) If I might indulge a little more and tease out 2 points regarding the present topic...

    1.)"To be blunt, I don't think of Being and Time as a transcendental project and I interpret Heidegger's use of the terminology of transcendental argumentation as a step in the process of undermining and de-structuring the transcendental tradition."

    Maybe, as you suggest, this is a position that deviates from the standard reading, but I could not agree with you more. As deeply enmeshed as Heidegger was in an exploration of Kant at the time, and as adorned as SZ's language was with Neo-Kantian flair (is this an office space metaphor?), I read SZ as a deliberate and necessary misadventure with the Neo-Kantian and, at bottom, Kantian pre-understanding which is committed to undermining its meaning (sorry to all correlationist hunters looking for piece of Marty to skewer). But despite Heidegger's trojan horse tactics with Kant, I would be just as comfortable christening SZ with the awkward category of "transcendental historicism" as I would with "historico-transcendentalism". But either way the title suffers slippage of meaning; Heidegger, upon my own reading of both the early and the late, is simply not an historicist (not even, as Strauss would have it, a "radical historicist"). He lacks the relativsim that otherwise astute commentators have been to quick to find in him. Heidegger is no Nietzschean genealogist, as is, e.g, (although mutata mutandis) Foucault. I would sooner characterize history in Heidegger's thought with Gadamer's phrase as a "teleology in reverse" ---even though, for obvious reasons the understanding of τέλος operative in such a teleology could only be granted if it is rethought --or as Heidegger would say (no doubt with a certain relish), only if we learn to think it in a GREEK way. But this comes back to the point of calling Heidegger transcendental: surely this word too, if it ever meant anything, will have to be translated back into a Greek that is older than even Aristotle's Metaphysics ---and provided we are willing to hear such an early register in it, can't we call Heidegger transcendental?

  4. This leads to my second point, which actually the main point that I wanted to bring out a little more after your last response. I was to some extent making the obvious point that Heidegger thinks of history in a manner that is radically different from Sartre. But I think this very same difference may already be seen in germinal form in jemeinigkeit. This does not mean that the founding, non-actual event (ereignis) of the happening of history is to be grounded in jemeinigkeit. If anything the reverse is true, and even then that would require that we abdicate the straightforward attempt to "ground" --which now means that we demonstrate with necessity why a subjectum and the explanatory power it offers is not a suitable answer and is trumped by an alternative. But, to come back to my point, Dasein and its phenomenal structures, like Jemeinigkeit, already indicate something which Sartre in thinking mineness as an objectification that can go hand in hand with the representation of an ego, does not comprehend. For Heidegger, jemeinigkeit, when properly (eigentlich) understood, is in fact resolutely resistant to the objectification of which Sartre want to claim it a result. Now I would simply say, if, in the order of understanding, you must first grasp the phenomenal structures of Dasein before you revisit their analysis in an explicitly temporal light, and if you must understand zeitlichkeit in order to eventually understand Temporalität, then can't you --at least provisionally --demonstrate the difference between Heideger and Sartre without bringing in practice or history? This would be desirable only from the vantage point of elegance: In a discussion about transcendental consciousness, I can show, without having to mention explicitly what will later be deemed to have been implied --i.e. history --that the very simple notion of what is mine is interpretted so radically different by Heidegger as to make Sartre and Husserl negatively have more in common with each other than with Heidegger. (Sorry for the double comment, by the way...technical difficulties didn't permit me to keep all in one.)

  5. Don't worry about double commenting, I think that blogger limits the length of comments. Others have run into the problem before on here.

    There is a lot here, let me work backwards a bit. I don't think a whole lot hangs on how much of the full picture in Heidegger we need to discuss in order to make the difference between he and Sartre clear. You certainly seem correct that just the discussion of what each means by mine-ness would get the job done. On the other hand, it seems to me that the first half of Being and Time focuses on practice, the phenomenal structures of Dasein only show up in practice (thus the lengthy analysis of what it is like to be in the world). So, I don't really see how, even in an everyday conversation, one could make clear the difference between the two understandings of mine-ness without resorting to phenomenological investigations of practice. Certainly the explicit discussions of history and temporality come later but are implied earlier, so perhaps that would not be necessary. But this is where I would want to make a point about the difference between what bare minimum of discussion one could get away with and what is a more important and substantive difference. For me the ultimate reason why the conception of mine-ness is of interest and important, the ultimate reason why the difference between Sartre and Heidegger is of interest, is going to be because of the contrasting views of history implied or necessitated by each view. One might reverse that, from the order of reason to the order of being, and say that the technical difference we can bring out in conceptions of mine-ness are grounded in the conception of history, at least in Heidegger's case, or the non-historical nature of consciousness in Sartre's case. I don't suspect we are disagreeing about very much here, it is more a stylistic question about how one might want to craft an argument or discussion on the subject.

  6. Now to your first of the two most recent comments. I think you are right that *properly understood* we can call what Heidegger is up to transcendental. But then again, in the Beitrage he states that when transcendental is properly understood Being and Time should be read as having shown the impossibility of the transcendental, so Heidegger himself may not have agreed with this depending upon what period we are talking about. However most of the transcendental readings of Heidegger out there do not bother to intimately and carefully rethink the meaning of transcendence, even though they may attempt to rethink (supposedly with Heidegger) how one pursues the traditional goals of transcendental argumentation.

    Charles Guignon has suggested that we can think of Heidegger as a trans-historicist, looking not for transcendental structures but rather historical structures deriving form historical origins which can be found throughout all historical periods. I am a little wary of many of these conceptions because, to me, it seems clear that Heidegger had perfectly good reasons from early on in his career to doubt the existence of any unifying, singular or universal structures whether understood historically or not.

  7. Obviously the question of how to classify Heidegger gets very messy, especially since his own views on the subject arguably change from period to period. It seems that at the time of Being and Time he may have seriously thought there were discernible well-springs and origins which would be important for all life-worlds, a teleology in reverse, but I sometimes have my doubts about this. It certainly seems that once his project becomes more self-consciously about the History of Being he begins to recognize that the history of the West is not the history of the world and that even the history of the West is dominated by ruptures in the coherence of history, whether understood in terms of epochs or those histories not part of the epochal flow of western history. The "origins" begin to look more and more pluralistic. His projects begin to look more and more like an attempt, not to get back to the origin, but to think a specific origin fully such that we can get behind and beyond its limitations and into a new beginning. Iain Thomson makes an argument to this effect in his "Heidegger on Ontotheology", namely that Heidegger hoped to find a ground for history and found instead grounds for histories which problematized his hope that finding THE ground would do the work he wanted it to do. But this does make him look rather more like Foucault or Nietzsche except, in my opinion, for one very important difference at least. Heidegger maintains that the originary event is not contingent, not the production of chance or even necessarily previously existing practices. Rather, ereignis is to be understood as the only conception of the revealing of reality we can get at. Origins may be diverse, histories may be diverse, and many of these may seem according to our view at a given time to be in contradiction or contrast but ultimately we must take them to be revealing of reality. This is why I call Heidegger a realist-historicist. I do believe he is historicist, if by that we mean there are no assured stable elements which persist throughout all historical periods. We have no a-historical knowledge. But, he is more than a relativist (at least as we often mean this rather tricky and over-determined term) in that he believes historical changes are important because they potentially teach us something about reality. That reality, however, may seem self-contradictory. It may appear to point towards historically altering essences (this is one what in which I have discussed Heidegger's views, in terms of the "tarrying of events" which can be thought in terms of historically altering essence-ings). Really the relativist, and many brands of historicists, presume to be able to stand outside of the history which they then make metaphysical claims about. This is not Heidegger. But he does say, I feel, that we have no reason in this historical context to believe there is anything stable or a-historical.

    To put it another way, Heidegger is not a social constructivist because society does not construct anything. Rather, society is being constructed through the originary events from which it takes its historical course. These events are not themselves, however, constituted by society or by history.

    Well, I hope this made some sense.

  8. Thanks again for a fine response!

    Well, we have certainly migrated from the question of the transcendental consciousness, but, truth be told, as very important as that question is, I am far more excited to inquire into the movement of seynsgeschichte --and from what I can gather about what you have carefully articulated, so are you! I think we would both grant, in a manner that I consider 'orthodox' with Heidegger's writings if not with some Heidegger scholarship, that the history of Being more involves more primally the very issues that are at stake in Heidegger's (and NOT Sartre's) consideration of "transcendental subjectivity" --since after all, Heidegger's consideration of "ts" is set up in just such a way as to require in advance a schritt zurück out of "ts".

    As far as Seynsgeschichte itself, however, I am against all amorphous "loose" descriptions, and am equally dissatified by "narrative" accounts --which is why what you are saying, being neither one of these --is of great interest to me. For my own part I have a very particular reading of Seynsgeschichte, one which claims SG to elude all Niezschean or Foucalutian genealogy, while not simply refering to transhistorical universals, or any other for of seiendenheit. I have to run for the moment (gotta catch the red line to davis)--but I would be happy, if you are interested, to take the conversation in that direction, either here or elsewhere.

    Many thanks for the exchange, Will!

  9. You had to mention the red line and make me miss Boston, didn't you?

    Call me Bill by the way, I prefer it to Will.

    I would agree that Heidegger's history of being is neither Nietzschean nor Foucaultian genealogy and, as I reflect upon it, I think saying precisely why would be a rather interesting exercise. I would, however, like to find a way to continue this conversation in the comment section of another blog post. Let me see if I can dig up something of a prompt to justify the shift in topic.

  10. hi madam. (i am layman in philosophy). please explain the difference between empirical ego in Sartre from transcendental ego in Husserl? thanks & Regards , Mohit