Cambridge Companion to Husserl

Smith, Barry and Smith, David Woodruff. Eds. The Cambridge Companion to Husserl. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Husserl is interesting because he was a continental philosopher who believed in universals and a mathematician who rejected later analytic approaches. His thought never achieved the profundity of a Hegel nor the clarity of a Russell.  Nonetheless, his comments on intentionality and essences have potential for a huge pay off in the mind-body problem debate.

Intro and Terminology

Phenomenology: deals with acts of consciousness in which objects are given or experienced (Smith and Smith 3).

Psychologism: the attempt to conceive all sub-disciplines of philosophy as branches of empirical psychology.

Functionalism: the mind is the software to the brain’s hardware.  Husserl would have rejected this (10).

Intentionality: this is the most important of Husserl’s concepts. It is the of-ness.  We are always thinking “of something,” conscious of something. Most importantly, it is not a spatial relation.  There is no “of-ness” you can touch.

Noema: “The sum total of what is thought or meant of an object in an act” (Hintikka 88). Each noema “has a kernel or nucleus which consists of three elements: a substratum, a set of qualitative moments, and modes of fulfillment of these qualities” (Simons 127).

Epoche: we bracket everything in the noema which is not given to us in immediate experience.

Key point: “we grasp in phenomenological reflection that consciousness is intentional in the sense of being directed towards an object: consciousness is consciousness of something” (11).


Knowledge entails fulfilment.  Fulfillment is knowing as finding.  It is the process of “getting a better view” (Willard 146).  We have a structure of the act of knowing: a sequence of representations of the same object in an arrangement of greater “closeness.”

Imagine it this way: you are walking down the road and you see what looks like a tree in the distance.  The closer you get, the more “fulfillment” obtains. You see that it is indeed a tree. Of course, most knowledge-cases are far more complex than this.

The Knowledge Act

A sign appears before me.  This can be an image, word, or physical object.  It exemplifies the property (concept) “to which it directs us” (141). The sign is “given” before us and it  tends beyond itself. We can think of it this way. When I see a tree, the tree is not *in* my mind. It tends towards my mind and my mind reaches out towards it.  This is the process of fulfillment.

Most non-postmodernists hold to some form of representational thinking. Husserl would say these representations “Merely intend a content or object” (145).  Therefore, the act of knowing is a sequence of representations. 


Herman Philipse has a learned chapter arguing that Husserl was not a metaphysical realist, but a transcendental idealist.  I lean towards the realist view, but Philipse makes a number of pointed criticism of traditional Aristotelian thought. One of Husserl’s initial problems was he held to some form of naturalist empiricism.  However, one cannot be both an idealist and a naturalist. You can’t say the world is constituted by our consciousness, yet have our consciousness dependent on part of the world.

I agree with idealists in that mind is the basis of matter.  They just confuse our minds with God’s.

Some metaphysical schemes just don’t work with modern science.  “Because Descartes identified matter and extension, his physics excluded the possibility of a vacuum” (Philipse 291). Enter Pascal’s experiments that barometers implied a vacuum.   Further, it isn’t necessarily true that all scientific laws are a priori and purely rational–science is empirical and hypothetical.


The body is “the carrier of the point of orientation,” the “zero point” which plays “an important role in the constitution of the spatial world” (65). It is the field of my free volition. It is what Dallas Willard calls “our personal power pack.”

David Woodruff Smith argues that Husserl’s ontology is a “monism of substrata and a pluralism of essences” (Smith 323).  Within this monism there appear to me many moments of consciousness. This substrata is the realm of essence. It is a monism because consciousness is spread out, yet not divided up, in the form of a “stream of experiences” (339).  Each experience is intentional. That is the dualism.

Some remaining problems

How much of a Kantian was Husserl?  Pinning down his transcendental idealism is fraught with danger. I don’t think he went the Berkeleyan route and said we create the physical world (if indeed Berkeley said that).  Jaako Hintikka suggests, rather, that for Husserl there was an “interface” of consciousness and reality (Hintikka 82). If we explore Husserl’s thought further, his claim is much stronger.  There is a “level of consciousness in which reality forces itself on us, which is the interface (not to say overlap) of reality and consciousness” (89).

That last sentence is a warning on spiritual warfare.  When we read something, it is a reality that presents itself, even forces itself, upon our consciousness.  If someone was inspired by a demon, say like Crowley, then your mind is in contact with a demon’s mind.


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