Susi Ferrarello: Husserl’s Ethics and Practical Intentionality

Husserl’s Ethics and Practical Intentionality
Bloomsbury Studies in Continental Philosophy
Susi Ferrarello

Reviewed by: Matt Bower (Texas State University)

It is unfortunate but probable that even in the era of the “new Husserl” very many philosophers who are not Husserl scholars still view Husserl’s philosophy through the lens of his logicism, his idealism, his self-styled neo-Cartesianism, and other contentious Husserlian tendencies. It will come as a surprise to many that Husserl dabbled in ethics at all, let alone published essays and prepared book-length manuscripts on the subject. There is still a good deal of work to be done to communicate the intriguingly multi-faceted character of Husserl’s thought to a broader philosophical audience. It is also the case that several volumes of Husserl’s lectures and manuscripts have appeared in recent years with substantial material on the subject of ethics. And given the rise in importance of ethical theory in recent decades, paying greater attention to this side of Husserl’s work only seems fitting. So Susi Ferrarello new book, Husserl’s Ethics and Practical Intentionality, is a very timely contribution to the relatively small literature on Husserl’s ethics. Her discussion tackles the subject by presenting in detail Husserl’s understanding of value, practical intentionality, and ethics. She sets out to paint a picture of a plausible and well-ordered theory that encompasses all of those topics and is consistently elaborated across Husserl’s many and varied philosophical works. In what follows I’ll first recapitulate chapter-by-chapter the arc of Ferrarello’s narrative and then appraise the book with more specific and detailed reference to certain of its rich and varied contents.


Chapters 1 and 2 appropriately get things started by spelling out Husserl’s theory of value. Ferrarello first introduces Husserl’s view on the a priori, which is pertinent not only because Husserl takes his phenomenological method generally to trade in a priori insights, but also because he is a staunch realist about value and therefore situates that category within the framework of his overarching project of constructing an ontology of material essences. Ferrarello stresses the importance of analyzing value in terms of both its material and formal a priori or essential properties and also that there are a variety of parallelisms (although dualisms would be more apt, as she treats them) that hold between logical and the practical phenomena (both construed broadly).

The discussion of value is followed by treatments of the notions of normativity (Chapter 3) and evidence (Chapter 4). While an ontology of value informs us about the nature of values and the a priori laws of essence that govern them, such analysis does not yet tell us how values have a grip on valuing subjects. That is, it doesn’t tell us about the validity or normativity of values. It is in this context that Ferrarello introduces Husserl’s novel rendering of a categorical imperative and engages with Steven Crowell’s recent work on normativity in phenomenology. Although Ferrarello could have been clearer on the point, the notion of evidence is pertinent to the theory of action and ethics inasmuch as both involve decisions and because the theory of evidence, among other things, provides a way of explaining how decisions are grounded phenomenologically.

We are then introduced, in Chapters 5 and 6, respectively, to full-fledged practical intentionality and embodied ethical agency. Ferrarello runs through the major points of Husserl’s theory of intentionality, from the Logical Investigations and on to Ideas I and the Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, engaging select interpretive quandaries along the way, in order to locate practical intentionality (broadly construed), surprisingly, between so-called active and passive forms of intentionality. To shed light on Husserl’s theory of an embodied ethical agency, Ferrarello reminds us of the many constitutive layers that belong to “the” body. She is then able to specify in what sense the body is bearer of motivations and issuer of ethical decisions.

The culminating three chapters complete Ferrarello’s project by giving a broad-ranging and complex account of the will (Chapter 7), from whence she pivots to tackle the ethical aspects of intersubjectivity (Chapter 8) and of the interrelation of the phenomena of social ethics, teleology, and god (Chapter 9). The chapter on willing is perhaps the richest. It clarifies Husserl’s dichotomous view of spirit (Geist), understood as having a “lower,” non-rational domain as well as with a “higher,” genuinely rational one. In it Ferrarello also touches on the issues of freedom, happiness, and the link between the will, love, and community as they figure together in Husserl’s later ethics. Continuing with the focus on interpersonal phenomena, Chapter 8 reviews the basics of Husserl’s theories of intentionality and empathy, and their relations to the theories of Franz Brentano and Edith Stein, respectively. (I’ll note, in passing, that the need for this chapter’s inclusion in the book is not apparent, since previous chapters already provide detailed accounts of both intentionality and intersubjectivity. Bringing Brentano and Stein into the discussion does not add anything crucial, either.) That discussion serves as a brief segue into the book’s final chapter, which fills out the conception of happiness in Husserl’s later ethics by explaining its teleological character, i.e., its trajectory toward an ideal fulfillment which takes place, as Ferrarello shows, only in a broader social setting and with the divine life ultimately serving as its model and ideal standard.


Ferrarello’s book is commendable for stressing, against certain other commentators, the overall continuity in Husserl’s thought on ethics. Rather than giving an Early Husserl/Late Husserl narrative, she tells one coherent story about Husserl’s understanding of value, practical intentionality, and ethics. Ferrarello weaves her account of the theory of value and the categorical imperative associated with Husserl’s early work on ethics seamlessly into that of the notions of vocation, love, and community as Husserl treats them largely in his later work. Her book also has the virtue of highlighting the systematicity of Husserl’s thinking, drawing connections to ethics from many other areas in his thought, including the theory of parts and wholes, intentionality, evidence, passive/active synthesis, among many others.

The book is also distinctive in its consistent insistence on the distinction Husserl makes between norms and values. Understanding Husserl as maintaining a dual and equal emphasis on value and the deontic makes for an interesting contrast with the tendencies of certain other prominent ethical theories to one-sidedly emphasize value (e.g., consequentialism) or the deontic (e.g., Kantian deontology). Ferrarello puts the distinction to work in attempting to resolve a debate among Husserl scholars about whether love, according to Husserl, targets others in their “propertiless Ipseity” or through their personal attributes (p. 180).

Ferrarello’s book also has its weaknesses. There are the relatively minor in importance but still frustratingly numerous occurrences of typographical, grammatical, formatting, and citation-related errors in the text. Those, of course, should not all be attributed to Ferrarello. There are also the somewhat more significant problems it has of a lack of focus and inclusion of digressions into related but inessential areas of Husserl’s thought. The entirety of Chapter 8 exemplifies this. And there are deeper and more significant concerns about the overall value of the book in contributing to the improvement and sharpening of our grasp of Husserl’s thoughts on ethics. I shall focus on the latter.

A major deficiency in Ferrarello’s book is its failure to suitably contextualize Husserl’s idiosyncratic approach to ethics in the broader field of ethics, whether viewed from a historical or contemporary vantage point.

She notes early on that Husserl breaks down ethics into a “threefold framework [of] theoretical ethics, normative ethics and technical ethics” (p. 16). That is a promising start. It suggests that even if Husserl’s thought does not at all times easily connect up with other approaches to ethics, they at least share this basic picture of ethicists’ division of labor. Husserl is trying to answer the same sorts of questions as others, and so it should not be too difficult to identify points of convergence or divergence. One wouldn’t necessarily expect a book canvasing major topics in Husserl’s ethics, like Ferrarello’s, to give a complete account of all these broad subtopics. It would be understandable to leave out the applied aspect, to be brief in addressing the theoretical, and to devote the greatest amount of attention to explaining Husserl’s normative ethics. Ferrarello, apart from noting the tripartite division of ethical labor, otherwise neglects to present Husserl’s ethics in this natural and approachable way.

Others have certainly already made progress on the question of how to relate Husserl’s ethics to the predominant trends in thinking about normative ethics. And, as a matter of fact, Husserl himself is not shy about his take on extant ethical theories. He engages many heavyweight figures in the history of ethics like Hobbes, Hume, and Kant and tackles classic ethical themes like moral skepticism, hedonism, ethical egoism, utilitarianism, and rationalism in considerable detail (Hua XXXVII). There is so much to be said here, and even if others had said much of it already, one would still expect at least a summary treatment of such things in a book like Ferrarello’s. No such discussion is to be found there. Perhaps Ferrarello has reservations about the familiar approaches to normative ethics and thinks it would be inapt in some way to relate Husserl’s ethical thought to them. If so, the reader interested in ethics but not already invested in the project of (Husserlian) phenomenology will want to know why – as, I suspect, will most readers.

Despite a significant lack of engagement outside of Husserl’s universe of discourse, it is no doubt possible to present Husserl’s ideas on their own terms in an informative way. Ferrarello, though, does not do this. Her work is replete with fine conceptual distinctions and related subtleties. It tells us how to connect the dots between various concepts in Husserl’s theoretical repertoire. It does not tell us, on the other hand, many of the things one would hope to learn from an account of value, action, and ethics. Readers will be left with little concrete grasp of these phenomena or any clear idea about how their associated theories actually work. Let me explain why.

Many of her formulations of Husserl’s ideas are simply uninformative. Consider, for example, how Ferrarello describes the ethical: “It is this encounter that characterizes ethics: the meeting of hyletic content of the now-point with the Leib as generating a volitional body” (p. 155). Or take this closely related statement: “One of the most basic ethical laws follows from this: acts always aim at realization” (p. 155). The idea, very roughly, is that sensory elements in experience spur one to make choices (the first claim), and that an agent’s choices are good (possess value) when they aim to realize something (the second claim). These may be necessary or essential features of properly ethical phenomena, but they don’t appear to be sufficient by themselves to qualify an act as ethical or to give it a peculiarly ethical character, Ferrarello’s verbiage notwithstanding.

The first statement characterizes how choices or decisions arise. But could they not be decisions of any sort, responding to non-moral motivations? Surely they could. So perhaps Ferrarello would have more accurately phrased the first claim as one about practical intentionality (broadly understood). The second claim, too, about the value of realizing something, is too generically stated and is susceptible to objections similar to the first. It can’t be that any realizing activity whatsoever is valuable or good. Evil is realized as much as good, and so is what is morally neutral, or what has some form of value besides moral goodness. In subsequent pages she clarifies that what is attainable should be good, even the best of attainable goods (p. 157). But, as we will see momentarily, that clarification is ultimately only apparent.

These vagaries could be compensated for in the further course of elaborating on the nature of value and the categorical imperative. Ferrarello does not follow through in this way. To begin with, take the relatively basic topic of value. We do not learn from Ferrarello’s discussion how to identify values, except the obvious point that they are supposed to be derivable by eidetic analysis. In the discussion dedicated to value (Chapters 1-3) the only candidate moral value mentioned is the categorical imperative that Husserl formulates (Chapter 3, §5), which can provide little guidance for us as Ferrarello presents it (more on that in a moment). Maybe there is only the semblance of a lacunae here. For Kant, at least, it is possible to identify a single intrinsic moral value (i.e., “humanity,” as conceived in the second formulation of his categorical imperative). Whether we should understand Husserl to be doing likewise – which would be very interesting – Ferrarello does not say. She does not explore this line of thought, and subsequent claims she makes cast doubt on it.

She later introduces Husserl’s notion of love, which is conceived of as a value (p. 178).  The reader will appreciate that Ferrarello thus pinpoints a putative moral value. There are nevertheless two severe limitations in her treatment of love that undermine any significant gains that would come with its introduction. First, love is a specifically interpersonal value, so we are left without any values (besides the categorical imperative – again, more on that shortly) pertaining to the individual moral agent. Second, the precise content of the value love embodies remains unclear. As Ferrarello reports, the law (which is equivalent to “value” in the Husserlian lexicon) of love requires us “to respect other human beings and live in harmony with them” (p. 179). It would be tempting to read the sense of Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative into this remark. We cannot do so, however, if we suppose with Ferrarello that love is unlike the categorical imperative in that it is not a “norm,” i.e., a duty (p. 183).

So what in a person as such is the relevant bearer of value? Not their “humanity” (in Kant’s sense). That is because love is a feeling that exceeds reason (p. 180). Ferrarello sides with John Drummond’s proposal that love targets persons by virtue of their personal qualities, and that these are stratified (p. 182). Whether that stratification entails an axiological ranking or whether all the stratified values are properly moral values, Ferrarello does not say. Presumably agapic love involves a moral value, but all we learn about it is that it is an “admiration that we feel for the way in which a person lives” (p. 182). One will want to know, of course, what about a way of life makes it worthy of admiration.

Another basic point about Husserl’s theory of value one might reasonably expect to learn from Ferrarello’s book is how Husserl differentiates kinds of values, i.e., as expressed in practical, aesthetic, and ethical predicates (the paradigmatic generic formulations being, respectively, “is useful,” “is beautiful,” and “is good”). Ferrarello suggests that responsibility, reflection, rationality, and universality are features definitive of the ethical (p. 157). It’s unclear whether these are supposed to demarcate moral value as such, though. And one might be inclined to think not, since they are often understood as deontic categories pertaining to moral obligation, i.e., “normativity” in the Husserlian vernacular. They are the very features that deontologists like Kant single out to explain what makes an action right. Yet Ferrarello claims that value is not reducible to deontic categories (i.e., norms). Husserl preserves both, she insists, as irreducible to one another, and defining moral values in deontic terms would seem to threaten to collapse this distinction.

Were we to identify value with apparently deontic categories like reason, reflection, responsibility, and the like, it’s not obvious that doing so would bring about any real gain. All of these categories apply to the ethical and the non-ethical alike. There are purely practical (i.e., involving means-end purposiveness) or aesthetic instances exhibiting all of these categories. One can reason and reflect about what means will most efficiently lead to a desired end, and one can be responsible for any errors, as the author of the associated actions. The idea of practical or aesthetic responsibility may sound odd, but it shouldn’t. Let me expand on this point, since together with rationality, responsibility is a key feature of our moral existence in Ferrarello’s reading of Husserl. If there are such things as purely practical/aesthetic errors attributable to their corresponding practical/aesthetic agents, and if other practical/aesthetic agents can call them out on their errors and engage in disputes about them, then a kind of practical/aesthetic responsibility seems to be in play here. The disputes wouldn’t be over whether one acted wrongly in a moral sense, but in a distinctively practical/aesthetic sense. These very basic considerations do not seem to have occurred to Ferrarello at all.

One might hope to get a foothold on Husserl’s ethics from Ferrarello’s account of the categorical imperative in Husserl. Unfortunately, that account is all too brief (just four pages of dedicated discussion, with scattered references in the remainder of the work), and she is less than forthcoming about how to use Husserl’s platitudinous formulation(s) of it – “‘Do the best! Do your best!’ (Hua XLII, 389) or ‘Be the best!’ (XXVII, 272)” (p. 69; p. 39). To get a sense of my concern here, think, by comparison, of how readily Kant’s difficult formulations of the categorical imperative lend themselves to the task of evaluating morally problematic situations, and how this fact is emphasized in standard introductory accounts of it. She tells us that this imperative is a “call” demanding us to conform to a “moral law” (pp. 70-71), a law that specifies some value we could discern in eidetic analysis. Since we have little clue about what values look like, we remain in the dark about how to abide by this imperative.

It would be less than helpful at this point to observe that Ferrarello describes the categorical imperative itself as a value. It would only allow us to draw the consequence that the categorical imperative is a call to abide by the categorical imperative, which gets us nowhere. Ferrarello’s treatment of ethical vocation and happiness, which could potentially shed light on the function of Husserl’s categorical imperative, are equally broad, bordering on vacuous. For a moral agent to take on their distinctly ethical vocation or calling entails that it must be that their “[s]elf-reflecting and self-regulative life can become habitual acts” (p. 176), and that we as moral agents perform “an essential reflection on all that we are” (p. 177). As I’ve observed, such appeals to reflection unilluminating unless accompanied by further qualifications, and Ferrarello offers us none.

Now, as far as happiness, “we mean the fulfillment of vocational life” or “being loyal to ourselves” (p. 170). I am sympathetic to this suggestion. I only wish Ferrarello had done more to convey what it is that makes vocational life or self-loyalty ethical. She does no more than identify as our true vocation the development of our rational capacities (pp. 175-177), and, as I said above, she does not let us in on what a distinctively ethical form of rationality would look like or, I should add, what makes the cultivation of rationality the paramount human aspiration.


Based on the above, I think many of those seeking guidance about Husserl’s views on value, practical intentionality, and ethics will be disappointed with Ferrarello’s book. If my complaints are accurate, then the book will be of little benefit to a general audience not attuned to the nuances of contemporary Husserl scholarship. Husserl scholars will find some value in it. That will lie primarily in Ferrarello’s systematic approach. We get a better picture from Ferrarello about how everything fits together in Husserl’s theoretical framework when it comes to the topics of value, practical intentionality, and ethics. But that value is significantly offset by the overall paucity of detail about those main topics themselves. Even Husserl scholars will, I think, want to learn more about the core features of Husserl’s ethics. They too will want a picture of Husserl not at a distance, as a historical artefact, but as a thinker whose ideas have a place in the bigger picture of ethical theory and can thus be situated within both contemporary and historical trends of ethical thinking. It won’t profit them much to be guided once more through the well-trodden terrain to which Ferrarello would lead them in so many pages of her book containing lengthy forays about Husserl’s views on intentionality, psychologism, naturalism, empathy, founding (Fundierung), and many other subjects.



Hua XXXVII. E. Husserl (2004). Einleitung in die Ethik 1920/1924. H. Peucker (ed.). Dordrecht: Springer.

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