“Who is playing?” (2). This question, which opens Høffding’s book, is prompted by the late Danish bassoonist Peter Bastian’s story of how he experienced looking at his own fingers “sprinting up and down the fingerboard” of the instrument he was playing, in awe of the skill of his own fingers. Høffding wants to understand the nature of such an unusual experience of the self, undergone by musicians in “those Golden Moments when it suddenly takes off”, as Bastian puts it. The debate regarding how best to comprehend and describe such altered states of subjectivity – found in, for instance, artistic absorption – has occupied theorists of expertise, cognitive scientists, and phenomenologists for a number of years. Høffding’s general approach is to find continuities between the various positions in this debate. The theory of one of the main voices in the debate, Hubert Dreyfus’ theory of skilled coping, is strongly disputed in Høffding’s book (94), though. Skilled coping is the idea that in expertise decision-making and skill acquisition are based on bodily coping rather than representational knowledge. Høffding’s own account of expertise, specifically of musical absorption, is built up through the chapters, and fully unfolds towards the end of the book.
Høffding develops his phenomenology of musical absorption by means of empirical as well as theoretical research. On the empirical side, he bases his investigation on a series of qualitative research interviews with the Danish String Quartet; on the theoretical side, Høffding’s work is rooted in the philosophy of mind and classical and contemporary phenomenology. Furthermore, theories from aesthetics, psychology of music, sleep science, and psychiatry are used in the comparative chapters of the book.
Throughout the book, Høffding focuses on three overlapping themes: the absorbed minimal self, the absorbed reflective self, and the absorbed body (6). These aspects of subjectivity are all part of what Høffding eventually calls performative passivity, a notion inspired by Edmund Husserl’s theory of passive and active synthesis (Husserliana 11).
Høffding’s book is divided into three parts: “Meeting the Danish String Quartet”, “Comparative Perspectives”, and “Phenomenological Underpinnings of the Musically Extended Mind”.
Part One, which presents his empirical research, starts with an elaboration of the qualitative interview processes. We are guided through Høffding’s cooperation with four classical musicians (Asbjørn, Rune, Fredrik and Frederik Ø) and are presented with interesting quotes from Høffding’s interviews with them. Høffding gives a detailed description of his method of phenomenological interview, or PI. PI is methodologically inspired by the work of “Susanne Ravn and Dorothée Legrand in particular” (15), and is developed because “classical phenomenology, apart from phenomenological psychiatry, has not been engaged with interviews” (27). PI is also inspired by Dan Zahavi’s work and by Shaun Gallagher’s idea of phenomenological factual variations relying on empirical data. As a supplement to the established phenomenological practice of thought experiments through eidetic variation, the idea is that “real cases” might serve the same function, and “force us to refine, revise, or even abandon our habitual way of thinking” (See Zahavi 2005 on “real-life deviations”, in Høffding 27).
Høffding takes the musicians’ first-person perspectives seriously and tries to dispense with other theories, explanations, and beliefs about musical absorption, letting the descriptions speak for themselves. The musicians’ descriptions comprise what he calls “tier one” in PI. “Tier two” is the phenomenological analysis of the empirical material, where structures behind the experiences are disclosed (19). Høffding explains how the two tiers are linked and overlap; phenomenology frames the research but the empirical material also informs the phenomenological investigation. To ensure transparent access to his data and work methods, Høffding provides an extensive explanation of how to conduct a phenomenological interview (33), and of his specific work with the quartet.
The musicians are presented one by one. We get to know the violinist Frederik Ø as a complex musician, with an initial need for “a little control” (47) during the performance of concerts. However, after his father’s sudden death, he becomes “emotionally involved in a different fashion” (50) and experiences what we later learn is intense absorption. Rune is the other violinist in the quartet, he is also a folk musician (54). During performances he is “letting the body take over”, and occasionally he experiences extremely intense absorption (57). Asbjørn plays the viola in the quartet. He easily gets intensely absorbed and regularly finds himself in “the zone”, as he calls it, during their concerts. Fredrik is the cellist of the quartet. Like Rune, Fredrik has also experienced the kind of extremely intense absorption one could call an “artistic blackout” (66). Fredrik is intensely absorbed during most concerts.
After the musicians’ profiles, Høffding presents a chart to distinguish the different kinds of experiences Frederik Ø, Fredrik, Asbjørn and Rune have described. Høffding names the chart “a topography of musical absorption” (73) and defines its five main categories as standard absorption, mind wandering not-being-there, frustrated playing, absorbed not-being-there, and ex-static absorption (74).
Standard absorption is the default mode of performing, Høffding writes. The quartet is often in this state, and the state covers a wide range of experiences. Standard absorption includes feeling slightly bored, such as when playing a concert is “just another day at work”, and it also includes more concentrated absorbed playing. In general, the performance runs smoothly in this state – the musicians feel satisfied, are not intensely absorbed and not too challenged (76).
To be in mind wandering not-being-there is the experience of playing automatically while non-related thoughts and associations pop up in one’s mind simultaneously. The quartet calls it “going to Netto”, indicating the experience of leaving the performance mentally to think about what one might need to shop later (77). This is not a state the musicians find themselves in very often.
Likewise, they do not often experience the state of frustrated playing. This mode of performance is one of pure survival. During and after an obstacle, interruption, or other externally imposed experiences, the musicians are intensively focused on trying to get back to standard absorption (80).
Absorbed not-being-there is one of the two states of intense absorption. It is the rare experience of being “completely gone” or “lost in the music” during performance (81). Even if they subsequently cannot conceptually recall the experience, the musicians describe it as bodily pleasant, euphoric, and “of high emotional and existential value” (82). This experience has been described as “lack of awareness, blackout, trance, or even that it wasn’t the musician himself who played” (81).
The other, and more frequently experienced, state of intense absorption is called ex-static absorption. Høffding takes its name from the Greek and Latin description of “standing out from” (85), “not only in the sense that one perceives the world in a distanced, disinterested fashion, but also that this kind of “neutral registration” pertains to oneself”. Here, Høffding aims to capture the intensely absorbed experience a musician has “in the zone”, when his sense of self is altered by the absorption. There is “a heightened overall perception” (86) and the musician feels “invincible”, “powerful” and in “control” of the situation as a whole (84) in this state.
In the following critique, I shall return to the experiences and descriptions of some of these modes of absorption.
In Part Two, Høffding presents and discusses theories of interest for a comparative study of absorption. We are introduced to viewpoints in the expertise debate, material on artistic and aesthetic experience, theories of sleep and dreaming, and the theory of flow, in addition to the phenomenology of schizophrenia.
Besides debating Dreyfus, Høffding engages in the expertise debate through the works of John Sutton et al. and Barbara Montero (102). The former’s theory of Mesh shows how conceptual reflection and bodily coping overlap in skilful activity; while the latter’s argument against “the just-do-it” principle is that thinking does not interfere with acting and “should not be avoided by experts” (106). Høffding is open towards these philosophers’ ideas on how conceptual reflection occurs in musical absorption.
In the discussions on artistic and aesthetic experience, dance and art appreciation is taken into account, and Høffding makes use of theories by Dorotheé Legrand as well as Mikel Dufrenne to finetune his arguments.
In the chapter on dreaming and sleeping, Høffding looks at Evan Thompson’s work and compares lucid dreaming and dreamless sleep with the musicians’ experiences of ex-static absorption and absorbed not-being-there, respectively. In this part of the book, Høffding draws a line between standard playing, mind wandering and absorbed being there, and sees this as a development where “the intentional threads are slackening” (151) and the musician gradually detaches more and more from the situation and his self.
Through the study of theories on schizophrenia, Høffding finds traits of hyper-reflection (168) and self-intimation in the musicians’ experiences of ex-static absorption. Although, where schizophrenia is an ipseity-disturbance (171), Høffding sees a musician as having a robust sense of self (163).
In Part Three, Høffding discusses musical absorption in light of Husserl’s notion of passive and active synthesis and presents his own theory of performative passivity. Høffding defines it as the experience of “altered agency over the process of playing”, “of someone or something other than me causing the music to unfold” (188). The main assumption behind his theory of performative passivty is that musical action is not primarily generated by active egoic consciousness but by a passive enlarged sense of subjectivity (188). The enlarged subject can easily include levels of egoic consciousness, though; there are constant and fluid shifts between passivity and activity (188). In this way, he sees no dichotomy between reflection and pre-reflection in absorption.
According to Høffding, a well-trained body schema is necessary to achieve intense absorption; only experts with thousands of hours of practice behind them can enter these states (215). The music itself and “letting loose of one’s emotions” can boost the opening of the passive dimension (215), and the unfolding of the music through one’s instrument and the bodily we-intentionality and interaction with other musicians are all intertwined with the passive, enlarged self (244).
Høffding closes with a chapter on how playing together feeds the musicians’ sense of passivity. We learn of musical we-ness, partly through Merleau-Ponty’s notion of intercorporeity; the shared and anonymous body (241).
According to Høffding’s findings, there is a path from ordinary absentmindedness and daydreaming, past the state of mind wandering whilst performing, to the most absorbed state of performative passivity (70). In passivity, Høffding claims, the musicians’ body schemata afford the musicians to perform automatically and enable them let go of attending to the technicalities of the performance (199). To Høffding, musical absorption “is a question of “happening” rather than “doing”” (252) and he ends the book by claiming: “Pleasure, beauty, meaning, and encounters with others, in addition to being something we create, is something to which we must be receptive” (255).
In his book, Høffding is open about not having had first-person experience of intense musical absorption (13). He also shares his inability to hear the difference between absorbed musicians’ performances and their performances under stress: “I find myself unable to detect whether a particular performance instantiates standard playing or playing under unusual stress” (100). He writes that intense absorption and its seemingly contradictory experiences of being “more conscious/present”, on one hand, and “less conscious/not present”, on the other (85), generates “a fundamental inability to understand and adequately express the nature of this experience” (85). At the same time, he rejects theories from peers with first-person experience of intense absorption (178). These facts are not necessarily problematic. But in light of them, it is difficult to see, prima facie, how Høffding is entitled to see his own work as “a paradigmatic case” – “the first of its kind” – and to claim that his conclusions will “serve as universal” within his field (30). In other words: he has never experienced x himself, he cannot perceptually detect x in others, he claims that x resists coherent description, he rejects the theories of those who have themselves experienced x – and, nevertheless, he declares his theory of x to be “paradigmatic” and “universal”. But let us not prejudge this. Let’s have a closer look at Høffding’s work and see whether it lives up to its own expectations.
Absorption as Phenomenon
The main goal of Høffding’s book is to investigate absorption. So, how does he understand the term absorption and the experiences behind it? Etymologically, the term absorption has developed from the Latin word absorbeo, which means “sucked or swallowed up”. The musicians’ experiences of being absorbed in terms of being “swallowed up”, are categorized by Høffding as absorbed not-being-there and ex-static absorption. These two are collectively referred to as intense absorption throughout the book.
According to Høffding, musicians are absorbed during all the five states in his topography, including frustrated playing and mind wandering not-being-there (73). But are these two states genuine experiences of absorption?
In frustrated playing, mind wandering not-being-there, as well as in standard absorption, Høffding includes the merely habitual activity of doing what one has learned by heart as an example of musical absorption. What does this all-embracing attitude do to Høffding’s theory of absorption?
Everyone experiences habitual activities, so let’s have a look at a plain example from our everyday lives. Learning how to bike demands conceptual reflection. As soon as you’ve mastered the skill, though, the task is engrained and will be experienced pre-reflectively. You can chat with your friends or listen to music while biking without being disturbed in the performance of the task. The same goes for artists and the elaborate skills they master. There is a level of performance where one is merely doing what one has memorized, and where random reflections and perceptions easily come and go on top of the execution of the activity itself, which has become second nature.
The question is: does this level of habitual mastering of skills qualify as absorption? As a practitioner of performing art, my answer is no. And so, as a philosopher, I find the dilution of the term absorption rather confusing. It is not clear how, for example, standard absorption is distinctly different, consciousness-wise, from situations like my biking example. Musical absorption is initially presented as “a self-transforming experience” (5), and the opening questions of the book: “Who is playing?” and “What kind of self is present when the musician is intensely absorbed in his music”? (2), are supposedly asked in order to investigate these altered experiences of the self. But only two out of Høffding’s five states of absorption constitute actual self-transformation and appear distinctively different from everyday experiences of consciousness; namely, absorbed not-being-there and ex-static absorption. That Høffding draws evidence from the musicians’ experiences of (what are quite plausibly) non-absorbed states in order to make his final points about what absorption as such amounts to, is a basic flaw in the argumentation that weakens the final theory.
That being said, seen as an overview and topography of musical performance, Høffding’s categorization chart nicely distinguishes different experiences musicians may have during practice, rehearsal and concert playing, and as such it is highly applicable.
Distance, Disinterest, and Detachment
In the construction of his arguments, Høffding appears to favour certain interpretations of the musicians’ statements, interpretations that emphasize occurrences of distance, disinterest, and detachment in absorption.
In one of his early interview sessions, Høffding categorized his transcriptions of the interviews in groups, one of them being “distance in absorption” (41). In his theoretical comparison chapters, he discusses how phenomenological psychopathology points to the existence of “unnatural” self-distance (8) in schizophrenia and finds parallels to this in the musicians’ experiences (162). He states that the musicians have “a superior bodily self-coinciding and self-reliance” (170), though, and sees the juxtaposing as a tool to understand how the “empirical foundation of ordinary consciousness (…) is prone to variation” (171). In a similar way, Høffding compares the musicians’ alleged experiences of self-distance in intense absorption to experiences of deep sleep (absorbed not-being-there) and lucid dreaming (ex-static absorption) (145).
Ex-static absorption “consists in a distance to oneself, one’s actions, and one’s body” (167), Høffding claims; whereas absorbed not-being-there is “entirely vacuous” (83), “followed by an almost total amnesia” (81). But how are the musicians phrasing these experiences?
Frederik Ø shares how he changes after his father’s sudden death and plays a concert where he lets go of his previous need to have “a little control” (47). During the concert it is “as if everything just disappears (…), I am not really there (…). Everything just is. So it is exactly both being present and not being present simultaneously” (50). He continues: “It is like… the feeling of looking over a large landscape (…), you cannot see the individual parts, you just know that all of it contributes to the being, and that you actually could affect the little things (…)” (51). Høffding sees Frederik Ø as being at a “distance from his own mental life” here (146).
Asbjørn tells us about the same experience of being “both less conscious and a lot more conscious (…)” (60). In his ideal absorption he is “this commander just moving the pieces and making the perfect phrase without trying, just because it is there and I can do anything I want” (62). In the same quote he talks about his ability to be aware of many musical elements at the same time, through his “hive mind” (62). We learn how he is “neutrally registering” the audience, not like a co-player but “looking at the set-up” and feeling like “a commander deploying the troops and control it (…)” (84). Høffding interprets Asbjørn’s experiences as “disinterested observation” (84).
Through his investigations of spatial experiences in schizophrenia, sleep, dream, and intense musical absorption, Høffding finds that they share traits of detachment (151), distance (85), and disinterest (192). Høffding takes these disconnections to the self and to the situation very literally. He compares the musicians’ experiences of being “a commander” and “flying over a landscape” with experiences of physical distance. In ex-static absorption one is thus too far away to have any agency, Høffding claims, “sitting in an airplane high up in the sky” perceiving from a great distance ”a very large landscape without parts” (147). When in absorbed not-being-there, the experience is of being too close to the music” to “perceive it well” (148). It’s like “looking at a large Monet from very close up” (147).
Høffding is referring to the altered perception of objects in the intensely absorbed states and offers us a discussion on the matter and a thorough explanation of his view. But is this the best way to interpret what the musicians experience?
Artists in general seem to claim that intense absorption is their ideal state of performing and the quartet is no exception. They stress how being intensely absorbed makes them “listen in a better way” (59), feel “powerful” (81), in “very deep control” (61), and feel “intense euphoric joy” (66). This sounds more like descriptions of total involvement – not like disinterest, distance or detachment. Is there an alternative to Høffding’s interpretation which captures the presence, engagement, and interest the musicians indicate they experience in intense absorption?
One way of describing it would be that in intense absorption the musician’s focus shifts from being on particular objects to embracing the situation as a whole. This does not indicate distance; on the contrary, it describes the integration with something larger than oneself that often happens in these states. As there is no experience of distance or disinterest in one’s bodily and affective self, but rather an increased focus through the body, intense absorption could be seen as a state characterized by bodily and affective agency. Høffding’s understanding, as well as the most common way of understanding agency, is based on the traditional dualistic and hierarchical idea that the self equals the mind, and that the bodily self is “automatic”, “pre-egoic”, and without the ability of agency – an understanding that often falls short in matters of art.
One could say that in intense absorption the mind is put on hold or is participating in a sparse manner; at that stage, judgments and objectifications are not needed to perform the activity. The bodily self has full power and control over the musical performance, works hard, and enjoys it.
Just like it is possible to be totally engaged in the analysis of a philosophical text, only to later to “wake up” and realize one is hungry or that one’s leg is “asleep”, one can shift focus from an everyday consciousness in performance to an utterly engaged bodily and affective focus.
Some of the above mentioned aspects seem close to what Høffding finds in his theory of performative passivity: the “blurring of the subject/object distinction” (215), “a powerful change in the deepest layers of subjectivity” (175), the opening to something larger than one’s self, for instance “musical interkinesthetic affectivity” (246), and the reliance upon the bodily (195). But Høffding favours the understanding of passivity and a receptive self in intense absorption and finds ways throughout the book to emphasise this.
In his theoretical investigations, Høffding occasionally uses quotes outside of their intended contexts. Referencing Evan Thompson, Høffding writes: “Lucid dreaming is essentially marked by a phenomenal distance to oneself (…)” (154). But on the page referred to in Thompson’s book “Waking, Dreaming, Being” (2015), there is no mention of distance in lucid dreaming. Thompson elaborates upon the I as dreamer and the I as dreamed in this manner: “These are not two entities or things; they’re two kinds of self-awareness, two modes of self-experience” (Thompson 2015, 140).
In another example, Høffding discusses the experience of objects in passive intentionality with Dan Zahavi. He mentions Zahavi’s “recent, comprehensive work on Husserl” (184), and glosses Zahavi as making a point about passivity (184). But the actual page concerns “the world annihilation” thought-experiment from Husserl’s “Ideen 1”, and says nothing about passivity.
Another example of biased use of theoretical evidence is Høffding’s references to the Kantian notion of aesthetic disinterest. He interprets this disinterest as “not soliciting engagement, but mere distanced observation” (124) and compares it with the quartet’s experiences of “observation as neutral” and not being “part of the set-up” (125). Though I’m far from being a Kant scholar, it is clear enough that Kant’s notion of aesthetic disinterest differs from our everyday understanding of the term disinterest. The Kantian term covers an interest in the aesthetic object as experienced in its own right – the immediate, direct perception of the aesthetic object. The lack of interest is a lack of interest in the object’s utility and determinate meaning. Høffding seems to understand and use aesthetic disinterest in a different manner – as an experience of observing from a distance without engagement.
Høffding interprets Husserl’s theory of passive and active synthesis as holding that passive and active are opposing ends of a smooth continuum. As such, Høffding repeatedly mentions that the theory “fits like hand in glove” (178) with the altered state of the self found in intense absorption; characterizing this type of absorption as that of extreme passivity and differing from other types of absorption mainly in degree. Taken together with his lack of patience for the expertise debate’s dichotomy between reflection and pre-reflection (113), one gets the impression that passivity and activity in passive and active synthesis must be experiences of consciousness that are altogether different from reflection and pre-reflection – a Husserlian gem unknown to most of us, presented in this book as the resolution of dualistic thinking about artistically absorbed subjects. But a more thorough look at Husserl’s theory, in parallel with Høffding’s book, shows that even though the distinction between activity and passivity is not the distinction between reflection and pre-reflection, we are not faced with a distinctly alternative description of subjective experience. The theory of passive and active synthesis is Husserl’s further investigation into how the deepest pre-reflective layers of subjectivity influence and cooperate with the subject’s active and intentional acts, being it on a pre-reflective or a reflective level. Musicians are, doubtlessly, undergoing passive and active syntheses during their concerts. We all are, every day. There is nothing extraordinary in experiencing passive and active syntheses. Husserl’s theory is rather an extraordinarily profound description of our consciousness structures (as far as this author understands Husserliana 11).
I agree with Høffding, though, that describing intense absorption “as a certain relationship between reflective and pre-reflective awareness, or as a specially trained form of reflection or pre-reflection” (176) is insufficient. This terminology is based on an out-dated, dualistic hierarchy where mind reigns over a body, upon which it simultaneously depends. Yet, Høffding still seems to buy into this hierarchy by describing a bodily and affectively active subject as “passive” – just because the subject’s mind is passive. By calling one of the intense states absorbed not-being-there – when his qualitative material states that it is an experience of “really being there” (57) and of being “immensely present” (67) – Høffding seems to ignore the fact that there are parts of us that are indeed there in intense absorption, even when “the head is completely empty” (57). To be fair; Høffding does not entirely deny this in his conclusions. But his semantics, and what seems to be his overall view of what a subject is, contradicts his evidence.
So, how does Høffding see passivity as compatible with absorption? Does it make sense to say that musicians get increasingly immersed in their work by means of a path from absentmindedness to mind wandering, past daydreaming to intense absorption – all during habitual playing? (70) It sounds rather vacuous – and Høffding actually labels absorbed not-being-there as “vacuous” (83). What would be one’s drive and motive, as a musician, then? Høffding’s answer is that music as a structure affords cooperation and absorption (252) – one is simply drawn to it.
When asked how the “primitive phenomenality” of a passive self can produce “complex and beautiful music”, Høffding answers that the musical work performed through the body schema and the musicians’ “emotional engagement” is sufficient for that purpose (250).
Perhaps this process of random perception of impressions from one’s life-world, combined with “letting loose of one’s emotions” during the performance of one’s memorized work is enough for some performing artists. I am not able to tell. But when it comes to creators of art, this theory’s applicability seems even more limited. Improvising performers are creators, alongside painters, composers, choreographers, sculptors, poets and others. Creating and producing art from scratch cannot be explained as habitual activity and haphazard receptivity.
Many creators, like many performers, experience their artistic activities as a kind of “conversation” with the world and their fellow human beings – just like Fredrik does (64). There are things you want to express and share through your art. “In the same way that I do not think about the technicalities of talking, so do I not think about the technicalities of playing”, Fredrik says (64), and divulges that these processes are not necessarily conceptually reflective – neither are they passive and anonymous.
Trusting the body schema in order to “let go” and get absorbed, might prove to be problematic for creators and performers of improvised art. Høffding claims that “if those micro movements are not in perfect place, the necessary trust will not be relegated and the distanced or ex-static view of one’s own body will not be enabled” (171). In improvised dance, in much jazz music, and in the performance of classical Indian ragas, for example, there is no way of preparing “every micro movement” – these art forms are created and performed simultaneously.
It is, therefore, not clear to me how Høffding’s theory of performative passivity could serve as universal within the field of musical absorption. Besides, I am far from convinced that this theory accounts for the active body in sufficient detail. That being said, I find Høffding’s qualitative research and cooperation with the four musicians intriguing and inspiring.
What Høffding writes is of importance. We are not often made aware of our possibilities of mere receptivity, of “letting go” (of the mind’s activities), of “being open” and “one with the world” in the way radical passivity allows us. Høffding’s book reminds us of these possibilities. Undergoing these aspects in passive and active synthesis is necessary in order to become absorbed in artistic and aesthetic activity and experience. I don’t find the theory of performative passivity sufficient as an argument for what absorption amounts to, but I appreciate the book. It bears evidence of a hardworking, passionate, insistent, and thorough philosopher and researcher.
Husserl, Edmund. 1966. Analysen zur passiven Synthesis: Aus Vorlesungs- und Forschungsmanuskripten 1918-1926. Nijhoff: Den Haag.
Thompson, Evan. 2015. Waking, Dreaming, Being. Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. Colombia University Press: New York.
Zahavi, Dan. 2017. Husserl’s Legacy. Phenomenology, Metaphysics, and Transcendental Philosophy. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
In the introduction of this review I will provide some general comments on the nature of the layout, methodology, and style of Zahavi’s work before moving into a detailed commentary. Page numbers refer to the reviewed work unless otherwise indicated.
Husserl’s Legacy is an attempt to defend Husserlian phenomenology from a variety of perceived misconceptions and misinterpretations that have been voiced from both within and outside of the Continental tradition. In particular, it is an attempt to show that Husserl avoids a variety of positions have been levelled at him as criticisms and which are, one assumes, perhaps seen as out of touch with contemporary trends in Anglophone philosophy, i.e. methodological solipsism, internalism, idealism, and metaphysical neutrality.
Interestingly, Zahavi does not attempt to show that one should reject any of these positions for their own reasons. Nor does he argue that one should reject these positions for the reasons Husserl did (and in fact Husserl’s arguments are not often provided). This remains implicit. The scope of the book is to show, via close study of Husserl’s corpus, that Husserl does indeed reject the aforementioned positions. As interesting as Husserl scholars will find this project, it is an unexpected turn from an author who has claimed that one “of phenomenology’s greatest weaknesses is it preoccupation with exegesis” (Zahavi, 2005, 6). The value of the project is that close exegesis serves to precisely locate Husserl’s position on contemporary philosophical issues. But I doubt that it will serve to bring anyone into the Husserlian tent that does not already have some affinity with it.
Thematically, the book has a cyclical character, and questions which are raised early on are returned to as the work unfolds; the central debates are interwoven throughout the work. The work is decisive, yet also full of Zahavi’s characteristic diplomacy, and his careful and considerate attention to detailed distinctions; Zahavi will often proceed by firstly teasing out different meanings of key concepts like metaphysics or naturalisation. In this work, Zahavi draws on his expert knowledge of the full range of Husserl’s collected works, drawing insightful quotes from a range of primary sources. Zahavi also shows his expertise concerning well known commentaries on Husserl from canonical figures like Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, and a wealth of other Husserlian interpreters.
Zahavi’s methodological approach is to generally begin with a discussion of the position of an interlocutor who has claimed that Husserl held one of the aforementioned positions (i.e. solipsism, internalism, etc.). One method Zahavi then employs is to outline Husserl’s position on a given topic (say intersubjectivity), and on this basis to reason that it would be inconsistent to assume that Husserl held the position his interlocutors ascribe to him (i.e. methodological solipsism). Of course, this approach assumes that Husserl philosophy is internally consistent. Anyone familiar with the Fifth Meditation, for example, will know that Husserl struggled to bring about this consistency. An alternate method that Zahavi employs in dealing with an interlocutor is to provide a sample of excerpts drawn from a variety of Husserlian texts wherein Husserl explicitly disavows the position in question, or endorses an alternate position, i.e. when Husserl says that no “realist has been as realistic and concrete as me, the phenomenological idealist” (170). This second method is certainly enough to establish that Husserl believed that, on a certain rendering, he did not subscribe in a straightforward way to some of the positions he was reproached with (i.e. idealism), and it means we will need to approach our depiction of his position with care, as Zahavi does. However, like much of Husserl’s project, many of these quotes are what Hopkins describes as ‘promissory notes’—statements which require much filling in and detail if they are to be substantiated. Husserl did not always get around to paying these promissory notes out, and this raises a methodological hurdle for Zahavi.
Zahavi locates Husserl’s position on three central issues. 1) The relation between phenomenology and metaphysics, and the clash with speculative realism. 2) Internalism vs. externalism, and the question of methodological solipsism. 3) The naturalisation of phenomenology. There is far too much dense exegesis to provide an enlightening and comprehensive review in the space available here; I will discuss and provide some criticisms of Zahavi’s discussion of theme 1 and 2. As we shall see, Zahavi thinks that locating Husserl’s position on these themes pivots on the interpretation of two key aspects of the Husserlian framework: the noema and the reduction.
- Metaphysics and Phenomenology, Part 1.
In this section, I will trace Zahavi’s comments on the metaphysical relevance of Husserl’s early phenomenology. The relation between phenomenology and metaphysics is firstly raised in the second chapter of Husserl’s Legacy. The question which drives this investigative theme is whether or not Husserlian phenomenology can contribute to metaphysical discussions. Zahavi traces the source of Husserlian phenomenology’s purported metaphysical neutrality back to the earlier descriptive project of the Logical Investigations. As Zahavi outlines, for the author of the Investigations, the term metaphysics denoted a science which clarifies the presuppositions of the positive sciences. Metaphysics is, in this sense, the meta to physics. As Husserl is interested in the foundation of all sciences, pure and a priori ones included, he thus sees his project as superseding the metaphysical one. In this sense, Zahavi shows that Husserl saw phenomenology as meta-metaphysical, as various quotes from the Logical Investigations attest. We shall see later that Zahavi provisionally defines metaphysics as taking a position on the question of whether or not physical objects are real or purely mental (ideal) and, as Husserl’s early project does not deign to comment on this issue, it is on this basis that Zahavi views it as metaphysically neutral.
However, Zahavi shows that not everyone has seen Logical Investigations this way. Various interpreters have seen it as a realist manifesto. This reading is motivated by the strong rejection of representationalism which is contained in the Investigations—the reasoning being that, if Husserl is not an intra-mental representationalist, then he must be a metaphysical realist. In response Zahavi claims that this reading ignores one of the key distinction of the Investigations—that between intentional objects which happen to exist in the spatio-temporal nexus, and those that do not. This purely descriptive distinction refers only to modes of givenness, and is indicative of the manner in which the Investigations avoid metaphysics (36).
Zahavi similarly rejects an idealistic interpretation of the Investigations. For example, he discusses Philipse interpretation, which claims that Husserl identifies the adumbrations of an object with the immanent sensations via which these adumbrations are given to us and argues that, as all objects are given via adumbrations for Husserl, all objects are thereby reducible to our immanent sensations. Therefore, Husserl must be some sort of phenomenalist like Berkeley. Zahavi argues that Philipse ignores that Husserl distinguishes between differing parts of a perception, some of which are properties of the object itself, others of which are immanent sensations, and refers to both (unfortunately) as adumbrations. Husserl very clearly states that the reality of an object “cannot be understood as the reality of a perceived complex of sensations” (40).
So, Zahavi shows that, if we are talking about the descriptive project contained in the Investigations, then Husserlian phenomenology is indeed metaphysically neutral, in the sense that it does not take a realist or idealist position on the existential status of physical objects.
Zahavi’s discussion of Philipse utilises the method of providing direct citations from Husserl which contradict one of his interlocutor’s renditions. However, Zahavi also mentions here the spectre which, given this method, haunts Legacy: the validity of Husserl’s assessment of his own project (42). As Zahavi observes, Heidegger was certainly sceptical about Husserl’s evaluation of his own work. This problem is compounded by the fact that some of the claims about his own work are where Husserl spends some of his largest banknotes.
Zahavi agrees that Husserl does not always seem to view his own project clearly or consistently. To illustrate this, Zahavi considers the discrepancy between Husserl’s actual description of intentional acts and his second order reflections on what he is doing. On the one hand, Husserl seems to claim to restrict his analyses in Logical Investigations to the noetic and immanent psychic contents in certain parts. In parts of Ideas 1 Husserl again seems to endorse the claim that only the immanent sphere is totally evident and therefore fair game for phenomenology investigation. However, in both works, he clearly begins to analyse the noematic components of intentional experiences. Although this section is ostensibly in the thematic context of discussing Husserl’s reliability as a commentator on his own work, it very much pertains to the internalist/externalist debate which will take centre stage later, as it concerns the extent to which Husserl’s phenomenology engages with the external world. Indeed, these inconsistencies perhaps illuminate why some of Zahavi’s latter interlocutors have branded Husserl an internalist; perhaps these interlocutors are basing their evaluation on Husserl’s own comments.
Zahavi finishes the section on the Investigations by questioning whether one should react to the metaphysical neutrality contained therein as either liberating or constricting, but then adds the embracing and diplomatic remark that it might be both, or neither, depending on the metaphysical question under discussion. He adds that Husserl began to acknowledge that, if metaphysics is taken in the sense of more than an addendum to physical sciences, then perhaps it might be of relevance to the phenomenologist. He also thinks that there is no need to emphasise the value of the neutrality of the “Logical Investigations at the expense of Husserl’s later works” (47). So, on the one hand, Zahavi endorses the neutrality of the Logical Investigations and simultaneously proclaims its value, whilst on the other hand he paves the way for the more metaphysically relevant phenomenology which is to come with Husserl’s transcendental turn.
- Metaphysics and Phenomenology, Part 2.
In the opening of chapter 3, Zahavi draws on one commentator (Taylor Carman) who engages in a practice which is almost a rite of passage for any commentator on a post-Husserlian phenomenologist: showing how one of Husserl’s successors vastly improved on the project outlined by Husserl. These sorts of analyses almost always end up straw manning Husserl, and Zahavi is right to correct them. Zahavi recounts how Carman attributes the success of Heidegger’s project to his rejection of the method of phenomenological reduction (53). Zahavi shows that a similar account is provided by certain Merleau-Ponty commentators. Zahavi pinpoints that the inaccuracy of these accounts lies in their characterisation of the epoche and the reduction leading to solipsism and internalism (55).
Zahavi characterisation of the reduction emphasises Husserl’s comments which stress that the reduction does not involve a turning away from the world of everyday concerns, and that what is initially bracketed (i.e. the positing of the existential concrete person and the lifeworld they are in) is eventually reintroduced and accounted for. Indeed, for Husserl, it is only because phenomenology begins form the reduced ego that it can, eventually, give an accurate and expansive characterisation of the constitutive activities of consciousness and the existence of transcendental entities. The reduction is, on this reading, not an internalist shift. Zahavi will later also emphasise that, in fact, for Husserl just as the ego is the precondition for the constitution of the lifeworld, the transcendental ego is just as equally constituted by its factical engagement.
Zahavi’s discussion turns to the question of whether or not a transcendental Husserlian phenomenology, which is guided by the reduction, can contribute more to metaphysical discussions than the descriptive variety. Zahavi discusses that two prominent commentators, Crowell and Carr, both assert that the transcendental project is concerned with issues that have to do with meaning. On this rendition, because meaning is a concept which transcends being, transcendental phenomenology is thus unconcerned with reality—and metaphysics.
Contra Crowell and Carr, Zahavi argues that the latter Husserl does embrace metaphysical issues. He uses two strategies to make this claim. Firstly, Zahavi quotes a number of Husserlian passages which show that he thought that phenomenology began to embrace metaphysical questions, for example, when Husserl states that phenomenology “does not exclude metaphysics as such” (64 italics removed). However, as Zahavi then states, Husserl rejected some traditional meanings of the term metaphysics, and at other times was quite equivocal about what he meant by it, so some unpacking is required to determine exactly what Husserl’s really means when he says phenomenology might involve metaphysics. Zahavi explicitly avoids one of the ways that Husserl spelled out the claim that phenomenology did metaphysics (i.e. via the exploration of themes related to the ethical-religious domain and the immortality of the soul).
Instead, Zahavi sticks with the sense in which metaphysics is defined as pertaining “to the realism-idealism issue, i.e. to the issue of whether reality is mind-independent or not” (65). It is therefore surprising that an argument Zahavi makes is that Husserlian phenomenology is relevant to metaphysics in this sense because, if phenomenology had no metaphysical implications, then it could not reject both realism and idealism so unequivocally. The odd thing is that that Zahavi has just argued that, because Husserl rejected both of these positions in the Investigations, the early descriptive project is metaphysically neutral. Here he seems to argue that this rejection is a reason to accept that Husserl’s philosophy has metaphysical implications.
To unpack Zahavi’s claim a little more, however, he thinks that because Husserl took a stand on the relationship between phenomena and reality, phenomenology therefore has “metaphysical implications” (74). Zahavi argues that Husserl thought there can be no ‘real’ objects, in principle unknowable, behind appearances. For Husserl, the phenomena is the thing, but taken non-naively. It is thus Husserl’s characterisation of phenomena which imports the metaphysical implications Zahavi mentions. It thus doesn’t make any sense to talk about some other Ding-an-Sich behind the phenomena; it is nonsensical to say that the Kantian thing-in-itself exists.
As Zahavi notes, for Husserl “the topics of existence and non-existence, of being and non-being, are… themes addressed under the broadly understood titles of reason and unreason” (66). So, questions concerning the existence of the thing-in-itself can be referred to our account of the rational experience of objects in the world. According to this account, for Husserl ‘existence’ entails the possibility of an experience which provides evidence for a thing. The possibility of this experience, however, must be a real and motivated one, and belong to the horizon of an actually existing consciousness. It must not be a purely empty and formal possibility. Put another way, the world and nature cannot be said to exist unless there is an actual ego which also exists that can, in principle at least, experience this world in a rationally coherent way. Thus, “reason, being, and truth are inextricably linked” (72). And so, as a result, we can deny the possibility of a mind independent and in principle unknowable reality, and we can also deny any form of global scepticism. Ontological realism and epistemological idealism are both false. I was left a little uncertain how this position is any less neutral than the one advocated for in the Logical Investigations.
The section on metaphysics can be subject to the criticism that Zahavi proceeds to cite Husserl’s text on a particular issue, and rarely provides any further argumentation or clarification. For example, Zahavi notes that Husserl states that it “is impossible to elude the extensive evidence that true being as well only has its meaning as the correlate of a particular intentionality of reason” (72). One is left wondering what evidence Husserl could possibly be referring to, and therefore why we ought to accept this enigmatic claim. Elsewhere, Zahavi states that “the decisive issue is not whether Husserl was justified in rejecting global scepticism, but simply that he did reject the very possibility of reality being fundamentally unknowable” (73). This is perhaps the decisive issue within the (narrow exegetical) context of Zahavi’s discussions. But surely Zahavi recognises that a lot hinges on Husserl’s justification for his position, especially within the context of the project of keeping Husserl’s philosophy relevant.
In fact, towards the end of the work, Zahavi shows that he is aware of this objection. He states that his “aim in the foregoing text has been to elucidate and clarify Husserl’s position, rather than to defend it or provide independent arguments for it” (208). And it is really the final chapter, when Zahavi places Husserl’s phenomenology in confrontation with speculative realism, that his detailed exegesis of metaphysics bears serious polemical fruit. But even then, what one could take away from these later sections is that certain interpretations of Husserl are incorrect, and that perhaps Husserl’s position is more coherent or valuable than that of the speculative realists. Zahavi is aware of the need for more detailed and concrete analyses than the ones he has provided, and even notes that Husserl “remained unsatisfied ‘as long as the large banknotes and bills are not turned into small change’ (Hua Dok 3-V/56). A comprehensive appraisal of his philosophical impact would certainly have to engage in a detailed study of the lifeworld, intentionality, time-consciousness, affectivity, embodiment, empathy, etc.” (211). Such small change can only be rendered by a close examination of the things themselves, however.
- Internalism vs. Externalism, Part 1.
The fourth chapter aims to situate transcendental Husserlian phenomenology within the context of the internalism vs. externalism debate. Zahavi notes that several commentators (namely, Rowlands, Dreyfus, Carman, and McIntyre) have considered Husserl an “archetypal internalist” (79), often using Husserl’s position as a foil to later phenomenologist like Sartre or Heidegger. Zahavi traces this conception of Husserl to the West coast ‘Fregean’ interpretation of the noema. Zahavi strategy, as he states (82), is not to argue for the East coast interpretation (he considers this issue settled, has addressed it in earlier books (Zahavi, 2003), and provides references for the works he considers decisive on this issue). He shows, instead, that if the East coast interpretation is correct, then Husserl is not so much of an archetypal internalist after all.
According to Zahavi and the East coast interpretation, the noema is not an extraordinary (i.e. abstract) object. It is not a concept, or a sense, or a propositional content. It is an ordinary object, but considered in an extraordinary (phenomenological) attitude. There is not an ontological difference between the object and the noema, but a structural difference only recognised post reduction. Thus, the reduction does not shift our focus from worldly objects to intra-mental representational (i.e. semantic) content of some sort, via which an act is directed to the aforementioned worldly objects. No, the reduction reveals that consciousness is correlated with worldly objects which themselves bear the content that is presented in intentional acts (83-84).
Zahavi then discusses that the West coast critique of the East coast interpretation would align Husserl with modern day disjunctivism, because of the trouble in accounting for non-veridical experiences like hallucinations. In short, if perception is just of ordinary objects as the East coast interpretation maintains, and there is no internal representational mediator (as disjunctivists agree), then what accounts for the difference between veridical and non-veridical experiences which seem indistinguishable?
Zahavi observes that Husserl distinguishes between two experiences which contain objects that seem the same, but are not. Thus, if I look at an object, and then the object is replaced unbeknownst to me as I close my eyes, then even though upon opening my eyes I think my perception is of the same object, Husserl makes a distinction between the two perceptions, because the object they intend are not identical. Thus, an experience in which an existing object and a seemingly existing (but hallucinatory) object are given are not identical either, even if they seem so. This response is paired with the more experientially based point that hallucinations and perceptions do not, in fact, ever seem the same. A perceptual experience is one which is given within a horizon that unfolds over time, and is intersubjectively verifiable. Hallucinations do not meet these experiential criterions (87-88).
These passages contain convincing arguments for Husserl’s position that could be brought to bear on the contemporary debate between conjunctivists and disjunctivists, but ignore recent work by Overgaard. Overgaard claims that “Husserl believes illusions and hallucinations can be indistinguishable from genuine, veridical perceptions. Husserl grants ‘the possibility of an exactly correspondent illusion’ (Hua XIX/1, 458 ), and maintains that ‘differences of […] veridical and delusive perception, do not affect the internal, purely descriptive (or phenomenological) character of perception’ (Hua XIX/1, 358 )” (Overgaard, 2018, 36).
Zahavi spends some time recounting various passages which are favoured by the East and West coast schools respectively. He lends his support to Fink’s interpretation, according to which the noema can be considered in both a transcendental and psychological context, and he claims that the fault of the West coast school is taking it solely in the latter. Importantly, he says that grasping the transcendental rendition of the noema is predicated on a proper understanding of the transcendental aspects of the reduction. The transcendental function of the reduction is to collapse the distinction between the reality and being of worldly objects and their “constituted validity and significance” (92). It is the West coast, overly psychological reading of the reduction as an internalist form of methodological solipsism which leads them to an internalist rendering of the noema as an intra psychic representational entity.
During the discussion of the noema, the inconsistency and lack of clarity concerning Husserl’s own work on this topic lurks in the background. The simple fact is, Husserl’s doctrine of the noema is sometimes unclear, on either the West or East coast interpretation, and leaves many questions unanswered. Zahavi acknowledges this when he discusses Bernet’s article that outlines “no fewer than three different concepts of the noema” (93). At this point, Zahavi toys with the conciliatory idea that perhaps there is support for both the East and West Coast reading. What Zahavi decides is that we should seek Husserl’s mature view, and one which coheres with the rest of his ideas. However, perhaps this affords Husserl too much charity; I suspect an outsider to Husserlian phenomenology would conclude as much. Perhaps the correct conclusion is that Husserl’s doctrine of the noema is confused.
Either way, Zahavi concludes that, if internalism is defined as the theory that our access to the world is mediated and conditioned by internal representations, then we can conclude Husserl is not an internalist (94), assuming one follows Zahavi’s interpretive approach to the reduction and the noema. If the reduction is seen clearly, and the distinction between objects in the world and noemata is partially collapsed, it cannot be maintained that the subject who intends a noema is cocooned in their own internal representational prison which is disjointed from the world. For Husserl, objects/meanings are actually in the world, and correlated with consciousness, which is a centre for disclosure (94).
- Internalism vs. Externalism, Part 2.
The next objection Zahavi addresses is that the foregoing discussion cannot be reconciled with the fact that Husserl’s is a self-confessed transcendental idealist, and ergo an internalist. Thus, like much of the book, we return to the theme of attempting to unravel exactly what Husserl’s transcendental idealism amounts to. In this section, Zahavi explores two crucial aspects to this problem: 1) understanding the constitutive relationship. 2) Understanding key passages from Ideas 1. My review will end with a discussion of these points.
Regarding the first point, Zahavi’s thinks that we should divorce the notion of constitutive dependence from substance metaphysics. The orld does not depend on one type of substance or another for its constitution. For Husserl, the world does not supervene or reduce to some other type of substance, but depends on being known. In this sense, transcendental “idealism is not participating in… the debate between monists and dualists. Its adversary is not materialism, but objectivism” (102). In the end of this discussion, Zahavi seems also suggests that there is an bidirectional constitutive correlation between consciousness and world (102), something he again suggests in latter passages concerning the factical embeddedness of consciousness (section 4.4). In this sense, Husserl’s thesis of constitution is less internalist than might be assumed, as the world constitutes consciousness as much as vice versa.
Zahavi then turns his attention to discussing the passages in sections 47-55 of Ideas 1 which contain some of Husserl’s most strident commitments to idealism. He mentions the notorious section 49, wherein Husserl claims that consciousness subsists after the annihilation of the world. How are we to square this with Husserl’s purported externalism? Zahavi argues that the best way to interpret this passage is that it expresses Husserl’s commitment to two theses: firstly, that some form of consciousness is non-intentional and, secondly, it is the intentional form of consciousness which is “world involving”, i.e. inextricably correlated with the world. Thus, if the world were annihilated, then intentional consciousness would cease, but if consciousness per se is divorced from intentional consciousness, then some form of consciousness could survive this cessation. So, Husserl can maintain that some form of consciousness is ‘externalised’, whilst another form of consciousness is independent from world experience.
Zahavi then turns to Husserl’s claim (found in section 54) that the being of consciousness is absolute, whilst the being of the world is only ever relative. How can we reconcile this with an externalism that avoids affirming consciousness at the expense of the reality of the world? Zahavi’s controversially rejects the traditional interpretation of this passage, according to which in making this claim Husserl means that consciousness is given absolutely and not via adumbrations, unlike spatial objects which are always adumbrated. Zahavi claims that this reading “falls short” (105), but (surprisingly) never mentions how.
Zahavi’s alternate reading is that Husserl most often talks about the absolute in the context of inner time consciousness. Zahavi claims that the absoluteness of temporal consciousness is intimately linked with the prereflectiveness of consciousness, and that we ought to interpret Husserl’s comments concerning the absolute being of consciousness to mean that consciousness is always prereflectively given. Zahavi is right that sometimes Husserl speaks of the absolute in this context. But this is not really the context in which the passage in question in Ideas 1 occurs.
In section 42 and 44 of Ideas 1, Husserl explicitly connects modes of givenness (i.e. adumbrated vs. non-adumbrated) with modes of being (i.e. contingent vs. absolute). For example, he says that every perception of a mental process is “a simple seeing of something that is (or can become) perceptually given as something absolute” (Husserl, 1983, 95). Note the phraseology: given as absolute. In section 54, Husserl states that transcendental consciousness survives even after psychic life has been dissolved and annulled. The central contrast which Husserl makes in this passage is that even intentional psychological life, and the life of the Ego, is relative when compared to pure or absolute nature of transcendental consciousness. Zahavi is right that Husserl may here may be thinking of the prereflective givenness of the absolute temporal flow. But Husserl does not name what remains after consciousness has been divorced from psychological egological life. He nowhere here mentions concepts like the temporal stream and prereflective consciousness.
So, another parsimonious interpretation is that Husserl talks about the absolute in two contexts, one relating to the connection between modes of givenness and modes of being, and one relating to the different strata of temporal consciousness and prereflective givenness. Now, one might argue that Husserl ultimately sees one context as foundational for the other. In fact, Zahavi has shown elsewhere that Husserl certainly thinks that the capacity to reflect presupposes prereflective consciousness, and in Ideas 1 Husserl says that the “‘absolute’ which we have brought about by the reduction… [i.e. pure consciousness] has its source in what is ultimately and truly absolute”, i.e. temporal flow (Husserl, 1983, 192) . However, Husserl then notes the current discussion has thus far “remained silent” concerning this ultimate absolute, and that we can, for now, “leave out of account the enigma of consciousness of time” (Ibid, 194), barring a cursory account of the threefold structure of temporality. And so, it’s difficult to see how we should read the passages in section 54 as concerning the absoluteness of temporality, as Husserl explicit directs us away from this theme in Ideas 1. And, I don’t think we can direct discussions about reflective givenness to a discussion of temporality (and on to prereflectiveness) without further ado, as Zahavi seems to do here.
I just don’t think the selected passage from Ideas 1 is the best way to get to a discussion of temporal consciousness and prereflective givenness in relation to the concept of the absolute. Zahavi chooses to take this direction because he is concerned that the traditional reading of these passages puts Husserl in the position of a metaphysical or absolute idealist (105). My final point is that this need not be the case as, even on the traditional reading, Husserl’s talk of the ‘absolute’ in Ideas 1 is not leading to an ontological claim. Because, the thesis that consciousness is given absolutely in reflective acts could just as well be labelled a descriptive one, as it rests on a distinction between modes of access to states of consciousness.
Husserl, E. (1983). Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology. (F. Kersten, Trans.). The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Overgaard, S. (2018). Perceptual Error, Conjunctivism, and Husserl. Husserl Studies, 34(1), 25-45. doi:10.1007/s10743-017-9215-2.
Zahavi, D. (2003). Husserl’s Phenomenology. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Zahavi, D. (2005). Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective. Cambridge: MIT Press.