Although his admiration for the British philosophical tradition is widely recognised, Brentano’s antipathy to classical German philosophy is no less well-known. That Brentano may be at all committed to the construction of a grand system in the tradition of Kant or Hegel seems to run contrary to the most basic wisdom regarding this pivotal figure in the history of the phenomenological movement, and several of his most well-regarded interpreters have explicitly rejected any suggestion that he might helpfully be understood as a systematic philosopher. This, however, is precisely the claim which Uriah Kriegel defends with such force and clarity in his impressive study, Brentano’s Philosophical System: Mind, Being, Value. According to Kriegel, Brentano ranks amongst the greatest systematic philosophers of the Western tradition, offering a comprehensive account of the true, the good, and the beautiful, ultimately grounded in an understanding of the modes of consciousness which facilitate the mental representation of these ideals.
In spite of his systematic aspirations, however, Brentano’s philosophical style bears closer comparison to the analytic tradition than to the works of Kant and his idealist successors, according to Kriegel. Indeed, Brentano is, for Kriegel, a kind of analytic philosopher avant la lettre, whose concerns and priorities belong not to an outmoded nineteenth-century agenda, but to the domain of contemporary philosophy. There remains, however, a sense in which Brentano has less in common with analytic philosophy than with its nineteenth century predecessors, insofar as his focus is very firmly upon consciousness rather than language as the principal object of philosophical investigation. Brentano does not participate in the linguistic turn which is partly constitutive of the switch from idealist to analytic philosophy, and his focus on consciousness is an enormous part of his legacy to later phenomenologists (with the possible exception of Heidegger and his followers). This is, however, something of a pedantic objection, and Kriegel leaves little doubt that Brentano’s philosophical style is one which should make his work accessible to contemporary analytic philosophers. Across nine well-argued and engaging chapters, Kriegel elucidates Brentano’s compelling and highly original contributions to philosophy of mind, metametaphysics, metaethics, normative ethics and other fields of current philosophical interest, repeatedly showing that Brentano merits a place in contemporary debates within each of these thriving areas. As such, Kriegel’s study should be of interest not only to scholars of Brentano and early phenomenology, but also to researchers in several areas of contemporary analytic philosophy.
Part One, ‘Mind’, opens with a chapter on ‘Consciousness’. For Kriegel, Brentano’s interest in consciousness is an interest in what today’s philosophers of mind call ‘phenomenal consciousness’ – its felt qualitative character. As such, many of Brentano’s remarks concerning consciousness rest ultimately upon appeals to phenomena with which it is assumed that all subjects are immediately acquainted insofar as they are conscious at all. According to what Kriegel calls Brentano’s ‘awareness principle’, one cannot be conscious without being conscious of being conscious. Such awareness of one’s own mental states is the source, Brentano maintains, of immediate and infallible self-knowledge resulting from what he famously labels as ‘inner perception’ and distinguishes from introspection or ‘inner observation’.
In an impressive display of scholarly engagement with the relevant primary and secondary literature, Kriegel advocates a novel and compelling interpretation of Brentano’s position, according to which the same mental state may be viewed either as the ‘consciousness of x’ or as the ‘consciousness of the consciousness of x’. As such, inner perception owes its unique epistemic merits to the identity between (i) a conscious state and (ii) the consciousness of that very state. Kriegel clearly distinguishes his interpretation from those offered by other Brentano scholars, such as Textor. Moreover, Kriegel credits Brentano with a position which he argues is more compelling than many modern theories of consciousness, such that Brentano’s approach is of more than merely historical interest.
Kriegel also notes however, the implausibility of Brentano’s commitment to the co-extensionality of mental states and conscious states. As he aims to show throughout the remaining chapters however, this is a position which may be excised from Brentano’s system with minimal repercussions. All the same, Kriegel maintains, it is important to note that Brentano’s philosophy of mind is, for this reason, more properly a philosophy of consciousness.
In Chapter Two, ‘Intentionality’, Kriegel advances an original interpretation of the concept with which Brentano’s name is most associated. Parting company with widely-held ‘immanentist’ interpretations, such as Crane’s, Kriegel denies that Brentano understands intentionality as a relation between a mental act and a subjective content internal to that act. Indeed, according to Kriegel’s ‘subjectist’ interpretation, intentionality is not, for Brentano, a relation at all, but a modification of the subject. Their misleading surface grammar notwithstanding, sentences appearing to commit one to the existence of a relation between a conscious state and an object thereof are more accurately understood as statements concerning a condition of the subject, according to Kriegel. As he interprets Brentano, non-veridical experiences have no intentional object at all, Kriegel maintains, rather than a merely private intentional object. To think of dragons, then, is not to be related to a fictitious object but to inhabit a state of a certain kind. By the same token, it is not constitutive of one’s thinking about the Eiffel Tower that it is indeed the intentional object of such a mental state. All that matters, in either case, according to Kriegel, is that the subject occupies such a state that, were certain conditions to be satisfied, that state would have an intentional object. Talk of ‘merely intentional objects’ is, as Kriegel understands Brentano, admissible only as a convenient fiction, as shorthand for the unsatisfied veridicality-conditions of some mental state.
While it is distinct from adverbialism, according to Kriegel, the position thus attributed to Brentano may, he acknowledges, appear vulnerable to an objection similar to that which Moran raises against the adverbialist. The last part of the chapter offers an answer to this revised criticism, showing again that Brentano’s views remain plausible. Kriegel proceeds with clarity and precision throughout in recognisably analytical fashion.
Chapter Three concludes Part One with a detailed account of Brentano’s taxonomy of the various kinds of conscious states. As Kriegel notes, Brentano’s interest in the systematic classification of mental states – and its centrality to his philosophical project – is characteristic of the taxonomically-fixated nineteenth century, but seems quite foreign to the priorities of contemporary philosophers of mind in the analytic tradition. Kriegel further remarks that Brentano is in disagreement with late twentieth and early twenty-first century orthodoxies in consequence of his anti-functionalist classification of mental states according to attitudinal properties rather than inferential role. Related to such anti-functionalism is Brentano’s notorious claim that disbelief-that-p is not equivalent to belief that not-p – a position starkly opposed to Frege’s.
All the same, Kriegel maintains, Brentano’s philosophy of mind loses much of its unfamiliar appearance when the scope of its claims are limited to the domain of the conscious, whereupon they become compatible with a broader functionalist outlook. With slight qualifications, Brenatano’s foundational distinction between judgement and interest may be understood to correspond to a familiar distinction between mental states, on the one hand, with a mind-to-world direction of fit and those, on the other, with a world-to-mind direction of fit. Brentano treats the distinction between propositional and non-propositional content as of secondary importance, however, and Kriegel takes it that there is nothing in contemporary classifications of the mental corresponding to Brentano’s treatment of presentation as a category of phenomena no less fundamental than judgement or interest. Much of chapter three is devoted to a reconstruction and defence of Brentano’s commitment to such an account of presentation – a position which Kriegel regards as persuasive and correct, but detachable from the rest of the Brentantian system without need for significant revisions elsewhere. Judgement and interest, however, remain of crucial systematic importance, according to Kriegel.
The second part of Kriegel’s fascinating and well-argued study concerns Brentano’s metaphysics, opening with a chapter on ‘Judgement’. As Kriegel re-iterates, Brentano’s account of judgement differs radically from more familiar theories in several respects. Firstly, no judgement is ever merely predicative, according to Brentano, but every judgement either affirms or denies something’s existence. Secondly, affirmative and negative judgements differ not in content but in attitude, and are therefore able to share the same content. Thirdly, the content of any judgement is always some putative individual object, rather than a proposition or state of affairs. In spite of its remarkable heterodoxy, however, Kriegel judges that Brentano’s account is astonishingly compelling and can be defended against several possible objections while facilitating a nominalistic ontology which is likely to appeal to current trends of metaphysical opinion. Kriegel ably and methodically proceeds to assess the prospects for Brentanian paraphrases for various forms of judgement, aiming in each case to show whether that judgement is reducible to an affirmation or denial of some particular object’s existence. In most cases, Kriegel maintains, adequate paraphrases are indeed available, although he expresses some doubt that such paraphrases accurately match the phenomenology involved in judgements of that kind. According to Kriegel, the best available Brentanian paraphrase of the negative compound judgement “~ (p & q)” would be something along the lines of “there does not exist any sum of a correct belief in p and a correct belief in q”. While respecting the strictures of Brentano’s theory of judgement, Kriegel maintains, such a conceptually elaborate paraphrase – which involves second-order beliefs – is questionable as a description of the conscious experience involved in the judgement, “~ (p & q)”: a potential shortcoming in a theory alleged to rest upon no other foundation than the accurate description of immediately accessible conscious states.
Brentano’s metaontology – his account of what one does when one commits to the existence of something – provides the focus for Chapter Five. After summarising what he takes to be the three most prominent approaches in contemporary metaontology – those which he attributes to Meinong, Frege, and Williamson – Kriegel proceeds to distinguish Brentano’s position from each of these. Unlike any of the more familiar positions, Brentanto’s holds that nothing is predicated of anything – whether a subject or a first-order property – when something is said to exist. Rather, to say that something exists is to say that it is a fitting object of a certain kind of mental attitude – that of belief-in, or affirmative judgement. To say that x is a fitting object of belief-in, moreover, is to say that were a subject capable of deciding the matter on the basis of self-evidence then the attitude they would take to x would be one of belief-in. In view of serious problems attending Brentano’s analysis of belief-fittingness in terms of hypothetical self-evidence, however, Kriegel offers the revisionary proposal that belief-fittingness be understood as no less primitive than self-evidence. Belief-fittingness would be unanalysable in that case, although particular instances of belief-fittingness would be distinguishable by comparison against contrasting cases.
It is, for Kriegel, a liability of Brentano’s position that, by interpreting existence-statements as disguised normative claims, it fails to accommodate the phenomenology of such judgements, which do not seem at all, to those who make them, like statements about the mental attitude appropriate to one or another intentional object. Nonetheless, Kriegel maintains, Brentano’s position impressively circumvents a host of problems which have confronted the three most familiar metaontological approaches, and is entirely unburdened by any implicit commitment to objects which lack the property of existence without failing to qualify as beings of another exotic variety.
Brentano’s unorthodox theory of judgement and metaontology are largely motivated by a strong aversion to abstract entities, and it is to the nominalistic upshot of these Brentanian innovations that Kriegel turns his attention in chapter six. As Kriegel explains, however, Brentano’s ‘reism’ is quite unlike familiar ‘ostrich’ and ‘paraphrase’ forms of nominalism and is not vulnerable to the kinds of objection which have often been raised against such positions. As a form of ‘strict’ nominalism, it is not only abstracta which Brentano’s position rejects, but also universals, such that the Brentanian ontology condones no other entities than concrete particulars. The truth-maker for “Beyoncé is famous”, to take one of Kriegel’s own examples, is not a proposition or state of affairs, but the concrete particular “famous-Beyoncé”. “Famous-Beyoncé” is a curious entity, however, being co-located with a host of other complex concrete particulars, each of which makes true a certain statement about one and the same Beyoncé to which they are related as accidents of a substance.
Kriegel readily acknowledges, however, that a number of counter-intuitive commitments result from Brentano’s ‘coincidence model’. While recognising Beyoncé as a proper part of Famous-Beyoncé, Brentano is unwilling to risk the admission of abstract entities into his ontology by permitting Famous-Beyoncé to consist of any other proper part than Beyoncé. Although he thereby avoids any commitment to an abstract ‘fame’ supplement, the addition of which to Beyoncé results in Famous-Beyoncé, Brentano is also driven to the odd result that Beyoncé is a proper part without need of supplementation by any further part – a conclusion firmly at odds with the principles of classical mereology. In spite of its shortcomings, however, Brentano’s reism is, according to Kriegel, at least as plausible as any of the nominalist positions currently available, and provides a novel response to the truth-maker challenge.
With Part Three, ‘Value’, Kriegel turns his attention to Brentano’s much-overlooked account of the good. Chapter Seven offers an inventory of the main forms of interest – that basic genre of conscious states, all of the species of which present their objects as either good or bad in some way. Much as Brentano’s metaphysics rests upon his analysis of judgement, so does his theory of value bear a similar relation to his account of interest in its various forms – such as emotion, volition, and pleasure/displeasure. Because Brentano did not complete the projected Book V of his Psychology, in which he had intended to focus on interest in general, several of Kriegel’s proposals in this chapter are offered as ‘Brentanian in spirit’ and Kriegel is forthcoming in appealing to various scattered primary texts in supporting an interpretation of Brentano which he admits may seem anachronistic in its terminology and dialectical agenda.
All the same, Kriegel persuasively shows that Brentano’s works provide the resources for a distinction between will and emotion which respects their common evaluative-attitudinal status. Kriegel develops Brentano’s somewhat sketchy distinction between interests in compatible and incompatible goods by distinguishing between presenting-as-prima-facie-good and presenting-as-ultima-facie-good. Before deciding between incompatible alternatives, both might be emotionally presented as similarly good or bad, but one cannot rationally have incompatible alternatives as an object of volition. Volition differs from emotion, therefore, by presenting its object as ultima facie good, to the exclusion of objects with which it is incompatible. Although he does not suppose that Brentano would draw the distinction in such a fashion, Kriegel also maintains that pleasure and displeasure may be distinguished from emotions in a Brentanian spirit by treating algedonic states as presenting-as-immediately-present some good or ill, whereas emotions do not distinguish, in the presentation of an object, between present and absent goods.
Proceeding in chapter eight to an account of Brentano’s metaethics, Kriegel argues that Brentano may qualify as the original fitting attitude theorist. To call something ‘good’, according to Brentano, is to say that it is fitting to adopt a pro-attitude towards that thing. As such, the good is to interest, for Brentano, as the true is to judgement. The analogue for self-evidence, with respect to interest, is what Kriegel terms ‘self-imposition’ – a feature of those positive or negative value-assessments which irresistibly command our agreement, and which is directly available to inner perception. Those interests are fitting, Brentano maintains, which are either self-imposing or which would be given in inner perception to any subject with a self-imposing attitude towards the intentional object in question.
While highlighting the originality of Brentano’s metaethics – which he claims to anticipate Moore’s celebrated open question argument in certain important respects – Kriegel views self-imposition as a liability for Brentano, inasmuch as it is tasked with both normative and psychological-descriptive functions. For Kriegel, Brentano’s metaethics is an unstable combination of naturalist and non-naturalist features. Nonetheless, Kriegel shows Brentano to argue compellingly against a number of rival accounts and to circumvent certain difficulties which confront such competitors. What is more, Kriegel helpfully locates Brentano’s metaethics within a wider systematic context, returning throughout to parallels between his fitting attitude accounts of judgement and interest. Brentano’s aesthetics, or theory of beauty, is also seen to occupy a location within the same system and to involve a ‘fitting delight’ account, according to which that is beautiful the contemplation of which is itself the fitting object of a pro-attitude. The beautiful is therefore a species of the good, as Kriegel understands Brentano, and is distinct from moral value insofar as it involves the adoption of a pro-attitude towards the contemplation of a presentation.
With the ninth and final chapter, Kriegel turns his focus to Brentano’s normative ethics. Brentano is shown to advocate a pluralistic consequentialism which recognises four intrinsic goods: consciousness, pleasure, knowledge, and fitting attitudes. Whatever is instrumentally valuable in promoting the realisation of these intrinsic goods is therefore of derivative value, according to Brentano, and the right course of action to pursue in any given situation is that from which the greatest good shall result. Although he admits pleasure as an unconditional good – irrespective of its source – Brentano avoids certain counter-intuitive implications of cruder consequentialist positions by acknowledging fitting attitudes as further intrinsic goods. As such, Brentano can admit painful feelings of guilt at one’s own wrongdoing as being of intrinsic value. Whereas, however, Kantians can deny that there is any value in a pleasure derived from wrongdoing, this option is not open to Brentano, for whom the issue of weighing the various goods against one another therefore becomes especially pressing.
Kriegel takes Brentano to face a challenge here, however, and expresses concern that Brentano’s ethics may be unhelpful as a guide to moral action. Having highlighted, in the previous chapter, certain difficulties confronting the notion of self-imposition, Kriegel notes that it is to this same concept that Brentano appeals in attempting to distinguish between which of any two goods is preferable to the other. The fitting preference in any such case is that which the subject would take were their attitude self-imposing, but Kriegel argues that for most such comparisons this moral equivalent of self-evidence will presuppose a measure of knowledge unavailable to any recognisably human agent. As Kriegel observes, it is of little use to advise someone to act as they would were they endowed with perfect impartiality and all of the facts relevant to the case in question.
There is much to recommend Kriegel’s ambitious and scholarly text, which certainly achieves its stated task of demonstrating Brentano’s relevance for contemporary debates across several fields of analytic philosophy. Kriegel impressively avoids the dual perils which confront the historian of philosophy, by locating Brentano’s original contributions within their historical context without, however, denying their relevance to today’s debates. Kriegel perhaps sails uncomfortably close, for some tastes, to an anachronistic reading of Brentano’s arguments and commitments, by phrasing these in terms of a conceptual vocabulary which owes much to late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Century analytic philosophy. Kriegel is forthcoming, however, in admitting his departures from the letter of the relevant Brentanian texts in order to facilitate comparisons between Brentano’s positions and those of more contemporary analytic philosophers. Kriegel also admits to contributing ‘Brentanian’ theses of his own where necessary, in order to fill certain gaps in Brentano’s system or to accommodate objections which Brentano did not anticipate. As such, Kriegel’s account is explicitly revisionary in certain places, such as his recommendations concerning the nature of ‘fittingness’ and his proposals concerning a Brentanian aesthetics. At no point, however, does Kriegel depart significantly from Brentano’s stated position without having already clearly motivated the appeal of a broadly Brentanian contribution to some on-going philosophical debate.
If Kriegel’s Brentano is too much the analytic philosopher for some historians of the phenomenological movement then no doubt he is too much of a system-builder for others. As Kriegel recognises, Brentano’s works are not typically regarded as contributions to a systematic philosophical enterprise, and much of Kriegel’s effort is devoted to correcting this oversight. Here too, Kriegel admits to making ‘Brentanian’ contributions of his own in order to clarify possible links between different parts of Brentano’s system and to provide possible details for areas which Brentano himself left only in outline sketches. That Brentano’s various contributions to ontology, metametaphysics, metaethics, normative ethics and other fields merit interpretation as parts of an overarching system is left in no doubt, however, and this would be sufficient achievement for Kriegel’s impressive monograph, were it not also to highlight the originality and insight which Brentano brought to each of these fields. Most importantly, however, Kriegel admirably shows Brentano’s work to deserve the attention of researchers in several areas of philosophical research, and to reward careful study not only by historians of philosophy and scholars of phenomenology, but also contemporary analytic philosophers.
The introduction of The Subject(s) of Phenomenology: Rereading Husserl wastes no time getting down to the nitty gritty. Iulian Apostolescu begins the volume immediately by setting the stage with two of the most common and difficult problems that Husserl scholars must grapple with. First, while the main subject matter of Husserl’s phenomenology can be said to be the subject, this is understood to mean the pure field of transcendental subjectivity. (The precise nature of what this means and entails is very murky, and depending which phase of Husserl you read, the answer can change.) Gather several Husserlians in a room to represent the span of his early works through to the posthumous pieces, and you will get a variety of answers to the question, “What is the subject of phenomenology?” Husserl’s work covers such a wide variety of themes and ties into so many other figures and fields, that you get a rather stunning plurality of topics. Second, attempting to carry out Husserl’s famous demand that we must return to things themselves, proves to be not as simple as it sounds, and the phenomenological method he developed is not always the easiest tool to implement. And let us not forget the debates about the phenomenological reduction. Taking this all in, the reader quickly understands what this volume will be attempting to do: (1) inspire new discussion about what phenomenology is and what its subject is; (2) critically engage with, and at times pose challenges to, the predominant interpretations of Husserl that have great hold in philosophy; and finally, (3) extend phenomenology into the twenty-first century and see how it handles the issues that occupy contemporary scholars. No small feat, indeed.
Apostolescu has gathered a diverse group of authors from across the globe, both young and established phenomenology scholars, and this gives the volume a feeling of great breadth and weight. It is organized into three parts that set up a fantastic flow, taking the reader first through discussions dealing with the fundamentals (The Phenomenological Project: Definitions and Scope), and then onto specific aspects and issues of Husserl’s phenomenology (The Unfolding of Phenomenological Philosophy), and lastly to the outer limits, where it is applied to some new contexts (At the Limits of Phenomenology: Towards a Phenomenology as Philosophy of Limits). Each part is jam-packed with a variety of chapters that provide a unique moment to encounter Husserl but in a connected fashion that feels cohesive and grounded.
The chapter that drew me immediately was ‘Does Husserl’s Phenomenological Idealism Lead to Pluralistic Solipsism? Assessing the Criticism by Theodor Celms.’ Mainly, this is due to the fact that Celms is rather obscure, and his criticism of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenological idealism is so rarely discussed in literature (especially English scholarship). Parker does a masterful job of acquainting the reader with the context through which Celms’ critical writing emerges, beginning with the criticisms of Husserl’s idealism by his early students after Ideas (1913) was published, and then moving into the charges of solipsism that Husserl had to confront in the wake of this work. Along the way, he discusses debates in the interpretations of (and misinterpretations of) Husserl’s idealism, feelings about the phenomenological reduction, and his theory of constitution. The introduction to Celms and his critical comments about Husserl is excellent and clear, and he presents both men in discussion. Overall, this chapter is important for scholars to understand the critical thoughts of those who studied with Husserl and had interactions with him shortly after the publication of Ideas.
The second contribution that struck me was Corijn van Mazijk’s ‘Transcendental Consciousness: Subject, Object, or Neither?’. The reason for this is simply that he seeks to address the question: what is transcendental consciousness? A not so simple thing to do, and yet she takes this challenge head on telling the reader that her aim is to provide a new answer. For me, this was exciting. He offers up in a detailed and clear fashion three different interpretations of transcendental consciousness, complete with their consequences and critiques of where they fall short. Along the way, he brilliantly highlights the tensions created by Husserl’s own words that have led to these interpretations. It is a fantastic read that left me feeling validated with respect to any confusion I had experienced regarding the transcendental consciousness. For myself, an early phenomenology scholar, it was also helpful in acting as a kind of foothold to move through this difficult, somewhat unfamiliar discussion, and it allowed me to arrive at my own position on things with a greater degree of clarity.
Saulius Geniusas’ chapter ‘What is Productive Imagination? The Hidden Resources of Husserl’s Phenomenology of Phantasy’ is another one that caught my eye. I have always found the discussions of the structures of the mind to be incredibly intriguing and exciting, and the imagination is definitely one of my favourite topics. So, when I saw the title of this one, I thought – did Husserl talk about productive imagination? After the abstract, I was hooked. The heart of Geniusas’ piece is phantasy, an intriguing and important concept of Husserl’s, and he demonstrates how it can be a reproductive mode of consciousness. He brings memory into the discussion and shows how both it and phantasy produce patterns of meaning that ultimately can be transferred to and thus play a major role in shaping our subjective experience of others and the world around us. He has a compelling argument here for how phantasy can be understood as productive imagination, and it is one I will revisit later for further reflection. The Kantian side of me cannot deny a good structural analysis!
I should also mention Keith Whitmoyer’s ‘Husserl and His Shadows: Phenomenology After Merleau-Ponty.’ This article was incredibly helpful and fascinating, to me, and to anyone, I imagine, more ensconced in early phenomenology. I have a new appreciation for Levinas as well as Merleau-Ponty because of this chapter.
In summation, I highly recommend this book. I must say I have rarely encountered an introduction that sets the stage so well for what is to come. As an editor, Apostolescu has really done an excellent job with this volume. The chapters cover a vast array of Husserl’s topics and ideas, and that means a scholar of any phase of Husserl will find something inspiring or enlightening. This volume is definitely not intended for the inexperienced Husserl reader or a junior scholar, and that is a big part of its appeal. It is a thoroughly rigorous and intellectually stimulating work filled with articles for the researcher who knows Husserl well but leaves space for new ways of becoming acquainted with texts and his ideas. Many of the most difficult topics or perplexing concepts in Husserl are found here, and that makes for a challenging yet enjoyable read. And on that point, it is not an easy read by any means; it is not a volume to approach after several hours of Zoom lecturing and your attention span diminished or your eyes feeling as if on fire. Sometimes I felt very ‘mind-full’ after reading a chapter, and it was hard to move on to read anything more: I had to sit and toss around inside my head what was argued, and then often I would go dig up some Husserl volumes to further reflect and find my bearings and opinions. Some chapters had details about Husserl’s phenomenology I was only vaguely familiar with, and so they inspired me to turn that primary text for a further look [Note: my area of expertise is early Husserl and so anything after the 1920s is a very distant graduate student memory to me. This might change though after this book.] This is the first book in a long while that I couldn’t read quickly. I deeply enjoy books like this – they remind me why I became a scholar and what it means to truly critically read an article and have a dialogue with it. This book demands a high degree of attention, and it is hard to do that when your brain aches. Mind you, it is hard to read Husserl when your brain aches anyway. However, I am confident that dedicated Husserl and/or phenomenology scholars will thoroughly enjoy this volume, and this book will become a treasure in the collection.
The decisive influence of McDowell in shaping the contemporary debate over non-conceptual content is well known. After the release of Mind and World (1994), almost any attempt to assign non-conceptuality to the contents of perception had to engage with McDowell’s conceptualist model of experience. The rich discussions inspired by conceptualism in the current literature on non-conceptual content, however, often ignore the original philosophical motivation behind McDowell’s thesis, or so goes the premise of Van Mazijk’s new book Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell (2020). This motivation comes from the tradition initiated by Kant in the 18th century, and followed by Husserl in the late 19th, known as transcendental philosophy, whose main idea is to put into question that which is the fundamental presupposition of the sciences, namely the availability of reality to us. The central aim of Van Mazijk’s book is to recover this original transcendental concern of McDowell’s thought by inserting his conceptualism within this broader tradition mainly represented by Kant and Husserl. As a result, it ends up by exploring how Kantian and Husserlian approaches of transcendental problems avoid certain inconsistencies in McDowell’s conceptualism, thus providing better alternatives for understanding the relation between mind and world.
The book is structured in three parts, each containing two chapters dealing with those thinkers’ theories of perception, since perception represents the most basic way through which the world is made available to us. Given the author’s overall aim to offer a new critique of McDowell’s thought, both Kantian and Husserlian theories of perception are analyzed through the lens of the conceptualism debate. This is made possible with the help of the distinction between weak conceptualism and strong conceptualism, which represents the key distinction of the entire book. Weak conceptualism is defined as “the view that all intuition and perception is, for us at least, open to conceptual exercise” (4), and strong conceptualism as the view that “concepts structure sense experience, and this is in fact what first makes reality perceptually available” (4). All the discussions that follow are carried out in view of this important hermeneutical tool.
The book follows historical sequence, thus beginning with Kant and ending with McDowell. The author himself, however, suggests that the chapters could be read independently of one another, and that any reader specifically interested in McDowell and in contemporary philosophy of perception could begin with the two last chapters on McDowell. I would rather suggest that readers not familiar with the contemporary discussion of conceptualism in philosophy of perception do that. This way they will better understand what is mainly at stake in the discussions with Kant and Husserl in the remaining chapters.
The first part focuses on how Kant’s transcendental philosophy provides us the tools to have an immediate access to reality, and not, e.g., an inferential one. The overall purpose is to advocate a weak conceptualist reading of Kant’s theory of perception, in opposition to, for instance, McDowell’s strong conceptualist reading of it. After introducing the basics of Kant’s theory of knowledge in the first chapter, Van Mazijk proceeds, in the second chapter, to the transcendental deduction. An adequate reading of the deduction is essential to a conceptualist interpretation of Kant’s theory. For instance, according to Van Mazijk, McDowell’s reading of the deduction is at the basis of his strong conceptualist interpretation of Kant. The author reads McDowell as stating that Kant places the dependence of sensible intuition on the categories at the same level as the dependence of it on space and time (41). This is a mistake, Van Mazijk’s points out, as the necessity of a transcendental deduction is justified precisely due to the fact that the “pure concepts, in Kant’s view, stand at a certain distance from the world; they are not sine qua non conditions for sensible intuitions in the way space and time are” (40).
Van Mazijk’s analyses of the A and B-Version of the deduction yield basically the same conclusion, namely that Kant is mainly concerned with weak conceptualism, as long as he insists that appearances have to be relatable to a unitary consciousness (which does not compel them to be always necessarily related to a self-consciousness or standing I). Apperception, so goes Van Mazijk in a close reading of Kant, is defined in terms of potentiality: “Apperception, then, need not be understood as a permanent, onlooking I; it is rather itself the potential for the I to be awakened; a transcendental potential for becoming actively aware of what is intuited” (45).
Besides that, however, strong conceptualism seems to also play a role in the deduction, especially in the A-Version. This is due to the synthesis of imagination and its specific role in the openness of intuitions to conceptualization. The main idea seems to be the following: The adequacy of intuitions to pure concepts – what Kant calls their affinity (46) – is the product of the synthesis of imagination. This affinity is already to be found previously in the sensibility itself as an “aptitude” of intuitions to be associable with pure concepts. This means that the contents of sensibility must already have an affinity with the understanding. Now, the synthesis of the imagination, Kant states, is grounded in the categories (46). Therefore, the categories are constitutive of intuitions, which is exactly the strong conceptualist thesis. That is, intuition is open to conceptualization (weak conceptualism) precisely because it is conceptually structured (strong conceptualism). Van Mazijk concludes from this that “pure concepts might after all play an important role in intuition, insofar as they would supply the imagination with the forms of synthesis required to make intuitions open to conceptualization” (47). In the end, however, the greater prominence seems to be given to weak conceptualism: “It can be concluded that, in both versions of the deduction, Kant’s principal aim is to show that pure concepts apply unconditionally to any intuition” (49). With regard to strong conceptualism, Van Mazijk only states that we have “some textual support” (49) for it.
The second part deals with Husserl’s theory of perception and knowledge. The third chapter begins by introducing the basic elements of Husserl’s early theory of intentionality that comes from the Logical Investigations. They are the quality (the way of intending something), the object-reference and the matter (the Fregean sense) of the act (63). Another important element within the intentional structure of consciousness is the sensation content, which Van Mazijk interprets not as unstructured data, but as having some kind of non-intentional and non-conceptual structure (66). Despite being non-conceptual, sensations are not regarded as merely natural facts, and are not, therefore, excluded from the concern of philosophy as a matter of, e.g., physiology, as in Kant’s account.
Nevertheless, sensations do not play any role in Husserl’s account of knowledge as synthesis of fulfillment, as long as they do not have an articulable structure, that is, a propositional structure which can be also instantiated in beliefs. Van Mazijk begins his explanation of Husserl’s theory of fulfillment by stressing that “it is crucial to observe first that, in Husserl’s view, signitive acts alone can be defined as meaning acts” (68). Knowledge is then explained as a coincidence that happens between this empty act of meaning and an appropriate fulfilling act. When I merely entertain the thought of a blackbird in the garden, for instance, I have an empty signitive act of meaning. When I look and see the blackbird, this act of intuition comes into a coincidence with my former signitive act and gives rise to a synthesis of fulfillment (69). Van Mazijk goes on to explore that not only sensible perception can provide fulfillment, but also memory, categorial intuition of ideal states-of-affairs and universal intuition. (69-70). Importantly, the fulfillment does not rely on all the aspects of the act, but only on the intentional ones: “all and only intentional contents come up for fulfillment and allow of propositional articulation” (71). From this, the author concludes that Husserl “clearly defends a version of weak conceptualism” (71). The reason why this conceptualism is weak is because “the articulable content of the fulfilling act (say, a perceptual content) can play its fulfilling part only by virtue of the fact that it is not just a conceptual content” (79). That is, the fulfillment can provide warrant for empty beliefs due to the fact that it makes an extra-conceptual contribution to it.
The clarity with which the theory is presented hides, however, the greatest difficulties of Husserl’s text. There are, for example, some problematic passages in the Logical Investigations where Husserl states that “the very thing that we marked off as the ‘matter’ of meaning, reappeared once more in the corresponding intuition” (Husserl, 2001, 241). This kind of statement seems to challenge the author’s affirmation that “signitive acts alone can be defined as meaning acts” (68), since the “matter” – understood as the Fregean sense and hence as conceptual content – would make both signitive and intuitive acts as carriers of meaning. Another problem not faced by the author is one concerned with the concept of fullness. It is only stated, at the end of the section dealing with fulfillment, that it is the “peculiar character of fullness” that “distinguishes perception (as an intuitive act) from thinking (as an empty act) – instead of, say, a real causal relation to an object” (72). Nothing, however, is said about this peculiarity itself, and the difficulties that are implied by this statement are not deemed important by the author. I find this to be a mistake, since the exact way in which the fullness gives fulfillment is one of the most important and controversial aspects of Husserl’s theory, and its clarification seems to me to be necessary to make understandable the “extra-conceptual contribution intuition makes relative to our empty beliefs” (72) mentioned above. The apparent inconsistencies in Husserl’s description of fulfillment was, by the way, one of the initial motives for the dispute over conceptualism with regard to his theory of perception.
The second half of the third chapter deals with Husserl’s transcendental turn and offers an interesting and original reading of the phenomenological reduction. The reduction should show us that all the sorts of nature-reason divide that somehow sets consciousness apart from the world are in the wrong path. Rather, reason and nature form a whole that could be investigated from the perspective of consciousness (as manifestations in my streaming conscious life) and from the perspective of nature (as real facts in the world). This results in a view the author calls “the double aspect theory” (80), which allows both natural science and philosophy to study the relation between mind and world: the former studies it as a natural fact under a natural attitude, forming a space of nature; the latter as a relation in the streaming of conscious life under a phenomenological attitude, forming a space of consciousness (81).
I find this way of presenting the phenomenological reduction to be one of Van Mazijk’s most interesting contributions that should be explored in the approximations between Husserlian phenomenology and conceptualism. Particularly important is that it understands the space of consciousness as wider than the space of concepts, thus making room for non-conceptual and non-intentional sensations in the philosophical approach of consciousness. For instance, the naturalistic psychology of Husserl’s time tended to see everything that does not have a relation to an apperception as a natural fact. By the same token, McDowell tends to see everything that falls outside the conceptual space of reasons as a natural fact. From Husserl’s perspective, in Van Mazijk’s view, this results from a failure to see that the world is not divided into two separated regions, mind and world, but is rather “one totality of being (mind and world), which can be viewed either under the aspect of nature or that of consciousness” (87). Absolutely everything is encompassed by the space of consciousness, only that under its specific attitude, which is not the same of the natural sciences. There is no reason, therefore, to exclude the non-conceptual and the non-intentional from it.
The fourth chapter turns to Husserl’s later genetic investigations in order to demonstrate how phenomenology can accommodate all accomplishments of consciousness. Van Mazijk proceeds here to the concrete analyses of non-conceptual levels of perception, showing that they are not restricted to empirical investigations, as in Kantian and McDowellian pictures. The chapter exhibits the powerful scope of phenomenology, which ranges from the most basic level of mere sensation to conceptual thought. This is considered by the author “Husserl’s master thought”, namely that “the space of consciousness can be analyzed as a unitary whole” (117), and not only as empty a priori forms of knowledge (Kant) or as conceptual capacities in the space of reasons (McDowell).
The genetic investigations present our openness to the world in a stratified manner. Three levels of perceptual accomplishments as well as three levels of conceptual ones are distinguished by the author. The analysis of these accomplishments provides an occasion for an interesting discussion with McDowell. Husserl is said to obey a strict divide between perceptual and conceptual content (105). Thus, to perceive something as being thus and so and to judge something as being thus and so are two different things, one involving a perceptual content, the other involving a conceptual content. But how do we get from perception to judgment? This is, of course, one of the most important problems of McDowell’s Mind and World, and it is there solved by appealing to strong conceptualism: the conceptual contents determine the perceptual experience. Husserl, in turn, has another story to tell. It is possible to perceive something as being thus and so without forming a judgment about that, that is, it is possible to “perceptually explicate relations between things perceived, yet lacking the ability to attain the propositionally articulated content” (104). Therefore, it is not the judgment that determines perception, but the other way around: it is because we can intentionally (albeit non-conceptually) be related to things in perception, that we can form judgments about them, and not the other way around. In order to make a judgment, “the ego must repeat the passive process, but this time in a changed, active attitude” (105). By doing this, the ego “extracts” the contents of perception and informs them with propositional articulation in judgment.
This narrative is a bit obscured, however, as Husserl speaks of the propositionally structured object being “pre-figured” in perception (105). This paradoxical statement serves to complicate the matters in the attempt to fit Husserl in the conceptualist or non-conceptualist parties. Van Mazijk does not overlook this challenging problem and engages with it in the second half of the chapter by exploring Husserl’s notions of horizonal awareness, motivation and bodily action – which form a “kinesthetic system” (107-110) –, and also his concept of habit (acquired skill) (111-117). Generally speaking, the idea is that perception considered as a simple intentional relation to an object is, on Husserl’s account, an abstraction. It is not a starting point (as it is in almost any theory of perception), but a resulting process. The original genetic analyses provided in this section show that “for us, then, perception is saddled with concepts after all” (118). This, however, in the author’s view, is not enough to assign Husserl a strong conceptualist theory of perception, since “intellectual acts are not a condition of possibility for a rich perceptual intentionality”, and “the fact that (some) perceptual contents are fit to figure in judgments does not derive from a capacity to judge; it is due to perception itself” (p118). Husserl remains, thus, in the end, a weak conceptualist.
The last part of the book focuses on the theory that orients all the discussions of the previous chapters, namely McDowell’s conceptualism. The fifth chapter introduces the central conceptualist claim that the contents of experience are all conceptual and explains how it arises as the only way out of the epistemological dilemma between the myth of the given and coherentism. As is well known, McDowell’s solution is to expand the conceptual domain beyond the mental sphere and to place it in the world, admitting experience to have conceptual content.
Having stated the conceptualist thesis, Van Mazijk goes on to ask some important questions that challenge its overall consistency. The author lists and analyzes 14 fragments from McDowell’s writings in order to find out what exactly does it mean to say that the contents of experience are conceptual. A close and detailed reading of these fragments reveal that McDowell oscillates between a weak and strong conceptualism, but in the long run favours the strong version. Strong conceptualism, in turn, raises the most important issues with respect to the consistency of McDowell’s idea. Particularly, it does not explain which concepts specifically are necessary to inform perceptual experience and leaves unanswered the question of how perception in non-rational animals is possible (since they do not possess concepts) (124-132).
After exploring these inherent difficulties in McDowell’s conceptualism thesis, Van Mazijk goes on to discuss how Kant and Husserl could offer better answers to them. The main purpose is to show that a weak conceptualism “should suffice to establish intuition’s inclusion in the McDowellian space of reasons” (133). That is, since weak conceptualism, either in its Kantian or Husserlian forms, avoids the issues raised above against McDowell’s strong conceptualism, then the former is preferable to the latter. With respect to Kant, the author states that it is at least conceivable that an imagination functioning differently from ours synthesizes intuitional contents in a non-conceptual manner (134). Therefore, it is at least thinkable, in the Kantian framework, to have a non-conceptual relation to the world. As to Husserl, it is said that both the early theory of fulfillment and the genetic investigations of later phenomenology offer good reasons not to account for the contents of perception under the unique category of the conceptual. Both Kantian and Husserlian more detailed distinctions in the realm of perceptual content should then make room for some kinds of nonconceptuality in the contents of perception that do not fall prey to the myth of the given, thus avoiding the necessity of strong conceptualism.
The sixth and final chapter criticizes the most important assumption of McDowell’s conceptualism, namely his division of spaces. In short, this division amounts to two ways of dealing with things: as natural lawful phenomena (the space of nature) or as rationally relevant exercises (the space of reasons). Van Mazijk proceeds to analyse how McDowell, in order to avoid any threat of non-naturalism, allows everything else but conceptual contents to be placed within the space of nature. This generates several problems. Among them, it makes it impossible for McDowell to give a satisfactory account of the genesis of reason (Bildung), thus making rationality a kind of miracle (150-153). A more adequate picture of perception, which does not preclude the possibility of offering a genesis of reason, is offered by Husserl, as the author showed in the fourth chapter. Another problem concerns the transcendental significance of McDowell’s enterprise. Conceptualism, in McDowell’s view, is said to refer to “prior conditions of being directed at reality” (156). This way, any claim concerning the space of nature (actually, any claim at all) must be made through the space of reasons. But this clearly contradicts McDowell’s affirmations that “thinking and knowledge can after all be conceived of as natural phenomena” (156). In Van Mazijk’s view, there is no way to conceive the space of reasons as being both condition of and conditioned by the space of nature (156). Both Kant and Husserl show that this is a “transcendental absurdity”, since it “conflates distinct levels of explanations” (161).
On the way towards a conclusion, Van Mazijk points out that it is precisely this division of spaces which makes conceptualism attractive after all. That is, only if one accepts that the space of reasons consists exclusively of concepts, one will tend to ascribe conceptuality to perception (in order to make it rationally intelligible). But, as all the analyses of both Husserlian and Kantian framework have shown, there are good reasons not to consider concepts to be the exclusive accomplishment of rationality and therefore not to accept this division of spaces. The rest of the chapter is then dedicated to reinforcing the main conclusion of the book, namely the idea that the Kantian and (specially) Husserlian accounts of perception and reality avoid the inconsistencies generated by McDowellian conceptualism and offer, therefore, better alternatives to it. The final preference is given to the Husserlian framework, as it “provide[s] the most interesting and viable alternative when it comes to determining reference for concepts of the mental, as well as for specifying the contents of various types of sensible operations” (157).
In sum, Van Mazijk’s rich book does an excellent job of showing how the three authors work towards the same epistemological problems and have shared ambitions. To all of them, the Cartesian approach on subjectivity is misguided; and to all of them, it is precisely this approach that is at the basis of the epistemological problems concerning the gulf between mind and world. As to the overcoming of the Cartesian picture, they all want to reject transcendental realism, that is, the idea that reality is radically independent of our knowledge. This way, Kant, Husserl and McDowell intend to show that the world is a priori a world of rational experience. The conflict emerges when McDowell achieves that by appealing to the exclusively conceptual configuration of the world, which is denied by both Kant and Husserl. In this way, the book successfully accomplishes one of its purposes announced in the preface of “connecting [McDowell’s work] to key figures of the German transcendental tradition”, and so of “uncovering a continuing tradition hidden underneath today’s more specialized and fragmented philosophical landscape” (7). Therefore, it should appeal to anyone interested in a historical study of Kant, Husserl and McDowell. As to its more original purpose, “to develop new critical reflections on core tenets of McDowell’s philosophy” (7), that is principally achieved by the author’s recourse to Husserl in order to advocate weak conceptualism. I am not convinced, however, that the Husserlian perspective as offered here by the author is free of difficulties. At most, it seems to me to be as problematic as McDowell’s views. The early theory of fulfillment, as I have said, has many problems concerning the concepts of matter and fullness. As to the genetic analyses, the author himself recognizes that Husserl’s work on habit poses serious difficulties to the overall interpretation of his theory as conceptualist (weak or strong) or non-conceptualist. It seems that these problems should be faced more at length if Husserl is to be seriously considered as an alternative to conceptualism.
This research was supported by Grant #2019/01444-6, São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).
Van Mazijk, C. 2020. Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl and McDowell. New York: Routledge.
Husserl, E. 2001. Logical Investigations, Volume II. J. N. Findlay, trans. London and New York: Routledge.