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Tuesday, October 13, 2020

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Hi Bill,

Thanks very much for this fascinating post! I loved reading your discussion of this issue. Even if you are not so much a phenomenologist these days, certainly between the two of us you are the expert on Husserl. For that reason, I will leave to the side the question about the interpretation of Husserl’s works and simply address “the things themselves,” viz. the question of what the transcendental ego is supposed to be.

Speaking very generally, a properly phenomenological answer to this question is going to attempt to describe the transcendental ego in terms which are appropriate to it by proceeding from the way in which it (viz., the transcendental ego) discloses itself, rather than attempting to fit it into preexistent categories. With that in mind, I would say that the transcendental ego is properly described as a mihi and not as an ego or as quid. In this matter, I follow Jean-Luc Marion, for whom the Husserlian ego becomes a moi, an adonée, a kind of “screen” against which the phenomenon reveals itself through a kind of impact. The point is to emphasize the fundamental passivity and receptivity of the transcendental ego. To say that the transcendental ego is a mihi is to say that it is that to which the world is disclosed. To say that it is not an ego is to say that it is not properly thought of as merely one more object among others. Rather, transcendental ego qua subject and world qua object must be defined in relation with one another. The transcendental ego is the mihi to which the world is disclosed, whereas the world is that which is antecedently capable of disclosing itself to a subject.

To prove that the transcendental ego is a mihi, consider that even the constituting acts of consciousness are themselves revealed to consciousness once one accedes to the phenomenological attitude. They are not visible from within the natural attitude. One must accede to the phenomenological attitude in order for the constituting acts to be revealed; one’s focus must be adjusted from the object onto the act of consciousness itself. And if the accession to the phenomenological attitude reveals the contribution which subjectivity makes to the content of our experience, then this contributing subjectivity itself, active as it is, must be a part of what it is revealed passively to the phenomenological observer, the true transcendental ego. This shows that the transcendental ego is fundamentally a mihi which does not itself constitute but is rather that to which the constituting ego in the world is revealed.

Sokolowski’s reflections in his Introduction to Phenomenology (Cambridge University Press, 2000) are also helpful. He maintains that the transcendental ego is not substantially different than the empirical ego. In other words, the transcendental ego is not some different substance from the empirical ego, i.e. the human body. It is simply this empirical ego considered from the point of view of its being a dative of disclosure, a mihi to whom the world is disclosed.

In my opinion, the problem that you raise in this post only arises because you are asking the question, “What is the transcendental ego?” and expecting an answer which posits some kind of object or other. You are attempting to answer a transcendental-phenomenological question from within the natural attitude. But the transcendental ego is not merely one more object. It is a mihi, not a quid, and can only be appreciated for what it is when it is described in those strictly non-objectifying terms.

Such, in any case, is my attempt at an answer. What do you think?

Thanks for the detailed comments, Steven. I suspect that we are at crosspurposes to some extent since I am concerned with Husserlian phenomenology as he and Eugen Fink present it, whereas you are concerned with phenomenology in a broader sense that can be put to use for your theological purposes.

>>I would say that the transcendental ego is properly described as a mihi and not as an ego or as quid.<< I can't attach a coherent sense to this. The dative presupposes the nominative. There is of course a serious question about the legitimacy of transforming the the first-personal singular pronoun 'I' into a naming expression, 'the I,' 'the ego.' But that is not the question you are raising. Assuming that it is unproblematic to speak of the ego, the I, das Ich, etc., then if a tree appears to me, it appears to my ego. It would be incoherent to say that the tree appears to me, but there is no me to whom it appears.

You could however say that the tree just appears in which case there is neither a dative or a nominative of manifestation/appearance. Appearing is then non-relational. This, I take it, is roughly Heidegger's view. The transcendental condition of appearing/disclosedness is not egological. Things appear within a clearing or Lichtung which is the Da of Sein. Heidegger too is a transcendental philosopher and he too operates within the phenomenological reduction, as Tugendhat has demonstrated. More later.

Really fascinating post.

The transcendental ego seems, superficially at least, almost like the Atman in the Upanishads. Is that too wild a connection?

I've been meaning to read Husserl for a while, but he seems a bit daunting. Where would you say is the best place to start (for a philosophical amateur who has read some Levinas, Heidegger, etc)? I have Kolakowski's book on him, but wasn't sure whether I ought to read the man himself first.

Hector,

There is a similarity between the transcendental ego and the Atman of the Upanishads. Both are 'witnessing' egos 'behind' the mundane ego. So in a Upanishadic form of meditation I would try to realize my identity with the eternal Atman and come to see that I am not this miserable psychophysical complex. The comparison works better with Kant and Fichte than with Husserl. More on this later. I must now exercise my miserable psychophysical complex, my vehicle in the samsaric realm, by extending its power via another vehicle, a mountain bike.

Kolakowski's Husserl's Search for Certitude is very good and worth reading and re-reading. But the translation is bad and incomprehensible in places.

As for the master himself, get a copy of The Paris Lectures. They are short and will introduce some of H's main themes. You can ask me questions about it. I will be blogging on Husserl for some time to come in an attempt to bring Kid Nemesis around to a correct understanding.

Dr Vallicella - thank you.

Alas, I can't find an affordable copy of The Paris Lectures, can't currently get to a university library (lockdown and all that) and I can only find it online in German! I will see if I can make sense of the German - is there another text you'd suggest in the meantime?

Hector,

It is available on Amazon, but the price is outrageous. The cheapest used paperback is $30. Go to a local public library and inquire about their interlibrary loan arrangements.

I have it in German and English. For the latter I paid the princely sum of $3.50 in Boston in 1974. But it those days I lived hand-to-mouth, so it was relatively expensive.

You might also read *Cartesian Meditations,* but you will have the same affordability problem, most likely. Amazon advertises a beat-to-shit copy for a palty 890 semolians. Their pricing algorithm makes no sense to me. Who the hell wants to read Husserl except me and five other guys?

But there is a kindle version you can RENT for around 11 bucks.

Dear Bill,

you have exactly nailed my fundamental problem with transcendental idealism by this:

What is this transcendental ego if it is the purely subjective source of all ontic validity, Seinsgeltung? Does it exist? And in what sense of 'exist'? It cannot exist as a constituted object for it is the subjective source of all constitutive performances (Leistungen). But if it is not an indubitable piece of the world, then it cannot exist at all.

Of course, transcendental idealists will standardly respond something along the lines like:
the problem that you raise in this post only arises because you are asking the question, “What is the transcendental ego?” and expecting an answer which posits some kind of object or other;

but the problem is that the question asked does not "expect some kind of object", it simply asks whether the transcendental ego is something at all, whether it recedes from pure nothingness, or not. Transcendental idealism is an effort to find some room between reality and nothingness, an attempt to declare this basic dichotomy as a mere artifact of the "natural attitude" - as if pure logic could be thus confined.

Now I wonder: you label it "Aporetic Conclusion". Why? Isn't it rather a reductio of transcendental idealism, leaving a clear way out - viz. a rejection of TI? Why can't we just conclude that "transcendental ego" is an incoherent notion and revert back to noetic realism, where both the subject and the object are just ordinary parts of the world?

Another great spot-on your complaint that in phenomenology, we never get the real thing: we never get real transcendence, real objectivity etc., everything is merely constituted-as-such-and-such. I would add here: which deprives us of our epistemic rights to make any claims whatsoever about what the objective matter-of-fact really is with matters we are talking about (the nature of transcendental ego, the mechanisms of consistution, etc., whatever). In all seriously meant philosophical claims a phenomenologist is making statements about what the object of his talk (such as transcendental ego, the various structures and mechanisms claimed to be "described" etc.) is, really, an sich -- and not merely qua constituted by the particular phenomenologist's ego. For else -- why should such subjective constructs be of any relevance to philosophy, or to me?

In other words, the self-destructivity of transcendental idealism reveals itself not only with respect to the transcendental ego, whose Seinsgeltung cannot be merely constituted-by-the-ego but somehow original or genuine; but also with respect to the meta-question, what kind of objectivity is claimed for the transcendental idealist's philosophical statements. Either it is genuine objectivity, but then TI claims its own falsity, or a mere constituted objectivity, and then such statements are not part of philosophical discourse concerning life, universe and everything. In both cases we arrive at the conclusion that TI cannot ever be consistent and throughgoing: there must be a residual of realism, i.e. of a claimed capability to cognize reality as it is in itself, rather than merely qua-constituted, qua-a-priori-formed etc.

But perhaps you would not be willing to go thus far in your critique?

Dear Lukáš,

It is indeed a pleasure to find you in agreement with me since you are one of the smartest people I know. I hope you and your family are well. I have fond memories of my time in Prague and the Czech Republic.

>>Transcendental idealism is an effort to find some room between reality and nothingness, an attempt to declare this basic dichotomy as a mere artifact of the "natural attitude" - as if pure logic could be thus confined.<<

That's right. In Sartre, for example, consciousness is no-thing, thus nothing. A "wind blowing towards objects" but blowing from no direction and without any cause or ground. Hence the title *Being and Nothingness.* But of course consciousness is in some sense something since without it no objects would appear. So consciousness is both something and nothing -- which certainly looks like a contradiction.

Butchvarov, too, is tangled up in this problem.

Central to Heidegger's thinking is the ontological difference between das Sein und das Seiende (taken either collectively or distributively). But if Being is other than every being, and from the whole lot of them taken together, then Being is nonbeing, nichtseiend. So Sein und Nichts are the same, although not dialectically as in Hegel. But das Nichts ist kein nichtiges Nichts; it is not a nugatory nothing, but some sort of reality, some sort of positive Nothing -- which is structurally the same problem we find in Husserl, Sartre, and Butchvarov.

Also structurally similar is the notorious 'horse paradox' in Frege: "The concept HORSE is not a concept."

Continuing with Dr. Novak:

>>Now I wonder: you label it "Aporetic Conclusion". Why? Isn't it rather a reductio of transcendental idealism, leaving a clear way out - viz. a rejection of TI? Why can't we just conclude that "transcendental ego" is an incoherent notion and revert back to noetic realism, where both the subject and the object are just ordinary parts of the world?<<

Fair question, and the right one to ask. But not easy to answer. Since you are a scholastic realist, perhaps I can soften you up by citing Aristotle, De Anima 431b20: "in a sense the soul is all existing things." Here perhaps is the charter for all subsequent transcendental philosophy. Accordingly, the soul is not merely the life principle of a particular animal organism. It is the transcendental subject to which the body and its states appear as well as the animal's mental states such as fear, lust, etc.

If this is right, then the subject cannot be "just an ordinary part of the world."

I need to hear more about your "noetic realism." Presumably you do not mean we are just parts of the material world and that all of our intellectual and spiritual functions can be accounted for naturalistically. Perhaps you will agree with me that not even sentience can be explained adequately in terms of physics, chemistry and other positive sciences.

>>Another great spot-on your complaint that in phenomenology, we never get the real thing: we never get real transcendence, real objectivity etc., everything is merely constituted-as-such-and-such. I would add here: which deprives us of our epistemic rights to make any claims whatsoever about what the objective matter-of-fact really is with matters we are talking about (the nature of transcendental ego, the mechanisms of consistution, etc., whatever). In all seriously meant philosophical claims a phenomenologist is making statements about what the object of his talk (such as transcendental ego, the various structures and mechanisms claimed to be "described" etc.) is, really, an sich -- and not merely qua constituted by the particular phenomenologist's ego. For else -- why should such subjective constructs be of any relevance to philosophy, or to me?

In other words, the self-destructivity of transcendental idealism reveals itself not only with respect to the transcendental ego, whose Seinsgeltung cannot be merely constituted-by-the-ego but somehow original or genuine; but also with respect to the meta-question, what kind of objectivity is claimed for the transcendental idealist's philosophical statements. Either it is genuine objectivity, but then TI claims its own falsity, or a mere constituted objectivity, and then such statements are not part of philosophical discourse concerning life, universe and everything. In both cases we arrive at the conclusion that TI cannot ever be consistent and throughgoing: there must be a residual of realism, i.e. of a claimed capability to cognize reality as it is in itself, rather than merely qua-constituted, qua-a-priori-formed etc.

But perhaps you would not be willing to go thus far in your critique?<<

You raise a good objection. For example, when Husserl makes a claim about outer perception, that it is intentional, presumptive, that it presents its object directly without images or epistemic intermediaries, etc., he means these claims to be eidetic not factual. He aims to make claims that are true even if there are no cases of outer perception. He is concerned with the essence of perception, the essence, f memory, of imaginatin, etc. Now these essences and the propositions about them are ideal objects that cannot depend on factical subjectivity for their Seinsinn.

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