Phenomenology as a Transcendental Theory of Consciousness

Wolfgang Fasching


  Following today’s objectivistic paradigm that reality means independence from subjective experience, the main endeavor of philosophy of mind has for a long time been to work out strategies to reduce consciousness to something objectively accessible: if reality means subject-independence, subjective experience itself must “in reality” consist — if existent at all — in something objectively verifiable and cannot be something only privately experienced. Consciousness has to be integratable into a physicalistic view of the world and explainable as a physical feature of the material world (e.g., according to the various identity theories, as certain brain processes or functions).
   In recent years, however, a growing skepticism has arisen as to whether such a reduction of the psychical to the physical is indeed possible. The critique roughly amounts to the objection that such a reduction is based on (re-)defining consciousness in third-person terms from the start, i.e., as a set of objectively describable performances, and then asking which physical mechanisms in the organism make such performances possible. (1) With this move, consciousness in its first-personal sense (in its experiential dimension) actually remains unreduced because it has been left out from the very beginning. (2) This experiential dimension cannot be brushed aside as being just the mode in which something objective is subjectively experienced, to the effect that the difference between “phenomenal consciousness” and functionally describable performances of the brain would merely be epistemic in nature whilst the ontological identity would remain unaffected: the distinction between subjective appearance and objective reality loses its meaning when the reality of the subjective appearance, of experience itself is in question. Consciousness has its existence, its reality, in being subjectively experienced (in being conscious) (3), that is: it has a “first-person ontology.” (4)
   Therefore, today it is a widely held view that consciousness in its subjective sense is an irreducible feature of the mind and that consequently first-personal, “phenomenological” investigations are indispensable for its unrestricted inquiry. (5) In contrast to the exploration of, for example, continental drift in investigating the mind it is not possible to abstract from how it appears subjectively without losing sight of the subject-matter, because being experienced belongs to the very nature of consciousness. In this case, the way it appears subjectively is a genuine and unneglectable feature of the subject-matter itself.
   Herein one could see a certain reconciliation between the positions of the philosophy of mind and the “continental” tradition of phenomenology that always viewed itself as a science of experience, of the appearing, i.e., as a science of the first-person perspective und therefore always insisted on the irreducibility of the subjective. This could be a chance for phenomenology, indeed, to overcome the petrification sometimes observed in text exegesis or jargon and to regain an enhanced problem-orientedness by entering a discussion that goes beyond the one’s own “school.” But at the same time, in my view, a certain caution is necessary. It has to be asked whether with the concession that there are irreducible first-person facts, phenomenology as an autonomous, non-naturalizable discipline is already vindicated; whether its relevance should be exhausted in a suppositionless description of experiential facts in order to deliver an indispensable contribution to an uncurtailed inquiry of the mind — or whether being pinned down to such a role rather amounts to an integration of phenomenological insights in a naturalistic context and thereby to playing down or even abandoning phenomenology’s true claim.
   For whereas Husserlian phenomenology decidedly understands itself as an anti-naturalist philosophy, the whole debate on the pros and cons of the reducibility of consciousness takes place within a naturalistic framework, if naturalism is understood in a broad sense that is not restricted to physicalism. The question the reductionism debate revolves around is: do only objective, outer phenomena really exist, or are there, in addition to that, also irreducibly “subjective” phenomena, that is, rather peculiar phenomena that are only privately accessible, not directly observable by any outer sense? But inquiring about the place consciousness has in the world of objective phenomena in this way already presupposes the phenomenality of phenomena. And this is the thematic field of phenomenology. (6)
   No matter whether the irreducibility of consciousness is denied or accepted, the existence of the objectively given is presupposed and the question is how (or if) within the world, amongst the objective things, something as unusual as only first-personally observable, “inner,” subjective facts can occur (which leads, if accepted, to a “dualism”). But to presuppose the existence of what is objectively given in this way leaves the givenness of the objectively given simply unreflected. Thus, posing the question in this way means to remain steadfastly within the naivity of what Husserl calls the “natural attitude.” (7) In this sense all theories that conceive of the consciousness as a part of the natural world can be labeled as “naturalistic.” (8)
In this way, the problem level of a truly phenomenological theory of consciousness is not achieved at all. From a phenomenological point of view, there are not objects on the one hand and on the other — additionally — subjective experience, but precisely the “being-there” of objects takes place in experience. For phenomenology, consciousness is not a phenomenon (albeit rather special) among others (not “the most vivid of phenomena” (9)) but the place of phenomenality. Thus, when phenomenology speaks of the non-circumventibility of consciousness it does not aim at an extension of what might count as real in the world, it does not claim that there are certain further entities and/or properties science has not taken into account so far. The phenomenological theory of consciousness is not about a special region within the objectively given world but about the givenness of the world itself. Therefore, its topic is not the subjective as opposed to the objective but objectivity as such. (10) This is what makes phenomenology a transcendental theory of consciousness.
   Consequently, instead of contributing as a supplement to the investigation of “outer” phenomena, the investigation of “inner,” only introspectively accessible phenomena, phenomenology’s genuine task would rather be to question the presuppositions of such seemingly obvious distinctions. From a phenomenological point of view it is a peculiar prejudice that there should be outer and inner phenomena (if by the latter we mean conscious experiences) — a prejudice that has its origin, on the one hand, in our knowledge that an outer reality exists (which lies constantly before us and which science explores), and, on the other hand, in our intuition that there is also our consciousness which we, after all, also experience, but which is immediately accessible only to the respective subject: hence an “inner” phenomenon. But under phenomenological suppositionlessness it becomes highly questionable whether anyone has ever seen outer and inner phenomena, existing side by side. When one tries to observe one’s own consciousness one never finds a mere interiority, or just “oneself” (no less than one finds any exteriority “outside” of one’s consciousness). One never finds consciousness but only what one is conscious of. Consciousness precisely consists in its of-ness, that is, in that there is something there. Consequently, “inner” and “outer” phenomena do not exist side by side but the so-called inner phenomena are nothing but the phenomenal manifestation (the phenomenality) of the outer. Certainly, not all objects that manifest themselves in consciousness are “really there,” many are “only subjective,” and in this sense one can of course distinguish between inner and outer phenomena — but this is not a distinction between consciousness and outer object but one within the realm of objects; and it is certain intraphenomenal relations (a coordination of “inner” experiences) in which the “objectivity,” the “really-there” of appearing objects is constituted. So in a way there are “inner” and “outer” phenomena. However, consciousness is not an inner phenomenon but the being-there of phenomena — be they inner or outer.
   Thus, phenomenology does not consider consciousness as an inner region in contrast to an external world. The phenomenological distinction between immanence and transcendence actually means the difference between “Erscheinendes” and “Erscheinen,” that is between that which appears and its coming to appearance, or between what is present and its being-present (its presence). For this reason they are not distinct realms of being but two inseparable aspects of one and the same.
With regard to this immanence the subject in the sense of an innerworldly thing (the only sense contemporary philosophy of mind knows) is already something transcendent, as a subject substantialized in this way is no less something apperceptively constituted than any outer object, (11) and thereby owes itself to the taking-place of manifestation as such that hence is prior to itself. Phenomenological immanence is nothing other than the opening-up of exteriority as such, which, in a certain sense, is more “interior” to consciousness in the phenomenological sense than the “psychological” interiority of a substantialized subject. (12)
   Thus the phenomenologically understood consciousness is no interiority, and for this reason exactly has no exteriority. That is why Husserl claims against Descartes that the true question is not how to infer the external world from my interiority but “whether with regard to the egological sphere an ‘outside’ has any meaning at all.” (13) With this denial of an outside of consciousness, phenomenology can be labeled as an “idealism.” (14) It is a phenomenological idealism that does not deny that there are things outside of the subject (insofar there is no substantial “inside” of transcendental subjectivity at all) yet can be seen as the reflection on the fact that any reality we ever refer to is a reality that appears in one way or another. (15)
   Instead of sweeping this idealist heritage of Husserlian phenomenology under the carpet in embarrassment, it is, in my view, precisely the point that should be put forward by phenomenology against the naive naturalism of the majority of philosophy of mind. In my view, the discussion with philosophy of mind is one of the major tasks of phenomenology today and I wish to hold that phenomenology can contribute highly relevant insights concerning the nature and structure of consciousness. However, I think it is important to bear in mind that its sense is not a naive description of inner occurrences, it is no introspective psychology (as philosophy of mind mostly understands the term “phenomenology” (16)), it is rather concerned with the status of consciousness and its relation to objectivity (what makes phenomenology a philosophical discipline in the first place). So one of the central points in the discussion has to be challenging philosophy of mind’s naturalism and the concomitant reification of consciousness. Phenomenology “does not merely provide an assortment of occasionally fruitful insights that can be cannibalised in the service of naturalism” but is “a coherent and plausible alternative to naturalism.” (17)


(1) Cf. Chalmers, David J., The Conscious Mind, In Search of a Fundamental Theory (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1996).
(2) Cf. Searle, J. R., The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge/London: MIT Press, 1992), p. 121; and Nagel, T., “What is it Like to be a Bat?” in Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979):165–180, p. 175.
(3) Cf. Kripke, Saul A., “Identity and Necessity” in Milton K. Munitz (ed.), Identity and Individuation (New York: New York University Press, 1971): 135–164, p. 162ff.; and Kripke, Saul A., Naming and Necessity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 144ff.
(4) Searle, op. cit., p. 16.
(5) Cf., e.g., Varela, F., and Shear, J. (eds.), The View from Within, First-Person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness (Thorverton: Imprint Academic, 1996).
(6) In this respect the rather thoughtless and inconsistent use of the term “phenomenon” in the philosophy of mind is conspicious: while “the phenomenal” is reserved for subjective experience and qualia, “phenomenon” is mostly used in the sense of the objectively given without giving a second thought as to the givenness itself. See, e.g., Kurthen, Martin, “Das harmlose Faktum des Bewußtseins” in Sybille Krämer (ed.), Bewußtsein, Philosophische Beiträge (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1996): 17–35, p. 34: “Phenomena arise, are there and change. For some phenomena this process is describable naturalistically, for others not or not in an explanatorily economical way. The current hat fashion and the phenomenality of what-it-is-like probably belong to the badly naturalizable phenomena.”
(7) Husserl, E., Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie, Erstes Buch, Allgemeine Einführung in die reine Phänomenologie, ed. by Karl Schuhmann [Husserliana III/1]  (Den Haag: Nijhoff, 1976), p. 56ff.
(8) Hence Searle and Chalmers, for example, call their explicitly anti-reductionist positions expressis verbis — and rightly — “naturalistic” (“biological naturalism” or “natural dualism” respectively); that is, they hasten to emphasize that they do not claim an outside of nature and the natural, i.e., something “super-natural,” but only want to extend our concept of nature.
(9) Chalmers, op. cit., 3.
(10) Cf. Ratcliffe, M., “Husserl and Nagel on Subjectivity and the Limits of Physical Objectivity” in Continental Philosophy Review 35 (2002):353–377.
(11) Cf., e.g., Husserl 1976, op. cit., p. 117 ff.; and Husserl, E., Ding und Raum, Vorlesungen 1907, ed. by Ulrich Claesges [Husserliana XVI] (Den Haag: Nijhoff, 1973), p. 40.
(12) Husserl characterizes the projection of experiences into the immanence of the ego as just as phenomenologically derivative as the ejection of objects into an external world (Husserl, E., Aufsätze und Rezensionen (1890–1910), ed. by Bernhard Rang [Husserlianan XXII] (Den Haag: Nijhoff, 1979), p. 206) — that is, even psychological “interiority” rests on the constitution of transcendence and therefore interiorization too is an exteriorization with regard to phenomenological immanence.
(13) Husserl, E., Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie, Eine Einleitung in die phänomenologische Philosophie, ed. by Walter Biemel [Husserliana VI] (Den Haag: Nijhoff, 1962), p. 82.
(14) See, e.g., Husserl, E., Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie, Drittes Buch, Die Phänomenologie und die Fundamente der Wissenschaft, ed. by Marly Biemel [Husserliana V] (Den Haag: Nijhoff, 1952), p.149 ff.
(15) Cf. Zahavi, D., Husserl’s Phenomenology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 52.
(16) Cf. Zahavi, D., and Parnas, J., “Phenomenal Consciousness and Self-Awareness, A Phenomenological Critique of Representational Theory” in Shaun Gallagher and Jonathan Shear (eds.), Models of the Self (Thorverton: Imprint Academic, 1999), p. 254.
(17) Ratcliffe (2002), pp. 373 and 354.