Husserl and the question of the ethicality of intentionality

To Mitch Cay for her blitzkrieg performance at the Philosophy Circle of the Philippines’s Panel Discussion on the “Poetry and Language of Care” held at the Ateneo De Manila University last August 27, 2011


Husserl’s self-criticism over the psychologism of his first work, Philosophie der Arithmetik (1891), can help us understand the horizon that Plato had seen when he exposed the limitation of mathematical rationality. Husserl earlier proposed that the validity of mathematical truths is independent of how the knowing subject learns them. When Husserl argued against his early work he correctly discerned that human imagination, the auto-affection of the subject is transcendent even to mathematics. But only a properly intending consciousness full to its capacity and aware of its limits can transcend the accomplishments of reason. Consciousness must therefore be the proper object of philosophical analysis.

From the Platonic standpoint it may be argued that Husserl saw the limitation of mathematics in the same way that Plato did but neglected the content of the Platonic criticism of mathematical or instrumental reason, namely, the intention of absolute difference that motivates its quest for truth. Even still, from a Levinasian standpoint, Plato would have criticised Husserl’s Cartesian bias. The Platonic concept of the Good beyond Being furnishes us not only Plato’s criticism of mathematical knowledge, but also his guarded stance towards the achievements of even contemplative reason. The notion of the Good beyond Being invokes a limit to reason’s power of differentiation, its capacity to concretize its adventures in categories and logical predications, its consummate empiricism in terms of the saturation of existence with existent structures reproducible by either force or habit. This Platonic notion has acquired a linguistic expression in contemporary thought as ethicality, an ethic of difference based on a peripheral sense of existence that interrupts the complacency of the concrete, the substantive stability of the what is and the what are, the working structures of existence as they are known to be premised on differentiation. In traditional philosophy this has come to be known as the difference between being and non-being, in short, the centrality of being. This ethic of difference is opposed to a familiar ethic of difference based on the differentiation of existence and non-existence, of being and non-being that reason sharpens into ontological truth. This ethic of difference is strictly non-ontological and non-epistemic, hence, properly ethical.

Within the immanence of reason differentiation is an internal ontological and epistemic adventure, that is to say, freedom, bound by synchronicity and the vertical movement of existence. Differentiation enacts difference from within a supposed unitary structure, that is, existence or being. Outside or around being is the sphere of nothingness, the sphere of in-difference which threatens to reduce being to the absurdity of its quest for completion, self-emancipation and individuation. Lying outside, in-difference encircles difference, confines being within its immanent boundary, seals the site of being against the possibility of escape, emancipation and transcendence; reduces being into a tedious process of immanent differentiation without the support of non-being, to be precise, of time which is non-being. Around the sphere of difference is the supposed in-difference of the beyond-being, the full density of non-being, the indifference of time, the thickness of the Same, the In-different. But insofar as the differentiation of existence is contingent on time, this interior determination is forced to enact an interior sense of time, consciousness, that is, vis-a-vis the unconditionality of a time that moves in diachronicity, outside of the interiority of existence regardless of its determination. Ex-istence is therefore forced to divide itself from within, between existence and the outside of it within an interior determination. This only shows that freedom never rests even at the price of absurdity.

Heidegger’s breakthrough in exposing this sense of interiority without the support of time which leads to inauthentic existence must be acknowledged for laying bare the absurdity of pure immanence. Also, the notion of thrownness (Geworfenheit), itself a conceptual tour de force (despite its Christian connotation) which breaks open the immanent boundary of differentiation that allows being to get a glimpse of the outside—something that remained unthought in philosophy until the publication of Being and Time. Let it suffice to say that the notion of thrownness opens a hole in the immanent circle of existence—Man can only be thrown from outside being, from a dimension of time. If He is thrown from within and into some place within then the origin of thrownness, which is Man’s origin, can easily be discovered within being. The origin is being itself—which is the heart and soul of immanentism. The origin is positivized as the primacy of being over non-being which justifies the supremacy of being over time. Since time is immediately discerned as non-being, the inferiority of time is carried over into the logic of differentiation between and among beings which are in essence differentiated. This explains the goal of differentiation to establish a hierarchy of Being, a vertical structure and movement of time which ignores the unassumable, the open, the unguarded, the vulnerable and exposed condition of being or existence to such an extent that the key to an effective assumption of positive existence, of shelteredness and strength of being lies in a progressive form of self-enclosure. In the history of knowledge, this self-enclosure has created the divide between low and high culture, between the pedestrian and the elite, etc., in which relationality is strictly defined by vertical strength, by ontological and a strictly ethical differentiality based on competence. On the one hand, differentiation enacts a politics of Being. On the other hand, it creates a metaphysic of time, that is, a concept of time that results from the intention of absolute difference.

The 2oth century phenomenology propounded by Husserl did exactly just that. On the one hand, phenomenalization is an attempt to saturate the conceptual possibilities of differentiation from within the immanent determination of existence. On the other hand, temporalization is the extension of absolute difference from being into non-being, provided that difference is located within being. But the plane of immanence is an overcrowded place of vertical determination. The temporalization of being in terms of the upward movement of time, the synchronicity of a time-structure, is a means to keep the sense of interiority alive, the sense of freedom, unwilling to yield existence to nothingness. But this notion of time can work if autonomy, emancipation and individuation are denied in favour of a hierarchy of being—a far cry from what immanence claimed to defend against the enduring threat of time (the threat of nothingness). In the final analysis Husserl’s notion of the transcendental ego commits itself to this immanent differentiation in which an otherwise than epistemic and ontological consideration of time as the outside of immanence, outside of absolute difference, time as the Indifference of the Same, is lacking if not intentionally overlooked.

Excerpt from a paper read during a seminar on “Ethics of Care” sponsored by Societas Philosophiae, PUP, as a prelude  to the PCP seminar on the same theme.


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