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Theory of Wholes and Parts and Husserl's Explication of the Possibility of Knowledge in the Logical Investigations (The)
Article for a volume in the series Contributions to Phenomenology, from Kluwer Academic Publishers, edited by Denis Fisette, 2003.

My proximate aim in this paper is to clarify the vital role of the IIIrd "Investigation" in Husserl's project for his Logical Investigations (LI).1 My ultimate aim is to show how the LI opened the way to--indeed, constituted--a realist understanding of consciousness (as well as language) and reality.

By "realism" I refer to the view that whatever exists does so, and has whatever properties and relations it actually has, regardless of whether or not it is present to any mind. This is meant to include the view that the objects given in knowledge, not just in consciousness, exist and have the qualities and relations they are then known to have, in total independence of their being known. A necessary condition of realism is that neither the existence nor the properties of entities derive from their being an object for some thought, perception or reference bearing upon them.

Realism is not a view about the so-called "external" (material, physical) world only, but about any type of entity whatever. Even if--surely contrary to what is the case--we take "being an object of consciousness" to be a property of objects "known," that 'property' does not belong to any object in virtue of it (the property of "being known") itself being cognized in some way.

Indeed, it is a very important point in the present discussion to recognize that the various idealisms and relativisms in the theory of knowledge are sets of claims about how consciousness (language) and its objects really are related, without regard to how they (consciousness and its objects) are thought of or spoken of by the particular theorist or culture. They are quite general claims of essence about consciousness and its objects. The same is of course true for the claims of those theorists who oppose idealism or relativism, but that is consistent with their view.

Realism, in the sense here stated, is consistent with metaphysical idealism--that of Leibniz or, possibly, Hegel for example. Metaphysical idealism holds that everything that exists is mental or mind-like in its basic nature. But realism as here understood is inconsistent with any attempt to base such an idealism on the premiss that all that exists must be the object of some consciousness (some language, some culture).

Realism also is consistent with the view that everything that exists is in fact the object of some consciousness (for example, that of an omniscient God). It only insists that the existence or nature of what exists is not dependent upon, does not somehow derive from, a consciousness (or language) directed upon it.

Finally, realism as here understood does not contain or imply the view that there is only one true theory of everything. It is consistent with such a view, but it may be that there is enough "slack" between a true theory and what it is about to permit there being more than one true theory. That will, of course, depend upon what is meant by a theory and by a "true" theory--matters where clarity cannot be assumed, but which we will not pursue here.


The overall structure of the LI is quite a simple one. The aim of the book is indicated by the title as Husserl intended it. "Logical investigations," to his mind, referred to inquiries into logic, where "logic" concerns the processes that are imposed upon us by our efforts to arrive at knowledge of the various subject matters that may come before us.2 These processes arise, by and large, spontaneously in nature. The aim of logical investigations is to understand what those processes are and how they accomplish what they do in securing knowledge for us. Moreover, as he wrote in 1890:

"It would be the task of logic to take possession of ... [the] great natural tools for the formation of judgment, and, by means of scientific reflections concerning justification, limits, and import, to make from the natural and logically unjustified procedure one which is conventional and logically justified, and which guarantees not mere persuasion, but rather assured knowledge."3

Foremost among the "great natural tools" were, to Husserl's mind, the symbolic systems of arithmetic and formal or "symbolic" logic. These had "just grown" to meet specific needs of specific inquiries.

To achieve the aim of "logic" in his sense, numerous misunderstandings of natural epistemic processes must be identified and corrected; and this, in turn, required the identification and the rejection (or modification) of certain general philosophical views--primarily those associated with British Empiricism and the Nominalism, Atomism and Sensationism so prominent within it. But then corresponding positive views must also be advanced, clarified and supported. All of this is what makes up the project incorporated in the LI.


The "Prolegomena" to the LI (pp. 41-247) is devoted to the task of showing that logic, in the inclusive sense of a Kunstlehre (a "technology") of scientific knowledge--a sense of "logic" which remained of vital importance to Husserl throughout his entire career--has as its primary theoretical foundation a set of truths about the forms of concepts, propositions and theories. This is his "pure" or strictly formal logic.

Knowledge of these peculiar formal truths cannot, he argues, be provided by psychology, the empirical study of mental events, nor accommodated within any philosophical framework that does not allow for genuine universals (allgemeine Gegenstände) or "species," as well as for non-inductive (a priori) knowledge of such "species" and their necessary (or "Ideal law") connections.

His critical and constructive reflections in the "Prolegomena" upon the sense or meaning of the standardly recognized laws of formal logic--upon how we come to knowledge of those laws, and how they serve in the development of algorithms (formalized languages) that make possible the incredible range of knowledge in mathematics and in the sciences generally--clarify and solidify views on the centrality of universals ("species" or "Ideal" entities) and their laws and "forms" which he had already stated (or at least presupposed) in his first book, Philosophie der Arithmetik (1891), but clearly had little general philosophical understanding of at that time.

Now the six "Logical Investigations" that follow the Prolegomena are investigations of six distinct but inseparable sets of issues concerning these Ideal entities ("species") and how they are present in as well as to acts of consciousness, and in progressions toward knowledge.

The Ist "Investigation" deals with those Ideal entities which are also linguistic meanings, and of course in the context of language--as does the IVth in a more specific way. Husserl's view (like Frege's) is not that language is essential to concepts and propositions as such, but that, especially in the form where they constitutes a science, concepts and propositions are most accessible to investigation in language, and that, in the more complicated cases, they can only be "thought" in combination with the use of language and possibly of an algorithm. Yet language (names, sentences, utterances, etc.) too has its Ideal forms, characteristics and laws, which make possible its combinations with concepts and propositions in the processes of thinking and communicating. These Ideal forms in language must also be singled out and clarified, along with the associated concepts, propositions ("judgments in the logical sense") and theories. That is the task of the Ist "Investigation."

The IInd and IIIrd "Investigations" are exercises in general ontology, not limited to the specifically "logical" level--though the cases examined are, more often than not, drawn from that narrower domain. Husserl realized that what can be accomplished for the "logical," in the sense explained above, is rigorously constrained by one's general ontology and by corresponding assumptions about what can be known and how.

The IInd LI (pp. 337-432) is designed to supply proof of the existence of "species" or universals in general (chapter 1). Referring back to the result of the "Prolegomena" and Ist LI he remarks: "Meanings as such, i.e. meanings in the sense of specific unities, constitute the domain of pure logic, so that to misread the essence of the Species to strike at the very essence of logic." He must, accordingly, "assure the basic foundations of pure logic and epistemology by defending the intrinsic right of specific (or Ideal) objects to be granted objective status alongside of individual (or real) objects. (LI 338)

{The only sense in which Husserl was ever an "Idealist" was in his recognition of "the 'Ideal' as a condition for the possibility of objective knowledge in general." He staunchly refused to allow others to "'interpret it away' in psychologistic fashion." (p. 338) In general, "Ideal" never means "mental" for him, not even if the "noematic" is (wrongly) taken to be included in the mental.}

The IInd "Investigation" also explicates the nature of universals (including concepts and propositions) as "Ideal," and demonstrates the ontological and phenomenological inadequacies of the British Empiricists (Locke, Mill, Berkeley, Hume) and their modern day counterparts on this point. The IInd "Investigation" and chapter two of Ideas volume I should be studied together, and also with chapter 4 of the Ist "Investigation," where the existence and nature of "Ideal" entities is analyzed with reference to "meanings" only.

The sixth chapter of the IInd "Investigation" is an absolutely crucial summary of his results concerning the "abstract" and "abstraction," and one which must be thoroughly understood before the positive developments in the last four "Investigations" can be appreciated.

The IIIrd "Investigation," then, lays out Husserl's theory of whole and part, founded upon Ideal entities and the Ideal (non-inductive) laws governing how they and their instances must, may and cannot be related. This, like the IInd "Investigation," is a perfectly general inquiry into how "contents" or objects are made up, and into how they make up more inclusive wholes, all under the governance of "Ideal laws" rooted in the species of the parts and their components.

The last three "Investigations" simply apply the general ontological truths worked out in the IInd and IIIrd "Investigations"--to the case of grammar and the distinction between "independent" and "non-independent" meanings (IVth), to the whole "act" or "intentional experience" and its 'contents' (Vth), and to the case of the "fulfillment" of an act of mere representation or thought through other acts directed upon the same object, and eventually by the object "itself" (VIth).

When carried to appropriate lengths, fulfillment is the same as knowledge of the corresponding objectivity. (LI pp. 533, 667-672) Knowledge in other cases--such as through use of deduction, symbolisms and other scientific techniques--is the result, not of fulfillment by intuitive confrontation of thought with its object, but of certification, via fulfillment, of symbolic methods (by which the thought of the object is reached) as guarantors of truth and thereby reality.4


After this outline of how the various main parts of the LI subserve the aim of the whole, we now return to give some of the most important details of Husserl's theory of wholes and parts. There are three main, interrelated concepts in his general theory of part and whole. These are: dependence (inseparability, non-independence), foundation, and Ideal Law connection. The most basic concept for his project is the last, but in the order of his expositions dependence comes first. The dependence of "contents" (and, at the outset of his inquiries, this meant the sense contents or sensations, the "sense data," involved in the hearing of a musical tone) upon certain other contents adjoined to them turns out to be an observable phenomena. It first showed up on Husserl's intellectual horizon in the phenomena of tones and chords studied by Carl Stumpf.5 Husserl remarks:

"The intensity of a tone is not something indifferent or so-to-speak alien to its quality. We cannot keep the intensity just as it is, while the quality varies at will, or is allowed to vanish. Eliminate quality and you unavoidably eliminate intensity, and vice versa. Evidently this is no mere fact, but an a priori necessity, rooted in the pure essences in question." (LI p. 441)

There is manifested here in the sensation of a single tone "a self-evident, necessary, functional dependence of...changes on those of co-existing phenomena." (p. 439) This is the basic phenomenon in Husserl's account of wholes and parts. It sharply contrasts with the relationship between parts that are fragments (Stücke), thus independent parts, such as sense images or representations of the head of a horse and of the horse. Here there is no dependency similar to the case of the intensity and quality of the tone.

Now Husserl points out that it is, of course, not the species of quality and intensity that vary with one another in these cases, but the dependent parts (which he calls "Moments") that enter into the sensation of the tone and which are, properly speaking, the instances of the species. These "Moments" are the "abstract particulars" or "tropes" frequently discussed in recent analytic ontology.6 But the dependence of "Moments" in question is due to the relations between the species instanced, to what Moments are. "The dependence of the immediate 'Moments' therefore means a certain necessary relationship among them, which is determined purely by their abstracta at the level just above them." (p. 441) Therefore "Quality must be looked on as a second-order abstraction" (p. 441) viz a viz the concrete mental event of hearing (or just sensing) the tone, which is itself an independent whole with reference to most other things and events occurring around it. The "first-order" abstraction from the concrete event is the "Moment," the abstract particular.

Now Husserl understood, from his earliest publications on, that this type of necessary connection held between all components of the mental act.7 And he also interweaves the more widely discussed cases of color and extension into his discussion of dependence between "contents." It is because of what, say, red or blue and extension (space) are that color cannot be exemplified in something separately from extension, and that the respective Moments of color and extension vary dependently on one another as they may be observed to do.

And that they must vary in such dependency is a matter that can be seen to be necessary from insight into what these species are. It is not an inductive generalization or a hypothesis. "Non-independent objects <"Moments"> are objects belonging to such pure Species as are governed by a law of essence to the effect that they only exist (if at all) as parts of more inclusive wholes of a certain appropriate Species." (LI p. 447) "The concept of non-independence accordingly amounts to that of Ideal lawfulness in unified combinations." (p. 455) "Ideal lawfulness" is something into which one can have, in certain cases such as those just discussed, insight.

Now Ideal laws involved do not merely prescribe the dependence, but also the necessary exclusion of contents within a whole, as well as the possibilities of change within a content and the relationships contents (whether wholes or parts) must or may have to one another. In this latter respect, which will prove of vital importance below, the possibilities of both dependent ("non-independent") parts and independent parts ("fragments," like the horses head) are grounded in the species under which they fall.

It was one of Husserl's axioms that had widespread currency among Phenomenologists, that actuality presupposes possibility. This was not a trivial truth of modal logic, for him, but a claim that any actuality necessarily has a framework of essences within which alone it is possible. Ideal unities prescribe real possibilities. (LI p. 533) This is the "Inseparability of Fact and Essence" discussed in §2 and following of Ideas I.

Now the founding of one content (whole or part) in another is to be understood by reference to the essential dependence of contents just outlined. If A is essentially such that it cannot exist except in a more comprehensive unity along with M, "we say that an A as such requires foundation by an M, or also that an A as such needs to be supplemented by an M." (p. 463) The only truly unifying factors, for Husserl, are these "foundation" relations. (p. 478) "Unity is...a categorial predicate" (p. 478) and therefore is not a separate constituent of a whole that must, again, be unified with the other constituents of that whole. It is a direct function of the species involved in the whole and thus eliminates any threat of a Bradlian regress:

"To be a part...of some determinate sort (a metaphysical, physical or logical part, or whatever) is rooted in the pure generic nature of the contents in question, and is governed by laws which in our sense are a priori laws or 'laws of essence'. This is a fundamental insight whose meaning must be respected in all our treatments and formulations.... But the content of the law governing each such whole is determined by the material specificity of the 'founding' contents and consequently of the 'founded' types or contents, and it is this law, definite in its content, which gives the whole its unity." (LI p. 481; cf. 486)

Now it must be emphasized that these distinctions and structures, drawn primarily with reference to the sense-contents (or sensations) existing within experiences, apply to every type of object whatsoever, and are not restricted to wholes and parts found within the realm of the mental or of consciousness itself--where, admittedly, Husserl had first discovered them by 1894, and where he primarily makes use of them. By 1897, at the latest, he understood that every type of entity must exhibit the same distinctions between whole, independent part (fragment), dependent part ("Moment"), properties of dependent (and independent) parts and the Ideal (essence) laws governing the relations of the dependent (and independent) parts through their properties.8 Independent parts and self-sufficient wholes in general have a character determined by the "Moments" and whatever independent parts may make them up; and that character in turn determines what relationships they can enter into. Thus, "Ideal Law" also conditions a framework of possibilities for independent entities, such as a ball and a bat or--crucial for our purposes here--a thought that P and its verification through another thought that "fulfills" it.


The complete generality of the scheme of wholes, parts (dependent, independent), properties of parts, and Ideal laws governing the entire range of possibilities for parts, wholes and their combinations, applies to every act of conscious experience, along with everything else that exists. The mind is not an exception but another case of the distinctions of general ontology. This is a major point for understanding Husserl's clarification of the possibility of knowledge, to be explained below. Consciousness (language) is not some sort of ontological odd-man-out over against everything else. In particular, it is not a hermetically sealed realm closed in on itself. It is "open" in terms of its relationships to other things.9 In Kantian terms, consciousness does not "transcend," fall outside of, the categorially structured field of knowledge and its objects. It fully falls under the categories, and is not, through its 'activities' on the "given," the source or "creator" of a categorially structured world which would cease to exist or assume another character (one never seen) in its absence. This is the basis upon which Husserl's realism stands.

Thus the issue of "transcendence," or of reaching "outside" of consciousness (or language), becomes merely one case of the relation of one entity or group of entities (consciousness, language) to another (objects of conscious acts or language, including, sometimes, conscious acts and language itself). Consciousness in relationship to its objects has its own peculiarities, as is true of every case of a relationship between objects. But there is no radical difference of consciousness (language) that makes it hermetically sealed off from everything else in such a way that it cannot enter into external relations to what is neither a part nor a property of itself, or that it cannot be seen in its relationship to things other than itself. Relations between many types of entities can be thus seen--you can see, for example, that a piece fits a puzzle, that a move in chess fits a rule--and so can the relationship between a thought, idea or statement and its object.10 That is exactly what happens when we reflexively grasp the fact that something has been found by us to be as we thought it to be. This is the kind of thing we do over and over, day in and day out.

Indeed Husserl does speak in various places is if there were such a problem of "transcendence," and as if there were some special enigma about the contact of consciousness with its objects. But the outcome of his own investigations is that there is no such radical and insolvable enigma. There is just the task of describing the act of consciousness, how it relates to other acts, and how, finally, some special types of acts (the "fulfillments" mentioned above) succeed in grasping, entering into genuine relationship with, entities ("objects") that are not necessarily parts or properties of consciousness at all--though "objects" also well may be other acts of consciousness along with the universals or "species" instanced by them.


So much, then, for the IIIrd "Investigation" and the general theory of wholes and parts. Now the intentional experience or "act" is a kind of whole, and one which admits of varying degrees of complexity, often involving one or more other whole acts as parts, and always involving multiple "founding" relationships between act components that are not whole acts, as well as, in notable cases (acts of "higher order"), between whole acts. The Vth "Investigation" is devoted to descriptions and analyses of the essential structures (parts, properties) to be found in every act of consciousness or "intentional experience" whatever, and of the essential variations of such acts (their various "possibilities") with respect to those parts and properties. Among the most essential points made in these descriptions are the following:

  1. There are units of experience or conscious life that are characterized, as a whole, by being of or about a specific entity, which makes it the object of that unit. For example, a thought of a friend, or seeing the bus pass by, are such units of experience. "We take intentional relation, understood in purely descriptive fashion as an inward peculiarity of certain experiences, to be the essential feature of 'psychical phenomena' or 'acts'...." (LI p. 555) Husserl is a complete internalist with reference to mere intentionality and meaning. (pp. 603-604)
  2. Within one overarching essence, these "acts" differ in many ways with respect to how and what kind of objects they are about, and with respect to the corresponding differences of internal make up. Importantly, many different kinds of acts of consciousness can be directed upon the same object. The same object can be present to us under different modes of presentation or "senses," and in association with many different act "qualities," or "propositional attitudes" as they later came to be called. The most important technique for studying the structure of acts is to hold the object constant, while varying the various constituents of the act, as well as allowing the object to vary while holding the various constituents constant. What Husserl calls the "matter" of the act (its specific direction upon an object plus the sense in which the object is presented) together with its "quality" (the propositional attitude) make up the acts "intentional essence" (p. 590), its peculiar "aboutness."
  3. The same ontological structure emerges here as was studied in general in the IIIrd "Investigation." The whole act has parts (at least non-independent ones), the parts have properties that govern how those parts can or must come together to form wholes, which in turn have properties that govern how they and other wholes can come into relation to form other wholes, etc. etc. Matter and quality are non-independent parts of the whole act, as are (within the "matter") reference and sense. (p. 619) A judgement that S is P, for example, is a whole act, with its specific object--the fact of S's being P. And it has as a founding part, possibly among others, the whole act of representing S.
  4. The object of an act is never a part or property of that act--even, or we might say "especially," when the object does not exist. "Immanent objectivity" is a total misnomer, insofar as it suggests that the object in question for a particular act is a part of (contained in) the act of which it is the object. (LI pp. 558-560, 595-596) If the object of an act does not exist, it is still the object of that act, but does not therefore exist "in the mind" or anywhere else. It does not have to exist for an act to have it as its object. The "intentional content" of an act is its intentional essence as explained above. The infamous "problem of error"--that is, what are the objects of "illusory" acts and where are they?--does not, given Husserl's analyses, generate alternative "objects" inside the mind--or (as for Meinong) elsewhere. Nothing stands between the act and its object, and most especially not the act itself.
  5. An act ("intentional experience") may, and many must, contain intentional references (sub-references, as it were) to many different things other than what it, the whole act, is about, but there is always one reference (intentional direction) and one corresponding objectivity that makes the whole act one act or intentional experience and precisely that act which it is.
  6. One extremely important distinction between whole acts is that between a "mere thought" of something and a perception (or at least a better grasp) of that same thing. This distinction allows for the relationship of fulfillment to arise between the appropriate acts and, ultimately, between those acts and their shared object. In fulfillment, "What we intuit stands before our eyes in perception or imagination just as we intended it in our thought. To present something to oneself means therefore to achieve a corresponding intuition of what one merely thought of or what one meant but only at best very inadequately intuited." (p. 653) This "experience of the agreement between meaning and what is itself present...between the actual sense of an assertion and the self-given state of affairs, is inward evidence: the Idea of this agreement is truth, whose ideality is also its objectivity . It is not a chance fact that a propositional thought, occurring here and now, agrees with a given state of affairs." (LI p. 195; cp. chapter 1 of the VIth "Investigation")

Husserl's view was that in that peculiar complex act which he calls "fulfillment" we 'experience' truth. (LI p. 194; cp. 149 and 765-767) That is to say, we live through (erleben) the "matching up" of our thought that-P with our perception that-P, and, in certain limiting cases, with the fact that P and the objects that make it up. Thus, with specific reference to things:

"All perceiving and imagining is, on our view, a web of partial intentions, fused together in the unity of a single total intention. The correlate of this last intention is the thing, while the correlate of its partial intentions are the thing's parts and aspects. Only in this way can we understand how consciousness reaches out beyond what it actually experiences . It can so to say mean beyond itself, and its meaning can be fulfilled." (LI p. 701; cp. 717-718)

It is this basic notion of matching our thought up with the corresponding object--no matter what type--through perception that is captured by Husserl's oft repeated slogan: "to the things themselves." (p. 720)


This "reaching out" of consciousness "beyond what is actually experienced" or lived through in the respective acts is fulfillment, and knowledge in the full sense. It is not mere "intentional direction" that is in question here. And it is Husserl's understanding of this "reaching" or contact with an object that constitutes his version of realism. He holds that the reaching of cognition to an object that is "itself" present (not just "meant" or thought of) can be reflexively viewed, and that in that way the possibility of knowledge is both confirmed and clarified. Fulfillment is then itself given. (LI p. 720) We can, in selective cases at least, see a perfect accommodation of our consciousness to an object given to us in intuition (perception). Husserl thought that there are cases of perfectly translucent objects--above all, but not only, essences of cognitive experiences themselves--and that our complete intuitive grasp of these translucent objects is itself such a translucent object. When we intuitively grasp it (perfect fulfillment) we see the essence of knowledge in a particular case and thereby comprehend what makes knowledge possible.

These "selective cases" of perfect accommodation will always be those where the objects involved are Ideal entities (universals) or else are intentional experiences themselves, though not all such objects can be fully given--that is, submit to having all that is intended in our thought of them simultaneously given in perception. But "The thought 'signitive presentation', for instance, is fulfilled in the intuition of a signitive presentation, e.g., of the presentation 'integral', or of the presentation 'signitive presentation' itself.... It is...the inner perception of this presentation that serves as the fulfilling intuition to the thought 'signitive presentation'. This presentation is not the fulfilling intuition, but the object of the fulfilling intuition." (LI 725; cp. 763)

Husserl continues on in this helpful paragraph to state that the thought of a color has its fulfillment in the act of intuiting that color. Likewise, the thought of a particular thought has its fulfillment "in an act of intuiting this thought, and its final intuitive fulfillment in an adequate percept of the same." Note that in both cases the object transcends--is not a part or property of--the act (intentional experience) directed upon it. In his general contrast between thought or intention and fulfilling intuition, "intuition is not to be understood as mere outward intuition, the perceiving or imagining of external physical objects." The presence of "the object itself" is perception (LI 713-714), regardless of what type of object it may be.

Now it is precisely with reference to these sorts of cases, that the demonstration and the clarification of the possibility (in an actuality) of knowledge is realized. Here "a presentative intention has achieved its last fulfillment, the genuine adaequatio rei et intellectus has been brought about. The object is actually 'present' or 'given', and present as just what we have intended it; no partial intention remains implicit and still lacking fulfillment." (LI 762;cp. 726)

While fulfillment happens in different ways, and to different degrees with different types of objects (mental, physical, cultural, Ideal), the general essence of fulfillment, and of partial or complete fulfillment, is the same everywhere.11 Once clarified, one can go on to study how and to what extent fulfillment is present in the different types of cases. This clears the way for "a science of what exists in the absolute sense. This science, which we call metaphysics, grows out of a 'critique' of positive knowledge in the particular science. It is based upon the insight acquired by a general critique of knowledge into the essence of knowledge and known objectivity according to its various basic types, that is, according to the various basic correlations between knowledge and known objectivity."12

Bluntly stated, it is Husserl's view that we know what knowledge is and how it works (how it "is possible") by observing cases of it. This is the method exhaustively used in the IVth "Investigation." And in the Idea of Phenomenology (1908) Husserl points out that the way to defeat unclarity and uncertainty about the possibility of knowledge is to "consider indubitable cases of knowledge or possible knowledge--ones where knowledge actually reaches, or would reach, its object."13 And a little later in this same passage, "What I want is clarity. I want to understand the possibility of this contact, that is, if we consider what we mean here: I want to bring within my purview the essence of the possibility of this contact, to bring it to givenness in an act of seeing."

The cases where complete fulfillment or "pure" intuition is possible, we have noted, are certain "intentional experiences" (cogitationes) and certain universals and connections (Ideal laws) of universals. These are the cases where a perfect adaptation of empty meaning (thought) to object founded upon intuition (perception) of the object is sometimes actualized. In them we find what the essence of knowledge is. The universals which are instanced in the "Moments" of intentional experiences and in whole intentional experiences and groups thereof, are precisely the universals that constitute the essences and Ideal laws of cognitive processes. (LI p. 747) Of other kinds of objects, and especially those of the external world, we have no pure intuitions--none without empty or implicit intentions or meanings. But we do have pure intuitions of the essences of our thoughts and perceptions of those "external" objects, and of what it would be like for thoughts and perceptions of them to come together, in various degrees, to provide a high degree of fulfillment and knowledge of them. And these intuitions (of our thoughts and perceptions of external objects) enable us to have perfect knowledge of the essences of those thoughts and perceptions, and to develop a "critique" of when we do and do not have whatever knowledge can be had of external objects.

So, in sum, what is it for consciousness to "reach out beyond itself" and contact an object that is "in itself" even when it is known? It is for an act of fulfillment to occur in which what we thought of in a certain way is found to be exactly as it was thought to be. In such a case, our thought (with its concepts or propositions) can be seen, in combination with an intuition of its object, to match its object perfectly.

Although the domain where such perfect fulfillment occurs is, as we have noted, our intentional experiences themselves and their essences and Ideal laws, knowledge of those essences enables us to know what the knowledge (and the reality) of all other possible objects of consciousness would be like--what would count as "fulfillment" and "reality" in their cases--and to develop philosophically clarified methods for all of the sciences and practices, so that each, in their own domain, can provide assured knowledge of existence to the precise degree it is at all possible there. This concerns not only the sciences, but also knowledge and reality of the "life world." Thus the way was opened for the conceptualization of phenomenology, the analysis of the essences of experiences, as a cross-disciplinary approach to the clarification and certification of methods of knowing. A "phenomenology" was required in all fields of knowledge and practice.14


With all of this before us, we can perhaps see the point of Husserl's critique of Kant's "critique" of knowledge. After having laid out in painstaking detail his own elucidation of the possibility (nature and limits)15 of knowledge, Husserl summarizes (LI p. 832) his now thoroughly worked out distinctions between signification ("mere thought" or meaning) and intuition (corresponding perception), between sensuous perception and categorial perception, between inadequate and adequate intuition, and between intuition of individuals and intuition of universals. He then comments on our strong tendency to "let these oppositions shade into one another." The strength of this tendency, he says, is shown by Kant's theory of knowledge, "which throughout bears the impress of the failure to draw any clear distinction among these oppositions. " (LI, p. 833)

Husserl's basic point against Kant is that he fails to clarify, by adequate intuition of "the things themselves," the nature of and the interplay between meaning and intuition--which are in this case "the things." Rather, he adopts a "metaphysical epistemology" from the outset, taking as his goal the saving of mathematics and natural science "before he has subjected knowledge as such, a clarifying critique and analysis of essence, and before he has traced back the primitive logical concepts and laws to their phenomenological sources." Kant, accordingly, never arrived at the phenomenologically justifiable concept of the a priori. Only a thorough investigation of the laws of essence governing intentional experiences and "their fulfilling constitution of 'true being'" can provide "adequate answers to all the questions that can be meaningfully raised in regard to the 'possibility of knowledge'." (LI 833-834)

It surely must be admitted that Husserl has a point here. Kant never clarifies--and certainly not on the basis of intuition of them--what sensations and the sense manifold are, what the categorizing activity of consciousness is, how sensation and categorizing activity come together, or what exactly the result amounts to. This much, at least, can be regarded as true without regard to any of Husserl's views. It was pointed out by many of Kant's first readers. Indeed, Kant would insist that matters could not possibly be otherwise, because all of that in question lies--of "necessity" it seems--beyond sensation and therefore beyond categorial activity. All we know from Kant is that 'it' (sensations and the categorizing activity of the pure ego) simply must be there--as "transcendental arguments" always say. Husserl's point against Kant is, I think, rock-solid, though it is still open for Kant to insist that he has done all that can be done by way of a critique of knowledge. Husserl's own "critique" of knowledge, of course, is in terms of the intuitively graspable essences of meaning and fulfillment for the various kinds of objects (including essences), and in terms of the limits of what can be intuited, not just what can be sensed.


Husserl's critique of Kant's critique is quite relevant to many interpretations of knowledge in the 20th Century, and especially where they touch on the issue of realism. Of course, so far as Husserl's positive account in the LI, it is very unlikely it could even get a serious hearing from most recent investigators in this field--though it did so in the early decades of the 20th Century. The realist outbreak in those early decades was significantly indebted, directly or indirectly, to Husserl's LI and the impetus that it brought against the various forms of idealism, subjectivism and relativism then current.16

Kant is famous for saying, in the "Preface to the Second Edition" of his Critique of Pure Reason that " remains a scandal to philosophy and to human reason in general that the existence of things outside us...must be accepted merely on faith, and that if anyone thinks good to doubt their existence, we are unable to counter his doubts by any satisfactory proof."17 But surely he is equally famous for failing to provide "any satisfactory proof" himself, though he seems to have been quite satisfied with the one he offered in his "Refutation of Idealism."18 In a letter to Marcus Herz of Feb. 21, 1772, fifteen years earlier than the second edition of the first Critique, Kant had said that the problem of how anything in the mind can be a representation of anything outside the mind is the most difficult riddle in philosophy. For most, the problem remained after Kant and right up to the present.

The riddle has remained, in spite of numerous efforts to solve it. Hilary Putnam notes that Kant's question was replaced in the twentieth century by the question, "How does language hook onto the world?" "But," he adds, "the replacement has not made finding an answer any easier."19 A century ago we had G. E. Moore's famous attempt at a proof, as well as that of the American "New Realist" group. But neither Moore nor the New Realists was able to develop an account, much less a plausible one, of exactly what acts of thought and perception were, nor, therefore, of how they could relate to an object "in itself."

Then after the retreat from those bold attempts into "Critical Realism," Wittgenstein attempts the break-out from the "private space" of Critical Realism into a supposedly necessary linguistic community and the external world it was supposed to involve. Partly following Wittgenstein's lead, we then have various other attempts up to the present to argue from supposedly necessary properties of language to the existence of an "external" world. Putnam's own "internal realism" was, I think, best regarded as just another variation on the theme by Wittgenstein, who for his part never succeeded in giving any account of how language was both "in" the individual and "in" an independent world.

Now at the present time Putnam has explicitly abandoned "internal realism" in favor of "natural realism," a term borrowed from William James, which Putnam prefers to the terms "naive" and "direct" realism.20 Approaching the problem of realism primarily through the problem of perception, he now holds that there are no intermediaries between us and material objects in the "external" world in our ordinary perceptual experience. The "natural" presumption of ordinary people about what is going on in perception is, he now holds, basically right. And Colin McGinn, in his review of Putnam's The Threefold Cord, not only agrees with that, but also tells us that he, McGinn, has been a direct or natural realist all of his philosophical life.21 That, I think, will come as a surprise to many.


But what must be realized is that none of these recent thinkers have the beginnings of an account of how, according to their "natural realism," the mind or language actually comes together with a world that is independent of it. And it seems clear that, in the current philosophical atmosphere, they cannot have one, because they cannot take seriously the idea that the mind (thought, perception) has a "substance" of its own in terms of which it does contact independent objects, a substance that is uniquely its own in kind and is significantly open to inspection. That is the grand difference between Husserl and the others, early and late.

When one looks at the history of the battles over "realism"--which of course range much more widely than "perception" and "the existence of the 'external' world"--it is hard to escape the impression that at certain points in that battle anti-realism just becomes intolerable to some people (Reid, James, Moore, and now Putnam and McGinn), and they conclude it must be an impossible view. They of course state a few arguments, mostly "transcendental," but with a smattering of proto-phenomenological observations. Others stick with anti-realism (Berkeley, Hume, Rorty, Derrida--and, really, Kant) because it serves certain desired ends regarded as of overriding importance, though they too advance (often amazingly bad) arguments.

Those who reject anti-realism nearly always concentrate on exposing the bad arguments from the other side and/or upon advancing arguments (usually of the "transcendental" variety) why there must be an external world, or a world that is real independently of any awareness, reference, etc. that might be brought to bear upon it. The arguments against anti-realism always are something of a tour de force because, as just noted, they do not provide any account, much less a convincing one, of exactly what goes on in the contact between the mind (or language) and the allegedly mind-independent object which, on the realist account, is grasped.

It is, I suppose, generally admitted that there is currently no convincing account of reference, "rigid" designation, or "rules," especially as all of these relate (as they now usually do) to "possible worlds." The actual function of current talk about all of these matters is to make possible old-fashioned claims of essence or necessity in terms of claims about words or language. But this runs directly into the need to make claims of essence or necessity about words and language itself, and especially about how words and language deal with reality--or why they do not and cannot. Such claims abound on all sides of the discussion, but without any clarification of the possibility of making such claims. This has to be embarrassing to any thoughtful participant.22

Husserl does, at least, offer such a clarification. Its main components are his general theory of wholes and parts, and the specific Ideal laws that govern the parts and relationships of cognitive "acts" or intentional experiences and their objects. The challenge to anyone involved in the discussion of the possibility of knowledge of mind independent objects (really, of any knowledge at all) is to fill in the blanks of their abstract theory or image of what must be the case with reference to that possibility.

Husserl does just that, and no one else has come close to doing it so well as he. On the cusp of the "Linguistic Turn" that has now preoccupied us for about a century, he offered a pathway forward that premitted escape from the dead ends arising out of the misdescriptions of consciousness given from Descartes through John Stuart Mill and Nietzsche. Because it so contradicted the spirit of the age, however, evoking widespread fear and loathing of essences and intuitions, it was explicitly or implicitly rejected by the time of the 1920s, and we settled into recycling, for the next seventy or eighty years, the misdescriptions and dead ends of the "New Way of Ideas," only rephrased now in terms of the "New Way of Words."

At this point in time we should be able to look back and realize that nothing has been gained on this New Way, in spite of numerous "revolutions in philosophy" that have been announced. Perhaps we could then see, with Husserl, that philosophical work on mind and language cannot succeed without an adequate framework of general ontology, and especially without an adequate understanding of wholes and parts.


  1. All page references will be to the English translation by J. N. Findlay, Logical Investigations, Humanities Press: NY, 1970, indicated throughout this paper by "LI."
        The LI developed from Husserl's 1984 paper, "Psychological Studies in the Elements of Logic," English translation in Edmund Husserl, Early Writings in the Philosophy of Logic and Mathematics, translated by Dallas Willard, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994, pp. 139-170. Of this paper Husserl said, in 1906, "That treatise...I have now read once again. It is a first sketch of the Logical Investigations, especially of the IIIth and Vth." (op. cit., p. 491). In 1913 Husserl described the IIIrd "Investigation" as "an essential presupposition for the full understanding of the Investigations which follow," noting at the same time that that "Investigation is all too little read." (LI p. 49)  Return to text.
  2. To grasp Husserl's view of logic one should start from the "Second Part" of the Philosophy of Arithmetic, which interprets number arithmetic as having its "logical sources" in the need to master the domain of number by symbolic devices. The understanding of the "logical" that undergirds this "Second Part" is only further developed in the LI, and especially in chapter two of the "Prolegomena," on "Theoretical Disciplines as the Foundation of Normative Disciplines." (LI p. 74-89)  Return to text.
  3. Early Writings in the Philosophy of Logic and Mathematics, p. 51.  Return to text.
  4. One of the great ironies of Husserl's "reception" has been a rigid association of him with the view that knowledge is only intuition. In fact, his project was always to make clear how knowledge without intuition--where, even, intuition was an utter impossibility--was actual and possible. In the sciences, of course, and above all in mathematics, his own scientific field.  Return to text. 
  5. See on this the 1984 paper referred to in note 1, and discussions of this paper in my "Wholes, Parts and the Objectivity of Knowledge," in Studies in Logic and Formal Ontology, edited by Barry Smith, München: Philosophia Verlag: 1982, pp. 379-400, and in chapter one, §3 of my Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1984.  Return to text
  6. One of the finest and most accessible contemporary discussions of these "Moments" is in J. P. Moreland, Universals, Bucks, UK: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2001, pp. 60-80.  Return to text
  7. See, for example, "Psychological Studies in the Elements of Logic," pp. 143-144.  Return to text
  8. See the important footnotes to p. 179 of Early Writings.... on the general ontological nature of these distinctions.  Return to text
  9. Sartre, on one of his better days, got this just right. See his brilliant little note, "Une idee fondamental de la 'Phenomenologie' de Husserl, l'intentionalite," translated by Joseph Fell in the Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 1 (1970), pp. 4-5.  Return to text
  10. Of course things "fit" even when they are not brought into union with one another: a wrench fits a nut, a door fits a frame, when the wrench is not on the nut or the door in the frame. Likewise for a thought or idea or statement. Truth is not verification, though it may be reflexively viewed in at least some cases of verification.  Return to text.
  11. The last sect of Ideas I (§§ 128-153) deals with degrees of adequation and therefore of knowledge. It is a "Phenomenology of Reason," where "reason" refers to the capacity of consciousness to grasp reality. See especially the discussion of the "assertoric" seeing of an individual, as opposed to the "apodeictic" seeing into essences, in § 137. Husserl does not limit knowledge to the "apodeictic."  Return to text.
  12. Edmund Husserl, Idea of Phenomenology, translated by Lee Hardy, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999, p. 19.  Return to text.
  13. Idea of Phenomenology, p. 62.  Return to text.
  14. As is boldly stated at the front of the Jahrbuch für Philosophie und phänomenologische Forschung, Vol. I, 1913.  Return to text.
  15. Just to be clear, the nature of knowledge is the unification of thought and perception of the same object, and the limits of knowledge are, primarily, the limits to which an object can be perceived, be "itself present." This is Husserl's "critique" of knowledge and reason. The "unification" in question will be indirect and where algorithms are involved, extremely indirect in the case where the formal methods of logic are involved.  Return to text.
  16. For further information on this see the "Preface" to my Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge Return to text.
  17. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Norman Kemp Smith, London: Macmillan & Co. LTD, 1958, p. 34n.  Return to text.
  18. Critique of Pure Reason, p. 224ff.  Return to text.
  19. Hilary Putnam, Renewing Philosophy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 21.  Return to text.
  20. Hilary Putnam, The Threefold Cord, New York, Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 13.  Return to text.
  21. Colin McGinn, "Can You Believe It," The New York Review of Books, April 12, 2001, p. 71.  Return to text.
  22. For further discussion of why this is so, please see my paper, "Why Semantic Ascent Fails," Metaphilosophy, 14, #3-4 (July/October 1983), pp. 276-290. Return to text.