You are on page 1of 17

IS TRANSCENDENTAL PHENOMENOLOGY

COMMITTED TO IDEALISM?
There are several ways one can make an appraisal of Husserl's turn to
transcendental phenomenology. One way would be to look at some of the
implications of this turn, such as, whether Husserl is thereby prevented
from answering certain philosophical questions. Taking this course here,
I treat one of the implications that appears when one critically examines
the transcendental turn, namely that Husserl's philosophy is idealistic. This
is an implication that many critics of transcendental phenomenology have
alleged is philosophically intolerable and requires modification or abandonment of Husserl's transcendental turn. Important to this task is the distinction between what I shall call "epistemological idealism" and "metaphysical
idealism". As I detail later, epistemological idealism can be characterized as
the thesis that consciousness is the sole medium of access to whatever is seen
as actually or possibly existing and "metaphysical idealism" can be characterized as including the additional thesis that consciousness creates whatever
actually or possibly exists and what exists is dependent on it. It is my contention that Husserl's transcendental phenomenology, which he labels transcendental idealism, is epistemologically idealistic but metaphysically neutral.
Also I contend that metaphysical neutrality is not a deficiency of his philosophy but that such is the necessary conclusion of any philosophy that successfully adheres to the policy of describing, explicating and accepting all
objectivities only as they present themselves to the consciousness of them,
and in terms of the consciousness of them.
There are several reasons why I think it important to treat this question
about Husserl's idealism. One is that Husserl never developed a systematic
account of the kind of idealism to which transcendental phenomenology
is committed. There are scattered brief discussions, some of which I examine
below, but there is no extensive treatment of the question. Another reason
is that it may seem to anyone who is trying to understand Husserl's phenomenology that he has worked himself into an idealistic corner and that,
whether or not he wanted this result, he is committed to maintaining that
consciousness creates all that exists and what exists is dependent on it.
Also, many writers within the area of phenomenology have been unwilling
to accept Husserl's transcendental phenomenology because, they argue, he

IS HUSSERL COMMITTED TO IDEALISM?

99

is thereby committed to a metaphysical idealism; that he has made an unjustified metaphysical decision that rules out the possibility of the existence
of the real world. Finally, I believe that this discussion will bring out some
important points about the nature of the transcendental phenomenological
reduction.
1. Some Criticisms of Husserl's Idealism
Before proceeding, I will detail some of the criticisms. This description
is not meant to encompass all objections to transcendental phenomenology
with respect to its kind of idealism, rather I want only to indicate some
representatives of the types of objections that have been made, thereby
determining why many philosophers, even followers of Husserl, cannot
accept, or have serious reservations about, his transcendental turn.1
Theodor Celms, a student of Husserl in Freiburg, wrote a monograph
on Husserl's phenomenological idealism in which he developed the claim that
Husserl's idealism is metaphysical and spiritualistic.2 Celms claimed that
Husserl dissolves the reality of the world into the reality of consciousness;
that is, he dissolves transcendent temporal existence into immanent temporal
existence.3 Also he said that Husserl's problem of immanent constitution
is the problem of metaphysical constitution.4 Celms is basically concerned
about the fact that Husserl cannot avoid giving metaphysical answers to
problems, even the problems of the constitution of various senses of objects
in immanent temporality. In effect he is saying that Husserl at least retains
the metaphysical presupposition that consciousness itself is an absolute, that
it exists, and that thereby Husserl, in investigating constitution in the immanent realm is really investigating the metaphysical origins of all being.
Celms thinks that Husserl cannot avoid saying that the consciousness which
remains after the phenomenological reduction is a metaphysically posited
entity and that he cannot specify the relation between this consciousness and
consciousness as in the world, or that he can do so only in terms of the
metaphysical priority of the former. In short, Celms believes it impossible
to make the transcendental turn and remain metaphysically neutral.
Roman Ingarden, also a student of Husserl, has written many important
and original works in the field of phenomenology. Also, he is one of
Husserl's major critics with respect to Husserl's transcendental idealism.5
Some specific criticisms are given in an appendix to the Cartesianische
Meditatiorten,6 in which he states that Husserl equates without justification
the natural existence of the world and the world which is grasped by me.
Ingarden says that Husserl now is prevented from making judgments about

100

RICHARD H. HOLMES

whether the world has any other being apart from that which is "seen"
by me. Thus, Husserl is making a
metaphysical decision . . . which is equivalent to a categorical thesis about
something which is not an element of transcendental subjectivity.7
His basic contention is similar to Celms's, that is, Husserl has, in spite of
his saying the contrary, made metaphysical decisions regarding what actually
exists, in particular he is committed to the actual existence of consciousness
and the nonactual existence of a world which is autonomous and is independent of consciousness.
One of the most outstanding contemporary French phenomenologists,
Paul Ricoeur, maintains that Husserl, particularly in the Cartesian Meditations, ignores the difference and vacillates between the two senses of the
objective world as existing for me (fur mich), and as existing from me
(aus mir). He quotes the following sentences to show this vacillation:
The objective world which exists for me (fur mich), which has existed
or will exist for me, this objective world with all of its objects in me, draws
from me (aus mir selbst) all of its sense and all of the existential status
that it has for me.8
Ricoeur says that by not differentiating these two senses of the world Husserl
has made a "metaphysical" decision.
This decision consists in saying that there is no other dimension of the
being of the world than the dimension of its being for me, and there is no
other set of problems than the transcendental one.9
The basic concern of Ricoeur, and many others, is that by making the
transcendental turn Husserl has made it impossible to adequately and accurately describe and explicate the character of the world as existing independently of any consciousness of it. A metaphysical decision appears to
have been made which prevents Husserl from ever explicating any other
dimension of the being of the world, which means that Husserl is stuck
with a metaphysical idealism. Implicit in this, and in most critcisms of
Husserl in this respect, is the belief that when one tries to determine whether
objects and the world actually exist independently of any consciousness
of them, or even give a complete account of this existential sense, the
answer will already be predetermined by having made the transcendental
turn. Or, to put it another way, if one makes the transcendental turn, and
does so consistently and permanently he is thereby committed to a certain
metaphysical position.

IS HUSSERL COMMITTED TO IDEALISM?

101

However, I believe it can be shown that within transcendental phenomenology, Husserl does not and could not answer such metaphysical questions
about the actual metaphysical status of various entities, and that he was not
interested in doing so. Moreover, I think that metaphysics, in this sense
of determining what exists independently of consciousness, is not only
outside of the realm of transcendental phenomenology but must remain so,
and that the criticisms made of Husserl about his idealism miss the whole
point of his phenomenology. Before I elaborate this contention and also try
to determine whether Husserl can and does maintain such metaphysical
neutrality, I first examine some of Husserl's various writings on idealism
to determine his avowed position.
In what follows I do not address myself to the question of whether
metaphysical idealism is an untenable position or implies absurd consequences. Since my contention is that Husserl's transcendental turn does not
imply metaphysical idealism, I do not treat this question. Also, epistemological
idealism, as it is developed below, does not need to be defended as a tenable
position independently of showing it, as I believe I do, to be nothing
more than the systematic explication of what is presented in experience as
presented. In other words, a consistent and systematic development of the
theory of intentionality and the methodological principle of accepting only
that which is presented as it itself, "in person," yields a philosophy which
is epistemologically idealistic. All that is meant here by "idealism" is that
objectivities are studied as presented, and only as presented, to the consciousness of them. Moreover, it is not clear what one would mean by
a phenomenology that was epistemologically realistic while being metaphysically neutral. Such a phenomenology could not be different from
what is here called epistemological idealism without rejecting the basic
principles of phenomenology. Thus, I am not concerned with showing that
epistemological idealism in Husserl's sense is tenable, but with showing
that Husserl's phenomenology is only epistemologically idealistic, and is
metaphysically neutral. This does not mean that I have justified the underlying presupposition of phenomenology, and perhaps that of philosophy
in general, namely that the task is to describe and explicate all objectivities,
in the broadest sense of "objectivities."
2. Husserl's Conception of His Idealism
Primarily I will be characterizing what I call the epistemological idealism
of Husserl, differentiating it from metaphysical idealism on the basis of an
exposition of some of his writings on idealism. At the same time I will

102

RICHARD H. HOLMES

develop an answer to the question of whether the turn to transcendental


phenomenology, and the considerations which lead one to it, actually
necessitate this epistemological idealism.
Husserl's own explicit avowal of idealism, even in the sense I detail
later, did not come until well after Ideas, published in 1913. 10 However, as
will be illustrated in what follows, this idealism is certainly implicit in the
theses espoused by Husserl in the Ideas and his writings after this. His
first explicit statement of phenomenological idealism appears to have been
made in the London Lectures which he gave in 1922. 11 More detailed
statements about idealism can be found in the Formal and Transcendental
Logic, of 1929, the Preface to the English Edition of the Ideas, written in
1931, and Cartesian Meditations, of 1931.1 begin my evaluation of Husserl's
idealism by looking at Husserl's most systematic and explicit defense and
explanation of his idealism as it appears in the above mentioned Preface.
[ l ] Phenomenological idealism does not deny the actual existence of the
real (realen) world (and primarily of Nature), as if it meant, that the
world which underlies, although unnoticed, the natural thinking and that
of the positive sciences was an illusion. [2] Its only task and accomplishment is to clarify the sense of this world, precisely the sense, in which
everyone accepts it, and with genuine right accepts it, as actually existing
(wirkhch seiende). [3] That the world exists, that it is given as an existing
universe in an experience which is continuous and always fits together in
universal consonance, that is completely indubitable. [4] It is entirely
something else to understand this indubitability which is carried by this
life and positive science, and to clarify its justification. [5] In this respect
it is a philosophical fundamental, from the discussions in the text of the
Ideas, that the continuous progression of experience in this form of universal agreement is a mere presumption, even if legitimately valid, and
that accordingly the non-existence of the world, always remains thinkable,
while up to and now the world is actually and harmoniously experienced.
[6] The result of the phenomenological clarification of the sense of the
mode of being of the real world, and of a conceivable real world in general, is that only the transcendental subjectivity has the existential sense
(Seinssinn) of absolute being, that only it is "non-relative" (that is, relative
only to itself), while the real world exists to be sure, however it has an
essential relativity to the transcendental subjectivity, since it can have its
sense as existing only as the sense construct (Sinngebilde) of transcendental
subjectivity.12
As I show in the following analysis, Husserl is here trying to defend
his phenomenological idealism, or what he calls in other contexts "trans-

IS HUSSERL COMMITTED TO IDEALISM?

103

cendental idealism." To this end I think he is trying to differentiate between


what I call epistemological idealism and metaphysical idealism, although
he is mainly explaining his own kind of idealism. In the first sentence of
the above quotation, Husserl maintains that his philosophy does not deny
the "actual existence of the real world." The world as actually existing is
not doubted or believed to be an illusion. There is no metaphysical commitment made and none is expected to be made on the basis of the phenomenological investigation. Rather, the transcendental turn has been taken
and the general thesis of the natural attitude is suspended; I suspend my
previously unquestioned belief that the world and its objects exist and I
take an attitude of neutrality with respect to what I believe and accept,
and the believing and accepting itself. This suspension does not mean that
I no longer believe this "thesis", rather that it too is presented as intended
and must be described and explicated as any other intending and its intentional object. The fact that the world, and all objects given as "in" it, is
presented as existing out there independently of my perception of it is
not questioned, nor is it taken for granted that because it is so presented
that it must exist as such.
Instead, as the second sentence of the above quotation says, the phenomenologist is attempting to clarify this sense of the world as actually
existing. For example, the glass of wine I am now perceiving is presented
with the sense of existing independently of my perceiving it; if I leave
it on the counter by the sink, after making sure it is empty, I expect it
to be there in the morning needing to be washed, and I believe that it will
have been there all night more or less the same as when I left it. This existential sense requires description and explication just as do the characteristics
of the wine as pleasant and relaxing. The point is that all objects in the
world and all of our beliefs and judgments concerning them as well, are to
be studied as the intentional objects of the conscious processes which intend
them. Thus, these objects, including beliefs, judgments and so forth, are
now taken as the present themselves with the particular determinations that
they present themselves as having. Included in these presented determinations
is the existential sense with which each object is presented in the natural
attitude. This existential sense is preserved under the phenomenological
reduction, only now it is studied and accepted merely as meant, as it is
intended in the acts of consciousness of it without implying that it exists.18
Husserl says that the sense of actually existing is accepted by everyone with
"genuine right," a statement which may imply that Husserl is interested in
and perhaps believes he can provide a justification for this acceptance. How-

104

RICHARD H. HOLMES

ever, I think that "acceptance with genuine right" must be read as a sense
of the world. The world is accepted by everyone as actually existing and
they do so with genuine right because of the nature of their experience of it.
The next sentence indicates some further aspects of this experience.
In the third sentence Husserl spells out what he takes to be the presented
sense of the world which is not doubted. The world is presented as an existing universe throughout any experience of it, and these experiences are
continuous and coherent with each other. By this Husserl means both that
any individual's experiences are continuous and coherent, and that the experiences of all consciousnesses are continuous and coherent taken as a whole;
they "fit together in universal consonance." This does not mean that we all
agree on whether or not each and every part or aspect of this world exists.
Rather, Husserl means that the general background of the world, and the
world in which we find ourselves, the world-about-us, is believed in and
accepted as existing. This world is not only a world of facts, or natural
objects, but a world of values, of cultural objects, of practical objects as
well. The specifics of this world may change, or we may change our minds
about what we accept of them, but the world in general remains this
world-about-us which we unquestionably believe to exist and to which we
belong. Thus, there is corresponding to the continuous and coherent experience of the world a world which is presented with the sense of being
coherent and above all as actually existing.
In the fourth sentence Husserl points out that his task, of sense clarification, is something different from providing justification for the beliefs
and acceptances, that is, different from proving that an acceptance of the
world as actually existing is metaphysically justified. Transcendental phenomenology cannot enter into such discussions of justification since the
transcendental turn is a suspension of the natural belief that the world and
its objects exist. Whether or not such metaphysical neutrality always can
and must be maintained is another question, one which I discuss later, but
for now it is enough to see that transcendental phenomenology is metaphysically neutral. The problem for Husserl is to clarify this justification,
which means to determine how the experiences of the world and the presented senses of this world fit together to form an experience of the world
which has the sense of actually existing.
It is in the next sentence, the fifth, that the crucial statements are made.
Here Husserl is saying that the nonexistence, meaning the actual metaphysical
nonexistence, of the world is thinkable even though the continuous and
coherent experiences are believed in and accepted as experiences of an actually

IS HUSSERL COMMITTED TO IDEALISM?

105

existing world. This is 'so because the experiences are experiences of something which is believqd and accepted as existing, but this does not prove
that what is accepted as existing, and so believed to exist, does actually
exist, in the sense of existing independently of any actual or possible experience of it. The belief that the world exists is legitimate insofar as it is based
on a continuous and coherent set of experiences, but that does not tell us
whether this belief is true in the sense that the world actually exists.
Whether or not the world actually exists is not in question for the
phenomenologist since he has made the transcendental turn and is suspending, or putting out of action, the general thesis of the natural attitude. He
has taken an attitude of neutrality to the metaphysical question about the
existence or nonexistence of the world, either in the past, present or future.
Instead his task is to determine the status of this sense of existence with
which the world is presented.
It should be noted that Husserl is not involved in saying that there
are any existents other than the intentional conscious occurrences and their
objects as intended. In fact, he does not even say that these occurrences
and their objects exist, meaning that there is an identification of actual
metaphysical existence with the existence of these processes and their objects.
It is in the sixth long sentence that the results of this phenomenological
clarification of the sense of existence of the world are indicated. The phenomenologist finds that all objects in the broadest sense which includes the
intentional conscious occurrences as in the world, are relative to the consciousness of them, to the transcendental consciousness or subjectivity.
"Relative to" could mean that the objects are dependent on consciousness of
them in that they are created by, or owe whatever existence they have, to
transcendental consciousness. Given this interpretation it is easy to see how
Husserl could be thought to be a metaphysical idealist. He would be claiming that all that actually or possibly exists is relative to and dependent upon,
consciousness. However, to interpret "relative to" in this way would be
to forget that this claim was made after having taken the transcendental
turn. After taking this turn claims about the existence of something are no
longer believed and accepted, rather these claims are explicated as claims.
This means that the sense of actually existing that the real world is presented
as having is not accepted either as evidence for or against the actual metaphysical status of the real world. The same is true of all objects including
conscious occurrences which are presented as in the world. Instead, these
existential senses are investigated as they present themselves to consciousness;
they are senses for a consciousness. These senses are relative to conscious-

106

RICHARD H. HOLMES

ness since they are constructed, or constituted, by consciousness through its


synthetic functioning. Constitution is not a creation of sense out of nothing.
Yet it is not a creation of sense out of something meaning some entities,
data, or the like which are actually existing elements of the world. Rather,
it is the production of sense through the synthetic functioning of consciousness, for example, as occurs when several intendings and what is intended
as intended are synthesized and the sense of the object as remaining the
same throughout a period of time is constituted.14 This is not to say that
a sense so constructed is not, or can not, be a sense of existing independently
of an actual or possible consciousness. It is only to say that due to the
nature of the transcendental turn and the realization that consciousness is
the sole mode of access to everything that is or can possibly be known the
various senses of all objects can be described only as they present themselves
and only as presented to consciousness. The senses are essentially relative
to consciousness; they are not absolutes in themselves, they are senses for
consciousness. There is no sense independently of some actual or possible
consciousness.15 Thus the result that these existential senses are relative to
consciousness says nothing about the metaphysical status of objects which
are presented as existing independently of consciousness, nor is the task
of the phenomenological clarification to say anything about actual metaphysical existence.
Moreover, to say that only transcendental subjectivity has the existential
sense of absolute being is not to say that it therefore actually exists, or that
we have found at least one metaphysical existent with which we can populate
the universe.16 As Husserl says explicitly, transcendental subjectivity has the
existential sense of absolute being. Its existential sense is that it is relative
only to itself. This does not mean that because something has the existential
sense of absolute being that it therefore actually exists any more than the
sense of the world as existing independently of any actual or possible
experience of it means that the world actually exists in this way. Again,
the whole point of the transcendental turn is to suspend such metaphysical
beliefs and concerns and concentrate on describing and explicating the
various senses and the intentional conscious processes in which they are
presented as presented; this is all that is available to the phenomenologist.
It is this second meaning of "relative to," which all the senses of all
objects have, that indicates what I am calling epistemological idealism. It
is a direct consequence of having made the methodological move here
called the transcendental turn. Whether this transcendental turn can be,
or can remain to be, metaphysically neutral as I interpret Husserl to be

IS HUSSERL COMMITTED TO IDEALISM?

107

saying will be examined more closely after I consider several more of the
few passages which directly or indirectly indicate what kind of idealism
Husserl has in mind.
Consider the following passage from Ideas ( 1 9 1 3 ) :
The whole spatio-temporal world, to which man and the human Ego claims
to belong as subordinate singular realities, is according to its own meaning
mere intentional Being, a Being, therefore, which has the merely secondary,
relative sense of a Being for a consciousness. It is a Being which consciousness in its own experiences (Erfahrungen) posits, and is, in principle,
intuitable and determinable only as the element common to the [harmoniously] motivated appearance-manifolds, but over and beyond this, is just
nothing at all.17
This quotation sets out quite strongly the rejection of realism as a
position which claims that there are entities which exist independently of
any actual or possible experience. Husserl is not saying that such a position
is logically impossible, rather that the world is according to the way it is
presented to consciousness, only experienceable and determinable as it is
intended and that it has the relative sense of a being for consciousness.
Having already made the phenomenological reduction Husserl finds that
what things are (the things about which alone we ever speak, and concerning
whose being, so being or not so being, we can alone contend and reach
rational decisions), they are as things of experience.16
This is a consequence of maintaining the phenomenological standard that
says we must accept nothing that is not itself presented and "in person" in
the consciousness of it. Thus Husserl is saying that not only must this
position of metaphysical realism be rejected but that what is to be explicated is the experienced being for consciousness, its sense of existing. It
is not that Husserl is claiming that metaphysical realism is wrong or right
as a matter of actual fact, rather he is saying that any such claim is outside
the domain of the phenomenologist.
That this rejection of realism also involves a rejection of any metaphysical
claim is not particularly clear in this quotation from the Ideas of 1913. It
is clearer in the following quotation from Formal and Transcendental Logic
(1929):
Such an affair as an object (even a physical object) draws the ontic sense
peculiar to it (by which it then signifies what it signifies in all possible
modes of consciousness) originally from the mental processes of experience
alone . . .

108

RICHARD H. HOLMES

Experience is the primal instituting of the being-for-us of objects as


having their objective sense.19
Here he is saying that the "ontic sense" of an object, what I am calling
the "existential sense", is drawn from the experiences of it; that the existential sense that each object has for us, its being-for-us, comes from
experience. In other words, the sense of existing of any object comes from
experience and any claim which tries to go beyond this experience and
make pronouncements about the actual existence of objects cannot be based
on that which is presented to the phenomenologist.
It is not a question of whether there can or cannot be realities outside
of actual or possible experience, rather the point is that there can be no
knowledge about such things outside of experience. This is obvious since
if known then there is a consciousness of it and so it is not outside of experience. Furthermore, there does not need to be such knowledge because,
as Husserl says,20 nothing has been lost; all the beliefs and judgments about
objects as well as the determinations with which they are presented remain
intact. I have merely disengaged my "living in" the conscious processes of
the natural attitude and now reflect upon these. The result of this phenomenological clarification is not to determine whether a belief in the existence
of something independently of anyone's perception of it is "really" true,
it is not a metaphysical determining of the way in which objects gain the
sense that they have, how they draw the "ontic sense" and other senses
from the "mental processes of experience." 21
My contention that Husserl is not espousing a metaphysical idealism
is further reinforced by the following quotation from the Cartesian Meditations (1931):
We have here a transcendental idealism that is nothing more than a consequentially executed self-explication in the form of a systematic egological
science, an explication of my ego as subject of every possible cognition, and
indeed with respect to every sense of what exists, wherewith the latter might
be able to have a sense for me, the ego. This idealism is not a product of
sportive argumentations, a prize to be won in the dialectical contest with
"realisms." It is sense-explication achieved by actual work, an explication
carried out as regards ever)' type of existent ever conceivable by me, the
ego, and specifically as regards the transcendency actually given to me beforehand through experience: Nature, culture, the world as a whole. But that
signifies: systematic uncovering of the constituting intentionality itself.22
Here he most explicitly says in the latter part of the quotation that transcendental idealism is sense-explication, an explication of every sense of

IS HUSSERL COMMITTED TO IDEALISM?

109

what exists, and that it is nothing more than this, that it does not try to
make metaphysical claims against, and contest, a realism. There is the
puzzling statement that Nature, culture, the world as a whole are given
beforehand through experience, which might appear to be a realistic statement that such things have a metaphysical existence independently of our
consciousness. However, I think this must be read as a statement made
from the transcendental attitude and as a report on the presented senses
of Nature, culture and the world. They are presented as given beforehand
through experience, yet this sense, as any other, must also be explicated.
Again, Husserl is emphatically denying that the task of this idealism is to
investigate the actual existence of any object.
It should now be clear that by making the transcendental turn I find that
By my living, by my experiencing, thinking, valuing, and acting, I can
enter no world other than the one that gets its sense and acceptance or
status (Sinn und Geltung) in and from me, myself.23
Therein lies Husserl's transcendental idealism; the task of transcendental
phenomenology is to describe and explicate the sense with which intentional
objects are presented and this explication requires, as the last sentence
from the quotation from Cartesian Meditations above24 says, an explication
of the constituting intentionalities themselves. Thus we are led to an epistemological idealism wherein we find that we must explicate all the sense of
all objects in terms of the intentional conscious processes in which they are
intended.
3. An Answer to Husserl's Critics
At this point, after having developed Husserl's position that transcendental idealism is metaphysically neutral, I think it appropriate to investigate
whether the transcendental turn can be made metaphysically neutral, or
whether this epistemological idealism retains certain metaphysical commitments, or rules out certain metaphysical theories, as Husserl's critics allege.
That Husserl's phenomenology is an epistemological idealism is, I believe,
quite evident as I have outlined above. He has repeatedly maintained that
the various senses of objects must be explicated and that to do so requires
going back to the intentional conscious occurrences to which they are presented.25 To call phenomenology an idealism of this kind is really nothing
more than to say that it does not, in order to perform its task, accept any
claims about actual being, nor make any such claims. Moreover, it finds that

110

RICHARD H. HOLMES

this world with all its Objects . . . derives its whole sense and its existential
status, which it has for me, from me myself, from me as the transcendental
Ego, the Ego who comes to the fore only with the transcendental-phenomenological epoche.28
It might be thought that Husserl has presupposed at least that his transcendental subjectivity exists, or that transcendental experiences and their
objects exist. If one means that he presupposes they actually exist then it is
quite obvious that Husserl is denying this when he takes the transcendental
turn. However, there is a sense in which Husserl does allow and makes
presuppositions. As Dorion Cairns points out,
Husserl himself emphasized the inevitability of starting, even in the transcendental-phenomenological attitude, by accepting some evidence and, in
this sense, making pre-suppositions which must eventually be suspended
and submitted to phenomenological analysis on a deeper level.27
And as Husserl says:
The investigations take on a painful and yet unavoidable relativity, a provisionalness, instead of definitiveness for which we are striving: Each
investigation, at its own level, overcomes some naivete or other, but is still
accompanied by the naivete of its levelwhich must then be overcome in
turn by more penetrating investigations of origins.28
These presuppositions are not made, they are found and revealed as
such as the phenomenologist proceeds in his investigations. Yet in no case
does he accept these as anything other than "prejudices" which need senseexplication.29 Everything presented to the phenomenologist with evidence,
as itself given, is accepted but only insofar as it is presented in his experience
of it. Thus my transcendental subjective life and the intentional objects are
accepted as they present themselves, but this does not mean I accept them as
actually being what they present themselves as being.
There is another sense in which Husserl might be seen to be committed
to a metaphysical idealism. By making the transcendental turn, and by maintaining that all objectivities must be described and explicated in terms of the
subjective conscious occurrences he may be said to be ruling out the possibility
of a metaphysical realism. That is, I may be prevented from ever deciding
that some objects or other actually exist independently of any consciousness
of them by starting with the commitment to a method which requires that I
explicate objectivities in terms of the consciousness of them. Given the nature
of the transcendental turn this claim cannot be sustained for two reasons,
first, no metaphysical claim is either entertained or defended, as metaphysical,

IS HUSSERL COMMITTED TO IDEALISM?

Ill

after the transcendental turn. To do so would be to violate the very principle


which initiated the turn. Second, if one wanted to develop and defend a
metaphysical claim independently of transcendental phenomenology, or any
phenomenology which sticks to the methodological principle of only working
with objectivities and the conscious occurrences as presented, no description
or explication from phenomenology would present evidence for or against
that claim. This is so because any description within phenomenology is concerned only with what is presented as it is presented and not with its existence
independently of this presentation.
Unless one is willing to say that because we are conscious of something
it cannot be real, I do not see how a phenomenological description of something rules out the possibility that it actually exists. Similarly it does not rule
out the possibility that it does not actually exist independently of a consciousness of it. Basically the contention that the transcendental turn does not allow
or make metaphysical commitments rests on an understanding of the transcendental turn and the methodological principles of phenomenology, such as
only describing what is presented as presented. For these reasons I think I
can dismiss the critics' charges that the transcendental turn commits one to
a metaphysical position. What remains to be seen is whether Husserl can
and does remain metaphysically neutral.
The best way to approach this question is to look at some of the few
passages where Husserl mentions "metaphysics." In section 60 of the Cartesian
Meditations, Husserl speaks of "metaphysical results." He qualifies "metaphysics" by saying that it is not metaphysics in the usual sense but metaphysics
which is done within phenomenology. He says that the results are metaphysical, but after listing these, including the impossibility of two separate
objective worlds, 31 he says:
Such results and the course of the investigations leading to them enable us
to understand how questions that, for traditional philosophy, had to lie
beyond all the limits of science can acquire sense (regardless of how they
may be decided)for example, problems we touched on earlier.32
These questions, and their answers, acquire sense through phenomenological
analysis which means that the results are results discovered by the phenomenological method which precludes any metaphysical answers of the
traditional sort, for example, Descartes' proof of the existence of material
things in Meditations VI.
Similarly, in the last section of Cartesian Meditations, Husserl speaks of
metaphysics, but qualifies what he means by this.

112

RICHARD H. HOLMES

Phenomenology indeed excludes every naive metaphysics that operates with


absurd things in themselves, but does not exclude metaphysics as such.53
This latter kind of metaphysics is to provide answers to "supreme and ultimate" questions including various ethico-religious problems,
But stated in the realm where everything that can have a possible sense
for us must be stated.34
This means that these will be answers based on the results of transcendental
phenomenology, that is, results based on and taking place within the realm
of sense explication.
Two points need to be made in this connection. First, if Husserl means
more than this, if he means that the results of transcendental phenomenology
have application beyond the realm of sense-explication then he is clearly
violating the principles of the transcendental turn. However, I do not think
he was trying to exceed these boundaries. Instead, and this is the second
point, I think Husserl was trying to say that once we have completely carried
out the phenomenological program of sense-explication, a task which he is
willing to say is an infinite one, then there will be no more problems or questions to be considered or answered. This is so because every sense that each
and every object has for us will be explicated and be done so in terms of the
consciousness of it, and that nothing more can or needs to be investigated.
Moreover, these results will answer the problems that faced traditional
metaphysics, but do so within transcendental phenomenology. For example,
the answer to the question "what actually exists?" appears to be a complete
explication of the constitution of the various existential senses of objects;
doing so by describing the way the other senses of the object, perhaps the
senses of constant size, shape, color, and so forth, under constant conditions,
contribute to the sense of the object as actually existing in a world independent of consciousness.
I also maintain that it is this point that Husserl's critics have misunderstood. They appear to want, in addition to the sense-explication of all objects,
an answer to questions such as: "What actually exists?" "Does the world
exist independently of the consciousness; is there a realm of being apart
from that of which I am conscious?" The critics have failed to understand
that if I have successfully explicated the existential sense of all objectivities
in terms of the consciousness of them then questions about existences of
which there is no actual or possible consciousness are absurd. Moreover, any
such questions arise within the consciousness and thus are themselves open
to explication as to their sense by phenomenology. Even further I can say

IS HUSSERL COMMITTED TO IDEALISM?

113

that all questions, metaphysical or otherwise, arise and are explicable only
within consciousness. Of course, this does not mean that within transcendental
pheonomenology there are no problems. Rather, I am trying to show that
not only is transcendental phenomenology metaphysically neutral, but that
it can not become metaphysically committed to whether there is a realm of
existence independent of consciousness.
RICHARD H. HOLMES
UNIVERSITY OF WATERLOO
CANADA

NOTES
1. In addition to those mentioned here there are many others who have written
critiques of Husserl's idealism, for example see: Rudolf Boehm, "Husserl und der
klassische Idealismus," Vom Gesichtspunkt der Phanomenologie (The Hague: Martinus
Nijhoff, 1968); Joseph Kockelmans, Edmund Husserl's Phenomenological Psychology
(Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, 1967), pp. 324ff.; Ludwig Landgrebe, Major
Problems in Contemporary European Philosophy (New York: F. Ungar Publishing
Co., 1966), pp. 54ff.; Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (New
York: Humanities Press, 1962), pp. viiiff.; Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, Why is There
Something Rather than Nothing (The Netherlands: Van Gorcum and Co., 1966),
pp. 14-15.
2. Cf., Theodor Celms, Der Phanomenologische Idealismus Husserls (Riga, 1928),
pp. 251-439.
3. Cf., Ibid., p. 431.
4. Cf., Ibid., p. 433.
5. Ingarden's major work in this area is: Der Streit urn die Existenz der Welt,
3 vols. (Tubingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1964-66).
6. "Kritische Bemerkungen von Prof. Dr. Roman Ingarden, Krakau," Cartesianische Meditationen, Husserliana I (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1950), pp. 203ff.
7. Ibid., p. 210 (trans. Paul Ricoeur, Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology,
trans. Edward G. Ballard and Lester E. Embree (Evanston: Northwestern University
Press, 1967), p. 89.
8. Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, trans. Dorion Cairns, (The Hague:
Martinus Nijhoff, I960), p. 26.
9. Ricoeur, Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology, p. 89.
10. Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, trans.
W. R. Boyce Gibson (New York: Collier Books, 1962).
11. Cf., Herbert Spiegelberg, "Husserl in England," Journal of the British Society
for Phenomenology, 1 (1970): 11.
12. Husserl, "Nachwort," Ideas III (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1952), pp.
152-53 (my translation; I have numbered the sentences to facilitate references in the
following analysis).
13. Cf., Ideas, p. 194.

114

RICHARD H. HOLMES

14. For a somewhat different interpretation of constitution, but one which is


consistent with mine except in one respect, see Robert Sokolowski, The Formation of
Husserl's Concept of Constitution (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964), pp. 135ff.,
197ff. I disagree with his claim that the real world is a necessary condition for constitution, see pp. 218ff. Sokolowski's claim would be correct only if it were clarified
by saying that what is necessary is that the world, and the objects within it, are presented as real, with the existential sense of actually existing independently of the
consciousness of them. In no case does the fact that the world is presented and constituted as real imply or necessitate that it is real.
15. Cf., Cartesian Meditations, p. 84.
16. Cf., Ibid., sees. 10, 11.
17. Husserl, Ideas, p. 139.
18. Ibid., p. 133.
19. Edmund Husserl, Formal and Transcendental Logic, trans. Dorion Cairns
(The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969), p. 164.
20. Cf., Ideas, p. 140.
21. Cf., Formal and Transcendental Logic, p. 164.
22. Cartesian Meditations, p. 86.
23. Ibid., p. 21.
24. See Cartesian Meditations, p. 157.
25. Cf., Cartesian Meditations, sees. 20-21.
26. Ibid., p. 26.
27. Dorion Cairns, "Concerning Beck's 'The Last Phase of Husserl's Phenomenology,'" Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 1 (1940): 493.
28. Formal and Transcendental Logic, pp. 270-71.
29. Cf., Ibid., pp. 276-77.
30. Cf., Cartesian Meditations, pp. 139ff.
31. One other interesting result is this statement: "Moreover this one nature must
exist, if there are any structures in me that involve the coexistence of other monads
{Cartesian Meditations, p. 140). It may appear that Husserl is claiming that the one
Nature must actually exist, independently of any consciousness, however he is qualifying this by saying if there are structures within me that are presented as involving
the coexistence of others then there must also be presented a world in which they exist.
But this result, as all other "metaphysical" results, is one within transcendental phenomenology.
32. Ibid., p. 141.
33. Ibid., p. 156.
34. Ibid.