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Cassirer and Husserl on the

Phenomenology of Perception
Timothy Martell
University of Portland

Abstract: This paper creates a dialogue between Ernst Cassirer, one of the last
prominent representatives of Neo-Kantian thought, and Edmund Husserl, the
founder of phenomenology. In Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Cassirer criticizes
Husserls distinction between hyl and morph. His criticism is based in part
on the work of several figures belonging to the early phase of the phenomenological movement, including Wilhelm Schapp. By developing Cassirers
criticism and considering the responses that Husserl could have offered, the
dialogue helps to clarify the complex relationship between Cassirers philosophy and Husserls phenomenology. It also reveals some of the ways in which
early phenomenology influenced other philosophical movements. But dialogue between Cassirer and Husserl is of more than historical interest. I argue
that Husserl would not have had an adequate response to Cassirers objections.
Cassirers criticism of Husserl thus remains relevant for present day research
in phenomenology.
Keywords: Edmund Husserl, Ernst Cassirer, Wilhelm Schapp, Phenomenology, Perception.

This paper creates a dialogue between Ernst Cassirer, one of the last prominent representatives of Neo-Kantian thought, and Edmund Husserl, the
founder of phenomenology. It focuses on the phenomenology of perception.
Though Cassirer refers to Husserl at several points in Philosophy of Symbolic
Forms, it is only in the context of a discussion of perception that he explicitly
criticizes Husserls phenomenology. His criticism is based in part on the work
of a number of figures associated with the early phase of the phenomenological movement, including one of Husserls students at Gttingen, Wilhelm
Schapp. A dialogue focused on the phenomenology of perception should,
then, help clarify the complex relationship between Cassirers philosophy


Timothy Martell

of symbolic forms and Husserls phenomenology, while also revealing some

of the ways in which early phenomenology influenced other philosophical
movements. But the dialogue is of more than historical interest. As I will
argue in what follows, Husserl would not have had an adequate response to
Cassirer. This means that Cassirers criticism of Husserl is relevant for present
day research in phenomenology.
The first section of the paper sets forth pertinent aspects of Cassirers philosophy of perception. This requires a brief account of his broader project in
Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. In the second section, I turn to his criticism of
Husserls phenomenology of perception, a criticism that focuses on Husserls
distinction between hyl and morph. In the third section I consider a number
of different responses that Husserl could have made to this criticism. Some
of these responses are based upon texts to which Cassirer would not have had
access, such as Husserls lectures on passive synthesis. I show that, in this case
at least, appeals to the Husserls posthumously published works will not get
him out of the difficulty. In the fourth section, I draw out some implications
of granting Cassirers objection.

1. Perception in Philosophy of Symbolic Forms

Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (PSF) is based on several insights gleaned
from Cassirers earlier studies in epistemology. In both Substance and Function and Einsteins Theory of Relativity, he maintains that the basic function
of natural scientific cognition is to unify phenomena by way of physical laws
(Cassirer 1923: 187, 449).1 Such laws express functional relations between
numerically determinable variables, and this implies that objects of natural
scientific cognition must be measureable. Objects of natural scientific cognition are objects that can be ranked in a numerical order. They must also be
embedded within spatial and temporal orders. Law, number, space, and time
may therefore be said to be objectivating conditions.2 Any object that counts
as an object of natural scientific cognition must be represented as embedded
within each of these relational structures. Since natural scientific cognition
is another term for what Cassirer (at this stage) calls Erfahrung, these objectivating conditions of physical theory might also be called conditions of the

This is reaffirmed in the first volume of PSF (1953a: 77).

I have taken this term from Allison (1983), who employs it in the course of explaining the notion of an epistemic condition, and thereby offering his interpretation of Kants
transcendental idealism. There are, to be sure, crucial differences between Kants idealism and
that of Cassirer (or any of the philosophers associated with Neo-Kantianism). For some of the
differences, see Friedman 2000 and Khn 2010. That said, Allisons account of transcendental
idealism, or what he also calls formal idealism, still provides a useful starting point for getting
clear on Cassirers critical idealism.

Cassirer and Husserl on the Phenomenology of Perception


possibility of experience. Cassirer prefers to call such conditions forms, or,

more precisely, physical forms.
A second insight is that cognitive achievements in the exact sciences (i.e.,
mathematics and the natural sciences) are dependent upon the use of symbols.
This is plainly the case as far as the mathematical sciences are concerned. As
Husserl himself would grant, the capacity to discriminate between numbers
greater than, say, twelve depends on the ability to use signs such as those belonging to the Arabic numeral system; the ability to perform even relatively
simple mathematical operations and thereby know of mathematical states of
affairs is contingent on the ability to engage in rule-governed manipulation of
those symbols. Symbolic systems also play an indispensible role in natural scientific cognition. As with mathematical symbols, the symbols of natural science do more than simply copy objects that are already cognitively available.
The symbols of the natural sciences make their objects available for thought,
and, as with numerical symbols, they do so by situating those objects within
a broader, structured context. A sign for an element in the periodic table, for
instance, does not refer to that element apart from its relations to other elements. It refers to the element as a member of a system of objects, relevant features of which are functions of their positions in that system. Symbols of the
exact sciences not only make their objects available for thought; they do so by
embedding them within a broader, structured context. Symbols are formative.
A third insight, this one stemming directly from Cassirers work on Einsteins theory of relativity, 3 is that non-scientific symbols, such as mythic symbols or the symbols comprised by natural languages, provide for non-scientific
frames of reference.4 By way of the symbols of myth or language, objects are
meant as belonging to a broader context wherein they are spatially, temporally, and numerically ordered. However, both mythic space and space as represented in natural language are considerably different than the space of physics.
Whereas the space of physics is homogeneous, mythic space is qualitatively
differentiated. Physical space is continuous in a strict, mathematical sense;
the space of natural language is not. Similar considerations hold for time and
numberor so Cassirer argues. Mythic thought and linguistic representation, then, involve forms, but their forms are not identical with the forms of
science. Cassirers project in PSF is to read off from the symbols of language,
myth, and science the forms that are distinctive of each.
After dealing with language and myth in the first two volumes of PSF,
Cassirer returns to the subject matter of his earlier works in the third: the
exact sciences. But he approaches them in a new way. In contrast with both
Substance and Function and Einsteins Theory of Relativity, he treats the exact

Cassirer (1923: 446447) announces the research program that was to result in PSF.
This is Nelson Goodmans gloss of Cassirers notion that there is a plurality of worlds,
including the worlds of language, myth, and science (1978: 2).


Timothy Martell

sciences in relation to that out of which they develop: perception. His study
of perception is, furthermore, guided by his preceding studies of language
and myth. This is not to suggest that Cassirer views science as emerging from
either language or myth (or both) by way of a dialectical process.5 Rather, Cassirer takes both language and myth to provide clues concerning the nature of
perception. By working back from myth and language to perception, he can
then show how science builds upon what perception accomplishes.
In mythic thought, symbols function expressively insofar as they manifest
what might be called animate qualities such as menace, gloom, or vitality. A
boundary stone, for example, might distinguish a place from its surroundings
by marking it off as sacred. A sacred space is, roughly, an area evocative of fear
or awe. The enduring power of mythic thought over time and across cultures
suggests to Cassirer that perception likewise involves expressively meaningful
phenomena. He goes on to confirm what his study of myth suggests by appealing to Max Schelers The Nature of Sympathy. He appeals, in particular,
to Schelers descriptions of the gestures, countenance, or bearing of another
person. The latter are perceived, first and foremost, as calm, violent, gentle,
joyous, sorrowful, confident, etc. So perceived, they are expressively meaningful symbols.6 Cassirer thus takes the philosophy of symbolic forms and
phenomenology to provide complimentary and even mutually corrective approaches to the study of perception.7 The reconstructive effort of the philoso5
The subtitle of the third volume of PSF, the phenomenology of knowledge, is a deliberate allusion to Hegel. Certainly, there are affinities between Cassirers project in PSF and Hegels
in the Phenomenology of Spirit. But there are several crucial differences as well. Cassirer does not
present science as the self-conscious solution to the problems of other symbolic forms. Science,
moreover, does not emerge from contradictions into which language and myth are necessarily
According to Scheler, It is in the blush that we perceive shame, in the laughter joy. To
say that our only initial datum is the body is completely erroneous. This is true only for the
doctor or the scientist, i.e., for the man insofar as he abstracts artificially from the expressive
phenomena, which have an altogether primary givenness. It is rather that the same sense-data
which go to make up the body for outward perception, can also construe, for the act of insight,
the expressive phenomena which then appear, so to speak, as the outcome of experiences
within. For the relation here referred to is a symbolic one, not a causal one. Elaborating on
this last point, Scheler adds that We might also say that it is not the mere relation of sign to
the presence of something, whereby the latter is subsequently inferred; it refers to a genuine,
irreducible property of the sign itself. (Scheler 2008: 10)
Discussing the relationship between the philosophy of symbolic forms and phenomenological analysis, Cassirer writes that [t]he two are so closely linked and necessarily interdependent that not only are their positive results closely related but, conversely, every false move in
one direction makes itself felt forthwith in the other. An inadequate appreciation of the objective meaning of the particular symbolic forms always involves the danger that the phenomenon
in which this meaning is grounded will be misunderstoodand on the other hand, every
theoretical prejudice that injects itself into the pure description of phenomena endangers our
evaluation of the meaning of the forms that result from it. (Cassirer 1957: 74)

Cassirer and Husserl on the Phenomenology of Perception


pher of symbolic forms, the effort to work back from the symbols of myth and
language to perceptual meaning, should coalesce with the pure descriptions of
the phenomenologist.8
Cassirers study of language provides additional clues concerning the nature of perception.9 Like mythic signs, the signs making up a natural language
function expressively. Any interjection is a case in point. But linguistic signs
also function representatively. A linguistic symbol functions representatively
insofar as the symbol, when present, refers to that which is distinct from itself,
something which may be either wholly or in part absent 1953a: 100; 1957: 108.
If language, like myth, is grounded in perception, this suggests that perception involves both expressive and representative phenomena.
As with his discussion of expressive symbols, Cassirer goes on to show
that perception involves representational symbols by appeal to phenomenology. In this case, he refers to the works of Ewald Hering and David Katz,
both of whom are loosely associated with the phenomenological movement.
But, most interestingly, Cassirer begins his case for representational perceptual
phenomena by appeal to Wilhelm Schapps Beitrge zur Phnomenologie der
Wahrnehmung.10 Cassirer focuses on Schapps description of color in perception, quoting him at length:

For a discussion of the relationship between reconstruction and phenomenological description, see Luft 2004: 2010. Cassirer refers to Natorps method of reconstruction in the
reflections immediately preceding his account of perception in PSF.
As Bernet (2010: 4344) explains, Cassirer discusses perception in both a narrow and a
broad sense. Wahrnehmung, which Manheim translates as perception, has solely to do with
expressive phenomena. Thus, lived experience of the sort which Edith Stein calls Einfhlung
and which Husserl on occasion calls Fremderfahrung, would count as instances of Wahrnehmung. Anschauung, a term which Manheim renders as intuition, has to do with perception generally. Whereas the symbols involved in Wahrnehmung pertain to myth, the symbols
involved in Anschauung also pertain to languageor so Cassirer will argue. It should be noted
that the term Anschauung conveys the idea that the intentional objects of perception are
intended as there in the flesh or, as Cassirer says, leibhaft (1929: 280). This is the same term
that Husserl uses in the lectures on Thing and Space to make much the same point. Perceptual
objects are intended as directly present, as opposed to objects intended by way of images, such
as objects depicted in photographs.
Schapps contribution to the phenomenology of perception appeared in 1910 as a dissertation written under Husserls direction. This is the same work to which Merleau-Ponty
makes repeated reference in Phenomenology of Perception (1962: 229230, 302, 309, 318).
Several of Merleau-Pontys well-known examples of synesthesia are drawn, nearly word for
word, from Schapp. This raises the question of how it happened that Schapps work first came
to Merleau-Pontys attention. Following completion of his dissertation, Schapp did not pursue
a career as an academic philosopher, and although he continued to publish in philosophy, his
later works have to do with narrative rather than with perception. How was it that in the early
1940s Merleau-Ponty not only knew of a then three-decades-old thesis written by one of Husserls graduate students but also believed it to be worthy of careful study? One possibility, given
the influence of Cassirers thought on Phenomenology of Perception, is that Merleau-Ponty first
encountered Schapp by way of Cassirer.


Timothy Martell

There is a difference between the nave mans and the artists way of seeing
things, even if we disregard all aesthetic considerations. The nave man []
sees things only in the color they apparently preserve in all changes of light,
which one may also call their real, inherent color; he does not see the reflections, the lights, the colored shadows, except where they force themselves on
the attention. True, he sees the shadow which his form makes on the ground
when the sun is shining, he also sees the reflection cast on the wall by a moving hand mirror, the glittering of a helmet in the sunlight, the flickering of
light on the walls when a fire is burning in the fireplacebut when the sky is
overcast, it does not occur to him that a cherry on an eye always has this spot
of light regardless of the illumination []. Thus although the object cannot
be perceived without such light images, it is certain on the other hand that the
light images themselves need not be perceived if the object is to be represented
[]. One can contemplate them, as they group themselves in the object, as
they lie on it in shadows, as they infuse it with light, as they cast a radiant
sunshine over it []. In this case, to be sure, the things seem to be somewhat
neglected. It seems to me that one can be so much taken up with the light images that the object almost vanishes. The perception of things does not seem
to be compatible with that of light images; rather, the perception of a thing
requires that the light images recede modestly into the background, where
they are indispensible. When they are situated in the appropriate place, there
is perception of the thing. Where they stand out so vividly that one cannot
overlook them, perception is disturbed. They should guide the eye to the
thing; the eye must not be caught in them. (Cassirer 1957: 125126)11

The original, as somewhat freely quoted by Cassirer, reads: In der Art, wie der naive
Mensch und der Knstler die Dinge sieht, ist ein Unterschied, auch wenn wir von allem sthetischen absehen. Der naive Mensch [] sieht die Dinge nur in der Farbe, die sie scheinbar
bei jeder nderung der Beleuchtung behalten, die man wohl auch wirkliche anhaftende Farbe
nennt; er sieht nicht die Reflexe, Lichter, die farbigen Schatten, wo sie nicht ganz aufdringlich
sind. Er sieht wohl den Schatten, den seine Gestalt auf den von der Sonne beschienenen Boden
wirft, er sieht auch den Reflex des Handspiegels, mit dem man den leuchtenden Widerschein
ber die Wand tanzen lt, das Blinken des Helmes im Sonnenschein, das Flackern des Lichtes
an den Wnden, wenn das Feuer im Kamin brenntaber ihm fllt bei trbem Himmel nicht
auf, da die Kirsche, das Auge immer diesen Lichtfleck haben, wie die Beleuchtung auch sein
mag []. Wenngleich daher ohne solche Lichtgebilde der Gegenstand nicht wahrgenommen
werden kann, so ist andererseits sicher nicht erforderlich, da diese Lichtgebilde selbst wahrgenommen werden, wenn der Gegenstand vorstellig werden soll Man kann sie betrachten, wie
sie sich am Gegenstande gruppieren, auf ihm als Schatten lagern, ihn als Licht durchdringen,
an ihm als Glanz, Sonnenschein sitzen. Allerdings scheint bei dieser Einstellung das Ding ein
wenig zu kurz zu kommen. Es scheint mir, als ob man sogar sich so diesen Lichtgebilden
zuwenden kann, da der Gegenstand fast verschwindet []. Es scheint nicht wohl vereinbar
zu sein Dingwahrnehmung und Lichtgebildewahrnehmung, sondern zur Wahrnehmung des
Dinges gehrt es, da die Lichtgebilde bescheiden in den Hintergrund treten, wo sie unentbehrlich sind. Wenn sie sich an dem gehrigen Orte befinden, dann ist Wahrnehmung des
Dinges vorhanden. Wo sie so stark hervortreten, da man sie nicht bersehen kann, da ist die

Cassirer and Husserl on the Phenomenology of Perception


In contrast with the painter, we ordinarily see things with inherent colors,
colors which are invariant throughout changes in lighting conditions. We do
not see the colored shadows, reflections, and other light images (Lichtgebilde). More precisely, they are not the objects toward which vision is directed,
though Schapp acknowledges that we are visually aware of them. They are
sensed, but not seen. In fact, he goes on to claim that they must be sensed,
for they play an indispensible role in vision: they function to guide the eye to
things. But they can only play this role when they are, as it were, in the background. If they themselves are seen, if they are brought into the foreground,
thing perception is disturbed. If we attend to Lichtgebilde as a painter might,
the objects of ordinary vision tend to vanish.
For Cassirers purposes, Schapps description is important for having
shown, first of all, that the presence of phenomenal color is insufficient for
vision of things. Vision of things depends not only on the presence of phenomenal colors, but also on the manner in which those colors function. Functioning in one manner, they represent things; functioning in another, they do
not. Schapp elaborates on this point in a second passage quoted by Cassirer:
But the mere presence of color does not suffice to represent things; the color
must be articulated and ordered, it must enter into forms [] It is by means
of this order of color that space and form are represented for us. In relation to
color, space then is something represented. Color itself is not represented, it
is directly given, but it represents forms in space [] Form, for its part represents the thing with its attributes. It does not yet belong to the thing, nor is
it an immediate form of the thing; it is something represented, which in turn
represents. (Cassirer 1957: 126)12

If we are to see things, color must be articulated or ordered. This suggests

that the function of colors in vision is contingent upon the manner in which
they are related to one another. If the colored shadows, reflections, and other
Lichtgebilde are to guide the eye to the thing, we must be aware of them in
contrast with the other colors, including what might be called the colors of
normal illumination. It is as though shadow-color is a role that can only be
played if other colors play different parts. This is a feature of vision to which
Wahrnehmung gestrt. Sie sollen den Blick hinberleiten auf das Ding; der Blick darf sich
nicht in ihnen verfangen. (Cassirer 1929: 145146). Cf. (Schapp 1910: 7880).
The original, as quoted by Cassirer, reads: Aber es gengt nicht, da Farbe da ist, um
Dinge darzustellen; sondern dazu gehrt, da Farbe sich gliedert, sich ordnet und in Formen
eingeht [] Vermittelst dieser Farbenordnung nun wird uns Raum und Gestalt vorgestellt. In
Bezug auf Farbe ist Raum also etwas Dargestelltes. Farbe selbst ist nicht dargestellt, sie ist direkt
gegeben, aber sie stellt Formen im Raum dar [] Die Gestalt ihrerseits stellt nun wieder das
Ding mit seinen Eigenschaften dar. Sie ist noch nicht zum Dinge gehrendes, auch nicht unmittelbar eine Form des Dinges, sondern ein Dargestelltes, welches weider darstellt (Cassirer
1929: 147). Cf. (Schapp 1910: 114115).


Timothy Martell

Schapp alludes above, when he claims that Lichtgebilde must remain in the
background if we are to see things. They can only be in the background in
contrast with that which is in the foreground.
Schapp goes on to make an additional claim: thing vision requires that
color enters into forms (in Formen eingeht). As Cassirer reads him, Schapps
claim is not that colors must be assigned positions in an independently given
spatial order. Color goes into forms, but this is not like painting by number.
Instead, as the subsequent quoted sentence indicates, the claim is that vision
of things requires vision of figures in space, and the latter depends on color
order. For example, when looking at a tree on a sunny day, I see the smooth,
slightly convex surfaces of its leaves by way of very bright reflective colors. I
see the roughness of its trunk by way of dark colored shadows. Lichtgebilde,
having modestly receded into the background, guide the eye to the things by
revealing a spatial layout.
Cassirer takes these descriptions to show that phenomenal colors are representational symbols. Thing-vision requires that phenomenal colors reveal
a spatial layout, and the latter is contingent upon color order. Phenomenal
colors are ordered insofar as each is related to the others in some fashion. Their
order must, furthermore, embrace more than the phenomenal colors that are,
in fact, present. Seeing a thing is seeing something that can, in principle, be
seen again. Things, objects laid out in a three-dimensional space, have presently unseen sides. Their real, inherent colors can be seen under different
conditions of illumination. The function of phenomenal colors in thing vision
therefore depends on their relations to one another as well as their relations to
non-present perceptual phenomena, including phenomenal colors that could
be but are not currently perceived.
2. Hyl and Morph
Thus far there would seem to be little basis for disagreement between Husserl and Cassirer. Husserl would agree with both Scheler and Cassirer that we
perceive other persons as such, and that in perceiving them we are directly
aware of expressive phenomena.13 He would agree with both Schapp and Cas13

There would, however, be disagreement about the priority of expressive symbolism. The
Cartesian Meditations make it fairly clear that, in Husserls view, expressive phenomena are
based on what Cassirer would call representational phenomena. Perception of the other person
as such presupposes perception of things (albeit things in a less robust sense than threedimensional, causally efficacious objects which others can also perceive). Cassirer, following
Scheler, rejects accounts of perception of others, or thou-perception, according to which this
kind of perception is the product of thing-perception combined with projection of ones own
mental characteristics onto otherwise inanimate objects. But, of course, the Cartesian Meditations were composed after the publication of PSF and Husserls other, voluminous writings on
intersubjectivity were only published posthumously. Cassirer does not, then, take issue with

Cassirer and Husserl on the Phenomenology of Perception


sirer that perceptual phenomena such as colors function to represent things.

Husserl and Cassirer are not, then, divided on the issue of whether perception involves expressive and representative symbols (though Husserl would
likely have had serious misgivings about Cassirers use of the word symbol).
Rather, they disagree on the issue of whether the perceptual phenomena that
function as symbols are irreducibly meaningful. Cassirer claims that they are.
Husserl claims that they are not.
Return to the example of seeing a tree. Looking at the tree, I see its leaves
moving in the breeze. Some of the leaves momentarily slip into bright sunlight while others fall into shade. Throughout, I see the colors of the leaves as
unchanging. Yet, there is also a sense of the word colors in which it is correct
to say that the colors change. In this sense of the term, they change from dark
green to light green or even white and then back again. For Husserl, the colors
that change as I look at the tree are instances of hyl. The term is another word
for what Husserl also calls sensuous stuff in Ideas I, primary content in
the Logical Investigations, and sensory content in Thing and Space: Lectures
of 1907. In 97 of Ideas I, he is careful to distinguish hyl from the perceptual
noema, or that which is perceived as it is perceived. The fluctuating shades
of green and white are not, according to Husserl, identical with any features
of the tree as I perceive it to be. Specifically, they are not identical with the
constant colors of the leaves. Rather, the changing colors are features of my
perceptual experiences themselves, considered apart from the objects of those
experiences. Indeed, they are features which these experiences must possess if
I am to see the leaves as having just those real, inherent colors that I see them
as having. Hyletic colors are not, however, sufficient for perceptual awareness
of the real colors of leaves of the tree. The latter are perceived as constant, and
if I am to see constant colors amidst the flux of hyletic data, my perceptual
experience must have an additional component: morph. Husserl also calls
this component the form or noetic part of an intentional lived experience.
In Thing and Space this part had been called apprehension character. As the
latter term suggests, this is the component that is said to interpret sensory
contents, to animate matter, to bestow sense on hyl. The meaning of perceptual phenomena, then, is built up out of two, simpler components: inherently
meaningless, sensuous stuff and sense-giving form.
While Ideas I is rather vague on the how this bestowal of sense is supposed
to work, the Thing and Space lectures discuss the relationship between hyl
and morph (avant la lettre) at considerable length and in great detail. In the
course of these lectures Husserl attempts to show how visual perception of
things is built up out of sensory contents. The sensory contents with which
the analysis begins are color sensations belonging to a two-dimensional manifold: the visual field. Due to proximity as well as similarity, some of the color
this aspect of Husserls phenomenology of perception in PSFthough he undoubtedly would
have had he known of it.


Timothy Martell

sensations of the field are perceived as belonging together. Perceived to have

this additional quality of belonging together, the sensations in question are
perceived to be a collection of colors, or an image. If changes in the position
of such an image in the visual field are grasped as dependent on sensations of
self-movement (i.e., kinaesthetic sensations), the image is perceived as an objective figure. Color sensations, under these conditions, present an objectas
opposed to mere fluctuations of bare qualia in the visual field. So functioning,
Husserl calls the color sensations presentational contents. Color sensations
present different objective figures depending upon the kinaesthetic data with
which they are functionally related. Grasped as varying with sensations of
the ocular-motor system alone, color sensations present objective plane figures. Husserl occasionally suggests that the same color sensations, grasped
as functionally related to the sensations of the cephalo-motor system alone,
would present objective figures in a Riemannian space (1997: 267, 270271,
273275, 285). If grasped as functionally related to kinaesthetic sensations
of moving forward or backwards in addition to sensations of eye and head
movement, they present the forms of things in a three-dimensional Euclidean
space. The visual field is, in effect, a projective plane (1997: 204205). Figures in the two-dimensional field are mapped to figures in various other twodimensional or three-dimensional spaces insofar as changes in the field are
taken to vary with changes in kinaesthetic sensations according to a rule. Note
that rule-following is what distinguishes the objective from the non-objective.
I am visually aware of an object rather than just patches of color in my visual
field insofar as present color sensations are somehow grasped as related to
other, non-present, color sensations that must occur if I engage in some movement. Perceptual objectivity is a matter of lawfulness. I take it, then, that the
apprehension character of a perception is that part of the lived experience that
(somehow) casts present hyletic data as related to non-present hyletic data in
a lawful or rule-governed manner. Morph is the part of an intentional lived
experience by virtue of which present hyletic data are embedded in a relational
structure that includes absent hyl. So related, inherently inarticulate hyletic
data take on meaning. With the establishment of law and order, hyletic colors
represent colors of things.
Cassirer begins his argument against this theory of perceptual meaning
with a question:
[Is] this generation itself phenomenologically demonstrable? Since phenomenology as such remains entirely within the sphere of meaning and intentionality,
can it even attempt to designate that which is alien to meaning? The remarkable
duality and unity of sensuous and intentional may indeed obtrude
itself over and over again; but does it justify us in speaking of formless matter
and matterless form? This separation may in a sense be an indispensable instrument of our analysis of consciousness. But may we impose this analytic division,
this distinctio rationis upon phenomena, upon the pure data of consciousness

Cassirer and Husserl on the Phenomenology of Perception


itself? Can we here speak of an identical matter which enters into different
formssince we know only the concrete totality of the phenomena of consciousnesssince, to speak in Aristotelian terms, we know only the
of matter and form? From the standpoint of phenomenological inquiry there is
no more a matter in itself than a form in itself; there are only total experiences which can be compared from the standpoint of matter and form and
determined and ordered according to this standpoint. (Cassirer 1957: 199)14

Phenomenology is the study of phenomena, or that which appears. According to Husserl, morph bestows sense on otherwise senseless hyl. It does
so, moreover, by bringing order to an otherwise inarticulate mass of sensory
contents. Cassirer, at the outset, suggests that this does not appear to be case.
While a distinction between matter and form may be of some use in the
course of phenomenological analysis, the generation of meaning out of senseless hyletic stuff is not a phenomenon. From a phenomenological standpoint,
there is no form that is not the form of some matter, and there is no matter
that is not already formed.
Rephrasing this last point in Cassirers terms: there is no meaning without
something sensuous that functions as the bearer of that meaning, and, conversely, nothing sensuous is without meaning. Both claims are of equal importance
for Cassirer, but, as becomes clear in the discussion that follows the quoted passage, the second is the really contentious claim vis--vis Husserl. Cassirer maintains, against Husserl, that there is no phenomenological basis for positing hyl.
Return once more to the case of seeing the tree. There is a sense in which
Husserl is correct in claiming that colors change even though I see constant
colors. In my example, shadows fall on different parts of the tree and different
leaves reflect the sunlight. Shadows change, reflections change. Lichtgebilde
change. It is a mistake to infer that this is a case of changing color sensations, where the latter are understood to be formless, meaningless, and nonrepresentational. As Schapp pointed out, I do not, in seeing the leaves of the
tree, see the colored shadows and reflections, though I am perceptually aware
of them. More precisely, I am perceptually aware of them as belonging to an
order of color wherein they play supporting roles. This means that I am perceptually aware of them as formed, as embedded within a relational structure.
Together with the other phenomenal colors, including those that play the part
of colors of normal illumination, the colors of shadows and reflections function to represent the real shapes and real colors of the leaves. This is what they
mean. In short, the example of color constancy does not provide compelling
phenomenological evidence of hyletic-data.
This raises the question of why Husserl nonetheless maintained that perceptual lived experiences involve hyletic data. Several explanations have been
offered. Aron Gurwitsch, for instance, argues that Husserls commitment to

Translation corrected. Cf. Cassirer 1929: 231.


Timothy Martell

hyletic data is due to his acceptance of the constancy hypothesis, an assumption about causal relations between physical stimuli and perceptual phenomena that was widely held among Husserls contemporaries in psychology and
philosophy (Gurwitsch 1964: 265273). Cassirer thinks the roots go deeper
than that. He sees the assumption of hyletic data as a prejudice of the modern
philosophical tradition (Cassirer 1957: 127). The problem that Husserls phenomenology of perception attempts to solve, the problem of how we become
perceptually aware of things and their attributes on the basis of ever-changing,
atomistic sense data, is a problem that he shares with both empiricists and
rationalists of the modern era.
Before turning to consider possible responses to Cassirers criticism, I
would like to consider an additional explanation for Husserls acceptance of
hyl, one that is suggested by the passages from Schapp quoted above. In the
first passage, Schapp uses the phrase die farbigen Schatten, which is translated as the colored shadows. Though I think it makes sense to talk about
colored shadows (as opposed to colored quadratic equations), it does have an
odd ring to it. Consider the question what is the color of the shadow? This
is intelligible but only just barely, perhaps because shadows are not ordinarily
the objects of vision. We do not typically perceive shadows or reflections or
other Lichtgebilde as substrates of color attributes. Ordinarily, objects of vision
are colored things on which shadows are cast, not the shadows themselves.
Recall that, according to Schapp, shadows and reflections can become the
objects of vision, but seeing them involves a re-articulation of color, a change
from one color order to another. With such a change, colors enter into different forms, and things tend to vanish. Perhaps this is why the question about
the color of a shadow seems strange. It presupposes a very unusual mode of
vision, rarely achieved and only briefly sustained.
But this is the mode of vision phenomenologists tend to adopt. Accurate
descriptions of vision surely must involve discussion of Lichtgebilde. That requires attending to them, and this attention tends to bring about a re-articulation of color. Relative to the color order of thing-vision, the re-articulation
may seem disorganized. If Schapp is right, things tend to vanish when we
see in this fashion. Since the phenomenologist is supposed to be engaged in
pure description of that which appears, this re-articulation might seem to
have been there all along, prior to phenomenological reflection. This, in turn,
creates the pseudo-problem of how we manage to see things on the basis of a
disorganized collection of phenomenal colors.

3. Husserlian Rejoinders
One way of responding to Cassirers criticism is to argue that it is based
on a misinterpretation. According to this response, the hylomorphic theory

Cassirer and Husserl on the Phenomenology of Perception


to which Cassirer objects is, in fact, erroneous, but Cassirer is mistaken in

attributing that theory to Husserl. The concept of hyl is, for Husserl, a limit
concept. On analogy with mathematical limits, hyl is something that can be
approached in the course of phenomenological analysis but never reached. As
that analysis reveals more and more primitive layers of sense, as the analysis
goes from, say, the physical thing to the phantom, and from the phantom to
images in the visual field, the forms of color-data gradually become less and
less complex. But some form always remains. The analysis never resolves the
analysandum into hyl alone.
There are two problems with this response. First, in order for the analogy
with a mathematical limit to work, it would have to be the case that, for any
formed stuff uncovered in the course of phenomenological analysis, there is
always some less complex formed stuff that could be revealed by additional
analysis. I see no basis for this claim in Husserls texts. It would be better to
say, then, that hyl is a relational concept. On this view, a phenomenon would
count as hyletic insofar as it is a part of some larger, organized whole. This is,
in fact, exactly how terms like matter or stuff should be understood according to Cassirer, and it is not Husserls view. Were this Husserls view, he
would designate many different objects as hyletic relative to the more complex
wholes to which they belong. An image, for example, would be designated as
hyl relative to a visual phantom, and a visual phantom would count as hyl
relative to a physical thing. But this is not what Husserl does. Hyl is reserved for items such as color, tone, and tactile-sensations, feelings of pleasure
and pain, and kinaesthetic sensations. As Cassirer puts it, hyl is a substanceconcept for Husserl, not a function-concept. It tells us what something is
apart from whatever role it happens to play.
Second, if hyl can never appear in the course of phenomenological analysis, then the concept of hyl has no application to the domain of phenomenological research. Phenomenology, as Husserl conceives of it, is different
from related Kantian projects in transcendental philosophy insofar as it does
not seek to account for what we actually experience by postulating entities,
processes, and powers that never in fact appear. Were hyl a limit concept, it
would be an all-too Kantian concept.
Similar considerations speak against a similar defense. It might be argued
that Husserl is a good deal more circumspect in his presentation of the hylmorph distinction than his critics, including Cassirer, recognize. In 85 of
Ideas I, for instance, Husserl writes that Whether everywhere and necessarily
such sensuous mental processes in the stream of mental processes bear some
animating construing or other [] whether, as we also say, they always have
intentive functions, is not decided here. On the other hand, we likewise leave
it undecided at first if the characteristics essentially making up intentionality
can have concreteness without having sensuous foundations. (Husserl 1983:
204) The question of whether there are formless stuffs or stuffless forms


Timothy Martell

is left open. In fact, Husserl explicitly introduces those terms as titles for the
possibilities hereby left open. Cassirers criticism of Husserls position on hyl
and morph assumes that Husserl treats as settled an issue that he quite clearly
leaves undecided.
But if Husserl leaves open the possibility that there are formless stuffs, the
concepts of form and stuff are certainly not relational concepts. For if they
were, formless stuffs and stuffless forms could be ruled out straightaway as
impossibilities. Husserl does not rule them out. Thus, for Husserl, stuff is
whatever it is independently of formation. Since form is that which brings
hyletic data into relation with one another, hyletic data must be whatever they
are independently of their relations to one another. Since the representational
function of hyletic data is contingent upon form, Husserl is committed to the
view that intentional lived experiences consist of sensuous data that are in and
of themselves devoid of meaning. Perhaps such data always, as a matter of fact,
have meaning. Perhaps they even necessarily have meaning. But if they are
meaningful, it is by virtue of something else, a distinct component of a lived
experience. What, Cassirer would ask, is the phenomenological basis for this
view? If, upon phenomenological reflection, we only find meaningful sensuous data, then Husserls position is without phenomenological justification.
It might also be argued that although Cassirers criticism holds good for
Husserls phenomenology as presented in the first book of Ideas, Husserl had
already abandoned the views with which Cassirer takes issue by the early
1920s. Evidence that Husserl had moved past the hyl-morph distinction as
presented in Ideas I can be found in the manuscripts on the phenomenology
of temporality composed between 1893 and 1917 as well as in the lectures on
passive synthesis from the early 1920s.
According to the results of Husserls work on time consciousness, any sensory content given to me now must be experienced in relation to whatever
was just sensed. A sound that I hear right now must be heard in relation to
whatever preceded it, especially whatever sounds preceded it. Thus, I hear
sounds as just beginning or enduring, and if enduring, then either as changing
or not (Husserl 2001: 187). Much the same can be said of colors. Looking at
the orange hat of someone passing below my window, I am aware of roughly
the same orange successively occupying different positions in the visual field,
and thus enduring for a time, after which it is gone.
By the early 1920s at the latest, Husserls account of the sensuous aspect
of lived experience might seem to have become still more complex. In the
course of offering a phenomenology of association, Husserl notes that colors
are given as pertaining to one another in a manner that is different from whatever relations they might have to contemporaneous sounds, textures, and so
forth. They are, then, given at any moment as belonging with other colors to
a single field (Husserl 2001: 194). Some colors in the field are, additionally,
more similar to one another than the others. They approximate one another in

Cassirer and Husserl on the Phenomenology of Perception


location as well as value, saturation, and hue. As such, they stand out from the
rest of the field (Husserl 2001: 184). If several of these collections of color are
related to one another in a regular fashion, we perceive other, more complex
figures. Suppose, for instance, the visual field includes several spots of similar,
proximate colors and that, starting from one spot, each of the others is located
above and to the right of its predecessor. In that case, the spots are perceived as
belonging to a line. In reference to such phenomena, Husserl began to use the
phrase hyletische Gegenstnde15 in preference to terms like hyl. This seems
to show that Husserl had already developed an account of color and other
sensuous data very much like Cassirers.
There are two problems with this response. First, Husserls discussion
of fields, images, lines, and other Gestalt-phenomena was, by the 1920s,
nothing new. Thing and Space already includes discussion of images in the
visual field. Moreover, each of the phenomena in question involves what
Husserl had called figural moments in some of his earliest writings. If a
series of discrete points is to be seen as line, the individual points must be
seen as having a quality that none possess in isolation from others, a quality of belonging with or pertaining to the others. Much the same can be
said of the individual notes in a melody. Husserl, furthermore, conceives of
these figural moments as second-order sensuous data. They stand in onemany relations with first-order color-data or tone data, where the latter are
understood to be whatever they are independently of their relations with
other data.16 Husserls discussion of hyletische Gegenstande in the lectures on
passive synthesis is, then, not only not new, it also presupposes the account
of hyl to which Cassirer objects.
The phenomenology of temporality, on the other hand, does seem to be
inconsistent with the doctrine of hyl. The fact that Husserl is so guarded on
the issue of formless stuff, as shown by the passage quoted above, may be an
indication that he was aware of the fact that the hyl-morph distinction is
in tension with his findings regarding time. In fact, it appears as though the
content-apprehension model was just what Husserl had to overcome in order
to arrive at the rudiments of an accurate description of time consciousness
(Brough 1991: xliii). But whether Husserl ever resolved this tension in his
phenomenology is another issue. It is possible that he continued to accept
the hyl-morph distinction as set forth in Ideas I in spite of the fact that it is
inconsistent with the phenomenology of the consciousness of internal time.17

Steinbock, the English translator of the lectures on transcendental logic, renders this as
hyletic objectlike formations (Husserl 2001: 200).
For detailed support of this interpretation, see Gurwitsch 1964: 7184.
Evidence that Husserl continued to accept the hyl-morph distinction well into the 1920s
can be found in his lectures on phenomenological psychology. In 31 of those lectures, he introduces a distinction between hyletic-data and the marvelous functional characters in virtue
of which the former become appearances of objects (Husserl 1977: 127). These marvelous


Timothy Martell

4. Consequences for Husserlian Phenomenology

Based on the work of Schapp and other early phenomenologists, Cassirer
raises an objection to the distinction between hyl and morph for which Husserl would not have had an adequate response. In conclusion, I would like to
briefly consider some of the implications of granting Cassirers objection, both
for the phenomenology of perception in particular and Husserlian phenomenology in general.
If Cassirer is correct, then phenomenological analyses of perception should
be free of references to sensations, where sensation is understood to be mean
inherently meaningless sensuous datum. From a phenomenological point
of view, there is no justification for holding that there are sensations in that
sense. The phenomenal colors of thing-perception, for example, are meaningfully articulated. It is true that there are kinds of vision other than thing-vision. Color can be articulated in various ways, not all of which allow for seeing
things. But this does not imply that phenomenal colors are ever without form,
without some articulation or other.
Comparing and contrasting a number of different color orders may also be
useful for clarifying the manner in which colors must be articulated in the vision of things. That is one of the reasons why the study of perceptual pathologies can prove illuminating for the phenomenology of perception. But the fact
that there are a number of different ways in which color phenomena may be
articulated does not provide any good reason to think that the color order of
thing-perception must involve some other, more primitive order. Specifically,
it offers no basis for believing that vision of things is based on visual awareness
of a two-dimensional color manifold. Seeing things does not appear to be an
exercise in projective geometry.
The distinction between hyl and morph is not just a key aspect of Husserls phenomenology of perception; it is also crucial for his general conception of phenomenological analysisat least as set forth in Ideas I. At the end
of 85 of Ideas I, the section titled Sensuous , Intentive , Husserl
distinguishes between phenomenological considerations and analyses of two
kinds: hyletic phenomenology and noetic phenomenology. Little is said about
the former, in part because Husserl considers the latter to be far and away
the more important kind of phenomenological analysis. It seems safe to say,
though, that hyletic phenomenology (also known as material phenomenology) would be concerned with classifying hyletic-data and with identifying
the first-order hyletic data on which second-order data (i.e., figural moments)
are founded. Noetic phenomenology, on the other hand, has to do with what
Husserl calls functional problems. As explained in the subsequent section of
functional characters appear to be none other than the apprehension characters of Thing and

Cassirer and Husserl on the Phenomenology of Perception


Ideas I, functional problems are constitution problems. In the language introduced by the very next chapter, they are problems of noetic-noematic correlation.
Granting Cassirers objection would seem to entail that there is no such
thing as material phenomenology. If there are no hyletic data, then there is
nothing for this kind of phenomenology to consider or analyze. That leaves
noetic phenomenology. But if there are no hyletic data, then there would
seem to be no need to posit a special sense-bestowing part of intentional lived
experiences. In that case, claims about noetic-noematic correlation have no
clear sense.
Claims about noetic-noematic correlation are supposed to be claims about
relations of dependence between mental processes of various kinds, on the one
hand, and the objects of those processes (as intended), on the other. If such
claims are to be anything other than trivial, then mental processes must have
features that can be considered and described apart from their objects. Husserl
thinks that mental processes have such features; he calls them the really inherent
components of mental processes, as opposed to their intentional components,
or noemata. The section of Ideas I in which Husserl differentiates the really
inherent parts from the intentional parts of a mental process, 88, lists two
kinds of real components: noetic parts and the hyletic data upon which the
noetic parts bestow sense. But if Cassirer is correct, then there is no good reason
to think that mental processes really have parts of either kind. How, then, can
intentional mental processes be described apart from their intentional objects?
And if a phenomenological description of a mental process can amount to nothing more than a description of the intentional object of that process, how is it
possible to make non-trivial claims about noetic-noematic correlation?
These questions show that the distinction between hyl and morph is of
considerable importance to phenomenological inquiry as Husserl conceived
of it (at least at the time of the composition of the first book of Ideas). Phenomenologists who wish to reconstruct Husserls views and apply them to
contemporary philosophical debates should not ignore this problematic distinction, even if problems with the distinction are well-known. The questions
also show that Cassirers philosophy of symbolic forms, as well as the early
phenomenology upon which he draws, are not only rich sources for research
on special problems in phenomenology but also valuable sources for continuing reflection on the very nature of phenomenological inquiry.
Timothy Martell
Philosophy Department
University of Portland
5000 North Willamette Blvd
Portland, OR 97203


Timothy Martell

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