Reviewed by Rodney K.B. Parker, Western University.
Angela Ales Bello’s The Sense of Things: Toward a Phenomenological Realism revives a central debate in the history of phenomenology, and one that arguably caused the schism within the early phenomenological movement—the idealism-realism debate. This debate concerned the nature and relationship between subject and object, and came to a head after the publication of Husserl’s Ideas I (1913). Ales Bello seeks to elucidate the meaning of transcendental idealism in Husserl’s writings and argues for the seemingly paradoxical thesis that Husserl’s transcendental idealism—the position he had been advancing since at least 1907—is, in some sense, a transcendental realism. While throughout history there have been several senses of the terms “realism” and “idealism” employed by philosophers, the two positions to which these terms refer are consistently at odds over the fundamental nature of reality and the role of the human subject in that reality. Thus to say that any idealism is a form of realism appears prima facie implausible. Moreover, transcendental idealism, whatever such a position amounts to, has historically been (in the cases of both Kant and Husserl) a direct and explicit response to transcendental realism. It is meant as an antidote to the insidious metaphysics at the heart of such philosophies. While it is uncontroversial to claim that Husserl is an empirical realist, to claim that he is a transcendental realist appears to fly in the face of his criticism of the Cartesian philosophy, as well as his understanding of his own project, i.e., a systematic critique of reason via a transcendental-phenomenological analysis of the pure ego.
Nevertheless, Ales Bello contends that Husserl’s transcendental idealism is equivalent to a variety of realism, though not a naïve or dogmatic one. This book brings together insights from her earlier works, The Divine in Husserl (2009) and “The Transcendental—Husserl and Kant” (2010). From the former, she advances the notion that Husserl is philosophically committed to the existence of God and a divine teleology. From the latter, she makes it clear that it is fruitful, and perhaps necessary, to understand Husserl’s writings as a dialogue with and a continuation of the Kantian critical philosophy. On the one hand, Husserl sees himself as the heir of Kantian philosophy, and he sees phenomenology as the continuation of Kant’s critique of reason. On the other hand, Ales Bello emphasizes a number of specific points where Husserl diverges from Kant. These strands of thought inform Ales Bello’s reading of Husserl’s discussions of genuine transcendencies, as well as the aims and limits of transcendental philosophy. They thus stand as the two pillars of her argument for Husserl’s transcendental realism.
Ales Bello begins her analyses with a passage from the “Fifth Meditation” of the Cartesian Meditations, where Husserl appears to entertain the notion that the existence of genuine other subjects leads to transcendental realism. He writes that while the doctrine of transcendental realism may lack a phenomenological foundation, it is essentially correct insofar as it “looks for a path from the immanency of the ego to the transcendency of the Other.” (Husserl, 1960, 89) Earlier in the Cartesian Meditations, Husserl claims that his transcendental idealism is not equivalent to Kantian philosophy, since it abandons as nonsensical the notion of “things in themselves.” It is transcendental idealism in a “fundamentally and essentially new sense,” whose targets are realism and positivism. (Husserl, 1960, 86) On Ales Bello’s reading, Husserl takes realism to encompass any theory which recognizes “the existence of an objective world in itself that is formed by things and other subjects.” (xiv) He is not satisfied with any form of realism which naïvely assumes or uncritically posits the existence of a mind-independent world in itself. However, this does not eliminate the possibility of a philosophically rigorous and coherent form of realism. What Ales Bello aims to show, following the lead of Vincenzo Costa, is that we can understand Husserlian phenomenology as a non-dogmatic and non-naïve transcendental realism, again, in a new sense. Perhaps her attempt to do so is rooted in the idea that Husserl’s transcendental philosophy collapses and renders meaningless the realist-idealist distinction in its attempt to go back to the things themselves and hence to get at the sense of things.
Before considering Ales Bello’s claim that Husserl is a transcendental realist, it is important to note from the outset that Husserl was no mere idealist either. Like Kant, he rejected and refuted dogmatic, subjective and psychological idealisms. As Ales Bello notes, idealism is an “acritical” position. (xiii) The confusion surrounding his idealism, and why his students came to reject it, revolved around the difficulty in distinguishing between metaphysical and epistemological idealism. Ales Bello uses the writings of Husserl’s students to her advantage here, particularly those of Edith Stein.
Ales Bello’s book can be roughly divided into two parts. Chapters 1–4 deal with specific technical aspects of Husserl’s philosophy, and are meant to bolster the claims about Husserl’s transcendental idealism made in the remainder of the book. The more modest and systematically developed claims of the early chapters prime the reader to accept the bolder arguments of the later ones. Chapter 1 is dedicated, on the one hand, to explaining the motivation behind suspending the natural attitude and taking up the phenomenological one. On the other hand, it attempts to situate Husserl’s thought within the western philosophical tradition via the Greek distinction between epistemé and doxa. An important point, which Ales Bello emphasizes here, and which plays a role in her larger argument, is that Husserl is not a skeptic. He does not doubt the existence of things. This bracketing of the metaphysical presuppositions, the “facticity,” as Ales Bello states, which is built into everyday experience and judgment, and which we naïvely accept, allows us to investigate the sense of the existence of the world, the sense of the things themselves which make up our lived-experience. Her second chapter deals with why bracketing the natural attitude necessitates a move to transcendental considerations, specifically to a study of transcendental subjectivity and the a priori conditions of experience and knowledge. Through such transcendental considerations, Husserl aims to understand what nature is and what human beings are, as well as the relationships between humans and between humans and nature. The bracketing of the natural attitude alone is insufficient. We need a second epoché that takes us to the “functional centre,” as Ales Bello calls it, i.e., the pure ego. What we find, according to Ales Bello, is a deep correlation (or “co-relation”) between the I and the world in lived-experience, between subject and object. Ales Bello offers rich discussions here of (a) the structural levels of constitution we find in Husserl’s analyses of active and passive synthesis, and (b) Husserl’s philosophical anthropology as developed in Ideas II. These offer useful points of contrast between Husserl and Kant, specifically their concepts of synthesis on the one hand, and the human being/person on the other.
Skipping her discussions of Husserl’s ontology and the foundations of the sciences in Chapters 3 and 4, I want to draw attention to Ales Bello’s argument that in Husserl’s writings on teleology he posits a “metaphysical” will that runs through history, and that he believes in a reality which guides history, namely, the divine will. In Chapter 5, Ales Bello argues that Husserl is (unintentionally) led from hyletics to the existence of God. God creates all things, including the world and human beings within it. (75) In her account of how phenomenology explores the distinction between the things and ourselves, she presents what she takes to be the sense of transcendental realism in Husserl. The “unity-distinction” between ourselves and the world consists in the fact that through knowing and experiencing, I constitute the things as things for me. Similarly, the objective world is the world for us on account of constitution, and here we might understand why Husserl uses the expression “transcendental idealism.” However, “given that we do not produce the world and given that we do not produce ourselves, we can legitimately introduce another expression, namely, ‘transcendental realism.’ We are not dealing here with an external world that we must explore; rather, we have a world that is born for the subject that concomitantly arises with the process of exploration.” (76) This interpretation relies on the spiritual function of materiality that she claims we can read out of Husserl’s use of the term hylé, and her analysis of the role of divine teleology in Husserl’s philosophy. The metaphysical and religious implications of this might be considered unorthodox to some Husserlians, but the textual support Ales Bello provides is not easily dismissed. These claims play a critical role in her argument for Husserl’s transcendental realism in Chapter 6. She writes: “Here is my central point: Husserl is not thinking about the classic opposition between idealism and realism. His is a ‘new idealism’ because the discussion of sense and essential idealities is maintained against the reduction to pure facticity. We find ourselves in the domain of the transcendental structure of monadic and inter-monadic subjectivity that does not exclude relations with the world and includes God. The great metaphysical question remains as the ultimate and highest question. Husserl concludes his Cartesian Meditations in this way.” (94)
Ales Bello relies heavily on Stein as an interpreter of Husserl throughout the book, and indeed seems sympathetic to Stein’s version of phenomenology, which is a chimera of Thomism and Husserlian phenomenology. Here, neither the subject nor the external object are foundational to knowledge and existence, but God understood as the object par excellence. According to Edith Stein, Ales Bello tells us,
Kant’s idealism is naïve and it is overcome by Husserl’s position that maintains another form of idealism. [Stein writes:] “For Husserl, ‘thing (Ding)’ and ‘the world of things (dinglich)’ is now nothing more than a label for networks of acts wherein a spiritual subject (or, on a higher level, an intersubjective community of “monads” in communication with one another), advancing from act to act according to fixed laws of motivations, gives meaning to the material sensation—given beforehand but in itself meaningless—thus constructing intentional objects.” Husserl’s idealism is judged to be superior over naïve realism because he no longer theorizes about the possibility of the thing-in-itself and he does not close off the subject onto itself. (84)
Even if the reader is not convinced by Stein’s reading of Husserl, these discussions call into question the extent to which some of Husserl’s closest Göttingen students actually rejected transcendental phenomenology, and how they understood Husserl’s “idealism”—which Husserl, like Kant, realized was a somewhat misleading (though accurate) labeling of his position.
In Chapter 7, “Phenomenology as Transcendental Realism,” Ales Bello investigates whether and in what way we can say that Husserl’s transcendental idealism represents a transcendental “realism.” Central here is Ales Bello’s explanation of how she understands the terms “realism” and “idealism” generally speaking, that is, separate from the nuanced meaning they take on when coupled with the writings of a particular philosopher. She begins by defining idealism in “largely generic terms…as the absolutization of subjectivity that absorbs in itself the external world.” Realism she sees as any position that “admits the existence of a reality that is external to the subject. Obviously, we have simplified matters here because both idealism and realism ‘are said in many ways,’ to paraphrase Aristotle. However, I choose these two definitions in order to develop the sense of transcendental idealism and transcendental realism.” (97) She then moves to a succinct discussion of some of the texts from Husserliana 36. Therein Husserl refers to his position as “transcendental idealism,” according to Ales Bello, because phenomenology shows us that “reality constitutes itself for us: reality constitutes itself, it does not construct itself.” (99) Perhaps I have not fully understood Ales Bello correctly here, as I take her analysis to imply the opposite: reality constructs itself, but it does not constitute itself. The world receives its entire being-sense for me, as Husserl writes, from my effective intentionality. (Husserl, 1969, 234)
According to Ales Bello, the distinction between the immediate givenness of my own consciousness and the mediated givenness of the external world in consciousness which stands as the motivating principle of transcendental philosophy does not lead to the absolutization of the primacy of the ego. “Responding to the objection of solipsism that lodges the subject in an illusory or imagined knowledge,” Ales Bello argues, “Husserl proposes an analysis of the lived experience of empathy. Through empathy we discover the consciousness of others…It is only in this intersubjective ‘harmony,’ understood in the Leibnizian sense, that a common and objective world is consolidated.” (99) The Fifth Cartesian Meditation is Husserl’s attempt to publically and more fully develop this aspect of his transcendental idealism. The new sense of “transcendental idealism” in Husserl, and which Ales Bello claims is actually a form of realism, takes nature—the world of ordinary experience—as
neither an in-itself external to the subject and knowing subjects nor is it produced by knowing subjects; rather, it is fashioned in such a way that it is intimately correlated to subjects. Nature is not the product of the spirit in a Fichtean or Hegelian sense, nor is it a thinkable thing in-itself that is only partially knowable, as in the Kantian sense. The possibility of knowing nature is always being given, even if, in fact, it is not always knowable. This knowability demonstrates rules, rules that are the laws of nature. The things of nature are “transcendent” with respect to subjects, but these things are knowable through transcendental structures that intentionally bind themselves to things, ultimately forming the unity of knowledge. Nature is the sphere of transcendental objects: these objects are identical with themselves and, therefore, identifiable and knowable. (102)
Why, then, does Ales Bello claim that Husserl’s transcendental idealism, outlined above, would be better described as transcendental realism? Because, she argues, the connection between the experiencing and knowing subject and constituted material
is not correctly expressed by the term “idealism,” if it is interpreted as the absolutization of the subject’s point of view.…I propose employing the term “realism” because it refers to the reality in which the subjective and objective moments become strictly related, moments which both lead back to a shared genesis, as confirmed by our discussion of the passive level.” (102)
Even if we accept Ales Bello’s reading of Husserl, why we should find the phrase “transcendental realism” more fitting than “transcendental idealism” remains elusive. While I am inclined to agree that Husserl’s position, insofar as it “asks about the very sense of the being of things; it is an idealism of ‘sense’ as opposed to a realism of facts,” I am a bit puzzled as to why we should think of it as transcendental realism. (105) On my understanding, transcendental realism implies the sort of metaphysical realism from which Husserl is at pains to distance himself. Her argument here plays on the ambiguity between realism and idealism, but this same ambiguity makes her argument and position hard to follow.
Ales Bello’s book marks an important stage in work on the interpretation of Husserl’s transcendental idealism. While the work is not without its faults (which stem from the denseness and brevity of key argumentative moments), it is a worthwhile read for those interested in the idealism-realism debate that spurred many of Husserl’s systematic writings. The author’s aim is to draw our attention once more to this debate—one that continues to resurface in contemporary discussions and criticisms of phenomenology—and to help us Husserl’s epistemological project more fully in this context. Whether or not one agrees with her claim that Husserl’s position is better understood as a transcendental realism, an overarching point emerges that deserves underscoring. Unlike attempts to absolutize either the intelligible or the perceptible, either the subjective or the objective, etc., Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology dispenses with the traditional distinction between realism and idealism, not because they are said in many ways and thus are prone to confusing equivocations, but because the distinction is fundamentally nonsensical.
Additional Works Cited
Husserl, Edmund (1960), Cartesian Meditations, (tr.) Dorion Cairns (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff).
Husserl, Edmund (1969), Formal and Transcendental Logic, (tr.) Dorion Cairns (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff).