Saturday, 16 December 2017

On the Identity of the Knower and the Known (2)

Edmund Husserl

In my studies of the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, I have been struggling with the all-too-infamous question of whether Husserl falls within the realist or the idealist camp. It is a vexing question - and I don't yet know Husserl enough to settle it. Husserl makes what appears to be a realist move against Immanuel Kant by eliminating the radical separation between the subject and the object, in which Kant posited "objects" that were so mind-independent as to be inherent unknowable. This was an absurdity, for Husserl. So the eliminated the distinction - not necessarily eliminating the subject and the object themselves, but eliminating their absolute independence from each other. The question is whether this makes objects immanent to the consciousness of the subject, whether mind-dependence entails idealism, in the sense that the independent existence or subsistence of objects is ruled out, and objects are made into mere moments of consciousness itself - or, to think of it in another way, whether subject and objected are constituted by relation to each other, thus making the category of relation prior, in a sense, to substantiality. Husserl is by no means a relativist, certainly; objects are not creations of the mind. Nonetheless, the question of their ontological status remains. Does his radical affirmation of the intentionality of the subject entail that the ontological status of the object is somehow conditioned by a subjective mode of existence? Does it have its own actuality, outside the mind, or is it only actual in the mind?

In a way, this question cannot be answered simply. Even for Aristotle, one might speak of a very qualified sense of idealism insofar as the intelligible as such only exists in the mind. This is why Aristotle asserts, following a tradition that originates in the pre-Socratics, that knowledge is essentially a sort of identity of the knower and the known, in respect to the form or species of the thing known. Even in sensation, there is identity at least to the degree that the sensible species is impressed upon the sensory faculty; although as actually sensible the object exists apart from the subject, unlike the intelligible, which exists actually only in the intellect itself. So it seems that for intellectual and sensitive cognition, the object is more or less within and more or less outside the subject. The principle that knower and known are identical is true to a greater and lesser degree, in intellectual and sensitive beings respectively. In this sense, even Aristotle's realism admits of a certain measure of idealism, if the latter be taken to refer very broadly to the belief that that which is known is in the mind of the knower. 

But this is itself an ambiguity: idealism may mean many things. Usually, it is associated with a kind of skepticism about the possibility of knowing mind-independent objects. This is, again, exemplified by Kant, following the British Empiricists (especially Berkeley and Hume). For these thinkers, the mind is capable only of knowing itself; all that is outside the mind is, by that very fact, unknowable in principle. The mind knows its own ideas, it cannot know things. This is fundamentally incompatible with Aristotle's realism, which asserts that the mind knows things, though it knows them through its ideas in some way. But again, I would contend that perhaps there is a distinct, though related sense of idealism which may be attributed to Aristotle, that is not to the detriment of his realism, insofar as the species of things, as the media of the mind's (or the sense's) cognition, are the very things themselves existing according to the mode of being of the mind (or the sense). The knower becomes the known, in respect to the form or species of the latter. In other words, this is just to reassert that knowledge is the identity of the knower and the known: the more a thing is known, the more it exists as an "idea." This is certainly an ambiguous word, but I take it to mean simply a immanent moment of subjectivity, rather than an external and physical object in space and time. In this sense, the Empiricists may indeed have been on to something; but error usually comes by way of the emphasis of one side of an issue, at the expense of the neglect of another. 

I note, in accordance with my previous post, that a pure idealism is only appropriate (from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, but also somehow Platonic - more on this later) when speaking of God. In other words, only in God are the knower and the known perfectly and indistinguishably identical. There is a tendency among the moderns that manifests itself in various ways, which is to ascribe to human knowledge a mode of knowing that is more properly attributable only to divine knowledge. Perhaps the modern trends of idealism are one instance of this tendency. God knows by an operation that is perfectly immanent and intransitive; God does not go outside of Himself in order to know, but rather He is Himself the eternal and self-sufficient Concept or Idea by which He knows. All that He knows is contained in Him according to His own perfect mode of existence. For God, to be is to be known, and to be is to know. God is His own intellect, His own concept, His own object, and His own act of understanding. God is perfectly interior to Himself. Modern idealism tries to ascribe to human knowing a degree of interiority that cannot belong to man (though it is not metaphysically consistent). It is Berkeley who famously says that to be is to be perceived. The being of things, as man perceives them, is no more than their being perceived by him; they exist only as his perceptions, or as his ideas. The object exists in no way apart from the perceiving subject, but it is wholly interior to the subject, in a way that Aquinas would say could only be true of that Being who is His own act and object of knowing.

The proper balance between idealism and realism can only be found, from a Thomistic point of view, by recognizing that the identity of knower and known comes only in distinct grades of hierarchy. Idealism, as a description of a mode of knowing, is less true of creatures than of God, for the more creaturely is the mode of knowing, the less identical is the subject with its object, and its act of knowing. The more creaturely is the mode of knowing, the more ecstatic it is, because the more must it emanate outside of itself - it is more transitive and external in its proper operation.

(Note: Ecstasy is a going-out-of-oneself, but one that necessarily retains an interiority of a properly spiritual nature. I think sensation is not properly ecstatic - perhaps analogously - because although it is a going-out-of-oneself, it has not the interiority of spirit. Non-sensate beings are even more exterior to themselves, precisely because they lack cognition altogether; and consequently their exteriority - mere physical separation - is in no way ecstatic, properly speaking. Ecstasy is the exteriority of interiority precisely as interior; where there is no interiority, there is no ecstasy. And yet where interiority is perfect and pure, as it is in God, again there is no ecstasy, because God is His own object and His own activity, which is thus entirely intransitive.)

What does this have to do with Husserlian phenomenology and the doctrine of intentionality? I am not sure... But it certainly provides a metaphysical framework within which alone any phenomenological claims about the relationality of subject and object must be properly situated. Husserl's project to provide a phenomenological description that is universal - that is, equally applicable to gods and men (he claims) - seems quite implausible to me, given a Thomistic metaphysical framework. If it were a pure sort of idealism, it could only apply to God; if it were only a partial idealism, it could only apply to something less than God - for God does not know in parts. 

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