Phenomenology and Transcendence: The Problem
Phenomenology’s relationship with the concept of transcendence is not at all straightforward. Indeed, phenomenology, from its inception, has had an ambiguous, uneasy relationship with transcendence, with the wholly other, with the numinous. Phenomenology, as the French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion has recently emphasised, ispar excellence the philosophy of givenness, reflecting specifically on the ‘givenness’ of the given, on what Husserl speaks of as the ‘how’ (Wie ) or ‘mode’ (Art ,Weise ) of givenness.[^1] Phenomenology deliberately restricts itself to describing carefully and without prejudice whatever isgiven to experience in the manner in which it is so given. Marion frames the essential question of phenomenology as: ‘Can the givenness in presence of each thing be realised without any condition of restriction?[^2] But, if phenomenology is restricted to givenness, what becomes of that which is withheld or cannot in principle come to givenness? As such, and from the outset, then, theepoché of Husserlian phenomenology brackets the transcendent, and, specifically, traditional metaphysical or ontotheological conceptions of God as a transcendent being outside the world. Is, then, the relation between phenomenology and transcendence always one of distance and renunciation, or is another way of relating possible?
In this paper[^3] I want to re-examine the role of the concept of ‘transcendence’ in phenomenology, focusing explicitly on the work of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Edith Stein (1891-1942), but I shall also refer briefly to the German philosopher of existence Karl Jaspers (1883-1969),[^4] precisely because he made transcendence a central theme of his philosophy, and because of his influence on Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).[^5] Heidegger’s conception of the transcendental and of transcendence appears to have come from hisAuseinandersetzung with his mentor Husserl,[^6] but also from his close personal relationship during the 1920s with Karl Jaspers, the medic turned philosopher, who himself was greatly influenced by Kierkegaard and existential philosophy. Following a discussion of the Husserlian problematic of transcendence, I shall examine Edith Stein (1891-1942), specifically her work attempting to relate phenomenology to Thomistic ontology. Here I shall be concentrating on her understanding of being asfullness and of theego as the primary sense of being, as somehow encapsulating the mystery of being. Stein sees a way of combining the insights of Husserlian eidetic phenomenology with traditional Thomistic talk about the divine, to find a new way of articulating transcendence. What unites Husserl, Stein, Jaspers, and Heidegger is that they all accord a special place to the transcendence of the self, the transcendence of human existence, or the transcendence of Dasein. The paradox at the centre of their philosophies is that the most immanent self-experience is precisely that which reveals transcendence.
Transcendence means literally ‘going beyond’. In one sense, transcendence refers to the region of ‘otherness’, whatever lies beyond or is other, especially other than one’s self.[^7] In this regard the French phenomenologist Natalie Depraz has claimed, for instance, that phenomenology isthe philosophy of otherness.[^8] But, in Husserl’s
phenomenology, transcendence as going-beyond is intrinsically related to a deeper experience of selfhood or ‘self-experience’ (Selbsterfahrung ) such that, paradoxically, genuine transcendence has to be discovered in immanence. The original transcendence, for Husserl, is the living ego itself, in that it is directly experienced, and is temporally constituted and hence never completely capturable in a totalising view. The self is essentially self-transcending. Heidegger makes this ‘transcendence of Dasein’ into an essential part of existential analytic of human existence.
Both Husserl and Stein begin, as do in their own ways Saint Augustine and Descartes, with one’s own first-person experience of one’s own being. Self-experience, as Husserl argues in theCartesian Meditations [^9] has to be the starting point and the measure for all other experiences if these experiences are to be captured purely under theepoché . Of course, that is not to say that self-experience ought to be considered as self-enclosed and solipsistic. Quite the reverse. Husserl and Stein both saw subjectivity as a one-sided abstraction from the interrelated nexus of concrete intersubjectivity. On the other hand, it would be phenomenologically inaccurate to deny that experience is deeply ‘egoic’ and first-personal in its core originary nature.
Stein received her doctoral training under Edmund Husserl, and was intimately involved in the theory and practice of Husserlian phenomenology (at Göttingen); but she later moved to embrace Catholicism, and in her mature writings offers a very original and independent re-conceptualisation of the Thomistic heritage illuminated by her phenomenological background. This work of synthesis between phenomenology and Thomist metaphysics receives its fullest articulation in herEndliches und Ewiges Sein (Finite and Eternal Being , 1936)[^10] , a book written, as she said echoing Husserl’s own view of himself as a phenomenologist, ‘by a beginner for beginners’ (FEB, p. xxvii), to explain Thomistic philosophy for the modern mind. In this work, Stein explicitly acknowledges that she wants to use Husserlian phenomenology as a way of gaining access to Thomistic or ‘scholastic’ thought (FEB, p. 12).Finite and Eternal Being , a vast compendium of speculative commentary on key Aristotelian and Thomistic concepts, including a kind of new cosmology, is at its core a very deep appreciation of the experience of being asfullness , a concept that unites Husserl and Aquinas, albeit that Husserl is attempting to approach being precisely from its experiential meaningfulness as given.
Husserl’s own leanings towards empiricism and his suspicion of Hegelian invocations of the absolute led him to distrust metaphysical speculation that was not grounded phenomenologically. Furthermore, when he embraced the Kantian critical and ‘transcendental’ approach, he further distanced himself from naïve discussions of the transcendent. But transcendence is problematic for Husserl for an even more essential reason, namely because of the methodological strictures phenomenology imposes on itself with regard to the importation of speculative assumptions. Indeed, it is one of the explicit functions of Husserl’s ‘bracketing’ or ‘suspension’ (epoché ) to exclude consideration of the transcendent, at least in the sense of that which may in principle be considered apart from consciousness. If there
is to be transcendence, for the mature Husserl, then this is always transcendence under theepoché ; it is ‘transcendence-within-immanence’ hence not pure ‘transcendence’. As Husserl says in his programmaticIdeas I (1913)[^11] , the eidetic attitude of phenomenology after the reduction ‘excludes every sort of transcendence’ (Ideas I § 86, p. 209; III/1 178). Yet, paradoxically, as Husserl will attest in hisFormal and Transcendental Logic (1929)[^12] , it is an essential part of phenomenology’s brief to explore ‘the sense of transcendence’ (Sinn der Transzendenz , FTL § 93c, p. 230; Hua XVII: 237), that is, the manner in which we have experience of an objective world as such.
While Husserl always insisted that phenomenology proceeds in immanence, in an important essay on the relation between Thomism and phenomenology, Edith Stein points out that Husserl was seeking a region ofgenuine immanence in the sense of a region of immediate, inviolable self-givenness, from which all doubt is excluded, but no matter how much he attempted to transcendentally purify his starting point, ‘traces of transcendence showed up’[^13] . Stein maintains this is because Husserl’s ideal of knowledge is in fact divine knowledge, where knowing and being are one and where there is no transcendence (a version of the ‘view from nowhere’), where knowledge is simply disclosure of the given without mediation or obstruction or slant. In other words, for Stein in her critique of Husserl, his philosophy of pure immanence cannot escape transcendence. The finite and determined has to open up to the infinite, undetermined and indeterminate.
In thinking of ‘transcendence’, Husserlian phenomenology begins by rejecting thinking of transcendence framed in Cartesian terms, paradigmatic in modern epistemology, whereby the central question is how totranscend the closed sphere of subjectivity in order to attain to an ‘external’ objectivity beyond the subject. This conception of trancendence as objectivity opposed to subjectivity is precisely what comes to be challenged in Kantian critical philosophy. Consider the question famously formulated by Immanuel Kant is hisLetter to Markus Herz of 21 February 1772 (translated in Zweig, 1967, 70-76), a letter written some years before the First Critique but still considered to express the essentials of the transcendental turn. Kant asked:
What is the ground of the relation of that in us which we call “representation” [Vorstellung ] to the object [Gegenstand ]? If a representation is only a way in which the subject [subiect ] is affected by the object, then it is easy to see how the representation is in conformity with this object, namely, as an effect in accord with its cause, and it is easy to see how this modification of our mind canrepresent something, that is, have an object. … In the same way, if that in us which we call “representation” were active with regard to the object [des obiects ], that is, if the object itself were created by the representation (as when divine cognitions are conceived as the archetypes of all things), the conformity of these representations to their objects could be understood. … However, our understanding, through its representations, is not the cause of the object (save in the case of moral ends) nor is the object [Gegenstand ] the cause of the intellectual representations in the mind (in sensu reali ). Therefore the pure concepts of the understanding must not be abstracted from sense perceptions, nor must
they express the reception of representations through the senses; but though they must have their origin in the nature of the soul, they are neither caused by the object [vom Obiect ] nor bring the object [das obiect ] itself into being. (Zweig, 1967, 71-2)[^14]
Kant is the source of most twentieth-centurty worries about transcendence (in so far as ‘things in themselves’ transcend every possibility of being meaningfully cognised) and his recommendation of a transcendental turn, whereby we reflect on the subjective conditions that make transcendent objecthood possible, has dominated post-Kantian philosophy.
But Kant also recognises the inalienability of the human desire for transcendence, and this recognition inspired philosophers such as Jacobi to attempt to find again a place for a faith that grasped the transcendent in a way inaccessible to reason. As Hegel comments in his ‘Faith and Knowledge’ essay:
Reason, having in this way become mere intellect, acknowledges its own nothingness by placing that which is better than it in afaith outside and above itself, as abeyond [to be believed in]. This is what has happened in thephilosophies of Kant, Jacobi, and Fichte. Philosophy has made itself the handmaid of a faith once more.
Husserl actually tries to find a new way to understand transcendence, not by assigning it to a suprarational faculty or to faith, but rather by rethinking it from within the concept of phenomenologicalgivenness , as we shall see.
Both senses of transcendence (as that which cannot be attained but also as that which must be sought) found in Kant continue to play a significant role in Husserlian and especially in post-Husserlian phenomenology (Levinas, Marion, Henry). Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), for instance, speaks of the desire for the absolutely ‘other’,Autre But this tendency in Levinas and recent phenomenology is somewhat at odds with Husserl and Stein who begin with self-experience. Let us now examine Husserl in more detail.