Immanence and Transcendence in Husserl’s Phenomenology

There are a number of concepts of transcendence at play in Husserl’s thought and it is not clear that these different senses of transcendence ever get fully resolved in his writing. The term ‘transcendence’ does not occur in the First Edition of theLogical Investigations (1900-01). It appears in his writing more or less simultaneously with his discovery of the reduction (c. 1905) and is prominent inThe Idea of Phenomenology lectures of 1907.[^15] As Stein puts it, Husserl’s ‘absolute starting point’ for phenomenology is theimmanence of consciousness to which is contrasted the transcendence of the world.[^16] But in fact this only a first sense of transcendence. In his mature publications beginning withIdeas I, Husserl explores a deeper sense of transcendence, as we shall see, whereby corporeal things are transcendent because their essence contains a kind of infinity that is never intuitable in a completely adequate and fulfilled way. Every thing is graspable only through a manifold of ‘adumbrations’ (Abschattungen ) and ‘aspects’ (Aspekte ), which can never be fully actualised by a finite cognising mind. Even the corporeal thing, then, is in essence what Husserl calls a ‘Kantian idea’, a manifold of infinite perspectives.

As the French phenomenologist Michel Henry has recognised, one of the first places where Husserl tackles the issue of transcendence and immanence is in his 1907Idea of Phenomenology lectures.[^17] Husserl begins with the classic epistemological problem – how do I know that I know? How do I know that my knowledge is secure? Husserl characterises this classic epistemological problem as the problem of transcendence (IP, p. 28; Hua II: 36). The ‘riddle’ of knowledge is put in Kantian terms as the possibility of its contact with the transcendent (IP, p. 33; Hua II: 43). Nothing transcendent can be taken as pre-given; as Husserl writes: ‘The transcendence of the thing requires that we put the thing in question’ (IP, p. 38; Hua II: 49)

According to Husserl, the very nature of thecontact (Triftigkeit - a phrase inherited from Kant) with the transcendent is precisely what the traditional epistemologist cannot master. Some philosophers have abandoned the possibility that knowledge can be in contact with the transcendent and, at that point, what remains to be explained in how the prejudice has arisen whereby it is assumed that human knowledge does reach the transcendent. For Husserl, it is Hume who took this latter route. For Husserl, on the other hand, the epistemological reduction must be performed whereby every transcendence is excluded, and intentional connections of meaningfulness are revealed.

Overcoming the probematic of traditional epistemology, Husserl defines a new kind of givenness -- ‘absolute givenness’ -- which he attaches to the very act of conscious experiencing itself, to every ‘thought’ or cogitatio. This leads Husserl to declare in the Second Lecture of the Idea of Phenomenology:

Every intellectual experience, indeed every experience whatsoever, can be made into an object of pure seeing and apprehension while it is

occurring. And in this act of seeing, it is an absolute givenness. (IP, p. 24; Hua II: 31 )

The stream of experience given in reflection has ‘absolute givenness’. Husserl goes on to discuss the manner in which the given is immanent in our experience while at the same time emphasising that there is no actual thing present or immanent in the actual occurringErlebnis . This leads to a double meaning for transcendence:

…it can refer to the fact that the known object is not really [reell ] contained in the act of knowing (IP, p. 27; Hua II: 35)


…there isanother sense of transcendence , whose counterpart is an entirely different kind of immanence, namely,absolute andclear givenness ,self-givenness in the absolute sense . (IP, p. 27; Hua II: 35)

This absolute self-givenness consists in ‘an immediate act of seeing and apprehending the meant objectivity itself as it is’. Only the immanentcogitatio is given. The problem now becomes for Husserl how to safeguard the purity of the phenomenon of thecogitatio from contamination by our prejudices including the psychological reading of thecogitatio (as a psychological fact, a datum in space-time, and so on). This purification for Husserl goes beyond the epistemological reduction and he calls it the ‘phenomenological reduction’ (IP, p. 34; Hua II: 44) whose aim is to purify the ‘psychological’ phenomenon into the absolute givenness of pure phenomenon. Husserl contrasts this absolute givenness of the immanent with the ‘quasi-givennesses’ (Quasi-Gegebenheiten , Hua II: 45) of transcendent objects. The pure phenomenon contains an intentional referring beyond itself but that must be treated precisely as it is given in immanent seeing and this brings us squarely into the phenomenological perspective, or as Husserl puts it, ‘and thus we drop anchor on the shore of phenomenology’ (und so werfen wir schon Anker an der Küste der Phänomenologie , IP, p. 34; Hua II: 45).

Continuing the metaphor Husserl warns that this shore has its share of rocks, is covered by clouds of obscurity and threatened with the gales of scepticism. We have what is given absolutely and purely in immanence:

On the other hand, the relation to something transcendent, whether I question the existence (Sein ) of the transcendent object or the ability of the relation to make contact (Triftigkeit ) with it, still contains something that can be apprehended within the pure phenomenon. The relating-itself-to-something transcendent (Das sich-auf-Transzendentes-beziehen ), to refer to it in one way or another, is an inner characteristic of the phenomenon. (IP, p. 35; Hua II: 46)

It is worth rehearsing Husserl’s first tentative uncovering of the transcendent at the heart of the immanent in these lectures as a guide to what is the relation between phenomenology and transcendence. Not every transcendence is excluded; there is a genuine transcendence recognised that is the counterpart of the pure immanence of absolute givenness. But about this genuine transcendence Husserl has little to say in these years other than to point to the subject-transcending nature of validity, truth and other values.

From out of the ‘Heraclitean stream ofErlebnisse (IP, p. 36; Hua II 47) comes a consciousness of unity, of identity, of transcendence, objectivity, and so on. How is that possible? Husserl furthermore acknowledges that the mere apprehension of thecogitatio in itself is of little value, what matters is the turn towards theeidos . Indeed, the possibility of the critique of knowledge depends on the recognition of forms of givenness other than the singularhic et nunc . We already move beyond thesecogitationes themselves when we make judgements about what is true, valid, and so on.

The first genuine transcendence within immanence is then the intuition of theeidos . In later works, specificallyIdeas I andCartesian Meditations , Husserl is particularly interested in the manner in which the givenness of the world transcends the imperfect type of evidences that display it (CM § 28 Hua I: 61-2) and no imaginable synthesis can bring the world to adequate evidence. The being of the world necessarily transcends consciousness; nevertheless the world is inseparable from transcendental subjectivity.