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Husserl on Sensation, Perception, and Interpretation

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 38, Number 2, June 2008
pp. 219-245 | 10.1353/cjp.0.0013

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Husserl's theory of perception is remarkable in several respects. For one thing, Husserl rigorously distinguishes the parts and properties of the act of consciousness - its content -from the parts and properties of the object perceived. Second, Husserl's repeated insistence that perceptual consciousness places its subject in touch with the perceived object itself, rather than some representation that does duty for it, vindicates the commonsensical and phenomenologically grounded belief that when a thing appears to us, it is precisely that thing, rather than some other thing (its 'appearance'), that we perceive. Third, his distinction between empty and intuitive acts, and his descriptions of their complex interplay in perceptual consciousness, provides a way of making sense of the fact that an object can be perceived even when some of its parts and properties are not. Finally, his theory of perceptual acts as constituents of higher-order acts of fulfilment provides one of the few detailed accounts in the philosophical literature of how a perceptual experience can transform a mere thought into knowledge, despite the fact that the relation between perception and belief is not a logical or inferential one. Because Husserl's theory of perception is a serious candidate for truth, it is also a serious candidate for philosophical criticism. As such, in what follows I will treat it as a live force to be reckoned with rather than a historical curiosity.

Despite these and other virtues, however, one of the more controversial aspects of Husserl's theory of intentionality is his contention that perception consists in the 'interpretation' (Auffassung) of intrinsically non-representational sensations or intuitive contents. This theory is, to be sure, designed to explain an interesting phenomenological feature of perception: mental acts with identical intuitive or sensuous contents can nevertheless represent different objects and properties in different contexts. As I look at the table before me, I perceive it as being uniformly brown. However, not only do portions of the uniformly brown table appear to me in multiple ways as a result of light, shadow, and my position but some of those portions appear the way non-brown things appear. The intuitive contents involved in grasping that portion which is basking in the sunlight over there are identical with those that would, in another context, present a tan object. Such examples are not confined to colors, of course. Consider Husserl's example of the wax figure in the museum: upon walking into a waxworks museum, we perceive a woman greeting us on the stairs. It soon becomes apparent that this is no person, but a wax figure. We then experience the figure - veridically - as a mere wax figure. 'Two perceptual interpretations, or two appearances of a thing, interpenetrate, coinciding as it were in part of their perceptual content.'1

Unfortunately, there are several difficulties confronting this view. The first, as I will argue, is that it is not obviously compatible with Husserl's theory of fulfilment (Erfüllung). The second is that it stems, in part, from a misconception of sensations as features of mental acts that literally resemble the objective sense-perceptible features of physical objects. The third is that Husserl never manages to specify exactly what interpretation amounts to, and some of his remarks on the topic are inconsistent.

The task of the present paper is to examine Husserl's position and some of the main arguments for and against it. Despite my rejection of Husserl's conception of sensations as non-intentional hyletic data, I agree with Husserl that there is a legitimate sense in which intuitive contents must be 'interpreted.' I suggest that the divergent presentational functions of identical intuitive contents can be best explained in terms of differences in the horizons of the acts to which those contents belong. The task of interpretation, on this view, is not to bestow intentionality on otherwise non-intentional sensations, but to give them a determinate presentative function. Not only does this account explain the relevant phenomenological facts while respecting some of Husserl's central insights, it also avoids the objections that plague Husserl's official theory. Finally, I strongly suspect that not only does this constitute an improved version of Husserl's theory, but that...



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