Phenomenology, transcendence, and “realism”

Tom Sparrow argues in his The End of Phenomenology (Edinburgh University Press, 2014) that phenomenology inevitably leads to idealism or anti-realism, being incapable of securing for the objects of consciousness the kind of transcendence required by a robustly realist metaphysic. This is because its method (viz. the phenomenological reduction with its supposedly world-denying epoché) demands that the phenomenologist limit himself to affirming only that which is given immanently to consciousness, to the extent and in the precise mode of its givenness. This means that the phenomenologist can only affirm a kind of “transcendence within immanence,” i.e. a transcendence relative to consciousness, which presumably is not enough to qualify phenomenology as realist sensu stricto.

Edmund Husserl in his office

There is much that could be said about this argument against phenomenology, which seems to me to be rather weak. I will limit my response to the following:

(1) Phenomenology affirms that consciousness is the arena of the self-disclosure of being. If we are to know anything, it must disclose itself in consciousness. This is what Husserl said: “Every type of object that is to be the object of a rational proposition, of a prescientific and then of a scientific cognition, must manifest itself in knowledge, thus in consciousness itself, and it must permit being brought to givenness, in accord with the sense of all knowledge” (“Philosophy as Rigorous Science,” in Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy, 90). Whatever is not and cannot be given in consciousness cannot be known by us or meaningful to us, since knowledge and meaning clearly presuppose consciousness. This means that one could only come to the thought of the transcendence of being in any robust sense if it were given as a “transcendence within immanence,” i.e. if it were given as transcendent to our consciousness. There is no other way for us to know about transcendence. A transcendence which did not become for us a transcendence within immanence, i.e. which did not give itself to us as a transcendent, would be nothing and mean nothing to us. The only possible basis for affirming a transcendence is a transcendence within immanence.

(2) Because phenomenology conceives of consciousness as “the theater of all being,” in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s words (“Phenomenology and the Sciences of Man,” in Primacy of Perception, 55), it follows that the thing is precisely as it is given to consciousness. The thing appears as it is and is as it appears. As Sokolowski says, “Appearances are real; they belong to being” (Introduction to Phenomenology, 15). And if the appearances of a thing are precisely its being, then it follows that nothing is lost by limiting ourselves to what is given immanently to consciousness. There is nothing “anti-realist” in saying that the thing is precisely is appears. It would only be “anti-realist” if one were to say (i) that there is no access to the way thing is apart from its appearances and (ii) that these appearances do not tell the whole story of the thing’s being. But this would be to assume that consciousness is precisely not the “theater of all being” and the arena of the self-disclosure of being. In other words, phenomenology can only fall victim to the charge of anti-realism if one assumes a different conception of the relation between consciousness and being than the one proposed by phenomenologists — which is to say that the objection is circular.

The truth is that phenomenology proposes an alternative to the old dichotomy between realism and idealism because of its distinct conception of the subject-object relation. We might say that realism, very simply understood, conceives the subject as just another object among objects, one whose epistemic relation to other objects must somehow be established. Idealism, on the other hand, supposes that the object is really just a modification of the consciousness of the subject. Phenomenology rejects both of these views as mistaken. The subject is defined precisely in terms of its openness to receive the disclosure of the object, whereas the object is defined in terms of its anterior intrinsic intelligibility and “transparency” to the properly oriented subject. This is of course not to say that there are not also challenges and difficulties involved in the process of knowing. But only if subject and object are understood in correlation to one another is knowledge of a genuine transcendent even possible. And such a genuine transcendent could only ever be known as a transcendent within immanence.



I have a PhD in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store