Intentionality I

Heidegger criticises Descartes for leaving a legacy that provides no ontology; this ego cogito remains ‘uninterrogated’ as to its Being[1]. Descartes’ formal analysis of the ‘cogito sum’, taken over by Kant, addresses the question of what I am, that is, I am human, but omits the existential subjectivity of who I am as an individual. ‘While Descartes and Kant occupied themselves with the notion of cogito or self-consciousness, existence escaped from their vision’[2]. This blog is focused on that very question however.

One does not control entirely the syntax from which one's semantic significance emerges

One does not control entirely the syntax from which one’s semantic significance emerges

My conscious waking life is in all its parts directed towards the world of meaning that for me has always been already there; alternatively expressed, I am in toto, engaged ‘semantically’ with a ‘syntax’ into which I am thrown.As a singular instance of being I am, in non-pathological experience, a person with a sense of unified ‘self’-identity. I wish to offer a tripartite eidetic explanatory description of this phenomenon; firstly a description of the manner in which that identity-sense is experienced with all one’s being; secondly a description of that which is in fact disclosed in one’s identity-sense;  thirdly a description of that which, beneath all its diverse ontic possibilities, is essential to, or ontologically descriptive of identity in the questioning being.

Whilst rejecting as untenable the Cartesian Self, I acknowledge nevertheless that the Cartesian legacy bequeaths to me a certainty that I am conscious. I am furthermore a centre of activity constituting intersubjectively the Lifeworld I share with others. Indeed, whilst I am directed toward the world consciously -intentionally constituting and appropriating meaning thereby- this is not all. I am also as an organism recursively appropriating the world for my survival. The empirical reality of my body , is furthermore infused with meaning-acquisition in the form of a sensual living body through which I have a world of existence and without which I cannot be conscious. As Merleau-Ponty contends, my being is a network of intentions,[3] and time a network of intentionalities[4].

Tripartite interlocking structure of self-identity

The tripartite interlocking structure of self-identity

My identity is an accretion of meaning that is largely habituated and enacted. It must be consciously appropriated and authentically owned however if my identity-sense is to harmonise my primordial desire for significance – capacity for purpose, and the Lifeworld in which I am embedded, or as Heidegger would have it, ‘thrown’. Thus my consciousness in its directedness, is directed towards the world in a quest for appropriation of the world’s meaning; an appropriation with which to clothe my naked hunger for significance. To have intentionality is to have consciousness and to have consciousness is to have ownness.

My identity I experience as an identity-sense, a sensual body which, in its entirety, is its own. Descartes conceded that one’s mind is tied to the body and does not merely reside within it. More accurately however, the mind is not tied to the body, but rather as Merleau-Ponty has contended, pervades it.

Beneath the various meaning-clusters that give my waking life its unique appearance, is an embodied desire for significance and capacity for purpose, an embodied telos intentionally directed towards the human world of meaning, the Lifeworld.

As contemporary scholarship has indicated, at every layer of conscious existence Husserl discerns ‘the play of drives and instincts’.[5] ‘All life is continuous striving’ and instincts and drives guide and motivate all our intentional life. He employs moreover, in his unpublished works, the terms ‘drive intentionality’ and ‘instinct intentionality’, contending that ‘the system of intentionality is a system of associatively interwoven drives’[6]. One might object that many people dispute any sense of being driven to find significance or see in themselves a reciprocal capacity for purpose. However, in addition to primal intentionality which motivates the directedness-to-objects we are familiar with, in one manuscript, Husserl identifies a genetic priority in instincts which entail ‘an intentional directedness to something that is not yet constituted as an ‘object’’[7]. The strivings and urges that motivate the socialite or the recluse, that evoke philanthropy or nihilism, fascism, communism or piety may commence with goalless yearnings which can be satisfactorily understood as the tension between one’s unsatisfied desire for significance and capacity for purpose.

One can instinctively search for significance whilst being unaware, of what it might look like, or indeed that one is searching. This too is supported in Husserl. For example, our apparently empty intentional acts are often satisfied by the object’s presence in intuition and so fulfilled. Being instinctively directed to something entails that we are as yet unaware of the goal of our inclination. ‘The instinct and its ‘target’, are as yet ‘undisclosed’ or ‘latent’. Only when the instinctive drive is satisfied is the goal of the instinct ‘disclosed’, thereby becoming ‘manifest’ – a process analogous to fulfilment proper[8]. Husserl’s illustration is of the baby at the breast; he envisages a ‘direction towards drinking’ awakened in the baby by the smell of the mother’s milk, and the sensation of its own lips moving. Only upon drinking, when the drive is satisfied, is that drive ‘disclosed’ as the direction towards drinking.[9]

Mother and Child  Harold Gilman

Mother and Child
Harold Gilman

It is towards a primordial essence then, a desire for significance – capacity for purpose, that an accretion of meaning derived from the ontic possibilities of the spatio-temporal world is drawn. My identity-sense is therefore an holistic awareness of the conscious and tacit appropriation of the Lifeworld my primordial desire for significance – capacity for purpose cannot live without.

Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, can be synthesised to support the view that identity is sited in embodied intersubjective intentionality embedded in the world and I have referred to this primary ontology as the Landscape of Being. Within this ubiquitous Landscape of Being, the identity of the questioning being is approximate to a matrix, or better still a web, a meeting place of consciousness and habituation[10], of thought and action, speech and language. This web of meaning is essentially, ontologically, an accretion of meaning which for oneself must be appropriated and, in relation to others who have always existed, must be negotiated. Intersubjectivity has its place in primary ontology therefore, as I have contended, for as Heidegger is at pains to remind us, ‘Dasein is essentially Being-with’ and this existential characteristic of Dasein holds true, ‘even when factically no Other is present-at-hand or perceived’.[11] My identity then is all of me, sensed holistically, conceptualised and sublimated in my efforts at harmonising my existence; in Wittgenstein’s terms perhaps, it is there and yet it isn’t.

I cannot, in a solipsistic manner, fashion my identity without recourse to others. My world is a shared world as Husserl concedes in his Cartesian Meditations and my identity is a part of it. Subjectively animated by me, nevertheless my identity is a thing in the world of others. I explore the dynamic of this exchange in due course and will in the next post provide an introductory summary of these three strands of my phenomenological enquiry.

My identity is a thing in the world of others, made of the stuff of which others are made

My identity is a thing in the world of others, made of the stuff of which others are made

[1] Heidegger, M. Being and Time, Malden, Blackwell Publishing, 1962/2006, 44

[2] Yagi, Tsutomu B. Beyond Subjectivity: Kierkegaard’s Self and Heidegger’s Dasein, in Perspectives: International Postgraduate Journal of Philosophy, accessed online at, accessed 22.00, 17th July, 2013

[3] Merleau-Ponty, PP, 2006, ibid, 140

[4] MP, ibid, 484

[5] ‘In the beginning’ Husserl writes ‘there I instinctive striving’ (Husserl, C 13 I, 6a) in Smith, ibid, 149

[6] (Husserl, A VII 13, 24a) in Smith, ibid, 150

[7] Smith, ibid, 150, We encountered something of this issue in the last chapter in our consideration of fear and anxiety, and whether these were experienceable for the transcendental Ego which had parenthesized all objects in the world such as might be feared.

[8] (Husserl, C 13 I, 6) in Smith, ibid

[9] (Husserl, C 16, IV, 36b) in Smith, ibid

[10] For an interesting discussion of  habituation or ‘habituses’ in the work of Bourdieu, as structuring structured structures see Crossley, N. The Phenomenological Habitus and Its Construction, Theory and Society, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Feb., 2001), pp. 84

[11] Heidegger, 2006, ibid


2 thoughts on “Intentionality I

  1. My intellect and vocabulary is not up to speed with all you wrote, but enough sunk in for my inner world to form a rough sketch which I can view. Will read more (as I am able) to see how this image develops and what nuggets I can take away as an average Joe (or Joanne in my case). Thanks.


    • I’m delighted; you’ve approached this exactly as I’d hoped. If my phenomenological investigation into ‘what it is like’ to have identity is tested according to whether it resonates with the experience of real people, then that is the best test of all. Keep reading, your comments and thoughts, and questions too, are welcome.


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