Intersubjective Intentionality

In this blog, based upon my thesis, I have embarked on a phenomenological path which is a descriptive enterprise. It aims to clarify eidetically what is experienced, in particular to sketch out the structure of what is experienced as identity-sense, thus revealing, in the scrutiny of concrete acts of perception, the essence of identity itself.

Three topological features of the Landscape of Being  have recommended themselves so far in my consideration of identity as an appropriated accretion of meaning: a) embodiment, b) intersubjective intentionality and c) embeddedness in the world. My identity as ‘Peter’ is dependent on these essential features, for without them I cannot have singularity as a person. Of themselves however, these features do not encapsulate that singularity which makes me ‘me’, nor therefore do the variable ontic characteristics apparent in my life derived from my physicality, relationships, culture and history, even though these may render me distinct to others.

In this post I it is now necessary to explore the Landscape of Being more closely and I begin therefore with a feature developed by Husserl; intentionality. My identity is inevitably directed-towards; directed-towards myself, others and my environment and this intentionality is singularly mine. All such descriptions of Peter, such as ‘Peter likes’, ‘Peter is’ and Peter’s brother, illustrate this very insight because Peter is an experience directed-towards things.

My life, and my identity, is in all its aspects 'directed-towards'.

My life, and my identity, is in all its aspects ‘directed-towards’.

Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger each acknowledge directedness-towards as central to my life but reach no consensus. I consider their perspectives on intentionality here therefore, by sampling a lived context which illustrates the phenomena of intersubjective intentionality and my synthesis of their insights.

In particular Intentionality, as a fundament of identity, also warrants closer investigation as I utilise it in avoidance of the term ‘consciousness’ with all its Cartesian overtones, to enable my synthesis of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger. To a degree this synthesis necessitates a perspectivist approach for some aspects of their phenomenology cannot be successfully reconciled[1].

A: Husserlian Intentionality

Let us suppose, as an example of intentionality, that I, newly a teenager, encounter my uncle at my grandma’s house and go to greet him with a kiss. ‘Ah Peter’ he says, ‘I must shake your hand; I can kiss you no longer for you are now a young man’. Dutifully, with some sense of loss and puzzlement, I shake his hand. I am it seems a ‘young man’ now. My intentionality towards my uncle is that of love-and-respect-towards, but it has been arrested in its threading-out towards its intended object by the intersubjective intention of another. What is the ‘object’ I am intending towards? It is my uncle as Uncle.

Though he was a chartered accountant, I did not of course submit to him my business finances for auditing; I bought him daft presents at Christmas and met him at family reunions. Let us call the intention in one sense familial-love and the ideal reality encountered, familial relationship. The wintery light entering the sash window or the faded green upholstery on my grandma’s wing-back chair provided a background but were not themselves intentional.

The meaning encountered here  is that of familial-loving, the puzzling, the awakening, the growing-up… each in a Husserlian sense has its instance in the particular intentional acts present in my encounter. I may say that the ‘object’ of my experience, which is my presence in the world, is constituted in intentionality.

Remember that Husserl insists, that ’the object never coincides with the meaning. Both only pertain to an expression ‘in virtue of the mental acts which give it sense.’[2] There is always something surplus to the intentional act and this intentionality goes beyond any act of the will alone; it includes the unexpected disruption of my ownness necessarily aligned to, and measured against, another’s sense of my ‘isness’.

There is a glimpse here of the temporality central to Husserl. My uncle altered my perception of the ‘subject-object’ I am, and did so temporally. I became a young man, and in these intentional moments, grew older at a pace divergent from ‘objective’ time; I aged according to the lived-time of intersubjectivity. Reflecting afterwards in the natural attitude on that past familial moment…  the reaching forward to kiss my uncle, my ever-changing motility… these elements sometimes affirmed childlikeness, sometimes adolescence, offering ambiguous clues in my grandma’s kiss, my physical stature compared with cousins, and the ‘breaking’ of my voice. I did not yet know what a ‘young man’ was[3], but maturity accrued to my identity nevertheless.

Husserl argues in Ideas I, that the primal experience from which all other experiencing acts derive a major part of their grounding force is perception,[4]and later endeavours to identify the relation between ‘judgements and the underlying ‘pre-linguistic’ experiences that make them possible’[5]. The ‘primary contents’, otherwise known as hyletic data, might be regarded as my uncle’s drawing back from my kiss, the firmness of his hand-shake and the ‘kind’ but ‘condescending’ tone of his voice. The meanings conferred on these ‘primary contents’ I have described as a feature of the Lifeworld foreground in which they necessarily occur; meanings such as ‘my family’s expectations have changed’ or ‘English males, unlike the French, greet each other with a manly hand-shake and so should I’. The thwarting of my intersubjective intentionality through my uncle’s unexpected reticence disclosed to me my identity in my conscious intentions, my pre-reflective intentionality and my uncle’s alterity.

Critical then to Husserl’s contributory insight into the Landscape of Being is his understanding of Intentionality as that which ‘constitutes the object by conferring meaning upon the non-intentional stuff or hyle’[6]. Phenomena assail us all the time and intersubjectivity turns them into meaningful experience.

Hands. C Parker Intentionality confers meaning on phenomena

Hands. C Parker
Intentionality confers meaning on phenomena.

Central to this is the observation that there is more to any object than the perspective we see, for we somehow comprehend more than we see[7]. Husserl’s pioneering analysis, which is a rebuttal of the empiricist theory of perception, reappears and is developed in Merleau-Ponty[8].

B: Merleau-Pontian Intentionality

Merleau-Ponty, in his discussion of ‘motor-intentionality’, argues that without forethought, our motor-intentional preparedness for hidden aspects of an object, the handle on the reverse side of my uncle’s tea-cup say, is positive but indeterminate.[9] I will cope inadequately with the cup furthermore if the handle does not correspond to the anticipatory shaping of my body to engage with it[10].

The pursing of my lips to kiss, the rising up onto my toes and leaning toward him, each illustrate this unconscious reflexivity. These unthought intentionalities toward the indeterminate are learned but eventually habitual in character. Merleau-Ponty also terms this original lived experience of the world ‘operative intentionality’, a term found also in Husserl’s Crisis.[11] The primacy of operative intentionality implies that whatever drives identity, it occurs in an intentionality both conscious and unconscious; nevertheless there is but one ‘Intentionality’ despite the various modes of its appearing.

As I have noted already, for Merleau-Ponty ‘the body-subject is not a thing’, it is  importantly, ‘an intentional movement directed towards the object’.[12] Of significance is his contention that this intentionality does not harness the body, it is not ‘a handmaid of consciousness, transporting the body…’[13] but it is rather the intentionality of motility itself which confers upon the world the primary meaning it has.

It is through the body that we have a world.

It is through the body that we have a world.

This intentionality too is employed purposively in search of significance therefore.

When as a child I crossed the room to greet my uncle, I gave no speculative thought to the technique of walking, the direction I must travel, nor indeed did I expect my uncle to be a hologram or his seat to be made of cheese. In fact as Merleau-Ponty insists the very pathologies which necessitate such artificial forethought disclose to us the fundamentality of this motor capacity.

There is fruitful agreement here with Husserl, for identity is also always more than is perceived. Just as I perceived my uncle as tall and middle aged,  I might also encounter in my ‘uncle’, ‘diligent father’, ‘industrious businessman’ or ‘thoughtful lay-preacher’. In our embodied intentionality ‘we are through and through compounded of relationships with the world’[14].

C: Heideggerian Intentionality

Initially Heidegger was captivated by Husserl’s Logical Investigations, and isolated the concept of ‘intentionality’ for special attention.[15] It is suggested that Heidegger’s reading led him to attribute to Husserl an understanding of intentionality as comportment-towards.[16] Heidegger, transforming as he reads of course, nevertheless reproached Husserl for being side-tracked in his subsequent Ideas into a rehearsal of Platonic-Cartesian notions for the sake of a scientific apocdicity.[17]

Heidegger asserted that Husserl had misinterpreted intentionality. It cannot be an extant relation between two things extant, a psychological subject and a physical object[18]. Because Heidegger particularises intentionality as a property immanent to the subject he must then explain how intentionality reaches to the object. He rejects the notion apparent in Husserl that the objects of intentionality themselves must be immanent to the subject too. Heidegger concludes that intentionality itself is neither objective nor subjective but prior to either.[19] If, as I argue, intentionality is essential to identity, then identity in the questioning being also straddles subjectivity and objectivity and may be said therefore to be neither and both.

Colloseum interior, Rome. This is a world shared between subjects

Colloseum interior, Rome. This is a world shared between subjects

Heidegger attempts to overcome Husserlian Intentionality and so investigates its ontological status adopting a more radical perspective. How does the subject break out of its immanent constitution of a world? His solution leads me to intersubjective intentionality itself. The ontological constitution of the subject itself is intentionality; what is more, ‘It is the nature of Dasein that it exists in such a way that it is ‘always already with other beings’’[20]. Consequently, the bridge to things in the world, which Husserl’s intentionality theory completes unconvincingly, is enabled by the fact that for Heidegger, Dasein’s nature is transcendence. Whereas Husserl and Merleau-Ponty find a primacy in some form or other in intentionality, for Heidegger intentionality is the by-product, the surface phenomenon of a deeper ontological structure. Intentionality is intersubjective and it discloses to us our absolute temporality.

At the heart of every human, no matter how self-assured is temporailty or transience.

At the heart of every human, no matter how self-assured is temporality or transience.


[1] David Grünberg, Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology and the mind-body problem, in A-T. Tymieniecka (Ed), Analectica Husserlania XCIV, pp11-32, 2007. Whilst Grünberg’s advice is specifically related to the problem addressed in his essay we may remember also Nietzsche’ similar injunction.

[2] Husserl, Logical Investigations Vol., I, in J. N. Mohanty, A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism, ibid, 2009, 70

[3] In a Heideggerian sense I began to live in the light of my future; ‘grown-upness’ became my new authenticity and I began to be a young man.

[4] Husserl, in Kelly, ibid, 117

[5] Husserl, Experience and Judgement, in Kelly, ibid

[6] J. N. Mohanty, Intentionality, ibid, 73

[7] This intuition supplies the distinction between a perspective as ‘the façade of a thing’, and as an adumbration, a perspective interpreted as one aspect of a transcendent object that goes beyond our perception.

[8] Kelly, 2003, ibid, 119

[9] Kelly, 2003, ibid, 135

[10] One can see at this basic level a harmonisation of significance and purpose in such an act..

[11] Husserl, Crisis, in Mohanty, ibid, 74

[12] Mohanty, ibid

[13] Merleau-Ponty, PP, ibid, 139, in Mohanty ibid

[14] Merleau-Ponty, PP, ibid, in Mohanty, ibid, 76

[15] Mohanty, ibid, 2009, 73

[16] Otto Pöggeler, Martin Heidegger’s Path of Thinking, (Trans.) Daniel Magurshak and Sigmund Barber, New York, Humanity Books, 1963/1991, 268

[17] Ibid, the criticism from Heidegger occurs in his summer lectures 1925, published as Prologomena zur Geschicte des Zeitbegriffs

[18] Heidegger, BPP, 60, in Mohanty, ibid, 73

[19] Mohanty, ibid

[20] Heidegger, BP, 157, in Mohanty, ibid, 73

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