TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Intersubjectivity and Time: Piana on Husserl's Manuscripts

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Damien Booth looks at Giovanni Piana’s “History and Existence in Husserl’s Manuscripts” from Telos 13 (Fall 1972).


In Giovanni Piana’s “History and Existence in Husserl’s Manuscripts,” we get a presentation of Edmund Husserl’s thought regarding the “problem of others” and external-world skepticism in various manuscripts written in Husserl’s later period. The inclusion of the thought contained within these manuscripts serves to give us deeper access to the problem of others and the way Husserl approaches the problem in his later works. Of particular interest for Piana is the way Husserl describes how history and culture play a generative role in the constitution of human intersubjective relations. Importantly however, we must not lose sight of the original, epistemological aim of transcendental phenomenology. Losing sight of this aim may lead back into skepticism, or a move toward existentialism, which aims to describe the essence of human existence as opposed to a philosophical grounding of knowledge.

We will try to investigate the theoretical genesis of the theme along the lines that lead from the crisis of thought in the naturalistic attitude, exemplified by scepticism, to critical reflection. Such a posing of the problem will allow us to show from the very beginning that the overcoming of scepticism is a function of the solution of the solipsistic objection. (86)

Piana starts by citing Husserl’s motivation for introducing the phenomenological reduction (epoché), whereby the “obviousness” of the given world, the continuous positing of existence granted to objects is parenthesized. What we are left with is the pure phenomena.

Husserl points to the reduction as the operation that makes possible the intuitive description of what is seen as such—as given purely to “consciousness” and therefore “true” in the only sense that meets the sceptical challenge. (87)

Without the epoché, we will be left with looming skeptical doubts, because the natural attitude has not been abandoned, and is in fact presupposed in skeptical theories, (such as those of Hume or Descartes). Nothing is doubted in the epoché, but nothing is presupposed either. Whatever is left behind after the epoché is phenomena proper, in need of phenomenological description. Importantly, the indubitable nature of consciousness is left behind, and so the validity of philosophical knowledge will be located within the ego. However, Piana notes that Husserl is pre-emptive of a possible objection: Do we not just end up trapped in solipsism again?

Piana refers us to Husserl’s Crisis, in which he criticizes Descartes for not having treated solipsistic doubt as “mere hypothesis”. That is, as phenomenologists, we accept the “evil demon hypothesis” presented as a skeptical thought-experiment in Descartes’ Meditations. But it stops here. We accept it only as a hypothesis, and we use it as a tool to render knowledge of “the other” apodictic.

Precisely because the phenomenological method places importance [on] the solipsistic doubt it posits the theme of intersubjectivity as its necessary task. . . . Our problem is of understanding in its own meaning, free from every metaphysical hypothesis and from all obviousness, the presence to me of the other as being subjectively foreign. (91-92)

From here Piana goes on to show how Husserl’s thought on this topic develops. When we have reduced our way to pure phenomena, we are given inanimate objects. But we are also given animate objects, if we are in the presence of the other. The other body is not just another mundane object in my perceptual field. However, we still only experience the materiality of the other. What animates the other is not directly open to experience. According to Husserl, our experience of the other is a form of apperception, whereby the direct perception of one thing points us toward another aspect of the thing. In the case of the other, we are directed toward to the subjectivity of the other when we experience their body. But it is important to note that this does not amount to saying first we experience the other-as-body, then the other-as-person. The perception of “otherness” is at once a perception of body and a subject foreign to my own subject.

[T]he living corporeality of the other is given in an analogical apperception. And it must be added that only in this apperception do I recognise, with the body of the other, my body as my own: the experience of the other implies a reciprocal perceptive recognition… (95)

So not only does the apperception of the other enable me to perceive the personhood of the other, but in the experience of otherness, I am at once able to fully distinguish my body as my own.

Piana’s article continues to draw from both Husserl’s manuscripts and publications, in order to develop Husserl’s specific notion of embodiment, with the body acting as the locus of all perceptual experience. (This notion was a major influence on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy.) It is not purely a case of being embodied that allows for the experiencing of this body as my body, but it is the contrast between this body and the body that appears before me as that of another. Intersubjectivity is vital for our most primordial experience of self.

According to Piana, Husserl’s manuscripts give us a temporal picture of subjectivity.

The pure explication of the subjective structure directly concerns the constitution of time as such. Subjectivity and temporality are rooted in a single theme and cannot be considered in an abstract separation. (99)

The picture Husserl paints is similar in some respects to Heidegger’s temporal investigations in Being and Time. I am in respect of my projection toward a future, moving away from a past, unified in the present moment. In experiencing otherness, I experience the immanence of another presentifying entity—another temporal being. Husserl gleams access to our temporal constitution whilst still remaining faithful to pure phenomenology—something Heidegger thought was impossible.

This delicate relationship that Husserl notes between intersubjectivity and time is once again built on by Piana, by referring to Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts. In the third section of the article, Piana brings “history,” as phenomenologically understood, to bare on this discussion. Only by doing this will we make the “embodied subject and . . . man in the world” accessible to phenomenology.

I must comprehend what I really am and what the other really is. Thus, we find ourselves considering the dimension of how to fill the form, not egoness in general and its temporality, but the very embodied ego in its own living time and in his relation of real and factual co-existence with the other. (107)

We are guided through some various limits that Husserl notes regarding the I. The birth of the ego, or the genesis of the self becomes a problem. Piana directs us to where Husserl addresses this problem directly in the form of birth, death, and sex, i.e., the conception of the body that limits each individual’s conscious life. However:

At this point, the Husserlian analyses dealing with man’s pre-natal state, with the description of the embryonic pre-world, with the gradual constitution of the intersubjective world in the relation of the first infancy to the mother, etc., suddenly come to a halt. Husserl leaves all of this in much uncertainty and incompleteness. (117)

Piana begins to draw his conclusions at this point, regarding the historicity of intersubjectivity. We are not just alongside-one-another, but in fact we are in a world of unified personal histories. This unification of lives, according to Husserl, cannot be broken down into separate individual beings, but as individual beings, we live our lives in a historical continuum, connected in an essential way to other persons and their histories. In the end,

By publicizing these last fragments, we believe we are able to conclude this exposition: it has simply attempted to shed light on the horizon of problems disclosed by the phenomenological position of the theme of subjective otherness. (124)

Piana gives us a glimpse at what Husserl’s thoughts on intersubjectivity might have looked like if these unpublished manuscripts had found their way into his final publications. It also helps us to understand how the later Husserl responds to criticisms of his earlier transcendental work (in particular the criticisms levied by Heidegger). The article is a challenge to read, but the challenge comes with rewards for those wishing to further their knowledge of Husserl’s work. A prior read of Cartesian Meditations (1931) by Husserl will help a great deal to penetrate this article, but it presents an interesting and accurate account of manuscripts that may well have been inaccessible to English speakers at the time Piana published the article (1972).

Read the full version of Giovanni Piana’s “History and Existence in Husserl’s Manuscripts” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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