Experiencing Phenomenology: Experiencing Things and Properties

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the history of the Phenomenological tradition is a history of the various interpretations and perceived significance of the concept of intentionality. Brought to prominence by Brentano, elaborated by Husserl, employed and modified in various ways by Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, intentionality is fundamental to the phenomenological enterprise. Discussions of perception, imagination, self-consciousness, and emotion are shot through with assumptions, claims, and counter-claims about the nature and scope of intentionality. The focus on intentionality is one of the Phenomenological tradition’s most enduring legacies, finding its way into almost every aspect of philosophical work on the mind.

Brentano (1874) is, of course, typically credited with bringing the concept of intentionality—conceived of as the directedness or aboutness of mentality—into the contemporary debate. His claim that all and only mental phenomena exhibit intentionality has had an enormous influence on the philosophy of mind, with the term ‘representational’ often used interchangeably with ‘intentional’. But his apparent claim that the objects of intentional states are literally contained within those states themselves has been less influential. Husserl (1900-1901), for one, seems to take it is obvious that intentional states are typically directed towards ordinary, non-mental, entities.

The claim that cognitive states, such as belief and judgement, are intentional is hardly controversial. But the claim that perceptual experience is to be most fundamentally characterised in terms of intentionality is certainly not something that can be taken for granted. In the previous post I mentioned naïve realist, the view that perceptual experience is to be most fundamentally characterised as involving a relation to a worldly entity. We can also mention the traditional sense-data theory as one that thinks of perceptual experience in relational terms—as a relation to a sense datum. Intentional accounts of perception allow that one can have just the same sort of perceptual experience that one has when one sees a tree, even if there is no tree there; that is, if one hallucinates a tree. Perception, in this respect, is akin to belief. Just as I can believe that Vulcan is a planet, despite the fact that there is no Vulcan, I can have a perceptual experience as of a tree, despite the fact that there is no tree.

Of course, a standard problem of intentionalist views, familiar from the contemporary debate, is how belief can be distinguished from perception. If the belief that this tree is tall is an intentional state that presents the tree in question as tall, and the perceptual experience is similarly an intentional state that presents the tree as tall, in what does their manifest difference lie?

Husserl presents us with an answer to this. Whilst belief presents its object ‘in one go’, perceptual experience presents its objects perspectivally, via ‘adumbrations’. The objects of perceptual experience are given in such a way that we are only ever aware of them from one side. This is especially obvious with vision. There are always aspects of a seen thing that escape my view, being occluded by the facing side. But this is not to say that seen things appear to be a two-dimensional surface. Things look solid, as though they have parts that are currently out of view. Husserl describes the facing side of a perceived thing as presented and the non-facing parts as co-presented—they are visually present but less than fully so—a phenomenon now referred to as amodal completion. Husserl describes the phenomenon as involving the perceptual anticipation of further experiences given appropriate movements. Thus, what it is to experience a seen thing as a three-dimensional solid is, in part, for it to look as though, were one to move around it, one would experience its currently unseen parts.

The perceptual experience of the tree as tall, then, involves a rich interplay between the presented and co-presented parts. Belief involves none of this and is thus an ’empty’ intending, lacking the intuitive fullness of perception. In this way, then, can the intentionalist distinguish perception from non-perceptual representations.

Husserl’s account also contains the elements for an account of the phenomenon of perceptual constancy. As I move away from an object, it appears to remain the same size, despite the fact that there is a sense in which it looks different size-wise—it takes up less of the visual field. As I move around it, it appears to remain the same shape, despite the fact that its appearance changes shape-wise. As the lighting changes, an object seems to remain the same colour, despite the fact that there is a sense in which it looks different colour-wise. These are the phenomena of size, shape, and colour constancy respectively.

On Husserl’s picture, perceptual constancy involves a thing’s constant property being given via changing adumbrations. As I look at an obliquely presented coin, its circularity is given via its elliptical adumbration. But why is this? Why does it not just look elliptical? In answer we can say that it is given as circular because it is circularity that determines the law-like way in which one’s perceptual anticipations of the coin are structured: if it is tilted away from one, then its elliptical adumbrations will become increasingly ‘thinner’; tilted towards one, then its elliptical adumbrations will become increasingly ‘fatter’ up to the limit of being circular, and so on. These adumbrations are ‘interpreted’ or ‘construed’ as appearances of circularity. The coin is thereby given as circular, not as elliptical, because its adumbrated appearance is perceptually anticipated to alter in accordance with the laws governing the relations between circularity (not ellipticality), orientation, and distance.

Merleau-Ponty (1945) complains that this Husserlian account of perceptual constancy is unacceptably intellectualist, meaning that it replaces perceptual phenomena with those of belief. Despite, that is, the suggestion above that Husserl can distinguish between perception an belief, a closer look suggests that this is not the case. Merleau-Ponty’s complaint is that, “When it is said that true size or form are merely the constant law according to which appearance, distance, and orientation vary, it is implied that they could be treated as measurable sizes, and thus that they are already determinate, whereas the question is precisely to understand how they become determinate” (1945, p.315).

The problem, as Merleau-Ponty sees it, is that the ‘merely apparent’ colours, Husserl’s ‘adumbrations, are not given as determinate qualities and, consequently, cannot enter into the law-like relations upon which the Husserlian account requires. But why should we accept this? Consider the experience of the tree before me. What merely apparent size does the tree has in my current experience of it? How do I go about answering that question? I might measure it with my hands or, even better, with a ruler. But where do I hold the ruler? With arms outstretched, I will measure the apparent size of the tree at sixteen inches. If I move the ruler much closer to my face, it comes in at a mere six inches. Which of these is the apparent size of the tree? There appears to be no obvious non-conventional way in which to answer this question. If this is so, the consequence would seem to be that the apparent size of the tree is not given as a determinate, measurable quantity. Perhaps Merleau-Ponty was right.


Brentano, Franz. 1874. Psychology From an Empirical Standpoint. Edited by Oskar Kraus, English edition Edited by Linda McAlister. London: Routledge, 1995.

Husserl, Edmund. 1900-1. Logical Investigations. Translated by J. N. Findlay, Edited by Dermot Moran. London: Routledge, 2001.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1945. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald Landes. London: Routledge, 2012.


  1. Thanks Joel for these very interesting posts, I really look forward to reading your book.
    A very short remark: is really the perspectival aspect that characterizes the perception? This is something that is often found in most of Husserl’s readings. Actually, I’m not so sure that Husserl really claimed this. It seems to me that the real feature that determines the perceptual experience (and its object), compared to other mental states is the so-called presence “in flesh and blood” (Leibhaftigkeit). Unlike other acts, such as imagination, fantasy, memory, the perceived object is present here, in itself. Obviously, this feature is not to be understood as inferring the “real existence of the perceived object” (an illusion would therefore be unthinkable), on which phenomenology has nothing to claim. The essential feature of perception (I quote Husserl) “is to be * consciousness of the presence, in flesh and blood, of the object *, to be its phenomenon” (Thing and space, chap. 4).
    I’d be pretty curious to know what is your opinion on this point.
    Thanks again, M.

    • Joel Smith

      Hi Marco

      You are, of course, right that Husserl characterises the difference between perception and thought in terms of bodily presence (the translation that I tend to use in the book). But unless we are told what it is for something to be bodily present then this is nothing more than labelling. So what is bodily presence? My suggestion in the book is that for something to be bodily present is for it to be presented in the perspectival way that I sketch above. That is, I suggest that Husserl’s account of perception via adumbrations, co-presentation, perceptual anticipation, etc. is an analysis of the concept of bodily presence. As such, I don’t think that our two claims are inconsistent. There are, of course, further questions to ask: what is it for something to be presented rather than co-presented, and so on. And, in answering those questions, Husserl employs the notion of a perceptual sensation (hyle). So I’m not suggesting that what I say in this post is the full picture. But it is, I think, a crucial part of the full picture: the perceived object is bodily present, so given partially and perspecivially, whilst the thought object is not.

      Best, J

      • Jonathan Najenson

        Hi Joel,
        I tend to disagree.
        Husserl describes the difference between perception and other intentional states in their temporal differences, and not in that perception is adumbrative and thought is not. While temporal relations can be reversible in imagination or memory this is not the case in perception. I can think about riding a roller coaster again and again, but in perception I cannot return to that experience in the perceptual mode. This distinction is a major theme in ‘Experience&Judgment’.
        Imagination and memory are also given in perspectives, and thus it is not essential to perception.

        • Joel Smith

          Hi Jonathan,

          There’s lots here. So, yes, I don’t mean to say that the difference I mention is the only one. But it is one nevertheless. In fact, the difference that I point to is, at root, a temporal one. Thought presents its object ‘in one go’, perception only via anticipation, which is an explicitly temporal notion. So, I agree, differences between different types of intentional states are, typically, ultimately differences in temporal profile. And this is an example of that.

          Notice that I have been talking just about how perception differs from thought/judgement/belief, not about how perception is distinguished from all other states. You are, of course, right that both episodic memory and sensory imagination (e.g. visualisation) are in some sense perspectival. That doesn’t show, however, that perspectivality is not essential to perceptual experience. Rather, it shows that perspectivality is not unique to perceptual experience. Further, both memory (recollection, not ‘primary memory’) and the sensory imagination plausibly bear a constitutive relation to perceptual experience. Episodic memory involves ‘rerunning’ episodes of perceptual experience, and the sensory imagination (arguably) involves intending episodes of perceptual experience—visualising a cat involves imaginging seeing a cat. So one way to explain the perspectivality of both types of state is to suppose that it is inherited from the relevant perceptual experience.

          Note, though, that there are differences between the perspectivality of, for example, visualising and seeing. This is something that Sartre brings out nicely in his work on the imagination. Whilst the visually experienced cat looks as though were I to step closer I would get a better view of what is now presented indeterminately, this is not so with the imagination. In the case of visualising, I don’t discover more about an object by inspecting it, I discover more by adding more to the imagined world. So whilst both are perspectival, in the case of vision one’s perspective is experienced as a contingent limatation on one’s ability to take in what is there to perceive, it doesn’t play the same role in the imagination.

          Best, J

  2. RAUL

    Is anyone else missing Searle into this article? I have a strong sense that an important contribution, recent one, is missing this discourse what makes it a bit anachronistic.

    • Joel Smith

      Hi Raul

      There have, of course, been a vast number of important contributions to the literature on both intentionality and perception in the last hundred or more years, and plenty of them since Searle’s work on intentionality (or did you have in mind his recent book on perception?). My goal, as I mentioned in the previous post, is introductory and it is so in a particular respect–to introduce the discussion of some issues that can be found in the early 20th Century Phenomenologists. For that reason, I haven’t in this post said much about particular figures in the contemporary debate. Having said that, I’d be very happy to hear any ideas you have about how Searle’s view might relate to the issues mentioned above.

Comments are closed.