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An apple is an individual. From a common-sense point of view, the individuality of the apple lies within it and depends on nothing but itself. Even if the human race disappeared and all apple trees were destroyed, this isolated apple would continue by its own resources to be an individual apple until it rotted away.

What's more, the apple is obviously an apple to any observer. By "obviously," I mean that we don't have to make any effort of interpretation to see it as an apple; it just gives itself to us as an apple. Rorty calls this "the compulsion to believe when staring at an object." (PMN 162)

More philosophically, we can attribute to the apple an internal principle which makes it what it is: its essence or substance. As knowers, we have the capacity to abstract the essence from this individual apple and so grasp the universal nature of appleness as such. In the order of knowledge we meet the individual first and only later grasp its essence. In the order of being, however, the essence is the principle of the individual. As Husserl puts it, "It belongs to the sense of anything contingent to have an essence" (1) The essence's role as principle of individuality, of course, does not depend on our knowledge of it. Let me call this position "essentialism."

Husserl looks at first like an essentialist who adds an extra twist: the phenomenological reduction. The reduction is a method, similar to Descartes' method of doubt, which limits essentialism to conscious experience. The apple as given in my experience has a meaning for me, namely "apple," and I can describe the essential features of this meaning without any ontological commitment to any real apples beyond my experiencing. "All real unities, says Husserl, are 'unities of sense'" (Ideas, <106>). Just as Descartes claims that if there were any other subjects besides himself then they would essentially be capable of declaring "Cogito, ergo sum," so Husserl claims that if anyone else were to have the same experience as I'm having, it would be an experience with the same set of essential features I'm labelling "apple." Provided I abstain from any beliefs about how things are beyond consciousness, I can attain absolutely certainty that the apple itself - that is, the unity of sense - is present here in person before me in my experience. Of course, I may have some trouble expressing in words the essence of my experience, but that is a very secondary matter. Whether she can find the words to describe it or not, for the essentialist, an apple is an apple is an apple. That is observable right off the bat. Or is it?


Let's put the apple back into the context it came from: the supermarket. While apples are sold individually, potatoes are sold by the kilo, cereal by the box, rice by the scoop and milk by the litre. The criteria for individuality vary by the department. "Give me just one apple, one cereal, one rice and one milk" is incomprehensible. The kind of thing that milk is, its essence, determines that the notion of "one milk," an individual milk, makes no sense (except as shorthand for "one litre of milk"). We cannot even pick molecules as individual milks, since milk is a mixture: that is, each individual molecule is either sugar, water, fat or whatever, never milk.

Husserl adopts a similar position, though he speaks of regions of experience rather than departments of a supermarket. "A region is nothing other than the total highest generic unity belonging to a concretum" (Ideas, <30>). Each region of experience has a regional essence which lays down a priori the nature of individual objects within the region. Music, mathematics, emotions and physical things seem to count for Husserl as examples of regions. When we hear a melody for the second time, what makes it the self-same melody as before is quite different than what makes my apple the same apple in a second experience. When I add three and three to get six, do I add three to itself, to the same individual three, or to a second three? When I felt anxious before this colloquium, was it a return of the same individual anxiety I felt at last year's colloquium, or the arrival of a new one of the same kind? What it means to be an individual depends on the regional essence, on what category of thing it is that we are experiencing.

Or as he puts in his usual, clear and succinct manner: I see this move to regionalism as a break with essentialism. Husserl is claiming that the individuality, the meaning, of an object does not originate in the object itself, but in its context, what he calls its "horizon." It is against the horizon of fruit that there can be an individual apple; it is within the horizon of liquids that there cannot be an individual milk. The principle of individuality is not intrinsic to the object itself, as the essentialist mistakenly thinks. The number seven, for instance, could never enter our experience except within the horizon of other numbers; a single number wouldn't make sense, would be meaningless, except against the horizon of possibility we call the region of natural numbers. We don't actually have to be experiencing all the other numbers, of course; they just have to be implicitly there for us as possible experiences on the horizon. This new, anti-essentialist, principle is that individuality originates in an horizon of possibilities, not in an essence or substance internal to an object. Again let me leave it to Husserl himself to state this point simply and clearly: At first it may seem that Husserl is claiming that objects and their horizons are simply "given to intuition": The apple is present there before me, or rather, the apple within the context of the produce department is being experienced. But what about me? We mustn't forget that I am the one looking at the apple. More generally, objects are always for a subject, at least within the phenomenological reduction. What is the strength of this "for?"

At first it sounds as if the subject were just a passive receiver of the given, but Husserl's real position is that the subject is an active giver of meaning. "All real unities are 'unities of sense.' Unities of sense presuppose ... a sense-bestowing consciousness..." (Husserl, Ideas, <106>). A subject is essentially intentional: all consciousness is consciousness of, as the slogan goes. Yet if objects are necessarily given within an horizon, then to say that a subject is intentional is to say that it is conscious within an horizon. Since Husserl uses the term "world" in a special sense in which it is almost synonymous with "horizon," he can then claim that the essential feature of being a conscious subject is the having of a world. Indeed, he believes that subject and world are correlates in the sense that the two are reciprocally necessary to each other; they are two sides of the same coin, two ways of saying the same thing. There could no more be a subject without a world than there could be a world without a subject. Yet subjects don't just possess a world; a world is more like something we do than something we have.

This doctrine is perhaps easier to understand in Heiddeger's pragmatic version of it, which he presents in Being and Time. Dasein's world of ready-to-hand things is a world which takes its meaning and structure from the projects Dasein cares about. It is because I need to buy in order to eat and survive that the produce department and its apples have the meanings they do. The network of meanings, what Heidegger calls "references," should not be construed as an in-itself; there cannot be a network, i.e., a world, without a focus which establishes the significances of the objects within it.

The ego-object-horizon structure is then all of a piece, what Heiddeger calls "being-in-the-world," so it makes no sense to ask whether the origin of objecthood or individuality is to be attributed to the subject or to the horizon. To say that individuality depends on the regional essence, when fully understood, is to say it depends on the horizon. And the horizon of the world is ultimately just another name for the intentionality of an active, meaning-bestowing subject which grasps its objects by intuition.

By intuition, Husserl, like Descartes, means the vision of the object present to consciousness without any mediation, in particular without the mediation of signs or language. The object is "given," that is, it is itself present to the ego without interpretation or distortion due to prejudgment or linguistic usage. Just as for Descartes, the clarity and distinctness of the cogito intuition does not depend on Latin, French or English, so for Husserl the findings of phenomenology are given first without language and only later, when we come to describe the results of our investigations to others, do we need to call on language. Language describes what is already present to consciousness before the advent of any signs. Indeed, one of the main obstacles to phenomenology is the interference of language, the prejudices about the phenomena we harbour because of the languages of science and of earlier philosophers. For the purposes of this paper, the important thing is that while the individuality of the object may depend on the ego-horizon structure, it does not depend on the contingencies of any historical language. It is the cornerstone of Husserl's method, as of Descartes' before him, that one can only arrive at pure intuition by placing in abeyance all cultural and historical opinions, and indeed all language, a procedure he labels the "theoretical reduction," but which he might better have called the reduction from language.

In his last writings, Husserl comes to realize that language has a more fundamental role to play in the givenness of phenomena and comes close to suggesting that it intervenes before objects become present to consciousness. To accept such a position would, of course, undermine the foundational status of intuition and of the presence of the object, which Husserl, even at the end of his life, was unwilling to do.


Rorty, however, has no such hesitations and sets out explicitly to undermine each of these notions. Although in a sense Rorty takes Husserl's contextualism to its logical conclusion, in doing so he turns Husserl on his head, reversing the significance of most of Husserl's basic notions. For Rorty, what philosophers have called "an intuition is never anything more or less than familiarity with a language-game" (PMN 34); the unmediated presence of the object is a myth; intentionality is not analogous to the grasping of an object by vision; and there can be no certainty beyond historical, cultural and language norms.

The intentional is merely a subspecies of the functional, and the functional is merely the sort of property whose attribution depends upon a knowledge of context rather than being observable right off the bat. We shall see the intentional as having no connection with the phenomenal, and the phenomenal as a matter of how we talk.(2)

Let me elaborate on each of these points.

The everyday claim, "This is an apple that I see before me" is, of course, a corrigible statement; you might well come up with convincing evidence that it is really a pear. But after Husserl's phenomenological reduction, the claim becomes "I am conscious of an object which has the sense 'apple' for me." Now you would be crazy to try to offer evidence to change my mind on this; no one would take you seriously. Why? "Because of the certainty of intuition," Husserl would say. No, counters Rorty; the reason we accept the claim is because of communal consent that this is a case of bedrock, that this is a case when further evidence is inappropriate. Just as decisions by the Supreme Court cannot be challenged, so my own statements about what I'm experiencing are privileged by the conventions which determine the use of the word "experience." One can offer evidence one way or the other for the claim that this table is one metre long, but if you try to offer evidence that the metre bar in Paris is or is not one metre long, then you should be ruled out of court: that the Paris bar is one metre long is built into the rules of the language-game. Similarly, it is part of the language game in which we use the term "experience" that my sincere claims about my own experience are indubitable: baring evidence of deception, my experience is what I say it to be.

Hence Rorty doesn't need Husserl's notion of the intuition of an unmediated given object to explain the certainty of experience. Following Sellars, he rejects "the notion of 'direct acquaintance' by the 'Eye of the Mind' with mental entities such as sense-data and meanings." (PMN 209) For example:

Rorty is what one might call an Absolute Contextualist. What I say to others, and what I say to myself (that is, my belief), depend upon the rules of the language-game I am playing. What can be meaningfully said about particular kinds of objects is dependent on our language. Words like "individual apple" have meaning within a certain linguistic context, the language we use in the produce department. Their meaning does not come from some intrinsic ontological essence of applarity, but nor does it originate in the Transcendental experience of a meaning-bestowing Subject for whom the sense "apple" implies the horizon of the intentional world.

The statement, "an apple's individuality depends on the regional essence" is itself harmless, perhaps even useful. For Rorty, the only danger comes from philosophers who may interpret such a statement as either an expression of ontological essentialism, or as a statement about apodeictic experience. The statement is simply an expression of the conventions of language.

Whereas for Husserl language is secondary, used incidentally for describing our intuitions to others, for Rorty language is primary, preceding and structuring experience. In other words, language, for Rorty, takes on a transcendental or constitutive function as the source of the individuality of objects.

It seems to me that what has happened over this period has been the progressive replacement of the metaphor of perception by the metaphor of language.

Essentialism takes vision as the model for all our relationships to the world. The object is what it is, sitting there with its own isolated, self-defined individuality, while the eye passively absorbs what is present before it. Within this metaphor, universals or essences can only be thought of as objects, but since they are not visible to the eye of the body they must be queer objects. So we think of them as invisible (or "divine" Platonic objects) and postulate an Eye of the Mind to "see" or "intuit" them. This is to model thought on vision.

Husserl is a transitional figure. His phenomenological reduction redefines the object as a unit of sense, that is, as analogous to a meaningful word. But unlike the visible apple of the essentialist, a word can exist only within the context of a language, hence the object within the phenomenological reduction can only have the sense that it does within a regional context. By treating the object given as analogous to a unit of language Husserl cannot help but drag in other features of language. His notion of an horizon, or world, I suggest, is an imposition of the language metaphor on what starts off as a model based on vision. Husserl, however, is unwilling to go all the way and still clings to aspects of the vision paradigm, and so he continues to think of the object, albeit a unity of sense, as somehow given or present to the Eye of intuition. This amalgam of visual and linguistic metaphors is unstable, an instability that Husserl himself seems to sense at the end of his life for, much as he is reluctant to admit it, his last work, The Crisis, sounds the death-knell for the primacy of his favoured intuition.

Rorty completes the transition from the essentialist's optical metaphor to the language metaphor. The individuality of objects is to be thought of on the model of the individuality of words: i.e., contextually. All reference to the visual metaphor should be eradicated, hence notions such as givenness, presence, intuition, and the I-Eye have no place in his scheme. Just as language is the complete determiner of the word, so the context is the complete determiner of the individual object.

Indeed Rorty goes a step further and interprets the context as literally language. For Husserl, the horizon is like a language; for Rorty the horizon is replaced by language itself. Hence Husserl's theory that the individuality of the object depends on the regional essence is supplanted by Rorty's position that the individuality of the object originates in language, and in language alone.

©David L. Thompson
Philosophy Department
Memorial University of Newfoundland

1. . Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy: first book, translated by f. kersten. The Hague: Matinus Nijhoff, 1983. p. <9>. Hereafter "Ideas" with pagination to original German.

2. . Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979, p. 32. Hereafter referred to as PMN.

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