“Feelings as the Motor of Perception”? The Essential Role of Interest for Intentionality

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  • Feelings as the Motor of Perception? The EssentialRole of Interest for Intentionality

    Maren Wehrle

    Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

    Abstract Husserl seldom refers to feelings, and when he does, he mainly focuseson their axiological character, which corresponds to a specific kind of value

    apprehension (Melle 2012). This paper aims to discuss the role of feelings in

    Husserl from a different angle. For this purpose it makes a detour through Husserls

    early account of attention. In a text from 1898 on attention the aspect of interest,

    which is said to have a basis in feeling, plays an essential role. Although Husserl

    argues here that every specific interest is dependent on an objectifying act of per-

    ception, he at the same time states that every act of perception necessarily has to be

    accompanied by an interest of some sort. In the latter sense, the genuine motiva-

    tional force and necessity of this feeling aspect, namely interest, is emphasized. This

    ambiguity or even contradiction shall be the point of departure for the following

    considerations. The paper argues that it is possible to interpret the role of feelings in

    intentionality in a different way, namely not as an effect of current perception but as

    a cause of further perceptions. This tendency is first indicated in the text from 1898

    and elaborated further in Husserls genetic approach in Experience and Judgment.

    In Experience and Judgment Husserl develops a broader notion of interest, defining

    it as a general perceptual drive. This general drive (as a general interest in per-

    ceiving) so the paper will argue expresses itself in concrete perception as a

    specific preference: it discloses or makes manifest what is relevant for an individual

    subject at a given time.

    M. Wehrle (&)Husserl Archives Leuven, Department of Philosophy, Centre for Phenomenological Research,

    KU Leuven, Kardinaal Mercierplein 2, 3000 Leuven, Belgium

    e-mail: maren.wehrle@hiw.kuleuven.be


    Husserl Stud

    DOI 10.1007/s10743-014-9159-8

  • 1 Introduction

    In his manuscript on attention as interest from 1898,1 Husserl introduces the notion

    of interest as an essential part of every act of explicit or focused intentionality, i.e.,

    attention. Whereas the act of singling out an object for me (i.e., spezielle Meinung,

    Sonderwahrnehmung) from the circumspection of a general objective context (i.e.,

    Auffassung/Wahrnehmung) is deemed to be the formal condition for attention, there

    has to be a concrete interest involved to describe the full blown phenomenon of

    attention, an interest that is caused by or refers to an intended object. This interest

    cannot be reduced to a theoretical interest (as Carl Stumpf does), but has to be

    understood primarily as a perceptional one (Hua 38, p. 103). At the same time,

    interest refers to the act of attending itself, in that it is described by Husserl here

    using the words of Stumpf as a pleasure in the very act of noticing (Lust am

    Bemerken) (Hua 38, p. 108). Intentionality is thus not only an epistemic process of

    intending and fulfillment, but in its concreteness it is also an expression of tension and

    resolution of a perceiving subject.2 Although the explicit aim of an intentional act is a

    clear and adequate perception of an object, to actually achieve this aim one also needs

    a certain involvement in the act of perception, which can be described in terms of a

    felt intensity. What Husserl tries to describe here can be called the emotional side of

    cognition (Melle 2012, p. 58). Events or objects do not appear to us in a neutral way;

    they are of interest to us. That means that a certain feeling is linked to each perception

    of an interesting object or part of an object. In turn this feeling, be it good or bad,

    increases the intensity of the involved interest, which then influences further processes

    of noticing. In this context, Husserl states that feelings appear to be the actual motors

    and sources of interest3 and thus of every specific kind of intentionality (attention).

    Could one argue from the descriptions above that feelings play the role of a

    motor for perception (and action) in general? But in what sense then does Husserl

    refer here to feelings? Apparently not in the sense of a proper intentional feeling,

    like joy, that presupposes an objectifying act (Wahrnehmung/Vorstellung). But it

    also seems to be different from a pure sensual feeling, which is caused by the

    perceived object. Concerning these questions, the above-quoted text is relevant in

    two ways: first, one can see here an early form of a drive-dynamical understanding

    of cognitive processes (Melle 2012, p. 58). Although Husserl abandons this

    approach in the Logical Investigations (1900-01), it can be interpreted as a precursor

    1 This text (,,Abhandlung uber Aufmerksamkeit als Interesse) is part of Husserls lectures on attention,

    which he held in 1904/05 in Gottingen. Cf. Hua 38, pp. 63-123: Uber Aufmerksamkeit, spezielle


    2 With the differentiation between formal and concrete levels of phenomenological analysis I refer to

    A. Steinbock, who argues that while Husserl in earlier texts used to differentiate between deeper (earlier)

    and higher (later) levels of foundation time-consciousness is in this sense regarded as earlier in

    comparison to association from the 1920s onward he no longer speaks of a foundational hierarchy but of

    formal and concrete conditions of constitution. Time-consciousness as a formal criterion of constitution

    thus has to abstract from the content of experience. For the constitution of a concrete object one needs

    association. See Steinbock (1995, 2002).

    3 ,,[] so erscheinen Gefuhle als die eigentlichen Motoren und Quellen des Interesses (Hua 38,pp. 108-109).

    Husserl Stud


  • of his genetic phenomenology, where he describes passive or egoless forms of

    intentionality like operative (bodily) intentionality or drive-intentionality. Second,

    this text on attention nicely exemplifies a general ambivalence in Husserls thought

    between a static and a dynamic approach, which also characterizes later attempts to

    describe the nature and function of feelings and feeling-acts in the context of a

    phenomenological critique of axiological reason. Conceptually, Husserl tries to

    stick with his schema of sensual content and mental apprehension (Auffassung und

    Inhalt) and its hierarchy between objectifying and non-objectifying acts. But

    descriptively the dynamic of the phenomena exceeds the static conceptual frame

    and thus betrays its own limits (see Melle 2012).

    In the A-Manuscripts, for example, Husserl defines feelings and feeling-acts as

    second order phenomena (non-objectifying acts) that conceptually presuppose a

    primary act of objectification (perception).4 Before something can give rise to a

    sensual or more elaborated feeling, this something first has to be apprehended,

    perceived.5 Object-related perception is thus supposed to be the presupposition of

    sensual as well as proper feelings, as argued in Husserls hierarchical order of the

    foundation of act categories. Husserl tried to apply the same act-hierarchy to the

    description of attention as interest from 1898: Without perception, i.e.,

    objectifying acts like apprehension and specific intentionality (spezielle Meinung),

    he states, there cannot be any form of interest or feelings involved. Feelings in this

    sense are therefore understood as a mere effect founded in object perception. But

    nonetheless, when one reads Husserls descriptions of interest, one suspects that

    something more is at stake here: interest and its feeling sources not only function as

    an extra boost of intentionality and cognition, but can be understood also as a cause,

    in that they motivate concrete processes of perception and action.

    One can find hints for such an interpretation in the descriptions provided by this

    early text on attention. These descriptions clearly show that there must always be a

    selective differentiation at work in perception: the perceiving subject prefers one

    object or certain parts of an object over others and so structures the field of

    perception according to focus and horizon, foreground and background of

    consciousness. This preferring operates in terms of an explicit selection; for

    example, when someone is visually searching for something specific like a lost key,

    which then comes to be perceptually singled out as an object from its background.

    But as later Husserlian texts and also current empirical research on attention shows,

    this preference can also operate in a completely passive, automatic way, which is

    neither thematic nor willed by the perceiving subject. In both cases certain interests

    are in play, whether they operate in an implicit or explicit manner. But these

    4 For further critical analysis of Husserls concept of objectifying and non-objectifying acts, see Melle


    5 The same holds true for the axiological role of feelings, as value-apprehension and value-judgments.

    Value-perception also presupposes a neutral perception, the presentation of an object as object. In a

    parallel or even simultaneous manner this perception is accompanied by a sensual feeling, caused by the

    object. Sensual feelings then give rise to value-apprehensions and value judgments, which lead to proper

    feelings like joy, di


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