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Giorgio Rizzo

Is it worth a strong defence of Husserl's Method of Free Variation?

Many scholars close to the phenomenological movement suggest Husserl's method of free variation would be affected by a "vicious circularity"; moreover Husserl's method of eidetic variation, in their point of view, cannot provide us with more than inductive generalizations, failing to give rise to a priori necessities as originally required.

This kind of critique would destroy an important precondition of phenomenological practise itself; even the strong defender of the tenability of Husserl's method, however, find some aporias inside it which, in their point of view, would underlie the established objections to Husserl's method.

In short, the theoretical mistakes would be the following:

  1. the assumption that the method of free fantasy would be, after all, Husserl's account of universal intuition;
  2. the assumption of an extensionalistic and thereby inductivistic approach to discerning modal relations: taking this point of view, Husserl's account of the method of free variation wouldn't be exempt from the weakness of induction, that is to say, uncertainty, probabilistic knowledge and revisability.

Nevertheless, it's possible to follow another argumentation path, focusing on some critical and weak points of a method which Husserl himself, and this sounds very astonishing, found not completely free of theoretical uncertainties.

In my point of view, what would it lack in a, that is to say, classical approach to the issue of free variation, is a broader understanding of the genetic method; if we adopt this perspective, then, we are compelled to recognize the philosophical complexity of this method, a complexity which cannot be disclosed by an othodox understanding and application of the free variation. Over against the purposes of the same Husserl, adopting a more profound approach to the genetic method, would consent us to find interlacements, connections, interwoveness ("Einwickelungen", as Husserl would have said) e. g. between empirical types and eidetic essences, which otherwise couldn't be attained. Going beyond the specific issue of the paper, the problems here encountered could be enlarged to include more general, but, I think, more important philosophical questions like a) the intercourse or relation between passivity and activity (a great and unresolved theme in Husserl's Urteil und Erfahrung) or, even more important, b) between language and experience.

Running along the philosophical path disclosed by the above mentioned philosophical concerns, I'll try to point out some theoretical aporias concerning the free variation.

1. Taking up a Derridarian way of managing the problem ^

According to Derrida, the notion of history, erected on the ground of Husserl's concept of "originäre Synthesis", would question the kind of relation subsisting between eidetic analysis and genesis.

Eidetic variation, in fact, is built on static analysis which provides for world's invariant structures; if however, the same phenomenological ego is an existent, how then and where can we find the objective purity of essences to which the ego would give rise?1

The past, of which I cannot thorougly take possess, determines all my actions and perceptions; Derrida, at this point of analysis, calls for the notion of a structural unconscious to which we are unable to have an access.

The same consciousness is bound to change continuously itself: Husserls admits that every actual perception is the result of a history, for the reason that life is characterized totally by history.2

The ego which practises eidetic analysis is an egological subject which have already its world's representation (Weltanschauung, we would say); only when starting from a world of a known and acquainted ontological kind or type eidetic variation can work.

Beginning with a world passively constituted, the ego picks out, by variation, the eidos; but, Derrida argues, if we assume what previously said, then we are compelled to accept the fact that the eidos could lose its universal value.

That is to say, essence is blurred with existence; at this point, we are able to appreciate the value of an authentic transcendental genesis: separating the transcendental from the pure existence, we makes of it a constituted eidos, which, in that case, would remain beyond the absolute originality.

Due to the determinant influence of latent intentional implications, eidetic reflection may suppose an already constituted ontology; admitting a dialectical constitution of the original time, the freedom of variation which the egological ego would enjoy, cannot permit, according to Derrida, to go beyond the ideal and binding presupposition of a world which is furnished of a naïve, pregiven and familiar ontological structure.

Even if e. g. in the Cartesian Meditations Husserl points out that free variation is free from "bindende Voraussetzung", that is to say, from binding supposition, later he's i some sense forced to note3 that the world as a fact, insofar as it is implicated by my apodictic existence, precedes the essential eidos "world": the invariant eidos is bound (gebunden) to the fact.

In effect, is hard to deny that in Husserl's works are located two theoretical motivations which seem to be in conflict:

  1. the eidos is constituted before eidetic variation takes place, guiding as a model the course of its variations;
  2. freedom of variation permits the ego to go beyond an already constituted world, bringing to light the invariant structures of the world of experience.

2. Quoting Husserl ^

Husserl himself seems aware of the difficulties of obtaining, through free variation, the highest genera, as demonstrated in particular by the effort of arriving at the region "thing".4

When e. g. confronted with the highest concrete genus, a simple variation doesn't provide access to it unless we have taken some methodological precautions; concerned with the region "thing", Husserl states that "what the thing is, and what is revealed in experience, it is in relation to circumstances which are subject to the stylistic forms of normality and abnormality";5 where the normality or abnormality here at stake depend on the perceptive function which presupposes, in its turn, "the relation to a normal community of experience, in which individuals and communities with abnormal functions do not occur".6

However great is our effort to explicate the multiplicities of relativities in order to reveal the complete essential style of a thing, I think, the result is always "tainted by a relativity which is not revealed and taken into account"7 .

I like, in addition, to make mention of some passages contained in Husserl's late manuscripts in which he would display some doubts about the efficacy of the eidetic variation.

2.1. Ms. A VII 14/63b

Even if, writes Husserl, it "seems" easy to vary statically the pregiven world, achieving so the grasping of the essence of a world in general "die Welt ist gegeben, aber mit einem unerschlossenen Horizont. Die Wesensanschauung reicht nur so weit als die Anschauung der exemplarischen Möglichkeiten". Commenting on this passage, we are then confronted with an important assumption: the grasping of essences goes not beyond the seeing of exemplary possibilities.

Afterwards, Husserl specifies more clearly what above stated: "Das Wesensallgemeine, das ich vor der Enthüllung oder bei nur relativer Enthüllung gewinne, kann zwar ein wirklich Erfasstes sein, aber in seiner Allgemeinheit beschlossen ist auch der Horizont; die Variation variert zwar den Horizont, aber nur als leere Präsumption. Es ist danach ein 'unendlicher'Weg der immer vollkommeren Enthüllung der Horizonte, der Herstellung immer weiter in die Konkretion hineinreichender Möglichkeitsanschauung": Husserl avows here that every grasping of essences- a grasping which often admits only "relative disclosures" (relative Enthüllung), needs of a "infinite way" to complete itself.

2.2. Ms. EIII 9/49

What is the world for a child, a mad man, or an animal? Can we yield an eidos which leaves behind every presupposition, e. g. ontological presupposition?

Can we imagine e. g. the eidos "child's body" or the eidos "childish soul"?

Husserl notes rethorically in this manuscript that to put this kind of questions would be nonsensical; for this reason, he believes that the problem of the change of perspective, of the fantasy variation, turns out to be an unresolved question; he writes in fact that "das Problem des Umdenkens nicht eigens gestellt und behandelt worden ist".

2.3. Ms. C XIII/<1>

Hier Husserl dwells on the fact the eidos "I" and "world" are achieved starting from a factual perceptual field, adumbrated by a factual past and future horizon;consequently I cannot imagine myself as completely separated from this horizonal fact: I am, says Husserl, an absolute concrete and I can be only concretely.

2.4. Ms. C 13 III/<3>

In a passage contained in this manuscript where Husserl notices that even if the ego of phantasy is de jure not pregiven, being always given a posteriori (nach-gegeben), posited in an empty way, I can nevertheless fill out the course, or the line (Linie) of possible imagined intuitions of the same; but it is also declared with strenght that variation is never completely free, (" nicht völlig freie Fiktion").

The course of ego variation, sure, can be filled out arbitarily, but it couldn't create horizonal predelineations which go completely out of the horizons lines traced and imposed by the actual perception.

3. Primacy of the practical ^

Another interesting issue worth discussing here is the notion of possibility involved by the eidetic variation. I believe that if we keep on stating the priority of this method for the phenomenological practice, we are committed, as a result, to a limitation, reduction and reification of the notion of possibility which, as assured e. g. by Mohanty8 [See J. N. Mohanty, "Husserl on 'possibility'", Husserl Studies, vol. I, No. 1, 1984.], includes a rich semantical core which would go over the narrowness and formal poornes which pervades the kind of possibility which comes into play in eidetic variation. Figure out, first of all, the kinaesthetic possibilities expressed by our body [Leib], synthesized by the Husserlian linguistic formula "I can" [Ich kann]: I can move myself.

Mohanty makes a point of this kind of possibility:

Underlying this widely ramified theory of possibility, there is, for Husserl, one most fundamental, and from the point of view of constitutive phenomenology, primitive possibility-consciousness-the practical possibility symbolized by the expression "I can"9 .

Practical possibilities are derived from neutrality modification of acting into quasi-acting10.

Mohanty argues that it is this original "I can"-consciouness, involved by some modes of acting, and not the one "represented" in a phantasy modification of acting which is, in his view, the primal source of practical possibility.

Forcing the weight of this kind of possibility, Mohanty adds, quoting Husserl, that "as a matter of fact, one may want to assimilate all doxic-logical possibilities to the practical 'I can phantasise'".11

Without such possibilities there would be no fixed and abiding being, no real, no ideal world.

Even if Mohanty is dissatisfied with subsuming all possibilities under the concept of practical possibility, so as done e. g. by Ludwig Landgrebe12 who believes that possibilities, in their original manner, are what can take place because I bring them about, rooting therefore consciousness of possibility in our "Vermöglichkeiten", in our dispositional capacities, he aknowledges however the fundamental importance of this kind of possibility.

4. Language and experience ^

What about the limitations and sedimentations of language, or more generally of the predicative side, imposed on our concepts: can our modern concept and eidos of "earth", so soaked in the scientific language shaped by the Copernican revolution, match that grasped by the Greeks or the Romans? Are we able to purify such an eidos as to reach a point of reduction and, I would say, sublimation which would guarantee us against cultural and scientific intrusions (Kleidungen in Husserl's term)?

The sedimentation of mental products in the form of linguistic acquisitions is certainly viewed by Husserl as unavoidable, but at the same time as something dangerous:

It is easy to see that even in [ordinary] human life, and first of all in every individual life from childhood to maturity, the original intuitive life which creates its originally self-evident structures through activities on the basis of sense-experience very quickly and in increasing measure falls victim to the seduction of language .13

If we grant the importance that language would have for our theoretical constructions, then we might perhaps turn the speculative reflection on the concept of essence towards an examination of the actual usage of language.

It is the root of Western metaphysical fallacy that philosophers often talk about essences without considering actual language usages and misconceive essences as universal truths. So called essences perhaps are no more than language usages, and so-called synthetic a priori judgments, on which eidetic variation is also founded, are nothing but inferences based on rules of syntax.

Perhaps "synthetic a priori knowledge", "eidos and eidetic relations", "syntax" in Wittgenstein's terms, involve the same kind of knowledge, regardeless of the fact that opinions about these notions differ greately in terms of their origin and how one is to grasp them.

Wittgenstein writes:

If a person never leaves his room, he neverthless knows that there is space beyond it, i. e. That there is the possibility of being outside the room (even its walls were made of adamant). This is therefore not a matter of experience. It is a priori part of the syntax of space.14

I have gone too far and purposely exaggerated my critical notes, only for the sake of softening the hardness of the notion of eidetic variation.

In every case, it remains the difficulty, hard to overcome, for the eidetic method of avoiding circularity: performing free variations in our imagination, modifying some determinants of an example, we always ask ourselves whether the example with certain changes belongs to another category of things or has lost its former identity; this means that this method would presuppose that we, in some way, know beforehand the "border" of certain kinds of things.

Hence the question arises how such a border can be demarcated and how we know a border for a certain thing. In every case, it is very hard to escape a circular reasoning in that we determine the essence through the border and determine the border through the essence. But a good way out would be to concede that the rules governing our concepts exist already in our common usage of the language;though we are often not very clear about these rules, we can clarify them by means of observing and comparing various examples of their application.

Referring us to Wittgenstein, we could say that our concepts are always surrounded by a halo of indeterminateness: they have "blurred edges" (L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell, 2001, p. 29e); trying to reach the crystalline purity of a notion or a concept is like going on

a slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground! (L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 40e)

We cannot also neglect the fact that eidetic variation confronted with the contemporary philosophical reflexion, so permeated by the linguistic turn, sets great theoretical difficulties tied to what is seen as a too introspective and foundational bend which, according to the critics of this method, wouldn't guarantee e. g. the intersubjectivity and cultural root of knowledge [See E. Tugendhat, Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die sprachanalytische Philosophie, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1975] .

Moreover, we are never completely aware of the sedimentations [Sedimentierungen] of language: the originally acquired, to use Husserl's language, undergoes a continuous transformation, becoming a habitual possession and thus something nonoriginal [EG, 274-281] . Bringing Husserl's thought to the furthermost extreme, we could say that every philosophical notion we adopt, the eidetic variation included, is, as a matter of fact, a modalized notion in need of being carried back to its pure originality, even if "this is a limiting case which is almost never realized in fact" [EG, 275] . Even the categorial objectivities cannot elude the process of modalization which pervades our experience:

The original production of categorial objectivities is, here also, always already permeated by nonoriginality, by anticipation. [EG, 278]

Is perhaps, as stated by David Michael Levin, the less tenable point of Husserl's method of free variation the equivalence set up between eidetic insight, full adequacy and apodictic evidence? Every essence, immament or transcendent has, according to Levin, a transcendence that we cannot overcome or of which we cannot have hold or grasp.

And, like all transcendents, all objectivities generally, essences are sedimentations of meaing which offer themselves for genetic a priori constitution. Only such constitution, by which they are queried intuitionally as to their genesis of meaning (Sinnesgenesis) in the performances of consciousness, will clarify and justify in a rationally suitable manner the insights of eidetic cosciousness. Genetic constitution, disclosing the historicity of the essence, should have indicated to Husserl not only the futility of seeking apodicticity, but the error in treating essences as in no way related to and resembling inductive types. (D. M. Levin, "Induction and Husserl's theory of eidetic variation", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 29, No. 1, 1968, p. 6)

For this reason, the most important point in Levin's "Induction and Husserl's theory of eidetic variation" seems to be, on my account, that the purity and freedom proper to imaginary eidetic variation would be only a putative one:

there seems to be no apodictic guarantee (in the form of a critique) that the variants chosen in a presumably arbitary fashion are not really, for example, the invisible manifestation of a certain unexamined focus of interest (p. 10).

Another critical point related to Husserl's method of free variation is discussed by Alfred Schütz: according to him, free variations to be performed in fantasy, starting from an individual object as a prototype, are not completely free as they would seem, if the same Husserl has been forced, in some sense, to recognize that running through variations has well-defined limits due to the necessities of regional ontologies, or of spheres of incompatibility [Unverträglichkeitssphären] :

The freedom of variations in phantasy will not permit us to arrive, starting from the prototype of a coloured object, at the eidos of the sound. It is doubtless possible to grasp eidetically material realms or regions of being, but these regions are not constituted by performances of our consciousness: they are indeed ontological regions of the world and as such given to our experience or, as we may say, imposed upon us. But we have to drive the questioning even further. Is it possible to grasp by means of free variations in phantasy the eidos of a concrete species or genus, unless these variations are limited by the frame of the type in terms of which we have experienced in the natural attitude the object from which the process of ideation starts as a familiar one, as such and such an object within the life world? Can these free variations in phantasy reveal anything else but the limits established by such typification? If these questions have to be answered in the negative, then there is indeed merely a difference of degree bewteen type and eidos. Ideation can reveal nothing that was not preconstituted by the type. (A. Schütz. "Type and Eidos in Husserl's Late Philosophy", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. XX, No. 2, 1959, p. 164).

A possibile solution to all these theoretical questions would be a sort of attitude to wash eidetic notions in the cloudy and wavy water of language as to see then that every concept is contaminated, echoing with and deferring traces of its genetic source of which all what we could retain is a resonance or a "carte postal" as Derrida says . La "question en retour" cannot be forgotten, even when we talk about essences.

Finally, the objections I have made resemble the kind of argumentations used by the critics of the possibility of interpreting the phenomenological method on the basis of the semantics of possible world.

The difficulty to match these two methods is in fact due ultimately to the objectification and abstraction of the notion of possibility yielded by an approach which is not authentically phenomenological;every notion of possibility, at the end, must be recognized as "motivated" and so conceptually tied, as the same Hintikka is compelled to state, to a "home world" with a "principle of production" lodged within that world.

To do this the notion of possible worlds must be conceptually tied to a "home world" with a "principle of production" lodged within that world. The notion of a "home world" is metaphorical for the "actual world" of some subject, while "actual world" means a doxastically cognized world. We can speak here of a "rigidly held" home world lived in the mode of doxic certainty. When speaking of the "rigidly held home world" we do not mean, like Kripke, that some act of "initial baptism" has established an eternal set of senses persisting with absolute rigidity throughout all spatial and temporal transformations, throughout all possible worlds. Rather we use this modified and loosened notion of rigidity to refer to the "actual" world that, with its many spots of indeterminacy is, nevertheless, rigidly held to be the genesis point for the modalization of judgments as well as the place of verification and resolution for those judgments.

By making this rigidity restriction a vague one we mean to indicate that even while the actual world is the source and tribunal for the genesis and resolution of modalized judgments, it is nevertheless itself a doxastic notion because while its sense as a totality of harmonious relations cannot be cancelled, any one of its particular tenets can be (Ch. W. Harvey, J. Hintikka, "Modalization and modalities", inTh. Seebohm, D. Føllesdal, J. N. Mohanty (Editors) Phenomenology and Formal Sciences, Kluwer, Dordrecht 1991, p. 70).

Copyright © 2009 Giorgio Rizzo

Giorgio Rizzo. «Is it worth a strong defence of Husserl's Method of Free Variation?». Dialegesthai. Rivista telematica di filosofia [in linea], anno 11 (2009) [inserito il 20 dicembre 2009], disponibile su World Wide Web: <>, [30 KB], ISSN 1128-5478.


  1. See J. Derrida, Le problème de la genèse dans la philosophie de Husserl, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1990; part. ch. 5,6. <

  2. Ms. FI 32/163. <

  3. Ms. EIII 9 (1931). <

  4. See E. Husserl, Experience and Judgment, Northwestern University Press, Evanston 1973 , pp. 360-364; hereafter EG. <

  5. EG, 362. <

  6. EG, 363. <

  7. EG, 363. <

  8. See J.N. Mohanty, "Husserl on 'possibility'", Husserl Studies, vol.I, No.1, 1984. <

  9. J.N. Mohanty, "Husserl on 'possibility'", Husserl Studies, vol.I, No.1, 1984, p.26 <

  10. See Hua IV, 258ff. <

  11. See Hua IX, 205. <

  12. See L. Landgrebe, The phenomenological Concept of Experience, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, No.34,1973, esp. p.10. <

  13. E. Husserl, The Origin of Geometry, Appendix VI to The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Nortwestern University Press, Evanston 1970, p.362. <

  14. L. Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, Oxford Basil Blackwell, 1979, p.66. <

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