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A Husserlian account of mental distance and unconscious desire

John McMillan & Grant Gillett
[Journal für Philosophie & Psychiatrie, April 2011, Original paper]


One of the more philosophically troubling implications of the unconscious is that mental content that we would ordinarily be conscious of can impact upon the things that we do and think without us having any awareness of it. How can mental events such as desires influence us when we are not aware of them? We suggest that an answer to this question can be given if we are aware of the was (protention) in which preconceptual sensile experience can influence the possibilities for fully conscious experience while at the same time remaining inexplicit. We borrow and offer an interpretation of the phenomenological categories of Edmund Husserl to show how such content is possible. The article concludes with an apparent example of unconscious homosexuality that can fruitfully be interpreted in Husserlian terms.

Key words: Freud, phenomenology, Husserl, Lacan, consciousness


Philosophy has not neglected the significance and problems of the unconscious. Important philosophers such as MacIntyre (1958), Wittgenstein (1966), Davidson (1982) and Sartre (1957) have commented upon it. The literature within the philosophy of psychiatry on the unconscious has continued to grow (Gardner, 1995; Neu, 1995; Sturdee, 1995; Woody and Phillips, 1995; Gillett, 1996).

The literature is characterized by a distinction between those who think that the unconscious requires us to think of the mind as being 'splittable' and those who believe that an account of the unconscious can be given which utilizes various methods of 'mental distance' or differential articulation of mental content. Those who believe that an account of the unconscious can be given without splitting the mind, tend also believe in a unifying principle of the mind. Mental distance, the inchoate nature of some clearly mental content, or (variably) selective inattention, in such accounts implies that the unifying activity of the mind is restricted in its ability to incorporate certain mental events into a person's conscious mental life.

The approach to the unconscious in this article elaborates the idea of mental distance. For the sake of simplicity it is confined to an exploration of how we can be mentally distant from or incompletely cogniscent of desires, rather than attempting to provide a more general account of the unconscious and mental distance.

Our aim is to show how we can plausibly describe the possibility of a person having a desire when consciously they do not know that this is the case. We will begin by restating Jean-Paul Sartre's major objection to the Freudian unconscious. Although Sartre's polemic does seem to rely upon a particular reading of Freud there is a real philosophical problem about a person having a desire that influences what they do and think when it is, at the same time, hidden from them. This problem is diffused by a careful analysis of the phenomenology of desire. Husserl's distinctions between the hyletic, noetic and noematic phases of experience provide useful phenomenological categories for those wanting to defend mental distance theories of unconscious desire. The crucial point for this second section is that both the hyletic and the noematic phases of experience constrain the possibilities for conscious mental states. We will call this the dual constraint hypothesis. In the final section, the analysis is applied to the unconscious desires and delusions of a classic first person account of schizophrenia.

Sartre and others on the unconscious

In Being and Nothingness (1957) Sartre mounts what it is probably the most vociferous and cited attack on the unconscious. His objection turns on his analysis of 'the lie' and 'bad faith'.

Every successful lie or act of deception involves a deceiver and a deceived. Typically, a deceiver wilfully leads the deceived to believe something while at the same time not believing it. In order for a lie to succeed it is necessary that the deceived does not know the thoughts of the deceiver. This is what Sartre refers to when he says that the lie 'utilizes for its own profit the ontological duality of myself and myself in the eyes of the Other."(1957, p49)

The lie plays an important part of Sartre's project because of its relationship to bad faith. In Being and Nothingness Sartre argues not only that persons are continually creating themselves and are therefore responsible for who they are but that they are also prone to deceiving themselves about their true nature as self creating beings, a prefiguring of Lacan's meconnaissance (1953). The essence of Sartrean 'bad faith' is that it is an act of self-deception or a lie to oneself and it poses the problem arises of how there can be a deceiver/deceived duality when the lie is to oneself. As Sartre says...

It follows first that the one to whom the lie is told and the one who lies are one and the same person, which means that I must know in my capacity as deceiver the truth which is hidden from me in my capacity as the one deceived. Or rather I must know what the truth is exactly in order to conceal it more effectively... (1957, p50)

This apparent contradiction - lying to one's self when one must already know the truth in order to lie - is what leads Sartre to describe bad faith as 'metastable', meaning subject to sudden change.

Sartre believes that the unconscious is an attempt to escape from the difficulties presented by a lie to oneself. He describes the Freudian censor as a line of demarcation "with, customs, passport division, currency control, etc., to reestablish the duality of the deceiver and the deceived." His language is therefore that of a normative apparatus of governmentality with its technology of self-construction (cf Foucault). Sartre's (dubious) claim is that in order for the censor to maintain the relationship of the deceiver to the deceived it must know the contents of consciousness and the unconscious drives in order to know what it is that must be repressed.

Jerome Neu (1988) claims that the Sartrean view that all psychological states must be transparent leads him to deny the unconscious but that is only part of the problem. Neu is right that Sartre does think that consciousness is transparent and that all content must be knowable but his argument could still be cogent even if it were not. If the censor decides which content is to progress to consciousness the censor must simultaneously know what is to be repressed and what is to proceed so that Sartre's objection concerns both the translucency of consciousness and how the censor operates. If we accept, with Sartre, the phenomenological claim that the subject composes or constitutes the intentional contents of consciousness (Gillett and McMillan, 2001), the puzzle is, "How can it be possible to have mental events that we are unable to be conscious of motivating what we do because of their mental content?"

Gardner (1993, p78) argues that in solving this puzzle we ought to be cautious about splitting the mind into separate autonomous realms, on the basis that personal indivisibility is thoroughly tied to the personhood of a conscious self. On any such account, the interactions of the Freudian unconscious and conscious amount to divided personhood and are counter-intuitive in terms of a workable theory of the conscious self. However, Gardner argues that Sartre misrepresents the activity of the censor in Freudian theory in that it is a notion entertained by Freud for a relatively brief period of time (p 43). Gardner's theory of 'mental distance' explains the irrationality symptomatic of the unconscious in terms of aspects of their mental lives that through past events have become inaccessible to consciousness. To explain the difficulties presented by a homuncular censor Gardner offers a theory of repression that does not require the existence of a second mind and its strength is the idea that one selectively directs one's attention away while not being fully conscious of what one is doing (Hart, 1982, p 183 also believes that the best model for the repression effected on a thought or emotion is "selective inattention"). It therefore incurs a debt in terms of the phenomenology of repressed desires. Can we plausibly describe a person as being subject to a desire while they are unable (perhaps via selective inattention) to attend to that desire?

At this point one might argue that Sartre's objections to the unconscious are now largely irrelevant and that the phenomenological account of the transparency of conscious states is implausibly strong. But, many emotion theorists are hostile to the idea of unconscious processes. (Griffiths, 1996, p152)  Consider, for example,

Whatever it is that the angry individual resists, it must be found in her accessible (conscious) experience of the social world she finds herself in. (No trait, pattern or disposition explanation will do when the task is to explain motivated resistance.) (p 151)

Warner's position is opposed to the suggestion that there might be unconscious influences upon our behaviour possibly reflecting worries about splitting the mind and defusing theories of personal and social responsibility for action. These worries are seen to be misplaced when we reapply the phenomenological categories of Edmund Husserl.

In Ideas: A General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology (1931) Husserl gives a general account of the phases of conscious experience centred on the claim that conscious states are characterized by the mediation of conceptual mental content. Conscious states must, however, be influenced by sensile material not yet consciously articulated, material arising from his/her actual trajectory through the (conceptually unstructured) world of nature and therefore there is a possible means, through understanding perception and experience in general, to explain how it is that a person may possess a desire even when they are not conscious of it. That understanding rests on distinctions found in Husserl's phenomenology.

Real and ideal mental content

Husserl argues that "noesis" and "noema" jointly form mental content;

... noeses constitute the specifications of "Nous" (mind, spirit) in the widest sense of the term, which in all the actual forms of life which belong to it brings us back to cogitationes, and then to intentional experiences generally, and therewith includes all that (and essentially only that) which is the eidetic presupposition of the idea of a Norm. (1931, p249)

Husserl claims that all and only noetic experiences involve the mediation or implementation of something normative and therefore thinks that every noesis involves the instantiation of a norm or concept. Not only does he think that every noesis involves the application of a norm, but that every cognitive instance of a norm being instantiated is a noetic phase of consciousness based on a  normative precondition, the noema.
Husserl describes the noetic phases of experience as follows:

...Noetic phases include, for instance, the directing of the glance of the pure ego upon the object "intended" by it in virtue of its gift of meaning, upon that which "it has in mind as something meant"; further, the apprehension of this object, the steady grasp of it whilst the glance has shifted to other objects which have entered within the circle of "conjecture"; likewise the effects of bringing out, relating, apprehending synoptically, and taking up the various attitudes of belief, presumption, valuation and so forth. (1931, p257)

Note that noesis involves the application of a concept or noema so that all types of noetic experience exhibit this quality. Directing one's attention toward an object and holding this object as a focus of attention involves apprehending this object as an X. The constancy of an object through the various attitudes that a thinker may take to it depends, as we shall see, upon the concept that is involved. Note also that Husserl includes the different attitudes that we may take towards the same things (belief, presumption and evaluation) in the specification of noetic experiences so that the conscious awareness of a desire also involves the direction of a person's attention to that desire and the mediation of conceptual mental content.

Corresponding at all points to the manifold data of the real (reelen) noetic content, there is a variety of data displayable in really pure (wirklich reiner) intuition, and in a correlative "noematic content" or briefly "noema"...We must everywhere take the noematic correlate, which (in a very extended meaning of the term) is here referred to as "meaning" (Sinn) precisely as it lies "immanent" in the experience of perception, of judgment, of liking, and so forth, ie., if we question in pure form this experience itself, as we find it there presented to us. (1931, SS 88, p258)

Noesis involves the actual bringing to bear of consciousness upon a certain content and the holding of consciousness upon that content as part of the actual, real activity of being conscious of something. There are many ways of being conscious of something, there are the perceptual modes of consciousness (hearing, sensing, seeing etc) and there are non-sensory modes (imaginings, rememberings etc).

Noematic content lies "immanent" in mental acts. Thus it is a form of intuition which works in tandem with a noetic phase of consciousness to bring about consciousness of an X as an X. Noematic content provides the meaningful part of mental content and the noema can be thought of as allowing the world to be thought of and perceived in a meaningful way. Thus my perception of the swirl on the water's surface depends on "swirl on the water's surface" being this perceptual act's noema - the ideal to which the experience conforms to give it that particular content. The same is true when we consciously attend to a desire, for instance for a slice of apple pie. A noematic content mediates my consciousness so that it is a desire for a slice of apple pie. That meaning in turn accesses a structure of significance or sense (the term is common to Husserl and Frege) that underpins apprehending a certain aspect of the world in a certain way.

Noema and noesis

Husserl insists on a tight relationship between the noematic and noetic phases of conscious experience: "no noetic phase without a noematic phase that belongs specifically to it." (Ideas section 93). Thus, he claims, it is not possible to have a noetic phase of experience, a real intentional phase, without grasping the corresponding noema as the essence of its noematic phase. Think about seeing something in late twilight -  you can often make out shapes and forms only vaguely. Imagine you saw a dark shape against the wall of an alleyway and, because you are walking through a rough area and on edge, you see it as a Rottweiler. You feel a fight or flight reaction flowing through your body until, with the benefit of another glance, you realize that the shape is, in fact, a rubbish bag. According to Husserl, when you saw the rubbish bag as a dog there must have existed noetic and noematic phases to that perception. The noetic phase involved the real mental act of seeing the bag as a dog. The act's noematic phase was also necessary for seeing the object as dog-like, but not as a real component of the mental act, rather as an ideal one. When seeing the rubbish bag as a dog you were applying a meaningful category to the world, you were seeing the rubbish bag as a dog. You have all sorts of beliefs about dogs, including that big dogs will bite. It was only through the connection between a real phase of experience and an ideal phase that you could come to see this situation in a meaningful way. The following diagram is an attempt to make this example more lucid.

Diagram 1

  mistake (first glance) uncertainty (after a second or so) knowledge (after a good look)
Noema concept <dog>  concept <undetermined shape> concept <rubbish bag in the shadows>
Noesis experience of seeing a big dog in the shadows  experience of seeing something, but what! experience of seeing the rubbish bag in the shadows


This is why Husserl is so insistent upon the connection between noesis and noematic content, without this connection it is simply not possible for the mental act to be about anything. To this we need only add the fact that intentional acts involve cognitive skills or techniques (Wittgenstein) learnt in the human life-world to derive a very fruitful way of viewing psychotic experience.

It may be unclear whether the noematic phase is temporally separate from or an aspect of the noetic phase but the temporal interpretation risks replacing logic with psychology. Noesis, as a matter of analysis or its very nature, always involves the mediation of a noema so the noematic phase is not temporally separate. When I am looking at the rubbish bag in the alleyway my noesis is the experience of seeing the rubbish bag in the shadows. While my consciousness is directed toward this content I am conceptualizing what is before me as <a rubbish bag> so that throughout my consciousness of the rubbish bag noematic content mediates my consciousness. For this reason, the term "phase" is somewhat confusing: a noema is distinct in the sense that it is not what I see - the rubbish bag in the alleyway, it determines that what I see I see as a rubbish bag. Therefore noematic content is distinct in a phenomenological sense, rather than being temporally or causally distinct. We could think of the stream of causal interactions between the brain and the world around a human being and its transformation through the determining noemata (a kind of mapping) into meaningful experience on the basis of which one can think or reason about what is happening. The analysis in terms of actual engagement with the world, on the one hand, and transformation based on skills of applying a meaning-structure that is constituted (or given form) normatively, on the other, can be applied to all psychic activity and illuminates experience in a way that allows an in-depth understanding of many psychological conditions.

A number of factors are relevant to why the rubbish bag came to be seen as a dog. The fact that there was less than perfect daylight means that it was not easy to see and at first it was hard to tell exactly what was in the alleyway. In better light what the bag could be seen as the perceiver would have better conditions for exercising the relevant skills (this idea of the sensile constraining content will be developed later in this paper).  Another important reason for forming the noetic content <big dog> was because the contents <big dogs may bite> and <this is a rough area of town and there may be threats here> are already in place and sensitizing the conscious subject. Those emotively loaded thoughts, replete with existential threat, prime the subject to look for potential threats and the poor light causes the perception to be underconstrained by its context so that the rubbish bag can be seen as a dog.  Such factors are the stuff of desire. Priming ourselves to form particular desires and interpret the states of our body as being thus and so also influence our attention and conceptualizations of how things are with us so as to result in different ways in which we may be conscious of the same thing.

The noema's noematic Sinn and thetic components

All noetic or conscious experiences involve the mediating action of noematic content but noematic content comes in at least two types which produce corresponding distinctions in the acts of noesis mediated. In crude terms the two types of content are: the meaningful aspect of the noema which makes one conscious about a particular thing as being thus and so and an aspect of the noema which enables one able to be conscious of the same content in different ways. This is relevant to unconscious desire because of the different attitudes that one might take to a desire with a similar intentional object.

Husserl notes the "Sinn-giving" phase of noesis and something more object/reference-related.

... as "Sinn" does not exhaust the complete noema; correspondingly, the noetic side of the intentional experience does not consist merely of the strictly "Sinn-giving" phase [Momente] to which the "Sinn" specifically belongs as correlate... (1931, SS 90)

Thus for every particular mental act there exists a correlation between the Sinn giving part of its noetic phase and the Sinn definitive of its noematic phase. The other possible way for noetic and noematic content to exist is in a "thetic form" whereby the object is not only clothed with a certain (normatively determined) meaning but also posited in some way (an "object's way of giveness", for instance as a thing believed in, desired, or expected). Thus for every mental act there exists a thetic component to its noematic phase corresponding to a thetic phase in the way that noesis operates in the mental act.

We have stated that noematic content is ideal mental content. Ideal content does not exist in the world or completely in the individual mind (as a "reel" content). Thus noematic content is essentially mental but not in a way that locates it in a particular mind (thus not psychologistic).

Psychologism (for Husserl) is the view that concepts are formed through repeated acquaintance with objects and are purely subjectively constituted - the clearest example of this may be Hume's "ideas". Husserl's earlier psychologism and his strong reaction against it are some of the most important features of Ideas (for more on this see Mohanty's Husserl and Frege, 1982)

The mediating function of  the noema does not imply that when we look at an object in the world that we are not looking at something in the world it is just that the object itself is given its meaning by something other than just the way it is (think, for instance, of a declaration of war, which may (physically) be no more than a set of marks on a graphic medium or a set of sound waves in an acoustic medium.

Frege used "Sinn" as the component of meaning that indicated how a thinker was thinking of something (as distinct from what was being thought of) and Husserl's use of Sinn is roughly the same.

"Sinn", which he sometimes uses to refer to the whole noema; "noematic Sinn"; "objective-Sinn", so called because the Sinn-component is what relates the act to its object... (Woodruff-Smith and McIntyre, 1982, p126)

The famous example is the triad of The Evening star, The Morning Star, and The planet Venus, all of which are different noemata applied to the same object. Thus noemata are ideal mental components involved in noetic experiences and their use is governed by (objective or intersubjective) rules including some way of fixing the thing (or kind of thing in the case of a general term like "rotweiller) they are to be applied to . Noematic Sinn is the phase of experience by which we differentiate objects into classes and make attributions to objects. The observation that the fish in the brook is a brown trout places it into a class of objects and the noematic content identifies the fish as a brown trout, along with that which situates it as being in the brook, is that mental act's noematic Sinn. If we noticed that the trout had a scar on its back that attribution would also be part of that act's noematic Sinn ( a potentially individuating noema that could serve as the basis of identifying and re-identifying that particular trout).

The strict relationship between noesis and noema, according to which there are noematic and noetic phases in a conscious experience (e.g. of the brown trout), is such that the standards to which I am held, are normative and dictated by the group whose structure of meanings I am using to make sense of my experience.  When I first see the brown trout in the brook, I might not be quite certain that it is a brown trout as they tend to blend into the colour of the brook so that the particular noematic Sinn, <the brown trout in the brook>, and an attitude <that looks like an X, although I can't be sure>. After looking into the brook for some time I might become more sure about it being a brown trout and not a fish shaped piece of weed. In such a case I am still looking at the same brown trout in the same brook, and an aspect of the noema (related to reference, the target of my noetic phase, the thing corresponding to the noema being applied) that allowed me to see the brown trout in the brook have remained the same throughout time. However, now that I have become more sure about what I am looking at I hold a different attitude (as part of the thetic phase) toward the trout in the brook. Instead of doubting what I see before me I now feel certain that I see a brown trout. It's also possible that when I get home and rest, I find myself imagining the trout that lay in the brook and obviously my noetic experience when imagining is quite different from what it was when I was actually looking into the brook. Diagram two illustrates the relationship between noematic Sinn and thetic components of experience in this example.

Diagram 2

  noematic Sinn thetic component noetic (reel) content
t 1  concept <brown trout> attitude of possibility possibly a brown trout
t 2 concept <brown trout> attitude of certainty a brown trout


The different ways of being conscious of the same content Husserl calls the "thetic component" or "the way of giveness" within which he makes further distinctions that need not concern us here.

He introduces the thetic component with the following example.

A blossoming tree may be under consideration throughout, and this tree may appear throughout in such a way that the accurate description of that which appears as such necessarily proceeds with the same expressions. But the noematic correlates are yet... essentially different for perception, phantasy, pictorial representation, memory etc. (1931, SS 91)

Husserl's point is that it is possible to be conscious of the same tree in many different ways. Now we know that the noematic Sinn determines the type of object under consideration. Whether we are remembering the tree or directly looking at it is determined by the thetic phase of the act's noesis.
 We have used perceptual illustrations for the thetic components of noetic consciousness but there are similar components in our desires. I may take a variety of thetic attitudes toward my desire for chocolate brownies. Whether my desire is desperate and intense or indistinct and even if it is unexpectedly satiated by ice cream it is still a desire for chocolate brownies. Thus far we have distinguished the noetic from the noematic and introduced a further distinction between the way of giveness and the sinn-giving phase of experience. Another phenomenological category enables an account of desire, "mental distance", and the analysis of experience in terms of meaning and actuality (the actual flow of exchanges between the subject/organism and the world).


Essential to grasping Husserl's phenomenology is understanding the term "hyle". It is that phase of conscious experience that gives sensile conscious experiences their richness and potential. Considering the Gestalt ground/figure distinction will help explain what this term means.

Visual examples can be used to tease out the ground/figure distinction. One that Wittgenstein used in The Philosophical Investigations was Jastrow's duck/rabbit (1989 p 194). The duck/rabbit is pictured in black ink on white paper and is a picture that can be seen in two ways, as a duck or as a rabbit. When seeing a picture in two different ways we must have two distinct noetic perceptions of the picture. We know that for every noetic phase of an experience there must exist a corresponding noematic phase, and as nothing has changed before us, for each of these perceptions there must exhibit different noematic content. Seeing the figure as a rabbit is an example of what Gestalt Theorists call distinguishing a "figure" from a "ground"; we direct our visual awareness to constitute a visual figure and thereby constitute the rest if the stimulus array as 'ground' so as to perceive the figure. Therefore the noema mediates covertly the apprehension of the ink of the page to bring about a fully developed noetic phase, viz perceiving the figure on the page as a duck or as a rabbit. Husserl's phenomenology of the "ground" from which the figure is distinguished can therefore be read as the entire (actual) stimulus array or the "horizon"(landscape of meaning) against which the figure is seen. If one sees the picture as a duck and then a rabbit the stimulus array does not actually change, but remains constant. It is tempting to think that in visual perception hyle is the Gestalt theorists "ground" but for Gestalt theorists ground is necessarily involved with figure as its complement, in other words ground only emerges in perception when a figure is distinguished from it (just as horizon and object of perception are mutually constitutive). Hyletic material or the stimulus array may contain elements that are not subject to noesis. For instance if one was concentrating hard upon a book in a situation where the air conditioning is making a noise that one does not notice until someone else walks in and says, for instance "how can you put up with that noisy air-conditioning?" In such a case the lack of noetic engagement renders the noise irrelevant to the mental content one is conscious of, yet the hyle are part of one's (total) engagement with the actual situation. Gestalt theorists would not describe the background noise as ground because it is irrelevant to the figure being distinguished (unlike the trees among which one is trying to keep track of a deer one is hunting). Diagram three illustrates the hyle and noeses of seeing the duck and the rabbit.

Diagram 3

  Hyle Noema Noesis
Duck everything on page 194 of the Philosophical Investigations visual concept <duck’s head> duck’s head
Rabbit everything on page 194 of the Philosophical Investigations visual concept <rabbit’s head> rabbit’s head


Hyle is, strictly speaking, not intentional mental content. Thus we can never hold hyle before us as a focus of attention, because to do so would be to see it in a certain way. Persons who are poor at waking up may have more familiarity with hyle than those who can spring from bed and immediately function at a normal level. Moving about when one is not fully awake seems to lessen that normal significance that one attaches to one’s environment. It is as if you see - yet don't see things (at the same level of awareness as when fully awake). You are, as it were, moving about only inadequately conscious of what is around you because your noetic faculties are not articulating it in such a way as you can think properly about it (or form clear and distinct ideas). This point is crucial for the case of unconscious desires in that in order for X to be plausibly described as having the unconscious desire D a mode of (bodily or actual) must constitute hyle apt for consciously constituting D.

Woodruff-Smith and McIntyre claim that Husserl asks us to think of hyle as "sensory data".

Like every other act, a perception has a noetic phase, or noesis, which gives the act its intentional character. But, unlike other acts, a perception also has a sensory (Sinnlich) phase, which gives the act its sensory character. Both phases are "real" (reel) constituents of the act, literally parts of the flow of consciousness, as opposed to the "intentional" noematic elements that belong to the act as ideal correlates of the noetic phase. Putting Aristotle's matter-form distinction to a novel use, Husserl calls the sensory phase of a perception its hyle ("matter") - or its hyletic phase, or hyletic data - and the noetic phase its morphe ("form"). (1982, p137)

Their reading (perhaps with reservations about the term “sensory data”) seems applicable to all mental activity in that in every mental act (or tract of mental activity) there are meanings or senses (Sinnen) and the actual exchanges that occur between organism and world in perception.  We don’t normally think of remembering as a perceptual mode of experience, nevertheless sometimes when we remember it is hard to grasp exactly what it is we are trying to remember. In such cases that which you are trying to grasp is almost accessible but you can’t quite retrieve the memory so as to articulate just what its content is. We might therefore usefully assimilate remembering to seeking to clothe with the apt meaning a tract of organismic activity (where that meaning has both content and source, semantic and declarative  aspects to it (Conway, 1990).

It is a misinterpretation to think of hyle as being only the non-intentional material for perception because hyle is not the same as sensory material.

The expression "sensory experience" cannot be used to indicate this concept [hyle], since our customary reference to sensory perceptions, sensory intuitions generally, sensory delight and the like, stand in the way, whereby not merely hyletic but also intentional experiences are described as sensory... (1931, SS 85, p248)

Husserl suggests that when we ordinarily speak of a sensory experience we are referring to a noetic phase of experience but hyle is distinct from all noetic phases. Husserl contrasts the "intentional" with the "sensile" and even though the noetic phase of an experience is necessarily intentional, the hyletic phase (for Husserl ‘sensile’) might best be thought of as organismic which resonates with his view that "the sensile phases of the sphere of ‘impulses’" (p247). The idea of an organismic trajectory clothed with sense/Sinn so that it can be understood and its significance responded to provides a natural entrée into thinking about desire.

The dual constraint hypothesis: hyletic and noematic constraints on noesis

We explained the Husserlian terms noesis, noema, and hyle via the example of misperceiving a rubbish bag as a large threatening dog. After a moment or two of looking into the alleyway the subject realized that there was only a rubbish bag in the alleyway but the poor light, the background anxiety (it was a rough area of town), and the general shape of the stimulus constituted as figure were all hyletic aspects of the situation. These hyletic aspects constrained the noetic and led to misperception (a variety of meconnaissance).

The thetic components of the noema and noesis were revealed in the trout in stream example where two different attitudes - possibility and certainty – were possible in the hyletic situation. When looking at a fish shape in the stream but unsure whether it is a fish or just a clump of weed the subject’s noesis is constrained by the hyletic phase (organismic interaction or stimulus array) that is actual. If the water becomes clearer, a change in hyle, noetic activity changes accordingly as it should for me to be a good significance detector or meaning-maker out of my interaction with the world.

If I looked into the stream when it was less clear and claimed to see with certainty that there was a trout when, hyletically, no such certainty is warranted, then there is something wrong with my noetic skills and my mode of conformity to the relevant norms (noematic constraints). To see with certainty when that is not warranted might be the result of optimism, tiredness or lack of expertise, but a mistake of a more serious nature, such as seeing Jesus Christ on the bottom of the stream, suggests a more serious problem with the noetic subject in that seeing the trout shape in the stream as Jesus Christ is not a reasonable perception given the hyletic and noematic  constraints that ought to apply to human noesis.

In addition to hyletic constraints the noematic content grasped by a subject can also constrain noesis and itself reflects several influences. When you saw the rubbish bag as a dog your worries about the dangers of the area that you were in primed you to look for potential hazards or look for certain kinds of noematic content in your environment.

There are also rules governing the ways in which we apply noemata. A person that looked at page 194 of the Philosophical Investigations (on which is found a stylized duck/rabbit) and reported seeing a triangle or who saw Husserl’s blossoming tree as a fish is incorrectly applying noemata (in fact their experience is so odd given the conditions that we might judge there to be a more radical problem in noetic function that any commonly encountered).

Thus there is a dual answerability inherent in noesis:
(i) to the available hyletic content (actual organism-world interactive state); and
(ii) to the noemata being applied (and the rules governing them).

Daniel Schreber’s Memoirs of my Nervous Illness (1988) is one of the most, perhaps the most, famous first person account of paranoid schizophrenia. It is of interest not only because of the quality of Schreber’s description but also because of the interest of formative thinkers such as Freud and Jaspers. But can Schreber plausibly be described as having homosexual impulses even though he is not conscious of them?

Now, however, I became clearly aware that the order of things imperatively demanded my emasculation, whether I personally like it or not, and that no reasonable course of action lay open to me but to reconcile myself to the thought of being transformed into a woman. The further consequence of my emasculation could, of course, only be my impregnation... by divine rays to the end that a new race of men might be created... The only thing which could appear unreasonable in the eyes of other people is the fact, already touched upon in the expert’s report, that I am sometimes to be found, standing before the mirror or elsewhere, with the upper portions of my body partly bared, and wearing sundry feminine adornments, such as ribbons, trumpery necklaces and the like. This only occurs, I may add, when I am by myself, and never, at least so far as I am able to avoid it, in the presence of other people. (Spitzer, 1994, p524)

Schreber’s account of his illness details a complicated and bizarre set of delusions. Two of the important themes of Schreber’s delusions are that he believed, literally, that he was being transformed into a woman and also that he was to be the ‘redeemer’ of mankind. Freud analyzed Schreber (on the basis of his personal account) without ever meeting him, an analysis that is significant for its presentation of Freud’s ideas about paranoia and unconscious impulses.

The critical part of Freud’s analysis is his belief that Schreber’s

...idea of being transformed into a woman (that is, of being emasculated) was the primary delusion, that he began by regarding that act as constituting a serious injury and persecution, and that it only became related to his playing the part of the redeemer in a secondary way. (Freud, 1991, p148)

Of these two themes, Freud claims that both temporally and etiologically the delusion of transformation is primary in that there were important connections between passive homosexuality and paranoia and Schreber’s paranoia was symptomatic of passive homosexuality.

Although Freud offers passive homosexuality as the fundamental explanatory structure for Schreber’s delusions this is far from uncontroversial.  Louis Sass 1996 (p119) notes that some interpretations of Schreber see his delusions as an ultimate expression of ‘lust for control over others’ and that the sexual themes are ‘expressions less of libidinal wishes than of power relationships’. Sass himself analyses Schreber’s delusions by comparing them to Wittgenstein’s remarks on solipsism and he thinks that Schreber is driven by a desire for “that impossible moment when the self plays both subject and object, but without dissolving the self or collapsing the distance on which subject and object depend.” (p130)

While Sass’s analysis is fascinating and does seem to capture important dimensions of Schreber’s delusions there does seem to be a strongly sexual aspect to many of them. It may be that these sexual aspects are consistent with what Sass calls the paradox of being both subject and object but why is it that Schreber’s paradoxes of the self manifest themselves in such sexual terms? Freud’s answer is that passive homosexuality is behind Schreber’s primary delusion. One of Schreber’s breakdowns was preceded by a period in which his wife was absent.

‘What especially determined my mental break-down was a particular night, during which I had a quite extraordinary number of emissions - quite half a dozen, all in that one night.’ (44) It is easy to understand that the mere presence of his wife must have acted as a protection against the attractive power of the men about him; and if we are prepared to admit that an emission cannot occur in an adult without some mental concomitant, we shall be able to supplement the patient’s emissions that night by assuming that they were accompanied by homosexual phantasies which remained unconscious. (Freud, 1991, p180)

Freud’s suggestion that it is passive homosexuality driving his delusions could be thought to overstate the significance of such impulses, however it does seem that Schreber himself thought that there was a sexual or libidinous catalyst to his break down. Furthermore, even if Freud is not right about the significance of homosexual impulses in causing Schreber’s delusions it could be true that their content was influenced by such impulses.

There are obvious historical reasons why Schreber would not want to acknowledge his homosexual impulses. For a man of his reputation, social status and time, such a self realization would have been disastrous. In fact the furore that would have surrounded the homosexuality of a prominent public figure at that time was such that Freud himself is cautious about labelling Schreber as homosexual. Freud (1991, p177) considers the objection “Is it not an act of irresponsibility levity, an indiscretion and a calumny, to charge a man of such high ethical standing as the former Senatsprasident Schreber with homosexuality?”

Thus there is a prima facie reason why the noetic state “I am sexually attracted to men” would have been difficult for Schreber. His bizarre belief that he is being turned into a woman is a way of making sense of what he might have seen as feminine inclinations. Thinking that he was turning into a woman may have been a less abhorrent way of expressing his inclinations than admitting to himself that he was attracted to other men.

One of the ways in which Freud believed Schreber’s desires were manifested was in his relationship with his physician, Dr Flechsig, who Schreber came to believe was persecuting him.

The exciting cause of his illness, then, was an outburst of homosexual libido; the object of this libido was probably from the very first his doctor, Flechsig; and his struggles against the libidinal impulse produced the conflict which gave rise to his symptoms. (1991, p177)

If Freud is right, Schreber had homosexual impulses directed towards his physician. These impulses were repressed and therefore unconscious but manifested themselves in a number of ways, including delusions about Flechsig persecuting him and that he is turning into woman. Freud’s theory of symptom formation in paranoia is that “...internal perceptions - feelings - shall be replaced by external perceptions.” (1991, p201)

Schreber’s unconscious homosexual impulses are not noetic contents, but his delusions are. Contemporary theorists could claim that Schreber is not conscious of his impulses because he has distanced himself mentally from these troubling desires. How can these impulses continue to influence his mental content? The answer is that Schreber’s homosexual impulses have not been differentiated by noematic content as noetic states such as “I love Dr Flechsig” or “I want to be the object of Dr Flechsig’s desire”. When Schreber has unconscious homosexual impulses he is hyletically in a state of (inchoate) desire, yet the unthinkable consequences of having homosexual desires make him conscious noetically of the trope of  transforming into a woman or being abused.

Noesis (ex hypothesi) is answerable to hyletic and noematic constraints. Schreber may have been in a physiological (or organismic) state normally associated with sexual desire. Schreber’s hyletic material was such that forming the noetic content “I desire him” would have been apt in the light of his unconscious impulses or hyletic material. The introspectively apprehended mental content “I’m turning into a woman” could also accommodate the hyletic material comprising his organismic state, but does not psot the difficult truth that he had homosexual feelings. The following diagram represents the structure that would exist if what Freud says about Schreber is true.

Diagram 4

  noeses hyletic material noematic constraints
Schreber’s repressed homosexual impulses I am turning into a woman. I am about to be sexually abused an (organismic) state of being consistent with states of sexual desire or sexual arousal anything but homosexual desires, hence delusions of transformation and transformation


Until noetic content is properly formed, it cannot engage with reflection and evaluation and its implications can remain inexplicit or unspecified. Noemata do not properly apply to unformed content and it cannot figure as part of one’s self-narrative (Gillett, 2009). Therefore cognitive connections between noetic content are not fully formed and mental life is, to that extent, inarticulate in relation to one’s broader understanding of oneself and one’s character.


None of the above should be taken to imply that Schreber’s unconscious mental life is merely preconscious. In other words Schreber’s desires would not necessarily be revealed to him if he would only introspect upon the origins of his thoughts in that the very nature of hyletic material is to be (intentionally or mentally) unstructured (but not unconstrained) organismic interaction with the world. One need not accept the Freudian system to accept that noetic work must be done to turn a life-trajectory into material for a lived articulate experience replete with perception, memory, and desire (among other intentional modes of being).

Even if a state of the organism is apt to be clothed in the contours of a particular desire or noetically structured in a certain way because of the state of organism (or hyletic phase) constitutive of it, it may still yet not be depending on the noematic (normative and formative) constraints on its articulation as part of a good-enough life story for the situated human being involved. Thus a person may have a desire that would be judged by most to be a desire for X (e.g. homosexual relations) and yet not be conscious of this desire (because the noematic constraints acting upon that person in his or her situation do not allow it). Showing how it is possible for desires to exist at the margins of consciousness, influencing the formation of noetic states while remaining repressed (or inchoate, inarticulate, unable to be owned or made explicit) and for that reason unconscious can be achieved by utilizing phenomenological categories captured by Husserl’s tripartite distinctions between noema, noetic content and hyle.


We are grateful to Bill Fulford and Soren Overgaard for very useful comments on an earlier draft of this article.


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Associate Professor John McMillan
Health Professional Education
School of Medicine
Room No 5E:209
SA 5042
Tel.: 0061 8 8204 4630

John McMillan is Associate Professor at Flinders Medical School.  Prior to this appointment he held posts at the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Otago where he taught ethics to philosophy and medical students. His recent books include Empirical Ethics in Psychiatry (with Widdershoven, Hope and Van der Scheer, 2008) and The Limits of Consent (with Corrigan, Liddell, Richards and Weijer, 2009). His most recent book is Psychopathy and Responsibility: interfacing philosophy law and psychiatry (with Malatesti) which was published by OUP in 2010.

Professor Grant Gillett
Bioethics Centre
Medical & Surgical Sciences
Dunedin School of Medicine
PO Box 913
New Zealand
Tel.: +64 3 474 7007, etxn 8122
Fax: +64 3 474 7601

Grant Gillett studied medicine and psychology at Auckland and then specialised in neurosurgery. He completed a doctorate in philosophy and held a fellowship at Oxford before moving to Otago where he is Professor of Medical Ethics. Grant's interests are broad, including the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of medicine and medical ethics. He has a particular interest in the philosophies of Kant and Wittgenstein, and in post-structuralism. His recent publications in the philosophy of psychiatry include Subjectivity and Being Somebody: Neuroethics and Human Identity. Imprint Academic 2008 and The Mind and its Discontents OUP 2nd edition 2009.

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