On Husserl’s Exhibition Principle


According to Husserl’s so-called Exhibition Principle (Prinzip der Ausweisbarkeit; henceforth: EP), the propositions “x exists” and “The exhibition of x’s existence is possible” are equivalent. The overall aim of this paper is to debate EP. First, I raise the question whether EP can properly be said to be a principle. Second, I give a general formulation of EP. Third, I examine specific formulations of EP, namely those regarding eidetic and individual objects. Fourth, I identify the readings of EP I hold to be exegetically plausible, that is the transcendental reading, the metaphysical reading, and the hybrid reading. Fifth, I present Husserl’s refutation of Berkeleyan idealism developed in 1902/03 lectures, and I argue that under certain assumptions, both esse est percipi and the metaphysical EP engender an infinite regress. In this regard, I claim there are two options for avoiding such a regress: either to commit oneself to reflexive exhibition of the ego’s actuality or to deny the universality of EP. I show that Husserl has a good argument for rejecting the first option, and I conclude that if the Husserlian idealist chooses the second option while affirming the ego’s actuality, he turns out to be as “dogmatic” as the realist.

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  1. 1.

    “Phenomenology” and “metaphysics” are equivocal terms, and even among phenomenologists are understood in different ways (see Zahavi 2017, pp. 30–33). This paper is written in the spirit of early Husserl, who sharply distinguished phenomenology and metaphysics. For example, in Logical Investigations we read that the question of the existence of the natural world is a metaphysical one, and therefore is not a concern of the phenomenologist (see Hua XIX, p. 26). Accordingly, I will speak of a phenomenological reading of EP as alternative to a metaphysical reading of EP. Still, I will quote passages in which Husserl explicitly links phenomenology with metaphysics (see Sect. 5.3 below).

  2. 2.

    Historically, EP appeared more than once in foundations of mathematics: Oskar Becker (1927, p. 502) renamed it Access Principle (Zugangsprinzip), and founders of Intuitionism such as Hermann Weyl and Arend Heyting adopted it as Construction Principle (see Tieszen 2008 and Mancosu 2014). Being that EP is the root of Intuitionism, one could claim that it lies behind what along the 20th century developed under the label “Anti-realism”.

  3. 3.

    For Rollinger and Sowa (2003, p. XXXVI), Husserl’s stance towards his idealism—vividly expressed by EP—never changed.

  4. 4.

    See Hua XXXVI, p. 73: “Der Satz ‘A existiert’ und der Satz ‘Es ist ein Weg möglicher Ausweisung der Existenz des A zu konstruieren’, ‘Es besteht die ideale […] Möglichkeit solcher Ausweisung’ sind Äquivalenzen. So sind generell die Ideen ‘Wahrheit’ und ‘ideale Möglichkeit einsichtiger Ausweisung’ äquivalente Ideen. Was ist, muss sich zur Gegebenheit bringen lassen […]”.

  5. 5.

    On Husserl’s early notion of existence as validity, see Marchesi (2018, p. 361).

  6. 6.

    Similarly, the thesis that the intuition of A entails the exhibition of A’s existence does not seem to be universally valid, for according to Husserl sensible perception (which is required for the exhibition of the actuality of transcendent individual objects, see Sect. 4.2.2 below) is a fallible intuition: to perceive a thing x does not entail that x actually exists (see, e.g., Hua XVI, p. 15), and of course, if x does not actually exist, then an exhibition of x actual existence is not possible.

  7. 7.

    I translate Erlebnis as “experience”, though what this English word properly fits is Erfahrung, which in Husserl’s framework is not coterminous with Erlebnis; indeed, some Erlebnisse are not Erfahrungen (e.g., phantasies).

  8. 8.

    See Hua XXXVI, p. 115: “Natürlich werden Sie nicht einwenden: In den luftleeren Weltraum hinaus kann ich nicht, da würde ich ja sogleich ersticken oder meine Sinnesorgane würden nicht mehr normal fungieren können u. dgl. Wir haben jetzt nicht physikalische Möglichkeiten erwogen, sondern erwogen, was zur idealen Möglichkeit der Existenz eines Dinges und, was gleichwertig, zur idealen Möglichkeit diese Existenz auszuweisen, gehört […] Damit ist nicht gesagt, dass ich empirisch die ungehemmte Fähigkeit haben muss, die Erfahrung zu vollziehen […]”. On other objections to EP – including common sense objections—see Meixner (2010, pp. 203–204) and Melle (2010, p. 103).

  9. 9.

    On Husserl’s notion of real possibility, see Mohanty (1984) and Bernet (2004).

  10. 10.

    Possible readings of “x requires y” are “y is necessary for x” and “x supervenes on y”. See Meixner (2010, pp. 194–195).

  11. 11.

    See Hua XX/1, p. 266: “Fingieren wir einen Zentauren, der einsieht, dass a + 1 = 1 + a ist […] Wir können den Zentauren beliebig verwandeln, wir können neben ihn fingierend beliebige andere Wesen stellen, beliebige andere Akte vollziehend, immer einsehend, des Inhalts a + 1 = 1 + a: Wir sehen ein, dass die ideale Möglichkeit der Erkenntnis a + 1 = 1 + a gleichwertig ist der wirklichen Geltung”.

  12. 12.

    Husserl seems to take seriously the objection that the single experience requires the actual existence of the stream of consciousness, the former being a moment (i.e. a dependent part) of the latter. However, such an objection is quite misplaced, for EP does not involve this kind of ontological dependence, but rather the one implied by exhibition. It is hard to see how the stream of consciousness can exhibit the existence of its parts.

  13. 13.

    Husserl would not say that the possibility of exhibition of Y’s actuality requires the possibility of sensible perception of Y’s actuality, for according to him existence is not a part of the transcendent individual object, and therefore cannot be presented through sensible perception (see Hua XIX, pp. 231 and 666). Moreover, to say that the exhibition of T’s actuality requires a sensible perception of T does not mean that such an exhibition requires just one sensible perception of T, for according to Husserl an (infinite) manifold of sensible perceptions of T is required. See also Ingarden (1999, p. 174).

  14. 14.

    This is the only sense of “in itself” (An-sich) which Husserl accepts. Evidently, it is very different from the Kantian sense of “in itself”. See Melle (1983, p. 116).

  15. 15.

    On this level, incompatibility concerns actuality. However, on a higher level incompatibility concerns mere possibility. In other contexts (see, e.g., Hua XX/1, pp. 174, 215 and 229), Husserl states that a round square and an angular straight line are impossible objects because their (possible) parts are incompatible.

  16. 16.

    I borrow this example from Rollinger and Sowa (2003, p. XXIII).

  17. 17.

    See Ingarden (1999, p. 174): “Die Existenz bzw. die prinzipielle Möglichkeit dieses Weges ist die Bedingung dessen, daß man behaupten kann, daß A existiert, oder schärfer gesagt: daß das Recht zur Anerkennung der Existenz von A besteht. Aber so lauten die beiden zitierten Sätze nicht. Es wird 〈vielmehr〉 gesagt, der prinzipiell mögliche Weg zur Ausweisung 〈der Existenz〉 von A sei mit dem “A existiert“ äquivalent. Das heißt genauer, der Weg zur Ausweisung ist äquivalent mit der Existenz.” As the editor Gregor Haefliger rightly observes (see ibid., note 37), Ingarden’s formulation is inaccurate: he states that the path of exhibition is equivalent to A’s existence, whereas Husserl applies equivalence to propositions.

  18. 18.

    Strictly speaking, the concept of existence also appears in EPT (indeed, this talks about merely possible and actual consciousnesses). However, EPT is not metaphysical to the extent that the existence of the “world” (in a broad sense, i.e. one including for example the mathematical world) is not taken into account, as it is excluded by the reduction. See note 1 above.

  19. 19.

    See Hua Mat. III, pp. 136–137: “Aber zur Idee keines Gegenstandes gehört die Wahrnehmung und reelle Wahrnehmbarkeit […] Das ist aber auch alles, niemals kommen wir zur Gleichung esse = percipi. Diese Möglichkeiten sind aber ideale […] Real möglich ist, was nicht nach Realgesetzen, nach Naturgesetzen ausgeschlossen ist; und davon ist hier offenbar gar keine Rede, wo wir von der idealen Möglichkeit eines roten Kreises aufgrund der intuitiv erfassten generellen Einheit sprechen. Und ebenso verhält es sich mit der idealen Möglichkeit des Wahrgenommenwerdens. Es ist gar nicht darin gelegen, dass jedes Sein jemals gegeben sei […]”.

  20. 20.

    It is no coincidence that the basis of Allgemeine Erkenntnistheorie is the draft of a lecture titled Erkenntnistheorie und Hauptpunkte der Metaphysik (see Schuhmann 2001, p. XVI), which Husserl gave in 1898.

  21. 21.

    Note that if Husserl’s distinction between actuality and factuality holds, (e = p)* does not engender an infinite regress!

  22. 22.

    EPM is similar to Chrudzimski’s (2016, p. 65) formulation of Husserl’s idealism: “A exists if and only if we are able to justify […] the belief that A exists.”

  23. 23.

    In a famous passage from Logical Investigations, Husserl claims that the non-empirical ego is phenomenologically undetectable (see Hua XIX, p. 374), but already in the second book of Ideas he admits the possibility of grasping the non-empirical ego perceptually: he states that we can reflect upon it, and he describes perception as immanent perception (see Hua IV, pp. 101–104). However, this was not Husserl’s last word, for in several late manuscripts such a positive view is openly questioned and challenged. On this, see the classic study by Marbach (1974).

  24. 24.

    Following Meixner (2014, pp. 279–290)—who in turn evokes a Plantingian notion—one could say that EPM turns out to be nothing more than a basic belief.


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This paper is a reworked version of the final chapter of my Ph.D. Dissertation (Sapienza University of Rome, 27 February 2017). It was presented at the workshop Phenomenology of Action and Volition (Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague) on 23 May 2018. I’d like to thank Stefano Bancalari, Emanuela Carta, Christopher Erhard, Guillaume Fréchette, Robin Rollinger, Hamid Tayeb and the anonymous referees of this journal for their comments. Part of this work was funded by the Ernst Mach Grant weltweit (ICM-2017-06528).

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Marchesi, A. On Husserl’s Exhibition Principle. Husserl Stud 35, 97–116 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10743-019-09242-w

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