“The Most Beautiful Pearls”: Speculative Thoughts on a Phenomenology of Attention (with Husserl and Goethe)
Contribution to Book
Perception, Affectivity, and Volition in Husserl’s Phenomenology
In this chapter, I present some systematic thoughts on a phenomenology of attention. There are two angles from which I will approach this topic. For one, the phenomenon in question is quite important for Husserl, but his thoughts on the topic have not been known to the public until recently through a new volume of the Husserliana (Hua XXXVIII) that presents the only analyses in Husserl’s entire oeuvre dealing with this phenomenon. As it turns out, attention, as located between passive perception and active, synthetic consciousness, plays a key role in genetic phenomenology and its attempt to work out the levels of consciousness from passivity to activity. Hence, one part of this paper has the intention of presenting some of Husserl’s thoughts on attention and the systematic role it plays in his phenomenology of constituting consciousness. Secondly, in order to further the systematic point of the phenomenon, I turn to Goethe’s reflections on the primal phenomenon (Urphänomen) that can, I believe, be brought to bear on attention. Indeed, the primal phenomenon as a phenomenon that immediately and forcefully seizes our attention Goethe once compares to “the most beautiful pearls” in a chain of related phenomena. Among the phenomena appearing to us, some “simply” have a special quality in that they beckon us to investigate them, very much in the way in which Husserl describes the manner in which some phenomena lure us to focus our attention on them. Finally, if it is the world which “chooses,” as it were, certain phenomena for us to be drawn into their meaningful contexts, this observation has serious consequences for phenomenology as transcendental idealism. I want to put it as a question: What does it mean for a theory of world-constitution through consciousness that the world is “designed” such that certain phenomena are privileged from within the world to leap out at us, enticing us to explore it? Does attention bring us before the limits of phenomenology as transcendental idealism?