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Journal of Philosophy, Inc.

Husserl's Notion of Noema

Author(s): Dagfinn Fllesdal
Source: The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 66, No. 20, Sixty-Sixth Annual Meeting of the
American Philosophical Association Eastern Division (Oct. 16, 1969), pp. 680-687
Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc.
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that in ascribing belief to me you suppose that, if I am candid, I

will express that belief and defend it. I will not simply agree to
ascribe it to myself.

City College, City University of New York



HE general theme of phenomenology,according to Hus-

serl, is intentionality, that is, the peculiarity of consciousness to be consciousness of something.t

This concern with intentionality Husserl had taken over from
his teacher, Brentano. According to Brentano,
Every mental phenomenon is characterizedby what the scholasticsIn
the Middle Ages called the intentional (and also mental) inexistence
of an object, and what we could call, although in not entirely unambiguous terms,the referenceto a content, a directionupon an object.1
This may sound commonplace, but it leads to difficulties, e.g.,
when we try to apply the principle to a person who has hallucinations or to a person who thinks of a centaur. Brentano held that,
even in these cases, our mental activity, our thinking or our sensing,
is directed toward some object. The directedness has nothing to do
with the object's being real, Brentano held; the object is itself contained in our mental activity, "intentionally" contained in it.
However, whereas the view that the objects of acts are real leads
to difficulties in the case of centaurs and hallucinations, the view
that the objects are unreal, whatever that may mean, leads to difficulties in the case of many other acts, e.g., acts of normal perception:
it seems that, on that view, what we see when we see a tree is not
the real tree in front of us, but something else, which we would also
have seen if we were hallucinating.
* To be presented in an APA symposium on Phenomenology, December 27,
1969.Commentatorswill be Hubert L. Dreyfus and Robert K. Solomon.
t Edmund Husserl, Ideen, i, p. 203, lines 22-23; p. 204, lines 20-21; and p.
357, lines 19-20 of the Husserlianaedition (Haag: Nijhoff, 1950). In the following, all page referencesin the text are to this volume, unless otherwise indicated.
This is an expanded version of an unpublished paper read at the Western
Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association in May, 1968. Its
main theme tracesback to an article on Husserl that I wrote for VestensTenkere
(Norwegian)in 1962.
1Franz Brentano, Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt, vol. I, book 2,
chap. i. Here quoted from D. B. Terrell's English translation of this chapter
in Roderick M. Chisholm, ed., Realism and the Backgroundof Phenomenology
(Glencoe,Ill.: Free Press, 1960),p. 50.



So we are faced with a dilemma.

Husserl resolved this dilemma by holding that, although every
act is directed, this does not mean that there always is some object
toward which it is directed. According to Husserl, there is associated
with each act a noema, in virtue of which the act is directed toward
its object, if it has any. When we think of a centaur, our act of
thinking has a noema, but it has no object; there exists no object
of which we think. Because of its noema, however, even such an
act is directed. To be directed simply is to have a noema.
Husserl's notion of noema, therefore, is a key notion in his theory of intentionality and, thereby, in his phenomenology. According to Husserl, a proper understanding and grasp of the distinctions
connected with the noema "is of the greatest importance for phenomenology, and decisive for giving it a right foundation" (239.35).
In this paper, I shall present a number of theses concerning the
noema and support them by systematic arguments and textual evidence from Husserl's writings. I shall try to make the picture of the
noema that thereby emerges, as accurate and complete as is permitted by the evidence that is available in Husserl's various published
and unpublished works.
My main thesis is the following:
1. The noema is an intensional entity, a generalizationof the notion of
meaning (Sinn,Bedeutung).
This thesis and its consequences go against the usual interpretations of Husserl, but they accord well with Husserl's own writings.
Thus, in the third volume of Ideen, page 89, Husserl says: "The
noema is nothing but a generalization of the idea of meaning (Sinn)
to the field of all acts."
Also in many of his other works, Husserl expresses similar views.
Thus, in Ideen, volume i, he says, "Originally, these words ['Bedeuten' and 'Bedeutung'] related only to the linguistic sphere, that
of 'expressing'. It is, however, almost unavoidable and at the same
time an important advance, to widen the meaning of these words
and modify them appropriately, so that they in a certain way are
applicable to the whole noetic-noematic sphere: that is to all acts,
whether these are intertwined with expressing acts or not" (304.714). And in Ideen, I, page 233.35-37, Husserl characterizes the full
noema as a "'Sinn' (in the widest sense)." Compare also 219.1 and
One should be aware of an ambiguity in Husserl's use of the word
'Sinn' as applied to the noema. Sometimes he means the full noema,



other times just a part of it, a part which may be the same in acts
of many different kinds, e.g., acts of perception, remembering, imagining, etc. Our second thesis is therefore the following:
2. A noema has two components: (1) one which is common to all acts
that have the same object, with exactly the same properties,oriented
in the same way, etc., regardlessof the "thetic"characterof the act,
i.e., whether it be perception, remembering,imagining, etc. and (2)
one which is differentin acts with differentthetic character.
The first of these components Husserl calls "noematischer Sinn"
(321.38) and also, alternatively, "der Gegenstand im wie seiner
Bestimmtheiten" (321.37) and "gegenstindlicher Sinn" (250.4). Compare also 249.11 and 322.4. The second component he calls the noematic correlate of the "Gegebenheitsweise" of the object (323.18,
250.16) or of the "Weise, wie der Gegenstand bewusst ist." 2 An important part of the "Gegebenheitsweise" is the "thetic character,"
the "Setzungscharacter" of the act (323.18; cf. also NuS 6). Another
part that enters into the "Gegebenheitsweise" is the "filling," the
"Anschauungssinn." As we should expect, Husserl says that the second component, like the first, can be regarded as a component of
the act's "Sinn" in an extended sense (223.17-18). In the Logical
Investigations (5. Unters., ?? 20-21), Husserl calls the first component "Materie," the second "Qualitat" and the two together "Sinn."
In Ideen, Husserl normally uses 'Sinn' for the first component, 'Noema' for the two together.
A third thesis is the following:
3. The noematic Sinn is that in virtue of which consciousnessrelates to
the object.
This thesis, too, is well supported by the Husserlian text. Thus,
in Ideen, I, 316.15: "Consciousness relates in and through this Sinn
to its object." And "each intentional experience has a noema and
in it a Sinn, through which it relates to the object" (329.9). Compare also 316.18 and 318.18.
A key point in Husserl's phenomenology is the following:
4. The noema of an act is not the object of the act (i.e., the object towardwhich the act is directed).
This is a crucial difference between Husserl and Brentano: Brentano's dilemma, mentioned at the beginning of this paper, arose because he held that the object that gives the act its directedness is
2 From the unpublished manuscript Noema und Sinn, p. 6; in the following,
this manuscript will be referred to as "NuS" and followed by page number.



the object toward which the act is directed. Brentano struggled

throughout his life to make clear the relation of the act to its object, but he never succeeded in making this salutary distinction.
The object of an act is a function of the act's noematic Sinn in
the sense that
5. To one and the same Noema, there correspondsonly one object.
In fact, Husserl even asserts that: "Sameness of Sinn occurs only
where the object besides being identically the same, is meant in 'the
same Sinn' that is, from the same side, with the same properties
etc." (NuS 4). See also Logische Untersuchungen, III (1928), ? 28,
page 416.
The converse, however, is not the case:
6. To one and the same object there may correspondseveral different
This is trivially true in view of thesis 2, since two noemata that
have the same noematic Sinn and hence (as just observed) the same
object, can nevertheless have different thetic characters and hence
be different noemata. Thus, for example, acts of perception, memory, etc., can have the same object. However, thesis 6 may be
strengthened to:
6*. To one and the same object there may correspondseveral different
This follows, in fact, from the quotation from Husserl's Noema
und Sinn that we just gave in order to support our thesis 5: The
object being identically the same is not sufficient to guarantee sameness of Sinn; we also have to require that the object be given from
the same side, with the same properties etc. Compare also Ideen,
I, 321.8 and Logische Untersuchungen, II, page 416.
The noemata help to individualize the acts, in that
7. Eachact has one and only one noema.
Compare, e.g., NuS, page 2: "Each [act has] its noema as its individual characteristic."
It should be noted that the converse does not hold: to one and
the same noema there may correspond several distinct acts. These
acts will be similar; they will be directed toward the same object,
with exactly the same properties and oriented in the same way; and
-they will have the same thetic character. Yet they may be distinct
acts; they may, for example, have different temporal coordinates.



As could be expected, the noemata are like linguistic Sinne in

most respects. Thus, the following important consequence of thesis
1 should be noted:
8. Noemataare abstractentities.
As textual support of thesis 8 we note the following: Husserl
says in Ideen, i (222.3): "The tree, the thing in nature, is by no
means the perceived tree as such, which belongs inseparably to the
perceiving as the perceptual Sinn. The tree can burn, may be dissolved in its chemical elements, etc. The Sinn, however-the Sinn
of this perception, which belongs by necessity to its essence-cannot
burn, it has no chemical elements, no forces, no real properties."
In the manuscript Noema und Sinn, Husserl says: "Sinne are nonreal objects, they are not objects that exist in time" (NuS 109). And
further out in the same manuscript: "A Sinn does not have reality,
it is related to a temporal interval through the act in which it occurs, but it does not itself have reality [Dasein], an individual connection with time and duration" (NuS 114).
Here Husserl is talking about the noematic Sinn, but, since the
other components of the noema are also "Sinn" components (223.1718), the same presumably applies to them and, thereby, to the whole
noema. Husserl says in Ideen, 314.23-25 that all noematic Sinne and
complete noemata belong to one and the same species. That the noema is not a spatial object is clear from Ideen, page 97.23-24, where
Husserl observes that spatial objects can be experienced only
through perspectives (Abschattungen). Since in principle noemata
are not experienced through perspectives, they are not spatial
Closely connected with this is the following point, which is contrary to most currently accepted views on what the noemata are:
9. Noemataare not perceivedthroughour senses.
This view is not clearly expressed in any of Husserl's published
writings. However, it is an immediate consequence of thesis 8, and,
if it should turn to be false, thesis 8 and several of our other
theses would fall with it. It is therefore important to find and evaluate whatever evidence there is for or against thesis 9 in Husserl's
writings. The closest Husserl comes to expressing his view on it in
his published writings is on page 97 in Ideen, i, where he observes
that all visible objects can be experienced only through perspectives.
Since noemata, as just mentioned, are not experienced through perspectives, they are hence not visible. Presumably, they are not perceived by the other senses either.



In the unpublished manuscript Noema und Sinn, however, to

which I referred earlier, Husserl is more explicit on this point. He
there says, in a long passage which I will quote in full:
The perception is perception "of" ("von")this Sinn, but not in the
way in which the perception is perception of this house. The perception "has"the Sinn, but the Sinn is not perceived.Now I judge with
respect to the perception that it has this Sinn, and that it accordingly
(accordingto its Sinn) is characterizedas perception of a renaissance
building, whose facade has sandstone columns etc. If I close my eyes
and have the house correspondinglygiven to me in memory, then I
say again of the memorythat it is memoryof the same Sinn, in it the
same thing is presented through memory which was formerly perceived. And if I am describinga mere fantasy, then I say again that
accordingto its Sinn, it is a fantasyof . . . and there is the possibility that a fantasy has exactly the same Sinn as a perception (NuS 4).
Again, Husserl is here talking about the noematic Sinn, but, as
noted above, the remark presumably applies to all components of
the noema.
One might wonder how, then, one gets to know anything about
the noemata. Husserl's answer is
10. Noemata are known through a special reflection, the phenomenologicalreflection.
Our earlier theses on the noema now help us to see what this reflection is and what it is not. It is a grasping of a Sinn. To quote
Husserl: "Toward this Sinn . . . one may always direct a peculiar
reflection, and only what is grasped in it is the basis of the phenomenological judgment" (222.36). Also in Noema und Sinn Husserl
stresses that "the reflecting judgment of phenomenology and logic
is directed toward the Sinn, and hence not toward that which is the
object of the nonreflecting judgment itself" (NuS 99-100). That the
whole noema and not just the noematic Sinn is reflected upon, is
made clear several places, for example, in Ideen, page 369.
Phenomenological reflection is, hence, not a special way of looking or using our senses; the objects grasped in phenomenological
reflection are, as we already have observed in the preceding two
theses, abstract and nonperceivable.
According to Husserl,
11. The phenomenologicalreflectioncan be iterated.
That is, to quote Noema und Sinn, "The Sinn corresponding to an
object is in its turn an object . . . it can be made the object of a
As such it has a Sinn of the second level: the Sinn


of a Sinn ...


hence we come to an infinite regress, insofar as the

Sinn of the Sinn may in its turn be made an object and then again
has a Sinn and so on" (NuS 107-108). As Husserl points out, this
again has a consequencethat "the Sinn cannot be a real component
of the object"(NuS 108).
This is one of many striking similarities between Husserl's notion of noema and Frege'snotion of Sinn. There are also important
differences,however. Thus, for example, whereas Frege held that,
in contexts like 'believes that . .


terms refer not to their ordinary

referencebut to their ordinarySinn, Husserl held, as we have seen

(thesis 4), that acts normally are directed toward ordinary objects
and not towardSinne or noemata of such objects.This leads to major differencesin their analysesof act contexts.
We might like to know much more in detail what noemata are.
Like Frege, Husserl is not very helpful. One of the few hints Frege
gave concerninghis Sinne, was that they serve to illuminate aspects
of the reference. This fits the noemata to some extent, in that acts
with a common object but with differentnoemata can be said to focus on differentaspectsof their object, grasp it from differentpoints
of view. Also, Husserl, like Frege, held that a physical object has
an infinity of noemata and Sinne correspondingto it and can never
be exhausted by any of them. Physical objects are "transcendent,"
to use Husserl'sterm.4
Husserl also gives some more help. According to thesis 3 above,
the noema, or, more precisely,the noematic Sinn, is that in virtue
of which consciousnessrelates to an object. Take seeing as an example. That seeing is intentional, object-directed,means that the
near side of the thing we have in front of us is regardedonly as a
side of a thing, and that the thing we are seeing has other sides and
determinationswhich are co-intended to the extent that the full
thing is regardedas something more than the one side. These determinations are not perceptually filled; they are more or less
vaguely represented,and lead us on to further perceptualprocesses,
which make the invisible visible.
The noema is a complex system of such determinations(Ideen,
I, 93) which make a multitude of visual, tactile and other data be
appearancesof one object (op. cit., 173-174). To quote Husserl:
"The pure perceptual data . . . are not themselves perspectives, but

they become perspectivesthrough that which we also call apprehen3"Ober Sinn und Bedeutung," Zeitschriftfafr Philosophie und philosophische
Kritik,c (1892):27.
4 ldeen, I, 100 and 238 ff. Cf. Frege, loc. cit.
5 PhanomenotogischePsychologie, Beilage xvii, Husserliana nK, pp. 43434.



sion (Auffassung), just that which gives them the subjective function of being appearances of the objective" (op. cit., 163.11-17).
It is in this way, through perspectives, that we perceive objects.
As long as the further course of our experience fits into the more
or less vaguely predelineated pattern, we continue to perceive the
same object and get an ever more "many-sided" experience of it,
without ever exhausting the pattern, which develops with our experience of the object to include ever new, still unexperienced determinations. Sometimes our experiences do not fit into the predelineated pattern. We get an "explosion" of the noema, and a new
noema of a new and different object. We were subject to misperception, to illusion or hallucination, as the case may be, and we say
that the old act did not have the object that it seemed to have.
12. This pattern of determinations,together with the "Gegebenheitsweise,"is the noema.
My twelve theses concerning the noema by no means exhaust the
subject; they barely put us in a position to ask questions like: If
phenomenology is a study of meaning, in an extended sense, then
what light does it throw upon the questions concerning meaning
that have played a major role in philosophy since its beginnings
and which are a major concern of so many contemporary philosophers? Does phenomenology overcome the difficulties that are besetting so many ancient and recent theories of meaning? A close
study of Husserl's work can, I think, give partial answers to these
questions. And, even if the answers should be negative, I trust that
such a study will help to bring out more clearly what these difficulties consist in.

University of Oslo


IVEN the truthof "Socratesis the teacherof Plato"and

"The teacher of Plato is the husband of Xantippe," the

principleof substitutivityyields the truth of "Socratesis the
husbandof Xantippe." The principlestates that "givena truestatefor theotherin
mentof identity,one of its two termsmay besubstituted
* To be presented in an APA Symposium on Reference and Metaphysics,
December 28, 1969; see James W. Cornman, "On the Relevance of Linguistic
Reference to Ontology," this JOURNAL, LXVI, 20 (Oct. 16, 1969): 700-712.