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Dossier thématique : Phénoménologies et théories du langage autour de Merleau-Ponty

The Field of Language: Aron Gurwitsch and the Functional Analysis

Simone Aurora
p. 105-127


Aron Gurwitsch est généralement considéré comme une figure mineure au sein de ce que Herbert Spiegelberg a appelé « le mouvement phénoménologique» ; sa théorie du champ de conscience a cependant exercé une grande influence sur les philosophies de Jean-Paul Sartre et de Maurice Merleau-Ponty et est probablement l’une des versions les plus radicales d’une théorie non égologique de la conscience. Ce n’est pas un hasard si la phénoménologie de Gurwitsch côtoie explicitement l’une des écoles structuralistes les plus importantes du xxe siècle, à savoir la théorie de la Gestalt. Cela apparaît déjà dans le premier ouvrage important de Gurwitsch, Phänomenologie der Thematik und des reinen Ichs, dont le sous-titre est Studien über Beziehungen zwischen Gestalttheorie und Phänomenologie [Études sur la relation entre la théorie de la Gestalt et la phénoménologie]. En effet, Gurwitsch a étudié à Francfort avec les psychologues gestaltistes Kurt Goldstein et Adhemar Gelb, qui travaillaient sur les effets psychologiques des lésions cérébrales, en mettant l’accent sur le phénomène de l’aphasie linguistique. Ma contribution entend montrer comment les idées de Gurwitsch sur l’aphasie linguistique sont cohérentes avec sa théorie plus large du champ du langage, établissant ainsi les fondements de la théorie fonctionnaliste du langage de Gurwitsch, à l’intersection entre la phénoménologie et le structuralisme. Plus précisément, dans les remarques conclusives, je montrerai la solidarité épistémologique entre le projet philosophique de Gurwtisch et la sémantique structurale.

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1 Aron Gurwitsch between phenomenology and structuralism

  • 1 Cf. Holenstein 1976: 2. In relation to his proposal to use the expression “phenomenological structu (...)

1As of the 1970s, the picture of the relationships between phenomenology and structuralism has partially changed, since a new hermeneutical stance arose, challenging the common view, according to which phenomenology and structuralism should be understood as conflicting frameworks, the first being a philosophy of subjectivity par excellence, the second defining a cultural atmosphere in which the “death of the subject” takes place.1 The first scholar to point out the historical and theoretical connection between structuralist and phenomenological traditions was probably, as Elmar Holenstein observes (Holenstein 2022a: 381), Jan Broekman. In his important book on Structuralism (Broekman 1974), commenting a passage by Patocka, Broekman clearly acknowledges an “inter-relatedness between phenomenology and structuralism (Broekman 1974: 48). Since Patocka’s “fragment contains in nuce the whole question of [this] inter-relatedness” (Broekman 1974: 48), it is worth quoting it extensively:

At that time, in almost all disciplines belonging to the cultural sciences, structuralism was experiencing a new boom – one-sided approaches, psychological or sociological, (whether applying to art, religion or law) were everywhere called into question and supplanted – and this structuralism found its intellectual mainstay in the philosophy of the Logische Untersuchungen. (Broekman 1974: 47)

  • 2 For a general presentation of Gurwitsch’s figure and work cf. Aurora 2022a.

2Broekman’s approach was then developed further in Elmar Holenstein’s writings of the 1970s. In these texts Holenstein intends to uncover the “thematic points of contact between phenomenological philosophy and structural linguistics” (Holenstein 2022b: 32) and to show “the historical function which phenomenology [had] in the establishment and development of structural linguistics” (Holenstein 2022c: 123), to the point of claiming, with reference to the work of Roman Jakobson, that “there is hardly a basic theoretical and methodological concept of structural linguistics and poetics that does not undergo an explicit or implicit phenomenological determination and elaboration”, so much so that “in this sense, phenomenology represents the historical and logical ‘condition of possibility’ of structuralism” (Holenstein 1976: 3). In more recent times, there have been a number of scholars stressing once again the interconnection between phenomenological philosophy and structuralist approaches (cf. among others Flack 2011, 2013, 2018; Aurora 2014, 2016, 2017a, 2017b, 2018, 2019; Stawarska 2015, 2020; De Palo 2016, 2018, 2020; Aurora & Flack 2018). In these texts one can find references to the classics of the two traditions, such as Saussure, Husserl, Jakobson, Hjelmslev, Merleau-Ponty, as well as to less known – although not less important – authors like Hendrik Pos, Gustav Špet, Karl Bühler and Anton Marty, but no references to the work of Aron Gurwitsch. This is not surprising, since the writings of Aron Gurwitsch have undergone a sort of removal from the canon of 20th century philosophy and, more specifically, phenomenology.2 One of Gurwitsch’s most important students, Richard Zaner, recently complained to “have tried more than once to let [Gurwitsch’s] great and gentle man’s genius be known, never succeeding but always wishing [to] do so adequately at least once” (Zaner 2017: 128). Even though the absence of Gurwitsch from the usual picture of 20th century philosophy and phenomenology and even from the reconstruction of the historical and theoretical relationship between the latter and structural thinking is somehow understandable, this “removal” is not for this less far-reaching. As a matter of fact, Gurwitsch’s “neglected” ideas prove to be an essential tile for the framing of the structural-phenomenological tradition, as the present paper will try to show.

3Aron Gurwitsch was born from a Jewish family in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1901. In 1919 Gurwitsch enters the university of Berlin, where he studied under the guidance of Carl Stumpf. He studied mathematics under Karatheodory, Schur, Schmidt, Rademacher, physics under Max Planck and philosophy under Riel, Erdmann, Dessoir, Hoffman and obviously Stumpf.

4If it’s probably true that Stumpf’s impact, as Lester Embree writes, “was more that of a teacher’s guidance than of a thinker’s influence” (Embree 2009: 42), it is nonetheless worth remembering that Carl Stumpf has been both one of the teachers of Husserl and the “father” of all the main figures who animated German Gestalt Psychology in the 1920s: Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler. It is worth highlighting that it is precisely under the guidance of Stumpf that Gurwitsch comes to conceive of an explicit contamination between Husserlian phenomenology and Gestalt theory. In his classic study on the phenomenological movement, Herbert Spiegelberg had already acknowledged that

the decisive reason for giving Stumpf as prominent a place […] is the role he played in introducing phenomenological methods into psychology and transmitting them to some of its most active researchers. In particular, Stumpf’s approach permeated the work of the gestaltists (chiefly through Wolfgang Köhler, Max Wertheimer, and Kurt Koffka), the Group Dynamics movement (through Kurt Lewin), and, indirectly, the new “phenomenological psychology” of Donald Snygg and Arthur W. Combs. (Spiegelberg 1965: 54)

5This circumstance should not be, in my opinion, underestimated since Gurwitsch explicitly defines his philosophical project, already in his 1928 dissertation, as a study “of the relation between gestalt theory and phenomenology”, as the subtitle of the dissertation reads [Studien über Beziehungen von Gestalttheorie und Phänomenologie] (Gurwitsch 1929).

6After two years in Berlin, Gurwitsch moved, under Stumpf’s advisement, to Freiburg, where Husserl was teaching. Although personal contacts between Gurwitsch and Husserl did not take place until 1928, Gurwitsch’s impression regarding Husserl’s work was immediately enormous; so much so that the young student took the decision, as Gurwitsch himself writes,

to devote his life and work to the continuation and expansion of Husserl’s phenomenology – in a word, to remain a disciple forever, faithful to Husserl’s spirit and general orientation, but at the same time prepared to depart from particular theories if compelled to do so by the nature of the problems and the logic of the theoretical situation. (Gurwitsch 2009a: XV-XVI)

7After one year spent in Freiburg, Gurwitsch moved to Frankfurt to study with the gestalt psychologists Kurt Goldstein and Adhemar Gelb, who were working on the psychological effects of brain injuries, with a focus on the phenomena of amnestic aphasia. In 1928 he defended his doctoral dissertation, Phänomenologie der Thematik und des reinen Ichs. Studien über Beziehungen von Gestalttheorie und Phänomenologie, under the supervision of Moritz Geiger. The dissertation was published in 1929 on Psycologische Forschung, a journal founded in 1921 by Wertheimer, Koffka and Köhler that became soon the official journal of German Gestalt psychology. The dissertation was then sent to Husserl and became the occasion of personal meetings with him and some of his students, like Dorion Cairns, Eugen Fink and Ludwig Landgrebe. It is important to remark that Moritz Geiger was a member of the editorial board of the Jahrbuch für Phänomenologie und phänomenologische Forschung. Thanks to Geiger, Gurwitsch had potential contacts with the leading figures of the phenomenological movement. This circumstance should not be underestimated, since Gurwitsch came to occupy a position that posits himself, at the same time, within the scientific milieu of German Gestalt theory – through the publication of his dissertation in the Psychologische Forschung – and within Husserl’s phenomenological “school”, whose official journal was indeed the Jahrbuch. From a historical point of view, this is an essential point for the argument of this paper, since “the most spectacular form of psychological structuralism was undoubtedly the theory of Gestalten which grew out of the convergent researches of Wolfgang Köhler and Max Wertheimer” (Piaget 1970: 53). If Piaget’s claim holds true, the relevance of Gurwitsch’s work for the development of a descriptive approach integrating the key-elements of phenomenology and structuralism becomes apparent.

8After the publication of his dissertation, Gurwitsch came back to Berlin, where he received a stipendium to write his Habilitation thesis, but in April 1933 he and his wife Alice had to leave Germany because of the new government of Adolf Hitler. They went to France, where Gurwitsch taught at the Institut d’histoire des sciences et des techniques at the Sorbonne. These courses dealt mainly with psychological issues and, especially, with Gestalt psychology and had great influence on Merleau-Ponty, who attended them. More generally, Gurwitsch’s teaching in France was quite important for the reception of Husserl’s phenomenology in the country. Sartre’s theory of the “Transcendence of the Ego”, for instance, follows the lines of Gurwitsch’s revision of Husserl’s phenomenology, which was developed in his dissertation, as Gurwitsch himself acknowledges (See Gurwitsch 2009b, Aurora 2022a).

9Finally, in 1940 Gurwitsch had to move again after the German occupation of France and emigrated with his wife in the USA, where he obtained various teaching positions before becoming professor at New School for Social Research in 1959, when he took the place of his close friend Alfred Schutz, who had just died. In 1969 a Husserl-Archive was established at the New School and Gurwitsch became the chairman of the board of directors. Moreover, in the USA Gurwitsch wrote his main work, first published in 1957 as a French translation with the title Théorie du champ de la conscience.

2 Field and Structure

10Gurwitsch’s most relevant legacy is without any doubt his theory of the field of consciousness. Already in his 1928 dissertation, he introduces the notion of “field”, that has been a crucial concept in the history of 20th century philosophy and science.

[It] is a migrant notion: born in physics, it was re-elaborated in Gestalt psychology and in biology […]. A complex pattern whose common thread is the question of totality, involving not only the Gestalt school and phenomenology but also structuralism, if we consider that, as noted by Cassirer, there is a line stretching from Goethe’s and Cuvier’s morphology to modern structuralism, going through above all the notion of organism […]. In this context the metaphor of the “field” is extended from physics to language theories and to the biology of “morphogenetic fields”. (De Palo 2019a: 201)

  • 3 “The notion of ‘field’ has been very productive in 20th century language theory in its various form (...)

11Thus, if one considers the historical and theoretical connection between Gurwitsch and Gestalt psychology, on the one hand, and with the work of Gelb and Goldstein as well as with (Prague) structural linguistics3 – as will be shown in more details in the next section –, on the other hand, it becomes clear why Gurwitsch’s field theory must occupy a prominent place in the history of the interchanges between phenomenological and structural frameworks. In order to assess the relevance of Gurwitsch’s position in this picture, I will now outline the cornerstones of his phenomenological-transcendental theory of the field of consciousness.

2.1 The key theoretical points of Gurwitsch’s transcendental phenomenology

2.1.1 The transcendental phenomenological approach

12By starting his 1929 book, Gurwitsch clearly claims that his philosophical proposal is rooted in Husserl’s phenomenology, a conviction that he was bound to preserve for all his scientific career.

With regard to its problems, the present work is concerned with Husserl’s Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie, vol. I. According to the Ideen, phenomenology is an eidetic science of consciousness and its most general structures. This fundamental conception serves as the basis on which the present analyses are developed and defines the historical standpoint of this essay. It will be phenomenology in the sense established by the Ideen (Gurwitsch 2009c: 193).

13According to Gurwitsch, phenomenology is then the eidetic science of consciousness. This means that: 1) Consciousness is the object of phenomenology; 2) Phenomenology deals with consciousness in scientific terms, insofar as it aims at describing the general structures of consciousness, namely its universal laws; 3) Phenomenology is an eidetic science, that is a science which differs from all the positive sciences (psychology, in the first line) because it presupposes the methodological move of reduction or epoché, a move that exclude any conclusion regarding actual occurrences. If positive sciences are then sciences of the actual, phenomenology understood as an eidetic science is a science of the possible.

The very task [of phenomenology] is the disclosure of the essential nature of consciousness and mental life or, as Husserl likewise says, its Eidos. This platonic term must, of course, be stripped of all speculative connotations and must not be understood in the terms of any metaphysical hypostasis. It is meant to denote a set of characters or structural elements which belong to consciousness insofar as it is possible, either quite in general or as consciousness of a certain sort such as perception, memory, mathematical thinking, [language], etc. For numbers, sets, mathematical propositions, or theories to be apprehended, the apprehending subjective acts must exhibit a well-defined invariant structure, and the same holds for the correlative objects of every type and category […] it does not matter whether or not those acts are even experienced at all. The reason is that eidetic truths are not about actual occurrences, but concern only that which is possible and what essentially and necessarily belongs to the possible. Eidetic truths express, if one may say so, that without which the possible would not be possible. No conclusion as to actual occurrence can, therefore, be derived from an eidetic truth. On the other hand, if acts do actually occur, they must conform to eidetic structures both universal and specific, since whatever is actual must fulfill the eidetic conditions of its possibility. If individual occurrence partakes of necessity, it is on account of their conformity to Eide and eidetic structures. (Gurwitsch 1966: 694-695)

14From this passage, we can fully understand why Gurwitsch defines his philosophical project as a transcendental phenomenology: his field theory intends to show “that without which the possible would not be possible”, and in this sense it is a transcendental theory; that without which the possible would not be possible is consciousness, but not actual consciousness, rather eidetic intentional consciousness, that is the a priori correlation between consciousness and object; in this sense Gurwitsch’s theory is a phenomenological theory. This correlation follows eidetic laws, that according to Gurwitsch must be described as field laws. Before exploring the way in which Gurwitsch describes the eidetic laws of intentional consciousness, establishing his theory of the field of consciousness, it is necessary to consider to what extent Gurwitsch’s theory departs from Husserl’s version of phenomenology.

2.1.2 The refusal of the notion of hyletic data

15The first element of departure from Husserl’s phenomenology lies in the refusal of the notion of hyletic data and, accordingly, of the difference between hyle and morphè, form and matter. This difference is the object of paragraph 85 of Husserl’s Ideas. In these pages, Husserl outlines as follows the difference between hyle and morphè, namely between matter and form: “Sensuous data present themselves as stuff for intentive formings, or sense-bestowings, belonging to different levels, for simple formings and formings which are founded in a peculiar manner […] they should be entitled accordingly formless stuffs and stuffless forms” (Husserl 1983: 204).

16Without entering in complex discussions about Husserl’s notions of hyle and morphé, I limit myself to show how Gurwitsch presents Husserl’s distinction and why he is convinced that this distinction does not reveal itself as sound. Expressed in a general way, Gurwitsch thinks that the idea of a formless stuff, that is of a matter without a form, and of a stuffless form, that is of a form without a matter, cannot fit into a pure phenomenological theory, since nothing in experience presents itself in such a way. In his Theory of the Field of Consciousness, Gurwitsch comments as follows on the quoted passage from Husserl’s Ideas: “[According to Husserl] in themselves, hyletic data are amorphic and devoid of organization. Any structure and organization exhibited by the perceptual noema must hence be brought about by noetic factors” (Gurwitsch 2010: 261).

17Already in his first book of 1929, Gurwitsch had written and clearly stated:

Quite in general, sensuous material is not articulated by means of higher functions. What is immediately given, the phenomenological primal material, is given only as articulated and structured. Data devoid of all articulation, hyletic data in the strict sense, do not exist at all. What is given depends on the structural connections within which it appears. (Gurwitsch 2009c: 283-284)

18This refusal of the distinction between hyle and morphè clearly derives from Gurwitsch engagement with Gestalt theory, as Gurwitsch explicitly acknowledges. The originality of Gurwitch’s position lies in the transcendental generalization of the insights of Gestalt theory, which are extended far beyond the domain of perception to the dimension of experience whatsoever. Moreover, this refusal leads to one of the main features of the theory of the field, what Gurwitsch names the principle of organization as an autochthonous feature of experience.

Before the very eyes of the experiencing subject the experiential stream itself undergoes a phenomenal transformation in that organization appears, whereas a moment previously it was altogether absent. Organization emerges out of the experiential stream and thus proves a feature immanent to, and exhibited by immediate experience, not bestowed upon the latter from without. (Gurwitsch 2010: 32)

19It should be quite clear how this position leads Gurwitsch to accomplish another deviation from Husserl’s phenomenological theory of consciousness, a deviation that brings Gurwitsch to develop what he calls a non-egological theory of consciousness.

2.1.3 The dismissal of the constancy hypothesis

20Before sketching Gurwitsch’s non-egological theory of consciousness, it is important to highlight a consequence deriving from the distinction between hyle and morphè and, in turn, from its dismissal. According to Gurwitsch, the dichotomy hyle-morphé implies the advocation of what he calls the constancy-hypothesis, which is a leit-motiv of modern science and, especially, of modern psychology, which according to Gurwitsch takes modern physics as its point of departure. The distinction between hyle and morphè represents nothing but the phenomenological parallel of the constancy hypothesis. By constancy hypothesis, Gurwitsch means the idea, according to which “genuine sense data as depending only upon local stimulation serve, so to speak, as raw materials for factors of a non-sensuous nature by means of which the former are interpreted, organized, grouped, articulated, structured, etc.” (Gurwitsch 2009d: 114). Thus, “in other words, the assumption is that sense-data depend exclusively and exhaustively upon external stimuli, so that the same sensations recur whenever the same stimuli act upon the receptor organs” (Gurwitsch 2010: 68). Let’s try to explain the difference between Husserl’s and Gurwitsch’s account by means of an example. We consider a straight line between the points A and B and then the same straight line between A and B, but this time as forming the side of a rectangle. According to the constancy hypothesis, which implies Husserl’s distinction between hyle and morphè, we are faced with the same hyletic data, the straight line, which in the first case stands out on its own and, in the second case, is interpreted as the side of a rectangle by bestowing on it a new meaning. On the contrary, if we dismiss the constancy hypothesis, we are forced to say that we are faced with two different things: a straight line and the side of a rectangle. This difference is not due to a difference of interpretation or of a sense-bestowing act; the difference is rather due to the relational context in which the straight line finds itself. It is the context that determines the identity of the thing as a straight line or as the side of a rectangle, not the activity of a subject bestowing a form. It follows that, against the constancy hypothesis, it is not true that “the same sensations recur whenever the same stimuli act upon the receptor organs”. Organization is an autochthonous feature of experience and not the result of the activity of a subject. This has important consequences regarding the notion of identity. Identity is always context-dependent or field-dependent: it does not serve as a presumption or as a point of departure. In this sense, Gurwitsch reinterprets the distinction between object and noema and redefines the notion of intentionality. Noema is the thing as it manifests itself, that is the thing within its relational context; the object, on the contrary, is the system of all possible noemata, that is the thing considered in all its possible infinite coherent contextual occurrences. Since we can only properly experience noemata and not objects, intentionality must be understood not as the correlation between consciousness and object, but rather as the correlation between noesis and noema. Let’s come back to the example of the straight line: in that case, we have two different noemata – the straight line and the side of a rectangle; the correspondent object would be the system of all possible coherent manifestations of the straight line in its infinite relational contexts (as a side of a triangle, of a square, etc.).

If the object proves to be the correlate of a multiplicity of acts, this purports that the object is but the systematically organized concatenation of noemata corresponding to, and yielded by, those very acts forming the “equivalent of consciousness” with regard to the object in question. In particular, the material thing proves the systematically organized totality of its perceptual appearances or noemata. The relation between a single perceptual appearance of a thing and the thing itself as real existent may then be defined as that between one member of a noematic system and the system as a whole. (Gurwitsch 2010: 215)

2.1.4 A non-egological theory of consciousness

21To do justice to Husserl’s philosophical position, we should remember that in the fifth logical investigation Husserl himself had advocated a non-egological theory of consciousness. Of course, Gurwitsch is aware of this, but takes the opposite route that Husserl took from 1901 to 1913. If the latter, in a famous footnote to the second edition of the Logical Investigation had written, with reference to the first edition of the fifth logical investigation, that “the opposition to the doctrine of a ‘pure’ ego […] is one that the author no longer approves of, as is plain from his Ideas” (Husserl 2001: 352), in his 1929 article Gurwitsch writes:

In full measure we appropriate the arguments with which Husserl, in the first edition of the Logische Untersuchungen, repudiated the assertion “that the relationship to the ego belongs to the essential structure of the intentional process [Erlebnis] itself”. In this respect, we revert to Husserl’s initial position in contrast to his later one, especially as his thought later developed in the Ideen. (Gurwitsch 2009c: 237-238)


[…] One has to abandon the conception of the pure ego as an enduring center within the flux of appearances, as being opposed to the flux in such a way as not to be concerned by it, as somehow standing above the flux. It is the sum total of whatever acts of experience emerge; it is involved in the flux without thereby losing its identity. Indeed, the ego is the flux itself, that one well determined identical totality which, however, is never accomplished or finished, but rather involved in perpetual growth. In the first edition of the Logische Untersuchungen, Husserl presents a theory of the pure ego which almost entirely coincides with the one we defend here. Not only does he reject the necessary point of reference and unity in Natorp’s sense, and even any center of reference altogether, but Husserl also maintains that in the case of a “straightforward experience” the ego is not at all given as part or component of the act. It is only on the basis of objectivating reflection that a mental state can come to be characterized as a state of an ego. (Gurwitsch 2009c: 312-313)

23In the author’s introduction to the second volume of his collected works, Gurwitsch sums up the essential meaning of his non-egological theory of consciousness as follows:

[…] the author has established a non-egological conception of consciousness. Departing in this respect from Husserl, the author finds himself in agreement with Sartre. By a non-egological conception of consciousness two things are meant. 1) Acts of consciousness are not conceived of as radiating, emanating, issuing, etc., from a center of activity, as manifestations of an agent who lives in the acts. 2) Following from this is the denial of a pure Ego in the Husserlian sense as withstanding or “surviving” the phenomenological reduction, as not reduced to, or better, disclosed as a phenomenon – more exactly, a system of phenomena organized in a specific way. There is only the mundane empirical Ego as a psychosomatic entity or socio-historical person, two aspects of the same reality which for the purposes of analysis, study, and explanation can to some extent abstractively be separated from one another. Because the Ego proves to be a mundane existent, problems of constitution arise with respect to it. Emphatically, the Ego is not the agent of, or a participant in, constitution but rather is its result, correlate, or product. Like all mundane existents, the Ego is constituted, not constituting. It is through acts of consciousness and their interconcatenations that the Ego presents itself as the particular and specific entity for which it is taken in common experience […]. As a consequence of his non-egological conception of consciousness, not only does the present writer not speak of a transcendental Ego but would also avoid the phrase transcendental consciousness. Rather, he would prefer to speak of a transcendental function both of consciousness at large and of specific classes of acts of consciousness (such as perception, imagination, abstract thinking, [language] and the like) and even of particular acts. (Gurwitsch 2009a: XXIV)

2.2 The theory of the field of consciousness

24To sum up what we have presented so far, we can claim that the condition of possibility of experience lies in intentionality, this understood as the correlation between noesis and noema; this correlation is not the result of an egological activity: rather it is nothing but the form of the structural organization of experience itself. Experience is what results from the structural correlation between noesis and noema. Thus, no experience is possible outside of consciousness. The theory of the field of consciousness aims to be a thorough description of the structural inner organization of experience.

Our aim is to enumerate several possible types of organizational forms or to point out the qualitative differences between them. Rather we venture to assert the existence of a universal, formal pattern of organization, realized in every field of consciousness regardless of content. Every field of consciousness comprises three domains or, so to speak, extends in three dimensions. First, the theme: that with which the subject is dealing, which at the given moment occupies the “focus” of his attention, engrosses his mind, and upon which his mental activity concentrates. Secondly, the thematic field which we define as the totality of facts, copresent with the theme, which are experienced as having material relevancy or pertinence to the theme. In the third place, the margin comprises facts which are merely copresent with the theme, but have no material relevancy to it. (Gurwitsch 2010: 53)

2.2.1 The Theme

25In the 1929 book, we find this definition of theme:

Without exception, in what follows we shall designate with “theme” that which is given to consciousness, precisely just as and only to the extent to which it is given and as it is disclosed by a strictly descriptive analysis. When we speak of the theme of an act of consciousness, we mean, accordingly, the “object” as it stands before our mind, as it is meant and intended through the act in question. In the present essay, the term “theme” has a noematic meaning, and a phenomenology of the theme is a noematic analysis”. (Gurwitsch 2009c: 202)

26As Gurwitsch clearly states in accordance with the above-mentioned terminological clarification, the theme is nothing but the noema. It is not the object of my conscious experience, since in conscious experience I’m not faced with objects, but with partial and perspectival sides of objects. Let’s say that my theme, at the moment, is the paper I’m writing. The paper is a complex theme but manifests itself as a unitary noema. What allows the theme to present itself as unitary, although it seems complex in nature? Here Gurwitsch makes explicitly use of Gestalt laws and defines the principle of organization of the theme as Gestalt coherence.

There is no unifying principle or agency over and above the parts or constituents which coexist in the relationship of mutually demanding and supporting each other. The Gestalt, the whole of Gestalt-character is the system, having internal unification of the functional significances of its constituents; it is the balanced and equilibrated belonging and functioning together of the parts, the functional tissue which the parts form; more correctly, in which they exist in their interdependence and interdetermination. The unity of the theme thus proves unity by Gestalt-coherence throughout, entirely and exclusively. Upon establishing the concept of Gestalt-coherence, we set forth the first dimension of conjunctions or the first formal type of organization. (Gurwitsch 2010: 135)

27Between the components of the theme there obtains a relation of Gestalt-coherence; this means that each component of the theme has a functional significance:

The integration of a constituent into a whole of Gestalt-character purports absorption of the constituent into the organizational structure of the whole. To be a constituent and, in this sense, a part of a Gestalt means to exist at a certain place within the structure of the whole and to occupy a certain locus in the organization of the Gestalt. The locus can be defined only with reference to, and from the point of view of, the topography of the whole. By virtue of its absorption into the structure and organization of a Gestalt-contexture, the constituent in question is endowed with a functional significance for that contexture. (Gurwitsch 2010: 112)

28So, each part of the paper, as my theme, has a functional significance and, accordingly, the paper as I experience it and as the reader might experience it, is a unity by gestalt-coherence.

29The theme, however, never appears as isolated, but always es emerging from a field, which Gurwitsch calls thematic field, and which represents the second level of the field of consciousness.

2.2.2 The thematic field

The appearance of a theme must be described as emergence from a field in which the theme is located occupying the center so that the field forms a background with respect to the theme. The theme carries a field along with it so as not to appear and be present to consciousness except as being in, and pointing to, the field. This, of course, does not mean that a given theme is indissolubly connected with only one field […] It is only the formal type and structure of organization, the formal condition that every theme appears in, and refers to some field, which is an invariant of consciousness. (Gurwitsch 2010: 311)

30The paper, as my theme, emerges from a field, stands on a background, for instance the “space” it shares with the other papers of the journal issue. Of course, I could also publish this paper elsewhere and in this case the thematic field would be a different one. What is invariant, though, is the fact that each and every theme necessary refers to a thematic field, which Gurwitsch also calls context. What links the theme to its thematic field and links the different components of a thematic field is a relation that Gurwitsch calls unity by relevancy or unity by context.

Besides being copresent with the theme, the data falling under [a thematic field] appear, moreover, as being of a certain concern to the theme. They have something to do with it; they are relevant to it. Here the relationship is not merely that of simultaneity in phenomenal time but is founded upon the material contents of both the theme and the copresent data. Such a relationship is intrinsic since it concerns that experienced together rather than the mere fact of its being experienced together. Items between which such an intrinsic relationship obtains do not merely coexist with each other; they are not merely juxtaposed. A unity with its own specific nature prevails between them. This unity exemplified by the appearance of any theme within its thematic field will be called unity by relevancy. (Gurwitsch 2010: 331)

31To go on with my example, belong to the thematic field of my paper, for instance, all the quotations that I have in mind but that I did not put for some reasons in the paper, the philosophy of perception of Merleau-Ponty, hypotheses regarding possible critical points and the like. They are not part of my theme, because they do not form a Gestalt-coherence with it, since they do not have a functional significance within the theme. However, they are not merely co-present with the theme, because they are relevant to it, and it is the theme itself that somehow defined the possibility for them to exist. Mere co-presence, instead, is what characterizes the last level of the field of consciousness, which Gurwitsch calls marginal consciousness.

2.2.3 Marginal consciousness

32“Whatever datum is experienced simultaneously with the theme, but does not relate to it through relevancy”, Gurwitsch writes, “falls into the margin which in our previous discussions has proven to be a domain of irrelevancy and mere copresence” (Gurwitsch 2010: 403). What is important to claim with reference to the marginal level of the field is that, although it is a domain of irrelevancy and mere copresence, it is not completely devoid of organization. The relation that links the marginal level to the theme and the thematic field is simultaneity. Thus, simultaneity is the principle of organization of marginal consciousness. What manifests itself as not having a functional significance with respect to the theme, nor a contextual relevancy, but it’s nonetheless simultaneously present is a component of the marginal level of consciousness. Therefore, not everything can enter the marginal consciousness, but only that which is simultaneously experienced. Marginal consciousness is the dimension of contingency. While writing my paper I am somehow conscious of how I’m dressed or how the room in which I am looks like, but these are marginal components of my conscious experience, which are merely experienced as co-present.

3 The functional Analysis: Organism and language

  • 4 If no reference to the English translation of a text is provided, the translation is mine.

33During his French period, in the academic year 1935-1936, Gurwitsch holds a series of lectures devoted to the work of Gelb and Goldstein with the title La phénoménologie de l’idéation. Although we don’t have any transcript of these lessons, it is nonetheless possible to have an insight into their content through some papers published by Gurwitsch in the 1930s and in the 1940s, dealing with a phenomenological interpretation of the investigations conducted by the two scientists, with whom Gurwitsch had the occasion to work with at the university of Frankfurt. In 1939, Gurwitsch publishes a critical study of one of Goldstein’s most important books (Goldstein 1934). According to Gurwitsch, Goldstein’s concept of organism derives from the biological declination of the dismissal of the “constancy hypothesis”. If “in the traditional view, the life of organism appears as a sum of reflexes, which strictly correspond with the sum of the stimuli effecting on the organism” (Gurwitsch 1939: 1074), Goldstein “renounces to explain the functioning of the organism on the basis of partial facts” (Gurwitsch 1939: 109). This is because “in a nervous system conceived as a network, the effect produced by a local stimulus cannot be purely local but extends itself to the nervous system in its entirety” (Gurwitsch 1939: 109). The idea, according to which the nervous system is structured like a network is of great interest for Gurwitsch, since this idea can easily undergo a phenomenological-transcendental translation through the notion of field.

  • 5 For an analysis of the semio-linguistic relevancy of this concept see Aurora 2022b.

34According to Gurwitsch, the main thesis advocated by Goldstein is that “every reaction must be related to the whole organism” (Gurwitsch 1939: 119). Rephrased in mereological terms, “the phenomena, which take place simultaneously, are not independent from each other; there obtains between them a functional relationship: they are partial moments of a unity; it is impossible to suppress one of them without causing a repercussion on the others” (Gurwitsch 1939: 119). The main point that can be drawn from this passage is the reference to a functionalist approach, that Gurwitsch will further develop in The Field of Consciousness by shaping the notion of “functional significance”.5

35However, the text that allows to reconstruct, in the most accurate way, the contents of the 1935-1936 lectures is a paper published in 1949 in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. The originality of this text lies in the phenomenological interpretation of the scientific results achieved by Gelb and Goldstein in their study of brain-injured patients. According to Gurwtisch, these results would especially “confirm” Husserl’s theses on the distinction between “categorial equality” and “sensuous equality” (or “qualitative homogeneity”). According to Husserl, Gurwitsch argues, sensuous equality “neither requires nor implies any reference to an eidos” (Gurwitsch 1949: 175), whereas categorial equality necessarily involves this reference.

Sensuous equality between the members of a perceived group is exhibited by the group as a specific perceptual character of its own, as a “figurales moment” of a special kind. By the same token, the group-character in question, as every “figurales moment”, is confined and restricted to the very group as experienced in actual perception. (Gurwitsch 1949: 175)

36In other terms, when a group is perceived as having similar or equal elements, in addition to perceive the group immediately as a multiplicity, in virtue of the existence of a figural moment emerging from it, one also perceives the elements immediately as similar or equal. If one is faced with three red objects, for instance, the perception of their chromatic homogeneity or of their similarity does not derive from a reference to the essence “red”, namely red as a category or as a class of objects; on the contrary, qualitative homogeneity manifests itself as a propriety of the perceived group: no reflective act or explicit thematization of the object as belonging to the class is needed: “the perception of the group in question with its characteristic group-aspect is not only entirely different from, but does not even convey or found the idea of the class of red objects” (Gurwitsch 1949: 175).

37On the contrary, in the case of categorial equality, “defined as the relationship between objects which belong to a certain class or, what amounts to the same, fall under the corresponding eidos”, one can acknowledge that it “proves a mere conceptual relationship established by categorial thought, and not a relationship of sensuous or perceptual nature” (Gurwitsch 1949: 176). “Husserl’s views”, Gurwitsch writes further, “have found hitherto unnoticed corroboration by Gelb-Goldstein’s concepts of “categorial” and “concrete” attitude, concepts which the mentioned authors have laid down based on their studies of numerous psychopathological cases presenting most various symptoms” (Gurwitsch 1949: 176). These two attitudes represent two internal functions of the psychic life; however, in the case of the patients studied by Gelb and Goldstein, one can observe a difficulty or an inability to assume the categorial attitude, with the consequence that their psychic life reduces to the concrete level. “Every brain-injury entail, according to Goldstein, a regression to the level of merely concrete behavior and attitude. Only that exists for the patient which offers itself in perceptual experience” (Gurwitsch 1949: 179). “Confined to the content of perception as actually experienced, the patients abide by that content in all its singularity and particularity; they are unable”, for instance, “to see in it the representative of a color-species or of a category or class of colors” (Gurwitsch 1949: 178). Thus, faced with a set of colored objects and asked to state their specific color, the patient is unable to perform the task; on the contrary, asked to indicate, among the objects, the one corresponding to a specific color, the patient doesn’t show any difficulty. Not being able to assume a categorial attitude, the patient cannot but limit herself to live things as they present themselves in perceptual experience.

Thus, the patients are unable to conceive of eventual changes or modifications in the experiential content, i.e., to conceive of the latter as possibly being different from what it actually is […]. All that these patients can do is act (in the broadest sense of the word) under the suggestions and imperatives as arise from the given concrete situation. (Gurwitsch 1949: 179)

38The term “red” does not properly indicate any perceptual content and, accordingly, appears to the patient as completely devoid of meaning, as an empty sound.

39The categorial attitude, that the patient is not able to assume, instead implies

a certain detachment from the experienced concrete situation which, without losing its character of actuality and reality, yet loosens its grasp upon the experiencing subject’s mind so as to permit him to consider the given situation under varying angles, from different points of view, and to display some initiative in its respect. (Gurwitsch 1949: 180)

40This “detachment” allows the subject to consider the object as an instantiation of a class or a species of objects, inserting it within a network of relations that link it to the other objects of the same class.

41It should be now clear why Gurwitsch takes so much interest in the work of Gelb and Goldstein. Indeed, Gurwitsch interprets the definition of brain disease as reduction to the concrete dimension as an implicit confirmation of his theory of the field of consciousness: the reduction to the concrete would be nothing but a disorder affecting the field of consciousness, that is a deformation of the field such that one would shift from the usual multi-planar structure of consciousness to a mono-planar structure.

  • 6 An application of Gurwitsch’s theory of the “field” to the study of schizophrenia is provided by Sa (...)

42What is lacking in the patient is thematization, an operation by means of which the three dimensions of the field of consciousness constitute themselves.6 “Reduced as the patients are to passively accepting experiential situations in their actuality and to acting only under their direct inducements, explication and thematization have become operations impossible for them to perform” (Gurwitsch 1949: 183). On the contrary,

the perceptual experience of the normal person is oriented with respect to non-perceptual orders and possibilities so that, even when thing is perceived in itself and for its own sake, without actual reference to a conceptual order, it still is experienced as referable to such an order; even when it is not perceived as an example, it still appears as thus perceivable. All perceptual experience is encompassed by the horizon of an at least potential consciousness of possible non-perceptual perspectives. (Gurwitsch 1949: 191)

43In the “normal” person, consciousness assumes the form of a perspectival potential horizon or, in other terms, of a field.

44The patients studied by Gelb and Goldstein were brain-injured subjects and, more specifically, subjects suffering from language disorders and especially from aphasia. Thus, it is not surprising that Gurwitsch shows a deep interest in linguistics, during the 1930s. In 1935, he writes a long report of a monographic issue of the Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique devoted to the psychology of language and published two years before. It is Gurwitsch himself to point out, in the first lines of this text, why the study of language proves to be relevant for his own research:

[…] the individual psychology of adult is fundamentally influenced by the fact that the adult has a language and that she modifies considerably herself according to alterations involving this faculty. At the same time, language is one of the most eminent fact of social life; language enables the constitution of a society but, on the other hand […], it bears traces of the structure of society. (Gurwitsch 1935: 399)

45In other terms, language seems to assume an essential function in the structuring of consciousness – both individual and collective – as a field but, at the same time, it can do so only insofar as its structure presents itself in the form of a field. The transcendental nature of Gurwitsch’s notion of field becomes thus apparent. This explains why one cannot find any explicit philosophy of language (or of art, music, logic, etc.) in Gurwitsch’s work; although language plays a crucial role in shaping the intersubjective-social world, Gurwitsch’s formal theory of field organization is intended to be more general than any other specific theory, since any conscious experience and act of consciousness display the invariant structure of the field. This is even more apparent, if one looks at a passage taken from a late contribution, in which Gurwitsch claims: “Undeniable and obvious though the importance of linguistic formulations is for purposes of communication, the first concern, even with regard to a theory of language, must be the phenomenological clarification of that which is expressed in linguistic formulations, namely the noematic correlate of the act of judging” (Gurwitsch 1973: 84). This is also connected with the fundamental importance assigned to perception as the primary phenomenological domain: “Quite in general, the transition from the perceptual to the logical realm (‘logical’ understood in the most inclusive sense) rests upon, and is motivated by, pre-delineated and pre-traced perceptual structures” (Gurwitsch 1973: 84), namely transcendental field-structures.

46In Husserl’s wording, the formal theory of organization must be understood as the theory of all possible theories, linguistics included.

  • 7 The special issue features contributions by, among others, H. Delacroix, E. Cassirer, A. Sechehaye, (...)

47In his long report, Gurwitsch goes through all the papers published in the special issue of the Journal. These are texts written by outstanding scholars and by some of the most prominent linguists of the time.7 Gurwitsch focuses especially on the contributions that show a particular relevance for his own research: obviously the papers by Gelb and Goldstein but also, and more significantly, the articles dealing with phonology, which present mostly the results of the Prague linguistic school. By commenting Vendryes’ paper, Gurwitsch writes:

Static linguistics does consider […] facts only in virtue of the functional value which is assigned to them in the spirit of a subject who speaks, listens and lives these facts. It regards language not as the product of a historical development, as a tissue made of strands bearing the traces of their past and the germ of their future, but rather as a system, in which each part depends on the other and in which each part determines each other […] The functional value of a word, depending on its syntagmatic relationships and thus on the role played within the sentence, is the primal object of static linguistics. (Gurwitsch 1935: 427-428)

48Vendryes’s claims, Gurwitsch observes, echo some of the fundamental theses expressed by Trubetzkoy:

The first is to consider phonic data as integrated details of an organized whole, namely the phonological system of a given language. Differently from traditional phonetics, which halts at isolated elements of human word to study both their historical development and their “natural” and objective features […] and finally to establish objective differences between the sounds, even though these slip out from the speaking subjects of the given mother tongue, phonology deals with what one imagines to pronounce, rather than with what one actually pronounces […] [phonemes] are not considered in themselves, but with reference to their mutual relationships and according to the role they played within the system. It is here where their linguistic value lies, since what distinguishes the sound from the phoneme is that the former is a simple psychophysical fact, whereas the latter assumes a meaning that differentiate the sense of words and sentences, to the point that in the phonologist’s eyes the sound is nothing but a phonetic actualization of the phoneme of which it becomes a material symbol. Meaning, which is something incorporeal, constitutes itself not by the power of tangible and objective features, but through relating and oppositive features, which clearly belong to the phoneme only in relation to other phonemes that are located next to it within the same phonological system. (Gurwitsch 1935: 428-429)

49Gurwitsch highlights then, with reference both to Vendryes and Trubetzkoy, the “phenomenological” nature of the results of phonological research. “All these ideas”, he writes,

are supported by a fundamental tendency that permeates them […], the tendency to divert the inquiries from objective facts, like the physical and physiological conditions underpinning the emission of sounds, and to assume the phonic phenomena as they are felt and lived through by those who make a living use of them […]. One must […] try to penetrate and posit oneself in the linguistic and phonologic consciousness of the speaking subjects and respect the way in which a phoneme is felt by those using it, without superimposing on it any speculative interest. (Gurwitsch 1935: 431)

50Gurwitsch’s acquaintance with structural phonology – and structural linguistics in general – allows for a consideration of Gurwitsch’s theory of the field of consciousness as internal to a “paradigm shift”, which led to the development of functional and structural methodologies in the linguistic sciences. In this sense, the notion of “field” appears to be particularly significant, since this concept was essential for the establishment of a structuralist approach in semantics. This does not mean at all that Gurwitsch’s work has been explicitly referred to as a specific contribution by the main figures of structural semantics; on the contrary, neither Leo Weisgerber nor Jost Trier have ever mentioned Gurwitsch’s philosophical theories, which they most likely completely ignored. Nevertheless, a linguistic oriented analysis of Gurwitsch’s field theory can contribute to a better understanding of the history of the above mentioned “paradigm shift”, as well as to unveil the potential philosophical presumptions and implications of semantic theories of a structural kind.

51If one considers the cornerstones of structural semantics, as set forth for instance by Trier, the epistemological solidarity between his lexical field theory and Gurwitsch’s framework becomes manifest. From a historical point of view, it is worth recalling the fact that Gurwitsch developed the concept of “field” already in his 1929 German article and that “lexical field theory [was] basically a continental European approach that emerged and blossomed from 1930 to 1960, predominantly in the work of German and French scholars” (Geeraerts 2010: 53), that is of scholars belonging to exactly the same cultural milieus, in which Gurwitsch’s philosophical work evolved during the 20’s and 30’s.

52The basic idea underpinning Trier’s lexical semantics, is that “[w]ords should not be considered in isolation, but in their relationship to semantically related words: demarcation is always a demarcation relative to other words” (Geeraerts 2010: 54). It is in this respect that the notion of field acquires its fundamental relevance:

The fact that a word within a field is surrounded by neighbours with a specific position gives it its conceptual specificity because this specificity derives from its demarcation with regard to its neighbours. The exact position in which it is placed as a small stone in the grand mosaic of signs decides on its value, it determines which part exactly from the global mass of the cognitive representation under consideration it carves out and represents symbolically. (Trier 1931: 3, Geeraerts’ translation)

53If one considers the very first lines of Trier 1931, the theoretical and epistemological solidarity with Gurwitsch’s theory is quite impressive, especially if one gives value to Trier’s reference to the domain of consciousness:

No spoken word lies in isolation in the consciousness of the speaker and listener, as one could conclude from its phonetic isolation. Every spoken word evokes a word with an opposite meaning and much more than that. If one looks at the totality of the conceptual relationships that arise when a word is pronounced, the word with an opposite meaning represents just one of these relationships and not even the most important. Besides and over this, a mass of other words emerges, which are closer or farther conceptual neighbors of the spoken word. (Trier 1973: 40, my translation)


54The aim of the paper was to provide a historical-theoretical presentation of Gurwitsch’s work, with the purpose of stressing the following points:

  1. The theoretical relevance and historical significance of an alleged marginal and secondary author, namely Aron Gurwitsch.

  2. The prominent position occupied by Gurwitsch’s philosophical project for the establishment and development of a theoretical framework integrating phenomenological and structuralist insights.

  3. The historical and theoretical importance of linguistic studies for the definition of a structural-phenomenological model, in general, and in Gurwitsch’s case, in particular and, moreover, the possibility to read Gurwitsch’s work as a (philosophical) piece of the history of the language sciences and, more specifically, of (structuralist) lexical semantics.

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1 Cf. Holenstein 1976: 2. In relation to his proposal to use the expression “phenomenological structuralism”, Holenstein observes that “at first glance this designation may appear to be an oxymoron, quite like speaking of a wooden iron. Proponents of both phenomenology and structuralism have found the approach and procedure of the two movements incompatible. And indeed, their offshoots have developed in diametrically opposed directions: on the phenomenological side toward a cloudy irrationalism, on the structuralist side toward an exclusively descriptive and positivistic formalism. A look at the beginnings of phenomenology and the East European branch of structuralism reveals an entirely different picture. The two fields soon prove to have many points in common, both historically and materially”.

2 For a general presentation of Gurwitsch’s figure and work cf. Aurora 2022a.

3 “The notion of ‘field’ has been very productive in 20th century language theory in its various forms and varieties: in Karl Bühler’s Sprachtheorie (1934), in the functional analysis of the sentence […] of the Prague school; in the so-called inhaltsbezogene Grammatik, and especially in Trier and Ipsen […], and, more recently, in frame theory” (De Palo 2019b: 237).

4 If no reference to the English translation of a text is provided, the translation is mine.

5 For an analysis of the semio-linguistic relevancy of this concept see Aurora 2022b.

6 An application of Gurwitsch’s theory of the “field” to the study of schizophrenia is provided by Sass 2004.

7 The special issue features contributions by, among others, H. Delacroix, E. Cassirer, A. Sechehaye, K. Bühler, A. Meillet, J. Vendryes, V. Brøndal, N. Trubetzkoy, E. Sapir, O. Jespersen, C. Bally, A. Gelb and K. Goldstein.

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Simone Aurora

FISPPA (Filosofia, Sociologia, Pedagogia, Psicologia applicata)
Università degli Studi di Padova

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