A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post discussing Dorion Cairns’ critique of Sidney Hook’s “impression” of German philosophy, circa 1929. Cairns took particular aim at Hook’s “identification of phenomenology with psychology, a confusion indicated by Mr. Hook’s epithet, ‘logicized psychology.’” Hook, in other words, remained captive to the naïveté of the natural attitude, when it is the task of phenomenology to detail the constitutive acts of consciousness, regardless of the reality or unreality of the objects being constituted. The very notion of a Humean phenomenology may thus appear to be a blatant oxymoron. How could Humean empiricism, with its embrace of the natural attitude, be reconciled with the phenomenological bracketing of the natural attitude?
When one looks at the historical narrative Husserl offered to account for the rationale behind the development of phenomenology, we see that an important part of phenomenology’s impetus was its effort to grapple with a problem that Husserl claimed was discovered by Hume, and a problem that was central to Hume’s own project.
The problem Hume discovered, what Husserl calls the “universal concrete problem of transcendental philosophy,” is the “constitutional” problem of accounting for how the transcendence of beliefs (in causal necessity for instance) can be constituted solely on the basis of the givens immanent to the mind (see Formal and Transcendental Logic, p. 256). In Hume’s Treatise, for instance, the problem was one of taking “the repetition of perfectly similar instances [which] can never alone give rise to an original idea,” and then show how an original idea such as the idea of causal necessity, came to be (from Treatise 1.3.14, p. 163).
For Husserl, however, Hume did not develop the full implications of the “constitutional” problem and did indeed remain captive to the naïveté of the natural attitude and its embrace of “naturalistic sensualism” when he failed to grasp the essential constitutive relationship between the data of sensualism and an intentional consciousness. According to Husserl, Kant did not make this mistake and went to great lengths to address the “concrete problem of transcendental philosophy” by showing how the very objects of experience presuppose certain pure concepts of the understanding. By recognizing the importance of such pure concepts, Husserl argues that -- unlike the empiricists such as Hume, who thought of formal logic “as mostly a worthless scholastic survival” -- Kant’s approach rehabilitated the legitimacy of formal logic. And yet Kant, Husserl claims, “asked no transcendental questions about formal logic” (FTL, 258). In short, what is needed, according to Husserl is both a formal logic and a transcendental logic. Kant did the former but not the latter, whereas Husserl did both.
The last major piece of the historical puzzle that set the stage for Husserl’s own project was Brentano’s discovery of the intentionality of consciousness. Whatever the transcendent unities and objects of consciousness may be, whether formal or empirical, they are all related to the consciousness that is the consciousness of these unities (somethings). But even Brentano hadn’t gone quite far enough, according to Husserl. Although Brentano discovered the importance of the intentionality of consciousness, there was “no unraveling of the intentionalities involved, no uncovering of the ‘multiplicities’ in which the ‘unity’ becomes constituted” (FTL 262). In other words, we’re back to Hume’s “constitutional” problem of accounting for the constitution of unities from amidst a multiplicity of intentionalities.
A case could be made, then, that Husserl himself was a Humean phenomenologist, but not quite.
As Deleuze enters the fray he finds, as did Sartre before him, that Husserl continued to be captive to the naïveté of the natural attitude when he calls upon the identity and unity of the “transcendental ego” as the condition that guarantees the success of the unifying of the multiplicity of intentionalities. This sidesteps the Humean problem, however, which was precisely one of accounting for the constitution of identity and unity, including that of the transcendental ego. Now it should be noted that Husserl’s position changed from the time of Ideas. As Deleuze notes in his final essay “Immanence: a Life,” with the Cartesian Meditations Husserl stressed the “life of consciousness” as that which constitutes all transcendence, thereby anticipating Deleuze’s own position. (I have addressed these issues elsewhere, as has Joe Hughes here.)
Deleuze bites the Humean bullet and accepts the Humean “constitutional” problem full stop; consequently, his transcendental project entails doing for empiricism what Husserl did for formal logic. Where Husserl argues that the unities of formal logic are themselves constituted by a consciousness that is studied by transcendental logic, for Deleuze the elements of sensation, the determinate, individuated givens and facts of simple empiricism (as Deleuze calls it), are themselves inseparable from processes that constitute and reconstitute these determinate identities, and it is "transcendental empiricism" that investigates these processes. By taking Hume’s “constitutional” problem into the center of his own project, and by doing for empiricism what Husserl sought to do for logic, it seems fair to say that Deleuze was a Humean phenomenologist.