Phenomenological Reviews

Journal | Volume | Article

Structures of experience and philosophical analysis in the phenomenology of Giovanni Piana

Vincenzo Costa(University Vita-Salute San Raffaele)

pp. 47-66


A contribution discussing Giovanni Piana’s phenomenology implies—for those who have been his pupils and have approached phenomenology through his teachings—a type of discourse in which biography and theoretical reflection intertwine. Why, in the early 1980s, was I struck not so much by phenomenology, of which there were a variety of versions, but by Piana’s interpretation thereof? This is a biographical question, no doubt, but one which, addressing a particular historical milieu as well as Piana’s interpretative distinctiveness, also allows us to focus on elements of some significance beyond their insignificant singularity. From this point of view, I believe that Piana embodied a powerful countertrend to what was the dominant, universally accepted, koiné. In particular, Piana’s investigations pointed to a different way to answer questions such as: ‘What does it mean to appeal to reason?’, ‘What does rational and philosophical analysis mean?’. Piana’s approach to these questions, indeed, differs from that of hermeneutics, post-structuralism, and analytic philosophy, namely from that of the so-called linguistic turn. In this paper, I sketch the general constellation of problems with which a young philosophy student was confronted in the early 1980s, and then discuss the specificity of the philosophical direction outlined by Piana.


1A contribution on Giovanni Piana implies—for those who have been his pupils and have approached phenomenology through his teachings—a type of discourse in which biography and theoretical reflection intertwine. While preparing to write these pages, I wondered: why, in the early 1980s, was I struck not so much by phenomenology, of which there were a multiplicity of versions, than by the interpretation Giovanni Piana offered of it? A biographical question, no doubt, but one which allows us, inasmuch as it addresses a historical milieu, as well as Piana’s interpretative distinctiveness, to focus on elements of some significance beyond their insignificant particularity.

2From this point of view, I believe that Giovanni Piana embodied back then a powerful counter‑trend to what was the dominant, universally accepted koiné. In particular, Piana’s investigations pointed to a different way to answer questions such as ‘what does it mean to appeal to reason?’, ‘What does rational and philosophical analysis mean?’. Piana’s approach differed indeed from that of hermeneutics, post-structuralism and analytic philosophy, namely from that of the so-called linguistic turn. Let me then first of all shortly outline the general constellation of problems with which a young philosophy student found himself dealing in the early 1980s, to then try and bring out the peculiarity of the philosophical direction outlined by Piana.

1 | A horizon of problems

3The twentieth century was undoubtedly characterized by a linguistic turn that assigned to language a decisive value and, to use a term to which we will have to return, a ‘constitutive’ function. Its importance having been hardly neglected in history, language has always played a role in the definition of what human beings are: those who speak and, precisely because they speak, have access to reason and rationality. However, in the twentieth century, in the wake of a new interpretation of the link between language and experience, the defining relation between language and reason became increasingly elusive. Traditionally, philosophy of language has been focussing on the relation between language and reality in terms of verificational criteria, i.e., of those criteria that allow us to say whether a linguistic statement is true or false, depending on whether it adequately mirrors a real state of affairs or not. Thereby, the pre-linguistic and pre-conceptual ground used to be confidently taken as the criterion and layer through which one can discriminate good and bad reasons for taking a statement as true or false. It was, therefore, in this dialectics between discourse and experience that something like ‘reason’ was supposed to arise.

4While claiming that language does not relate to experience, but rather builds it, the linguistic turn has advocated a dramatic change in perspective. As a result, no ground and no criterion external to language allowing to settle rational disputes could be admitted. In the culture of the twentieth century, the idea that experience itself is made up of chaotic sensations that only language and conceptual schemas bring into shape, providing it with sense and intelligibility, has made its way. This idea of Kantian origins has developed in the most varied areas and in the most diverse traditions. Some of the, in my opinion, most characteristic perspectives in this regard will shortly make the object of my inquiry in what follows.

5The linguistic turn is clearly exemplified, first of all, by Quine’s approach, according to which, a theory is at work whenever we relate to the world, because “linguistically, and hence conceptually, the things in sharpest focus are the things that are public enough to be talked of publicly, common and conspicuous enough to be talked of often, and near enough to sense to be quickly identified and learned by name” (Quine 1997, 1). One learns a theory, then, as an implicit byproduct of language in which “a fabric of sentences [are] variously associated to one another and to non-verbal stimuli by mechanism of conditioned response” (Quine 1997, 11). Language is therefore seen as structuring our experience since “immediate experience simply will not, of itself, cohere as an autonomous domain” (Quine 1997, 2). Granted that experience is made of disorganized stimuli, if we remove these, one is supposedly left with the forms of connection by virtue of which the sensible world appears coherent and orderly to us. However, granted that these forms of connection are not to be found in our experience, one may conclude that they must derive from the interanimation between sentences. On this basis, Quine can assume that our entire experience is made up of only two components, stimuli and language, and that “conceptualization on any considerable scale is inseparable from language” (Quine 1997, 3). Before language there is no significant experience, and if the sentence is elicited by a non-verbal stimulus, yet to that crude stage, the verbal network of an articulated theory has intervened to link the stimulus with the response.

6Similarly, in hermeneutics, at least in its subjectivist inclination, this constructivist conception emerges already in the choice to translate the German term Auslegung, a key term in Heidegger’s Being and Time, as ‘interpretation’, rather than ‘explicitation’ (Heidegger 2010). ‘Interpretation’ alludes in fact to an activity of the subject that connects experience based on subjective forms, which gives form to experience and bestows meaning on it; while ‘explicitation’ alludes to an activity of the subject that unfolds joints and structures already present in experience.

7That the linguistic turn entails a devastating attack on phenomenology and the very possibility of a philosophy of experience is made particularly clear by the tradition that refers to De Saussure, inasmuch as this tradition develops along a process of progressive marginalization and devaluation of the function of experience. Along this line two steps prove decisive. The first is the reduction of thought to language, the second the reduction of perceptual and sensitive experience to language as a chain of signifiers. Let’s start from the first step. Husserl introduces a simple and clear distinction between sign and meaning. In fact, within an utterance one must distinguish:

First, the linguistic garb, what is grammatical does not interest us here. It is not important whether it is French or German. It is only logically important that the same ‘judgment’ corresponds to the statement.
Second: what is psychological, that would be the present experience of the judging on the part of the very person making the statement and judging it as stated there.
Third, something new, the meaning of the statement, and fourth, again something else, the objectivity about which the statement says something. For example, Kepler’s first law, ‘all planets travel around their central body in elliptic orbits’ (Husserl 2008, 36).

8Based on the fact that, when I repeat the statement, I do not have two Kepler’s laws but the same one stated twice, Husserl can infer that the meaning is clearly something totally different from the mental processes of the person stating or understanding something. Furthermore, since through the word the speaker is ultimately directed to its signification, Husserl distinguishes the uttered word, the actually spoken locution, taken as a sensuous, specifically an acoustic, phenomenon, from the word itself or the declarative sentence itself (Husserl 1969, 45). Now, whereas, according to Husserl, the word serves as bridge leading over to signification, according to Benveniste, considerations emerge that refer logical forms to the grammatical structures of certain empirical languages. The fundamental idea is that it is not possible to have concepts—hence thoughts—without signifiers. Benveniste remarks that, while the relationship between the sound b-ö-f and the ox thing is arbitrary, the connection between the signifier and the signified is not arbitrary; on the contrary, it is necessary. The concept (the ‘signified’) bœuf is perforce identical in my consciousness with the sound sequence (the ‘signifier’) böf. How could it be otherwise? Together the two are imprinted on my mind, together they evoke each other under any circumstance. There is such a close symbiosis between them that the concept bœuf is like the soul of sound image böf. The mind does not contain empty forms, concepts without names (Benveniste 1971, 63).

9Hence an important consequence: thought is inseparable from the language one speaks. Signification only exist within a language, and in the transition from one language to another, that is to say, from one system of signifiers to another, the signification also changes. All values being values of opposition defined only by their differences, the signifiers also work only within a system of oppositions. As a result, the system of signifiers is taken to corresponds to that of meaning. According to Benveniste, in language everything is so necessary that “modifications of the whole and of details reciprocally condition one another” (Benveniste 1971, 48). In this sense, thinking entirely depends on what language is being spoken, since what we want to say “receives form when it is uttered, and only thus. It receives form from language and in language which is the mold for all possible expression; it cannot be dissociated from it and it cannot transcend it” (Benveniste 1971, 55).

10However, while thought seems to depend on sign, the perceptual element remains, according to Benveniste, something that is not structured by the sign and the system of signs, so that it can be argued that, within his approach, experience is still granted a certain autonomy. Differently, Roland Barthes completely dissolves the autonomy of perceptual experience. According to him, similarly to Benveniste, signification is not the correlation between a sign and a signification, inasmuch as the production of meaning is to be understood “no longer as the mere correlation of a signifier and a signified, but perhaps more essentially as an act of simultaneously cutting out two amorphous masses” (Barthes 1967, 56). Language is not just an expressive medium. According to Barthes “language is an intermediate object between sound and thought: it consists in uniting both while simultaneously decomposing them” (Barthes 1967, 64). Accordingly, it cannot be said that reality exists independently of this decomposition and articulation. What is there first, according to Barthes, is an unarticulated mass.

Meaning can arise only from an articulation, that is, from a simultaneous division of the signifying layer, and the signified mass: language is, as it were, that which divides reality (for instance the continuous spectrum of the colors is verbally reduced to a series of discontinuous terms) (Barthes 1967, 64).

11The articulation of the signifier also cuts out and articulates our perceptual experience, since the system of the signifiers structures our own visual perception and not only the order of meanings. Before language there is no reality, and denotation is only the most sublime of connotations.

12This approach can be developed in a multiplicity of directions easily summarized by the adoption of a constructivist perspective. While convincingly avoiding any sort of raw naturalism, this philosophical choice pays the price of the culturalization of experience, which comes to depend entirely on the way we make sense of things. Thus, in the field of emotional experience, one is led to say that the way we experience our emotions depends on the conceptual network and the language we speak. The emotion concepts that are familiar to us are taken as built-in and as the result of the particular social context we grew up in. Said emotion concepts are meaningful within our given context, and our brain applies them independently of our awareness to construct our experience (Feldman Barrett 2017, 82). Similarly, since emotion concepts are necessary for seeing emotions on faces, the way we read emotions on others’ faces depends on the conceptual schemes we have (Feldman Barrett 2017, 108). The most recent developments in cognitive science even point out that our emotions are not simple reflexes, but immensely complex, elastic systems that respond both to the biology that we have inherited and to the cultures we live in now. They are cognitive phenomena. They are shaped not just by our bodies, but also by our thoughts, our concepts, our language (Watt Smith 2015).

13On this basis, everything becomes language or, according to Derrida, everything becomes writing, here qualifying as the transcendental horizon of every meaning. Granted that there is no external reference or transcendental signified, then “there is nothing outside the text” (Derrida 1997, 158). Contrary to Husserl’s claim, Derrida states that what one calls the real life of these existences ‘of flesh and bone’ is just an effect of writing and that there has never been anything but writing. The real has never existed, since what opens meaning is writing as the disappearance of the natural presence. Once more, the ground on which this entire construction can be developed is the marginalization of experience and, in particular, of perception. In Speech and Phenomena, speaking of Husserl, Derrida makes it clear: “Contrary to what phenomenology—which is always phenomenology of perception—has tried to make us believe, contrary to what our desire cannot fail to be tempted into believing, the thing itself always escapes” (Derrida 1973, 104).

14Precisely in reaction to this framework, Piana advocated the need to distinguish experience and language, in other words, to dissolve the intertwining that, in actual terms, binds them, claiming notably that “in the phenomenological investigation it is always important to be able to talk about a pre-linguistic dimension” (Piana 1998, 9).1 What makes the discourse on a prelinguistic dimension possible and legitimate is, according to Piana—as we will see in some detail—the fact that experience has its own autonomous forms of structuring, rules of internal composition, a schematism and an internal dynamism, which takes shape before the active intervention of language or conceptual schemes. Whereas, according to Derrida, we are doomed to “the phenomenon of the labyrinth” (Derrida 1973, 104), Piana pursues a different goal, not the labyrinth but Ariadne’s thread. In reference to Husserl and Heidegger he emphasizes that

…phenomenology, and indeed philosophy itself, must have a destination. In saying this, two particularly important points are immediately highlighted: philosophical research is a movement of thought that must give itself a goal, and a goal that is not too far away. It therefore has goals, it must reach a place: in this sense it has a destination. Furthermore, it has a destination for the mere fact that it is a speech—an authentic speech, which not only has an object and a theme, but like any other speech it must have someone for whom it is intended, someone to whom it is addressed. The philosopher must perhaps come from the solitudes of the mountain, but then he must go down to the plains, to speak among the people.
Talking about the destination in this sense certainly imposes obligations. It imposes a stance that is defined as a reference to linearity that must finally prevail over the convolution and torments of thought, a reference to Ariadne’s thread whose memory must prevail over the apology of the labyrinth. Today there are many apologists for the labyrinth—and almost without exception they can be traced back to Heidegger’s positions (Piana 1989, 4).

15The previously outlined downplaying of experience obviously entails profound philosophical consequences which, as we have already mentioned, clearly emerged together with Neo-Kantianism. According to this line of thought, since experience is entirely shaped by the subject, there is no manifestation of being. More specifically, being is not given by experience, but it is just a category of the subject that arises with judgment. In this regard, Heinrich Rickert claims that a datum becomes cognitively relevant only when it becomes part of a judgment, and that “the forms of judgment which assert something as real, in short, the forms of reality judgments are, at the same time, the forms of reality itself” (Rickert 1904, 170). There is no experience of reality, but only a subjective shaping of reality. Accordingly, Rickert clarifies what is meant by givenness in the following terms:

In the data the content must be distinguished from the form, and therefore we call the form of the affirmation [Bejahungsform]—which alone, in general terms, makes being given possible and logically precedes it—the category of givenness (Rickert 1984, 176).

16The given itself is originally a subjective construction. The meaning of this statement is expressed with even greater clarity by Rickert in 1909, in a text which was well known to Husserl:

The content [Inhalt] that we ‘perceive’ does not have any form in general, but is put into shape already in that we speak of it. This already derives from the fact that all the meanings of the words, under which we subsume them, are general, while the given content is absolutely individual (Rickert 1909, 178).

17In this respect, it no longer matters to speak of experience, since givenness is itself a category, a form of judgment. It does not refer to the giving of being in the process of experience. For Rickert, being itself is only a category, and it does not exist outside of judgment. Outside of our predicative forms there is no being at all. And it is here that the fundamental mistake of which all Neo-Kantians falls prey emerges as a general confusion between aiming at a doctrine of science and aiming at a doctrine of experience. These two levels of discourse are precisely what Piana never ceases to distinguish, constantly reminding us that they should not be mistaken:

Phenomenology is the doctrine of experience in an eminent sense. But experience has nothing to do with pure knowledge. Knowledge is the name for a different orientation of research – the orientation towards a doctrine of science. The doctrine of experience and the doctrine of science are very large areas of research, which often happen to be mistakenly superimposed, but which in reality must be distinguished with the utmost care (Piana 1998, 4).

18If there is no given, no phenomenology is possible. Using language and concepts, phenomenological analysis alters what it intends to bring to light. When it believes to bring out being itself, that is, structures intrinsic to the appearing as such, in actual terms it would project certain categories onto appearing. This is the criticism of the notion of givenness and experience expressed in radical terms by Paul Stern, in a text that Husserl read “in one breath,” on April, 9th 1904, Das Problem der Gegebenheit, zugleich eine Kritik des Psychologismus in der heutigen Philosophie (The Problem of Givenness, and at the Same Time a Criticism of Psychologism in Contemporary Philosophy). In this text, Stern targets the core of empiricism, inasmuch as this latter fails to take into account that every observation shapes and introduces something into the data, which therefore cease to be given, since every “description presupposes a logical processing of the given material” (Stern 1903, 23). However, to accept that the way in which we approach the data of experience produces a transformation of the material of representation, means that “the possibility of a description in the sense of a phenomenology of consciousness is lost, and conversely also that of a phenomenology of consciousness in the sense of a description” (Stern 1903, 27). Obviously, Stern’s premises are that data do not have their own forms of self-structuring, that they can only be given to the extent that the subject puts into shape a chaotic material, and that the form does not belong to the being, but it is rather bestowed on the being by the subject.

19It is this idea of ​​phenomenon as something formless that Piana’s phenomenology exposes as a misleading theoretical fallacy. From the phenomenological point of view developed by Piana, in fact, the realm of phenomena is not a disjointed and rule-free chaos, which gets form and structure thanks to the projection of subjective schemes on experience. Such an understanding of phenomena is typical, for instance, of the Neo-Kantian perspective, and emerges as such, for example, when Paul Natorp writes that

…our perceiving itself is a constant building of intellectual connections [gedanklicher Zusammenhänge], an experience of possible connections of determinations of thought, and the measure of success is given by the reached concordance [Einstimmigkeit] of the whole, which in the extreme cases decides what was given in perception (Natorp 1910, 8).

20This way of setting things dissolves the notion of data, and implies, as Scheler remarked, that “everything that is not sensory in the data, should be added to the object of experience only through a hypothetically supposed synthetic activity of intellect or intuition” (Scheler 1973, 310). On the contrary, it is clear that admitting the possibility that the phenomenon shows itself implies that, in order to appear, the phenomenon does not have to wait for the subjective form, and therefore is endowed of its own forms of self-organization and self-structuring. The very legitimacy of the phenomenological analysis rests then upon this self-organization, and its task would then be that of shedding light on the different layers and the different ontological fields already given in the experience.

21Piana’s phenomenological inquiry on experience revolves indeed around the following general issues:

  1. The tradition of modern thought has developed a reductive and fully subjective notion of givenness and as a consequence it has entirely neglected the manifestation of being.
  2. Within this tradition, the structures of appearing and the conditions of manifestation are taken as subjective forms that organize an otherwise chaotic material.
  3. Nothing is envisaged outside of subjective forms. This clearly excludes any investigation of being manifesting itself.

2 | Piana’s phenomenological objectivism

22Within the above outlined historical context, Piana’s inquiry opened up a different perspective. In the first place, to the constructivism of his time he opposed the idea of ​​a phenomenological objectivism, that is to say, an investigation of the ability of experience to give itself a form, according to autonomous forms of ordering, which are at work before language and conceptual schemes take place. The fundamental core of the whole of Piana’s phenomenological perspective consists in fact in the following general claim:

The general thesis and, at the same time, the condition of possibility of phenomenological research thus amounts to this: experience possesses a structure in all its forms of manifestation, and phenomenological research must make this structure evident by clearly showing its knots and joints. (Piana 1998, 4)

23In order to further articulate this principle, Piana goes back to Husserl who, in the Third Logical Investigation, states that the experience includes objective distinctions freed from all relation to interpretative acts, since “no reference back to consciousness is [...] needed, no reference to differences in the ‘mode of presentation’”(Husserl 2001b, 10) to determine the differences which we can find in the experience. For instance, the structural differences between non-independent contents and independent contents are in the ‘nature’ of the content itself, and they do not refer back to a psychological feature and mere contingencies of our subjective thinking. There are

real [sachlich] differences, grounded in the pure essence of things, which, since they obtain, and since we know of them, prompt us to say that a thought which oversteps them is impossible, i.e., a judgement deviating from them is wrong. What cannot be thought cannot be, what cannot be, cannot be thought—this equivalence fixes the differences between the pregnant notion of thinking and the ordinary subjective sense of presentation and thought (Husserl 2001b, 11).

24It goes without saying that we are here confronted neither with a subjective necessity, nor with a subjective incapacity to represent things otherwise, but with “the objectively-ideal necessity of an inability-to-be-otherwise” (Husserl 2001b, 12). This amounts to saying that, within experience one can find rules and laws, which are not bestowed on the contents but rest “on the specific essence of the contents, on their peculiar matter” (Husserl 2001b, 19). For example, one would easily concede that it is not possible to have a representation of color without having a representation of extension. This impossibility does not derive from our subjective constitution but is rooted in the giving itself of being, inasmuch as color without extension cannot be.

25Precisely for this reason phenomenology implies, according to Piana, a refusal of the introspective approach. This amounts to saying that the distinctions introduced refer “to an intrinsic characteristic of contents as such, and not to the ways in which they are conceived. The distinction in question must be made exclusively on the side of the object” (Piana 1977, 3). In this sense, the Third Logical Investigation was for Piana the cornerstone of the whole of phenomenology (Piana 1977, 1), inasmuch as it develops the fundamental idea of ​​phenomenology and the very possibility of a philosophy of experience. Experiential contents are organized according to internal rules and rules that are intrinsic to the contents as such (Piana 1979). Experience is not chaos that needs to be shaped by external rules, but rather a connection of being that is structured based on internal references. In this sense, contents given in a structural connection are the manifestation of being.

26In other words, they are given within a passive synthesis, that do not refer to a subjective form. The phenomenological work, that is to say philosophy itself, means then to highlight these internal rules of appearance and their way of givenness. Piana takes up this idea and sees the task of philosophy in the investigation of the structural differences internal to phenomena. In this regard, he outlines a precise method of philosophical analysis as the “characterization of the acts of experience by displaying the structural differences” (Piana 1979, 10).

27Reminiscent of the eidetic variation approach and of the idea that shedding light on essence means grasping a difference in structure, Piana’s method takes the word ‘structure’ as the appropriate translation of the German word ‘Wesen’. In order to avoid possible misunderstanding, he claims that: “The word ‘structure’ refers to the idea of a skeleton, an internal constitution, in short: the idea of characteristic shape.” (Piana 1998, 3) In this sense, relying on eidetic analysis means to avoid introspective or psychological analysis. What is at stake is not ‘how it feels to be’, but what is the internal articulation of what is manifested. What is here meant by experience is not the subjective experience. Questions such as ‘what is having experience?’ or whether there is something that it is like ‘being a bat’ are not answered by asking ourselves (Nagel 1974). The rehabilitation of experience does not mean then to go back neither to an introspective approach nor to some subjective experience eluding description. What is rather at stake is the scrutiny of the objective experience and its rules of connection. For example, “the perspective of perception is not something that is detected by observing within ourselves what happens when we perceive a table. [...] Instead it presents itself as a characteristic circumstance of the essence of the perceptual act” (Piana 2013, 45). One argues then, that, given that something of this kind (i.e., perceptual object, mathematical entities, works of art etc.) manifests itself, it must have this and this internal articulation in order to manifest itself. Although sometimes overlooked, this idea can be traced back to Husserl. The phenomenological investigation is an investigation which starts off from the structure of the objectivities and then inquiries back into the subjective lived experience and active forming of a subject which is conscious of such objectivities. This regressive inquiry can be explained in the following terms:

To the a priori of pure logic and pure mathematics itself, this realm of unconditionally necessary and universal truths, there corresponds correlatively an a priori of psychic species, namely, a realm of unconditionally necessary and universal truths referring to the mathematical lived experiencing, e.g., the mathematical presenting, thinking, connecting, etc., i.e., as a multiple psychic life of any subject at all insofar as it is to be thought, purely ideally, as a subject which knows in itself the mathematical (Husserl 1977, 27).

28With his phenomenological objectivism, Piana distanced himself clearly from authors such as Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, since they

failed to understand this point. As a result, their phenomenological inquiries ultimately take the form of mere remarks on the results of psychological-empirical research and thus have less to do with phenomenological structuralism than the ideas of philosophers such as Cassirer or Wittgenstein who are certainly not as close to Husserl's philosophy. (Piana 1998, 4)

29According to Piana, Merleau-Ponty does not accomplish an effective phenomenological investigation, precisely because, while criticizing Husserl’s essentialism, he failed to understand the core of the phenomenological method:

It has always seemed to me a singular paradox that Merleau-Ponty was about to elaborate a phenomenology of perception by criticizing Husserl’s essentialism, as if a phenomenological theory of perception could have at its center something different than the essence of perception (or its structure). Perhaps the fundamental misunderstanding implicit in this decision is due to the fact that Merleau-Ponty’s ‘Phenomenology of Perception’ is an interesting mixture of psychologisms and philosophemes (Piana 2013, 45–46).

30For Piana, the method is in fact legitimated by an ontological datum: the givenness of rules of internal composition within the experience. Experience has the autonomous capacity to organize itself, to give itself a shape, structuring itself before the intervention of language and conceptual schemes, and this makes an eidetic, that is structural, analysis possible. In fact, experience is not a set of sensations, a sensory chaos or a rhapsody of sensations, but a synthetic structure, an articulation of relationships, a network of internal connections among phenomena, which phenomenology must be able to unravel and unfold.

31In this respect, the structure of reason is anchored to the manifestation of being. Whereas Russell saw the method of philosophy as a method of definition, Piana follows a different path, namely “the idea of a characterization of beings by means of displaying the differences in their modes of manifestation, rather than by means of definition” (Piana 2016, 193). Being does not stand behind phenomena but shows itself in them. Consequently, unlike what is argued by Kant and the Neo-Kantians, the conditions of possibility of experience must not be sought in subjectivity, as source of the projection of rules on experience. The conditions of possibility of experience are internal to experience itself. Therefore, instead of being constituent, subjectivity is constituted. At variance with Neo-Kantianism, the conditions of possibility are not investigated as formal conditions, which structure the phenomenal field from the outside, but rather as internal connections to the phenomenal material.

3 | Intuitionism and empiricism

32Unlike all constructivist philosophical methods, phenomenology is for Piana an intuitionistic method, which should not be confused with an introspective method. Intuition does not mean looking into oneself. It is rather a method outlining modes of being by describing structural modes of manifestation (Piana 2016, 187). In order to understand and to develop this hint, we have therefore to go back to Husserl and ask what should one understand as ‘intuition’. First of all, Husserl states that:

Every originary presentive intuition is a legitimizing source of cognition, […] everything originarily (so to speak, in its ‘personal’ actuality) offered to us in ‘intuition’ is to be accepted simply as what it is presented as being, but also only within the limits in which it is presented there (Husserl 1983, 44).

33The intuition does not refer, then, to mere sensory data, but to everything that is given as such, and in the mode of givenness that is proper to it. Intuition is not the subjective form of appearing, but the subjective act in which being gives itself. In this sense, in Husserl’s phenomenology, intuition is much more than mere sensory contents. The English empiricist tradition limited the field of evidence and intuition to sensory data, and Hume equated evidence to mere appearance and denied its objectivity:

Every thing that enters the mind, being in reality as the perception, ’tis impossible any thing shou’d to feeling appear different. This were to suppose, that even where we are most intimately conscious, we might be mistaken (Hume 1960, 190)

34 On the contrary, Husserl states that:

Transcendental interest, the interest of transcendental phenomenology, aims rather at consciousness of objects. It aims only at ‘phenomena’, phenomena in the twofold sense: 1) in the sense of appearance in which objectivity appears and 2) on the other hand, in the sense of objectivity merely considered insofar precisely as it appears in appearance (Husserl 2008, 431).

35Unlike what suggested by Descartes’ reductionism, or by the approach of Hume and Berkeley, according to Husserl, the domain of evidence is not restricted to current sensory impression. Also, the object that manifests itself falls into the field of evidence. While Husserl quotes Herbart’s statement, according to which “so much appearance, so much being”, Piana emphasizes that “in spite of the literal affinity, we need to grasp the huge distance between the meaning of such a phrase and that of Berkeley’s esse est percepi” (Piana 2016, 193).

36Special attention should be here given to the difference between phenomenology and phenomenalism. According to Ernst Mach “things, body, matter are nothing apart from their complexes of colors, sounds, and so forth—nothing apart from their so-called attributes” (Mach 1897, 2). This amounts to saying that the being of the thing is just a complex of sensations. On the contrary, within the phenomenological approach, the manifestation does not exhaust the thing, but it is only a mode of givenness, that is to say, one way in which being can give itself. It may be that the tree that I see does not exist, that it is only a hallucination, but what is true is that I perceive a tree and that this is given in a certain mode of givenness (for example at a certain angle, as perceived or imagined tree, etc.). Thus, the sensation is not an internal image of the mind, but a manifestation of the tree that manifests itself, in other words, a manifestation of its being. We do not see an image, but the side of a tree. We never experience isolated sensory elements without connection between them, chaotic and formless data, which should then be shaped by subjectivity through its activity. According to the phenomenological perspective, if something enters our experience, this happens only because it is part of a significant whole, and therefore it has a meaning that maintains relationships with everything else. And this means that what of an object can be stated in the judgment is already given before the judgment and constitutes its horizon and its condition of possibility.

37It can be concluded, then, that there are two absolute forms of evidence. Within the phenomenological apperception, I can look at both the sensation (the mode of appearing, the mode of being given) and the object (what appears, what is given), and this means that:

Real [reell] immanence (and, respectively, transcendence) is only a special case of the broader concept of immanence as such. This is now no longer obvious and unquestioned that what is absolutely given and what is really [reell] immanent are one and the same thing (Husserl 1999, 65).

38The objects of which we are conscious cannot be reduced to our consciousness of the objects, and yet they are not two distinct things. The side I see is not an internal image, but the appearance of the cube, that is to say, the transcendent cube which manifests itself through an immanent mode of givenness. I do not see a sensation, but the side of a cube. As a result, a twofold sense of the term ‘phenomenon’ comes to the fore: “On the one hand, it is called phenomenon the real [reell] consciousness, that is, the effective cogitatio, and on the other hand it is called phenomenon the ideal content of the cogitatio, the intentional objectivity” (Husserl 2005, 57). Nevertheless, it would not be correct to separate the two things, that is, the external thing and the image of it. Husserl makes it very clear:

One is tempted to say that we have a pictorial image of an object internally, that memory is an internal pictorial imagining. But that is absurd. And no less absurd is the naïve interpretation, so tempting to primitive thought (as it was too often at work in Ancient as well as in Modern philosophy) that explained perception itself as having an inner image of what is out there in reality, in the original (Husserl 2001a, 592).

39Piana follows Husserl’s hint. According to him, the meaning of the difference between immanent data and the transcendent thing must be under|stood in the following terms:

Perception certainly consists of subjective moments, but they present the thing itself, this chair that I can precisely see or touch, and not primarily a phantom of a chair that would act as a psychic mediation with respect to the thing that is out of consciousness (Piana 2013, 13).

40If, as it is the case for example based on a sensualist perspective, the sphere of evidence is reserved for mere immanent content or mere impressions, as we have seen in Hume, for which only the impression is certain in my soul, then the notion of intuition is drastically reduced and with it the notion of experience.

41Precisely for this reason, while referring to the intuition and datum that is offered in the intuition, Husserl clarifies that this “is the same principle that, in a restricted form, is the basis of every so-called empiricism and that has its obvious legitimacy in that cognitive sphere that empiricism has exclusively and exaggeratedly in mind”.2 To be given, and therefore evidence, Husserl claims, does not pertain only to the impressions, but to the intentional object as well. To be given is therefore a manifestation of. In other words, in the phenomenon appearing and what appears are inseparable.

42What is, in conclusion, experience? What is meant by ‘being experienced’? I would say: To be given is the intentional correlation, within which the immanent datum is a manifestation of being. This means a reassessment of experience and shows that “a subjective ontology must take over from an objective ontology. Yet, the former is nothing else than onto-phenomenology, i.e., a phenomenologically grounded ontology” (Piana 2016, 193). Every appearance becomes givenness, manifestation of something, only in so far as it is inserted in a temporal movement, since “[g]ivenness is carried out as a process in phenomenological temporality” (Husserl 1997, 165). The sensitivity, within which being gives itself, is therefore not the ability to feel, to have impressions, a sort of wax tablet in which brute data are imprinted, but the synthetic dynamism intrinsic to appearing as such, which Husserl calls passive synthesis (Husserl 2001a). Piana aims at highlighting those passive syntheses, that is to say, the nexuses and the functional relations, the mode of articulation without which nothing could appear.

43The notion of synthesis then becomes, in a certain sense, the best explanation of the notion of constitution, since constituting an object means putting together parts to bring out an integer, and this happens through synthesis, which eventually converges with the term association (Piana 2013, 30). Indeed, passive syntheses stand for the autonomous legality of experience that allows us to speak of a prelinguistic layer, inasmuch as passive syntheses indicate “the synthetic tendencies that manifest themselves in the material and by virtue of the material and that subjectivity receives ‘passively’” (Piana 2013, 37), before any subjective spontaneity, whether understood as conceptual schemes, as interanimation of utterances or as articulations of the signifier.

44On this ground, and while developing this line further, Piana can state that the goal of a phenomenological philosophy is not to describe phenomenological givens, and that phenomenology does not slip back in the myth of the given, insofar as what it is to be described are phenomenological rules or structures, the rules which govern the synthesis of experience. This latter is taken as the only phenomenological given, not singled out contents. Piana says it with great clarity:

What I searched for, the authentic objective of description, are not by all means givens, but rather rules; more precisely, rules determining the display of this or that perceptual formation, of this or that objectual formation in general (Piana 2016, 201).


  • 1 This text was first published in German, cf. Piana (1995).
  • 2 Husserl, Ms. B I 1/21a.


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Publication details

Published in:

Caminada Emanuele, Summa Michela (2020) Giovanni Piana. Phenomenological Reviews Special Issue 1.

Pages: 47-66

DOI: 10.19079/PR.s1.5

Full citation:

Costa Vincenzo (2020) „Structures of experience and philosophical analysis in the phenomenology of Giovanni Piana“. Phenomenological Reviews 1, 47–66.