Phenomenological Reviews

Journal | Volume | Article

Wholes and values

an application of Giovanni Piana's phenomenological structuralism

Roberta de Monticelli(University Vita-Salute San Raffaele)

pp. 125-155


Giovanni Piana’s ‘phenomenological structuralism’ is an original, deeply insightful way of making the most of phenomenological research by exploiting and developing the conceptual resources of Husserl’s theory of wholes and parts. Drawing on both Piana’s pioneering application of Gestalt theory to phenomenological aesthetics and on his life-long familiarity with the theory of structured wholes, this paper shows how phenomenological structuralism can be very fruitfully applied to general axiology and proves decisive in accounting for concrete value experience, which is not adequately conceptualized in contemporary metaethics. Far beyond Piana’s own concerns, his structuralism can provide clearer foundations for classic, Schelerian phenomenological axiology.


Phenomenological structuralism—a life-long research

Dear Professor, here’s a suggestion about the term Wesen— which in the Logical Investigations prevails over other equivalent terms frequently used later on, like Essenz and Eidos. I have been thinking it over for a long time, and I noticed that the word ‘structure’ might translate it, even in current usage sometimes, and much more so in the context of this philosophical work. Actually, this seems to be the most adequate and meaningful translation. It would also be a way to get rid of a lot of misunderstandings about words people don’t weigh against the concepts they are supposed to express, and we would silence criticism playing with these misunderstandings (Piana 2019, 5).

1This is what the young Giovanni Piana, who had been charged with the breathtaking task of translating Husserl’s Logische Untersuchungen into Italian, said to his master, Enzo Paci, the founder of Milan’s school of phenomenology. Paci had been promoting Husserlian phenomenology for many years. (Piana’s impeccable translation came out in two volumes in 1968 and already in 1961 the Crisis had been published in Enrico Filippini’s translation, prefaced by Paci himself). But Paci was horrified by his pupil’s bold proposal. French structuralism was then at its peak and fearing that such a term might be misleading was quite reasonable.

2Piana himself refers to this episode in what seems to be his last philosophical text, the literary genre of which is that of a review. Indeed, it was a rich, extremely well-articulated, perhaps overly generous review of my Il dono dei vincoli (De Monticelli 2018b).1 In fact, it is much more than a review: it is a lucid and passionate reconstruction of the crucial moments in Piana’s thought—and life—that led him to conceive of what he calls “the idea of phenomenological structuralism”.

3Readers of this special issue of Phenomenological Reviews stand to gain considerably now that they have access to an English translation of the homonymous essay (Piana 1998/1996) in which Piana so clearly and concisely explains his idea of what phenomenology is and ought to be. In fact, his review of my book offered Piana an occasion to briefly summarize and perspicuously elaborate an essential feature of his own thought. He did so paying extreme attention to the object under consideration itself and at the same time clarifying my central concept of ‘the gift of bonds’. This makes regret and joy more poignant and makes the undeserved privilege of being the interlocutor of a final philosophical dialogue less of a burden. As Piana explains:

A structured whole is a bound whole. The concept of a structure implies a set of constraints: there is no structure without constraints. A ‘structure of contents’ is based on some ‘constraints on possible variations of contents’ themselves (Piana 2019, 6).

4This text sheds light on a central point in Piana’s legacy, namely, his development of eidetic phenomenology, which, as Piana himself remarks, most second- and third-generation phenomenologists neglect. But it does that while articulating—likely more so than he had done in his bold proposal to Paci—the precise sense in which eide or essences should be understood. As he says:

That translation kept looking good to me, even if I didn’t adopt it. Yet that was the idea: Wesen, Essenz, Eidos pointed all in the direction of the ‘structured whole’. Later on, I chose to label ‘phenomenological structuralism’ the way in which I found it interesting to inquire into phenomenological matters. Even more: when it came to making a commented extract of Logical Investigations, my attention was immediately turned towards the Third Investigation […] namely, the one that Roberta De Monticelli takes to be the theoretical soul of phenomenology. I confined myself to point out its central importance within that work, suggesting even that one should start by reading it first, starting in the middle as it were, without going through unnecessary mediations […] while making the most of the analytic (after all so neglected) aspects of Husserl’s way of thinking (Piana 2019, 5).2

5Eidetic phenomenology is no Platonism, if essences are ultimately understood as unitary foundations (Third Logical Investigation § 21), that is, webs of ontological dependence that ‘hold together’ the inseparable ‘parts’ (or ‘moments’) of an integral whole. In the words quoted just above, Piana shows how deeply indebted those of us who try to make advances in eidetic phenomenology may be to his seminal work on Husserl’s theory of structured wholes.

6But there is more. Piana makes apparent the subtle thread connecting his ‘structuralism’ to the ethical impulse animating so many pages of Husserl’s Crisis in his Conversazioni su “La crisi delle scienze europee” di Husserl (Piana 2014). Stefano Cardini opens his review of that book with these words: “There are books one waits for twenty years” (Cardini 2014, 1). This is no exaggeration. We had to wait until Piana could refine and elaborate the lecture notes of courses he gave in the late 1980s in which he emphasized the continuity of Husserl’s oeuvre in striking contrast with existential and romantic readings of the Crisis and in which the pervasive axiological concern of that work is made quite palpable even if not directly addressed:

The ‘crisis’ is not a word or just a bit of a book’s title. It’s a whole age, the age of tragedy and the abyss where Europe sinks with World War One, becoming more and more unfathomable as World War Two approaches. It’s an age of great upheavals—of Russian Revolution and its tragic Stalinist epilogue; of Mussolini’s Fascism and of Nazism (Piana 2014, 119).

7In his last text too, perhaps prompted to return to the matter by an exchange we had after the publication of his Conversations (De Monticelli 2014), Piana takes up, in a way, the issue of axiology. For the interminable search for the gift of structure and form, order and meaning, which makes phenomenology a philosophy of experience, already is axiological research, and thoroughly so—albeit in a broadened sense of ‘axiology’. But there is more. Piana makes a phenomenological remark en passant about the quality of certain much-discussed passages from Husserl’s writings that is like a breath of fresh air. The tone is different in the Crisis. Spiritual tension becomes higher and higher, and even in the most analytic pages, as a consequence of his increasingly lucid perception “of a civilization reverting to chaos [and of] the thought of reacting with all one’s forces to this reversal” (Piana 2019, 11).

8Piana’s thought, though, goes beyond envisaging the axiological horizon of phenomenological research and displaying a keen sensibility for axiological nuances in language. We learn from this review that Piana shares Scheler’s criticism of Kantian formalism and deontological ethics. He explicitly rejects the view according to which morality “cannot be explored also from a purely theoretical point of view”, and research in moral theory “should be replaced by sociology and cultural anthropology”. He even claims that “a phenomenological perspective can offer many a solution to the topics of ethical normativity” (Piana 2019, 8). Despite all this, Piana expresses his perplexity concerning “value experience” (Piana 2019, 9). A quite justifiable perplexity, at least if he means to reject a ‘perceptual model’ of value experience. As I argued elsewhere (De Monticelli 2017), calling ‘perception’ the form of direct cognition that value experience takes can be highly misleading.

9Indeed, no methodological dictum is more useful than the one that flows from Piana’s ‘phenomenological structuralism’: “the phenomenological method aims at characterizing acts of experience, by exhibiting their differences in structure” (Piana 1998, 3).

10In the rest of this paper, I shall take up this dictum to show how it can be applied to values and value experience. However, I shall mainly focus here on the noematic pole of value experience by inquiring into the nature of values in a way that is entirely based on a ‘phenomenological structuralist’ approach and its key notions. This seems to be the best homage I can pay to Piana, this master of Italian phenomenology.

2 | An application to axiology

11As Piana showed quite early in his philosophical career, there is a deep link between phenomenology and the Gestalt approach to psychology founded by Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Koehler, and Kurt Koffka. In fact, both Husserl and these luminaries of Gestalt psychology had a common master: Carl Stumpf. It was in Halle that Stumpf and Husserl coined the expression ‘experimental phenomenology’ to designate the kind of psychological research on perception that was done in Stumpf’s laboratory. Even Scheler quotes Stumpf several times in his Formalism, citing Stumpf’s Vom ethi|schen Skeptizismus most frequently.

12Drawing on classic passages from the works of Koehler, Husserl, and Scheler—and, to an even greater extent, appealing to actual instances of value experience, namely, to encounters with value-laden states of affairs and objects—I shall show that Gestalt theorists and phenomenologists share a commitment to two claims. The first of these provides a definition of structured wholes, while the second asserts that values have a place in a world of facts. I shall argue, further, that these claims are in a logical relation of implication, so that the second cannot be false if the first is true (De Monticelli 2013a). If there are structured wholes, then there are values, and wholes are essentially bearers of value. This implication, if true, is in itself a proof, as straightforward as possible, of the applicability of phenomenological structuralism to axiology. Piana himself did not probably come to the idea of this further application of his phenomenological structuralism; however, my argument (if valid and sound) shows the fertility and, what is more important, the methodological correctness of his way of reading and practicing phenomenological philosophy.

13I’ll take up and develop this idea, the Implication Argument, in the second part of this paper (Sections 7-10). In order to appreciate that, though, we must get a grip on the phenomenological perspective on Axiology (Sections 3-6).

3 | A short introduction to axiology

14According to a standard definition (from the Oxford Handbook of Value Theory), “[v]alue theory concerns which things are good or bad, how good or bad they are, and, most fundamentally, what it is for a thing to be good or bad” (Hirose and Olson 2015, 2).

15In fact, most of the available work in value theory seems to belong to ethics, in the broad sense delimited by the question ‘What is a good life?’, including morality, as delimited by the question ‘What do we owe to others?’ (Dworkin 2011, 13). From Plato onwards, moral philosophers have disputed whether a ‘good’ life, a life of happiness, could and should in|clude morality. Plato and Aristotle famously argued that it does and should, with Hobbes subsequently dissenting. Kant, on the other hand, distinguished two conceptions of goodness, the eudemonistic-hedonistic (Wohl) and the moral (Gut). This basic distinction cuts across another now commonly made one, namely, between what is good (in itself or for the sake of something else), and what we ought to do. Sometimes the latter distinction is cast in terms of ideal oughtness (what ought to exist) versus practical (in particular, moral) oughtness (what we should do).3

16The bulk of contemporary value theory presents itself in most cases as metaethics, broadly understood as addressing the question whether there are any such things as values, or, equivalently, whether beliefs about value can be true or false, and, if so, in virtue of what can they be true or false. Metaethics is distinguished from normative ethics. While the latter, as a substantive inquiry into moral value, has given rise to competing ethical theories—such as deontological theories, consequentialism, or virtue ethics—the former presents itself as a branch of general philosophy, namely, as the ontology of values and value properties, questioning their nature and very existence.

4 | The phenomenological approach. The receptive turn

17No matter how wide in concern and crucial in importance the domain of ethics is—both at the metaethical and at the normative level—there remains an unquestioned basic attitude that casts value theory almost exclusively in the mould of ethics, and this is palpably the case in contemporary metaethics.

18Action and willing—or rather the whole conative dimension of life, rooted in drive and desire—are the tacit (subjective) counterparts of value as construed by the metaethical tradition (Von Wright 1963, Williams 1986, Rovane 2013).4 In this respect, analytic value theory does not depart from the mainstream of Western philosophy, since Plato and Aristotle, including also the contemporary continental tradition, with figures like Freud, Nietzsche, and their posterity. Across these wildly different schools of thought, one claim remains unchallenged: bonum est quod omnia appetunt.5 That is: the good is the formal object of desire. Hence, it is from the perspective of desire and will that all possible goods, however diverse, fall under the heading of the Good and count as ends of actions. Normativity is then accounted for by distinguishing what is or can be desired from what is worthy of desire (Aristotle, Brentano),6 Wohl from Gut (Kant), goût from estimation (Durkheim), or self-interest from critical interests (Dworkin). In fact, the most common lexical substitute for ‘values’ in contemporary analytic philosophy is ‘reasons for action’. The driving question lurking in the background of ethical theory is resolutely practical: what should I do? The focus is in part then inevitably on the subjective side of things, turned toward the acting subject or the agent.

19Here phenomenologists recommend making a fresh start. This fresh start comes in the form of a series of methodological maxims for a Phenomenological Axiology: relax, turn your attention to the world around you and its saliences and ask yourself how they are given to you.

20Since the word ‘phenomenology’ has a distinct and well-established use nowadays within contemporary philosophy of mind, it is important to recall here that phenomenology (as conceptualized within the classic tradition that surely includes Piana) is not a sub-area within the discipline of cognitive psychology, one addressing qualia or subjective experience as given to introspection, but rather a method of philosophy.

21The first methodological principle of phenomenology (MP1) invites us to a change of attitude away from the metacognitive, top-down perspective characteristic of most contemporary philosophy, including metaethics.

  • MP1: Back to the things themselves! No theoretical problem about a type of thing T should be addressed without recourse to the intuitive presence of some token or instance of T as presented in the first-person perspective.

22In a way, MP1 is just an application of phenomenology’s characteristic principle of the priority of the given over conceptual construction. MP1 is the gate through which one must pass for the silenced world of everyday experience to become again the privileged object of philosophical inquiry.

23How does the ‘lifeworld’ come to the foreground in philosophy? What does it mean to adopt a phenomenological stance toward an object of whatever sort? It essentially means getting clear about how an instance of that sort of object appears from an appropriate first-personal perspective, e.g., a perceptual one, if it is a perceptual object, or an emotional one if it is an object of emotional experience, and so on.

24This suggests a further change in attitude relative to previous habits of thinking about matters of value. The focus must be primarily on the experienced object and only secondarily the experiencing subject. The question thus becomes: what is the appropriate first-person perspective in matters of value? Contrary to prevailing opinion, what is called for in this regard is primarily a receptive and not an active or conative perspective. Hence, the prescription:

  • MP2: Relax and let yourself be struck by the value saliences of the world around you.

25In most classic works of phenomenology it is observed that, in its natural, pre-reflective attitude and with its automatic routines and its unquestioned commitments, active life shows a measure of inadvertence regarding whatever does not appear immediately relevant to the action being undertaken. Receptivity toward the dazzling, shocking, or delicate qualitative features of the surrounding world, whether of persons, things, situations, or events, requires time and attention. It requires a measure of availability for one to be touched or moved, to be ‘affected’ by and become involved with the qualities of the environment and this availability does not mix well with typical routines of action and work. The abbreviated imperative “Relax!” is of a piece with the essential change of attitude required by the famous phenomenological epoché that calls for a temporary ‘bracketing off’ of all practical (and theoretical) commitments.

26This ‘receptive turn’ brings into relief for us the main question, which concerns modes of givenness or the directness of cognition:

  • MP3: Ask yourself: how do I get in touch with values? How do I grasp them?

27What kind of experience is value experience? Humeans and phenomenologists agree that we are presented with an extremely rich variety of apparent value-qualities by means of feeling and that in most cases this involves sensory perception. But they radically disagree on the analysis of this mode of consciousness that we so quickly describe in terms of ‘feeling’ and ‘emotion’. Just as we learn about vision only by studying the visible, likewise we shall learn something about value experience only by studying value experience in detail. Phenomenologists have even coined a neologism to describe this aspect of value experience, calling it Wertnehmen or ‘value-ception’.

28Here is a final point of clarification concerning the meaning of the ‘receptive turn’ (de Monticelli 2017), which I cannot argue for here. Classic phenomenologists reject the traditional partition of mental life into cognition, on the one side, and emotion/conation/volition (including drives and desires), on the other, and split the latter into two different classes. Their purpose is to give an account of the receptive core of emotional life, namely, feeling or affective sensitivity, albeit in its multifaceted nature. Phenomenologists do acknowledge that affective sensitivity has a role in direct cognition of the environment, but this seems to imply:

  1. Feelings are modes of presentation for axiological aspects of reality, and not merely subjective reactions to reality.
  2. Feelings are not dependent on drives and desires, but, on the contrary, drives and desires depend on feelings.

5 | The domain of phenomenological axiology: a change of perspective

29Now, once this change of attitude is in place, the lifeworld appears in the fullness of all its qualities, including the full range of its colors and values, so to speak.

30The lifeworld is filled with ills and goods of all shapes and sizes. But what makes facts, situations, events, and things count as ills and goods, if not the values and disvalues they exemplify? Beauty and ugliness, kindness and rudeness, health and illness, richness and poverty, agreeableness and disagreeableness, distastefulness, obnoxiousness—is there anything that isn’t in some way value-laden? Not much, anyway. It is hard to find qualifying words in our languages, adjectives, that do not refer to some value quality. The adjectival part of our language is largely an indicator of our axiological commitments.

31This thought recommends a further change in perspective for axiological reflection.

32The phenomenological attitude allows us to construe axiology not as a fundamental question about the nature of the Good, but rather as about what fundamentally is given as axiologically salient. The diversity and plurality of value is perhaps what is most striking about it.

33Indeed, there are apparently as many ‘varieties of goodness’, or ways in which something can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as there are goods and ills on earth. They strike our senses and our affective sensitivity immediately: tasty appetizers and disgusting junk piles, comfortable armchairs, boring articles, funny jokes, handsome men, beautiful sunsets, powerful paintings, base actions, criminal deals, unjust societies, tragic conflicts, slaughters, rapes, pandemics—there is no end to what we might add to the list.

34This suggests a first neutral working definition of the word ‘value’, allowing us to take part in contemporary philosophical discussions about values unburdened by their philosophical baggage.

  • DEF(V). By ‘values’ we refer to those positive or negative qualities which make things (objects, states of affairs, events, actions, etc.) good or bad in one or another of indefinitely many ways, i.e., the qualities that make things count as goods and ills.

35There are at least four distinctive features (df) of values so defined that are given prominence in phenomenological axiology (but not so much in contemporary metaethics).

  • df1: Richness (Plurality + Diversity)
    We just touched on the first, namely, that there are not only many values, but that they are also dramatically diverse. They seem to belong to different spheres, which might constitute more specific subdomains of axiology, such as gastronomy, ergonomics, medicine, aesthetics, moral philosophy, philosophy of law, political philosophy, philosophy of religion, epistemology, and so on.
  • df2: Valence
    There are as many values as there are disvalues, and the apparent exceptions are demonstrably just that, apparent. Disvalues are even more important than values in flagging for us the essential nature of values insofar as they make normativity manifest. We get a sense of what ought to be by suffering real ills. Injustice teaches us what our behavior should be in order to count as just, illness shows us what it is to be healthy and how desirable health is, etc.
    Moreover, the positive or negative valence is registered at different levels of affective sensitivity. These range from the sensory and vital (pleasure and pain, feeling well/unwell) to a more personal sensibility (aesthetical, moral, political, religious). Accordingly, the realm of values seems to be characterized by what I will label thus:
  • df3: Multilayer structure (levels of value)
    For example, the comfort of a comfortable theatre armchair seems somehow inherently less important than the beauty of the performance of a theatrical masterpiece. Even within a single sphere there seem to be levels of value. In the sphere of moral disvalues, e.g., suffering violence is more severe than being addressed impolitely, for instance.

36The fourth and last feature possibly connected to the third, is unmistakably manifest in the axiological lifeworld. We easily recognize that different goods and ills have different degrees of existential significance:

  • df4: Degrees of (personal) existential significance
    For example, the existential significance of the epistemic values is much higher for a scientist or a philosopher than it is for a cook, perhaps, and the gastronomic quality of food has more existential significance for a cook, maybe, than for a scientist.

37A final, more general question arises here: What is the relation between axiology and the special domains of metaethics and ethics? Could moral values exist without non-moral ones? Consider some examples. What would the value of courage be if dangers did not exist? But notice that danger is not a moral disvalue. Examples could be endlessly multiplied ad libitum.

38Actually, with this change of perspective, phenomenological axiology opens up a domain of value qualities that is much broader than the domain of moral values and whose evidently given plurality and independence, as we will see, turns out to be the necessary presupposition of any adequate theory of moral values, ethics, and general practical philosophy.7

6 | What is ‘material’ axiology?

39So, let us turn to the things themselves! As I said, we can learn something about values and value experience only by being presented with actual examples of axiologically qualified things and experiencing their value qualities.

40Many of Piana’s writings are perfect guides for this exercise, particularly his work on music (Piana 1991, Piana 2007). In an amazing late text, he offers a masterly analysis of the specific affective qualities of Giovanni Pascoli’s poetry (Piana 2018). Affective qualities are a subclass of expressive qualities, which we can at least provisionally identify with aesthetic values. As can be gathered from most of his texts, and above all those already mentioned, Piana was well acquainted with Gestalt theory (Piana 1988a, Piana 1988b, Piana 1987), which in fact emerged together with experimental phenomenology (Stumpf 1906, Bozzi 2018, Albertazzi 2013).8

41Now, recall that phenomenological axiology is by definition a ‘material’ axiology, taking its cue from the title of Scheler’s masterpiece (1926, Eng. Transl 1973), Der Formalismus in der Ethik und die materiale Wertethik. However, the whole positive meaning, and, what is more, the positive, intuitive Erfüllung (evidential basis) of this descriptor, ‘materiale’, is far from clear early on in that work. Instead, Scheler begins the crucial first chapter of his Formalism—on goods and values—in a polemic way. ‘Material’ axiology is defined in opposition to and against the background of Kant’s ‘formal’ ethics. This is slightly incongruous, given the mainly axiological and not specifically ethical concern of that first chapter.

42Scheler, like all true phenomenologists, rejects Kant’s association of the a priori element of knowledge with ‘form’ (pure concepts or categories and pure forms of intuition) and of ‘matter’ (contents or data) with its a posteriori element. For those steeped in a Kantian tradition, if something is a priori, it is formal and not material, that is, it is a form of intuition or a category, or else, a validation procedure, and not a datum or a given content. If it is a datum or a given content, it is instead a posteriori.

43A ‘material a priori’, a ‘non-empirical datum’ may thus sound like a pure oxymoron to some ears, used to the empiricist, Kantian, and post-Kantian traditions. However, values are actually introduced by Scheler as distinct from empirical axiological contents, or goods.9 Although it is in the final analysis perfectly correct and phenomenologically justifiable, this claim is not very enlightening as a way of approaching axiological phenomena. It seems much too abstract and in a way ‘doctrinal’. How can we really grasp the crucial distinction between goods and values if we still have no intuitive grasp of what is meant by ‘value’? It is not by chance that the English translator of the Formalism does not even dare to propose a positive term for the title and limits himself to the negative and enigmatic ‘non-formal’. The polemical approach encourages this negative orientation toward the idea of a ‘formal’ ethics and lets it seep deep into the very translation of the pertinent term.10

7 | Back to structured wholes

44Experience tells us that values and disvalues do ‘qualify’ reality, such that they can shape or even disfigure it. Ruins are now in place of what used to be aisles and nave of Paris Cathedral. Humeans insist at this point that what are called ‘ruins’ are just burnt pieces of wood and collapsed vaults. That word is being used to convey sorrow, but there’s no property of being ruined out there over and above the physical and chemical properties of being burnt and collapsed. Yet I want to know whether my sorrow is appropriate or well-grounded. I wonder whether there is something in the thing itself that requires my sorrow and maybe my anger, something that ‘cries out for revenge’, so to speak. As soon as the Humean replies “As a matter of fact, no”, the right question comes to my lips: “But isn’t there a matter of value?”

45Experimental phenomenology (and Gestalt theory) help us access the intuitive basis—what Husserl would call ‘Erfüllung’—for this question. It is an initial catalyst in the process letting value experience emerge in the light of language. It enables us to notice this initially perplexed, hesitating question rising in us, gradually becoming manifest in the fullness of its meaning.

46In a pioneering work on axiology, first published in London in 1938 just before Kristallennacht, Wolfgang Koehler, one of the fathers of Gestalt theory, investigated The Place of Values in a World of Facts. Notice the delicate expression chosen by Koehler. Values must have a place in the world of facts. This does not mean that values are among the properties of real things, that they ‘determine’ things, as they used to say. They don’t. Otherwise, we would be able to delimit the extension of the concepts of ‘beautiful’ or ‘just’, that is to give necessary and sufficient conditions (i.e., a conceptual criterion) for what counts as just or beautiful, as we do with the concept of ‘human being’. Notice that claiming to have such a criterion, in axiological matters, would not only be theoretically wrong, it would be—and it has been—a source of evil and tragedies. It is one of the fatal failures to appreciate the difference between values and goods or, put differently, the opposition between ideality and reality. We may identify decent people with persons satisfying this or that contingent sociological feature, something Scheler used to denounce as ‘phariseeism’. Or we may mistake justice with the Comité de Salut Publique, and terror will follow. We can identify democracy with some democratic states and their interests, and then ‘democracy’ will be exported through military conflict.

47Now, this does not mean that axiological contents change all the time or that they are just factual, being merely the form of social and moral norms, for example, as their pure, ‘formal’ normativity remains unchanged. There are as many varieties of norms as there are varieties of goodness, and both the force of the norm and its meaning depend on the specific axiological content that ought/ought not to be realized. Here we meet the first meaning of ‘material’ in the expression ‘material axiology’. We realize that value terms do have analyzable axiological contents, there is a ‘matter’ for values (see footnote 7). As Iris Murdoch argues at length, it is always possible to improve one’s understanding of thick value concepts, such as impudence or courage (Murdoch 1970). Significant aspects of the content of justice as a quality of a well-ordered society were ignored for ages, such as liberty or equality. Moore claimed that goodness is a simple, non-analyzable idea. That was a fatal mistake, for it is false that its contents cannot be analyzed. They cannot be analyzed only if the analysis is narrowly carried out in terms of non-axiological contents.

48Material axiology, in its broadest meaning, is a theory of values whose first substantive principle is the claim that there is a matter of values. But the meaning of ‘material’ is not yet completely explained this way. How can our knowledge and understanding of axiological contents grow as reality changes except by our experiencing those changes, such as the consequences of tyranny, wars, civil wars, and so on? Requiredness, ‘affordances’, and ‘claims’ of all sorts appear within the lifeworld all the time. Experimental phenomenology can help us further specify the meaning of ‘material’. ‘Before’ being described in axiological terms, contents are given to experience in appropriate contexts where a kind of ‘requiredness’ can emerge. Values have matter in the sense that they are immediately given to experience (vital, aesthetical, moral, etc.) or are given as non-conceptual contents. Showing that ‘requiredness’, that is, normativity, can be part of the non-conceptual content of the perceived object was the most important achievement of Gestalt theory. An entire aesthetic of visual perception—and, more generally, sensory perception—can be built upon this discovery (Arnheim 1974).

49Now, the principle that makes such a discovery possible, thereby rendering our silent value experience accessible for thought and its enlightening power, is precisely the germ of the theory of structured wholes, that powerful idea at the heart of phenomenology that, as we saw, also became the Leitfaden of Piana’s thought. Structured wholes are the key to solving many a dualism, including that of the real and the ideal.

8 | Gestalt wholes

50Let’s call WP (the Whole/Parts thesis) the first claim shared by Gestalt psychologists and phenomenologists, i.e., the claim that defines structured wholes:

  • (WP): A whole can be different from the sum of its parts.

51Let me comment on this formulation of WP. It is meant to take account of the full meaning that Husserl’s theory of wholes and parts (Third Investigation) gave it, without sacrificing the point emphasized in Koffka’s formulation:

It has been said: The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is more correct to say that the whole is something else than the sum of its parts, because summing up is a meaningless procedure, whereas the whole-part relationship is meaningful. (Koffka 1935/1999, 176)

52Rarely is so good a warning accompanied by such poor motivation. (In what sense is summing up a “meaningless procedure”? By that standard, elementary logic as well would be meaningless, since constructing truth tables is a mechanical procedure!). The warning itself is of course exactly right because it reminds us that some wholes have an independent existence from the sheer plurality of the parts, that is, they are other and not greater than ‘the sum of their parts’. In fact, it is reported that Koffka would correct students on this very point. However, even so, the dictum will not be very clear until we specify what we mean by ‘the sum of the parts’. Our formulation of WP makes room for such a specification. First of all, it leaves room for wholes that are in fact sums of parts. Secondly, it states that not all wholes are like that.

53What is it for a whole to be (or not to be) a sum of its parts?

54The theory of sums is classical mereology, the theory of parts and wholes first proposed by Stanislaw Lesniewski in 1916, reformulated by Leonard and Goodman (1940), and completed by Lewis (1991).11 Take (S) as an informal characterization of a sum in the technical mereological sense of the word :

(S) SUM = df Any plurality reducible to its elements or parts, being ontologically innocent with respect to them.12

55Intuitively, a sum is the loosest possible way for several things to be together. It is one of two ways of being together, as identified by Plato’s discussion of the problem of the one and the many in Theaetetus (202e-205e). Take two letters, m and e. (It doesn’t matter whether we think of them as tokens or types.) We can call these two letters a plurality. Put them together. Now, how are we to conceive of the word me, of which m and e are parts? According to one proposal, that whole must be conceived as all of its parts, as an aggregate somehow identical to them. Another suggestion, which Plato seems to prefer, makes the whole out to be distinct from its parts, and to be in a sense a new, a further individual thing. Plato intends that quite literally, speaking of ‘a new type of thing’ that is generated by the synthesis of the elementary parts.

56Now, I think that Plato is right in this particular case and that the word ‘me’ is definitely a new thing, or a thing of a new type, one ontologically not innocent or reducible to the mere sum of ‘m’ and ‘e’, which resists change of the parts' order.13

57Classical mereology, though, only deals with the first hypothesis. Sums are those pluralities that are reducible to their parts or elements, whether or not we’d call them ‘wholes’ in ordinary language.

58Now, finding wholes that are not sums is, in this sense, a straightforward exercise. Even a heap of stones is not a mere sum, for it has a form of unity (contiguity) preventing the whole from surviving the scattering of its constituent stones. What is more difficult is discovering a principle capable of comprehensively accounting for all the forms of bonds and dependencies that ‘hold together’ the rich and articulated contents our experience presents to us as unitary, complex, and concrete things. Such a principle would be a welcome replacement of the category of substance, provided it had the same ontological ambitions without paying the same metaphysical price. Such was Husserl’s ambition, though it was definitely not that of Gestalt theorists. So, let us come back to them for the moment.

59Recall (WP), the classical mereological thesis. We have already discussed Koffka’s version of it, i.e., his claim that a whole is other than the sum of its parts. In most texts by Wolfgang Koehler, and particularly in Koehler (1938), (WP) is analyzed into three distinct points.

  • (G) Gestalt principle: There is no datum without inner organization or structure.
  • (W) Global properties thesis: There are properties that belong to a ‘system’ or ‘whole’ (e.g., the affective quality of a melody) but not to its parts.
  • (D) Position dependency thesis: Some parts have properties that are determined by their position in the whole (e.g., being the leading note, being the tonic). (This claim highlights the ‘integral’ character of the whole, that is, the way its parts are ‘integrated’).

60(W) captures the ‘novelty’ of the whole. A melody nicely exemplifies points (W) and (D). As we have seen, musical themes or melodies are historically favored examples of integral wholes. If we use Koehler’s termino|logy, music is pervaded by ‘requiredness’:

We play a simple sequence of chords on the piano. If these are properly chosen, a definite key will develop. Supposing that in this key, the ‘leading note’ is introduced in an appropriate manner, a final chord following this note is not an indifferent fact in the auditory field. It may sound wrong or, if it corresponds to the tonic of the key, it may sound right. If we stop after the leading note without a further chord, the sequence will be heard as incomplete, with a vector toward completion (Köhler 1966, 75).

61The same is true of any temporally extended, structured whole. Consider a theatrical or athletic performance, or even a scientific presentation. For example, many possible ways of completing this very sentence would sound wrong: they may be logically incorrect, topically irrelevant, etc. Koehler, as we saw, used music as a particularly vivid example of a normative or ‘demand’ quality that has its place ‘in the world’ itself and not just in the mind:

It can hardly be doubted that, in this case, these terms (right or wrong) refer, phenomenally, to something in the tones, not in ourselves (Köhler 1966, 75).

62It is quite easy to multiply examples of ‘demands’ that are phenomenologically manifest in things themselves. I still remember the sense of physical oppression I felt when visiting, in Bucharest, the second-largest administrative building in the world, the Palace of Parliament, a product of Ceausescu’s megalomania that was built in the 1980s. Walking through a 100 hundred meter-long corridor, and, even ignoring the heavy symbolism of degenerate power surrounding you, you can't help feeling the ceiling oppressing you in a truly smothering way. Nevertheless, in absolute terms, the ceiling is incomparably higher than that of your study room. It is a matter of proportions. The ratio of length and height is wildly wrong.

63All of Rudolf Arnheim’s works14 swarm with examples of demand qualities. No image, perhaps, can do more justice to the idea than this very simple figure, exemplifying a phenomenon to which Arnheim devoted most of his research, namely, the ‘power of center’:

64This figure—actually, the first one in his main work, appearing under the section's heading ‘Balance’ (Arnheim 1974, 10)—illustrates WP and its corollaries quite clearly. The ‘point’ on the square plane is clearly ‘imbalanced’, off-center, in the sense that you have to resist the drive to push it down and left toward the center. This is evidence for the claim that we grasp organized wholes rather than associating atomic data and that the elements of a given percept are given as a function of their whole.

65Consider one last example that foregrounds an important point about the ‘varieties of demand’. I have in mind the Barbier-Mueller Museums of Geneva and Barcelona and their collection of ethnic masks. A selection of them is reproduced in a marvelous book whose editors exploited the poetic talent of Michel Butor by asking him to associate a short poem with each mask. What is impressive about this collection is not so much the poems as the classification of all the masks into no less than 13 classes of different expressions, where each class itself exhibits a series of significant variations of its type of expression. The poems are presented as the ‘voices of the masks’, and some of them match the expressive qualities of the concerned mask in a striking way. So, each class of expression constitutes a choir, as it were, in which the individual voices of the masks harmonize. The really amazing thing is the simultaneous variety of expression types and exact typicality or invariance of each type that leaves room for all its proper variations. It is both exciting and surprising to discover how we easily recognize the types, their variants and invariants, while experiencing the subtlety of our perceptual and emotional powers of discrimination, of which we may otherwise have been fully unaware. There are no less than 13 ‘choirs’ of mask, and even an abridged list of their names would itself be an index of that refined power of discrimination. (Yet, it would also be a plea to go and see with one’s own eyes.) We encounter the Compassionate, the Mocker, the Protective, the Hilarious, the Thoughtful, the Didactic, the Austere, the Furious, the Authoritative, the Anxious, the Enigmatic, the Ferocious, and so on (Butor, Boyer, Morin 2005).

66Different expressions are, of course, different demands for appropriate responses on the part of the spectator in an aesthetic context, the researcher in an anthropological context, the empathizing social partner in an ordinary social context. Consider this somewhat lengthy report as an illustration of my claim about the varieties of requiredness, but note also how it shows why expressive qualities are indeed a subclass of value qualities. They exhibit both valence and normativity, two of the distinctive features of values according to our DEF(V) (section 4 above). Their satisfaction of other distinctive features would depend on the context in which they were encountered.

67In this section we discussed several classes of demand qualities or values: affective qualities (Ceausescu’s Parliament example), dynamic qualities (Arnheim’s square) and expressive qualities.

9 | Wholes, values and the implication argument

68In what way exactly do values inhere in concrete reality or ‘have a place in a world of facts’? Answering this question would amount to solving the so called ‘Dilemma of Metaethics’.15 On the other hand, only by answering this question we will have completed our explication of what a ‘material’ axiology is, by at least clarifying the whole meaning of our main claim, that there is a matter of value.

69As promised, the idea of a structured whole is the key to answering this last question, which should be distinguished from the former, more epistemological question (i.e., of how we know that values have a place in a world of facts), treated above in sections 7-8. I hesitate to call it ‘ontological’ because axiology has its very raison d'être in the non-dualistic irreducibility of value to reality. However, words are not so important once you have grasped the point.

70Gestalt wholes can help considerably to outline the answer to this question, but they cannot possibly carry its explanatory weight as a general thesis about the nature of values. That is a job for the ‘ontological’ project at the core of phenomenology that we identified above as the theory of wholes and parts. The latter remains an ambition, really, as is evident from the title of Husserl’s Third Logical Investigation, “Towards a Theory of Wholes and Parts”.

71This section will only outline a general description of how value and disvalue inhere in reality. We shall exploit the phenomenon of Gestalt wholes once more to grasp the idea. Let us return to the first of the three corollaries of WP (Section 10):

  • (G) Gestalt Principle: There is no datum without internal organization or structure.

72Gestalt research is itself mainly a work of discovery and exploration of the structural laws or Gestalten or what Husserl calls ‘figural moments’ that organize qualitative data of experience (Husserl (1979), chapter 11 § 7). Their function is such that the entire realm of non-primary qualities or, again in Husserl’s terms, non-mathematizable plena16 can be divided into three classes:

73Now, keeping this synopsis in mind, let me hint at the differences between Secondary and Tertiary Qualities (Values) as far as their modes of inherence in real things are concerned.

74First of all, Tertiary Qualities do not inhere in perceivable things as partial contents or as Husserlian ‘moments’ of them, but rather as qualities of those Gestalten that in their turn give secondary qualities structure, holding them together in a whole. For example, the elegance of a bowl does not inhere in the bowl as its blue color does. The blue inheres ‘in’ the bowl as a ‘part’ or an aspect of it, being a partial content of it. The whole—the bowl—has a color, a shape, a material of which it is made, etc. Elegance ‘qualifies’ the bowl instead as something of which each component of the whole partakes. Elegance is, in Platonic language, ‘participated’ by the bowl.

75Secondly, and consequently, tertiary qualities are higher-order qualities in the sense of being global qualities or qualities of structured wholes. In the intuitive terminology of Gestalt theory, they dictate the terms on which wholes ‘live on’ and preserve ‘good form’—or don’t.

76This scheme provides us a glimpse of the answer to the Dilemma of Metaethics (see footnote 15). Tertiary qualities are not in a Platonic third realm: they are not ‘queer’ entities, for they depend on the given, percep|tible structured wholes. They cannot exist or be realized separately from them, and yet they do preserve a kind of normativity or requiredness. For, as demand qualities, they do not depend on the real parts of the whole, but on their possible structures, or the possible ways in which they hold together, e.g., as harmonious, symmetrical, well proportioned, orderly, balanced, etc., or as the opposite of these. Indeed, demand qualities include as well the virtually infinite number of expressive qualities of human or animal physiognomies.

77To sum up, we have verified the Implication Argument at least for perceptible wholes and found that if there are structured wholes, then there are values belonging to them as essential qualities.

10 | From Gestalt theory to formal ontology

78Of course, this first glimpse cannot possibly support the generality the argument purports to have, which reaches far beyond perceptible structured wholes. A society, for example, may well be construed as a structured dynamic whole, of which justice is (or is not) a global quality. But society is certainly not a perceptible whole. In order for the Implication Argument to have the required generality, we must take a further step. We have to generalize the idea of Gestalt or figural moment taken as a structure of perceptual contents into that of a structure for any content whatsoever, applicable to objects of any kind.

79Husserl’s theory of wholes and parts effects this generalization by means of the decisive notion of unitary foundation. Unitary foundation is to contents per se what Gestalt is to specifically perceptual contents.

80A Gestalt or figural moment is a sensible form of unity. Recall that it holds together the elements of a plurality in such a way that they compose a structured or integral whole. By virtue of it they become something onto|logically new, an entity irreducible to its parts, distinct in kind from a non-integral whole or sum. Now, what must have struck Husserl from the very beginning, not so much in Stumpf’s lab, perhaps, but in nature, so to speak, is the commonality shared by figural moments. They are not ‘put together’ arbitrarily, that is, just thought of together and thus associated by conjunction or by a common predicate, like sets. Rather, the unity of a plurality is given or, in Husserl’s phrasing, “grasped with a single glance of the eye” (Husserl 2003, Ch 11, § 7). Consider Husserl’s examples: soldiers in file, a pile of apples, a row of trees, a flock of birds, a gaggle of geese, and so on. The expressions draw our attention to the intuitive content of a particular organization of parts that varies with their nature. It is not a purely “categorial” unity (Third Investigation, § 23, 38) but a ‘founded’ unity or a “unity due to foundation” (Third Investigation, § 23, 39). It does not depend on us but on things. It is a ‘material’, ‘substantive’, or sachhaltig unity, that is, a unity of contents. Examples include a spatial or temporal connection (e.g., contiguity or continuity), a perceptible equivalence (similarity), or a perceptible order (e.g., a color’s brilliance, a tone’s pitch).

81A form of unity holding contents together, not according to our choice but depending on the very nature of contents: that is a unity founded in things, for it “depends on the specific ‘nature’ of its ‘founding’ contents” (Third Investigation, § 23, 38). It is a unity of foundation. It is a ‘containing’ unity, with virtually any possible degree of ‘integrity’. At the lower bound, at degree zero, there is the limit case of simple sums or, as Leibniz called them, arena sine calce, sand without lime. And at the upper bound we find the limit case of the haecceity, that is, the “concrete and essential unity of being of acts of different natures” (Scheler 1973, 383) that gives a person's life its global and unique style. Such a whole, too, can have its own ‘good’ form, or lack thereof, and may have it in any possible degree. Scheler uses the awkward formula “individual-personal value-essence” to refer to these values (Scheler 1973, 489).17

82Husserl limits himself (in the crucial § 21 of the Third Investigation) to distinguishing two fundamental classes of unitary foundation. One is only indirectly rooted in the nature of the contents it embraces through of a ‘moment of unity’. Unity of that sort is found in the case of perceptible Gestalten, which hold together virtually independent parts (‘pieces’). The latter components are modified by their entering into a whole but can survive its dissolution. The other class is that of direct rootedness in the nature of component contents. Here there is an ontological dependence of contents that are essentially partial or in need of integration. Such are all the ‘moments’ or aspects comprising the richness of any concrete thing, taken not as an arbitrary bundle of accidents, though. The unity of these moments is the law of their being one thing. As Piana clearly recognized in his crystal-clear reconstruction of this crucial Husserlian passage.18

83But we can now see how the notion of sensible unity may be boldly generalized into the exceedingly broad category of material unity as a type of unity not necessarily perceptual in nature. Such a unity, better known as essence, can be described in terms of the bound variability of the ‘contained’ contents. It is a ‘material’ unity not only in the sense of being given, being rich in contents, and being rooted in things (and so not arbitrary), but also in the further sense that it has a lawful, normative character. As such it is a bond of possible (co)variations determined by intrinsic or ontological relations, either unilateral or bilateral, of dependence obtaining between the moments. In this way, a material unity is an ideal unity: that is, an eidetic bond or eidos.

84We have now reached the final and most characteristic semantic layer of the notion of ‘material’, the one giving sense to the expressions ‘material a priori’ and ‘non-empirical given’, conceived of as essence or bond of (co)variations of contents. Through violation of that bond a thing—any given one, e.g., mineral, plant, a biological machine of any complexity, an artifact, an institution, a society, a form of civilization, and, of course, a free, sensitive, and rational embodied agent, i.e., a person—loses its specific identity, failing to satisfy its conditions of existence and persistence through time, its causal powers. In short, it loses the unity in virtue of which “Ce qui n’est pas véritablement un être n’est pas non plus véritablement un être” as Leibniz has it (Leibniz 1988, 165). Duns Scotus called it a “less than numerical unity” or essence (Duns Scotus 1994, 162), and Husserl himself devotes his Second Logical Investigation to the notion of an “Ideal Unity of the Species” as well as to criticism of modern empiricism.

85Now the generalized import of the Implication Argument should be clearer. A value is to an eidos what a tertiary quality—which is, after all, a kind of value, namely, an ‘aesthetic’ value, lato sensu—is to a Gestalt. This generalization of the notion of Gestalt by the notion of unitary foundation also explains the term Husserl will end up preferring, Eidos, which preserves the etymological root of seeing (idein), connoting what can be ‘grasped with a single glance of the eye’.

86Just as demand qualities are qualities of Gestalt wholes, being global qualities of structured perceptual contents, values are qualities of structured wholes in general, being global qualities of any structured contents whatsoever. Q.E.D.

11 | Conclusion: from a desert to a meaningful world

87The notion of unitary foundation is perhaps one of the most profound in the history of philosophy. It helps us articulate an insight that has animated philosophical research since the age of Plato but does so without opening a chasm between earth and heaven. Nor does it require embracing the pre-modern finalism that haunts Aristotle’s thinking. It shows how we should conceptualize the concrete world of everyday experience if it is to be thought of as it appears, that is, as a world full of colors and laden with innumerable values and disvalues—in short, as a meaningful world.

88Our problem was how to describe ‘the place of values in a world of facts’, that is, the peculiar manner values have of inhering in concrete goods and ills while still preserving the ideality or normativity of values. To solve the problem, we need eidetic properties. Values are higher-order material a priori, or global, qualities of eidetic structures. Eidetic properties are not essences in a Platonic heaven, nor are they quiddities in an Aristotelian world. They are bonds of (co)variations for any aspect of any concrete thing, comprising their specific and individual identity as things. Values are higher-order constraints on good form, on the very life of things, and by failing to measure up to them things lose their attractiveness, usefulness, clarity, justice, beauty, and so on. Last but not least, they cease being.

89Several authors have struggled with Husserl’s Third Logical Investigation and the task of providing it with the clarity and definiteness of a formal theory on the model of Classic Mereology (Section 8) or even ‘Neoclassical’ Mereology, a theory of sums that piles on more and more constraints to mereological composition in order to introduce a more ‘integral’ or structured type of whole (Smith 1982, Simons 1987, Casari 2000, Fine 2006). Formal ontology is by definition innocent of substantial metaphysical conceptions of reality. Hence it might well be that, at the end of the day, these ad hoc and piecemeal strategies will prove to be sufficient for describing in formal terms increasingly complicated kinds of structured wholes. What remains striking in the development of such attempts, though, is how remote their focus is from the central intuition governing Husserl’s theory of wholes and parts.

90Here is where Piana made a great advance in relation to the entire formal-ontological research dealing with what Kit Fine calls “the most significant treatise on the concept of part to be found in the philosophical literature” (Fine 2006, 463). Piana brought to our awareness the roots of the theory of wholes and parts in both of the intellectual camps to which Husserl belonged in Halle, i.e., of the one prone to concreteness, as in Stumpf’s lab of experimental phenomenology, and the one prone to abstraction, as in the debate concerning the foundations of mathematics that looms in the background of Husserl Philosophy of Arithmetic, first published in 1891.

91The central insight leading to the concept of unitary foundation is not about composition but rather the unity of a manifold, or, to evoke an old notion from a tradition stretching back to Plato, containment (sunechein). Yet, the reference to Plato or, for that matter, to the other classic expressions of what I call, in a half-serious way, “the Unitarian Tradition” (De Monticelli 2020)—a tradition counting Boethius, Scotus, and Leibniz among its ranks—should not cause us to forget that the very origin of this notion is not at all something lying in the past, but rather something confronting us here and now as we stand in the actual presence of any concrete thing (object, event, state of affairs, action, behavior, etc.).

92The best way to assess the intellectual value of this achievement, which was unfortunately, up until now, largely ignored by the international philosophical community, is by contrasting the meaningful, concrete lifeworld as conceived within phenomenology with the ‘desert landscapes’ of Quinean and post-Quinean nominalism.

93What sort of whole does qualify as utterly lacking intrinsic bonds and yet still exhibiting a kind of containing unity among its parts? Well, space-time definitely fit that description. Space-time can be conceived of as a unity of containment of degree 0. We can abstract from the content of any thing while still holding on to their occupation of some position in space-time. Any item can be varied in that way without limit, without affecting other items. Provided it continues to occupy a position in space-time, we can imagine replacing anything with anything else, thereby obtaining more and more new sums. This is the Principle of Universal Existence of Sums, which captures their ontological innocence. Nothing essentially new is added to reality merely by grouping elements in different ways.19

94The idea that the world is just all that is the case is the most synthetic and famous recent formulation of an older Okhamian metaphysics. There are no ‘laws of essence’ in such a world. A world like that holds no properties or relations that something must satisfy in order to preserve its identity. Such a world resembles that of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Anything might become anything else at any moment and nothing ‘holds together’ the actions of a man or the reciprocal behavior of two friends. Nothing ‘must’ be done in order to fulfil an essential calling, such as that of a pianist or poet. Nothing is good or bad in itself and there is neither place for essential properties and relations nor values and objective value-relations in such a world of facts. It is an eminently ‘light’ world that this way of thinking presents us with, the avatar of all the disillusions of modernity. Certain contemporary poets, such as Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera, found it congenial (Calvino 1993, Kundera 1984, Calosi e Varzi 2014).

95Our conclusion has now come full circle to its starting point: Piana’s idea that “Wesen, Essenz, Eidos pointed all in the direction of the ‘structured whole’”. While taking full responsibility myself for any possible mistake made in reconstructing what I propose to call Husserl’s holology, I must acknowledge Piana’s legacy as the promoter of a brilliant and ambitious research program, a phenomenology of concreteness grounded in the Logical Investigations and a project that hasn’t yet come close to yielding all the fruit it promises. This may ultimately turn out to be the singular, original contribution of Italian phenomenology to contemporary phenomenological research.


  • 1 The English revised and increased edition, The Gift of Bonds – Husserl’s Phenomenology Revisited is on its way towards publication.
  • 2 See also Piana (1998), p. 3: “If we avoid falling back into old habits of philosophical terminology, we may discern in the German word Wesen a nuance of meaning that we might better convey with ‘structure’ than with ‘essence’. This would make so many old disputes on phenomenological Platonism just meaningless.”
  • 3 Cf. Moore (1903) Preface and Hartmann (1926) Einleitung.
  • 4 “[T]he function and content of evaluative attitudes are quite different from the function and content of factual beliefs […]. [T]he function of evaluative attitudes is to guide deliberation and action with a view of bringing the facts into line with our sense of how we wish them to be, or think they ought to be.” (Rovane 2013, 201)
  • 5 Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I pars, Q VI, Art. 1. Thomas is, of course, quoting Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I, 3, 3, 11.
  • 6 Brentano (1902), Footnote 28, § 26, where the difference is stressed between what is ‘worthy of desire’ (begehrenswert) and what is ‘desirable’ (begehrbar).
  • 7 Some suggestive points that it would be interesting to exploit in to phenomenological ends can be found in the very recent Chabot (2019).
  • 8 The idea of experimental phenomenology rests primarily on Stumpf’s distinction between ‘acts’ and ‘functions’ developed in his essay Erscheinungen und psychische Funktionen (1906). However, in Stumpf’s laboratories the term refers more generally to the discovery and measurement of those perceptual phenomena we are familiar with through Gestalt psychology. Cf. Spiegelberg 1972, 5-7.
  • 9 Scheler 1973, 9 and 12 ff. For Kant, goods are “material determinants of the will”, being “objects of desire”, and hence excluded by Kant’s theorems from counting as moral reasons for action. For the Kantian use of ‘material’ and ‘Materie’ see Critique of Practical Reason, §§ 2-8, the I-IV “Laws” of Practical Reason.
  • 10 “The term ‘material’ is a more ambiguous term in the English language than ‘material’ in German. Scheler’s and Hartmann’s phrase is ‘die materiale Werthethik’. ‘Material’ contrasts with ‘materiell’. The latter German term refers to matter as an adjective modifying an object, asserting its materiality. ‘Material’ refers to the substance of something that may not be physical at all, the content of an argument at law, for example. Scheler and Hartmann use the term to indicate that their ethics is not a formal, rule-based theory, as was that of Kant, but one that exhibits phenomenologically the value-material from which all moral rules are drawn” (E. Kelly 2011, 8, our emphasis). Because of this ambiguity, Kelly remarks, M. Frings chose to translate ‘materiale’ in the title of Scheler’s masterpiece, Der Formalismus in der Ethik und die materiale Wertethik with a purely negative expression: Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Value.
  • 11 Lesnewski (1992), Leonard and Goodman (1940), Lewis (1991). A presentation of its basic tenets is available in all the best textbooks of analytic metaphysics. See, for example, Effingham (2013). For an intuitive discussion of some of its principles from a phenomenological point of view, see De Monticelli (2013b).
  • 12 The more formal definition of a mereological sum is as follows: DF. Sum: u is a sum of x 1 …x n = def for all y, y overlaps u if y overlaps at least one of the xs. Intuitively, the idea is that to be contained in a sum is to be contained in at least one of its contained entities, or, as it is more common to say, to be part of a sum is to be part of at least one of its parts. Husserl has an equivalent ‘theorem’ in § 14 of the Third Logical Investigation. (Theorem 3, in its simple formulation, reads: “An independent part of an independent part is an independent part of a whole”).
  • 13 Notice, incidentally, that the real origin of Koffka’s dictum, which of course circulated almost as a platitude in Stumpf’s labs, is at least as old as the Theaetetus, where we find its correct version, and is taken up by Aristotle in Metaphysics VIII, 1045a.8–10.
  • 14 Rudolph Arnheim was the most noteworthy pupil of Max Wertheimer, a brilliant young art critic in the roaring 1920s in Berlin, the director of the Italian Istituto del Cinema in the 1930s, and the founder of the psychology of visual art in his post-exile American academic life. Arnheim’s life (1904, Berlin – 2007, Ann Arbor, USA) bridges the distance between the age of Stumpf, Husserl and Wertheimer and our time. See Arnheim, R. (1954, 1974). The 1974 version is a revision of the original work after 20 years of teaching in several New York universities and Harvard University.
  • 15 According to this dilemma, either value properties are ‘in’ real things, but then they get ‘naturalized’, and lose their normativity; or they are in another, Platonic world, but then they are ‘queer’ creatures.
  • 16 Husserl (1970) § 9c: “The problem of the mathematizability of the ‘plena’”.
  • 17 “individual-persönliches Wertwesen” (Scheler 1980, p. 481).
  • 18 “Let’s say that a range of objects (contents) is encompassed by a unitary foundation if, given any object (content) belonging to that range, there is a relation of (direct or indirect) foundation between that object and any other belonging to that range. By a pregnant whole, or a foundation’s whole, in short a whole, we understand a range of objects encompassed by a unitary foundation; the objects belonging to it are called parts of the whole.
    Finally, we shall distinguish two remarkable sorts of wholes, according to the modes of connections of their parts.
    By a whole of [the] first sort we understand a whole, whose parts are connected to each other without forms of linkage. The parts of a whole of [the] first sort are called moments.
    By a whole of [the] second sort we understand a whole, whose parts are connected to each other by forms of linkage. The parts of a whole of [the] second sort are called bits or fractions (independent parts).” (Piana 1977, 9)
  • 19 According to D. Lewis’ (1991), Classical Mereology can be viewed as the ontology of concrete material objects if we identify ordinary things as stones, houses, trees, dogs and persons—all of which are apparently complex objects—with mereological sums and, in particular, in particular, spatiotemporal mereological sums or ‘fusions’, i.e. four-dimensional entities extended in time as in space. A Lewisian world is unified by the spatiotemporal relations among its parts and only by them. Things are parts of one and the same world if and only if they are spatiotemporally related, that is, if and only if every part of one stands in some distance relation—be it spatial or temporal, great or small—to every part of the other. A world is indeed “any maximal spatiotemporally interrelated individual” (Bricker 2014, 251).


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Publication details

Published in:

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

Pages: 125-155

DOI: 10.19079/PR.s1.9

Full citation:

De Monticelli Roberta (2020) „Wholes and values: an application of Giovanni Piana's phenomenological structuralism“. Phenomenological Reviews 1, 125–155.