Origins of Objectivity

David L. Thompson

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"Objectivity" has a number of meanings. In this paper I will focus on two. The first sense, that of objecthood, refers to the status of being an object. "Possessing the character of a real object existing independently of the knowing mind," as Runes puts it.I Wiktionary defines this sense as "1. Of or relating to a material object, actual existence or reality," but while I will focus on material, perceptual objects, in principle an object is anything of which one could be conscious, so it includes Euclidean triangles, gravity, universities and democracy. The paper is about the nature of objecthood and how it comes about.

The second sense of objectivity refers to the status of being unbiased, neutral or truthful, as opposed to subjective. (Wiktionary: "2. Not influenced by the emotions or prejudices.") The two senses are related in that a proposition or thought is objective in the second sense in so far as it corresponds with, is normalized by, how objects really are, that is, objectivity in the first sense.

The paper will examine two accounts of the origin of objectivity in these two related senses. Tomasello, in a recent book, The Natural History of Human Thinking (NHHT from here on) offers an evolutionary, palaeoanthropological account of the human origin of objects and objectivity. The account has striking similarities with a transcendental account of objectivity offered by Husserl over 80 years ago, especially in his later work. I will offer as unbiased (objective, sense 2) an exposition as I can of Tomasello's "shared intentionality hypothesis" followed by an exposition of Husserl's phenomenological position. The third part of the paper will discuss whether these two accounts, empirical and transcendental, amount to the same thing.


Tomasello opposes Descartes' claim that animals don't think. Europe has no native non-human primates, so Descartes' only experience was with non-primates. Behaviourists also hold that animals don't think; there is less excuse in their case. Tomasello has done empirical investigations with great apes that show that they do think.

What is thinking? Tomasello claims that thinking involves three components: representations, inferences and self-monitoring.II Chimps have representations of their physical environment and can use them to infer from cause to effect and from effect to cause. Chimps also attribute mental representations to other chimps which allows them to predict the behaviour of others, intentional inferences, as Tomasello calls them. Intriguing experiments leads him to hold that chimps monitor some of their own mental states: they know, for example, when they lack information needed for a decision and can go searching for it. Given the presence of these three components, we can attribute "thinking" to apes. Tomasello refers to this kind of thinking as "individual intentionality." Since this kind of thinking can be found in the great apes, in contemporary humans, and even in pre-linguistic human infants, Tomasello concludes that the common ancestor of the great apes and humans, about 6 million years ago, was also capable of individual intentionality. Nevertheless, human "objective-reflective-normative thinking" (NHHT 4) goes far beyond that of the common ancestor, so his question is, how did we get here from there? How and why did distinctively modern human thinking evolve over the past 6 million years?1

Tom holds that there are two major stages (and many minor ones) in this evolution. In contrast to the individual intentionality of the common ancestor, "early" humans developed "joint intentionality." He speculates that this first stage occurs with the arrival of Homo heidelbergensis, the common ancestor of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, about 400,000 years ago. The second watershed is "collective intentionality" which he hypothesizes arrives with Homo sapiens – "modern" humans – about 200,000 years ago.2

Joint intentionality (the stage of early humans, before the arrival of language) involves the cooperative establishment of projects common to two individuals. Apes are not cooperative; even when two apes hunt together, each ape competes with the other ape for the prey. Within a joint project, however, each early human individual takes on a specific role and the other individual helps her to attain it. Importantly, this help includes giving information that is of benefit to the recipient for her role in the project. Tomasello's investigations of contemporary human infants show that one year olds, without language, are capable of engaging in joint projects, can interpret communication as helpful, and offer information of benefit to others. His experiments with chimps indicates that, because of their competitive nature, they cannot do any of these things.

The next evolutionary stage, collective Intentionality, is group-based. This is the stage of modern humans, of Homo sapiens. Unlike joint intentionality that involves us choosing partners for ad hoc projects on the basis of their individual ability to work with us, collective intentionality involves setting conventional, transpersonal, cultural norms for “how things should be done” by everyone in the community. These norms originate in the group, group members feel obliged to obey them, and people can assume that everyone else in the group will also follow them, even those they have not previously met or not yet worked with in joint projects.

Collective culture is based on group identification; each of us identifies with the group and identifies other members as "one of us." Those who follow "our" norms are members of "our" community; they share our projects, our beliefs, our values and our practices. (Imagine a soccer team.) Each of us can identify those humans from whom we can expect cooperation, even if we have never met them before or never embarked on a joint project with them. Appearances and practices identify them as "one of us" and so we can rely on them to join a hunting party, to follow standard mating or marriage rituals, or to speak the same way as "we" do. We teach these norms to our children, so our ways of doing things (e.g., fishing techniques) are preserved, which promotes the "ratchet effect" by which knowledge and skills accumulate rather than dissipate (as they do with apes.) Since later generations inherit this culture, each member identifies not just (synchronously) with current members of the community, but with the ancestors (diachronically) – perhaps divine ancestors – by whom people were taught how to do things the traditional way, “the way we have always done them” over generations, from time immemorial.

Norms are enforced primarily by group identity: someone who don't follow our norms is not "one of us," they cannot be counted on, and so will be excluded from hunting parties or other collective ventures – ultimately exiled from the community. Individuals enforce these norms on others in an agent-neutral way (by gossip, for instance, ) and feel pride or shame at the actions of other “team” members. Guilt, shame, and concern with reputation show that each person enforces them on herself – “normative self-monitoring.” Thus, evolutionary selection weeds out non-cooperators within the group, and constitutes the group as itself a unit of evolutionary selection in competition with other human groups. This in-group/out-group psychology is unique to Homo sapiens and is not to be found among the apes or among early humans.

The evolution of cultural normativity permits the invention of language. Each culture develops its own linguistic norms – a language – that helps to distinguish group members from outsiders. A language offers prefabricated representations or concepts that have proven useful in the history of the culture. It allows concepts to be more abstract, precise and effective and it enables us to go beyond causal inferences to formal and pragmatic inferences.

In discourse for decision-making among cooperating equals [versus dominant apes?], argumentative pressure forces people to explain their logical forms (not just use them procedurally), to make assumptions explicit, and to offer justificatory reasons that conform to the rational norms of the culture. People who do not follow these norms, who are "unreasonable" – who don't play this game of asking for and giving reasons – get excluded from decision-making.

This collective normativity in public discourse is, secondarily, internalized to produce “mental,” “normative self-governance” that is, rational thinking. The primary function of reasoning is to convince others, but since each of us wants to think and decide as “any” rational person would do, we simulate internally the group's normative judgments of intelligibility and rationality.

The result is the new mode of “thinking” distinctive of "Modern Humans:" a web of justified beliefs – representations – interconnected by culturally sanctioned inferences – reason – that I apply to myself in normative self-governance, that is, private mentality.3

Tomasello claims that the "new [collective] form of human sociality can lead to a new form of human thinking, specifically, objective-reflective-normative thinking." (NHHT141) In this next section, my aim is to explain what he means by “objectivity” and show how his account of the evolution of thinking – the shared intentionality hypothesis – explains its origin.

Tomasello rejects the behaviourist notion that "cognition evolves by the complexifying of stimulus-response linkages" (NHHT 8) claiming instead that organisms are self-regulating systems that adapt to their situations. Cognition is one such adaptation. "A cognitively competent organism ... operates as a control system with reference values or goals, capacities for attending to situations causally or intentionally "relevant" to these reference values or goals, and capacities for choosing actions that lead to the fulfillment of these reference values or goals (given the causal and/or intentional structure of the situation)." (NHHT 8) 4

For a competitive ape, the "situation" she lives in is individual; she needs to deal with only one perspective, her own. Early humans, however, were cooperative and, in adopting a joint project, partners came to have the same goals and values as each other which established a shared situation for them. This requires communication which, in this pre-linguistic world is managed by gestures, such as pointing, or pantomiming. Such communication can be interpreted only in the context of their joint project and the skills they both have to accomplish it.

For example, two early humans might set out to hunt a gazelle together.  Approaching a waterhole, one might point with a spear to where she sees the gazelle so that the other can creep up behind it. The recipient can interpret the gesture correctly only against the common ground they share: the gazelle is what they are hunting and they both know that creeping up behind it is a good strategy. But it is also necessary that the other assume the pointer intends to be helpful and that pointing the spear is part of a communicative act rather than the normal effective action of spearing. The communicator, for her part, looking at the situation from the perspective of the other and anticipating the recipient's problems, does whatever she can to assist the other in his interpretation, perhaps by not jabbing the spear too forcefully. Successful communication depends on this reciprocal and recursive process of her helping him to help her to help him to interpret the communicative act.

Taking the recipient's perspective into account involves two requirements. First the communicator must experience the gazelle as not just a prey-for-her, but simultaneously a prey-for-him, for her partner.  Indeed she must see it as a prey-for-both-of-them, that is, something with a certain independence from her own --and his – perspective.5

Secondly, since the two partners have different roles to play in the project and so are in different places, she must recognize that her partner has his own perspective that is different from hers. This is a recursive structure: she must tailor her communication to take account of this difference and assume that he realizes that she is taking his perspective into account when he interprets her gestures.6

Establishing the joint project takes each partner beyond their individual perspectives into the perception of a situation common to both of them. As a result, each partner not only has a perspective, but must recognize that their own perspective is a perspective, and that it is different from the other's. This structure – the same situation seen from different perspectives – is an early hint of the appearance-reality distinction and prefigures "objectivity," claims Tomasello, though we're not there yet.7

Perspective for Tomasello is not only spatial, but conceptual: "the same situation [can be viewed] simultaneously under different construals as, for example, berry, fruit, food, or trading resource." (NHHT 96) The communicator can take the recipient's construal into account only by realizing that her own conceptualization is but one way of looking at things.8

According to Tomasello's research, pre-linguistic children can appreciate a partner's perspective, while great apes cannot.

The arrival of collective intentionality takes modern humans beyond the recognition by early humans that one's own perspective is not that of their partner's to the notion of a perspective-for-all-us – where "us" refers to all members of the collective. Objectivity involves deferring to the more objective reality of the group, the ever wider perspective embedded in a more encompassing, transpersonally constituted "view from anyone." Cultural identity brings with it norms governing how all members of the group ought to see things. Beyond my perspective, or that of any individual partner, there is an "objective" truth established by the community as a whole which sets the norms for correct action and belief. "Gazelles are edible; snakes are yukky." "This is Spring, so it's time to hunt seals." This is what "we" do, so if you are to maintain your identity as a member of our group, this is what you too should think and do. Those who do not follow the norms are ignored or excluded from the ritual, the meal, the hunt or the community.9

Such normative objectivity requires language. Indeed, it is specifically through language that cultural objectivity is achieved. Language allows not only communication between two partners, as even gesture and pantomime can do, but permits a kind of culture-wide communication.10 By sharing the one language, all within the culture group conceptualize the world in the same way. Indeed, until this point in evolution there is no "world" in the sense of a reality that is the same for all. Language and "world" – in this sense – are correlates.

Apart from being the medium for a shared world, a language is itself a prime example of a set of cultural norms that establish what is "objectively right" in a way that transcends individuals. This is the case not just for the form, the syntax, of the language, but also for much of the content. A language is a repository of accumulated knowledge: myths, stories and (later) encyclopedias. As a result, cultural objects are presented to children as "real." Chiefs, gods, medicines, star constellations, the animals of the forest, and so on were there "from the beginning," handed down from the ancestors, and are not dependent on individuals. Institutional ceremonies create social statuses and set up objective, institutional facts – Obama is President – that, “extraordinarily, are both objectively real and socially created.” (NHHT 92) There is a public world of marriage, money and governments with a privileged, “transcendental” status like that of the physical world and which justify judgments of reality, truth or rightness.11

Language, apart from its content, also supplies syntactical formal structures with slots for roles such as subject, action, objects, etc. – usually designated by case ending – slots that can be filled by a potentially infinite number of words. This distinction between form and content allows conceptual content to take on a quasi-independent, fact-like status, usable in many different propositions. One can believe that gazelles are edible, deny they are edible, doubt they are edible, think it is possible they are edible, propose they are edible, and so on. That is, the same conceptual content can float free of the various syntactical forms or communicative motives – that is, from propositional attitudes (assert, deny, propose), from modalities (necessary, possible), and from epistemic status (observation, certain, supposition, hearsay.) "This distinction between content and attitude is also foundational to the idea of some kind of timeless, objective, propositionally structured facts that are independent of how anyone thinks or feels about them and, therefore, also to the general idea of an independent, "objective" reality." (NHHT 103)12 It is against these standards that modern humans can judge beliefs to be true or false, right or wrong – something no other species does.13

Such agent-neutral thinking requires that one recognize a gap between the individual's own perspective and the culture's reality. Each individual contrasts their own perspective with what everyone should think.14 "Human thinking at this point is no longer a solely individual process, or even a second-personal social process; rather, it is an internalized dialogue between "what I do think" and "what anyone ought to think" (Sellars, 1963)." (NHHT 123)15 Tomasello puts it this way:

In the context of cooperative argumentation, modern humans made explicit the reasons for their assertions, thus connecting them in an inferential web to their other knowledge, and then this social practice of reason-giving was internalized into fully reflective reason. And the self-monitoring of modern humans for the first time reflected not just their expectations about the second-personal evaluations of specific others but, rather, their expectations about the normative evaluations of "us" as a cultural group. Given all of these new ways of behaving and thinking, the crack in the human experiential egg now became a veritable chasm: the individual no longer contrasted her own perspective with that of a specific other- the view from here and there; rather, she contrasted her own perspective with some kind of generic perspective of anyone and everyone about things that were objectively real, true, and right from any perspective whatsoever – a perspectiveless view from nowhere. (NHHT 122)

Hence, people become committed to forming beliefs they can back with reasons and justification, even privately. Thus, their group identification gives them an objective perspective.16 “Human thinking has now become collective, objective, reflective and normative; that is to say, it has now become full-blown human reasoning.” (NHHT 123)17

Objectivity, then, according to Tomasello, originates in collective intentionality. Objects are constituted as realities by the shared norms of a culture, norms received from the ancestors by tradition. They are perspectiveless realities that transcend their subjective appearances to individuals. "Group-minded individuals thus constructed an 'objective' world." (NHHT 139)


Husserl's central doctrine is that all consciousness is about objects. Objects may be perceptual – a table-- or conceptual – the number seven or democracy – but without some object, there can be no consciousness. Objects are always experienced with an actual/potential structure. For an object to be seen as a "real table," rather than as a one-sided façade, it is essential that, as well as the actual side I'm currently looking at, I experience it as having multiple other sides that I could potentially see from other perspectives if I moved around it. He speaks of the various side-appearances being unified under the meaning "one object" by the constitutive activity of my meaning-giving subjectivity, my transcendental ego.18 That's what it is to be a visual "object." (Note that for Husserl the term "transcendental" is always synonymous with "meaning-giving.")

Further, the actual visual object is given to me with the meaning "intersensorial object": its potential for being experienced by touch, or by my other senses, is part of what it means for me to be experiencing it as an "objective" reality. The intersensorial object must be unified so that it is the same reality that I can see and could touch, otherwise it is just a visual illusion.19 Besides being an intersensorial object, Husserl claims that, even in this individual sphere, the intersensorial object has the added sense of a causal unity that continues in time, that is, as a "substance."20  ("Is this a dagger I see before me?") If I cannot also touch it, and use it as an instrument for my actions it's only a visual illusion, not a reality.

So far we have been dealing with an object in my individual, primordial experience. And indeed, this, according to Husserl, is where we must start. In a method that he calls a "reduction to my transcendental sphere of peculiar ownness." (CM 93) I must first describe the meaning of the object as it is for me alone, stripping from it any references it might have for other subjects so that the meaning "experienceable by everyone, and so forth, vanishes completely." (CM 96)21 “This peculiar abstractive sense-exclusion of what is alien leaves us a kind of 'world' still, a Nature reduced to what is included in our ownness." (CM 98) Within this world spatial objects are constituted as transcending my stream of actual subjective experiences, in the way mentioned above – that there are potential other experiences of the same object – but since we are within the sphere of ownness, these experiences must always be mine alone.22 Only on the foundation of this purely individual world, says Husserl, can I build wider meanings of objectivity. 

After a somewhat torturous account of how I can constitute the meaning "other subject" from within my individual experience, Husserl describes how another subject and myself can come to have a common world made up of objects that are the same for both of us. Again, he relies on the actual/potential structure.23  In so far as you are another subject, you have potential perspectives on the world – an "appearance-system" – just as I have, except that your system is centred on your position over There, while mine is centred on Here.24 You, of course, see my Here as your There.25 By this iterative relationship, we can merge our appearance-systems and so constitute the one unified object as the same for both of us. The object is thus given a new meaning: "real for both of us." Analogously to the way my various individual perspectives get unified into the one object for me, the perspectives of other subjects are unified with mine into the one object for both of us.

Husserl moves quickly from "the Other" to others in general, to the surrounding world that "all of us" have in common, though again with the sense of potential. "[Intersubjective] unification is brought about or at least is certain in advance as possibly attainable by everyone." (CES 163) He refers to this as "communalization," "reciprocal understanding" or "we-subjectivity." From here on, objectivity even for me as an individual carries the built-up meaning "also for others."26 "Even what is straightforwardly perceptual is communalized." (CES163) This shared meaning can be constituted only if I acknowledge that others are also meaning-giving subjects, that is, if I accept others as co-constituters with me in the constitution of objects-for-us-all. So transcendental subjectivity, the constituting of meaning, is ultimately intersubjectivity.27

This fully constituted object is "real" in a new sense. For an individual's intersensorial object, each visual perspective is but one "appearance" for the "real", intersensorial object. But the new understanding of "real" constituted by intersubjectivity relegates the individual's intersensorial object itself to a "mere representation" or "appearance" of the real object.28 In each step of these constitutions of objectivity, earlier modes of objectivity are "repeatedly relativized." (CES 167), that is, relegated to the status of appearances of the new reality. "'The' thing itself is actually that which no one experiences as really seen, since it is always in motion, always, and for everyone, a unity for consciousness of the openly endless multiplicity of changing experiences and experienced things, one's own and those of others." (CES 164)29

The set of all these object-for-all-us (more accurately, the world which forms the horizon for all these objects) Husserl calls the Life-world (Lebenswelt) or our "surrounding world," "the everyday common world.” (CES 343) Within this world, "common to us all" we have a perfectly good practical "acquaintance with the things as they really are and [as they] can be exhibited [to be] again and again in their true being – in the only truth which normal, practical life knows and needs." (CES 344)30 Husserl calls this a "genuine, though restricted, kind of Objectivity ... Its Objectivity is restricted, though concretely the world is given to me and to everyone only as a cultural world and as having the sense: accessible to everyone." (CM 132)31 32 In our everyday life, such objects are taken for granted: their constitution is invisible, it is buried and forgotten. Only the phenomenologist reveals the underlying constitutive process.

But the process of object constitution is not over. In some Lebenswelten, specifically the Western cultural tradition, a further level of meaning gets constituted: the scientific level.33 Using Geometry as his Leitmotif, Husserl describes how the early Greeks, and, later, "Modern" scientists (Galileo, Newton) develop a "theoretical praxis" that constitutes new objects (triangles, gravity) that have a universal validity not just for "us" but for anyone whatsoever. "It is the art of theories, of discovering and securing truths with a certain new ideal sense which is foreign to prescientific life, the sense of a certain 'final validity,' 'universal validity.'" (CES 111)34

Objectivity, then, for Husserl, comes in at least three grades. On the primal level, there are intersensorial objects for individuals; then there are cultural or Lebenswelt objects constituted by intersubjectivity; finally there are universal, scientific objects constituted by the unique community of scientists of the Western scientific tradition, a every specific form of intersubjectivity.35

These ever-widening layers of objectification should not be misconstrued as discoveries of some pre-existing objects that are real-in-themselves, or real from a God's-eye view. Objectivity is a project.36 "True nature in the sense of natural science is a product of the spirit that investigates nature..." (CES 297) Lebenswelt objects are the "material," the "thing-appearances" out of which the scientific project "constructs" the idealized objects of science. Scientific objectivity is the cognitive accomplishment of a method of idealizing the practical world; it is "the product of a development." (CES 344-347)37

So Husserl's position is that all objectivity originates by being constituted by Transcendental subjectivity/intersubjectivity that unifies objects for the first time.


The surprising similarities between Tomasello's account of the origin of objects and objectivity and Husserl's leads me to the central question of this paper: are they saying the same thing? Both start with the experience of individuals and claim that the merging of different perspectives constitutes objects in common that result in wider and wider modes of objectivity. In some ways they are complementary. Husserl focuses on how the "universal" objectivity of science originates in the cultural life-world, but only hints at the thinking of apes38 or at the intermediate stage of pair-based objectivity.III Tomasello, on the other hand, focuses on the progression from apes to modern humans who live in isolated cultural communities, but says little about what happens when these communities start to interact with each other and a wider kind of objectivity arises that culminates with science.

This is a very significant neglect, not just because the origin of science is important in itself, but because Tomasello's own work lays claim to scientific objectivity. The trajectory of his analysis points to his own investigations being constituted by a trans-cultural community of scientists adopting norms of objectivity that go beyond particular cultures. Are not the "objects" he himself refers to in his analysis – chimps pursuing monkeys, early humans hunting gazelles, evolution, culture – simply the construction of one more, still wider, perspective – the scientific point of view? Yet he writes as if the status of these objects is unproblematic, as if they are there "in-themselves," taken for granted before any investigation, just waiting to be discovered. But since Tomasello's thinking is about "thinking" does he not need to give us some reflexive account of the status of what he himself is doing?39

Tomasello acknowledges that chimps live in situations pragmatically defined by their own goals and values. But he seems to assume that he himself has a God's eye view, that his goal as a scientist is an absolute and unconditioned truth. Yet Tomasello is still an evolved primate!40 Husserl would say that Tomasello maintains a naïve realist view of the world in that he fails to perform the phenomenological reduction.

Husserl frequently criticizes psychologists for missing the significance of their own empirical work because they neglect to perform the (phenomenological/scientific) reduction and so fail to take the "transcendental turn."41 He would surely criticize Tomasello's palaeoanthropology on the same grounds. Husserl might claim that only the approach of a transcendental phenomenologist can rescue Tomasello from this dogmatic belief in a reality-in-itself independent of constitution by transcendental (inter)subjectivity, waiting there in itself to be discovered.

But this is too simple. Husserl does not just dismiss psychological [or palaeoanthropological] investigations as empirical and naive: they are insightful investigations but just fail to grasp the import of their own findings. He suggests that there is a kind of correlation in which whatever the phenomenologist discovers about transcendental (inter)subjectivity appears also in the world as something that a psychologist can investigate.

Husserl writes of transcendental subjects as "self-objectifying" themselves as "realities" in the world, as real minds incarnated in real human organisms that can be studied by psychologists [and palaeoanthropologists].42 Similarly he claims that "In this systematic procedure one ... attains the correlation between the world and transcendental subjectivity as objectified in mankind." (CES 187) This is why what phenomenologists describe about the meaning-giving activity of subjectivity or of intersubjectivity can be found in a parallel fashion in real psychological subjects or in real, historical cultural communities.

This self-objectification of the transcendental process implies that in one sense Tomasello and Husserl are saying the same thing, or something exactly parallel, about the origin of objectivity. The only difference is that Tomasello interprets what is being said as a scientific result based on empirical evidence, while Husserl insists it also has transcendental significance, that is, it involves the genesis of meaning.43

But is this a significant difference? Let me turn Husserl's correlation on its head (or should that be, on its feet?) If, as Husserl claims, the study of transcendental subjectivity can enlighten us about "objectified" mankind, can the study of mankind not therefore inform us about the processes of transcendental constitution? If transcendental subjectivity objectifies itself as mankind, then Tomasello's investigation of the evolution of human thinking mirrors the meaning-giving processes that Husserl labels transcendental subjectivity. Rather than blaming Tomasello for failing to take the transcendental turn, can we not accuse Husserl of missing the opportunity to "naturalize" his transcendentalism?

So instead of Husserl's rather mysterious claim that transcendental constitution objectifies itself in the world, in history, I want to claim rather that it is the evolutionary processes of nature that give rise to meaning. If there is any distinction to be made between the ("transcendental") process of giving meaning and the ("empirical") world of things meant, it is (as Merleau-Ponty points out) the difference between the past and present. In the present we have objects which are meaningful, but their meaningfulness originates in the unification of objects that occurs in the history leading up to the present.IV Evolutionary history constitutes the objects that present subjects experience as taken-for-granted, as handed down by ancestral tradition. This is an ongoing process in which separating an objectifying, transcendental process from the experiencing of given, empirical objects cannot be done cleanly.

Husserl comes close to seeing this himself. He says:

As a psychologist [palaeoanthropologist?] I set myself the task of knowing myself as the ego already made part of the world, objectified with a particular real meaning, mundanized, so to speak ... the task of knowing myself precisely in the manner of objective, naturally mundane knowledge (in the broadest sense), myself as a human being among things, among other human beings, animals, etc. Thus we understand that in fact an indissoluble inner alliance obtains between psychology [palaeoanthropology] and transcendental philosophy. But from this perspective we can also foresee that there must be a way whereby a concretely executed psychology [palaeoanthropology] could lead to a transcendental philosophy. ... a radical, psychological unfolding of my apperceptive life and of the particular world appearing in it, in respect to the how of the particular appearances (thus of the human "world-picture")—this, in the transition to the transcendental attitude, would immediately have to take on transcendental significance as soon as I now, at the higher level, constantly take into account the meaning-conferring accomplishment which is responsible for the objective apperception, i.e., the accomplishment through which the world-representation has the sense of something really existing, something human and psychic, the sense of being my psychic life and that of other human beings—the life in which everyone has his world-representations, finds himself as existing, representing, acting according to purposes in the world. (CES 206-207)


One frequently recurrent error in Western thought has been to conceive of reality as "things-in-themselves." Before thought, there is a world of objects: gazelles and water-holes, stars and planets (like Pluto!), atoms and molecules, bosons and fermions, gravity and democracy. Us humans arrive late on the scene and have to overcome "appearances" – the distortions of our perceptual systems and subjective perspectives – in order to "discover" the truth about reality.

What Tomasello and Husserl have in common is that they turn this relationship upside down. Appearances are prior; reality as taken-for-granted things-in-themselves is a posterior construction based on these appearances. At each stage of this construction, reality is relativized: what is real on one level of construction gets demoted to become a mere appearance of the newly constructed broader, more general or more universal reality.V For Husserl this progression goes from primal experience by one sense modality to the intersensorial object, to a causal substance, to a reality accessible to myself and my Other, to the objects of the cultural lifeworld, and finally, he thinks, to the scientific notion of reality. For Tomasello, the situation given to an individual ape progresses to the early human construction of objects accessible to a cooperating pair of partners, to the modern human objectivity for everyone in the community determined by the norms of the culture. The central point here is that appearance is not a diminished version of a pre-existing reality (whether it is a Platonic form, a twinkle in the eye of God – God's sensorium, as Newton calls it – or a scientific object.) Rather, objective reality is the product of an historical construction and each step of this construction relativizes the reality/appearance distinction.  Of course, when we look at things naively from within the historical stage in which we find ourselves, we "forget" this progression (Heidegger) and take our current construct for granted as if it were absolute. This is the "thesis of the world" that Husserl's phenomenological reduction aims to suspend. (Merleau-Ponty calls it the "prejudice of the world.")

Objects are not "things-in-themselves." Objectivity originates in the meaning-giving vagaries of evolutionary history.44

David L. Thompson



Michael Tomasello, A Natural History of Human Thinking, Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 2014 [NHHT]

Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. David Carr, Northwestern University Press, 1970 [CES]

Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, trans. Dorion Cairns, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1960 [CM]

Thomas Nagel, The view from nowhere, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986

I Dagobert D. Runes, Dictionary of Philosophy, 1942.