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The idea of a phenomenological structuralism

Giovanni Piana

Translated by Patrick Flack

The Idea of a Phenomenological Structuralism Giovanni Piana Master XML, sdvig press Patrick Flack February 27, 2020, 3:46 pm ( )


1In order to define my way of understanding phenomenology and its main themes, I have sometimes spoken of “phenomenological structuralism” or, in a broader sense, of a “phenomenological-structural perspective”. I wish here to provide a few points of explanation in this regard.

2First of all, it should be noted that my perspective does not derive from a blending of phenomenology with structuralism, understood here as the specific philosophical and cultural tradition that derived its methods from linguistics. Similarly, it is not concerned with the presence of phenomenological themes in the context of that specific tradition.

3What my phenomenological structuralism stands for, really, is the possibility of discerning in the German word Wesen a nuance of meaning which—if we can manage to free ourselves from the habitual philosophical terminology—is expressed by the term structure better than essence. In such a perspective, countless old disputes about phenomenology's purported Platonism simply become meaningless.

4The word "structure" implies here the idea of a skeleton, of an internal schema, a sort of internal constitution—in short, the idea of a characteristic form which, in my opinion, directly prescribes its goal to all phenomenological research.

Definition of the phenomenological method

5I once tried to briefly define the nature of the phenomenological method in the context of philosophy of experience, in the following terms: the phenomenological method seeks to characterise acts of experience by outlining their differences in structure. I know of no simpler and clearer definition, and it is strange to me that this formulation has not had more impact in the phenomenological literature.

6Drawing attention to structure implies first of all emphasising the true and eminently polemical meaning of the phenomenological question of "essences". This meaning resides above all in the anti-psychological attitude that characterises phenomenological philosophy. This is not a superfluous observation: even philosophers such as Merleau-Ponty or Sartre failed to understand this point and, as such, their phenomenological investigations ultimately take the form of mere remarks on the results of psychological-empirical research. In this sense, these philosophers have much less in common with phenomenological structuralism than philosophers such as Cassirer or Wittgenstein, who are certainly not as close to Husserl's philosophy.

7At the same time, one must take a stand against any attempt to reduce phenomenology to a superficial type of descriptivism that is unable to discern what is significant from what is not, and that is satisfied with the mere aggregation of descriptive results. The purpose of phenomenology is not to blindly layer description upon description, but—through description—to bring specific, structurally significant circumstances to their full evidence.

General thesis

8The general thesis and, at the same time, the condition of possibility of phenomenological research thus amounts to this: experience has a structure in all its forms of manifestation, and phenomenological research must make this structure evident by clearly showing its knots and joints. True, not every situation that can be described is in itself worthy of being described. But the field of phenomenological investigation is itself indeed completely circumscribed by the words "experience" and "structure".

9Phenomenology is thus a doctrine of experience in an eminent sense. But experience itself has nothing to do with pure knowledge. Knowledge is the name for a different orientation of research, aiming towards a doctrine of science. The doctrine of experience and the doctrine of science are very large areas of research which often happen to be mistakenly superimposed but which in reality must be distinguished with the utmost care.

10Moreover, it is not only true that phenomenology itself is a doctrine of experience in an eminent sense: I claim that any doctrine of experience developed in the radical fashion required by philosophy must take the form of a phenomenological theory.

The Husserlian path

11A further important clarification is required here: a phenomenological theory of experience can naturally take the experiencing subject as a possible theme. To be more precise, this means that structural observations can also be made about the multiple forms of subjective life, as there is here also room for phenomenological clarifications. This kind of research, however, leads neither to a "philosophy of subjectivity", nor to a new kind of philosophical idealism.

12Rather, there is no doubt that it corresponds to Husserl’s path, a path that was inaugurated by the Cartesian turn and proceeded with reference to Kant’s transcendentalism.

13The discussion of such broad and complex issues does not belong here. However, this short essay does intend to at least highlight the fact that the origins of Husserl's theory of reduction were not of a solely theoretical nature.His efforts to transform the theory of reduction into an all-encompassing methodological question, the emergence in this context of the problem of an absolute foundation—a demand that became ever more pressing for Husserl and which, in his last few years, evolved into a real obsession—, all this indicates that we are dealing here with the evolution of a philosophy whose ultimate reasons do not lie in pure theory alone.

14For example, in the rarefied theoretical atmosphere of the Ideas, the term "Weltvernichtung" (world annihilation) is meant to characterise the reduction as an abstract philosophical operation, but it also expresses the bursting forth of a historical drama of unprecedented proportions. In 1913, indeed, the image of an annihilation of the world seemed close to its tragic realisation. Facing the threat of world annihilation, philosophy had to take on the task of announcing the possibility of a new birth. The entire philosophical tradition had to be negated so that its original, forgotten sense could be rethought and reactualised—beyond the catastrophe. This is what the Crisis of the European Sciences is all about and this deeper meaning—albeit only in its outlines—is already announced in Husserl's theory of reduction and the return to subjectivity. In this sense, the problem of absolute foundation not only questions the concept of phenomenology itself: it constitutes a pressing invitation to achieve historical and ethical self-awareness. Transcendental idealism has an ethical objective: philosophy must assert its wisdom against the tragic senselessness of history.


15Many issues remain open on this topic and it is well known that Enzo Paci chose to orientate his reflections precisely in this direction. The ethical dimension of the idea of phenomenology as a philosophy of subjectivity, which is already present and discussed in Husserl, became clearly prevalent for Paci. As such, the Husserlian proposal of an analysis of concrete experience slipped into the background, and it is quite correct to say that the idea of creating a "doctrine of experience" ended up as completely extraneous to Paci's philosophical programme. In its stead, we find discussions—that do not amount to more than pure exhortations—of science and technology in their relationship with the "meaning of Man". It is in this context above all that Paci speaks of the lifeworld (Lebenswelt), mostly referring to those aspects that particularly underline a simplistic and philosophically sterile opposition between the conceptuality of science, which is deemed hostile to life, and the very course of life in which humans are immersed.

16By contrast, if one is to emphasise the analytical content of phenomenology, we have to bring the theory of reduction back to its original intentions, which are already vividly expressed in the motto "back to the things themselves". From this perspective, the phenomenological epoché—along, partly, with the Cartesian doubt—is only an artifice designed to induce a type of research that takes as its theme the world as a phenomenal field. The tension between an absolute foundation and the exalted pathos dedicated to the ultimate grounding of transcendental subjectivity must find an adequate clarification in this other problematic horizon.

17My evaluation of the empiricist tradition—whose fundamental meaning has normally been overlooked by Italian studies, in particular by recent interpretations which, in accordance with a conformism that is sadly not only widespread in Italy, display a general tendency to rework the original ideas of phenomenology in such a way that they end up merging into a Heideggerian perspective,—also belongs to this same critical approach.

18Of course, phenomenology is not a form of empiricism, and phenomenological structuralism must be capable of applying in-depth criticism to the empiricist trends that are still so widespread in today's cultural and philosophical debates, especially in the field of semiology. But remembering the importance of the role that the empiricist tradition always played for Husserl is also the expression of a certain theoretical point of view: the adherence to a conception of philosophy, to an intellectual attitude that is weary of empty rhetoric and logorrhea, as well as those truths that for being too "profound" are often also profoundly incomprehensible. Incidentally, it should be noted that the theme of constitution, which is undoubtedly one of the richest motives of phenomenological thought, is actually empirical.

Genesis and structure

19The word "constitution" refers to constituo and constitutio, and therefore contains an order of ideas that also involves the concept of structure.

20Constitutio means to arrange, to build, to establish but also to compose, in the sense of gathering something together in order to strengthen and consolidate it. In the rhetorical-legal usage, constituere means to clearly define a question and therefore also to set and to circumscribe the boundaries of a concept.

21Any definition in a logical sense, as an enunciation of the essence, must be complemented with the performance of constitution, i.e., the description of the way and form in which a concept arises. Every constitutive analysis is the performance of a genesis.

22The concept of phenomenological constitution thus brings to the fore a genetic moment at the heart of all structural investigation: concepts have a history, structures are constituted structures, and disclosing these constitutive processes must be considered as the authentic method of philosophical clarification. If one wants to clarify intricate and confusing representations or to unravel conceptual knots, then one should also know that concepts have an internal movement and that it is necessary to repeat step by step the path they have moved along. The question of constitution thus brings us back to the theme of experience: if there is a history of concepts, there must also be a ground in which that history takes root; and if this ground is the terrain of experience, perhaps we can say that we are dealing with experience in its more general form, i.e. with everyday life. As such, unravelling conceptual knots means to describe the way in which concepts are concretely adopted and used in our daily interactions with the world.

23We are here firmly on the terrain of the problems that are circumscribed by the notion of lifeworld; to make this notion fruitful, however, means that we have to liberate it from the meanings that reduce it, in a more or less hidden way, to the philosophy of life and, above all, to a false antithesis between life and science.

The importance of Wittgenstein's notion of “language game”

24In this regard, it is certainly appropriate to mention Wittgenstein's concepts of language game and of form of life as the context of language games. At the same time, with respect to my own perspective, it is also important to nuance the relativistic turn that characterises the position of Wittgenstein and, even more so, of his followers, as well as to reject Wittgenstein's unilateral emphasis on language, according to which linguistic analysis constitutes the only philosophical method.

25Without intending to conduct here a proper discussion of this problem, we must make two observations that in a way play off against each other: firstly, one needs to recall that it is often necessary in the development of a philosophical investigation toaccount for the forms of linguistic expression, and to do so precisely in the exemplary sense that Wittgenstein has shown; secondly, a distinction of principle must be made between experience and language, even if they are strictly speaking intertwined with each other. It is not true that language is the only common thread that provides order to philosophical problems or allows them to develop. After all, it is always important in a phenomenological investigation to be able to talk about a pre-linguistic dimension. Within these limits, however, Wittgenstein's perspective is certainly useful to deepen the idea of phenomenological structuralism.

The need for a theory of imagination

26An adequately developed theory of imagination plays a considerable role both for the problem of originary constitution and, more generally, for a doctrine of experience. The experienced world is not merely a perceived world, much less a bare world of knowledge. Our subjective relationship to the world manifests itself in different ways; the manners in which we attribute meaning to it are richly articulated and happen at many levels. Imagination does considerable work in the constitution of this interweaving of meanings. Now, in order to know how it operates, one must analyse its nature. This implies, among other things, grasping those determinations that characterise its object and thus make it possible to distinguish between objects of imagination, of perception and of memory. Husserl provides a significant beginning for an authentic philosophy of imagination, but only a beginning: his philosophy of imagination is incomplete and can be of profitable use only if it is further developed. In particular, it is important to make the particular nature of imaginative syntheses stand out. The concept of imaginative valorisation is closely intertwined with such syntheses.

27The elaboration of a theory of imagination leads to questions that belong more specifically to the philosophy of art. I have recently tried to measure the validity of a phenomenological-structural approach on the terrain of the philosophy of music. As it happens, the music of our century has made a return to its original sources—a return to the conditions of its arising so to speak. I believe that a philosophy of music can retrace a similar reflexive path. As a result, philosophy of music must once again search for those fundamental distinctions and rules that, because they pertain to the mode of donation of sound itself as a concretely perceptible matter, constitute the conditions of every musical practice. Finally, a phenomenological theory of imagination is indispensable if one wishes to account for the problem—addressed so often in an unsatisfactory way—, of symbolism in musical expression.

Translator's notes on the European context of Giovanni Piana's “The idea of a phenomenological structuralism”

28At a very early stage of the conception of the In memoriam issue of Phenomenological Reviews dedicated to Giovanni Piana and his work, Roberta De Monticelli suggested that it should include an English translation of “The Idea of a Phenomenological Structuralism” (“L'idea di uno strutturalismo fenomenologico”), a short, summarising essay in which Piana “[…] so clearly and concisely explains his idea of what phenomenology is and ought to be” (De Monticelli, 2020). The idea was immediately welcomed by the two editors, Michela Summa and Emanuele Caminada, and I readily agreed to take on this task.

29Being neither particularly fluent in Italian nor by any means a specialist of Piana, I was perhaps not the best person to translate a text which—because it distils the essence of an entire philosophy—is potentially full of easily overlooked subtleties. “The Idea of a Phenomenological Structuralism”, however, happens to be a beautifully clear, laconic text, which provides no evident terminological difficulties and, as such, did not of necessity call for someone better qualified. Crucially for me, it also fits perfectly in a series of little-known works that I have recently translated or helped publish,1 with the programmatic intention of highlighting the diffuse yet persistent presence of “structural” or “structural-phenomenological” motives within phenomenology. If I indulge here in this brief mention of my own motivations, it is thus not so much to justify my translation itself than to introduce a few points of context to the spectral concept of “phenomenological structuralism” and to hopefully broaden the horizon of relevance of Piana's text.

30A potential pitfall of “The Idea of a Phenomenological Structuralism”, I believe, is that it tends to over-emphasise the singular, idiosyncratic dimension of Piana's structural-phenomenological perspective. There is, for example, a distinct (Plessnerian) eccentricity in the provocative way in which Piana proposes to translate the Husserlian term of “Wesen” with that of “structure”, or again in his off-hand dismissal of one of the central debates in phenomenology (“In this perspective, countless old disputes about phenomenology's purported Platonism simply become meaningless”). That is not to say that Piana positions himself at any point against phenomenology as such : there is certainly no doubting either his knowledge of Husserl or his faithfulness to the “Husserlian path” he himself asserts. He is keen, however, to take his distances from almost all the other major phenomenological figures (Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, his master Enzo Paci), as well, of course, as from the tradition of linguistic structuralism (“First of all, it should be noted that my perspective does not derive from a blending of phenomenology with structuralism”). Conversely, he is happy to underline his affinities with figures such as Wittgenstein and Cassirer, i.e. philosophers who chose to tread decidedly independent paths.

31There are certainly many reasons that justify, constrain and motivate the apparent positioning of Piana's phenomenological structuralism if not at the margins of phenomenology, then explicitly outside of its main trends. His emphasis on the constitutive role of subjectivity, his trust in the phenomenological method as a tool of reflexive clarification of one's lived experience, the expression of some of his key insights sometimes literally as a translation of Husserl—all these aspects underscore how Piana's thought is rooted in a personal practice, a movement of individual appropriation of phenomenological themes that is profoundly at odds with and unconcerned by the ferocious factional controversies of the post-war decades (I think here in particular of the polemics between phenomenology and analytical philosophy, as well as with structuralism). In this sense, it is especially clear why Piana did not recognise the Parisian structuralists and their emphasis on “hidden”, objectifying types of unconscious (Lacan), super- and infrastructural (Althusser), or “fascist” (Barthes) systems as natural allies of his own phenomenological conception of the structures of lived experience.

32It is important to recognise, however, that other forms of structuralism and other formulations of phenomenological structuralism do exist. Piana's position is, although highly original in its own right, not as isolated within the phenomenological tradition as it might at first seem. In fact, one can find many cases of authors explicitly combining phenomenology with a structural approach, often with aims or preoccupations not all that dissimilar to Piana's. The most obvious examples are Merleau-Ponty's recourse both to structural linguistics and Gestalt psychology, Derrida's almost simultaneous critique of Husserl (La voix et le phénomène) and Saussure (De la grammatologie), and—closest to Piana – Aron Gurwitsch's work on the relation between phenomenology and Gestalt psychology. In addition, one can mention here a string of lesser-known or completely forgotten figures such as Kita Megrelidze (1900-1944),2 Hendrik Pos (1898-1955)3, Gustav Špet (1879-1937),4 or Trần Đức Thảo (1917-1993),5 and recall that according to Elmar Holenstein—a scholar whose independent streak and dedication to his own philosophical interests is not without reminding us of Piana—the Prague School of structural linguistics itself (Roman Jakobson, Nikolaj Trubeckoj, etc.) was de facto “a branch of the phenomenological movement” (Holenstein 1979).

33This is not to say, of course, either that these various figures and structural-phenomenological strands amount to a real tradition, that they directly influenced Giovanni Piana or even that they are evidently related and comparable to his approach. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to dismiss this loose constellation as just a family resemblance or a somewhat fortuitous correlation of like-minded approaches. Almost all the rare studies dedicated individually to one or the other of the neglected scholars just mentioned (e.g. Daalder & Noordegraaf 1990, Haardt 1992, Friedrich 1993, Dennes 2008, Benoist & Espagne 2013) end up emphasising how each of them is in effect part of a dense network of complex cross-references and interactions, of which Merleau-Ponty, Derrida and the Prague School are all crucial nodes. I would like to suggest here that this network also extends to Piana, in particular through the indirect, but concrete and identifiable ties of his philosophy with Prague structuralism and the Prague intellectual context of the 1920s and 30s.

34One can start by noting that the convergence of Piana's ideas with those of the Prague School is not limited to their general blending of phenomenology with a structural approach. Much more than that, they share a common fascination for and source of inspiration in the same two Husserlian texts: the Logical Investigations on the one hand, the Crisis on the other. I refer here to the articles by De Monticelli, Costa and Staiti in this volume with regard to the importance of these two works for Piana. As far as Prague structuralism is concerned, I will mention here but a few of the most salient elements: the seminal influence on Roman Jakobson of the Third Logical Investigation – a text that is itself linked to the Prague philosopher Anton Marty;6 the fact that the Crisis was pronounced as a lecture in Prague and later appeared in the first collective publication of the Cercle philosophique de Prague—a society that was explicitly modelled and inspired by the Cercle linguistique de Prague ; and, coming full circle, the favourable review of Holenstein's interpretation of Jakobson's recourse to the Third Logical Investigation written by Jan Patočka (1976), a notable guest of the Cercle linguistique, a core member of the Cercle philosophique and one of the phenomenologists most deeply influenced by Husserl's Crisis.

35The potential scope of the relationship of Piana's thought with Prague, however, only really comes into focus when one takes a further step back and considers the ties of interwar Czechoslovakia with Italian philosophy. While it is indeed not possible—at least to my knowledge—to tie Piana to the Cercle linguistique or the Cercle philosophique de Prague otherwise than through putative theoretical and textual convergences, one does find in the Prague intellectual milieu of the 1920s and 30s figures that provide a direct connection not only with Italy, but more specifically with Italian phenomenology and Piana's Italian masters. Moreover, because of the tightly-knit, intermingling structure of the Prague milieu—which was defined not only by the productive, if fraught, exchanges between Czech and German-speaking intellectuals, but also by the contributions of the strong Russian diaspora that had been invited directly to Czechoslovakia by its president, Tomáš Masaryk – these “Italian” connecting figures are themselves closely linked both to the Prague School and the Cercle philosophique.

36One such link between Piana and Prague is the Russian émigré philosopher Boris Jakovenko (1884-1949). A student of Windelband and Rickert, he produced a philosophy which, through critical studies of Husserl and Hegel (among others), transformed basic Neo-kantian tenets in the direction of a so-called “transcendental intuitivism”. Jakovenko himself lived in Italy for almost a decade and kept close contacts with prominent Italian philosophers and intellectuals (e.g. his correspondence with Benedetto Croce, cf. Renna 2006).7 Of particular interest to us here is his activity as the editor of the Prague-based journal Der russische Gedanke (Russian thought), the first two volumes of which were dedicated to Masaryk and in which one finds contributions by Italian philosophers such as Croce, Antonio Aliotta and, most importantly to us, Piero Martinetti, one of the founders of the Milan School. The Milan School itself was of course the main vector of the reception of phenomenology in Italy, and the early nurturing grounds of none other than Giovanni Piana. If nothing else, this combination of Jakovenko's relations with Italy (which also include his involvement as editor of the journal Logos, published in German, Russian and Italian versions), the interest of Croce and Martinetti for Masaryk, and Masaryk's own ties to Brentano and Husserl certainly constitute an interesting background to the early story of Italian phenomenology.

37Another figure connecting Piana to Prague is the Brentanian philosopher Emil Utitz (1883-1956), a student of Marty and a founding member of the Cercle philosophique. A completely forgotten figure today, Utitz is interesting in several regards, for example as a survivor of the Theresienstadt concentration camp (Utitz 2015) and as one of the initiators, with Landgrebe, of the project to transfer Husserl archives to Prague (cf. Mehring 2018)—a failed initiative that led however to the founding of the archives in Leuven. Most importantly to us here, Utitz was also instrumental in the creation, with Max Dessoir, of the Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, a journal in which one finds the first attempts to define a phenomenological aesthetics by the likes of Waldemar Conrad, Moritz Geiger, Roman Ingarden, and another Italian contributor and prominent member of the Milan School: Antonio Banfi. The lasting significance of this Italian participation to Utitz's and Dessoir's project is witnessed by the strong Italian tradition in phenomenological aesthetics that descended directly from it and which is represented above all by Dino Formaggio, as well as Piana himself.8 Here again the Milan School is an important contextual factor: the most dynamic forum for Italian phenomenological aesthetics was the journal aut aut edited by Enzo Paci.9 In addition, one can note that a long-time and dear friend of Piana, Guido Davide Neri, who translated works by Jan Patočka and extensively wrote about Karel Kosík, was also a contributor to the journal and a member of the Milan School with ties to Prague.

38To sum up, it bears repeating that the many figures, projects and societies mentioned here do not constitute a coherent “structural-phenomenological” tradition and that the extent to which they are linked and relevant to each other is still to be decided. In particular, I fully accept that the evidence provided here is much too thin, the examples too anecdotal to allow any decisive statement on their relevance to Piana's philosophy. But my point here was not so much to put forward or to outline an interpretation of Piana's ideas themselves than to suggest that his approach can be fruitfully put into a wider context. To be more precise, it seems to me that Piana's phenomenological structuralism should not be seen and appraised only as a systematic method: in the spirit of Piana himself, it calls also for a study of its own genesis and history, which I believe would entail a re-appraisal both of the potential relations between phenomenology and structuralism more broadly and of the specific role and position of Italian phenomenology in a European context.


  • 1 Let me mention here my recent translations of Hendrik Pos's “Écrits sur le langage”, or Rozalija Šor's “Expression and signification”, the special issue of Acta structuralica on « Phenomenology and structuralism » (edited by Rossana de Angelis and Simone Aurora), as well as an upcoming anthology of Elmar Holenstein's phenomenological philosophy of langage (edited by Simone Aurora and Lorenzo Cigana).
  • 2 Georgian sociologist who studied with Husserl and Max Wertheimer. Author of The Fundamental Problems of the Sociology of Thought [Osnovnye problemy sociologii myšlenija] (written in the 1930s, published 1965), in which he combines Husserlian phenomenology with a specifically structuralist version of Gestalt psychology, as well as with Marxist sociology.
  • 3 Dutch linguist and philosopher, student of Husserl and Rickert. One of the first to propose a philosophical interpretation of structural linguistics (“Perspectives du structuralisme”, 1939 “Valeur et limites de la phénoménologie”, 1952), which had a notable influence on Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of language.
  • 4 Russian philosopher, student of Husserl who first translated his work into Russian. In his Appearance and sense [Javlenie i smysl] (1914), one of the very first interpretations of the Ideas, he applies the proto-structuralist, Humboldtian concept of “inner form” to the Husserlian notion of intuition.
  • 5 Vietnamese anti-colonialist philosopher. He sought to reconcile Marxism with phenomenology (Marxisme et phénoménologie, 1946) and later with Saussurean structuralism (Recherches sur l'origine du langage et de la conscience, 1973).
  • 6 Paolo Spinicci, a direct disciple of Piana and contributor to this volume, devoted a book to Marty (Il significato e la forma linguistica. Pensiero, esperienza e linguaggio nella filosofia di Anton Marty 1991),
  • 7 For an introduction to Jakovenko in relation to Italy, see Renna (2004).
  • 8 Formaggio and Piana corresponded with each other, cf. http://www.filosofia.unimi.it/piana/index.php/materiali-integrativi
  • 9 In this sense, it is interesting to point out that the Spanish journal Eikasia, which recently devoted a special issue to Piana (https://www.revistadefilosofia.org/numero96.htm), did the same for Dino Formaggio (https://www.revistadefilosofia.org/numero62.htm) and Enzo Paci (https://www.revistadefilosofia.org/numero69.htm).


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Publication details

Published in:

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

DOI: 10.19079/PR.s1.2

Full citation:

Piana Giovanni (2020). The idea of a phenomenological structuralism. Phenomenological Reviews 1.