Simone Aurora: Filosofia e scienze nel primo Husserl: Per una interpretazione strutturalista delle Ricerche logiche

Nicola Spinelli

Filosofia e science nel primo Husserl: Per una interpretazione strutturalista delle Ricerche ogiche Book Cover Filosofia e science nel primo Husserl: Per una interpretazione strutturalista delle Ricerche ogiche
La filosofia e il suo passato 62
Simone Aurora

Reviewed by: Nicola Spinelli (Faculty of Mathematics, Hertswood Academy / Research Associate, King's College London)

This is a good book – and, on the Italian market, a much-needed one. Simone Aurora’s declared aim is to show that Husserl’s Logical Investigations belong to the history and conceptual horizon of structuralism, and in a prominent position at that. The whole book builds up to a defense of the view in the last chapter. Aurora’s case is set up well from the beginning and thoroughly argued at the end. That is why the book is good. The reason why the book is much needed on the Italian market is that it is also an introduction to Husserl’s early philosophy – from On the Concept of Number (1886) to the Investigations (1900-1901) – as it should be written: starting from 19th-century developments in psychology and, importantly, mathematics. To my knowledge, there are no published works in Italian that do so, or do so extensively. Aurora satisfactorily fills the gap.

Chapter 1 is about Husserl’s beginnings – a story Aurora does a good job of telling. A mathematics, physics, and astronomy student in Leipzig in 1876, Husserl would end up, in 1883, writing a doctoral thesis on the calculus of variations with Leo Königsberger in Vienna. He was then briefly Weierstrass’s assistant in Berlin. In 1884 Husserl came across Brentano’s work and lectures; as a result, he steered towards philosophy. By 1887, Husserl’s first philosophical work – his Habilitationsschrift under the supervision of Carl Stumpf in Halle – was complete. Crucial to On the Concept of Number are both the mathematical and the philosophical strands of Husserl’s academic life. The eponymous problem is inherited from Weierstrass, Kronecker, and in general, the whole debate on the foundations of mathematics, which at the time was soaring in Europe. The method with which Husserl tackled it – and this is where the originality of the work lies – was Brentano’s descriptive psychology. Both these backgrounds, their developments and Husserl’s own take on them are well expounded by Aurora.

Chapter 2 is about 1891’s Philosophy of Arithmetic (PA). Overall, Aurora’s presentation is clear and, I believe, effective. The relations with the earlier work are explained and the architecture of the book is clearly laid out. Overall, the main notions (‘collective connection’, ‘something in general’, and so forth) and arguments are satisfactorily presented. Let me mention a couple of worries.

One problem is that Aurora highlights relatively few connections between points discussed in PA on the one hand, and the larger debates and their recent developments on the other. For example, at that stage Husserl, like e.g. Cantor, held a version of the abstraction theory of numbers. That, for example, is where the notion of ‘something in general’ (Etwas überhaupt) comes in. The theory had already been severely criticised by Frege in The Foundations of Arithmetic (1884), a criticism, importantly, that fed into Husserl’s work (as well as into Cantor’s). See ortiz Hill 1997. This might have deserved a few lines. Also, although for most of the twentieth century the abstraction theory was forsaken if not forgotten, in the late 1990s Kit Fine attempted a rescue, sparking some debate (Fine 1998). Again, a quick pointer might have been helpful.

Here is a second worry. Some scholars (A. Altobrando and G. Rang are Aurora’s references) believe they can discern the first traces of the development of Husserl’s notions of eidetic intuition and phenomenological epoché in PA. Aurora is among them, and in particular he reckons abstraction is the place to look: for, according to Husserl, in abstraction one disregards all qualitative (and to some extent relational) aspects of the relevant objects, and is only interested in the latter as empty ‘something in general’. The view is put forward at p. 71. Now, there is no denying that both eidetic intuition and the phenomenological epoché involve some sort of heavy disregarding or bracketing. But surely the philosophical literature is crammed with similar methods and theories – not least the British empiricists’ accounts of abstraction, which is as far as it gets from Husserl’s Ideation or Wesensanschauung. Prima facie similarities, then, are in fact rather thin. Terminology as well as theoretical contexts and functions, Aurora admits, are also very different. We may wonder, at this point, what is left for the interpretation to be based on. I suspect very little if anything.

Chapter 3 is about the transition, in the 1890s, from PA to the Investigations. Two conceptual pairs begin to emerge in this period that will end up being paramount in the later work. The first pair, abstract/concrete, is the subject (or one of the subjects) of the third Investigation; the second, intuition/representation, is one of the main characters of the sixth. Aurora describes well their first appearance in an 1894 essay entitled Psychologischen Studien zur elementaren Logik. Developments in Husserl’s view of intentional objects are also discussed in some detail. The main references in this case are manuscript K I 56 and Husserl’s review of Twardowski’s Zur Lehre vom Inhalt und Gegenstand der Vorstellung, both from 1894.

Chapter 4 is about the Prolegomena to Pure Logic, the first part of the Logical Investigations. Aurora does a good job of expounding both Husserl’s arguments against psychologism and his concept of a pure logic and theory of science – the two main themes of the work. As it can and should be expected of an introductory exposition, a few details are at some points glossed over. Yet the main idea, i.e., that there is a basic dimension to science which is called ‘pure logic’ and which is ideal (or, as people tend to say these days, ‘abstract’), objective, and to all appearances, independent of human thought or language, comes across very clearly. There is, however, one distinction that, it seems to me, Aurora fails to recognise (or to report). It is not a major issue for what, after all, is an introductory chapter – but nonetheless a point worth raising. It is the distinction between deduction and grounding.

Between the Prolegomena and the Investigations Husserl defines (or uses) two to four related concepts: on the one hand, deduction or inference (Schluß, or sometimes an unqualified Begründung, in Husserl’s German) and explanatory grounding (the relation between an erklärender Grund and what it is the ground of), both operative in the Prolegomena; on the other hand, foundation (Fundierung), introduced in the third Investigation and operative in the subsequent ones. Now, foundation may (Nenon 1997) or may not have two models, one ontological and one epistemological; and one of these two models, the ontological, may or may not be identical to the explanatory grounding of the Prolegomena – a view for which, I believe, there is something to be said. Your count here will depend on your views on foundation. But whatever these are, there is no doubt at least that deduction and explanatory grounding are distinct in the Prolegomena. That is what does not come across in the book.

Indeed, as far as I can see, in Aurora’s presentation the two concepts from the Prolegomena collapse into one. While explaining what, for Husserl, constitutes the ‘unity of science’, Aurora introduces the concept of Begründung and says that it ‘substantially refers to the notion of inference or logical deduction’ (p. 134). Yet this is something that Husserl explicitly denies. To see this, look at Prolegomena, §63. Here, a distinction is made between explanatory and non-explanatory Begründung, and the former, not the latter, is deemed essential to (the unity of) science. Indeed for Husserl, as for Bolzano (from whom he inherits the notion), what secures the unity of science is an explanatory relation (erklärende Zusammenhang) between true propositions. And while ‘all grounds are premises’ – so that if proposition A grounds proposition B then there is an inference from A to B – ‘not all premises are grounds’. It is not the case, that is, that if there is an inference from A to B then A grounds B. In other words, ‘every explanatory relation is deductive (deduktive), but not every deductive relation is explanatory’.

While Husserl is very explicit in drawing the distinction, he is not so helpful in justifying it. He devotes a few remarks to the task, right after the passage I quoted; but they do not make an argument. Here is how one may be extracted. (Bolzano’s arguments are also available from the Wissenschaftslehre, around §200.)

Let us stipulate deducibility as the modern notion of (classical) logical consequence. If grounding were just logical consequence, the latter would be an explanatory relation (because the former is). But it isn’t: there are cases of valid and sound arguments in which the premises fail to explain the conclusion. For example, p p, or p & q ╞ p. Indeed, it is hard to see how a proposition, even though it can be inferred from itself, can also ground (explain) itself: it is raining, therefore it is raining – but is it raining because it is raining? Things are even worse with the second case: does the truth of a conjunction ground the truth of one of its conjuncts? It is probably the other way round. To derive a conclusion from a set of premises is not, in and of itself, to explain the former in terms of the latter. But then grounding and deducibility must be distinct.

(I should mention that in an extended footnote at p. 133 Aurora does discuss Husserl’s notion of Begründung vis-à-vis Bolzano’s. So he is definitely aware of the theoretical background, the significance and the facets of the concept. So much so, that the footnote seems to contradict, rather than explain, the main text.)

Chapter 5 is possibly the most felicitous of the whole book, partly because, due to the topic, Aurora’s background in linguistics shines through. We are now past the Prolegomena and into the Investigations proper. Having established in the former that logical and mathematical objects do not, by all appearances, belong to the spatio-temporal world, Husserl is left with the question as to how we can know anything about them – in fact, relate to them at all. Short of an answer, Husserl thinks, the existence of logic and therefore of science in general, as human enterprises, must remain a mystery. And for Husserl the starting point is language, because it is primarily in language – in the meanings of words and sentences – that logical objects make their spatio-temporal appearance. The main result of the first two Investigations are the following: meanings are ideal (non-spatio-temporal) and akin to universals; and universals are genuine objects, irreducible to their instances, to thought, or to language. (It is a substantive question whether this amounts to full-blown Platonism; Aurora believes it doesn’t, and some remarks of Husserl’s certainly point that way.)

The first two sections of the chapter, on the first Investigation, are nearly flawless. The remaining sections, on the second Investigation, are also effective but, I believe, raise at least one worry. Aurora thinks that, for Husserl, meanings are ‘ideal classes of objects’ (203). Now, he may well not be using ‘class’ in its fully technical sense. But the fact remains that classes, among other things, are (like sets, their close relatives) extensional mathematical constructs. However, in the 1890s, when most of the Investigations were thought out, Husserl was an adamant intensionalist. See for example his review of Schröder’s Vorlesungen as well as The Deductive Calculus and the Logic of Contents, both from 1891. For evidence that Husserl did not change his mind afterwards, see the 1903 review of Palágy’s Der Streit der Psychologisten und Formalisten in der modernen Logik. Aurora’s reading, therefore, if taken literally, is probably incorrect. If we take it charitably, it is misleading.

Despite this, Aurora is completely right in pointing out (204) the indispensability of ideal objects, particularly species (universals), for Husserl’s phenomenological project in the Investigations: if the former go, the latter goes with them.

Chapter 6 is about the third and fourth Investigations. The latter deals with matters of ‘pure grammar’, as Husserl calls it, and here Aurora’s linguistic background is once again both tangible and helpful. Yet it is the first sections, on the third Investigation, that are particularly important. In fact, they are the crux of the whole book. The reason is that the third Investigation is about parts, wholes and the relations between them – and (without going into detail, I will return to it later) the very concept of structure, central to the book for obvious reasons, is defined, in the last chapter, in mereological terms.

To say something of significance on Aurora’s interpretation of the third Investigation I would have to write more than my allowance permits. I will therefore only mention what is at least a presentational flaw. Despite insisting throughout the book and in the chapter on the relevance of the formal sciences in the development of Husserl’s philosophy, Aurora never engages with the several formalizations of the Husserlian theory of parts and wholes. He does mention the first of such contributions, Simons 1982 (334). But we also have Simons 1987, Fine 1995, Casari 2000, and Correia 2004 – which, moreover, all extend Husserl’s theory in many different ways. This, to me, is the only genuinely disappointing feature of, or absence from, the book. All the more so, because the capacity to be mathematized or formalized is one of the definitional traits of structures as set out in the final discussion (310).

Chapter 7 outlines the properly phenomenological parts of the Investigations, namely, the fifth and sixth Investigations. This is where Husserl puts to work all the notions he previously set up and sketches a phenomenological theory of consciousness (especially of intentional consciousness) and knowledge. Aurora’s exposition is careful and effective, with more than one passage I found particularly felicitous.

Chapter 8 is where Aurora lays out and defends his view. These are the main claims:

  1. Husserl’s philosophy in the Logical Investigations is a structuralist philosophy;
  1. Some of the aspects of Husserl’s philosophy that make it structuralist are ideally suited to characterise structuralism as such;
  1. Husserl’s subsequent, transcendental work deals with one of the central problems of structuralism: the origin of structures.

Section 1 is about structuralism in general. The first thing to sort out is, obviously, what a structure is. Borrowing from a number of authors, Aurora characterises structure in terms of two things: part-whole relations, and mathematizability. A structure is ‘a particular type of multiplicity’ whose elements obey laws ‘that confer properties to the whole as such which are distinct from those of the elements’ (309, half-quoting J. Piaget). Moreover, a structure ‘must always be formalizable’ (310). On the basis of this, Aurora characterises structuralism as follows:

Structuralism aims at studying the latent structures within classes of objects…by creating models, i.e. formal descriptions that make the immanent relations between objects of the relevant class predictable and intelligible (311).

It is worth noting that the given definition of structure does not necessitate that of structuralism. It is even more worth noting that this is a good thing. The reason is that, while Aurora wants to argue that the philosophy of the Investigations is structuralist, it is dubious that Husserl’s project in 1900-1901 involved the idea that the phenomenology of the fifth and sixth Investigations should be formalized. True, Husserl did have in mind a formalization of his theory of wholes and parts, and that theory is operative in the phenomenology. But that doesn’t entail that Husserl’s early phenomenology was ever meant to be entirely formalizable – much less that its aim was to ‘make predictions’ about consciousness and knowledge possible. The upshot is that Aurora’s definitions allow for a Husserl who deals in structures but not, strictly speaking, for a structuralist Husserl. This is too underwhelming a conclusion for what is otherwise, as I said at the outset, a well-constructed case. A looser definition of structuralism might perhaps have been suitable.

Another (minor) unclarity is Aurora’s appeal to mereology throughout the book. In and of itself, this appeal is perfectly fine. Yet not all mereologies admit of the sort of relations between parts that structuralists require. For example, and in stark contrast with the structuralist’s mantra, in classical mereology there is a sense in which the whole is just the sum (fusion) of its parts! Yet Aurora never engages with the distinction between classical and non-classical mereologies in any significant way. Moreover, it is unclear why formalizations of structures should be mereological rather than, say, algebraic (like most of Aurora’s examples of formal structures) or order-theoretic.

Be that as it may, Aurora is entirely correct when he points out that, if part-whole discourse is crucial to structuralism, then Husserl’s theory is ideally suited to form the core of any structuralist system: it is (or can be made) robust, it is philosophically profound, and, importantly, being a non-classical mereology, it is strong enough to describe the right sort of relations the structuralist needs.

At the very end, Aurora points out that one of the distinctive features of Husserl’s structuralism is its engagement with the problem of the origin of structures. In particular, Husserl is interested in understanding the relations between the subjects who come to be aware of structures and the structures themselves. This is indeed what the Investigations are all about. It is also one of the threads of Husserl’s whole philosophical career. As Aurora puts it (effectively, I believe), ‘this attempt at conciliating genesis and structure, first carried out in the Logical Investigations, is peculiar to Husserlian structuralism, and it is the question that Husserl will try to answer – through an ever more complex philosophical elaboration – in all his subsequent works.’


Casari, E. 2000. “On Husserl’s Theory of Wholes and Parts.” History and Philosophy of Logic 21 (1): 1-43.

Correia, F. 2004. “Husserl on Foundation.” Dialectica 58 (3): 349-367.

Fine, K. 1995. “Part-whole”. In Smith, B. and Woodruff Smith, D. (eds.). The Cambridge Companion to Husserl (Cambridge: CUP), pp. 463-486.

Fine, K. 1998. “Cantorian Abstraction: A Reconstruction and Defense.” Journal of Philosophy 95 (12): 599-634.

Nenon, T. 1997. “Two Models of Foundation in the Logical Investigations.” In Hopkins, B. (ed). Husserl in the Contemporary Context: Prospects and Projects for Transcendental Phenomenology (Dodrecht: Kluwer), pp. 159-177.

Ortiz Hill, C. 1997. “Did Georg Cantor Influence Edmund Husserl?” Synthese 113 (1): 145-170.

Simons, P. 1982. “Three Essays in Formal Ontology.” In B. Smith (ed.). Parts and Moments. Studies in Logic and Formal Ontology (Philosophia Verlag: München-Wien), pp. 111-260.

Simons, P. 1987. Parts. A Study in Ontology (Oxford: OUP).



Leave a Reply