Robert C. Scharff: Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological: Interpreting Husserl Through Dilthey, 1916-1925

Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological: Interpreting Husserl through Dilthey, 1916–1925 Book Cover Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological: Interpreting Husserl through Dilthey, 1916–1925
New Heidegger Research
Robert C. Scharff
Rowman & Littlefield International
2018
Paperback $39.95
176

Reviewed by: James Cartlidge (Central European University)

The story often told about the birth of phenomenology begins with the perceived proto-phenomenological tendencies of philosophers of antiquity, before the discipline eventually found its proper explicit expression in Edmund Husserl. Following in the footsteps of Husserl comes his young student Martin Heidegger, who takes his basic insights, expands on, develops them and revises them, which eventually results in a ‘phenomenological ontology’, as opposed to Husserl’s ‘transcendental phenomenology’. Though Heidegger disagrees significantly with Husserl on some issues, when it comes to how Heidegger became the kind of philosopher he did, the debt he owes is largely to Husserl. However original Heidegger goes on to be, he is ultimately, to some extent, a Husserlian revisionist. However, as more of Heidegger’s early lecture courses have appeared, another figure’s considerable influence on the young Heidegger became increasingly difficulty to deny, at the expense of Husserl and the line of interpretive thought I just described. This figure is Wilhelm Dilthey, a German historian best known in philosophical circles for his contribution to the epistemological debate surrounding ‘understanding’ and ‘explanation’. The fact that Dilthey influenced Heidegger, and that Heidegger thought his work was especially promising, is uncontroversial: even in Being and Time he wrote that “the researches of Dilthey were, for their part, pioneering work; but today’s generation has not as yet made them its own.”[1] The extent of Dilthey’s impact on Heidegger’s philosophical formation, however, has not been adequately understood, nor its primacy over the influence of Husserl. Correcting this oversight is the central aim of Robert Scharff’s Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological. Using the wealth of evidence from Heidegger’s early lecture courses and the clearly Dilthey-influenced language and theoretical framework found in them, Scharff not only elaborately illustrates Dilthey’s impact on the formation of Heidegger’s thought, but shows how it is this impact that informs his subsequent reading of Husserl. It is only based on his prior reading of Dilthey that Heidegger ‘destructively retrieves’ Husserl. The dominant interpretive line of thought with respect to the history of phenomenology from Husserl through Heidegger is therefore mistaken, a fact that is perhaps not necessarily new to us but has never been as comprehensively expressed and well-demonstrated as Scharff does here. His text is a welcome addition to the New Heidegger Research series, with its clear writing, thorough scholarship and nobly motivated project making it of interest to anyone looking to learn about the history of phenomenology.

On the one hand, Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological is a historical, scholarly work concerned with the genesis of Heidegger’s phenomenology and the specifics of his engagements with Dilthey and Husserl. But on the other hand, it is also about what it is to philosophize at all, and what kind of philosophers we need to be, or become. Its expositions of Heidegger, Dilthey and Husserl are driven and bookmarked by an impassioned call for philosophers to question the predominantly materialist/objectivist, ‘technique-happy’, scientifically-minded condition in which much philosophy finds itself, where the “primacy of the theoretical” (158) reigns. In this climate, there is a dominant tendency to conceive of ourselves as knowing subjects, rational animals, as cognizing consciousnesses to which objects appear – at the expense of the wealth of phenomenological life-experience that this conception of ourselves ignores. The effect of this ‘loss of touch with life’ on philosophers, on Scharff’s view, is particularly damning:

their work grows to be an embarrassment, increasingly displaying a tendency to become excessively logical, formalistic, or simply clever; and this is so even if in the beginning, some insightful encounter or concern that is actually lived-through was the source of hat are now just empty exercises. (153)

It is these ‘insightful encounters or concerns’ that Scharff, through Heidegger and Dilthey, insists we must get back to. But this cannot be done as long as we are mired in the normal (read, broadly analytic, scientistic) way of doing philosophy, where philosophers ‘inquire, argue and claim’ (159), ‘take positions, promote theories and influence others’ (xii) and the worth of their viewpoints are evaluated. (xvi) Here, claims are either true or false, arguments are sound or unsound, theories are coherent or incoherent, changing your mind is inconsistent, new ways of speaking perhaps ‘incoherent’, ‘obscurantist’ or ‘unscientific’, and everything a philosopher says in their work is taken at face value. It is this superficial way of doing philosophy that we must overcome, and another strength of Scharff’s text is its emphasis on and drawing out of Heidegger’s way of overcoming it – his way of reading other philosophers in a ‘destructive retrieval’. The bulk of Scharff’s text is dedicated to explicating, in detail, how Heidegger engages in such a ‘destructive retrieval’ of Dilthey and Husserl. I will briefly summarise how the book proceeds chapter by chapter before spelling out some of its most significant points in greater detail.

Chapter 1 frames the book in terms of Heidegger’s early preoccupation with how we should philosophize, his ‘preliminary question’ of what kind of philosopher one needs to be in order to be phenomenological. For Heidegger, this will involve a destructive retrieval of both Husserl and Dilthey, with the emphasis on ‘destructive’ with Husserl and ‘retrieve’ with Dilthey. The retrieval of Dilthey is the starting point of chapter 2, which begins ‘part one’ of the text. Here, Scharff introduces Dilthey’s central ideas of ‘the standpoint of life’ and ‘understanding life in its own terms’ as they arise in the most familiar contribution Dilthey has been known to make to philosophy, which is his attempt to delineate between the natural and human sciences and provide epistemology for the latter. Out of this project arises Dilthey’s idea that the human sciences attempt to understand human history from ‘the standpoint of life’, an idea that gets ‘phenomenologically replaced’ in Husserl with the ‘transcendental consciousness’, a de-historicised, de-contextualized cognizing subjectivity to which objects appear. Heidegger sees certain ‘intuitions’ in Dilthey’s idea that promise far more philosophically (for phenomenology and ontology) than even Dilthey himself realised. Chapter 3 shows how Heidegger sought to appropriate Dilthey and carry his work far beyond the epistemology of the human sciences, which Dilthey confined himself to. Here there are interesting discussions of how Heidegger engages with other philosophers, in terms of ‘appropriation’ and the ‘formal indications’ we might find implicit in their work even if they do not realise it. ‘Formal indication’ is a notoriously difficult concept in Heidegger, one that normally gets fleshed out from its application in Being and Time and beyond, so it is interesting to see its treatment in the 1920s lecture courses. Heidegger’s appropriation of Dilthey’s ‘standpoint of life’ leads us into ‘part two’ of the text, which deals with how Heidegger’s appropriation of Dilthey informs the ‘destructive’ element of his engagement with Husserl. Dilthey helps Heidegger realise that Husserl’s phenomenology is not genuine phenomenology, but an enactment of the theoretical-scientific attitude, containing an unhelpful opposition to Dilthey’s alleged ‘historicism’, which for Husserl leads to obscurity and relativism, and does not “a proper philosophical response to the empirical facts of historical-human life.” (98) Phenomenology, on Husserl’s view, must ‘get behind’ historical life to the transcendental consciousness which experiences it. However, an immersion in the historical, as Heidegger learns from Dilthey, turns out to be a requirement for genuine phenomenology, not something to be opposed by it. Chapter 5 turns to the positive retrieval of Husserl, in which Heidegger attempts to salvage Husserl’s ‘principle of all principles’ in a way that is compatible with Dilthey’s historically-immersed ‘standpoint of life’. Heidegger’s destructive retrieval of both Dilthey and Husserl for the purpose of becoming genuinely phenomenological lead Scharff to the conclusions he draws in chapter 6, about the always-ongoing nature of phenomenology, something that necessarily ‘becomes’ without ever reaching a complete state of ‘being’. The point of phenomenology is to become attuned to our historical being, a process which is always ongoing, never finished – the point is therefore to continuously ‘become’ phenomenological, not try and ‘be’ it.

 Arguably, the most important term in Scharff’s book, both for understanding how Heidegger conducts his philosophy and for understanding the project of the book itself, is ‘destructive retrieval’. Heidegger’s notion of ‘destruction’ is long-familiar to us, especially in the form of the ‘destruction of the history of ontology’ he proposes in Being and Time. But in his earlier lecture courses, which are the sole focus of Scharff’s analysis, Heidegger speaks rather of ‘destructive retrieval’, emphasizing both the positive and negative aspects of the task he would later refer to only as ‘destruction’.

Sometimes, one encounters texts whose author seems to be “on the way” toward a topic or insight that outruns, or perhaps even casts doubt on the aptness of – what they say or even consciously intend. In such cases, it is especially desirable to try to understand the text “in its own terms” (xviii)

To destroy, or destructively retrieve, a philosopher’s work, does involve a negative dismantling of it, but always with an eye towards retrieving the positive possibilities latent within it, the tools it might (in spite of itself) afford us for moving beyond it. Rather than a strict emphasis on whether someone is right or wrong, coherent or incoherent, destructive retrieval aims at ascertaining what about their historical context might drive a philosopher to say what they say and what worth this motivation might have in the long run, even if the expression this motivation was given and the work it was put to turns out to be mistaken or inadequate. It is not just about dismantling inadequate systems of thought, but “stake out the positive possibilities of that tradition” (BT, 44) in which they are situated, ascertaining what we can learn from it about how to do philosophy as well as how not to do it.

This is precisely what Heidegger does with both Dilthey and Husserl, but it is Dilthey who Heidegger owes a greater philosophical debt to, and Dilthey who informs Heidegger’s subsequent reading of Husserl, not the other way round. Scharff’s book therefore finds a happy home alongside other texts in the New Heidegger Research series such as Thomas Sheehan’s Making Sense of Heidegger, since it also aims at overturning a long-dominant interpretive tendency in Heidegger scholarship. Scharff argues at length that the influence of Husserl on the young Heidegger has been overemphasized for far too long, with “the two main interpretive options […] [being] that he is either a revisionist Husserlian or a radically revisionist Husserlian.” (vii) Scharff’s contention, backed up by the relatively recent availability of Heidegger’s 1920s lecture courses, is that both of these alternatives are wrong, and it is in fact Dilthey who helps Heidegger take up a position on how it is that he should philosophize, a position which goes on to inform his reading of Husserl.

But this is not to say that Husserl had nothing to offer Heidegger, or that Heidegger has no issues with Dilthey – Heidegger engages in a destructive retrieval of both, though “it is more a matter of critically dismantling in the case of Husserl and more a matter of appropriation/retrieval in the case of Dilthey.” (xxii) Ultimately, Husserl saw the potential of and necessity for phenomenology but was gravely mistaken in his articulation of how it should be practised. Phenomenology, for Husserl, must rise above our “concrete circumstances […] of scientific practice […] of culture, society, history” (40) in order to be able to train itself exclusively on what appears to a ‘transcendental consciousness’. Only then will we have returned ‘to the things themselves’, as his famous slogan suggests. But as anyone familiar with the Heidegger of Being and Time will know, this ‘rising above’ is precisely a step in the wrong direction. Rather,

historical-human life […] belongs to us and is possessed by us as an endlessly rich, diverse and multiply interested environmental experience that is an already meaningful and understandable process before it gets theoretically sliced up and conceptualized. (xx)

Husserl’s basic motivation to return to the things themselves as we experience them, is a noble and necessary one. However, his idea of what this means is gravely mistaken. According to Husserl, we must strip away the trappings of historical life, culture and experience in order to experience the world ‘as it really is’, and so he remains trapped in a Cartesian-Kantian framework that amounts to an “enactment of the current (predominantly scientific and philosophically scientized) ways of conceptualizing” (xxi) life as we live it. To be phenomenologists, according to Husserl, we have to become the disinterested, objective cognizing observers that science would have us be, and record our experience this way. Heidegger’s problem with this is not just that the stripping-away Husserl proposes is impossible, but that even if it were possible, would be a far from accurate reflection of our existence and experience. We are fundamentally historical beings, and this being-historical fundamentally conditions our existence and experience of it at every step. To attempt to rise above it to describe our experience of our existence, therefore, is gravely misconceived and would miss out on a constitutive element of our existence. Rather, any phenomenology worthy of the name must involve an attempt to understand our life ‘in its own terms’, cultural-historical trappings and all. And it is this insight that Heidegger gets from reading Dilthey.

Through Dilthey, Heidegger arrives at a conception of how to do phenomenology that far surpasses Husserl’s, but this is not what Dilthey had in mind. Dilthey’s original project, as chapter 2 explains, was originally to construct an epistemology of the human sciences, such that they can be shown to be distinct rom the natural sciences and yet still be called a science. Readers unfamiliar with Dilthey’s well-known contributions to the human sciences and the ‘explanation vs. understanding’ debate will learn a lot from this chapter, which reconstructs some of the most salient points before phenomenologically recasting this territory as Heidegger does. In the course of Dilthey’s project, Heidegger detects “a [very non-traditional] philosophical concern”, namely, the concern to understand the living-through of historical existence and all of its manifestations “in their own terms.”” (xxii) According to Heidegger, waiting to be retrieved in this idea is the basic attitude one must adopt if one wishes to be a phenomenologist, something Dilthey ultimately was unable to realise because of his own historical situation, and his own self-conception as an epistemologist of the human sciences. Indeed, understanding how a thinker’s work is an expression of its own historical-cultural situation is a key element of a destructive retrieval – the point is not only to understand what a philosopher got right or wrong, but what it is about their situation that drove them to say what they said in the first place and how it ‘expresses’ their situation. Dilthey’s idea of understanding life in its own terms, and working out what this might mean for phenomenology, becomes Heidegger’s primary destructive-retrieving concern in the 1920s, up until the writing and publication of Being and Time. His response to Husserl’s conception of phenomenology may initially seem obvious, but it is not without reason that Husserl opposes Dilthey, in fact this points to a deep disagreement between philosophers of all stripes over a key issue: the nature and danger of relativism.

Husserl sees Dilthey as engaging in a kind of ‘historicism’, which brings with it the danger of relativism. If everything must be understood out of and related back to our historical life, everything is relative to whichever historical period it arises out of, none of which are ‘better’ or ‘more fundamental’ than any other. Practitioners of natural science, and anyone that adopts a ‘theoretical-scientific attitude’, would obviously want to oppose this, since the very point of science is to achieve knowledge that would be true no matter what historical period we are in. But Heidegger is not advocating for (at least this kind of) relativism, as this quote shows:

those who cry, “Relativism!” typically have things backward. It is factical life in its primordial sense that is “absolute,” and the particular expressions of practice that emerge from it are “relative” (59)

Heidegger, along with Dilthey, is keen to relate everything back to “the facts of consciousness” (60) for this is where all human practises originate and have their grounding. To say this is not to say that experiential knowledge is more fundamental than natural-scientific knowledge, or that one is ‘better’ than the other, just that they are different and one emerges out of the other, as all human practises do. A phenomenology, to be truly phenomenological, must get to grips with our historical existence as that kind of being out of which disparate human practises, indeed any human practises, arise. The point of phenomenology is not to invalidate or undermine science or the knowledge it discovers, but one of its functions is to explicate science’s origin out of human life and its being grounded therein, in the facts of historical consciousness.

But this task of phenomenology, as Scharff deals with later in the book, is always a necessarily unfinished one, something we are always on the way towards but never quite reach completely because of the ever-changing historical landscape. Phenomenology is always ongoing, always ‘responsive’ to the changes of our existence as we experience them. This is where the second sense of the book’s title comes into play – the first sense emphasizes that it is a book about how Heidegger becomes the sort of philosopher he is by 1927, and the second emphasizes the unfinished nature of phenomenology as something that is always ‘becoming’, never ‘being’ in itself, complete. This is also another reason behind Husserl’s opposition to Dilthey’s ‘historicism’ – because history is ever-developing, to remain immersed in it in the course of our philosophical investigations implies an insusceptibility to a definite method or single way of proceeding, which dooms us to remain trapped in indefiniteness and obscurity. Indeed, because of the problem of history there will have to be as many or phenomenological methods or techniques as is required by whatever new challenges to it that history throws up as it proceeds. But this is not necessarily a negative consequence, but rather testifies to phenomenology’s status as a process: “no method or training regimen can protect even a well-intentioned phenomenologist from the never-ending struggle to become phenomenological” (157). Because human existence is ever-changing, developing and dependent on the whim on history, phenomenology must be ever in the process of becoming ‘responsive’ to these changes in order to capture them adequately. Though Husserl’s basic motivation of getting back to the things themselves is noble, his enactment of it precludes the required kind of attitude to phenomenology, where Dilthey’s openness to historical being better equips us for attaining it.

These are, I would suggest, the most important and salient points Scharff makes throughout the book, but this is not to mention some other interesting issues that arise along the way. The way Scharff grapples with Heidegger’s notoriously difficult idea of ‘formal indication’, and the array of formally indicative concepts and phrases in Heidegger’s early work, is admirable. So is the inclusion of Heidegger’s much-less-discussed engagement with Paul Natorp, a prominent philosopher of the time. How Heidegger uses Natorp’s criticisms of Husserl as a springboard for making a case for “a non-theoretical “immanent illumination of life experience that remains in this experience and does not step out and turn it into objectivity” (122). This is likely not to be familiar to most readers.

Which brings me to some perhaps more negative aspects of the text, of which there admittedly are not many and do not eclipse its overall merits. The influence of Dilthey on the young Heidegger, owing largely to the relatively recent publication of the lecture courses Scharff discusses, has been evident for quite some time now. Readers that are familiar already with Dilthey and Heidegger’s early lecture courses are therefore unlikely to find much that is surprising or new here. However, I find it hard to imagine that the link between Dilthey, the early Heidegger and Husserl has been as comprehensively expressed elsewhere, which is a merit in itself. The book would therefore be especially suited to students of Heidegger looking to learn about his relationship with Dilthey. This is especially the case because a basic grasp of Heidegger (and Husserl’s) work would be beneficial to have before approaching Scharff’s text, which can be dense at times. But these are not necessarily criticisms of the text itself, which is well-researched and well-constructed, and the complicated parts about the nuanced ideas of the three philosophers involved are explained in detail and at length, ultimately leaving little room for misunderstanding.

Furthermore, because of the nature of the text, some of the most interesting issues that arise within it – about the phenomenological ‘method’ and attitude, and whether it can fully escape the trappings of theoretical attitudes – do not ultimately get much attention. Scharff admirably reconstructs this specific area of phenomenological scholarship and points towards the surrounding issues it raises, but leaves the discussion open at some interesting points. To what extent can phenomenology be rigorous if it has no single method? Can we ever really escape the ‘analytic’ way of doing philosophy, where claims are made, positions analysed, etc.? What exactly is the nature of the ‘responsive’, ‘mindful’ attitude to our historical life we must attain, and how do we attain it? These are questions that the text circles around but does not try to solve definitively. Obviously, by the time he writes Being and Time, Heidegger has some ideas about how to answer these questions, but since Scharff’s aim is to ascertain how Heidegger becomes the kind of philosopher he is by that point, he does not go into this. This is part of what makes the text a good springboard toward further research and reading for whoever engages with it, and because it points to the fact that it is in the very nature of phenomenology to be unfinished, and these supposed ‘difficulties’ or ‘deficiencies’ that actually keep it alive, and allowed to develop along with our historical being.

Anyone interested in the history of continental philosophy, the interconnection of Husserl, Heidegger and Dilthey, or the history of phenomenology in general, will find much of worth in Scharff’s text. It would be especially informative for those in the early stages in their acquaintance with these topics, but those with a familiarity will undoubtedly find something worthwhile here too, if only because of the sheer detail Scharff goes into with Heidegger’s 1920s lectures, or the discussion of Dilthey’s epistemological writings, or the specifics of Husserl’s conception of phenomenology. This also because it serves as a good indicator of several interesting areas of discussion about the possibility of a phenomenological method (or methods), the nature of phenomenology and its relation to our historical nature, and how we should do philosophy at all. In fact, it is on this point that Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological is at its most admirable, passionately defending philosophy that opposes the dominance of the scientific-attitude, which questions philosophy’s reliance on established theoretical frameworks, and refuses to rely on technique-happiness and generally-accepted ways of doing things. Surely, philosophy should be an enterprise that questions itself all the time, and questions the methods and conceptions of itself that have become dominant within it. Philosophy should always be something the resists complacency, never being completely satisfied with what it has achieved, because the questions that it deals with are eternal questions, ones that we must continuously work towards a better understanding of but always in the knowledge that a complete solution of them is impossible. This is what drives philosophy forward, or at least the most interesting and philosophical kinds of philosophy, no matter where in the world it is from. The divide between analytic and continental philosophy is beginning to become more blurred, with analytic philosophers doing metaphysics, and there is more dialogue than ever between philosophers across the divide (Heidegger and Wittgenstein being a key example), Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological is also a powerful reminder of why this is a good thing, and how much continental and analytic philosophers have to learn from each other.


[1] Martin Heidegger. 1962. Being and Time (BT). Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Blackwell, London, 429.

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