Michela Beatrice Ferri (Ed.): The Reception of Husserlian Phenomenology in North America

Justin Humphreys

The Reception of Husserlian Phenomenology in North America Book Cover The Reception of Husserlian Phenomenology in North America
Contributions To Phenomenology, Vol. 100
Michela Beatrice Ferri (Ed.)
Hardback $119.99
XXVII, 482

Reviewed by: Justin Humphreys (The University of Pennsylvania)

There is more than one way to conceptualize the development of North American phenomenology. An image of “transplantation” would take the classical phenomenological tradition extending from Brentano to Husserl to be essentially the product of a European cultural sphere exported to the New World. In this view, Husserl’s thought is a seed planted in foreign soil and cultivated by his students. An image of “absorption” would portray North American philosophy as an autonomous enterprise enriched in stages by the themes and problems of classical phenomenology. On this conception, its origin in the European university is a contingent historical fact about phenomenology rather than a feature of its essential nature.

The choice between these images has consequences for how one reads the archive of phenomenological texts produced in North America. For example, in the course of a series of letters in 1940 discussing William James’ psychology, Aron Gurwitsch remarks to Alfred Schutz that they share the “goal of using James to present motives leading to phenomenology to a public which is unfamiliar with phenomenology.” Though Gurwitsch takes James never to have escaped completely the atomistic and sensualistic understanding of consciousness he criticized, he insists that James’ thought leads to and motivates the phenomenological project. American philosophy may therefore be translated into the language of phenomenology and “both parties gain infinitely with this translation.”[i] While the transplantation image implies that the gain is the ability of the phenomenologist to communicate to an American audience, the absorption image suggests that there are indigenous forces in American philosophy that could add to the phenomenologist’s project of fundamentally clarifying the structures of intentionality.

I approached Michela Beatrice Ferri’s new volume, The Reception of Husserlian Phenomenology in North America, with the hope of gaining tools for understanding this transition of a set of philosophical problems and methods from one surrounding world to another. Indeed, in his elegant if somewhat enigmatic Preface, Robert Sokolowski claims that the book is an “exercise in hermeneutics” concerning the displacement of phenomenology from one cultural-historical setting to another (vii). Continuing this theme, Ferri’s Introduction portrays this displacement as a “transplanting of Husserl’s thought” occasioned by the rise of Nazism (xvii) and as an “endeavor to graft phenomenology into American intellectual culture” (xxiv). Ferri suggests that by examining the reception of Husserl’s phenomenology in the United States and Canada (for reasons that are unclear to me, Mexico is excluded), the book will contribute to an understanding of “the division of philosophical discourse in North American [sic] that has been called the ‘Analytic-Continental Divide’” (xviii). The book proposes, then, to cut to the root of the divergence between the “analytic” and “continental” traditions in North American philosophy.

Unfortunately, the book is organized and edited in a way that does not contribute to a unified description of American phenomenology. Even worse, most of the discussions of the reception of Husserl’s philosophy remain on the level of merely factual history, without providing phenomenological analyses of particular receptive acts. Since I cannot discuss every one of the book’s twenty-six chapters here, this review will focus on those parts most salient to gaining an understanding of phenomenology in North America.

Jonathan Strassfeld’s meticulously researched opening chapter shows how the professionalization of philosophy at Harvard beginning in the 1890s required that the department offer a diverse curriculum rather than establish a single school. Indicative of this diversity effort, seven of the ten North American students who studied with Husserl before 1925 were associated with Harvard (7). Among them, the Canadian-born Winthrop Pickard Bell went to work under Husserl in Germany in 1911. With the internment of foreign nationals at the outbreak of the first World War, in 1914 “Bell became the first Anglo-American to receive a doctorate from Husserl; but only after defending his thesis inside a detention facility” (12). The chapter continues by offering a chronology of how other early notables – Marvin Farber, Dorion Cairns, Charles Hartshorne, and V. J. McGill – studied with Husserl during the interwar period. Drawing on Farber’s 1925 dissertation, Strassfeld argues persuasively that Husserl’s foundational program was not understood as part of a separate, “continental” tradition until at least the 1930s, when the work of Russell, Moore, and Wittgenstein began to hold sway at Harvard (16-20).

Jason Bell’s chapter proposes the project of examining Winthrop Bell’s 1927 Harvard course, “Husserl and the Phenomenological Movement,” the first class on phenomenology offered in North America. Perhaps the most interesting question raised in this chapter is whether logic is “purely a priori” or “dependent on induction,” a discussion of which would allow for a comparison of the phenomenological and pragmatistic theories of truth and evidence (33). But the chapter neither offers a phenomenological analysis, nor makes of any use of primary texts by Husserl, Peirce, Royce, or James. Consequently, this question is never addressed. Moreover, although the chapter is clearly written, it really examines only the first week of the course, and thus fails to give a comprehensive view of the earliest phenomenological curriculum in North America.

After discussing the seeding of phenomenology at Harvard, the book turns to the growing of phenomenology at the New School for Social Research. Judith Friedlander’s chapter offers a careful institutional history of the philosophy department at the New School. Lester Embree and Michael Barber’s chapter on the “Golden Age” of phenomenology at the New School is more anecdotal, but likewise contains interesting information on the role of three major figures associated with the school – Schutz, Gurwitsch, and Cairns. But although these chapters offer insight into the history of the New School, they are not recognizably concerned with Husserl’s thought – hardly any mention is made of his specific works, much less how his ideas were received or modified by North American philosophers.

The chronological orientation of these early chapters is not incidental to the structure of the book. Ostensibly, the chapters are organized into seven sections, beginning with the introduction of phenomenology at Harvard, and its establishment at the New School, and then proceeding to discussions of individual figures, centers and societies, phenomenological journals, regional schools, and finally to a comparison of the phenomenological and analytic traditions. Inexplicably, however, treatments of individual figures spill over into the first section (a chapter on Gurwitsch), and into the penultimate section (a chapter on Dallas Willard). Moreover, it is difficult to characterize what is going on in many chapters of the book that focus on phenomenological publications, societies, and centers. For example, Nenon and Ferri’s chapter on “Important Twentieth Century American Husserl Scholars” (145-149) is a mere list of “leading researchers” working in North American universities. A chapter by McKenna and Hopkins on the journals Husserl Studies and The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy (337-341) provides only very brief editorial histories of these journals, quoting extensively from the publishers’ websites.

What do these chapters contribute – if anything – to an understanding of the reception of Husserl’s phenomenology? They certainly do not employ a phenomenological method. But nor do they draw on themes that have been investigated by well-known phenomenologists.

Even a clearly written and informative chapter, such as Jeffrey McCurry and Chelsea R. Binnie’s history of The Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center at Duquesne University seems out of place in series of “contributions to phenomenology.” In this chapter one learns, for example, how Erwin Straus’ office furniture was saved due to an encounter in 1938 with an SS Officer who had been his patient. Out of gratitude, the officer made special arrangements to ship the physician-phenomenologist’s possessions to the United States, which after Straus’ death in 1975 were donated to the Silverman Center (300-301). But what was the significance of the furniture within the face-to-face encounter between a Jewish physician and a Nazi Officer? How does the intact collection today allow one to reenter the embodied space of a working phenomenologist? What is the meaning of removing a culturally meaningful object – Straus’ Victorian music stand, for example – from one surrounding cultural world to another? This story could provide the starting point for a phenomenological investigation that would be appropriate to Straus as an emigre and as a theorist of embodied thinking. But the discussion remains merely factual, without exploring the meaning of the preservation of the furniture that constituted Straus’ workspace.

Though as mere catalogues of facts, these central chapters fail to elucidate how Husserl’s thought made inroads in North America, the chapters focusing on phenomenological figures have a more recognizably philosophical content. I shall focus on these chapters in the remainder of the review.

Daniel Marcelle’s chapter argues that Aron Gurwitsch’s “field theory” of attention advances the project of Husserlian phenomenology by breaking with Husserl’s own “searchlight” theory of attention. On Marcelle’s reading, Husserl focused on the noetic or “act” aspect of attending, which he described metaphorically as a “ray of regard” directed towards the object of thought (65-66). This spatial metaphor led Husserl to assume that noematic parts of the object remain constant as the consciousness undergoes attentional modifications, for example, that individual notes remain the same, whether they are heard separately or as part of a melody (67). By focusing instead on the noematic or “object” aspect of attention, Gurwitsch offers a richer descriptive theory that dispenses with this presupposition. Gurwitsch distinguishes among theme, the focal point of consciousness, thematic field, the content of which is not thematic but is contextually relevant to the theme, and margin, the content of which is not relevant to the theme but which is nevertheless featured in the stream of consciousness (50). This theory rejects the constancy implicitly assumed by Husserl, while offering richer resources for the description of attentional change (68). Marcelle’s reconstruction of these positions, as well as his characterization of Gurwitsch as promoting the project of phenomenology even while criticizing some of Husserl’s views, is on the mark. Phenomenology as both philosophers conceived it was not a static set of doctrines but a research program intended to uncover the fundamental structures of consciousness. My only objection concerns the chapter’s use of the “Freiburg Encounter” between Husserl and Gurwitsch to frame the discussion. Surely it was his decades of work at the intersection of classical phenomenology and gestalt psychology, rather than his brief 1927 encounter with the person of Husserl, that provides the proper context for understanding Gurwitsch’s field theory of attention.

Eric Chelstrom’s chapter examines Marvin Farber’s “idiosyncratic” understanding of Husserl. On the one hand, Farber wrote a dissertation on Husserl, advanced Husserl’s work for an English-speaking audience, and edited Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, a journal that, in its early period, was dominated by research conducted in a Husserlian phenomenological vein. On the other hand, Farber disagreed fundamentally with Husserl’s idealism, going so far as to separate the “logical” works as the only acceptable texts in Husserl’s corpus (109). Chelstrom makes a convincing case that Farber harbored doubts about Husserl’s methodology from early in his career, though they later emerged as more definite criticisms of Husserl’s idealism. According to Chelstrom, Farber saw the epoché as a valuable method of logical criticism, but argued that the turn to idealism smuggled in metaphysical assumptions that revealed Husserl’s “absolutist and eternalist” political views (112-113). Chelstrom holds that although Farber understood his own materialist and pluralist commitments to be opposed to pure phenomenology, the separation of Husserl’s logical and metaphysical doctrines was arbitrary. I am not so convinced. Doesn’t Husserl’s conception of a transcendental ego speak against the primacy of the empirical self? Likewise, Farber’s pluralism requires that he accept more than one method in philosophy, not that he accepts Husserl’s method. Though Chelstrom’s chapter raises important questions about a difficult figure, it does not explain how Farber used phenomenology within his own naturalistic and pluralistic project.

Though it offers a nice overview of Dorion Cairns’ career, Richard Zaner’s chapter also seems philosophically thin. Its central conceit is that Cairns introduced a novel and helpful principle into phenomenological philosophy, according to which “no belief is philosophically acceptable unless it is established on the basis of adequate evidence. This is a condition of the legitimacy of any epistemic claim” (139). But who would disagree with that? The principle is so general that, on its own, it adds nothing interesting to epistemology. The real question is: what counts as adequate evidence for a belief? In order to answer that question, one would need a more substantive phenomenological analysis of evidence and its adequacy than is available here.

Carlo Ierna’s chapter on Herbert Spiegelberg takes a biographical approach, outlining the phenomenologist’s education, studies, emigration to the United States, and finally his polemical exchange with Farber in the wake of the publication of Spiegelberg’s The Phenomenological Movement (Farber complained that phenomenology did not have the internal consistency to count as a “movement” but would be better described as a “tendency.” Spiegelberg disagreed.) (163-164). The most interesting part of the chapter concerns Spiegelberg’s phenomenological  “workshops,” in which participants would attempt to enter sympathetically into one another’s perspectives. This is an alternative model to the current lecture- and text-based practices of most American phenomenologists. Indeed, it would have been interesting to read more about the methodology and content of these workshops.

Gabriel R. Ricci’s chapter focuses on Jitendra Nath Mohanty’s decades-long project of comparing Indian philosophy to Husserlian phenomenology. For example, whereas in the Vedantic tradition consciousness plays the logical role of mobilizing sources of knowledge but not of judging, in Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology consciousness is taken to have “judicative authority” (176). However, without a strong background in the various traditions of Indian philosophy, it is difficult to understand what is at stake in such a comparison. Moreover, since it neither quotes not cites any primary text of Indian philosophy, nor includes a bibliography, this chapter serves more as an encomium of Mohanty than as a critical engagement with his work.

The chapter on Robert Sokolowski by Molly Brigid McGrath presents similar problems. To be sure, McGrath makes an excellent case for Sokolowski’s anti-solipsistic interpretation of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, according to which the epoché exposes “not a solitary ego” but an intersubjective intentionality (197). But in attempting to summarize nearly a half-century of philosophical scholarship, it is not clear how this essay contributes to the volume’s stated purpose. As attractive as Sokolowski’s interpretation may be, what is the broader lesson concerning the reception of phenomenology? Would this understanding of the epoché have been acceptable to Husserl himself? What does it add to the phenomenological project that is not already available in Husserl’s philosophical writings?

Daniela Verducci’s chapter, which purports to show how Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka wove together pragmatic and phenomenological traditions, likewise strays from the topic of Husserl reception. An extended section on Scheler’s critique of pragmatism (210-214) is illustrative of this lack of focus. Indeed, the main point Verducci attributes to Scheler, that “the basic error of pragmatism” is “identifying knowledge exclusively as the knowledge of control” (212) rests on a misunderstanding of pragmatism. More importantly, it is unclear what this has to do with Tymieniecka’s reception of Husserl. The last section argues that the synthesis of phenomenology and pragmatism requires, in Tymieniecka’s words, that “not constitutive intentionality, but only the constructive march of life that supports it can reveal to us the beginning of all things” (215). But Husserl’s use of epoché, insofar as it reduces the field of phenomenological inquiry to the constitution of meanings, should block any claims about the beginnings of things. It is hard to read Tymieniecka’s statement as respecting this “immanent” orientation of phenomenological inquiry. However, given Verducci’s references to a plethora of philosophical figures, free use of Greek, Latin, and German technical terminology and neologisms, and large number of creative capitalizations and typographical errors, it seems that the issue is less philosophical than editorial. The editors should have worked more on the chapter before it went to print, which might have led to a more lucid treatment of an interesting topic.

California Phenomenology, a chapter co-written by Jeffrey Yoshimi, Clinton Tolley, and David Woodruff Smith, offers an historical outline of the development of Husserlian phenomenology on the west coast beginning in the 1960s. Interestingly, the founding figure of this movement was not a Californian but the Norwegian-born, Harvard-educated philosopher Dagfinn Føllesdal, who trained a generation of phenomenologists at Harvard and Stanford. Among those who attended early meetings in the Bay Area, most of whom were once Føllesdal’s students, were Hubert Dreyfus, David Woodruff Smith, Ronald McIntyre, and Robert Tragesser; they were later joined by such notables as Izchak Miller, John Haugeland, and Richard Tieszen. The authors note that the California school of Husserl interpretation is marked by an emphasis on exploring the relationship between analytic philosophy and phenomenology, and a “reading of Husserl as developing a semantic theory that can be viewed as a generalization of Fregean semantics, from language to consciousness” (372). As opposed to the “orthodox Gurwitschian” understanding of the noema as the object of thought, this “Fregean semantic” interpretation takes the Husserlian noema to be an abstract object mediating between the act and object of reference (372-373). For the California phenomenologists, your act of thinking of a tabby cat is able to pick out the furry thing on your doormat in virtue of its instantiating a noema or “sense” in you that puts your thinking of the cat into potential inferential relations with the other noemata you constitute. The fact that the noema can be pre-predicative makes it more general than Frege’s notion of Sinn: a noema enters into any description of thinking, regardless of whether that thinking is propositional. Unfortunately, the authors do not develop the consequences of this view but continue the memoir, which relies heavily on direct quotations of emails from various members of the group. However, this memoir is somewhat marred by the fact although the reader can usually tell who is writing, it is unclear which author was the recipient of the email. Another idiosyncracy is that although the chapter is dedicated to Richard Tieszen, precious little discussion of his work is included in the piece.

Micah D. Tillman’s chapter stands out as one of the strongest in the collection, managing to introduce Dallas Willard’s work, while offering fruitful suggestions for attaining a unitarian reading of Husserl’s corpus. On Tillman’s reconstruction, Willard pursued a realist interpretation according to which Husserl’s fundamental aims are at once to provide an ontology of objects, and to account for the possibility of objective knowledge. This attempt to account for objective knowledge is faced with two fundamental paradoxes. The first is that although knowledge must be objective, it is only realized in a subject’s mental acts. The second is that while any such realization must be immediate (in Tillman’s terms, “intuitive”), most of our scientific knowledge is not immediate but is grasped through symbols (393). On Willard’s reconstruction, Husserl resolves the first paradox by developing an account of universals as modes of intentionality that can be fulfilled. Thus, Willard maintains that universal meanings have objective validity but in their fulfillment are apprehended by a subject. The second paradox is also resolved via the notion of fulfillment, which ensures the validity of mechanical or symbolic reasoning not through direct inspection, but through the possibility that any symbolic mathematical proof could be “reactivated” or intuitively “fulfilled” (396). Even for those who, like this reader, are not versed in Willard’s thought, Tillman’s presentation is lucid and philosophically compelling. Though the rest of Tillman’s paper is too rich to be summarized here, one can only hope that Tillman continues this line of inquiry, perhaps by exploring the theological consequences of Willard’s view that are merely signaled at the beginning of the essay (390).

Several chapters are less relevant to the reception of classical phenomenology. Ihde’s chapter is a reprint of a somewhat polemical article on the analytic-continental divide from the 1980s, which now seems dated. Rescher’s chapter on Pittsburgh philosophy has little to do with phenomenology. Calcagno’s chapter on Edith Stein is interesting, but has no direct bearing on Husserl reception in North America.

The final essay in the collection, by Paul M. Livingston, argues that there is a fundamental methodological difference between Husserlian phenomenology and analytic philosophy, in virtue of which the two cannot be directly reconciled (435). According to Livingston, analytic philosophy since Frege has looked to linguistic patterns of public usage to understand the structure of thought (442). Exploiting the work of several figures central to this tradition, Livingston argues that a “characteristic methodological and ontological” assumption of analytic philosophy is that “the objective explanation of mental phenomena requires locating them in an intersubjectively and publicly available network of causally related phenomena” (453-454). Though there is much to be said for Livingston’s use of this literature, it seems to me that the entire weight of this latter claim rests on how one construes the word “objective.” If “objective” here means “true,” then all first-personal statements must indeed be excluded as subjective and false. This leaves no place for Husserl but amounts to the extravagant claim that in order to do philosophy at all, one must forfeit one’s first-personal grasp of the world. In distinction, if “objective” here means “empirical,” it is hard to imagine that Husserl or anyone else would object: surely the mark of an empirical explanation is its causal relation of a phenomenon to other publicly observable phenomena. Of course, there is a residual question of whether there are non-empirical explanations, that is, whether priori knowledge is possible. And some philosophers have answered this question negatively. But this denial could never be a general methodological commitment of analytic philosophers, some of whom have made non-empirical claims, including claims about logic.

I have suggested that in privileging facts over analyses of the reception of Husserl’s thought in North America, the volume includes too much information. But one may also remark on what it excludes. The lack of a chapter relating Husserl to James is strange, especially given Geniusas’ work in the same book series exploring the connection between James’ “fringes” and Husserl’s “horizon.”[ii] There is very little discussion of the work of Alfred Schutz, despite the fact that his work in phenomenology exerted tremendous influence in the social sciences, particularly through The Social Construction of Reality, the bestselling sociology text by Luckmann and Berger, who studied under him at the New School.[iii] Likewise, though his furniture is described in some detail, a chapter dedicated to Straus’s work would have been a welcome addition, and might have provided an opportunity to examine the theme of embodiment that haunts the history of phenomenology and is a concern of current work in philosophy. Another figure who is ignored is Hermann Weyl, who drew from Husserl and had an influential career at Princeton. Finally, it is surprising that there is no chapter on Kurt Gödel, who both attended meetings of the Vienna Circle and, while in the United States, dedicated himself to the study of Husserl. An examination of his views on phenomenology could be used stage an encounter between the mid-century analytic philosophy that stemmed from logical positivism and the continental tradition, which is one of the acknowledged aims of the volume.

This theme of the relationship between, and potential rapprochement of phenomenology and analytic philosophy is an important one, and merits further discussion. Analytic philosophy began as an approach that, like phenomenology, aimed to provide an ultimate clarification of the problems of philosophy. But traditional analytical topics like the problem of mental causation, the justified true belief theory of knowledge, or the metaphysical “debate” between three- and four-dimensionalists today look like artefacts of a stagnant and outmoded philosophical methodology. One’s sense of disappointment is not alleviated by observing the plethora of new philosophical research programs – formal philosophy, experimental philosophy, and critical theories of race and gender – that ape the methods of mathematics, experimental psychology, and sociology. The shattered hegemony of linguistic analysis leaves American philosophers in need of new, distinctively philosophical methods. While the wholesale revival of classical phenomenology might be a tall order, the critical and judicious use of first-personal description and a commitment to elucidating the meanings of lived experience may have much to offer practicing philosophers today.

This book has the virtue of discussing a number of figures in phenomenology who have received less attention than they deserve. In doing so, it shows that despite a common prejudice that takes phenomenology to be primarily a Western European phenomenon, phenomenologists have also been doing interesting work on this side of the Atlantic. However, the book ignores some key figures and leaves important questions unanswered. Indeed, it never makes thematic the fundamental questions about phenomenology in North America. In being received on this continent, how have the interests and methods of phenomenology been transformed? Is this transmission better conceived as the transplantation of a European cultural product to the New World, or as the absorption of a way of theorizing by North American philosophers? What sort of enrichment of philosophy was envisaged by figures like Gurwitsch and Schutz that could justify the countless hours they spent working out the details of a phenomenological philosophy, even while their families and friends were in danger of extermination at the hands of the Nazis? In failing to address these questions, the The Reception of Husserlian Phenomenology in North America misses an opportunity to raise the radical problems that would allow one to grasp the telos of the phenomenological project.

[i] Grathoff, R. [Ed] Philosophers in Exile: The Correspondence of Alfred Schutz and Aron Gurwitsch, 1939-1959. Indiana University Press, 1989, 30-31.

[ii] Geniusas, S. The Origins of the Horizon in Husserl’s Phenomenology. Dordrecht/New York: Springer (Contributions to Phenomenology, Vol. 67), 2012.

[iii] Berger, P. L. and Luckmann, T. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966

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