Chung-Chi Yu: Life-World and Cultural Difference. Husserl, Schutz, and Waldenfels

Life-World and Cultural Difference. Husserl, Schutz, and Waldenfels Book Cover Life-World and Cultural Difference. Husserl, Schutz, and Waldenfels
Orbis Phaenomenologicus, Band 47
Chung-Chi Yu
Königshausen & Neumann

Reviewed by: Alexis Gros (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena)


Chung-Chi Yu, Professor of Philosophy at the National Sun Yat-sen University, Taiwan, counts as one of the most prominent phenomenology scholars in Asia. He specializes in the works of Edmund Husserl and Alfred Schutz and has translated both the Husserliana IX, Phänomenologische Psychologie, and Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt into Chinese. The philosophy of Bernhard Waldenfels, who was his Ph.D. supervisor at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum during the 1990s, is also included in his field of expertise and has decisively influenced his thought.

Life-world and Cultural Difference, published at the end of 2019 in the collection Orbis Phaenomenologicus, reflects the research work conducted by Yu in the last two decades. The book consists of thirteen chapters, which deal with three main topics that are at the heart of the preoccupations of the author: the relationship between transcendental phenomenology and phenomenological psychology in Husserl’s thought, the discussion of central issues in Schutzian phenomenology, and the analysis of the problem of cultural difference from the perspectives of Husserl, Schutz, and Waldenfels. In this review, I will exclusively focus on the latter topic, which, as the title already reveals, plays the leading role in the structure of the book.

The radicalization of globalization taking place since the end of the 20th century has produced an intensification of contacts among different cultures. This, in turn, brought about the emergence of a number of theoretical debates on issues such as “interculturality”, “multiculturality”, and “transculturality” (69). These discussions, which are at the core of contemporary cultural philosophy and social theory, center around questions such as the following: How can one explain or account for cultural differences? Are all cultures “equal” or some are “better” or “more developed” than others? What is the desirable relation between divergent cultural groups? Is intercultural communication and understanding possible? If so, how does it work? Are there commonalities between cultures beyond their heterogeneities? Should one endorse a universalist or a particularistic and relativistic account of culture? Chung-Chi Yu’s Life-world and Cultural Difference has the merit of showing that phenomenology has much to say concerning these and similar questions.

As Chung-Chi Yu explains, Husserl and Schutz provide illuminating insights on cultural difference qua life-worldly experience which can enhance current discussions on the topic. Interestingly enough, however, Yu does not endorse an orthodox Husserlian or Schutzian position, as many Husserl and Schutz scholars tend to do. Instead, in a critical and original way, Yu resorts to Waldenfels’ reflections on “the alien” [das Fremde] as a corrective for the problematic universalist, foundationalist, and Eurocentric motifs that, to different degrees, permeate the work of both thinkers (ix).

Yu’s argument concerning cultural difference—which is clearly sketched out in the Introduction of the book and unfolded in eight of its thirteen chapters—is structured in three main moments. First (1), Yu expounds upon Husserl’s position, criticizing its Eurocentric, logocentric, and foundationalist motifs. Second (2), Yu scrutinizes Schutz’s account, identifying problematic universalistic traits within it similar to those found in Husserl. And finally (3), Yu presents Waldenfels’ conception of interculturality as a non-Eurocentric and non-foundationalist approach able to overcome Husserl’s and Schutz’s shortcomings. In what follows, I will briefly reconstruct each of these argumentative steps.

Chung-Chi Yu on Husserl

Chung-Chi Yu chooses the Kaizo articles (a set of papers on ethics written between 1922 and 1924) as a starting point for his explanation of the Husserlian position (17-26). Based on an exhaustive analysis of these texts, Yu shows that Husserl’s Eurocentric account of the relationship between European and non-European cultures partly rests upon ethical considerations. For Husserl, an ethical life is one that is lived according to reason: “[t]he content of the categorical imperative is ‘to lead a life based on practical reason’” (19). More precisely, living a rational life entails overcoming the unreflective naivety of the natural attitude and achieving a reflective and self-determined conduct based on well-founded knowledge (18f.). In this way, philosophy plays a key role, insofar as it provides human beings with access to “reason” [Vernunft] (18ff.).

As Yu shows, Husserl conceives ethics on the collective level in a structurally analogous way. A cultural form of life is good, so to speak, when it frees itself from the irrational bonds of religious-mythical “tradition” and commits instead to the demands of Vernunft (22). And this, in turn, is only possible if philosophers get a big say in the organization and regnancy of social life: “the cultural elevation should be achieved through the introduction of philosophy […]. Philosophers provide a method by which society can be conscious of itself” (18, 22). Against this background, Husserl argues that the European culture, as the birthplace and one and only home of philosophical reason, has an ethical supremacy over all non-European forms of life (29f.). More precisely, in this view the birth of Europe, understood not as a geographical location but as a “spiritual world” (30), coincides with that of philosophy in ancient Greece. The emergence of the “theoretical attitude” [theoretische Einstellung] in the 7th Century BC constitutes a turning point in human history, insofar as it marks the advent of the “willingness to live by the ideal of reason” (29). As the unique spiritual carrier of philosophy – “nothing similar developed in other ancient cultures like India or China” (29), – European culture has a “historical mission”, namely, that of rationalizing or enlightening the entire world (44). By this token, the Kaizo papers recommend non-European peoples to embrace the philosophical rationality of Europe, which is deemed to be “universally valid” (17f., 27). Cultures such as Japan, China or India should leave behind their underdeveloped “religious-mythical thought” (29) and Europeanize themselves, as it were, by organizing their collective forms of life according to the demands of absolute reason: “To become European is to advance to a higher level of rationality” (37). As Yu rightly points out, the “Eurocentric arrogance” entailed in his position goes without saying (25).

It is important to emphasize, as Chung-Chi Yu himself does, that the Husserlian discourse on Europe takes shape within the context of his diagnosis of a “cultural crisis” of humanity in the aftermath of the First World War (28, 30). Especially in the Krisis, a classical text from 1935-1936 which takes on some of the arguments from the Kaizo papers (17), the father of phenomenology characterizes this crisis as a crisis of reason and therefore of the European culture in toto. Philosophical Vernunft, he says, has lost its way, being truncated by the overwhelming advance of “objectivism and naturalism.” Accordingly, it is necessary to “recover” its original ethical sense, as founded in ancient Greek, and to accomplish its universal mission (30).

From all this follows that Europe plays a key role in Husserlian thought, while non-European cultures have merely a residual status therein. As Yu claims, Husserl was not interested in seriously understanding other civilizations apart from the European. He only refers to them, in a rather undifferentiated way, as curious examples that serve as a contrasting foil to define Europe (43). “[T]he ‘non-European’ is lumped together into a single category with no room for distinction between India or China, Papua New Guinea or Patagonia” (38). More precisely, in some of Husserl’s writings millenary civilizations such as China or India are denigrated as “mythical-religious”, or even “magical”, cultures that have not developed scientific-philosophical forms of thinking (48f.). Now, as Chung-Chi Yu points out, despite his unacceptable ethnocentric ideas, Husserl never lost sight of the cultural differences among divergent social groups: he “is well aware that all people live in different cultures and that accessing each other’s culture is difficult” (50). Moreover, according to developments on Husserliana XV by contemporary phenomenologists Anthony Steinbock and Berhard Waldenfels, “pluralism” may have a place Husserlian thought insofar as the distinction between “homeworld” [Heimwelt] and “alienworld” [Fremdwelt] is useful for reflecting on intercultural relationships from a non-Eurocentric perspective (38-39, 157ff.).

For Husserl, the concept of homeworld refers to the “normal”—i.e., the established, familiar, and quotidian “world-horizon” which is common to a specific social group (32). The “homecomrades” live and act in one and the same meaningful environment because they share a “tradition” which they have inherited from past generations (32). More precisely, they are an experiential community, or “Erfahrungsgemeinschaft”, insofar as they share a “noetic a priori” (57). What they have in common is a specific “Umwelt-Apperzeption”, that is, a habitualized “mode of apperception” which enables them to “easily understand” the typical meaning of both cultural objects and other people’s actions (32).

By contrast, Husserl characterizes the alienworld as the experiential environment of a foreign group as seen from the perspective of the homeworld. The homecomrades perceive the alienworld as an abnormal and unfamiliar milieu, meaning they have difficulties in grasping the typical meaning of the events, things, and actions they see within it. This is so because they do not belong to the alien group’s generative tradition and therefore do not share the same Umwelt-Apperzeption  (32f.). In this sense, “Husserl imagines that he would feel dizzy if he were in a town in China, since all the essential types of people’s behavior and all kinds of objects would be unfamiliar to him” (32).

However, although the father of phenomenology acknowledges the divergences among cultures and the difficulties entailed in intercultural understanding, his main theoretical interest lies in the possibility of “overcoming” cultural difference (vii ff.). To put it in Yu’s terms, Husserl’s position is closer to “cultural universalism” than to “cultural particularism” (vii) in that he is mainly concerned with answering the following questions: “Are cultural differences to be surpassed or overcome? Is there a common core shared by both the homeworld and the alienworld?” (57). Husserl answers these questions positively by resorting to the idea of “the one world” [Die eine Welt] (159). Behind the surface of cultural differences, he says, there is “an underlying commonality”, namely, the “universal structure of the life-world”, which is equally experienced by all persons, irrespective of their sociocultural provenience (viii, 34). Arguing from a questionable Eurocentric and logocentric perspective, he suggests that only those subjects able to adopt a philosophical or “theoretical attitude”, i.e., Europeans, can access this “common ground” (50). Only philosophy qua “universal science”, a distinctly European endeavor, can work out the basal dimensions of “the one world” (37). As Yu shows, Husserl identifies this “common ground” with “pure nature”—not in the positivist-objectivist sense but, rather, as the world of nature as it is (inter)subjectively lived by pre-scientific subjects (36, 58). “If we keep to […] what in the world is perceptually accessible to everyone, then we come to nature” (Husserl on p. 58). More precisely, the spatiotemporal world of nature, which is structurally perceived in the same way by everyone, is that what constitutes the “core of human experience” (60) and thus the most basal stratum of the life-world (30).

In Husserl’s own terms, despite cultural differences, “there is commonality, earth and heaven, day and night, stones and trees, mountain and valley, diverse animals…” (Husserl on p. 58). For instance, the hardness of marble is an experiential fact universally valid, regardless of cultural differences (p, 97). Thus understood, universal nature is “composed of the world of space-time and natural objects, which are not yet culturally interpreted and reconstructed” (31). Far from being amorphous, this pre-cultural layer of the world shows a certain typicality, i.e., a stable and regular style of manifestation (60). Now, although concretely experienced by all pre-scientific subjects, these fundamental structures can only be unearthed philosophically, that is, by means of reflective, rational, and abstractive procedures such as the ones developed by transcendental phenomenology (30). To use Yu’s own words, the “world-nucleus of nature is to be distilled by abstraction” (30). For Husserl, this can only be carried out by Europeans, since they and only they, as unique inheritors of Greek Reason, are able to perform the necessary switch from the natural to the theoretical attitude.

Husserl argues that cultural objects are composed of two strata, namely, the “sinnliche Unterlage” and the “aufgestufte Kultur-Bedeutung”, i.e., a material substratum that can be sensually perceived just like natural things and a layer of non-sensual meaning, which is founded upon the former (54). Both strata are equally “essential” dimensions of a cultural thing. On the one hand, without a certain materiality a book would not be “readable”; and, on the other hand, if it did not support some kind of spiritual content, e.g., a novel, it would not be a “book” at all (54). To be sure, in everyday life we experience both layers together in an undifferentiated manner: we immediately see a “book” as a corporeal-spiritual object. The distinction between these two strata is a product of abstractive activities (54).

When characterizing the respective modes of manifestation of these two layers, Husserl draws upon the differentiation between “real” and ideal or “irreal” objectivities developed in Logische Untersuchungen (54). The material substratum of the cultural object counts as a “real physical unit” [reale physische Einheit] which is “individualized” in spatio-temporality, while its cultural stratum constitutes an “irreal, ideal unit of significance” [irreale, ideale Einheit von Bedeutung] that does not occupy a specific location in the spatiotemporal world (54). For this reason, one and the same novel as ideal unit, say, Herman Hesse’s Demian, can be embodied in different material books qua real objects produced in divergent times and places.

Yu points out that the distinction between Husserl’s two strata of cultural objects plays a crucial role in Husserl’s account of cultural difference. The physical substratum of a particular cultural object, as a part of material nature, is perceptually available for people from all cultures (56). By contrast, its ideal-irreal layer, i.e., its meaning and purpose, can only be seen and understood by those belonging to the culture that produced and uses it. In this sense, Husserl says that, for the Bantu people, the “aesthetic or practical ‘meaning’” of our cultural things would be “beyond comprehension” (56). When examining Husserl’s take on cultural difference, Chung-Chi Yu gives special attention to his analysis of the mode of manifestation of so-called “cultural objects”—i.e., of things that were created by human beings for certain purposes, such as books, tables, maps, computers, football balls, etc. (ix, 53ff). According to Husserl, cultural objects have a double ontological status: they constitute “corporeal-spiritual objects” [körperlich-geistige Gegenständlichkeiten], meaning they belong both to “material reality” and to the ideal-intellectual realm (53). On the one hand, they are real things but, on the other hand, they carry a non-sensual meaning. A book, for instance, has a certain hardness, weight, color, smell, etc. just like trees or rocks, but, at the same time, it supports ideal-spiritual objectivities that cannot be seen, touched or smelled: poems, stories, theories, and so on.

Chung-Chi Yu on Schutz

In a second argumentative step, Chung-Chi Yu expounds Schutz’s account of cultural difference, focusing especially on his analysis of cultural objects as presented in the 1955 paper “Symbol, Society and Reality” (61). As Yu shows, Husserl’s notion of “appresentation” plays a key role in the Schutzian approach (viii, 61, 80). More precisely, Schutz maintains that the “in-group” has a different objectual environment than the “out-group”, and this because they operate with different “system[s] of appresentational references” (viii).

According to Yu, Schutz adopts the Husserlian concept of “appresentation” [Appräsentation] as developed in the 5th Cartesian Meditation. By this notion, Husserl means a “mediated intentionality” [Mittelbarkeit der Intentionalität] that makes empathy possible (62). It is, more specifically, a passive synthesis of consciousness thanks to which something directly experienced, i.e., the body of the other, makes “co-present” something which is non-perceivable: the other’s inner life (62). In our actual experience, however, the alter ego appears as a unitary psycho-physical phenomenon: “appresentation is coupled with presentation and together they make a ‘functional community’ [Funktionsgemeinschaft]” (70).

In line with his teacher, Schutz understands appresentation as a “pairing association between appresenting and the appresented” (62). As he argues, however, this passive synthesis is not only at work in empathy but in all kinds of experiences of “transcendence”, i.e., of phenomena that cannot be directly experienced (62). Going beyond Husserl, and arguing from a sign-theoretical approach, Schutz uses the concept of “appresentational references” for depicting all “means” used by everyday subjects for overcoming transcendences, namely, “marks”, “indications”, “signs”, and “symbols” (64, 80). “These so-called appresentational references”, he thinks, “are rooted in the consciousness structure of appresentation” (80).

Furthermore, Schutz argues that both the “appresenting item” and the “appresented item” (70) always appear as embedded within “horizon[s]” or “orders” of phenomena (63). “Each side of the appresentational relationship must rely on its background or order” (63). Take, for instance, the case of a flag as a symbol of a country. The appresenting item, say, a piece of light blue and white fabric, belongs to the physical-material world, while the appresented item, e.g. the idea of Argentina as a country, is part of a horizon of cultural-spiritual notions.

As Yu has it, Schutz argues that cultural objects are characterized by bearing specific appresentational references only visible to those belonging to the in-group that produce and use them on a daily basis (viii). Differently put, the members of a certain group share a “system of appresentational references” that allows them to immediately understand the meaning of their objectual environment (viii). These appresented meanings manifest themselves as “inherent” to the objects and are thus perceived as “real components of the ‘definition of situation’” (Schutz in p. 99). In this sense, according to Schutz, “[t]he world of everyday life is […] permeated by appresentational references which are simply taken for granted” (Schutz in p. 65).

In a similar vein to Husserl, Schutz seems to think that the appresenting item of cultural objects, i.e., their material layer, is able to be perceived by all human beings regardless of their cultural origin, while the appresented side is only available for the in-group members (p. 70). Consider, for example, a message in Chinese language written in black in a piece of white paper. Everyone can see the black-ink figures against the white background and even interpret them as some kind of linguistic signs, but only those who speak or understand the language, and hence belong to some extent to the Chinese culture, can comprehend the meaning of the message, i.e., that what those signs appresent.

Schutz, thus, understands cultural difference primarily as a result of divergent systems of appresentational references. More specifically, in his view the system of appresentational references is an essential component of the particular cultural pattern or “Kulturmuster” of each in-group, i.e., of the “guiding principle of cognition and behavior” in light of which its members define quotidian situations (98f.). Operating in natural attitude within this interpretive framework, in-group members see the appresented items without further ado and take them for granted as immanent aspects of the objects. By contrast, outsiders do not perceive this surplus of meaning or only consider it as something externally “added” to material things (ix).

Against this background, Yu points out that “the pure experience of the life-world” in Husserl’s sense, that is, the experience of pure nature as described above, is also possible from a Schutzian perspective (ix, 64). According to Schutz, this experience emerges “automatically” when, lacking the adequate system of appresentational references, out-group members are incapable of understanding the meaning and purpose of an object (ix, 64). This happens, for instance, when someone unfamiliar with modern art cannot grasp the appresentations “normally” awaken by a certain painting, that is to say, when the “appresentational scheme” does not function properly (64). In this case, says Schutz, what the person perceives are merely real-material phenomena such as shapes, lines, and colors (64).

As Yu suggests, although Schutz deals with the issue of cultural difference more exhaustively than Husserl and does not share the latter’s Eurocentrism, he seems to endorse a cultural universalist and foundationalist position as well (ix, 66). That is, he does not abandon Husserl’s ideas of “universalism” and “grounding” [Grundlegung] (ix, 66). To begin with, Schutz also postulates a pure experience of the life-world as the common experiential ground for all cultures. However, in contrast to Husserl, he believes this layer of experience only comes up in abnormal cases, namely, as a result of intercultural divergences or misunderstandings (pp, ix, 66).

But this is not all. Especially in his later writings, the Viennese phenomenologist speaks of a “universal symbolism” shared by all cultures, which would be ultimately rooted in the conditio humana (ix). As Chung-Chi Yu emphasizes, Schutz argues that certain features of the life-world are common to all cultures because “they are rooted in the human condition” (66). In this sense, “Schutz’s idea of universalism is similar to that of Husserl” (ix). Both postulate a common ground underlying the different homeworlds or in-groups (69).

Chung-Chi Yu on Waldenfels

The final pages of the book show that Bernhard Waldenfels’ phenomenology of the alien can serve as a corrective to the deficits of both Husserl’s and Schutz’s accounts of cultural difference. In the two last chapters, Yu exhaustively reconstructs Waldenfels’ criticism of the universalist and foundationalist “idea of grounding” [Grundlegungsidee] which is at the heart of the Husserlian approach and also informs the Schutzian one (162).

Bernhard Waldenfels objects to Husserl’s ethnocentric and logocentric claim that European philosophy can overcome cultural divergences, insofar as it is able to reach a plane of “universality” with the help of Reason (163). For Waldenfels, this idea reflects one of the main deficits of European culture, namely, its systematic neglect and underestimation of the “otherness [Fremdheit] of non-European cultures” (164). Europe sees the alterity of other cultural groups as an obstacle to be surmounted, and not as a voice worthy to be heard and understood.

More precisely, Waldenfels criticizes the European notion of universality at work in Husserlian thought. As he argues, “no culture”, not even Europe, the alleged birthplace and home of Vernunft, “can ever claim to have created the universal order”, since it is impossible to observe and compare all different cultures from an acultural perspective, as it were (164). In other words, all conceptions of universality, the European one included, are inevitably particular accounts,  meaning they are always the result of “processes of universalization” in which something particular is presented as universal (163ff). However, “Europeans have not always been conscious of their position-taking” (163). That is to say, they do not always acknowledge that their conception of universality is inescapably particular. According to Waldenfels, this is the main deficit of “philosophical Eurocentrism” as paradigmatically embodied in Husserl’s position. According to Waldenfels, it miraculously “‘starts from the self, goes through the other and ends in totality’” (Waldenfels in p. 175). Waldenfels also argues, however, that it is still possible and even useful to work with the notion of universality, as long as one recognizes its insurmountable limits. First and foremost, one has to admit that no particular social group has access to the universal ontological, moral, and epistemological order of the universe (164). As paradoxical as it sounds, “[u]niversality must remain contextual”, since it is always a cultural product. In this sense, Waldenfels suggests the interesting idea of a “universalization in plural”, i.e., of divergent “processes of universalization” performed by different cultures (Waldenfels in p. 164).

Yu gives special attention to the Waldenfelsian criticism of Husserl’s account of interculturality. Within the framework of his phenomenology of the alien, Waldenfels understands interculturality in a structurally analogous manner as intersubjectivity (171). In many of his writings, he rejects classical accounts of intersubjective relationships, such as the one developed by Husserl in the 5th Cartesian Meditation, for starting from a false premise, namely, the absolute separation between self and other. In this classical view, the self has a pure “sphere of owness” [Eigenheitssphäre], which is not contaminated by otherness (167). And, accordingly, intersubjectivity is not conceived as preceding but as following the existence of monadological subjectivities.

Against this account, Waldenfels emphasizes that the self is always already and inescapably mediated by otherness, being this what makes intersubjectivity possible in the first place. My own subjectivity, thus, has moments of “inner otherness” (171). And this not only because I am, from the outset, interconnected with that of other persons, but also because I am neither totally aware nor completely in control of my own thoughts, feelings, actions, and perceptions (167). For this reason, the “between-world” [Zwsichenwelt] of intersubjectivity precedes individual subjectivities (171).

For Waldenfels, interculturality, i.e., the relationship between the homeworld and the alienworld works in a very similar way. Just like there are no absolutely separated and independent subjects, there are no pure cultures that are not hybridized with others (171) – and this holds true even for Europe (51). The homeworld is essentially intertwined with the alienworld and therefore full of otherness. Accordingly, the primary form of interculturality is to be found in the “borderline-play” [Grenzspiel] taking place in the Zwischenwelt that emerges between cultures. According to Waldenfels, this intercultural borderline-play produces experiences of anxiety, “shock”, and “amazement” (173). Husserl’s idea of a universal common ground, which is partly adopted by Schutz, can be interpreted as an attempt by the (European) homeworld to evade this uneasiness by rationally domesticating the alienness implied in cultural difference (172f.). It is, in other terms, an egocentric/Eurocentric process of universalization that entails an imperial expansion of the homeworld into the territory of the alienworld (173).

The final pages of Life-world and Cultural Difference make clear that Chung-Chi Yu’s own position on cultural difference draws heavily on Waldenfels’ thinking. According to the Taiwanese scholar, a non-Eurocentric account of interculturality must operate within the so-called “Zwischenwelt”. True intercultural communication is only possible if one abandons the egocentric/Eurocentric stance of “appropriation”, or Aneignung, and adopts a humble, respectful, and comprehensive attitude towards other cultures, that is, if one is willing to “learn from others” and “broaden” one own’s “horizon” (ix).

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