Rodney K. B. Parker (Ed.): The Idealism-Realism Debate Among Edmund Husserl’s Early Followers and Critics

Phenomenological Reviews

The Idealism-Realism Debate Among Edmund Husserl’s Early Followers and Critics Book Cover The Idealism-Realism Debate Among Edmund Husserl’s Early Followers and Critics
Contributions to Phenomenology
Rodney K. B. Parker (Ed.)
Hardback, $119.99 USD; eBook, $89.00 USD
IX, 311

Reviewed by: Ryan Dradzynski

The Idealism-Realism Debate Among Edmund Husserl’s Early Followers and Critics is a multifaceted exploration of the historical context and ongoing influence of various epistemological, ontological, and methodological approaches to the problems of consciousness and reality. Part of Springer’s long-running Contributions to Phenomenology series, the essays in this collection complicate the conventional picture of idealist and realist phenomenology as two homogenous and warring camps through a number of close readings and re-interpretations of figures from this formative period of phenomenology.

In his introduction, editor Rodney K. B. Parker outlines two goals: first, to return Husserl’s early phenomenology to its historical context (4) and, second, “to understand the positions of the other early phenomenologists with respect to the idealism-realism debate.” (4) This is more than scholarly trivia. By drawing parallels between the idealism-realism debate of the early twentieth century and the current rivalry between phenomenology and speculative realism, (6) Parker makes a convincing case for the continued study of figures who left an indelible mark on the phenomenological landscape but for whom sustained engagement—especially in anglophone philosophy—has been elusive.

The structure of the work itself bolsters this conviction. Instead of a linear, chronological approach, the collection is divided into four sections. The two essays in the Part I provide background on Husserl’s philosophical development with a focus on his Logical Investigations. By dissecting the way his early work may have been interpreted as realist, they lay the foundation for the following chapters, the majority of which examine the philosophical conflict which erupted after the publication of Ideas I in 1913. Yet while there is a noticeable sense of progression, the collection withstands the procrustean temptation to place Husserl’s work on a rigid teleological timeline. Instead of proceeding chronologically, the collection revolves geographically around the loose constellation of philosophical schools that sprang up in Marburg (Part II), Munich (III), and Gottingen and Freiburg (IV).

By framing the idealism-realism debate around geography, which is necessarily imprecise and ambiguous, the contributors successfully tease out similarities and differences between positions and philosophers that have been historically understudied. Essays on Baltic, Russian, Spanish, and Japanese—as well as several female—philosophers serve to emphasize phenomenology’s cross-cultural appeal and socially inclusive character.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the portrait of Husserl offered by the collection is more of a mosaic than a picture. Yet it is not less useful for that. On the contrary, the variegated portrayal of Husserl challenges the conventional picture of the idealism-realism debate as a contest between two static, monolithic, and fundamentally hostile camps; readers receive a clear sense of the fluctuating philosophical milieu which phenomenology developed in and deeply influenced. Husserl’s philosophical positions and appropriations thereof were neither foregone conclusions nor incidental to phenomenology today. This volume sheds welcome light on a crucial and underappreciated period in philosophy.

This review largely follows the structure of the work, beginning with the introduction from the editor and reconstructing the arguments in the foundational first chapter on Husserl’s Logical Investigations before devoting the rest of the space—unfortunately not exhaustively—to several individual essays from the collection which serve as conceptual lodestones for thinkers and topics discussed elsewhere in the work.

Parker’s introduction clarifies the broad historical and philosophical context in which the idealism-realism debate among early phenomenologists arose. The core of the controversy centers on two distinct but closely related issues: first, “whether the ‘real’ world exists independent from the mind” (8) and second, whether the belief that the only object of knowledge is one’s subjective consciousness—epistemological idealism—necessarily entails metaphysical realism, or the belief “that nothing exists independently of the mind.” (6) Husserl’s early thought was characterized by a form of realism similar to Brentano’s descriptive psychology. However, after sustained engagement with Kant and disenchantment with psychologism, “Husserl’s project moved away from the descriptive psychology of the Logical Investigations and the account of intentionality presented therein toward a form of transcendental idealism.” (2) The position at which Husserl arrived, transcendental-phenomenological idealism, which “seeks to reconcile the empirical reality of the world with the dependence of that reality on consciousness,” (3) came as an unpleasant surprise to many of his followers and leading philosophical figures of the time.

Michele Averchi puts it succinctly in his article on Geiger: “We must ask ourselves: is Geiger’s reaction to Ideas I only worth exploring for the sake of historical completeness? Or does it contain some developed and original contribution to phenomenological thought?” (175)

The same could be asked, some may say, of Husserl—to say nothing of his less-famous interlocutors. Parker—and the work as a whole—is emphatic: Husserl and his fellow twentieth-century philosophers not only have much to contribute to contemporary debate today, but from a historical perspective, “if Husserl’s critics misunderstood his position, particularly with respect to idealism, then it is incumbent on Husserl scholars to clearly articulate how.” (12)

The two essays in Part I explore the intellectual heritage, Platonic underpinnings, and realist receptions and misconceptions of Husserl’s Logical Investigations. While both Fisette and Crespo conclude that a realist interpretation of Husserl is untenable, they also show that such an understanding is not historically inapposite.

Programs such as Fisette’s are normally nebulous, hinging on specious chronologies and dubious speculation. Fisette avoids these fatal pitfalls by staying scrupulously close to textual evidence, from Husserl’s correspondence and marginal notes (39) to the admittedly more ambiguous influence betrayed by the content of his work from that period. The centerpiece of Fisette’s essay is the close reading he performs on Husserl’s unpublished manuscript Mikrokosmos, which was itself a meticulous explication of Lotze’s Logic and was intended by Husserl to be published as an appendix to his Logical Investigations.

Fisette begins his robust intellectual genealogy of Husserl’s early philosophy by tracing the outline of Lotze’s influence. Though Lotze died in 1881, Fisette argues that he influenced Husserl in two ways: directly, through his work, and indirectly, through his students. Stumpf, for example, under whose tutelage Husserl completed his dissertation and habilitation (31), was a student of Lotze’s, as was Frege, whose withering critique of the ostensible psychologism contained in Husserl’s Philosophy of Arithmetic is often regarded as having provided the impetus for the anti-psychologism of Husserl’s Logical Investigations. This last point is particularly important, because Fisette attributes to Lotze, by way of Brentano and Stumpf, a good deal of credit for inspiring Husserl’s theory of relations as contained in his Philosophy of Arithmetic. (35, 40)

While he deplored Lotze’s “arguably strange view that arithmetic is only a relatively independent and since ancient times particularly sophisticated part of logic,” (38) in Mikrokosmos Husserl nevertheless “attributes to Lotze the merit of having stressed the decisive significance of the distinction between the subjective aspects of thought and the objective aspects of its propositional contents.” (39) In a letter to Brentano, Husserl declared that it was thanks to Lotze’s interpretation of Plato’s theory of Ideas (38) that he was able to articulate an understanding of consciousness as intentionally directed yet noetically distinct from both the subject and content of thought.

This is not to say Husserl blithely internalized Lotzean assumptions. On the contrary, he was deeply critical of Lotze. Husserl was dissatisfied with the descriptive approach inherited from Lotze, which rendered him unable to explain the mysteriously objective quality of subjective experience except by recourse to an empirical explanation. Since he received from Lotze no means by which to engage the transcendent qualities of consciousness without either immanentizing or mechanizing them, Husserl developed a critique of psychologism based on the ideality and objectivity of the laws of logic which he conceived in terms of Geltung and effectivity (Wirklichkeit). (40, 43)

Unlike Lotze, who muddled the division between the quality of judgment and “the propositional content of judgment” (42), Husserl argued that the meaning we intersubjectively imbue objects with is the basis for the existence of those objects independent of any mind. Far worse, according to Husserl, was the fact that Lotze distinguished “a representational world (Vorstellungswelt), which has merely human-subjective validity, from a metaphysical world of monads in-themselves” available only through ‘mysterious’ metaphysical methods, a situation Husserl dismissively called “inferior to novels.” (44) While in Husserl’s view it was perfectly valid to speak of logical laws as being ideal (47), he criticized psychologism for making that validity a function of psychological description and took pains to avoid the subjectivism to which Lotze fell victim when he created “a dependency between his Gedanken and the experiences of the knowing subject.” (43)

However, this leads to a problem: what exactly is being mediated if for Husserl “the function of the propositional content of a judgment is to mediate the relation of an act to its object”? (42) By strenuously opposing a Lotzean conception of ideality, Husserl inadvertently encouraged some interpreters to mistakenly impute to him a form of realism, as Mariano Crespo argues in the following chapter.

Analyzing the critiques of Spanish philosopher Antonio Millán-Puelles, Crespo suggests that in Husserl’s “effort to ground an autonomous logic freed from the threat of that particular form of empiricist phenomenalism that is logical psychologism, one can understand the initial impression of realism.” (56) Such an interpretation, Crespo suggests, turns on a failure to distinguish between the ontology of objects and the ontology of being.

Millán-Puelles makes his critique along three lines: first, “that the proof of ideality invoked by Husserl in the Second of his Logical Investigations is invalid” (57), second, that “conceiving the laws of logic as one conceives the laws of arithmetic” (64) leads to the mistaken belief that ‘universal natures’ correspond to ‘beings of reason’ (65), and, finally, the fact that Husserl transgresses the limits of phenomenology when he makes a jump “from the plane of propositions concerning universal objects to the ontological plane of ideal being.” (61)

These objections are made possible by the ambiguity that “for Husserl, universal objects present themselves, in their unity and ideal identity, in a special mode of consciousness.” (58) If phenomenology is the study of the structure and experience of consciousness, then by its very nature it privileges the operation of the mind over interaction with matter. Yet Husserl sometimes seems to assume the real, objective existence of objects, such as his defense of ideality in the Second Logical Investigation on the grounds that the objective existence of ideal objects presupposes the being of ideal objects. (62) For Millán-Puelles, there is little difference between the being of objects and their objective existence. More importantly, Millán-Puelles argued that “the use of terms such as “constitutive activity” or “genesis”…should not be interpreted in a psychologistic way, as though these objects remained absorbed by the reality of the mental processes they are made present by.” (55)

Like several critics covered elsewhere in the collection, Millán-Puelles focuses on ‘where’ or under what circumstances and conditions we ‘grasp’ ideal objects rather than considering their abstract nature. (58) This approach bears a certain resemblance to Husserl’s “phenomenological thesis of the constitution of objects present to consciousness.” (57) In effect, “Husserl’s defense of ideal beings would be more the affirmation of an unavoidable datum than the affirmation of a type or modality of being.” (66)

While Crespo ultimately considers Millán-Puelles’s realist critique to be based on a misunderstanding of “the distinction between the real genesis of the acts of the representation and the mere intentional genesis of irreal objects,” (68) Millán-Puelles’s work and interpretation of Husserl serve to clarify the plausibility of a realist interpretation and highlight persistent ambiguities in Husserl’s early phenomenological work, thereby setting the stage for parts II, III, and IV of the collection, which deal with the reception of Ideas I.

The two essays in Part II focus on the Marburg school, specifically Paul Natorp, Nicolai Hartmann, and Vasily Sesemann. However, after a minuscule sketch that frankly does not do justice to the essays of Part II, I am going to devote the next section and rest of the review to the first essay of Part III, which touches on several themes common to the collection as a whole.

Unlike those who focused on the theoretical underpinnings of Husserl’s phenomenology, Sesemann and Hartmann criticized Husserl for ignoring the importance of the practical context in which an actor’s intentionality is embedded. (114) Despite their differences, Jonkus points out that (somewhat like Millán-Puelles), Hartmann and Sesemann shared a conviction that Ideas I represented a return to idealism which elevated the experience of consciousness over the givenness of experience and thereby placed “the transcendent objects of the world…beyond the scope of phenomenological inquiry.” (113) It is this interplay of context, immanence, and intentionality that characterizes Susan Gottlöber’s essay on Max Scheler’s description of reality in terms of resistance. As a chronological outlier—the theories propounded by Scheler antedate but oppose the framework of Ideas I—her essay helps contextualize realist-inspired reactions to Husserl’s apparent turn toward idealism. Given the philosophical scope of Scheler’s critique, which encompassed methodology, epistemology, anthropology, psychology, and ontology, (122) Gottlöber’s essay also lends itself to comparisons with the critiques of other schools and thinkers discussed elsewhere in the collection.

According to Scheler, “consciousness is thus a necessary correlate of existence.”[1] (123) Moreover, “the experience of resistance necessarily precedes consciousness.” (126) Gottlöber reads Scheler, contra Dilthey, as viewing the experience of resistance not as a conscious action of the will but an unconscious and even inevitable product of the interaction between “involuntary (unwillkürlich) drives” and the external world (Außenwelt) (126). Placing the operation of these drives in a realm comprised of the ‘spheres’ of personal perspective, perception of essences, the natural environment, and communal relationships (126-127) allows Scheler to “make an argument for both expanding the concept of reality beyond the external world…and, secondly, draw attention to the fact that the problem of the different spheres has to be treated separately from the problem of reality.” (127)

By focusing on the involuntary and experiential nature of existence, Scheler inverts the conventional idealist perspective of reality as a predicate of consciousness. Scheler’s approach bears a marked resemblance that of Hartmann (discussed by Jonkus), especially in their shared emphasis on how we are ‘grasped’ by objects. Like Scheler, “Hartmann argues for the priority of transcendent objects and focuses on ontology, which—for him—precedes epistemology.” (113) The ‘grasping’ nature of objects would become a crucial element in Scheler’s understanding of reality-as-resistance, and stands in stark contrast to Husserl’s approach, which privileged the objective and primordial purity of eidetic consciousness as well as the unitary nature of phenomenological methodology.

Gottlöber’s primary purpose in the essay, however, is to determine the extent to which Scheler successfully defended his assertion that being and essence do not, necessarily, entail questions of meaning, and the ramifications of his success (or lack thereof) for a realist rebuttal to Husserl. To do so Gottlöber focuses on the relationship between the drives and their connection to essence and meaning in Scheler’s posthumous 1928 essay Idealismus – Realismus. (121)

At first glance, creating ontological categories of ‘spheres’ and ‘drives’ seems misguided. Scheler himself conceded that an image theory of reality is indefensible, since claims that consciousness operates by corresponding to immanent objects “presupposes the cognition of both the image and the object as such.” (128) He also responded positively to Husserl’s claim that “what is not able to be effective is not real,” (128) which linked causality and reality in a formal relationship.

Yet Scheler felt, Gottlöber writes, that the “mistake made by both the idealists and the critical realists” was “the erroneous presupposition that essence and existence are inseparable from consciousness.” (131) Scheler attributes this misunderstanding to a mistaken belief that 1.) “all realities are unities of meaning” and 2.) that the experience of reality is meaningful in itself—that we do not experience objects, but meanings of objects. (130) In contrast, Scheler conceptualized reality as pre-given and meaningfully neutral resistance. He formulated the spheres as the manifold by which reality-as-resistance, through various attitudes of being, or drives, mediated meaning. In other words, “since resistance is accessible neither to consciousness nor to knowledge, but rather to the drives only, the relationship of the drives to resistance is not a relation to an essence (Sosein) or meaning (Sinn) but rather is characterized by being pre-conscious and pre-known.” (129) By denying reality innate meaning, Scheler “established a relationship between knowledge and consciousness on one side and the experience of resistance on the other without the latter being relativized in relation to the former…[R]esistance remains transcendental to consciousness at all times.” (130)

Yet such an interpretation entails several problems. One could ask, for example, how we know that resistance transcends consciousness. Or, if knowledge and meaning are formally extraneous to the experience of resistance, then how does consciousness arise and what are its qualities? (129) Scheler unpersuasively attempts to avoid an infinite regression by attributing “intentionality not to transcendental consciousness but to the experience of resistance with consequences for ‘ideal being’” (131) and reiterating the belief that “reality, rather than being constituted by consciousness, itself constitutes consciousness.” (131)

On one hand, Scheler’s interpretation is realistic insofar as it affirms reality to be a mutually constitutive process between consciousness and some external experience (in this case, resistance). However, by according consciousness a critical role in the instantiation of resistance by way of the spheres of experience, Scheler opens his arguments to accusations of question-begging and the very form of idealism he attempts to oppose. (As Gottlöber demonstrates in the chapter, Scheler’s conception of reality “is always transintelligible: only the what of existence is intelligible for us, never the existence of the what.” (131))

Despite these shortcomings, Scheler’s work—and Gottlöber’s analysis thereof—is valuable for the light it sheds on several realist critiques of transcendental phenomenology. For example, Scheler’s theorization of resistance as the ground of consciousness bears a striking resemblance to Hartmann’s realist and rhetorical comment wondering “Wo also ist das Phänomen des idealen Seins fassbar?”[2] That is, the grasping of reality—or in Scheler’s case, the experience of resistance—precludes a phenomenology of pure consciousness. Such an assumption is corroborated by Scheler’s comment to the effect that phenomenology is less a delimited science than a new philosophical attitude (121)—a belief that corresponds strikingly with D. R. Sobota’s analysis of Daubert, and more explicitly in Michele Averchi’s essay on Geiger’s philosophy of “attitudes” (Einstellungen) and “stance” (Haltung). (175) Given the multidisciplinary nature of Scheler’s work, Gottlöber’s essay on him serves as a historical lodestone for the other realist philosophers discussed in this collection.

Yet not all of Husserl’s critics attacked him for his apparent idealism; the final paper, by Genki Uemura, explores the reactions of Satomi Takahashi and Tomoo Otaka to Husserl’s Ideas I and their contention that he had tried—but not successfully managed—to escape a realist philosophy. By concluding this way, the collection has come full circle, from the ostensibly realist origins of Husserl’s phenomenology in the philosophy of Lotze, Stumpf and Brentano to accusations by his later students that he never developed a fully idealist position at all.

Though it focuses on the European context of the idealism-realism debate and does not delve into international appropriations or influence, this volume draws from a wealth of diverse thinkers and makes a historically rich and philosophically compelling argument for the enduring significance of the idealism-realism debate among Edmund Husserl’s early followers and critics.

[1] Scheler, Max. 1995. “Idealismus–Realismus.” In Gesammelte Werke, vol. IX, ed. by Manfred Frings, 183–340. Bonn: Bouvier (186).

[2] Hartmann, N. 1965. Zur Grundlegung der Ontologie. Vierte Auflage. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter (22).

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