Wayne Waxman: A Guide to Kant’s Psychologism – via Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Wittgenstein

A Guide to Kant’s Psychologism via Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Wittgenstein Book Cover A Guide to Kant’s Psychologism via Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Wittgenstein
Routledge Studies in Eighteenth-Century Philosophy
Wayne Waxman
Routledge
2019
Hardback £96.00
340

Reviewed by: Alma Buholzer (University College Dublin)

A Guide to Kant’s Psychologism (2019) is presented as a more accessible and to-the-point delivery of the interpretive theses Waxman lays out in Kant’s Model of the Mind (1991), Kant and the Empiricists: Understanding Understanding (2005), and Kant’s Anatomy of the Intelligent Mind (2014). This comparatively compact 351-page book promises a unique angle on Kant’s theoretical philosophy for a range of philosophical and scientific audiences. The work is original both in its iconoclastic style and its thesis, which defends Kant’s ‘psychologism’ and interprets the titular empiricist philosophers as precursors thereof. Kant’s account of objective representation in terms of the interrelations between sensation, pure intuition, logic and concepts is argued to be firmly rooted in problems brought into the spotlight by the empiricists, such as animal consciousness and multimodal sensory perception. The book thus combines a historical sensitivity to the genealogy of Kant’s philosophy with the systematic ambition of a new interpretation, not merely of one isolated aspect of Kantian theory of mind but of the way its various doctrines fit together, from pure intuition to apperception to judgment.

The book is organized into two parts. After an introductory chapter preparing the reader for a radical departure from what Waxman presents as an anti-psychologistic consensus in Kant interpretation, Chapters 2-4 chronologically introduce key thinkers from the empiricist tradition and their contributions to the book’s central concept of psychologism. In chapter 5, Waxman uses Wittgenstein to illustrate Hume’s conventionalism, which in Waxman’s view Kant targets no less than rationalist platonism. Chapters 6-10 guide the reader through Kant’s theoretical philosophy. The sequence of chapters, “The Kantian Cogito” (6), “The Logical I” (7), “The Aesthetic I” (8), “The Objective I” (9), and “The I of Nature” (10) is prescribed less by the text of the Critique of Pure Reason than by the conceptual layers of Waxman’s reconstruction. While regularly referring Kant’s insights back to their empiricist lineage, the progression from the ‘I think’ to the objectivity of physical nature also points to Cartesian and Leibnizian influences in Kant’s treatment of logical universality. The chapters on Kant additionally argue that the doctrines of pure intuition and logical form, interpreted as elements of an ‘a priori psychologism’, can accommodate post-Kantian scientific developments in logic, geometry, mathematics and physics. The concluding chapter assesses platonism and conventionalism as the only possible routes of refutation of Kant’s psychologism, as well as indicating how Waxman’s interpretation may be illuminating for contemporary study of the mind.

One of the most original features of the book is that it makes the compatibility of Kantian doctrines with subsequent scientific advances a matter of first importance: “naturalistic theories like Kant’s and those developed by his British empiricist forebears were intentionally crafted to leave open a place for future science on which philosophy can never impinge” (12). The scope of the book is not only to radically overhaul received opinion on Kant’s methodology, and the relation of his ideas to the sciences, but to defend a biologically plausible version of Kant’s account of logical form. In the remainder of this review I will address in turn: (1) Waxman’s definition of ‘psychologism’ and how his use of this concept situates him with regard to other interpreters; (2) his reading of Kant, with a focus on the logical forms of judgment according to the psychologistic approach; and (3) some questions emerging at the interface of Waxman’s naturalistic reading of Kant and the sciences, especially neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

(1)

Waxman stresses that Kant’s ability to resolve skepticism about the objective purport of (some of) our representations is rooted in his radicalization of the British empiricists’ methods to accommodate logical universality, modality, and relational concepts. Thus, the book’s overarching thesis about the relationship between its titular figures is that Kant continues what Locke, Berkeley and Hume started, expressed as their common adherence to psychologism. Waxman has in mind a quite specific interpretation of this term:

[T]he task of psychologism is to explicate meanings, with special emphasis on identifying psychological ingredients essential to notions that, in language, are free of any tincture of psychological content. There can therefore be no expectation that the psychological contents adduced as essential to the meaning of familiar notions will themselves be familiar. (147)

Waxman’s compelling take on the psychologistic philosopher’s undermining of rationalist metaphysics is thus that psychologistic elucidation makes us distrust the appearances of the natural language of metaphysics, thereby overturning realist intuitions that the qualities we discern in appearances are properties of mind-independent objects (33f). Psychologism in this sense, Waxman is clear, is not to be confused with the fallacy of explicating the non-psychological psychologically (305). According to Waxman’s use of the term, psychologism means giving contents which are in fact psychological their due explication in terms of mental representations. Kant’s account of how we are capable of “cognitive representation of sense-divide transcending external objects” (264) equips empirical psychologism with the resources to explicate the objectivity and logical universality of our representations, where this is possible. Hence, “any representational content that neither empirical psychologism nor conventionalism can explicate, a priori psychologism can, and what the latter cannot explicate, nothing can” (147).

Waxman introduces his interpretation as a novel defence of Kant’s theoretical philosophy which rejects two pervasive trends in its reception: an anti-psychologistic consensus, and a more general obsolescence consensus that due to revolutions in logic, geometry, and physics, Kant’s philosophy is “a once formidable structure long since reduced to ruin, fit only for piecemeal salvage” (24ff). The latter engenders attempts to clear the respectable theory behind Kant’s project of its psychologistic methods, resulting in a range of approaches to ‘updating Kant’ e.g. by explaining conscious representation using anything from post-Fregean mathematical logic to Chomskyian linguistics, or Roger Penrose’s quantum theory of consciousness (15). Against these kinds of salvage attempts, Waxman argues that a properly psychologistic account of Kant’s theory of objective representation reveals its compatibility with subsequent developments in logic, geometry, physics, as well as neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

Kant scholars may suspect that the anti-psychologistic consensus is by no means universal: for instance, Andrew Brook’s Kant and the Mind (1994), and Patricia Kitcher’s Kant’s Transcendental Psychology (1990) (see also Falkenstein and Easton 1997) make similar critical points about the anachronism of understanding Kantian theory of cognition ‘anti-psychologistically’. For example, “Kant clearly held that his ‘logic’ of the mind is part of what we would now call psychology” (Brook 1994, 6). Waxman takes note of these authors in a footnote, nonetheless signalling his substantive interpretive differences from Kitcher and Brook as well as Lorne Falkenstein and Scott Edgar. The problem, Waxman explains, is that these authors refer to ‘psychology’, which is concerned with “whether and how a representation comes to be in us (empirically, innately, etc.)” rather than ‘psychologism’, which is concerned with “how the representation itself comes to be” (17n). This distinction, in my view, is not as straightforward as Waxman needs it to be in order to distance himself from other interpreters as far as he claims to.

Waxman himself says in the aforementioned footnote that he agrees with Beatrice Longuenesse’s (1998) work on Kant in its essentials, despite her not using the term psychologism (16). This fosters doubts about exactly what defines Waxman’s psychologism as an interpretive approach. If we stipulate that an anti-psychologistic reading foregoes any reference to mental activity in explicating the meanings of objective representations, psychologistic approaches still come in stronger and weaker flavours, which come down to how the genesis of “the representation itself” is construed.

If ‘psychological’ is interpreted weakly, any view that endorses Kant’s references to mental activities such as synthesis and apperception as non-negotiable parts of the story about objective representation, not wholly translatable into an analytic argument, is “identifying psychological ingredients” (147) in discourse which does not overtly suggest them. I believe most interpreters today would uphold this kind of psychological account. Any particular view on what informs Kant’s psychology need not be empiricist in orientation, as one may instead emphasize the scholastic heritage of Kant’s references to mental acts (e.g. Sellars 1967). On stronger versions, e.g. Kitcher (1990), Kant’s ‘psychologism’ qua account of the genesis of objective representations is a ‘proto-cognitivist’ theory which can be re-formulated in light of contemporary experimental methods and results. Waxman’s qualifies as a weakly psychologistic interpretation, in my view, since nowhere in the book does ‘psychologism’ imply ‘experimental psychology’. In the first chapter and the conclusion, Waxman seems to reject mainly Neo-Kantian attempts to place Kant in the service of twentieth century analytic semantics, philosophy of mind and epistemology—explicitly confronting Strawson (1966) in the conclusion (306), but probably also thinking of authors such as Evans (1982) McDowell (1994), and Cassam (1997). However, they present their work as critical reconstructions and selective adaptations of Kantian ideas. Given that Waxman accuses Strawson’s interpretation of Kant of reverting to a kind of platonism, it would have been interesting to hear more about where Waxman agrees and disagrees with existing criticisms of these Neo-Kantian projects, including McDowell’s (1994) ‘naturalized platonism’.

Let us consider the specifics of Waxman’s use of the term ‘psychologism’. Psychologism is presented as a mode of conceptual explication concerned with the psychological content of the meanings of traditionally metaphysical notions, rather than the psychological mechanisms underlying conceptual meanings. Consciousness turns out to be the key ‘psychological ingredient’ reference to which constitutes a psychologistic account. Waxman stresses that all representation requires some degree of consciousness, but that for Kant and his predecessors consciousness is graded from ‘dark’ to ‘bright’ to ‘clear’ (41) and is hence ubiquitous, reaching down to the sensory representations of basic organisms such as molluscs. Another notable feature of Waxman’s psychologism is its gloss on the normative dimension of Kant’s inquiry into our transcendental justification for applying concepts:

instead of proceeding by defining notions in terms of other notions without regard to whether there is, or even can be, any corresponding conscious representation, psychologism [has] the express aim of seeking out such representations. If the search reveals that a notion owes none of the contents indispensable to its meaning to consciousness, then its scope of application is nowhere limited by it (10).

Conversely, if the notion “can be shown to be beholden to consciousness for any of the ingredients essential to its meaning—ingredients at least implicit, but often explicit, in definitions—then its scope of application is limited accordingly” (10).

In general, the distinctiveness of Waxman’s approach lies in his wholesale engagement with Kant’s more unwieldy terms and concepts, and readiness to endorse Kant’s claims as literally about psychological reality—rather than about concepts, the brain/organism, or the objective world. Despite his psychologistic approach having a foot in psychology and a foot in explication, Waxman is content neither with purely conceptual or exegetical arguments, nor ‘proto-cognitivist’ claims that Kant anticipated cognitive science on this or that front. But he ultimately agrees with many other interpreters that any staunchly ‘anti-psychologistic’ reading is a non-starter, as well as joining Kitcher (1990) and Brook (1994) in thinking that a naturalistic perspective on Kant may be able to contribute to contemporary (experimental) psychology and theory of mind.

(2)

I now turn to Waxman’s reading of Kant and his empiricist forerunners. Chapter 2 argues that Locke sets the stage for the psychologistic approach by conceiving consciousness on a scale starting with primitive animals: “Since in the entire absence of sensation no consciousness of any kind seems possible … its terrestrial advent would presumably have coincided with the appearance of the first sensation” (54). In Chapter 3, Berkeley is credited with “extending imagination into the cognitive sphere, thereby for the first time crossing the line separating reality from fiction (where Hume and Kant would follow). This is because the ability to represent space as transcending the divide between sight and touch is indispensable to all cognition of the physical” (85). For Kant, this consideration leads to the thesis that there is nothing in sensation (visual or tactual) that is intrinsically spatial, so the representation of space must be constructed in pure intuition (201). Chapter 4 links the foregoing to Hume’s well-known skeptical challenges to relational concepts:

By shifting the basis of belief in relations from objective experience to subjective feeling, Hume moved the topic from epistemology to psychology where, instead of needing to be justified by evidence and to follow as a conclusion from premises, belief is determined purely affectively, by association-constituting feeling, and nothing else (96).

For Waxman, Hume was the first to psychologistically attribute fully general concepts such as the uniformity of nature and the general causal maxim to humans and non-human animals alike (114). Waxman illustrates the theoretical development from associationism to Kantian a priori psychologism in terms of a speculative evolutionary development from a creature

capable of the kind of highly sophisticated, behaviourally efficacious conscious mentation that Berkeley and Hume devised their associationist psychology to explain. Thanks to some fortuitous mutation or other alteration in its genome, its progeny included creatures capable of the representation ‘I think.’ Having no evident selective advantage by itself, this neural capacity presumably could have established itself in the population only as a spandrel piggy-backing on some genetically connected trait that earned its evolutionary keep. (177)

Eventually enabling complex propositions and inferences, Waxman contends, the ‘I-think’ representation would have enabled behaviours with adaptive value. This evolutionary story complements Waxman’s interpretation of Kant’s logical forms of judgment as more basic than language and indeed making language possible:

The ability of linguistic propositions to blend with non-linguistic is, in its way, no less amazing than the mathematizability of nature. But isn’t this exactly what we should expect if language was originally crafted by creatures already fully conversant in the use of non-linguistic propositional representation, transcendental judgments included? (315).

The chapters of Part II centre around Kant’s psychologization of logic in relation to sensory and propositional representation. Waxman details how Kant adapts from Descartes the contentless representation ‘I think’, which “in and of itself, has no content [and hence] cannot be suspected of having borrowed any, whether from language or anywhere else” (158). Being non-linguistic, it is not attributable to convention and thus provides a purely psychological basis for logical generality that synthetically unifies all possible representable contents (174). According to this notion of pure apperception, Waxman argues that Kantian logic is based in a universal self-consciousness which includes “the totality of logical structures universals enable us to form—propositions, inferences, narratives, et al.” (149). Unfortunately, Waxman doesn’t elaborate on whether self-consciousness is for Kant always a form of ‘bright consciousness’, or could exist in ‘darker’ shades as he argues it does for Hume (120).

Kant brings what Waxman calls “intelligence”—which amounts to consciousness of universality and modality—to Humean representations of general relational concepts which lack any awareness of the “logical universe of possible representations” (171). Kantian concepts “enable us to consciously represent each and every associative combination as a grouping of denizens of the logical universe that are thereafter sortable not only by their sensible/imaginable properties but by their logical ones as well” (171). According to Waxman, Kant’s logical forms of judgment are what “make any ‘I think’-generated concept combinable with any other such concept in a single act of thought, or propositional representation” (167). Conceptual representation is thus explicated as the gradual elimination of degrees of “logical freedom” (150) by restricting the space of logical possibilities to what is representable given the content supplied by sensation and association.

According to Kant’s psychologization of logic, fixing the position of a term as subject or as predicate in a categorical judgment is a psychological act starting with the bifurcation of the logical universe (170). However, such a “logical form by itself cannot guarantee that a proposition will result. In particular, even if a would-be proposition is logically well formed, it would still fail to be a genuine proposition if, for other than strictly formal logical reasons, it cannot be thought without generating not just falsehood but one or another species of impossibility, e.g. … ‘water is not always H2O’” (175). For Waxman’s Kant, categorical form permits the unification of concepts in a single consciousness, but it does not allow a unified representation of the resulting propositions (175). In addition to the assertoric modality, then, we need Kant’s problematic modality, which asserts merely the relation between two propositions, suspending judgment on the propositions themselves. The logical form this assumes in us, hypothetical judgment, relates problematic propositions as ground to consequent in the assertoric modality. Together, hypothetical and categorical forms enable any combination of the totality of possible propositions to be unified in a single conscious act (175f).

Waxman mobilizes this account to show that Kant (1) does not restrict intelligence to language-using organisms, nor (2) does he impose our parochial linguistic structures on his model of the basic “building blocks of propositional thought” (22). Waxman takes his elucidation of Kant’s transcendental logic to counter both misconceptions:

Intelligence can be accorded to any creature, actual or possible, that is capable of pure apperception … even including beings so asocial as to be devoid of anything remotely analogous to language or socially grounded symbolic communication of any kind. This is not to deny that Kant regarded all non-human animals known to him as incapable of apperception and therefore unintelligent. (172)

But, Waxman adds, “that does not mean he would have persisted in that view had he known what we know today” (172). This is an interesting speculation, implying that animals have some form of awareness of universality and modality—not in Hume’s sense, but in Waxman’s more demanding Kantian sense of apperception—“an a priori logical universe that quite literally encompasses all possible conscious representations” (169). I fully agree that Kant’s logic is non-linguistic, but I want to know more exactly how Waxman understands our present knowledge of animal intelligence such that it could make Kant change his mind on this controversial topic.

Waxman regularly refers to his lengthier engagements with Kant’s first Critique in footnotes. These references will be necessary for scholars seeking to determine Waxman’s position on exegetical debates. Part II succeeds in presenting Kant’s account of logical forms and concepts as centrally relying on consciousness, and hence psychologistic, while emphasizing that propositional representation need not be construed as an evolutionary leap separating humans from other animals. The combination of these theses makes for an original, stimulating addition to works on Kant’s first Critique.

(3)

I now have some remarks on the book’s intriguing but somewhat ambivalent references to the sciences. Waxman’s general stance that the insights of Kantian psychologism extend beyond their own scientific and philosophical context is very ambitious, and I’m not sure his case is equally strong for each of the sciences he addresses. Waxman makes a convincing case that non-Euclidean geometries cannot falsify any of Kant’s statements about pure intuition, as the latter pertain to the necessary features of any representation of space, rather than any particular geometry:

the formal intuition of space is not only neither Euclidean nor non-Euclidean but completely indeterminate as regards number, limit, distance, metric, part-whole relationships, and everything else that makes space suitable for properly mathematical representation or objective representation of any kind (208-9).

When it comes to the life sciences, however, Waxman’s perspective is (perhaps inevitably) more in tension with the scientific context Kant was writing in.

Waxman is clearly not neutral on matters of philosophy of consciousness, stating at the outset that consciousness is for his purposes identical in existence to its neural correlates (13-14), but that there is nonetheless a distinct psychological reality (14, 57, 159, 162, 177f). As this commitment is not compared to any alternatives, I am curious as to why he has opted for this particular form of identity theory to defend the biological plausibility of Kant’s psychologism, rather than functionalism or some form of emergentism. Polák and Marvan (2018), for example, defend the view preferred by Waxman that neural correlates are not in a causal relation to conscious states but an identity relation—a position which philosophers of mind might like to see defended more explicitly in connection with Kant’s views. Also, they may ask whether there is a specifically Kantian motivation for understanding the “mystery of consciousness” as Waxman does, that is, “a purely physical existence that is at the same time irreducible to physical reality” (14). Waxman clearly wants a naturalistic position to complement his psychologistic interpretation, but he also does not want to impose too much recent theory on the historical theories. Given this concern, psychophysical parallelism—an early form of identity theory espoused in different (including Neo-Kantian) versions by German philosophers from Fechner to Feigl via Riehl and Schlick—could illuminate Kantian psychologism from this side of Darwin and experimental psychology (see Heidelberger 2004, Ch. 5). Of course, it would be possible for most Kant scholars to profess neutrality with respect to these debates, but Waxman has—to his credit—set different standards.

Waxman’s decision to adhere to Kant’s original terminology and to steer clear of issues of translation in one sense makes the book smoother. The book conveniently contains a glossary, and tailor-made terms such as ‘AUA [analytic unity of apperception] concepts’, and ‘dark consciousness’ helpfully remind us that a term is not being used in its familiar sense. Waxman’s capacious use of ‘consciousness’ clearly works in his favour insofar as Modern and Kantian philosophy become much more relatable simply by lowering the threshold (as we understand it) on what sensory and cognitive states count as conscious. Yet it would have helped for Waxman to illustrate the general features of (what Descartes, Locke and Kant viewed as) ‘dark consciousness’ in more descriptive neural or psychophysical terms—not simply because readers may have difficulty forgetting the current meanings of such terms and the controversies attached to them, but because it would improve the book’s case for making psychologism compatible with contemporary biology.

One of the book’s most interesting features is its rapprochement between Kant and Darwin. Frequent references to phylogeny and the evolutionary plausibility of psychologism (as contrasted with platonism and conventionalism) evidence Waxman’s eagerness to integrate Kant’s insights into a post-Darwinian landscape, which I take to be a very important, relatively neglected project:

[N]ot only is Kant’s psychologism consistent with evolution, it actually spotlights suitably primitive forms of empirical consciousness that would gain adaptational advantages from a priori consciousness. Most basically, formal intuitions can easily be conceived to be of use to minds grappling with the challenge of combining external sensations into a single, unified external sense capable of providing immediate access to sense-divide transcending objects. (306)

This illumination does not go both ways, however, since Waxman also says that transcendental consciousness is entirely outside the scope of scientific explanation (295)—“because the subjectivity constituted by apperception … becomes part of the explanation of the physical, it cannot itself be explained physically on pain of circularity” (23). This claim recalls circularity charges against naturalized epistemology and logic, which in my view can be convincingly refuted by pragmatic and holistic considerations. It also blatantly contradicts the book’s initial claim that “[t]he mental is causally and in every other way fully determined by its physical underpinnings, and so is in principle fully explicable by science” (21). This is surprising, after seeing Waxman go to great lengths to argue that although a priori, the most innovative aspects of Kantian philosophy are features of our natural constitution, different in complexity but not radically different in kind from the sensory sensitivity of an oyster. Placing a priori elements of Kantian psychologism beyond the reach of current and future biological explanation strikes me as a missed opportunity, and again makes me doubt what is meant by psychologism. Empirical research in animals can indicate how consciousness might have arisen, and in a footnote Waxman considers but then discards a few such accounts based on their comparatively restrictive definition of consciousness (63n). The reader may suspect that casting the net more widely would reveal theories more congenial to Waxman’s evolutionary take on subjectivity, such as Godfrey-Smith (2016).

The following passage is a good example of Waxman’s ambivalence towards his own naturalistic outlook:

The connection between the subjective psychological reality of consciousness and the objective physical reality of neurophysiology is a complete mystery in both directions, today and quite possibly for some time to come. Thus, Kantian logical forms of judgment pose no special mystery but instead are best regarded as simply an additional species of phylogeny-dependent neuro-psychological reality in addition to sensations, emotions, dreams, and the rest. (178)

Because Waxman has not restricted himself to purely exegetical argument, or the Kitcherian ‘proto-cognitivist’ angle described earlier, the reader may wonder how literally such claims are to be taken. One cannot but agree that (something similar to) Kantian a priori capacities such as the logical forms of judgment must have evolved somehow, just as there must be some neural correlates for the empiricists’ associative psychologies, as indicated in Part I. But the empirically-minded reader will want to know in more detail how forms of judgment (or their successors in contemporary science of mind) could be modelled and studied, if they are on a par with sensations and emotions.

A Guide to Kant’s Psychologism is bound to appeal to diverse philosophical audiences for its fresh take on Kant’s theoretical philosophy as a priori psychologism. It is also a lively, articulate instance of philosophical storytelling. Waxman avoids approaching Kant through the lens of contemporary philosophical problems where semantics, epistemology and metaphysics are concerned. When it comes to the sciences, however, the book makes us acutely aware of pieces of the puzzle of the mind in nature that Kant simply cannot have anticipated. Kant’s understanding of his current science needs to be confronted with today’s sciences in order to address all of the questions raised by an interpretation of Kantian philosophy as naturalistic a priori psychologism. Over the course of Waxman’s book, frequent references to neural correlates and phylogeny habituate the reader to seeing our biological reality in the same conceptual space as Kantian doctrines, which is surely a step in the right direction. As is perhaps Waxman’s intention, it is left to the reader to ponder the convergences and divergences between Kant’s account of the mind and current scientific knowledge, perhaps especially the life sciences. The book offers its non-Kantian readers a challenging, raw encounter with Kant’s theoretical philosophy, and will leave Kant scholars much to think about both on the old problem of psychologism and new ones arising from Waxman’s brand of naturalism.

References: 

Brook, Andrew. 1994. Kant and the Mind. Cambridge, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Cassam, Quassim. 1997. Self and World. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Evans, Gareth. 1982. The Varieties of Reference. Edited by John McDowell. Oxford: Clarendon Press and New York: Oxford University Press.

Falkenstein, Lorne and Easton, Patricia, eds. 1997. Logic and the Workings of the Mind: The Logic of Ideas and Faculty Psychology in Early Modern Philosophy. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview.

Godfrey-Smith, Peter. 2016. “Mind, Matter and Metabolism.” Journal of Philosophy 113 (10):481-506.

Heidelberger, Michael. 2004. Nature from Within: Gustav Theodor Fechner and his Psychophysical Worldview. Translated by Cynthia Klohr. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 1998 [1781/1787]. Critique of Pure Reason. Edited and translated by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kitcher, Patricia. 1990. Kant’s Transcendental Psychology. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Longuenesse, Béatrice. 1998. Kant and the Capacity to Judge: Sensibility and Discursivity in the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Charles T. Wolfe. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

McDowell, John. 1994. Mind and World. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Polák, Michal and Marvan, Tomáž. 2018. “Neural Correlates of Consciousness Meet the Theory of Identity.” Frontiers in Psychology 24:1269. DOI https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01269.

Sellars, Wilfrid. 1967. “Some Remarks on Kant’s Theory of Experience.” The Journal of Philosophy 64 (20), Sixty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division (Oct. 26, 1967): 633-47.

Strawson, Peter F. 1966. The Bounds of Sense. London: Methuen.

Timo Miettinen: Husserl and the Idea of Europe

Husserl and the Idea of Europe Book Cover Husserl and the Idea of Europe
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Timo Miettinen
Northwestern University Press
2020
Paperback
256

Reviewed by: Tommi Hjelt (University of Turku)

Husserl’s Phenomenology as Philosophy of Universalism?

In academic discussions of the past decades – at any rate in disciplines linked to the so-called continental philosophy – it has become common practice to view universalistic notions with extreme suspicion. After the Second World War, the insight into the oppressive character of western rationality and the realization that “the project of modernity” has not delivered and cannot deliver on its promise of an ideal society have led to a conviction that all cultural formations, even when (or rather, especially when) making claims to universality, are inevitably partial and contingent. Monolithic teleological models of world history that depict the present as a legitimate moment in a process of inevitable gradual advancement towards ideality have lost their credibility. Universalism has come to be associated with illegitimate expansionism and homogenizing tendencies of western culture, motivated not by innocent benevolence but by fear of indeterminacy and striving for dominance. And yet, while western rationality has been criticized for its false pretensions, there has been a deliberate push for more universality, most notably in the form of universal human rights and international political co-operation (ideals, one has to add, that in the light of current global crises have once again shown their precarious nature, but perhaps also their indispensability). And remarkably, the push for more universalism has gathered most of its impetus from the same tragedies of modernity that seemingly delivered the irrefutable evidence against universalism. As we have witnessed in the last decade or so, the internationalist tendencies have found a new adversary in the right-wing nationalist movements that in their turn call for cultural inviolability often deploying the argument that different cultures and value systems are irredeemably incommensurable. This argument is strikingly reminiscent of postmodernist ideas of pluralism, albeit with one major difference: in setting the nation-state as its reference point it implies cultural uniformity where a postmodernist view would already recognize incommensurable diversity. All in all, what one can gather from present political and theoretical debates is that there is a massive disagreement over universalism, which not only concerns the desirability of it but the definition of the concept itself.

These tensions are the underlying motivation of Timo Miettinen’s study Husserl and the Idea of Europe. Miettinen sets out to formulate a novel understanding of universalism, which could respond to the current “general crisis of universalism” (4) without losing sight of the problems related to universalist attitudes. As Miettinen argues, a similar interest can be seen as the driving force of Edmund Husserl´s late transcendental phenomenology. For many, Husserl still represents a rigorous philosopher of science, who aimed at establishing a methodological foundation of all scientificity on an unhistorical transcendental structure of consciousness, and in this sense, his phenomenology is easy to understand as a universalist undertaking. But Miettinen shows that as Husserl delved ever deeper into the constitution problematic, the simple image of a self-sufficient transcendental structure had to make way for a more complex and nuanced account of situatedness of all human experience, which at the same time called for a radical rethinking of the concept of universalism. The necessary situatedness of experience is, in fact, reflected already in the title of Miettinen’s book. If the book is ultimately about universalism, one might ask, why not call it “Husserl and the idea of universalism”? First of all, Husserl regarded Europe as the broad cultural space where a special kind of universalist culture was established and developed – a culture of theoretical thought, to which he felt obliged as its critical reformer. In this sense, for Husserl, the idea of Europe is the idea of universalism. But the point is more subtle than that: by omitting the notion of universalism from its title the book implies that what follows has European culture as its starting point and as its inescapable horizon. In other words, what is promoted from the very first page onward, is an idea of universalism that constantly reflects on its own situatedness. “To acknowledge Europe as our starting point,” as Miettinen notes later in the book, “means that we take responsibility for our tradition, our own preconceptions.” (133–134).

In keeping with the idea of situatedness, the first part of the book deals with the historical context in which Husserl was developing new ideas that came to be associated with his late transcendental phenomenology. Like many intellectuals of the early 20th century, Husserl interpreted the present time in terms of a general crisis. Even though a “crisis-consciousness” was sweeping Europe at that time, there was no common understanding as to what was the exact nature or the root cause of the present crisis and what conclusions should be drawn from it. This indeterminacy was, in fact, part of its success, for it made the notion viable in different political and philosophical settings. Nevertheless, some common features of the crisis discourse can be delineated, as Miettinen demonstrates. First of all, the idea of a general crisis was not used in a descriptive context, but rather it “was now conceived as a performative act. For the philosophers, intellectuals, and political reformists of the early 20th century, crisis not only signified a certain state of exception, but was also fervently used as an imperative to react, as a demand to take exceptional measures” (27). By the same token, the idea of a crisis was not solely seen in a negative light but at times – as was especially the case with the First World War in its early days – greeted with enthusiastic hope. There was also a certain depth of meaning attached to the crisis. For example, the war wasn’t interpreted as an outcome of some current historical or political development but rather as a “sign” or a “symptom” of “something that essentially belonged to the notion of modernity itself, as a latent disease whose origin was to be discovered through historical reflection” (31).

The need for a historical reassessment of modernity’s past already points to the question, which Miettinen singles out as the most crucial for Husserl’s considerations. Some notable intellectuals of the time viewed the ongoing crisis as evidence that fundamental ideas of modernity, which up to that point had laid claims to universality, had shown themselves to be finite and relative. For instance, Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West conceived the development of different world-historical cultures in terms of an ever-repeating lifecycle analogous to that of living organisms and implied that the current crisis was a natural end stage, “the death-struggle” of the western culture: “This struggle was something that all cultures descend into by necessity without the possibility of prevailing through a voluntaristic renewal” (33). In addition, Spengler perceived every culture to have a radically distinct worldview incommensurable with others and encompassing spheres that many would consider as universal, for example, mathematics. While Spengler went to extreme lengths, he was by no means alone in promoting a cultural relativist view. From the early nineteenth century onward a tradition of “historicism,” as it came to be known, had established itself and by the early 20th century it was mainly seen as an idea of radical historical relativism, “that all knowledge is historically determined, and that there is no way to overcome the contingencies of a certain historical period” (38).

According to Miettinen, Husserl had a twofold attitude towards the crisis discourse. In relation to the present-day debates he characterized his own position as that of a “reactionary,”but this did not stop the discourse from having an impact on his thinking. Yet, as Miettinen points out, the impact of popular debates on Husserl’s phenomenology should not be exaggerated either, since the idea of a crisis can be seen at least in two important ways “as a kind of leading clue for Husserl’s whole philosophical project” (45). Already Husserl’s critique of the objectivist attitude in natural sciences can be interpreted this way. For Husserl, the crisis of the western rationalism was linked to the “radical forgetfulness” regarding the experiential origin of its abstractions. In other words, the modern scientific attitude, just like the “natural attitude” of our every-day-life, takes the objective existence of the world for granted without reflecting the activity of meaning constitution, which makes such an “objectivity” possible in the first place. Although this “transcendental naïveté” is already present in the prescientific domain of the natural attitude and hence an unavoidable feature of human experience in general, for Husserl the real reason behind the present crisis was to be found in the triumphant natural scientific attitude of the nineteenth and 20th centuries, which not only forgot but actively attacked the other side of the transcendental relation, the notion of human subjectivity as the domain of self-responsibility and rationality.

On the other hand, however, the possibility of a positive interpretation of crisis was also built into the basic structure of phenomenology: For Husserl, self-responsible theories and cognitions should be ultimately founded on experiential evidence, on the “originary givenness” of the content of consciousness. But if our way of relating to the world nevertheless tends to “habituate” past experience and forget originary givenness, it follows that our judgments need to be constantly led back to the immediate intuitive evidence. If judgments then happen to reveal themselves as unfounded, a crisis ensues: “From the perspective of acquired beliefs, judgments, and values, a crisis signifies a loss of evidence, a situation in which our convictions have lost their intuitive foundation” (49). At this point the underlying argument of the whole book begins to shine through. Husserl saw the crisis as a possibility of cultural renewal, which called for a self-responsible, i.e. self-critical attitude towards values, convictions, and beliefs. The idea of renewal opposes “false objectivity” by reinstating the relation between genuine human agency and objectivity. But most of all it combats the passivity and fatalism inherent in theories of radical cultural relativity and finitude endorsed by the likes of Spengler. Husserl argued that even though cultural limits must always be considered in self-critical assessments of one’s own situation, these limits are not set in stone but redefinable through self-responsible, self-critical human agency.

In summary, the first part of Miettinen’s book gives an account of Husserl that seeks a balance between cultural situatedness (crisis as “crisis-consciousness”) and inherent logical development of phenomenology (crisis as an overarching theme in Husserl’s project in general). The contextualization does offer an interesting perspective on Husserl’s late phenomenology by drawing comparisons between some main features of the crisis discourse and Husserl’s thoughts. But there is still a certain one-sidedness to the narrative. Miettinen follows the general crisis discourse only up to the point where it becomes possible to distinguish Husserl’s reflections on the crisis, which, as we saw, concentrated amongst other things on the issue of “false objectivism.” However, false objectivism was not an exclusively Husserlian idea, but rather one of the most central themes of the intellectual debate of the early 20th century, and, in fact, of the crisis discourse itself. It was, after all, the problem of objective spirit assuming an independent existence from subjective spirit, which constituted for Georg Simmel “the tragedy of culture” (see Simmel 1919). And it was the issue of reification, which Georg Lukács situated at the core of his History and Class-Consciousness. For Lukács, one of the most disadvantageous effects of the capitalist society was the emergence of a contemplative attitude, which takes the surrounding world as an objectivity that has no intrinsic connection with the subject – a very similar strain of passivity that Husserl was opposing. (See e.g. Honneth 2015, 20–29). One is compelled to ask, then, whether a more thorough comparison of Husserl’s ideas with those of his contemporaries could have shed some new light on the historical situatedness of phenomenology itself.

Even though Husserl did not accept the thesis of radical cultural relativism, he had to reevaluate the role of situatedness in the phenomenological problem of constitution. The second part of Miettinen’s study gives a concise overview on topics related to these questions. First, Husserl became exceedingly aware that acts of meaning-constitution have their own historicity, that they are made possible by prior achievements. The domain of “static phenomenology” needed to be complemented with “genetic phenomenology,” which was to concern itself with descriptions of “how certain intentional relations and forms of experience emerge on the basis of others,” or more broadly “what kinds of attitudes, experiences, or ideas make possible the emergence of others” (62). This opened a set of phenomena that Husserl addressed with a whole host of new concepts. Miettinen manages to introduce this terminology remarkably well by giving concise yet intuitive characterizations that make the general point of genetic phenomenology come across. A reader only superficially acquainted with phenomenology might still take exception to the fact that there are hardly any practical examples of these abstract concepts, and when there are, some of them seem unnecessarily complicated. Take, for instance, the illustration of the term “sedimentation,” which, as Miettinen explains, “refers to the stratification of meaning or individual acts that takes place over the course of time” (64). However, he illustrates this by referring to development of motor skills in early childhood: “children often learn to walk by first acquiring the necessary gross motor skills by crawling and standing against objects. These abilities, in their turn, are enabled by a series of kinesthetic and proprioceptic faculties (the sense of balance, muscle memory, etc.)” (64). As much as acquiring new skills on the basis of prior ones has to do with sedimentation, the emphasis on abstract motor skills leads to a set of problems concerning the complicated topics of “embodiment” and “kinesthesia,” which are quite unrelated to the questions that Miettinen is principally addressing.

Nevertheless, Miettinen describes comprehensibly how questions related to genetic phenomenology led Husserl ever deeper into questions of historicity and cultural situatedness. As the phenomenological problematic expanded to encompass the genesis of meaning-constitution, the notion of transcendental subjectivity had to undergo a parallel conceptual broadening. The abstract transcendental ego made way for a more concrete and historical account of the transcendental person: “We do not merely ‘live through’ individual acts, but these acts have the tendency to create lasting tendencies, patterns, and intentions that have constitutive significance” (64–65). In other words, the transcendental person evolves through habituating certain ways of experiencing that, once internalized, work as the taken-for-granted basis for new experiences. But Husserl’s inquiry to the historical prerequisites of meaning constitution did not stop there either. What becomes habitual to a transcendental person, goes beyond the historicity of the person itself, for the genesis is not a solipsistic process but an interpersonal and intergenerational one, where ways of meaning constitution are “passed forward.” Husserl’s umbrella term for problems of this kind was “generativity.” As Miettinen points out, it was the notion of generativity that really opened up a genuine historical dimension in Husserl’s phenomenology, with far-reaching consequences: “Becoming a part of a human community that transcends my finite being means that we are swept into this complex process of tradition precisely in the form of the ‘passing forward’ (Lat. tradere) of sense: we find ourselves in a specific historical situation defined by a nexus of cultural objectivities and practices, and social and political institutions” (68–69).

In this way, generativity points to another turning point in the problem of constitution, the constitution of social world through intersubjectivity. Unlike natural or cultural objects, other subjects are given to me as entities that “carry within themselves a personal world of experience to which I have no direct access” (72). This “alien experience” nevertheless refers to a common world and in doing so “plays a crucial role in my personal world-constitution” (72). That is to say: the meaning of a shared and objective validity is bestowed on my world only in relation to other world-constituting subjects. The lifeworld, which is constituted as the common horizon of intersubjective relations, acquires “its particular sense through an encounter with the other” (75). It is easy to see what Miettinen is driving at: if a lifeworld emerges in intersubjective relations, then it is not only in a constant state of historical change but also, especially in the case of an encounter with an alien tradition, open for active redefinition and renewal. However, this renewal cannot just be a matter of transgressing the boundaries between different traditions, as Miettinen makes clear by pointing to the constitutive value of the division between “homeworld” (i.e. the domain of familiarity or shared culture), and “alienworld” (the unintelligible and unfamiliar “outside”). According to Husserl this division belongs to the fundamental structure of every lifeworld, and in a sense, the homeworld acquires its individual uniqueness, its intelligibility and familiarity only in relation to its alien counterpart. It follows, that if the distinction between the home and the alien were to be destroyed through one-sided transgression, the experience of an intersubjectively constituted, shared cultural horizon of meaning would vanish with it, or, as Miettinen sums it up: “In a world without traditions, we would be simply homeless” (78).

This poses a question: if a tradition by necessity has its horizon, i.e. its limits, which cannot be simply transgressed without losing the sense of home altogether, how is universalism thinkable? The third part of Miettinen’s study suggests that Husserl’s generative interpretation of the origins of European theoretical tradition provides the answer to this question. Miettinen gives a manifold and nuanced account of the historical origins of Greek philosophy and of Husserl’s interpretations thereof. Obviously, this account cannot be repeated here in its entirety; an overview of such defining features that point directly to the underlying problematic of universalism will have to suffice.

In this regard the key argument of Husserl, which Miettinen accordingly emphasizes, is that philosophy itself is a generative phenomenon. What makes this idea so striking, is the fact that for Husserl philosophy denoted a “scientific-theoretical attitude,” which takes distance from immediate practical interests, views the world from a perspective of a “disinterested spectator,” and in so doing seeks to disclose the universal world behind all particular homeworlds. However, according to Husserl, even such a theoretical attitude emerged in a specific cultural situation, namely in the Greek city-states, which, as Miettinen points out, were at that time in a state of rapid economic development that called for closer commercial ties between different cultures: “Close interaction between different city-states created a new sensitivity toward different traditions and their beliefs and practices” (95). The encounters did not lead to a loss of the home-alien-division but to a heightened sense of relativity of traditions, which in turn promoted a theoretical interest in universality and a self-reflective attitude towards the horizon of one’s own homeworld: “Through the encounter of particular traditions, no single tradition could acquire for itself the status of being an absolute foundation – the lifeworld could no longer be identified with a particular homeworld and its conceptuality” (97).

Another important generative aspect of this development was the emerging new ideals of social interaction. The Greek philosophy gave birth to an idea of “universal community,” which, at least in principle, disregarded ethnic, cultural, and political divisions and was open to all of those who were willing to partake in free philosophical critique of particular traditions and striving toward a universal and shared world. Moreover, the emerging theoretical thought organized itself as a tradition of sorts, as an intergenerational undertaking that was aware of its generativity. Miettinen avoids calling this new form of culture “tradition,” for it “did not simply replace the traditionality of the pre-philosophical world by instituting a new tradition; rather, it replaced the very idea of traditionality with teleological directedness, or with a new ‘teleological sense’ (Zwecksinn) which remains fundamentally identical despite historical variation.” (111) This unifying idea of an infinite task meant that what was ultimately passed forward from generation to generation, was not some predetermined custom, ritual or even a doctrine but a common intergenerational commitment to the task itself. In other words, the theories of earlier philosophers were in principle open for criticism and had to be assessed always anew in relation to the shared goal of universality. Philosophy was generative also in the sense that it didn’t cast the world of practical interests aside, but rather called for a new kind of rational attitude towards it. Philosophy understood its own domain of interest in terms of universal ideals and norms, which were ultimately to be made use of in the practical sphere of life as well. As philosophical ideals came into contact with practical life, for example with political or religious practice, they changed the surrounding culture itself. As Miettinen puts it, “politics and religion themselves became philosophical: they acquired a new sense in accordance with the infinite task of philosophy” (114).

As stated, Miettinen offers a detailed discussion of Husserl’s views on the origins of European universalism, which, among other things, acknowledges that Husserl’s interpretations of classical Greek philosophy and culture are heavily influenced by his own philosophical ideals. Miettinen’s portrayal does suffer a bit from the multiperspectivity implicit in the subject matter itself. It is not always clear, which parts are meant as presentations of genuine Greek philosophy, which as Husserl’s idealistic interpretations, and which as Miettinen’s own contributions. But the main idea is still quite clear: Husserl interpreted European history from classical Greek culture all the way to his own time in terms of an infinite task that consists first and foremost in critically reflecting and relativizing traditional horizons of meaning constitution. The intergenerational collectivity unified by this task subjects its own accomplishments to the same criticism and strives through infinite renewal towards a universal world behind all traditional homeworlds, towards the “horizon of horizons” (75), as Miettinen calls it with reference to Merleau-Ponty. As the formulation “horizon of horizons” implies, the point of this universalism is not to destroy or occupy but to make the universal lifeworld visible, of which particular traditions, particular homeworlds are perspectives. This is the understanding of universality that Miettinen wants to bring to the contemporary theoretical and political discussions.

But if Husserl conceived the whole of European history within the framework of one massive idealistic undertaking, it seems that Husserl’s understanding of history and historicity amounts to nothing more than a new version of the age-old teleological model, which interprets – and simultaneously legitimizes – historical events as part of a monolithic and predetermined process. In other words, maybe Husserl’s generative interpretation is just another “grand narrative.” In part 4 of his study, Miettinen offers a twofold argument against this assumption. First, Husserl did not understand his teleological model as one that ought to correspond with empirical reality, but rather as Dichtung, as “a poetic act of creation” (145), which has its relevance only in relation to the present situation. Second, Miettinen argues in reference to Marx and Engels that narratives are necessary in criticism of ideologies, for “[i]t is the common feature of dominating ideologies that they seek to do away with their own genesis, for instance by concealing the historical forms of violence and oppression that led to the present. For this reason, historical narratives are needed in order to criticize the seeming naturality of the present moment – in order to show its dependency and relativity in regard to the past” (139). This idea is perfectly in tune with the Husserlian problem of constitution in general and it reinforces the critique of “false objectivism” and the call for self-responsible human agency at the core of Husserl’s late phenomenology. In other words, his notion of teleology should be understood as a critical tool for understanding the finitude of the present and the possibility of going beyond it, or as Miettinen succinctly puts it: “Teleological reflection is crucial, because we are ‘not yet’ at the end of history, or, more precisely: because we constantly think we are” (144).

While this argument is compelling, it still seems to neglect one important aspect in the complicated relationship between ideology and narrative. Not all ideologies are aimed at legitimizing the present as a natural order; on the contrary, some rely on a narrative structure that depicts the current state of affairs as a fall from grace and shows the way out by defining clear-cut ideals to realize. Instead of serving the purpose of legitimizing the present and making subjects passively accept the alleged naturality of it, ideologies of this kind, as Peter V. Zima (1999, 14–21) points out, serve to mobilize people for certain goals, to make them able to act. And precisely ideologies of this kind came under suspicion in the interwar period. As one can read from Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, the ambivalence of all “grand ideas” undermines the credibility of ideologies, narrative structures, and goal-oriented agency all at once (see Ibid., 55–69). This connectedness of narrative form and ideology shouldn’t be taken too lightly in the present political climate either: the most pressing ideological challenges of Europe aren’t, as they perhaps once were, concerned with the loss of ideals in politics or in individual life, arguably facilitated by neoliberalist and postmodernist ideologies, but rather with its dialectical counterpart: the threat of ideological mobilization. The critical potentiality of Husserl’s notion of teleology doesn’t quite seem to allay the suspicions concerned with ideologies of this kind, or if it does, Miettinen doesn’t make clear how.

What obviously makes Miettinen’s study stand apart, is its unique position at the crossroads of traditional Husserl scholarship, history of ideas, and contemporary political philosophy. It not only shows how Husserl’s ideas about historicity, situatedness, and teleology emerged out of the interplay of his phenomenological endeavor and the cultural context saturated with crisis-consciousness; it also seeks to bring these ideas to fruition in the contemporary political and philosophical setting. This kind of hermeneutical approach to Husserl’s philosophy is of course to be whole-heartedly endorsed, but on the other hand, the “in between” -character of the undertaking does also raise some issues: If Miettinen wants to promote a new kind of universalism, which aims at addressing contemporary questions in a novel way, then a more thorough discussion on newer developments in philosophical and political thought might be in order. In keeping with the idea of situatedness, it would be interesting to see Miettinen seriously engaging with contemporary theories, starting perhaps with a more systematic treatment of postmodernist notions of pluralism and going all the way to ideas attributed to the so-called post-humanism, which seems to once again challenge “alien-home”-distinctions in a profound way. In order to highlight the distinct character of his ideas on relativization of horizons, communality, and normativity, he might do well to also define his relation to some contemporary “kindred spirits” (for example, Habermas comes to mind). All in all, one can look forward to Miettinen developing his theory of universalism further, and as he does, he will undoubtedly address these minor issues, too.

References:

Honneth, Axel. 2015. Verdinglichung. Eine Anerkennungstheoretische Studie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Simmel, Georg. 1919. “Der Begriff und die Tragödie der Kultur.” In: Philosophische Kultur. Gesammelte Essais. Leipzig: Alfred Kröner, 223–253.

Zima, Peter V. 1999. Roman und Ideologie. Zur Sozialgeschichte des modernen Romans. München: Wilhelm Fink.

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