The Crisis might be Husserl’s most widely read work, and within the Crisis, §9 on Galileo’s invention of modern science has captivated generations of readers. It raises a host of questions:
What does it mean that mathematized science offers only a method, not the true being of nature? How can science both be founded and contained in the pre-scientific lifeworld? How does Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology offer an alternative to Galileo’s conception of nature?
This critique of Galilean science comes from a mathematician-turned-philosopher, who staunchly defended the possibility of objective knowledge in the Prolegomena and sought to turn philosophy into a rigorous science. Husserl’s last work is as puzzling as fascinating, and it is easy to see why it remains one of the most popular entry points into Husserlian phenomenology and interpreters keep coming back to it.
Emiliano Trizio’s new monograph Philosophy’s Nature is a case in point, culminating in an extensive commentary on §9, where different threads of the book find together. The discussion of Galileo is embedded in, as the book’s subtitle announces, Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, natural science, and metaphysics. Trizio establishes this context not only by drawing on Husserl’s earliest writings from 1890s, but also the 19th century ignorabimus debate about the limits of scientific knowledge. Husserl is cast as offering an alternative to Mach’s phenomenalism and Helmholtz’ critical realism, which is a refreshing alternative to framing Husserl’s account in terms of the later scientific realism debate. When addressing classical questions about the relationship of lifeworld and natural science, Trizio emphasizes the role of teleology, and offers a carefully argued extrapolation from the Crisis fragment.
After presenting the book, I raise some questions: about mathematization and the sensible plena, Trizio’s distinction between causal and categorial inference in science, implications for empirical psychology, the aprioristic account of phenomenology, and the metaphysical status of correlationism.
2.1 The 19th Century Background
The first chapter sketches a background debate. Rather than beginning from contemporary standard debates about scientific realism, Trizio reaches back to the 19th century, when debates about the limits of physical knowledge were already in full swing. The mechanistic world picture led to the well-known thought experiment of the Laplacian demon. The original question was whether astronomers’ successful predictions could be expanded to the entire world, given enough knowledge and intellectual resources. DuBois-Reymond turned this into an argument about the limits of scientific knowledge: If the intrinsic nature of physical objects, or the origin of conscious experience from physiology were forever hidden from the Laplacian demon, must also remain hidden from human scientists. Thus, there must be an ignorabimus, a domain that “we will never know”.
Mach argues that DuBois-Reymond relies on metaphysical assumptions of the mechanistic world picture. That picture came under more and more pressure from electromagnetism and thermodynamics (before quantum mechanics and relativity theory upended classical physics altogether). Mach’s phenomenalism is an anti-metaphysical programme that requires a reinterpretation of what physical theories are about–rejecting things beyond their presentations in experience.
The critical realists need no such “dissolution” of the object of physics into series of experiences. Trizio focuses on Helmholtz and Planck, who take the thing of perception to be a “sign” that is distinct from, but lawfully related to the real, physical thing. This view is realist about the existence of the external world and our possibility of knowing about it. But it is critical rather than naïve for separating the thing of perception from the thing of physics.
This is the background for discussing how Husserl relates the external world, the world of physics, and world of sensory perception. But we have already seen that an important difference in the critical realist and phenomenalist responses to the ignorabimus is their different tolerance for metaphysics. The next chapter therefore discusses the disputed relation between metaphysics and epistemology in Husserl’s work.
2.2 Epistemology and Metaphysics
The role of metaphysics in phenomenology has long been disputed. Especially Husserl’s late work seems to discuss overtly metaphysical questions, such as whether the world could exist without an actual consciousness. But especially in the Logical Investigations, Husserl declares the metaphysical neutrality of his considerations. The reduction is also described as a way to shed the metaphysical prejudice of the natural attitude.
An easy way out would be to say that Husserl’s commitments change, but Trizio resists the narrative of separate periods and “turns” (this alone is an impressive achievement). He begins with a text about the nature of space from the 1890s where Husserl distinguishes between the Theory of Knowledge—asking „how is knowledge of the objective world is possible?“—and metaphysics—asking what the actual world is ultimately like. Depending on how we understand the possibility of knowledge, we end up with a different metaphysical picture of the world, e.g. a phenomenalist, rather than a critical realist account.
Trizio presents Husserl’s later metaphysics as a consistent expansion from this idea. The metaphysical commitments are a consequence of the adopted theory of knowledge. He grants that there is a shift of emphasis from the question “how knowledge is possible” to the question of the “sense of being” which is clarified in transcendental phenomenology. But while seeking the “sense of being” sounds like a metaphysical task, it can also be understood as: “what must be the sense of being, for knowledge of it to be possible?”, so the primacy of epistemology can be maintained (cf. 59f.).
With this clarified relationship between epistemology and metaphysics, we can now reconsider natural science. The natural sciences operate with the well-known presupposition of the natural attitude. The metaphysical clarification from phenomenology addresses not immediately whether particular theoretical terms like “electron” refer to unobservable objects, but investigates the sense of “natural world” that the empirical sciences presuppose. Via the phenomenological clarification, the natural sciences become a metaphysics of nature. Transcendental phenomenology provides the “a priori framework underlying all possible factual realities” (86), which provides the “ontological closure of the sciences”. This closure amounts to the rejection of any ignorabimus, or hyperphysical reality, that would lie beyond these sciences. Slightly later, Trizio summarizes this metaphysical picture as “the world is a unit of sense constituted in transcendental intersubjectivity and nothing beyond that”. (107) Once the ontological closure of the empirical sciences has been achieved, the room for metaphysics is exhausted.
2.3 Transcendental Phenomenology
What separates the empirical sciences from ultimate metaphysics is “a clarification of the sense of their fundamental assumptions, […] most important among them, the positing of the world.” (99) Chapter three therefore turns to the phänomenologische Fundamentalbetrachtung (consideration fundamental to phenomenology, §§27-62) of the Ideas I. Husserl here argues that consciousness is an absolute region of being, independent of the posit of the world.
The book remains focused on the relation between perception and the thing of physics. According to the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, only the primary qualities carry over from perceptual appearance to the thing of physics, whereas secondary qualities originate in the subject. But Husserl distinguishes between the intuitive space of perception and the ideal space of geometry. A drawn triangle exists in an intuitive space, but it only serves as a sign for an ideal triangle in the space of geometry. What mathematized science discloses are such idealized properties; therefore, they are not a subset of the perceivable properties. Applied to the relation between perceptual and physical thing, this means that even the intuition of spatial properties does not remain without a contribution from the subject (103f.). Neither Husserl nor Trizio put it this bluntly, but it seems like all perceptual qualities turn out to be secondary.
Without overlap between the properties of physics and perception, one might expect a form of critical realism, where the perceptual object is only a sign for the physical thing. But one of the most poignant passages in the Ideas I reads: “The physical thing which [the scientist] observes, with which he experiments, which [he puts] in the melting furnace: that physical thing, and no other, becomes the subject of the predicates ascribed in physics.” (Husserl  1982, §52, 120) Trizio takes this identification of physical and perceptual seriously and argues that it shows a rejection of critical realism; the perceptual thing is rather a “sign for itself” (114). The key is Husserl’s notion of the “empty X” as the bearer of all objective properties, whether they are disclosed in perception or in empirical science. The critical realist distinguishes an object X that bears the perceptual properties, and an object Y, which is determined by scientific theory. Husserl however argues that such a “hidden” cause leads to a regress. If we can know an object Y only inferentially, then a more competent observer could know Y on the basis of perception–but then for this observer, the appearances of Y would indicate an object Z, and so forth. (cf. 112)
This argument relies on the essential perceivability of all physical things which has led to an association between Husserl and anti-realist philosophers of science. A main feature of Trizio’s book is that it here steers a more realist line, according to which also scientific theories about unobservable entities can achieve a true, metaphysical insight into nature. The key is Trizio’s distinction between the causal inference that leads to the posit of observable things—say, a planet—and the inferences that lead to explanations in unobservable terms, like atoms (111). To treat the latter as causal inference to an unobservable world creates the “causal depth” of the critical realist picture, and the mentioned regress. The theoretical inferences of microphysics instead provide a categorial determination of the world of perception. The sense in which nature transcends our subjective experience has already been established at the level of perception, and scientific theories do not force us “to accept a different account of the ‘externality’ of the world” (115).
Once more emphasizing continuity through Husserl’s work, Trizio here relies on an account of categorial determination from the Sixh Logical Investigation. Pre-scientific judgements already contain meanings that do not allow for fulfilment in sensory intuition. “Just as the ‘and’, the ‘or’, and the ‘is’ cannot be painted, the physico-mathematical concepts cannot be ‘turned’ or ‘translated’ into sensuous determinations of whatever kind.” (122) Instead, the sense in which a microphysical theory is true has to be understood according to the truth of categorial determinations. These have nothing to do with our perceptual capacities and neither has the goal of scientific theory. “Accordingly, God’s physics would amount to the same true, complete mathematical physics that we human subjects strive to achieve, the one that describes matter as it is in itself, in its real, intrinsic nature, by means of categorial unities of thought”. This account of microphysical being is exegetically convincing, interesting, and sets Trizio’s account apart from other interpreters—I will comment on it below.
The rest of the chapter develops more critical responses to recent secondary literature, especially Harvey, Wiltsche and Hardy. Whereas the first two err on the side of instrumentalism, Hardy’s proposal aims to make transcendental idealism and metaphysical realism compatible, which for Trizio is a non-starter. The common error, so Trizio appears to say, is the imposition of “ready-made ‘philosophical problems’ as hermeneutical frameworks to interpret Husserl’s thought.” (138) Doing so “wreak[s] havoc on the internal articulation of a philosophy meant to generate its own task and method” (ibid.). The reader might want to consider for themselves: Can we approach Husserl with a philosophical topic or question, or must we let Husserl define the goal of philosophy? It is hard to see how an interpretation as comprehensive as Trizio’s could be achieved without granting Husserl to define the goals, and the complaint about ready-made philosophical problems is understandable. But one might equally worry that Trizio’s alternative stays confined by a philosophical edifice and its internal questions. Zahavi (2017, 184f.) for example appears less restrictive, and can point out interesting parallels, such as between Husserl’s correlationism and Putnam’s internal realism.
2.4 Ideas II
The fourth chapter focuses on the Ideas II, and the constitutional role of the lived body (Leib), intersubjectivity, and the relation between the natural, naturalistic, and personalistic attitude. Trizio here also refines the previous discussion of space, distinguishing between the subjective sensuous space, the objective perceptual space, and an idealized objective space. “The objective but not yet idealized space is the link between what is given to us in perception and the idealized language of physics” (161) Whereas the sensuous space is oriented around a perceiver’s body, the objective perceptual space has no such orientation. Intuition of objective perceptual space is only possible through founded acts: movements, rotations, and acts of empathy (ibid.). This is not an idealization, rather the objective perceptual space is constituted as “every-body’s space” (ibid.).
The chapter also discusses Rang and Ingarden, and thereby offers more detail about the interpretation of microphysics. While “it is true that concepts such as ‘atoms’ and ‘ions’ do not refer to ‘Dinglichkeiten an sich’, this is not because atoms and ions do not exist, but because they exist qua endpoints of the constitution of material nature in transcendental consciousness.” (170) Such endpoints are categorial determinations of the sensible world that also a divine physics would be compelled to. This is only one of several places where teleology features centrally.
Trizio now briefly returns to the challenge from DuBois-Reymond. That atoms cannot be the objects of experience does not mean that they comprise an ignorabimus: imperceivable atoms are still knowable as the ideal limit of categorially determining the perceivable world. The account of idealizations is what undermines DuBois-Reymond’s connection between the imperceivable and the unknowable (187f.).
Then, within five pages, Trizio discusses challenges from quantum mechanics and relativity theory. The discussion of quantum mechanics relies on a short appendix to the Crisis, one of very few places where Husserl ever talks about non-classical physics. Trizio argues that Husserl’s sees no conflict between quantum mechanics and the scientific goal of an objective description of nature. What quantum mechanics reveals is rather that some objects can only be studied as ensembles, not individually. This means that some idealizations stay tied to typical environments, and therefore particular scales. In turn, the relevant idealizations for our scientific descriptions can be scale-dependent (191f.), and there is no guarantee that we have a reductive basis for the idealizations of higher-level theories (such as physiology and biophysics). This is an interesting discussion, but stays at a very high level of generality.
The challenge from relativity theory is more obviously problematic. It undermines the idea that the “essence of space” could be studied a priori, independently of empirical theory. Trizio admits here that Husserl’s silence on the issue—despite the work of Weyl and Becker—is disappointing. In conclusion, Trizio thinks that relativity theory shows that intuitive and objective space are farther apart than we thought, but that this affects neither the rejection of critical realism nor the identity of perceptual and physical thing. I discuss below how relativity theory might require to rethink the relation between phenomenology and empirical science.
2.5 Life-World and Natural Science
The fifth chapter is by far the longest, running to almost a hundred pages. We now turn to the Crisis of European Sciences, and the discussion of Galileo in §9. Trizio further emphasizes the role of teleology, as in the account of categorial determination and in some earlier work (Trizio 2016). The crisis of the European sciences is explained as an “uncertainty and disorientation with respect to the essence inhabiting such a cultural formation [as empirical science] as its telos” (204) That the natural sciences have suffered a “loss of meaning” is a consequence of their separation from philosophy: as part of philosophy, empirical investigation had a context in which it was meaningful for life (206).
The chapter is comprehensive because part of its ambition is to discuss parts of the Crisis that remained a sketch: how spirit relates to nature, and the relationship between the objective spirit investigated in the human sciences, and the absolute spirit described in phenomenology (214f.) Trizio distinguishes three scientific endeavours: the natural sciences (naturalistic attitude), the positive sciences of objective spirit (personalistic attitude), and the phenomenological science of absolute spirit (transcendental attitude, 215). Natural and spiritual world have their own principles of unity, causal relations in the former, motivational relations in the latter case. (210) Natural and spiritual world are different aspects of the lifeworld, but since the entire lifeworld has been replaced by mathematized nature, the world of spirit has been forgotten (247, 250). This misinterpretation is spelled out in the central §9, which is honoured with 36 pages of reconstruction and discussion. For anyone interested in Husserl’s account of Galileo, this commentary alone is a good reason to consult this book.
After recovering the world of spirit, Trizio finds a priority of human sciences over natural sciences: “the naturalistic attitude is subordinate to the personalistic attitude because it is the personal Ego that performs the operations necessary to render nature thematic as the sphere of mere natural objectivities” (258). This relation between these theoretical endeavours also leads to an ontological relation between their domains. “If nature is an abstract stratum of the life-world, it cannot be ontologically prior to it. It is an abstract layer of what for us has meaning in terms of our aims, among which its scientific explication also finds a place.” (260f.) It seems easy to vacillate here between nature as a “Zweckgebilde” of natural science, and nature as the domain of empty Xs that bear perceptual and scientific determinations: a domain that is factually indeterminate, but already determinable (this seems to require at least that the “Zweckgebilde” of natural science does not change with scientific theories or political environments).
Trizio then addresses the classic question how a scientifically true world could both be grounded on and encompassed by the lifeworld. The offered solution again relies on teleology: “the mode of being of scientific nature is that of an end of a specific human praxis” (270). The lifeworld itself however is independent of any specific aims (268); it is in this sense prior to any scientifically disclosed worlds, because the motivation to begin a scientific endeavour begins from the lifeworld. However, the lifeworld has no “outside”: whatever turns out to exist has to exist as part of the very same world that we were already determining by the means of perception.
Trizio here disagrees with interpreters who distinguish the transcendental reduction from a preliminary “reduction to the lifeworld” which brackets scientific theory and practice but leaves the natural attitude intact (e.g. Bitbol 2020). What makes the lifeworld pre-scientific in Trizio’s account is not the absence of scientific culture, but the lack of a telos. Whereas the objective determination of nature is the telos that for the scientific world, the lifeworld has no such practical goal. But even though this allows to distinguish different worlds, the world of science still is an objectivation of the lifeworld, not an independently constructed scientific image. When we are bracketing scientific culture, this focuses our attention on a pure layer of the lifeworld, rather than revealing the lifeworld in its entirety (269).
En passant, Trizio again discusses competing anti-realist interpretations, leading to a clearer picture of his own account. Antirealism here is glossed as the claim that science can only arrive at correct prediction of appearances, but not at knowledge about true nature as it is in itself. If Husserl were an antirealist about scientific knowledge, no account of nature would be compatible with transcendental phenomenology. a) Husserl cannot be claim that the objective world does not exist (only that it is not a mathematical manifold) b) nature cannot be in principle unknowable, because that is incompatible with the principle of correlation, c) natural science is also not to be replaced by a new science of nature, d) agnosticism is like skepticism a “deadly enem[y] of philosophy”. (256f.) Since Husserl is not a metaphysical realist, this rejection of anti-realism is not a commitment to scientific realism in the standard contemporary sense. The condensed discussion again reveals importance of the principle of correlation: unknowable aspects of nature are excluded from the start.
In the last paragraphs, entitled “Nature as the correlate of Absolute Spirit”, Trizio edges towards some further metaphysical conclusions. The premise is that nature can only be constituted as an abstract core of the life-world, which is personal in character. (275) Therefore, nature can only appear through intentional acts that are abstract components of the concrete unity of constituting life. It is not possible to think of a constitution of nature that was not embedded in a constituting life, and such constituting life must know a personal attitude. Unfortunately, Trizio does not make explicit whether this means that he concurs with Husserl’s proof of idealism: that a world which never develops constituting forms of life is metaphysically impossible. (Husserl 2003)
It is clear that this is a work of serious scholarship. Trizio draws on an impressive range of sources, from before the Logical Investigations to the Crisis. Well known parts of Husserl’s work are central, such as the consideration fundamental to phenomenology, or §9 of the Crisis. But also the Ideas II and the less known 1917 treatise Phenomenology and Theory of Knowledge (Husserl et al. 1987, 125–205) are central points of reference. Framing Husserl in the ignorabimus debate is well done and sets up an interesting angle for the discussion.
The production quality of the digital edition is good. References and endnotes are listed per chapter, endnotes are conveniently two-way linked to the main text. There are a number of avoidable editorial oversights and Typos, especially in German quotations (e.g. 76, 258) and names (e.g. 122, 148), but the overall typesetting is pleasant. With these descriptive points out of the way, I can now turn to the content.
3.1 The Mathematization of Plena
One of Husserl’s main claims in §9 of the Crisis is that the “sensible plena” (sinnliche Füllen) cannot be directly mathematized, unlike the shapes of objects. Hence, Galileo has to make the hypothesis that all determinations of the plena will be implied by a completed account of the shapes—the plena will be indirectly mathematized. When Trizio reconstructs why the plena do not allow for mathematization, he connects this with the impossibility of finding a compositional basis to construct the plena. “There can be no analogue of the ruler in the case of a color, or of a warmth-property, no smaller standard that, via a certain method of composition, could “build” the original quality out of smaller parts, not even approximately, ‘with a rest’.” (232)
There is, however, no discussion of established practices for precise communication of colours. When colours are communicated as RGB or CMYK codes, they are specified exactly in terms of the combination of red, green and blue light (or the densities of standardized inks). Why does this not count as the construction of a colour-space from basic elements? It seems to me that the difference between shapes and plena is not so much in compositionality, but in the convergence to an ideal limit. Shapes can be put in line to approach a flat surface or a straight line or a sphere. This ideal reference point is never reached. A series of colour patches, however, does not approach an unintuitable “ideal red”: an orange patch can be more or less close to a red patch, but the limit remains intuitable. Colour similarity only compares to an intuitable limit that retains some indeterminacy. This is not the kind of convergence that we have in the case of geometry, where intuitive shapes can approach a precise, unintuitable ideal.
3.2 Causal inference and inference to categorial determinations
Trizio’s realism about scientific knowledge depends crucially on the distinction between two kinds of scientific inference. To reiterate, scientists sometimes make “causal” inferences, such as “there is a planet Neptune” which introduce new, in-principle observable entities. In the case of microphysics, however, their inference is a categorial determination of nature, and does not introduce new entities. I am not sure what the principled grounds are to declare scientific inferences to be one kind or another. It seems clear that we can sometimes infer that there are things we cannot perceive ourselves, for example after losing a sensory modality, or observing reactions of animals. Now, when we explain a disease through a virus, is this a causal inference, or a categorial determination? It is implausible that the limit of causal inference coincides with a contingent limit of human perception, and I would therefore expect that viruses would still be something where we can make causal inferences. But where does it stop? Trizio would presumably have to give an answer in terms of essential imperceivability—but it would be good to know what it is exactly.
3.3 Foundations of Psychology
It remains somewhat unclear whether Trizio advocates a revisionist programme for empirical sciences. He is explicit that he has no such intention for physics, but what about psychology? Is a main cost of forgetting the lifeworld a psychology that dehumanizes its subjects, because it starts from the naturalistic attitude? I take this to be Husserl’s ambition, but of course in view of the psychology of his time. If Trizio here departs from Husserl, this is not made explicit.
3.4 A priori knowledge of space and general relativity
Much of the book appears to work towards marrying two claims:
- Transcendental Phenomenology is the founding, universal science that is before all empirical science.
- Empirical sciences are capable of generating metaphysical knowledge.
What Trizio promises is nothing less than a First Philosophy that can do without instrumentalism about the empirical sciences. As Trizio admits, this comes to limits with the theory of relativity, where Husserl’s silence “is embarrassing” (193). Already in special relativity, temporal and spatial distances lose their independence. The death of two stars might appear simultaneous when observed from the earth, but their temporal order changes with the location of the observer. This is not just another fact that tells us more about which of the a priori possible worlds we inhabit, but it redefines the interaction between phenomenology and empirical theory. Throughout the book, Trizio gives phenomenology an authority over the commitments of empirical sciences: phenomenologists can point out when scientists “naïvely” rely on assumptions of the natural attitude. But in the case of relativity theory, physicists could retort that the phenomenologist is not so independent from theory after all. The assumption that space and time are independent might be one such assumption. It looks like a theory of physics can serve as a valid criticism of a distinction of transcendental phenomenology. But on what grounds could transcendental phenomenology then still be considered to be “before” empirical science?
Trizio points in a similar direction when he concedes that “the only way out is to use the theory of relativity as an indication that the phenomenological account of idealization must be revised” (193). But conceding such limits to first philosophy should also affect the relation to contemporary philosophy of science. Trizio is certainly right when he argues that Husserl’s account cannot simply be “placed” within an existing body of literature about scientific realism, because this debate takes the dominance of logical empiricism as its starting point.
Given Trizio’s emphasis on historical contextualization, one might have expected more optimism about this historical situation. The nascent logical empiricism and Husserlian phenomenology touched in the 1920s, when Carnap studied with Husserl, and Felix Kaufmann was part of both movements. By contrast, Husserl never actually writes about an ignorabimus. The historical arc to philosophy of science seems neither more ambitious nor less promising than the 19th century context which Trizio sets up. It would be too much to attempt both in the same book, and the 19th century context is a welcome addition, but why should an explication of Husserl’s account not be commensurable to debates in the philosophy of science?
One might of course worry that philosophers of science are too busy discussing the content of particular scientific theories, rather than less easily formalizable questions about the structure of thing-consciousness. But what is gained from playing out those philosophers who want to attend to the perceptual phenomena against those who emphasize scientific theory? Trizio’s take here is more negative than most recent literature in the general area (see especially Hardy 2013; Zahavi 2017; and essays in Wiltsche and Berghofer 2020) and from those who work closely with cognitive scientists. All these authors seem more open to two-way interaction between empirical theory and phenomenological clarification, or at least between phenomenology and philosophy of science.
A final point concerns the explication of metaphysical commitments. While the book contains much discussion of what metaphysics means for Husserl, and in what sense phenomenology is not deciding but undermining the metaphysical debates, it is not always clear what Trizio endorses. I already mentioned the question whether a world without a factually constituting consciousness is possible.
Husserl’s correlationism on the other hand is a commitment on which Trizio relies much more openly. The rejection of Husserl’s correlationism by speculative realists is now well known. (Meillassoux  2008) But also metaphysics in the tradition of analytic philosophy raises difficult questions. Husserl’s correlationism commits him to the knowability of all true propositions. But such a knowability is surprisingly difficult to spell out, as the debates around the Church-Fitch paradox and metaphysical anti-realism show. (Fitch 1963; Salerno 2009; Kinkaid 2020) Philosophy’s Nature focuses more on defending the account presented as the correct interpretation of Husserl than it does to raise and address general questions from semantics or metaphysics.
Trizio’s book is nothing short of impressive for the clarity and depth in which it discusses Husserl’s works from the 1890s to the 1936 Crisis and the 19th century context. The rejection of anti-realist readings of Husserl’s philosophy of science is forceful and a very welcome addition to the current debate.
Because of its dismissal of contemporary philosophy of science, however, it can occasionally seem like a book on Husserl for Husserlians. Given the complexity and range of literature discussed, this is not surprising, but there are places where a greater departure from internal questions would have been natural: most clearly, through a more extensive discussion of the lessons from relativistic physics, and by anticipating some questions about the distinction between causal and categorial inference. Husserl’s account is complex and disputed enough to warrant treatment through a book, and Trizio fills an important gap. Those who wish for a connection to contemporary philosophy of science, however, will see room for another.
Bitbol, Michel. 2020. ‘Is the Life-World Reduction Sufficient in Quantum Physics?’ Continental Philosophy Review, October. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11007-020-09515-8.
Fitch, Frederic B. 1963. ‘A Logical Analysis of Some Value Concepts’. The Journal of Symbolic Logic 28 (2): 135–42.
Hardy, Lee. 2013. Nature’s Suit: Husserl’s Phenomenological Philosophy of the Physical Sciences. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.
Husserl, Edmund. (1913) 1982. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy. First Book. General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology. Translated by Fred Kersten. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
———. 2003. Transzendentaler Idealismus: Texte Aus Dem Nachlass (1908-1921). Edited by R. D. Rollinger and Rochus Sowa. Husserliana 36. Dordrecht ; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Husserl, Edmund, Thomas Nenon, Hans Rainer Sepp, and Edmund Husserl. 1987. Aufsätze Und Vorträge: 1911-1921. Husserliana 25. Dordrecht ; Boston: M. Nijhoff.
Kinkaid, James. 2020. ‘Husserl, Ideal Verificationism, and the Knowability Paradox’. presented at the Boston Phenomenology Circle Workshop, Boston, MA, November 21.
Meillassoux, Quentin. (2006) 2008. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Translated by Raymond Brassier. London: Continuum.
Salerno, Joe, ed. 2009. New Essays on the Knowability Paradox. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Trizio, Emiliano. 2016. ‘What Is the Crisis of Western Sciences?’ Husserl Studies 32 (3): 191–211. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10743-016-9194-8.
Wiltsche, Harald A, and Philipp Berghofer, eds. 2020. Phenomenological Approaches to Physics. Cham: Springer.
Zahavi, Dan. 2017. Husserl’s Legacy: Phenomenology, Metaphysics, and Transcendental Philosophy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Dzwiza-Ohlsen’s book presents us with a thorough, systematic study of Husserl’s phenomenology along two axes of problems: on the one hand, it reconstructs—and argues for—a developmental history of the central phenomenological concept of lifeworld in Husserl’s works, following Manfred Sommer in tracing its roots back to a first “Göttingian” conception. On the other hand, the study focuses on language and particularly on Husserl’s theory of essentially occasional expressions (OE) from the Logical Investigations (LI, Hua XIX-01), which, further reconstructed, developed and complemented by the author, comprises a fundamental tool of analysis for the structure and levels of the lifeworld, both in its first Göttingian manifestation and in its mature “Freiburgian” form. The book thus proceeds in a zig-zag manner between, on the one hand, an exegetical and historical reconstruction of Husserl’s intellectual development, and a conceptual, critical analysis of the different problems related to the lifeworld, horizon-intentionality and OE on the other, consequently arriving at the main thesis of the work: that the concept of lifeworld in Husserl’s intellectual history represents a continuous development and reveals in all stages the idea of an occasional horizon.
The first section reconstructs the path from the LI to the Ideas (Hua III, IV and V), starting with an analysis of OE as “lifeworldly disturbances” [lebensweltliche Störungen] to pure logic. OE are known in the analytic literature as indexical expressions, such that vary their meaning according to the context of the utterance: “here”, “now”, “I” are typical examples. According to Dzwiza-Ohlsen, the LI are marked by a stark focus on pure logic and particularly on a logical conception of truth as apodictic and immutable, which renders Husserl’s analysis of OE, as Husserl himself would later claim, an “act of violence” [Gewaltstreich] against pure logic. The core of the argument is that, while OE are essentially situated and context-sensitive, pure logic does not admit of such variability and therefore Husserl lacked the appropriate theoretical tools to successfully analyze them. Though both theses are true, it is not quite clear that the context of the LI would prevent an interesting analysis of the OE. The author relies for this thesis on two premises, which are, in my opinion, a bit too strong.
First (28), he takes—following Derrida—Husserl’s analysis of expressions in solitary life (LI, §8) to be an anticipation of the phenomenological reduction and elevates it to the status of a methodological principle. Dzwiza-Ohlsen ends up criticizing Husserl for violating this “methodological restriction”: “Husserl analyses occasional expressions within a conversational situation […] and thus violates one of his central methodological premises, namely the reduction to solitary life” (35). So even though Husserl does analyze OE within communicative contexts, Dzwiza-Ohlsen criticizes that analysis on the ground of violating a methodological restriction. Arguably, there is no such methodological restriction in LI, but in any case, since the solitary life is not explicitly presented by Husserl as a methodological principle, it would fall upon Dzwiza-Ohlsen to make the case for such an interpretation, which he does not do. Given that Husserl does not declare himself beholden to such a restriction, as the case analyzed by the author and many others show, I do not see this claim as justified.
The author’s second premise is that the LI only present a logical notion of truth and, therefore, are unable to account for the truth of perception-based statements about individual objects: “For the appropriate interpretation [of OE], he would have needed a concept of truth that could apprehend the concrete, such as individual objects, people and their relations in events, insofar as he is reflecting on the conditions for reference. Because he does not do this, the determination of their empirical significance remains a riddle” (38-9). But we do not find in Dzwiza-Ohlsen’s analyses any mention of §§ 9-14 of the first LI, where Husserl presents his conception of reference and of meaning-fulfillment, or of § 5 of the sixth LI, appropriately titled “Perception as significance-determining act”, or of § 39, where Husserl presents four different conceptions of truth.
After arriving at the conclusion of OE as lifeworldly disturbances to pure logic, Chapter Two presents OE as a framework to interpret the history of the Husserlian conception of the lifeworld. The author makes use of Karl Bühler’s theory of language, introducing the notion of a ‘here-now-I-’ system of orientation under the rubric of “origo”. This term, sometimes used in pragmatics, stems from the Latin for “origin” and designates the point of reference for a given speaker. The OE are divided into four classes: spatial, personal, temporal and others. Together with Husserl’s original conception of OE in the LI, the theoretical tools presented by Bühler open the door for an exhaustive and example-rich analysis of the different classes of OE. Dzwiza-Ohlsen’s analysis of each class culminates in a general analysis (§ 7), where OE are defined as situated, context-sensitive, horizon-dependent and praxis-oriented. OE are no longer seen as somehow faulty or incomplete, but their possible vagueness and variability are vindicated as elements that necessarily belong to our everyday communication practices and, to that extent, as essential for our relation to the lifeworld.
Chapters Three to Five provide a further, in-depth analysis of OE mediated by a “triple jump” (69): (1) temporally, from the LI to 1907; (2) methodologically, from a logic-oriented phenomenology to the first considerations for a transcendental phenomenology as the basis of universal knowledge and (3) content-wise, by presenting the first concrete descriptions of lifeworldly situations within the natural attitude. Thus, Chapter Three focuses first on the spatial class of OE by drawing on Husserlian materials going back as far as the early, mathematical studies on space from 1894. It then moves to the Main Pieces [Haupstücke] (Hua II/XVI) and the lectures on Thing and Space (Hua XVI), where we find the first descriptions of the phenomenological reduction and an explicit thematization of the natural attitude as the terminus a quo of phenomenological philosophy: our world-experience as a reference point for phenomenological description and source for all eidetic analyses. Here Dzwiza-Ohlsen sees “the correlate of the natural attitude named by its later name: the lifeworld” (81). § 1 of Thing and Space, in which Husserl offers a very detailed description of the “natural spiritual-disposition” [natürliche Geisteshaltung], is offered by Dzwiza-Ohlsen as a clear anticipation of what would later be named the lifeworld.
Chapter Three concludes with further analyses of spatiality based mainly on the constitution of perceptual objects, which is taken as a point of departure for the analysis of our experience of reality and, in turn, of the lifeworld itself. The relation between intersubjectivity (as the source of objectivity) and perception marks the passage to Chapter Four, where the personal class of OE (such as personal and possessive pronouns) are analyzed in connection with empathy, motivation and the social world. Basing primarily on the Fundamental Problems of Phenomenology (Hua XIII), the close relation between the spiritual world, our “deictic” experience of our environment and, primarily, other human beings, is revealed as central. Dzwiza-Ohlsen proposes to understand our experience within the natural attitude as a kind of “index”, leading to an eidetic ontology of the lifeworld. The important point the author argues for is that our lifeworldly experience in the natural attitude already makes certain concepts available which can later be more rigorously or scientifically clarified. But the task of clarifying them in their lifeworldly being is precisely the task of phenomenology and the ontology of the lifeworld.
Chapter Five closes Section One of the book with the remaining class of OE: the temporal indexicals. The analysis of these is understood as the key for a theory of empirical meaning (as opposed to the theory of ideal meaning of the LI). The analyses are based on the Lectures on inner Time-Consciousness (Hua X), going through the innovations of the 1908 Lectures on Theory of Meaning (Hua XXVI), arriving finally at the revised sections of the LI (Hua XX/2) and Ideas I. An in-depth analysis of temporality allows the author to describe an “occasional horizon of empirical reference” (148), which together with a theory of meaning for empirical objects, aims to complement the otherwise logically one-sided conceptual elaborations of Husserl in the LI.
The terrain is thus set for Section Two: early and late phenomenology of the lifeworld. The Göttingian early concept of lifeworld is located in Ideas II (Hua IV), where concepts such as “social world”, “cultural world”, “surrounding world” and especially “communicative world” serve as candidates for an early version of the concept of lifeworld. The author focuses on the intersection of three dimensions to analyze this early concept: (i) phenomenological analyses of constitution; (ii) regional ontology, with a special focus on nature and spirit; and (iii) the theory of attitudes. Thus, the early concept of lifeworld is to be phenomenologically analyzed via constitutive performances within the region of spirit and in the corresponding personal attitude. An interesting, critical point raised by the author concerns how to understand the relation between the natural and the personal attitudes. While it is clear that the naturalistic (as opposed to the natural) attitude and all other scientific ones imply an active change and an abstraction of the objects and corresponding regions being thematized, both the natural and personal attitudes are those in which we typically find ourselves in our daily lives. All scientific attitudes also imply a reference to the natural attitude and to our experience within the lifeworld. If the natural and personal attitudes are not to be conflated, then the personal must imply a specific focus on, precisely, personal elements of the lifeworld. The personal attitude abstracts from certain elements that appear in the natural attitude so as to make salient what is properly personal.
In Section Two, Chapter Two, the differences between the early and late conception of the lifeworld are explicitly treated. According to the author, the core difference is that the late conception “has less to do with a phenomenology of the lifeworld, but rather with a critical theory of the historical misdevelopment [Fehlentwicklung] of the sciences departing from the lifeworld” (242). For Dzwiza-Ohlsen, Husserl’s project in the Crisis (Hua VI) consists in analyzing the crisis of European humanity, science and culture through a teleological history, but lacks “detailed phenomenological descriptions and constitution-analyses of our natural, personal attitude within our cultural lifeworld” (249). Dzwiza-Ohlsen extracts and reconstructs seven desiderata for a science of the lifeworld according to Crisis (247-8), which he sees as better realized—“more detailed and universal” (253)—in the phenomenology of the lifeworld found in Ideas II than in the theory of the lifeworld presented in Crisis. This is because the descriptive results of Ideas II hold true in any world, even if there were no science at all, while the Crisis project is dependent both on the analysis in Ideas II and on the existence of a science that can be diagnosed as being in crisis and offered a therapy through self-reflection [Selbstbesinnung] and teleological orientation. Thus, the basic thesis of Crisis can only be properly understood against the background of an analysis of persons living in the natural and personal attitude within the spiritual lifeworld. And such analysis is precisely what we find in the early conception of the lifeworld.
This main point of comparison could profit from some further argumentation by the author, since many questions remain open: by stating that the project of Crisis is not really a phenomenology, what conception of phenomenology does the author assume? Phenomenology is an eidetic science and Crisis presents us with countless eidetic analyses of the a priori structure of the lifeworld and of its being a ground for sense and experience, and not “just” the reconstruction of the history of science. In the third section of the Crisis, Husserl aims to develop precisely an ontology of the lifeworld that is previous to and independent of science. This ontology is the one that explains how it is that science can emerge on the basis of our experience, and how it remains always tied to it. On the other hand, the question arises: is the project of Ideas II focused exclusively on offering “situated” descriptions within the natural attitude? Is it not the attempt to clarify the constitutive performances foundational to the distinction between natural sciences and the humanities? In this regard, it is therefore not clear at all that the analyses offered in Ideas II would hold true in a world without science.
The Section Two, Chapter Three deals with the “skipped nature-concept of the lifeworld” (255). While Husserl’s analyses of the constitution of natural objects in Ideas II focus almost exclusively on these objects as conceived from the perspective of natural science, Dzwiza-Ohlsen claims that the constitution of these objects should also be phenomenologically clarified for the personal and natural attitudes within the lifeworld, which mainly means including not only the theoretical, but also the evaluative, practical and aesthetic attitudes. Thus, Husserl “skipped” a “nature-concept” that accounts for our natural (as opposed to theoretical) experience of nature, where nature is understood as the correlate of our personal, spiritual, lifewordly experience and not as the correlate of natural science. The chapter closes by going deep into the analysis of our experience in the natural attitude, with its focus on natural objects. Aesthetics, praxis, will and feelings are analyzed as essential elements permeating our daily life and the way in which we experience the world.
The third and final section of the book is a “concluding meditation” about Husserl’s contributions regarding the language, structure and truth of the lifeworld and of science in his late period. These fundamental dimensions of the lifeworld are now presented in an integrated fashion, making use both of Husserl’s own earlier analyses presented in this book as well as the scheme of OE. Thus, we learn that the structure of the lifeworld is situated in an intentional-horizon that is both typical and occasional; that the language we use is correlated with this typicality and occasionality, allowing us to express ourselves in relevant, situated ways; that truth is understood in reference to a notion of normality that emerges from the different communities, meaning that what matters in the lifeworld is the optimal realization of goals rather than an accurate description of an external reality. For this last purpose, our natural, lifeworldly language is said to be perfectly well suited.
Finally, in the “concluding meditation”, lifeworld and science are contrasted following the foundational thesis of the Crisis, and the notion of truth is treated in its own right for each domain. The objective truth of science rests upon intersubjective agreement which takes place in the praxis of the lifeworld and especially communicative praxis. Communicative praxis is disclosed as a condition of possibility for science and objective truth or, as the author says, “supra-occasional truth” (296).
Dzwiza-Ohlsen deals with several fundamental and significant problems in phenomenology from both a historical, reconstructive perspective and from a philosophical, critical attitude. The book offers rich analyses for those interested in the concept of lifeworld and its historical development, but is also to be noted for bringing the dimension of language to the foreground. The analyses of OE, abundant in examples, and its subsequent application to the diverse elements treated in the book, results in an in-depth phenomenological and historical description of one of Husserl’s most important philosophical contributions: the notion of lifeworld.
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.
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.