Husserl’s last major work, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, is not only his main contribution to a phenomenological approach towards a philosophy of science, but also offers a new way to the transcendental reduction, namely the ontological one. This ontological way crucially depends on Husserl’s conception of the life-world. The life-world is also key in understanding Husserl’s discussion of modern science, as it is considered to be the meaning-giving foundation for all (non-phenomenological) sciences. Modern science, due to its formalised nature, seems to have forgotten this. However, it is important to point out that Husserl does not criticize science or the formalisations which take place in scientific investigations per se. So what precisely does Husserl criticize?
The Phenomenological Critique of Mathematisation and the Question of Responsibility: Formalisation and the Life-World has the important and ambitious objective not only to clarify what a phenomenological critique of mathematisation and formalisation consists in but also to reveal the relevance and actuality of such a critique. This means the aim is “to offer phenomenological accounts of the nature of self-responsibility as a critical, self-reflective and ethical practice, which is required in order to correct the increasingly value-free formalism of scientific knowledge.” (2)
The volume consists of four parts. The first part is a single paper of Patočka, namely his review of Husserl’s Crisis that has been translated by the editors especially for this volume. The second part is interpretive in nature, comprising five contributions devoted to “Patočka’s Phenomenological Philosophy.” The third part is also primarily interpretive, consisting of four contributions to “Husserl’s Phenomenology.” The fourth and final part, which unfortunately but tellingly is the shortest part, contains three contributions that aim at highlighting “The Continued Relevance of the Phenomenological Critique.”
In nuce, this volume succeeds in delivering interesting and high-quality individual analyses, but it has trouble meeting its self-imposed goal of clarifying the nature, genuineness, and relevance of a phenomenological critique of formalisation in modern science. More than half of the contributions do not even explicitly address “formalisation” or “mathematisation.”
The exception is Rosemary Lerner’s detailed and enlightening contribution “Mathesis Universalis and the Life-World: Finitude and Responsibility” that discusses Husserl’s critique. Rightly, she points out that “Formalism cannot per se be criticised – even when it is equated with the purely technical dimension of signs, calculative operations and their ‘game rules’.” (157) She moves on by clarifying that according to a Husserlian critique there are “three ways in which formalism conceals and forgets its meaning-foundation” (157). Of special importance is the third critique that “an ontological interpretation of forms replaces their merely methodological meaning,” which means that “modern physicalistic rationalism has forgotten its meaning-foundation in the life-world” (159).
Modern science is not aware of its own limitations anymore, and its successes led to “a nascent philosophical ‘naturalism’” (160). To be sure, Lerner makes it clear on more than one occasion that formalisation cannot and should not be criticized as such. Formalisation has positive aspects in the positive sciences (162 f.) and also “within objectively oriented philosophical research” (161). Aside from the fact that such formalisation is only applicable for some kinds of scientific research (while it should not be the role model for scientific investigation as such) the problem is that the practice and success of formalisation can conceal the difference between what is a method and what is reality. Mathematics and geometry are methods to describe reality; they are not the “true” reality lying behind what we can intuitively observe.
Lerner clarifies that according to Husserl,
“The ‘crisis of European sciences and humanity’ is due not to the ‘application’ of analytic geometry to the physical world but to the ‘shift in meaning’ whereby it is concealed and forgotten that mathematical disciplines are only powerful ‘methods’ and ingenious ‘hypotheses’ constructed by finite human beings, not ontological descriptions regarding a supposed reality ‘such as God sees it in itself’” (168).
This is why “Husserl’s aim in the Crisis – much as in Philosophy of Arithmetics – is to understand (and thus ‘recover’) the forgotten meaning-foundation of this mathematised natural science” (160), which also means that a “critical philosophy must attempt to clarify the question of the essential origin of every positive science, including formal logic.” (165) I absolutely agree with Lerner that precisely “[t]hese issues led Husserl in 1898 to the ‘universal a priori of correlation’ (Husserl 1970b: §46), and thus to the version of intentionality he developed in his transcendental phenomenology” (165).
In my opinion, Husserl holds that the life-world is the meaning-foundation for all positive sciences and that it is transcendental phenomenology that has to investigate and clarify the basic role the life-world plays. To be sure, transcendental phenomenology cannot deliver the basic axioms, principles or laws that occur in the “exact” sciences, but it can and has to clarify why axioms, principles or laws of such and such a type are appropriate for such and such a science. Transcendental phenomenology can do so as it is the only science that goes beyond the life-world. It goes beyond the life-world by adopting the transcendental attitude in which we are not directed towards the objects that occur in our everyday lives but towards the way in which these objects appear (cf. Husserliana VI, 155, 161 f.). In investigating how different types of objects can be given to us, i.e., investigating the correlation between consciousness and world, transcendental phenomenology has realized that the ultimate foundation of knowledge and science is not the life-world but subjectivity (cf. Husserliana VI, 70, 115). All objective knowledge is founded on subjectivity.
All knowledge is knowledge of an agent and in explaining how knowledge is possible, you ultimately have to turn away from objective states of affairs and focus on the subject’s consciousness. The ultimate evidence for my knowing that there is a table in front of me is not the existence of the table but my experiencing this table. My experiencing this table gets its justificatory force not from the reliability of my sensory apparatus but from the distinctive, originally presentive phenomenal character of this experience. What ultimate evidence is cannot be investigated objectively but only subjectively by turning to one’s experiences and to how these experiences can be described from a first-person perspective.
As transcendental phenomenology precisely is this science that investigates the structures of consciousness and experience from a first-person perspective, transcendental phenomenology is the ultimate science. Not because it can deliver the axioms, principles, laws or theorems of every or even any individual science, but because it is concerned with how the specific objects of investigations of any science can be given and what type of evidence is appropriate for what type of object.
The only worry I have with Lerner’s paper is that she does not focus on or even ignores this most fundamental role that subjectivity plays, especially as this is crucial for understanding why Husserl’s phenomenology is a transcendental phenomenology. She rightly mentions that for Husserl ultimate evidence is evidence of experience (169), but she does not deliver a more detailed analysis of precisely how phenomenology is the science that investigates from the first-person perspective what it is that gives experiences their justificatory force.
Be that as it may, Lerner’s paper is a great contribution that precisely fits the topic of this volume. The papers in this third part addressing “Husserl’s Phenomenology” are in general outstanding contributions, arguably the best of this volume. It is unfortunate, however, that this volume does not succeed in taking contributions like Lerner’s as a basis for discussing the actuality of a phenomenological critique by addressing questions like “Is Husserl’s critique best applicable to what he takes to be Galilean physics or is it equally applicable to physics in the 21st century?”, “What is Husserl’s stance on unobservable entities like electrons and quarks?” (cf. Wiltsche 2012), “What does Husserl’s critique mean for recently popular ontic scientific realism?” I will return to such missed opportunities below.
In “Everydayness, Historicity and the World of Science: Husserl’s Life-World Reconsidered” Dermot Moran provides an excellent discussion of Husserl’s conception of the life-world. Of course, one might question whether we really need another discussion of Husserl’s life-world. Anticipating this objection, Moran points out that, despite all the works on this topic, “the deep meaning and transcendental sense of Husserl’s concept of the life-world remains troublingly obscure” (110). Moran aims at presenting “a coherent exposition of this influential yet ambiguous concept” and at clarifying “how the life-world can function both as a universal ground (Grund, Boden) of all experience and as a potential horizon (Horizon) for experience” (110). One important aspect we have already touched on is the relationship between the life-world and subjectivity. Moran brings this into focus by quoting a passage where Husserl already around 1917-18 tells us: “Everything objective about the life-world is subjective givenness, our possession, mine, the other’s, and everyone’s together” (119; Husserl 1989, 375). Unfortunately, Moran does not discuss this transcendental character of Husserl’s doctrine in more detail. The central topic Moran wishes to shed light on is the relationship between science and life-world:
“The life-world, on the one hand, on Husserl’s conception, grounds and supports the world of science (which is essentially different from it); and, on the other hand, it also completely encompasses the world of science, since all scientists as human beings are themselves members of the life-world and scientific discoveries evolve in and are carried along by historical human communities and cultures” (121).
How is this possible? According to Moran, Husserl’s life-world can ground and encompass science at the same time as “the life-world is actually a horizon that stretches from indefinite past to indefinite future and includes all actualities and possibilities of experience and meaningfulness” (121 f.). The life-world as horizon and the life-world as ground can be reconciled if we “think of grounding in a new sense,” namely “as a constant ongoing contextualisation and re-contextualisation whereby meaning itself is secured through its horizonal connections with meanings lived through and established in the non-objectifiable world of living and acting” (126). Since such a grounding is not an objective but an “ultimately subjective” one (126), we, again, touch on the epistemic impact of subjectivity. While there is no doubt that Moran’s paper delivers a conception of Husserl’s life-world that is not only elegant and based on textual evidence but also sheds light on the relationship to the sciences, the precise relationship between science and life-world remains hazy and vague. We see in what way the life-world can ground and encompass science, but we still do not know how they can influence each other. What influence does science have on the life-world? Can science directly influence the life-world as culture does or only indirectly, for instance via influencing culture? What happens if there is a clash of science and life-world? Given Husserl’s criticism of modern science, one might be tempted to think that natural science cannot or at least should not “overrule” the life-world in the sense of shattering and shifting horizonal structures. This, of course, is not true. Our life-world is significantly different from the one of Ptolemy. When we observe the stars, planets or the sun what is originally given to us might be the same, but the horizonal structures of these experiences are clearly different simply in virtue of our scientific background beliefs.
The life-world is also the topic of Nicolas de Warren’s contribution “Husserl’s Hermeneutical Phenomenology of the Life-World as Culture Reconsidered.” Here the main target is Sebastian Luft’s recent Subjectivity and Lifeworld in Transcendental Phenomenology (Luft 2011) as De Warren forcefully argues against Luft’s thesis that Husserlian phenomenology “becomes a hermeneutical phenomenology of the correlational a priori of the world as historical world, as a world of culture, and of subjectivity as intersubjectivity, connected in a history and a tradition” (Luft 2011, 27). For De Warren, this interpretation and specifically the “identification of the life-world with a world of culture” is “untenable on the basis of Husserl’s own thinking” (135). De Warren’s contribution can be seen as a clash between two prominent and outstanding scholars, which naturally leads to a stimulating and controversial debate.
Before I turn to De Warren’s criticism in more detail, I briefly want to present Luft’s main points. When he presents his thoughts in the Introduction to his book, Luft begins with some basic but crucial Husserlian assumptions like “the only way to experience the world is from my own perspective,” (Luft 2011, 10); “it is impossible to leave the confines of our mind,” (Luft 2011, 12); and “[t]he Husserlian turn to transcendental idealism, by contrast [to Kant], is motivated by the factum of the world and its justification” (Luft 2011, 13). With respect to Husserl’s famous correlational a priori, which Luft calls the “One Structure,” Luft’s claim, then, is that “Husserl’s entire focus is on the thoroughgoing correlation of subjective and objective” (Luft 2011, 15). Luft considers this the main thesis of his book (cf. Luft 2011, 14).
I totally agree with these foregoing claims. Luft rightfully focuses on the correlational a priori and rightly declares this aspect the main core of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. Husserl does not aim at proving that there is objective knowledge and justification but at explaining how this is possible. In doing so, one has to focus on the subject, more precisely, on the structures of intentionality. By explicating my knowledge of objects and states of affairs, I have to investigate from the first-person perspective how these objects are given to me within my experiencing them. The aim, then, is gaining essential insights about the structures of intentionality, such as the essential feature of perception to have the phenomenal character of self-givenness or givenness in actuality (Husserliana XVI, 14) − what Husserl often but most notably in his “principle of all principles” calls originary givenness.
Having said this, the question, of course, is how does Luft determine this correlational a priori? What are the end points of this correlation? In the literature, most often, it is described as a correlation between subject and object, sometimes between subject and world. Luft makes clear that he does not view this correlation “as a thoroughgoing correlation of the One structure with its poles, I and world” but “as a balance between both poles in which they are ‘always already’ intertwined, interrelated, dancing a tango” (Luft 2011, 18). This world, for Luft, is the life-world, which is (and this is the “provocative” part of Luft’s analysis) the world of culture (Luft 2011, 27). My main issue with this portrayal is its narrow focus on how our culture and history shape our experiencing. Interpreted modestly, this means that already in Husserl you find claims like “There is no view from nowhere,” or “All experience is theory-laden” (Cf. Moran’s remark at p. 118). Interpreted strongly, this can lead to the implausible phenomenalist consequence that there is an ontological distinction between what we experience and the things in themselves. (De Warren accuses Luft of undermining a non-phenomenalist reading of Kant at p. 150.) Either way, this disguises what I take to be the most important insight of Husserl’s correlational apriori. Namely that,
“Category of objectivity and category of evidence are perfect correlates. To every fundamental species of objectivities – as intentional unities maintainable throughout an intentional synthesis and, ultimately, as unities belonging to a possible ‘experience’ — a fundamental species of ‘experience’, of evidence, corresponds, and likewise a fundamental species of intentionally indicated evidential style in the possible enhancement of the perfection of the having of an objectivity itself” (Husserl 1969, 161).
This means that the type of object I experience determines the type of evidence that is available to me (e.g. adequate evidence for physical objects, apodictic evidence for mathematical truths, adequate evidence for my existence). As Heffernan puts it, “evidence is a function of the evident” (Heffernan 1998, 22). Husserl is interested in what it means to experience, for instance, a physical object, how such an object can be given within experience and what it means that in perception such an object is self-given, i.e., originally given. The answers to these questions are essential insights and independent from a subject’s culture or history.
Let us return to De Warren’s criticism of Luft’s identification of life-world and culture. Luft provides the following clarification:
“Culture, then, is the safe haven and our home, and nothing could be further from living an enlightened life than dwelling and feeling at home in the niches of subcultures, which deliberately depart from the ‘mainstream’. Subcultures, which consciously depart from the ‘grand discourse’ of Culture, are the enemy of culture” (Luft 2011, 356).
De Warren has two main objections against the claim that culture (in this sense) captures the idea of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology.
- Husserl’s method of reduction is “diametrically opposed” to the claim that one should strive for “mainstream” (145). Referring to Patočka, De Warren insists that, contrary to Luft, “the phenomenological reduction can be understood as instituting a ‘break’ or ‘shattering’ of belonging to a human-made world of culture” (145).
- The life-world cannot be identified with the world of culture as “there are a multiplicity of irreducible worlds” and only some of them are culture but “most are not” (153). In this context, De Warren points out that it is misleading to call Husserl’s a priori correlation a “One Structure” as there is no uniform meaning to this correlation (153).
While this debate between Luft and De Warren is of fundamental importance for understanding Husserl and transcendental phenomenology in general, this does not tell us much about a phenomenological critique of mathematisation and formalisation. The same is true for Moran’s contribution and also for Thomas Nenon’s.
In part II, “Patočka’s Phenomenological Philosophy,” the contribution of Učník & Chvatík entitled “Patočka on Galileo” and Burt Hopkins’ “Nostalgia and Phenomenon: Husserl and Patočka on the End of the Ancient Cosmos” both more directly address the topic of mathematisation. Učník & Chvatík shed light on Patočka’s claims that “we cannot await moral answers from a mathematised nature” and that the source of such a deceptive expectation is “the assumption that if we can mathematise nature we can also mathematise human relations; and that mathematics can give us all the answers, in every sphere of our living, from physics to ethics” (49). My worry with this contribution and the second part of this volume in general is twofold: First, it is not clear to me in what ways Patočka is supposed to go beyond Husserl in complementing his phenomenological critique. Secondly, and this is true for the volume as such, while there are many topics mentioned that perfectly fit current debates in epistemology, philosophy of science and meta-ethics, it is hardly ever discussed how Husserl and Patočka could contribute to current debates. In the context of formalising ethics, for instance, one could mention the currently very popular method of reflective equilibrium and question that every moral intuition can be sacrificed for greater coherence of the belief-system (cf. Daniels 1996). I will return to such missed opportunities when discussing the final part.
Hopkins argues that Patočka not only “goes beyond Husserl’s fragmentary account of Galileo” but also that Patočka’s account “is informed by actual history” (59). But is it important that philosophy of science is informed by actual history? Can philosophy profit from integrating history? This is precisely the topic of the currently popular and widely discussed research field of “Integrated History and Philosophy of Science” (cf. Patton 2011). But neither in Hopkins’ contribution nor elsewhere in this volume are these connections discussed. This is worrisome as this volume has the self-imposed goal of revealing “the continued relevance of the phenomenological critique of formalism” (6).
In the light of this criticism, let us now turn to the final part of the book, “The Continued Relevance of the Phenomenological Critique.” This part only consists of three contributions. Broadly speaking, there are four interesting ways of arguing for a continued relevance of a phenomenological critique of formalism. 1. To show how technological progress has led to consequences Husserl and Patočka have warned about. 2. To point out that modern natural science is still interpreted (either by scientists or non-scientists) as revealing that the world we perceive is mere illusion and that the world’s true nature is captured by formalisations. 3. To reveal that modern natural science is still interpreted (either by scientists or non-scientists) as the role model for all scientific investigations (including philosophy). 4. To show that there are current philosophical debates that share the basic idea of Husserl’s and Patočka’s critique and could benefit from adopting (elements of) transcendental phenomenology.
In his “Formalisation and Responsibility” James Mensch touches on all four topics but none is elaborated upon in great detail. He begins with the example that
“During the Vietnam War, US bombing missions were set by a computer program that, based on field reports, calculated the probability of the Vietcong’s being in a particular location at a particular time. Such missions, with their use of napalm, were responsible for the destruction of much of the countryside. Who or what was responsible for this: the computer, the writers of its algorithms, the pilots flying the missions, the operations research analysts that worked to ‘rationalise’ these missions?” (188)
I take this example to capture well the basic idea of the relevance of a phenomenological critique along the lines of critique 1 specified above. Mensch, however, does not return to this example. He also briefly complains that by an electron a scientist understands “this formula for the probability-density of its position” (187) and that adopting a naturalist attitude has led to a “devaluation of consciousness” by philosophers like Daniel Dennett (192). The recurrent theme of his contribution is embodiment. This is a very important aspect of a phenomenological critique of formalisation as it takes place, for instance, in artificial intelligence research. In this volume, Mensch is the only one who aims at systematically developing the role of embodiment in a phenomenological critique, which I take to be his main accomplishment.
Anita Williams’ “Perceiving Sensible Things: Husserl and the Act of Perception” and Ivan Chvatík’s “Are We Still Afraid of Science?” both pursue very specific goals. This is especially true for Chvatík, who discusses Stephen Hawking’s and Leonard Mlodinow’s popular-science book The Grand Design in order to see how it exemplifies what Husserl and Patočka have criticized. The upshot is that it exemplifies pretty much all of what, according to a phenomenological critique, could be worrisome.
From the claim that M-theory [multiverse theory] will turn out to provide a complete and final theory of the universe, to the naturalisation of consciousness, including the denial of free will, to the statement that “philosophy is dead” as it “has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics” (Hawking and Mlodinow 2010, 5) there is not much left that could provoke a phenomenological critique. You can feel Chvatík’s discomfort when he tells that he “would not have believed that a position like this is still possible in the present day” (212). It should not come as a surprise, however, that in the vast field of sometimes genuinely provocative popular-science there are works to which a phenomenological critique can be perfectly applied. Also, it should be mentioned that The Grand Design has been harshly criticized not only by philosophers but also by physicists.
In her contribution, Williams questions the so-called neurocognitive model of perception in which, according to Williams, “sense is reduced to sensation and human sense-making is confined to the end point of a causal process.” (197) She argues against the assumption of neurocognitive researchers “that mind can be reduced to the functioning brain” (197 f.) and wants “to show that a brain-based model of perception does not resolve the mind-matter problem” (198). The basis of her critique is Husserl’s conception of sensuous and categorial intuition. This means that Williams aims at an extremely important task, namely exploring the relationship between cognitive neuroscience and Husserlian phenomenology. However, it is not clear to me why this relationship should be negative in the sense that cognitive neuroscience clashes with Husserlian phenomenology. Of course, if Williams is right in asserting that neurocognitive researchers claim to solve the mind-matter problem by reducing the mind to brain, then somebody should step in. But even if they do, it seems obvious to me that their research is not committed to such claims. In his Sixth Logical Investigation Husserl makes the following remark about the relationship between his phenomenological investigation of perception and a potential natural scientific one:
“In sense-perception, the ‘external’ thing appears ‘in one blow’, as soon as our glance falls upon it. The manner in which it makes the thing appear present is straightforward: it requires no apparatus of founding or founded acts. To what complex mental processes it may trace back its origin, and in what manner, is of course irrelevant here” (Husserl 2001, 283).
Of course, there is a lot of debate about whether phenomenology should take a more active stance, some even claiming that phenomenology should be naturalized (cf. Zahavi 2004). Still, I am not convinced by Williams’ conclusion that “Husserl provides a way to question the causal explanations of perception adopted by neurocognitive psychologists” (207) as I believe that such causal explanations are non-phenomenological but not anti-phenomenological at least as long as there is not the claim involved that such causal explanations tell us everything we can know about perception, rendering a phenomenological account obsolete.
In conclusion, this volume offers a number of high-quality papers on important and current topics, but it does not succeed in bringing this currency, the relevance of a phenomenological critique in the 21st century, to the forefront. There are many missed opportunities as there definitely is such a relevance, and while this volume manages to provide many stimulating and important first beginnings for exploiting the fruitfulness of a phenomenological critique, it does not really go beyond such first steps.
Daniels, Norman (1996): Justice and Justification, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hawking, Stephen & Mlodinow, Leonard (2010): The Grand Design, London: Bantam Press.
Heffernan, George (1998): “Miscellaneous Lucubrations on Husserl’s Answer to the Question ‘was die Evidenz sei’: A Contribution to the Phenomenology of Evidence on the Occasion of the Publication of Husserliana Volume XXX,” Husserl Studies 15, 1-75.
Husserl, Edmund (2001): Logical Investigations, transl. by J. N. Findlay, New York: Routledge.
Husserl, Edmund (1970): The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, transl. by David Carr, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Husserl, Edmund (1969): Formal and Transcendental Logic, transl. by Dorion Cairns, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Luft, Sebastian (2011): Subjectivity and Lifeworld in Transcendental Phenomenology, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Patton, Lydia (ed.) (2014): Philosophy, Science, and History, New York: Routledge.
Wiltsche, Harald (2012): “What is Wrong with Husserl’s Scientific Anti-Realism?” Inquiry 55, 2, 105-130.
Zahavi, Dan (2004): “Phenomenology and the project of naturalization,” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 3, 331-347.