Ian Angus’ Groundwork of Phenomenological Marxism: Crisis, Body, World is not a light book, both literally and figuratively, at 537 pages of dense analysis of two of the most discussed thinkers in the last few hundred years. Not many contemporary works have tried to integrate Marxism and Husserlian phenomenology. While perhaps everything in the life of the mind is ultimately connected, the project laid out by Husserl and that by Marx seem to point in quite different directions with very different methodologies. Subsequent works by famous thinkers who were influenced by both, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Herbert Marcuse, and Jan Patočka, did not seem to penetrate deeply into the scholarship of the side they are less famous for—that is, contemporary theorists of Marx do not go to Merleau-Ponty to discuss Marx, nor do phenomenologists routinely discuss Marcuse. Angus’ book truly does provide a groundwork to facilitate more work that does not neatly subsume the thoughts of one thinker under that of the other. While Angus notes his main textual supports will be Husserl’s Crisis and Marx’s Capital I, he also embraces a range of scholarship.
One generic challenge to phenomenology is that it struggles to critically engage with complex structures in our societies that exceed examination from the first-person perspective. Perhaps we are not just molded by our social, cultural, economic, and historical place in time, perhaps even what the idea of subjectivity is itself merely a momentary reverie and thus there is no ground from which to properly phenomenologize. A generic one to the Marx of Capital I-III is that the force of his understanding of capitalist logic creates a world in which things are happening with or without individual investment. We are all swept up in the force of history. Not only does the critic point out what Marx thought would come from capitalism has not transpired, but the idea of a self-enclosed system that will either end in ruin or revolution seems to ignore the manifold possibilities that have arisen, for better or worse, as capitalism spreads over the world. While both critiques can of course be argued against as misrepresntations, I bring up these challenges as a way to situate Angus’ impressive text as taking seriously both the analysis of capitalist logic as well as the importance of subjectivity. I read him as arguing that one can do a critical phenomenology in a capitalist world without reproducing bourgeois sentiment in a new form. In particular, his use of the idea of fecundity, ecological thinking, and Indigenous thought help explore places where capitalist logic fails to entirely dominate the lifeworld and places from which we might consider a robust contemporary phenomenological Marxism.
Overview of the Book
Part I: Phenomenology and the Crisis of Modern Reason & II: Objectivism and the Recovery of Subjectivity
In the first two chapters, Angus lays out the crisis of the modern sciences in order to set the ground for his later discussion of the lifeworld. The crisis of the sciences frames the entry into Husserl’s phenomenology and its relevance for the integration of Marx’s work. Husserl asserted that the crisis of the sciences is that they have become abstracted from their origin in human life, and thereby lost their meaning for humanity. The development of the modern sciences initiated the institution of the mathematization of nature. While mathematization of the modern sciences is not called into question as wrong, Angus notes that the issue becomes when the mathematization becomes “sedimented” and sciences assume “their validity has become an available tradition that further researchers use without investigating.” (43) Sciences thus use their symbolic systems, such as mathematization, as if it were full of human value even though it, by necessity, is abstract from human meaning. If we come to assume that only that which is objectively demonstrable by mathematization is “real,” then we are adrift in a world with reality devoid of meaning. The human world of intuition, tradition, sensuous nature, language, culture, and embodied experience cannot be mathematized. When objectivity found from abstract mathematization becomes “true” and subjectivity mere opinion, we find a crisis of reason. “This is the crisis: reasonproceeds without meaning for human life, while value loses its sustenance in reason.” (46) Angus says that the “healing power of phenomenology” is how phenomenology can uncover this historical sedimentation of mathematical reason and recover value.
Chapters three takes up the idea that one aspect of the crisis is the instrumentalization of the lifeworld. To begin, Angus uses Herbert Marcuse’s discussion of Husserl and deepens the manner in which the crisis of the sciences affects the lifeworld. Marcuse, like Husserl, is concerned with the manner in which instrumental reason cancels out the validity of subjective experience. What Angus draws out is how Marcuse draws attention toward the way in which the lifeworld becomes, under the reign of instrumentalism, merely a thing to be used by various techniques and technologies. It is natural to use technologies and associated technical practices to obtain ends; it is only when we have no other means to think of our lives that they become “emptied out.” “The emptying-out that treats a type as a formal ‘x’ removes the technical end from any relationship to other ends as experienced in the lifeworld and theorizes it strictly formally, that is to say, without any consideration if such an end is valid, good, or just.” (101) If human life is merely how we can as living objects use technologies and techniques to obtain certain pre-determined ends, say more money, more production, we merely become things. Moreover, we become things that cannot determine value ourselves since we are seen only as a means to a pre-determined end.
In chapter four, the discussion of technology is drawn into the 21st century. Angus considers how our contemporary digital technological culture is an extension of the instrumentalization of the lifeworld. While digital culture pervades our lives and determines the character of our self-understanding, we do not actually experience the digital itself. We receive information on our computers, tablets, and phone instantaneously (120). Here Angus develops briefly the idea about the importance of silence and delay which will be more developed in chapter nine. As digital culture transmits its information instantaneously, we have no space from which to take a pause from it given how quickly we are presented with new content. Yet, while the lack of any pause or delay can cover up the capacity for bracketing the digital, Angus states that “this absorption can never be complete” for the subject registers this information with a certain “intensity” or “valence” that is dependent upon other investments within the lifeworld (125). These other investments can produce a delay or lack of circularity of the system of digital culture and thus potentially ground a recovery of reason and value.
Chapters five develops further how value is both lost and potentially can be recovered and draws Marx into the picture to understand how abstract labor separates us from value. We do not encounter things in the lifeworld as value-free and then intellectually add value to them some x-value. Such a move would follow from the model that the instrumentalization of the lifeworld suggests. We have both social valuations that come from a determinate time and culture as well as subjectively personal valuations based on our own experience. Here Angus connects Marx and Husserl, reading both as concerned with the manner in which formal sign-systems are unable to address individual objects of value (139). In commodity fetishism, social relations are systematically concealed, similar to how in a “scientific” view of objectivity, one is unable to return to the value that grounds subjective experience. Moreover, because the system of exchange is hidden in object fetishism, self-knowledge is eluded. “This systematic absences of self-knowledge in social action is reproduced in an apologetic scientific form in political economy such that it produces a systematic lack in the social representation of value.” (143) Angus believes in the value of self-knowledge, but also importantly in the idea of a universalization that will permit escape from both a valueless scientific or economic system and from value being relative to particular cultures. In the fourth part of the book, this idea is sketched out more fully.
Part III: The Living Body and Ontology of Labor
Chapters six and seven productively develop stronger connections between the phenomenological project and the Marxist one. One the most developed discussions coming out of phenomenology’s approach to experience is developments that surround the consequences of understanding ourselves as first and foremost living bodies. We do not first consider the world consciously and then judge it, but are first born into a complex cultural, historical, and economic world and our embodied experiences with that world come to shape our judgements by sedimentation, not by conscious deliberation. Hence the lifeworld is not seen as “a” lifeworld, but simply what is, including the values and norms that our society has educated us in to see certain things as real or valuable when it might be just as conceivable that others things might be more deserving of value. The living-body is “the root-experience of the lifeworld” but we are always being with other beings; we are always part of a human, not just an individual, experience. (157) Angus separates out two features of our shared human experience: the positive “we-subjectivity,” the community in which we live, work, and commune with others, and the other and self as “objects” that either benefit or hinder any individual project (157).
Angus then turns toward Marx’s ontology of labor as the foundation of what it is to be human and what shapes human history. Certainly we need labor to live, but Marx argues that labor is also how we constitute our identity and the world in which we live (162). In Husserl’s work, the living body’s motility grounds subjectivity and Marx’s ontology of labor helps develop one way in which this subjectivity is formed. Angus agrees with Jan Patočka and Ludwig Landgrebe that early Marx’s view on labor lacked, unlike Husserl’s, a full account of subjectivity. However, as Angus will point out the Marx of Capital I presents us with a more complex view of labor. Here we see the sketch of much of the rest of the book—how an ontology of the lifeworld, in particular labor and its relationship to subjectivity, permits an understanding of the structures of that world. In order to connect the ontology of the lifeworld to a phenomenology of the living body, what Marx would call a critique, one must go beyond the “evident” nature of the lifeworld to question its current form and status.
Marx’s mature ideas of an ontology of labor as “a phenomenology of the role of human activity in nature” will shape much of the rest of the section’s discussion (180) While largely sympathetic with Marx’s focus on labor, Angus argues that Marx’s interest in technology as history determining cannot make sense without a better account of the surplus productivity of labor that allows such technology to form itself. I think it beyond the scope of this review to examine this critique—that is, is it really the case that Marx failed to understand the necessity of surplus productivity’s relation to nature?—but rather to take Angus at his word, and examine the interesting idea of fecundity that Angus will develop throughout the remainder of the text (187). The logic of capitalism of collecting commodities to be exchanged can appear to have circular and enclosed perspective. We work to produce things that can be sold to obtain money to buy or produce other things, ad infinitum. One can think here of Hannah Arendt’s dismissive view of labor as this endless need of human work to survive without the possibility of anything new coming from it, other than more survival and thus more labor. Angus writes that what actually happens, and what can be thought to perhaps undermine the capitalist project, is that labor exceeds what is needed to complete the next circuit—what is “the fecundity of nature.” (187) Here one is too reminded of Michel Foucault’s interesting ideas of how any regime of power/knowledge creates subjectivities that are not just docile, but also then have the means to creatively exceed that structure. Later Angus will develop the idea of fecundity to argue for an interesting ecological view of our current situation. Herbert Marcuse’s work helps underscore the emancipatory possibilities inherent in human activity outside its insertion merely into the logic of capitalism as labor. The event of any human activity is not subsumable entirely to the motivation that preceded it. One example is that the excess that labor can create produces not just things for survival, but culture as well. Culture then creates new forms of organization that exceed strict capitalist production.
Chapter eight is one of the densest chapters in the book. It takes up the idea of abstraction and its relevance for labor and value and concludes with how to revive value in the lifeworld. Abstraction in Marx’s theory is complex, there is the abstraction where individuals are only understood as significant insofar they play a role—say laborer or capitalist. Abstraction can also be where one analyzes the core features of capitalism and sets aside the actual concrete form. In this sense, abstraction comes close to a phenomenological reduction. Finally, there is abstraction in the sense of addition—“When we consider any only single factor, such as labor, there are a number of historical and imaginary, or logically possible, forms in which that labor could be organized: capitalist, trial, state, cooperative, etc.” (237) This groundwork lays the foundation for the most important abstraction in Marx’s text, to be later complemented by Angus’ formulation of abstract nature: abstract labor. Abstract labor is not illusory, it is real in the that is produced in the system of exchange of commodities. Workers, as individuals, are now just understood in abstraction as nothing but laborers qua commodities—things that can be bought. The commodity hides the relationship between humans, we do not encounter or know those whose products we purchase hence we tend to assume the value lies within the product—what is commodity fetishism. Laborers themselves becomes a thing as their labor-power is just another unit of exchange. Moreover, abstract labor operates as value—abstract labor has a certain value in the system of exchange and can be taken without consideration of the particular work the laborers are performing. As Husserl wrote about in the Crisis, one consequence of modern science has been the mistaking of the method of mathematization for actual truth and meaning. Marx’s understanding of the abstract labor likewise performs this move in a system of value (256). If only abstract labor is considered valuable, one has lost any footing the real world of humans, as individuals and also as communities in their culture and their history.
The lifeworld is able to recover reason as the place in which one can situate the historical nature of abstract labor and account for how its excess cannot be contained within capitalist reason. Excess productivity produces culture and also draws from the fecundity of nature which is never completely exhausted by capitalism. Nature, individuals, and communities produce excesses but given the particularities of the concrete spaces in which such productivity exists, there is no “unitary source” and thus they do not produce uniform products. Hence, “the proletariat has never acted as a unitary subject as Marxist politics has expected.” (277) Angus develops from this work on abstraction to an idea of abstract nature as critical to his phenomenological Marxism, pointing out that Marx, by not having a concept of abstract nature, is unable to explain just what abstract labor is to be performed upon. Briefly, Angus points toward ecology as a way exit the limitations of capitalist and modern scientific thinking and integrate nature and humanity. “The task of transformation would be to recover nature as the source of meaning and value, human labor as the giving of a specific form to that source.” (286) Ecology works from the connections between nature and cultures and can provide a method to get beyond our reductionistic thinking.
Technology is the theme of chapter nine which develops further the way in which the regime of capitalist value homogenizes production. While Marx and Marcuse’s views on technology are important to underline that there is no simple nature unchanged by humans nor humans apart from technical extension, it is Gilbert Simondon’s work permits us to consider our contemporary lifeworld more fully. Simondon is critical of Communist Party Marxism, arguing that the development of more technological societies with machines as central to production creates a particular kind of alienation where “both the worker and the industrial boss are alienated insofar as they are either above or below the machine.” (303) Hence, some Marxist views of technology as liberating are false. Angus draws our contemporary situation as another crisis because contemporary digital culture “approaches a pure transparency without delays or silences that could initiate emergent meaning” as discussed in chapter four (319). The speed of transmission of information and the lack of spaces in which to not be presented with such information reduces the capacity for the kind of productive excess that permits a possible exit from capitalist logic. One striking feature of our own society dominated by the capacity to share on the internet is how information is exploited much like physical labor. Cognitive capitalism is “neo-mercantilist” as a socio-economic form with the important element of “decay”—that is, the value of the digital form reduces over time (324). Thus, new digital products have a very short lifespan where they produce surplus profit and must be constantly produced by tech workers. As with his earlier discussion of technology, Angus argues that instead of transforming such digital spaces, “the struggles of the working class in such industries would not necessarily be to transform them as such, but to exist to become an independent, self-defining enterprise.” (324) Technology itself does not liberate workers if they do not have the means to define its value.
Chapter ten lays the groundwork for the recovery of the concrete grounds from which to critique the mathematization of science and the abstractions of capitalism. Husserl himself celebrated biology in its connection to the living body as a means to connect the lifeworld in experience and the sciences of life. However, Angus points out that, as Marx shows us, bodies can be abstracted in labor and creates a closed system of understanding bodies that does not permit a true phenomenological investigation. Angus’ idea of abstract nature is added to this critique in order to point out that it is not just labor, and thus humans, that are abstracted in capitalism, but nature as well. Angus writes, “abstract nature if the fundamental critical category of our phenomenological Marxism that can be counterposed to the discovery of natural fecundity as an excess that underlines all human productivity and culture.” (345) Again, Angus draws attention to ecology as a way of thinking since it considers the connections between life-forms and the worlds in which they live, something biology does not do. This is a concrete starting place instead of the abstraction required by the sciences or capitalism and can think of communities instead of only abstract systems.
Part IV: Transcendentality and the Constitution of Worlds
Chapter eleven and twelve deepen Angus’ ideas of the phenomenological project and the need for an intercultural self-responsible phenomenology. Emphasizing the intersubjective nature of any lifeworld and the plurality of them helps underline how the need for the phenomenological view to complement Marx’s work. In Marxist thought, there is the tendency to see subjectivity as rather uniform amongst classes. Angus takes up the question if Husserl’s commitment to seeing Europe as central makes phenomenology not just Eurocentric, which I would think is hard to deny, but also fundamentally invested in an implicit view of European superiority. Angus develops a fascinating perspective on America, here understood as the Americas, rather than simply the United States, as the kind of example that makes any kind of European view limited. America is not a repetition of Europe; America is shaped by the “conquest-disaster” of its origins as well as by the Indigenous traditions and thoughts that also continue to shape it. The conquest-disaster begins “an ongoing institution that remains with us to this day and points toward some sort of resolution of final goal (Endstiftung). We live within this institution and its assigns us a task.” (399) The task is to see this lifeworld as it is, not as Europe’s, but with its own shape and demands. Angus argues this broader view of the historical nature of cultures helps expose the need to respond not just to the scientific and economic crises, but also to our “planetary crisis.”
This planetary crisis refers to the reason understood as technology that is based on formal-mathematical science as the origination of crisis and phenomenological reason as the renewal of meaning and value through a recovery of relation to the lifeworld. Meaning and value must be generated, not simply from looking back to prior institutions, but from events constituted by the planetary encounter of culture-civilizations that motivate an appeal upward on step toward great universality. (403)
What is needed is intercultural-civilizational understanding that moves toward universality. This might seem a bit strange, after all typically calling for greater intercultural understanding can be seen to call for something particular and non-universal. Angus develops not a particular kind of universality, say something like “Europe,” that should be taken as the goal, but rather a certain kind of community living together. While we live in a world saturated by calls for cultural understanding, one might rightly see them as a kind of buffet model—a little of this one and a little of that. This can be seen as how scientific-technological civilization renders all traditions as local and particular to the universality of its enterprises, so culture becomes like a disposable addition upon “real” understanding which is of course that which can be reduced to either scientific models or capitalist logic. This can also be seen as expressed, in a much different fashion, in relativist philosophies where one can affirm the other, but is left in without any means of overcoming differences. Angus takes up an approach where what the phenomenological tradition can guide for intercultural understanding is by pursuing not a “truth” that then can add various cultural views, like clothing, nor a set of discrete truths which cannot communicate, but a center-periphery logic where different assumptions in culture-civilizations can be upended by each other in discourse and attention to practices. Angus looks to build:
A philosophy that would be ecological, in the sense that it would focus on the concrete relations that construct a Whole; that would be Marxist, in the sense that is would criticize a social representation of value that relies on commodity price; and that would be phenomenological, in that it would ground value in the lifeworld in action and intuition, is a possibility that would enact this hope. (441)
Chapter thirteen spells out just what intercultural-civilization phenomenology could be. By using place-based knowledge, such as Indigenous thought, we can displace the tendency of planetary technology and capitalism to homogenize by abstracting individuals and nature. Like ecological thinking, Indigenous thinking starts from relationships and from thinking from community instead of thinking of individuals first. Yet of course, any community might not be compatible with another, so in order to move from the value of community to the kind of universal investment needed to combat the crises of our age, Angus appeals in chapter fourteen to Charles Taylor’s notion that “each cultural group can find its own reasons for belonging in a higher unity, that the reasons do not have to be identical for each group.” (453). Hence, the intercultural dialogue would consider crises that face us all, but not require that each group form a new identity but rather that each group understand their share and investment in the problem. The final chapter of part IV considers how philosophy can work to restore the fecundity of nature, of human labor, and of community investment. Natural fecundity is found not “outside” human experience in the environment as a thing, but rather within a cultural heritage’s manner in which it takes up freedom. Indigenous thought and ecological thinking help show ways in which cultural heritage and cultural understanding are not limitations to “proper” science or economic systems, but important ways in which to understand relationships and value.
Part V: Self-Responsibility as Teleologically Given in Transcendental Phenomenology
The final section of the book develops the idea that philosophy in the manner outlined above cannot be first and foremost about rule-following. After all, if we are to take seriously intercultural dialogues and the heritage of communities, we cannot find a common set of ethical rules that must guide them all. Moreover, any lifeworld unexamined appears to us “how it is” and thus its “rules” are unexamined as they seem natural. The separation of meaning and value caused by the mathematization- mechanization of the world by the modern sciences and the forced abstraction of humans from their bodies and nature in capitalism requires both an analysis of its origins as well as a responsible call to action to try and guide a method for the renewal of meaning and value. Angus appeals to the idea of responsibility as a method of living by inquiring. “Self-responsibility is the ethic of philosophical inquiry and its practice in confronting the rule-following inherent in lifeworld practices.” (489) This is both a responsibility toward humanity and to the individual. Angus finds that Husserl remains too embedded in the tradition of knowledge “for its own sake” and thus remains unable to articulate a call to action. Instead, learning should be drawn into the strife of the world “with eyes wide open” and to search for justice. (499)
In the preface to the French edition of Capital I, Marx chides the “French public” who are “always impatient to come to a conclusion” that they might not wish to labor through the early chapters. However, he writes “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.” While I have nothing to say about if this characterization of the French public of 1872 is deserved, I do want to qualify my comments below as that perhaps they are testimony more to my challenges with the book’s steepness than the text itself. No book can serve all possible audiences, but I did wish the book were more readable for someone who was versed in one or the other tradition and curious about the possible connections. As it is, I would find it quite challenging for someone to read who didn’t already have a good command of Husserl’s phenomenology and at least an understanding of the critique of capitalism in Marxist thought. While Angus does provide an extremely detailed discussion of the main points he wants to draw from each, and thus this could act as a kind of summary, he does not explain for the reader the general frame in which to understand these very detailed summaries. This is particularly so for the phenomenological discussions. I cannot see someone who was well-read in Marxist thought making much sense of the phenomenological project herein since the discussion assumes a certain understanding of phenomenology’s language. I could imagine a reader unfamiliar with Marxist thought, but familiar with phenomenology understanding better the discussion of abstract labor and nature, so central to the book, since capitalism so defines our current reality and even someone who has not read Marx would be familiar with the idea that there might be problems with capitalism.
I wonder if the book began not with Husserl’s thought, but instead with a shorter discussion of ecology that appears very late in the text. This would provide a kind of framework and directionality to the text in which to work through the crises of science and labor. While the ultimate longer analysis of ecology rightly should follow his analysis at the end of the book, any reader would be familiar with our current environmental crisis and could help understand that this book would help elucidate this crisis and provide some ideas for action. In addition, more framing of phenomenology’s method might aid in reaching a wider audience. I also wondered at the conclusion, so exclusively considered with phenomenology where it would have seemed to my mind obvious here to appeal to the call to action in Marxist thought. In the discussion of communities, one could also think not just of communities qua historical cultures, but also communities such as labor unions, political groups, and religious groups.
However, this is a “groundwork” not an introduction to phenomenological Marxism and as such perhaps it is a text that is rightly directed toward an audience who can follow its density and read further as need be. It is a welcome addition to our intellectual life and provides an important way in which to address the manifold contemporary crises our world faces. In particular, Angus presents a compelling model wherein we engage with Indigenous and community-based thinking not to simply affirm the “otherness” of this thought, but to see it as an important interlocutor with European phenomenology and Marxism. The crises we face are not culturally located, but planetary, and as such require a universalizing, but not totalizing, response.
 Karl Marx. 1976. Capital Volume I, 105. London: Penguin.
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.