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.