7 min read

Husserl and the Search for Certitude - 2

Let's get through some more of this book.

Second Lecture - The Means

Two conditions for avoiding psychologism:

First, [our thought] must be independent of the fact that "I," the knowing subject, am a psychological person, involved in social and historical conditions, and biologically determined. Second, it must not only reach "facts" but give access to universal truth... These two postulates are expressed in Husserl's two slogans: "back to the things themselves," and "philosophy should be a rigorous science."

For the first, we need to dig down to 'absolutely primordial insight'. (I don't really know why this avoids psychologism, but I think according to Husserl this foundational stuff is supposed to be a really general layer shared by all rational beings, or something. C.f. 'They seem to be a priori entities, valid not only for our species but containing universal rules of rationality.' from the last post.)

Ah, now an interesting bit about losing track of meaning as we extend the reach of technology:

A meaningful understanding of knowledge cannot spring from its accumulation in particular sciences. The growing mass of facts, theories, hypotheses, and classifications that allows us to predict events and improve our technology, does not really help us in understanding the world. While increasing his power over nature, man extends the distance between his technological skill and his capacity to understand. The sciences measure things without realizing what they measure; in carrying out cognitive acts, they are incapable of grasping these very acts.

Damn these scientists counting past twelve.

OK now he's going to criticize 'three intellectual attitudes':

  • Naturalism, 'regarding consciousness as an object in the world, to be investigated psychologically'. This allows us to analyse the contents of consciousness but 'it does not enable us to ask about its validity'
  • Historicism, knowledge as a product of human cultural history.
  • Weltanschauungsphilosophie, in Dilthey or in other versions. It considers philosophy as an expression of personal, social, or historical values, which are valid for a particular period or for a particular human community

All of this stuff is too relativistic.

Husserl looks for a method that would justify the claims of knowledge to a validity independent of history, persons, society, or biological circumstance. He looks for criteria that keep the same virtue whether or not the world exists.
Consequently, we should start our reconstruction of meaning and of the world by putting aside all results of science, all empirical facts as "given" within the world, our own "ego," and the very existence of the world and of other persons. All this may be questioned. What cannot?

Husserl turns to 'pure perception' instead.

The pure phenomenon of my perceiving, judging, experiencing, and willing can be the object of a direct insight; it is immanently present, here. We may describe it as it appears without deciding what it is, but still we may hope that in how it appears we will discover some constitutive, necessary qualities of the world.

Similar path to Descartes but more minimalistic:

Descartes' blunder consists in his decision that he could doubt the existence of the world but not his own existence-that his Ego was given him in absolute immediacy and he was thus a thinking substance. But in pure phenomena no thinking substance appears. Therefore we have to eliminate the substantial Ego as well. Such a purification of the field of consciousness from any existence-this transcendental reduction-is the first and necessary operation on the way toward certitude. It frees me from all prejudices of common sense, in particular concerning the existence of both the world and the subject. Both are suspended or put into brackets or endowed with the "epistemological zero-indicator."

So now we get the classic jargon of phenomenology, transcendental reduction and bracketing. I'm basically ok with bracketing but still always somewhat confused by what 'transcendental reduction' is all about, and what 'eliminating the substantial Ego' means. Maybe this next bit is helpful:

We suspend any transcendence, anything going beyond the pure phenomenon of cogitatio. This phenomenon is given, but not so the fact that it is "mine," that it belongs to an empirical person. Neither is the fact given that a phenomenon "represents" an object.

Difference from Kant:

The difference from the Kantian concept of phenomenon is unmistakable: to Kant, the phenomenon is an appearance of something; that phenomena revealed things was to him obvious, direct; we do not know how the thing is in itself, but we do know immediately that it is revealed in the phenomenon; as if--though Kant does not say so-the existence of things was an analytical truth, included in the very sense of the word "phenomenon."

Now a bit about the meaning of the term 'transcendental' which is apparently 'not sufficiently explained in Husserl's writing'. 'In most contexts' though it means that it applies generally, independent of individual details of psychology, biology, history, culture etc.

The question remains open, whether and how what we achieve within the phenomenal world will appear to be valid for the "real" world. Briefly, we leave open the possibility that the "brackets" will be taken away. However we should ask if it is true, if, within Husserl's program, we will ever be allowed to take off the brackets without crossing out the results of the reduction.

Some more stuff about transcendental reduction that I'm going to skip. Now onto eidetic reduction, the next step of the method.

The task of phenomenology is not to describe a singular phenomenon but to uncover in it the universally valid and scientifically fruitful essence, or eidos. The eidetic insight, however, is not a procedure of abstraction, but a special kind of direct experience of universals, which reveal themselves to us with irresistible self-evidence.

Yeah I think this is something I've been missing as background for the Derrida stuff. Eidetic reduction was mentioned in the Cisney book but I don't really get what the idea was. Transcendental = reduction to the sphere of perception, and eidetic = somehow find some universals within it?

Husserl rejects the traditional empiricist theory of abstraction, which implies that direct experience always deals with singularity, while the process of abstraction is nothing but an economizing symbolic notation purported to record some actually important common qualities of many objects

Yes, this seems important for understanding him.

... Such a theory implies that any abstraction is as good as any other, that each concept is properly built if it can be applied to the purpose for which it was created, and that all criteria of selecting qualities are equally correct and all produce a sort of practically useful distortion. This theory implies in addition that knowledge of universals does not add anything to the experience of individuals, it has no autonomous cognitive value, and it does not reveal in the world anything that would not be included in particular perceptions.

To Husserl, on the contrary, universals are not inferred from individuals but are given directly, "bodily."

Haha I should have looked this up weeks ago, it's clearly highly relevant to Derrida on iterability etc. Though also I think I tried and it just fell out of my head, now I have the context ready.

Without the experience of essence, no meaning and no meaningful judgments would be possible; whatever we say of objects-real or imaginary-we intend a "species being. " In saying "this stone is grey" we do not mean a particular greyness but a genus greyness, and this genus is immediately given...

Now it's getting complicated and I'll skim, but this is possibly worth going back to later. There's a bit on Husserl's method of 'free imaginary variation':

we try to imagine the object (a universal), while neglecting or mentally exchanging some of its properties, and so we conclude that some of them, even if they empirically always accompany the phenomenon, do not structurally belong to it, and their absence leaves the nature of phenomenon untouched; while others cannot be abolished without the identity of the phenomenon being abolished with it.

I should go look up an example of this some time. Stanford points to Experience and Judgement, sec. 87.

The idea is to build many 'eidetic sciences' looking at these fundamental concepts:

They will explain and describe the original meaning of the basic concepts of any given science (like the concept of number in mathematics or the concept of the work of art in art history) without presupposing any actual achievements of any existing science...

Next bit is really useful for my understanding:

Thus is the sense of the slogan "back to things themselves" revealed. It means "back to universals," but to universals that are not produced arbitrarily or for the sake of convenience and do not make up a separate realm of being; it means, "back to universals as direct objects of intellectual intuition."

This wasn't what I was imagining - I was thinking about 'the things themselves' being individual instances of perception, not as having this universal quality. Oh and the idea was to see how well actual science conforms to these eidetic structures:

We want to know whether our science and our common sense cut the world according to its, as it were, "natural" fibers or according to our practical needs and conventions (a difference which cannot be done within phenomenalism and empiricism), whether or not scientific concepts are correctly and meaningfully built (in conformance with necessary properties of eidetic structures).

So how do we do this eidetic reduction thing?

The trouble with Husserl's method is that his writings give very few examples of it.


Certainly, many phenomenologists tried to apply the "method," not simply to describe it. Eidetic description is universally applicable; we may describe the eidos of the color red, of the relation of similarity, of architecture, the state, religion, love, moral value, social bonds, and our acts of seeing each of these objects. We may, for example, reflect on the "eidos" of religion: does the belief in personal deity make up its necessary part? Or is it the existence of a religious organization, the belief in afterlife, or the experience of "the Holy"? There are no reasons to presume that everyone will arrive at the same conclusions, and if one says "I have had the insight, you haven't," the discussion must come to a stop. For Husserl, the ultimate material of knowledge is not communicable, but what is communicable is of great significance ; the skill of a phenomenologist does not consist in remembering ready made truths but in a constant effort to purify one's own consciousness from naïve stereotypes and beliefs of daily life, from the apparent evidence of science, from habitual and misleading concepts or from the blurring of the distinction between the facts of experience and its content.

Finally there's some argument against Husserl's method. I'm tired now so I'll skip it, I think the paragraph above gives a good idea of the criticism. This book has turned out to be really useful though. I expect I'll also make notes on the third and final lecture soon.