8 min read

Husserl and the Search for Certitude

I was wandering around Cosma Shalizi's notebooks yesterday for the first time in a while. That always turns up something interesting, and this time it's this book Husserl and the Search for Certitude, by Leszek Kolakowski. Just from the title it sounds relevant to something I was thinking about a couple of months ago:

So why does it need to work? Maybe this book will tell me. It's pretty short, just a series of three lectures, but I'm still only going to skim it for now. This is mainly just going to be me copying and pasting some quotes, though I'll probably talk about some of them a bit.

First lecture - 'The Ends'

I do admit that Husserl was indeed a great philosopher because of the extraordinary obstinacy of his endless endeavor: to restore hope in the return to absolutely primordial insight in cognition and to achieve victory over relativism and skepticism.
Like most philosophers, he was writing the same book throughout his life, always going back to the beginning, correcting himself, struggling with his own presuppositions. The goal was invariably the same: how to discover the unshakable, the absolutely unquestionable foundation of knowledge; how to refute arguments of skeptics, of relativists; how to fend off the corrosion of psychologism and historicism; how to reach a perfectly hard ground in cognition. I myself was strongly negatively dependent on HusserIo I think that he did not discover this self-supporting foundation of our thought. But not only was his effort not in vain; I believe that the phenomenology was the greatest and the most serious attempt in our century to reach the ultimate sources of knowledge.
Husserl himself expected that his method would play a great role in saving European culture from skeptical decay.
The concept of certainty can be regarded as the key to Husserl's thought. He noticed that the project of scientific philosophy in the sense popularized by German thinkers in the second half of the nineteenth century was misleading and dangerous. The slogan of "scientificity" smuggled a renunciation of what had passed for science in the genuine-Platonic-sense throughout the European intellectual tradition. It blurred the basic distinction between doxa and epistime, between opinion and knowledge. In giving up the tradition of German idealism, philosophy gave up its independence from the sciences. It started regarding itself either as a synthesis of the sciences or as a psychological analysis. Even new variants of Kantianism shifted to the psychological standpoint and explained the Kantian a priori not as a set of transcendental conditions of knowledge (valid for any rational being) but as specific qualities of the human psyche, and this led fatefully to generic relativism.

Tangent: I took a philosophy of physics course in undergrad and we had to read the space-and-time bits of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. I sort of automatically read him in this psychological way, as saying something about the cognitive equipment we view the world through, I guess because that view is one that makes sense to someone who hasn't read any idealist philosophy but has read a bunch of pop science books about psychology and cognitive science. So I think I ended up insulated from the true foreignness of Kant's views (he actually made a lot more sense than the positivists to me, interpreted through this lens), and never even started to get my head round all the transcendental stuff. Even now this whole idea of wanting 'transcendental conditions of knowledge (valid for any rational being)' is pretty baffling to me. So that goes some way to explaining why I'm confused by Husserl.

Husserl's concept of "scientific philosophy" was entirely different. Philosophy must not accept any ready-made results from the sciences and "generalize" them. Its calling is to inquire into the meaning and foundation of these results. Philosophy does not have to be a "crown" or a synthesis, but a meaning-founding activity which logically precedes the sciences, as they are incapable of interpreting themselves. The idea of an epistemology based on a science, on psychology in particular, is revoltingly absurd.

The problem with this is the lack of foundations:

To believe in a psychological epistemology amounts to believing that we are allowed to accept the results of one particular science in order to legitimate the claims of any science to objectivity or to endow with meaning all sciences, and this obviously involves a vicious circle.

Ah, yeah, so maybe this is why I struggle to understand. The lightships have been adrift for a long time now, and I don't expect foundations.

Husserl believed that the search for certitude was constitutive of European culture and that giving up this search would amount to destroying that culture. Husserl was probably right: the history of science and philosophy in Europe would indeed be unintelligible if we neglected the pursuit of such a certitude, a certitude that is more than practically satisfying; a pursuit of truth as distinct from the pursuit of technically reliable knowledge. We do not have to explain why we look for certainty when doubt hinders our practical life; but the need for certainty is not so obvious when no direct, indirect, or even possible, practical considerations are involved. Every high-school student is taught that geometry, in conformity with its name, originated from the need to measure land. Still, it would be hard to explain how, in measuring the land, the axiomatic system of Euclid-the system we admire today as a miracle-was necessary.

OK, 'unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics' is a more compelling argument to me than 'we need foundations!!', mathematics is indeed unreasonably effective and I agree that's weird.

Now some stuff about Descartes and previous traditions of doubting things in philosophy.

The task that European philosophy assumed from the very beginning, not only from Descartes, was this: to destroy apparent certitudes in order to gain "genuine" ones; to cast doubt on everything, in order to free oneself from doubting. As a rule, its destructive results proved to be more efficient and more convincing than its positive programs; philosophers have always been stronger in shattering old certitudes than in establishing new ones.

Lots of history that I'm mostly going to skim for now. Some doubts about the whole project of finding foundations:

The very task to reach the truth in the current (transcendental) sense appeared self-contradictory: to know about the world-in-itself amounts to knowing about the world which is entirely independent of the fact that it is being known, i.e. to producing a cognitive situation which does not involve the object of cognition, or a cognitive situation which is not a cognitive situation. This was roughly the result of the way in which Descartes and Hume were interpreted by German and French empiricists at the end of the 19th century, in particular by Mach and Avenarius.
Husserl was sure that psychologism ended in skepticism and relativism, that it made science impossible, and that it devastated the entire intellectual legacy of mankind. After Natorp, Frege, and Bolzano (who, in his opinion, had not downed the adversary consistently enough), Husserl attacked psychologism. He tried to show that the theory was self-contradictory, that it was based on the confusion of the meaning of judgments with the acts of judging, and that it utterly and absurdly distorted the sense we really ascribe to logic.

Ah, ok, so maybe we're getting to something like the expression ('meaning of judging') vs indication ('acts of judging') distinction.

To followers of psychologism, he argued, the rules of logic, far from being obligatory commands, simply state empirical facts. The consequences of thought, then, are not logical consequences of thought but causal relations between facts of our consciousness. To say that the sentence "all dogs are mammals" entails the sentence "some mammals are dogs" does not really mean that anything logically follows anything. It simply displays a causal relation between two acts of acceptance related to these two judgments. Some mysterious natural laws connect these two acts in a causal succession of events. Thus, logical rules are relative, if not to individuals, at least to the human species. Thus nothing prevents us from supposing that they have no universal validity, and they might lose it for another sentient organism; perhaps they might lose it for us if evolution changes some mechanisms of our nervous system.
What is wrong with such an idea? A lot, in Husserl's view... Psychologism, Husserl argues, fails to make the distinction between the meaning of judgment and the act of judging. My act of affirming the judgment that 2 + 2 = 4 is causally determined, but it would be absurd to say that the truth of this judgment is causally determined. Otherwise we should be forced to admit that truth arises in the act of its being thought or that Pythagoras' theorem became valid only at the moment when it was uttered by Pythagoras.

So instead, Husserl looks to build up logic on the foundation of 'ideal categories, employed in all domains of human knowledge':

These meanings, however, do not have an ontological status similar to the Platonic ideas. In fact, their ontological status is not clear: they are neither autonomous ideal entities nor psychological acts. They make up the realm of transcendental norms in the Kantian sense. They seem to be a priori entities, valid not only for our species but containing universal rules of rationality.

Yeah, so this is why I get confused by Husserl more than Derrida, probably just because the idea makes no sense lol, and I'm not immersed in the sort of cultural background that makes me desperately want it to make sense anyway.

If we want to save the trust in Reason, in the validity of knowledge, and to preserve the very meaning of the concept "truth," we must not base logic on psychological laws. We have to find the transcendental foundation of certitude.

This was the idea which led HusserI from his attacks on psychologism to his program of phenomenology, as a method of describing necessary structures of the world, a method that is free from the impact of psychological constructions. Eventually it led him to the idea of transcendental consciousness, which constitutes these structures as correlates of its own intentional acts-to transcendental idealism.

Next is a bit about Mach's views, which seem bad to me in something like the opposite way:

Mach maintains that the concept of truth in the current sense is useless, a relic of metaphysical prejudices. The empirical concept of acceptability is quite satisfactory. Science, on his view, is a continuation of daily life reactions, employing the same common sense criteria of acceptability. It is a kind of socially recorded conditioned-reflex system.

Now we've lost touch with the lifeworld and our internal sense of meaning completely. Husserl makes this into transcendental magic stuff, Mach throws it away completely. Temperamentally I prefer Husserl's view to Mach's, I guess this is why I ended up drawn to his ideas even when they didn't make sense to me.

Husserl, not unlike Descartes, failed to provide a clear distinction between psychological and objective certitude. He speaks of insight as a special experience, but experience is a psychological fact, and how then can we talk about meaning being independent of such facts? This special experience is no doubt supposed to discover meaning, not to produce it, but how can we assure ourselves that we have reached the proper meaning?

Short bit about Piaget:

Piaget's theory is a psychological interpretation of logic which resists Husserl's arguments... We do not know the mind as a tabula rasa, we find some cognitive schemas in earliest behavior, and the mutual pressure of these schemas and of new perceptions produces the socially accepted norms of logic... It would be silly to say according to Piaget, that "in nature itself' the solar system has nine planets; there is nothing like "nine" in nature; the "nine" as a possible property of certain systems in the world arises with the presence of "nine" in our thought, in behavior, and in language.

(it's funny in retrospect how much everyone loves this example of nine planets)

OK, I'm through the first lecture, but I ended up quoting more that I expected, so I'll leave it there for now and go back to the second lecture ('The Means') and third lecture ('The Achievements') another day.