The Search for an Alternative I:
Subjectivism, Phenomenology, Marxism,
and the Role of Alternatives

by Marvin Farber

The Historical Nature of Philosophy

Awareness of the significance of the theme of this chapter, the search for an alternative, as a widespread intellectual motive has grown in my mind for many years. This motive is grounded deeply in the conditions of human experience and is abundantly illustrated in social and intellectual history.

It is important to bear in mind the historical nature of philosophy, which must be recognized first when dealing with philosophical issues. The historical nature of philosophy is one specialized part of the historical nature of thought in general, also comprising the ideas of science, morals, politics, religion, and all the other parts of the superstructure, which develops on the economic basis of the social world and as an integral, contributing factor of that world. The specialized philosophical portion is not to be fully understood or accounted for without reference to the other ideas and to the facts about the nature and development of society.

In the course of the discussion, phenomenology (or subjectivism) and Marxism, with their revisionistic forms, are the central themes. Finally, the awareness of the search for an alternative which pervades the discussion is brought to the fore. A correction of the well‑founded charge of the remoteness of much philosophical thought from central living issues must be made, without sacrificing the ideal of the uninhibited pursuit of truth. This requires the consideration of practice as well as theory before the philosopher's balance sheet can be regarded as complete.

Philosophical thought is influenced by motives and causal factors in the historical tradition and in the existing social system. There have been alignments from "left" to "right," and differences in the nature of "left" and "right," as shown, for example, by medieval mysticism and nominalism at different times, ancient and modern materialism, idealism and subjectivism, and philosophies of human existence in different historical contexts. There have been various modes of social criticism and protest. Any talk of radicalism must answer the question "Radical with respect to what?" The same holds for the designation "conservative."

Individual, novel, and even willful conceptions of philosophy are always possible, and there is nothing to prevent them from being advanced. But so far as the past is concerned, even the immediate past, the books may be considered closed and an effort made to establish the sociohistorical setting and motivation of thinkers designated as philosophical in the broadest and most tenuous sense of the term. The diversity of conflicting standpoints must be included, no matter how narrow or unsound the point of view may be judged to be, or no matter how one‑sided the interests served—that is to say, so far as the mere designation "philosophy" is concerned. The exclusiveness of the existentialist Karl Jaspers, who distinguished between philosophical and unphilosophical writers in the field of philosophy, should not prevent him from being included in any classification of philosophical authors. There are degrees of good and bad philosophy when judged with logical standards, with no limit to the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the writers. On the other hand, many philosophers have served dominant historical interests. It is also true that others have on notable occasions challenged dominant interests, with the most thoroughgoing challenge being that of Marx, who also found past philosophers falling short of the ideal of changing the world. In all historically important cases, however, philosophers were credited with saying something and not brushed aside as saying nothing.

The ideal of a rigorous science of philosophy has been defended as the ultimate objective and model of all science. But there are difficulties in the way of a program and platform presumed to be valid "once and for all time." The ideal—or pretense—of such a final science is itself historically conditioned; purportedly it is intended to surmount all future historical conditions and problems, but its spirit of neutrality tends to become a support for the established social world. It is an assumptive program which is envisaged, with assumptions concerning the static structure of thought and reality; and the selective nature of the contemplated program is overlooked.

No foundation of a final philosophy in the traditional literature has had permanent prospects. Christian philosophy was developed through the centuries, and it is still affected by changing historical circumstances. The Valhalla of the great tradition in the Western world has provided a fixed and lasting place for great or not at all great thinkers, preserved side by side through their writings and ideas, and in part through their influence. The "neo" schools of thought could for a time resist change, but they always yielded to new conditions, despite the varying degree of their success, as illustrated by neo-Platonism, neo‑Kantianism, neo‑scholasticism, neo‑Hegelianism, and other "neo" efforts on the part of realists, subjectivists, and existentialists.

Does this apply to Marxism? There are complicating circumstances, requiring clarification of the scope of Marxist thought. In addition to the line of development through the writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, the status of Dietzgen and more recent writers professing strict adherence to Marxism must be determined. It is also pertinent to consider the Frankfurt school, Lukacs, and numerous other points of influence of Marx's thought, along with the issues raised by the various types of revisionism.

It may be argued that the talk of a philosophy "once and for all time" is hostile to the very meaning of philosophy. But that would not be borne out by the facts, for there have been efforts through the historical past to make ideas and doctrines official. In the medieval period that meant a formal decree as determined by authority. Like the enforcement of laws in everyday life, such decisions tend to be rigidly applied and enforced. The spirit of an open program of philosophical thought forbids closure by authoritative decisions at any points. The historical realities must be considered, however, and the actual motivations recognized. Outspoken defenders and apologists for a social order with a dominant class have the support of all who are interested in its continued existence. But even the devout claims to detachment of purely subjective or formal thinkers must also be questioned for their significance in the social system and for their failure to respond to needs connected with the welfare and dignity of mankind. To restrict one's domain for inquiry to an immanent or conceptual realm may be, and often is, to avoid thereby the transitory world of generation and decline, with all its social conflicts.

The platform of the Personalists, as represented by E. S. Brightman and Mary W. Calkins in 1929, has now receded into history. The same may be said of the platform of the American neo‑Realists, which primarily owed its distinction to its opposition to idealism. [1] The "Platform of Personalistic Idealism" included Berkeleian, Lotzean, Hegelian, and Platonic elements; the universe was held to be completely mental in nature and to be a system of selves and persons, who are either members of an all‑inclusive person or a society of many selves related by common purposes.

It will also be recalled how Royce interpreted the nature of man and the world in relationship to a divine being. It was Royce's aim to absorb and reaffirm whatever is the case, and to incorporate it in the "Absolute," making use of ethical criteria derived ab extra. But in focusing on the "Absolute" in the absorptive effort, he neglected the differences and conflicts of real human beings, and especially the conflicts of economic classes. Because of his eternalistic perspective he operated with changeless units, including individuals. Even though he mentioned [2] the influence of sociohistorical conditions on the nature of individuals, his vision was directed toward "the union of God and man" rather than toward the nature and problems of human society.

In practice, spokesmen for a formally adopted platform or for a system of thought defending traditional beliefs usually tend to become doctrinaire, dividing the relevant world into partisans and opponents. A sound philosophy cannot afford to neglect continued self‑criticism along with the criticism of opposing views and the reappraisal of the needs of a changing world. As in the case of science, where there are important practical consequences of ideas, philosophy must always be sensitive to change.

It is far from enough to achieve internal consistency in reasoning; and the hope that a place in the realm of eternal truth is assured therewith is only supported by what Feuerbach called the principle of sufficient wishing. All reasoning and all motivation for thought originate in the process of history, and they must be returned to history for the examination of their significance and vitality.  History is not a merely incidental item in an eternal, supertemporal matrix of forms of truth. On the contrary, every such presumed matrix, as a rational construct, is itself an event in the stream of historical becoming. It is unavoidable that a system of thought undertaking to do justice to change must itself be a changing system. History is the alpha and the omega of all rational thought‑and that means real history, the actual development of human life in the natural and social world.

Radical Analysis and the Future of Philosophy

The historical past was always a past future. All talk of the future of philosophy can be concerned only with a "present future," insofar as it is talked about. For the future grows out of the present; it cannot emerge full‑grown like Minerva, whereby it will be noted that Minerva was after all a cultural emergent from the Greek tradition of god‑constructs. The concrete present is, as Hegel observed, the result of the past, and it is "big" with the future. But the present future of an hour ago is already a past future. Whatever emerges from the present is to be accounted for in terms of potentialities and transformations of already existing—and receding—conditions. The future is always the coming or relevant future, about which questions relating to present needs and frustrations are raised.

There are also external, practical, or formalistic conceptions of the future, as measured by centuries, so that one readily thinks of "the next century." The most formalistic conception of the future of man refers to an ideal state of society when the lamb and the lion will lie down together and human beings undifferentiated historically, socially, or economically will coexist on the basis of a general love. Like Utopian or any other artificially contrived patterns for the future, however, such conceptions could have a useful function by providing a possibly helpful perspective on the present.

Thus, in any talk of the future of Western philosophy, one should indicate the degree or extent of the future involved—the coming year, the next decade or century, or an indefinitely located future future. It is desirable to have practical considerations and real situations in mind. At the close of World War II, the future of Germany was in question, including among many other things the future of Germany's heavy industry and its capacity to produce materials for warfare. At that time the thought of Alfred Rosenberg had no future, and its past future, as viewed during the Nazi period of supremacy, appeared grotesque to most non‑Nazis. A simple revival of the transcendental philosophy of Husserl, or of any other type of idealistic thought, had limited appeal. But any concern with human existence belonged to the order of the day and provided special motivation. It was possible, however, for those wishing to preserve the status quo to present alternatives in practical affairs. Vagueness and the use of idealized generalities can always function as means for the avoidance of actual problems of human existence, even though they may seem to be dealt with under the heading of abstract anxiety, care, and other types of disengaged experience.

All talk of the future should accordingly be checked by reference to the present, with the requisite critical reflective detachment. That can be accomplished by means of a methodological suspension of beliefs in a realistic and materialistic setting, or an epoché which does not forget the primacy of the existing world, as distinguished from the subjectively directed epoché of pure phenomenology. A question of fundamental importance is raised therewith: Is it possible to engage in a type of radical reflection that is free from presuppositions and commitments of all kinds? Or does one unavoidably attempt to do so from a sociohistorical point of view, with recognizable commitments and beliefs, so that the present reflecting thinker, who is himself a sociohistorical product, is concerned in a historically conditioned way with selected materials and questions? Whether it is possible to transcend history in any sense will also be asked therewith. That is not the same as asking whether objective knowledge is possible, for that can be answered by means of the requisite evidence and by considering the practical aspects of the ideas in question. In short, the achievement of objectively true knowledge does not involve the transcendence of history by man. Man is both a product and a maker of history, who can no more evade history than he can leave his body.

A complete radical analysis is an ideal. There are always further problems and unexplored dimensions for inquiry. The important thing to determine is whether any analysis is sufficient for the purpose in hand. Thus, Marx's analysis of capitalist production is to be viewed in relation to its practical objective, the elimination of the system of wage labor and the transformation of society in accordance with his conception of human needs and development.

Similarly, Husserl's program for analysis was selective, and it was led by definite aims which, as it turned out, prevented him from  him from successfully developing a universal philosophy. For he was a specialist in the study of philosophical aspects of formal logic and the structural features of pure experience, as he defined the nature of pure experience in the context of his transcendental phenomenology. He could talk of radicalism only in the special ideal sense of endeavoring to get back of and inspecting all assumptions and interpretations contributed by the human mind to the world of experience. His selective radicalism did not extend to the sources and conditions of human experience or to the questioning of social practices; it represented a mode of inquiry that failed to make contact with the actual experience of real historical persons.

In general, the way in which such philosophers react to social problems is by bypassing them in favor of questions about timeless, abstractive types of structure. Because the inspection of selected structures of the work of experience on the part of subjectivists tends to disregard the existing order of society, the historically developed forms referring directly or indirectly to property relations are in effect accepted as finalities.

The restriction of formal logic and pure mathematics to idealized concepts and structures does not mean denying the ontological basis of these disciplines in the existing world. This also applies to the purely reflective treatment of experience and its objects, whether real, imaginary, or purely conceptual. But a legitimate and defensible method of inquiry of that kind, meaning that it is free from dogmas, should not be overextended or regarded as the sole method of philosophy. The traditional as well as current functions of philosophical thought do not allow such overextension.

Just as the starting point of all questions about the future is to be found in the present, the starting point of philosophy in general can be only the real world of history and nature. This primary fact should not be lost sight of in the pursuit of detached modes of analysis. A complete philosophy must include a response to existing and prospective needs, which requires awareness of the major problems of mankind. The tensions and conflicts of contemporary society, nationally and internationally, must be considered in all their aspects and in their bearing upon all modes of inquiry. Reflective thought appears to he empty in its treatment of experience if there is no evidence of awareness of industrial conflicts and their political representation; the effects of the competitive system on all classes of society; the relations of labor and capital; the uses and misuses of authority in its many forms; the clash of value judgments due to religious, socioeconomic, political, and other commitments; rivalries between or among nations; vested beliefs which are untouched by all general and formal talk about the provisional suspension and methodical examination of all beliefs; war as an extension and intensification of the economic system, and its effects on ideas and moral practice; and also the important theme of the sociohistorical role of philosophical thought, and the effects of ideas on the existing social system. The Marxist thesis must also be considered, that the types of conflict cited are related in various ways to the individual mode of ownership of the socialized means of production, motivated by the quest for profit.

What follows as a matter of fact from the phenomenological suspension of beliefs about existence? Nothing in fact, for that suspension is the safest and most innocuous of all procedures so far as the entrenched interests of the existing social system are concerned. In short, it takes far more courage to challenge a matter of fact, such as an existing institution, than to retire to the immanence of conscious experience and the contemplation of nontemporal structures. A concrete understanding of human problems is required if the achievements of society are to be utilized in accordance with the needs and desires of the great majority of the people. This means actually existing people, more or less frustrated, rather than theoretical constructs or nameless, abstractive egos which are exempt from all the vicissitudes of birth, privation, and death. The heroism of the radical subjectivist is as sterile as it is devoid of real effects.

This is not to deny that there has been merit in descriptive studies in the literature of idealism or subjectivism. In adding to our knowledge of the nature of the activities of thought processes, the most notable exponents of idealism have performed a lasting service to the development of philosophical thought. A sound and adequate philosophy, responding to the motive of the greatest possible human freedom and fulfillment, knows how to learn from the traditional literature. That literature must be viewed from a higher perspective of reflection, which sees the actual role played by each thinker and each type of thought. It is seen therewith that idealism is not to be judged simply as a generality and that there are vast differences between the historical mission of a Kant or a Hegel and that of relatively nonsignificant continuators of inherited doctrines.

The subjectivistic suspension of beliefs amounts to a withdrawal from the concerns of the world, because of its retirement to the immanence of pure consciousness. But the suspension of beliefs which is integrated with general methodology will have learned how to combine reflective detachment with due regard for the established knowledge provided by the findings of the sciences and ordinary experience, and that includes knowledge derived by statistical methods and all types of description. It will deal explicitly with human problems of all kinds, and it will recognize the actual status of subjective analysis, now translated into the language of a specialized discipline, as one of the historical antecedents of a more adequate form of reflective analysis. Man and the historical route of his works, man and his needs, both current and ideally conceived, and man and the world of which he has increasing knowledge and possible control will define the beginning and the end of such inquiry. Some may continue to yearn for the most rigorous kind of deductive or "essential" knowledge in a final philosophical form. But man will continue to attempt to solve his problems by means of any available, practicable methods, with the subjectivistic ideal of certainty reserved for the quiet realm of pure, abstractive nothings. The crudest and most imperfect something is to be preferred ontologically to a perfect, idealized nothing; and a partial or imperfect solution is better than the vaunted apodictic knowledge, which if developed would supposedly be the key to solve the riddles of the universe, but which, for present and relevant future purposes, has no effect on the real world.

Subjectivism and the Prospects of Phenomenology

The importance of Husserlian phenomenology as the most rigorous expression of subjectivism in this century raises the question of its present prospects for the coming generation. The critical reexamination of pure phenomenology which has been indicated requires renewed attention to its key concepts, such as evidence, truth, essence, the idea of a transcendental science, the transcendental ego, the world and contingent existence, and the natural attitude. In the present discussion, brief comments will be made about the concept of evidence and the role of the solitary ego.

If evidence is taken to mean "having the meant object in view in its bodily givenness," the entire conception of evidence depends upon the cognitive setting provided by the method of analysis. With the performance of an epoché and the reduction to the sphere of experiences of a solitary ego to begin with, one operates with an ego that merely serves as a device of method and not as a real entity. Because of the suspension of all theses concerning transcendent natural existence, no use is made of the causal knowledge obtained by naturalistic methods.

Sound descriptive findings of phenomenology could simply be added to the usual dimension of causal‑genetic analysis, if not for the way in which the reduction to pure consciousness is carried through. The nonmaterialistic program (also antimaterialistic in actual practice) made it necessary to resort exclusively to essence‑analysis in order to obviate questions requiring mundane methods for their answers. The requirement of "bodily givenness" for evidence may seem rigorous and admirable, but it is really an abstract condition within the confines of the purely subjective procedure, and it becomes properly meaningful only on the basis of normal, natural experience. That is to say, the experience of real, historically conditioned human beings who are complex organizations of matter, with the potentiality of carrying out perceptual, conceptual, and other activities, and even of speaking of "annulling" or "annihilating" the world phenomenologically.

A purely subjective beginning for philosophy has its own specialized merits. Like any formal method, it is made possible by the imposition of artificial conditions and is narrowly selective in its questions, operations, and subject matter. In the interest of soundness and truth, that procedure must be aligned with other types of procedure and subordinated to a general methodology. There should be no suggestion of the pretense that is unmistakably present when transcendental phenomenology is portrayed as a protophilosophical discipline pointing the way for all the sciences. For it is only by non‑purely-subjective existence and truth that one can have the artifice known as the reduced realm of pure consciousness, whether egological or intersubjective. In short, in the development of phenomenology the slogan "Back to the things themselves" was not really concerned with the things themselves, from which the subjective procedure had cut itself off. A genuine concern with the things themselves can be possible only on the basis of an antecedently existing world, which is not merely a "pregiven" world of lived experience. It must be the natural and sociohistorical world, in which active human beings seek to introduce changes in accordance with their needs and interests. The crucial aim should be to take account of the real nature of the things themselves, and that means to take account of the collective knowledge provided increasingly by the sciences and general experience. No matter how much the sciences have required and may continue to require criticism, whether along logical, descriptive‑philosophical, or historical‑materialistic lines, they still continue to offer the most valuable body of knowledge about the nature and behavior of the things themselves. It should be noted, moreover, that the study of the sociohistorical conditions affecting science provides an addition to scientific knowledge, which is quite in accordance with the unlimited scope and self‑critical nature of science.

The evidence desired by pure phenomenology must be placed in a larger setting, without which its whole procedure would be an anomaly. The solitary ego is seen to be a fiction, when viewed from the larger perspective of a more general methodology. There can be no talk of an ego without a human body, and no talk of a human body without the physical and social world. The ego‑body is derived from and is in relationship to other ego‑bodies, physically, organically, and socially. So long as it is recognized that there cannot be a real solitary ego or ego-body, however, there need be no harm in operating abstractively with a selectively restricted sphere of experience of an individual ego, as one stage in a method of analysis of experience. But it is important to recognize that a subjective‑ontological advantage has not been gained by this operation, which is completely nugatory so far as such consequences are concerned.

The Question of Independent Existence

In the recent past the question of the independence or dependence of existence has been a recurrent issue, in keeping with what has been called the perennial problem of knowing and being. The different versions of the much discussed world‑problem eventually lead back to the question of independent existence—that is, whether there is a domain of existence independent of and antecedent to the process of knowing. The so‑called world‑problem cannot be said to be a real problem, for the existing universe is the real basis of all thought and inquiry. There is compelling evidence that thought and inquiry are recent, limited events in a cosmic process that is unlimited temporally and spatially. It is thus unlike the question of the nature of the physical or social world. Falsification of the social world and concealment of real relations and causes are incomparably more important problems than the fictitious problem of the independent existence (or, indeed, the very existence) of the natural world, which has managed to remain unaffected by the skeptical or methodological doubts of philosophers.

The cogito, which was in its original sense an important item in modern thought, has become a historical instrument for unsettling the thesis of the existence of the world. In the philosophy of the future, assuming that an equalitarian social system not disturbed by internal conflicts is developed on a world scale, there would be no excuse or motive for subverting the basic fact of the independent existence of the world. Neither would there be any serious deterrents in the way of establishing objectively sound knowledge about the social world. The frequently one‑sided and misleading discussions of the nature of the economy, dealing with problems of money, profit, inflation, poverty, and so on, are examples of difficulties due to class-interest and self‑interest that beset the understanding of the social world.

Once the reduction to pure experience has been performed, which involves suspending the thesis of the independent existence of the natural world, one is faced with the problem of the relationship of the sphere of pure experience to what has been conceded to be the "rights" or truths of the natural view of the world. In short, there is a resulting world‑problem, which I have called a methodogenic problem [3] because it results from the adoption of a particular methodological approach, in the present case a radically subjective‑reflective procedure.

It does not help to argue that the natural world is contingent, so that its nonexistence is conceivable; for that is an assumptive argument, the premises of which can and must be challenged on grounds of the facts of established knowledge, which means with the requisite evidence. What is assumed by that argument? It is assumed that the entire world of existence can be treated as though it were an isolated particular event appearing in experience. Any experienced event may be doubted or held to be illusory, if not hallucinatory, from the point of view of an individual knowing being. But on the basis of the most direct facts of experience and established knowledge about the conditions of living and actual human existence, including dependence on the world for sustenance and on other persons for language, thought, and techniques, the physical and social world must be acknowledged to have antedated any particular knowing being and to be independent of all knowing beings, no matter how much they may do to change it. [4] For the world is always involved in a process of change, and it includes knowing beings as ingredient events, along with their activities and achievements.

The traditional sharpness of philosophers in "questioning" the world is predominantly selective and abstractive; it results in methodogenic difficulties in various ways, conditioned historically and by individual peculiarities. It is assumed, in the literature of idealism and of pure phenomenology, that it is meaningless to talk of existence apart from an essential relationship to a knowing being (or to knowing beings). That is made clear by the delimitation of what is declared to be the closed sphere of pure experience. The entire procedure could be formulated without metaphysical implications for the specialized purposes of abstract reflective analysis, but that is unfortunately not the case. It is unwarranted to invoke the dogma that an object without a knowing subject is unthinkable, unless one were engaging in a merely verbal and trivial argument, with "object" an assumptive term involving a knowing subject. But even if one were to change the linguistic argument appropriately in order to obviate the error, that would not correct the underlying dogma. That can be done in principle by consulting the established facts about the place of man and his experience in the existing world. Failing to adhere strictly to a specialized descriptive program, the argument is extended by subjectivists to refer to all natural existence, the infinite realm within which even the pure philosopher carves out his allegedly self-contained region for analysis. The argument assumptively consigns all existence to the region defined by the subject‑object relationship, passing lightly over the difference between actual and possible experiences and their objects. Such premises are seen to be overextended when the nature of the facts about man's experience and the historical nature of existence, with its perspective of a beginningless past and an endless future, are considered. Finally, the assumption that existence is capable of closure by means of a knower‑known (or noesis-noema) relationship is untenable. Either it merely implies that all existence can be stated to be in that relationship, from which it does not follow that it must actually be in that relationship, for it would require a kind of omnipresent knower, or an equivalent of some kind, all the way to an absolute mind, in order to avoid the charge of a non sequitur; or it is assumed that existence in general may be regarded as conditioned by or even constituted by subjective experience, in order to contribute toward a thoroughgoing understanding of experience and its world. But it would not follow that existence cannot be conceived to have antedated all knowing minds for an indefinitely long period of time, or that it cannot be conceived to go on without human life and experience in the future. It should be noted, in any case, that the actual correlation of knowing and being is the merest detail in the infinite realm of natural existence. Why then should one wish to deceive himself by means of tacit premises which are misleading at best, including the abstract and ontologically sterile conception of a possible relationship to knowing as such? That would hardly be sufficient for a feeling of cosmic comfort to be derived by going beyond the artifices of method in the analysis of experience. There is additional danger in such confusion, for if methods are devices for human inquiry and practice, they can also be means for obfuscation and the preservation of entrenched historical interests.

On Husserl's Later Philosophy

When Husserl introduced his conception of a pregiven life‑world, he seemed to be concerned with the problem of reconciling the claims of the natural attitude with those of his transcendental, constitutive phenomenology. Although he had considered this conception earlier, he discussed it at length in The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. [5] The nature of the acknowledgment of a pregiven life‑world can only be determined by answering some pertinent questions precisely. Is the entire spatiotemporal, natural world pregiven? Is the historical world, with its vast evolutionary background, also pregiven? Is a realm of independent existence acknowledged therewith; or is it the workaday world of everyday experience as such, without identification of any definite historical or cosmic location, and without reference to antecedent or contributing causes and conditions? Are the relationships discerned in the life-world adequate to account for the structural relationships of feudalism, or of modern capitalism, for example? Even if the answer were in the affirmative, which is not to be expected, are the events of the developing industrial world "first," not only for us but also "in themselves" (naturally including in the events "in themselves" the presence and participation of human beings, in their socioeconomic classes and activities)? When these questions have been considered, the answers should be reviewed in connection with Husserl's own pronouncements in his Crisis volume. It was of crucial importance to him to embrace the life-world in his program for a general constitutive phenomenology conducted according to the principles of his overriding subjectivism. It would be hasty indeed to regard his life‑world conception as a naturalistic or materialistic departure, or to construe it in Marxist terms. Husserl was before all and above all a subjectivist, and he had only one way to go—in the direction of his distinctive type of idealism, featuring his penchant for eternalism.

Husserl was never more unsatisfactory in this respect than in the Crisis volume, [6] but also never more fervently convinced that his way to philosophy was incomparably the right way. In effect, he appeared to be outflanking the various types of existential philosophy by means of his conception of a life‑world; and also the objective sciences, which are subjected to an epoché in accordance with the procedure of transcendental phenomenology. The life‑world itself was still in need of being adapted to his now seemingly enlarged constitutive program. As has been indicated, his use of the epoché, with its suspension of all naturalistic conceptions and determinations, leaves him with a philosophy which is greatly restricted in its content and effectiveness. It exposes him to a fundamentally incorrect view of man and of the very place of subjectivity and subjectivism in the cosmos and in real human history; for slaveholders, slaves, fascists, and workers are representative historical realities and not abstractive, nameless life‑world denizens. His use of the epoché cuts him off from recognizing the impact of the facts themselves, meaning here the facts about man and his place in the existing universe temporally, spatially, and sociohistorically and the actual consequences for the theory of knowledge.

The conception of phenomenology defended by Husserl indicates that non-Husserlian phenomenologists do not share a common denominator with him. It is emphasized in the Crisis volume that phenomenology is not intended to project a new science, in response to "a new, purely theoretical interest," and especially not a discipline serving the positive sciences; and there is a warning against the "misrepresentations of hurried readers . . . who . . . hear only what they want to hear." That he was boundlessly ambitious is clear enough, but that he failed to do justice to the knowledge gained about man and his place in the cosmos and in real history, and that he failed to apply it to man and his philosophical thought, is at least equally clear. In short, if a phenomenology of experience is to survive and make a place for itself as a scientific discipline serving the sciences, with no thought of dominating or admonishing them, it can succeed only on the basis of the existing world and real human beings, with their techniques, aims, and motives.

The thought of comparing a cobbler and a phenomenologist (in the Crisis volume) is intriguing, even though the implication is denied that the life‑world epoché "means no more for human existence, practically and 'existentially’ than the vocational epoché of the cobbler." Other vocations coming to mind will include the many types of skilled and unskilled labor, scientists, and educators. Despite the enormous importance of the function of such vocations in society, actually and potentially, there is no room for doubt as to the relative standing assigned to the phenomenologist. Asserting that there is "a complete personal transformation" which is effected by the epoché and the phenomenological attitude, a transformation "comparable in the beginning to a religious conversion," Husserl adds that it "bears within itself the significance of the greatest existential transformation which is assigned as a task to mankind as such." This may well remain as an unsurpassed faith, with nothing to support it. That none of the grave and really significant problems of mankind would be reached via the alleged existential transformation is predetermined by the nature of that transformation. It is far removed from the ideal of a rigorous science of philosophy, originally conceived abstractively and apart from the actual pursuit of science, and without the perspective of real history as applied so effectively by Marx and Engels, in its bearing upon ideas and human institutions. [7] That perspective is needed if one is to understand the role of methods in relation to man and the existing world.

To be sure, there are other and better things in the Crisis volume, but it is abundantly evident that it is not a new and important prospective type of phenomenology that is advanced there. Even the promising conception of meaning‑sediments for the critique of science cannot stand by itself, in isolation from natural and real historical events and the work of practicing scientists. In the context of phenomenology it is undertaken within the confines of an abstract type of analysis concerned entirely with idealities, whereas what is needed to make contact with historical reality is a perspective for which temporal development is not only physically real, but encompasses human experience and all its conditions as well.

On Phenomenology as an Alternative to Marxism

Marxist thought and phenomenology or subjectivism in its general sense, including existentialism, have steadily come to the fore as representing major alternatives, both in theory and in practice. On both sides there are defenses of a strictly orthodox position, with deviations characterized as Marxist revisionism on the one hand, or as dogmatic (notably metaphysical or existential) aberrations as contrasted with pure phenomenology or transcendental subjectivism on the other hand. There has been a continuing search for alternatives within the indicated major alternatives, with occasional combinations of them testifying to the philosophical past of their authors, if not to their motives. To explain this interesting, profuse development one must look in more than one direction, for in addition to the nature of the reasoning employed, there are sociohistorical reasons, class or personal interests, and individual preference and temperament to be considered. Such a complex phenomenon is not to be fully accounted for in all its manifestations by means of a single causal‑explanatory factor, although that is not to say that a unified theory is precluded thereby.

In the Marxist literature, a humanist version and a revolutionary economic-materialistic version have been distinguished, with Marxist humanism now a prominent alternative. Although support for such an alternative might occur anywhere and at any time, it appears significant that it has developed in connection with tensions between Russia and countries in its sphere of influence, which readily provide a basis for social and political motivation of a trend of thought.

The real historical Marx was a thinker who completed his development with respect to a dominant purpose. That purpose was the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and distribution, and therewith the abolition of the profit system. In Marx's view that meant the emancipation of the working class, which had "nothing to lose but its chains." How could the historical fulfillment of Marx's thought be circumvented? Many ways have been suggested, ranging all the way from external antagonism to intra‑Marxist criticism, including the imputation of a narrow economic determinism, the emphasis upon the humanistic version of his thought, and the effort to undercut much of the science flourishing in the bourgeois world in the name of an ontology of man as characterized by free activity, with the concept of praxis bearing the main burden of the argument. This is the setting for Marxist revisionism in its socially motivated forms.

If Marx had published a completed system of thought at a particular time, any deviation from it in the general area of his influence could properly be called revisionistic. It seems fair to infer from his own development, and his close attention to scientific progress, that he would have continued to change his thought in some respects if he had been alive and active for another twenty‑five years. Reacting to his own intellectual background, which included Hegel and the tradition of philosophy, law, science, and literature, Marx broadened and deepened his understanding of social problems and human history. That meant emphasis upon neglected or misrepresented facts concerning man in his real social and economic relations. What led Marx to develop and change as he did is now well understood, in view of the availability of an extensive literature, including the complete edition of his writings and several volumes of Cornu's great biography. [8] All the evidence indicates that he would undoubtedly have continued to react both critically and constructively to the sciences and to historical experience, rather than rigidly defend a previously accepted set of propositions. The danger of treating a philosophy as a closed system, or as an official set of principles and precepts, is always present. In general, there is a diversity of situations and motives that may lead to a revision of a given point of view, and that must be considered in judging its merits. In the case of Marx, the central issue is the preservation or abolition of capitalism, and all intellectual controversies pertaining to him are to be viewed in relationship to that issue.

But there is still more to be considered. The historical change in philosophy, the sciences, and socioeconomic conditions must be considered in relation to the thought of Marx and Engels. A narrow reproduction or version of the now classical formulation of their philosophy would incur difficulties. There would be unanswered questions, and subsequent developments would require additional chapters and treatises to do full justice to them. Not the least of the problems is due to the tendency of some newly self‑discovered interpreters toward identification with Marx himself.

Whether Marxism is also a philosophy has itself become a moot question in some quarters. Everything depends upon the sense in which the term is used, for one can still advance a philosophy while rejecting much of the tradition, or even all of it. Thus Feuerbach, who published trenchant critiques of theology and speculative philosophy, could write, "No religion—is my religion; no philosophy—is my philosophy," meaning religion as theology and philosophy as speculation. [9] There is philosophy and there is science in the seminal thought of Marx. The distinction between the structure of society and the superstructure of ideas and institutions, with recognition of the causal efficacy of elements of the superstructure, allows for the historical role played by ideas of all kinds. This constitutes the theme for a special science or for a group of special sciences.

The Marxist rejection of the notion of man as a passive recipient of impressions of an independent and prior world of existence requires careful consideration. The idea of passivity with regard to an already completed world fits into a tradition going back to the upper-class conception of changeless being in ancient Greece, and it could be viewed as going along with the purposes of the status quo. But the prior and independent existence of the world—physical and social—may be maintained in its proper sense without neglecting the active character of human behavior or the degree to which the human-related world is affected by practical and theoretical activities. These activities should be understood to include conservative and reactionary trends as well as radical attempts to transform the human-related world. In short, a Marxist materialist must (and indeed does, in the best expressions of that philosophy, as shown by Marx, Engels, and Lenin) recognize the prior existence of an antehuman natural world. While recognizing the specific truth of a realistic epistemology, he is able to show to a striking degree how the contributive factors of human practice enter into the formation or transformation of the human‑related world. This applies all the way from the development of an economic system to its decline and replacement, and from the occurrence of crises, waste, and pollution of the environment to social revolution.

The radicalism of Marx differs on principle and in motivation from the radicalism of pure phenomenology, with its methodological suspension of all beliefs referring to an independently existing world, amounting to a radicalized philosophy of renunciation. Marx's central aim, as has been indicated, was a thoroughgoing transformation of the economic system and all that it entailed socially for a philosophy of human practice. Although his reasoning made use of a critical suspension of the acceptance of many beliefs in existing institutions and prevailing social practices, it operated on the ground of a world antedating human experience. The radicalism it expressed was opposed to the existing order of society, and many of those advancing it endangered or sacrificed their lives. The radicalism of transcendental phenomenology, on the other hand, does not challenge established interests or privileges as such, and it can be said truly that there is nothing political in the transcendental dimension. It is as remote from actually existing events and institutions as is the case with formal analysis—even though it is evident from a larger perspective that the very practice of such a radical method is indebted to the social and natural world at all times. This may be asserted despite the fact that the pure phenomenology that results from transcendental analysis lacks the necessary access to the real world, despite the possibility of changing to the natural attitude at any time. Its rudimentary structural findings are too greatly restricted to make significant contributions to actual living beings. There will not be enough to return to the existing world if too little was taken from it. The degree of this detachment is emphasized by Husserl's disavowal of all naturalistic motivation in his allegedly "unmotivated" discipline. Motives conditioned by the social and natural world are nevertheless responsible for the adoption of the phenomenological point of view and mode of inquiry in the first place, and every step in its procedure is located in that world.

Once the need to extend the subjective domain is recognized, there is no way to prevent an unlimited number of existential approaches and developments from arising. The resulting literature is as enormous as it is varied. The revisionistic existential alternatives to pure phenomenology do not for the most part reach so far as the economic and social realities, just as they largely fail to take account of the natural world. Like pure phenomenology, they are at the same time alternatives to a direct program for changing the world by way of attempting to remove the causes of the problems of greatest concern to mankind. Placing primary emphasis upon changing structures or upon unusual, tragic, and subjective phenomena readily results in the ignoring of concrete socioeconomic problems. The very program and language of pure phenomenology, with its ideal of radical inquiry, led by the ideals of apodictic knowledge and freedom from presuppositions, is itself a mode of search for an alternative. How can social radicalism be circumvented, if not refuted? By resorting to another type of radicalism, transcendental in character, and sharpening the knife of analysis until it all but disappears, so that it is suited only for the handling of irreal idealities and generalities, while using a language professing true being and the highest concerns of mankind? Thus the real problems are missed effectively, leaving the realization of the ideal structures for the remote future. The program of social avoidance by way of a descriptive neutrality and vacuous ideals transcending actual conflicts represents a more exaggerated form of the saying, "Morgen, morgen, nur nicht heute," which may be continued in the present context as "sagen alle transzendentalen Leute"—but with "Morgen" understood to be an indefinite postponement for all mundane purposes. Here is indeed a basically distinct alternative to the theses of Marxist philosophy, which is the focal point for all thought toward a philosophy of participation and social change, led by the ideal of more complete human fulfillment. [10] Some of the features of the emerging philosophy of the future are to be discerned in the juxtaposition and interplay of these opposing philosophies.

From the Sociohistorical Perspective

The orientation of a philosophy to the evidence supporting logically established knowledge is a primary requirement for soundness and a continuing safeguard against errors and extravagances of thought. That includes the full recognition of the nature of the social system and of its motivational influences upon thinkers and writers. Conspicuous among the errors to be avoided are exclusive abstractive analysis and a narrow factualism, either neglecting relevant facts or not allowing for the importance of theory for the establishment of facts and for practice. There is the error of philosophical and utopian reformers with ideal programs projected into an indefinite future. Such visionary writers fail to see that the present complex of social problems requires the transformation of the existing social system, rather than the inauguration of a sheerly created ideal society somehow located in the dim future, with no effective access to it. There is also the danger of immediate expediency, with the hope of preserving the present socioeconomic relations. In brief, the errors may be called "remote, detached, or idealized futurism," as contrasted with a "myopic, narrow immediacy" which takes the present system of society as a finality in its main structural and operational features. But it is unavoidable that all steps toward the future start from the present social system, and that requires a thorough understanding of the nature of capitalism, for which Marx's treatise on Capital [11] has provided a revealing and indispensable analysis.

Because the existing society affects and conditions all intellectual activities responding to its conflicts, it may be expected that new or continued forms of conflict will lead to opposing intellectual approaches and philosophical views of man and the world. The historical need to solve deep‑seated human problems requires a repeated break with the prevailing views.

The comparison of subjectivism and Marxism is thus pertinent. The "translation" of a critically reexamined subjectivist method and language is in order, to bring it into the family of the working methods of science in its broadest sense of logically organized knowledge and validated inquiry. Such restatements provide a basis for viewing and appraising all methods in the light of a general methodology, which in turn may be enriched by new formulations. The critique of the existing social order that has motivated dialectic, as opposed to static, nonhistorical, or evolutionary types of approach, will continue so long as the historical causes are present. In the future, with the eventual equalitarian solution of the major social problems of the modern period, the methodological extension and far‑reaching insights represented by dialectic and sociohistorical inquiry may be continued indefinitely; and they have general philosophical implications. That would not be to assume a future idyllic form of society, devoid of conflicts and with no new problems. It is sufficient at this time to look ahead to the immediately relevant future, and only beyond that to make sure that no conditions are allowed to endure which might endanger human life in the more remote future.

Cutting off the method of phenomenological analysis from the existing social and natural world and the intellectual forms developed historically greatly restricts its scope and renders it ineffective for many purposes. Pure phenomenology, with its recourse to immanent experience, was doomed by its commitments to remain out of touch with the so‑called contingent world and the factual sciences. On the other hand, spokesmen for the dialectical approach may bring about a kind of undesirable detachment from the realm of scientific thought by making excessive claims for the independence of dialectic. It is both desirable and necessary to take account of all modes of sound inquiry, even though the total dialectical philosophy, with its dynamic impetus toward social change, and the scientific advance made possible by historical materialism, involves a radical transformation of prevailing philosophical views. The point. is to understand differences, whether they be in the economic realm or in philosophy, by reference to the causes leading to those differences. The comprehensive unitary conception of method which is called for is not a monolithic, homogeneous kind of unity. It incorporates the truths of a methodology embracing various procedures and is fulfilled in special, selected situations, in accordance with the nature of the subject matter involved—for example, inorganic, organic, social, economic, formal, or philosophical. In short, it is a diversified unity—diversified with respect to its reference to selected subject matters requiring special methods for the solution of problems or answers to questions.

This must be considered carefully in order to avoid any suggestion of a thoroughgoing relativism or a relativizing of truth in general. Where deduction is involved, the derived statements depend upon the nature of the premises and the system of thought involved. In a purely formal system freedom from contradiction is a prime requirement, and the question of the application to reality is most important practically. That kind of relatedness to the premises of a special system poses no threat of an embarrassing relativism. Where reality is involved, as for example social reality in the case of an economic theory, special assumptions may be introduced, and derived statements will be dependent upon those assumptions. In that case, they function like ordinary formal statements, and the problem becomes one of application to the realities of the social world. Thus truth is not relativized, but is seen to be realized in a diversity of situations and systems in different ways, without compromising the meaning of truth in relationship to natural and historical reality, but also without neglecting the reference to the future and the more comprehensive view of a dynamic world moving toward the future. All phases of human experience and knowledge are included in that larger view, for man and his activities are seen to be parts of the natural and social world and to be potential factors toward changing the world. The whole truth could not be achieved without the closure of time, which is out of the question. There would also be little point in positing some kind of escape from time as an ideal, unless one thought that it might serve as a means for overcoming the finitude of man. Such illusions are well left for those with the requisite emotional need for self‑deception.

On Philosophy and Social Change

In considering the role of philosophy historically, one may emphasize the cumulative, progressive processes of growth which can be discerned, despite interruptions and complicating circumstances, as exemplified by the development of logic and dialectic. On the other hand, there is the ever‑present motive of avoiding or modifying any program for social change that would interfere with special or dominant interests. This motive impels a perpetual and widespread search for an alternative, which can be recognized in concrete socioeconomic discussions and in the more remote, although by no means unrelated, realm of philosophical thought. Connections are often tenuous, however, and are in some cases difficult to establish. But, positively or negatively—meaning by that, by explicit commitments or by professed neutrality with respect to the human world—everyone unavoidably takes a stand on the status quo and its problems. Revisionism in numerous forms of manifestation is one of the modes of response chosen by representatives of special interests. This is conspicuously illustrated by the types of opposition to a definitive solution of problems resulting from social inequality and the domination of a social system by entrenched interests. The tendency toward revisionism can be seen to be present in all phases of experience, including philosophical thought. In the language employed by the present writer, this means the omnipresent search for an alternative, as a normal and natural tendency of the human mind whenever there is any possibility of choice, but it also means the reflection in the realm of ideas of conflicts in the social system.

In the case of formal thought, say in the presentation of a deductive system, there are a number of alternative possibilities, differing in relative simplicity and with respect to the nature of the premises and basic ideas of the formal system. To seek an alternative in the context of formal reasoning could involve far‑reaching principles, however, and even alternative philosophies of logic.  In contrast to formal thought, conflicting social relations and economic interests present problems not to be solved by means of formally determined alternatives. Despite resemblances in the two spheres of discourse, the differences are weighty. Conflicting human interests are not only seen in one's own individual life, where subordination and even frustration occur for the purposes of a larger plan. They are seen in their most important forms in the antagonism of social  economic classes. The actual ways of dealing with the problems resulting from conflicting social interests include peaceful efforts, revolution, and brutal acts of suppression, depending upon the prevalent conditions, with examples ranging all the way from the handling of daily conflicts to wars and genocide.

The numerous types of conflict which have been resolved practically and at least temporarily by means of programs of social and political action are not to be treated in the form of alternative approaches to a philosophy of human values. Interesting and important though alternative approaches may be for a rationally controlled practical life, for which it is possible to speak of a choice among a number of value‑systems, the fact remains that such a pursuit is usually remote from the actual conflicts of our time. It is necessary to consider the social setting and linkage of the persons making the choice.

Differences of objectives as well as premises have resulted in incompatible alternative philosophies. There are historical explanations for the development of conflicting philosophies responding to different motives. Thus there have been philosophers defending the church and philosophers undermining it. There were philosophers helping to prepare the way for the great French Revolution, and in more recent time, to defend or to oppose the existing social order. All of this is in accordance with the actual complexity of society, with its class alignments and antagonisms. Will this always be the case? Assuming idealized conditions of equality and fulfillment for the future, would thinkers simply follow the path of a nontemporal logical reason for the solution of problems? When stated in such abstract, general terms, it might seem possible to speak of a single unified philosophy of man and the world. But in determining the nature and province of philosophy, one must take account of the role of historical philosophies and not merely offer solutions to idealized problems. In contrast to attempts to defend the prevailing social system, a serious scientific philosophy, taking account of the achievements of the special sciences, may also make valuable additions to scientific knowledge. Like other sciences, such a philosophy is open‑ended and forever incomplete, just as the temporal process is forever incomplete. Even assuming the absence of divisive interests, there are still alternatives to be considered apart from social alignments. Unity per se is not the aim. Truth and the maximum realization of human values are the real long‑range objectives. There is no philosopher's stone to ensnare the truth or to solve all the problems of value‑realization where conflicts abound, individually and socially. The way must be discovered progressively; it is not to be foisted upon man from the superior vantage point of a sovereign transcendentalism and is not to be guaranteed by any type of built‑in ontology. It is to be earned honestly and painstakingly, learning from the lessons of the past and the collective efforts of serious thinkers in all fields of human endeavor.


1. Cf. E. S. Brightman, "The Definition of Idealism," Journal of Philosophy 30 (1933): 429ff.; and R. B. Perry, Present Philosophical Tendencies (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1912). [—> main text]

2. Cf. J. Royce, The World and the Individual, 2d ser. Nature, Man, and the Moral Order (New York: Dover Publications, 1959), p. 289. [—> main text]

3. Cf. M. Farber, Naturalism and Subjectivism, 2d ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1968). Not only does this problem arise in various forms in the logical-analytical literature, but there is also evidence of unclearness in the reference to existence in the literature of naturalism and materialism, including Marxist revisionism. [—> main text]

4. In his important book Materialism and Empirio‑Criticism (New York: International Publishers, 1927), V I. Lenin asks, "Did nature exist prior to man?" and he rigorously defends what Marx and Engels had called a "premise" of their thought in The German Ideology (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1965). Thus they wrote (p. 42): "The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary . . . but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. . . . The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living, human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself—geological . . . and so on." Lenin wrote (ibid., p. 52): "Natural science positively asserts that the earth once existed in a state in which no man or any other living creature existed or could have existed. Inasmuch as organic matter is a later appearance, a result of a long evolution, it follows that there could have been no perceiving matter . . . no self which is 'inseparably' connected with the environment. . . . Hence, matter is primary, and mind, consciousness, sensation are products of a very high development. Such is the materialist theory of knowledge, which natural science instinctively holds." [—> main text]

5. E. Husserl, Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1954); Eng. trans. by D. Carr (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1970). [—> main text]

6. As seen, e.g., in ibid. (Eng. trans.), sec. 35, pp. 135‑137. [—> main text]

7. See, e.g., Marx and Engels, German Ideology. [—> main text]

8. Cf. A. Cornu, Karl Marx und Friedrich Engels (Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 1954‑1971). [—> main text]

9. Cf. L. Feuerbach, Das Wesen des Christenthums (Leipzig: O. Wigand, 1841), and Grundsätze der Philosophie der Zukunft (Zurich: Verlag der literarische Komptoirs, 1843); also F. Jodl, Ludwig Feuerbach (Stuttgart: Fr. Frommans Verlag, 1921), pp. 22f. [—> main text]

10. The term “alternative” would be misleading, if it were supposed that there is in equally sound alternative to a correct analysis of a social system, or of human experience. Those who seek an alternative to such correct analyses shrink from accepting their consequences, and more congenial views are meant to replace them. That there may be defensible alternatives in a secondary sense, not involving important change, is illustrated in formal thought. On the other hand, the alternatives to revolutionary views are proposed in response to a variety of individual or socially entrenched interests. [—> main text]

11. Karl Marx, Capital, ed. F. Engels, trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling (London: William Glaisher, 1912). [—> main text]

SOURCE: Farber, Marvin. The Search for an Alternative: Philosophical Perspectives of Subjectivism and Marxism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984. Chapter 1: Subjectivism, Phenomenology, Marxism, and the Role of Alternatives, pp. 1-26, + notes, pp. 240-241.

American Philosophy Study Guide

Includes the following & more:
The Search for an Alternative 8: The Historical Outcome of Subjectivism
The Search for an Alternative 9: From the Perspective of Materialism
The Issue of Naturalism vs. Subjectivism

Naturalism and Subjectivism: Contents
Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism: Foreword & Contents

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides
My Writings
| Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Sign Registry View Registry

Uploaded 28 May 2003

Site ©1999-2007 Ralph Dumain