Experience and Subjectivism
(Sections I.F-II.D)

by Marvin Farber

F. The Subjective Procedure of Phenomenology and Its Abuses

The phenomenological method is designed to apply to all phases of experience. That its limitation to a subjective context restricts it from realizing this aim, and that it was an irresistible temptation to Husserl to adopt a general idealistic philosophy, is made clear by a study of the development of that philosophy. It is Edmund Husserl alone who is considered here, for his type of analysis has yielded results which command the respect of other investigators, including scientific psychologists. Like some of his predecessors in the idealistic tradition (Hegel, for example), he was able to achieve valuable results despite the restricted and ultimately repressive setting of his philosophy. The means to an end which he originally adopted—a subjective procedure for reflection—which yielded analyses of interest to psychologists and logicians, proved to be a fatal limitation to his philosophy.

As a continuator of the empirical tradition, Husserl aimed to analyze experience. The method of philosophy was declared to be descriptive, direct "seeing" being the ideal. The field for description proved to be in need of extension, even on that level, and Husserl in his early period emphatically argued for the direct observation of "general objects," discussing at length the immediate apprehension of them in his first published work, Philosophy of Arithmetic (1891). He was careful in this period to accord full importance and value to the various scientific methods, in keeping with his own excellent scientific training.

The original aim of phenomenology was quite different from that of Dewey, or from that of any of the philosophers deriving from the natural and social sciences. It led Husserl into the ranks of the opponents of the scientific philosophy developed at the close of the nineteenth century. As for his own conscious motivation, his primary aim was to overcome logical psychologism, or the view that logical validity can be construed in psychological terms and derived from psychological principles. In other words, an admittedly erroneous position taken by logicians who were reacting to naturalistic and empiricist influences became the target of Husserl's initial criticism, and led him first of all to a "neutral" position on the issue of idealism and realism (or materialism). The phenomenology which was first formulated in his Logical Investigations (1900‑1901) was concerned with direct description, and was even called descriptive psychology. Some years later the "phenomenological reduction" (i.e., to "pure consciousness"—the restriction to conscious experiences and their correlates) was formulated, and it was advanced as the first prerequisite for philosophical analysis. It was intended to define the field for philosophy to begin with, and it defined the setting for a transcendental philosophy. In Husserl's exposition, there was a strong feeling of opposition to naturalistic procedures.

It is possible to construe the "reduction" in non‑idealistic terms, as an auxiliary method in philosophy, thus taking Husserl literally, when he calls it "a methodological expedient," and to align it with other methods, tinder the general heading of "methodology." Thus it should be regarded as one type of reflection among others, with its own peculiar value for philosophical understanding. Representatives of the last stage of Husserl's development object to that, however, maintaining that the subjectivistic procedure of phenomenology is something sui generis, absolutely unique, different in principle from all other ("mundane") methods. Such claims could hardly promote sympathetic understanding, or even an attempt at sympathetic understanding; and they are as unnecessary as they are unwarranted. It is hardly helpful to portray Husserl after the fashion of Porphyry's treatment of Plotinus. To make phenomenology ineffable and indescribable (in "natural" terms) would be to deprive it all of scientific interest. This last phase of transcendental phenomenology has been submitted to criticism in the present writer's The Foundation of Phenomenology. [24] The analysis of "intentional" experience in all its types constitutes a self‑contained study. The phenomenological datum for analysis is my‑experiencing‑the‑object, whether the latter be real or fictive in character. That there should be a temptation, "irresistible for" some philosophers, to constitute reality out of the experiences is understandable, but none the less inexcusable. That has had the unfortunate result of tending to discredit phenomenology as a whole. The subtle arguments in question [25] are no better basically than Berkeley's well worn argument for subjective idealism.

The descriptive analyses of phenomenology are intended to be independent of the demonstration of reality or unreality, and independent also of all causal‑genetic considerations involving "natural" time. Thus the description of the content and structure of experience shows how an experience of reality is incompatible with one of illusion, for example. It portrays the structure of each type of experience. But it does not give us a test of reality. There is no "pure phenomenological" way to reality in the sense of a being independent of the knowing of it. The analysis is concerned with the context of the knower and his objects, everything being viewed from the perspective of its being known or experienced, so that there can be no talk of being apart from knowing, from that point of view. The analysis is confined to the determination of general structures, and it does not deal with factual situations except as exemplifying such structures. They are described as they are manifested in experience, where they are found. So are all the constitutive activities of thought seen in operation, through reflection. They are studied in their "essential" types by means of reenacting and reactivating experiences such as remembrances, conceptual abstractions, and recognitions. The experiencing of evidence, of truth, of adequacy, can be contrasted with the experiencing of error, of inadequacy, etc. They are seen to rule one another out "essentially." One may be quite wrong, however, in his descriptive analysis of an "essential" structure. On this level one is no more secure against error than he is on the "naturalistic" level of scientific description, say in the description of an ant colony. Thus the vaunted superiority of "inner" over "outer" experience is seen to be unfounded. But both types are necessary.

If, as the present writer maintains, Husserl's idealism is untenable, and violates his own explicitly formulated precepts, the really challenging question that must be faced concerns the fruitfulness of �the entire procedure. That every sound descriptive proposition in phenomenology can be asserted in objective terms within the framework of a naturalistic (realistic, or materialistic) philosophy has been pointed out. One does not leave nature when holding its concepts in question for the sake of analysis. It is appropriate to point out its contribution to the understanding of the structure of knowledge and experience. It contributes toward the clarification of basic concepts, as seen in the "origin-analysis" studies of negation, relation, possibility, etc. [26] No method which can contribute toward that end should be ignored. The phenomenological method is not the only way of clarifying the basic ideas. It is one way, and it adds to the understanding of their meaning and structure. The social‑historical interpretation or explanation of an idea also "clarifies"; so does a simple historical account; etc. All who contribute parts of truth should realize that they can coexist. Philosophers are frequently prevented from doing so because of the standpoints they represent or the interests which determine them.

Generally speaking, it is safest to welcome any and all descriptive findings, just as it is best to allow "pure" scientists complete freedom of investigation, without continually raising the possibly myopic demand for "results." It is in place to observe that some valuable results for practice have been achieved by disregarding the question of practical results, as illustrated in modern pure mathematics. The fundamental studies of the philosopher, qua descriptive investigator, affect the entire structure of knowledge. They represent a necessary dimension of inquiry which may well be endless. They can never be the whole story for philosophy, but they are an important part of it. It remains the function of philosophy to call attention to neglected facts and, if necessary, to include them in its field of inquiry. That applies to the analysis of experience by means of "inner description," from which psychology has turned away, leaving it to philosophers and novelists.

The philosopher who undertakes descriptions of states of anxiety, fear of death, etc., may be making a contribution which could equally well be made by a psychologist. Such findings are to be distinguished from the philosophical standpoint with which they happen to be associated, as in the case of the "Philosophy of Existence," in terms of which certain human attitudes are construed as "basic categories." What develops is a kind of "misplaced subjectivism," in which the limited virtues of a strict subjectivism tend to be lost. The danger then arises that there may be a false weighting of human states and attitudes in the total picture of man in relationship to his world. The dogmatic use of what may be called "generic determinations" in describing man (which man? which group of men? which historical period?) is characteristic of existentialism. It is a surprising dogmatism, especially so in view of the body of scientific knowledge concerning man. In carrying through certain limited descriptive studies of a structural, "essential" type, it must not be presumed that man in his real nature is portrayed thereby, and that man is fully or adequately considered. To know the "real" man, it is necessary to have the results of historical, statistical, psychological, socio‑economic, etc., studies. The descriptive analysis of the experience of dread, or of a state of anxiety, does not entitle one to characterize men in general. In other words, a clear‑cut line must be drawn between the "essential" descriptive and the factual orders; and, again, between the former and the philosophy of human existence, with its basic values. Description is per se acceptable, if it is correctly executed. The evaluation of the systematic philosophy requires the reduction of all statements of value to statements of fact, and the appraisal of the latter in terms of the evidence. The philosopher must not be allowed to mouth statements as though he were an unrestricted oracle, and particularly by means of a language which strains at accepted usage beyond the breaking point. These remarks are dedicated to Martin Heidegger and his fellow existentialists.

Heidegger was the most influential of Husserl's students in his last period. Husserl was late in expressing opposition to the danger latent in Heidegger's work, and he even seemed to close his eyes to it at first. Heidegger's influence on his students has been tenacious, and has seemed to survive his inexcusable actions under the Nazi regime, even in the personal feelings of many of them. It cannot be denied that he has promoted obscurantism in his systematic thought. The "Philosophy of Existence" is a type of philosophy which can only alienate one for whom the canons and ideals of logic are meaningful, and especially one for whom the ideal of philosophy as a rigorous science is definitive. It is a strange myth that the "problem of existence" was never recognized before, when one considers the enormous literature devoted to the conditions bearing upon human existence, cultural as well as biological and physical, including man's efforts to know himself and his place in the world. Such a myth can be rendered plausible only by means of a cryptic statement of the concept and problem of "existence," using such seductive terms as "thrownness" and "fallenness." Such terms bespeak their theological significance and can only be misleading in a supposedly descriptive investigation, Heidegger's alleged aims notwithstanding. The monstrous linguistic medium (so painfully evident in the much ado about "nothing" in his Was ist Metaphysik? for example) and the perpetual fog of existentialism could only aid it in being used and perhaps misused for purposes which not even an idealistic phenomenologist could condone.

How evil the consequences of Heidegger's efforts have been can be seen in a paper by Oskar Becker, "Transzendenz und Paratranszendenz," presented at the Ninth International Congress of Philosophy. [27] A few excerpts will be of interest. "Not the being of the being 'man' (des Seienden 'Mensch') is in question, but his essence, more exactly his 'essencing essence' (Wesendes Wesen). And here is seen the philosophical nature of our language: we sometimes apply the expression 'essence' not only abstractly but also concretely to man.

But not to every human being; namely, not to a grown man, but to a child and a young woman. Thus we speak of a 'small essence' (dem 'kleinen Wesen,' the child) and of a 'charming essence' (e.g., a young girl). A man as a historical personality has indeed an essence (his character), but he is not one. The natural human being still close to naive primitiveness is on the other hand an essence, it 'essences' ('west'). His existence or as we now say it more exactly: his paraexistence is essence (Wesen)" (p. 103). Then Becker reassures his audience: "These are not mere words and quibbling." His proposal to inspect the "primal phenomenon" recalls a familiar precept. The use to which it is put is indicated by the following passage: "The phenomenon of birth, which is only to be grasped intuitively, determines the existence of an unbroken human being, or more exactly, the mode of existence of a human being, in so far as he is unbroken. It is here that basic experiences . . . are the old powers of blood and earth. . . . It is furthermore the blood, that apparently material but in truth to the highest degree formative and impressing force, which determines the types, the 'kinds' ('Schläge') of human beings, the basic forms which are possible for human beings." (pp. 101 f.). The apparatus of "intuition" and "basic experience" is, in this context, just so much pseudo‑phenomenological claptrap. Becker, who was for years a devoted student and colleague of Husserl, attached himself to Heidegger and drank deeply at the latter's fountain of linguistic jugglery. Some of his rather painful efforts in his Congress paper (Uebersteigendheit, Unentstiegenheit, etc.) show him to be a worthy continuator of Heidegger, one who is capable of new tricks of his own. It could be simply judged to be comical balderdash were it not connected with Nazism; for there is no accidental connection between Becker's "blood and earth" and the teachings of the Nazis. The ease with which existentialism could accommodate itself to Nazi Germany is noteworthy.

It will be pertinent to add a few comments about one more leading figure in the larger phenomenological movement. Max Scheler, who regarded himself as a "cofounder" of phenomenology (a designation never adopted by Husserl), has had an influence reaching far beyond the limits of descriptive philosophy, all the way from religious and social thought to the Nazi ideology. Much of Scheler's work could hardly survive critical inspection, but it must be reckoned with practically. He argued that naturalism neglects certain "facts" (e.g., pertaining to "spiritual" and "holy" love), and that it cannot account for them successfully by any of its theories. The strict descriptive phenomenologist will not in the least impugn the merit of naturalistic findings. But Scheler placed himself conspicuously in the ranks of those trying to hold back the tide of scientific naturalism and materialism, ranks including conservatives, and reactionaries of all shades. When Scheler argues [28] that the idea of "absolute monogamy" is never to be derived from the naturalistic presuppositions, and that sexual love must be regarded as a kind of love which is peculiarly qualified psychically, in order to give absolute monogamy a "phenomenological foundation," one is tempted to draw a curtain of charity over the entire performance. For Scheler, "Marriages are made in heaven" has a deeper meaning in terms of essences and essential connections. Scheler's critique of naturalism proceeds assumptively and fallaciously: assumptively because he assumes as real and as unanalyzable in "naturalistic" terms such phenomena as "holy love"; and fallaciously because he gives what is presumed to be an exhaustive set of naturalistic explanations, including the Freudian approach, but fails to give the strongest explanation. He neither does justice to the explanations he cites, nor gives the best possible one. [29]

All the types of experience with which the existentialists are concerned, including types which are of interest in psychiatry, can be investigated by means of the strictly controlled phenomenological method, which is designed to take account of all regions of experience, and all attitudes, in its way. That all the conditions bearing causally and genetically upon the existence of the knower and his attitudes should also be considered, has already been set forth.


A. The Ideal of Certainty

Exponents of the subjective tradition maintain that the procedure of pure reflection provides certainty, in contradistinction to the doubts, the "mere probability" of "natural experience." This thesis is of crucial importance for subjectivism and requires careful consideration. Two questions are involved: What are the motives for the interest in the ideal of certainty? And is the claim to certainty tenable, on the part of subjectivism?

Dewey's extensive criticism of the goal of certainty bears mainly on the first question. The first chapter of his Quest for Certainty [30] is significantly entitled "Escape from Peril." He suggests that man's distrust of himself has caused him to get beyond and above himself by means of "pure knowledge." Activities in the sought‑for realm would not be overt, and would have no "external consequences." It is Dewey's thesis that the notions about "certainty and the fixed" flow from the separation, set up in the interest of the quest for absolute certainty, between theory and practice, knowledge and action. He charges that "in the absence of actual certainty in . . . a precarious world, men cultivated all sorts of things that would give them the feeling of certainty." In his view, "no mode of action . . . can give anything approaching absolute certitude"; and "since no amount of pains and care in action can ensure complete certainty, certainty in knowledge was worshipped as a substitute." In Experience and Nature, Dewey observes that philosophers have set out with data and principles sufficiently simple to yield what is sought, in this case absolute certainty in knowledge of things. He sees philosophy used as a substitute for religion, when the latter ceases to give men the sense of certainty and security they want. The element of truth in this thesis may readily be confirmed by the history of philosophy. But such reflections do not give the whole truth concerning the goal of certainty by any means. The appeal to the absolute reliableness of the "inner life" was a convenient way of disposing of the factors of doubt and incompleteness which make the empirical knowledge of the world more or less probable, and of supporting the position of religious faith. It is sufficient to refer to St. Augustine, and the principle of Catholic philosophy that it is possible to achieve "certitude."

It is necessary to devote more attention to the social‑historical factors underlying ideas and beliefs than Dewey's analysis provides. An important perspective is opened up when one considers the role of science in economic development. Modern science, as a basic factor of the Industrial Revolution, has made "certainty" a reality in the sense of making possible the conquest of nature by man. The causal understanding of natural phenomena, the striking degree of success of scientific prediction, and the great progress in the field of social science, all argue against the rejection of "certainty" in all senses. The universal determinism of Spinoza reflects the confidence of the early period of modern development, the exuberance of scientists who first found nature to exhibit laws.� With the party of science aligned against the feudal‑ecclesiastical tradition, there was no motivation to plead limits to the human mind, or to experience. The situation becomes more complicated when the religious tradition, adapted to the new economic and social conditions, makes itself felt in philosophy; when more complex intellectual conditions result from the fact that the rising bourgeois class finds it desirable to restrict the program of science, to soften it by reconciling it with religious interests, and to safeguard itself against the findings of social scientists. Various modes of compromise result at different times: Hume's skepticism and ultimate doubts, and Kant's agnostic dualism in the eighteenth century, both circumscribing the validity or extent of scientific knowledge; the agnosticism of the evolutionary philosophers and of some recent scientists; the cautious temper of recent empiricism and pragmatism; the current distrust of laws and generalizations in social science.

C. I. Lewis's cautious temper of mind is seen in his defense of the thesis that all empirical knowledge is probable, never certain. Any number of perceptions may be cited as "certain"—or at least as certain as our knowledge that 2 + 2 = 4. If one asserts that the proposition, 2 + 2 = 4 is "certain" deductively, but that one's actual judgment of it may not be infallible, the same thing would apply to empirical knowledge. Is the proposition "I am an American citizen" merely probable, i.e., less than the limiting case of certainty? Or, let us fancy a factory worker to be doubtful about the relationship between his "take‑home pay" and the rising cost of living. Even if he were doubtful, on the ground that a mistake is possible in a great number of instances, his wife would clinch the argument with all the desired �certainty." There is a point beyond which one should not press his doubts—the point of adequate practical verification.

"Man's distrust of himself," which is deplored by Dewey, is hardly an explanation of the retreat to "pure knowledge." That retreat may well be, in effect, a device for safeguarding vested interests. "Certainty" need not be paired with "the fixed," or regarded as "absolute," as seen, when one considers the nature of scientific progress. Obviously, different concepts of certainty are involved. It is interesting to note how apparently diverse forces cooperate in opposing a thoroughgoing scientific view of the world. The party of religion in philosophy retreated, via the idealistic tradition, to an "inner life" which provided certainty in a specially defined sense; while philosophers of various schools and tendencies made concessions to it, whether consciously or not, by arguing that science cannot provide certainty, in another sense.

"Certainty" may be construed subjectively in terms of feeling, as a kind of inner illumination; or objectively, as the upper limit of probability; or as indubitability without contradiction—the Cartesian meaning. Formal knowledge which is independent of the course of real events may be said to be "certain," in the sense that it could not be denied without contradiction. So far as our general purposes are concerned, "certain" means "certain enough," just as "clear" means "clear enough," as Whitehead once put it. The subjective meaning may be dismissed, as leading to an impasse, in which each individual is the absolute authority, so that only objective meanings can be considered. The procedure of systematic doubt as initiated by Descartes and appropriated by Husserl is intended to eliminate all possibilities of error, and thus arrive at a point, or region, of certainty. It proves to be a most revealing approach to the last stage of phenomenology, which may well be the last stronghold of idealism.

B. The Cartesian Procedure of Doubt and Its Phenomenological Use

Husserl states [31] that what is intentionally indicated in the apperceptive horizon of a perception is not possible but certain. That can always be said of the present experience. Can it be said of "inner" experience as a whole? This question is best answered in connection with the Cartesian method of doubt.

Because of its adoption by Husserl as a device for defining the field of transcendental subjectivity, special interest attaches to the Cartesian procedure. The latter is open to serious objections, as is well known. If the purpose were to ascertain how far one could proceed in doubting without contradiction, the answer would have to be, to a solipsism of the present, and hence passing, moment with the past moment already doubted as soon as one reflects upon it. The experience of doubt which occurs "now" is indubitable; but a new "now" takes its place, and the old one is "not now," which makes it dubitable. Unless absolute reliance can be placed upon memory, or an absolute mind with a fixed structure is provided, or some such principle is allowed, the Cartesian procedure is utterly fruitless. What Descartes did with his method is of historical interest merely. There is a tradition among idealists to admit that what Descartes established was a "thin truth," while maintaining that it is the "important truth" (viz., the "certainty" of the "I doubt" which cannot be doubted, or of the mind). Nietzsche's words in Beyond Good and Evil [32] may be recalled: "There may even be puritanical fanatics of conscience, who prefer to put their last trust in a sure nothing, rather than in an uncertain something."

On the other hand, the Cartesian method of doubt may be appropriated in quite a different way, and "doubt" be instituted as a means of inspecting the "normal and natural" assumptions of the mind. It is really the phenomenological substitute for doubt, and now means "suspension." The attempt to achieve a universal suspension of judgment or belief takes the place of the fruitless method of doubt. The general "thesis of existence" which underlies normal experience, and every element of assent or denial in cognitive experience, are placed in abeyance, in order to serve as the subject matter of reflective analysis. The suspension affects beliefs pertaining to other human beings, and oneself as a psychological subject. What is the advantage of this method? And does it provide certainty, in the sense of indubitability?

For one thing, it delimits a distinctive domain for philosophical inquiry. The detached reflective procedure, according to which every object in the world or in human society, or every item in experience and knowledge, is treated as a correlate of a particular experience of an individual experiencing being, with the "existence" judgment suspended, determines the initial stage of the reflective analysis. This stream of experience is indeed the result of a social‑historical process, and it could not be inspected without the prior existence of society and a long tradition. That "naturalistic" truth must be recognized. Can the phenomenological residuum resulting from the logical analysis be said to be "certain"? Not in the Cartesian sense, or, rather, in the Cartesian sense rendered consistent, if one seeks to determine an endless domain in that way. Without assumptions of uniformity the latter cannot be established; and therewith is sacrificed the ideal of certainty. In other words, it appears that if certainty is to be realized, then nothing is realized; for one must be restricted to a passing now, which allows no basis for generalization and objectively valid determinations.

If one proceeds to determine the "essential" structures and laws of experience, viewed from the subjective perspective, he may claim to be able to discern, to intuit something "general" and thus to have obviated the difficulty of the passing stream of nows. But he can only do that by assuming that every general structure persists, by a principle of the conservation of "generals," analogous to the "conservation of simples" of Platonic and Leibnizian fame. Can that principle be made a matter of intuitive evidence? And even if it could, would not another principle of conservation be required, in order to make it continue to be valid‑a principle of the conservation of conservation principles? And must not that principle in turn be established by direct vision? And so on, ad infinitum?

As a matter of fact, the direct discernment of general structures must be accepted as an important feature of experience. So far as certainty with respect to the occurrence of events is concerned, however, i.e., certainty of anything beyond the specious present, or the content of the "now," it appears clear that although a perception of a general structure may be termed a "general" perception, it must always be instated anew. Only the passing general perception is "certain" in the Cartesian sense. Thus, "essences" are no better off than particular sensory objects, so far as this criterion is concerned. While phenomenologically real (i.e., appearing in experience), the idealities (concepts, forms, relations) which are "read out of" experience are said to have a nontemporal kind of "being," [33] which is, strictly speaking, no being at all. The term "exists" is really nonsignificant for them, unless one refers to the experiences in which they are thought or meant.

To hold that the "essential" structures, which are conceptual in character, are "prior" to the real order of existence, is to commit a fundamental error of confusion. The conceptual forms are really derived; they are "ideal," in the sense that they are the results of a process of idealization, of identification. The events of the existent world are prior to the abstractions of the conceptual order, in the sense of temporal precedence, and also in the sense that they alone can be spoken of as "existent." It is maintained therewith that "to exist" means to have a space‑time locus in terms of physical reality.

This position is not at all met by the distinction, so often referred to, between what is "first for me" and what is "first in itself." With reference to man, the physical process of becoming is "first," because man is such a late‑comer in cosmic history. To argue for "logical" precedence, in the sense that structures or essences are prior to existent events, is to reify abstractions. Nothing that one can establish with regard to the logical relationships of concepts may alter the facts of the relationships in time.

Husserl has maintained (in his Formale und transzendentale Logik) that the law of noncontradiction is a "negative condition" of reality. That it is necessary for ordered discourse will be granted. But one cannot legislate for the facts of reality by an appeal to general principles, which are either inductive, and thus presuppose reality, or analytic, with no inherent reference to reality. The metaphysical problem in question cannot be solved by an "essential" analysis and an appeal to "essential" insight, for the required evidence is lacking, and in the nature of the case must always be lacking.

The metaphysical problem can only be treated on a naturalistic-inductive basis, and whether there is anything permanent in the world is a conclusion to be reached and not a settled fact as a point of departure. In short, the pure reflection procedure of phenomenology can only draw a metaphysics out of its procedural hat if it has already been inserted there—which is strictly forbidden by its own precepts.

Even if human beings should disappear, the determinations of the "essential" structures of perception, phantasy‑experience, negation, etc., would remain valid as representing determinations of possible types of experience. They are "certain" while being experienced, and valid independently of experience. Such knowledge cannot be used as a means of compensation for those that suffer in the changing world of experience, any more than pure mathematics can be so used.

In the present discussion attention has been devoted to such examples as Husserl himself cites—conceptual forms clearly derived by a process of ideal abstraction. It is not implied therewith that reality does not exhibit general relations or patterns of order.

C. Husserl on Descartes

Husserl has taken Descartes very seriously in a historical as well as in a systematic sense, and he has repeatedly discussed his significance as a pretranscendental‑phenomenological philosopher. [34] In the last publication to appear during his lifetime. "The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology," he describes Descartes as the "primal instituting genius" of modern philosophy. He finds in the first two Meditations of Descartes a depth which it is difficult to fathom, and which Descartes himself was so little able to appreciate that he let go "the great discovery" he had in his hands. This exaggerated opinion of the importance of the Cartesian Meditations is obviously due to Husserl's own aims. In the complete structure of Descartes's thought, as well as with respect to his influence, his works on the principles of philosophy and methodology are surely not to be subordinated to the Meditations. On the contrary, they deserve a greater emphasis. The Meditations served their historical purpose for Descartes, allowing him to settle accounts with the traditional Church philosophy in a conciliatory manner. For us they have a different function. It is a good thing to carry through a method of doubt periodically, as a means of freeing one's mind of fixed beliefs and dogmas, and of reexamining one's own philosophy. It is also useful as a means of achieving the universal suspension of belief (''epoché'') with which a philosopher must begin his meditations on a first philosophy. In Husserl's hands the procedure of "suspension" is certainly different from anything Descartes envisaged or intended.

But it must also be observed that another "dimension" of reflection must be added to the suspension (epoché) of Husserl. It is necessary to view the thinker "longitudinally" as well as "cross‑sectionally," and to see him in his place in society and history, as responding to motives prompted by his social system. Reflection which neglects the causally determined order of culture is one‑sided and empty in a most important respect. Complete reflective analysis thus goes beyond "pure" reflection. It does not face the hopeless problem of making application to reality, so that it is not enmeshed in a dilemma, the alternatives of which are a subjective detachment from reality, or the "constitution" of reality out of pure subjectivity. The complete method of reflection does not neglect any items of established knowledge, least of all the basic fact of man's place in nature and society.

As Husserl depicts Descartes's method, it is a requirement for philosophical knowledge that it be "absolutely founded," and that it be based on a ground of immediate and apodictic knowledge which in its evidence precludes all conceivable doubt. Furthermore, every step of "mediate" knowledge must be able to achieve such evidence. The radicalism of the Cartesian procedure requires that everything be �placed in question"—the validity of all previous sciences, as well as the prescientific and extrascientific "life‑world"—and this is the historical beginning of a "radical critique of objective knowledge." The role of the Descartes‑who‑anticipates‑Husserl is thus a clearly defined one, even if the historical Descartes was much more modest and far less thoroughgoing in his endeavor. With the fervor of Meister Eckhart, Husserl describes the original Cartesian motive in the following words: "through the hell of a quasi‑skeptical epoché, to penetrate to the entrance to heaven of an absolute rational philosophy, and to build that up systematically." [35] The ego that performs the suspension or "epoché� is not included in the latter's scope. Here one finds the sought‑for apodictic ground, which absolutely excludes every possible doubt, for a universal doubt would annul itself.

As Husserl views the procedure, "the" world is transformed into a mere "phenomenon," into my "ideae." "Here we have an absolutely apodictic sphere of being, under the title of 'ego,' and merely the one axiomatic proposition 'Ego cogito' or 'sum cogitans.'" Husserl adds another "remarkable" result: Through the epoché (i.e., "method of doubt" regarded as a "suspension" of judgment) I have reached that sphere of being which on principle precedes everything that can conceivably be for me as its absolute, apodictic presupposition. Or, as maintained by Descartes: I, the performing ego of the epoché, am alone absolutely indubitable. All scientific, "mediate" foundations must therefore be led back to a single absolute, primal evidence. Husserl seems to forget, in his complete feeling of assurance, that there is no real "sphere of being" discovered by or for Descartes, but rather an Archimedean point of reference for philosophy, with respect to its "evidence." It is fundamentally a device for universal questioning, for descriptive analysis, and for possible philosophical construction. Evidently what the present writer sees in the epoché is not identical with what Husserl sees. The present writer's understanding of it makes it to be a different kind of procedure, devoid of pretense and dogma, and with a firm intention of preventing idealistic metaphysical capital from being made out of it. Any aid in making possible the delineation of a universal field for descriptive analysis is to be greeted. The epoché itself will not make all experience and knowledge the subject of investigation, but it does contribute toward that end, in its peculiar way. The suspension of all belief and judgment distinguishes it as a philosophical field for investigation. The philosophical inquiry overlaps the regions chosen by the special sciences, but it does so in its own way. It does not presume to go into the fields of the special sciences, but orders them and their basic concepts and principles within the total framework of philosophy.

For Husserl, the ego is not a residuum of the world, but rather "the absolutely apodictic positing, which is only possible through the epoché,� through the "bracketing" of the entire "validity of the world." Descartes's admission of the soul, for example, is therefore subject to criticism. Although he is credited with beginning "a completely new kind of philosophizing which seeks its foundation in the subjective," Husserl criticizes him for not seeing that the ego, as it is discovered in the epoché as being for itself, is not "an" ego that can have other egos outside itself. Descartes evidently did not see that all such distinctions as I and you, inner and outer, first "constitute" themselves in the �absolute ego." As judged from Husserl's perspective, Descartes did not see "the great problems—to 'ask back' systematically from the world as a 'phenomenon' in the ego, in which really exhibitable immanent contributions of the ego the world has first received its being-sense." It is quite certain that Descartes would not have been able to understand this criticism during his lifetime, and probably not for an additional century and a half. Has "the world" really received its "being‑sense" in that way? Or is it as viewed phenomenologically that one considers it in that way? The shifting to metaphysical language and, in general, the use of pictorial, assumptive expressions are revealing of Husserl's actual intentions. The Cartesian "radicalism or freedom from presuppositions," which was intended to lead genuine scientific knowledge back to the final sources of validity and thus to ground them absolutely, was held to require a carefully defined subjective procedure, which meant going back to the knowing ego "in its immanence." That is, in other words, the "transcendental sphere."

D. The Transcendental Dimension and the Treatment of History

"Transcendental" is one of the most objectionable tradition‑laden terms. Use of it in the context of a descriptive philosophy of experience permits exploitation of its original reference to purely reflective knowledge‑experience for purposes of idealistic metaphysics. Husserl uses "transcendental" in a very wide sense, to name the motive of "asking back or retrospective inquiry concerning the "ultimate source" of all cognitive functions, of all self‑reflection of the knower. There will clearly be differences of view on the nature of the alleged "ultimate source"—for example, among continuators of the Holbach‑Feuerbachian, or dialectical materialist, type of philosophy and among representatives of the natural and social sciences. From Husserl's point of view, such thinkers are "naive" and dogmatic, and are really not philosophers at all. Unfortunately for him, however, he is not at liberty to remake the history of philosophy, however freely he may operate in interpreting it with respect to his own aims and deciding motives.

The meaning of "transcendentalism" in the present context is clarified by contrasting it with "objectivism." As Husserl states it, objectivism operates on the ground of a world that is self‑evidently given through experience and asks about its "objective truth," about that which it is in itself. For transcendentalism, however, the "being‑sense" of the pregiven life‑world is a subjective structure, is the "contribution" of an experiencing, prescientific life. As for the "objectively true world" of science, that is a structure of a higher level. Transcendentalism maintains that only a radical, retrospective inquiry to the subjectivity which ultimately brings about all world‑validity, to the nature of the contributions of reason, can make the objective truth "understandable" and reach the final "being‑sense" of the world. Hence it is not the being of the world in its unquestionable obviousness that is "first in itself." That which is "first in itself" is subjectivity, which "pregives" the world. Expressed in this way, with the world itself and not the "world‑meaning" "pregiven," the thesis of transcendentalism is a sheer dogma, which is characteristic of the writings of Husserl's last period. The methodological reasons for the subjective frame [36] are long forgotten, and Husserl has come to believe that an actual process of meaning‑giving, etc., is at work, amounting to creation. Husserl is careful to point out the danger that this subjectivity be construed as man, or as a psychological subjectivity. His error is on a different level, and is so far‑reaching that it involves a reinterpretation of the entire philosophical tradition.

The central problem of Husserl's "radical transcendental subjectivism" is formulated as one which concerns the relationship of the ego and its conscious life to the world of which the ego is conscious, and whose true being the ego knows in its own cognitive structures. [37] The evidence of the method of positive science is not held to be deceptive, nor are its contributions held to be merely apparent ones. His point is that this evidence itself is made to be a problem, that the method of objective science is based upon an unquestioned "deeply concealed subjective ground." The "philosophical illumination" first shows the true sense of the contributions of positive science, as well as the true "being‑sense" of the objective world, to be transcendental-subjective in character. [38] The "concealed" dimension of the transcendental is held to be really brought to view. The realm of experience that is "opened up" in its infinitude becomes a field for "a methodological philosophy of work," and that is intended to provide the ground on which all conceivable philosophical and scientific problems of the past are to be put and to be decided. [39] The pretense of this contention is so unwarranted that it seems doubtful that Husserl could have realized concretely what he was asserting. Even if one could allow him the possibility in principle of handling all past philosophical problems in his way, it is preposterous to boast of a method for deciding all scientific problems. That could only be done by shutting one's eyes to them, or by dissolving them in intuition, which phenomenology as a descriptive method cannot do. Husserl had lived alone too much, had practiced his unchallenged monologue too long, and had combed over his self‑consciousness to such an extent, that to him the term �everything" came to mean only the set of correlates of his consciousness.

The treatment of history—intellectual and general—carries the basic pattern of the discussion to its final consequences. The history of philosophy, ever since the appearance of the theory of knowledge and the serious attempts at a transcendental philosophy, is portrayed by Husserl as a history of mighty tensions between objectivistic and transcendental philosophy. Why that is so prominent in intellectual history, he does not venture to explain; nor would one expect that it could be done on this level of analysis. In the form of the issue of materialism vs. spiritualism this "inner split in philosophical development" has long been familiar. Husserl does not specify and apparently does not recognize the issues involved by the traditional opposition he portrays; the actors in the drama are nameless. He does not apply a historical method in the usual sense, his aim being to make comprehensible the "teleology" in the historical becoming of philosophy and to "clarify" ourselves as its carriers. That is not to view the process "from without," as though the temporal stream in which we ourselves have become were "a merely external, causal succession," but "from within." [40] He is interested in a critical understanding of "the total unity of history—of our history." We have our function "as heirs and co‑carriers of the will‑direction going through it," and we owe that to a "primal instituting which is at once a post‑instituting and transformation of the Greek primal instituting." In this is found to lie the "teleological" beginning and the true birth of the European spirit in general. It would be difficult to say less about history and to miss its real nature more than Husserl has done here. He had long ago lost contact with concrete historical facts. True, he mentioned such facts as Torquemada and the Inquisition in his last period; but, for his philosophical purposes, he had forgotten the real facts of history, which are also sordid, and which make impossible the carrying‑through of a "teleological" point of view of this kind. One need not, however, go to the sweat and blood of history to make a demurrer. By attending to the history of philosophy itself, any claim to the alleged unity of aspiration can be broken down. The conflict between objectivism and transcendentalism is, to be sure, a conspicuous one. But the issue is defined in terms of Husserl's own philosophizing. That interpretation goes on within the frame of a subjective inquiry. The "elucidation of history by a retrospective inquiry concerning the primal instituting of the aims which bind future generations in so far as they live in their sedimented forms, but can always be awakened and criticized in a new liveliness"—that kind of inquiry is the self‑reflection of the philosopher about his aims and his relations to his spiritual predecessors. The point is, again to make alive, in their "concealed" historical sense, the sedimented concepts which are the basis of his private and nonhistorical work. Toward that end one must free oneself from all prejudices (prejudgments), including one's own "self‑evidences," recognizing that prejudices are elements of unclearness deriving from a traditional sedimentation. A "historical reflection" of this kind is thus a self‑reflection (a "deepest" self‑reflection) designed to give a self‑understanding of one's aims.

If there is a historical origin, a "primal instituting," then it appears to Husserl (and this is not proved) that there is also, essentially, a "final instituting." The spirit of the inquiry requires that there be complete clarity concerning the truth, by a method for which every step is apodictic. Philosophy thus becomes an "infinite task." The present discussion shows how Husserl has derived from post‑Kantian idealism as well as from Descartes.

But Husserl insists on turning away from the "self‑interpretations" of the historical philosophers. Because of his carefully defined subjective procedure, he feels that he is superior to his predecessors, in being so reliable in his own self‑inspection. (N.B.: Husserl never "inspected" himself with respect to his actual economic, social, and political place in German society, either under the monarchy, to which he later looked back with regret at its passing, or under the Weimar republic. To the extent to which such "meanings" should have entered even his pure reflective consciousness, the self‑inspection of the latter was empty.) Only in the "final outcome" (or "final instituting") is the aim revealed, only from that point can the unity of all philosophies and philosophers be revealed, and an illumination be gained, in which one understands the past thinkers as they never could have understood themselves. [41] Whether Husserl considered in detail the amazing proposal to "unify" Catholics, materialists, and "whatnotists," is doubtful. Not that a unified theory of intellectual history is impossible: it is indeed possible to account for the development of ideas in relationship to the various conditioning factors of history—social, economic, scientific, religious, etc.—by a well integrated logical theory, in which due "weight" is given to the various factors. Notable contributions toward such a theory have been made in the literature of historical materialism. The situation is quite different for the subjective point of view, however, and even the most liberal use of suspension and "bracketing" of judgments of real events cannot achieve the desired unity. The causal‑genetic explanation of intellectual history endeavors to account for conflicts, and not to render them unreal, or merely mistaken, whereas the subjective demand for unity misses the actual historical significance of the conflicts. It appears that Husserl removes his view from any possible refutation by what purport to be facts. The peculiar truth of such a "teleological view of history," he states, can never be decisively refuted by the citation of documentary "self-witnessing" of earlier philosophers; for it is shown alone in the evidence of a critical total view, which displays a meaningful final harmony behind the "historical facts" of documented philosophies and their "apparent oppositions."

This view of history not only promises to be sterile but threatens to be dangerous, in the "wrong" hands, just as the misuse of the concept of "eidetic (essential) intuition" led to bizarre results of a mystical kind. At its best, it shows all past thinkers as leading toward or away from the "clarity" which Husserl sets up as his ideal of reflection. With Husserl as the "final institutor," who can deny him the right to interpret his predecessors in a way they never could have achieved?

Even if it were a successful venture, within well defined limits, the aim of "self‑understanding" as portrayed in the "Crisis" essay could not be defended as the sole aim of philosophical reflection. The "pure" analysis provided by the subjective method must be justified by its value for the solution of theoretical and practical problems, including practical social problems. "Pure" reflective analysis has been found to be useful, especially in the philosophy of logic. But there are also shortcomings and dangers, if one forgets the real place of the knower in nature. Only when used in cooperation with other logical methods, and with the special sciences, can such dangers be obviated. For practical social problems, however, the subjective procedure is completely nugatory. A philosopher who refuses or neglects to take account of the pressing practical problems of his day (the well known ones—capital and labor, imperialism and war, etc.) is guilty of the cardinal error of making his reflection "empty" in a most important respect. He may believe that he is grand and noble in his flight from reality, in his absorption in an honorific realm of pure ideas, removed "in principle" from the "lowly" world about us. But that action may be construed as a renunciation of the obligations one has toward society as well as himself. The neglect of practical problems may also take the form of vagueness or generality of language, even from a professedly naturalistic point of view. To discuss a philosophical theory of value and define justice without explicit reference to property relations is surely to commit the error of "emptiness."

Whether one becomes an active participant in social and political movements or not, it is evident that, qua philosopher, one cannot afford to disregard the actual content of social experience. One's conceptual work will not suffer thereby; one will not cease to be a philosopher in so doing. Quite the contrary is the case. Instead of avoiding all social problems and becoming a "pure" specialist, and instead of tacitly falling in line with a "safe," conservative tradition, he becomes a philosopher most worthy of the name, one who sees in philosophy a mode of response to important problems in all fields of experience, social as well as physical and purely conceptual.


24 Further discussions by the present writer which indicate his version of phenomenology are provided by three papers in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research: "The Significance of Phenomenology for the Americas" (Vol. IV, No. 2), "Remarks about the Phenomenological Program" (Vol. VI, No. 1), and "Modes of Reflection" (Vol. VIII, No. 4). [—> main text]

25 Cf. Husserl's Formale und transzendentale Logik (Halle, 1929), e.g., especially the argument for idealism, pp. 205 ff. Husserl's exploitation of his method for idealistic purposes is shown by his conclusion: "There is no conceivable place where the life of consciousness could be pierced and we could come to a transcendence, which could have another meaning than that of an intentional unity appearing in the subjectivity of consciousness." [—> main text]

26 Cf. Husserl, Erfahrung und Urteil, pp. 94 ff. [—> main text]

27 Travaux du IXe Congr�s International de Philosophie (Paris, 1937), Vol. VIII, pp. 97‑104. [—> main text]

28 Scheler, Wesen und Formen der Sympathie, (1st ed., Bonn, 1923), p. 87. [—> main text]

29 Scheler's role as an ideological precursor of the Nazis is pointed out by V. J. McGill in his paper, "Scheler's Theory of Sympathy and Love," in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. II, No. 3 (Mar., 1942). [—> main text]

30 New York, 1929. [—> main text]

31 Erfahrung und Urteil, p. 105. [—> main text]

32 Beyond Good and Evil (New York, 1923), pp. 14 f. [—> main text]

33 Cf. Husserl, Erfahrung und Urteil, pp. 309 ff. [—> main text]

34 Cf. Husserl, M�ditations Cart�siennes (Paris, 1931), and "Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie," Philosophia, Vol. 1 (1936), pp. 77‑176. [—> main text]

35 Op. Cit., p. 152. [—> main text]

36 It is worth noting in this connection that the principle of the "primacy of the self," or of subjectivity, is taken over by the existentialists. Cf. Sartre, Existentialism (New York, 1947), where it appears "as though shot out of a pistol—unheralded, unjustified, unclarified. [—> main text]

37 Op. Cit., p. 173. [—> main text]

38 Ibid., p. 175. [—> main text]

39 Ibid., pp. 175 f. [—> main text]

40 Ibid., pp. 146 ff. [—> main text]

41 Ibid., p. 148. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Farber, Marvin. "Experience and Subjectivism", in: Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism, edited by Roy Wood Sellars, V.J. McGill, Marvin Farber (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949), pp. 591-632. Sections I.F-II.D, pp. 609-632.

Marvin Farber’s Break with Husserl
by Jonathan Strassfeld

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

American Philosophy Study Guide

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

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