Herbert Marcuse

On Science and Phenomenology

Presented February 13, 1964

The Crisis of European Science and Transcendental Phenomenology is Husserl's last work. Written in the thirties, the first part was published in 1936, the second part only after Husserl's death.

I would like to indicate first where I see the general historical locus of this work. It seems to me that we have to place it into the context of the radical reexamination of the Western concept of Reason, of Western rationality that begins in the last decades of the nineteenth century and to which so essentially different thinkers as Bergson, Dilthey, Max Weber, Spengler, Piaget, and Bachelard belong. All of them have in common this questioning of the very idea which has guided Western thought since its Greek origins, i.e., the rationality typical of the occident. It seems to me that Husserl is the last in this group, and in a certain sense, (which may strike you as strange) the most radical of these re‑examiners. In Husserl, it is modern science itself, this most sacrosanct child of Western rationality, that is questioned. In this reexamination, modern science appears as the end of a fateful development which begins with Greek thought, that is, with the origins of Western thought itself—as the "end" of this development in the twofold sense of termination and of fulfilling the telos, the purpose, the objective of this thought.

According to Husserl, science,—modern science, Galilean as well as post-Galilean,—originates in the Greek idea of knowledge and truth and comes to rest in a scientific rationality in which truth and validity contain in themselves illusion and repression. Before I try to present Husserl's radical thesis, I have to stress that it is not the result of a sociological analysis or of a sociology of knowledge. It is precisely the fascinating aspect of Husserl's work that it is a [end p. 279] philosophical analysis within the academic framework of intellectual history, even within the academic division of labor. Husserl emphasizes philosophy as Beruf, as calling, and that philosophy is done in the Berufszeit, that is to say, in the time reserved, in the academic division, for such investigations. Husserl adds (and this is important: I come back to it at the end) that the calling of the philosopher is a unique calling because (and I quote him)

this calling is linked with the "possibility of a radical transformation of humanity," and not only a radical transformation of humanity but also a "liberation," and this possibility makes the calling of the philosopher unique within the division of labor. [1]

In the course of such a philosophical undertaking (philosophical also in the sense of a discipline!), in the course of its own inner development Husserl's analysis transcends itself, or rather it descends from the pure theoretical to the impure pre‑theoretical, practical dimension. Better—the pure theoretical analysis discovers its own internal impurity, but only to return from this impure sphere to the still pure theoretical dimension of transcendental phenomenology as constituent of the practical, pre-theoretical dimension, the Lebenswelt. (I use the German term Lebenswelt. The literal translation "life‑world" is too, large and too vague in this context; what Husserl means is our own empirical day‑to‑day world as, it is given in immediate experience, practical and other—the world of life and death, in our empirical reality. So I will use either 'Lebenswelt' or 'empirical reality').

I will now devote some time to presenting Husserl's own thesis (the work is not fully translated; we only have Gurwitsch's excellent abstract of it), but I shall focus it in such a way that the critical problems stand out. Husserl begins with a very brief description of what he considers the Greek concept of Reason, namely the idea of human being as self‑determination and determination of its world by virtue of man's intellectual faculties, the concept of Reason, according to which man's intellectual faculties are at the same time capable of determining his own life and of determining, defining, and changing the universe. This conception presupposes [280] that the universe itself which is thus rationally comprehended is in its very structure a rational system and therefore accessible to knowledge and change on the grounds of man's own rational knowledge. In other words, Reason for the Greeks, is objective and subjective at one and the same time, and on this basis, Reason is the subjective as well as objective instrument for changing the world in accord with man's rational faculties and ends. But in this process, Reason itself as theoria, is and remains the basis of the transformation of the world. Philosophy is thus established as science, and as first, most excellent and general science, which must give direction and the end to, all other sciences.

What are the implications of this original concept of Reason? First, it implies a supra‑factual, supra‑temporal validity of Reason, so that the really real as discovered and defined by Reason is rational as against the immediately given fact. Reason establishes an authority and reality which is in this way antagonistic to the immediately given facts. Secondly, true being is ideational being (a conclusion from the first implication), not being as we experience it immediately in the flux of our empirical, practical world. Thus "Platonism" is the basis of all scientific knowledge. Thirdly, objectivity is necessarily correlated with subjectivity, again the subjective as well as objective structure of Reason. Husserl here gives a formulation which, in an entirely different context, recaptures the very question and thesis with which Western philosophy began, namely, the final identity of Being and Reason. He says:

Can Being and Reason be separated if cognitive Reason determines (the essence of being?) [2]

So we find at the very beginning and at the late stage of western philosophy this almost literal identity in the formulation of the basic problem, the mysterious union and even identity of Reason and Being, Knowing and Being. Now this concept of Reason, which is theoretical and practical Reason in one, is understood by Husserl as a project. I use the term here as it was elaborated in the philosophy of Sartre: "project" in the sense that this idea of rationality and its application is a specific way of experiencing, in- [281] terpreting, organizing and changing the world, a specific historical project among other possible ones, not the only, necessary project. This project, according to Husserl, came to fulfillment with the foundation of modern science, namely, in Galilei's mathematization of nature. Galilei's mathematization of nature established that purely rational, ideational system which was the dream of all Platonism; Galilei established the ideational world mathematically as the true reality. Substituting this scientific universe for the only given reality, namely, our empirical Lebsenswelt. But the very fulfillment of this project was also its collapse, according to Husserl. For this scientific rationality, this idea of Reason and its application proved successful only in the positive sciences and in the technological conquest of Nature, while the original foundation of this entire science, that which originally was supposed to constitute the very structure, content and end of science, namely, philosophy, remained an impotent, abstract, meaningless metaphysical sphere of knowledge and continued in this impotent form a hopeless academic existence which, in addition, was more and more dissolved into psychology. Thus separated from the basic philosophy which, according to the original ideas of Reason, was supposed to give the ends, the objectives, the meaning of science, separated from this basic philosophy which was supposed to provide the truly universal concepts, Reason was at the same time divorced—and this is decisive for Husserl—from that rational humanitas envisaged in the original philosophical project. Scientific, technological rationality became reason kath' exochen. Divorced from the validating "ends" set by philosophy, the rationale set by science and the rationale of its development and progress became that of the Lebenswelt itself, in which and for which this science developed. [3] Instead of rationally transcending the Lebenswelt, science comprehended, expressed, and extended the specific rationale of the Lebenswelt, namely, the ever more effective mastery of the environment (Herrschaft über die praktische Umwelt), including the ever more effective mastery of man. [4] But that was, not the inherent telos of science, which was first and foremost, and not only in a chronological sense, the telos defined by the empirical reality in which science developed. Thus theoretical Reason, pure Reason, without losing its scientific character as theory, becomes [282] practical Reason. Theory, by virtue of its internal dynamic rather than on external grounds, becomes a specific, historical practice. But (and this is decisive for Husserl and the justification of his own subsequent phenomenological reduction) this entire development, this entire transformation of Reason, this essential, structural, internal commitment of pure Reason, pure theory and pure science to the empirical reality in which they originated, this entire transformation remains hidden to science itself, hidden and unquestioned. The new science does not elucidate the conditions and the limits of its evidence, validity, and method; it does not elucidate its inherent historical denominator. It remains unaware of its own foundation, and it is therefore unable to recognize its servitude; unable to free itself from the ends set and given to science by the pre‑given empirical reality.—I should like to stress again, because these formulations can be easily misunderstood, that it is not a sociological relation which is here established between an empirical reality and the pure science which develops in this empirical reality. Husserl's concept goes much farther. He maintains that the empirical reality is the framework, and dimension in which the pure scientific concepts develop. In other words, the empirical reality constitutes, in a specific sense, the very concepts which science believes are pure theoretical concepts.

Before I go on with Husserl's interpretation of this development, I would like to reformulate and to extend his thesis in a way which may bring out its provocative implications. What happens in the developing relation between science and the empirical reality is the abrogation of the transcendence of Reason. Reason loses its philosophical power and its scientific right to define and project ideas and modes of Being beyond and against those established by the prevailing reality. I say: "beyond" the empirical reality, not in any metaphysical but in a historical sense, namely, in the sense of projecting essentially different, historical alternatives.

Now back to Husserl's interpretation.

The new science (by which he understands mainly Galilean science) establishes a rational "infinite" universe of Being (I follow his words here literally), systematically organized and defined by science itself. Within this universe, every object becomes accessible to knowledge, not incidentally, in its contingent, particular occur- [283] rence, but necessarily and in its very essence. [5] Thus, it becomes object of scientific knowledge, not as this individual object but as exemplification of general objectivity (the falling feather as res extensa in motion). [6] That is to say, the concrete and particular object, the Aristotelian totality is no longer the Wesen, the essence; Platonism supersedes Aristotelianism, not only in physics, but in the very concept of scientific rationality. And concomitant with this de-individualization, which is the pre‑requisite for the quantification of the scientific universe, is the familiar reduction of secondary to primary qualities; devaluation of the inexorably individual sense experience as nonrational. [7]

As a result of this twofold process, reality is now idealized into a "mathematical manifold": everything which is mathematically demonstrated with the evidence of universal validity as a pure form (reine Gestalt) now belongs to the true reality of nature. [8] But (and here is the great gap which separates the new science from its classical original) in contrast to the ideational forms of Plato, the ideational forms of mathematical physics are freed from any substantive connection with other than mathematical ends. The ideational realm of Galilean science no longer includes the moral, esthetic, political Forms, the Ideas of Plato. And separated from this realm, science develops now as an "absolute" in the literal sense no matter how relative within its own realm it may be, absolved from its own, pre-scientific and nonscientific conditions and foundations. According to Husserl, the absolute evidence of mathematics (which as we shall see we question), was for Galilei so self‑evident that he never asked for the actual foundation of its validity, for the validating ground of this evidence, and of its extension to the whole of nature. Thus, the validation of the new science remained in the dark; its own basis never became the theme of scientific inquiry; science contained an unmastered, unscientific foundation. This is of the utmost importance for the validity of science itself, because the relation between science and the pre-scientific empirical reality is for Husserl not an external one but one which affects the very structure and meaning of the scientific concepts themselves.

Now according to Husserl, where is this pre‑scientific validating ground of mathematical science? It is originally in geometry as the [284] art of measuring (Messkunst) with its specific means and possibilities.  [9] This art of measuring in the empirical reality promised and indeed achieved the progressive calculability of nature, subjecting nature to the ever more exact "foresight" in mastering and using nature. (Foresight—Voraussicht, perhaps better translated as projection and valid, rational anticipation). Foresight and anticipation, rational anticipation can then guide the practical orientation in and the transformation of the empirical Lebenswelt, without however (and this is decisive) setting or defining or changing the goals and ends of this transformation. Geometry can and does furnish (and the same holds true for the extension of geometry, mathematics) the methods and ever more exact, ever more calculable approaches for the transformation and extension of the established Lebenswelt, but remains forever incapable of defining, anticipating, or changing, by its own concepts, the ends and objectives of this transformation. In its method and concepts, the new science is essentially non‑transcendent. This is what I consider as Husserl's key sentence: Science "leaves the Lebenswelt in its essential structure in its own concrete causality unchanged." [10]

As to the interpretation of this paradoxical and provocative thesis (so obviously paradoxical since we are used to seeing in science one of the most dynamic forces in the world): In my view, what is at stake is not the more or less external relation between science and society, but the internal conceptual structure of science itself, its pure theory and method which Husserl now reveals in their essential historicity (Geschichtlichkeit), in their commitment to the specific historical project in which they originated." Pure science retains, aufgehoben (to use Hegel's term now) the practice out of which it arose, and it contains the ends and values established by this practice. The empirical reality thus performs the sinngebende Leistung (constituent act): It is constitutive of scientific truth and validity. Science is Aufhebung der Lebenswelt

(1) inasmuch as science cancels the data and truth of immediate experience,
(2) inasmuch as science preserves the data and truth of experience, but
(3) preserves them in a higher form, namely in the ideational, idealized form of universal validity.

[285] And this threefold process takes place in the scientific abstraction. The quantified ideational forms are abstracted from the concrete qualities of the empirical reality, but the latter remains operative in the very concepts and in the direction in which the scientific abstraction moves.

In this way, the pre‑scientific, pregiven empirical reality enters the scientific enterprise itself and makes it a specific project within the preestablished general project of the empirical reality. However, the abstract ideational, mathematical form into which science transforms the empirical conceals this historical relation:

The Ideenkleid (the ideational veil) of mathematics and mathematical physics represents and [at the same time] disguises the empirical reality and leads us to take for True Being that which is only a method. [12]

This is perhaps the most effective and lasting mystification in the history of Western thought! What is actually only one method appears as the true reality, but a reality with a telos of its own. The mathematical ideation, with all its exactness, calculability, foresight, leaves a void (Leerstelle) because the objectives and ends of this calculability and anticipation are not scientifically determined. This void can thus be filled by whatever specific end the empirical reality provides, the only condition being that it is within the range of scientific method. This is the famous neutrality of pure science which here reveals itself as an illusion, because the neutrality disguises, in the mathematical‑ideational form, the essential relation to the pregiven empirical reality.

In Husserl's terms: The objective a priori of science itself stands under a hidden empirical a priori, the so‑called lebensweltliche a priori. [13] Moreover, as long as this empirical a priori remains hidden and unexamined, scientific rationality itself contains its inner and own irrational core which it cannot master. According to Husserl, modern science thus operates like a machine which everyone can learn to handle without necessarily understanding the inner necessity and possibility of its operation. [14] In other words, pure science has an inherently instrumental character prior to all specific application; the Logos of pure science is technology and [286] is thus essentially dependent on external ends. This introduces the irrational into science, and science cannot overcome its irrationality as long as it remains hidden from science. In Husserl's words: Reason is Reason only as manifest Reason (offenbare Vernunft), and Reason "knows itself as Reason only if it has become manifest." [15] In as much as Reason remains non‑manifest in science, scientific rationality is not yet the full rationality of science. How can Reason become conscious of itself?

Husserl proposes to break the mystification inherent in modern science by a phenomenological analysis which is in a literal sense a therapeutic method. Therapeutic in the sense that it is to get behind the mystifying concepts and methods of science and to uncover the constitutive lebensweltliche a priori under which all scientific a priori stands. This is to Husserl first a methodological problem. The pregiven empirical reality as a whole must become the object of the philosophical analysis, otherwise the a priori prior to the scientific a priori could never come to light. But obviously philosophy itself is part of this empirical reality and philosophy itself stands under the a priori of the empirical reality. The circle is to be broken by a dual phenomenological reduction (suspension, epoche): first the suspension of the objective a priori; the suspension of scientific truth and validity; secondly the suspension of the lebensweltliche a priori, of the doxa and its validity.

Now what do we retain, what remains as the residuum of this twofold suspension? In the first epoche, "we put in brackets" (that is to say, we do not deny but simply suspend judgment on) scientific truth and scientific validity. What remains as the residuum is (a) the entire general structure of the empirical reality, [16] the infinite manifold of things in time and space, the orta, and (b) the world itself in which all these things necessarily appear—the world as the universal, unsurpassable horizon of all particular objects. But this first epoche is not sufficient: it cannot do what it is supposed to do, namely, break through the mystification and uncover the ultimate foundation of scientific truth. It cannot do this because with this first "bracketing" we are still on the basis (auf dem Boden) of the empirical reality, within the "natural position" of our day‑to‑day experience. A second epoche is necessary which "at one stroke" leads to a total alteration of the "natural position" of [287] experience, to the suspension of the natural validation of everything that we naturally accept as valid in our immediate experience. [17] Once we have suspended these judgments too, we reflect no longer on the pregiven world and the particular objects appearing in it, but on how these objects appear, on the modes in which this entire world is given to us. The residuum of this epoche is thus the world as correlate of a totality of modes of consciousness, as a "synthetic totality." What we have now as residuum is the transcendental subjectivity, [18] and to this transcendental subjectivity the world is now given as phenomenon of and for an absolute subjectivity. [19] This transcendental subjectivity is no longer any particular or individual or group subjectivity. It is "absolute" because whatever object or object‑relation may appear, now appears as necessarily constituted in specific acts of synthesis which. inseparably link objectivity and subjectivity. In other words, we have now what we might call the absolute original experience: the experience which is at the origin of and is constitutive of any possible objectivity that can ever become the object of scientific and of any other thought. The phenomenological reduction has now opened the dimension in which the original and most general structure of all objectivity is constituted.

I shall add only a few critical remarks. The breakthrough to the transcendental subjectivity is supposed to be the road to uncover the foundation on which all scientific validity rests. I ask the question: can the reductive phenomenological analysis ever attain its goal, namely, to go behind scientific, and pre‑scientific, validity and mystification? I shall offer three suggestions.

First: The phenomenological analysis is confronted with the fact of reification (Husserl does not use this term) . Reification is a form which is usually not examined. Scientific as well as pre‑scientific experience are false, incomplete inasmuch as they experience as objective (material or ideational) what in reality is subject-object, objectivation of subjectivity. In founding the analysis on the constitutive subject‑object correlation, Husserl's dual epoche does go behind the reification—but so does all transcendental idealism. Thus far we are, in my view, in no way beyond Kant. I know Husserl's own interpretation of the difference between phenomenology and Kant; I think that in the context of my criticism this [288] difference is not very relevant. My point is that the phenomenological breakthrough stops short of the actual constituent subjectivity. Husserl transcends the objective a priori of science in the first epoche and the empirical a priori in the second epoche. He thus creates a conceptual metalanguage for the critical analysis of the empirical reality. But my question is: does this conceptual metalanguage really come to grips with the constituent subjectivity? I think not.

Second: The phenomenological reduction arrives at a subjectivity which constitutes only the most general forms of objectivity, for example, the general form of appearing as object, changing as object, being related to other objects. But does this subjectivity give us "manifest Reason" behind the disguising Reason, the validation of scientific truth? Can this transcendental subjectivity ever explain—and solve—the crisis of European science? Husserl's transcendental subjectivity is again a pure cognitive subjectivity. One does not have to be a Marxist in order to insist that the empirical reality is constituted by the subject of thought and of action, theory and practice. Husserl recognizes the historical subject in its sinngebende Leistung; but then, by suspending, bracketing it, the phenomenological analysis creates its own a priori, its own ideation, and its own ideological veil. Pure philosophy now replaces pure science, as the ultimate cognitive lawgiver, establishing objectivity. This is the hubris inherent in all critical transcendentalism which in turn must be cancelled. Husserl himself seems to have been aware of this hubris. He speaks of the philosopher as "urquellend fungierende Subjektivität": the philosopher functions as the primordial source of what can rationally be claimed as objective reality.

I come to the conclusion and leave it as a question. Husserl recognizes the fetishism of scientific universality and rationality by uncovering the specific historical‑practical foundations of pure science. He sees that pure science is in its very structure technological—at least potentially applied science. The scientific method itself remains dependent on a specific Lebenswelt. This is the hidden irrational element in scientific rationality. Husserl finds the reason for this dependence in the loss of the philosophical dimension, which was originally the basic dimension of science. Classical [289] philosophy defined the method and function of science in terms of an idea of Reason which claimed higher truth and validity than those embodied in, and established by, the given empirical reality. This validating idea of Reason was that of the telos of man as man, the realization of humanitas. According to Husserl, the humanistic structure of Reason collapses with the release of science from this philosophical foundation. This would imply that humanism becomes an ideology at the very time when modern humanism is born. In other words, the birth hour of humanism itself would be the degradation of humanism to a mere ideology. Apparently there must be something wrong with this formulation. The fact remains that humanism is still today an ideology, a higher value which little affects the inhuman character of reality. The question with which I would like to conclude is this: Is philosophy entirely innocent of this development, or does it perhaps share the hubris of science? Does it share the reluctance to examine its own real foundation and function and is it therefore equally guilty of failing in the task of Theoria, of Reason—to promote the realization of humanitas?

Dept. of Philosophy       
Brandeis University       
Waltham, Massachusetts


1 Husserl, Gesammelte Werke, vol. VI (Den Haag 1954), ed. W. Biemel, p. 154.

2 Ibid., p. 9, 12.

3 Ibid. p. 49 f.

4 Ibid. p. 67.

5 Ibid. p. 19.

6 Ibid. p. 40.

7 Ibid. p. 54.

8 Ibid. p. 20‑21.

9 Ibid., p. 27, 30.

10 Ibid., p. 51.

11 Ibid., p. 152.

12 Ibid., p. 52.

13 p. 49, 143 f.

14 p. 52.

15 p. 53.

16 p. 143 f.

17 p. 151 f.

18 p. 147 f.

19 p. 155.


SOURCE: Marcuse, Herbert. "On Science and Phenomenology," in: Proceedings of the Boston Colloquium for the Philosophy of Science, 1962-1964 [Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science; Volume Two: In Honor of Philipp Frank], edited by Robert S. Cohen and Marx W. Wartofsky (New York: Humanities Press, 1965), Chapter 9, pp. 279-290.

Comment on the Paper by H. Marcuse
by Aron Gurwitsch

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