Jonathan Strassfeld

Marvin Farber’s Break with Husserl

Farber’s “Experience and Subjectivism,” published in a 1949 volume he coedited with Roy Wood Sellars and V. J. McGill, was the first public sign of a break with Husserl. However, despite calling Husserl’s idealistic framework “a fatal limitation to his philosophy,” the essay was not wholly critical. It offered a nonidealistic reinterpretation of Husserl’s Ideas, treating the phenomenological reduction as an intermediate “auxiliary” method that clarifies the structure of experience by holding certain beliefs in abeyance, but does concern the existence of reality itself. 54

Farber now endorsed a methodological pluralism in which phenomenology and naturalism were adopted as complementary methods with separate domains and “all who contribute parts of truth should realize that they can coexist.” 55 Given Farber’s reconstruction of Husserl’s phenomenology as a scientific first philosophy in his 1928 Phenomenology as a Method and as a Philosophical Discipline, the heterodox analysis of “Experience and Subjectivism”—which abandons the quest for apodicticity to advocate for phenomenology’s place in a pluralistic discourse—undoubtedly surprised some of his colleagues. However, it was consistent with the trajectory of Farber’s career and ideological commitments. Farber had been interested in reconciling phenomenology with dialectical materialism since at least the 1930s, when he had asked Husserl whether he “had taken a stand, qua phenomenologist, toward the historical materialism of Marx and Engels.” 56 Now, Farber concluded that “the ‘given’ in experience is . . . historically conditioned” and that the significance of philosophy “should never be detached from its social-historical context.” There could be no final, transhistorical account of experience, making phenomenology an ongoing project that “must be undertaken again and again, in each cultural generation at least.” This project, Farber argued, is naturalistic, guided by scientific results, and expounds the conditions of experience “within the framework of physical nature.” 57 Some of these conclusions resonate with Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception and share the concerns of Husserl’s late work on intersubjectivity. However, throughout the essay, Farber inveighed against idealistic philosophy as “a trap for metaphysical purposes.” 58 He dismissed Husserl’s account of the lifeworld’s transcendental constitution, without seriously engaging it, as “sheer dogma, which is characteristic of the writings of Husserl’s last period.” That Husserl could even have considered it plausible, he wrote, could mean only that “Husserl had lived alone too much . . . and 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 own consciousness.” 59

54. Marvin Farber, “Experience and Subjectivism,” in Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism, ed. Roy Wood Sellars, V. J. McGill, and Marvin Farber (New York: Macmillan, 1949), 610–11.

55. Ibid., 612.

56. Gabriel Ricci, “Importing Phenomenology: The Early Editorial Life of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research,” History of European Ideas 42, no. 3 (2016): 408–9; Marvin Farber to Edmund Husserl, March 26, 1937, box 9, folder “Husserl, Edmund and Mrs.,” Marvin Farber Papers.

57. Farber, “Experience and Subjectivism,” 591–94.

58. Ibid., 592.

59. Ibid., 626.

SOURCE: Strassfeld, Jonathan. Inventing Philosophy’s Other: Phenomenology in America (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2022), p. 169, 303.

See also:

Bell, Jason. “Phenomenology’s Inauguration in English and in the North American Curriculum: Winthrop Bell’s 1927 Harvard Course.” In The Reception of Husserlian Phenomenology in North America, edited by Michela Beatrice Ferri. New York: Springer, 2019.

Embree, Lester, and Michael D. Barber. “The Golden Age of Phenomenology: At the New School for Social Research, 1954–1973.” In The Reception of Husserlian Phenomenology in North America, edited by Michela Beatrice Ferri. New York: Springer, 2019.

———. The Golden Age of Phenomenology at the New School for Social Research, 1954–1973. Series in Continental Thought. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2017.

Ricci, Gabriel. “Importing Phenomenology: The Early Editorial Life of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.” History of European Ideas 42, no. 3 (2016): 399–411.

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

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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