Saturday, February 1, 2014

Things that Help Me Understand Husserl

I remember when I first heard of Phenomenology: a class in the history of music theory around 1983. The professor assigned a student to give a report, and after the report I could only say that I had heard of Phenomenology. A few years later, in a music theory class at yet another university, yet another professor assigned yet another student to give yet another report on Phenomenology. I think it was then that I first heard the name of Edmund Husserl. The student said that the theory had something to do with bracketing and that Husserl’s byword was “To the things themselves!” I guess that gave me some idea. At least I knew what one pioneer in the field would have printed on his t-shirt. I was still baffled, though. Two professors that I respected thought the topic important enough to share with the class, but neither one, sadly, knew enough about it to say anything himself. Years later, a new acquaintance told me he had lost his faith because of Husserl, but he couldn’t tell me exactly what Husserl said that had had such devastating effect. A few years later still, I told that story to Christian philosopher Dallas Willard, and he said people often say such things, but only because everyone misunderstands Husserl. But then he and I didn’t have time for him to give me a true understanding – or any understanding at all. The slogan on that shirt dripped with irony since, if Phenomenology is the Thing, after all these opportunities I still didn't have the slightest notion of the Thing Itself.

So at some point in the early 90s, I started reading The Crisis of the European Sciences, Husserl’s final presentation of his philosophy. I can see by my margin notes that I gave up around page 40. I tried to understand, but never got to the crux of the matter. So eight years ago, when I drew up the Plan, I knew The Crisis had to find its place and that it needed to come near the end. And now I’m glad everything worked out just this way. I’ve had four sessions with the book in the last few days, and it seems to be making sense so far. A lot of things have contributed to making the huge difference between my first encounter with the book and now.

• I’m twenty years older.

• I’ve read Plato and Galileo and Kant and other authors that Husserl assumes I’ve read.

• I’ve read a lot of dense German philosophy and have a better sense of how to get through the trees and find the forest.

• The translator’s preface, noting that Husserl’s unfinished last work is especially disjointed and cryptic, gives me license to fly past the things I don’t understand in detail.

• I’ve learned to deal somewhat with my compulsion to read and understand every word of every book I read. (“How can you say you’ve read the book,” I ask myself, “if you only read 99% of the words? You would never leave off the last three pages, would you? So what difference does it make if you skip the same number of words scattered over three hundred?” “A lot of difference,” I say back to myself, Smeagol-like. “A pitcher who gives up six hits in a row probably loses the game. A pitcher who scatters those six hits over nine innings probably wins.”)

• The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy didn’t exist twenty years ago.

• A new friend who has studied with Dallas Willard gave me some excellent guidance just a few days ago.

• I took a walk this morning in 15 degrees, and the bracing cold got me walking faster, reading faster, and thinking faster.

Now if you’ve been waiting thirty years for a clear, brief overview of Husserl’s system, I’m going to disappoint you today. My chances of getting it wrong will be high enough when I finish the book. But I’ll give it a shot when that day comes, sometime in early April.

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