A few weeks ago, I read in the introduction to Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences that translating the work was especially difficult because (1) it was written in German, (2) it is a work of philosophy, (3) it was by Husserl, and (4) it was his last, unfinished work. Each of the four factors contributed to the difficulty of the task, said the translator, and I was relieved to find someone fluent in German admitting that German-language writing tends to be opaque. Or let’s say that if German authors write clearly, it is a clarity that doesn’t work with English-speaking readers.
Just after I finished the first half of Husserl, a friend of mine told me that she was having trouble making sense of a particular excerpt of Bonhoffer. Grace transcends the difference between law and gospel, Pastor B. says. It sounds good, but what does it mean? The rest of the paragraph offered no help. Maybe German speakers process sentences like that in some way different from mine, and go away enlightened. I went away puzzled.
Two days later, I talked about the whole subject to a friend working on a Ph.D. in philosophy. (Wow! That phrase is as redundant as “ATM machine” or “PIN number.”) He made the observation that English analytical philosophers of the last century or so look at continental philosophy and just scratch their philosophizing heads.
I’m just reporting my recent experience of funny coincidences. I don’t mean to dismiss an entire language (although I adore Mark Twain’s dismissal). But I have to say (if I’m going to keep a blog, anyway, I have to say it) that last week I opened Scotsman Thomas Reid’s Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man -- originally written in English -- and felt the cool rush of clarity flow over my face. I wrote in my notes, “After one day, I already feel that I have a basic understanding what eighteenth-century Common Sense philosophy is all about.” That level of understanding contrasts pretty starkly with my total befuddlement after reading half of Husserl.
OK, I’m not totally befuddled. Husserl finally states his point on page 100, the last page I read last month: he intends to correct the problem created by Descartes and the flawed answer offered by Kant, and in doing so, he will establish the foundation from which to solve “all philosophical problems.” And now here’s the latest in a string of coincidences. Reid, like Husserl, talks about Descartes and criticizes him for almost exactly the same reason. He doesn’t say he’s going to replace Kant’s flawed answer, but he does say, with Kant, that Hume’s conclusions from Descartes’s premises are unacceptable, and then he offers a solution that isn’t Kant’s. So I think I’m going to find that they end up saying something very similar. I put Reid and Husserl together on the reading plan when I drew it up eight years ago, with no idea how well they would go together. But go together they do – so well, in fact, that I’m wondering if I even need to finish Husserl.
Oh, who am I kidding! The second half of Husserl in on my calendar, so of course I’ll read it.