Monday, March 31, 2014

It’s a Jungle in There

When I lived in the St. Louis area, I used to like to visit the Botanical Garden, especially the tropical house epically named the Cyclotron. It was hot and muggy (although on some hot St. Louis days, you could barely tell the difference), it smelled of earth and green life, and you could walk past leaves larger than your car. As far as I knew, the experience really felt like being in a dense jungle – except that you had the convenience of paved paths and no need of a machete. In the middle stood a raised structure: a jungle bridge, you might say. Standing there, you got a panoramic view of the tropical garden and could even get some glimpses, between the upper branches and through the glass dome, of the rest of the park’s grounds. Perspective. With a clear path leading to it.

Edmund Husserl’s The Crisis of the European Sciences also smells of earth, although I can’t testify to the aroma of green life. It has phrases and sentences larger than my car. And it is very dense. In a couple of places, Husserl provides vantage points with (relatively) clear explanations of what he’s about. But there the comparison with the Cyclotron ends. I definitely had to use a mental machete to get to the clearings in this jungle.  Consider 265 pages of this:

But this is done in such a way that, in egological self-reflection, I delimit my original sphere (the sphere of "primordiality") and reveal within its network intentional syntheses and implications in their strata of intentional modification; withholding validity from all my empathies in a methodical way, through a sort of epochē within the epochē, and maintaining them only as my experiences [Erlebnisse], I attain the essential structures of an original life.

Or how about this circular palm frond?

Instead of persisting in this manner of “straightforwardly living into the world,” let us attempt a universal change of interest in which the new expression “pregivenness of the world” becomes necessary because it is the title for this differently directed and yet again universal theme of the manners of pregivenness.

How can the expression “pregivenness” be new if it’s the title of a universal theme that Husserl has only “differently directed”? And while we’re at it, why must he spend a sentence telling the reader that he has found it necessary to name pregivenness “pregivenness”?

Husserl does have a point, though. It isn’t the same as Reid’s, which I vainly predicted a couple of weeks ago. But it’s there at the center of the pathless Husserlian Cyclotron, and I got it. The next necessary step in philosophy, Husserl says, the step that will correct all the naïveté of every previous philosophy and provide the foundation for the solution to all of philosophy’s perennial problems (his claim – I’m not exaggerating) is to stand above (he emphasizes the word) all questions of the existence of the objects of our perception. Very much like Reid, whose Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man I finished just a week ago, Husserl says that the images we have change consistently as we change our perspective, so we can trust their internal coherence and study them and base science on them. But, very much unlike Reid, he says we must not ask whether the world that the images seem to point to actually exists.

Now that doesn’t take 265 pages to say. And this “phenomenological” philosophy doesn’t provide the ground for answering all philosophical problems, as Husserl claims: by refusing to ask whether things exist, it can’t possibly solve the problem of whether they do.

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