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The Metaphysical Neutrality of Husserlian Phenomenology

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I argue that Husserlian phenomenology is metaphysically neutral, in the sense of being compatible with multiple metaphysical frameworks (including frameworks Husserl argued against). For example, though Husserl dismisses the concept of an unknowable thing in itself as “material nonsense”, I argue that the concept is coherent and that the existence of such things is compatible with Husserl’s phenomenology. I defend this metaphysical neutrality approach against a number of objections and consider some of its implications for Husserl interpretation.

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  1. On this history through the 1980s see Ameriks (1977); Hall (1982); Holmes (1975). For references to additional scholarly discussion see Drummond (1990, p. 250). On Daubert see Schuhmann and Smith (1985). Of course, the issue of the relationship between phenomenology and metaphysics extends beyond Husserl’s own works and is particularly important in Heidegger’s work. Perhaps not surprisingly, given Husserl’s influence on Heidegger, interpretive controversies similar to those discussed here also arise in Heideggerean phenomenology; see, e.g. Cerbone (1995).

  2. See Gurwitsch (2010); Holmes (1975); Luft (2011); Philipse (1995).

  3. See Ameriks (1977); D. W. Smith and McIntyre (1982); Willard (2002).

  4. See Carr (1999); Crowell (2001); Hall (1982); Holmes (1975) and the discussion in Zahavi (2010).

  5. By “Husserlian phenomenology” I will mean proposals made by Husserl and his followers concerning the structure and dynamics of consciousness, as studied using such techniques as phenomenological reduction, mereology, and free variation. I do not mean to include Husserl or his followers’ explicit claims about metaphysics under this heading: if I did, then Husserlian phenomenology would obviously not be metaphysically neutral.

  6. Later in the same text he says “phenomenology indeed excludes every naïve metaphysics that operates with absurd things in themselves, but does not exclude metaphysics as such” (Hua I, p. 182/156).

  7. I give a detailed analysis of the “phenomenology of psychology” in Yoshimi (2010).

  8. This point should be kept in mind below: regardless of our broader metaphysical commitments, some form of mind-world distinction will persist within consciousness. For an idealist, mind and world within consciousness are all there is to the mind-world distinction. In a realist framework mind and world within consciousness correspond in different ways to mind and world beyond consciousness.

  9. For discussion of this concept of the absolute, with references to earlier scholarship—as far back as Boehm (1959)—see Zahavi (2010).

  10. On the material/formal distinction see Hua XIX, Investigation 4, especially sections 10 and 12, and Investigation 1, section 15. By “material nonsense” I mean what Husserl calls “Widersinn” (as opposed to Unsinn) in Investigation 4, section 12, which is sometimes translated as “absurdity”. Husserl’s own use of these terms is not always consistent, though his meaning in particular contexts is usually clear.

  11. Compare Ameriks; “Husserl's position could be expressed in the trivial sounding statement that it is ‘nonsense’ to assume something exists which is transcendent yet in principle unperceivable” (1977, p. 502). Also see Zahavi (2010, p. 77).

  12. From Zahavi (2010). Zahavi also refers to similar discussions in Crisis (Hua VI, p. 439–440).

  13. Zahavi (2003, p. 8) gives three possible interpretations of the idea that transcendental idealism is “beyond” traditional idealism and realism. Such an account may (1) seek to combine elements of realism and idealism, (2) show that both involve material nonsense, or (3) claim the debate is concerned with different matters altogether. The last position is a kind of neutrality position, in that it claims that Husserl’s idealism “lacks metaphysical impact”.

  14. Cf. Herbert Spiegelberg’s comments: “What stands out most vividly in my memory is Husserl’s plea for thoroughness at any price. ‘One must not consider oneself too good to work at the foundations.’ He himself did not want to be anything but a worker at foundation walls” (Embree, 1991). Also cf. Zahavi: “Husserl […] stressed the importance of providing minute and careful analyses at the expense of developing ambitious and speculative systems. As he wrote in a letter to Natorp, he remained unsatisfied ‘as long as the large banknotes and bills are not turned into small change’” (Zahavi 2010, p. 89; quoting from Husserl [1994], Vol. 5., p. 56).

  15. It is natural at this point to ask whether the disjunction in the first premise is exhaustive, since one could imagine that Husserlian phenomenology commits us to some other metaphysical framework, e.g. realism or physicalism. However no one to my knowledge defends such an alternative reading (e.g., that Husserlian phenomenology implies a realist metaphysics), so the argument as it stands covers the main interpretive options. More importantly, my reasons for claiming that Husserlian phenomenology does not commit us to idealism (premise 2) should be generalizable to any claim of the form “Husserlian phenomenology commits us to metaphysical framework x”.

  16. This is clearly a problematic reading of Husserl’s idealism. To say that a table is made out of table perceptions sounds like superficial Berkeleian idealism, which Husserl was at pains to resist. This was roughly Ingarden’s reading (constitution as “creation”), which Wallner lambasts as a “crude form of subjective idealism” (Wallner 1987, p. 8; also see the discussion of constitution on p. 16). However, some have suggested that the crude Berkeleyan reading may be more apt than Husserl would have liked (Philipse 1995, pp. 286–287).

  17. Another formulation is to say that all facts supervene on facts about consciousness (A. D. Smith, 2003). I address this formulation in section 3.

  18. Abbott may have been influenced by Helmholtz, who described such a world in a popular lecture. Husserl was aware of this lecture, and mentions it in Crisis. Luft (2011) develops this same idea, to a different purpose, at several places.

  19. See Stroffregen and Pittenger (1995) and D’Zmura, Colantoni, and Seyranian (2000).

  20. Compare “Mysterian” arguments in the philosophy of mind, e.g. McGinn (1989).

  21. Or, as Husserl himself says, “What cannot be known cannot exist; existence is knowability” (Hua XV, p. 370, quoted in A. D. Smith 2003, p. 186); “it makes no sense to ascribe existence to a fact, when there is no consciousness” (Hua XXXVI, p. 18, quoted in Uemura 2013, p. 147).

  22. One might insist that “transcendence” in Husserl’s sense is a term of art that denotes a phenomenon that does require experiencability. But of course, that settles nothing. If we take that line, then careful Husserl interpretation will only clarify how Husserl’s own terms relate to each other, and we can introduce a new term to describe the kind of transcendence whose material possibility I’m considering. Husserl can’t stipulate his way out of the problem.

  23. Also see Hua III/1 sections 52 and 79, and Hua IX, section 9, where Husserl discusses free variation and notes that “A pure eidos treats the factual actuality of the single cases attained in the variation as completely irrelevant” and thus excludes (in the case of tones) any “secret stipulation” of “optional tones in the world, tones heard or able to be heard by human beings on earth.”

  24. See Kasmier (2010) for a review of the critical literature on free variation, as well as an attempted defense of the method against these criticisms.

  25. The nod to Wittgenstein highlights the fact that some of the discussion surrounding logical positivism and contemporary skepticism tracks Husserl on these points—not surprisingly, given the direct linkages between the two, especially from Husserl to Carnap; see Haddock (2008). That which cannot be captured by observation sentences or verified in some way or otherwise be located in the web of human belief is, on many such views, nonsense. For example, “Quine has no room for the kind of scepticism which asks the following kind of question: even if our alleged knowledge, our science, is completely successful on its own terms, how do we know that it tells us the way the world really is?” (Hylton 2012). My response to such views would parallel my response to Husserl on these points. Contemporary discussions of skepticism, which trace their roots to debates between Moore and Wittgenstein on the proper response to skepticism, are also relevant.

  26. A nice example of this kind of approach can be found in D.W. Smith (2013), who lays out a range of ways one might read Husserl’s metaphysics, or in my terms, combine Husserl’s phenomenology with a metaphysical system, from Berkeleyan idealism to a form of “transcendental relativity” which draws on Einstein’s general theory of relativity. He concludes by developing his own view: “Let us assume a realism that finds us and our experiences in a world where our consciousness is dependent in various ways on physical and biological reality and in other ways on historical and cultural reality” (p. 400). That is, rather than taking his particular form of realism to follow from anything in Husserl, he simply assumes it, blends it with Husserlian phenomenology, and then develops the resulting account.

  27. Here is the basic idea. Suppose we have two bodies of Husserl interpretation H1 and H2 that oppose each other on metaphysical grounds (e.g. idealist and realist readings). If we separate out the phenomenological and metaphysical components of H1 and H2, then the metaphysical opposition between the two readings can be set aside and their phenomenological contents can (assuming they are mutually consistent) be merged. In fact I think in several cases this could profitably be done.


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This work originated in a commentary on Sebastian Luft’s Subjectivity and Lifeworld in Transcendental Phenomenology, which I presented at the central APA at a symposium with David Carr and Hanne Jacobs in 2012. I am grateful to Luft for the opportunity to develop these ideas, and to all three for their feedback. I went on to develop the commentary into a self-standing paper, which I presented at the Workshop for Phenomenological Philosophy at Rice University in 2014. I received valuable feedback there from, Michele Averchi, Steve Crowell, John Drummond, Burt Hopkins, Molly Flynn, Michael Shim, Charles Siewert and others. Thanks also to Walter Hopp, David Kasmier, David Woodruff Smith, and an anonymous referee for helpful feedback.

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Yoshimi, J. The Metaphysical Neutrality of Husserlian Phenomenology. Husserl Stud 31, 1–15 (2015).

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