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The Skeptical Origins of Husserl’s Transcendental Phenomenology

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This paper demonstrates that two signature methodological concepts in Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, the epoché and the phenomenological reduction, derive from his reflections on the history and significance of epistemological skepticism in the Western tradition. Drawing on his Lectures on Logic and Epistemology (Hua XXIV) from the Winter semester of 1906–07, it is argued that Husserl derives his conception of the fundamental task of transcendental philosophy from his reading of a novel skeptical challenge posed by David Hume’s philosophy—a kind of skeptical challenge that Husserl did not recognize in his earlier treatments of Hume. On Husserl’s revised reading, Hume promotes a certain kind of philosophical “despair” (Verzweiflung) or, as it may be called today, “quietism” as the only possible response to the traditional problems of epistemology stemming back to the ancient skeptics. Husserl’s criticism of Hume’s quietism is presented. And Husserl’s reading of Descartes’s cogito as the first decisive uncovering of the limits of epistemological skepticism in the Western tradition is shown to be the source of two key elements of Husserl’s positive alternative to Humean epistemological quietism, which ultimately become the heart of a novel conception of critical transcendental philosophy. These two key elements are the phenomenological epoché and phenomenological reduction. Husserl’s arguments are presented for the claim that these are essential parts of any epistemological program that can answer traditional skeptical challenges.

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  1. For discussion of the influence of Hume’s skeptical epistemology on Husserl’s initial conception of phenomenological description as set out in the Logical Investigations (1900–01) and takes on how this influenced his conception of transcendental philosophy, see Rocknak (2001) and Janoušek and Zahavi (2020). Neither of these papers discusses the influence of Husserl’s reading of the history of skepticism or Husserl’s reading of Hume’s response to the skeptical tradition in philosophy on his development of transcendental phenomenology. For discussion of Hume’s skepticism as a foil for Husserl’s positive epistemological program, see Johnstone (1986); here too, this influential paper says nothing about Husserl’s understanding of the history of skepticism. In this paper, I only consider Hume’s philosophy in relation to Husserl’s initial development of transcendental phenomenology, in the years between the first edition of Logical Investigations (1900–01) and the first book of Ideas (1913). So, I set aside discussion of the influence of Hume on Husserl’s development of the concept of genetic phenomenology. For discussion of this, See Murphy (1980).

  2. See, for example, Burkey (1990), Becker (2001) and the in-depth historical analysis provided in MacDonald (2000).

  3. When I cite page numbers for this text, the first will be the page in the Husserliana edition and the second the page in the English translation by Claire Ortiz Hill (2008).

  4. For a particularly influential perspective on how Husserl’s conception of the epoché and phenomenological reduction changed over the course of his career, as well as the motives and ramifications of these changes, see Welton (2000).

  5. This much is suggested by Suzanne Bachelard (1968, p. XX), who claims that the philosophical problem of psychologism is a “determining problem” about which no logician can remain neutral, and that Husserl “considers such recourse to psychology a radical vice” in logic. So, for Husserl to choose the side of anti-psychologism, Bachelard says, “was definitive.” See also the argument in Rinofner-Kreidl (2020), which provides careful textual analysis in support of this claim.

  6. When I cite page numbers from this text, the first will be the page in the Husserliana edition and the second the page in Findlay’s translation: (Husserl, 1970).

  7. Husserl also distinguishes skepticism in this “authentic” and precise sense from “inauthentic” (unecht) forms of skepticism, which are actually just implausible metaphysical theories that “have no connection with skepticism proper”, since they do not involve or entail Widersinnigkeit (Hua XVIII, p. 121/137). The example Husserl gives here is the doctrine (associated with Kant) that “things in themselves” are unknowable. And the idea seems to be that since the knowability or existence of completely mind-independent particulars is not a logical or noetic condition of theoretical knowledge in general, then this doctrine does itself not involve Widersinn qua theory.

  8. For some representative discussions, see Kusch (1995, pp. 42–56), Mohanty (1997), Bernet, Kern, and Marbach (1993, pp. 32–43), Soffer (2012, chap 1), and Rinofner-Kreidl (2020).

  9. See, e.g., Wild (1914) and Burnyeat (1990, pp. 30–31). For further discussion of the development of the so-called “self-refutation” argument against skepticism among the ancients, see Lee (2005).

  10. One reviewer of the Prolegomena, who already saw clearly the deep challenges that Husserl faces here, and insightfully presents the problems associated with the elucidation of the three essential facets of knowledge, was Paul Natorp (1901). For discussion of the problems Husserl encountered in developing this conception of descriptive psychology, see de Boer (1978, part I, chapters 2–11) and Lohmar (2012).

  11. From what I can see, Husserl draws the distinction between dogmatic and “methodological” skepticism first in his 1902/03 Lectures on General Epistemology (Mat III, pp. 85–89). However, it is not developed fully there. While it is advanced there as a version of skepticism that avoids the problems of dogmatic skepticism, it is understood to do this only insofar as it is only a half-way execution of traditional skeptical doubt, which culminates not in a rejection of empirical or scientific knowledge, but rather in reflection on the “meaning” of knowledge. The attribution of this kind of skeptical view to Hume, however, does not come out in these lectures. Rather, in 1902–03, it is more closely associated with Descartes in Husserl’s mind. And this is problematic, as we shall see below (Sect. 4), insofar as Descartes, in Husserl’s mind, doesn’t yet achieve a clear understanding of the methodology and proper goal of epistemological theorizing. Rather, Husserl must wait until he acquires a keener understanding of Hume’s skepticism before the proper sense of the questions of epistemology becomes clear to him—an understanding Husserl articulates first in the 1906–07 lectures.

  12. And here emerges one puzzling aspect of Husserl’s understanding of the historical development of critical skepticism. Historically, the first skeptics to explicitly differentiate themselves from dogmatic skepticism were the Pyrrhonian skeptics. And it is well known, that the Pyrrhonian skeptics too targeted dogmatism in all its forms as a fundamental philosophical vice, against which the Pyrrhonians developed methods of critical investigation that would enable one to see that both sides of any theoretical position have equally strong claims to the truth and, consequently, achieve the peace of mind (ataraxy) that’s found in an appropriately ascertained epoché. So, in this fashion at least, the Pyrrhonian skeptics anticipate the role of the epoché as a key part of a consistent philosophical methodology. (For further discussion of this similarity between Husserl and the Pyrrhonian skeptics, see Rinofner-Kreidl (2002)).

    The puzzle is why Husserl overlooks the ancient Pyrrhonians and the modern revival of Pyrrhonism, exhibited in writers such as Montaigne, and instead goes directly to Hume as the first clear exemplar of methodological/critical skepticism. One reason why is that he may not see the Pyrrhonians as offering up a genuinely non-dogmatic skeptical alternative. According to Sokolowski (1996), if Husserl subjected the Pyrrhonians to more careful scrutiny in his writings, he would have identified a key flaw of ancient skepticism in it, that catches it in the undertow of dogmatism anyway. This is that the Pyrrhonians seem to believe that they can formulate an equipollent case for both sides of the disagreement over the truth of every theoretical claim, including the claims of natural knowledge and natural science. However, the problem with this, historically speaking, is that it is not clear that the Pyrrhonians were committed to the universality of equipollence, but only to the application of certain very basic theoretical commitments. For a reading of Pyrrhonism along these lines, which focuses on the late Pyrrhonism of Sextus Empiricus, and argues that it is a sort of skepticism that does not abstain from judgment about claims of natural science and natural knowledge, but only maintains an epoché in relation to the “theoretical” claims characteristic of philosophy—thus, casting them as philosophers that anticipate completely Humean critical skepticism as Husserl understands it—see Frede (1987).

  13. As I will discuss in the next section, it is important not to read the talk of epistemological “foundations” of the sciences here as being knowledge that one must have prior to the attainment of scientific knowledge. Rather, as the passage suggests, the work of epistemology presupposes the possession of scientific knowledge. And its aim is the full understanding of the attainments and conditions of possibility of scientific knowledge, i.e., what Husserl calls (following the Kantian tradition) a “metaphysics” of science (Hua XXIV, pp. 177–178/175, 191/188).

  14. See, for example, (Hua III §62), (Hua XXXV §8–10), and the final, most sophisticated iteration at (Hua VI §16–27). For helpful discussion of Husserl’s engagement with history in development of themes in his later philosophy, see Knies (2011).

  15. For discussion of the circularity problem and its inspirational role in the formulation of the phenomenological reduction as it is presented in the famous lectures on the “Idea of Phenomenology” in summer 1907 (Hua II), see Lohmar (2012). Part of what I take to be significant about the analysis of the text that’s our object of study here, which comes from the Winter semester immediately preceding the more famous “Idea” lectures, is the light it sheds on the broader historical provenance of the phenomenological reduction in Husserl’s thought and the implications this has for a proper understanding of the reduction—points that Lohmar does not discuss.

  16. For a further discussion of the general structure and aims of Husserl’s phenomenological epistemology that is in agreement with this point, especially with regard to the idea of epistemology providing “foundations” for knowledge only in the sense of clarifying knowledge that’s already given, see Hopp (2008).

  17. For a reading Descartes’s contribution to the history of Western skepticism that accords quite well with what I take to be Husserl’s reading of it here, see Burnyeat (1982).

  18. The concept of phenomenological immanence does not receive the same careful explication in the Winter 1906–07 lectures as it does in the Summer 1907 lecture, The Idea of Phenomenology (Hua II). So this, I think, is a point where the more famous explication of the phenomenological reduction in the latter marks an important advancement over its initial presentation here. For more on the concept of phenomenological immanence and its application in phenomenological epistemology, see Crowell (2013, chap 5), as well as, again, Lohmar (2012).


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Kidd, C. The Skeptical Origins of Husserl’s Transcendental Phenomenology. Husserl Stud 37, 169–191 (2021).

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