Knowing Good and Evil ... (Genesis 3: 5B)

  • Erazim Kohák
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 165)


The purpose of this paper is to undertake a Husserlian inquiry into the experiential foundations of good and evil. Specifically, we shall seek to address the question whether the distinction of good and evil—which we shall understand as a distinction between what is to be sought and cherished and what is to be shunned and avoided—is an arbitrary one or whether it reflects some more basic experiential distinction. We shall claim that Husserl’s basic insight that reality is primordially a Lebenswelt, a Welt des Lebens, enables us to claim that the distinction of good and evil does indeed have an ontological justification: some things sustain life, others destroy it.


Life World Relational Reality Purposive Activity Transcendental Subjectivity Faithful Image 
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  1. 1.
    Edmund Husserl, Indeen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie. Zweites Buch, Phänomenologische Untersuchungen zur Konstitution, Hua IV, Ed. Marly Biemel (The Hague: Martinus Nijhof, 1952);Google Scholar
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  3. 2.
    Richard Rorty argues this cogently in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979)Google Scholar
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  6. 3.
    That is the point of the second section of Ideen II, op. cit., ‘Die Konstitution der animalischen Natur’, §§35-42. The term die personalistische Welt in Section III, §§49-53, is a world of which subject being is an intrinsic part, truly a life’s world.Google Scholar
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    Jan Patočka habitually translates Lebenswelt as “svet naseho života,” that is, as die Welt unseres Lebens, the world of our life. See e.g. his ‘Edmund Husserl’s Philosophy of the Crisis of the Sciences and his Conception of a Phenomenology of the “Life-World”’, in Erazim Kohák, Jan Patočka (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) pp. 232-238.Google Scholar
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    Jan Patočka, ‘The “Natural” World and Phenomenology’, Erazim Kohák, Jan Patočka (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 239-272.Google Scholar
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    This is not a matter of conjecture. The reader can verify what Husserl read in Karl Schunmann, Husserl-Chronik (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977). For instance, ‘20. September 1899. H. liest Avenarius’, p. 57.Google Scholar
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    Following the summary in Sextus Empiricus, Adversus mathematicos, Lib. VII, 65-87; English in Works, tr. R.G. Bury, vol. 4 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1940).Google Scholar
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    Eisler’s Handwörterbuch der Philosophie (Berlin: Mittler and Sohn, 1913, 2d ed., 1922), a faithful reflection of German usage at the time, presents Wesenschauung as Husserl's neologism, but offers a long treatise concerning the term Wesen, including a definition from Lotze (“das Gesetz der Verhaltungsweise eines Dinges”) which captures Husserl's use with an uncanny accuracy, once again testifying to the kinship between Husserl and personalism.Google Scholar
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    Kurt Koffka, Principles of Gestalt Psychology (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1935, 2d ed. 1963). The best known experiment is one in which chickens were fed on the grey portion of a white and grey surface. When a grey and black feeding surface was substi tuted, the chickens sought their food on the black portion, suggesting that they associated feeding with the darker surface, not just with the grey.Google Scholar
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    For arguments supporting this claim, see John Lachs and Erazim Kohák, ‘A Dialogue on Value’, Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol. 5, no. 1, Spring 1991, pp. 1-24.Google Scholar
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    But compare Emanuel Radl, Útěcha zfilosofie (Praha: Leichter, 1947), pp. 87 ff.Google Scholar
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    For supporting arguments, see my ‘Why is there Something Good, Not Simply Something’Emanuel Radl, Útěcha zfilosofie., note 13 supra, and ‘Perceiving the Good’ (Metaphysical Society of America, April 16, 1989), publication pending.Google Scholar
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    As I have argued elsewhere, note 17 supra, I believe there are good reasons for con sidering intrinsic worth an absolute, not a relational quality, honoring an idiom established in Western thought since Plotinus. However, we could also use a relational idiom, noting that intrinsic worth is a function of a self-relation, the value which its own life has for the subject. Then the manifest tendency of whatever is to seek to remain in being—as the sprouting bean cited by Radl in note 16 supra—becomes evidence of the intrinsic value being has for itself. That, to be sure, does not mean that being is “friendly” or benevolent, but it does mean it is good and worthy of respect.Google Scholar
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    Krisis §72 (Hua VI. 265; Czech tr. Kouba, Krize evropských věd, p. 285).Google Scholar
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    All three references here are to Ideen I. Husserl’s claim to be the true positivist is in §20, his claim that phenomenological terms should be univocal in §66, the reference to the constitution of eidetic patterns in §86.Google Scholar
  25. 22.
    In part III of ldeen II (note 6 supra) Husserl treats “personalistisch” as equivalent to “geistig.” Both refer to reality as constituted as a meaningful whole—i.e. a Welt—by the purposeful presence of a subject, at this stage still conceived as a human subject, though already clearly transcendental—“subject in principle” —rather than psycho—logical (this or that subject).Google Scholar
  26. 23.
    Alfred Schutz in Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt (Wien: Julius Springer, 1932), 2.17 et passim speaks of die wirkende Welt, anticipating Husserl’s conception of fungierende (note 20 supra). Also Patocka's conclusion that the life world is a world of good and evil (note 15 supra).Google Scholar
  27. 24.
    Until the early 1930s, Husserl appears to have preserved a hope of a “higher level objectivity,” in effect a God’s-eye view of the eidetic structure of the life world. So explicitly in Ideen I, esp §§71-74. However, his posthumously published texts (Zur Phänomenologie der Inter subjektivität, Hua XIII-XV, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973) suggest he had doubts on that score at least since 1917, helping explain the odd difference in tone between Krisis §72 and the text which Walter Biemel included as §73 in Hua VI - not to mention the notorious Beilage XXVIII which begins "Philosophic als Wissenschaft…der Traum ist ausgetraumt" (Hua VI. 508).Google Scholar
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    Rorty’s argument in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is open to the objection that it reduces mentalist language but treats physicalist language as privileged, in effect a true mirror. His argument is far stronger in Contingency… where he turns his critique of mirroring against physicalism as well (note 2 supra).Google Scholar
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    Dorion Cairns, Conversations with Husserl and Fink (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976) reports in two places that Husserl, while considering it merely a “private opinion,”tended to equate transcendental subjectivity with God; so pp. 22-23 and 14.Google Scholar
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    “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third…may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.” Patrick Henry to the Virginia House of Burgesses, May 29, 1765, according to John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Erazim Kohák
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Boston UniversityUSA
  2. 2.Univerzita KarlovaPragueCzech Republic

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