On the Historicity of Understanding

A Phenomenological Interpretation of a Text by Husserl
  • Konrad Rokstad
Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 59)


In “The Origin of Geometry”, one of the appendices to the Crisis 1 — the work in which Husserl gave his final interpretation of transcendental phenomenology, he characterises history in the following manner: “... history is from the start nothing other than the vital movement of the coexistence and the interweaving of original formations and sedimentations of meaning”. He also speaks of “the universal a priori of history with all its highly abundant component elements” — which, he says, would result from such investigations, as they are “carried out systematically”, with “such self-evidences”, that he is laying a grounding for in that appendix.2


Cultural World Actual Understanding Transcendental Phenomenology Open Horizon Endless Variety 
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  1. 1.
    Edmund HusserlDie Krisis der Europäischen Wissenschaften und die Transzendentale Phänomenologie (The Hague, 1962). In this context I will be using the English version: The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. D. Carr (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970), cited hereafter as Crisis.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Crisis, p. 371.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    This has to do with Husserl’s relation to the Humanities (Historicism, Dilthey etc.), maybe most clearly stated in “Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft” (1911), but also substantially discussed in that appendix we will be interpreting — towards the end, and it does, of course, fit into the total conception of the Crisis.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Of course, this text we are going to interpret, has been interpreted before, and perhaps the most famous interpretation is that given by J. Derrida (in his “Introduction à `L’Origine de la géometrie’ de Husserl,” 1962), — on the one hand using the text for an analysis opening the total field of Husserl’s phenomenology, and on the other opening a criticism that might be “fatal” to the whole project of the same philosophy. But there are others (D. Cairns, 1940; E. Fink, 1939; G. Brand, 1969) both before and after Derrida, that directly interpret or seem to be using the text for grounding a perspective on the whole of Husserl’ s phenomenology. We will, however, not be going into a discussion of that “tradition” of interpretation.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The Origin of Geometry“ does not belong to the main text, but it seems like it was meant for it — in the second part, which deals with the philosophical-scientific tradition. According to the recently published Ergänzungsband (Husserliana, bd XXIX, 1993) to the Crisis (pp. lvi—lvii), Eugon Fink, Husserl’s assistant at that time, suggested that the text should be placed before the actual 9 — ”Galileo’s Mathematization of Nature,“ as a new 9 called ”Die Rückfrage nach dem Ursprungssinn der Geometrie als historisches Problem.“ This paragraph should then be divided into the following sub-points: a) die Traditionalität der Geometrie (Tradierung überhaupt); b) die Bedingungen des weltlichen Daseins eines Idealgebildes als die Bedingungen seiner Tradierbarkeit (Identität des Gebildes, Sprache, Schrift); c) Tradition und Reaktivierung der Traditionsstiftung (Bedingungen einer vollständigen Reaktivierung); d) die Rückfrage in den Sinnesursprung als Freilegung einer verborgenen Geschichtlichkeit; e) die apriorischen Voraussetzungen aller Historie. Husserl did not however follow this suggestion, and why we don’t know, but the text was published — by Fink — in 1939, under the title ”Die Frage nach dem Ursprung der Geometrie als intentionalhistorisches Problem“ (in the Revue Internationale de Philosophie, Brussels, 1. Jahrgang, No. 2). Then we might, of course, speculate into why all this happened that way. One possible explanation might be that Husserl simply realised that the analysis of that text was too ”heavy“ burdened with very important problems that in a way would have complicated the understanding of those analyses the main text actual contains on Galilei; bringing it into the text could then have had effects on its understandability contrary that which was the main purpose of the whole project. We don’t insist on this explanation, but find it interesting, not least because one might then construct an interesting analogy between the actual analysis of Galilei and the text we are focusing on: The first might be looked at as an analysis of how the modern conception of nature is constituted through historicity in the grounding of our life-world; the other, then analogically, one of how the core ”substances“ of understanding, as ”idealities“ given in the relevant ”self-evidences,“ are constituted through historicity, so to speak constituting a field of the ”historicity of understanding“ analogous to that of ”nature,“ but then going deeper really into the whole matter. Fink’s way of structuring the text might then give decisive clues, but this might also have seemed problematic for Husserl’s whole project in his Crisis. We don’t really make this the ”hypothesis“ of our interpretation, but find it interesting enough to mention.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Crisis, p. 52.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Crisis, p. 354.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Crisis, pp. 354–355.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    The three last quotations from Crisis, p. 355.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    As already stated at the outset, and now made understandable on the above consideration, geometry is, thus, a tradition. Husserl also points out that we — as we are understanding “our geometry, available to us through tradition (we have learned it, and so have our teachers)” — know it “to be a total acquisition of spiritual accomplishments which grows through the continued work of new spiritual acts into new acquisitions. We know of its handed-down, earlier forms, as those from which it has arisen; but with every form the reference to an earlier one is repeated” (Crisis, p. 355). Then you have got a “new” dimension explicitly brought forward; it is not really separated from the endless variety of particularities in history (that you grasp only through “subsumption”) — nevertheless it has another potentiality for presenting the “elements” contained, as that of “total acquisition” in geometry (as we understand it handed-down) constitutes an “internal link” where all the accomplishments are so to speak repeated and repeatable, in exactly that spiritual “space” (our capacity for) understanding might be constituting.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Crisis, p. 355. But what exactly is true of every science? Husserl is saying that geometry “necessarily has this mobility and has a horizon of the geometrical future in precisely this style; this is its meaning for every geometer who has the consciousness (the constant implicit knowledge) of existing within a forward development understood as the progress of knowledge being built into the horizon”. What then is it that, according to Husserl, seems to be true for every science? He probably does not mean that every science has the specific style, mobility and future as the science of geometry; but they all have a “rational” style, mobility and a horizon of their future — defined by their style constituted through their meaning — as there also exist scientists with a consciousness and a constant implicit knowledge of existing within a forward development understood as the progress of knowledge being built into that horizon. This might be true for every science — that they have their horizon of their future, with scientists having both their explicit and implicit knowledge, where the basic meaning is constituted through that horizon as both progress and style, always pulsatingly, through working praxis, melt into the horizon, in that way also always revitalising the basic meaning, that has its “origin” in “history” precisely as it is emerging out of that historicity constituted this way. This might even constitute a universal meaning going into the horizon of every science as such. And doesn’t this consideration, then, constitute a horizon for understanding science teleologically, quite generally? Husserl continues his regressive inquiry, by going back into the quite obvious: “… every science is related to an open chain of the generations of those who work for and with one another, researchers either known or unknown to one another who are the accomplishing subjectivity of the whole living science. Science, and in particular geometry, with its ontic meaning, must have had a historical beginning; this meaning itself must have an origin in an accomplishment: first as a project and then in successful execution” (Crisis, p. 356). Then we have been brought to the beginning — as it might be seen quite “rationally,” considered in the perspective of “common,” natural understanding — since it also obviously includes the aspect of history and the moment of (a) beginning.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    As geometry given in its actual appearance, contains a total (to be sure, an uncom- pleted total) meaning, it seems obvious that this meaning, as Husserl then points out, “… could not have been present as a project and then as mobile fulfilment at the beginning. A more primitive formation of meaning necessarily went before… that it appeared for the first time in the self-evidence of successful realization. But this way of expressing it is actually overblown,“ (Crisis, p. 356).Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Crisis, p. 356.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    The problem might well be compared and be considered similar to that problem Roman Ingarden formulated in relation to the Cartesianische Meditationen, pp. 205–206, and characterised as “the problem of the beginning”.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Crisis, p. 356.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    What Husserl then is investigating, whether it is the problem of the (“first”) objectivity of geometry or that of the historicity of cognition, might then be neither easy nor so important to decide. The main point seems to be that they essentially belong together, and — while geometry poses the problem of both the “first” self-evidence and objectivity upon us — in this phenomenological perspective, they can’t be separated. But here we have to add one important precondition; this becomes clear as one realises that the objectivity of geometry really implies and constitutes the problem of ideality quite generally, so that what we really are facing is the problem of the historicity of ideality “as such”. And, of course, then you might realise that the science of geometry constitutes a well-fitted “example” — as it undoubtedly might lead us into asking for evidential grounding, also giving substantial sense to the quest for the beginning, at the same time making it possible to realise the distinction between questing for a historical origin and a genuine origin constituted in this philosophical sense of historicity.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Crisis, pp. 356–357.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Crisis, p. 357.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Crisis, pp. 357–358.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Crisis, p. 358. What Husserl is actually saying about that relation is, of course, laden with difficult problems, but now he is describing the whole matter as if it is quite obvious, in this manner: “… living wakefully in the world we are constantly conscious of the world, whether we pay attention… the horizon of our life… of things… interests and activities. Always standing out against the world-horizon is the horizon of fellow men, whether there are of them present or not. Before even taking notice of it at all we are conscious of the open horizon of our fellow men with its limited nucleus of our neighbours…. We are thereby conscious of the men on our external horizon in each case as ”others“; in each case ”I“ am conscious of them as ”my“ others, as those with whom I can enter into actual… relations of empathy. ”… It is precisely to this horizon of civilization that common language belongs. One is conscious of civilization from the start as an immediate and mediate linguistic community.… far-reaching documentations, as possible communications… horizon of civilization… open and endless one,…“Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Crisis, p. 359.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Crisis, p. 359.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Crisis, p. 359; The relevant continuation is: “Vivid self-evidence passes — though in such a way that the activity immediately turns into the passivity of the flowingly fading consciousness of what-has-just-now-been. Finally this `retention’ disappears, but the `disappeared’ passing and being past has not become nothing for the subject in question: it can be reawakened”.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    To the passivity of what is at first obscurely awakened and what perhaps emerges with greater and greater clarity there belongs the possible activity of a recollection in which the past experiencing is lived through in a quasi-new and quasi-active way,“ Crisis, p. 360.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Crisis, p. 360.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Crisis, p, 360; The following leads to the just quoted: “In this full understanding of what is produced by the other, as in the case of recollection, a present coaccomplishment on one’s own part of the presentified activity necessarily takes place; but at the same time there is also the self-evident consciousness of the identity of the mental structure in the productions of both the receiver of the communication and the communicator; and this occurs reciprocally. The productions can reproduce their likenesses from person to person, and in the chain of the understanding of these repetitions what is self-evident turns up as the same in the consciousness of the other,”Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Crisis, p. 360.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Crisis, pp. 360–361; The whole relevant sequence is: “The important function of written, documenting linguistic expression is that it makes communications possible without immediate or mediate personal address; it is, so to speak, communication become virtual. Through this, the communalization of man is lifted to a new level. Written signs are, when considered from a purely corporeal point of view, straightforwardly, sensibly experienceable; and it is always possible that they be intersubjectively experienceable in common. But as linguistic signs they awaken, as do linguistic sounds, their familiar significations. The awakening is something passive; the awakened signification is thus given passively, similarly to the way in which any other activity which has sunk into obscurity, once associatively awakened, emerges at first passively as a more or less clear memory. In the passivity in question here, as in the case of memory, what is passively awakened can be transformed back, so to speak, into the corresponding activity: this is the capacity for reactivating that belongs originally to every human being as a speaking being. Accordingly, then, the writing-down effects a transformation of the original mode of being of the meaning-structure, [e.g.] within the geometrical sphere of self-evidence, of the geometrical structure which is put into words. It becomes sedimented, so to speak. But the reader can make it self-evident again, can reactivate the self-evidence” pp. 360–361.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    This will, of course, constitute an extensive and very important field of investigation in the continuation of the inquiry this paper conducts.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Crisis, p. 361; The continuation is as follows: “But there also exist possibilities of a kind of activity, a thinking in terms of things that have been taken up merely receptively, passively, which deals with significations only passively understood and taken over, without any of the self-evidence of original activity. Passivity in general is the realm of things that are bound together and melt into one another associatively, where all meaning that arises is put together passively…. apparently… possible reactivation… instead of being fulfilled, comes to nothing;…”Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Crisis, p. 362; The problem to “tackle” has this structure: “… free play of associative constructions. In view of the unavoidable sedimentation of mental products… persisting linguistic acquisitions… can be taken over by anyone… constant danger.… avoided… if its capacity to be reactivated and enduringly maintained… in scientific community… of knowledge living in the unity of a common responsibility… `once and for all’… `stands fast’, forever identically repeatable with self-evidence and useable for further theoretical or practical ends — as indubitable reactivatable with the identity of its actual meaning”.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Crisis, p. 363; Husserl sees a possible difference here between the deductive and descriptive sciences.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    At Crisis, p. 366 he asks if the genuine meaning could really be “cashed in,” and the answer is negative: “Unfortunately,… this is our situation, and that of the whole modern age.”Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Crisis, p. 364. This concept of “explication” (Verdeutlichung) that would have been a core-concept, going into the problem of understanding more substantially at this level, is explicated by Husserl in the following way: “A passively emerging sentence… memory…, or one heard and passively understood, is at first merely received with a passive ego-participation, taken up as valid; and in this form it is already our meaning. From this we distinguish the particular and important activity of explicating our meaning. Where as in its first form it was a straightforwardly valid meaning, taken up as a unitary and undifferentiated — concretely speaking, a straightforwardly valid declarative sentence — now what in itself is vague and undifferentiated is actively explicated,… But there is something special… to have the intention explicated, to engage in the activity which articulates what has been read…, extracting one by one, in separation from what has been vaguely, passively received as a unity, the elements of meaning, thus bringing the total validity to active performance in a new way on the basis of the individual validities. What was a passive meaning-pattern has now become one constructed through active production. This activity, then, is a peculiar sort of self-evidence; the structure arising out of it is in the mode of having been originally produced. And in connection with this self-evidence, too, there is communalization. The explicated judgment becomes an ideal object capable of being passed on… logical… thus the domain of logic is universally designated; this is universally the sphere of being to which logic pertains insofar as it is the theory of the sentences (propositions) in general.”Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Crisis, p. 365.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    The “proof” might be indicated by the following: Husserl asks, “… what about the possibility of complete and genuine reactivation in full or originality, through going back to the primal self-evidences… based on the fundamental law (of logic)… with unconditionally general self-evidence, is: if the premises can actually be reactivated back to the most original self-evidence, then their self-evident consequences can be also. … chain of logical inferences… no matter how long it is…. However, if we consider the obvious finitude of the individual and even the social capacity to transform the logical chains of centuries, truly in the unity of one accomplishment, into originally genuine chains of self-evidence, we notice that the (above) law contains within itself an idealization: namely, the removal of limits from our capacity, in a certain sense its infinitization.… later” Crisis, p. 365.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    This is what is taking place in the Crisis, pp. 366–369; Husserl then goes into his general analyses on history.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Crisis, p. 368.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    The ruling dogma of the separation in principle between epistemological elucidation and historical, even humanistic-psychological explanation, between epistemological and genetic origin, is fundamentally mistaken, unless one inadmissably limits, in the usual way, the concepts of `history’, `historical explanation’, and `genesis’,“ (Crisis, p. 370). This is then developed through the rest of the text and is the perspective ruling it all — from the very beginning.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Crisis, p. 366.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    To Husserl himself the concept of understanding “as such” was of no prominence, and he might have had his reasons for that. To us, however, trying to understand his phenomenology, it will, of course, be of decisive importance, and then who would be the better guide and “supplier” of the intellectual equipment we need, then Husserl himself?Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Crisis, p. 371.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    As might be realised from the exposition of this paper, Husserl does not give any “clear-cut” definition of this expression, having that total “concreteness” of cognition and understanding in mind, and he has different ways of explaining, correlating, genuinely emerging out of his analysis; here we just give one relevant one from a footnote: “The historical world is, to be sure, first pregiven as a social-historical world. But it is historical only through the inner historicity of the individuals, who are individuals in their inner historicity, together with that of other communalized persons. Recall what was said in a few meager beginning expositions about memories and the constant historicity to be found in them.” (Crisis, p. 372, footnote).Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    What we just have been saying, might, of course, cause severe problems — not only for understanding that complex line of thought as it is expressed by us, but also for accepting such concepts as `the universal a priori of history’. To many people this would appear a plain “contradiction in terms,” and, if it is “resulting necessarily” from “self-evidences” in these investigations Husserl is conducing, then that leads us to realise that there has to be something quite wrong with his whole project looking into the “origin” of Geometry considered to be an “intentional-historical problem” — as the German text puts it. As this obviously is meant to “constitute” the “transcendental” founding elements of that science, then you have got the rather odd situation where geometry, which from the very beginning of science has been considered to be the science operating with truths that “stand fast,” with universal validity, so to speak transcending history, is now made into a historical problem — as a science also taking in profoundly elements of the subjective, so that the universality might be questioned of a grounding that seems to be threatening that very same universality. At least this might raise a quite natural question. To the phenomenologist, especially having the general perspective of the Crisis in mind, this putting together of elements that might appear unreconcilable, will, however, not come as an surprise; the project of the appendix is well integrated into that total perspective of transcendental phenomenology — such as it had been developed at that time of the Crisis. It even might be directly related to the beginning of phenomenology itself — where Husserl analyses the founding elements of mathematical science giving them an intentional-subjective foundation.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Of course, “The Origin of Geometry,” now having given the “material” for our reflection on the general problem of history, is first and foremost connected to that analysis of the origin of mathematical-natural science in the Crisis, as it describes Galilei — in the Renaissance — so to speak transforming history, bringing forward elements from the ancient tradition, transforming them into a new praxis and in that way laying the foundation for the modern age. As it then comes to that quite general characterisation of history — also including its “universal a priori,” this might, of course, be seen as a genuine component of the total Crisis-perspective. It fits quite harmoniously into that teleological grounding of philosophy, and relates not least to what Husserl in the first part of the main text calls “the greater historical phenomena” and then characterises as “humanity struggling to understand itself” (Crisis, p. 14). In the Crisis, history becomes a substantial part of transcendental phenomenology, which thereby — as historicity — includes the actual historical situation, the sciences, the philosophical-scientific tradition and, of course, the life-world as that which gives the concrete horizon for even transcendentally grounding such a philosophy in the most profound teleological manner. In that way this phenomenology seeks to establish itself as maybe the key part of that “greater phenomena” — going into the core of that “struggle” penetrating the whole of history, where humanity has been and very much still is struggling to understand itself, clarifying the grounding preconditions of such an understanding. Then this understanding of history as that “vital movement of the coexistence and the interweaving of original formations and sedimentations of meaning,” will be of the most decisive importance, as it genuinely will be constituting what we in this context call `the historicity of understanding’, profoundly situated in “the transcendental problem,” as the paths into phenomenological transcendental philosophy are constituted by “inquiring back from the pregiven lifeworld” and “from psychology” just as the main part of the Crisis (III AandB) explicates this whole matter.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Konrad Rokstad
    • 1
  1. 1.University of BergenNorway

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