Micah Tillman defends Edmund Husserl

I allowed him three paragraphs, and he emails me the following:

Husserl was a mathematician whose desire to understand how (and why) mathematics actually works turned him into a philosopher of logic, science, language, and mind. Without the movement he inaugurated, Heidegger (and therefore everyone who followed Heidegger), Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Levinas, and Derrida (and even John Paul II) would not have become the philosophers we know them as today.

Husserl was inspired by Hume and Kant, but believed both made a fundamental mistake. Empiricists like Hume became skeptics after concluding that all we truly know are our own sensations; we never experience the “real things” we think we do. Idealists like Kant essentially agreed (we experience only phenomena, never noumena) but believed that at least we could discover the universal rules of the human mind.

Husserl argued that the “things themselves” actually show up for us through our experiences and therefore we can learn about the real world through a study of the structures (patterns, types, and forms) of human experience. In the process, he reconciled empiricism and idealism. The empiricist insistence on experience over speculation is central to phenomenology, as is the idealist claim that the study of the mind is the path to knowledge of ultimate reality. With the combination of the two, every area of the world, and every part of life, became a subject for philosophical investigation, and philosophy experienced a kind of second birth.

Earlier I had named Husserl as “the worst philosopher.”  But of course I am delighted to present a contrasting view.  Micah is a professional philosopher and an adherent of phenomenology, his web page is here.  His recently completed dissertation was “Empty and Filled Intentions in Husserl’s Early Work.”  He describes the “things themselves” — in less than 140 characters — here.


Micah's summary and defense was quite good. I'm glad someone less lazy than me stepped in to defend Husserl and thus phenomenology. Husserl's writings are very difficult to read and may come across to the casual reader as nonsense but the issues he addresses are foundational and vital. Husserl is the medicine for naive reductionism. Less obviously, Husserl can be seen as a gateway to the contemplative traditions of Buddhist philosophy and Advaita Vedanta.

On Buddhism, Hinduism, and western philosophy, you are slighting Schopenhauer, unquestionably a far more stylish writer than Husserl. Perhaps even more profound, too.

I'll second that comment.

Are these the guys who gave us "holistic"?

You may want to look at the whole gift.

All of which does not say anything about whether his work was actually valuable, but a good attempt to explain phenomenology nonetheless.

This is a recommendation?

"Without the movement he inaugurated, Heidegger (and therefore everyone who followed Heidegger), Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Levinas, and Derrida (and even John Paul II) would not have become the philosophers we know them as today."

That said, any movement away from the naive and incoherent views of Hume and Kant is an advance.

Hume and Kant were hardly naive or incoherent; indeed, the problem of induction still hasn't been solved except through question begging (i.e., induction as some kind of primitive form of reasoning).

In retrospect, I'm not sure why I replied to such a silly comment.

Naive Humean phenomenalism/empiricism is incoherent -- see F. A. Hayek, The Sensory Order, among other things.

Hume and Kant give us a false picture of knowledge and the growth of knowledge -- that doesn't mean they were not spectacularly important philosophers. It just been they fundamentally got the picture of the growth and character of human knowledge wrong.

It happens.

Greg, you're ruining Hayek for everyone. Hume epistemology is solid and Kant's moral reasoning is one of the only non-utilitarian approaches which hold up...

The categorical imperative told me that you're wrong. I dare you to prove otherwise.

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable.
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table.
David Hume could out-consume Schopenhauer and Hegel,
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine...
Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.

FC: The Categorical Imperative is about action, not mere judgment ("Should I do act X?", not "Is judgment Z correct?").

It can't tell you someone's wrong, it can only tell you whether or not a maxim comports with the Imperative or not.

(And indeed, one can argue about whether it was applied correctly - and it can be incorrectly applied! That shouldn't be surprising; its value is not as a Perfect Arbiter You Can't Abuse, but as a starting point for moral judgment.

It's one I've never been able to refute, and indeed have adopted as a basic test.)


Out of curiosity, who are the Philosophers you think that got it substantially right?

Are you seriously asking this question? Greg's contribution to the blogosphere is to praise Austrian thinkers and to reference their works with no evidence that he has understood such works. For further evidence, read Hayek.

Ludwig Wittgenstein is the 800 lb. gorilla.

There is to learn about the growth of knowledge and concepts and the social and biological nature of both from Thomas Kuhn, William Bartley, David Hull, Robert Nozick, Larry Wright and Gerald Edelman, among others.

And everyone should read Popper and Lakatos.

That was an impressive list of names to completely discard in two sentences.

>Husserl argued that the “things themselves” actually show up for us through our experiences

Anyone care to enlighten us about this argument? How do they show up?

Last thread's conclusion: It comes from Jesus, or Gary.

I could've sworn Steve had something or other to do with it.

"Without the movement he inaugurated, Heidegger (and therefore everyone who followed Heidegger), Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Levinas, and Derrida (and even John Paul II) would not have become the philosophers we know them as today."

Is this a defense or an indictment of Husserl?!

Damning with faint praise indeed.

Husserl might be to blame for a lot of really bad writing; my critique of him - as a Philosophy degree holder, and therefore someone who had to read a lot of such things, and understand them where possible - is that what little of his writing I've seen has been borderline incomprehensible. I could imagine it being said that he infected Heidegger (and especially Derrida) with that bug.

However, Merlau-Ponty is a credit to the profession, in a way the others mostly aren't. Plus, the man could write a clear, comprehensible paragraph and make a coherent thesis out of a work, which is more than I can say for Derrida.

Interesting points, though I think Vernunft may have a point too.

Husserl appears to have had a profound effect on mathematicians such as Brouwer, Gödel, Weyl, and Gian-Carlo Rota. Kurt Gödel thought that Leibnitz, Kant ("Kant, properly understood," as he put it), and especially Husserl held the keys to a metaphysics that will be a future part of scientific knowledge. It appears that Gödel came to believe that the method of Husserl could lead to the discovery of the primitive concepts of philosophy that underlie logic. It should be pointed out that in addition to his adoption of parts of Husserl, Gödel staked out a position very different from the intellectual mood of our time: he declared that materialism is false, and the the universe is a monadology with a central monad ("i.e., God," as Wang writes). There are lots of fascinating and provocative comments by Gödel reported in Hao Wang, A Logical Journey: From Gödel to Philosophy (MIT, 1996).

Guess Godel is way overrated, then

And since the consequent is false, contraposition tells us what you're replying to must be false. Logic!

Indeed, Wang's book is a fascinating read. Along those lines, I'd like to recommend three more. Firstly, Tragesser's "Husserl and Realism in Logic and Mathematics" which explains Husserl's (and Godel's) realist philosophy of mathematics with no need to resort to strange metaphysics (Platonism). Secondly, Dreyfus' "What Computers Still Can't Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason" (which is more Heideggerian than Husserlian). And Rota's "Indiscrete Thoughts" (for the gossip).

Just what was needed, another theoretical speculation on what 'god' is, another non-physical theory of the universe, and another speculation on how the mind works when we haven't quite got the brain itself figured out. Was Gödel at that point already deep into starving himself to death, for fear that someone might be poisoning his food? What a remarkable reaction to a suspicion. It interests me that we could tell most of the philosophers under discussion "Yes, you are completely astute in your comprehension of (x)" and then ignore them forever, suffering no loss.

The old, "he was mentally ill" routine! No doubt it invalidates the work of John Nash too, and hundreds of others in the history of science and philosophy... No, it was many years before he became a sick old man, as anyone could find out. I can't imagine dismissing Gödel (or Husserl) yet. I am always a little shocked by how sure people can be about the value of a philosopher, but scientific hubris is one of the leading culprits... "we haven’t quite got the brain itself figured out": computabilism, the disease that believes that the brain is a machine! Is the brain algorithmic? Gödel conjectured that, if this is so, his theorem shows that we won't be able to understand the algorithm of the mathematics-creating portion of the brain. You might reply, we don't need to, we have enough computational ability to run every combinatorial possibility and sieving the results against perception. (Never mind whether we have that ability, nor what perception is.) But a human could always get a machine to fail the Turing test: just try getting it to reinvent semantic categories up to the Absolute. Just ask it a compound question that concerns both the concept of "God" + universal origins + a personal event (even an immediate prior from the same conversation with the computer). E.g., "If God created the universe, why did She make it rain today?" The human is looking for a humorous comment related to the unspecified emotional mood of the conversation up to that moment, and the machine answer won't smell right. Maybe the machine says instead, "Just what was needed, another theoretical speculation on what ‘god’ is, another non-physical theory of the universe!" The human replies, "Who cares, you dope? If God created the universe, why did She make it rain today?" After about two or three such questions, it ought to be obvious what entity is replying.

LAA: I accept the criticism of the "mentally ill" because I was vague, though I never labelled his thinking. It is a nice question, really, to know when the mind is, in part, sliding away from reality, whether by new preference or disease: When someone, the young Husserl, or Gödel for so many years, reaches a level of both precision and creative insight in the area that they have, in fact, mastered to its limits, why is it that so often they move on to grand schemes? Husserl, himself, was saddened that his grad students wandered off from his work as it became more over-committed to such a grand scheme, it seems to me. As for the human inclination to connect god the creator to why it rained today, or some other personal event, I consider such questions motivated by emotion, not intellect (however great the person's intellect may, incidentally, be). Why on earth should a god-as-creator care about some local rain? Why should we wish the god did? If the god did, it would in effect mean that all 'caring' by such a god was trivial. As for god, I can only take as Aristotle did in his Metaphysics: "If you need a god as the initiator or supremum, here's a god" (which he then delineates). Minds are different from computers. Computers do not have such diverse and complex appetites.

Sorry, I may have misled you. I am not really interested in judging philosophers to be right or wrong. I think that misses the point. Their value is that they try to think comprehensively, and that is a type of raw data.

You asked why we need "speculation on how the mind works when we haven’t quite got the brain itself figured out." The point about god and rain on the Turing test is to suggest that if you come up with anything like an algorithmic machine description of the brain, it still may not tell you how the mind works. (It is also possible that the brain will not finally be described as an algorithmic machine, i.e. that the brain is not a computer.) The approach to mind and brain is likely to be a crablike pincers maneuver, going back and forth BETWEEN mind and brain, wherein things like metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of science are going to be part of the raw mental data that must be fitted to the new theory.

Husserl could be accused of a grand scheme, or perhaps it should be called a grand method. It appears to have come after a change in consciousness, perhaps a mystical experience. (The same thing happened to Descartes.) Gödel did not have a grand scheme. What Gödel had was a myriad of very rich questions, as the two books full of quotations recorded by Hao Wang make evident. Gödel was indeed a theist, but intellectually he was exploring. It appears that he thought the universe was a monadology because of his attempts to explore what concepts are, and how concepts come to be formed pre-logically. Understanding how and why someone this brilliant (not crazy), after long, wide-ranging and extraordinarily deep philosophical study and reflection, might come to conclusions such as these, and against the current of the times, may be important. It is certainly more interesting than all of the people falling into line with the grand scheme of materialism.

Caring about local rain is trivial? Obviously not a farmer.

I am not really interested in judging philosophers to be right or wrong. I think that misses the point. Their value is that they try to think comprehensively, and that is a type of raw data.

There's a certain sense in that.

But I'm also interested in their being right or wrong. (Hopefully, if wrong, wrong in an interesting way ala Pauli's famous saying.)

Seems like the whole point of doing philosophy is to attempt to approach truth; that invites (practically demands, in fact) judgment of the success of the attempt.

Then what are your criteria of judgment? Other than making obvious scientific errors, or immoral observations, how can a philosophy be wrong? The reigning coin these days seems to be that materialists trump idealists. (Although not in all quarters.) Why? Because many people jump from (a) the successes of science to (b) the judgment that therefore the materialist program of science is entirely adequate to explain the universe. Now, (b) may or may not be true (I myself rather doubt it), but even if it is, it doesn't necessarily follow from (a).

Two Very Good Books that talk intelligently about Husserl are Michael Dummett's "The Origins of Analytic Philosophy" & "From Kant to Husserl" by Charles Parsons.

I am not saying that people who don't find Husserl useful are not intelligent. I mean to say that both books are interesting and fair interpretations of Husserl.

Leaving aside stylistic criticisms, I have often thought that the best philosophers, qua philosophers, bunch up around getting 18 to 19 percent of their subject right. Much less, and their deficiencies become painfully obvious. Much more, and they are something more than what we call real philosophers. Most of the people I meet in real life are around 10 to 11, although quite a few string out in the 12 to 18 zone (most commenters here are near the top of that range, I would guess). Due to near-universal g restrictions, I would think no single "philosopher" beats something like a 19.5 percent line ( "historians" of philosophy and "theologians", and what I consider to be the real deal of divinely inspired writers - from Moses on - a group that excludes, obviously, Husserl, Kant, Hegel, and even Plato and Aristotle - exceed this line like an ice skater racing against someone running on ice in boots, but obviously the skaters benefit from different rules).The three paragraphs I read lead me to believe that Husserl is closer to 19 than 18, so thanks, TC, for posting them.

That's fairly high precision arithmetic.

Thanks (I think). Heres how I got the numbers.
We are created in the image of God. Hence, even without divine inspiration, it is not likely that we get less than one or two percent of philosophy correct. Second, my half-century observation of people has been that the smartest are not exponentially smarter that the average, rather they are cumulatively smarter. Third, 2 and a half millenia of people, averaging a few million literate people per generation, have produced (minimum) 20 and (maximum) 200 memorable philosophers. Since the 20, and even more so, the 200 are generally universally unimpressed with each other, unless one of the group is shockingly correct about everything, they probably only average within a tight range - say from 4 to 5 standard deviations - of correctness above other people. Going back to a chart of everybody (not just the 20 or 200), after the first deviation, the following deviation (based on quantity of people interested in philosophy - note that this is not a gently sloping bell curve) is pretty extensive on the x-axis (small range, big domain, because, at that level, a vanishing quantity of people care about accurate philosophy). Based on common sense, I place most of the commenters on a quality economics blog (an extremely small percentage of the literate population) in the middle standard deviations - 11 to 18. As for Moses and the divinely inspired, my take on the several hundred pages we have is that they are clearly more than twice as accurate as Plato, or whoever you might call the best of philosophers, and on the other hand also clearly not anywhere near a 100 percent inarguably clearly presented representation of reality (the reader's, not the writer's, fault). So, starting from the average person at 2, I guess that the average memorable "philosopher" reaches 19, and the average commenter 11 to 18, and Moses et al. at least double 19. Starting from Moses, et al, at about 40 or 50 percent accuracy shown (at most, otherwise we would all be Biblical enthusiasts), I take Plato to be at best half that, with the rest of the philosophers, memorable or not, on a sliding scale below that, with every one of the famous philosophers very closely aligned near Plato. Hence the skating analogy.
You don't need to tell me that the weak points of this exposition are the assumption of a 2 percent minimum and, to a lesser extent, the assumption of near-universal g restriction. But if the 2 per cent is right, the rest does seem to follow...

OK. You are worse than Husserl.

Dammit, Gary. You are doing it again.

would you prefer 43 in the Wodehouse/Adams tradition...

Sounds like Husserl raised some important issues, but may not have gone very deep with them. Sounds something like Plato, only Plato managed to raise tons and tons of philosophical issues and is actually fun to read.

Sounds a bit like an objectivist corrective.

Not as stylish an interpreter of Eastern philosophy as Schopenhauer or Nietzsche but

phenomenology=yoga - studying the self as subject
transcendental ego - not every different from the Atman of the Bhagavad Gita

*That he publicly criticized Eastern philosophy is of little import - really a defense mechanism

I shouldn't do this but this all reminds me of "les choses sont contra nous" and Resistentialism!


...anyhow, I smiled!

I tried but never could get the compelling reason Husserl and the other phenomenologists get around the noumena problem. I kept saying, but ... Kant seems right here. On what basis can you argue phenomena represent the things in themselves?

One could add Freud to his list. There are traces of Husserl in Civilization and its Discontents.

His philosophy of consciousness and the mind his interesting, but efforts to delve deep into the nitty gritty of how cognition relates to consciousness and what this means for our ability to reason, etc, are bound to appear way off the mark if you precede the beginning of neuroscience by a few short decades. Similar things can be said of Freud.

Neuroscience doesn't explain everything though. They both reflect a certain stage of development of philosophy and are instructive about how tough it is to pin down the simplest of concept.

What is consciousness. How does cognition

Recognizing that much of 20th century philosophy was also built on philosophical foundations of cognition and consciousness which largely preceded empirical neuroscience, and which fail to do much to incorporate considerations of empirical foundations of cognition, we can point to Husserl as one of the last important thinkers on such topics who actually had an excuse. The rest, we can write off, including many post colonial thinkers (except that they convey important reflection upon their particular circumstance), almost the entire canon of psychology throughout the 20th century.

So, Husserl can be very useful, imo. You can point to him and ask "Do you see how senseless things can be when you try to explain cognition and consciousness as foundations for thought and being, when you ignore the fact that there are real empirical bases that we continue to fail to understand?"

Of course, when it comes to discourse, it is often perception and not reality that matters, where false perception can create new reality. Husserl was avant garde, but still in some ways defining of an area of intellectual development that would become largely outdated with the advent of empirical methods to investigate thought and cognition. Perhaps there are better sources of food for thought to help understand just where we're at today with this stuff?

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