Transcendental Phenomenology and Metaphysics as the Ultimate Science of Reality
It is now possible to give an account of Husserl’s conception of the relation between science and metaphysics in its mature form. The reader might feel a bit puzzled by the long series of different characterizations of the disciplines that jointly provide the ultimate clarification of empirical science. However, the aim of this chapter is to show the underlying continuity of Husserl’s intellectual evolution, so that it becomes possible to appreciate how the mature transcendental approach addresses the concerns that guided Husserl from the beginning. The terminological shifts that create such difficulties in attempting to unpack this evolution must count as the progressive putting into focus of an image, or, as Husserl himself says, as the progressive exploration of uncharted territory.160
The cardinal distinction in this ordering of disciplines is the one between a priori, eidetic disciplines and “factual,” empirical ones. On the side of the a priori disciplines we find the mathesis universalis supplemented by the different regional ontologies. As we have seen, the totality of these disciplines already amounts to a theory of science in an objective sense: they detail the conditions of possibility of every empirical inquiry in a purely “formal” way. Such “form” is empty and absolutely general in the case of the mathesis universalis and specific in the case of the regional ontologies. While the mathesis universalis details what pertains to the empty form of an object whatever, and, correlatively, to the general form of a theory whatever, the different regional ontologies express the formal sense of what is posited by the natural attitude, i.e., they provide the a priori form of the spatiotemporal world the existence of which is uncritically accepted by prescientific as well as scientific activities. This entire universe of objective a priori, however, can be correctly unfolded and elucidated only by means of the phenomenological theory of knowledge, which is yet another a priori, eidetic discipline, but one pertaining to the rational functions of transcendental consciousness. Here we find the ultimate theory of science, the one investigating the a priori structure of knowing subjectivity, and, thus, the correlation between rational consciousness and being. The phenomenological theory of knowledge, consequently, requires the suspension of the natural attitude and also of the aforementioned a priori disciplines, which are not part of it but which it encompasses,161 insofar as they provide the themes of its different analyses. This methodological move takes up and radicalizes the principle of the absence of metaphysical presuppositions that guided Husserl’s theory of knowledge from the beginning. Transcendental phenomenology
Husserl’s Conception of Natural Science 81 thus unfolds a system of “subjective” a priori governing the correlation between reason and being that does not presuppose factual truths about the world. As we have seen in the section devoted to the Logical Investigations, the theory of knowledge is unconcerned with problems of factual existence or with the problem of deciding whether the de facto existing empirical data warrant belief in the existence of the world and its being so and so structured. As anticipated (see Chapter 2, §2), this important caveat is carried over to transcendental phenomenology. The claim that “this world is” and the different groups of empirical hypotheses put forth by the sciences of the world amount, respectively, to the implicit premise of any scientific inquiry rooted in the natural attitude and to their tentative results. These factual claims obviously do not belong to any a priori discipline. The phenomenological theory of knowledge will only deal with the general form of the legitimate positing, i.e., transcendental constitution, of a possible world the form of which is a priori determined by the objective a priori disciplines and the factual existence of which are left undetermined. Only the application of such a theory of knowledge to the concatenations of Erlebnisse factually existing in transcendental consciousness provides the elucidation of the a posteriori claims “this world exists” and “it is determined in such and such a way according to the results of our sciences.”
In light of these general indications, we can now turn to some of Husserl’s most explicit formulations of the relation between transcendental phenomenology, science, and metaphysics. In a famous letter to Wilhelm Dilthey dating to 5-6 July 1911, Husserl writes:
Every science of existence [Daseinwissenschaft], for example, the science of physical nature, or science of the human spirit, etc., turns eo ipso into metaphysics (according to my concept), insofar as it is related to the phenomenological doctrine of essences and undergoes, from its origins, a final clarification of sense, and thus a final determination of its truth content. The truth which is thus expounded, for example, the truth in natural science, regardless of how limited and relative it may be from another point of view, is ultimately a component of “metaphysical” truth, and its knowledge is metaphysical knowledge, namely, ultimate knowledge of existence [Dasein]. The idea that a metaphysics in this sense is necessary in principle - vis-à-vis the natural and human sciences which have arisen from the great labor of modern times - has its origin in the fact that a stratification is rooted in the essence of knowledge and that, connected with it, there is a two-fold epistemic attitude: on the one hand, the attitude can be purely directed toward being, which is consciously intended and which is thereby thought and given in appearance; but on the other hand, the attitude can be directed to the enigmatic essential relations between being and consciousness.
The entire natural knowledge about existence, all knowledge within the first attitude, leaves open an area of problems on whose solution depends the ultimate definitive determination of the sense of being and the ultimate evaluation of the truth that has already been reached in the “natural” (first) attitude. I believe I can see that there can be no other meaningful problems behind the ultimate ones, namely, the “constitution” of being in consciousness, along with the related problems of being; that, therefore, no other science can lie behind the phenomenological expanded and founded (universal) science of existence (which, in its work, includes all the natural sciences of existence); or rather, that it is nonsense to speak of a fundamentally unknowable being that still lies beyond this [dahinter liegenden]. This excludes every Kantian “metaphysics” of the thing-in-itself, as well as every ontological metaphysics that is extracted from a system of pure concepts that forms a science of existence, à la Spinoza.162
Many years later, in a footnote to the first volume of First Philosophy, Husserl expresses himself in very similar terms:
In the phenomenological interpretation of the positive sciences of facts, there spring up the ultimately scientific sciences of facts, the sciences of facts that are in themselves philosophical and tolerate, besides themselves, no other special philosophies being attached to them. By means of the ultimate interpretation of the objective Being [5ezw] explored in these sciences as a fact, an interpretation that accrues to these sciences in the application of eidetic phenomenology; and by means of the universal contemplation, also required in this phenomenology, of all the regions of objectivity [Objektivität] in relation to the universal community of transcendental subjects; the universe of the world, the universal theme of the positive sciences, acquires a “metaphysical” interpretation, which means nothing other than an interpretation behind which it would make no scientific sense to seek another.163
These two long passages contain all the fundamental elements that we have introduced so far, and they attest to the enduring character of Husserl’s opinion on the matter. The truth content of the empirical sciences can be clarified only by resorting to a different attitude, directed to the pure knowing subjectivity. This clarification is operated by virtue of the doctrines of essences, i.e., the eidetics of consciousness, and the objective eidetic doctrines that the former encompasses. This theoretical operation overcomes the naïveté of the sciences of the world and turn their truths into components of metaphysical truth, i.e., of the ultimate knowledge of what in fact exists. Furthermore, these passages allow us to comment
Husserl’s Conception of Natural Science 83 on the differences between this mature formulation and the ones we have previously discussed. In the first place, they reflect Husserl’s final choice to restrict the term metaphysics to the domain of the factual. As we have seen, in some of his earlier formulations, metaphysics encompassed an a priori and an a posteriori, empirical or factual, part, although the tendency to consider the latter as the real and authentic metaphysics was already noticeable. In particular, in 1905 Husserl had ranked the theory of knowledge as a part of formal metaphysics along with formal logic (see Chapter 2, §5). The formal part of metaphysics, by investigating the sense of being of reality, was meant to replace the general metaphysical convictions that had dominated the metaphysical debates of modernity. Now, once Husserl develops his mature transcendental approach, transcendental idealism seals the fate of all these metaphysical positions. The theory of the constitution of the different regions of being in transcendental consciousness carries out the elucidation of the general ontological form of reality by detailing in what way the sense of being characteristic of each such region is constituted in transcendental consciousness. The other use of the term “a priori metaphysics,” too, namely, the a priori science of reality (later to be replaced by the regional ontologies), which we find in the 1905-1906 lectures, is abandoned. Metaphysics thus becomes the part of philosophy that deals with facts, with Wirklichkeit, as opposed to the eidetic disciplines qua sciences of a priori possibilities.164
A second important novelty concerns the relation between the empirical sciences in their metaphysical completion. In his previous formulations, Husserl repeated that metaphysics had the task of reworking the results of empirical sciences in such a way that their contribution to the ultimate knowledge of reality would be clarified. Now, Husserl decidedly proclaims that those sciences, once clarified by transcendental phenomenology and the related eidetic doctrines, become metaphysics. To be sure, Husserl never thought that metaphysics was literally another science with a different domain of research, and it is not impossible to imagine that, even before the transcendental turn, Husserl could have formulated this process of the grounding of the sciences in this way. After all, one can think that one does metaphysics in Husserl’s sense precisely by turning the empirical sciences into metaphysics. However, this new emphasis on the fact that the sciences of facts themselves become metaphysics can also be read in conjunction with a third element stressed in both texts. The letter to Dilthey asserts that the elucidation of the being investigated by the sciences of facts that transcendental constitution makes possible is such that there can be no other science “behind” them. This is clarified by means of two examples: there can be no metaphysics of the thing in itself a la Kant and no metaphysics a la Spinoza “extracted from a system of pure concepts that forms a science of existence.”165 The second text expresses the same concept byunderscoring that there can be no further (or “deeper”) interpretation of the being of reality than the one offered by transcendental phenomenology. Thus, what the theory of constitution rules out is any philosophical doctrine according to which the being investigated by the empirical sciences would only be an aspect or a manifestation of a deeper reality. In other words, no talk of hyperphysical reality is possible, simply because no hyperphysical reality is conceivable. This excludes the unknowable thing in itself a la Kant, but also the slightly less unknowable will of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics. Furthermore, a metaphysics such as Spinoza’s, according to which both nature and the mind amount to modes of an infinite substance, is also ruled out, because it implies that beyond nature and mind there lies a deeper reality, an ultimate, self-subsisting substance. In Chapter 5, it will appear that Husserl’s transcendental idealism highlights how all classical metaphysical positions were ultimately based on metaphysical “substructions,” i.e., on objectivistic constructions which are possible only insofar as the sense of being of nature and spirit is not interrogated on the original ground of the life-world. Husserl’s frequent use of the term “metaphysics” in a derogatory sense must be understood in this way.
Given that this is a result of the theory of transcendental constitution, one can surmise that the more resolute formulation according to which phenomenology transforms empirical science into metaphysics was prompted by the awareness that the theory of constitution allows for the elucidation of the sense of being of reality in such a way that the reality they themselves investigate acquires metaphysical value because it becomes clear that nothing lies beyond it. It is not easy to see how such a claim could be grounded by Husserl before the transcendental turn,
i.e., before regarding all real being as a unit of sense in transcendental consciousness, even though, in his earlier texts, Husserl did assign to metaphysics the task of unveiling the ultimate ontological value of the being investigated by the sciences. In other words, transcendental constitution is what allows Husserl to proclaim without hesitation that the being investigated by the empirical sciences is one that admits no reality “behind it.” We will be in a better position to appreciate how such grounding occurs within transcendental phenomenology at the end of Chapter 4.
In sum, transcendental phenomenology inherits, so to speak, the “metaphysical function” that Husserl assigned to the theory of knowledge at least as early as the 1890s by replacing the metaphysical controversy over the ontological status of the world with the elucidation of the sense of its being.166 This is something that has often been overlooked by those who have discussed the relation between transcendental idealism and metaphysics.167 Scholars have focused on the latter problem without paying enough attention to Husserl’s own use of the term metaphysics in relation
Husserl’s Conception of Natural Science 85 to the sciences of reality. Now, the reconstruction of the evolution of Husserl’s thought here presented should convey that, while Husserl decidedly moved away from considering the theory of knowledge based on phenomenology itself as metaphysics, and while phenomenology is certainly meant to be free from any metaphysical presuppositions, Husserl never thought that the traditional metaphysical questions concerning the being of the world in relation to subjectivity would form a different area of investigation surviving over and beyond transcendental phenomenology. Transcendental idealism seals the fate of all such metaphysical adventures and replaces them with the methodic analysis of the way in which the being of the different regions of the world is relative to the absolute being of consciousness.168 The next three chapters will further clarify this matter.