Two: Husserl, Asia, and the Idea of Europe Husserl’s crises

Husserl argued in the Kaizo articles that the essential character of the history of Europe is its philosophical culture formed on the basis of practical and theoretical rationality. Practical reason means the realization of a culture of autonomy and radical self-responsibility; theoretical reason signifies the rigorous practice of logic, mathematics, the sciences, and philosophy itself as a rigorous science.67 Husserl’s discursive construction of European hegemony deploys an idealized portrayal to critique the crisis tendencies and pathologies that he perceived in contemporary European life. Husserl denies that his vision of a freely formed culture of reason is a mere ideal.68 It is no mere projection or dream, nor purely normative. It is a universal will as a common will and a historically realized entelechy revealed in European spiritual (geistig, understood as intellectual and ethical-cultural) and spiritual-material (scientific and technological) history.

Despite Husserl’s assertion of its not merely ideal and existential historical reality, there are serious tensions between these two ideas of Europe in his diagnosis of the present trapped between the Europe of universal reason and the Europe of existing unreason. Husserl urgently searched during the Weimar Republic for ways to strengthen and save the former Europe from the latter one—a sense of urgency that is more pressing in his works written after the National Socialist regime’s rise to power.

Husserl’s interpretation of Europe and Asia, of East and West, in his writings of the 1930s occurs in the context of (1) an ethical and social-political crisis and, from his perspective, (2) a more fundamental crisis of rationality itself that is manifested in crises in the foundations in philosophy, science, mathematics, and logic.

The 1920s were a period of economic, political, and social disaster and distress in Germany after the defeat of the First World War and the continuing instability of the Weimar Republic. Husserl addressed this crisis in an ethical and cultural language rather than in a directly social-political one. His approach differed from the turn to anti-modernist cultural pessimism in defending the modern Enlightenment project under perilous circumstances. His analysis connected this situation with a deeper crisis: the decline of reason disclosed in the early twentieth-century problematic of the rational grounding of fundamental sciences such as logic, mathematics, and physics that had fallen into question through the naturalistic and historicist relativizing and self-destruction of reason.

Husserl’s concern with imperiled rationality inside and outside the sciences, forcefully expressed in the earlier Logos article (1910-1911), can be traced further through his ethical-cultural reflections in the Kaizo articles to his later writings that are gripped by the question of the fate of Europe. Husserl’s sense of emergency is full-blown in the 1935 “Vienna Lecture” on “Philosophy and the Crisis of European Humanity” (“Die Krisis des europaischen Menschentums und die Philosophie”) and one of his last major works The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy (Die Krisis der europaischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phanomenologie: Eine Einleitung in die phanomenologische Philosophie) published in 1936.69 These texts composed in 1935-1936 are the culmination of Husserl’s overall interpretation of his philosophical project, if not its detailed phenomenological structure that was being worked out in the incomplete Erfahrung und Urteil: Untersuchungen zur Genealogie der Logik (Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic) published after his death in 1939.

The Crisis and related texts were composed in the margins of National Socialist Germany after the enactment of the first racial laws and his own dismissal from university activities at the University of Freiburg in 1933. They articulated what could be described as a phenomenological critique of reason in history and a diagnostic critique of the contemporary European situation through a genealogical tracing of the historical permutations of reason in order to reconstruct the historical propensity and telos of European intellectual history for the sake of effecting the present in its crisis.

Phenomenology as a science is portrayed by Husserl as an unprejudiced and neutral method of description and elucidation, such that the phenomenological status of the diagnostic and critical inclinations of the Crisis is unclear and disputed. Phenomenology takes on practical interests through its relation to the lifeworld (that is, the everyday perceptual-practical world) that is revealed in this work as having its own rational structures that generate the conditions for and orient theoretical reason and the sciences. The crises of theoretical rationality and the historical lifeworld are consequently interconnected and call for diagnostic critique informed by a genealogically and practically oriented phenomenology.

Husserl relies on a medical model much as Sigmund Freud did at the beginning of his 1929 work Civilization and its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur; literally, the uneasiness in culture) in which Freud considered whether societies and civilizations could suffer from illnesses and pathologies.70 Husserl wonders in a similar mood at the beginning of the “Vienna Lecture”: Why is there “no scientific medicine for nations and supranational communities? The European nations are sick; Europe itself, it is said, is in crisis.”71 Europe is seriously ill and threatened with catastrophe. Husserl diagnosed the underlying sickness and fundamental crisis in the Crisis texts as a pathology afflicting rationality itself instead of Freud’s naturalistic and Nietzschean analysis of the conflict and pathological relations between the demands of modern societies and the wishes arising from human biological drives. Husserl describes pathologies that are pathologies of reason; his crisis is one of “the philosophical-historical idea (or the teleological sense) of European humanity” itself.72

Husserl delineates the condition of “European sickness,” which is revealed in innumerable symptoms of the breakdown of ordinary life, as being rooted not in the repression of natural instincts but in the collapse and denial of the philosophy of spirit and spirit’s constitutive roles in ethical-cultural life.73 The crisis of modern reason is manifested in skepticism, irrationalism, and mysticism as well as the loss of meaning and value. It arises immanently through the self-destruction of rationality that occurs through the overreach of scientistic objectivism and naturalism that reduces and relativizes reason to the biological instincts, and the self-produced limitations and failures of the human sciences that undermined the rational humanism that is essential to the rational formation and renewal of culture.74 Such objectivism cannot “do justice to the [very] subjectivity which accomplishes science"75 Husserl did not deny the objective biological and bodily basis of individual spiritual life; he articulated in the Crisis texts how knowing, controlling, and acting upon internal and external nature presupposes the rationality that immanently structures the lifeworld and the sciences.76 Science and technology, encompassing the encounter between humans and their environing world and the collective social labor of scientists, are spiritually mediated realities.77 There is a hermeneutical circuit, and in this sense no abyss or duality, between nature and spirit. Social ills and irrational pathologies that afflict human autonomy and dignity are not caused by nature in itself or unreason; they are internally or immanently generated by flawed factical incarnations of reason and the failure of rationality to be reproduced and practiced in the social-historical life.78

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