The problem of Husserl’s Eurocentrism

This problematic of reason with its contemporary pathological non-realization is identified with a history extending from its origins in Greece (in Pre-Socratic philosophy of nature and Socratic ethics) through the early modern development of the new sciences to the struggle over the contemporary fate and vocation of Europe. It is uncertain from Husserl’s position in 1935-1936 whether Europe will abandon or resurrect its universal humanistic mission. This problematic and the required answer to it are described by Husserl as exclusively European possibilities, much as they are for Heidegger in the Spiegel interview. As will be examined now, Husserl’s most criticized statements identifying his thought as “Eurocentric” are taken from this nexus of concerns.79

As discussed previously, Husserl prioritized the idea of Europe and Greek- born European rationality in his publications in Japan and his encounter with Buddhism. The statements of the mid-1930s appear to take a more radically Eurocentric position.

A number of questions pose and impose themselves at this juncture: Is there a difference in substance as well as tone in Husserl’s remarks about non-Europeans and non-European thinking in the Crisis texts? Was there a radical shift in his thinking about Europe/Asia or was there a shift in tone due to menacing circumstances of the times—the crisis of Western civilization underlying the phenomena of irrationalism and fascism? We (i.e., those who are interested in this problematic) must consider questions such as: Is phenomenology intrinsically Eurocentric? How can Husserl’s argumentation in the “Vienna Lecture” and the Crisis be simultaneously both cosmopolitan-humanistic and Eurocentric? Why is Husserl apparently most hostile to the non-Western world and philosophy in this period of deepening crisis in which European ethnocentric and particularist ideologies and regimes play such a powerful destructive role? Are these failures in Husserl’s diagnostic critique irredeemable or can Husserl’s genealogy of Western rationality and lifeworld be decolonized, provincialized, and emancipated from the aura of Eurocentrism in Husserl’s argumentation?

Husserl pursues a strategy that has affinities in the appeal to spirit in defining a people that occurs in Heidegger’s discussions of Germans, Europeans, and Asians as well as Levinas’s proposal that the “yellow peril” is a spiritual rather than racial description. Husserl does not appeal to or deploy biological, naturalistic, physical, racial, or even geographical elements to define “Europe.” Europe is not, he claims, a geographically demarcated reality “as on a map, as if thereby the group of people who live together in this territory would define his defense of endangered European humanity.” Husserl problematically insists that it is rather in a “spiritual sense” that “the English Dominions, the United States, etc., clearly belong to Europe, whereas the Eskimos or Indians presented as curiosities at fairs, or the Gypsies, who constantly wander about Europe, do not.”80

The immanent developmental-teleological idea of Europe is, according to Husserl, “the standpoint of universal humanity as such” and, at the same time, there are peoples who are part of the internal “history of Europe (spiritual Europe)” and peoples who are external to it. Husserl differentiates Europe and non-Europe through a notion of familial affiliation and resemblance:

No matter how hostile they may be toward one another, the European nations nevertheless have a particular inner kinship of spirit which runs through them all, transcending national differences. There is something like a sibling relationship which gives all of us in this sphere the consciousness of homeland.81

This is the consciousness of the “good European”; an expression that Husserl adopted from Nietzsche and that we saw Driesch critique as an overly limited and narrow cosmopolitanism in Chapter 2.82 One must question how such a differentiation of the spiritually immanent (the European) and transcendent (the non-European) can be posited without presupposing other less spiritual social, material, and even racial distinctions given that it appears to treat peoples as distinct natural collective kinds. This problem deepens when his descriptions of Chinese, Indians, and Papuans in the “Vienna Lecture” and the Crisis are interrogated.

There should be a purely immanent and internal description of the spiritual reality and unity experienced as the European homeland. But, continuing the last quotation, Husserl relies on a comparative typology between the European and non-European to distinguish one family nexus from another:

This [feeling of affinity] comes immediately to the fore as soon as we think ourselves into the Indian historical sphere [die indische Geschichtlichkeit], for example, with its many peoples and cultural products. In this sphere, too, there exists the unity of a family-like kinship, but one which is alien to us. Indian people, on the other hand, experience us as aliens and only one another as confreres. Yet this essential difference between familiarity and strangeness, a fundamental category of all historicity which relativizes itself in many strata, cannot suffice.83

The relativity and historicity of diverse peoples centered on familiarity and otherness is an insufficient conception that fails to adequately categorize historical humanity. Yet this insight does not lead Husserl to the decentering and destructuring of identity and difference, as it might initially suggest, but to the privileging of the singularity of a certain form of human life:

There is something unique [in the European form of life] that is recognized in us by all other human groups, too, something that, quite apart from all considerations of utility, becomes a motive for them to Europeanize themselves even in their unbroken will to spiritual self-preservation; whereas we, if we understand ourselves properly, would never Indianize ourselves, for example.84

The relationship between Europe and non-Europe is a one-way street in which the singularity of Europe is its universal and infinite scope, which the nonEuropean can join and become a branch of as Husserl mentioned of Japan in the early 1920s, as opposed to the particular and finite scope of the myriad cultures and peoples in non-Europe. To this extent Husserl ought not to be categorized as a racial thinker, since other peoples can ideally become part of the European project; yet he remains—at least passively if not actively— beholden to an ethnocentric colonial-cosmopolitan idea to the degree that some peoples are perceived to be present in while being excluded from the essence of Europe (e.g., the wandering “gypsies”) and others (e.g., the Japanese) are in need of Westernization in order to discover their genuine humanity. Husserl’s obsession with the “European crisis” obscures his vision of the global crisis of humanity; there is a lack of any comprehension of (as thematized in Chapter 2) the suffering and paradoxes of modernization and Westernization in the nonWestern colonial and semicolonial world.

Husserl explicates his “obscure feeling” of European unity and superiority in its infinite aspirations toward the ideal as being underwritten by an intrinsic and immanent teleological historical development of “our European civilization which holds sway throughout all the changing shapes of Europe and accords to them the sense of a development toward an ideal shape of life and being as an eternal pole.”85

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