Husserl and the European idea of philosophy

The crisis of rationality is simultaneously actualized in the domains ofthe sciences and in the social historical “life-world"104 Husserl identified this problematic with the recovery of rationality associated with the origins of scientific and philosophical inquiry into the self and the world in ancient Greece. Philosophy requires for Husserl as much as Heidegger a confrontation with its Greek origin. Encountering and engaging the sources of Indian or Chinese philosophy can at best be an impulse toward encountering one’s own tradition.

But what is the necessity of this movement? Why can a Westerner not engage with and be transformed by Buddhist, Papuan, or other forms of world- disclosure such that horizons are shifted and new forms of intersubjectivity and new philosophical discourses can emerge and be reflectively and dialogically pursued? The expansion and shifting of horizons is in fact more descriptively true of the history of Western philosophy from ancient Greek and medieval encounters with West Asian discourses to the intercultural situation of modern European philosophy, despite the continuing spell of the ideological illusion of the closed and isolated autonomy of the Western philosophical transmission and its claim to be the sole universal and infinite horizon.

The idea and image of Greece have notoriously exercised an irresistible tyrannical power over the German philosophical and poetic imagination.105 It is not only Husserl’s student Heidegger who romanticized the Greeks and privileged the Greek origins of philosophy. Husserl portrays philosophy as inherently Greek in its origins in that it alone formed a universal disinterested theoretical attitude that served as the basis for the development of philosophy and science in Europe.106 Although there are perhaps transcendental moments in Buddhism, as discussed above, genuine philosophy is defined as uniquely a European event.

Husserl was generally familiar with the work of Misch and was undoubtedly aware of his 1926 book The Dawn of Philosophy (Der Weg in die Philosophie) on the multiple origins of philosophy.107 Husserl distinguished traditional from reflective cultures, identifying the latter possibility—in contrast to Misch— exclusively as a European spiritual achievement. A number of passages in Husserl appear to be responding to Misch’s depiction of the multiplicity of philosophical origins, and other positions similar to it. Husserl, for instance, considers an objection to his own position, noting that others maintain that:

philosophy, the science of the Greeks, is not something peculiar to them which came into the world for the first time with them. After all, [the Greeks] themselves tell of the wise Egyptians, Babylonians, etc., and did in fact learn much from them. Today we have a plethora of works about Indian philosophy, Chinese philosophy, etc., in which these are placed on a plane with Greek philosophy and are taken as merely different historical forms under one and the same idea of culture.108

Husserl states next in response that he recognizes that there are “common features” between these historical forms of thinking. Nonetheless, such general typological similarities do not entail a sameness of essence or principle: “One must not allow the merely morphologically general features to hide the intentional depths so that one becomes blind to the most essential differences of principle.”109

Husserl is explicitly ethnocentric when he defines human differences as embodying a difference in essence or kind a few pages later. He argues that “Oriental philosophies” cannot be judged equal to Greco-European scientific philosophy, because they have a traditional religious-mythical or merely practical-universal comportment toward the world:

within their own framework of meaning this world-view and world-knowledge are and remain mythical and practical, and it is a mistake, a falsification of their sense, for those raised in the scientific ways of thinking created in Greece and developed in the modem period to speak of Indian and Chinese philosophy and science (astronomy, mathematics), i.e., to interpret India, Babylonia, China, in a European way.110

As discussed above, Buddhist thought was for Husserl not merely religious- mythical, but it was a practical teaching and is accordingly naturalistic and pre- or proto-theoretical in its orientation. The wisdom of the East is at best comprised of practically oriented wisdom-traditions rather than philosophy—as theory presupposing the theoretical detachment from both mythical thinking and merely practical life-concerns—per se. The highest forms of non-Western thinking are the Indian and Chinese forms of thought in Husserl’s account. These highest exemplars of thinking outside the Occident, using the word “philosophy” only in quotation marks and disregarding Islamic and other forms of philosophical discourse, cannot be compared to the Western philosophical and scientific attitude insofar as their universality is primarily practical-vocational:

Before everything else the very attitudes of the two sorts of “philosophers,” their universal directions of interest, are fundamentally different. In both cases one may notice a world-encompassing interest that leads on both sides—thus also in Indian, Chinese, and similar “philosophies”—to universal knowledge of the world, everywhere working itself out as a vocation-like life-interest, leading through understandable motivations to vocational communities in which the general results are propagated or develop from generation to generation.111

Husserl can recognize a kind of universality in other forms of thought; but it is a universality that is hindered by its association with practical life-concerns. This is contrasted with the Greek emancipation of the theoretical study of nature and the self from such practical interests and relational contexts.

Husserl identified the primal phenomenon of spiritual Europe with the transformational “breakthrough” of philosophy, which contains all sciences, in Greek antiquity. This interpretation of the idea of philosophy relies on a modern rationalistic reconstruction of classical Greek thought, which was concerned with the order of nature and the best form of living well with practical and vocational concerns in mind. Aristotle distinguished and prioritized living theoretically as the best form of life. This is only one indication of how the pursuit of knowledge and truth for the sake of pure theory was interconnected with a way of experiencing and interpreting practical life. As the 1926 work by Misch significantly illustrated in its own terms, the history of Western philosophy discloses myriad counterexamples to Husserl’s argument from Socratic inquiry into the good life through the Hellenistic quest for tranquility of mind (ataraxia, atapa^la) and its rebirth in early modern philosophy to the destructing of the theoretical ideal in Hume or Nietzsche. Moments of philosophical decentering, breakthrough, and the emergence of new forms of reflection transcending and reorienting traditional life-situations are manifested for Misch in the works associated with the Buddha and Zhuangzi ^^, among others. Husserl’s position is untenable given how theory and practice are interwoven even as the Western idea of theory for its own sake is privileged in some—yet historically not all—dominant forms of Western philosophy.

Furthermore, as considered in the previous section, Husserl’s own philosophical articulation of the plural nature of the lifeworld, as the setting and inspiration of the theoretical attitude to which theory must return in praxis, reveals itself to be at odds with—and, if given a pluralistic interpretation of his own phenomenology, can be interpreted as being inconsistent with—his portrayal of the autonomy and isolation of Western philosophy.

Husserl’s call for new forms of praxis arising from theory, which would promote critical “universal” reflection on all forms of life and life-goals in the present, would benefit from moving beyond the limiting idea of Europe—no matter how universally it is understood—and a reconsideration and opening up of the idea of philosophy itself.112 This strategy would allow it to oppose and freely operate beyond nationalist and ethnocentric formations of life and also the Eurocentric self-undermining of universal aspirations for more expansive and inclusive forms of communication and intersubjectivity.

Husserl posed the question to himself, recalling the language of his Logos article, whether the dream of “philosophy as science, as serious, rigorous, indeed apodictically rigorous science” has ended.113 It is not, but it is in danger. Showing once again the universal aspirational dimension of his understanding of the idea of Europe, which functions as a sort of Kantian orientational idea as Derrida notes, Husserl concluded:

There are only two escapes from the crisis of European existence: the downfall of Europe in its estrangement from its own rational sense of life, its fall into hostility toward the spirit and into barbarity, or the rebirth of Europe from the spirit of philosophy through a heroism of reason that overcomes naturalism once and for all. Europe’s greatest danger is weariness. If we struggle against this greatest of all dangers as “Good Europeans” with the sort of courage that does not fear even an infinite struggle, then out of the destructive blaze of lack of faith, the smoldering fire of despair over the West’s mission for humanity, the ashes of great weariness, will rise up the phoenix of a new life-inwardness and spiritualization as the pledge of a great and distant future for humanity: for the spirit alone is immortal.114

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