Potestas Clavium

Part III


On Edmund Husserl's Theory of Knowledge

What is philosophy? That which is most important.


Evidenz ist in der Tat nicht irgendein Bewusstseinsindex, der, an ein Urtell angeheftet, uns wie eine mystische Stimme aus einer bessern Welt zuruft: Hier ist die Wahrheit!, als ob solch eine Stimme uns freien Geistern etwas zu sagen und ihren Rechtstitel nicht auszuweisen hätte.

Evidence is in fact not any index of consciousness which, attached to a judgment, calls to us like a mystical voice from a better world saying: "Here is the truth!" - as if such a voice had anything to say to us free spirits and did not need to present its credentials.

- E. HUSSERL,  Ideas Toward a Pure Phenomenology


     The question is often raised what distinguishes philosophy from the other sciences, but it seems that the most essential of these distinctions, that precisely thanks to which philosophy is what it is, i.e., a science totally different from other sciences, is always deliberately brushed aside. I say deliberately for it seems to me that everyone recognizes the difference but at the same time obstinately seeks to efface it, to make it non-existent. This has happened since the most ancient times. The Greeks had already observed that philosophy is constituted otherwise than the other sciences; nevertheless, they tried to demonstrate by all possible means that it did not in any way differ from them. Even more: they tried to convince themselves that philosophy is the science of sciences and that it is particularly qualified to resolve all problems by its special method. The other sciences possess only opinions, Parmenides already said, while philosophy reveals to us the truth: "It is necessary that you learn to recognize everything, both the unshakable heart of the well-rounded truth and the opinions of mortals in which there resides only true belief."

     It is quite evident, however, that neither "roundness," whether good or bad, and still less the "unshakable heart" belongs properly to the truth, but that these virtues qualify precisely the opinions of mortals. All mortals know that night follows day, that stones sink in water, that drought kills plants, etc.; human beings possess a large number of opinions of this kind that are firm and unshakable. As for the truths, they flicker only for a moment and are immediately extinguished; they always tremble and shake, like the leaves of the aspen. When Parmenides proclaims his truth, "being and knowing are one and the same," he needs all the passion and ardor of his great soul to pronounce these words with that firm tranquility with which the ordinary man expresses his opinions, even those whose error will appear the very next day.

     For error is one of the accidental predicates of opinion, while it appears to be mysteriously bound to the very essence of truth. When I am of the opinion that Caesar killed Brutus or that Alexander was the father of Philip of Macedon, my error is easily correctable: it suffices for me to be taught by a better instructed person or to open a manual of history for me to be delivered from my erroneous opinion. In brief, the opinions of men in what concerns daily life are false only temporarily. Often we are too quick to reach a conclusion or we do not possess sufficient data to answer the question that has been raised, but we know well that when we shall have examined things more carefully, when we shall have obtained the necessary data, we shall arrive at solid and true opinions. Let us take an example: Are there living beings on the planet Mars? Some believe in their existence, others do not. But a time will come when people will cease to believe, for they will become convinced, either that Mars is inhabited or that it is not.

     The situation is quite different when it is a question of purely philosophical problems. Parmenides believes that thought and being are identical. I believe that it is not so at all. Some will agree with Parmenides; others will join me. But none of us has the right to declare that his judgment contains the whole truth. The supreme, authentically certain truth, on which men will sooner or later reach agreement, is that in the metaphysical domain there are no certain truths. One can argue about the laws of chemistry and physics, and these arguments are fruitful in the sense that they lead the opponents little by little to common convictions that are solid and certain. When Archimedes investigated the laws of the lever, he established the same relationships that we can confirm today. And he who presented objections to Archimedes and fought him wished finally the same thing as Archimedes. One can say the same of the disciples of Ptolemy and Copernicus. All of them wished to know the truth about the movements of the sun and the earth and when, at a certain moment, this truth appeared clearly, arguments ceased of themselves, having become useless.

     In philosophy, on the other hand, it seems that arguments do not come from the unclarity of the object: uncertainty and contradiction are here inherent in the very nature of the problem. Heraclitus and Parmenides will be incapable of agreeing not only in this world, but in the other also, if they should meet there. The truth that they served on earth and in the other world not only exists but still lives. And like every living thing, it is not always equal to itself and not always similar to itself. I think that it is necessary to admit this. I think that it is impossible to accept blindly the conviction transmitted to us by the Greeks that philosophy, by its logical structure, is a science like other sciences. Precisely because the ancients, under the hypnosis under which we continue to the present day to live and think, tried to make philosophy the science par excellence, we are obliged to doubt these statements.

     However, philosophy today as in the past avoids posing the problem in this form. The works of our time dealing with the theory of knowledge, like those of ancient times, pursue a quite different object. They wish at all costs to justify our science as the only possible one, and to demonstrate that philosophy also must be a science. We are convinced that our knowledge is perfect; the difficulty consists only in explaining on what this conviction is based. In the course of the entire nineteenth century the representatives of scientific philosophy always tried with extreme obstinacy to overcome this difficulty. And the twentieth century, in this respect, does not wish to remain behind. We too encounter not a few attempts at new theories of knowledge which continue to strive for the realization of the ancient object.

     I think I shall not be in error to say that among these works the most remarkable are those of Edmund Husserl. And I think it would be extremely useful to test the results of his investigations. It is obviously impossible for me here to study in detail everything that Husserl has written. Furthermore, it is not necessary. Husserl published in the first number of the review Logos an article entitled "Philosophy as Rigorous Science" (Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft). In this extremely well-developed article Husserl sums up the results of his long meditations. It is chiefly to this study that I shall here refer, touching on Husserl's other works only, so to speak, in passing, in the measure that they explain his thoughts to us.

     The very article of Husserl's article, "Philosophy as Rigorous Science," already clarifies for us to a certain degree the orientation of the author's ideas by emphasizing that the problem Husserl raises is quite in the historic tradition. Husserl, it is true, complains that the philosophers who preceded him, obeying the necessities of the moment, often agreed to compromises, abandoned the direct object of their searches and aspired not to philosophy but to "wisdom" or even a "general conception of the universe," and thus, so to speak, betrayed their mission. But he declares, nevertheless, that philosophy always wished to be a science; it did not always succeed, however, in confining itself within limits and often manifested a criminal impatience in its haste to attain its supreme goal, thus itself hampering the accomplishment of its work. The most important epochs in the history of philosophy were the Socratic-Platonic period in antiquity and the Cartesian in modern times. The last representatives of scientific philosophy were Kant and, to a certain degree, Fichte. According to Husserl's terminology, Schelling and Hegel among the moderns and Plotinus and the Stoics among the ancients were not philosophers but "wise men" - that is, not representatives of rigorous science but brilliant and profound improvisors who choose the first and last problems of being as their theme.

     This opposing of philosophy and science, on the one hand, and wisdom and profundity of thought, on the other hand, is extremely original and curious. As far as I know, it was first expressed in this formulation by Husserl. Before him it had always been admitted that wisdom and profundity of thought, which were everywhere driven out, could find asylum only in the bosom of philosophy, where also, as is known, virtue, which is forever hunted down, finds rest. But Husserl energetically refuses to let philosophy be the refuge of wisdom and virtue. He is prepared to accord to the latter all marks of respect (perhaps sincerely and perhaps also merely to conform to tradition), but wisdom and virtue must seek their means of existence elsewhere, even though they be reduced to applying to public or even private charity.

     I am not disposed to take on the role of defender of oppressed virtues - for reasons, however, quite different from Husserl's. I also am of the opinion that wisdom has too long occupied a throne that does not belong to it. Wisdom, i.e., a long white beard, a large forehead, eyes deeply sunken under tufted eyebrows, and crowning it all, the blessing gesture - everything in this image of ancient piety breathes the falsehood of carefully masked impotence. And, like every falsehood, this image irritates and disgusts us. One can venerate wise men and pity them. Pushkin venerated and loved the metropolitan Philarete and dedicated some wonderful verses to him. But no great perceptiveness is required to guess that Pushkin would not have agreed for anything in the world to become himself a wise man with silver hair, the object of veneration and even adoration. And the gods spared their favorite by dispatching to him in good time his murderer d'Anthes who, with the greatest calmness, as if aware of the big mission with which he was charged, accomplished his role as executioner of fate. And Lermontov and Nietzsche were also spared. As for Tolstoy, toward whom Providence was less indulgent, he did not finally have the power to bear the torture of his unwanted glory and himself hastened the denouement: is not his flight several days before his death the brusque, violent deed of a man completely beside himself? The makeup of wisdom - the white hair, the solemn mask, the halo of the genius and benefactor of humanity - all this was for him a veritable martyrdom and, with impatient hand, he tore away this tinsel which disgusted him. Venerable old age and the glory of the wise man are certainly much heavier to bear than the royal crown, and much less attractive!

     But Husserl rises against wisdom for reasons quite different from those that drove Tolstoy out of Yasnaia Poliana. Husserl is a positive and sober mind. He rejects wisdom not because it presents itself as exaggeratedly clever but because it appears to him insufficiently solid and rational. It is not its heavy respectability and the rigid attitude that tradition confers upon it that are repugnant to him. On the contrary wisdom and depth of thought appear to him as a sign of youth and an indication of a lack of maturity; they recall to him the time when men still believed in astrology and alchemy. Now mankind is older and more mature; it possesses astronomy and chemistry, which are exact sciences. It is time that philosophy finally arrive at maturity and be transformed, in its turn, into a rigorous science.

     Edmund Husserl thus formulates the problem: we need neither wisdom nor depth of thought; we need rigorous science.

     Once the problem is posed in this form, the theory of knowledge naturally passes to the first rank. In other words, the question is: can philosophy be a science, and is there any truth outside of science? And Husserl's problem immediately appears less new and original than at first sight. Let us recall Kant: what Husserl calls "wisdom" Kant called "metaphysics." Kant also admitted as indisputable the existence of positive sciences that furnish us certain unshakable truths and, setting out from the analysis of the possibility of these sciences, he concluded the impossibility of metaphysics, i.e., in Husserl's language, the impossibility of wisdom and profundity of thought. What brings the two thinkers still closer, despite the century and a half that separates them, is that both of them are convinced that true knowledge, i.e., science, can only be a priori. Kant formulates his questions and conducts his arguments otherwise than Husserl, but this difference does not interest us for the moment. What is important for us is only to clarify the reasons why the problem of knowledge acquires such great significance for these two philosophers. If we lend an attentive ear to their argumentation, we shall also establish that the theory of knowledge has constituted the fundamental problem of philosophy since the most ancient times. The Greeks already - and not only Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle but those who are called the fathers of Greek thought - conferred on questions of the theory of knowledge a capital significance. The inconstancy of human opinions troubled them and, as Parmenides' example shows us, they tried by every possible means to escape from this inconstancy and to find repose in the bosom of the truth that is always equal to itself. The well-known struggle between Socrates and his famous disciples, on the one hand, and the heirs of the thought of Heraclitus, the Sophists, on the other, was in very large part a struggle about the theory of knowledge. Plato and Aristotle, following Socrates, tried to kill in germ the anxiety that the skeptical reasonings of their adversaries aroused. "To every statement one can oppose a contrary statement," "man is the measure of things," - such theses appeared to Socrates and his disciples not only false but even sacrilegious. And that is why they were not content with opposing arguments to them but even tried to persuade their hearers that the partisans of such ideas were immoral men. Such a method of argument, very inappropriate in general, appears particularly superfluous in cases where one possesses a complete theoretical argument against the skeptics. But this theoretical demonstration the successors of Socrates had in hand, as many passages from Plato and Aristotle testify.

I shall quote a short fragment of Aristotle's Metaphysics, directed against the statements of the extreme skeptics:
"Therefore all such views are also exposed to the often expressed objection that they destroy themselves. For he who says that everything is true makes even the statement contrary to his own true, and therefore his own not true (for the contrary statement denies that it is true), while he who says everything is false makes himself also false. - And if the former person excepts the contrary statement, saying it alone is not true, while the latter excepts his own as being not false, none the less they are driven to postulate the truth or falsity of an infinite number of statements; for that which says the true statement is true, is true, and this process will go on to infinity." (Met., I, 8, 1012b)
From this refutation, truly classic in its brevity and clarity, of skepticism, it follows that the skeptical position is devoid of all foundation. One would then think that there was no need to crush the skeptics under arguments of a moral order: one does not strike an enemy who is already conquered. Nevertheless, the theoretical arguments appeared insufficient and the opponents of the Sophists gave them the reputation of being greedy and immoral people, even though we still do not know precisely what ruined the Sophists' work, whether their bad philosophy or their bad reputation. The latter, it is known, often exercises the decisive weight in the balances of history's scale.

Orphus system

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