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Edmund Husserl and the Crisis of Western Science (Thomas Molnar)

Edmund Husserl and the Crisis of Western Science

Thomas Molnar


During the nineteenth century, numerous thinkers devoted much of their speculative efforts to the quest of building a new world order. The orientation toward an ideal state of affairs achieved through science or by a scientific morality began with the Renaissance; before then it had been, if anything, a sporadic enterprise. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the medieval Christian worldview had dramatically eroded; perhaps the first to adumbrate it was Nicholas of Cusa, credited with the phrase: “The center (of the world) is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.” Ever since, philosophers and scientists have tried to formulate a substitute religion, or at least a plausible belief system through which man could again find his own place. Hence the proliferation of “utopias” and “new worlds” for about four centuries. Even the nineteenth century was optimistic about a new religion and a new order of things: Auguste Comte, a representative figure of the age, was convinced that he had built, with positivism, the foundation of an edifice containing scientific laws and a credo consecrating them as eternal truths; he propounded this view in his “Positivist Catechism.”
        Toward the end of the last century, the utopian assumptions began to change, and new evaluations were made by some unpopular minds, or, some would say, revisionist philosophers. Kierkegaard, Burckhardt, Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche turned away from the totem pole of progress. While three or four centuries of utopian thought had branched out widely in search of a new world, the nineteenth century believed that all energy had to be gathered for the adoration of science, the designated chief instrument for the creation of a perfect state of affairs. Perfect, because the scientists knew now how to measure progress and how to predict its future course.
        The few “reactionaries” who lived during the zenith of scientific-utopian optimism lived long enough to see the commencing of its twilight. They spoke a language that few understood; it was practically in code, almost like the “Aesopian” script under today’s totalitarian regimes. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were masters at concealing their real thoughts not because they feared the fashionable dandies of the universities, but because they knew that their meaning would not be grasped. Their style was therefore a kind of poetry because, as two other antiprogressives a century earlier, Vico and Heerder, had suggested, new gods arise and are announced through the imagination of poets. What the poets of the twilight and of coming gods (in Kierkegaard’s case, the Christian God) knew was that entire walls were collapsing in the vaultless edifice of Western modernity. Nietzsche must have been aware that he was shaking the remaining walls and pillars, although his posterity endlessly debates whether he rejoiced over the crumbling stones or whether he wept. (Both, I venture to say).

Assessing Past Achievements
        It was left to others to do what serious scholars in declining times most naturally do: taking inventory of past achievements and measuring the crisis points, with the goal of finding the fatal errors, derailments, the hubris, and false hopes. In the last hundred years or so, those who have taken up this task include: Oswald Spengler, Max Weber, C.E.M. Joad, Arnold Toynbee, C.G. Jung, Ortega y Gasset, E. Voegelin, Aurel Kolnai, Hans Sedlmayr, René Guénon. The titles of their oeuvres tell the story of sizing up the past since 1900; terms like “decline,” “loss of the center,” “waning,” “disenchantment” (Entzauberung), “crisis,” “masses” (meant pejoratively), “the reign of quantity,” are the key words. The only point of disagreement is the initial date of the corruption. Some place it in the fourteenth century (William of Ockham’s nominalism), others in the nineteenth (democracy), yet others attribute it to a much earlier point de rupture or even to the intrinsic secularization of Western civilization.
        To the question: “What went wrong?” the frequent answer is that it was inscribed in the nature of the Western project that it would end in modernity, nihilism, desacralization. The Islamologist Henry Corbin is perhaps the most radical exponent of this Muslim view: Christ’s incarnation obliged the church to plunge into the vicissitudes of history, with its conflicts and shifts of power, which finally brought the church’s own secularization. Today the world is homeless; it is torn by ideologies, all of them intent on remaking history and man. André Malraux’s less sweeping diagnosis concerns the break-up of God’s and man’s face in art, the excessive individualization of the psyche (Jung), the spread of democracy (Faguet, Ortega y Gasset), the emphasis on economic man (Karl Polanyi, Louis Dumont), the exhaustion of challenge (Toynbee), and the spread of utopianism (Aurel Kolnai). The literature of decline is vast and growing, and the epigones of the “fathers” are ever able to uncover new facets. Orwell and Huxley merely put these conclusions in a dramatized but hardly caricatural form. It is debatable if they helped the “cause” by focusing public attention on the behavioral aspects of a tragedy that is human and divine. Kafka went deeper, but he too described the consequences, not the process.
        At this point entered the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. The formulator of phenomenology who straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he is perhaps the emblematic philosopher of the contemporary age. Phenomenology has spawned, before and after Husserl’s death (1938), a multitude of systems: structuralism, existentialism, hermeneutics, and branches of linguistics. At the time when Husserl published his Crisis of European Civilization (1935), henceforth referred to as Krisis, his philosophy was not only mature but could also embrace a vast field stretching from science to politics. Husserl lived to watch the decomposition of modernist postulates and the liquidation of deeply rooted optimism and to evaluate his own contribution to a gigantic failure.
        What failure? It may be useful to stop here for a moment to take notice of a hardly known essay entitled “An Evaluation of the Doctrines of March” that novelist Robert Musil, the author of A Man without Qualities, wrote while a student. Let us be attentive to the conjunction of these names: Ernst Mach, Robert Musil, and Edmund Husserl. All three were central Europeans of the German-language area, were born in the nineteenth but active in the twentieth century, and were contemporaries of several decisive events that announced the “crumbling of the walls.” These included the end of the Hapsburg empire, the First World War, the spreading influence of Nietzsche and Kafka, political cataclysms and, in philosophy, the supposed end of metaphysics, which had been condemned by Kant as the dead-end street of the speculative enterprise. It was an end-of-the-world time, with no silver lining on the dark grey clouds of intellect.


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