Monthly Archives: July 2021

Husserl’s claim that intuition precedes empirical science as a foundation for knowledge

Husserl’s claim that intuition comes before scientific empiricism as our foundation of knowledge is making more sense to me. It confused me at first. We tend to think that intuition is a subjective, “gut-feel,” and only through observational, empirical science can we determine what is real. Husserl would respond to that with “balderdash.”

It is intuitively and universally recognized that giraffes are taller than poodles. Without any prior knowledge, without any need to study the situation scientifically, we know with certainty that one is taller than the other. Looking at the two, no one asks, “I wonder which is taller? Can we do an experiment to see which is taller?” Empirical, data-driven science measures a nine foot giraffe and a one foot poodle. The determination is that the giraffe is taller than the poodle. But what’s a “taller than”? From where did that come?

Now, strip away the contingent individual instance of a giraffe and a poodle. Is it not true that any nine foot animal is taller than a one foot animal? Go further. Is it not true that any nine foot thing (animal, building, vehicle…etc.) is taller than a one foot thing? This foundational truth, universally true across any instantiation is what he calls “eidetic.” That a nine foot thing is taller than a one foot thing is an intuitively “eidetic” principle. It is objectively true, universally. Science must first be founded on the objective notion of “taller than” before its empiricism can determine which animal is “taller than” the other. Everything, including science, must be founded on intuition of eidetic principles to even function. Thus, intuition is the foundation of knowledge, not empirical science.

Note also that eidetic intuition completely contradicts the relativism of psychologism. The idea that giraffes are taller than poodles simply because societal and cultural norms have dictated it, and that it could be different under a different set of norms, is that same balderdash.

Husserl’s Logical Investigations were initially an attack on the relativity of psychologism, that truth is whatever we make it to be. Only later, in Ideas, did he develop it into a philosophical methodology called phenomenology.

Edith Stein’s reconciliation of Husserl and Aquinas

I’m making what in my mind is astonishing progress. I’m reading ‘Phenomenology Explained – From Experience to Insight’ by David Detmer. It is a superb summary of Edmund Husserl’s work. I am in his discussion of Husserl’s “time-consciousness.” Thus far this is the most elegant and integrative of Husserl’s philosophy (which really is a methodology).

He starts by pointing out that whereas Martin Heidegger formally is credited with editing this piece of Husserl’s influential Logical Investigations, actually it was Edith Stein who did the heavy lifting. The concept is difficult to refute. Husserl’s insight is that perception is not bound by linear time; when we perceive we are synthesizing the past – retention – and the future – protention – into a whole. Retention is not memory, and protention is not imagination. They are different.

But to the progress I am making, I now the see the profound connection to Stein’s main accomplishment, that of reconciling the medieval scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas’ Aristotelianism and Husserl’s modern day Phenomenology. Stein takes Aristotle’s (and Aquinas’) potency and act and interprets it through the lens of Husserl’s time-consciousness. Does not “potency and act,” Aristotle’s big concept, have to do with time? Of course. Things move from potency to act only over time. But how does one understand the essence of coming from potency to act over time? Of what it really means? Of its objective truth? Of the point of it all?

Stein applies her insights stemming from editing Husserl’s works to the less elegant, somewhat clunky concept of Aristotle’s potency and act. Suddenly, potency and act becomes more elegant, more explainable, more intuitively real than Aristotle or Aquinas could ever accomplish. She loved Husserl’s work, and she loved Aquinas and his Aristotelianism. She married them.

I have noted this for some time. I never knew how to explain what she did until now. I think that if we would follow Stein’s insights, the world would be a much better place. This may all sound irrelevantly esoteric; however, through it we would better understand the world around us. And right now, it seems that few if any of us understand the world around us.

The importance of Edmund Husserl

Edmund Husserl is someone whose work we should all get to know. I came to his phenomenology through Edith Stein. He was her mentor and the father of modern phenomenology.

With the introduction of his Logical Investigations around 1900, Husserl gave birth to most of the significant philosophical movements of the 20th century, including Heidegger, Sartre, and Kierkegaard, in addition to Stein. The vast array of directions indicated by this group goes to my point of his significance. Heidegger was an unrepentant Nazis, Sartre was a communist atheist, Kierkegaard was whatever a Kierkegaard is, and Stein was a Carmelite mystic saint who now is one of a handful of patron saints of Europe.

The reason for such diverse movements is that his phenomenology has nothing to do with telling us what is true. It has to do with how we go about figuring out what is true. It is a methodology more than a true philosophy. Husserl was a mathematician and logician who turned to philosophy with the same scientific rigor. He knew objective truth existed. He knew that 2+2=4 with universal certainty. He also knew that we only can know 2+2=4 is universally true through subjective experiential intuition. Husserl made the case that the beginning of all knowledge is intuition, not empiricism, and that even mathematics and science depended on intuition for their foundations, i.e., intuition comes before empirical observation. He attacked the psychologism of relativity, and the latter has yet to fully recover over a hundred years later.

Phenomenology in general makes truth more accessible to our consciousness. It deals with how we construct our understanding of the world around us and helps us make logical inferences about how our lived experience correlates to what we know. It does not tell us what is true but how to think. What we do with the powerful weapon of thinking (lost in the modern world) is up to us. We can become a Nazis, a commie atheist, a Kierkegaard-y type thingy, or possibly even a saint.

As a side note, Husserl was persecuted as a Jew by the Nazis, and his writings were banned in Germany. Stein, as a Jew was executed by the Nazis at Auschwitz, Heidegger ended up digging anti-tank ditches in the mud for the Nazis, and Sartre was celebrated at his death by a grand parade. Kierkegaard went to wherever a Kierkegaard goes.