Martin Kusch, Psychologism (2)

Kusch, Martin. Psychologism: A Case Study in the Sociology of Philosophical Knowledge. London; New York: Routledge, 1995. See also the Four Appendices to Psychologism (1995).

Husserl was preoccupied with psychology and himself was tarred with the label of psychologism. Descriptive phenomenology “serves to prepare the ground for psychology as an empirical science.” Husserl was aware of the pitfalls of his approach. He emphasized that he did not make logic dependent on psychological theories, but that phenomenology provides “a certain class of descriptions” from which to elaborate theories of logic and of empirical psychology. (p. 179-80) Wundt was not impressed. Husserl vehemently counterattacked in a posthumously published text and in a pubished article of 1911 in which he attacked naturalized philosophy and experimental philosophy.  (1) A science of fact cannot underwrite normative disciplines. (2) All of natural science is epistemologically naïve (cannot justify itself). (3) Experimental psychology is unscientific: it lacks a clarification of key concepts and a descriptive analysis of consciousness. Experimental work is conceptually crude and lacks theoretical guidance which could make sense of its results. (4) Experimental psychology mistakenly models itself on the natural sciences, but mental phenomena are different from physical objects. (5) Experimental psychology neglects the distinction between mental particulars and essences. Now phenomenology was based on the analysis of essences rather than facts, which is different from mere reliance on introspection. (6) Determining the essences of phenomena of pure consciousness is the foundation for descriptive psychology, which is then the foundation for experimental psychology (empirical consciousness). (181-4)

Other experimental psychologists took up the cudgels. Husserl then argued for transcendental phenomenology (186-7), and the disputation continued.

The “pure” philosophers had different orientations to the new psychology, though they disavowed it as a valid philosophical enterprise.

In 1913 a petition signed by 107 philosophers in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland opposed the hiring of any more experimental philosophers in philosophy departments. The events leading up to this petition are outlined. The full petition is reproduced and the subsequent disputes summarized. Note also the anti-Catholic element of the polemics. (193) Interventions by Wundt and Marbe are detailed, as is a controversy between Lamprecht and Simmel. Kusch summarizes the ongoing dispute as a superimposition of language games: refutation of psychologism à disallowance of philosophy chairs to experimental psychologists. (202)

Kusch ends the chapter on role purification addressing the question: why was Husserl influential in these controversies but not Frege? (203ff) Many German philosophers were threatened by “logical mathematicism.” Geyser objected to its pure formalism. Natorp viewed mathematical logic as circular: logic cannot justify itself, and its pure formalism is unworthy of logic. Rickert saw mathematical logic as a threat to logic and insisted on their distinction. Heidegger reiterated this position. But Husserl too regarded mathematical logic as unphilosophical, as merely technical. (204-5)

I find this most curious and perplexing. 34 years ago, when I was first introduced to category theory by one of its pioneers (this did not exist in the 19th century), I found it intriguing and no less philosophically interesting than logic, perhaps more so, given the power of its range. At some point I got the impression that mathematicians and logicians lived in separate and antagonistic worlds, but I never understood why.  I cannot see why mathematical logic is more formalistic, unless it neglects the verbal structures that traditional logic engages.

Back to Kusch. There were institutional and interactive differences between Frege and Husserl. Frege was more isolated at the University of Jena and did not attempt to form a school. Husserl on the other hand was extremely well-connected. Frege’s argumentative style was more dismissive and more cursory in his attack on psychologism. Husserl mixed his harsh criticisms with comments of praise. Frege sought the support of mathematicians rather than philosophers. Husserl referenced Kant and the neo-Kantians. Husserl’s concern with experimental psychology as an antagonist also mattered more to his colleagues. (206-9)

Chapter 8 is the most dramatic of all, as suggested by its title: “Winner Takes All: Lebensphilosophie and the triumph of phenomenology.” During World War I German philosophers buried the hatchet with one another and united in no-holds-barred patriotic drum-beating for the war, in some cases lacing their proclamations with racism and anti-Semitism. Psychologists too went to war. Wundt went on a tear about the national character of the English and French and their attendant national philosophies. (220-1) Others applied psychology to wartime pedagogy, while still others contributed to military psychology.

No mention is made of the German Social Democrats who supported the war or their arguments, but evidently even a materialist world view could not counter the war fever. However, the complete lack of social perspective on the part of all the parties in the aforementioned disputes—idealists all—highlights something fundamentally lacking and fundamentally rotten in their world view. But philosophically the situation gets even worse.

After the war there was no return to the pre-war philosophical hostility. To explain this, Kusch begins with the overweening anti-scientific mentality prevalent in the Weimar Republic. The German mandarins upheld the spiritual values of “culture” and hated the leveling tendencies of “civilization.” (Note the reference to Paul Forman’s article on the German physicists’ attraction to acausality, which I am not particularly endorsing.) The shabby life conditions of postwar Germany affected also the professoriat, now bitter and pessimistic. The language of decline and decadence, anti-science, anti-materialism, mysticism and occultism ruled the day. (225-7)

In this environment, Oswald Spengler, author of Decline of the West, is considered by many to be the key figure of Weimar philosophy. Spengler, however had no academic affiliation, poured scorn on academia, and thus the philosophical shift within academia has to be explained otherwise. The route to the eventual triumph of phenomenology lies through Lebensphilosophie (life-philosophy). Its key academic exponents were Max Scheler and Karl Jaspers. (227-8)

Scheler disdained popular philosophy. His prophets were Dilthey, Nietszche, and Bergson (three individuals high on my list of the worst villains in philosophy). Consistent in Scheler’s appropriation of all three are his anti-scientific attitude and touting of immediacy and experience. (229-231)

Spengler’s work is an orgiastic jeremiad against rationalism, technology, urbanism, democracy, cosmopolitanism, humanism, egalitarianism, etc. Spengler’s view of civilization was organismic, inspired by Goethe’s plant morphology. (Perhaps one could say something about Goethe’s retrograde view of science?) Spengler saw Goethe and Plato as the philosophers of intuition, i.e. akin to his own philosophy, as opposed to the philosophies of Kant and Aristotle. Spengler scathingly denounced both contemporary academic philosophy and psychology. (232-6)

Jaspers’ Psychologie der Weltanshauungen (1919) was different. Jaspers emphasized contingency, prophetic philosophy, and immediacy, distinguishing between intuition and the rational attitude, opposing value absolutism. (236-40)

Despite characteristic academic derision, Spengler was a spectacular success, also among academics. Husserl’s public denunciations of Spengler were ineffective. Attacks on Spengler included accusations of psychologism, but Spengler was more influential than Scheler or Jaspers, though they too gained acclaim. (240-2)

The rise of Lebensphilosophie uncoincidentally coincided with the decline of neo-Kantianism. Death and retirement thinned out key neo-Kantians, and younger philosophers deserted to phenomenology. Cassirer ignored the prevailing Weimar mentality and pursued his own interests, failing to inspire neophyte philosophers, confronting the irrationalist trend only in 1929 in the infamous Davos debate with Heidegger. (243-4)

Rickert both fought vigorously against and accommodated himself to Lebensphilosophie. Rickert attacked intuitionism, linking Husserl to Rickert’s other opponents, but most of all attacking Scheler, for biologism as well as intuitionism. But later Rickert accommodated himself to Lebensphilosophie, applauding the desire to overcome one-sided intellectualism, even embracing the philosophy of sexual love. (244-7) Rickert did not get as much mileage out of this as Husserl did in his attacks on naturalism. (Kusch’s explanation can be found on pp. 247-8.)  Scientific philosophy fared poorly in the anti-scientific Weimar climate. Scheler disposed of Wundt, albeit more mildly than he dispatched the neo-Kantians. (249-50)

Enter Neurath and the Vienna Circle. Neurath attacked Spengler in his Anti-Spengler of 1921. The Vienna Circle’s 1929 manifesto counterposed unified science to empty metaphysics. The academic establishment was not moved. The very word “circle” rather than “school” reflected the orientation of the time, as Lebensphilosophie too was a matter of circles rather than an organized school. (250-2)

Moritz Schlick (1927) curiously found the meaning of Lebensphilosophie and metaphysics in the play of youth, not disapprovingly (252)

Kusch now addresses the conundrum of how the rationalistic philosophy of Husserl’s phenomenology came to triumph due to the influence of irrationalist Lebensphilosophie. Kusch claims that phenomenology won out because Scheler and Heidegger aligned themselves with it and formulated the academic alternative to Spengler. (252) Husserl himself accommodated himself to the prevailing Zeitgeist, e.g. in a 1925 preface to a volume of the Buddha’s speeches, Husserl decrying cultural decay and hoping for a religious awakening. Husserl, however, attacked Spengler, Scheler, and Heidegger. (252-3) Scheler and Heidegger severely qualified their attachment to Husserl. Scheler had opposed both naturalism and Kantian transcendentalism along with neo-Kantianism. He found phenomenology an ally to his Catholicism and philosophical aims. He linked Husserl to Bergsonian intuition and to Sachphilosophie (philosophy of ‘real things’). (253-6) Kusch outlines the factors responsible for Scheler’s success. (256-7) Husserl’s early contributions could be acknowledged and then surpassed by the contemporary agenda.

Experimental psychology, as well as psychologism, ceased to be treated as a threat in the Weimar era. Experimental psychologists made no gains in philosophy departments. The psychologists presented their own petition demanding university positions. In the 1920s new positions were attained only in the field of applied psychology. A half-dozen chairs for full professors of psychology were attained by 1931, but mostly in technical universities and commercial academies. Applied psychology became the growing trend. This was not good for Wundt’s philosophically oriented psychology. (259-61) The antiscientific tenor of Weimar was not conducive to modeling psychology as a natural science. The watchword of the day was “crisis”. (261-2) Psychologists started to incorporate Husserl’s perspective. Gestalt psychology also contributed to the position of phenomenology within psychology. (263-6) The Weimar climate also saw a revival of Dilthey in psychology. Dilthey’s own Lebensphilosophie could be used as a weapon against rivals.

Pure philosophers, especially those adhering to Lebensphilosophie or phenomenology, could now welcome a certain type of psychologist that in their eyes smacked of the more Romantic and philosophical and less natural-scientific and experimental. (271)

Coming installment: Kusch’s summary & conclusions; my conclusions.


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