Life‑World within Brackets

David H. DeGrood

At critical moments of human history, the question of the philosopher's function needs to be raised. This is such a critical moment of humanity's evolution. The real possibility of nuclear catastrophe has hung over mankind's head for some years now, without a rational resolution of this threat; the vast number of men face imminent starvation; and the forces of reaction attempt to stifle human aspirations, as Fascism is rekindled in Greece, South Africa, Asia, and Latin America; as bigotry, retrenchment, militarism, and repression sweep the United States. It is against this background that philosophizing today occurs. In order to deal more effectively with present conditions, it may be valuable to recollect efforts of the past to make philosophy relevant towards the amelioration of human problems. Thus the period of the 1930's and the thought of Edmund Husserl have been chosen.

In the period of the 'thirties, great systems were announced and throughout much of the intellectual world entered the lists to do battle, systems such as Marxism, Pragmatism, Phenomenology, Logical Positivism, Existentialism, and Fascism. Major figures such as Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse‑tung, John Dewey, Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, Martin Heidegger, and others, dominated both philosophical and social controversies. Some new names are now to be added, but the issues posed a generation ago are still vital and worthy of concentrated study.

It does not take profound insight to gather that philosophical systems reflect their times, and that the problems of philosophers are not generated in vacuo. To those students of philosophy perplexedly searching for criteria by which to judge the systems which seek their allegiance, let us suggest as one possible criterion, the effective resolution of the theoretical and socio‑economic problems of men (at a given historical time and place, and more importantly, over the long run in man’s revolutionary advancement). This criterion will be our guiding evaluative standard in the analysis which follows.

The criterion formulated above should not be taken to exclude specialized sub‑functions of philosophy such as methodology, the theory of knowledge, aesthetics, and so forth; philosophy is certainly but hard bread without them. But without bread man starves, and without freedom and the provisions for happiness philosophy is a purely intellectual exercise, an exercise easily snuffed out by oligarchies, dictators, and the reactionary classes which often back them.

For Edmund Husserl the approach of the 1930's brought increasing recognition. Despite the institutional and economic collapse of the Weimar Reich in Germany, Husserl, a man entering his seventieth year of life, was nonetheless active philosophically, publishing his Cartesian Meditations in 1931 and his last work in 1936 in the Yugoslavian periodical Philosophia—this last work being his Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie.  [1] In 1929 Husserl was invited to lecture on Phenomenology by the Institut d' Etudes Germaniques and by the Societe Française de Philosophie. What was to become his Cartesian Meditations was delivered in lecture form at the Sorbonne in the Amphitheatre Descartes. These lectures were published in French in 1931 as Méditations cartésiennes, prompting Husserl's colleague, Oskar Becker, to speak of the appearance of Husserl's work in this language as a "tragic symbol". [2] Later that Fall of 1929, on October 24, over eight months after Husserl's famous lecture, the Stock Market crashed on Wall Street; it was one more beginning of an end, a final end to the Weimar Republic and a temporary finale in Germany to Husserl's "pure Phenomenology".

At the Sorbonne Husserl had urged his listeners to follow Augustine in "looking within" for truth ("Noli foras ire, in te redi in interiore homine habitat veritas"), [3] while some months later factories emptied and the registered unemployment shot up to six millions, bread lines forming all over Germany. [4] Placing the world of natural and social experience aside, "suspending the world", performing the transcendental epoché, Husserl could still not hope, naturally, to stem the rapid rise to power of Hitler's National Socialist (sic) Party, In 1933 almost a thousand university professors vowed their support to the Führer. Husserl's major collaborator, Martin Heidegger, hailed the Nazi order and helped to deprive Husserl of his university privileges. [5] The last five years of Husserl's life were spent as a "Jew", a "non‑Aryan," a "sub‑human subject". As Marvin Farber describes Husserl's plight:

That Husserl thought much about the evils of the Third Reich cannot be doubted. But it was not his way to enter into the political and social movements of his time, or to take account of them. The severe restraint imposed by his philosophical views left no way of dealing with the sordid conditions that had deprived him of his human rights. [6]

Despite Husserl's own methodological restraints upon himself, they proved permeable, especially as revealed in his talk in Czechoslovakia in May of 1935 at the University of Prague. Still unshaken out of his narrow anti‑naturalistic and anti‑materialistic biases and still seeing the real foe in naturalism and objectivism, a plea for a return to sanity überhaupt is clearly indicated in it ("Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man", see below). Out of this Prague lecture grew last work: the Krisis essay already mentioned.

The same year in which Husserl's Krisis (parts I & II) appeared in print, a minor event but one of some philosophical significance had occurred in fascist Spain in 1936. The famous philosopher‑rector of the University of Salamanca, Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, a supporter of the Falange (perhaps by necessity of his residence in "Nationalist" held territory), could no longer control himself because of the 'long live death!'' shouts of the Franco followers and their unveiled racial slurs against Catalonians and Basques. Unamuno bravely stood before Franco, his generals, and fanatical followers, and reminded them:

This is the temple of the intellect. And I am its high priest. It is you who profane its sacred precincts. You will win, because you have more than enough brute force. But you will not convince, For to convince you need to persuade. And in order to persuade you would need what you lack: Reason and Right in the struggle. [7]

It is evident that Husserl, too, would have agreed with Unamuno sub specie aeterni.

In Husserl's opening statement of the philosophic problematic in his Sorbonne lectures, one is aware that his profound seriousness is not only motivated by his shock at the chaos of philosophical systems in Germany and elsewhere, but it is also motivated by what we may infer has been a crippling effect on a human culture which had no unified, scientific perspective as its guide. Husserl observes that since the middle of the 19th century the "comparative unity" in philosophy of problems, methods, and aims has been deeply shattered. The demise of the religious Weltanschauung of the Mediaeval period was to be replaced by Reason, Philosophy, and Science; but this post‑Mediaeval synthesis had also become moribund. [8]

The man of culture needs a system which will not only indubitably ground his potentially magnificent scientific edifice but also his system of truths in general, his truths in ethics and politics. Husserl, of course, is to begin the process by which these things are to be supplied. Modern science, seemingly a prime candidate for a guide for theory and practice, Husserl believes, will just not suffice. Science is not anchored on a system of "absolute truths", nor does it derive those for its devotees. Successive approximation and constant modification are characteristic of the scientific enterprise . [9]

The phenomenological philosopher certainly cannot leave us at the mercy of such uncertainties. A pure ego with its thoughts, a “transcendental being" is brought forward for our essential inspection; Husserl states that this is absolute being, Being which the natural world's being presupposes. [10] As Husserl explained to his French hosts: " . . . This world, with all its objects . . . derives its whole sense and its existential status, which it has for me, from me myself, from me as the transcendental Ego, the Ego who comes to the fore only with transcendental‑phenomenological epoché". [11] What one might call the "professional disease" of the philosopher, viz. idealism, then, is portrayed as the remedy for intellectual chaos. The phenomenological method launched by the epoché, the placing of the existence of the world in brackets, not only avoids the region of dubitability, but the truths established by means of it would hold, even if the world of nature did not exist! [12] This transcendental ego does not enter the scene out of woman's womb but "continuously constitutes himself". The naturalists and materialists who conceive of Nature as pre­dating mentation are described by Husserl as having nonsensical beliefs; [13] and to those who refuse to follow Husserl to transcendental idealism, but are willing to use his previously described metaphysically neutral phenomenological method, Husserl exclaims:

The proof of this idealism is therefore phenomenology itself.  Only someone who misunderstands either the deepest sense of transcendental reduction, or that of intentional method, or perhaps both, can attempt to separate phenomenology from transcendental idealism. [14]

With words such as these, Husserl isolated himself as the sole "reliable" explicator of phenomenological results.

Socially, Husserlian phenomenology was a self‑imposed isolation from the hurly‑burly of everyday life, but metaphysically it also appeared as a new and monstrous form of solipsism. Husserl devotes the second half of the  Cartesian Meditations ingeniously trying to break away from the solus ipse. In his attempt to "constitute" the alter ego from pure subjectivity, he resurrects the monadic discourse of Leibniz.  The other ego can be seen in a "pairing association" with my own ego. [15] The constitution of a psychic community is needed as a foundation for an intersubjective, common Nature; such a community implies other psychophysical egos. But these "other egos" are necessarily constituted only in me. [16] Like René Descartes who previously rescued his senses and his mechanistic natural world through his reintroduction of God through a priori proof, Husserl himself tries to escape claustrophobic solipsism by means of a set of alleged a priori truths found in the realm of essences. [17] Unfortunately, it is not possible within this essay to go into the extraordinarily complicated tangle Husserl puts the reader through to escape ego solitude. Perhaps Marx's observation will suffice for those who have themselves followed Husserl's painstaking analysis:

Philosophy, above all German philosophy, has a tendency toward solitude, toward systematic seclusion, toward dispassionate self‑examination. . . . In its systematic development philosophy is unpopular, and to the untutored eye its secret weaving within itself seems to be an occupation as overstrained as it is impractical. It is taken to be a professor of magic whose incantations sound pompous because they are incomprehensible. [18]

It is truly remarkable that parallel to the debacle of social life in the 'thirties, a philosopher could be devoting a major portion of his reflective inquiry upon the problem of escaping solipsism.

As was mentioned above, Husserl's lecture to his University of Prague hosts mirrored the enormous, real social tensions under which he labored. The investigator of radically pure subjectivity brought himself to speak of persons living in a social framework, of families, of nations. But Husserl is quick to point out that he is speaking of "living" in an extra‑physiologic sense; he is describing the spiritually creative sense of living. [19] Husserl can sense the insanity about to come when he asks if there can be created a "medical science" for the health of nations and international communities. He also makes reference to the "torrent of naïve and extravagant suggestions for reform." [20]

Husserl himself was impressed by the revolution brought about by the mastery of nature. These methods of the Naturwissenschaften, however, cannot be extended to the spiritual world in which men actually live; spiritual phenomena can only be explained on a purely spiritual basis. Even the explanation of the genesis and activity of the natural sciences can only be made spiritually; natural science cannot explain itself. Thus the humanistic sciences cannot be based on natural science. [21]

The dilemma here involves an explanation of "spiritual" phenomena. Perhaps a better term would be "human phenomena". Without the assumptive metaphysical term Geist, the question would be: Can the sociologist, psychologist, and the culturologist explain the human productions of science, culture, and philosophy? Or more specifically, could the sciences be instrumental in their own historical and morphological explanation? When a social scientist explains human phenomena such as Fascism in Germany by means of classes and their ruin by depression, does this indeed present an irresoluble paradox? Moreover, when social scientists see the attempt of a generation of themselves to put forward a theoretical framework of greater empirical reliability, is it some kind of absurdity to agree with them that such an attempt reflects certain needs of their society? If there were some kind of paradox, which is by no means to be admitted by the materialist philosopher, would understanding the "spirit by means of the spirit" be any less so?

Husserl has a ready answer for those who try to carry over the enormously successful methods, principles, and truths of the natural sciences (we can call this attitude "naturalism") to the humanistic sciences (Geisteswissenschaften): "Blinded by naturalism . . ., the practitioners of humanistic science have completely neglected even to pose the problem of a universal and pure science of the spirit and to seek a theory of the essence of spirit as spirit. . . .” [22] Europe's problem is a spiritual one, one to be satisfactorily resolved by a spiritual remedy.

His spiritual quest locates in the essence "European man" an innate "extraordinary teleology". By "European man" Husserl means to include Americans and subjects of the British dominions, excluding, furthermore, Eskimos, Indians, and Gypsies. [23] Though the European stocks are often at odds, their cultures have a unity which transcends their differences; the unity of their cultures is even more apparent when one compares them to the "alien" culture of a country such as India. [24]

Though Husserl rejects zoological racism, he does put forward a kind of spiritual racism,  [25] of which phenomenology provides the foundation for such "essential seeing". That which distinguishes the European man's Wesen is his assumption of "infinite tasks". [26] As Husserl describes these tasks: "For us Europeans there are . . . even outside the philosophico‑scientific sphere, any number of infinite ideas. . ., but the analogous character of infinity that they have (infinite tasks, goals, verifications, truths, 'true values,' 'genuine goods,' 'absolutely' valid norms) is due primarily to the transformation of man through philosophy and its idealities.” [27] Husserl admits that Indian and Chinese philosophies seem often indistinguishable from Greek‑based European outlooks, but he warns us not to miss essential differences; only the Greeks had a conception of theoria. [28] This essential trait gives European man his leadership role for all of human kind. [29] The Nazis eliminated as many as they could of the Gypsies and other "sub‑humans", and, although Husserl could never be classed with Hitler's group, he was a victim of the more general delusion of racism. It is difficult to see how Husserl's "spiritual remedy" of strengthening the European "entelechy" was anything but Quixotic.

For the remainder of his lecture, Husserl again berates naturalism for its alleged inability to understand spirit. [30] It is not, he says, spirit which is a part of nature, but nature which is part of spirit. Moreover, "rational culture" has disintegrated due to naturalism and objectivism. European man is suffering from weariness, but the "danger of dangers'' (naturalism) must be combatted endlessly. [31]

Husserl's method of dealing with the dangers of the European situation had been unexcelled in its complete ineffectiveness and obscurantism. The champion of "pure thought" could be no match for the Wehrmacht and the Gestapo.

Philosophers must begin with Marx, when he said:

. . . Philosophers do not grow out of the earth like mushrooms; they are the fruits of their time. . . . The same spirit that builds philosophical systems in the brain of the philosophers builds railroads by the hands of the workers. Philosophy does not stand outside the world any more than man's brain is outside him because it is not in his stomach. . . . [32]



1. This work has now been translated into English. Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. David Carr (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970). [—> main text]

2. Cf. Marvin Farber, Phenomenology and Existence: Toward a Philosophy within Nature (New York: Harper & How, 1967), p. 20, note. [—> main text]

3. Edmund Husserl, Cartesianische Meditationen und Pariser Vorträge, ed. S. Strasser (The Hague; Martinus Nijhoff, 1950), p. 183. [—> main text]

4. Cf. William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (New York: Fawcett, 1959), p. 193. [—> main text]

5. Cf. ibid., p. 347. [—> main text]

6. Marvin Farber, The Aims of Phenomenology (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 9. [—> main text]

7. Cited by Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (New York; Harper, 1961), p. 355. [—> main text]

8. Cf. Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology, trans. Dorion Cairns (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1960), pp. 4‑5 (sec. 2, 46). [—> main text]

9. Cf. ibid., sec. 5, 53. [—> main text]

10. Cf. ibid., sec. 8, 61. [—> main text]

11. Cf. ibid., sec. 11, 65. [—> main text]

12. Cf. ibid., sec. 13, 69. [—> main text]

13. Cf. ibid., sec. 31, 100; sec. 41, 117. [—> main text]

14. Ibid., sec. 41, 119. [—> main text]

15. Cf. ibid., sec. 42, 121; sec. 54, 148. [—> main text]

16. Cf. ibid., see, 55, 149; sec. 56, 156; sec. 58, 160. [—> main text]

17. Cf. ibid., sec. 58, 160, 162. [—> main text]

18. Karl Marx, "The Leading Article in No. 179 of the Kölnische Zeitung". In Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, eds. & trans. Loyd D. Easton & Kurt H. Guddat (New York: Anchor, 1967), p. 122. [—> main text]

19. Cf. Edmund Husserl, "Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man”.  In Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy, ed. & trans. Quentin Lauer (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 150. [—> main text]

20. Ibid. [—> main text]

21. Cf. ibid., pp. 151, 153‑154. [—> main text]

22. Ibid., pp. 154‑155. [—> main text]

23. Cf. ibid., pp. 154-155. [—> main text]

24. Cf. ibid., p. 157. [—> main text]

25. Cf. ibid., p. 158. [—> main text]

26. Cf. ibid., pp. 159, 163. [—> main text]

27. Ibid., pp. 163‑164. [—> main text]

28. Cf. ibid., pp. 164‑165, 172‑174. [—> main text]

29. Cf. ibid., p. 178. [—> main text]

30. Cf. ibid., p. 187‑189. [—> main text]

31. Cf. ibid., pp. 190‑192. [—> main text]

32. Karl Marx, op. cit. [—> main text]

DeGrood, David H. "Life‑World within Brackets", in Philosophy at the Barricade, edited by David H. DeGrood, Dale Riepe, & Edward D'Angelo (Bridgeport, CT: Spartacus Books, 1971), pp. 8-15.

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