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A R T S   &   C U L T U R E
Saving the Phenomena
Dirk Huang • Edmund Husserl tries to save skepticism from itself
October 2000

Everyone you know is actually an actor in a television show broadcast to the real humans living in the Alpha Centauri star system. It is possible—after all, you’re pretty gullible.  Perhaps the person claiming to be Elvis isn’t nuts; maybe she really is Elvis. Maybe the Muppets are the ultimate arbiters of the good. Or perhaps language is inherently an abstraction, useless for conveying truths about individual persons. 

There is nothing logically incoherent about these possibilities, and therefore many believe that there is no way to reject them. There was a time when these possibilities were simply not considered. The problems thinkers faced in the past were less fundamental. “Does God exist?”  or “What is the nature of virtue?” are much easier questions to deal with than “Is my reason flawed in such a way that I will never be able to find truth?” Our time is marked by an immense diversity of opinion, but no method for resolving differences. Some suggest that we need to be more reasonable, but no one agrees about what qualifies as rationality. Some argue that reason’s powers are limited, and that the crisis is therefore primarily a crisis of faith. And it is a crisis.  If there is no way to reach truth, then people create meaning for themselves, or gravitate towards whatever feels best to them.  Natural inclinations are sometimes quite good, but those with bad instincts lack recourse for correcting them.  People cling to whatever seems most attractive, be it the free love of hippies, the racial supremacy of the Nazis, or the nihilism of modern music. 

Edmund Husserl believes that philosophy can become a rigorous science and resolve our confusion.  In Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy, translated by Quentin Lauer, the goal is to find a method for this philosophy. 

According to Husserl, we must start from the modern perspective.  Those who embrace modern skepticism will not feel compelled by arguments that do not take skepticism seriously.  Husserl’s method for dealing with skepticism is neither to accept nor reject doubt, but instead to make it irrelevant to his method.  Modern philosophy demonstrates that we can always question what at first seems to be knowledge of the objective world.  However, there is no way to deny our experiences of the world. 

For example, when an observer looks at a table, he knows that he sees what appears to be a table.  It is possible that what appears to be a table is only an illusion, but it is not possible for the observer to be mistaken in thinking that he perceived a table.   Study of the apparent table does not require knowledge about the table’s objective reality.  More generally, Husserl believes that philosophy should concern itself with the discovery of truths about the expirienced world without reference to the objective world. 

This raises an obvious concern – the individual can be certain about his perceptions and thoughts, but this does not explain how any further certainty can be achieved.  Husserl claims man has an ability to distinguish and identify “perception, imagination, recollection, judgment, emotion and will--with all their countless particular forms.”  Philosophy in some cases can unite these forms of consciousness, and when experiences cannot be united a “consciousness of deception” can explain the conflicts. 

One objection to this method is that it is self-centered because it begins with a focus on the individual’s consciousness.  However, this objection lacks strength because Husserl argues convincingly that consciousness is essentially outward directed – it is consciousness is always “consciousness of” something and therefore necessarily forces the individual to consider the other. 

However, a stronger case can be made that Husserl’s philosophy does not lead anywhere—because it lacks faith, it cannot ultimately say very much if it begins from such a skeptical position.  Because Husserl is so concerned with explaining and defending the scientific nature of his method, he never explains how it will be able to deal with modern philosophical problems.  This isn’t to say that Husserl fails overall, but he fails to get beyond the basics. 

Husserl desires nothing less than establishment of a method for obtaining absolute certitude in philosophy.  If Husserl has succeeded, insights of ancient thinkers may be incorporated into the new method.  Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy may help to move philosophy beyond its skeptical quagmire, but even if the work fails to reach this goal, we must be impressed with the attempt. 

Dirk Huang is a freshman in Silliman College.

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