Comments shared by Ed McCann

The Importance of Dallas’s Work On Husserl

Comments shared by Ed McCann at the Celebration of the Life of Dallas Willard, University of Southern California, School of Philosophy (October 4, 2013)

Like so many here I was the recipient of many kindnesses on Dallas’s part, and I profited much from, and thoroughly enjoyed, the frequent philosophical discussions we had. One high point of my teaching career was the graduate seminar we co-taught in Spring of 1996 on Heidegger’s Being and Time and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. It was a great seminar, with lively discussions among a group of engaged and talented graduate students with contributions by our friend and late colleague Arnold Heidsieck, and we all got a lot out of it.

I want to say a word today about the importance of Dallas’s work on Husserl. One of my prized possessions is an inscribed copy of his book Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge: A Study in Husserl’s Early Philosophy, published in 1984. For the non-philosophers in the audience, to appreciate the significance of the book you have to know about one of the most distinctive features of 20th century philosophy, and that is the chasm between analytic and continental philosophy. The former, which is the dominant tradition at English-speaking philosophy departments, lists as its giants Frege, Russell, Moore, Carnap, Quine, and Kripke, among others; the Continental tradition traces its beginnings to Husserl, his immediate followers Heidegger and Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, Derrida and others. In 1984 it was rare for an analytically trained philosopher such as Dallas to turn such concentrated and respectful attention to Husserl, and it was rare in Husserl scholarship to have such a clearly written and rigorously critical study done of his work. Within the world of Husserl scholarship, it was extremely valuable to have such close examination of his early writings, a contribution which was only deepened by Dallas’s superb translations of Husserl’s first major work, the Philosophy of Arithmetic, and of a collection of Husserl’s early writings on the philosophy of mathematics and logic, both translated into English for the first time. In the book Dallas provides an account of Husserl’s early epistemology of mathematics in Philosophy of Arithmetic and Logical Investigations. The book includes novel, well-worked-out, and well-defended reinterpretations of key Husserlian concepts, a fresh view of the relations between Husserl’s early writings and his later, better-known work, and a more complicated and nuanced picture of the relations between Husserl and Frege . All of this is carried out with a staggering amount of scholarship ranging over a wide-variety of works; the footnotes alone constitute an education in late 19th/20th century philosophy of logic.

‘Because it was there’ is maybe a good enough reason to climb Mt. Everest, but it won’t serve to account for the astounding amount of research and thinking that went into Dallas’s study of Husserl. Dallas’s interest in exploring Husserl’s early philosophy stems from his belief that it represents a distinctive approach, still worthy of consideration, to providing for the possibility of objective knowledge within a metaphysical realist framework. One of Dallas’s deepest philosophical commitments was to this realism, which is the view that the objects of our cognition have a real existence, and real nature, entirely independent of our experience of them. In holding this view Dallas is in opposition to such major recent philosophers as Quine, Putnam, Kuhn, Rorty, and Dummett. One of the leading problems for a realist view is accounting for our knowledge of truths about the objects, especially knowledge of a priori truths. Dallas thought that Husserl had some promising but overlooked proposals in his early philosophical works, hence the care and attention he paid to them.

Dallas’s work on Husserl put him in the top rank of Husserl scholars, and his influence will continue to be felf for many years, not only among Husserl scholars, but also among the steadily growing number of philosophers who are finding value in bringing Husserl into contemporary debates. This legacy is already manifest in the superb new book by Dallas’s student Walter Hopp, Perception and Knowledge: A Phenomenological Account (Cambridge U. P., 2012), and there will be more. Dallas’s will be a lasting and vital contribution to philosophy.


Ed McCann is a Professor of Philosophy and English at USC, where he taught alongside Dallas beginning in 1983. They both enjoyed and profited from their many philosophical discussions in Mudd Hall, and developed a great friendship. They also had the opportunity to teach a graduate seminar together in 1996. Ed’s research specialties are Early Modern Philosophy, Wittgenstein, and Philosophy of Mind.