How Naturalism Makes Knowledge of Knowledge Impossible and Thereby Destroys the Possibility of a Rational Moral Existence for Humanity

A Critique of Naturalism in Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Read before the 2008 meeting of The California Phenomenology Circle, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, April 4, 2008.

I want to talk to you today about Husserl’s explanation of how naturalism, as a general account of reality and therefore of knowledge (which is of course is one part of reality), makes knowledge of knowledge impossible, and thereby destroys the possibility of a rational moral substance for individuals and for humanity at large. The effects of naturalism’s rise to dominance in the theory of reality and knowledge, during the mid to late 19th Century, resulted in what Husserl called a "Crisis of European Sciences." The crisis he has in mind is brought on by the failure of the sciences (plural), and of the form that rational thought had presumably taken under the influence of the sciences, to answer the question of how to live — the ancient questions of the true, the good and the beautiful — in a way that the answer could amount to objectively sharable and certifiable knowledge, serving as the basis for becoming a good person and attaining a good life in a good society. Such an answer (or answers), based upon reason and constituting a body of publically accessible knowledge, was understood by Husserl to be the objective of Philosophical thought, or Science (epistemē) in general, in its inception with the Greek thinkers in antiquity; and then to have provided the telos or unifying aim of a peculiar version of humanity which came to be known as "European." Thus to speak of "European Sciences," as he does in the full title of the book that has come to be known simply as "The Crisis," is a little odd. For it might suggest that there are sciences of a variety other than the European one. Brazilian sciences, or French, or Chinese perhaps. Whereas his actual view is that "science," in (hopefully) some appropriate and prevailing sense, is what defines the word "European," or gives Europe its essence. Europe, as he plainly says, is not a geographical location, but a way of life lived out in a communal setting which happens to have become associated with a piece of land. It is a way of life organized around devotion to establishing truth in all domains of thought, experience and practice, and to living and acting in conformity with truth thus established.

The "crisis" which stands at the focal point of Husserl’s discussions, in the fragmentive texts we now refer to as "The Crisis," is the situation brought on by the failure of the sciences (note the plural) to provide rationally founded answers to the basic questions of life, first posed by the ancient Greek thinkers as the tribal and mythological framework of their life was dropping away, and recurring throughout human history up to today: Questions, as Husserl puts it "of the meaning or meaningless of the whole of this human existence.... [T]hey concern man as a free, self-determining being in his behavior toward the human and extrahuman surrounding world, and free in regard to his capacities for rationally shaping himself and his surrounding world."1 "The ‘crisis’ could then become distinguishable as the apparent failure of rationalism. The reason for the failure of a rational culture however … lies not in the essence of rationalism itself but solely in its being rendered superficial by its entanglement in ‘naturalism’ and ‘objectivism’."2

A crisis is a crucial point or situation in the course of anything, or a momentous turning point. A dictionary says it is "An unstable condition in political, international or economic affairs in which an abrupt and decisive change is impending." "Crisis" is a Latinization of the Greek krisis or turning point, from the verb krino, meaning to separate or divide. Husserl’s thought here is that the development of the European "telos" toward bringing human existence under the guidance of reason or knowledge is now at a turning point. It must EITHER destroy itself by allowing reason and knowledge to be understood strictly in terms of what is done within the natural or "humanistic" sciences,3 OR it must return to a knowledge of knowledge itself (to a "critique" of reason in an appropriate phenomenological (non-Kantian) form) that permits and elucidates (as the sciences themselves do not) certifiable, shareable knowledge of the right and the good (and of knowledge itself, of course). This is the crisis, the decisive turning point that constitutes the "Crisis of European Science." Husserl’s hope is to turn the course of events in the development of the European telos in the latter direction. He hopes, as always in his work, to provide knowledge of knowledge — of knowledge, "the thing itself," beyond all obscure, misguided and prejudicial interpretations of it embedded in socially motivated, cultural habits and encrusted linguistic usage. In this way, it seems, he hoped at least to clear the way for a renewal and revitalization of the historic drive of Europe toward a life based upon truth about all matters theoretical and practical.

Philosophers are "functionaries of mankind…responsible for the true being of mankind; this latter is, necessarily, being towards a telos and can only come to realization, if at all, through philosophy — through us, if we are philosophers in all seriousness." (Crisis, p.17)


In this discussion I shall raise no questions concerning the possible justification of a hope for basing human life on reason or knowledge of truth. Suffice it to say that such a hope was dominant in the world of Husserl’s birth and formation. And it was out of such a world that a widespread sense of "crisis" developed around the turn of the last century (1900). No doubt new elements had been added by the mid-1930’s when Husserl composed the texts of The Crisis, but he had been concerned about the crisis of culture long before that. The main texts of the English book are based on lectures delivered in Vienna and Prague. At that time a Jew was not permitted to give public lectures in Germany. Certainly this was a huge moral crisis in Europe. But the theme of "crisis" also was not unique to Husserl, and it also was not new to him in 1934-1937. The philosophical issues concerning "the crisis of the Europeans Sciences" are all, I think, clearly present in the Logos paper of 1911, "Philosophy as a Rigorous Science." The main point in that paper, it seems to me, is pretty much the same as in the argument of The Crisis texts: That the overreaching claims on behalf of the natural or "objective" sciences would, if true, make even those sciences themselves impossible. "The mere science of bodies clearly has nothing to say … about reason and unreason or about us men as subjects of … freedom."4 Of course, this basic point or argument is developed at much greater lengths in The Crisis texts.

But there was a pervasive sense in the European mind of the late 1800’s that something was not right. Ernst Haeckel expresses the general sense of things among intellectuals in the following words:

"The close of the nineteenth century offers one of the most remarkable spectacles to the thoughtful observer. All educated people are agreed that it has in many respects immeasurably outstripped its predecessors, and has achieved tasks that were deemed impracticable at its commencement. An entirely new character has been given to the whole of our modern civilization, not only by astounding theoretical progress in sound knowledge of nature, but also by the remarkably fertile practical application of that knowledge in technical science, industry, commerce, and so forth. On the other hand, however, we have made little or no progress in moral and social life, in comparison with earlier centuries; at times there has been serious reaction. And from this obvious conflict there have arisen, not only an uneasy sense of dismemberment and falseness, but even the danger of grave catastrophe in the political and social world. It is, then, not merely the right, but the sacred duty, of every honorable and humanitarian thinker to devote himself conscientiously to the settlement of that conflict, and to warding off the dangers that it brings in its train. In our conviction this can only be done by a courageous effort to attain the truth, and by the formation of a clear view of the world—a view that shall be based on truth and conformity to reality."5


These could very well have been the words of many others of that day, including Husserl himself.

Of course by the time you get to 1934, this sense among intellectuals that something was seriously wrong had been transformed into a black cloud of hopelessness and agony and anger over Europe and, to a much lesser extent, over North America, in the grip of widespread social unrest and economic disasters, and in consequence of the horrors in Europe of World War I. The thought that the sciences cannot deal with human life, and that a different kind of knowledge — whatever else — was needed, was bound to occur to thoughtful people. If it were not better knowledge that might change how things were going, what?

The problem remains today. I searched for "The Crisis of European Civilization" on Google a couple of weeks ago and got 141,000 hits, not all, of course, equally relevant.


But now let us turn to Husserl’s "Critique of Reason." A "critique" of reason in the Kantian sense is an effort to determine, by the analysis of knowledge itself, the range or limit of possible knowledge. Husserl basically accepts this project as his own. This was John Locke’s project as well as Hume’s and Kant’s. But while they were each predominantly concerned to limit or restrict the scope of possible knowledge—and again primarily with the empirical as a point of reference—Husserl, who certainly had his criticisms of the other guys, is first of all concerned with a historical displacement of knowledge as such into the particular sciences. He intends a broadening (not a limiting) of the scope of possible knowledge: a broadening beyond the domains of the particular sciences, though inclusive of them, and beyond the empirical or the "natural" ("nature") as the particular sciences had come to understand it.

"Nature," he says in one place, "is considered as a unity of spatio-termporal being subject to exact laws of nature."6 These nature "beings" are what Husserl calls "Objects in the pregnant sense of the word"7 as opposed to objects as mere "objects" of consciousness, or, again, as "any subject of true predications."8 There are actually three senses of "object" (English) in Husserl. "Those objects that are neither conscious processes nor immanent constituents of conscious processes we therefore call objects in the pregnant sense of the word."9 Now it is this latter "pregnant" sense of the word that is in play when Husserl speaks of "objective science" and claims that it and its "objects" can never even account for the "knowing" that goes on in the sciences themselves. The unwarranted restriction of knowledge and reason to the procedures and outcomes of the particular sciences is, he thinks, precisely what has brought about "the Crisis of European Sciences" and forces the turn to "Transcendental Phenomenology": to the systematic description of a domain of reality and knowledge (the domain of "subjectivity" or of knowledge "itself") that "transcends" or stands apart from the world of "natural objects." A simple way of putting Husserl’s point is to say that the subject matter of none of the particular sciences includes consciousness and knowledge. (Of course he has a special treatment for psychology and of why it too, as now done, is necessarily "objective" or "naturalistic.")

It may be helpful to turn to Kantian terminology in describing what Husserl does in response to naturalism. He analyzes "the conditions of the possibility of scientific knowledge" (but actually of any kind of knowledge) to show that without two other kinds of reality and of knowledge (with corresponding domains of subject matter) there could never be scientific knowledge such as we actually do possess. The two other kinds are those of the life world and of subjectivity. But in doing this he does not argue "transcendentally" in Kant’s sense. The two areas of "conditions of the possibility of scientific knowledge" for Husserl are not "hidden" from intuition and accessible only via "transcendental" arguments to necessary conditions. [See the "Additional Note" to §66 of the VIth "Logical Investigation," pp. 833-834 of the Findlay translation of Logical Investigations,10 and see the final paragraph of part II of The Crisis, p. 100.]

Husserl’s claim is that if you try to understand consciousness and knowledge in terms of the types of entities dealt with by knowledge in its most "successful" form—primarily a mathematized form of Galilean/Newtonian/Einsteinian physics—you will find it impossible to understand how scientific knowing achieves what it does. If you confine yourself to that effort, then "… all knowledge of the world, the pre-scientific as well as the scientific is an enormous enigma." (p. 89c of The Crisis, referring to the outcome in Hume, where the world of Galileo and Newton is simply lost to knowledge.)

"… What a paradox!" He exclaims. "Nothing could cripple the peculiar force of the rapidly growing and, in their own accomplishments, unassailable exact sciences or the belief in their truth. And yet, as soon as one took into account that they are the accomplishments of the consciousness of knowing subjects, their self-evidence and clarity were transformed into incomprehensible absurdity," e.g. fictions (Hume) or formations of God’s mind (Berkeley). He goes on to discuss what happened in Berkeley and Hume. (pp. 89 and 90 of The Crisis)

In various places Husserl lists the questions that cannot, he holds, be answered by an objectivistic or naturalistic interpretation of consciousness and knowledge: that is, interpretations of consciousness and knowledge in terms of the kinds of entities and properties and relations that fall within the domains of the various sciences. For example, in § 2 of the "Introduction" to Volume Two of the Logical Investigations, he asks:

"How are we to understand the fact that the intrinsic being of objectivity becomes ‘presented’, ‘apprehended’ in knowledge, and so ends up by becoming subjective? What does it mean to say that the object has ‘intrinsic being’, and is ‘given’ in knowledge? How can the ideality of the universal qua concept or law enter the flux of real mental states and become an epistemic possession of the thinking person? What does the adaequatio rei et intellectus mean in various cases of knowledge, according as what we apprehend and know is individual or universal, a fact or law etc? "


And in "Philosophy as Rigorous Science" he asks:

"How can experience as consciousness give or contact an object? How can experiences be mutually legitimated or corrected by means of each other and not merely replace each other or confirm each other subjectively? How can the play of a consciousness whose logic is empirical make objectively valid statements, valid for things that are in and for themselves? Why are the playing rules, so to speak, of consciousness not irrelevant for things? How is natural science to be comprehensible in absolutely every case, to the extent that it pretends at every step to posit and to know a nature that is in itself — in itself in opposition to the subjective flow of consciousness? All these questions become riddles as soon as reflection on them becomes serious. It is well known that theory of knowledge is the discipline that wants to answer such questions, and also that up to the present, despite all the thoughtfulness employed by the greatest scholars in regard to those questions, this discipline has not answered in a manner scientifically clear, unanimous, and decisive." (p. 172)


Now the key to overthrowing the naturalistic (objectivistic) construal of consciousness and of knowledge is the recognition and acceptance of intentionality, the "ofness" or "aboutness" of acts of perception and thought, as something that is knowable in its existence and in its generic nature, along with its major specifications or forms, by reflective intuition. Husserl, in his "Vienna Lecture," credits Brentano with the beginnings of a self-reflection that would break the grip of the Objectivistic ontology over the understanding of consciousness.11 Turning away from the interpretation of the mind in terms of sensations (Hume’s "perceptions") or successions of little "objects," "Brentano made the demand for psychology as a science of intentional experiences."12

Although he "himself had not yet overcome Objectivism and Psychological Naturalism," as Husserl understands them, in Brentano an impulse had been given toward the understanding of consciousness and knowledge "that could lead further."13 And from the original idea of intentionality as simple direction upon an object Husserl develops his "transcendental phenomenology." But it is not mere direction upon an object that falls within the view of transcendental phenomenology. Rather, it is the essential interweavings of intentionalities, of various levels and degrees of complexity required for all the various kinds of objects, that is the domain (subject matter) of transcendental phenomenology. It studies the various ways in which objects of all kinds come "before the mind," and what it means to know their "real being" as opposed to their merely being thought of. "Things in nature, persons and personal communities, social forms and formations, poetic and plastic formations, every kind of cultural work—all become in this way headings for phenomenological investigations, not as actualities, the way they are treated in the corresponding Objective sciences, but rather with regard to the consciousness that constitutes —through the intermediary of an initially bewildering wealth of structures of consciousness—these objectivities for the conscious subject in question… the endless multiplicity of manners of being conscious, on the one hand, and, on the other; the infinity of intentional correlates.">14

This infinite domain of "non-natural" subject matter is the domain of "subjectivity." In the "Author’s Preface to the English Edition" of Ideas I, Husserl describes himself as having "really wandered in the trackless wilds of a new continent and undertaken bits of virgin cultivation."15 The Third and Fourth Sections of Ideas I are devoted to outlining some major divisions of the "Trackless Wilds" of the "continent" of subjectivity. Properties common to all acts of consciousness are dealt with in Part III, Ch. 2 and 3, and some specific types of acts—polythetic, neutrality modification, etc.—are dealt with in chapter 4 of III and in Part IV. What he deals with in these analyses is not here and there a raw feel or a "reference," as in much of recent "Analytic" philosophy, but with the fantastically interwoven tapestry of an ordinary human mind, living in human community, in a world.

One of the more important contrasts within the tapestry of intentionalities that makes up a human mind is that between a mere thought of something and a more or less direct intuition of that same thing—of "the thing itself" in some cases. This contrast makes possible the synthetic act of fulfillment, in which what is only thought of is found to be as it was thought to be. In general, knowledge is "fulfillment," as the title (the title of the VIth "Investigation" is "Elements of a Phenomenological Elucidation of Knowledge") to the First Section of the VIth "Investigation" indicates—"Objectifying Intentions and their Fulfillments: Knowledge as a Synthesis of Fulfillment and It’s Gradations." (p. 673) This is very important for Husserl’s research program, for naturalism and objectivism are positions on what things and what things alone exist. Those positions cannot be evaluated for truth without elucidation of what it is to verify existence, to know that X exists.

The VIth "Investigation," as well as the Fourth Section of Ideas I, on "Reason and Actuality" (Wirklichkeit), deal at gratifying lengths with what fulfillment (and knowledge) is and with what it is for something to be and to be known to be. In §142 of the Ideas text, Husserl summarizes the main points about "the essential correlations which unite the idea of the true being with the ideas of truth, reason and consciousness. …" He enunciates "a general insight, namely, that not merely ‘object that truly is’ and ‘to be rationally posited,’ but also ‘truly existing,’ and ‘an object to be posited in an original and perfect thesis of reason,’ are equivalent correlates." (p. 365) The significance (‘import’) of these equivalences is then stated in a brief paragraph as follows.

"To every object ‘that truly is’ there intrinsically corresponds (in the a priori of the unconditional generality of essence) the idea of a possible consciousness in which the object itself can be grasped in a primordial and also perfectly adequate way. Conversely, when this possibility is guaranteed, the object is eo ipso ‘that which truly is’." (Ideas I, p. 395)

For every type of object there is specified from within subjectivity, within the consciousness of the object, the meaning of what it is for objects of that type to be, to exist. To be is not "to be in the range of a bound variable" (in a true sentence in the most acceptable theory), but to be the possible object of the fulfillment of a representation. Of course if there is the possibility of such fulfillment, the "bound variable" stuff might then come along in due order. But the "variable" must borrow its tie to its object, such as it is, from consciousness.

Because of a prevailing tendency to read him as an "Idealist" in the most common senses, it always has to be noted that Husserl does not, with his views, make the existence of the actually existing thing or world dependent upon its being before a mind. Its existence makes the fulfillment possible, not the other way around. He is careful to speak of equivalence here, not of identity, nor of logical entailment. The equivalence is based upon his beloved laws of essence, or synthetic apriori connections. To be is not identical, for him, with being actually perceived or conceived. It is, so far as I can tell, simply a matter of having properties, which he sometimes puts as "being subject to true predicates"16 or being the subject of certain "valid judgments."


Now with these clarifications of subjectivity and "true being" (actual existence) in mind, (1) Is the world or domain of "natural" Objectivism, which is the subject matter of the natural sciences, a world of true beings? And (2) Is the "life-world," the world of objects in terms of which we live, a world of true beings?

As he discusses at great lengths, the world of the natural sciences is a world of dimensions that can be measured and mathematically represented. That world is not a science itself. A science itself, according to our previous discussions, falls in the domain of "subjectivity": "All theoretical science consists, as to what makes it up, of one homogeneous stuff: it is an ideal fabric of meanings. … [T]he whole, indefinitely complex web of meanings that we call the theoretical unity of science, falls under the very category that covers all its elements: it is a unity of meanings.">17 None of this can be measured, nor can it be mathematically represented except at the most abstract of levels, such as set theory. But do the Objects of the natural sciences exist? Husserl’s view is that as represented in the Objective Sciences they do not. By contrast, the universal elements (abstract entities) employed in the mathematical representations of scientific objects certainly do have true being, for Husserl, from geometric shapes, motions and forces, to numbers and sets (Mannigfaltigkeiten) and their relations and complications. But concrete objects that have only such mathematizable properties and relations do not have "genuine being." They do not exist. There are no such things. To suppose that they do, and to suppose that they are the "real" bodies of the world in which we live, is to rob the world in which we live, and ourselves, of its status as a world of truth and reason.

In what at one time was a well-known statement by Alfred North Whitehead, he pointed out that on this "Objective" view "nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly … [T]his is the practical outcome of the characteristic scientific philosophy which closed the 17th Century… . [W]e must note its astounding efficiency as a system of concepts for the organization of scientific research… . It is still reigning. Every university in the world organizes itself in accordance with it. No alternative system of organizing the pursuit of scientific truth has been suggested. It is not only reigning, but it is without rival."

Whitehead continues, "And yet it is quite unbelievable. This conception of the universe is surely framed in terms of high abstractions, and the paradox only arises because we have mistaken our abstractions for concrete realities.">18

Whitehead gave a name to this mistake. He called it "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness," and he saw it as a major source of the confusion of modern thought about the implications of scientific theories and findings for life and reality in general. It is exactly the mistake that Husserl sees in taking the abstractions essentially involved in the practice of modern science and technology for the concrete realities of the world in which we live. But he not only finds such a world unverifiable and unbelievable, but also unlivable. These "objects" as represented in the sciences find no possible fulfillment in perception—a point which we may concede to Berkeley. No one could live in the mathematical world of physical and communal reality, and certainly no one does. Husserl comments:

In geometrical and natural-scientific mathematization, in the open infinity of possible experiences, we measure the life-world—the world constantly given to us as actual in our actual world-life—for a well-fitting garb of ideas, that of the so-called objectively scientific truths… . [I]n this way we obtain possibilities of predicting concrete occurrences in the intuitively given life-world, occurrences which are not yet or no longer actually given. And this kind of prediction infinitely surpasses the accomplishments of every day prediction.

Mathematics and mathematical science, as a garb of ideas, or the garb of symbols of the symbolic mathematical theories, encompasses everything which, for scientists and the educated generally, represents the life-world, dresses it up as "objectively actual and true" nature. It is through the garb of ideas that we take for true being what is actually a method.19


Husserl proceeds to point out at great lengths that the sciences as a human practices depend upon acceptance of the true being of the life world: That the activities of research by the individual in his or her scientific community are carried out upon the assumption of the life world and of knowledge of the true being of the life world and of the things, processes and people that populate it. One could hardly cross the street in terms of the mathematizable world of the sciences, even extending it as best you can to the Geisteswissenschften, the sciences of human life, including Pychology as we know it. And in any case no one actually does so. And there is no need to. The life-world as we live in it is very largely one of verifiable and verified knowledge of real being, as can easily be spelled out by Husserl’s concept of knowledge as fulfillment, with the various kinds and degrees thereof. Husserl’s critique of reason or knowledge shows "naturalism," as defined by reference to the subject matters of the "objective" sciences, to have drawn the lines so narrowly that the sciences themselves become unintelligible insofar as they make claims to systematic knowledge of an objective world.20

As H.W.B. Joseph pointed out in another connection, at about the same time as Husserl’s Crisis

That the principles, then, on which rests the scientific theory of the world are absolutely true is not only inconsistent with ethical theory; it is inconsistent with there being knowledge, or even true opinion. And therefore with themselves; for they claim to be matter of knowledge, or at least of true opinion. Since that is so, we are not required to make our ethical theory consistent at all points with the scientific account of the world; if our ethical theory is to be true, it must not be built upon the principles of the scientific account, or require their unquestioned acceptance. And this result, if correct, is of importance, and illustrates the necessity to Ethics of a metaphysical foundation.21


The reference to ethics in this quotation is very appropriate as we come to the end of this discussion. For the "crisis" of which Husserl speaks, though centered upon the self-understanding of the theoretical sciences, and of a culture that liked to think of itself as "scientific," was really a crisis of a certain kind of life organized around specific moral and non-moral values. Those values were primary players in the life-world, and in human activity, individual and corporate, therein. The events of the mid-30’s and the ten years immediately following in Germany certainly could not be attributed to the pursuit of true values base upon rational insight. If anything, they illustrate what Husserl in the VIth "Investigation" calls the "frustration" of meaning-intention, though not by the carrying out of rational procedures. (On "frustration" and "conflict" of intention, as "the incompatible contrary" of fulfillment, see §11 & §12 of the VIth "Investigation.")


Husserl’s aim was to liberate reason from the grip of a false view of itself, that it might come into effectual play in human life as a whole, with reference to "all ways of being conscious of something." This "means that it includes … every sort of feeling, desiring, and willing …."22 The phenomenology of reason is not just an analysis of theoretical reason, but of "theoretical, axiological, or practical objectivity and of the consciousness in which it is immanently constituted."23

Certainly the times were against him. World events made his vision of a life embodying goodness and wisdom under the direction of reason and certifiable truth look like the delusional reveries of an insane person in a mad-house, dreaming of a world never real and never realizable.

And now the irrationalism with respect to the greater questions of life is institutionalized in the humdrum structures and activities of education in the Western World. There is no serious discussion (and certainly no teaching) of the good and the right, with a view to actual practice, in the authoritative knowledge and research institutions of our societies, the universities.

Anthony Kronman has recently published a book, Education’s End: Why our Colleges and Universities Have Given up on the Meaning of Life. His views are closely related to the way Husserl sees the "crisis" of which he (Husserl) speaks.24 In fact Kronman’s problem is a restricted version of Husserl’s problem. Why is it that the academic world has forsaken and rejected the attempt to help students to arrive at better, more rationally refined views of what life is for? It is, of course, very largely because of the assumptions prevailing within the academic world concerning what counts as responsible and permissible rational discourse, if not "knowledge." On those assumptions, rational discourse about values, about who we ought to be and what we ought to do, cannot be, cannot happen. It is not scientific. You can only "air out" this view or that. There is nothing that can count as communicable knowledge on such matters. Perhaps not in terms of fair philosophical argument, but certainly in terms of social dominance, naturalism, Objectivism, and "Positivism" (fact "science") has at this point decisively won.


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