Husserl and Philosophy of History as a Crisis Discipline

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
15 min readApr 9, 2024

Monday 08 April 2024 is the 165th anniversary of the birth of Edmund Husserl (08 April 1859–27 April 1938), who was born in Proßnitz, in Moravia, on this date in 1859. I’ve mentioned Husserl in several previous episodes, and discussed his work at some length in relation to Eric Voegelin, in the episode Voegelin and Husserl on History, since Voegelin was highly critical of Husserl. Husserl and Voegelin were very different scholars. Whereas Voegelin had spent his entire career on politics and history, Husserl spent the greater part of his life on mathematics and logic and on developing the phenomenological method. But near the end of his life, Husserl became interested in history.

In the First World War, Husserl lost a son at Verdun, and in a later letter he wrote:

“The war, which, since the year 1914, laid waste to [Europe] and, since 1918, found in place of military force the ‘more refined’ force of psychological torture and economic need, itself morally depraving, has disclosed the inner lack of truth and the senselessness of this culture.”

Still, he continued his work in phenomenology and logic. The First World War was a crisis, but not apparently a sufficient crisis to re-direct Husserl’s philosophical efforts. It was what Auden called the “low, dishonest decade” of the 1930s that was for Husserl a crisis that demanded a response. He gave a talk in Vienna in 1935 titled “Philosophy and the Crisis of European Humanity.” Later that year gave a talk in Prague titled “The Crisis of European Sciences and Psychology.” The material of these lectures was worked into a longer book, published posthumously under the title The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. It is this book that effectively constitutes Husserl’s philosophy of history.

How and why Husserl turned from the most abstract kind of thinking to history is itself an historical problem. Paul Ricoeur, who translated Husserl into French, wrote a book on Husserl — Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology — that includes a chapter on Husserl’s turn to history. Ricoeur explicitly took up the historical problem of Husserl’s turn to history:

“HISTORY… thrust its way into the preoccupations of the most nonhistorical and apolitical of philosophers through the consciousness of crisis. A crisis of culture is like a grave doubt on the ladder of history. Certainly, it does not perform the function of methodological doubting unless grasped as a philosophical questioning by the consciousness of everyone. But, thus transformed into a question which I raise to myself, the consciousness of crisis remains within history. It is a question both about history and in history: Where is man going? that is to say: What is the sense and the goal for us, we who are humanity?”

We have seen this interest in crisis in many previous episodes. Hugh Trevor-Roper identified a general crisis of the seventeenth century, though this didn’t drive him to philosophical reflection, and Barbara Tuchman identified a crisis of the fourteenth century, which she called a “distant mirror” of the violent twentieth century, but again this didn’t turn her to philosophical reflection on history. With Pitirim Sorokin crisis was a major theme that appeared in the titles of his books.

Toynbee, too, was interested in crisis, but here we need to be careful. It is common to see philosophers of history interested in crisis being dismissed as sloppy and slipshod thinkers, primarily motivated by extra-historical interests, but there are those who have been equally sloppy in the condemnation of a morbid interest in crises. Toynbee held that civilizations were confronted by crises, which he called challenges, and these crises were either stimuli that pushed a civilization onward to further development, or they were a civilization’s death knell, if a civilization could not effectively respond to the crisis. So Toynbee was interested in crisis because of the role of crisis in the development and failure of civilizations; he wasn’t necessarily interested in crisis for its own sake.

With Husserl, however, the interest in crisis was central and explicit. It is worth noting that philosophy of history isn’t the only context in which crisis seems to call forth a particular kind of intellectual engagement. It was Michael Soulé who, in a 1985 paper, first explicitly identified conservation biology as a subdiscipline of biology, and in so introducing conservation biology as a new science he identified conservation biology as what he called a “crisis discipline.” Of crisis disciplines Soulé wrote:

“In crisis disciplines, one must act before knowing all the facts; crisis disciplines are thus a mixture of science and art, and their pursuit requires intuition as well as information.”

I would argue that all sciences require intuition as well as information, but leave that aside. According to Soulé, a crisis discipline not only involves science, but also action. The point of conservation biology is not only to understand how and why species go extinct and ecosystems are denuded, conservation biology also works hand-in-glove with conservation measures by which we seek to bring species back from the brink of extinction and to stabilize endangered ecosystems.

In the same spirit, we could identify a class of philosophies of history that begin from the presumption of philosophy of history as a crisis discipline. I could even argue that the whole of Western philosophy is a crisis discipline that appeared in the wake of the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War. The pre-Socratics were interested in questions of natural philosophy, but with the war, and the eventual defeat of Athens, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who together constitute the foundation of the Western philosophical tradition, responded to the crisis with a turn to moral and political philosophy, with metaphysics and epistemology employed to shore up claims about ethics. In this sense, philosophy of history as a crisis discipline is central to the Western tradition.

Philosophy of history as a crisis discipline not only seeks to understand how and why history enters into periods of crisis marked by war, revolution, and social unrest, but also seeks to ameliorate these crises, or even to prevent them in the future if this is possible. We can recognize a similar attitude in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, in which a Foundation is established to lessen the impact of the fall of the Galactic Empire. Peter Turchin cites Asimov’s example in his book End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration as an example of an effective, albeit fictional, example of history as a rigorous science. For Asimov, it was psychohistory that was the crisis discipline; for Turchin, it’s cliodynamics. For Husserl, it was philosophy of history.

Although Husserl was a contemporary of Spengler, he made no effort to engage with the debate sparked by Spengler’s book. In fact, Husserl made almost no effort to engage with any extant philosophy of history. This is of a piece with the rest of his philosophical work, in which he applied the phenomenological method to a given body of knowledge and gave his own analysis, which was often disjoint from most or all of the philosophical tradition. Husserl’s single reference to Spengler is quite interesting, and revelatory of his own interests:

“The science of history is itself called history. It goes to the spiritual genesis of the individual spirituality of the individually-given spiritual world given in historical empiricism, which is also something completely different from scientific empiricism. As far as the much-discussed laws of historical development are concerned, there are certainly such laws and they exist on a large scale. But they are not Spenglerian self-indulgent intellectual tricks, but rather a priori laws which develop the a priori of the spiritual genesis of the individualities of lower and higher levels.”

This is from his Introduction to Ethics, lectures from 1920 and 1924, not yet translated into English. In this passage, Husserl endorses the controversial idea of laws of history, but he moves the discussion beyond the idea of substantive claims about empirical history, about laws that predict what happens next in history, and insists that the laws of history are a priori, and that they are regulative norms of spiritual genesis. Again, this is of a piece with Husserl’s other philosophical work, in which Husserl insists upon the transcendental dimension of all forms of thought.

Husserl accused Spengler of self-indulgent tricks; Voegelin accused Husserl of naïve arrogance; Spengler, for his part, consigned philosophy, along with science, to being a mere expression of a high culture. Nevertheless, Husserl, Spengler, and Voegelin all had something in common, and what they had in common sets them apart from most philosophers, especially from their contemporaries and most philosophers today, and this is their shared rejection of positivistically conceived science, and most especially positivistically conceived science as a sufficient basis for philosophical inquiry. Spengler eschewed quantitative concepts and saw natural science as culturally determined; Husserl held out for a phenomenological foundation of the sciences that would be apodictic and transcendental; Voegelin thought science was beset with conceptual confusions due to its narrow conception of experience.

While Spengler, Husserl, and Voegelin reject the conventional twentieth century conception of science, which they sometimes called “positivist,” this shared rejection does not put them on the same page as regards history. Each has a philosophy of history that is quite distinct from the others. While Husserl was dismissive of Spengler, it would be difficult to find a more perfect exemplification of what Spengler calls “Faustian man” than Husserl’s conception of the task of philosophy and the philosopher in history. Of Faustian man in relation to architecture Spengler wrote that:

“There is one and only one soul, the Faustian, that craves for a style which drives through walls into the limitless universe of space and makes both the exterior and the interior of the building complementary images of one and the same world-feeling.” (The Decline of the West, Vol. 1, p. 224)

And Spengler says that the evolution-idea:

“…is Faustian through and through, which displays… all our passionate urgency towards infinite future, our will and sense of aim which is so immanent in, so specific to, the Faustian spirit as to be the a priori form rather than the discovered principle of our Nature-picture.” (The Decline of the West, Vol. 1, p. 370)

Spengler makes similar claims about what he calls Faustian mathematics. Now consider what Husserl said in his Vienna lecture:

“…no other cultural shape on the historical horizon prior to philosophy is in the same sense a culture of ideas knowing infinite tasks, knowing such universes of idealities which as a whole and in all their details, and in their methods of production, bear infinity within themselves in keeping with their sense.”

From the same lecture, here is a passage that might have been written by Spengler himself explaining the conception of Faustian man:

“The spiritual telos of European humanity, in which the particular telos of particular nations and of individual men is contained, lies in the infinite, is an infinite idea toward which, in concealment, the whole spiritual becoming aims, so to speak. As soon as it becomes consciously recognized in the development as telos, it necessarily also becomes practical as a goal of the will; and thereby a new, higher stage of development is introduced which is under the guidance of norms, normative ideas.”

It is the same aspiration to the infinite that Husserl sees as the unique cultural and philosophical calling of European civilization that was, for Spengler, diagnostic of that civilization. But for Spengler, European civilization had passed from the stage of a fertile high culture into the stage of a civilization, which, in Spengler’s framework, is that same as a civilization entering into a period of long stagnation and decline. For Husserl, there was still hope that Europe could pull itself out of its crisis and re-dedicate itself to rationality. Husserl saw the possibility of:

“…a new type of communalization and a new form of enduring community whose spiritual life, communalized through the love of ideas, the production of ideas, and through ideal lifenorms, bears within itself the future-horizon of infinity: that of an infinity of generations being renewed in the spirit of ideas.”

A sentence near the end of the Vienna lecture gives us a nice summary:

“In order to be able to comprehend the disarray of the present ‘crisis,’ we had to work out the concept of Europe as the historical teleology of the infinite goals of reason; we had to show how the European ‘world’ was born out of ideas of reason, i.e., out of the spirit of philosophy.”

Husserl’s vision of an infinite future of the elaboration of reason can be sharpened a bit if we make a distinction within teleological philosophies of history between those that are finitistic and those that are infinitistic. Finitistic teleologies involve a definite end point, a culmination or dénouement of history in a particular state-of-affairs. For some providential philosophies of history, the definite end point of the development of history is formalized in eschatology. The particular eschatology of a particular school of providential thought tells us that the ultimate goal of history is the last judgment, or the full disclosure of the divine sovereignty of the Kingdom of God, or the salvation of humanity, and so on.

For Hegel, the end point of historical development is the realization of absolute spirit, though this is an inadequate way to express Hegel’s meaning. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History Hegel said:

“This, then, would be the ultimate purpose of the world. Reason recognizes that which is truthful, that which exists in and for itself, and which is not subject to any limitations. The concept of the spirit involves a return upon itself, whereby it makes itself its own object; progress, therefore, is not an indeterminate advance ad infinitum, for it has a definite aim — namely that of returning upon itself.”

For Marxists, the end point of historical development is the institution of communism and a classless society. As a nod to Aristotle, these finite teleologies could be called entelechies, as they understand history as developing toward a mature state, at which point development ends and senescence seems inevitable. This isn’t all that different from Spengler, for whom, I noted earlier, the transition from a creative high culture to a declining civilization marks the maturity of that society.

In contradistinction to these social entelechies, an infinitistic teleology involves a directionality, as does finitistic teleology, but without a finite end point. The directionality posited by infinitistic teleology continues forever, not culminating in a definite state of affairs. The idea of the infinite perfectibility of man, for example, a common theme of the early Enlightenment, was a form of infinitistic teleology.

Perfection can be and is often understood as a finite good, especially when understood in mystical terms, but it can also be understood as an infinite good, especially when understood in rational terms, which is why we have to specify the infinite perfectibility of man in order to contrast it to the perfectibility of man simpliciter. The Marquis de Condorcet in his Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind wrote:

“All the causes which contribute to the improvement of the human species, all the means we have enumerated that insure its progress, must, from their very nature; exercise an influence always active, and acquire an extent forever increasing. The proofs of this have been exhibited, and from their development in the work itself they will derive additional force: accordingly we may already conclude, that the perfectibility of man is indefinite.”

Husserl insists repeatedly that his conception of science and reason is infinitistic, as we saw in the earlier quotes from his Vienna lecture. And even before Husserl’s later interest in philosophy of history, in his Formal and Transcendental Logic he wrote: “But what if truth is an idea, lying at infinity?” (p. 277) Well, if truth is an idea lying at infinity, the pursuit of truth is a task that extends to infinity. It is this task that is, for Husserl, co-extensive with European civilization, and this is the essence of Husserl’s philosophy of history.

Understood in this way, we can see how wrong Voegelin was in his assessment of Husserl’s philosophy of history. In the episode Voegelin and Husserl on History I quoted Voegelin’s letter to Alfred Schütz from 17 September 1943. In it, Voegelin claims that Husserl’s conception is just another “three stage” philosophy of history, and that Husserl’s teleology points to a “final establishment” of phenomenology as the end state of intellectual history. Understanding the intrinsically infinitistic conception of reason in Husserl, it is obvious how Voegelin misconstrued Husserl’s conception of history, but Voegelin was right that Husserl’s potted history of reason was inadequate. As I said earlier, Voegelin and Husserl were very different men, and Voegelin had spent his career researching history and politics, whereas Husserl had not.

I realize now that in my episode on Voegelin and Husserl on History that I tried to frame Voegelin’s thought in Husserlian terms. I could probably better speak to Voegelin’s thought if instead I framed Husserl’s thought in Voegelin’s terms. Voegelin liked to give elaborate expositions of past movements of thought in his own peculiar terms. After reading Voegelin’s letter to Schütz, and being interested in Voegelin’s mention of Siger of Brabant, an early Scholastic philosopher, I got a copy of a paper on Siger by Voegelin. It’s an excellent paper, and Voegelin sketches Siger’s ideas as part of a conflict that also draws in medieval Islamic philosophy.

For Voegelin, Siger represents the intrusion of the Arabic and Averroean idea of the single active intellect into orthodox Western thought, while in latter the intellect is many and not one. For Voegelin, again, and for Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, each soul is its own intellect. This deserves a fuller exposition, and maybe I will come back to it in a future episode, but for the moment I am only going to touch on it. In Voegelin’s terms, Husserl belongs in the tradition of Siger, but whereas Voegelin paints Siger’s thought as something incompatible with the fundamental ideas of Western philosophy, something that was foreign and rapidly extruded from the tradition, we could give a very different sketch of Siger’s thought.

Voegelin’s Siger is not the only Siger we can find. Frederick Copleston in his history of philosophy says this of Siger:

“The term ‘Latin Averroism’ has become so common that it is difficult not to make use of it, but it must be recognised that the movement characterised by this name was one of integral or radical Aristotelianism: Aristotle was the real patron of the movement, not Averroes, though the latter was certainly looked on as the commentator par excellence and was followed in his monopsychistic interpretation of Aristotle. The doctrine that the passive intellect, no less than the active intellect, is one and the same in all men and that this unitary intellect alone survives at death, so that individual personal immortality is excluded, was understood in the thirteenth century as being the characteristic tenet of the radical Aristotelians, and as this doctrine was supported by the Averroistic interpretation of Aristotle its upholders came to be known as the Averroists. I do not see how exception can really be taken to the use of this term, provided that it is clearly realised that the ‘Averroists’ regarded themselves as Aristotelians rather than as Averroists.” (A History of Philosophy, Augustine to Scotus, Chapter XLII)

If Siger, as a Latin Averroist, is a pure Aristotelian, then Voegelin’s claim that Siger represented a fundamentally separate path from the Aristotelianism of the Scholastics runs into trouble. I won’t try to resolve that trouble, but I wanted to point it out. I also wanted to go farther than just identifying Husserl with the tradition of Siger.

A Voegelinian way of understanding Husserl would be to situate him in the older tradition of Pelagianism. Pelagianism was an ancient Christian heresy that St. Augustine was especially concerned to combat. Augustine was successful, and Pelagius and Pelagianism are now little more than a footnote to history. But Pelagianism is a perennial tradition that reappears in every age in a new form. Pelagius held, against the doctrine of original sin, that man can make himself good by his own moral effort. For Augustine, to deny original sin is to deny the fall of man, and to deny the fall of man is to deny the necessity of salvation. Thus salvation history becomes meaningless for a Pelagian, as Augustine understood the doctrine.

Husserl, like Pelagius, believed that man could improve himself by his own effort. One of the themes of his later thought is humanity’s responsibility for itself. There is no deus ex machina that is going to appear to save us in the last act of the play. We must save ourselves or we are lost. This is, then, a soteriology by way of reason. Pelagius was concerned with human moral effort, but I think that for Husserl the infinite pursuit of rationality is a good in itself. And here is another perennial aspect of Husserl’s thought: the Platonist holds that knowledge is the good. I am arguing, then, that there is a path that can be traced from Plato through Pelagius and Siger to Husserl, and it is in this tradition that Husserl’s philosophy of history is to be located.