The Infinite telos of Reason

Edmund Husserl and Scientific Civilization

“…what if truth is an idea, lying at infinity?” Formal and Transcendental Logic, sec. 105

In many posts I have discussed the idea of scientific civilization, while I have also discussed the idea of a science of civilization (cf., e.g., Thought Experiment on a Science of Civilization and On a Science of Civilization and its Associated Technologies), and these two ideas — scientific civilization and a science of civilization — are connected in an important way. A truly scientific civilization that takes science as its central project will continuously expand the scope of science until it eventually means that a science of civilization takes shape in the form of a reflexive scientific theory of scientific civilization (as well as a theory of the precursors of scientific civilization, so that the whole of civilization is thematized in terms of scientific knowledge). As a result, scientific civilization will eventually but inevitably converge on the self-understanding that has eluded industrialized civilization to date.

In several posts (cf. On the Reflexive Self-Awareness of Civilizations and Five Ways to Think about Civilization) I have argued that industrialized civilization possesses less self-understanding than agricultural civilizations, because agricultural civilizations understand that agriculture is the source of their wealth, whereas most individuals who constitute the population of industrialized societies do not understand that science is the ultimate source of their wealth and what has driven the great divergence. An industrialized civilization might stagnate at some level of technological development, when everyone in the society is sufficiently comfortable and is sufficiently entertained that there is no longer any ambition to pursue change (the perennial function of bread and circuses). As long as the pursuit of science is not part of the central project of a given industrial civilization, there will be no imperative to continue the kind of scientific research that would result in new technologies and new industries. An industrialized civilization can thus indefinitely remain ignorant of its ultimate source of wealth (though it will not necessarily remain ignorant).

In what I would call a properly scientific civilization, in which the pursuit of science is part of the central project of the civilization — when science is pursued for its own sake, as an end in itself — eventually this pursuit of scientific knowledge as an intrinsic good to be sought for its own sake, will turn toward the clarification of the idea of civilization, and the thematization of scientific civilization itself as an object of knowledge. A scientific civilization that eventually arrives at the point of thematizing itself as an object of knowledge will, by definition, attain a level of self-understanding beyond that of extant industrialized civilizations. Moreover, this self-understanding of scientific civilization will be far superior to the self-understanding of agricultural civilizations, because it will be based on a systematically elaborated scientific understanding; the self-understanding of agricultural civilizations is usually intuitive, informal, and anecdotal.

In this way, then, scientific civilization inevitably leads to a science of civilization. And it is at least arguable, even if perhaps not plausible, that an industrialized civilization that reaches a level of maturity at which a science of civilization is eventually formulated, might be nudged toward becoming a scientific civilization through this experience of research into a science of civilization, so that a science of civilization could influence the development of a scientific civilization. This is a weak argument, however, and, while I find it unpersuasive, I will not dismiss it out of hand; it remains and will remain a possibility. As we do not yet know the limits of central project formation, we cannot afford to dismiss any possibility

We today inhabit an industrialized civilization that derives is productivity from science, but there is little or no awareness that science lies at the basis of our wealth. This is one sign, inter alia, that we are not a scientific civilization — or, at least, not yet a mature scientific civilization — because we do not have a science of civilization. Without a science of civilization, without a systematic framework for thinking about civilization, philosophers who have turned their attention to the problem of civilization have typically seized upon some one aspect of civilization that has suggested itself to them, presumably because this particular aspect of civilization happened to align with their habitual interests.

Most discussions of scientific civilization are thus little more than comments made in passing while discussing other matters. I have previously taken up brief remarks on scientific civilization by Jacob Bronowski (“Pathways into the Deep Future: A Commentary on Jacob Bronowski’s Comment on Scientific Civilization”), as well as discussing Susanne K. Langer’s essay on civilization, which is more than a mere remark in passing (“The Role of Science in Enlightenment Universalism: A Commentary on Susanne K. Langer on Scientific Civilization”). Now I am going to take up a few remarks in passing that Edmund Husserl made about scientific civilization — remarks that are particular interesting in light of the relation between scientific civilization and a science of civilization noted above.

Husserl made a remark in passing about civilization, in which he acknowledges that civilization is only mentioned, but he mentions civilization in the context of a science of forms of civilization or an historical science of civilization:

Here is the text in the original German:

We see that “science of civilization” has been used to translate “Kulturwissenschaft” while “forms of civilization” has been used to translate “Kulturgestaltungen” and “history of civilization” translates “Kulturgeschichte.” In a few places in other texts Husserl does employ the German term specifically for civilization, “Zivilisation,” but it is often the case that Husserl’s translators into English have rendered various German terms as “civilization,” including Kultur, Menschheiten, and Menschentum, and there are good reasons for doing so.

Husserl explicitly uses Zivilisation in a manuscript from 1922–23, discussing it in terms of the distinction between culture and civilization then made current by Spengler.

Here is how Spengler had earlier expressed his conception of the relationship of culture to civilization:

In Spengler’s original German:

After the first volume of Spengler’s The Decline of the West appeared in 1918 the book became a sensation and Spengler himself briefly a celebrity. Almost every philosopher at the time had something to say about Spengler, because this was the book of the moment to which everyone felt a need to respond. When Husserl wrote this manuscript in 1922 or 1923, Spengler was being talked about in almost all intellectual circles, so that it is no surprise to find the distinction between culture and civilization as formulated in Spengler essentially adopted by Husserl.

Given an organic relationship between culture and civilization, where civilization is the decadent remainder of a once-vigorous culture, there is some justification for translating Kultur and its cognates by “civilization,” as both culture and civilization can be understood as distinct but related periods in the history of a single continuous social tradition. A history of culture inevitably is transformed into a history of civilization, in the Spenglerian schema, so that to speak of a culture is to speak of the earliest stages of a civilization, and to speak of a civilization is to speak of the later stages of a culture.

A passing reference to culture is thus as good as a passing reference to civilization, so when Husserl mentions civilization (or culture) as a particular illustration, for the sake of completeness, of pure logic as a theoretical science (this is the title of Chapter 2 of Introduction to Logic and Theory of Knowledge) this is an acknowledgement that a science of civilization is part of a larger project of formulating theory of science that applies to any and all of the special sciences:

This is an idea that goes back at least to Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, and which was elaborated at considerable length in a modern idiom by Bernard Bolzano in his Theory of Science (according to the Bolzano, the idea goes back to Zeno of Elea and Parmenides; cf. Theory of Science, sec. 3). Aristotle’s work retains a Platonic indifference to the natural world, so that despite Aristotle’s vaunted empiricism, there is nothing of modern scientific naturalism in the Posterior Analytics; Bolzano and Husserl make a place for the empirical sciences within a theory of science, but these special sciences are understood as mere fragments of the totality of an ideal science.

Contemporary scientific naturalism rarely makes reference to this traditional conception of logic as a universal organon that constitutes a theory of science. The special sciences are understood as more-or-less self-contained, definitely involving principles specific to the science and not shared with other sciences, and perhaps even employing a unique mode of reasoning that is specific to the special science and not shared by other special sciences. (Ernst Mayr, for example, wrote a book — What Makes Biology Unique? — devoted to demonstrating the autonomy of biology as a discipline, and thus its independence from the other sciences.) Nevertheless, the idea of unified science (as the positivists called it) remains in the background of scientific thought whenever it emerges from its disciplinary silos; the unity of science movement in early twentieth century positivism, the idea of consilience, and the idea of interdisciplinarity all implicitly appeal to a now lost sense of scientific unity on a theoretical level.

The Introduction of Husserl’s Logical Investigations is an uncompromising exposition of the idea of a purely universal logic and theory of science: “The aim is not merely to arrive at knowledge, but knowledge in such degree and form as would correspond to our highest theoretical aims as perfectly as possible.” (section 6) And, “…pure logic covers the ideal conditions of the possibility of science in general in the most general manner.” (section 72) Nevertheless, there are passages in the opening Prolegomena to Pure Logic that any positivist contemporary of Husserl could have endorsed, such is his focus on logic and science to the exclusion of other concerns.

The Logical Investigations belong to Husserl’s earliest published works. In Husserl’s later thought, he retained the ideal of an a priori universal science, but came to realize that this universal science represented a path not taken for western civilization, which latter had become distracted by the naturalistic path to knowledge. The universal science that Husserl posited is not a naturalistic science; it has its origins in Plato, and as western civilization developed in the direction of naturalism (Aristotle rather than Plato), the Platonic tradition become more of an historical curiosity, often shorn of its most spectacularly non-naturalistic elements.

Near the end of his life, Husserl turned to the social and historical questions that had played such a minor role in his earlier thought, and in so doing applied to the social sphere his vision of a purely universal science. What is continuous in Husserl’s thought from its earliest to its final expression was his non-naturalism and his pursuit of a universal theory of science. Husserl’s recognition that there could be a pure theory of civilization that was a particular application of the pure universal theory of science that he sought is not closely tied to his latter reflections on history and society, but we can clearly see, implicit in his work, the possibility of an Husserlian conception of civilization, a Husserlian conception of a scientific civilization, and a Husserlian science of civilization.

Husserl identified the civilization of ancient Greece as already being a philosophical or scientific civilization, said that this scientific civilization constituted a novelty in history, and also looked forward to a modern scientific civilization:

In Husserl’s German:

“Civilization” in the translated passage translates “Menschentum.” If we were to translate Husserl as writing of “philosophical humanity” or of “scientific humanity,” instead of “philosophical civilization” or “scientific civilization,” that would be closer to a literal translation, but it is not clear that that captures Husserl’s meaning. “Scientific humanity” may be a more comprehensive concept than “scientific civilization,” as humanity is more comprehensive than civilization, since it comprises both civilized humanity and the history of humanity before civilization, but there are also senses in which this could be construed more narrowly.

As Husserl does not discuss the character of civilization in other cultural regions, except to mention them in passing, we do not know the extent to which he would have judged these rational to the degree that ancient Greece was rational. Since he characterizes rationalistic Greek civilization as being a novelty, the contrast may be identified as being with the archaic civilizations of the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean Basin that preceded Greece — clearly civilizations, clearly precursors of Greece, but not yet having made the breakthrough to rationality that Husserl identified with ancient Greek civilization.

There is also a contrast in this passage between knowledge and truth in natural existence on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a novel idea of objective truth that possesses a higher dignity and serves as a norm for all other knowledge. Presumably by the latter Husserl was referring to Platonism, which portrays the objects of knowledge as starkly distinct from natural existence and possessing a superior dignity to that of natural existence. Natural existence presumably corresponds to what Husserl called the “natural standpoint” (also translated as the “natural attitude”), whereas the task of phenomenology is to transcend this natural standpoint as Platonism did.

Husserl began his Formal and Transcendental Logic with an exposition of what he calls Plato’s founding of logic, which, to the reader coming from a background of Anglo-American analytical philosophy, sounds more than a little eccentric. It is Aristotle, and not Plato, who is associated with the ancient foundations of logic, but for Husserl it was the Platonic tradition that defines what is distinctive about rationality and represents the telos of human reason:

The Greeks, then, gave us the idea of a rationalistic civilization, perhaps even the idea of a scientific civilization, but it is only in the modern period — perhaps since the scientific revolution or the Enlightenment — that this idea is fully realized as the idea of “…universal science encompassing all possible knowledge in its infinity.” (Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, p. 121; quoted above)

If we draw back from the tumultuous immediacy of history and look at science from a big picture perspective, we can think of the scientific revolution as producing a torrent of new ideas, and when the scientific revolution was overtaken by the Enlightenment, we then see a kind of metahistorical reflection upon the meaning of the new scientific knowledge made possible by the scientific revolution, all from an Enlightenment perspective. There is also, increasingly, an imperative to make scientific knowledge fit into the ideological presuppositions of the Enlightenment, as past scientific knowledge had been made to fit the Procrustean bed of whatever religion or moral system constituted the central project of the civilization in which the scientific knowledge was produced. Thus the crisis that Husserl postulated in western history can be generalized beyond the details of European history, and can probably be found in any tradition of civilization of sufficient longevity for periods of scientific curiosity to alternate with periods of ideological consolidation (which is usually also ideological stagnation).

There are places in Husserl’s writing in which he seems to assert the full generality of his thesis, when it is formulated in terms of humanity rather than the specifics of European history:

And in the original German:

A similar passage, though more focused on science specifically, occurs in Husserl’s Prague lecture (delivered 07 May 1935 at the University of Prague), which was the basis of the Crisis manuscript:

A scientific civilization would be the social setting in which the cooperation among natural scientists would be most fully facilitated, but a scientific civilization based on Husserl’s conception of science would be distinct from a scientific civilization based on a more conventional conception of science, and would, in turn, facilitate the formation of a science of civilization consonant with the Husserlian ideal of science, also distinct from a science of civilization based on a more conventional conception of science. By “a more conventional conception of science” I mean science as it has been practiced, as it has been developed, and as it has been refined, from the scientific revolution to the present day, along with the presuppositions inherent in this scientific practice. Formulated theoretically, conventional science is naturalistic — proceeding by methodological naturalism and implying metaphysical naturalism — which is a presupposition virtually unquestioned in our time. Husserl’s explicitly anti-naturalistic conception of science constitutes an outlier even among philosophers.

Bronowski and Langer (already discussed in “Pathways into the Deep Future” and “The Role of Science in Enlightenment Universalism”) both employed a more conventional conception of science than did Husserl — and, indeed, a more conventional conception of philosophy — thus the conception of scientific civilization held by Bronowski and Langer overlaps but does not coincide with that of Husserl. Husserlian radicalism, or, at least, the attempt to attain the kind of radicalism that Husserl sought in philosophy and science, also entailed a radicalism in his conception of scientific civilization based on a radical conception of science and philosophy. Husserlian methodology would push a Husserlian scientific civilization toward a Husserlian science of civilization, much as a conventional scientific methodology would push a conventional scientific civilization (if there is or could be such a thing) toward a conventional science of civilization.

While the implicit theory of history in Husserl’s analysis of the crisis in European science might be generalizable, and Husserl sometimes cast his formulations in terms of the whole of humanity, Husserl primarily treated the crisis he identified in science and philosophy in the specific terms of European history, and insistently did so in his final posthumously published The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.

When Judith Jarvis Thompson wrote of Richard Cartwright, “He gives no public lectures, he reviews no books for the popular press, and to the extent of my knowledge he has never declared himself on the crises of Modern Man or Modern Science,” (On Being and Saying: Essays for Richard Cartwright, Preface, p. vii) one wonders if she had Husserl in mind as the philosopher who did, in fact, declare himself on the crises of Modern Man and Modern Science. Husserl not only declared himself on the crises of Modern Man and Modern Science, he devoted his final years to these crises, and he left this work unfinished on this death. Had he lived longer, Husserl’s body of work on the crises of modernity would likely have been more substantial than it already is.

One could do worse than to say that the crises of Modern Man and Modern Science are crises of scientific civilization, or perhaps even the birth-pangs of scientific civilization — an axial crisis of the modern age. The historian Michael Wood characterized an Axial Age as a time of spiritual crisis:

A similar spiritual crisis of modern industrialized civilization was Husserl’s theme — the crisis of the European sciences — but Husserl’s way of treating this theme differed strikingly from his contemporaries (probably due to his anti-naturalism, which set him at odds with almost all his contemporaries). However, it could rightly be said, analogously to the above, that Husserl asked fundamental questions about the nature of rationality, about the purpose of life on Earth and the basis of the authority of the modern nation-state. His insistence upon asking these fundamental questions in a non-naturalistic framework, at a moment in western history when naturalism was triumphant, limited the ability of Husserl’s message to be heard, or, when heard, to be understood.

There is a tension here between that distinctive form of rationality envisaged by Husserl, and the distinctive form of rationality represented by western philosophy and science, as it has existed in historical fact, and this tension between the ideal and the real points beyond itself to historically distinct traditions of knowledge in different societies. Precisely because western civilization did not exemplify the Husserlian ideal of science and philosophy, science was in a sense free to take other forms, and it eventually took an Enlightenment form and a positivist form, inter alia, which various forms allowed for the narrow specialization that has allowed science in the western world to proliferate specializations and for these specializations to grow far faster than any programmatic and holistic rationality that precedes with an agenda for the whole of human knowledge. Pluralism in the realization of our epistemic ideals sacrifices holism but outstrips the progress of any holistically conceived scientific research program.

This is historically important because the kind of rationality in fact exemplified in western civilization led to the scientific revolution, to the industrial revolution, and to the great divergence between western civilization and every other tradition. Sometimes called the “Needham puzzle” and sometimes explained (or explained away) as the high level equilibrium trap, why the industrial revolution did not originate in China (or, endogenous industrial capitalism, as Elvin sometimes puts it) is a question that has vexed some historians. My answer is this: the industrial revolution didn’t occur in China (or in India, or elsewhere), because no scientific revolution occurred in China (or elsewhere), and the emergence of modern science in western civilization was an outgrowth of the distinctive character of western philosophy. We have our distinctive way of thinking to thank for the industrial revolution and the great divergence. Science is not merely related to philosophy, science is a particular kind of philosophy — methodological naturalism. We have lost the sense of science as a form of philosophy because of its disproportionate success and its subsequent positivist interpretations that seek to expunge the philosophical origins and orientation of science. This is precisely the problem that Husserl identified as western civilization’s failure to exemplify Husserl’s canons of rationality.

The Husserlian conception of science is in many respects the antithesis of the positivist conception of science, which reached the apogee of its influence during Husserl’s mature years. While philosophers and scientists today might hesitate to affirm an uncompromising statement of the positivism conception of science, there is a sense in which this conception represents the idealized telos of certain ideas within contemporary science; the philosophical presuppositions of positivism remain the philosophical presuppositions of contemporary science. Husserl represents the antithetical idealized telos to that of positivism.

Nevertheless, in the bigger picture — as I put it above, if we draw back from the tumultuous immediacy of history — this observation is in the spirit of Husserl’s conception of the philosophical mission of western civilization, even if it does not embody the letter of Husserl’s approach. Science and philosophy in western civilization have had a unique role to play in every aspect of the culture — art, literature, politics, law, economics, and so on — that has given to this tradition its distinctive character, and which has led to its divergence from other traditions. Husserl saw this divergence, and understood it, but also entertained the possibility of the distinctive rationalism of western civilization being embodied in a more thorough-going fashion than has been the case in our history.

If we are sympathetic to Husserl’s philosophical program, there are aspects of his thought that bring together science and civilization with unique potency, and it represents a sweeping and comprehensive vision of the philosophical enterprise as an expression of the human spirit, which must ultimately be expressed in human civilization — a scientific civilization that, if it existed, would differ in important respects from a scientific civilization conceived along the lines of a more conventional Enlightenment interpretation of science. Yet Husserl’s vision of the human condition is in some respects as formidable as that of the Enlightenment itself, and it could be taken as a rival to the Enlightenment — an unrealized possibility that powerfully unifies science, philosophy, and society into an organic whole. It is not difficult to see the attraction of this vision and the influence that it held over a generation or more of philosophers, though it has never been translated into social or political action.

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