It Makes You Wonder

Husserl and the Search for Certitude

by Leszek Kolakowski
Yale University Press, 85 pp., $8.50

Ethics, Value, and Reality: Selected Papers of Aurel Kolnai

introduction by David Wiggins and Bernard Williams
Hackett Publishing Company, 280 pp., $9.75 (paper)

The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work

edited by Charles E. Reagan, edited by David Stewart
Beacon Press, 262 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Phenomenology is perhaps the only school of modern philosophy that appears to offer an alternative to the analytical schools still dominant among English-speaking philosophers. (Large questions are begged here: I have set aside neo-Marxism and Structuralism as not philosophical in the traditional and, by Marxists, reprobated sense, and I have taken as truistic Wittgenstein’s remark that psychology has no more to do with philosophy than any other natural science.) But it is hard to say, or adequately to discuss except at great length, what phenomenology may be. The question is variously answered by the authors of the books under review. All of them are admirers of the work of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (who died in 1938), the founder of the phenomenological school; and two of them would not repudiate the title “phenomenologist.”

Leszek Kolakowski believes that the essential feature of Husserl’s work was the search for absolute certainty.

The goal was…how to discover the unshakable, the absolutely unquestionable foundation of knowledge; how to refute arguments of skeptics, of relativists; how to fend off the corrosion of psychologism and historicism; how to reach a perfectly hard ground in cognition.

Kolakowski thinks that Husserl stood within a particular tradition, that of Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant. It is interesting to note those who are absent from Kolakowski’s list: Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Hegel, for instance, and of these Aristotle is the most curious absentee. It is possible to think that Aquinas and Locke are not major figures, as being derivative from others, but this cannot be said of Aristotle, and he is scarcely to be counted among the skeptics. That Plato was an opponent of the Sophists and therefore of skepticism and relativism is true; but that he thought there was “a perfectly hard ground in [human] cognition” seems to me doubtful. At any rate, we can scarcely go wrong if we see Husserl as trying to do successfully what Descartes, in the common judgment of posterity, failed to do, that is, to find “a perfectly hard ground” on which to build the structure of philosophy, a structure that would stand unshaken when the foundations of the natural and social sciences were continually shifting.

Descartes’s argument is that when everything else has given way under the pressure of skeptical argument one thing remains: Cogito, ergo sum. What if anything Descartes really established, what the point of the ergo is, what the significance may be of the argument seeming plausible only when expressed in the first person—these have been and are much discussed questions; and there are many ingenious proposals for saving Descartes and many forceful arguments for rejecting his formulation as wrong or confused. What Descartes thought he had established was the undoubtable existence of a thinking substance, myself; and with the aid of another argument he thought implied by the existence of myself as a thinking substance—that God exists and cannot, on account of what he is, be a deceiver—he is able to give us back the world…

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