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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, by 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 as it is for common perception and judgment.

This is still a dramatic story, as we read it in the Meditations or in the Discours, and we can’t doubt that its heroic pattern greatly influenced Husserl. But Husserl argued that the Cogito without an object—I must think something—is empty. He believed that what was required was a resolute attempt simply to describe consciousness, and its objects.

Prior to all categorizing of the world, all scientific accounts of what we are presented with in our natural and social life, there is what is given in the first place: consciousness and its objects. This is the justification of Husserl’s most famous doctrine, that of intentionality, a doctrine the clue to which he found in the work of Franz Brentano. All consciousness is of something: the bare Cogito cannot be thought and thus cannot exist. How we are to reach the required purity of description and what the consequences are of successful phenomenological description, these are matters of dispute among those who believe themselves to be Husserl’s heirs. It may even appear to the reader, as Kolakowski remarks, that phenomenology is “an eternal program that is never applied.” But Kolakowski doesn’t doubt that in the end the logical pressures generated by Husserl’s argument drive him to a pure idealism, that “the intentional movement of consciousness not only identifies objects but constitutes them as well.”

Something depends upon how we take Husserl’s posthumous Experience and Judgment (Erfahrung und Urteil). The Hungarian-born philosopher Aurel Kolnai, contrary to Kolakowski, finds it “Aristotelian in spirit rather than anything else [and as showing] that our valid and strict ‘scientific’ or ‘philosophical’ knowledge proceeds not from a ‘minimum’ knowledge of certain and evident truth, the prime error of most philosophies…but from our inexplicit world knowledge.” This is to sustain one line of development from Husserl, that represented most notably by Merleau-Ponty, for whom reflection upon consciousness gives us immediately an awareness of “being-in-the-world.” At this fundamental level the world cannot (Merleau-Ponty argued) be called into question, as Descartes supposed; and what we make of the world, the discovery of what in the Husserl tradition are referred to, perhaps misleadingly, as “essences,” is not an encounter with quasi-Platonic forms superior in their degree of reality to the concrete objects of knowledge, but an encounter with devices that are heuristic, instrumental, even tools, indispensable for thinking and reflecting about the natural and social worlds.1 What is distinctively philosophical is wonder before the existence of the world and of our connections with it—again, something that strikes us as Aristotelian.

How Husserl ought to be read and what his final position amounts to need not concern us here. But it is interesting to consider Kolnai’s development of what he takes to be central in Husserl, first, because it may be thought to have merit in its own right, secondly, because it provides a bridge between the European tradition in philosophy and the empirical and analytical tradition now prevailing in Britain and, largely, in the United States and Canada.

It is curious to come across much American work in literary criticism and more especially in that now flourishing academic discipline, metacriticism, that seems to consider only phenomenology, with a generous helping of Marxism and a dash of Structuralism, can be useful in such studies, the British tradition being ignored or slighted. One can’t read such a practitioner of metacriticism as Fredric Jameson without seeing that he prefers European to Anglo-American philosophy. He writes off what he calls the empiricism of English-speaking and writing philosophers on the ground that it is a “mode of thought…ultimately political in inspiration”; for him, to put it bluntly, this philosophy is a mode of ideology designed to put the politically conscious to sleep. It isn’t then surprising that he refers with contempt to Wittgenstein; he speaks of “Wittgenstein’s game [sic] theory of language,”

where after a while it becomes plain that what the philosopher is describing is not language in the absolute, but only the peculiar linguistic habits of philosophers of the Anglo-American school, who, working without books after the example of Socrates, turn their minds carefully inside out like old pockets in order to see what practical examples may be found there.2

Such a philistine comment is worth noting only as symptomatic, starting as it does out of the work of a writer admired and influential in North America. I find such a misunderstanding, with its consequent undervaluing of the work of Wittgenstein and Austin, to speak only of the dead, a sign of narrowness that diminishes flexibility of mind. At least, a study of the writers dismissed by Jameson will enable the student to ask some sharp questions about the rotund and high-sounding phrases that are the staple of much European philosophy. And it is of course a sign of Kolnai’s philosophical depth, and of Paul Ricoeur’s generosity of mind, that they recognize in the work of the Anglo-American school an enterprise that is in a different idiom concerned with much the same problems as those which have preoccupied the phenomenologists. Each school or group in philosophy develops its own idiom; but analysis shows a steady concentration on a group of fundamental problems, so that, for example, we see Plato in the Theaetetus concerned with just those problems investigated in Russell’s lectures on Logical Atomism or in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Etienne Gilson, the news of whose death comes to me as I write, has been able to show how, given certain premises, the philosopher argues not as he will but as he must; and such movements of thought can be extracted from many different rhetorical styles.

In The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, a useful selection from the many writings of this prominent French philosopher, there is much to show that he has read with attention and takes seriously philosophy in the English language, especially the work of Wittgenstein (who of course wrote in German but is best known through the English translations of his work), J.L. Austin, and Elizabeth Anscombe. Ricoeur is perhaps too profoundly French to be an altogether satisfactory bridge-builder between European and English-language philosophy. He tends to give arguments that are dense, slowly moving, intricate, and open-textured a briskness and lucidity foreign to their nature. In particular he gives the notion of language-game a magisterial role it doesn’t have in Wittgenstein or Anscombe. The notion covers more than one idea and doesn’t have the kind of generality Ricoeur gives it. Again, in summarizing what he has to say about the work of Austin and others, he tells us that they have reminded philosophers of “the variability of semantic values, their sensitivity to contexts, the irreducibly polysemic character of lexical terms in ordinary language.” This is to spread a professional glaze over work that is always free of any kind of philosophical gobbledygook. All the same, Ricoeur, who writes with distinction on such topics as Metaphor and Hermeneutics, demonstrates here a justice of mind that many philosophers writing in English and in the European languages may wish to emulate.

Aurel Kolnai was a remarkable man little known outside small groups of friends and colleagues. His professional career was broken by the rise of National Socialism. Born in Hungary, he lived for many years in Vienna, left Vienna in 1937 for London, then Zürich, then Berne, then Paris; he lived in New York and Boston between 1940 and 1945, in the next decade taught at Laval, in Quebec, and then taught at Bedford College in the University of London until his death in his seventy-third year. Bedford College has now added to the honor the connection gave both parties by sponsoring this publication of some of his papers. The editorial work has been done, with the assistance of Mrs. Kolnai, by two of his graduate students, Francis Dunlop and Brain Klug, and there is an excellent note on his life and work by Bernard Williams, formerly Professor at Bedford College, and David Wiggins, his successor in the Chair.

Kolnai was of Jewish extraction and in 1926 was baptized in Vienna. (It ought to be said that there was not the slightest trace of the prudential—in the low sense—in this decision; perhaps the date makes this plain.) He tells us that he was influenced by Chesterton and by “the writings of the German Phenomenological School of Philosophy from 1923.” Dietrich von Hildebrand and Max Scheler were for him important figures. Kolnai represented a kind of Catholic intellectual well known in Europe but not well understood in North America, and above all not well understood at Laval, where Kolnai found himself almost choked by the combination of what he called “ideological Thomism” with tribal nationalism. His intellectual reckoning with his Canadian decade is presented in “The Sovereignty of the Object,” a contribution to the Festschrift for von Hildebrand, and republished in the present collection.

In his respect for the British analytical school Kolnai resembles Ricoeur; but his knowledge is deeper and, as I think, his judgment is surer. He did something quite remarkable for one of his age and antecedents: he entered into the spirit of British philosophy, first through his admiration for the work of E.F. Carritt and G.E. Moore, then through his interest in the work of J.L. Austin and the followers of Wittgenstein. His literary gifts and his linguistic competence were stunning, and he was able to contribute in speech and writing to the British debates. He saw that phenomenology, at least as he understood it, was closely linked intellectually with the work of the British schools, so austere in style and superficially so different from the rhetorically more ornate writings of the phenomenological school. We have already seen that he found something Aristotelian in the temper of Husserl’s last writings and he certainly saw, rightly or wrongly, the strongest and deepest current in phenomenology as moving away from idealism. He claimed that he had “a phenomenological temper…averse to speculative dogmatism but in revolt against the tyranny of the positivistic, monistic and naturalistic outlook”; and this temper shows itself in his moving portrait of the philosopher as he wished himself to be.

He who philosophizes must keep in as close as possible touch with the world of his ordinary experience…. Truth must be linked to truth, and all thought is responsible before what is already established with absolute or at any rate with greater certitude. The professional philosopher, then, must be humble rather than haughty towards his humdrum everyday self. Otherwise the great heights in which his thought is soaring will collapse in a mirage of irrelevant imagination, or prove to be a mere flatland of technical routine, irrelevant and deceptive. For this reason, also, the professional philosopher should from time to time train himself, notwithstanding his need for a special terminology, in the art of expressing essential parts of his speculation or knowledge in the terms of ordinary—literary or conversational—language. He will find, perhaps to his discomfort, that such an exercise, far from slackening or soiling his thought, is calculated to make him more alive to his task of intellectual honesty, and to spur him to keener precision and even penetration.

It is moving to come across in this collection the traces of an intellectual portrait of one who, in the darkness of that time through which he lived, thought it worth while to go on doing his philosophical work in the decent obscurity of British university life. He was a man of great talent who had for the perceptive among his colleagues the charm of an Odysseus who had seen and endured much, who had escaped the giants and the enchanters, and had found at last his Ithaca, almost as though it was from here he had set out, in the University of London and in that College where, at night, the lions can be heard to roar in nearby Zoological Gardens.

Kolnai wrote one great book, The War Against the West (1938), a passionate book, in which he examined, with suspended disgust, the historical and intellectual origins of National Socialism. It is a work that belongs to its time of publication, but it ought to be reissued, perhaps with an extended postscript by an authority on the period. He also wrote a long work, Twentieth-Century Memoirs, that has not yet been published. The brief extracts from it in the present volume sharpen the appetite. So much that is trivial (and not even salable) gets into print that it seems sad that a work of such human and philosophical interest, and, one would guess, of great usefulness to historians, should remain unpublished.

  1. 1

    There is a useful discussion of “essences” and other concepts in phenomenology in Joseph J. Kockelmans (editor), Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Edmund Husserl and Its Interpretation (Doubleday, 1967).

  2. 2

    Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language (Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 207.

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