Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

From Logic to the Person: An Introduction to Edmund Husserl's Ethics

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

From Logic to the Person: An Introduction to Edmund Husserl's Ethics

Article excerpt

MANY POPULAR INTRODUCTIONS to ethics attempt to systematize ethical theories by distinguishing three different types of normative ethics: virtue ethics, which can be traced back to Aristotle, deontological ethics of a Kantian type, and consequentialist theories, including, most importantly, utilitarianism. While such a classification is too broad to tell us anything of much use about the details of most ethical theories, it can be helpful for looking at the guiding but perhaps hidden principles in an ethical theory. However, if we confront the Husserlian ethics with this classification, we will find that it does not fit. Instead, Husserl's ethics includes elements of all three of these types of ethical theories and combines them in a way that is both historically and systematically fruitful. Husserl's mature ethical theory, in particular, combines a modern, Kantian or Fichtean approach based on a strong concept of a free and active ego capable of shaping its life autonomously through its own will with a more Aristotelian theory of the virtues that help us to shape our lives in order to reach happiness or eudaimonia.

Before entering into this theory I will begin this introduction to Husserl's ethics with a historical overview of the development of his ethical theory. Since there are different periods in this development we cannot speak about the Husserlian ethics as such. At least two different positions and periods must be distinguished from one another. (1) There is first Husserl's early ethics, which is strongly influenced by his mentor Franz Brentano, whose lecture courses on ethics Husserl attended when he was a student in Vienna from 1884 to 1886. (2) This early ethical theory is characterized by a strong parallel between logic and ethics, each of which is part of a comprehensive theory of reason that also comprises a theory of science and an ontology. Husserl himself did not publish his early ethical theory, but his lecture courses on ethics and some manuscripts from this period, which are preserved in his Nachlass, are available in the series of his collected writings, the Husserliana (hereafter "Hua."). Most of this material can be found in Hua. 28 ("Lectures on Ethics and Value Theory"), (3) which contains the lecture course on ethics and axiology from 1908/09 that Husserl repeated in a slightly changed version in 1911 and 1914. This volume also includes the remaining fragments of Husserl's first lecture courses on ethics from 1897 ("Ethics and Philosophy of Law") (4) and 1902 ("Elementary Questions of Ethics"). Additional texts on Husserl's early ethics are published in the first book of the Ideas to a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy from 1913, (5) and in Husserl's lecture course on "Logic and General Theory of Science" from 1917/18, which is published in Hua. 30. (6)

In Husserl's second ethical theory the parallelism between logic and ethics no longer plays an important role. Instead, the background of this later ethics is a refined phenomenological theory of the subject as a person who finally strives toward happiness or blessedness. Husserl developed this theory beginning around 1917 under the influence of his readings of Fichte and Kant. He published his basic ideas in a series of articles on the topic of "renewal" (Erneuerung)--a crucial term in this ethics--in the Japanese journal "The Kaizo" in 1922 to 1924. (7) Other important documents of this theory are the extensive lecture course on ethics from 1920 ("Introduction to Ethics") which he repeated in 1924, (8) parts of his lecture course "Introduction to Philosophy" (9) from 1922/23, a short text on "The value of life," (10) and some smaller manuscripts.

Almost all of the aforementioned texts have been published in the last few years, and they now provide the basis for a discussion of Husserl's ethics that has only recently begun. (11) There may yet appear one more volume in the series of the Husserliana that would contain Husserl's latest ideas on ethics from the 1930s, which are embedded in a broader metaphysical conception. …

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