Edmund Husserl and the Crisis of Europe

By Smith, Caitlin | Modern Age, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Edmund Husserl and the Crisis of Europe


Smith, Caitlin, Modern Age


I

EDMUND HUSSERL (1859-1938) was the last great European rationalist, albeit a unique and even paradoxical one: the father of phenomenology but also of existentialism; the Cartesian whose researches in the end eviscerate the cogito; the mathematician-logician whose ultimate concern was spirit. The final phase of his thought, like the final phase of his life, unfolded in Nazi Germany in the years just prior to the Second World War. The memory and shadow of the Great War of 1914-1918 were still fresh, the essential historical meaning of which had yet to be understood, and which could never be understood:

  ... if history has nothing more to teach us than that all the shapes
  of the spiritual world, all the conditions of life, ideals, norms upon
  which man relies, form and dissolve themselves like fleeting waves,
  that it always was and ever will be so, that again and again reason
  must turn into nonsense, and well-being into misery. Can we live in
  this world, where historical occurrence is nothing but an unending
  concatenation of illusory progress and bitter disappointment? (1)

Husserl was to suffer persecution at the hands of the Nazis (and even at the hands of his erstwhile disciple Martin Heidegger) but his death in 1938 spared him the fate of his fellow Jews. And like so many German Jews, Husserl was thoroughly assimilated, more German than Jew, the product of high German intellectual culture, the "Good European" profoundly concerned with the destiny of a contemporary Europe dominated by Heidegger on the one hand and the Vienna Circle on the other; the rationalist offended, astonished, and challenged by the philosophical irrationalism, skepticism, and mysticism of his day and among his own disciples. The question for Husserl was the meaning of the crisis of European man, particularly of reason and of reason's greatest accomplishment, European science since the Renaissance.

  There are only two escapes from the crisis of European existence: the
  downfall of Europe in its estrangement from its own rational sense of
  life, its fall into hostility towards the spirit and into barbarity:
  or the rebirth of Europe from the spirit of philosophy through a
  heroism of reason that overcomes naturalism once and for all. Europe's
  greatest danger is weariness. If we struggle against this greatest of
  all dangers as "Good Europeans" with the sort of courage that does not
  fear even an infinite struggle, then out of the destructive blaze of
  lack of faith, the smoldering fire of despair over the West's mission
  for humanity, the ashes of great weariness, will rise up the phoenix
  of a new life-inwardness and spiritualization as the pledge of a great
  and distant future for man: for the spirit alone is immortal. (2)

Against this dramatic backdrop and within this chilling context, Husserl delivered his famous Vienna Lecture before the Vienna Cultural Society on May 7 and May 10, 1935, with the original title "Philosophy in the Crisis of European Mankind." It was to become the seed of his last great work, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1936), which would codify phenomenology as the last great manifestation of German idealism, and in which Husserl introduces a new method, one that is teleological-historical and phenomenologically grounded. Such a method of historical reflection is possible only if history is treated (like the world) symbolically and eidetically.

The strangeness of Husserl's lecture is in what is left unsaid in his discussion of science, but which really lies at the inner heart of the text, and which requires so much caution in approaching it: the problem of evil, which in the end is the problem of God.

The Vienna Lecture is Husserl's radical attempt to breathe life into the question of the crisis of European science. Husserl's treatment of the crisis lies within the boundaries of philosophy conceived as a universal science. …

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