Blogging through Truth and Method post 8: Overcoming the Epistemological Problem (242-264)

 

Husserl brought the entire notion of the given—so important for German idealism—into question; in so doing, he moved beyond Dilthey, at least to a certain extent. In fact, an examination of Husserl’s books reveals that he disbelieved entirely in the sort of objectivism proffered by Dilthey and many other nineteenth-century philosophers. Phenomenology is rather its own kind of idealism, one in a line with Hegelianism and Kantianism and yet different from them, as well.

 

According to Husserl, “consciousness was not an ‘object,’ but an essential coordination” (244), and this means that there is no genuine equivalency between the meaning of words and the mental activity that takes place when we contemplate them. In other words, the images brought to our minds when we hear particular words is not the same thing as the definitions of those words. Husserl is famously uninterested in the supposed “real world,” instead bracketing its existence and focusing exclusively on psychological events.

 

Husserl also, however, must believe in the unity of psychic phenomena; for him, “Every experience has implicit horizons of before and after, and finally fuses with the continuum of the experiences present in the before and after to form a unified flow of experience” (245). Phenomenology applies itself to this unity and particularly to the horizons of knowledge that it implies.

 

Ultimately, Husserl is not so much interested in “consciousness” or “subjectivity” but in life itself—which is why phenomenology eventually leads to existentialism in the work of Heidegger and Sartre. Husserl’s interest in life is very important: “He is trying to penetrate behind the actuality of the sense-giving consciousness, and even behind the potentiality of shared meaning, to the universality of an achievement that is alone able to measure the universality of what is achieved—i.e., constituted in its validity” (246). But this makes objectivism irrelevant; while the life-world is communal to some extent, it is not accessible through objective means.

 

The world Husserl has created here is one heavily indebted to transcendental idealism, however, and this debt leads to a problem: “‘Life’ is not just the unreflective living characteristic of the natural attitude. ‘Life’ is also, and no less, the transcendentally reduced subjectivity that is the source of all objectifications” (248). Life can be understood only from the inside. And yet Husserl rejects the language of subjectivity, as well, conceiving of phenomenology as a non-objective, and yet not subjective, science.

 

What Husserl cannot do—any more than Dilthey can do it—is to develop “the speculative import of the concept of life (250). Dilthey sets up life as the opposite of metaphysical speculation without really defining it further; Husserl doesn’t seem to recognize any connection between “life” and metaphysics at all.

 

For this reason, Gadamer turns to the posthumous papers of Paul Yorck von Wartenburg, who serves as the connection between speculative idealism and nineteenth-century science. Yorck accepts the Darwinism notion of life as “self-assertion” (251) but adds that consciousness is always marked by judgment; consciousness is itself self-assertion. The role of philosophy is to reverse the dissolving tendencies of everyday life and everyday thought: “Its being consists in its ability to make everything the object of its knowledge, and yet in everything that it knows, it knows itself” (252). Philosophy is structured self-consciousness, and while Husserl would object to the objectivist tendency of Yorck’s thought, Gadamer finds Yorck’s philosophy to be superior to Husserl’s.

 

In fact, Yorck is, in a certain sense, following Hegel’s lead. Hegel seems to imply that nothing alive can ever be adequately understood from the outside—it can be grasped only by becoming aware of it internally. Gadamer likes Yorck because he sees philosophy as accomplishing this sort of knowledge: “Its task is to understand the achievements of consciousness in terms of their origin, understanding them as results—i.e., as the projection of the original being-alive and its original division” (253). It is primordial and foundational.

 

Martin Heidegger, too, moves beyond many of the problems inherent in Husserl’s and Dilthey’s schemas. In particular, “he was no longer dependent on the epistemological requirement that the return to life (Dilthey) and the transcendental reduction (Husserl’s way of absolutely radical self-reflection) be based methodologically on the self-givenness of experience” (254). His brand of phenomenology is grounded on facticity, or, as he sometimes calls it, thrownness; it is grounded on the idea that we have been thrown into the world, that certain aspects of our experience have been predetermined for us.

 

Heidegger conceives of his philosophy as a return to beginnings, a return to a Greek concern with the nature of Being that philosophy had forgotten for centuries. But the nature of such a philosophical return was that it was at the same time cutting-edge, and Heidegger had much to say about the debates that Gadamer has been recounting. After all, the notion of facticity dovetails with the problems of historicism, and Heidegger changed the way that people thought about these problems.

 

Heidegger’s break with Husserlian phenomenology was based on his rejection of transcendental subjectivity; to overstate things a bit, Heidegger’s concern with Being makes much of Husserl’s schema seem irrelevant. And not just Husserl’s—when Heidegger insists that Being is Time, the whole of Western metaphysics is subverted. The metaphysics of presence, as Derrida calls it, is not possible if Nothingness is as important as Being. This destabilizing tendency in Heidegger leads Gadamer to say that his truest predecessor is not Husserl but Nietzsche.

 

Unlike some of the other philosophers whom Gadamer has discussed, Heidegger is not primarily interested in historicism or the humanities or the natural sciences—and yet these are a few of the many areas that Heidegger’s revaluation of metaphysics has implications for. His most notable influence on these areas is his assertion that all understanding is projective. This means that

 

a person who “understands” a text (or even a law) has not only projected himself understandingly toward a meaning—in the effort of understanding—but the accomplished understanding constitutes a state of new intellectual freedom. It implies the general possibility of interpreting, of seeing connections, of drawing conclusions, which constitutes being well versed in textual interpretation. (260)

 

Every act of understanding, then, is ultimately Sichverstehen, which carries the connotation of knowing one’s way around a thing. But this means that all understanding ultimately involves the person undertaking it in a way that traditional philosophy does not affirm. All knowledge is self-knowledge.

 

And every knower, as we learned before, is grounded in facticity, in historicity. If we study history, we can do so only because we are ourselves historical beings, because Dasein itself is historical. This means that the entire history of Dasein is bound up in every act of understanding. This is an inescapable truth for Heidegger—our every act of knowledge and of interpretation is made possible by a series of actions that precede our choices.

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