Thursday, September 13, 2012

On First Looking into Husserl’s Logical Investigations: Husserl and Darwin

[Notes on Husserl’s Logical Investigation Vol 2 Part 1, Introduction and LI1 §1-23]

Edmund Husserl was born seconds before the dawn of a major revolution in the biological sciences.  Husserl was born on April 8, 1859; Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, was born, so to speak, seven months later (24 November 1859).  By the time Darwin published The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871, it had become abundantly clear that natural selection was not just for beetles, birds, coral polyps and worms (some of Darwin’s favourite organisms), but was an all encompassing mechanism that applies not only to the anatomy of people but also to their psychological makeup, including, it would seem, those aspects of humans that allowed them to reflect on evolutionary origins in the first place.  Darwin was well received in the German speaking world (thanks to an early translation by Heinrich Georg Bronn and was popularized by Ernst Haeckel) so Husserl’s formation and early scholarship occurred at a time when the significance of the Darwinian revolution was recognized. 

Husserl became, or course, the father of his own particular revolution; phenomenology has arguably had an analogous influence on continental philosophy as Darwin has had in biology, though, in fairness, it can be said that Darwin’s influence has been more all encompassing than has phenomenology.  There is, for instance, nothing comparable to a continental-analytic divide in biology.  There are some interesting similarities between Darwin and Husserl that are worth exploring.  I’ll mention just one point here: the foundational work of both writers was transformed quite radically by those who came after them.  In the case of Darwin the so-called Neo-Darwinian synthesis roughly speaking combined Darwin’s thinking with Mendelian genetics, closing the door on Lamarckian mechanisms.  Phenomenology presented in Logical Investigations, Husserl’s breakthrough work, was, of course, later radically transformed by Husserl himself, but transformed in turn by Heidegger and arguably by all 20th Century phenomenologists who worked seriously within this tradition.  It seems to me that both Husserl are Darwin are more likely to be read seriously by those looking at the history of a later position – a sort of archeological dig – rather than for the immediate insights they provide.

There are very few search terms that one can submit to Google (or Google scholar… or indeed, one supposes to Bing) that come up dry.  “Husserl and Darwin” are among those exceptional terms.  Not that there is nothing, but there is very little.  Indeed, Husserl makes no allusions, as far as I can tell, to Darwin in any of the Logical Investigations.  And certainly in LI1 he makes no reference to the history of the agent who can communicate in expressive acts – the subject of that investigation.  Darwin noted in The Descent of Man (1871) that self-consciousness has been a characteristic of humankind and that several writers have made it the sole distinguishing feature between humans and the “brutes” though Darwin expressed concern about the inconsistency of definitions surrounding such debates.  He does note though that “Such faculties [as self-consciousness] could not have been fully developed in man until his mental powers had advanced to a high standard, and this implies the use of a perfect language.”  Somewhat later in the book, Darwin reiterates the point stating that “If it be maintained that certain powers, such as self-consciousness, abstraction, &c., are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are the incidental results of other highly-advanced intellectual faculties; and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly developed language.”  This putative link between consciousness (and self-consciousness) and language might have been grist to the Husserlian mill, but, of course, Husserl does not investigate it.

That Husserl does not refer to Darwin is interesting, but it is somewhat trivial as Husserl, like all of us, leaves out more major thinkers than he includes.  The absence of evolution however points, however, to an interesting lacuna in Husserl’s investigation of expression.  Husserl fails to place his analysis of expression in the context of a bio-historical development of this particularly ability and, moreover, he does not discuss the implications of structural differences of expression during different life stages (from childhood to old age – for instance, is the babbling of an infant and the muttering of an old man meaningless, or meaningless in the quite same way?)  What about the difference in ability between individuals – for example, Joyce versus, let’s say, me?  Why would these somewhat obvious temporal aspects of expressive ability not form part of the analysis (to date at least)? 

Admittedly Husserl, it would seem, is working this out the formal aspects of expression.  He makes it clear in the introduction to Volume II Part I of the investigations that the phenomenology he is pursuing is a “pure” philosophical discipline one that is not part of a natural science. Thus, “all statements have a character of empirical generality: they hold for this nature.” (§6).  Going further Husserl emphasizes that “Phenomenology…does not discuss states of animal organisms (not even belonging to a possible nature as such), but perceptions, judgements, feelings as such, and what pertains to them a priori with unlimited generality, as pure instances of our species, of what may be seen through a purely intuitive apprehension of essence, whether generic or specific.” (§6)  So a criticism of Husserlian phenomenology that it is not placed in an ontogenetic context might be fended off by those same argument with which Husserl sees off the psychologizing of logic. So, phenomenology “lays bare the ‘sources’ from which the basic concepts ‘flow’…”  The relationship then between phenomenology and empirical sciences is that the former can be ancillary, or perhaps more appropriately, foundational to the latter. 

The question then is whether perching phenomenology above, or rather below in an important sense, the natural sciences and thereby proceeding with a purified philosophical account of logic, epistemology etc. is, in fact, the most fruitful way for phenomenology to proceed.  The model is that phenomenology steps back and then the sciences build upon phenomenological methods.  However, the observation that we, as a species, can reflect phenomenologically and that that capacity reflects a particular moment in biological history does not seem trivial at all.  Just as phenomenology supposedly grounds the sciences, evolution is seen as grounding biology.  When Theodosius Dobzhansky claimed that “Nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution”, a phrase that might in some ways be seen as a power grab in skirmishes among the biological disciplines, it nevertheless proposes evolutionary thought as a clarifying tool that inaugurates an examination of any biological question.  Similar to the way in which, according to Husserl at least, reasoning proceeds according to logical rules, rather than from logical rule (this getting logic out of a vicious circle in which it must presupposes itself in order to progress), evolution is presupposed (because the mind that cogitates evolutionary explanations is an evolved mind, using evolved language) in the elaboration of evolutionary insights. 

For all of this let us not assert too strenuously phenomenology’s need for humility and after some grumbling accept that as a pure philosophical discipline that it can proceed and ground the sciences.  Granting this, for now at least, it may still be the case that an evolutionary sensibility, a historicized conception of phenomenological reflection might enrich Husserl’s account of language, which in LI1 seems idealized.   As it is, the closest that Husserl comes to speculating in a way that does not assume idealized language use comes in §23 where Husserl performs the following thought experiment: “If we imagine a consciousness prior to all experience, it may very well have the same sensations as we have.  But it will intuit no things, and no events pertaining to things, it will perceive no trees and no houses, no flights of birds nor any barking dogs.”  Not only does this come tantalizingly close to poetry in a book that otherwise reads…well, quite unlike poetry, it suggests that Husserl sees a value to imagining a different history.  In many ways this is one of the more provocative sections on the first investigation.  It suggests that, at the very least, an evolutionary Husserl would be interesting even if not quite so pure.  

[These are of course merely notes and very free speculation on a first reading of Logical Investigations; if you notice anything worth correcting, or have suggestions of useful resources, I’d be grateful to hear from you.]

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