Phenomenological Reviews

Journal | Volume | Article

Giovanni Piana's "Conversazioni" and some recent controversies on Husserl's "Krisis"

Andrea Staiti(University of Parma)

pp. 157-178


In this article I explore Giovanni Piana’s Conversazioni su “La crisi delle scienze europee” di Husserl (Piana 2013) and show that it contributes to three recent controversies regarding the correct interpretation of Husserl’s text. Piana addresses: (1) the precise sense of the crisis of the sciences, which he helpfully links to 19th century positivism, thereby showing that it does not make sense to distinguish a crisis of scientificity from a loss of meaning for life; (2) Husserl’s reading of Galieo Galilei as a Platonist, which Piana defends against past and recent critics; (3) the relationship between the lifeworld and the world of culture, which Piana interprets in a commendably deflationist way vis-à-vi s recent speculative conceptions of the lifeworld in post-Husserlian phenomenology. I conclude with a discussion of the systematic place of the lifeworld in Husserl’s late philosophy as it emerges from Piana’s text and in the context of my recent critical remarks on Landgrebe’s introduction to Husserl’s Experience and Judgment.


1Edmund Husserl’s Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie (Husserl 1970 [1936], henceforth Krisis) has been the object of renewed scholarly attention. The articles (De Warren 2015; Luft unpublished; Wiltsche 2016; Trizio 2016; Heffernan 2017; Staiti 2018) and books (Majolino and De Gandt 2008; Luft 2011; Moran 2012; Ihde 2016) published in the past ten years or so showed that despite its popularity Husserl’s Krisis remains a largely enigmatic text, whose complex structure and sophisticated conceptual toolkit are far from exhaustively understood. It is possible to identify at least three issues that have emerged in the abovementioned literature and that can be summarized with three corresponding questions: (1) what, exactly, is in a crisis?; (2) how does the process of idealization and mathematization work and is it sufficient to understand the scientific revolution initiated and epitomized by Galileo?; (3) what, exactly, is the life-world and how does it relate to the cultural world investigated by the human sciences? In addition to these three questions, there is a more general issue regarding the systematic place of Husserl’s Krisis in his oeuvre and its relation to other projects characterizing his late philosophy.

2The exploration of these issues has generated various controversies that, to my knowledge, are still unsettled. The goal of the present article is to explore Giovanni Piana’s masterful Conversazioni su “La crisi delle scienze europee” di Husserl (Piana 2013) with regard to these controversies. I want to show that Piana’s sharp reading of Husserl’s Krisis has the potential to partly solve, partly dissolve, and partly reconfigure them. Here and there I will have to expand on Piana’s brief analyses, but I will try to do so remaining faithful to the overall spirit of his writing. I will proceed as follows: first, I will name and summarize briefly the three controversies; second, I will engage Piana on each of the controversies and show his distinctive contribution; finally, I will turn to the more general question about Krisis and the various projects of Husserl’s late work, thereby tackling a difficulty that Piana’s insightful book raises and invites us to explore further.

1 | Three recent controversies on Husserl’s Krisis

1.1. The Trizio/Heffernan (T/H) controversy

3Emiliano Trizio has argued that “the common definition of the crisis of the sciences as the loss of their significance for life rests on a misunderstanding” (Trizio 2016, 191). According to Trizio, the crisis of the sciences is a crisis of their scientificity and the loss of significance for life is a mere consequence. George Heffernan has replied that “Husserl’s Krisis of the European sciences is both a crisis of their scientificity and a crisis of their meaningfulness for life” (Heffernan 2017, 229). According to Heffernan there are “two senses of scientificity” (Heffernan 2017, 253) at work in Krisis, one positivistic, the other philosophical. The ‘scientificity’ that is in a crisis is the second, philosophical scientificity and the loss of such scientificity for the sciences does coincide with a loss of their meaningfulness for life. In sum, while for Trizio the crisis of scientificity and the loss of significance of the sciences stand in a premise/consequence relationship, for Heffernan the sense in which Husserl diagnoses a crisis of scientificity involves a notion of philosophical scientificity, whose loss does coincide with a loss of significance for life.

1.2. The Ihde/Wiltsche (I/W) controversy

4Don Ihde published a number of articles, subsequently collected in a book (Ihde 2016), where he accuses Husserl of downplaying the role of experimentation in Galileo’s method. In a chapter revealingly titled “Husserl’s Galileo Needed a Telescope!” (Ihde 2016, 35-58) Ihde writes that Husserl “got science itself wrong and that through his own reductionistic version of Galileo” (Ihde 2016, 47). According to Ihde, “Husserl’s Galileo is a preselected and reduced Galileo, a Galileo without a telescope, and were this Galileo to have had a telescope there could have been a radically different analysis of science and the lifeworld” (Ihde 2016, 53). Ihde contends that the mere armchair move of mathematizing nature would have been insufficient to give rise to modern science. Science is always techno-science and Galileo’s abundant use of instruments and experiments bears witness to the continuity that exists between the lifeworld and the world of science. Instruments, such as telescopes, are enhancements of our bodily possibilities and thus they are from the beginning part of the lifeworld. If science is the product of a technologically mediated interaction with the world, then its products are not alien to the lifeworld, as Husserl would have it, and no problematic chasm between science and the lifeworld, let alone a crisis of science, needs to gape. Harald Wiltsche (2017) has responded with a thoroughgoing defense of Husserl’s view of Galileo. By reviewing some of Galileo’s most famous experiments Wiltsche contends that, indeed, what makes Galileo’s method revolutionary is precisely his idealizing way of looking at natural phenomena, i.e., extrapolating them from the concrete situations in which they occur and transforming them into geometrical problems (Wiltsche 2017, 163), i.e., imposing a “geometrical grid” (Wiltsche 2017, 162) onto them.

1.3. The Luft/De Warren (L/dW) controversy

5In his 2011 book Subjectivity and Lifeworld in Transcendental Phenomeno|logy Sebastian Luft has, among other things, explored Husserl’s notion of the lifeworld and argued that this is nothing but the world of culture. In so doing Luft has set out to develop an original interpretation of phenomenology as “hermeneutical phenomenology of the correlation a priori of the world as historical world, as a world of culture, and of subjectivity as intersubjectivity, connected in a history and a tradition” (Luft 2011, 27). The purpose of this interpretation is to reconnect phenomenology with the Neo-Kantian tradition of Kulturphilosophie, and thus revive the Enlightenment ideals common to both Husserl and, say, Cassirer or Natorp. In a polemical review of Luft’s book, Nicolas De Warren has forcefully rejected Luft’s identification of the lifeworld with the world of culture: “The lifeworld cannot be naively thought as a kind of ‘object’ or even as a ‘world’ in the familiar sense in which we understand what it is to have something in view or be in a world” (De Warren 2015, 140). De Warren emphasizes the difference between the particular worlds characterizing the sphere of culture, which are “bounded by a particular goal or interest” (De Warren 2015, 141), and the lifeworld, which is not. There is, according to De Warren, a “transcendental opacity” (De Warren 2015, 143) to the lifeworld that Luft’s account fails to recognize. By reducing the lifeworld to a world of culture Luft closes the transcendental openness characterizing Husserl’s introduction of this term, which, in De Warren’s reading, undergirds a pluralistic understanding of cultures, none of which can be transcendentally identified with the lifeworld; rather, all particular (cultural) worlds inhere in the lifeworld. By introducing the concept of lifeworld, as De Warren puts it, “Husserl moves in the direction of discovering an ‘unconscious’ of the world, as it were, and thus not an unconscious of subjectivity that becomes clarified and brought back to consciousness in reflection” (De Warren 2015, 142). Luft has attempted to clarify (and qualify) the sense in which one can speak of the lifeworld as a world of culture in an unpublished response to De Warren (Luft unpublished), but the problem remains: is the lifeworld the historical world of culture? Or is it the transcendentally opaque (and hence ultimately inaccessible) ground of every cultural world?

6Let us now turn to Piana’s Conversazioni su “La crisi delle scienze europee” di Husserl (2013) a book that he put together after his retirement drawing on notes from a lecture course held at the University of Milan back in 1978. While the final version includes several references to recent scholarship, it is remarkable how Piana’s reading of Krisis in his 1978 lectures anticipates, as it were, the controversies just sketched and provides insightful clues to handle them.

2 | Giovanni Piana on the three controversies

2.1. Piana on the T/H controversy

7Piana opens the first of his Conversazioni with the bold statement that “a reader who only took into consideration the Crisis of the European Sciences would get a completely distorted picture of Husserl’s philosophy” (Piana 2013, 11).1 The reason for this statement is that, unlike his earlier works, such as Logical Investigations and Ideas I, Krisis is a book written under the pressure of a troubled historical period and it explicitly engages the culture of the time. Despite the profound continuity in Husserl’s philosophical method, which Piana stresses ubiquitously, in Krisis the problems of phenomenology are viewed in a different light, as it were. They are now related to the malaise and the disillusionment of European culture in the late 1930s and the historical epoch “comes to the fore and penetrates both form and content of the text” (Piana 2013, 13).2 It is in this context that we need to seek a correct determination of the crisis diagnosed by Husserl. Where does the crisis lies, precisely? Like Heffernan, Piana distinguishes two senses of scientificity, but, unlike Heffernan, Piana does not characterize the two senses as a positivistic and philosophical sense. This is because, as we will see in a moment, there is an important difference between early and late 19th century positivism, which a generic reference to positivism does not take into account.

8Piana talks about an internal and an external sense of scientificity. The internal sense of scientificity of the sciences, i.e., their success and their methodological rigor are unassailable; however, Piana continues, “there is also another sense of scientificity, by reference to which it is possible to talk about a crisis and relate this crisis to the present time. In order to grasp this second sense of scientificity we need to place ourselves outside science. This doesn’t mean looking at science extrinsically; rather, it means trying to grasp the connection that links science in its current form and in the intellectual orientations it suggests with culture writ large” (Piana 2011, 17).3 In other words, in order to see the crisis and justify the talk of crisis in the first place, we need to zoom out, as it were, and try to visualize science as an intellectual endeavor embedded in the broader set of endeavors that define our culture. The scientificity of the sciences does not seem to be in a crisis when we ‘live in it’, to use a characteristically Husserlian phrase. It is only when we step back and view this scientificity in the broader context of culture that it reveals its critical condition. Let us explore this idea further before concluding this subsection with an explicit reference to the T/H controversy.

9A parenthetical remark in Husserl’s text becomes for Piana the decisive clue to understand correctly where the crisis lies. At the end of section 3, Husserl writes about the 18th century:

[…] we can understand the energy which animated all scientific undertakings, even the merely factual sciences of the lower level; in the eighteenth century (which called itself the philosophical century) it filled ever widening circles with enthusiasm for philosophy and for all the special sciences as its branches. Hence the ardent desire for learning, the zeal for a philosophical reform of education and of all of humanity’s social and political forms of existence, which makes that much abused Age of Enlightenment so admirable. We possess an undying testimony to this spirit in the glorious ‘Hymn to Joy’ of Schiller and Beethoven. It is only with painful feelings that we can understand this hymn today. A greater contrast with our present situation is unthinkable (Husserl 1970, 10).

10Why does the Hymn to Joy no longer resonate with us? What is it about the optimism that filled the scientific endeavors of the 18th century that went lost, such that, in Husserl’s famous adage: “In our existential misery [Lebensnot] this science has nothing to say to us” (Husserl 1970, 6 translation modified)? Piana explains the crucial point in the following terms:

We no longer have before us goals that can be meaningfully pursued: we lost control over things, we feel helpless in the face of a reality which follows its foreign and hostile course. Therefore, the primary condition for optimism certainly goes away. This condition consists in a connection with reality such that it appears to us as shapeable according to the goals we want to pursue in it. Subjectivity must be able to surpass objectivity, while still taking the ‘hardness’ of objectivity into account. It must be possible to impose subjective aims on objectivity: this is the primary condition, the presupposition in order to be able to partake again in the Hymn to Joy (Piana 2013, 18-19).4

11However, if the picture of reality that emanates from science is one that completely effaces subjectivity and its lifeworld from view, reducing them to an illusion, the intellectual space to conceive of ourselves as capable to influence reality and shape it according to rationally justifiable goals is closed. To give a couple of examples: I worry about the kind of education my child is getting at school. In so doing, I conceive of my child as a real individual subject whose personality and future possibilities will be shaped by the people he interacts with and whose knowledge (or lack thereof) will dramatically influence the kind of life he is going to live. The moment I stop conceiving of my child as such subject and view him as a swarm of particles, instead, which is how theoretical physics would view him, the concern about his education becomes futile. In no way can such things as persons, knowledge or education be construed in terms of swarms of particles or quantum leaps. Swarms of particles cannot get an education (or fail to do so) and the landscape of a world populated exclusively by the entities accepted by theoretical physics is one in which the very notion of goal is dissolved. Those who salute this kind of scientific worldview as a liberation from our passions and agitations (à la Spinoza), or from the shackles of religion and authority, may have disregarded the fact that in order for something to count as a genuine liberation I must still be there as a real liberated subject at the end of the process. A liberation from the passions or the shackles of religion that dissolves me and everything I care about along with the passions and the shackles is like taking cyanide in order to cure a flu. The flu certainly goes away, but, alas, at the end of the process I am no longer there to enjoy my restored health.

12To switch to a less ironic tone: think about the debate surrounding climate change in our present. We must be able to believe that it is possible to impose our goals on reality in order to tackle the problem effectively. It is sometimes assumed that the world is split between denialists and, for lack of a better word, non-denialists who call for action. This is inaccurate. There is also a significant cohort of scientists who accept climate change, but ultimately believe that it is due to processes that we humans cannot control. On this view, it is a mere example of anthropocentric self-importance to believe that it is us and our decisions that can make a difference. This position epitomizes the negative impact on our sense of agency that the scientific worldview can have. By contrast, scientists who do call for action against climate change are presumably calling for action real existing individual (and collective) subjects, rather than swarms of particles; however, if the picture of reality that emanates from science only admits of swarms of particles as the furniture of the world, what is the point of ‘calling for action’, or better, who is calling who for action, if, strictly speaking, there is nobody there in the first place? This, and only this, is the crisis of science Husserl has in mind. It is a crisis at the meta-level of scientific self-reflection, i.e., it is actually a philosophical crisis. The crisis only becomes visible when our focus is on science as a powerful factor within culture, one that has the force and authority to determine (more or less explicitly) how we think about ourselves and the world.

13Incidentally, the influence of science on the ideas that guide and orient our existence in the world does not require actual, extensive knowledge of science. I once overheard a young student on the train telling her friend that there is no point in caring too much about what we do, including her upcoming exam, because strictly speaking we are all living in the past and everything we see has already happened before we even see it. This is because, she added, it takes time for the light released by the objects around us to hit our retina, and when it does, a certain amount of time from the moment of emission has already elapsed, thus leaving us with retinal images of things that are already, strictly speaking, gone. There is no need to dwell on the accuracy, or even the reasonableness of the student’s comment for the purposes for which it was dropped (alleviate the tension for the upcoming exam). I was tempted to remind the student that she is not her retina and it is her, not her retina, who will fail the exam if she doesn’t put enough effort into it, but I held my tongue. This anecdote only goes to show that even half-digested science impacts the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world.5 A science exclusively concerned with fixing facts and providing us with a picture of the world that admits of nothing but unchanging and unchangeable facts is likely to erode our sense of agency and make us feel completely estranged from a reality it would be our task to shape according to rationally justifiable goals. As Piana puts it:

A conception of science in which reality is presupposed as a mere complex of matters of fact that are what they are, such that the only problem is to fix them in their objectivity may become the motor of a movement of loss of significance of reality itself (Piana 2013, 21).6

14How does Piana’s account of the crisis relate to the T/H controversy? First of all, contra Trizio, it is misleading to ask whether the crisis of the sciences is a crisis of their scientificity or a loss of their significance for life and, contra Heffernan, it is also misleading to reply that it is both. What do we mean, exactly, by the ‘scientificity of the sciences’? It is notoriously difficult to answer this question in a clear-cut way, but whatever answer we favor, it’s clear that in asking the question we are trying to focus on some second-order features of science that only become thematic upon reflection such as, say, their methods, their systematicity, their intersubjective validity, etc. As will become clear in the next subsection, for Husserl the crisis of the sciences is not due to such second-order features of science per se, but rather to a faulty philosophical interpretation of scientific thinking whose pernicious effects become palpable when we broaden our perspective and view the sciences in the overall horizon of culture. In other words, the crisis of the sciences is not an inevitable destiny that is engrained in their very conceptual and methodological toolkit, but rather a consequence of a wrong self-interpretation. In this scenario, there are no two things, ‘the crisis of scientificity’ (i.e. the faulty interpretation of second-order, reflectively revealed features of scientific thinking), on the one hand, and ‘the loss of significance for life’, on the other. If the crisis of the sciences’ scientificity is nothing but a wrong model of self-understanding, then Husserl’s point is that the loss of significance for life just is the crisis of the sciences’ scientificity. It is the only way in which the crisis of scientificity can appear in the first place, i.e., manifest itself as cultural malaise. By recognizing that such cultural malaise is not merely a consequence of a crisis of scientificity that actually lies elsewhere, but it is the crisis of scientificity itself unveiled, Husserl’s approach departs from other, widely spread forms of Kulturkritik of his time that left science as such unaffected and merely invited to look elsewhere (poetry, the Volk, religion, etc.) to find orientation and meaning.

15It is true that, as Trizio (2016, 207-208) aptly emphasizes, for Husserl the existing sciences also fall short of the very ideal of science, i.e., they fall short of a full understanding of the very success of their method, because they lack a complete ontological clarification of their object-domains and a radical elucidation of the relationship between truth and being; however, this is true of 18th century science, too, which, in Husserl’s narrative, certainly cannot be diagnosed with a crisis in any significant sense! The science of the Enlightenment and the science of the Renaissance before it, which Husserl mentions with admiration, was most definitely not in a crisis, although it, too, lacked a proper ontological clarification of its object-domains and a transcendental inquiry into the relationship between truth and being. Enlightenment scientists could listen to the Hymn to Joy and identify with it. Nowhere does Husserl write that science as we know it has always been in a crisis. He is relating the crisis to the science of his age, i.e., the science that emerged in the wake of late 19th century positivism. The roots of this crisis lay deep in history and, as we will see in a moment, they go as far back as Galileo Galilei, the founding father of modern science. But it is only late 19th century positivism that championed and propagated an objectivist self-understanding of science, one that deliberately separated science and philosophy, reducing the world to a heap of facts devoid of meaning.

16The insistence on late 19th century positivism, as opposed to positivism in general is crucial to better understand the systematic relevance of the analysis offered up to this point. Piana underscores that in the original program of positivism put forward by Comte science was viewed as part of a broader subjective and social reality (Piana 2013, 28). Comte also stressed that philosophical and scientific inquiry needed to be enhanced by political action in order to lead to a genuine reform of human existence. In Comte’s program, then, philosophy was far from excluded from the scientific endeavor and there was an acute sense of the relevance of science for life. Things changed toward the end of the 19th century. Late 19th century positivism is characterized by a naïve belief in the self-sufficiency of science for human progress. There is no question of value or meaning to be raised in addition to the exercise of science. Science harbors in itself the force of progress and it will be able to unite the humankind simply in virtue of its objectivity. Piana quotes as a particularly vocal exponent of this view Roberto Ardigò, the spokesperson of positivism in Italy, but one could have equally referred to the more widely known militant Darwinist Ernst Haeckel in Germany. Both Ardigò and Haeckel believe that the objectivism of science is per se sufficient to provide human culture with the orientation it needs.7 It is this kind of positivism that “decapitates philosophy”, as Husserl (1970, 9) graphically writes, not positivism in general. For this reason, while Heffernan’s distinction of a philosophical and a positivistic sense of scientificity goes in the right direction, it potentially obscures the key point, which is more conspicuously brought to light by Piana’s talk of an external and an internal sense of scientificity. The crisis of the sciences is a crisis of their scientificity, which shows itself only when the sciences are considered ‘externally’, i.e., in the broader context of human culture, and, from this perspective, it amounts to a loss of significance for human life due to their late-positivistic objectivism. Husserl offers the most succinct and perhaps clearest formulation of where he believes the crisis lies in a passage from the Prague conferences, one of the materials that were eventually incorporated in Krisis:

The crisis of the sciences has its foundation in a crisis of human self-understanding. We will succeed in overcoming this crisis only through a transformation of the understanding humans have of themselves (Husserl 1993, 138).

17As I have argued at length elsewhere (Staiti 2014, 222-263), phenomenology sets out to implement this transformation and, in so doing, replace the scientific worldview with a phenomenological-idealistic worldview.

2.2. Piana on the I/W controversy

18Let us now turn to the second controversy. As we saw, it is a controversy about the role of experimentation in Galileo’s practice and the tenability of Husserl’s claim in § 9 of Krisis that idealization and mathematization are the key ingredients for the emergence of modern science. Interestingly, the I/W controversy is present ante litteram in Piana’s seventh Conversazione, where he engages critically Italian philosopher and historian of science Ludovico Geymonat. In a section on Husserl of his monumental Storia del pensiero scientifico e filosofico (Geymonat 1970), Geymonat criticizes Husserl on various counts. In particular, as Piana notes, Geymonat’s Galileo is “primarily an experimental physicists. […] No platonism, then, or else an extremely weak form of platonism” (Piana 2013, 129).8 Like Ihde a few decades later, Geymonat believes that Husserl got Galileo, and hence science itself wrong because he didn’t consider Galileo’s experimental work and wrongly construed him as a Platonist. Contra Geymonat, and in line with Wiltsche’s reply to Ihde, Piana explicitly defends the right of the Platonic interpretation of Galileo. Without detracting to more recent trends that take Galileo’s Aristotelianism seriously (see Moran 2012, 80), there is no way to make sense of his bold and famous statement about the great book of nature being written in mathematical language, or his distinction between what would later be called primary and secondary qualities without recognizing a strong Platonic element in his thinking (Piana 2013, 130).

19In order to strengthen this point, it is worth going back to Piana’s account of Husserl’s notion of idealization in the third Conversazione. The general outlook of Husserl’s theory of idealization is fairly well-known:9 the world of experience is world of vague, inexact forms that are apprehended in terms of types, rather than subsumed under strictly defined concepts. There are no geometrical triangles in the world, but only concrete bodies that display a triangular-ish shape, which we can recognize as such based on the typical experiences of triangular-ish shapes we’ve had before. In order to get from the triangular-ish shapes of the world of experience to the triangles of geometry an idealizing procedure is necessary. First, the triangular-ish shapes of concrete bodies must be thematized as such. Second, they must be seen as approximations of an ideal exact triangle, to which the triangular-ish shapes of experience can get more or less close. Piana makes an important remark here, which is often missed or downplayed in standard presentations of Husserl’s account of idealization (for instance, Gérard 2008). Suppose I ask you to draw a triangle on the board and then, after looking at it, ask you to draw another one and this time try to draw the lines a bit straighter. This way of looking at triangular shapes in sensory experience introduces a certain sense of gradualness: the second triangle I ask you to draw is meant to be more ‘precise’, i.e., to get one degree closer to a triangle with actually straight lines. If, in a third attempt, you were to use a ruler, the triangle would move one more step toward a ‘precise’ or ‘perfect’ triangle. Piana comments: “The possibility of gradualness, of more and less, might suggest that even in common parlance the ideal geometrical shape is presupposed. […] By contrast, the gradualness must still be interpreted in the framework of empirical typicality” (Piana 2013, 52).10 Our ability to rank sensible shapes in terms of their ‘precision’ is a certainly a precondition of actual geometrical idealization but must not be conflated with it. At some point our level of precision hits a limit that it cannot further overcome. The triangle I draw with the aid of a ruler might be the most precise triangle I can aspire to get in the sphere of sensibility. It doesn’t get more precise than that. Moreover, our standards of precision depend from the practical goals that guide our activity from time to time. A scribble on the board might be precise enough to represent some triangular-ish thing on some occasions but fall short of the precision required in a geometry class, for instance.

20The idealizing step amounts to a “completely novel operation, a work of thinking and no longer of perception” (Piana 2013, 53).11 It originates in a “merely intellectual reevaluation of the idea of perfectibility that arises already at the empirical level” (Piana 2013, 53).12 When we engage pure thinking, we aren’t simply viewing sensible shapes as approximations of some ideal shapes. Rather, we are engaging in a constructive form of thinking, one that starts with simple elements, such as a point and a line, and constructs a whole ideal world of geometrical shapes through different combinations of the simple elements. Once we access the ideal world of pure shapes in thinking, we no longer need to go ‘back’ to the sensible world. We can operate entirely in the ideal world, combining and recombining the objects constructed in it according to rules that have no counterpart in the world of experience.

21In a further step, the ideal world of geometry can be mathematized, i.e., the geometrical shapes can be converted into purely numerical relations, leaving behind the (indirect) reference to intuitive space that still attaches to them in their ideal form. Thus, as in rational geometry, we can learn to represent geometrical shapes in terms of equations and, once we do that, continue our constructive work solely on the basis of equations, without necessarily having to convert them back into intuitable spatial configurations. Galileo’s intellectual move consists in projecting a treatment of the whole or sensible reality in terms of idealizable and mathematizing models. The physical world, too, can be ‘reconstructed’, as it were, in pure thinking and viewed solely in terms of mathematical relations. This is what Galileo’s famous experiments on projectile motion and falling bodies (see Wiltsche 2017) clearly display. Galileo does not simply observe how projectiles move in the actual world and proceed to idealize what has been observed. Rather, Galileo constructs a purely geometrical grid to look a projectile motion in mathematical terms. He then goes on to prove that projectile motion follows the trajectory of a parable, even if no actual projectile describes a parable in the experienced world.

22So far, so good. But Galileo’s interpretation of the metaphysical meaning of the newfound way of treating the world of experience planted the seed for subsequent objectivism and created the conditions for the crisis of science that would flare up a few centuries later. For Galileo the mathematical relations and the idealized entities constructed by science have true being. They build up the real world as it has been created by God, while the world of experience is demoted to a mere appearance, as the famous interpretation of secondary qualities as being in the sense-organ, rather than the object, goes to show. Galileo did not think through the implications of this metaphysical thesis and the devastating consequences it had for human self-understanding. It was only a few centuries later, when the force of Galileo’s scientific method came to full fruition that the latent objectivism in his metaphysical exaltation of mathematics backfired on human self-understanding. Husserl’s task in Krisis, then, is to rehabilitate the world of experience (the lifeworld) and in so doing reconfigure the relationship between the mathematized world of science and the value-laden world of human culture and history. It is the latter that must be regarded as real in the highest degree. The world of science is a theoretical construction that certainly reveals important aspects of reality, but it cannot be legitimately construed metaphysically as the ‘true world’.

23What about Galileo’s telescope, as Ihde puts it? The analysis up to this point provides us with all the elements we need to respond to Ihde’s thought-provoking critique. First, Galileo pursued various lines of research. When he was trying to convince his contemporaries that the moon is neither perfectly spherical, nor made of an incorruptible ethereal substance, he needed a telescope and looking through a magnifying lens was, in fact, the best way to verify his hypotheses. But it seems arbitrary to stipulate that this is the real or even the most interesting Galileo. No conceivable instrument could have allowed Galileo to interpret projectile motion as he did simply by looking through it. What’s impressive about Galileo’s treatment of projectile motion is the idealizing procedure he devised to isolate and describe it, regardless of how projectiles actually move in the world of experience. The fact that some of Galileo’s most striking scientific achievements were empirically based and involved the use of instruments (such as the exploration of the moon’s surface) does not speak against the revolutionary nature of the idealizing procedures he employed in other striking scientific achievements (such as the explanation of projectile motion). An adequate appreciation of this point also has consequences with respect to Ihde’s contention that the use of instruments closes the gap between the lifeworld and the world of science. Some instruments, such as the telescope, are, indeed, enhancements of our bodily capabilities, such as sight, and their usage does maintain a continuity between the lifeworld and the world disclosed by science. But is it true about all instruments used in science? Take, for example, a mass spectrometer. It is used to determine the chemicals present in a sample by measuring the mass-to-charge-ratio and the abundance of gas-phase ions. How can that be possibly construed as enhancing some bodily capability? Rather, what instruments like mass spectrometers enhance is precisely our intellectual idealizing and mathematizing capabilities. While it might be true that science is always technologically mediated, as Ihde would have it, and that some technologies, such as (some) telescopes, do not depart from lifeworldly experience in that they enhance human bodily capabilities, this is not true of all technologies and thus it proves nothing about science’s estrangement from the lifeworld.

24Piana’s rendering of Husserl on idealization lends additional strength to his signature interpretation of Galileo as the father of modern science and despite the fact that this interpretation does not capture in full the historical Galileo, or the variety of his scientific achievements, it is still a powerful and convincing account of the scientific revolution and the potential threat to human self-understanding that goes with it.

2.3. Piana on the L/dW controversy

25In the previous sections I have made abundant references to the term ‘lifeworld’, which is one of the most successful coinages in Husserl’s entire work. As I mentioned above, a controversy about how to best interpret the concept of lifeworld has recently emerged among Husserl scholars. There is a longstanding tradition of considering the lifeworld a ‘problematical’ concept in Husserl (Moran 2012, 178), since it is characterized in many different ways, some of which do not seem to be entirely compatible. The L/dW controversy is a controversy about whether the lifeworld can be plausibly construed as a world of human culture or it should be viewed as an elusive dimension, an ‘unconscious of the world’, in De Warren’s phrasing, that cannot be understood as constituted by the accomplishments of a transcendental subject.

26Where does Piana stand on this issue? My treatment here, as in the next subsection, will be brief, first, because the materials in Piana’s book are sparse and, second, because I believe that the controversy can be solved rather quickly. Piana’s approach to the lifeworld is laudably deflationary. It resists a tendency to over-theorize the lifeworld that has been characteristic of post-husserlian phenomenology and that, I suspect, is the chief responsible for the L/dW controversy. Piana asks rhetorically:

What else is the lifeworld than what Husserl, in his later works, called sometimes ‘world of experience’, or even ‘surrounding world’—i.e. the world that surrounds us and in which we live day by day? (Piana 2013, 14)13

27In subsequent references to the lifeworld Piana emphasizes that it is a more encompassing way of designating a dimension that Husserl had already explored lifelong and that, therefore, it shouldn’t be considered a novel and problematic concept.

28If we look at the L/dW controversy from Piana’s deflationary point of view, it can be easily dissolved. In one sense, Luft is certainly right that the lifeworld is not an obscure, subterranean dimension of reality but the world in which we live, which is always necessarily a cultural and historical world. De Warren is also right in highlighting some potential dangers in Luft’s talk of culture: while the lifeworld is cultural and historical, it cannot be reductively identified with one culture. Precisely because it is a “subjective accomplishment” (Husserl 1970, § 14), there is an intrinsic fluidity to the lifeworld. It is a dimension where subjective sense-formations become sedimented, forgotten, re-activated, where they can be criticized and recast in different ways. No culture in the singular can fully capture or claim for itself alone the status of the lifeworld. This, fact, however, does not authorize us to imagine that the lifeworld would be some kind of matrix that lies beneath the plurality of cultural worlds or an obscure ‘unconscious’ that points toward an a-subjective ground of meaning. True, this is how the lifeworld was recast by post-husserlian phenomenologists who were interested in connecting phenomenology and psychoanalysis or introducing a dialectical element in Husserl’s thinking that would lead beyond the idea of a constituting transcendental subject. These are all viable and valuable projects in their own right, but when it comes to Husserl, less is more with respect to the lifeworld.

29The safest and least problematic way to characterize the lifeworld is to highlight with Bernhard Waldenfels its polemical nature (quoted in Moran 2012, 183): it is a concept that only makes sense by reference and by contrast to the world of natural science. The lifeworld is thus, as Piana puts it, the intuitive surrounding world of our daily lives, considered in its full historical and cultural thickness. True, in Husserl’s research manuscripts the term takes on a life of its own, as it were, and it is sometimes used in the plural or in the context of analyses that do not pertain directly to the issue of idealization and mathematization. However, careful readers of these analyses, which can be found in the voluminous Husserliana XXXIX (Husserl 2008) will soon realize that the term lifeworld here is no terminus technicus, but rather a placeholder for a variety of issues that are determined from time to time by the systematic context in which the term comes up. Under the rubric ‘lifeworld’ Husserl sometimes describes the world of simple perceptual experience, sometimes the traditionalized world of cultural achievements, sometimes the homeworld of one’s culture of origin vis-à-vis the alien world of a foreign culture. I don’t believe there is a point in trying to determine a systematically fundamental meaning of the lifeworld, or in complaining that Husserl is vague and inconsistent about it. Here, as it is often the case in phenomenology, we shouldn’t look for more systematicity than the subject-matter allows. The inherent fluidity of phenomenological concept-formation, which Husserl proudly avows many times, perhaps reaches its apex with the concept of lifeworld. Rather than trying to fix the fluidity, it is advisable to delve deep into the concrete analyses that Husserl proposes and leave the question of systematicity aside.

30Piana’s deflationary approach to the lifeworld is thus commendable and it marks a helpful distinction between actual phenomenological analysis and the speculative theorizing that often accompanied reflections on the notion of lifeworld among Husserlian scholars. Rather than asking what the lifeworld is in Husserl’s thought, it is more helpful to look at what it does: it opens up fruitful avenues of research, all framed within the overarching distinction between the world of science and the world of everyday experience, but all to be pursued along different lines of description.

3 | The relationship between pre-predicative experience and the lifeworld: a systematic issue in Husserl’s late work

31What about the systematic venue of Krisis in Husserl’s late work? In the preface to his Conversazioni Piana tells us that the lecture course on which the book is based was actually titled ‘The topic of the lifeworld and pre-predicative structures in Husserl’s philosophy’ (Piana 2013, 7).14 He then explains that, after rereading his lecture notes, he decided to focus exclusively on Krisis and leave the other topics aside. It would be interesting to go back to Piana’s notes and see how he articulated the relationship between pre-predicative experience and the lifeworld in the lecture course. I have devoted to this question a recently published book-chapter (Staiti 2018), where I take issue with Ludwig Landgrebe’s thesis, in the introduction to Husserl’s Experience and Judgment (Husserl 1974 [1939]) that the movement back (Rückgang) from the idealized world of science to the lifeworld (Krisis) is identical with the movement back from predicative to pre-predicative experience (Experience and Judgment) (Husserl 1974, 51). For a number of both textual and purely philosophical reasons, I argue, contra Landgrebe, that the lifeworld in Krisis is a world shot through with the products of predicative activity and therefore it cannot be equated with a ‘world’ of categorially or linguistically inarticulate perceptual experience. On my reading, ‘pre-predicative experience’ in Experience and Judgment is nothing but a layer in the complex and stratified whole that is the lifeworld in Krisis.

32Where does Piana stand on this issue? The few hints that are still present in the published text seem to suggest the following picture: unlike Landgrebe, Piana does not identify the movement back from the world of science to the lifeworld with the movement back from predicative to pre-predicative experience; however, like Landgrebe, he tends to view these two projects as intimately connected. Piana writes, for instance: “Husserl often talks about pre-predicative structures and it is this general topic that, in the Crisis, takes on the shape of the relationship between science and the lifeworld” (Piana 2013, 14).15 On this account, then, the two topics stand in a generality/particularity viz. specificity relationship: pre-predicative structures are the general topic, of which the lifeworld is a specification; however, a few chapters later in the text, oddly enough, we find the reverse view. In introducing a new topic after discussing extensively the notion of crisis, which we addressed above, Piana writes:

It is a topic we hinted at from the beginning. In its broadest generalization it is compressed under the heading ‘lifeworld’, but in its specifications, particularly with regard to the theory of judgment, refers to the problem of pre-predicative structures, thereby establishing the link between the phenomenological way as a whole and the pre-phenomenological phase of the Philosophy of Arithmetics (Piana 2013, 50).16

33In this second quote the general topic is taken to be the lifeworld and its specification in the sphere of the theory of judgment is the problem of pre-predicative experience. The difficulty in determining correctly the relationship between these two projects is a clear sign that more work needs to be done in order to make some real progress. Preliminarily, it is advisable to keep the projects distinct and not be confused by the traditional tendency to conflate them. Suffice to say here that there is one major difficulty in determining the relationship between the problem of pre-predicative structures and the problem of the lifeworld in terms of generality and particularity, regardless of what topic is taken to be the general one. Pre-predicative experience is a domain where a whole array of complex syntheses, both passive and active, take place, whose products are the objects we encounter in perception. Husserl’s point in Experience and Judgment, as well as the lectures on passive synthesis, is that the syntheses happening at the level of pre-predicative experience prefigure, as it were, the active syntheses that happen at the level of predicative, categorially driven experience. The guiding insight here is that, despite the differences, there are thoroughgoing affinities between the sphere of the pre-predicative and the sphere of the predicative, such that predicative syntheses can be traced back to, and thereby grounded in, pre-predicative syntheses. By contrast, there is no affinity whatsoever between the objects and situations we encounter in the lifeworld and the idealized and mathematized objects of natural science. The modes of constitution that are operative in these two spheres are thoroughly heterogeneous even though, as Piana correctly emphasizes, for Husserl we must be able to trace back the origin of scientific idealizations to the lifeworld. But that is a very different kind of task, both methodologically and theoretically. Piana is right that the core of Husserlian phenomenology is the problem of origins (Piana 2013, 7) and it is this insight that motivates his attempt to bring pre-predicative experience and the lifeworld under the same umbrella; however, phenomenological origins are said in many ways, and despite the continuity running through Husserl’s work, there is no one ‘general’ problem of origins that undergoes different specifications. There are different problems of origins, each of which require a particular methodological and conceptual approach. Pre-predicative experience and the lifeworld are two Gestalten of the problem of origin that do not and cannot stand in a general/particular relationship.

4 | Recapitulation and final remarks

34It’s time to sum up. Piana’s Conversazioni is a masterpiece of phenomenological analysis and Husserlian scholarship. It has the potential to address all the recent controversies about Husserl’s Krisis and contribute to their solution, dissolution, or reconfiguration. The T/H controversy about the specific venue of Husserl’s diagnosed crisis is solved through a distinction between internal and external perspective on science, and it leads to a conception of the loss of significance for life that is nothing but the crisis of scientificity in full disguise. The I/W controversy is solved in favor of Wiltsche: idealization and mathematization are, indeed, the most striking and revolutionary features of Galileo’s method, and no appeal to the use of instruments and experiments can plausibly undermine Husserl’s argument. The L/dW controversy is dissolved thanks to a laudably deflationary approach to the lifeworld. As for the relationship between pre-predicative experience and lifeworld, Piana reconfigures it vis-à-vis Landgrebe’s received view, since he no longer posits the identity of Rückgang to the lifeworld and Rückgang to pre-predicative experience: he views the relationship between the two as, respectively, the general and the specific formulation of the same problem of origin. Here, however, we must depart from Piana’s interpretation, too. The two projects in Husserl’s late philosophy are distinct and more work needs to be done in order to determine their relationship convincingly.


  • 1 “In realtà, chi si limitasse a prendere in considerazione solo la Crisi delle scienze europee avrebbe un’immagine del tutto distorta della filosofia di Husserl.”
  • 2 “l’epoca si fa avanti e compenetra forma e contenuto del testo.”
  • 3 “Vi è infatti anche un altro senso della scientificità: ed è in rapporto ad esso che è possibile parlare di crisi, riferendola al tempo presente. Per coglierlo dobbiamo disporci all’esterno della scienza. Cosa che non significa rivolgersi ad essa in modo estrinseco: significa invece tentare di cogliere il nesso che collega la scienza nella sua forma attuale e negli orientamenti intellettuali che essa suggerisce e la cultura nel suo insieme.”
  • 4 “Non abbiamo più di fronte a noi degli scopi che possano essere sensatamente perseguiti: abbiamo perso il controllo sulle cose, ci troviamo impotenti di fronte ad una realtà che segue il suo corso che ci è estraneo e ostile. Allora viene certamente meno la condizione prima dell’ottimismo che consiste in un legame con la realtà tale per cui essa ci appare come plasmabile secondo gli obbiettivi che noi vorremmo perseguire in essa. La soggettività deve poter sopravanzare sull’oggettività, sia pure facendo i conti con la sua durezza. All’oggettività debbono poter essere imposti scopi soggettivi: questa è la condizione prima, il presupposto per poter ritornare ad essere partecipi dell’Inno alla gioia.”
  • 5 This doesn’t apply exclusively to laypeople. It would be interesting to compile a list of absurdities that populate the writings of would-be philosopher scientists and would-be scientist philosophers, such as ego-tunnels, egoist genes, reality as a large-scale hallucination, etc.
  • 6 “Un concetto della scienza in cui la realtà viene presupposta come un puro complesso di dati di fatto che sono così come sono, e l’unico problema è il fissarli nella loro oggettività può diventare il motore di un movimento di privazione di senso della realtà stessa.
  • 7 I have explored the idea of naturalism as a Weltanschauung in Staiti (2017).
  • 8 “Va subito detto che Geymonat appartiene al novero di quegli interpreti per il quale Galileo è soprattutto un fisico sperimentale […]. Niente platonismo, dunque—o un platonismo alquanto debole.”
  • 9 I have offered my own version of Husserl’s argument in Krisis § 9 in Staiti (2014 and 2018, 165-168).
  • 10 “La possibilità della ‘gradualità’, del più e del meno potrebbe far pensare che persino nel discorso corrente la figura geometrico–ideale sia presupposta. […] Invece la gradualità deve ancora essere interpretata all’interno della tipicità empirica.”
  • 11 “[… ] un’operazione del tutto nuova, è opera del pensiero, e non più della percezione.”
  • 12 “[… ] trasvalutazione meramente intellettuale dell’idea della perfezionabilità che sorge già sul terreno empirico.”
  • 13 “Che cos’altro è il ‘mondo della vita’ se non ciò che nelle opere precedenti veniva talora chiamato ‘mondo dell’esperienza’ (Welterfahrung) o anche ‘mondo circostante’ (Umwelt)—quindi il mondo che circonda e nel quale viviamo ogni giorno?” This position is fully consistent with Dermot Moran’s helpful reconstruction of the various concepts of ‘world’ in Husserl (Moran 2013).
  • 14 “La tematica del mondo della vita e delle strutture antepredicative nella filosofia di Husserl.”
  • 15 “Husserl parla spesso di strutture ‘antepredicative’ ed è questa tematica di ordine generale che prende poi la forma, teorizzata nella Crisi, del rapporto tra scienza e ‘mondo della vita’.”
  • 16 Si tratta del tema a cui abbiamo accennato fin dall’inizio e che nella sua massima generalizzazione, viene riunito sotto il titolo di ‘mondo della vita’, ma che nelle sue specificazioni, in particolare sul terreno della ‘teoria del giudizio’, rimanda alla problematica delle strutture antepredicative—e infine stabilisce il raccordo tra il percorso fenomenologico nel suo complesso e la fase prefenomenologica della Filosofia dell’aritmetica.


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Publication details

Published in:

Caminada Emanuele, Summa Michela (2020) Giovanni Piana. Phenomenological Reviews Special Issue 1.

Pages: 157-178

DOI: 10.19079/PR.s1.10

Full citation:

Staiti Andrea (2020) „Giovanni Piana's "Conversazioni" and some recent controversies on Husserl's "Krisis"“. Phenomenological Reviews 1, 157–178.