Phenomenological Reviews

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The idea of Europe and the responsibility of philosophy

Conversations on "The Crisis of European Sciences", by Giovanni Piana

Stefano Cardini

pp. 295-305


11 There are books, life changing books, you can wait twenty years for. As far as I am concerned, I consider one of these to be Conversazioni su “La crisi delle scienze europee” di Husserl (Conversations on ‘The Crisis of European Sciences’ by Husserl)2 by Giovanni Piana, one of Enzo Paci’s scholars, and certainly one of the most rational, original and prolific Italian phenomenologists.

2Edmund Husserl’s last major work is in fact a victim of a rather singular paradox.

3It was considered for a long time by many commentators, including both adepts and critics of phenomenology, to represent the most complete synthesis of Husserl’s thinking. Moreover, for just as long, as a result of its focus many regarded phenomenology as mainly a school thought addressing the European koine crisis. As such, it reached far beyond the predicament as revealed to the eyes of the Jewish Husserl: the 1930’s, growing to anti-Semitism in Germany and the Second World War. Yet, now that European unity is a concrete project (albeit in the throes of crisis, not only an economic one, but also human), Husserlʼs Crisis is no longer discussed. The writer accepts full responsibility for this connection with current affairs. However, in actual fact, there is no trace of it in the book. Nevertheless, it proved to be simply impossible to ignore, which fueled my interest even more. Good modern philosophy also flows from tact and reticence, waiting for the uproar that has stirred up to die down and face in the background. It seeks all of a sudden to encapsulate a thought, just when that thought can acquire meaning again. The suggestion that certain passages in Husserlʼs work, which are quoted by Piana, undeniably have relevance for us is in fact entirely sound. And it calls to mind, once again, the challenge with which we as Europeans are confronted:

A nation, a humanity, lives and works in the fullness of power when it is sustained by a faith in itself and in a beautiful and good sense of its cultural life that keeps it going; when, therefore, it not only lives (in general), but lives to meet what it considers to be great, and is satisfied in its progressive achievements in the realization of genuine and increasing values. To be a worthy member of such a humanity, to cooperate for such a culture, to contribute to its noble values—all this makes the happiness of those who are competent and elevates them beyond their individual worries and misfortunes. We have lost this faith which elevated us and our fathers and which was transferred to those nations which, like the Japanese, have only recently joined the European cultural work (Husserl 1989, 3).

4Piana, however, does not give in to the temptation to update the Crisis yet again simply as a result of the effects of current circumstances. His intent is, if anything, to give back to the text not only its richness but its full depth, which decades of reading have overlooked. And he does this by choosing the style of ‘Conversations’, which is nothing new for him. By doing so he sweeps away any presumption that the meaning of the text can be reconstructed impartially, as well as any attempt to reduce it to a mere philosophical aspiration. Indeed, it is in the subtle interplay between the theoretical discussion of a conceptual problem and its historical time frame that the richness and depth of a work can be brought to light. This methodological approach, which is here not only explained but also implemented in a commendable manner, is the first contribution offered by this book.

5We should not therefore be surprised by this move, as Piana’s reflections on the Crisis are based on the pages most directly connected to it, Husserl’s work as a whole and in particular to the theoretical motifs already present at the outset of phenomenology. Indeed, despite the alleged discontinuity which, according to a commonplace interpretation, permeates Husserl’s thought, this motif was present throughout. Therefore, the European koine crisis is addressed. However, this is done by starting, first of all, from the problem of the overall constitutive rules of the perception and idealizing operations that are possible, starting from that essential field of experience. These problems lay at the heart of Husserl’s interests right since the Philosophie der Arithmetik (1891) and Logische Untersuchungen (1900, 1901). Surprisingly though, for some time they have not constituted the reference point for the Crisis. This has some surprising consequences for those who know Husserl well in rendering phenomenology unequivocally, to some extent, an irrationalist philosophy. And it also renders the Crisis an anti-scientific work.

6Starting from the general continuity within Husserlian thought however, Piana takes up the thread of explanation in order to highlight the reasons behind the choice made by Husserl—at the age of seventy—to hold lectures in Prague and Vienna in 1935, which provided the framework for the Crisis, posthumously published in 1954. In fact, Piana states that this work “presents an application for the return of the sense of science to the values of life and human existence” (Piana 2013, 13). However, this goal (which, if expressed in this way, could be interpreted in different ways) must be regarded as a general statement of a problem of seemingly lesser import, but with greater implications: “every conceptual development, particularly those concepts which play a key role within scientific processing—for example the concept of body, time, space, cause etc.—as well as for mathematical and logical concepts—for example, number, calculation, subject, value, predicate, relation—originate in the daily and concrete experience of reality” (Piana 2013, 13-14). Husserl’s entire works are indeed dominated by the idea of origins, writes Piana. This specific description of the problem regarding the transfer of the meaning of science to the values of life cannot assist in understanding either the recurring Husserlian reference throughout his work to so-called ‘pre-predicative structures’ or the proposition, within the Crisis, of the crucial theme of the rooting of science and its conceptual developments in the lifeworld and its practices. The crisis that Husserl blames the European sciences for in no way scrutinizes the legitimacy and value of the methods and results of European sciences. However, a certain philosophical way of understanding them, and the resulting skeptical outcomes, is argued to constitute the basis for what he considers as the European koine crisis. Thus, from this point of view, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology is nothing other than the title under which Husserl intends to retrace the teleology that is inherent within the history of philosophy. According to this approach, the ultimate sense of scientific undertakings and achievements (which led first of all the Greeks to spiritual clarity) is always disinterred and then misplaced, or perhaps more simply misunderstood, along the way. And particularly in the Renaissance we find a turning point that needs to be analyzed.

7After all, the Renaissance is, for Husserl, the epoch which hypothesizes Euclidean geometry as a model for science, or as an axiomatic system that in its own way operates according to implicit objective idealized procedures for measuring pure forms of space. The principles governing those procedures can already be found in the field of perceptual experience and practices of measurement and can finally be generalized to all entities and beings towards which we direct our cognitive interest. It is on this Galilean idea of the science of nature which the Crisis focuses in particular. Indeed, for Husserl, it is only with Galileo that modern science really begins. And this is because, as Piana highlights “In Galileo it is not just a question of a reference to an ideal of rigorous science, but it is extended to the physical world in general, that means the world of bodies, movements and the relations between them, those objective procedures which have already produced prolific results in the field of forms and relations between spaces” (Piana 2013, 65). The idea of fathoming the true being of physical things is thus directly connected with that of mathematising a nature whose model is geometry. In short: “What was possible for space must become possible for the real world in general” (Piana 2013, 73).

8It is here that the epistemologically illegitimate passage at the center of the problems of the Crisis lies/falls apart. Moreover, it is rooted in the unequivocally Platonic reading that Galileo offers of his knowledge, in keeping seemingly with the experimental nature of his method. Overlooking the focus on the idealizing procedures underlying the objectification of the concepts of body, space, time, movement and so on, whose relations he admirably takes into account through his mathematical formulas, Galileo ends up philosophically comparing the apparent sensory world of experience to the mathematised world, which is interpreted as the real world. This contrast gives rise to the famous distinction between primary and secondary qualities which, although historically attributed to Locke, had already been previously asserted by Galileo and by Plato in his Theaetetus. In fact, if interpreted literally, a distinction between primary and secondary qualities would be absolutely unsustainable: how could we consider the aspects through which the shape of something is given, from the nuances that reveal its color based on the incidence of light, to be more objective? This enabled Galileo to formalize the method of idealization that is implicit within measurement practices as a distinctive feature of his science of nature, which could be extended to all fields of knowledge. However, notes Piana, this method does not work equally well in relation to any object of experience whatsoever. In particular, it does not work with what Husserl calls plena sensibili, i.e., the objects of our own experience, not considered as simple bodies, idealizable and geometrically concrete according to their possibility of movement and causal relations. A few simple examples are sufficient to realize this. The difference between our empirical circles and the perfect circle of geometry—to quote just one case—bears no significant similarity to the chromatic experience of things, where every nuance, even if the color remains the same, has the same right to be considered perfect. For this reason, we cannot speak of a geometry of colors in the same way we do, and rightly so, of a geometry of shapes.

9This is a decisive point. It could moreover question also certain ‘Derridean’ readings of Husserl proposed in Introduction à ‘L’origine de la géométrie’ (1962). Piana does not deal with these. Instead, he analyses his own specific interpretative framework. Drawing on his Platonizing reading of his science of nature, Piana writes, Galileo suggests the need to trace every qualitative event to events that take place within a sphere of mathematically controllable entities. But this is not all. Husserl points out that, from a methodological level, he moves the question, illogically, on to an ontological level. A key role is played in this transition by the notions of atoms, as a geometric and physical point within possible movement and causality. If we were able to trace the cause of qualitative events back to autonomous events, we would have obtained the generality required by our tendency to mathematise reality. The price we may have to pay, and that Galileo and many in his wake have paid, is to give in to the idea that the event should be understood as only as an apparent event, “that refers to an underlying reality as its true reality” (Piana 2013, 75).

10Along this path, then, the relationship between science and lifeworld, that is to say, “our world from which every cognitive instance originates and eventually returns” (Piana 2013, 78) can become increasingly more remote. So much so, we may completely lose track of the subjective and inter-subjective constitutive operations that lie at the root of the methodologies on which our scientific consciousness is based. All of this, however, has nothing to do with an anti-scientific or anti-technological attitude, which at that time certainly included Martin Heidegger amongst its most renowned proponents. On the contrary, against those philosophers who adopted a style of thought that was supposedly more profound than the supposed empty formalisms of science and the distortions of technology, Piana quotes unambiguous passages from the Crisis, where the condemnation of the loss of the original sense of the methodical operations of knowledge is connected in the same way with the emphasis placed on their validity as well their wealth and abundance of thought (Piana 2013, 83).

11Nevertheless, the comments made above cannot yet account for the significance that Husserl places on the issue of the Crisis in his last work, an emphasis that goes beyond the simple epistemological description, assigning the European koine to forms that require additional reasoning in order to be understood. In order to achieve this, following a rich argument which cannot be described in full here, Piana addresses the idea of the relationships that Husserl sets out between phenomenology and philosophical tradition. This concerns specifically the question of teleology inherent within the history of thought, of which the German philosopher wanted to provide an account in the Crisis, but the outlines of which can already be found in the First Philosophy volume VII of the Husserliana series (based on his seminal lecture course at the University of Freiburg during the winter semester 1923-24 and published in Italian in 1989 in the volume Storia critica delle idee—Guerini e Associati—edited by Piana himself). It is also apparent, albeit from a different perspective, in Einleitung in die Ethik by Edmund Husserl: lectures on ethics held by the philosopher in Freiburg between 1920 and 1924 (Husserl 2004).

12The debt that Husserl acknowledges to the philosophical tradition indeed appears to be twofold and well-defined. Whilst, on one hand, it can claim heritage in the rationalist programmatic principles of the radical refoundation of the science by Descartes and Kant, on the other it is the empiricist legacy, found particularly in Hume’s philosophy, that inspires him in his meticulous phenomenological analysis, or rather, in the real deployment of the descriptive work, a real feature of the phenomenological method. And this dual soul, seamlessly complementary, is of the utmost importance in order to fully understand the interplay between the epistemological and the ethical, and between the theoretical and the ideological, within a complex text like The Crisis. Although Descartes with his Metaphysical Meditations is given credit for identifying the ultimate future foundation for every possible truth, he misunderstood its meaning, in the certainty that he would be able to infer a system of science from this discovery without having to embark upon a real descriptive task.

13David Hume approached the matter differently and, in particular in his Treatise of Human Nature, created an authentic first phenomenological-constitutive analysis. The lack of clear methodological assumptions would ultimately have been fatal for his philosophy, the skeptical results of which within the epistemological context are accompanied by a limit that Husserl identified as anything but secondary: the lack of a fitting ethos, that is to say, the prevailing and unjustified tendency to reduce philosophy—its questions, its investigations and its arguments—to nothing more than a cultured and sophisticated intellectual divertissement. This is worlds apart then from the seriousness with which Husserl always refers to philosophy and its tasks, a seriousness that on a programmatic level is reminiscent of Descartes, as well as to Kant and his idea of transcendental idealism not only of theoretical reason but also, and indeed primarily, of practical reason. And yet it would be wrong to consider Husserl as an heir to Kant’s concrete research method. The reference to Kant, which is very strong in terms of general programmatic aspects, is indeed completely misleading from the point of view of philosophical merit. This consideration is also relevant in the manner to the way in which Hume’s empiricist lesson remains central to Husserl. As Piana clearly summarizes: “In the ideas of Kant, judgement precedes experience, its forms are a priori. And already Husserl’s great and unique work Experience and Judgment shows that in fact by adopting a phenomenological viewpoint we would move in exactly the opposite direction” (Piana 2013, 107).

14All this is also relevant in understanding the Crisis. As a matter of fact, it is important to recognize that from the beginning “the introduction of the concept of phenomenology through the epoché, that is to say, as Husserl often puts it, the phenomenological reduction theory, is portrayed by Husserl himself as a real turning point within one’s own thoughts” (Piana 2013, 111). This portrayal is gradually strengthened until it reaches a culmination in the Crisis, a climax that is hardly justified by the mainly methodological concerns at the start of that journey. In the Crisis, Husserl writes that the epoché is capable of reaching the most philosophical profoundness and that by means of it a radical change of humanity is possible. However, it also explains how it is destined to produce “complete personal transformation, comparable in the beginning to a religious conversion, which then, however, over and above this, bears within itself the signifi|cance of the greatest existential transformation which is assigned as a task to mankind as such” (Husserl 1970, 137). This undeniable change of register is an indicator, for Piana, of the forceful incorporation of new reasoning into his reflections, which reach beyond the theoretical issues and force us to analyze the historical context from which the subjects of the Crisis originate. Recognizing an ideological trend in the Crisis, after all, certainly does not mean lessening its significance. If anything, it would seem to enhance its richness, also in historical and cultural terms.

15The reference to the context within which Husserl’s desire to attempt to offer an answer to the genuine catastrophe that his generation was witnessing and in which he was actively participating becomes inescapable. “The crisis is not a word or part of a title of a book. It is an entire era, the era of the great tragedy, of the abyss in which Europe plunges during the First World War and becomes increasingly dark with the approach of the second. It is the age of great upheavals and revolutions—the Russian Revolution and its tragic Stalinist epilogue, Mussolini and Fascism and Nazism” (Piana 2013, 119). It is the spirit of cultural optimism of an age, an age of a Europe which, under guidance that was considered to be rational in its scientific and technological progress, seemed to have been expanding without resistance. Husserl had certainly been trained to appreciate this optimism, and he now asked himself: How was this possible? The issue was how that clear idea of Europe, which was destined to become a universal koine based on the values of theoretical and practical reason, came to contradict itself and its ideals, witnessing such barbarism on its very own soil.

16From this point of view, the Crisis represents Husserl’s attempt to present his own response to these worrying questions. And in order to retrace the consequences with more precision, Piana compares his answer to those proffered by the different philosophical traditions with which, albeit in different ways, Husserlian thought was intertwined. This occurred within a heated and passionate debate concerning the viewpoints of both Heideggerian existentialism and Viennese neopositivism. As distant as these philosophical perspectives might seem to be from the judgement on modernity, science and technology, or indeed in some ways as rejecting them outright, both seem to glide along an openly irrationalist plane from which—aside from any stubborn disagreements highlighted by Piana—phenomenology was kept at a clear distance.

17Such irrationalism in fact offered the soil on which Martin Heidegger’s endorsement of Nazism matured. As Piana states, this is something rather more than an external event to Sein und Zeit (Heidegger 1927), even though, a large group of ‘minimisers’, as Paolo Rossi calls them, has often avoided this issue. It is sufficient to recall paragraphs 53, on death, to 74, on the destiny of the community, in which Heidegger advocates the notion that the only genuine way of existence for Being is the forethought of death, the sacrifice by those who are “in favour of being” for the benefit of the community, of the people, in view of the “continuation of the struggle”; these expressions echo some renowned passages from Mein Kampf by Hitler, such as those in the chapter on People and Race. However, although in a way opposed to Heidegger’s dark, anti-modern philosophy, logical neopositivism ended up in causing a kind of bankruptcy of rationality. This happened as a result of the legacy of passive optimism inherited from the previous century through which the scientific, technological and industrial transformation of its time was accepted. The blindness in face of these dramatic contradictions that modernity amassed was caused by this optimism. It also occasioned the silence regarding the need to develop rational strategies in order to resolve them. The conclusion reached by Rudolph Carnap in Der logische Aufbau der Welt (Carnap 1928) by the Vienna Circle is symbolic in this sense. If in fact, so the argument goes, aside from analytical propositions and propositions concerning the particular state of things, there is nothing aside from a dark feeling of life itself expressed in myth, religion, art, and if the non-neopositivist philosopher is nothing but a metaphysician, that is to say, ‘a talentless musician’, then it is clear that rationality has no role to play outside the field of scientific thought. Thus, instead of the Heideggerian ‘nothing’ as opposed to the ageless, rather inauthentic ‘yes’, neopositivists end up imagining a no less obscure ‘feeling of life itself’, before which rationality is laid to rest. And sure enough, it was silent. Perhaps it was disconcerted in the face of such events, in such striking contrast to its expectations.

18None of this can be found in the Crisis by Husserl. Here, even if there is positivism, it is critical and radically active. However, it is one that calls into question the idea of Husserl’s so-called idealism, in a new interpretation in which the reference to the transcendental played a systematic role, above all, in underlining and analyzing the break in continuity between phenomenology and any form of naturalist study. Piana rightly highlights this issue, when he writes that you cannot understand The Crisis of European Sciences “if you do not recognize an understanding of the historical process which sees the movement of ideas as its essential driving force” (Piana 2013, 185). Indeed, faced with the problem of studying the reasons behind the crisis, Husserl never himself addresses “the real account of the resolve of its economic-social processes, in its historically specific conflicts which are not, unfortunately, only conflicts of ideas: we turn exclusively to the history of philosophy” (Piana 2013, 185). And this should be understood as an ideal conflict that seems to have to rely on its own arguments alone: the conflict between objectivity and transcendentalism, between a reasoning, unaware of the grounds on which it rests its claim, and a reasoning based on the idea of being about to account for, phenomenologically speaking, its own reasoning. This is an example of real rationalism.

19And it is where the subject of teleology gains ground, along with the role that philosophy has to play throughout history. In fact, against the dramatic backdrop of 1930s Europe, transcendental phenomenology, as it had been known up until then, almost faded away, precisely because its tasks had been overestimated. It becomes “a sort of creed of redemption, which tends to lose its grip on reality and dissolves into the horizons of utopia” (Piana 2013, 188). It is no longer only the philosopher who is called to revolutionize his observations on the world, but humanity itself. This revolution, Piana writes, must carry through “from forms of existence in which people are under the rule of ‘things’ to forms of existence in which the ‘thing’ is overtaken by subjectivity and society itself can then determine its own destiny” (Piana 2013, 188). The philosopher, as an official of humanity, has the task of igniting this awakening of reason. It is a role which Husserl, using a platonic reference, does not hesitate to call an Archontic one.

20The new emphasis placed on transcendental phenomenology and on its epoché as the right way is clearly apparent. The epoché has moved on from being a methodical index to being a historical one leading towards a conversion of the spirit, in an almost religious way. However, the revolution called for is entirely philosophical: reawakening Europe to its rational task, for Husserl, the destiny of humanity as a whole, so as to escape the logic of reality as a place of duress and violence, a place of abuse of power between nations, races, individuals and violence that does not recognize any moral standard.

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 (Husserl 1970, 299).

21“A proclamation of hope”, writes Piana, towards the end. “But also of impotence.”

Publication details

Published in:

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

Pages: 295-305

DOI: 10.19079/PR.s1.18

Full citation:

Cardini Stefano (2020) „The idea of Europe and the responsibility of philosophy: Conversations on "The Crisis of European Sciences", by Giovanni Piana“. Phenomenological Reviews 1, 295–305.