- Descartes and Husserl. The Philosophical Project of Radical Beginnings
The enormous influence exerted by Descartes on Husserl's phenomenological philosophy cannot be underestimated. Not only is Husserl quite open and explicit about his philosophical debt to Descartes, but the fundamental motivation of the phenomenological [End Page 593] method (directed towards apodeicticity and the purification of consciousness) would most likely be meaningless without reference to the Cartesian precedent. Consequently, almost every exegetical approach to Husserlian phenomenology has at least mentioned the relevance of the Cartesian tradition. Unfortunately, rare has been the phenomenological treatment of Descartes current with the latest scholarship. As an exception to this general shortcoming, MacDonald's book is a most welcome entry into Husserl scholarship.
One of MacDonald's main theses is that Descartes and Husserl shared similarities in historical circumstances and, thus, shared similar motives for their "radical beginnings" in philosophy. With regards to Descartes' historical circumstances, by providing a breathtaking overview of sixteenth-century skepticism, MacDonald gives a cogent account of what led to Descartes' attempted construction of an absolute epistemological foundation for philosophy. However, the "conceptual confusions and collapses" of neo-skepticism will "survive the Cartesian overthrow and, like a persistent contagion" (31) reappear in the form of nineteenth-century psychologism. MacDonald does a convincing job of highlighting the skeptical profile of psychologism by providing systematic parallels between the mainstays of neo-skepticism and nineteenth-century psychologism: namely, distrust of objective knowledge, subjective reductionism and epistemological relativism. Accordingly, what motivates Husserl's epoché has both historical and systematic resources in the Cartesian reduction. The point itself is nothing new, and Husserl himself stresses the skepticism of nineteenth-century psychologism, but the scholarship and erudition that inform MacDonald's detailed historical account is to be commended.
The truly ambitious aspect of the book, however, is the painstakingly worked out systematic comparison between the respective philosophical projects. In this respect, MacDonald takes two correlated approaches. The first approach takes up the metaphors of discovery and "voyage of exploration" (5) common to both thinkers' writings in order to explicate the meaning of philosophical transformation or "conversion," a "cognitive-affective reorientation of the whole self" (227). However, these metaphors are to be understood as symptomatic of deeper formal parallels between the two thinkers.
The second approach begins with the daring claim that "Descartes' and Husserl's formal ontologies are . . . functionally equivalent" (95), a claim MacDonald proposes to reinforce by examining the structural parallels between Descartes' simple-complex dyad on the one hand and Husserl's part-whole theory as introduced in the Third Logical Investigations. This claim is brought into relief by a reformation of Descartes' conception of "ideas." Rather than restrict the Cartesian conception of ideas to "objective content," MacDonald emphasizes the act-quality of Cartesian ideas (125-7). Thereby an intentional conception of Cartesian ideas is made possible. Anyone familiar with Husserl should not find this surprising: what MacDonald is trying to suggest is a division of Cartesian ideas into noesis and noema, with the "material" aspect of act-ideas finding phenomenological restoration in Husserl's "hyletic data." With these elements in place, MacDonald largely succeeds in constructing a fuller and richer than usual comparison between methodical doubt and the phenomenological reduction (151ff), centered on a non-mystical eidetic intuitionism. MacDonald's ultimate conclusion is [End Page 594] that Husserlian phenomenology, as "first philosophy," is thoroughly consistent with Cartesian metaphysics, now understood as "second philosophy" (243).
MacDonald's systematic conclusions are much bolder than one might think, since they are adduced by running against the letter of Husserl's own interpretation of Descartes. The background claim is that Husserl himself did not fully appreciate his debt to Descartes, and it is this exegetical failure that has led to his eventual abandonment of the "Cartesian Way." However, in order to make such an assertion, MacDonald would be obligated to demonstrate the Cartesian influences on the phenomenological pillars of the later Husserl: i.e., temporalization, genetic analysis and the theory of intersubjectivity—as programmatically outlined in the Fourth and...