- Husserl and the Sciences: Selected Perspectives
This collection of essays by Canadian and European philosophers sheds new and thoughtful light on the relation between Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), [End Page 320] founder of phenomenological philosophy, and the mathematical and natural sciences.
Once upon a time, Kant tried to enthrone philosophy as 'the queen of the sciences.' Now the situation seems quite the reverse, since contemporary natural science would claim to explain everything scientifically, including philosophy, natural science, knowing, and thinking, not to mention sexual preferences, ethics, etc - just open your morning paper for the latest. Granted its starting points, contemporary science would thus dethrone philosophy. Strangely enough, most philosophy of science, at least in the English-speaking world, is willing to grant this. Instead of asking how scientific knowledge first gets started in the world - the original question of epistemology - current philosophy of science pursues a subtly but drastically different question, namely, how, given knowledge already underway, scientists come to possess standards and methods for arriving at scientific truth. Instead of digging down past the roots of science, current philosophy offers to shore up knowledge as outlined by science.
For Husserl this shift marks nothing less than the crisis of the European sciences, a crisis in which the sciences, philosophy, and European culture dangerously lose sight of their starting point in what Husserl calls the life-world, in a pre-scientific engagement with a living human world. (Husserl is writing about this in 1933, and was himself persecuted by the Nazi regime.) As Husserl puts it, 'it is not always natural science that speaks when natural scientists are speaking.' Husserl thus adds his voice to those of recent figures such as Bruno Latour, Peter Galison, and Georges Canguilhem, who find something other than natural science - social processes, material cultures of image making, pre-scientific concepts - speaking in natural science. But Husserl has a different, more radical contribution to make, precisely because his work, which from the start is driven to root mathematics and science in the soil of experience, takes him to the most basic philosophical questions about the genesis of science.
Unfortunately, Husserl is not often studied as a philosopher of science, and his contributions to this area are often overlooked in light of his immense contributions to phenomenology and insights into areas such as cognition. (Husserl's star is currently rising among cognitive scientists, for example.) Richard Feist's collection is an important and welcome corrective, especially in the English-speaking world.
For those interested in the deep questions that philosophy and the humanities still pose to the natural sciences, part 3 of this collection, 'Phenomenology, the Sciences, and Community,' will be most important, with contributions tracing Husserl's views of the relation between the life-world and the natural sciences, and studying the roots of science in communal praxis. The most expansive part is part 2, 'Phenomenology, Mathematics, and Physics.' As Feist emphasizes in his helpful introduction, [End Page 321] Husserl not only carried out philosophical investigations into the foundations of mathematics and science, he knew and corresponded with several mathematicians and scientists, who were, as was characteristic of this period, preoccupied by foundational questions. The essays in this part give us enlightening glimpses of these connections. Especially fascinating are studies of Husserl's relation to and influence on the mathematician and physicist Herman Weyl, in which we learn about the connection between Husserl's phenomenology and Weyl's interpretation of relativity. Other essays canvass Husserl's relation to the geometry of David Hilbert and his views of multiplicities. The essays in part 1, 'Phenomenology, Epistemology, and the Sciences,' take up some now-classic questions of Husserlian phenomenology with special attention to issues of math and science.
Like Husserl's philosophy, Husserl scholarship is a notably rigorous discipline, and it is hard to leap into it unprepared. Husserl and the Sciences is not a book for the unprepared - it is hard work and presumes more than passing familiarity with Husserl. For those prepared, it will be rewarding and significant. It is very good to see...