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  • “Even the Papuan is a Man and not a Beast”: Husserl on Universalism and the Relativity of Cultures
  • Dermot Moran (bio)

“[A]nd in this broad sense even the Papuan is a man and not a beast.” ([U]nd in diesem weiten Sinne ist auch der Papua Mensch und nicht Tier, Husserl, Crisis, 290/Hua. VI.337–38)1

Reason is the specific characteristic of man, as a being living in personal activities and habitualities.” (Vernunft ist das Spezifische des Menschen, als in personalen Aktivitäten und Habitualitäten lebenden Wesens, Husserl, Crisis, 338/Hua. VI.272)

1. Particular Historicities and Universal Reason

In this paper2 i shall explore—and suggest a way of resolving—the evident tensions to be found in Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences (and associated texts) [End Page 463] between his commitment to the universality of reason as the goal or telos of European humanity (founded on the ancient Greek “breakthrough” to philosophy and science) and his recognition of the empirical plurality and “relativity” (Relativität) of individual peoples and nations (e.g. Indian, Chinese, Papuan, Bantu) locked into their own particular “socialities” (Sozialitäten), communal worlds, and historical trajectories (what Husserl broadly calls “historicities,” Geschichtlichkeiten, Historizitäten). 3 I shall examine the complex relations and tensions between Husserl’s conception of universality, whereby the same reason functions in every human as animal rationale, “no matter how primitive he is” (“Origin of Geometry,” Crisis, 378/ Hua. VI.385), and his concept of the self-enclosed particularity of individual peoples with their own cultural forms. Indeed, Husserl often emphasizes that the most prominent feature of cultural plurality is precisely its relativity: “relativity belongs to the normal course of life.”4 I shall evaluate Husserl’s response, which defends the project of realizing the ideal of a critical universal rationality, by situating his discussion in terms of the cultural conflict of the time with the rising National Socialist commitment to racial particularism, and by showing Husserl’s commitment to the inherent universality of the one shared life-world.

In his research manuscripts of the 1920s and 1930s Husserl frequently discusses the complex relationships that exist between different cultures and traditions; different cultures have their specific historicities (Crisis, 274/Hua. VI.320), dialects, norms, ways of life, and so on. This is simply a matter of fact. There are, furthermore, some well-known and controversial passages in Husserl’s “Vienna Lecture” of May 1935 and also in his Crisis texts (both in the main 1936 published text, Part One [§6] and in the then unpublished Crisis Part Three A §365) where Husserl speaks of the universality inherent in European philosophical culture of the logos and contrasts it with various other communal forms, which are, in his view, merely “empirical-anthropological” types, enclosed in their particular historicities and relativities. Indeed, in this context, Husserl regularly invokes the idea of the “relativity of everything historical” (die Relativität alles Historischen, Crisis, 373/Hua. VI.382). In addition, there are a number of related texts, collected in the Crisis supplementary volume (Hua. XXIX),6 in the Intersubjectivity volumes (especially Hua. XV),7 as well as in the recent volume on the life-world [End Page 464] (Hua. XXXIX),8 which discuss the empirical differences between peoples and also the layers and strata of social groups, nations, and even the idea of larger international collectivities or “supernations” (Übernationen), such as Europe, or the League of Nations. Furthermore, there are—as Husserl indicates in his 1935 letter to the prominent French anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl—even cultures that are completely “self-enclosed” (abgeschlossene) unities, cut off, some of which know no history. According to Husserl, into this classical world of closed cultures, the ancient Greeks bring a new form of universality, one that leads them, through the grasp of idealization to infinite tasks, to break through the finite horizons of their environing world (Umwelt), which presents itself to them as a “near-world” (Nahwelt, Crisis, 324/Hua. VI.303; Hua. XXVII.228), and to arrive at the highly refined concept of the “true world” or the “scientific world [which] is a purposeful structure (Zweckgebilde) extending to infinity” (Crisis, 382...