As Concrete Person I Am in Space (Husserl contra Heidegger)

star child

I read through Psychological and Transcendental Phenomenology and the Confrontation with Heidegger (1927-1931). Edited by Thomas Sheehan and Richard E. Palmer, the collection of writings pertain to the relationship between Husserl and Heidegger. They include 4 drafts to Husserl’s entry on Phenomenology for the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Amsterdam Lecture, the essay “Phenomenology and Anthropology,” and transcripts of Husserl’s marginalia to his copies of Heidegger’s Being and Time and Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. Obscure stuff, they shed light on the relation between phenomenology and ontology.

As explicated by Sheehan and Palmer in their introduction, Heidegger’s relatively well known critique of Husserl is that phenomenology violates any living sense to a life world and its historical character, that a hermeneutical understanding of the world, of being, is prior to theory (13). The language used by Heidegger was brutal. He bragged in a 1923 letter to Löwith to having “publicly burned and destroyed the Ideas” in the last hours of his 1922-23 seminar. In another letter from the same year, he chortles, “The old man will then realize that I am wringing his neck” (p.17).

Husserl’s attitude to Heidegger was saturated by incredulity. He complained that Heidegger confused him for a Platonist (30). At issue of course was Heidegger’s rejection of the phenomenological reduction, but more interesting is the way the frission between phenomenology and ontology came down to “belief.” In his notes to Being and Time and the Kant book, Husserl tagged as particularly problematic words like “originally,” “primordial finitude”  (pp.407, 470) and we see comments like “No one would say that,” “Who says it does?” “But how does this take place?” “Whence do we know this?” (pp.398-9) and so on.

The bottom of it is Husserl’s non-belief, or abstention from belief in being, “by virtue of which we accept the world in the natural life of consciousness and our reflecting on it” (p.222).  The doubt today seems particularly well placed. In bracketing belief in the world, the phenomenologist comes to bracket as well his own hermit-like being. Namely, from the transcendental point of view, the phenomenologist assumes a position above all worldly being, including his own (pp.490-1). In the phenomenological turn, I no longer “have” the world, and I no longer “have myself.” The world and every possible world are reduced to mere phenomenon. I am pure phenomenon. I am now a transcendental spectator who “uncovers…the way that a world and this world “appears in consciousness in accordance with meaning and is accepted as real” (p.246).

In the final scene in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, human being has been radically transformed by advanced, extraterrestrial  technologies into the transcending, absolute viewpoint of the Star-Child. The Star-Child’s position is juxtaposed over against the blue globe of planet earth upon which he gazes with open, unblinking eyes. In Husserl, it is only this absolute attitude that allows human intentional consciousness to recognize the world itself (pp.494-5). The point is not to put the thumbscrew to nature, but to put to pressure consciousness in such a way as to bend its questioning back around as to make visible and understandable its own production of unity out of the whole “streaming on of life” (p.497). (For Kubrick’s own interpretation of the movie and its telos, see here. For me, the point about getting past “present earth bound frames of reference”)

This is a beautiful thing, a beautiful picture of the self in relation to its world. “We ourselves as human beings are out there, are present to ourselves, individually and collectively, within an all-embracing apperception and yet only present ourselves by virtue of special external apperceptions. In perceptions of external things I myself am given to myself within the total perception of an open spatial world, a perception that extends stull further into the all-embracing; thus, in external experience I also experience myself as a human being. It is not merely my outward bodily corporeality which is externally perceived; the merely natural body is the object of an abstractive focus; but as concrete person I am in space; I am given in the spatial world as every other person as such is given, and again as every cultural object, ever art-work, etc., is given” (p.245).

What’s promised by Husserl in phenomenology is the transformation of consciousness, an altering of the whole form of life as practiced heretofore “historically by humanity as a whole,” a radical, all embracing shift in “one’s natural living in a pregiven world” and in all modes of thinking and reason, absolutely alien from everything we have been used to. Like anything new, it’s very hard to understand (p.252).

What I take from Husserl, particularly in relation to and against Heidegger, is the very strangeness of abstracting out from the natural, physical, or psychological world and its radical reconstitution as streaming appearance in relation to intentional consciousness. It’s consciousness expelled from the world based on splits and cleavage in which nothing is straightforwardly posited, much less “given.” In addition to Kubrick, the thinking here, with its focus on the indivudal thing reminds me of the appearance of single objects in poems by Rilke or in The Lord Chandos Letters by Hofmannsthal. But also Cubism for its view of the world as bracketed, disassembled, and reassembled in strange configurations or radical light installations by James Turrel or ?? in which all that’s left of the world is myself and other objects and persons which appear in my visual field.

Husserl is more self-aware than Heidegger, who actually ends up promising us much less. A philosopher of mediation par excellence, he understood that the idea that anything is pre-given, elemental, or originary begs belief.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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