Sunday, July 4, 2010


Plainly, however, that cause is the first which we call the final one. For this is the Reason, and the Reason forms the starting-point, alike in the works of art and in works of nature. -- Aristotle.

Reading a biography of Edith Stein (scroll down on this page), I came across the name and a brief description of the thought of Edmund Husserl. Edith Stein was one of his students, and apparently a lot of his students came to some form of Christianity through association with his thinking. Edith Stein herself had been raised in a devout Jewish home and had become an atheist, but ultimately converted to Catholicism and became a Carmelite nun (she died in Auschwitz).

I was talking about consciousness with Liam some time later and he gave me a series of lectures by Husserl on The Idea of Phenomenology (pdf excerpts).

It's not easy going, at least not for me, but I was motivated to blunder through the whole thing because it deals with an issue that has vexed me for the longest time. .... the problem of subjectivity. And here Husserl clarifies some things for me, even while introducing his thought into my muddled storehouse mind probably also adds to the general chaos in there. What I'm saying is that where I go off base in the following will be MY fault, not necessarily his. (see my apologia for the philosophical enterprise done amateurishly).

So the problem that has always vexed me is the grounds upon which we posit objective reality from our subjective vantage point. OK? That is, how you get (without divine help) from the vantage point of your own stream-of-consciousness to understand, describe and evaluate outside reality (even assuming there is such a thing is a bit of a leap of faith).

I have heard that Aristotle held objective reality, and our capacity to apprehend it truly, to be self-evident. I am not sure at this point whether he inquired into it past that, or whether it actually needs an inquiry past that (it seems that if you could show it doesn't, a bunch of post-Cartesian philosophers would have to say the equivalent of "never mind, then"). At any rate, whether it needs to be justified or not, this relation between our consciousness of reality and reality itself MUST be a starting-point upon which all the sciences rest -- natural sciences, mathematics, metaphysics and even theology insofar as it is a human endeavor apart from the deposit of revelation. You can't start from the other end. You can't use the natural sciences, for instance, or psychology, or sociology, to "prove" that our consciousness represents reality, because the very thing you are using is the thing in doubt (or so, it seems, Husserl says, and convincingly in my opinion).

So, then, the basis of further human endeavor rests on this initial truth of correspondence (between consciousness and objective reality), which I will here call reason. If our consciousness has nothing to say about the reality of things outside itself, and yet our consciousness always and everywhere THINKS it is at least approximating or approaching the reality of things, then we are in a sad state. Everything we do or think is based on this presumed correspondence; it seems built into our intellectual framework (but we can't use that as an argument, I am thinking).

Rene Descartes and subsequent philosophers, notably Kant, called reason itself (as I've defined it) into philosophical question (please recall that "philosophical question" is not precisely the same as "doubt" -- it's not necessarily a precursor to denying reason, though it CAN be such a precursor). Descartes introduced the skeptical question -- HOW do we KNOW that what we perceive through our subjective consciousness is actually representative of objective "reality"? His intention was to provide some kind of scientific certainty starting with what we do know unequivocally -- our own cognitions. That is, his intention was NOT to debunk reason, but to affirm it by basing it on more solid philosophical grounds.

However, subsequent philosophical endeavors were thrown into some turmoil by the implications of his thought processes. We haven't yet recovered.

To move on -- Husserl establishes some distinctions in his first lecture about the scientific method. Under the sciences, as I mentioned, he includes not just the physical and natural sciences, but also metaphysics, logic, etc..... everything that is "transcendental" (I'm guessing at a definition here, but I understand transcendental in this context to mean everything in human thinking that makes a claim to be correlated with objective reality).

In other words, as far as I can tell, everything that Aristotle wrote was "science" in this sense, the sense that Husserl is talking about. Even his metaphysics and ethics. That was an interesting point to me. Husserl looks for an entirely new approach to critique reason. "Entirely new" sounds a bit frightening to post-Modern-era people like me, but I think what he's saying is not "throw reason out the window" but rather, "seek for the grounds on which reason is founded". Like Descartes, Husserl doesn't seem to radically doubt the validity of science defined as reasoning about transcendental things (things presumed to be outside ourselves, "objects" or noumena), as much as that he seeks to put it on a more solid epistemological foundation (whether he succeeds at this might be a different question, and I'm not the one to answer it definitively). Perhaps it is no accident that many of his students became Christians and he himself joined the Lutheran church. At the time, many people saw his work as leading back to objects rather than inwards to the recesses of one's own mind.

Aristotle apparently (I have not found anything to quote from him, but so I understand so far, correct me if you know better and I will edit this) explicitly presupposed that our subjective cognition corresponded with objective reality. In other words, he did not demonstrate it or seek to prove it (as far as I've been able to find out). He approached it as part of the nature of the human, and this provided a starting point for everything following. "Everything following" includes psychology, which investigates the capacities and limitations of the human personality; Logic, which investigates (and applies and evaluates) the workings of the reason; the natural sciences, which take for granted and utilize these capacities in order to acquire information about the exterior world from this foundation, and so on.

Husserl points out that the critique of reason itself is not done in these branches of science. It CAN'T be done scientifically, because you are using the very tool you are calling into question. For instance, you can't critique reason using a biochemical or psychological explanation, because those disciplines are subsidiary to reason; their credibility derives from the credibility of human reason per se. They use scientific processes, and he is looking for something preceding and beyond science (that sounds weird in our scientific age but it doesn't mean UNscientific -- it just means that scientific processes MUST properly start on some foundation; they don't come out of thin air; something that we tend to ignore nowadays).

Needless to say, I am not writing this as precisely as he does, and there are probably semantic holes you can drive a truck through!

To put it a slightly different way, all the sciences presuppose something in order to further their own investigations. (Aristotle writes about this here). Any reasonable endeavor is based on the very possibility of reason. Husserl, however, points out that when the possibility of reason (correspondence of thought with objective reality) itself is what is under scrutiny, it's naive to presuppose materially that reason is possible by USING reason.

You see, apparently Aristotle didn't go there. He did not critique reason itself. He accepted it as unquestionable and went on from there, very fruitfully, sketching out the parameters of most of the human sciences. Unquestionable may not be the word I want, though! This is something I wish I understood better. Perhaps he saw the validity of reason as integrally combined with reason itself..... something that post-Cartesian philosophers have broken into two separate things, which could be like using transcendentalism to deny transcendentalism? In other words, he sidestepped, without much fanfare, an error that's been boggling philosophy ever since Descartes?

Kant, following Descartes and more proximately refuting Hume, DID attempt to critique reason. But Husserl seems to say that Kant used science to reach his conclusions about the possibility of science, which would be an invalid enterprise, sort of like a tautology, I'm thinking? Like a geometrical proof that ended where it started? Here is where I start really puzzling, and I don't see the end in sight!

Husserl attempts to go back to the Cartesian starting point of doubt and rehabilitate it from the absurdities that came of it later in history. If you start where Descartes did, you start with your own cogitatio (Husserl's term for something like consciousness, ongoing awareness -- my provisional definitions, again). This cogitatio you cannot doubt. And I agree with him there. Why can't you doubt it? Because your very doubt is a cognition in the sense meant, which gets you into immediate existential and semantic absurdity. I am cognizant of doubt that I cognize, etc. It's like SAYING that you can't say anything. It's like Pooh and Rabbit and the "How can nobody be home if Somebody just said "Nobody?" You CAN doubt whether your perceptions correlate with truth, though perhaps it is better not to do that (I think Husserl has something to say about this too, but this is long enough already)

I'll have to stop there and go on some other time (hopefully). But you are probably wondering why this is a subject of interest. What's the good of it? Here are my reasons:

  1. It's been puzzling me for a long time and it would be nice to get a better handle on it (I guess I could let that go if I had to, but it's even more fun than Sudoku or GeoChallenge, and this IS summer, after all, time to play!).
  2. As I said above, one of the meta-questions I'm wondering about is whether humans CAN or SHOULD critique reason. As for the possibility, the CAN part -- is it humanly possible to critique transcendentalism without employing it? As for SHOULD -- the endeavor to evaluate reason itself has caused a lot of human errors in the past 3 or 4 centuries. Wasn't the pursuit of reason more fruitful when we were carefully avoiding the least taint of solipsism? Does Aristotle, implicitly or explicitly, have a better vantage point than Descartes in this regard?
  3. On the other hand, the genie is out of the bottle and is in the intellectual air we are breathing nowadays. While it may not necessarily be possible to get this question RIGHT, a lot of muddled thinking comes out of getting this question WRONG, or ignoring the fact that it is there at all. That doesn't so much apply to believers who are explicitly conscious of their foundation of belief, but it does apply to those who seem to think that they have built their house on some sort of more rock-like rational or "skeptical" foundation. But I already said that.
  4. I had one more reason, but it has now escaped my middle-aged brain. I'm sure it will come to me when I'm washing the dishes this afternoon, so I'll leave it for now ;-).
Oh, and happy Independence Day, fellow Americans! Can you tell this post is really all about freedom? LOL.


  1. Hi Willa,

    I have just started reading Aquinas by Edward Feser. It's a Beginner's Guide. And my middle-aged brain is much murkier than yours for I have to go very slowly and painfully through these ideas as I can not seem to comprehend them without reading them over and over again! And this book is for novices! Whew! There's very little hope for me! However, your distinction between Aristotle's starting point: man reasons vs. Decartes' how do we know man reasons? is one of the first things Feser talks about. How modern and post modern philosopher's don't get Aristotle or Aquinas because they don't realize this very difference in approach.

    I totally get you about how the moderns have painted themselves into a corner. You can not rely on reason to determine whether you can rely on reason! It reminds me of studying Existentialism in college. Everything was about authentic choices. As long as the choice was 'authentic' it was good! But wait, what if I choose to be inauthentic! They were still positing a universal good, authenticity, even when they were saying what makes something good is whether you freely chose it. And also this puts Hitler's authentic choice on the same level as Albert Schweitzer's or some other humanitarian choice. We viscerally know this is wrong. It has sent a lot of people down ultimately absurd deadends and polluted our culture in the meantime. And this is the problem with the moderns, I think (I say from the vast depths of my ignorance!) they always inadvertently come up with assuming some sort of universal truth while trying very hard to deny that there is any universal truth!

    I think they have overthought what reason is. Reason to me is almost a biological function. We can not survive if what we think does not in some way correlate to reality. The more accurate the correlation the better the chance of survival. Of course our reasoning can never be perfect, but then do we ever experience perfection? Perfection does not exist in this realm. But that does not mean some things aren't obviously better or closer to perfection than other things.

    I would love to read more in philosophy but it is such a reading comprehension issue with me! I find it so dense and so hard to wrap my mind around. Words are defined differently and I find myself swimming in words. . .

    I really appreciated this post and will probably come back and reread it.

    Happy 4th of July!

  2. Thanks, Faith, for commenting -- we ought to start a club or something : ). I guess we already have in a way!

    I had to read Husserl over and over again, and I do not think I understood it very well even so. I think part of it is the nature of philosophy, don't you? Every question leads to another one. Every time one thing seems clearer, it opens a door to another mystery.

    About that "authentically choosing to be inauthentic" -- one of the things I liked about reading Husserl is that he could avoid some of those types of pitfalls.

    I think that is a really interesting point about reason as a biological function. I guess Husserl avoids that aspect of it because he doesn't want to start from that more abstract "layer" if you see what I mean. It's sort of something you deduce, which is a scientific thing, if you don't just assume it, as a baby does. However, I was wondering if you could make some sort of argument from the very necessity in our minds of correlation with the outside world -- in other words, it's almost built-in, like the principle of non-contradiction. It's almost an intrinsic part of our experience as it comes in. Anyway, interesting questions.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!