When future historians chronicle the twentieth century, they will see phenomenology as one of the preeminent social and ethical philosophies of its age. The phenomenological movement not only produced systematic reflection on common moral concerns such as distinguishing right from wrong and explaining the status of values; it also called on philosophy to renew European societies facing crisis, an aim that inspired thinkers in interwar Europe as well as later communist bloc dissidents.
Despite this legacy, phenomenology continues to be largely discounted as esoteric and solipsistic, the last gasp of a Cartesian dream to base knowledge on the isolated rational mind. Intellectual histories tend to cite Husserl's epistemological influence on philosophies like existentialism and deconstruction without considering his social or ethical imprint. And while a few recent scholars have begun to note phenomenology's wider ethical resonance, especially in French social thought, its image as stubbornly academic continues to hold sway. The Far Reaches challenges that image by tracing the first history of phenomenological ethics and social thought in Central Europe, from its founders Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl through its reception in East Central Europe by dissident thinkers such as Jan Patočka, Karol Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II), and Václav Havel.
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Michael Gubser is Associate Professor of History at James Madison University.
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The Far Reaches
Phenomenology, Ethics, and Social Renewal in Central Europe
By Michael Gubser
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
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The Solicitude of the Father: Franz Brentano's Ethics of Social Renewal
In the opening of his landmark study Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1874; Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt), the young philosopher Franz Brentano (1838–1917) predicted that descriptive psychology would stimulate moral progress to match modernity's political and technological achievement. "How many evils might be remedied," he exclaimed, "by the correct psychological diagnosis, or by knowledge of the laws by which a mental state can be modified!" Brentano compared the potential benefits of his fledgling discipline to the public health boon of nineteenth-century chemistry and physiology. Not only could "the science of the future" impart practical moral guidance; it would also advance principles that might aid in resolving political conflict and healing social disorder. Psychology's ethical mandate outstripped the goals of other disciplines, for even natural science required "a sufficient quantity of ethical knowledge" to become "truly beneficial." As the study of intrinsic and ultimate good, ethics "call[ed] everything into consideration," superseding even the rules of logic. Ethical laws were "absolute," its imperatives "categorical." If psychology was Brentano's first philosophy, ethical insight counted as its greatest promise, and he eagerly anticipated the moral rejuvenation of a modern society beset by skepticism and irrationalism—a hope he passed on to later phenomenologists.
Philosophy incarnate to his students, Brentano had a momentous impact on Central European thought, particularly during his Vienna years from 1874 to 1894, when votaries such as Husserl, Alexius Meinong, Kazimierz Twardowski, Alois Riegl, and Sigmund Freud followed his seminars. In 1874, when he joined the University of Vienna faculty, the philosophical upstart had already sparked controversy in German academic circles as a staunch Aristotelian, a sharp critic of idealism, and an erstwhile priest who had renounced his vows in protest against the doctrine of papal infallibility. Appearing in the same year, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint secured his professional standing and announced his two most influential doctrines, the intentional (or mental) in-existence (intentionale Inexistenz) of objects and the method of inner perception (innere Wahrnehmung—literally, inner truth-taking), still half-buried cornerstones of twentieth-century thought. The pathbreaking volume proclaimed Brentano's commitment to psychology as an empirical science, but one based on neither pure sensationalism nor the genetic analyses typical of nineteenth-century positivists. Instead, Brentano charted a discipline whose primary task was to describe mental acts and contents. By clarifying the data of consciousness, psychology, he believed, served as a prerequisite for the nomothetic natural sciences—indeed for all higher human endeavor, including ethical thought.
The Psychology of Inner Perception
Brentano's ethics rested on his psychology of inner perception, a method used to undercut layers of prejudice, tradition, even language and learned behavior in order to arrive at the marrow of experience—perceptual phenomena themselves, the pure data of consciousness. At this core, Brentano famously rejected the division between the mind and its perceived objects, adopting instead the medieval Scholastic notion of intentionality to argue that consciousness was "always and everywhere a certain kind of relation, relating a subject to an object," aimed outward from the cognizant self.
Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object [Gegenstand], and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction, or toward an object [Objekt] (which is not to be understood here as meaning a thing [Realität]), or immanent objectivity. Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not all do so in the same way.
Beyond its linkage of thought and content—a claim that undermined the subject-object discrepancy of post-Cartesian thought—the doctrine of intentional objectivity has elicited little interpretive consensus. Perhaps foreseeing this confusion, Brentano tried to distinguish between mental and physical phenomena: the former comprised acts of consciousness such as "hearing a sound, seeing a colored object, feeling warmth or cold, as well as similar states of imagination," whereas the latter were the perceptual impressions or objects grasped in these conscious acts: "a landscape which I see, a chord which I hear, ... odor which I sense; as well as similar images which appear in the imagination." Mental phenomena, in other words, were intentional acts themselves; they always took something as an object. Physical phenomena, by contrast, were the objects of intentional acts, but they did not themselves tend toward anything; they were, in fact, immanent to those acts, not external things. This classification left Brentanian intentionality in an equivocal relation to the external world: conscious acts clearly breached the walls of the solipsistic self, yet they never quite seemed to reach the concrete world of our shared existence. In a philosophical landscape dominated by neo-Kantian idealism and historicist relativism, the prospect of renewed worldliness made Brentano's doctrine appealing to generations of followers. Nevertheless, he never resolved its central ambiguity, handing it instead to the phenomenological movement (and other followers) where it stood at the heart of the realism-transcendentalism dispute between Husserl and his early disciples.
A further quality differentiated mental and physical phenomena. Mental phenomena were available to an inner perception that grasped its objects with immediate certainty, whereas physical phenomena appeared in observations that could never achieve apodictic, or absolute, surety. Brentano's inner perception worked by way of indirection—en parergo, as he put it. Unlike inner observation (also called introspection), it did not gaze directly at phenomena. Mental acts and states—the phenomena of inner perception—were neither immediately perceived nor utterly distinct from observed entities; one could not isolate them as one could a physical object selected for scientific scrutiny. Instead, mental states were noticed 'on the side' while observing other things.
It is only while our attention is turned toward a different object that we are able to perceive, incidentally, the mental processes which are directed toward that object. Thus, the observation of physical phenomena in external perception, while offering a basis for knowledge of nature, can at the same time become a means of attaining knowledge of the mind. Indeed, turning one's attention to physical phenomena in our imagination is, if not the only source of our knowledge of laws governing the mind, at least the immediate and principal source.
Ever the empiricist, Brentano insisted that only the observation of physical objects could grant us access to mental states. The mind perceived its own activity through engagement with an object-world; indeed, the confirmation of objective in-existence was itself a result of the mind grasping, through inner perception, its own ongoing worldly activity as an immediate, self-evident insight. Though conceptually distinct, perception and observation, mental and physical phenomena, formed poles of a unified consciousness.
We must be careful not to oversimplify this epistemology or assume that it was easily practiced. Although one could grasp one's own inner mental states with certainty, most people did not. Noticing immediate inner perceptions and distinguishing them from baseless prejudice took training and effort. A philosopher-psychologist (in Brentano's coinage, a psychognost) learned to notice the oblique states of mind that accompany our awareness of things. Propositions gleaned from these perceptions laid the foundation for empirical knowledge, and only systematic study of mental states could place psychology on secure scientific footing. Thus, inner perception became Brentano's epistemological guarantor, an assured method for achieving a true and original encounter with pure phenomena—and the marker of a scientific elite who alone enjoyed true insight. This subtle denigration of popular attitudes would persist throughout the history of phenomenology.
Given its centrality to his philosophical program, Brentano had to explain his signature doctrine many times. In a March 1889 lecture before the Vienna Philosophical Society, he reminded listeners that "the ultimate and most effective means of elucidation must always consist in an appeal to the individual's intuition, from which all our general criteria are derived." Experiential truth—and all truth ultimately stood on experience—could not be assured on the basis of logical argument alone; instead, it reposed on the evidence of inner perception, which showed the indubitable existence (or nonexistence) of a thing asserted. Truth claims had an existential character: a judgment was true if it correctly asserted the existence of an object, false if it did so incorrectly. Only an act of clear intuition—or secondary reference to it—could affirm this being-in-evidence. "The explanation of a term," he told students in his popular ethics seminar, "is in the last analysis a reference to certain phenomena."
Brentano did not deny the power of logical assertions, but he did insist that they offered only second-order verities that lacked a self-grounding ability. Only the inner testimony of objective existence or nonexistence vouchsafed epistemological security. Science, in other words, stood on perceptual foundations, truth on insight. Perceptual psychology, with its sturdy description of mental acts and contents, fortified the rational edifice. It is worth highlighting again the ambiguity at the heart of this argument: the object whose existence truth claims asserted was not necessarily one external to mind. Brentano was never able to resolve the question of how one built from the certain awareness of immanent mental phenomena, or presentations, to the assurance of a transcendental object world, though he was clearly convinced of the reality of both. Two related assumptions bolstered Brentano's doctrine of inner perception. First, evident insight conferred an immediate cognitive warranty; there was no difference, he insisted, between perceiving an object with evidence and recognizing its veracity. And second, anyone able to train his perceptual faculties could corroborate accurate insights and differentiate clear judgment from blind, truth from verisimilitude. A perceptual analogy can illustrate this claim: if someone says that something blue is red, one cannot logically disprove her. Reason and language fail in this instance. But the false judgment can be shown to be wrong in an act of lucid perception: the misperceiver sees that what she thought was red is actually blue. She perceives irresistible evidence. That immediate truths are manifested, not rationalized, helps to explain Brentano's abrupt eschewal of argument at crucial turns, his bald assertions of truth by recourse to perceptual intuition and visual analogy, and his appeal to an audience's perspicacity to ratify his claims. Where logic ceased, language could describe the experience of insight and lay out procedures for achieving it, but it could not secure validation. The truth of perceptual claims could be indicated (Lat. indicare—to show) by a claimant, but it could be verified only in a similar intuitive act.
Brentano labeled two types of evident judgment: assertoric and apodictic. Assertoric claims derived their force from pure inner perception; they concerned only our own mental states, not broader generalizations, and took the form of verdicts about our consciousness or experience. "I see a horse" or "I feel pain" are assertoric propositions that refer to a particular individual and moment. Apodictic judgments, by contrast, consisted of immediate and certain inductions from a single insight to a general truth. Brentano distinguished this procedure from empirical inductions that rise from individual data to general laws; these were at best probabilistic. Immediate induction, by contrast, recognized absolutely and "in a single stroke" the necessary concept contained in a particular aperçu. The clear picture of a circle, to use one of Brentano chief examples, allowed one to see immediately that no squared circle can exist. A single instance of affliction suffices to demonstrate that pain, in and of itself, is always properly hated. In Roderick Chisholm's account, apodictic verdicts, or "truths of reason," reveal "not merely what does not exist [but] what cannot exist," a definition that foreshadowed the later phenomenological notion of essence. Such insights, per Brentano, allow us additionally to recognize that there are correct and incorrect judgments, and provide us with criteria for assessing the verdicts of others. "[I]f anyone, however arbitrarily, arrives at an opinion which coincides with my evident judgment, then his opinion is correct," he averred, "and if anyone arrives at an opinion that contradicts my evident judgment then his opinion is not correct." Crucially for his ethics, emotions enjoyed a similar clarity. "We know with immediate evidence that certain of our emotive attitudes are correct. And so we are able to compare the objects of these various attitudes and thus to arrive at the general concept of correct emotion." Emotional analogues to assertoric and apodictic judgment occurred in the direct evidence and clear concept of correct feeling affirmed by inner perception. By rooting ethics in emotional clarity, Brentano claimed an empirical basis for moral judgment.
An Ethics of Theory and Practice
Not only did Brentano's ethics hew closely to his descriptive psychology in its methods; it also found a place in his tripartite division of mental acts. All cognizance, Brentano contended, began with the presentation (Vorstellung) of an intentional object. This presentation was simply that—a primordial awareness whose reality had yet to be affirmed. A judgment (Urteil), in turn, avouched or dismissed the existence of the perceived phenomenon; as we have seen, Brentanian judgments were fundamentally existential. A presentation, in other words, is a primary appearance, the presencing of an object in the mind; a judgment affirms or denies the object as existing, or to use Brentano's post-1905 vocabulary, as a realia. In 1907, he explained the difference semantically: the nominative phrase "a green tree" signals an object presentation, whereas the predicative statement "a tree is green" involves the affirmation, or judgment, of a real object. A syntactically explicit version of the latter would read "a green tree exists," which, Brentano noted, is more precise than the account given in ordinary language but wholly synonymous with it.
In a departure from contemporary ethical schemes that distinguished passive desire from active will, Brentano collapsed emotion and will into his third mode of mental apprehension—known as either interest (Interesse) or love and hate (Lieben und Hassen)—which attributed positive or negative value to a presented object. We have already seen that certain types of emotion claimed the same indubitability as evident judgments of truth and falsehood. Invoking a Cartesian faith in clear and evident ideas, Brentano based his ethics on the immediate, intuitive apprehension of the 'rightness' or 'wrongness' of interest in a perceived object. Positive ethical judgments, for example, combined the affirmation of an object's existence with the keen certainty of its rightness, displayed in the immediate awareness of "loving correctly." There was no distinction, Brentano insisted, between evident feelings of loving correctly and the knowledge of them as right, for "[w]hen something is good in itself, then goodness is tied to its very conception." The only difficulty came in noticing one's own insight. It is important to stress that not just any feeling carried the warrant of validity. Only exalted emotions disclosed not just the beloved object, but that which was worthy of love. Higher feelings, in other words, stood as analogues to evident judgments in that both marked a small subset of mental apprehensions that commanded approval. The self-evident insights of exalted emotion formed an empirical basis for the extrapolation of ethical principles and value hierarchies according to a logic of compatibility.
Excerpted from The Far Reaches by Michael Gubser. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Part I Austrian and German Phenomenology
1 The Solicitude of the Father: Franz Brentano's Ethics of Social Renewal 29
2 A True and Better I: Edmund Husserl's Call for Worldly Renewal 44
3 Phenomenology without Reduction: The Realism of the Original Phenomenological Movement 62
4 The Blueprint of a New Heart: Max Scheler and the Order of Love 80
5 Philosophy en plein air: Interwar Social and Ethical Phenomenology 101
Interlude: Phenomenology and Eastern European Dissidence 132
Part II Phenomenology in Eastern Europe
6 The Point of View of Life: Czechoslovak Phenomenology through the Prague Spring 139
7 The Far Reaches: Jan Patocka's Transcendence to the World 151
8 The Definitive No: Phenomenology and Czechoslovak Resistance to Impersonal Power 174
9 The Radiation of Humanity: Karol Wojtylas Phenomenological Personalism 188
10 The Light of Values: Phenomenological Ramifications in Polish Dissidence 211
Conclusion: Why Phenomenology Matters as a Social Philosophy 224