A Letter to Alfred Schütz Concerning Edmund Husserl

HomeThe Collected Works of Eric VoegelinA Letter to Alfred Schütz Concerning Edmund Husserl

Dear Friend,

Please accept our heartfelt thanks for those fine evenings which we were able to spend with you and your dear wife. Unfortunately, the time we spent together was all too brief, not allowing us to discuss many things that are certainly of great interest to both of us . . . .

Even now the impossibility of communicating with you face-to-face causes me great pain. Kaufmann was so kind to lend me Husserl’s essay “The Crisis of European Sciences,” which figures in volume I of the Philosophia. I just finished reading it and would love to discuss it with you. Allow me to offer just a few brief comments–you might not have time to enter into particulars in your answer, but perhaps you might be able to let me know when I might have misunderstood Husserl.

To start with: The overall impression is magnificent–not only in comparison with other philosophical output of our time, but also in comparison with many other works by Husserl. It is most gratifying that Husserl does not indulge in the officious tomfoolery (“stupendous” and “laborious” analyses, and so on) that mars a number of pages of the Ideas; no more than two or three times does he break into a sweat over “philosophical existence.” In spite of the dry language the essay moves in the Olympian atmosphere of pure philosophical enthusiasm.

The handling of the subject matter is masterful; the presentation of the problems of the Galilean world view and of the occlusions that lead to physicalism is of unparal­leled clarity; finally, the problem of transcendental subjectivity as the theme of philosophy since Descartes has never been revealed to me as clearly as in this case. The critique of the earlier attempts to formulate the transcendental question seems quite pertinent. Accordingly, the elaboration of the “egological” dimension and the founding of the objectivity of the world on the achievements of the transcendental ego are quite successful.

I am more than willing to recognize this essay as the most significant achievement in episte­mological critique of our time. Nevertheless, this essay, too, has disappointed me, just like Husserl’s other works. The epistemological critique may well be an eminently important topic of philosophy, but it does not exhaust the entire range of philosophical endeavor. Within this range episte­mological critique is neither an independent topic, nor a sphere, in which all other philosophical problems are rooted. If this were so, the laying of the foundation of an epistemological critique would mean also the laying of the foundation of philosophy.

The essay is, just like the Logical Investigations and the Ideas, a preface to a philosophy, but not a well-founded philosophical enterprise. Natu­rally this objection could be countered by the argument that great revelations will be found in Husserl’s as-yet-unpublished works. Yet I have been hearing this argument for the past twenty years, and as such it would make me suspicious that a great thinker would not even once touch, in the course of a rich publication record, a funda­mental problem of philosophy, except at the end of his life.

Hence it would appear to me quite justified not to expect from the forthcom­ing publications of Husserl’s literary remains anything that would enrich the already familiar range of Husserl’s topics in unexpected dimensions, as valuable as might be the logical and epistemologically critical studies contained in the as-yet-unpublished manu­scripts.

Nevertheless I do believe that, on the strength of the essay under investigation, the reasons become clear as to why there can­not be expected anything else that would qualify as fundamental in the philosophical sense. Allow me to make a couple of observations on the subject.

Husserl as Euro-centric Victorian

(1) Husserl unfolds in this essay an image of history that is, in its general features, no different from the image of history drawn in his Vienna lecture that I had attended. This image is Victorian. The relevant history of mankind consists of Greek antiquity and the modern age since the Renaissance. Accordingly, Hellenism, Christianity, the Middle Ages–an insignificant time span of no more than two thousand years–are a superfluous interlude; the Hindus and the Chinese (whom Husserl puts into quotation marks) are a slightly ridiculous curiosity on the periphery of the terrestrial globe, in whose center stands Western man as man per se.

Man is a rational creature. “Consequently philosophy and science are the historical movement of the revelation of universal reason, ‘innate’ in man as such” (p. 92). It was in the Greek mankind that the entelechy in mankind achieved a breakthrough (p. 91). After the initial foundation of philosophy by the Greeks and the interval of two thousand years, during which this entelechy evidently amused itself elsewhere, its modern reestablishment has been implemented by Descartes.

This modern Cartesian reestablishment went awry due to certain imperfections, masterfully analyzed by Husserl. Kant made a good partial beginning to bring philosophy back on the right track. We skip the philosophy of German idealism and Romanti­cism; this brings us to philosophy’s final foundation, embodied in Husserlian transcendentalism.

(2) I do not believe that much can be said in defense of this impov­erished image of the intellectual history of mankind. One might indeed object that this impoverishment is due to the forgivable naivete of a great systematic philosopher which has no bearing on his essential achievements; it might even be improper to belabor this point with such explicit emphasis. To be sure, I could in turn object that a German post-Hegelian philosopher, unable to handle any better the problem of the spirit’s historicity–as evident from the essay in question–is for this very reason a philosopher of du­bious substance. Still, I will not have recourse to this argument. It seems more important to me that, as evidenced by the essay in question, its image of history is not a pardonable systematically inessential derailment; instead it represents a direct presupposition of Husserl’s thematic.

Paragraph 15 (pp. 145 ff. ) introduces an instructive “reflection concerning the method of our historical way of thinking.” The principles of this method are as follows:

(a) The historical becoming of philosophy has a teleology.

(b) This teleology may be “understood from within” the histori­cal forms of philosophizing.

(c) It is this teleology “understood from within” and elucidated that allows the formulation of the telos itself, thus making it the task of the present-day philosopher (i. e., of Husserl).

(d) Hence the personal philosophical task becomes revealed through the understanding of the telos in the history of the modern spirit.

(e) This, however, does not result in a historical relativization of the task. What is involved here is not an arrangement in a “merely external causal sequence. ” The telos is timeless and unfolds only in historical becoming.

(f) The philosopher’s existence thus acquires a uniquely dialectic character, revealed in the following two Husserlian theses:

(aa) “We are exclusively a product of historically spiritual becoming. ”

“This kind of enlightenment of history as a regression back to the initial foundation of the goals that are links in the chain of future generations . . . is nothing else but a genuine self-recollection of the philosopher of what it is he is actually aiming at, of what constitutes will in him, out of the will and as the will of his spiritual forebears. This means to revitalize the hidden historical meaning of the sedimented conceptuality which is the taken for granted ground of his private and unhistorical labors.”

(bb) “Yet in accordance with its essence, each initial founda­tion must be associated with a final foundation, which is the task of the historical process. This final foundation is completed when the task has achieved perfect clarity, becoming thus an apodictic method that in each step of the process of attainment is a continuous thoroughfare for new steps, which possess the nature of the absolutely successful, i. e., of the apodictic. Philosophy as an infi­nite task would thus reach its apodictic beginning, its horizon of apodictic pursuit. ” (My emphasis).

(g) The “final foundation” is to be distinguished from the self-recollections, carried out by every historical philosopher in order to fix his own attitude to his fellow-philosophers in the past and the present. The self-interpretations of all other philosophers teach us nothing in respect to “what” is of the essence in terms of the history of philosophy. The telos of history is revealed only in the interpretation of the final foun­dation achieved by Husserl; with its help then the philoso­phers of the past might be understood better than they had understood themselves.

(h) It follows from the privileged position of the teleological view of history derived from the final foundation that this view cannot be refuted by historical arguments (perhaps of the kind that the philosopher, as shown factually and philologically, had intended something entirely different from what Husserl imputes to him on the strength of his knowledge of the telos). In the evidence of a critical universal view there shines forth at last from behind the “historical facts” of the history of philosophy a meaningful harmony of the historical process.

The Philosopher as “Functionary of Mankind”

(3) The relationship between the systematic task of the transcen­dental philosopher and the history of philosophy is summed up in the following formulas: “Hence we are in our philosophizing the functionaries of mankind” (p. 93) and: “We are, in fact, what we are, as functionaries of a modern philosophical humanity, as heirs and fellow-bearers of an unceasingly continuous direction of will, and have this function bestowed on us by an initial foundation, which is, nevertheless, at the same time a later foundation and alteration of the original Greek foundation. It is the latter that harbors the teleological inception, and is, as a result, the true birth of the European spirit taken as a whole” (p. 146).

This formulation, seen in the context of the principles formu­lated in paragraph 15, calls for a few observations. And, as you may well imagine, I feel the urge to voice all kinds of forceful comments. Thus, for instance, I would like to indicate that I am in general prejudiced against any kind of functionaries; in this respect I do not draw a sufficiently clear line between the functionaries of the National Socialist Party and the functionaries of mankind; or, I would like to add that the functionaries of the party slaughter hu­mans, while the functionary of mankind does not cast a sufficiently penetrating glance into the essence of this evil that might reveal to him at least one of its roots in the substance of the functionary–but at this point Lissy says that it is boorish on my part to send you, as thanks for the glorious meal you lavished on us at the Champs Elysees, a critique of Husserl, and that, if I absolutely insisted on doing this, the critique at least should avoid any “humoristic ad­mixtures.” Let us then get serious.

Any serious analysis of Husserl’s position, however, is beset by difficulties; even though the formulation of his attitude is linguis­tically quite clear, it is not so in terms of the thought process. Husserl was no radical philosopher in the sense that he saw clearly the radices of his thinking. His radicalism, which he never fails to emphasize, is not a radicalism of philosophical existence; instead, it is a radicalism resulting from his pursuit of a special problem, which is, specifically, that of transcendental philosophy. It is this special issue that I believe he has pursued right down to its roots–in this respect the radicalism of his pathos is genuine.

Nevertheless the question whether his advance in the objectivity of the cogni­tion of the world–right down to the roots within the grounding subjectivity of the ego–is in fact an advance in the fundamental problems of philosophy, Husserl did not even come near to touch­ing, as far as I can see, in his published works. It seems to me that in respect to this point Husserl demonstrates a remarkable naivete. The clarity of the linguistic formulas of the essay under investiga­tion conceals a world of material implications that would have to be thoroughly developed so that Husserl’s own position might be adequately understood.

Such a development obviously cannot be undertaken in the letter format and, I am afraid, is not worth the effort of developing in its requisite extent. I must therefore confine my efforts to laying bare briefly only some of the concealed layers, leaving to your imagination the completion of the backgrounds and conclusions.

Husserl and Averroes’ World Soul

In the uppermost and most general layer Husserl’s historical teleology calls for classification under the category of Averroist speculation. I have addressed this topic in detail in my Author­itarian State as a motive occasioning the rise of national social­ist and fascist speculations. My article on Siger de Brabant, with which you are likely to be more familiar, should make clear the reasons for this classification. We have to distinguish in West­ern philosophy between two fundamental positions concerning the essence of man; they are represented most clearly by the Christian orthodoxy of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the heterodoxy of Siger. The Thomistic position places emphasis on the singularity of hu­man substance (intellectus), Siger’s on the world soul, of which the singular human substance is a particle. Both positions can be historically traced back to Aristotle’s doctrine of the soul (De An­ima 3), which left this question hanging in the balance, so that in fact either one of the two positions can be deduced from De Anima.

The assumption of the world soul and of the corresponding na­ture of the individual soul qua particle of the former I simply call the Averroist stance, because Averroes’s commentaries on Aristotle have become in terms of literary history the most important source in the West of the construction of this position since the thirteenth century. I am of course clearly aware of the fact that Averroes has not elaborated this position as an original insight. Zeno’s philos­ophy of the world logos and of its apospasmata [sparks] as indi­vidual souls contains it in principle. The Averroist position has experienced in this sense numerous alterations and derivative for­mations. The collective soul may be understood as ranking above the individual souls as a world-transcendent soul, as it was with Zeno, or the collective may be transferred to the world itself, as, for instance, the rational entelechy of human development toward perfection, which represents a substantial component of the Kantian philosophy of history; it may also appear in the guise of a partic­ular, innerworldly collectivity, as is the case with the collectivist speculations of communism, national socialism, and fascism.

Husserl’s collectivist telos of philosophical reason could be qual­ified within the system of coordinates of these Averroist variations as follows: Insofar as Husserl’s collectivist telos is a rational or spiritual substance, it is closely related to the Stoic logos or the Averroist intellectus. The problem of philosophy becomes identi­fied with the problem of the spirit in general, and insofar as spirit is the substance of man, it becomes identified with the problem of man in his fully developed form.” The true spiritual battles of European humanity as such are fought as the battles of philosophy” (p. 91). Mankind becomes, however, reduced to European mankind, as becomes evident in this passage and elsewhere (cf. especially p. 92) and differentiated from “merely empirical anthropological types” such as are in evidence in China and India (p. 92).

The prob­lem of mankind thus becomes shifted from Zenonic, Averroist, and Kantian universality to the historical sphere, and “man” becomes a finite historical phenomenon of specific periods of human history, i. e., of antiquity and modernity. (Medieval man might be consid­ered, even though this is not stated expressly, to be also “only an anthropological type, ” the same as the Chinese and Indian man). Due to this reduction of mankind to a community of individuals engaged in philosophizing with one another in Husserl’s sense, the philosophical telos is shifted to the neighborhood of particular in­tramundane collectivities of the type of the Marxist proletariat, of the Hitlerite “German Volk, ” and of Mussolini’s Italiana.

Husserl’s Bismarckian Progressivism

Husserl’s historically collectivist metaphysics has conse­quences for his historical method. The reduction of the collective to a small, genuinely human segment implies the historical irrel­evance of the preponderant quantum of human history under the title of the “merely anthropological.” Yet even within this small relevant segment there occurs a differentiation of relevance. From among the various possibilities that are available to him, Husserl chooses his own, induced by the spectacle of philosophical systems as they succeed one another, coming and going, without any one of them qualifying as the definitive one.

Are we to conclude that the history of philosophy (since it is identical with the history of the relevant human spirit) is meaningless? Or is history ruled by some order and, along with it, by some meaning? His answer is the “telos,” which comes into being in the original foundation and then gradually unfolds itself through manifold dramatic paths ever more clearly, until it reaches the apodictic final foundation.

To translate this from Husserl’s language into a more ordinary par­lance: Husserl is a philosopher of progress in the best style of the period of the founding of the Bismarckian Reich, about which Niet­zsche dropped many pointed remarks. Every philosophy of progress, which is founded upon the assumption of a self-unfolding telos, is faced with the solution of a weighty problem of relevance, which early on Kant found deeply disturbing.

Kant, too, runs into the problem of reason in his metaphysics of history as reason unfolds in the course of history in an infinite progress toward perfection. In An Idea of Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose he brings to fruition the idea of unfolding, and in a key passage he expresses his “bewilderment” [das “Befremden”] that mankind’s earlier generations are so to speak mere stepping stones on which the last, perfect generation climbs to its goal.

Is not man, under this assumption, historically merely a means to a goal that can be reached only by humanity in the last phase of its development? Kant allows the matter to rest there, couched in “bewilderment.” He would wish to be indeed systematic, but he is, however, not emotionally impelled to confront this question decisively. In fact,the Averroist conception is only one component of Kant’s systematics as a whole, and the meaning of individual human existence at any given historical point has for him in any case a satisfactory explanation, thanks to his belief in the immortality of the soul and to its status of fulfillment in the beyond. In addition, the preference given to later generations asserts itself less crassly in Kant, since under the assumption of an unending process of perfectibility each empirically historical generation shares with every other genera­tion the fate of imperfection.

Husserl’s Final Foundation

Husserl sees this problem in a somewhat different light. He shares Kant’s belief in the progress of reason as an unfolding of the telos in the course of history. Yet he does not believe in unending progress. His final foundation does not lie in an infinitely remote point; instead he sees it achieved in the here and now through his phe­nomenology. Through the establishment of phenomenology, phi­losophy has attained its “apodictic beginning” (p. 147), and the unending task of philosophy (which is also his endeavor) plays out within “the horizon of apodictic continuation.”

Hence we must distinguish two phases in Husserl’s history of reason: The first ex­tends from the Greek initial foundation, which was renewed by Descartes, all the way to Husserl’s final foundation; the second phase starts with Husserl as an apodictic continuation of his apo­dictic final foundation. When we recall that the entelechy “had broken through for the first time in Greek humanity” (p. 91), so that pre-Greek history is a prehistory of genuine humanity, we come up with a total of three phases.

Husserl’s philosophy of history then assumes the form of a typical three-stage philosophy, with the Old Testament representing the pre-Greek phase, the New Tes­tament, dating from the Greek initial foundation, and the evangelium aeternum, which begins with Husserl’s final foundation. The final phase, the unending continuation of Phenomenological philosophy within the horizon of the apodictic final foundation, has the same philosophical structure as the Marxist final realm and the Hitlerian millennium.

Husserl’s position vis-a-vis the New Testament period (from the initial foundation to the final foundation) is worthy of special con­sideration. Kant expressed some worries, confessing to a “bewilder­ment,” that the generations preceding the final foundation should be mere transit stations of reason; helpful and perhaps necessary on the way toward perfection, but lacking any absolute value in themselves.

We find Husserl lacking this trait of Kantian humanity. The fact that the Greeks and modern philosophy since Descartes are merely to be a historical fertilizer for the soil, from which springs the flower of Husserl’s final foundation, does not seem to astonish him in the least; for him this relationship is quite in order. Raising this question, however, is in no way meant to be a pre­liminary step to denying humanity to Husserl—the problem lies deeper. The absence of Kant’s humanitarian “bewilderment,” the absence of an inward resistance to viewing history as prehistory, and to allow a “genuine history” (in Lenin’s words)–in Husserl’s terms an “apodictic” history–to set in with the final foundation, places Husserl on the contrary outside the progress-problematic as formulated in the eighteenth century with all of its humanitarian implications.

Consequently it becomes imperative to group him together with the messianic projections of the end of time that have emerged in our era. Husserl’s “apodictic” history is, just like Communism’s “genuine” history, not a continuation of empirical history (note Husserl’s passionate refusal to allow his teleological interpretation of history to be countered with empirically historical arguments). Instead of being such a continuation, it is a transposi­tion of history to a new level of revelation of the human spirit, with which begins a new apodicticity.

Husserl’s radicalism has, aside from a specifically problematic component of transcendental subjectivity, a messianic component on the strength of which the final foundation becomes, with its apodicticity in the historically social realm, the establishment of a philosophic sect at the end of time. In order to elucidate the peculiar structure of Husserl’s meta­physics it became necessary to refer frequently to parallel phenom­ena in the political sphere. Beyond the structural affinity Husserl’s metaphysics of history has no more to do with National Socialism or Communism than with Joachim of Flora, whose periodization of history runs a parallel course.

Seen from a different, i. e., a me­thodical, point of view Husserl’s position shows a close affinity to certain contemporary appearances of the spirit–I mean to the his­torical methodology of the schools of southwestern Germany; it is even more closely related to the historical works patterned on this methodology. Works dealing with political history are less relevant in this context than a classic of intellectual history like Gierke’s Genossenschaftsrecht [The Law of Partnership]. The rationale of this work is Gierke’s assumption that the substance of a political community is its character as a “Realperson.” Consequently the history of political and juristic ideas is to proceed selectively, orga­nizing the historical facts as a chain of developments leading to the unfolding of the idea of a ”Realperson.” Hence from an enormous quantity of historical materials Gierke selects crumbs that may be more or less suitably interpolated into this sequence, regardless of what these crumbs meant in the context of the [original] author, and regardless of which of these materials fall under the table.

This is Husserl’s method, even without the terminological apparatus of entelechy and the initial and final foundations. Proceeding in this manner Gierke ran into difficulties, and Dunning was tactless enough to shed some light on Gierke’s fantastic violation of Bodin. Subsequently Gierke found himself forced to publish an embar­rassed retraction in the third edition of Althusius. What Dunning did in Bodin’s case could be done in the case of practically every author dealt with by Gierke.

Husserl’s Messianism Rejects Empirical Argument

This calamity could not befall Husserl, because he rejects from the outset empirically historical arguments against his telos. Hence I venture to say that the demonic obsession of Gierke’s era to treat world history as spadework for the glory of any given present time–in this case, Gierke’s–is raised by Husserl to the level of a messianism that rejects any correction based on empirical reality. One could still criticize Gierke on account of the materials he chose for his interpretation; Husserl is not open to this criticism, for his interpretation of history by definition cannot be wrong.

I am referring here to a “demonic” historiography, because the historian who proceeds in this manner absolutizes his own historically conditioned intellectual position; in fact, he does not really write history, but misuses historical materials by using them to bolster his own position. An intellectual history that avoids the misuse has the task of penetrating each and every position of intellectual history up to the point on which it is founded, i. e., to where it is rooted in the experiences of transcendence of the respective thinker. Only when intellectual history is pursued with its sights set on this methodical goal can it attain its philosophi­cal goal, which is spirit in its historicity; or put differently, can it understand the historical embodiments of spirit as variations on the theme of the experiences of transcendence.

These variations succeed one another in an empirically factual manner, not arbitrar­ily; they do not produce an anarchic series; they throw into relief series of order, even though this order is somewhat more compli­cated than what the metaphysicians of progress would wish it to be. (Needless to say, I cannot here go into detail on any such con­crete types of order. )

A genuine historical reflection does not accept the task, ascribed to it by Gierke’s historiographical enterprise and even more by Husserl’s theory, of interpreting one’s own precious position as a sediment of history (although this self-interpretation happens to be, incidentally, a valuable secondary result of histor­ical consciousness). Rather, the primary task is to penetrate the intellectual-historical Gestalt of others all the way to their point of transcendence, and through such a penetration to school and clarify one’s own embodiment of the experience of transcendence.

Spiritual-historical understanding is a catharsis, a purificatio in the mystical sense which has as a personal goal the illuminatio and the unio mystica; this understanding can indeed lead, if pursued systematically, in great material chains, to the elaboration of a series of order in the historical revelation of spirit. Finally it can in this way result in a philosophy of history.

However, the leading thread of this understanding, from which one must not deviate even for an instant, is the personal testaments of the thinkers–the very testaments that Husserl not only believes he is entitled to ignore, but that he systematically rejects as disruptions of his teleology.

Husserl and Descartes

(4) This then would complete the elaboration of the most im­portant implications of the Husserlian position, and all I need to do now is to address briefly the fundamental material question: Husserl’s relationship to Descartes. Husserl is of the opinion that modern philosophy has been initially founded by Descartes and that it owes its final foundation to himself. It is in this final foun­dation that the initial one has come to be fully unfolded.

As proof of this thesis Husserl interprets the Cartesian Meditations as an imperfect form of the Phenomenological reduction that aims at an epoché [bracketing out] of the content of the world in order to re­construct the world as objective, viewed from the angle of the ego-logical sphere. This interpretation is partially correct. A methodical obliteration of the content of the world and the suspension of judg­ment with the aim to establish an Archimedean point whence to reconstruct the world as objective is indeed the theme of the Med­itations.

Equally correct is Husserl’s criticism that the epistemologically critical epoche had not been carried out radically, and that it was the psychological ego instead of the transcendental ego that was made the point of departure for the reconstruction of the world. What is wrong is Husserl’s assertion, justified by an appeal to the historical telos, that the Cartesian reduction has no other positive significance except as an epistemological theory which is bound, in the final analysis, to produce a transcendental philosophy. False is, in addition, his assertion that the attainment of certainty regarding the objectivity of the world by the roundabout route of the certainty of the existence of God collapses because the Cartesian proof of God is untenable.

Husserl’s Misunderstanding of Descartes

Husserl’s misinterpretations are due to the fact that he imputes his own philosophic theme, the epoche of the world with the aim of reaching the transcendental sphere of the ego, to Descartes as the latter’s exclusive, although only unclearly and imperfectly realized, intention. As a matter of fact the Cartesian meditation has a much richer content than the thematic subject matter reduced to episte­mological theory, and only because it has this richer content can it be incidentally utilized for the unfolding of this set of problems.

First of all, the Cartesian meditation is not so shockingly new in its principal form, as Husserl would have it. The Cartesian meditation is in principle a Christian meditation in the traditional style; it may be even classified more specifically as a meditation of the Augus­tinian type as it has been undertaken in the history of the Christian spirit hundreds of times since Augustine.

The anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing (a meditation from the fourteenth cen­tury) has formulated the classical thematic subject matter as well as any other thinker in the following sentence: “It is needful for thee to bury in a cloud of forgetting all creatures that God ever made, that you mayest direct thine intent to God Himself.” The gradual annihilation of the content of the world, moving from the bodily world to the spiritual, in order to reach the point of tran­scendence in which, put in the Augustinian manner, the soul can turn in an intentio toward God, is the purpose of this meditation.

The meditation is primarily a process in the individual’s biogra­phy that is being produced by it, and the duration of the point of transcendence and the intentio are a short-lived experience. On a secondary level the process may be expressed linguistically, which imposes a literary form on the meditation. A secondary realization of a linguistically recorded meditation is then, conversely, possi­ble as an original meditation on the part of the reader. Hence the Cartesian meditation is a literary deposit of an original meditation of this type; in fact, it is so to the point that the momentary nature of the duration in the point of transcendence is utilized in a literary fashion for articulation into a plurality of meditations.

Descartes’s “First Meditation” ends with a lament: “Je retombe insensiblement de moi-même dans mes anciennes opinions” [Insensibly I lapse away from myself into my old opinions], namely, into the belief in the objectivity of the world’s content, although it was precisely the purpose of this meditation to free the self from this content, which liberation alone makes possible the experience of the realissimum [the ultimately real] in the intentio.

The Novelty in the Cartesian Meditation

Actually there is indeed something new in the Cartesian medita­tion—if this novelty did not exist, Husserl’s interpretation would be not only partially, but completely wrong. The meditation of the classical style has the contemptus mundi as point of departure; the objectivity of the world is regrettably so certain that the meditation becomes a tool of liberation from it; it is through this meditation that the Christian thinker assures himself, if not of the unreality, then at least of the irrelevance of the content of the world. The classic Christian thinker wishes not to recognize the world in his meditation and, therefore, the world’s objectivity presents to him no problem of theoretical epistemology.

Descartes finds himself in the historical position of wanting to recognize the world without, on account of this, ceasing to be a Christian thinker. This is why on the one hand he can carry out a Christian meditation and, on the other, he can utilize this very meditation with its epoché of the world to secure for himself once more, from the angle of the “Archimedean point” of the experience of transcendence, the real­ity of the world that had previously been annihilated by the medi­tation.

The Christian experience of transcendence is for Descartes in the same sense an indispensable presupposition of the world’s objectivity, as Plato’s mystical view of the ideas is an indispens­able presupposition of his idealist epistemological theory. Hence I would formulate the element of novelty in Descartes in terms of the sentiment of the contemptus mundi giving way to the sen­timent of interest in the world. Therefore, due to his concern for episteme, the experience of transcendence becomes in this medita­tion an instrument of assurance of the world’s objectivity.

Husserl shows a deep misunderstanding of this set of problems, as he stumbles over Descartes’s proof of God and fails to see beyond the proof the experiential content of the experience of transcendence. It is a well-known fact of the history of philosophy—though Husserl is obviously not familiar with it—that the proofs of God of the scholastics, including its Cartesian variety, do not have the pur­pose of ascertaining God’s existence for the thinker who makes use of them.

The existence of God is for Christian thinkers from Anselm of Canterbury to Descartes a certainty derived from differ­ent sources. Yet the proof is the style-form of scholastic thought, and, true to this style, the demonstratio becomes expanded to in­clude problems that are incapable of a demonstratio and hence have absolutely no need of it. The proofs of God are all certainly logically untenable—but not a single one of those striving for this proof was as foolish as they all appear after one reads Kant.

Descartes’ Experience of Transcendence

Apart from the proof of God, we naturally find in Descartes the purely descriptive report on the experience of transcendence, which offers no demonstration. This experience is all that matters in the med­itative mode. We read in the “Third Meditation”:

“J’ai en quelque façon en moi la notion premièrement de l’infini que du fini, c’est-a-dire de Dieu que de moi même; car comment serait-il possible que je pusse connaître que je doute et que je desire, c’est-à-dire qu’il me manque quelque chose et que je ne suis pas tout parfait, si je n’avais pas en moi aucune idee d’un être plus parfait que le mien, par la comparaison duquel je connaîtrais les défauts de ma nature?”

[I have in some fashion in me the notion of the infinite before that of the finite, meaning of God, rather than of myself; for how could it be possible that I could know that I doubt and that I desire; that means that I lack something and that I am not quite perfect, if I did not have in me any idea of a being more perfect than my own, compared to which I would know the defects of my nature?].

Hence the existence of God is not deduced; instead it is in the experience of the finiteness of the human being that the infinite becomes a given. God cannot be called in doubt, for God is implicated in the experience of doubt and imperfection. In the limit situation of finiteness is given, together with this-sidedness, the beyond of the limit.

Descartes’s ego cogitans [the thinking ego] is, consequently, en­dowed with a triple signification. Husserl has correctly recognized two of these significations. He saw (1) the transcendental ego, which, turned toward the contents of the world, has in its cogitationes [cogitations] the intentio [intention] toward the cogitata [content of cogitation, that which is thought]; (2) the psychological ego, the soul as world content, which Descartes, fully deserving Husserl’s criticism, allows to slip into the transcendental ego.

What Husserl has not seen is the third signification of the ego, on which the two first ones are grounded, ego as the anima animi [the soul of the soul] in the Augustinian sense, whose intentio is directed, not toward the cogitata, but toward transcendence. In this third signification of the anima animi the meditative process has its primary sense. In the transcendence of the Augustinian intentio the I is simul­taneously certain of itself and of God (not in a dogmatic sense, but in the mystical sense of transcendence into the ground).

It is exclusively due to this confirmation that the egological sphere in Husserl’s sense is founded, together with the intentio that tends in the opposite direction, toward the cogitata—regardless of what form this confirmation may then assume in the metaphysical spec­ulation. (It is worthwhile also to compare the derivation of Hegel’s dialectics, as one of the possible constructions of the foundation, from the mysticism of Jacob Boehme, as it is elucidated in Hegel’s History of Philosophy. )

Thus Husserl has isolated the egological problem from the Carte­sian meditation complex, developing it further masterfully in his theory of transcendentality. It seems to me that the peculiarities of the Husserlian position are rooted in this relationship to Descartes. Husserl has never carried out an original meditation in Descartes’s sense—in spite of his pretense of radicalism and of his postulate of a new beginning for every philosopher.

Husserl Follows Descartes But Avoids Transcendence

He has historically adopted and developed further the reduction of the world to the cogitating ego; consequently he is unable to establish his own position of tran­scendental philosophy upon an originally conceived metaphysics. The boundary that he is unable to cross is the founding subjectivity of the ego. Whence the ego receives its function to ground the objec­tivity of the world on subjectivity remains not only without clarifi­cation, but is inevitably not at all addressed. The higher foundation in the experience of transcendence is replaced by a foundation in an innerworldly particularity of a set of problems of epistemological theory originated by Descartes.

Whether Husserl was insensible to the experiences of transcendence, whether he was frightened away from them, or whether the cause was a biographical problem (because he wished to get away from Jewish religiosity and did not wish to embrace the Christian variety)—that I do not profess to know. In any case he chose for the foundation of his position entry into the immanence of a historical problematic and blocked for himself with the greatest care the path to philosophical problems of transcendence—which are the key problems of philosophy.

This then accounts for the interpretations of history which, for a rank­ing philosopher must be regarded as curiosities, corresponding to the telos revealed by him; this accounts for the justification of his position as functionary of this telos; this accounts for his inability to find the absolute point, which he could not find by himself, in the philosophy of others; this accounts for the apparent inhumanity in the disparagement of his predecessors; and this accounts—I am also inclined to believe—for the continuously prolegomenous character of his work.

With all this I do not intend to impugn in the least—I do hope I do not have to say it more explicitly—Husserl’s genial philosophical talent. What a thinker can achieve within the framework of a sig­nificant, historically fixed set of problems, without entering in an original manner upon the fundamental problems of philosophizing, he has done certainly with overwhelming success. I have concluded what I wished to say. As I indicated at the outset, I am afraid you will hardly have the time to respond to these questions in detail. Even if you should not get to it, this critique may very well serve, once we get together again, as a basis of a discourse—in the meanwhile it was for me a cathartic exercise.

With heartfelt thanks for all the love that you and your wife have shown us and with the best wishes.


Eric Voegelin

(Finished on September 20, 1943)


This excerpt is from Anamnesis:On the Theory of History and Politics (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 6) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002,)

Eric Voegelin

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Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.