Husserlian Methodology and the Concept of Civilization

8 July 2015

Wednesday


thinking about civilization

In my recent post The Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science I discussed Husserl’s conception of rigorous science and how Husserlian ideas were implicitly present throughout my own analysis of civilization. If the study of civilization can be formulated as a rigorous science, then Husserl has something to teach us. I followed up on this post on Husserlian science with another post, Addendum on the Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science, in which I used an example from Bertrand Russell to illustrate Husserl’s point. It was a particular pleasure for me to illustrate a Husserlian idea with a Russellian image, as Husserl and Russell stand at the respective heads of the contemporary division of philosophy into the continental and the analytical.

From the perspective of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy of science (or philosophy of history, or philosophy of anything), Husserl doesn’t even exist. This is an unfortunate ellipsis. One of the things I have appreciated about the object-oriented philosophers (especially Graham Harman) has been their willingness to read across the conventional boundaries that divide philosophy today, and especially the division between analytical and continental philosophy. This is all to the good, and something I seek to put into practice as well. While my primary guides in philosophy of science relevant to formulating a science of civilization have been Rudolf Carnap and Carl Hempel — analytical stalwarts — I draw on Husserl, Karl Löwith, Blumenberg, and others, not out of a sense of eclecticism, but because they, too, have important insights about the nature of science in the modern world (to borrow a phrase of Alfred North Whitehead).

As I implied in my earlier discussion of Husserl, adapting Husserl’s insights to contemporary philosophy of science requires a steady and sedulous hand in distinguishing the archaic elements still “sedimented” into Husserlian thought and the genuinely novel contributions that Husserl himself makes. Discussing Husserl in this way suggests an analogy with Marx: in order to make use of Marx today, one must equally proceed with a steady and sedulous hand in distinguishing that which is no longer defensible, from Marx’s genuine insights upon which philosophers today might build. Yet with all the enormous resources expended on Marxism, and the vast number of individuals who identify with Marxism, whether vaguely and passionately, I do not know of anyone who has systematically taken Marx’s insights that remain valid and translated them into the technical apparatus of contemporary economics. This is probably merely a reflection of my ignorance of contemporary Marx studies, but I can at least say that such an effort is not commonplace. One would think it would be.

The most glaring example of this is the attempt by contemporary Marxists to continue to flog the dead horse of the labor theory of value, which inevitably results in a Rube Goldberg theory of economic value, since economics has gone far beyond the theoretical framework available to Marx. As I have said in other contexts, there is no reason whatsoever that someone could not adapt Marx’s essential insights to the theory of diminishing marginal utility, or even something more contemporary. It is a remarkable contrast to look at the behavioral economics of Daniel Kahneman, who, even in proposing his prospect theory, has anticipated critics by openly acknowledging that, although his prospect theory possesses certain advantages over traditional marginal utility theory, it cannot account for disappointment and regret. This is the spirit of science at its best. It should come as no surprise that contemporary science at its best comes from someone who has spent a career studying cognitive biases.

Okay. So that was a bit of a digression, and merely in order to place Husserl in historical context in order to get a feeling for how the ideas of dead philosophers are treated. With Husserl, feelings do not run as high as they are do discussions of Marx, so it is less controversial to plunder Husserl for his valuable ideas while tossing aside the archaisms still embedded in his thought.

Today a further appropriation from Husserl’s thought occurred to me, and it is also another example of my proceeding according to an Husserlian method (as with Husserl’s idea of rigorous science has banishing profundity in favor of Cartesian clarity) without realizing that that is what I have been doing.

Recently I have been working on a lot of thought experiments in relation to civilization. Just this morning I came up with a great new thought experiment that I hope to elaborate (not here, and not today, but another time). I have been using thought experiments to explore the idea of civilization, to push the limits of civilization to try to discover what is implicit in our conception of civilization that we have not yet been able to formulate explicitly because we do not yet have a science of civilization. Not only do we not have a science of civilization, we also have no examples of civilization other than human civilization on Earth, and while on the one hand this can be subdivided into many distinct examplars of civilization, on the other hand they are all human and terrestrial civilizations, and for that we have no counter-examples. This poses severe limitations on our ability to think critically about civilization, and so I turn to thought experiments for counter-examples and contrasts.

An essay of mine appeared on Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams blog, The Zoo Hypothesis as Thought Experiment, which is an example of using a thought experiment to explore the idea of civilization. This resulted in more comments than my previous couple of Centauri Dreams posts, but much of the discussion in the comments centered about the validity or invalidity of the zoo hypothesis. I did not argue for or against the zoo hypothesis; I only wanted to use the zoo hypothesis in order to explore the idea of civilization. I was asking myself this question: if you were entering into a planetary system in which you knew there to be an intelligent species, how would you go about conducting observations intended to identify and isolate the “big picture” of the civilization that you encounter? However, I didn’t make that motivation explicit. I wanted this essay to be readable and enjoyable, so I held back on explicit formulations in order to allow the narrative to do the work. Perhaps this was a mistake. But I did learn something from those who commented, even if few seemed to get the idea that I was trying to explore.

In elaborating these recent thought experiments about civilization I realized that, once again, almost unknowingly, I had been following Husserl’s lead. One of the methods that Husserl employs is something that he called, “Eidetic Seeing and Phantasy. Eidetic Cognition Independent of All Cognition
of Matters of Fact” and “The Role of Perception in the Method of Eidetic Clarification. The Primacy of Free Phantasy” (these are section titles from Ideas I; I don’t know why translators have rendered his as “phantasy” rather than as “fantasy”). Here is Husserl on phantasy as a method to converge upon essences:

The Eidos, the pure essence, can be exemplified for intuition in experiential data — in data of perception, memory, and so forth; but it can equally well be exemplified in data of mere phantasy. Accordingly, to seize upon an essence itself, and to seize upon it originarily, we can start from corresponding experiencing intuitions, but equally well from intuitions which are non-experiencing, which do not seize upon factual existence but which are instead “merely imaginative”. If we produce in free phantasy spatial formations, melodies, social practices, and the like, or if we phantasy acts of experiencing of liking or disliking, of willing, etc., then on that basis by “ideation” we can see various pure essences originarily and perhaps even adequately: either the essence of any spatial shape whatever, any melody whatever, any social practice whatever, etc., or the essence of a shape, a melody, etc., of the particular type exemplified.

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 4

Husserl is not easy to read (which I noted back in I Dreamed a Dream…), and it’s difficult to find a good passage to quote, but here’s another to give you a little more of a flavor of Husserl on phantasy as a philosophical method:

In freedom we generate intuitive objectivations of the same any — “physical thing” — whatever and we make the vague sense of the word clear to us. Since a “universal objectivation” is involved, we must proceed by way of example. Let us generate optional intuitions in phantasy of physical things, such as free intuitions of winged horses, white ravens, golden mountains, and the like; they would, in any case, be physical things, and objectivations of them therefore serve as examples just as well as objectivations of the physical things given to actual experience. Effecting ideation on that basis, in intuitive clarity we seize upon the essence, “physical thing,” as the subject of universally delimited noematic determinations.

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 149

Husserl even calls his method of using phantasy “experiments in phantasy”: .

“…should one say, as has in fact been said on other sides, that we owe geometrical insights to ‘experience in phantasy’ that we ought to effect them as inductions based upon experiments in phantasy? But why, we ask in contra, does the physicist make no use of such marvelous experience in phantasy? For no other reason than because experiments in the imagination are imagined experiments, just as figures, movements, multiplicities in phantasy are not actual but imagined ones.”

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 25

Earlier in the same text Husserl had justified the use of phantasy in geometry in contradistinction to the factual sciences:

The geometer who draws his figures on the board produces thereby factually existing lines on the factually existing board. But his experiencing of the product, qua experiencing, no more grounds his geometrical seeing of essences and eidetic thinking than does his physical producing. This is why it does not matter whether his experiencing is hallucination or whether, instead of actually drawing his lines and constructions, he imagines them in a world of phantasy. It is quite otherwise in the case of the scientific investigator of Nature. He observes and experiments; that is, he ascertains factual existence according to experience; for him experiencing is a grounding act which can never be substituted by a mere imagining. And this is precisely why science of matters of fact and experiential science are equivalent concepts. But for the geometer who explores not actualities but “ideal possibilities,” not predicatively formed actuality-complexes but predicatively formed eidetic affair-complexes, the ultimately grounding act is not experience but rather the seeing of essences.

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 7

Here we see that, although Husserl does not use the term “thought experiment” he comes very close to this. It would be possible to reformulate everything that I have written about thought experiments in the study of civilization in terms of Husserl’s variation in phantasy; this would simply be an alternative formulation substituting the theoretical framework of phenomenology for the theoretical framework of thought experiments and contemporary analytical philosophy of science.

This reformulation would be an arduous task, as the greater part of Husserl’s Ideas I touches on the idea of seeking essences through variations in phantasy, so I could not so readily simply reformulate a paragraph from Husserl as I have, on other occasions, torn a paragraph out of another philosopher and reformulated it to make a point (as a recently did with a long paragraph from Plato in The Perfectly Scientific Man: A Platonic Thought Experiment).

Again, and as before, this can only be done by disentangling the useful elements in Husserl from those that we would no longer wish to employ. Philosophers today would not likely express themselves as Husserl did on essences, and many commentators on Husserl have acknowledged that Husserl’s use of the term “essence” is a stumbling block for his Anglophone readers. I could say that I was seeking the essence of civilization, but I prefer to say that I am exploring the concept of civilization. The former way of expressing the nature of the inquiry is perfectly fine, but vulnerable to misreadings and misconceptions.

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2 Responses to “Husserlian Methodology and the Concept of Civilization”

  1. xcalibur said

    This might be going out on a long limb, but I think that eusocial insects (ants, bees, termites, etc.) are an example of another kind of civilization. Of course the problem is that they’re not sentient, they’re a simple form of life that has found a highly effective strategy – a hive which acts like a single organism consisting of numerous individuals.

    While it may not be a civilization, I think the eusocial model can be extrapolated into another example of civilization. It is conceivable that an ETI would live this way.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I’m working on a thought experiment that is quite close to what you suggest. There have been many writers who have suggested continued evolution of eusocial insect colonies bringing such an entity to a level near civilization, even while being profoundly different from what we would call civilization. In fact, it would be an interesting project to formulate a bibliography on this topic to make sure that one has surveyed on the relevant literature.

      Somewhere (I don’t recall where) in the last few months I read something contrasting the kind of minds human beings have to the kind of “mind” that an insect colony has. In my post The Principle of Civilization-Intelligence Covariance I emphasized the tightly-coupled nature of mind and civilization. Given this covariance and coupling, a radically different “mind” distributed among a eusocial colony would result in a radically different civilization. Would it still be civilization? I guess we could call this “The Problem of Recognition.” SETI is always considering this question.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

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