Phenomenological Space Cadets to the Rescue

Michael Gubser, The Far Reaches: Phenomenology, Ethics, and Social Renewal in Central Europe. (Stanford California: Stanford University Press, 2014).

Some years ago, I ran into an acquaintance who was interviewing candidates for a professorship in the philosophy of Kant. “How are the candidates?” I asked. “One has a PhD in mathematics, another is religious, the rest are phenomenological space cadets,” he summed up. The association of Phenomenology, a philosophical school that studies consciousness, with “space cadets” is part of pop culture. In the late-nineties, the British Sunday Times newspaper ran an article on then Pope John Paul II. It attempted to claim that the Pope was crazy, mostly because he was not only religious but also clearly had faith. But the clenching argument was philosophical: he was a follower of an “arcane French (sic!) Philosophical school, Phenomenology.”

If not “space cadets,” phenomenologists were accused of being “storm troopers.” The most influential phenomenological book has been Being and Time, by the would-be Nazi, Martin Heidegger. Recently, the first three volumes of his “Black Notebooks,” a philosophical diary covering 1931–1941, were published. Several blunt anti- Semitic statements there caused the resignation of the chair of the German Martin Heidegger Society. Heidegger could have suppressed or deleted the offensive passages, but he clearly saw nothing to be ashamed of. His sole concern was that the diary should be published only after all his expository works. Much of Heidegger’s nachlass remains unpublished and his family denies scholarly access to it. Some suspect that even worse revelations about Heidegger’s politics are hidden there. I doubt it. It is more likely that the secrets in the nachlass that Heidegger and his family found shameful are personal and not political. Heidegger’s eldest son was not his biological son. It is not likely that Hannah Arendt was Heidegger’s first and last lover. The discoveries that await future researchers in the family archive are likely to display the banality of sex rather than of evil.

Heidegger’s politics were extreme within the phenomenological milieu. But some of its other luminaries are also politically embarrassing. Max Scheler supported German Imperialism and the First World War. Hildebrand was anti-Nazi, but supported the authoritarian corporatism of the Dollfuss regime in Austria. Even Husserl, in his response to the crisis of the thirties in Europe, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology had particularly dumb things to say about the Roma (Gypsy) minority, excluding them from being considered European a few years before the Holocaust they shared with the Jews. By contrast, the Logical-Positivists, the main contemporary philosophical competitors to Phenomenology, had a political record clean as the driven snow. Though they had nothing to say as philosophers about ethics or social and political philosophy beyond “emotivism,” the thesis that what we mean when we say that something is right or wrong is just that we feel strongly positively or negatively about it, they were quick to make academic capital from their political record.

Heidegger’s supporters, most notably Arendt, promulgated in response a version of the “space-cadets” thesis: Heidegger and others were academic-village idiot-savants, bright in abstract unworldly philosophy, but hopelessly helpless about everyday life, including politics. To downplay the significance of political choices, academic phenomenologists tended to agree with logical positivists about the philosophical marginality of ethics and politics.

East European dissidents-phenomenologists were neither “space-cadets,” nor “storm troopers.” Arguably, they were “Jedi-knights,” virtuous fighters for human rights, truth and liberty. But the political scientists who studied the dissident movements did not have the background to understand the phenomenological dimension and origin of their thought. Academic phenomenologists had already committed themselves to the “space cadets” thesis and to the marginality of ethics and political philosophy, so they largely ignored the contradicting evidence as it emerged from beyond the Iron Curtain. When dissident Phenomenology entered public discourse in the West, it was in the service of a different political agenda: In France in the seventies there was not much to distinguish the Socialist from the Communist parties ideologically. The Socialists (for example, in the journal Esprit) endorsed the East European dissidents and the phenomenological human rights agenda to distinguish themselves from the Soviet-oriented Communist Party.

Michael Gubser, an American intellectual historian, challenges radically in his new book the “space cadets” narrative of the history of Phenomenology. He decenters the metaphysical aspects of the study of consciousness and concentrates on Central European Phenomenological ethics and social and political philosophy by retelling the history of Phenomenology from its inception in Brentano’s teaching in Vienna in the 19th century to contemporary Czech and Polish Phenomenology. He mines the tradition for texts that discuss ethics, morality, values, or even politics. Standard histories of Phenomenology focus on its core study of consciousness and are devoted mostly to Husserl and Heidegger, and their influences on Hermeneutics in Germany and virtually all branches of French philosophy after World War II. Gubser, by contrast, sticks with a narrower understanding of the Phenomenological tradition that connects directly with the philosophy of Edmund Husserl, ignores France, and devotes half of his book to Czech and Polish Phenomenology. Phenomenologists that are often considered minor disciples of Husserl receive more attention in Gubser’s book than Heidegger, to whom Gubser devotes just three pages. Most significantly, recent Czech and Polish thinkers that are usually ignored in contemporary philosophy (with the exception of Roman Ingarden) receive the detailed attention they deserve in the second half of the book.

Gubser offers a sympathetic, sometimes even forgiving, reading of the ethical and social phenomenological tradition. He follows the various roads taken from the study of pure consciousness to the development of ethics and philosophically grounded politics, if not political philosophy. Brentano’s ethics was fairly rudimentary. Husserl attempted to transcend the study of isolated consciousness through intersubjectivity and empathy that allow the emergence of care for others and ethics, themes that later phenomenologists developed at greater length. Husserl hoped that the practice of the phenomenological method of epoché, the suspension of the distinction of “subjective” from “objective” phenomena, would do more than allow the pristine pre-rational structure of consciousness to manifest itself; he hoped it would generate social renewal by uniting people who had undergone this process of self-discovery and overcoming of alienation. Scheler believed that as much as everything our consciousness manifests is imbued with intentionality, it is also imbued with values that can be intuited and form the basis of an ethics that is always already present, rather than reasoned rationally and abstractly on the basis of duty or utility as in Kant or Mill. Gubser continues the story of Phenomenology and morality in the thought of philosophers who receive little attention today, the last generation of phenomenologists who wrote primarily in German, some in exile: Nicolai Hartman, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aurel Kolnai, Adolf Reinach, Edith Stein (who was canonized by fellow phenomenologist Pope John Paul II), and Alfred Schutz.

Gubser devotes the second half of his book to the Czech and Polish reception of Phenomenology. Under Communism, the phenomenological method of epoché acquired political dimensions. Epoché became a method for personal liberation from the totalitarian frame of mind, from the instrumentalist objectification of humanity, a way to reconnect with the lost natural world, or lifeworld, independent of social or political impediments and circumstances. Phenomenology became a critique of bureaucratization and the particularly brutal and ugly Communist version of modernity.

The Czech phenomenologist Jan Patočka (1907–1977), Husserl’s student, became a leader of Charter 77 of human rights and a mentor to the dissident movement. Gubser’s interpretation of Patočka is influenced by a contemporary Prague academic “orthodoxy” that runs counter to his own ethical thesis and historical orientation. This orthodoxy considers Patočka‘s significance to lie in his abstract phenomenological ideas from the fifties, the “asubjective subject” and “negative Platonism” that allegedly allow his philosophy to claim equal significance to Heidegger and Husserl. From that perspective, Patočka’s later political involvement is not very important, and did not follow his philosophy, though it was generally consistent with it. This reading of Patočka is ahistorical. To generate coherence, it lumps together texts that were written over forty years without sensitivity to revisions, changes, and reactions to historical changes and intellectual currents, especially in the last decade of Patočka’s life, leading to his political engagement.

Gubser associates Patočka with sixties humanist Marxism. Clearly, Patočka survived the fifties unharmed (he lost his academic position but worked as an archivist) by presenting himself as an apolitical “space cadet.” By the sixties he was back in the academy of science. His political and social statements from the period preceding the 1968 invasion appear to me studiously ambiguous. They could be interpreted as conforming to the prevailing political winds of reformed Communism, but with a bit of philosophical context, they could also be interpreted as critical or deliberately superficial. Surely, any philosopher with even mildly left of center political views, would sympathize with the lower classes and admire labor. Patočka considered labor less than properly human, a movement of defense that we share with other animals. Care for the soul and life in truth that emerged only in the Greek polis were properly human. In his later writings, Patočka blamed the tragedy of 1938 and by implication 1948 and 1968, the failure of the Czechs to fight, on their low social origins and the absence of a nobility as in Poland and Hungary.

What I find to be a disappointing treatment of Patočka stands out in comparison with the following exposition of the ethics of Polish phenomenologists. Gubser presents a convincing narrative of the historical development of Karol Wojtyła’s (the future Pope John Paull II) thought from the early influence of Indgarden’s realism, absolute values and responsibility, through early criticisms of Scheler, the return to Schelerian themes in discovering the immediacy of morality in our consciousness, and the phenomenological interpretation of personalism as an alternative to liberal individualism and totalitarianism. Gubser is sensitive to historical intellectual development and true to the project of writing a history of Phenomenology from a moral perspective in Poland, but not in Prague.

Gubser is a charitable reader. He criticizes Central European Phenomenology only for being elitist. He is quick to dissociate the kind of traditional Catholic authoritarian conservatism of some central European phenomenologists from Heidegger’s totalitarianism. The problem he identifies is not specific to Phenomenology: If philosophers become involved in politics as ordinary citizens, why should anybody listen to them?! If they speak from the unique vantage point of their special knowledge, they can be accused of elitism. Are philosophers the wise “navigators” who can stir the ship of state according to their knowledge of “the stars,” as in Plato’s metaphor, or do they guess the right course like everybody else but appear certain due to elitist condescension and over-confidence? The dark side of Platonic elitist politics emerges only when philosophers obtain power. Philosophers in politics who fulfil their duty to tell truth to power can benefit from elitism if it gives them the confidence and standing to confront authority, as the dissidents did. Professional elitism and condescension are not exclusively philosophical. To take a vivid Czech example, economists can be even more condescending and uncompromising than philosophers.

In my opinion, the particular political weakness of Phenomenology in comparison with other philosophical schools is also its main philosophical strength, its methodology. Epoché promises liberation and authenticity, but it also can turn easily into self-delusion about what pure consciousness and authenticity are like. A traditional Platonic analysis can explain some of the self-delusions of phenomenologists like Scheler by the intrusion of passions to bias the results of intellectually precarious intuitions. One need only compare the stark, dark and inhuman results of Heidegger’s epoché with the morality and responsibility that are the foundations of the life-world of Tischner or Wojtyła. This is no reason to reject the use of epoché; but it is reason to treat it with caution and be aware that even when we eliminate some inauthenticities, the result may still be the dominance of other inauthentic self-delusions that were overlooked, a point Havel raised in one of his Letters to Olga.

Phenomenology’s self-understanding as uncovering deep universal truths about consciousness that have been hidden since Plato or obscured since the scientific revolution of Copernicus, Machiavelli and Galileo is anachronistic. As anti-modern as it may have seemed to both its adherents and critics, Phenomenology has been a current within modern thought, romantic and nostalgic, but also modern in its quest for individual authenticity and self-consciousness. In reaction to the emergence of anonymous mass societies in the 19th century, Phenomenology offered self-consciousness that was unthinkable in the sort of rural societies that phenomenologists sometimes fantasized about. Phenomenological historical insensitivity manifested itself in East Europe in conflations of instrumental rationality with totalitarianism, science with pseudo-science, and of mechanical engineering (technology) with central planning that mistreated humans as cogs in impersonal social machines.

Gubser rightly bemoans that as an intellectual movement, the flowering of Phenomenology in dissident circles in Central and Eastern Europe from the sixties to the eighties, is all but over. At the very moment that Phenomenology (it is tempting to say “the space cadets”) won over Marxism as a political philosophy and Communism as a form of government with a phenomenologist Pope (Wojtyła), a phenomenologist president (Havel) and numerous other Phenomenology oriented thinkers moving into politics and government (students of Patočka like Martin Palouš, who held several key positions in the Czech Foreign Service, or senator Daniel Kroupa), it went into decline. Critical philosophy cannot survive well its own victory. Politically, the challenges that President Havel and Pope John Paul II faced following their victories were institutional: Havel needed to build the institutions of the rule of law and democracy; John Paul II needed to clean up and reform the institutions of the Church. As much as Phenomenology offered an effective method and reasons for maintaining personal integrity facing the totalitarian juggernaut, it had practically nothing to say about institutional design, construction or reform; this is the domain of liberal political theory. As higher education is becoming increasingly technical and vocational, encouraging young students to become ever more alienated and inauthentic, as under Communism, only under economic rather than political pressure this time, I see promising potential for a resurrection of the phenomenological tradition. Space cadets may return to rescue the humanity, again.

Aviezer Tucker

is the author of The Legacies of Totalitarianism (Cambridge University Press 2015), A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography (Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) and The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence: From Patocka to Havel (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2000).

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