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A Critique of Two Recent Husserl Interpretations

  • Henry Pietersma (a1)

In an article which appeared in The Philosophical Review Karl Ameriks argues in favour of the rather surprising thesis that Husserl, his own statements and a host of commentators and critics notwithstanding, was a realist, i.e., a philosopher who held that “there are physical objects which exist outside consciousness and are not wholly dependent on it” (498). More recently, Harrison Hall, in his contribution to the volume Husserl, Intentionality, and Cognitive Science, has argued that in Husserl's view there is no legitimate philosophical issue between realism and idealism, because philosophy is concerned exclusively with meanings. Both interpretations are careful, documenting each point with texts, and contain several elements that are illuminating. Yet they are fundamentally mistaken as regards their main thesis, as I shall argue in this paper.

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1 Ameriks Karl, “Husserl's Realism”, The Philosophical Review 86/4 (October 1977), 498519. References to this work are indicated by page numbers.

2 Hall Harrison, “Was Husserl a Realist or an Idealist?”, Dreyfus H. L., ed., Husserl, Intentionality, and Cognitive Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982). References to this work are identified by HICS.

3 Students of Husserl often seem to think that his position amounts to a total rejection of all problems of knowledge. Phenomenology, it is said, is clarification of meanings, descriptions, intentional analysis, but not evaluation or appraisal of knowledge claims. In response one can of course point out that those characterizations of phenomenology, far from being incompatible with appraisal, are in fact presupposed by it. To appraise a claim presupposes understanding and clarifying it. But, I may be asked, is it not true that Husserl rejected the traditional problem of knowledge, as may be seen from the 1907 lectures published under the title The Idea of Phenomenology? I answer that this is true. But it is important to be clear as to just what he rejected. What he rejected was the problem of knowledge construed in such a manner that, as one can appreciate from the first of Descartes' Meditations, skepticism seems to be the only conclusion to be drawn. To this construal Husserl reacts by rejecting its universal scope. His crucial affirmation in this regard is that there is self-givenness. If we put this in terms more clearly relevant to Descartes' first Meditation, this amounts to saying that there is a form of cognitive awareness such that we can eliminate the possibility that we are dreaming. Now this kind of affirmation is precisely what makes appraisal as a philosophical endeavour possible. For the logic of epistemic appraisal requires that the appraiser has to know in his own case that he is not dreaming. In more Husserlian terms, he has to know that the object itself is there in front of him. One could say that at this point Husserl joins the company of those philosophers who, like Descartes and Kant, thought that the radical skepticism of the first Meditation can be refuted by a philosophical argument. Kant, for example, thought that he had done this in his “Refutation of Idealism”. As far as I can see, however, the price to be paid for this ability is a form of idealism.

4 Husserl Edmund, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, trans. Kersten F. (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982), §§129–131. References to this work are indicated by Id.

5 For further elaboration of this theme, see my article “Intentionality and Epistemic Appraisal”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 25/3 (1987), 381394.

6 See my paper Husserl's Concept of Existence”, Synthese 66 (February 1986), 311328.

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Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
  • ISSN: 0012-2173
  • EISSN: 1759-0949
  • URL: /core/journals/dialogue-canadian-philosophical-review-revue-canadienne-de-philosophie
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