Crises and Communities: Reflections on Husserl and the Idea of Europe

by Timo Miettinen

In his writings on the philosophy of history, the Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897) described crises as “accelerations of historical processes.” According to him, historical crises such as wars or political revolutions did not entail a complete breakdown of historical developments, but rather, an increase in their intensity.

The historical process is suddenly accelerated in terrifying fashion. Developments which otherwise take centuries seem to flit by like phantoms in months or weeks and are fulfilled.

Interestingly, Burckhardt compared crises to “epidemics” where “infection flashes like an electric spark over hundreds of miles  . . . the message goes through the air . . . things must change.”

TIMO MIETTINEN is an adjunct professor at the University of Helsinki.

As I am writing this blog in April 2020, the COVID-19 epidemic has become a global pandemic. Particularly in the Western world, the situation resembles the moment of crisis described by Burckhardt. Everything is accelerating at a phenomenal pace: existing technologies in teleworking are being adopted; new forms of online teaching are being put to use; many are trying to find new ways to connect with their loved ones from a physical distance. Amazon is hiring one hundred thousand new employees to cope with the incredible surge of demand for online deliveries.

In global politics also, the coronavirus epidemic has intensified, rather than transformed, many ongoing developments. What we are witnessing is indeed a resurgence of the nation-state as a continuation to the increased protectionism of the 2010s and the overall deterioration of a rule-based system in the age of Trump and Brexit. International institutions such as the WHO are simply weaker and unable to generate a joint response at the national level. Borders and walls are in the making.

Life, learning, and leisure—all are changing at a rapid pace.

The German philosopher Edmund Husserl also wrote in a time of crisis. Following the devastating experience of the First World War, Husserl’s philosophical project—phenomenology—went through a radical reorientation both in style and substance. In contrast to his earlier works, focusing on themes such as meaning and subjectivity, Husserl’s post-1919 works were defined by a heightened interest in questions of normativity, communality, and history. All of these topics crystallized in Husserl’s reflections on Europe from the early 1930s onwards.

In my book Husserl and the Idea of Europe (Northwestern University Press, 2020), I argue that for Husserl, this postwar crisis was not simply a negative experience. Instead, the crisis provided an important incentive to rethink the basic principles of modern rationality and its ostensible collapse in an age of havoc and national egoism. This was due to the fact that Husserl understood crises not so much as destructions of meaning but as their “emptying”: we realize that we have been living according to beliefs and convictions that we cannot fully justify.

husserl-and-the-idea-of-europe

According to Husserl, the very idea of rationality had gone through such an emptying. Following the triumph of the modern natural sciences, rationality had lost many of its normative or ethical connotations, becoming primarily a tool of control and calculation. This did not mean, however, that rationality ought to be abandoned. Instead, reason was to be conceived again in its full sense as the overarching responsibility for one’s cognitive, practical, and political judgments.

Here, the problem of community turned out to be of particular importance. Already in his writings of the late 1910s, Husserl began to emphasize the role of other subjects at the most fundamental levels of apprehension: our ability to constitute an objective world is intimately tied to an awareness that there are others who possess similar perceptual capabilities. What I am as a person and how I constitute the world is fundamentally dependent on others.

This was not simply a theoretical observation. Ethical thinking, too, was to be rethought on the basis of this fundamental interconnectedness of subjective viewpoints. Following the vocabulary of his time, Husserl called this social ethics. We cannot judge our actions simply on the basis of the idea of an isolated subject making rational choices. Instead, we need to understand ethics as a fundamentally communal practice of mutual assistance and critique.

Is not something similar at stake with our responses to COVID-19? For decades, our thinking about health—particularly in the Western world—has been conducted on the basis of an individual, even isolated subject. We carry the responsibility and the risk primarily for those decisions that we make by ourselves. I can increase my health by doing the right things. In contrast, by smoking cigarettes I am primarily hurting myself; through unhealthy eating it is I who suffer . . .

All of this has major political implications. Institutions such as insurance companies then calculate risks on the basis of our personal situation. The older I am, the unhealthier my lifestyle is, the bigger the insurance premium.

Epidemiological crises, however, are of a different sort. They are far less dependent on the individual choices of individual persons. None of the restrictions make sense if they are only followed by a small number of people. As in the case of vaccinations, for instance, in order for measures to be effective, more than 90 percent of the population needs to follow them. Moreover, the risks are distributed unevenly: those who take the biggest risks (for instance, by not following recommendations for social distancing) are not necessarily those who suffer the most.

The COVID-19 crisis necessarily entails a communal response. The problem is, however, that these kinds of responses are incredibly difficult to coordinate. This especially concerns liberal-democratic societies that rely on fundamental rights to conduct one’s life according to one’s wishes. But even in the most totalitarian societies, it is simply impossible to monitor hand hygiene or control every single human encounter.

In the age of epidemiological crises, we need trust—both in institutions and other human beings.

As I show in my book, Husserl’s heightened interest in problems of community did not take away the idea of individual responsibility. Instead, the new dynamism between the individual and the community led him to reconceive the scope of individual responsibility to encompass a wider horizon of other subjects. I am not simply responsible for my own beliefs, deeds, and judgments, but also for creating and promoting a society in which everyone is able to do the same: to reflect on their beliefs and actions freely.

And, as Husserl argued, this was what philosophy had been about already since its inception in ancient Greece: a radical practice to reflect on our convictions in the spirit of mutual assistance.

What is perhaps reassuring for our own situation is that these phenomena of trust and communal cooperation are not universal constants. They vary according to historical circumstances, and they are dependent on social models and political institutions. And it is exactly the moment of crisis that can help us to reflect on how well our current institutions serve us.

Introduction to “Merleau-Ponty’s Developmental Ontology”

Below NU Press is pleased to reprint the introduction to Merleau-Ponty’s Developmental Ontology by David Morris, professor of philosophy at Concordia University and author of The Sense of Space.

Introduction

Sense, Development, and the Phenomenology of Nature

“Nature thus interests us neither for itself nor as a universal explanatory principle, but as an index of what, within things, resists the operations of free subjectivity, and as concrete access to the ontological problem. If we refused to grant any philosophical meaning to the idea of Nature, and if we reflected directly on being, we would risk placing ourselves immediately at the level of the subject- object relationship, which is an elaboration and secondary, and we would risk missing an essential component of being: brute or wild being which has not yet been converted into an object of vision or choice. It is this that we would like to rediscover.”
—Merleau-Ponty, “Nature or the World of Silence” (“NMS”), 53

“‘What is the world?’ or, better ‘what is being?’— these questions become philosophical only if, by a sort of diplopia, at the same time that they aim at the state of things, they aim at themselves as questions— at the same time that they aim at the meaning “being,” they aim at the being of meaning and the place of meaning within Being.”
—Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 119– 20/160

Morris3DThis book articulates three overlapping philosophical themes— sense, developmental ontology, and the phenomenology of nature— that, I argue, are crucial to Merleau- Ponty’s philosophy, even if Merleau- Ponty did not in his lifetime succeed in fully elaborating these themes himself or do so under precisely these headings.

In a nutshell, sense is Merleau-Ponty’s concept of meaning as manifest within being itself, versus meaning as an ideal or nominalist imposition on being. It is one of his earliest and greatest discoveries, and the problem of the being of sense pervades the rest of his philosophy. What I call developmental ontology is, I argue, entailed by the being of sense and is implied by Merleau- Ponty’s own work. This is an ontology in which the fundamental term is not, for example, substance, matter, or idea, but a movement I call development, through which being engenders determinate, interrelated differences, together with their differential context, thereby enabling a sense within being. Phenomenology of nature is my name for a deepening of phenomenological method demanded by the problem of sense.

This new method is required because, as Merleau-Ponty increasingly realized, philosophy is liable to misconceptualize sense, a meaning manifest within being, if it reflects on being from above, from within subjectivity. Philosophical reflection must be radicalized, which for Merleau-Ponty means that philosophy must reflect on its own roots in being (its radix, the Latin word for “root”). This also means grasping that reflection is not solely or purely an activity of philosophers but is an operation of the being in which reflection arises. Reflection thus involves passivity, a theme already implied in Structure of Behaviour, that permeates the Phenomenology, and becomes ever more pervasive in Merleau-Ponty’s later work. The phenomenology of nature is a methodological strategy for addressing this issue, for letting nature lead the way in reflection. It proceeds by studying nature— being as the manifest domain in which we find ourselves and through which we access being— so as to glean conceptual insights as to how being operates, thereby correcting philosophical prejudices. Merleau-Ponty often pursues this sort of strategy. The phenomenology of nature aims to reveal nature participating in reflection, and reflection participating in nature, such that reflection is deeply radicalized and revealed as an operation in and of being, as older than ourselves and our philosophical traditions. In the first epigraph above and other passages Merleau-Ponty urges that this deepening of radical reflection is necessary if our task is rediscovering brute, wild, or raw being making sense in its own way, before we have converted being to the cause of making sense to us and our philosophical and scientific demands. This book’s phenomenology of nature follows Merleau-Ponty’s effort to return to things from within nature, but it takes advantage of recent empirical and conceptual advances in science not available to Merleau-Ponty, thus resuming his critical engagement with science and learning new things from it.

Excerpted from Merleau-Ponty’s Developmental Ontology by David Morris, published as part of the SPEP series, Anthony J. Steinbock, General Editor. Available in cloth, paperback, and ebook editions. Please visit www.nupress.northwestern.edu, independent bookstores with robust philosophy collections, and online retailers.