Tuesday, May 17, 2005

My Current Husserl and Newman Project

Christopher asked if I could expound on my dissertation which is a study of both men, Husserl and Newman. Edmund Husserl is a 20th century German philosoper and founder of the school of thought known as Phenomenology. John Henry Newman is well known to Catholics and Christians, he was a Catholic convert whose life spanned the 19th century.

Husserl's project is really a fulfillment of Descartes goal to radically ground the sciences, and all knowledge, so that they rest on sound epistemological grounds. Descartes clearly went off course, but not necessarily because he was wrong, but Husserl would say because he didn't go far enough and was not completely honest with himself.

Descartes argued that since all the authorities he had believed since his youth had been shown to have lied, even if only once, (including his senses), then he is going to doubt everything because no one or nothing can be indubitably trusted anymore. But then he runs into the problem that if he doubts everything it is him, i.e., the ego, the "I", who is performing the act of doubting which then radically excludes the ego from the world that is doubted. In fact it then establishes the ego, the "I" as the one indubitable foundation of knowledge. This is when he does the "ego cogito sum," "I think therefore I am." (Or as Scottie Pippen would say, "I think therefore I jam.") BTW, Descartes was not being entirely original here. Augustine basically did the same thing.

Okay, fair enough, this is fine. The problem that Husserl had with Descartes was the content of that "I," in the "I think therefore I am." Husserl believed that Descartes backed off from investigating precisely what the ego, the "I" was all about. H. felt that if Descartes did, he would have found, not a single solitary ego, but rather, an ego correlated with an entire world that is given or manifested to it. In other words, the life-world of that ego, the world the ego exists in, remains as part of that "I." The tricky part here is that it is not just the world per se, but the world as given to, or as uniquely experienced by, the ego. It is the "objective" world, but in purely subjective terms. So then "the world" and fundamental belief is actually restored because that is the default mode in this life-world.

This was what Husserl called the transcendental reduction. Getting down to the that indubitable subjectivity that captures true objectivity. Husserl was so obsessed with this that he had three or four different ways of getting to the "transcendental reduction." The aforementioned way is the Cartesian Reduction which he discussed in his lectures called Cartesian Meditations.

Now, the work I am focused on is his Formal and Transcendental Logic. I should note that the conventional wisdom is that Husserl went from being a realist in the first part of his career to being an idealist in the latter part. The Cartesian Meditations and FTL are from his "idealist" years. (Apparently this turn to idealism was a little tough for Edith Stein and friends to handle).

In FTL, Husserl's project here is a something of a phenomenology of logic: how logic arises, what it is, how it manifests, etc. In this book he achieves the transcendental reduction by means of propositions. He shows how logical propositions arise in our everyday lives and then how the process of doubt is introduced and leads to higher levels of critical understanding until we attain that much desired transcendental viewpoint. It is very clever actually.

I'm rambling. Anyway, to the dissertation.

The title is A Phenomenological Theology of the Trinity: A Study in John Henry Newman and Edmund Husserl . Basically, the dissertation is about Newman's Grammar of Assent, particularly chapter 5, which talks about how we come to believe in the Holy Trinity, especially for those without sophisticated theological backgrounds. To show how this happens Newman basically resorts to a deceptively simple "subjective" form of logic. What struck me about this was that at the same time I was studying the Grammar, I was studying Husserl's Formal and Transcendental Logic and there was something similar in their methods in how they see logic, propositions and their relation to truth and language.

I'm still teasing out a lot of the details. I have general ideas but the problem with these things is that sometimes scrutiny reveals that the fit wasn't has tight as you thought. I did write a comparative paper between both men for a hermeneutics class and I think there is stuff there, but it'll take a while.

On quick final note. Husserl was a trained mathematician. In fact, his PhD was in mathematics and his initial work was in the philosophy of mathematics. Husserl believes that mathematics does enjoy ideal existence, i.e., it is something, but it has its origins in subjectivity. So for instance, numbers don't just exist, they arise from counting. If I recal, you start with ordinal numbers, "this is the first stone, next, the second, then the third, etc" and then cardinal numbers, i.e,, one, two, three, four, etc are abstractions from the ordering. As far as operations such as addition, subtraction, mulitplication, etc, he deals with those. I think he does have a problem with "zero," but so does just about everyone. Anyway, Husserl was always a mathematician and logician at heart.

Newman also, was mathematician at heart. Newman actually co-wrote or assisted to a significant degree on the basic logic text of the time by his mentor, Richard Whately. So Newman knew his stuff. His friends frequently criticized his mathematical bent which was what drove him to see things even out in the end. Newman felt there had to be a certain neatness to things and his Anglican friend, Keble, believed it was his "undoing." It should be said though, that the level of scholarship at Oxford at the time was child's play compared with what was going on in Germany.

Anyway, as I iron things out, I hope to (very infrequently) hope to post on my Newman Blog and my Husserl blog. If I do, I'll note it here. BTW, I'd make a great professor since I do a horrible job of explaining anything.


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