Husserl on Normativity

Translator J. N. Findlay ranks Husserl (1859-1938) with Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel, and calls Husserl’s Logical Investigations (1899-1901) his greatest work. My previous acquaintance with Husserl has been limited to his later, explicitly “phenomenological” period.

In the first two chapters, Husserl surveys and criticizes the then-dominant views of Utilitarian John Stuart Mill and his followers on the nature of logic, objecting that they reduced it to a “technology dependent on psychology” (p. 56). Frege had already introduced mathematical logic, but the great flowering of the latter had not occurred yet. Husserl in these chapters is particularly concerned with the objectivity of knowledge, and with principles of validation.

I was initially confused by his polemic against the claim that logic is a “normative discipline”. To me, “normative” means “axiological”, i.e., concerned with value judgments. I take the Aristotelian view that judgment refers first of all to a process of evaluation, rather than a conclusion. In this sense, judgment and normativity inherently involve a Socratic dimension of genuinely open inquiry about what is good.

All versions of normativity involve a “should”. But it turns out that the view Husserl is polemicizing against treated a “normative discipline” as one that takes some particular and predetermined end for granted, and is only concerned with what we “should” do to realize that predetermined end. On this view, “normativity” is only concerned with necessary and/or sufficient conditions for achieving predetermined ends. Thus Husserl associates it with a sort of technology, rather than with something ultimately ethical. So, what he is doing here is rejecting a merely technological view of normativity.

There is also a theoretical-versus-practical axis to Husserl’s argument. Aristotle had contrasted the ability to successfully perform an operation with the ability to explain the principles governing it. One does not necessarily imply the other. Husserl notes how many activities in life are merely oriented toward operational success, and says that most of the practice of modern sciences — including mathematics — has a mainly operational character.

Elsewhere I have contrasted “tool-like” reason with what I like to call ethical reason, but I don’t think they are mutually exclusive, and my notion of “tool-like” reason has potentially rather more positive connotations than that toward which Husserl seems to be leading. I don’t take the fact that engineering tends to drive science to be inherently bad. I think engineering can drive science in a good way, involving an integral consideration of ends; a concern with good design guided by those ends and the best practices we can come up with; and a recognition that the real world doesn’t always cooperate with our intentions.

On the other hand, I also find that the best engineering relies more on fundamental theoretical insight and well-rounded judgment than on sheer technology. This is a perspective that is simultaneously “practical” and concerned with first principles. When Husserl argues for the priority of theoretical disciplines over practical ones, he is mainly arguing for the importance of a concern for first principles. While I generally prefer the Kantian/Brandomian primacy of practical reason, I find common ground with Husserl in the concern for principles.