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.

First Principles?

The works of Aristotle as they have come down to us include what seem to be nearly opposite statements about the knowledge of first principles. Book 1 of the Topics, Aristotle’s treatise on dialectic, says that dialectic, which assumes no pre-existing truth and does not yield certain conclusions, turns out to be the best way to the investigate first principles.

However, striking a much more Platonic note, book 1 of the Metaphysics says that knowledge of first principles or “wisdom” is the most difficult of all, but is also the most exact kind of the knowledge in the strong sense that is often translated as “science”. This is said to include knowledge of goods or ends, along with other sorts of causes. But then again, book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics insists that ethics and the practical judgment associated with it are necessarily inexact. This latter difference seems to have to do the status of first principles as universals, in contrast to the concern of ethics with particular actions.

While book 1 of the Metaphysics is a beautiful text with many valuable insights, the idea that knowledge of first principles could be what is most exact seems incongruous to me. It seems to assume an unequivocal priority of universals over particulars, whereas I think the overall balance of Aristotle’s work shows a much more even-handed view. The ethics, the dialectic, the biological works all take a more nuanced approach. My favorite part of the diverse collection that is the Metaphysics is the very dialectical part in the middle about substance, potentiality, and actuality. (See also Interpretation; What and Why; First Principles Come Last.)

Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic

When Hegel talked about dialectic instead of just using it, he occasionally made it sound as if dialectic governed events in the world. This is a loose, popular way of speaking that should not be taken literally. Dialectic is the main tool of the forward progress of philosophical criticism, and thus indirectly helps refine our understanding of the world and events in it. It could not directly drive events.

It is actually very hard to draw a sharp line between the world “in itself” and our understanding of it, because our understanding (in the general, not the specifically Hegelian sense) is all we actually have to go on. Our sense of the world in itself is permeated by artifacts of our understanding, because it comes entirely from our understanding.

But then it turns out that our understanding is not just some private, subjective thing of ours. Our understanding participates in the world, and is part of it. The cultivation of shareable thought grounds objectivity in (our sense of) the world. Much of the content of shareable thought comes to us from outside. In a poetic manner of speaking, it could be said that the world thinks itself through us. But in a more direct way, we are the agents and stewards of the world’s thought. In particular, it advances through us. There is thus no wall between our understanding and the world. There is a meaningful distinction, but the content of shareable thought straddles the boundary, so to speak.

Aristotle’s version of dialectic is much less famous nowadays, but a great deal easier to understand, and it does not require apologetics of the sort I just provided for Hegel’s. It uses logic and semantics to analyze the meaning of things said, making no assumption whether or not they are grounded in knowledge.

Aristotle explicitly said (Topics, book 1) that this is the way to investigate first principles (i.e., starting points) of knowledge. With respect to such starting points, we have no possibility of knowledge in the strong sense (episteme) — which requires development — but only a kind of initial personal acquaintance or familiarity (gnosis), as he said in Posterior Analytics.

There has been a strong tradition of misinterpretation of this latter passage. With no textual basis, many people who wanted to read Stoic-style foundationalism back into Aristotle — or were influenced by others with this sort of motivation — have glossed Aristotelian gnosis as something like a strong intellectual intuition, and claimed Aristotle was saying first principles of knowledge were better known in a strong sense, rather than just more familiar. (See also Aristotelian Demonstration.)

Aristotle’s actual practice, however, confirms the reading of first principles of knowledge as themselves objects of mere familiarity rather than strong knowledge. (Aristotle’s loftier principles are ends, not starting points of knowledge, and he typically places discussion of them at the end of an inquiry.) His starting points for inquiries are very pragmatic. He typically begins an inquiry with logical/semantic (i.e., “dialectical”) analysis of widely known opinions on the subject. He also explicitly recommends that we begin any inquiry from what is closer to us, and then, through analysis, refine our understanding. (See also The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle).

The development of knowledge starts from what is close to us and easier to grasp, and becomes progressively more secure through the dialectical work we do on it. Aristotelian dialectic uses the same logical forms as demonstration, but is mainly concerned with inferential semantic analysis rather than deriving conclusions. (Even Aristotelian demonstration is concerned not so much with deriving conclusions, as with perspicuously showing their basis.) Aristotle does the great majority of his actual work with dialectic rather than demonstration.

Once one becomes familiar with the profile of the Aristotelian version, it becomes possible to see something very like it at the core of Hegel’s way of working — not so much in what he says about it, as in what he does. (See also Aristotelian Dialectic; Dialogue; Scholastic Dialectic; Contradiction vs Polarity; Three Logical Moments.)