Descartes, skepticism, and Husserl's hermeneutic practice
In the preceding pages, Husserl's objections to the content of Descartes'Meditations on First Philosophy have been reconstructed over the line ofargument in that work. The tone of his interpretation moved from ambivalence to outfight rejection. Husserl's ambivalence manifested itself intwo of the three meditations to which he pays significant attention. We sawthe much heralded methodological strategy of the First Meditation, uponclose examination, is not endorsed by Husserl, that he finds reason toprotest against the content of each individual skeptical argument and seesthere in general a subjectivistic doctrine of consciousness already at work.Nevertheless, Husserl clearly wanted to preserve the essential intent of theCartesian method of doubt if not its letter, namely, the move toward callinginto question naive presuppositions about the world, raising the possibilityof its non-existence, thereby resuscitating sheer wonder about the world,and rendering it problematic in its relation to subjectivity. Historically, thisstrategy has precedent in the ancient Greek sophists, who, however unintentionally, Husserl claims were the first to manifest a "transcendental im-pulse." Moving into the Second Meditation and the so-called discovery ofthe ego cogito, we found a stronger ambivalence on Husserl's part. Whileapplauding Descartes for uncovering the truth that lay hidden at the basis ofskepticism, the subsequent interpretation of the ego as soul and substantialentity clouds this inchoative insight into pure transcendental subjectivity.By the Third Meditation Husserl's ambivalence moved to out right rejection. There are a number of reasons why: the circularity of Descartes'"theological theory of evidence" (Hua VII, 341); the epistemologicalcommitment to a subjectivistic theory of consciousness; his"Scheinprobleme" (Hua VII, 73) along with the assumption of an objectivein-itself forever remote from intuition; the ontological commitment to twofinite substances; and the attempt to deductively redress the cognitiveschism created by these commitments through appeal to the principle ofcausality and the goodness of God. All these gave Husserl decisive occa-sion to take leave of the Cartesian path of meditation.A further reason why Husserl's meditations consistently break off in theThird Meditation is suggested by noticing the textual moment whereHusserl's silence begins. It is that moment where Descartes dips into theScholastic tradition for the concepts of objective and formal reality in orderto prove the existence of God. The problem, I suggest, is that here Des-cartes insufferably compromises his radicalness. More specifically, with theconcepts of objective and formal reality Descartes installs on the metaphysi-cal level the distinction between image and original already operative allalong in the earlier Meditations. Now, through the concepts of objective andformal reality, the image(effect)/original(cause) distinction is given ex-planatory power and raised to a truth so evident as to be beyond the reach ofmethodic doubt. The fact that this distinction is employed to deduce theexistence of God is not so much the phenomenological offense as themetaphysical naivete of positing a formal reality, an in itself, to account forthe very matters in question.Thus, one source of Husserl's objections to the Meditations has to dowith the traditional, metaphysical apparatus with which Descartes carriesout his project. A second source, the negative side of his ambivalence, hasto do with Descartes' engagement with classical anti-metaphysics, specifically with the skeptical reduction to the "I think" and the sense of theproblem posed out of that reduction.It was the case with Descartes that he did not grasp the deepest sense ofthe problems of a new and radically grounded philosophy, or what isessentially the same, the sense of rooting transcendental cognitive andscientific grounding in the ego cogito. That however has its basis in thefact that he was not a good apprentice of skepticism. (Hua VII, 64)Descartes missed the opportunity to deepen the task posed by skepticismprecisely because he fell prey to the skeptical formulation of what it meansto know. The task which Descartes thus took up and posed out of theskeptical reduction was the challenge of evidence for something beyond themerely subjective. Given such subjeetivistic premises, this evidence canonly be mediate and thus take the form of an indirect proof.For Descartes pure subjectivity does not become the field of egologicalresearch which had to form the fundament for an apodictically evidentfounding philosophy, rather it became a mere 'Archimedian point' fromwhich a secure deduction of the world lost in the method of skepticismcan be reclaimed. His problem is that of ancient skepticism concerningthe existence and knowability of the objective world, a world whichallegedly is recognized perceptually and scientifically in subjectivity.(Hua VII, 342)Husserl's objections to the content of the Meditations are objections to thespecific manner in which the "transcendental impulse" works itself out. Butclearly these objections are not enough to turn Husserl away from theguiding idea and style of the Meditations. Even if the Cartesian way intophenomenology proved less compelling than he once hoped, theMeditations held an allure for Husserl which apparently never lost itspower, right to the very end.
Burkey, J. (1990). Descartes, skepticism, and Husserl's hermeneutic practice. Husserl Studies 7 (1), pp. 1-27.
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