top of page
Commentary on Husserl's Logical Investigations, Prolegomena Chapter 7

By Jeremy Hausotter


Chapter 7: Psychologism as a Sceptical Relavitivism

§32 The ideal conditions for the possibility of a theory as such. The strict concept of scepticism

Husserl begins the chapter by simply stating that “The worst objection that can be made to a theory, and particularly to a theory of logic, is that it goes against the self-evident conditions for the possibility of a theory in general.” (p. 135). What Husserl means here is not that such an objection is a poor or weak one, but that it is utterly devastating for that particular theory. There is no theory more destructive for a science than one which precludes the possibility to even theorize. Husserl’s project in the first section is twofold, to provide us with what he means by these “self-evident conditions” and to give a definition to skepticism.

Husserl distinguishes between two meanings of self-evident conditions for the possibility of a theory in general. The first is the subjective respect, the second the objective respect. The subjective respect is defined as being concerned with “the a priori conditions upon which the possibility of immediate and mediate knowledge depends, and also the possibility of rationally justifying any theory.” (ibid). Knowledge requires some conditions grounded in knowledge itself and in the relationship between knowledge and the knowing subject. Knowledge, Husserl observes, is not merely a judgment claiming to be stating truth. The individual who possesses knowledge is “also certain of this claim’s justification, and actually possesses the justification in question.” (ibid). Knowledge additionally requires a possession of justification and a certitude of this justification on the part of the subject. The subject’s experience of justification and certitude over it is in fact quintessential. One could not possess knowledge without the inner experience of knowledge within one’s own subjectivity. He or she could not distinguish knowledge from blind impulse or opinions without this experience of the self-justifying character of an act of judgment. As Husserl wrote:

If the judging person were never in a position to have direct personal experience and apprehension of his judgement’s self-justifying character, if all his judgements lacked that inner evidence which distinguishes them from blind prejudices, and yields him luminous certainties, it would be impossible to provide a rational account and a foundation for knowledge, or to discourse on theory and science. A theory therefore violates the subjective conditions of its own possibility as a theory, when, following our example, it in no way prefers an inwardly evident judgment to a blind one. It thereby destroys the very thing that distinguishes it from an arbitrary, unwarranted assertion. (p. 135-136).

This subjective respect, the experiences of the self-justifying character of judgment and of its certitude, are ideal conditions grounded in the form of subjectivity as such. (p. 136). My particular experience is real. The law of this subjective experience that informs me of possessing the truth, on the other hand, is ideal, and does not rest upon some fact of the real. It is of the essence of subjectivity to possess this ability to have such experiences. As such, any being incapable of these experiences is a being not endowed with subjectivity. We can therefore conclude that to be a person entails his or her ability to experience truth and to be a possessor of knowledge, and to be able to know that he possesses truth and knowledge. Husserl calls these ideal conditions of subjectivity required for the possession of knowledge noetic conditions.

There is also an objective meaning of “self-evident conditions”. These consider theory itself as “an objective unity of truths or propositions, bound together by relations of ground and consequent.” (ibid). These conditions are laws grounded in the notions “of truth, of proposition, of object, of property, of relation, etc”, notions which are essentially inseparable from the concept of theoretical unity itself. Therefore, the denial of these essential laws of theory immediately and automatically renders such a view as absurd and irrational. Such a view is incoherent because it ignores the fundamental laws which govern the possibility and rationality of theory.

Husserl distinguishes between false, nonsensical, logically absurd and noetically absurd theories. Skepticism is distinguished from all of the above. Husserl does not provide definitions or justifications for these distinctions, so we will have to wait to see if he develops this later. He defines skeptical theories as those “whose theses either plainly say, or analytically imply, that the logical or noetic conditions for the possibility for any theory are false” (ibid). Skepticism is hence divided into noetic and logical skepticism. Given this definition, Husserl observes that it is of the essence of skepticism to be nonsensical (p. 137). Skepticism is in essence an irrational view to assent to.

§33 Scepticism in the metaphysical sense

Husserl now contrasts logical and noetic skepticism from metaphysical skepticism. The term skepticism is commonly used with a degree of vagueness where the term is usually applied to metaphysical theories or as a statement that certain disciplines do not contain knowledge. Husserl wants to clearly demarcate metaphysical skepticism from a purely epistemic skepticism as defined in the previous section. A theory such as idealism which limits knowledge to mental existence is metaphysical. A distinction hence arises because one can have a flawed metaphysical theory without it containing logical or noetic absurdity. Oftentimes statements of metaphysical skepticism are vague and are easily converted into statements of epistemic skepticism, such as when one states “all knowledge is subjective” is translated into “knowledge is subject to the laws of human consciousness”.

§34 The concept of relativism and its specific forms

Husserl now briefly distinguishes between two kinds of relativism. The first is individual relativism, defined by the view that “truth and knowledge are dependent upon the individual judging subject”. One could however redefine relativism as a dependence upon a species, in this case the human species. What is true is due to the nature of the rational species and its subjectivity. Different rational species hence possess different truths and knowledge. Each has their own laws of logic. Husserl calls this specific relativism. Specific relativism becomes anthropologism when it is restricted to the human species.

§35 Critique of individual relativism

§35 begins with an interesting observation: “Individual relativism is such a bare-faced and (one might almost say) ‘cheeky’ skepticism, that it has certainly not been seriously held in modern times.” (p. 139). How little did he imagine society would willingly throw itself into the pit of relativism. He makes a similar statement in the beginning of the next section: “In the case of subjectivism, it is doubtful whether anyone seriously holds it.” (ibid). This is really an indictment against our education system, for it is only through indoctrination that one can come to accept such blatant irrationality and untruth as what is intelligible and true.

The skeptic and relativist are those who fail to see the objectivity of logic. They fail to see that the laws of logic possess their intelligibility in the “mere meaning of truth.” These thinkers are blinded. They cannot see. And this is why Husserl says that the project of the rational philosopher is not to convert these erroneous thinkers from their errors, but to refute them. You cannot rationally engage in dialogue with someone who is by definition irrational through their adoption of skepticism and relativism. “That we should, however, be able to convince the subjectivist personally, and make him admit his error, is not important: what is important is to refute him in an objectively valid manner.” (ibid).

One interesting observation Husserl makes concerns the essence of refutation itself: “refutation presupposes the leverage of certain self-evident, universally valid convictions.” (ibid). The ability to refute someone presupposes an universally true and accessible datum. Skepticism and relativism in denying what is universally true, deny themselves the ability to refute anyone. Refutation itself according to their theses becomes merely a mind game. Logical demonstration and refutation are impossible unless there are universally valid truths that are necessarily such and not other.

§36 Critique of specific relativism and, in particular, of anthropologism

Husserl breaks up his critiques of specific relativism and anthropologism into six points. For his first point, specific relativism teaches that a truth is true simply because of that rational species’ particular psychosomatic constitution. This means that a truth will be true for species A but not necessarily so for species B. If humanity ever met Klingons, humans might believe in the proposition C, but Klingons assent to ~C. According to specific relativism we would have to hold both C and ~C as being true and false according to each species, but this is absurd for it contradicts the principle of noncontradiction. To speak of a truth for humans and of a truth for Klingons ignores the very meanings of the concepts of true and false. Truth remains true regardless of time, place, or whoever assents to it. As Husserl wrote:

What is true is absolutely, intrinsically true: truth is one and the same, whether men or non-men, angels or gods apprehend and judge it. Logical laws speak of truth in this ideal unity, set over against the real multiplicity of races, individuals and experiences, and it is of this ideal unity that we all speak when we are not confused by relativism. (p. 140).

In his third critique, Husserl begins with the observation that the constitution of a species is a fact, and that only facts follow from facts. This is important since truth itself is not a fact. Specific relativism truncates and reduces truth to the status of a fact, attributing to truth the property of being a fact. Facts are temporally determined, truth is not. It would hence be absurd to attribute temporality to truth. The assertion that truth is a fact further introduces causality as a condition for truth. Truth remains true regardless. Time and causality cannot alter what is irrevocably true. When one makes such a silly assertion, what he is actually doing is treating what is ideal as something real. The content of the concept of truth itself is ideal, not real. Husserl further reminds the reader that we must be careful to not confuse the content of a judgment with the act of judgment. The first refers to an ideal content, whereas the second is a real act, something taking place within what is real as a psychological act of a rational being.

I found the fourth point of Husserl’s to be rather entertaining. Suppose anthropologism is true. Then, if the human race was never created, we would have to conclude that there exists no truths! Or, if the human race was annihilated, then truth is likewise obliterated. What is hilarious about this is that whatever cosmological, geological or truths of the physical sciences man has discovered, they are no longer true if man is erased. The truths of science are likewise vanquished in the same fell swoop.

For the fifth point, Husserl pointed out the self-referential inconsistency of specific relativism. Supposing that specific relativism is true, then the proposition that “all truths are products of the constitution of that particular rational species” would itself fall under this constitution. The cause of explanation for truth is therefore identical with the laws themselves. In other words, “Our constitution would be causa sui in respect of laws, which would cause themselves in virtue of themselves etc.” (p. 143).

Husserl’s last point builds off of his fourth concerning the truths of the universe. Relativism in general implies the “relativity of cosmic existence.” (ibid). Truth requires a content, it is always a truth about some thing. When we assert the relativity of truth, then this implies a relativity of the contents of truth. As Husserl said, “There would be no world ‘in itself’, but only a world for us, or for any other chance species of being.” (ibid). The implication of this is that the individual ego, as a really existing thing, is itself of dubious existence since the ego is a thing that is supposed to be existing in the world. “That I am, and that I am experiencing this or that, might be false if my specific constitution were such as to force me to deny these propositions.” (ibid). Furthermore, every change in the nature or constitution of the rational species would entail a real change of the world and its properties. If the scientific theory of evolution is true, then the process of human development likewise requires a development of the world as evolutionary products of human evolution. “We are playing a pretty game: man evolves from the world and the world from man; God creates man and man God.” (ibid).

The central core of Husserl’s argument here is “the self-evident conflict between relativism and the inner evidence of immediately intuited existence…” (ibid). What I believe Husserl is arguing here is that the experience of myself requires an immediate intuition of myself, of an encounter with a something that must exist in order for the possibility of making judgments about myself even possible. When we adopt the theory of relativism, this endangers this fundamental datum of a truth that I necessarily intuit of myself as really existing in the world. Why would this be true if another being posits my nonexistence as true? Truth cannot contradict truth.

§37 General observation. The concept of relativism in an extended sense.

Both variants of relativism that Husserl has discussed, specific and individual, originate from a broader meaning of relativism “as a doctrine which somehow derives the pure principles of logic from facts.” (p. 144). Relativism as such is a “self-cancelling” theory, for any science which seeks to establish facts must use logical principles, and hence prove the very principles it proposes to discover in its pursuit of discovery. Most fundamentally, relativism is self-cancelling because the very attempt to derive logical principles from facts is logically absurd, for it is a contradiction between the content of the thesis and very concepts of logic itself.

§38 Psychologism in all its forms is a relativism

Husserl moves now to a condemnation of psychologism itself. “Psychologism in all its subvarieties and individual elaborations is in fact the same as relativism…” (p. 145). Such is a strong condemnation, for relativism is self-cancelling and logically absurd. As Husserl observed, “Every doctrine is ipso facto relativistic… if… it treats the pure laws of logic as empirical, psychological laws.” (ibid). The moment one advances a psychologistic interpretation of logic, he has committed himself to logical absurdity. This is Husserl’s condemnation of the empiricists. He, however, does not leave the rationalists out; for Husserl likewise denounces the Kantian view as also relativistic, the view that treats the laws of logic as “original forms” or “modes of functioning” of man’s understanding (ibid).

Platonism in the remainder of the chapter

Husserl ends the chapter with a section dedicated to Sigwart’s (§39) and Erdmann’s (§40) views of logic. For now I leave these sections unattended. There is one significant observation that I wish to draw the reader to from these sections, and that is the theme of Platonism as found in these two sections.

On page 149 Husserl gives the example of red. I see a red object, but this red object is not redness itself. Redness is neither a psychological nor metaphysical part of the red object, but an instantiation of a something that “arises and vanishes with the concrete whole object…” (ibid). Many objects are red, each is instances of redness. Redness is a species of color, and when we refer to redness instantiated in the object before us, this is a recognition of an ideal unity. Colors are ideal objects. The different colors are species of the genus color. Husserl here argues that colors are of the same ontological status as the laws of logic. Later in his discussion of Erdmann’s views (p. 164-165), Husserl expands on this theme and includes tones, geometric figures, and other mathematical objects as ideal objects. Here we have a very seemingly Platonic interpretation of color, musical objects, mathematics, and the laws of logic. Husserl’s analyses here launched the first school of phenomenology that was decidedly a Platonic realism, and inspired by this return to the things themselves. These pages are glimmers of the revolution Husserl unleashed with phenomenology.

The Prolegomena

Prolegomena: Introduction

Prolegomena: Chapter 1

Prolegomena: Chapter 2

Prolegomena: Chapter 3

Prolegomena: Chapter 4

Prolegomena: Chapter 5

Prolegomena: Chapter 6

Prolegomena: Chapter 7

Prolegomena: Chapter 10

Prolegomena: Chapter 11

Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California by Albert Bierstadt

Wikimedia Commons

bottom of page