“Husserl and Shestov: philosophical antipodes” (Katarzyna Szepieniec)

ARGUMENT, vol. 4 (1/2014), pp. 135–153.

ABSTRACT: The paper contains the general characteristics of the relation between Lev Shestov’s philosophy of existence and transcendental phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. The analysis was largely inspired by Cezary Wodziński’s research on Shestov’s writings, including his book published in Polish entitled Wiedza a zbawienie. Studium myśli Lwa Szestowa (1991). In 1931, inspired by Descartes’ Meditationes de prima philosophiae, Husserl began a total transformation of philosophy into a science absolutely founded, assumptionless and developed in the spirit of absolute self-responsibility. Thus, the idea of philosophy as an exact science and Descartes’ idea of a science absolutely founded became the aim. It resulted in a project of universal science that — according to Husserl — has been the aim of European philosophy from the beginning. Ultimately, this philosophy was to rebuild the whole model of European culture. Less than two years after the first edition of Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenchaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie, Lev Shestov published his Athens and Jerusalem (1938) in which he agrees with Husserl’s diagnosis that the whole of European culture was in a stage of a deep crisis which goes to its very foundations. However, Shestov points at the radically different sources of that crisis. Paradoxically, the remarkable friendship connecting these two thinkers did not affect the similarity of their views. In fact, they are located at the opposite poles of the contemporary philosophical scene. The friendship of Shestov and Husserl was born in the atmosphere of an intense and uncompromising intellectual debate. Both thinkers are strongly convinced that the fate of European culture and European understanding of what it is to be a man are decided in the realm of philosophy. So, the philosophical projects they offer are two extremely critical visions of culture. At the same time they suggest a way in which European culture should be thoroughly reformed at its very basis.

KEYWORDS: crisis of culture; radical criticism; télos; the alternative either–or; overcoming the crisis; source of knowledge.

THE TIME IS OUT OF JOINT…

Let us go in together,
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint — O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let’s go together.
(Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5, 186–190)

The metaphorical words said by Hamlet disclose before us the phenomenon of universal crisis. When the world is trembling in its foundations, and the universe is breaking down into small glass pieces, we can see reality only in its mirror fragments. The world in which we live cannot be comprehended in its entirety. Nearly one century has already passed since The decline of the West of Oswald Spengler (1921), The new Middle Ages of Nikolai Berdyaev (1924), The agony of Christianity of Miguel de Unamuno (1924), and The revolt of the masses of José Ortega y Gasset were published (1930). In 1936 Husserl published Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenchaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie. This work is the deepest expression of Husserl’s mature thought, and includes a full anatomy of the crisis of European way of being human. It is entirely subordinated to the question about the essence and causes of that historical turn which brought Europe on the brink of a precipice. On the turn of the twentieth Husserl did not have any doubt as to the occurrence of a universal turning point in the world of European man. A vivid ideal of true science and scientific responsibility was abandoned. Science ceased to believe in its absolute significance. Man was doomed to live in an uncertain and incomprehensible world. According to Husserl, it is a philosopher–scientist who bears responsibility for this state of affairs, and this is why it is only him who is obliged to rebuild (in accordance with the arché) the European way of being human. Seeing growing pluralism in philosophy, Husserl writes:

We still have philosophical congresses. The philosophers meet but, unfortunately, not the philosophies. The philosophies lack the unity of a mental space in which they might exist for and act on one another (Husserl, 1977: 5).

Husserl notices the process of the undeniable collapse of Western philosophy, starting already from the half of the nineteenth century. It manifests itself in philosophy’s loss of unity as to its methods, problems and accepted purposes. In the nineteenth century the faith of philosophy in its absolute value and scientific rigour was shaken. This is how Husserl sees the state of contemporary philosophy:

Instead of a unitary living philosophy, we have a philosophical literature growing beyond all bounds and almost without coherence. Instead of a serious discussion among conflicting theories that, in their very conflict, demonstrate the intimacy with which they belong together, the commonness of their underlying convictions, and an unswerving belief in a true philosophy, we have a pseudo-reporting and a pseudo-criticizing, a mere semblance of philosophizing seriously with and for one another (Husserl, 1977: 5).

In 1931, inspired by Descartes’ Meditationes de prima philosophiae, Husserl begins a total transformation of philosophy into a science absolutely founded, assumptionless and developed in the spirit of absolute self-responsibility. The idea of philosophy as an exact science and Descartes’ idea of a science absolutely founded becomes the aim. This results in a project of universal science which — as Husserl claims — has been the aim of European philosophy from its very beginning. Ultimately, this philosophy is to rebuild the whole model of European culture.

The genuine spiritual struggles of European Humanity as such — writes Husserl in his last work — take the form of struggles between the philosophies. […] To bring latent reason to the understanding of its own possibilities and thus to bring to insight the possibility of metaphysics as a true possibility — this is the only way to put metaphysics or universal philosophy on the strenuous road to realization. It is the only way to decide whether the telos which was inborn in European humanity at the birth of Greek philosophy — that of humanity which seeks to exist, and is only possible, through philosophical reason, moving endlessly from latent to manifest reason, and forever seeking its own norms through this, its truth and genuine human nature — whether this telos, then, is merely a factual, historical delusion, the accidental acquisition of merely one among many other civilizations and histories, or whether Greek humanity was not rather the first breakthrough to what is essential to humanity as such, its entelechy (Husserl, 1970b: 15).

For Husserl the history of modern philosophy is a struggle for the meaning of humanity and therefore it is possible to settle the question of the meaning of human existence only within theoretical activity. The modern age has its beginning in the acceptance of the Greek ideal of humanity, that of man who derives his entire life from pure reason, in accordance to which he shapes himself and the entire surrounding reality. Thus, the primary ideal of philosophy is that of philosophy as an all-encompassing science speaking about the totality of what is and not divided into any particular disciplines. In its universality philosophy was to embrace all conceivable meaningful problems, thereby ensuring the unity of the area of theoretical research. According to the phenomenologist in the Enlightenment there occurs a radical turn — abandoning the faith in the power of science and philosophy as universal domains. Moreover, an internal disintegration into initially coherent but unrelated systems takes place. The seemingly universal method turns out to be useless when it comes to questions tormenting humankind. The only things that still sustains it are successes of particular sciences. However, the loss of philosophy’s “life significance” decided its ultimate fall. Husserl claims, that:

the crisis of European existence can end in only one of two ways: in the ruin of a Europe alienated from its rational sense of life, fallen into a barbarian hatred of spirit; or in the rebirth of Europe from the spirit of philosophy, through a heroism of reason that will definitively overcome naturalism. Europe’s greatest danger is weariness. Let us as “good Europeans” do battle with this danger of dangers with the sort of courage that does not shirk even the endless battle. If we do, then from the annihilating conflagration of disbelief, from the fiery torrent of despair regarding the West’s mission to humanity, from the ashes of the great weariness, the phoenix of a new inner life of the spirit will arise as the underpinning of a great and distant human future, for the spirit alone is immortal (Husserl, 1970b: 192).

Less than two years after the first edition of Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenchaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie, in 1938, Lev Shestov publishes a book entitled Athens and Jerusalem, in which he agrees with Husserl’s diagnosis that the whole European culture is in a stage of a deep crisis which goes to its very foundations. However, Shestov points at radically different sources of that crisis. Husserl and Shestov were great friends, even though they stand on the totally opposite poles of philosophical thought. This is an extremely rare paradox in philosophy… [PDF]