Phenomenology and the “Crisis” of the Sciences
Husserl and Heidegger often speak of the sciences in “crisis.” Yet what does this mean? Why do they think the sciences are in crisis?
They’re actually referring to a debate taking place in Germany after the First World War. To understand this debate, we need some history.
Let’s start by talking about the German University model.
Beginning in 1810, the German University (designed by W. Humboldt) unified all of the faculties under the guidance of the philosophy department. Further, physics, biology, mathematics, and other sciences were all done in philosophy departments. The natural philosophers were fully informed of the major innovations by the great philosophers. Humboldt believed in a “unified wissenschaft” where all fields of study were unified into a body of knowledge. Philosophy, as the leader of the faculties, could provide this unity. Before WWI, only four universities in Germany had separate faculties for mathematics and physics. Anywhere else, you studied math and physics in the philosophy department. (the other majors, listed at the beginning of Faust, were law, medicine, and theology. Philology also becomes somewhat independent at some point).This changes after 1914, when a large amount of students seeking technical training and class mobility quadruple the student populations.
Simultaneous to this large increase, the humanistic model gradually becomes abandoned and the natural sciences and mathematics begin to take on a life of their own, independent of philosophy.
These changes in the structure of the university coincide with “crises.”
At the same time, there a number of “paradigm shifts.” Heidegger talks about these as “crises.” The most famous is the crisis in Newtonian mechanics caused first by relativity and then by quantum mechanics. The other crisis is the “crisis in the foundations of mathematics,” the problem that Husserl began his career working on (the debate was between formalism and intuitionalism). Biology experienced a similar debate, Heidegger mentions it in Being and Time (and devotes lectures to some of the problems in biology in 1930).
These “crises in foundations” were seen to be the job of philosophers. Previously, philosophy had provided the basic research paradigms for (at least German) science.Heidegger and Husserl were worried that the fracturing of the sciences from Humboldt’s idea of a “unified Wissenschaft” to many diverse and unconnected specialized departments will fracture their unity. In 19th and early 20th century Germany, the big name philosophers would develop basic concepts for the sciences and then other natural philosophers would take these concepts and apply them to different areas of study.
The two major responses to the “crisis” of the humanities were Spengler’s Decline of the West and Weber’s Science as Vocation. Spengler, in Nietzschean fashion, sees the West as falling into decline and decay.Weber recognizes that everyone is looking for vocations from the university, so he argues that “research is a vocation/calling,” encouraging the new flood of students to pursue science as a career choice.
What’s the worry, then?
Husserl and Heidegger are worried that science has become divorced from philosophy. This is what the essay “What is Metaphysics?” is about. They inquire into “beings as a whole, and nothing else.” But what is this nothing? (Of course by “this nothing,” Heidegger means “being itself”).So basically, you have: (1) Major changes in the organization of the faculties, moving towards specialization. (2) Major crises in the basic concepts of the sciences, seen as the job of philosophers.The worry, of course, is that the crises will never be solved, but the sciences will just take off on their own. Unified, systematic knowledge will be lost, and while philosophers will try to clean up the mess, no one will really care or notice.
Are these critiques relevant today?
Husserl died while people were still largely aware of the crisis. He was in conversation, for example, with a lot of analytic philosophers who saw logical analysis or positivism as a possible solution. (He actually gave his lecture on the Crisis of the European Sciences to the Vienna Circle). Heidegger, on the other hand, continued working until the late 1960’s. In the 1950’s, he begins to talk about cybernetics as taking over the role formerly played by philosophy. Previously, philosophy had determined the being of beings, providing a metaphysics for an epoch. Now, Heidegger argues, information technology plays this role. Instead of taking their guidance from “first philosophy,” the sciences simply try to represent data according to workable informational models as “data.” Heidegger says that scientists today have even become unconcerned about whether such models are “true” (in an absolute sense). Instead, they are looking to find a data model that works. Alongside cybernetics, Heidegger thinks that technology has replaced philosophy as the goal of the sciences. Previously, philosophy was considered “the mother of the sciences.” Now, technology and a technological way of thinking plays this role.
What can phenomenology do?
Phenomenology, for Husserl at least, tries to give a firm foundation for the sciences. For Heidegger, it goes back to “Being itself” to see what makes any foundation possible. It tries to think the source of all metaphysics, not to ground the sciences in a new metaphysics. You can have a consistent philosophy of science from phenomenology. Yet both Husserl and Heidegger see, say, physics, as operating in a different region of being than phenomenology. Phenomenology defines the objects of perception and physics works with these same objects, but not “as perceived,” rather “as mathematically represented."
Could we do a phenomenological science?
Perhaps so. The basic goal of such research could be to always ground scientific concepts in direct experiences, to take things back to an experience of the things themselves.