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Heidegger and the Measure of Truth$

Denis McManus

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199694877

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199694877.001.0001

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(p.226) Appendix: Heidegger’s Critique of Husserl

(p.226) Appendix: Heidegger’s Critique of Husserl

Heidegger and the Measure of Truth
Oxford University Press

The character of Heidegger’s break with Husserl is a topic of intense debate. Some argue that many of the ideas that Heidegger presented as distinctively his own were Husserl’s, and there is certainly some basis for this claim. Husserl talks of a certain ‘self-forgetfulness [Selbstvergessenheit]’ in our tendency to take as fundamental in our philosophizing the perspective of the observing natural scientist, ‘whereby’ we also ‘proceed[] illegitimately to absolutize its world, i.e., nature’ (Husserl 1989: 193);1 more generally, oblivion to a Question of Understanding corresponds to one to a Question of Being in that

Perception and object are concepts that cohere most intimately together, which mutually assign sense to one another, and which widen and narrow this sense conjointly. (2001, vol. 2: 277)

Heidegger certainly acknowledged that these thoughts had roots in Husserl, but he saw himself as having grasped their true depth—Husserl remaining in the grip of certain Cartesian assumptions and of the Theoretical Attitude.2 However, there is reason to question the justice of both of these charges.

As the above discussion shows, quite what the Theoretical Attitude is is a difficult question, and so is that of its relationship to Cartesianism. But one might understand the above charges in the following way: the entities whose Being is revealed through the Husserlian epoché are, one might suppose, those which offer themselves up when we step back from our ordinary interactions with the world and ‘merely contemplate’ or ‘merely observe’ the contents of that world. But do all entities reveal themselves to the subject who adopts such a Theoretical Attitude? Might subjectivity take more forms than that embodied in the adoption of that Attitude and might other ‘attitudes’ that the subject might adopt reveal other entities? If so, the epoché might seem to build distorting presumptions into the ‘results’ we arrive at when we employ that form of reflection. Turning to the charge of Cartesianism, the epoché’s bracketing of the existence of entities which lie beyond consciousness (in some sense) certainly invites comparison with the Cartesian sceptical hypothesis that an external world might not exist; and inasmuch as the essential mode of activity of the Cartesian subject is that of observing or contemplating, and the Cartesian object, on (p.227) the other hand, exists as the extended material object revealed by the mathematical sciences, there may seem to be a natural affinity between Cartesianism and the Theoretical Attitude.

Heidegger often distances himself from Husserl by implicating the latter in the above set of presumptions. Remarks of Husserl’s that do suggest a ‘kinship with Descartes’ (HCT 101) include Husserl’s remarks on consciousness not ‘being touched’ by a possible ‘annihilation’ of ‘the world of physical things’ (1982: 110) and his claim that, ‘[i]nsofar as their respective senses are concerned, a veritable abyss yawns between consciousness and reality’ (1982: 111, quoted in HCT 114). But how representative are the remarks quoted above? Is Husserl’s epoché a fundamentally Cartesian mode of thought? And is he really in the grip of the Theoretical Attitude?

I will only give an indication here of the evidence that might be cited in Husserl’s defence. Husserl may have had interests that directed him primarily to questions concerning the theoretical,3 but he also explicitly characterises phenomenology as, in part, revealing ‘the pretheoretical’;4 in work unpublished at the time but to which Heidegger had access, Husserl reflects on the character of ‘the theoretical attitude [theoretische Einstellung]’ and on the particular conditions under which we experience the world as ‘on hand [vorhanden]’ (Husserl 1989: 5 and 196).5 There is also reason to doubt whether the epoché essentially involves a ‘stepping back’ from the world, as opposed to an examination of only one of its aspects. If one’s interest lies in ‘pure consciousness’—that is to say, consciousness not of any particular object or manifest in any particular creature or species of creature—then that would itself render irrelevant particular natural facts about the world, about the particular objects and particular conscious agents that happen to be found there: an exploration of these ‘essential’ structures—which Husserl calls an ‘eidetic’ exploration—can have no interest in such facts which it is, one might then argue, best to ‘bracket’.6

To be fair to both of these philosophers, Heidegger does acknowledge some of the responses that might be made on Husserl’s behalf and which we have sketched;7 and there are also more subtle strands of thought in Heidegger’s tracing of Cartesianism in Husserl: for example, he traces it in Husserl’s effort to establish an indubitable basis for science.8 But I will not attempt to take this interpretive (p.228) controversy further here. Its difficulty surely lies—at least in part—in that of distinguishing between further generalizing earlier insights and identifying fundamental limitations in such insights. Haugeland notes that ‘Husserl…had already generalized theoretical knowledge to intentionality, which includes other cognitive attitudes besides knowing, such as those characteristic of action and perception’ (2000: 45). One might then see Heidegger as merely extending this Husserlian programme by further generalizing it. But one might also claim that such generalizations point to shortcomings of the programme as a whole: for instance, revealing modes of ‘consciousness’ that suggest there is something misleading precisely in the supposedly generalized notion of ‘consciousness’. But I will leave these matters for another day.


(1) Cf. Dahlstrom 2001: 163.

(2) Cf., e.g., HCT sec. 10–13, WDR 162, BPP 201, MFL 124–5, 133, 134, 150, and EP 141–2.

(3) Cf., e.g., Bernet et al. 1993: xii and Moran 2000a: 51 and 60–1.

(4) Cf., e.g., Husserl 1974: 373.

(5) Cf. HCT 121 and Moran 2000a: 61–2.

(6) Cf. Bernet et al. 1993 ch. 2, Crowell 2001 chs 3 and 9, and Hall 1982.

(7) Cf., e.g. HCT 91, 99.

(8) Cf. especially HCT 107 and 120, and IPR Part One ch. 2. Cf. also Crowell 2001: 197, Dahlstrom 2001: 118–19 and 124–5, and Sokolowski 1970, on Husserl’s interest in ‘subjectivity’ as ‘a region of experience where a presuppositionless science can be grounded’, ‘unmarred by the possibility of error or doubt’ (pp. 125, 131).