Dewey and Husserl on the Western Crisis

In the early twentieth century, academics sensed a crisis in Western (European and American) thought. A profound skepticism and melancholy seemed to grip Western culture. People lost faith in traditional academic disciplines, like philosophy, to address social problems and provide a sense of purpose and direction. American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) and German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) had different responses to this crisis. Dewey argued that philosophy must become practical, while Husserl believed philosophy must continually find new areas for science to investigate. That way, philosophy could be saved from the intellectual trash bin.

John Dewey
John Dewey

Dewey believed the crisis in Western thought, a crisis which leads to anxiousness and pessimistic uncertainty, originated in Platonic dualism―the separation of concepts like Truth, Being, and Value from the changing physical world, and their removal from empirical study. The growing complexity of such thought led it further and further away from practical application, and the brightest minds spent their time studying algorithms and abstractions instead of applying their knowledge to the practical world.

As a pragmatist, Dewey called for a reconstruction in philosophy along pragmatic grounds, which would eventually bring abstract thought back to a realm of usefulness. We should take our beliefs in concepts like truth and value and put them to the test just as we do with other considerations. If it turns out those concepts have some practical use, we should keep them. If they don’t, we shouldn’t waste any more time or resources theorizing about them. There is no longer any scientific support, Dewey claimed, for morality standing outside the natural processes of change. Nor can science deny morality is a realm open to scientific inquiry.

If the crisis is to be solved, science and philosophy must be reunited. Dewey’s reconstruction in philosophy: “can be nothing less than the work of developing, of forming, of producing… the intellectual instrumentalities which will progressively direct inquiry into the deeply and exclusively human.” In other words, philosophy should be aimed at the natural, not the ‘supra’ natural of Plato’s forms, or the abstract spirit-driven historical method of Hegel.

People have lost faith in such purely intellectual pursuits. “In philosophy today there are not many who exhibit confidence about its ability to deal completely with the serious issues of the day,” said Dewey. This is because people recognize the inability for abstract thought, a realm that philosophy has clung to, to deal with the Western crisis.

To solve this, Dewey suggests philosophy should use the scientific method to investigate the social, economic, and moral history around science, as well as inquire into those things in its own history. In that way, philosophy performs a useful task instead of merely contemplating abstract concepts. Dewey tells us to “be like the bee,”― have a productive aim for all of our pursuits.

Edmund Husserl
Edmund Husserl

Edmund Husserl diagnosed the crisis of Western thought as the “apparent failure of rationalism,” which has become superficial through the practices of naturalism and objectivism. Rationalism itself didn’t fail, but its naturalist tendency, and therefore its rejection of the “spiritual problems” of mankind, was not adequate to answer all our questions about human existence.

The objectivism of science, what Husserl calls naïveté, ignores the subjective experiences that created science, automatically excluding an entire realm of being from its investigation. Therefore, philosophy must step forward to investigate these questions. If, in Husserl’s opinion, philosophy is not used to overcome naturalism and objectivism, and save rationalism, Europe will “fall into hostility toward the spirit and into barbarity.”

Husserl advocated a renewal of theory in order to solve this crisis. This philosophical theory proceeds from the ego and works outwards, and doesn’t ignore the ego altogether in a scientific effort to gain some kind of objectivity at the expense of knowledge of the spirit. Thus the ego is placed at the same level as the natural world, where it belongs. It is  philosophy’s goal, as the original and all-encompassing Western science, to redirect Reason towards this unity of understanding.

According to Husserl, philosophy opened up the world to science as a world filled with “infinite tasks,” which means that knowledge acts as a building block to new discoveries. Universalities build on each other, always opening up new realms of study. This could not have come about without philosophy, Husserl insisted, because the theoretical attitude of the philosopher is to aim at the future and “build theoretical knowledge upon theoretical knowledge in infinitum.”

But philosophy, unlike naturalist science, has its base in spirit, and is able to build from there. It is this reason that philosophy, particularly Husserl’s own transcendental phenomenology, is in a unique position to solve the current crisis of Western thought by uniting the sciences with spirit, and continuing to provide an unending horizon of infinite tasks for scientific study.

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