How Should Philosophers Interrogate the History of Science? Lessons from Edmund Husserl’s Die Krisis der Europeischen Wissenschaften (1935)

Guido Caniglia

Center for Biology and Society, Arizona State University

Abstract: 
Most literature about the Krisis has looked at Husserl’s idea that contemporary science lost meaning and value for our lives due to its increasing technical nature. In my paper, I point out that, when Husserl talks about a loss of meaning, he does not criticize the value of contemporary science as such. Rather, he aims to redefine and regain the role of science at a time where both the philosophical community and the civil society had questioned it. To achieve this goal, Husserl turns to the history of science. He does so using phenomenological tools derived from his previous works. Husserl’s historical and epistemological approach, I argue, strongly resonates with the recent attention of philosophers and historians to the practices of science and can be used in today reflections about the value and scope of scientific enterprise. The reason why Husserl combines the analysis of current science with the investigation of its historical development is that: "We can reach a full understanding of the beginning, only if we look at science in its present form [...] However, without an understanding of the beginning, such development [...] is dumb" (Krisis, §91). In my paper, I show how Husserl’s peculiar historical and epistemological approach originates from the encounter of static/constitutive and dynamic/genetic phenomenological methods. Husserl, first, uses the constitutive analyses of Ideen I (1913) to look into the subjective acts that characterize scientific work in the era of technicalization. From these analyses, he concludes that contemporary science is in a crisis of meaning. Yet, to Husserl, this presentist approach is not enough. Therefore, he adds a temporal/historical dimensions to his analysis. He looks into the moments of meaning donation (Sinngebung) and meaning loss (Sinnentlehrung) in the historical development of western science. Husserl does so by going back to the dynamic/genetic phenomenological method that he developed in works such as Erfahrung und Urteil (1939). Husserl names his mixed approach historische Rueckfrage, historical backward-question. I look in details into §9 of the Krisis, in order to provide an example of Husserl’s use of such method. In this paragraph, Husserl describes the changing role of measurement practices in the origins and development of modern science. He deals with how Galileo, the archetype of the modern scientist, set the stage for the quantification of the rich world of our experience with its colors, smells and tactile sensations. Husserl called all these qualities plena (Fülle), as they fill the extension of material bodies. The possibility to measure plena is based on their gradual nature. Their mathematization represents the main challenge of modern science. Measurement techniques, according to Husserl, constitute the most important act of meaning donation (Sinngebung) in modern science. They lose their meaning (Sinnentlehrung) only if they are interpreted ontologically, i.e. when they are taken as the only reality that really is, forgetting their connection to the world of our experience that give them meaning and value. I finally show that Husserl’s historical and epistemological analyses aim exactly to reactivate this connection.