chapter  6
17 Pages

Husserl on relativism

WithDermot Moran

In this chapter, I will discuss Edmund Husserl’s life-long engagement with relativism from his Logical Investigations to the Crisis writings. Husserl identified naturalism and sceptical relativism as two of the strongest philosophical tendencies of the twentieth century, and he offered powerful critiques of both. Initially, in the Prolegomena to the Logical Investigations (1900/1901) he criticized psychologism (in Mill, Wundt, Sigwart, and others) as leading to various forms of sceptical relativism. He also regarded the “neo-Kantians” as guilty of a “species” or “anthropological” relativism—being is relative to the general human capacity to know. Logical laws mirror the framework of human cognition. Later, in his essay “Philosophy as Rigorous Science” (1901–11), he criticized historicism (and especially Dilthey’s “worldview-philosophy”) as another form of relativism that claims that statements are true relative to a particular historical conceptual framework. In his Crisis of European Sciences (written around 1936) writings and in his Vienna Lecture (of 1935) Husserl returns to the question of relativism—and the relativity of different life-worlds and cultures, which he acknowledged, while defending the claim that ultimate science is universal and transcends the factual relativity of life-worlds (Husserl 1934–1937). In this regard, Husserl was engaging again with Dilthey but also now with Heidegger (whom Husserl early on identified as a relativist) as well as with the writings of the anthropologist Lévy-Bruhl on the mentality of “primitive” cultures that did not possess writing. The mature Husserl believes that transcendental phenomenology, rigorously pursued, offers the antidote to relativism in its different forms. Husserl always defended a conception of truth that is ideal and universal. In this chapter, I will explore critically Husserl’s evolving conception of relativism and his stable, systematic critique of it.