What is the Crisis of Western Sciences?

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What is the Crisis of Western Sciences?

Author: Emiliano Trizio

Instructor of Philosophy


Seattle University

Philosophy Department

901 12th Ave, Seattle, WA 98122

This papers criticizes some of the current interpretations of Husserl’s notion of a crisis of Western sciences and provides an alternative reading that fits into Husserl’s overall theory of science. Section 1 highlights Husserl’s two preliminary constraints on the notion of crisis: first, a science can be said to be in a crisis, only if its scientificity has become questionable; and, second, the prima facie scientificity of (most of) our sciences is not questionable. This implies that what Husserl is looking for is a deeper sense of scientificity that, instead, has become questionable. Keeping this in mind allows us (Section 2), to criticize the common account of the crisis of sciences as “the loss of their meaning for life”, for the latter notion, while referring to a real and crucial phenomenon cannot be equated with a crisis of scientificity. In Section 3, it will appear that this perceived loss, which Husserl is far from denying, is used by Husserl as a starting point for a historical illustration of the fact that our sciences are just a residue of the idea of a universal philosophy culminating in a metaphysics that did bestow upon them a significance for life. This will allow (section 4) to formulate and answer the crucial question underlying Husserl’s text: “how did the demise of the idea of universal philosophy impact the scientificity of the sciences?” The answer is worked out through a survey of part II of the Krisis, which highlights that what has become enigmatic is precisely the domain of being that they take as object. This fact constitutes the questionability of their deeper or authentic scientificity, and, thus, their real crisis. Section 5 further clarifies this definition of crisis by applying it to the example of physics. In the Conclusion (Section 6) the results of the essays are summarized and the relations between the crisis of philosophy, the crisis of the sciences, and the general crisis of culture are briefly outlined.


This article is an attempt to formulate a clear definition of the concept of crisis of Western sciences introduced by Husserl in his last work. The attempt will be based on a reading of the Krisis, which will stress its underlying continuity with Husserl’s life-long concerns about the theoretical insufficiency of positive sciences, and underplay the novelty of the idea of crisis itself within Husserl’s work. After insisting on the fact that, according to Husserl, only an account of the shortcomings of the scientificity of Western sciences can justify the claim that they are undergoing a crisis, it will be argued that the common definition of the crisis of the sciences as the loss of their significance for life rests on a misunderstanding. The crisis of Western sciences will be characterized, instead, as the repercussion of the crisis of the scientificity of philosophy (and, specifically, of metaphysics) on the scientificity of positive sciences. The loss of significance of scientific knowledge for our existence will in turn appear as a further, inevitable consequence of the uprooting of the sciences from the soil of a universal philosophy culminating in metaphysics, and thus, as a phenomenon deeply intertwined with the crisis of Western sciences, but not identical to it.

The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology1 has been and still is today arguably the most widely read, quoted, and commented on of all Husserl’s works. This is unsurprising: the Krisis offers in a relatively small amount of pages a complex narrative sketching, in very broad strokes, both the illness of contemporary Western humanity and the sense in which transcendental phenomenology constitutes the only possible therapy for it. What is surprising, instead, is that the very concept of “crisis of Western sciences” remains surrounded by a certain unclarity and ambiguity. In particular, most readers of the Krisis have either wrongly identified the crisis of sciences with a different phenomenon, namely their loss of meaning or significance for life, or failed to appropriately characterize and distinguish these two phenomena and articulating their mutual relations. To be sure, both the crisis of the sciences and their loss of significance for life belong to the complex vicissitudes of “sense” (Sinn) in Husserl’s broadest sense of the word; but the difference between them, and, consequently, the difference between two types of sense cannot be overlooked without affecting the notion of crisis of the sciences with a fundamental unclarity that has negative repercussions also on the understanding of the exact nature of the therapeutic Leistung that phenomenology is meant to provide. This, in turn, is an essential component of the phenomenological project in its entirety, specifically of Husserl’s last version of it, which relies heavily on the concept of life-world.2 Admittedly, part of the difficulty of clarifying the notion of crisis is due the fact that Husserl speaks of several different and interconnected “crises” that, while ultimately all having to do with the forgetfulness of the founding role of transcendental subjectivity, concern either specific positive sciences, such as physics and psychology, or positive science in general, or else philosophy in the strict sense of the word, or, finally, the totality of the cultural life of European Humanity.3 However, in spite of this fact, it is possible to provide a unitary account of these multiple “crises” through a close reading of some passages of Sections I and II of the Krisis and, thereby, to spell out the terms of the specific crisis affecting European (i.e. Western) sciences.

  1. The crisis of a science can only be a crisis of scientificity

It is almost unfortunate that Husserl has made use, in his late writings, of the term “crisis” to denote what he saw as the illness of Western civilization. The emphasis with which he used this word, along with the powerful impression that the dramatic historical circumstances of the time were themselves motivating a fundamentally new approach, has made it appear that some kind of radical change had occurred in Husserl’s own thought. It is well known that this impression is completely wrong: neither Husserl’s interest in the history of philosophy and science, nor his disaffection with the present state of Western culture are new. The expression “crisis of the sciences” is, if anything, exploited by Husserl to highlight the connection between these two themes on the one hand, and Husserl’s life-long struggle to characterize the insufficiency and incompleteness of positive sciences, on the other.4 As it has been often repeated, this lexical novelty within Husserl’s corpus is largely due to the influence of the widespread use of the term “crisis” in and outside German speaking culture.5 Indeed that word was rather foreign to the technical development of Husserl’s own thought.6 Even in the Vienna Lecture and the Krisis itself the word “crisis” appears but a few times and virtually only in the initial considerations and in the opening programmatic statements.7 Particularly significant is that, after Part I, the word “crisis” appears only a few times in the entire Krisis, and, once more, in connection with the difficulties besetting psychology. Thus, what is required, is to dig through the limited and circumstantial use of the language of the crisis in order to highlight in what way Husserl’s diagnosis of the illness of Western sciences connects with the fundamental theses of his philosophy.

Husserl’s often quoted first word on the theme is of vital importance to identify the principle theme of this text:

A crisis of our sciences as such: can we seriously speak of it? Is not this talk, heard so often these days, an exaggeration? After all, the crisis of a science indicates nothing less than that its genuine scientific character [ihre echte Wissenschaftlichkeit], the whole manner in which it has set its task and developed a methodology for it, has become questionable [fraglich]. (Hua VI, p. 1; 1970, p. 3)

The crisis of a science, we are told, must involve that its scientificity8 has become questionable, where scientificity is in turn explicated in terms of two notions: the task and the method of a science. Husserl, thus, makes it clear from the beginning, that the crisis of a science must consist in its inability to become what it should be, to actualize fully the essence of authentic science (Hua VI, p. 1; 1970, p. 3). All the tension lies from the outset between the sciences as they are today and the essence of science that implicitly inhabits them as a telos. In what way does the scientificity of science amount to “the whole manner in which it has set its task and developed a methodology for it”? For Husserl, the task [Aufgabe] of a science consists in the theoretical determination of a certain subject-matter, while the method [Methode/Methodik] to accomplish such determination depends on the nature of the subject-matter itself.9 Now, Husserl is aware that the claim that our sciences should appear as failing to match the essence of science in terms of its task and method seems to be puzzling. This, admits Husserl few lines after, can be rather the case of philosophy and of some form of misguided psychology,10 but in no way can be said about a science such as mathematics and physics. Indeed, Husserl dismisses any doubt that even the recent spectacular scientific upheavals (such as the demise of classical physics) have rendered questionable the validity of these disciplines’ results.11 Similarly, he does not hesitate to reassert the validity of the so-called humanistic sciences, or sciences of spirit, and conclude that their prima facie scientificity of the latter is unquestionable when compared to the hopelessly unscientific character of philosophy.

Let us note, that already at this stage, dangerous misunderstandings could arise precisely concerning what Husserl has in mind when he proclaims the successful and progressive character of both natural and social sciences. One such misunderstanding is due to reading the Krisis through the lenses of today’s debates over scientific realism. Within English speaking philosophy of science, such debates typically take as their starting point the gulf existing on the one hand between the rather uncontroversial “success of science” interpreted first and foremost as predictive and technological success and, on the other, the much more problematic and disputed claim that successful science makes us advance towards a true description of the world. Scientific realists argue that the success of science thus defined provides good reasons to be optimistic about the epistemic ambitions of science, while scientific anti-realists deny it, and, consequently, settle for a variety of positions often akin to one or another version of instrumentalism or empiricism.12 Now, one cannot stress enough that these philosophical categories are wholly inadequate to capture the real sense and import of the phenomenological theory of science. Husserl does not claim here nor will he claim later in the Krisis that our sciences enjoys predictive or technical success only, while lacking of any grip on reality itself; nor, consequently, does he intend to characterize the crisis of Western sciences as this alleged failure to yield theoretical truths concerning their respective objects. Such instrumentalist account of science would be totally incompatible with Husserl’s own notion of science: a technique that makes successful predictions without being able to make us advance in the true theoretical determination of its objective domain would not be a science going through a crisis, for it would not amount to a science at all, not even to an inauthentic one. In other words, it would not even qualify to count as a theoretical technique, because it would lack also the prima-facie scientificity that Husserl is ready to grant to most our positive sciences.13

The conclusion of the first paragraph of Part I is, therefore, a negative one. We have not yet found the sense in which one might proclaim that the positive sciences undergo something like a crisis of scientificity. On the contrary, we find methodically rigorous disciplines producing a wealth of compelling theoretical insights in their respective domains. Actually, those disciplines enjoy all the virtues of rationality and progressiveness that philosophy is still so despicably lacking. However, our questioning has been put into a better focus, for we now know that it will be possible to speak of a crisis of Western sciences only if the scientificity of positive sciences can be judged unsatisfactory at a deeper level. The question is therefore: can Western sciences be unscientific in a more fundamental way, which does not disqualify their prima facie scientificity?

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