The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Edgar Zilsel

Phenomenology and Natural  Science

Philosophy of Science, 8 (1)

Jan. 1941, 26-32.

When phenomenology was introduced as a new science by Husserl its methods were applied first to objects of logic.  Later phenomenological investigation expanded gradually to the fields of psychology, ethics, esthetics, and sociology (Scheler, Pfänder, Hildebrand a.o.).  More rarely, objects of the natural sciences have been treated phenomenologically.  Scattered indications of this kind are to be found in authors who do not belong to the most intimate circle of Husserl’s school (Helmut Plessner, Kurt Goldstein, Walter Frost, E. Buenning).  Extensively, however, the phenomenological method has been applied to objects of the natural sciences once only, namely by Hedwig Conrad-Martius, a favorite pupil of Husserl’s, in her Realontologie (Ontology of Reality) and Farben (Colors). 1  Yet this less known branch of phenomenology is particularly interesting.  Husserl stressed the basic difference between phenomenological ideation (Wesensschau) on the one hand and psychological introspection and description of the immediate data of awareness on the other.  The peculiarity and scientific productivity of phenomenological method, therefore, can studied best in a field which is as far removed from psychology as possible.  We shall try to analyze the papers of Conrad-

1. Jahrbachflir Philosophie u. phanomenologische Forschung vol. 6 (1923) pp. 159-333 and Ergänzungsband (1929) pp. 339-370.


Martius more fully and shall refer to other authors occasionally as illustrations.

Hedwig Conrad-Martius investigates matter and its qualities for more than two hundred pages by means of a priori ideation.  She distinguishes three possible forms of reality, the forms of body, soul, and mind.  Body belongs to nature, mind is supernatural, soul subnatural (§131).  God belongs to all of the three realms, whereas angels are minds only (ibid.).  The three states of matter, solid, liquid, and gaseous, correspond to and are “symbols” (§I33) or “analogies” (§I34) of body, soul, and mind respectively.  This is, as the author puts it (§I34), “not a construction but is based on conception of pure phenomena from the intuitive power of which we can not withdraw”.  Although the three states of matter can be investigated in detail by experiments only, their general characteristics can be given phenomenologically.  To wit, there are three possible ways in which the particles of matter can combine.  There is the “anarchic” structure in which everyone is against every other one.  Thus results general repulsion and the gaseous state.  There is the “atomistic” structure, everyone being for himself, with mutual indifference and the liquid state resulting.  And finally, in the “communist” structure everyone is for everyone, and unity and the solid state result (§162).  This is the “a priori characterization” of the three states of matter.  There follows an a priori discussion of hardness, brittleness, softness etc. and of glass, crystals, and metals.  The essence of metallicity e.g. is suppleness i.e. “the combination of valiant power, compliance, and self-preservation” (§175).

The following sections deal with sound, temperature, and light.  In sounds the essence of material objects manifests itself sensually (§189 ff.).  The essence of temperature is immediate affection of the human body: the state of the thing directly acts upon the state of the body (§200), warmth corresponding to life, cold to death (§201).  Light is “the most wonderful phenomenon”: the author refers to God’s words “Let there be Light” (§212).  When a thing is made red-hot it reaches a peak of activity, an eruption occurs, and it begins to glow.  “Primary


luminous state is ecstasy of matter… These are not metaphorical phrases but must be taken most literally and verbally” (§217).  Later this statement is amended somewhat: light is not ecstasy of matter but ecstasy of matter “posits” light (§237), or even better “implies” light (§239).  The last thirty pages deal with colors referring to Goethe’s theory, which however is partially criticized.  Blue is the color of Mary’s coat and of the magic flower, it is the color of humility.  Purple is the color of majesty, brown of monks’ cowls, wood and plainness etc. (§§279 ff.).

Historically the exposition is influenced by German Roman­ticism, by Novalis, Schelling, and Baader, a contemporary of Schelling with theosophical leanings, who is quoted several times (§§118, 131).  The trichotomy of matter, soul, and mind can be traced back even to the Gnostics (Hippolytus, Valentinus).  As to method the difference from the natural sciences is stressed (§§145, 159, 162, 185).  Yet some results are based on experiments, though on experiments performed by means of quite elementary physical instruments.  E.g. in discussing brittleness the definition of a textbook on mineralogy is quoted and agreed with (§171). Apparently the use of steel points and chisels is compatible with a priori Wesensschau, the use of galvanometers and X-ray tubes is not.  Several statements which are expressly said to originate in a priori Wesensschau obviously are based on experience.  E.g. it is emphasized (§278) that we hear immediately in the sound of an object whether the object is hard, liquid, or elastic; it would be “delusion” to ascribe this to association of ideas. Likewise it is maintained (§278) that we immediately see whether a piece of butter is hard or soft.  It would be instructive to test these phenomenological statements with individuals who never had touched objects of the kind in question before.  The experiences which, unconsciously, are utilized again and again are, however, rather defective.  E.g. it is deduced a priori, as it is claimed, from the mere essence of fire (§229) that water is opposite to it and, consequently, extinguishes it; the fact that fire is extinguished e.g. by carbon dioxide as well is omitted, presumably because this occurs more rarely in


everyday life.  Or it is explained a priori that light comes into existence by glowing (§§2I3-219).  The fact that there is also cold light (phosphorescence, luminescence) is omitted.  All these a priori expositions, as they are claimed to be, are in fact primitive and, consequently, defective and rather often incorrect natural science.  Some statements, being based on vague preconceived ideas, are entirely arbitrary and quite insusceptible of confirmation.  E.g. genuine metals, such as steel, are distinguished from spurious metals, such as aluminum (§175); genuine liquids, such as water, from spurious liquids, such as molten gold (§159).  This distinction is supported by linguistic considerations: gold melts and becomes solid, whereas ice thaws and freezes; “on this difference much could be said phenomenologically” the author says (ibid.).  It may be mentioned that in several other articles also of the Jahrbuch fuer Philosophie 2 linguistic and merely verbal investigations play a considerable part.  Certain phenomenological subtleties are so closely linked with the peculiarities of German syntax and vocabulary that they cannot be translated at all into other languages.  We need not point out that our author makes abundant use of vague associations of ideas particularly in her symbolic interpretations and analogies.

The investigation never provides a method of testing and verifying the results obtained and never seeks after the causes of the phenomena discussed.  This is the most essential difference from the method of the natural sciences.  Yet the ends, values, and meanings of the phenomena are discussed again and again.  We shall give a few examples: presenting itself in its state of rigidity is “the peculiar end” of glass (§178); metals are “noble”, gold and steel are “perfect metals” and their perfection is “marvellous” (§176); there are two kinds of flames, holy flames which are unselfish and radiant, and unholy flames, being selfish and smoky (§§225-228, 244-248).  As to symbolic interpretation of the phenomena we need not repeat the numerous examples quoted before.  Obviously it is assumed that Wesensschau is

2. e.g. H. Aumann: Zum deutschen Impersonale, Ergänzungsbd. (1929) pp. 1 ff.; F. Neumann: Die Sinneinheit des Satzes and das indogermanische Verbum, ibid. pp. 297 ff.


able to recognize the ends, meanings, and values of the phenomena a priori, whereas their causes can be found empirically only and, consequently, must be left to natural scientists.  This is expressed rather clearly by Hans André, a philosopher who is near to phenomenology, in his book on Archetype and Cause in Biology (Urbild und Ursache in der Biologie, Muenchen 1931).  There he states e.g. that (p. 94) green conforms to the essence of plants since by their destination plants are open to light.  This aspect of the problem is said to be the highest.  On a lower scientific level the green color of plants is investigated teleologically and on the lowest level causally.  Altogether disregard of causality is even more conspicuous in phenomenological ontology than disregard of experience.

In his prefatory remarks to the first volume of the Jahrbuch fuer Philosophie und phänomenologische Forschung Husserl declares phenomenology to be “an unlimited field of strictly scientific investigation”.  The new periodical shall be “not an arena of vague reformatory ideas but a place of serious scientific work”.  It may be left to the readers to decide whether this promise has been kept in Conrad-Martius’ investigation of physical phenomena.  Historically the method used by her is not so new as it seems to be.  Natural phenomena were viewed and discussed teleologically and their meanings were interpreted a priori long before their causes were investigated.  These pre-scientific methods were familiar to Babylonian and Indian priests as well as to Chinese mandarins and medieval scholastics.  When St. Hildegard of Bingen declared in the 12th century that rivers rise in the sea and flow uphill 3 she certainly used a method of knowledge which cannot have been so different from phenomenological Wesensschau.  Hedwig Conrad-Martius sometimes approaches ideas that are even more ancient.  Her statement that the gaseous state corresponds to and is a symbol of mind revives primeval animistic ideas of breath-like soul.  The analogy between phenomenological and prescientific methods is confirmed by the exposition of a historian of philosophy who is influenced by Husserl’s ideas. Walter Frost in his book on

3. Subtilitates II, 5 (Migne, Patres Latini, vol. 197)


Francis Bacon 4 emphasizes that Bacon’s natural philosophy anticipates ideas of the last decades.  Actually the non-causal elements in Bacon’s concept of “form” which Frost has in mind are less anticipations of modern phenomenology than remnants of medieval scholasticism.

The rise of phenomenological ontology can be understood historically most adequately if it is viewed in connection with the remarkable anticausal rebellion in the philosophy of the last fifty years.  Since about 1890 in European, especially in German philosophy, new methodological concepts have been advocated: values in Windelband, Rickert, and their school, ends and aims in neovitalism, ideal types in Dilthey and Max Weber, interpretation of meaning in Troeltsch.  With these new methods phenomenological Wesensschau belongs.  All of them have in common that they do not provide a method of testing and confirming the results obtained, that they are meant to supplant causal investigation and, in the final analysis, that they are familiar to prescientific civilizations.  Oriental priests and scholars, medieval monks have always interpreted the meanings of phenomena, have viewed their essences, values, and ends, and distinguished and classified types.  Since the beginning of the seventeenth century, since the period of Galileo, these prescientific methods gradually were displaced by causal and verifiable investigation.  There is hardly another characteristic that distinguishes western civilization and the modern era as distinctly spiritually as does the predominance of causal research.  The fact that the precausal methods are being revived again at present is a most remarkable phenomenon in the history of ideas, and one which probably can be explained sociologically only.  The surface of a river shows countercurrents and eddies only, when a rock is hidden on the bottom.  Unfortunately the causal explanation of the anticausal tendencies in modern philosophy and sociology is highly complex and cannot even be attempted here.

We have analyzed phenomenological ontology only.  In this field the background of the new methods is particularly

4. Bacon and die Naturphilosophie, Muenchen 1927, pp. 81 ff., 103 ff.


clear.  The application of phenomenology in the fields of logic, psychology, and sociology have not been discussed.  Certainly the relationship of logic and psychology offers subtle problems; certainly it is necessary first to ascertain and describe the data of awareness and the mere facts of society before their connections and changes are investigated.  It may be doubted whether phenomenology has formulated these problems correctly.  It is especially open to question, whether it has separated the real problems from pseudoproblems originating in verbal expression only.  It is rather obvious, however, that in these other fields too the historical roots of the phenomenological method are to be found in the remarkable endeavor to substitute the methods of causal research.

International Institute of Social Research,

New York, N. Y.