The Conversion of Nature and Technology (2)

This is the second in a series of five posts under the same title—a series consisting of a short text I wrote and published more than forty years ago. For more information, see the opening of my immediately preceding post.

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As Husserl points out in the Vienna lecture,* in his discussions of the “mythico-religious attitude,” human life in such nature is always oriented toward the “practical.” That is, all of the endeavors and attitudes of man are anchored in the concrete individual and societal effort to find one's way about in a world where nature is an ever-present sustaining and destroying environment. Social institutions are the proven paths of man's life in such a world. They are lines of communication and mediation between man and nature.

The institutions of society, like the habits of the individual, are the avenues of man's goings in the world. Even the most esoteric religious doctrine remains in these avenues; it remains oriented toward the “practical,” in Husserl's sense. Because of this overriding practical orientation, the “mythico-religious attitude” is characterized by a general inter-societal tolerance. That is, the institutions of any given society are the pathways of the concrete life of just that society, and cannot lay claim to any universal validity. At this stage, institutions are not universalizable patterns of human organization, but are concrete ways whereby individuals and their societies maintain equilibrium with nature, the dimension of the sustaining, overwhelming, and ineluctable.

A little reflection should make it clear that the descriptions which have been offered so far apply to the experience of nature within the mythico-religious attitude, but do not necessarily apply to the experience of nature after the emergence of what Husserl calls the “theoretical attitude,” let alone to the experience of nature after the emergence of what will be characterized below as the “technological attitude.”

According to Husserl, the theoretical attitude emerges as a transformation of the mythico-religious attitude, a transformation wherein "ideal objectivities" are constituted, in accordance with which nature comes to be conceived objectively, as the intentional correlate of science, as a field of objects-in-themselves which are to be progressively revealed through episteme as opposed to doxa. With the transformation to the theoretical attitude, not only does nature come to be manifest in a new way, but also the conceptions of knowledge and praxis become drastically reformulated. Henceforth, not only must all claims to knowledge be justified in the light of ideal standards of “truth-in-itself” and “reality-in-itself,” but also all individual practical and religious beliefs, all individual behavior, and all social institutions must become subject to evaluation in terms of ideal universal norms. The theoretical attitude gives rise to the teleological idea of “European Man” through the radical transformation not just of some dimensions of man's existence, but of the very meaning of the whole of human existence: It affects human life in its entirety.

As Husserl sees it, the contemporary “crisis of European man” results from the degeneration of the classical Ideal of Reason that first arose with the emergence of the theoretical attitude among the ancient Greeks. According to him, modern science has lost sight of its own meaning as science (as human endeavor oriented toward and guided by infinite tasks and ideal objectivities) and has, consequently, failed to realize the origin of that meaning through a progressive transformation of human life in the pre-theoretical life-world. Thus, an abyss has opened between science, on the one hand, and the concrete life of man in the life-world, on the other: European man has become alienated from his own origin and meaning. This alienation can be overcome only through a return, by means of phenomenology, to the original Ideal of Reason as the self-critical subordination of thought to infinite tasks. As self-critical, reason, if it is to overcome the contemporary crisis, must recapture the sense of scientific theorization itself. Reason must come to grasp itself in its own origins in the concrete life-world. Only through intentional-phenomenological analyses which recover the structures of the life-world upon which scientific reason itself is founded, and to which such reason always intentionally refers back, can the crisis be overcome.

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To be continued.


* Included as an appendix to Edmund Hussserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, translated by David Carr (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970).