Custom Search

Sunday, 5 July 2009

How does the “mathematization of nature” relate to the concept of the life-world?

The writings of Edmund Husserl, on what he perceived as the ‘Crisis of European Sciences’ contain his views on what he saw as a fundamental problem resulting from over-reliance on objective science, resulting in an overly dismissive attitude from mainstream science, towards the value of subjective experience. In Husserl’s view, science had lost its way. In the wake of the horrors of trench warfare, the first uses of poison gas and other technological advancements in the sphere of mechanised slaughter, the world had arguably witnessed a terrifying vision of what scientific progress could mean, when not used with wisdom. Knowledge of things, without depth of understanding had destructive potential.

Husserl argues in his Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, that many things understood in the ancient pre-scientific past had been forgotten. He claims that the objectivity, so prized in natural sciences, was undoubtedly a useful tool for developing our knowledge of the world we experience. He argues, however, that at some point along the way we forgot that the objective perspective was merely an epistemological tool, and due to the successes that objective-science achieved, it came to be widely regarded as a metaphysical truth; that is to say, the objective view became more than an analytical concept, taking on a reality of its own. The subjective, meanwhile, was relegated to not being objectively verifiable, and thereby not worth scientific consideration. Strict adherents to objectivist views even now argue that subjective consciousness is merely an illusion conjured by the objectively real brain.

Husserl rejects this eliminative reductionism as being inherently flawed. Whilst not dismissing the merits and achievements of objective-science, he wants to remind scientists that the objective viewpoint is a contrivance; that our objective viewpoint is derived not by seeing objectively, but instead by regarding subjective encounters in an objective way. He sees a contradiction in rejecting the value of the subjective when all of our objectively valid scientific principles are established through experiments whose objectively minded observers can only ever experience the results by means of being conscious, being a subject. The (objective) third person perspective is an artificial contrivance; one that scientists extrapolate from their (subjective) first person experience of the world.

The mathematization of nature is an important concept in Husserl’s thought. It describes a historical process that Husserl traces back to the Galileo and the ancient greeks.. It was Galileo who speculated that all things in the natural world could be understood in terms of mathematical formulae. This process of mathematization began with Ancient Greek arithmetic and Geometry; unlike the world which is imperfect, these areas of knowledge work with ideal numbers and shapes. The Greeks found use in these ideals for explaining relations of things in the non-ideal real world. At some point in time Husserl argues that this highly successful technique of applying ideals to the things in the world, became misconstrued. Rather than the ideal numbers and shapes being used merely as a tool, we took them to be a guide to the world of things as they are in themselves. This became the scientific ‘epoche,’ wherein that which could not be accounted for in terms of idealities, was neglected. What was not quantifiable became less real than what was measurable. Objective science became more highly valued than subjective-relative perspectives and over time, this distorted view was taken to be not merely a conceptual tool but an expression of the way things really are. Objective science found that its right hand had forgotten what its left hand was doing; or as Husserl states it:

“…merely subjective relativity is supposedly overcome by objective-logical theory, yet the latter belongs, as the theoretical praxis of human beings, to the merely subjective and relative and at the same time must have its premises, its sources of self-evidence, in the subjective and relative.” (Husserl, 1970, p.170)

Though developed from concepts observed in the life-world- the world that is to hand, the world as we experience it; the mathmatizing tendencies we devised allowed us to extrapolate from subjective experience and formulate an objective model that was useful for scientific progress. At some point we forgot that it was merely a model. The objective impostor usurped subjectivity’s claim to be authoritative. The life-world which Husserl argues is the most real for us as subjects, took second place to the ‘Real’ word which our sciences were now more familiar with. The model became regarded as if it were reality, whilst the reality of the life-world was neglected and dismissed as a metaphor.

“The contrast between the subjectivity of the life-world and the ‘objective,’ the ‘true’ world, lies in the fact that the latter is a theoretical-logical substruction, the substruction of something that is in principle not perceivable, in principle not experienceable in its own proper being, whereas the subjective, in the life-world, is distinguished in all respects precisely by its being actually experiencable.” (Husserl, 1970, p.167)

One may at this point be tempted to ask what the problem is with this misconception. If the objective-scientific model, substructed from the life-world , through the conceptual mathematization, has the greater universal explanatory power, then why does Husserl regard this view as mistaken and fundamental to the perceived crisis?

The answer lies in the domain of epistemic justification. Objective science has forgotten that the most fundamental premises of its arguments are derived not from the objective realm of things as the exist in themselves, but instead from our subjective experience of things as given to us in the life-world. In over-reliance on objectivity and the neglect of the importance of the life-world, objective science leaves itself without the ground upon which its theory-structures are founded. As Husserl expresses it:

“…while the natural scientist is thus interested in the objective and is involved in his activity, the subjective-relative is on the other hand still functioning for him, not as something irrelevant that must be passed through but as that which ultimately grounds the theoretical-logical ontic validity for all verification, i.e. as the source of self-evidence, the source of verification.” (Husserl, 1970, p.166)

Objective science that rejects the reality of the subjective, becomes tautological. It lets go of it connection to the world of experience. In addition to the objective or ‘naturalistic’ scientific attitude science has come to rely upon empirical verifications. Without acknowledging the reality of subjective experience, such verification is impossible. What Husserl is exposing is a double-standard; namely the logical inconsistency of rejecting subjectivity whilst positing claims that rely upon the experience of subjective beings for their verification. The mathematization leads us to take our theoretical metaphors and forget that they are metaphors (as opposed to ontologies):

“The visible measuring scales, scale markings, etc., are used as actually existing things, not as illusions; thus that which actually exists in the life-world, as something valid, is a premise.” (Husserl, 1970, p166)

This is not a rejection of the value of the objective-scientific viewpoint. Husserl is quick to point out that because science and the mathmetization of nature is grounded in the life-world, its insights and their results are experienced in the life-world. What is asserted by Husserl, is a need for re-contextualization of objective science as rooted in the life-world and therefore unable to affirm or refute the existence of such a life world. Science is abstracted from the life-world so it necessarily fails to inform us about that world. We need to:

“…free ourselves from the constant misconstructions which mislead us all because of the scholastic dominance of objective-scientific thinking.”(Husserl, 1970, p.168)

The life-world, (as opposed to the mathematized objective world posited by science as a conceptual tool) is the world in which we live and experience. The objective world, or ‘real’ world posited by science, is the world minus subjectivity, seen in abstraction therefore, from the life-world. Although sciences claims seek their verification in objective observations in reality these are subjective experiences. They occur in the realm of the life world. Objectivism leads one to believe that one is looking at the way things are in themselves, however it is markedly different from anything we have ever observed. As subjective beings it is impossible for us to experience anything as it is in itself. All we ever experience, we experience as subjects:

“The life-world is a realm of original self-evidences. That which is self-evidently given is, in perception, experienced as ‘the thing itself’, in immediate presence, or in memory, remembered as the thing itself; and in every other manner of intuition is a presentation of the thing itself.” (Husserl, 1970, p.167)

In Husserl’s thought, then, it is plain to see that he regards the life-world as the world as it is in itself (complete with consciousness and subjectivity) and the mathematized natural world as an abstraction from this. Objective science has bearing within the world of our lived experience precisely because it is abstracted from such a world:

“The concrete life-world, then, is the grounding soil of the ‘scientifically true’ world and at the same time encompasses its own universal concreteness.” (Husserl, 1970, p.169)

The life-world and mathematized world are intimately related whilst each represents the anti-thesis of the others foundational principles. What Husserl argues for in his work is a synthesis of these two, wherein science is given its due status and recognition, but once more under the auspices of a new revitalised metaphysics.

In many ways it can be argued that Husserl continues the work of Kant. The crisis of metaphysics that arose in response to Hume’s Discourse on Human Nature was a direct result of the mathematization and naturalisation of the life-world. It was in response to this that Kant was faced with the need to justifying metaphysical discussion as more than ‘mere sophistry and illusion’; transcendental idealism was his response. Husserl in many ways simply addresses wider implications of the transcendental aesthetic in such as way as to make the philosophical concerns relevant to positivistic sciences at the time. Therein, Husserl found a deceptively simple counter-argument to the positivistic reductionism that was born out of scientific arrogance. Without taking the life-world into account, the objectively ‘real’ world is an ephemeral non-entity, a phantom that we summoned into being from out of nowhere.


Husserl, E. (1970) The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Evanston: Northwestern

No comments:

Post a Comment

keep it nice, or funny...