A War of Two Worlds: lifeworld and space-time

Since the advent of the modern age, we have lived in a divided cosmos, straddling two worlds. On the one hand, there is the world that precedes all theorizing, the world of ordinary experience, the realm of green grass, hot sand, fragrant flowers, and crashing waves. This is what Husserl calls the “Lifeworld.” On the other hand, there is the world of scientific theory, the realm of particles, energy, force fields, and mathematically determinable space-time. This is often referred to as the “objective world of science.”

Since modern science first came into being, these two worlds have been in conflict. Many modern thinkers have distinguished between primary qualities (extension, mass, etc.) and secondary qualities (color, texture, etc.), arguing that only the former are truly objective: secondary qualities, according to these philosophers, are merely subjective states of consciousness imposed on us by the real, primary qualities. As scholar Gail Soffer explains, “Galileo, Descartes, and Locke all hold that it is possible either to imagine or to perceive bodies without secondary qualities,”1 from which premise these thinkers argue for the objectivity of primary qualities and allot the status of “mere appearance” to the secondary qualities. And this conflict between the two worlds has only intensified over the last 150 years. For example, ordinary experience tells us that the kitchen table is solid, whereas contemporary physics tells us that the table is mostly empty space. Ultimately, what all “scientific realists” have in common is the conviction that the sensible world is “mere appearance” while the underlying physical thing is the “really real.” This has certain parallels to the Kantian distinction between “things-as-they-appear-to-us” and “things-as-they-are-in-themselves”, although for the scientific realist the physical thing, while unexperienceable, is yet determinable mathematically and causes the sensible thing to appear.

Thus, the question necessarily arises, and it arises with urgency: which view of the world is correct? What is the real world?

For Husserl, we are aware of things directly: the appearances of things are not signs or copies of things; they are the things themselves given under one perspective. For, a symbol or an image does not “‘announce’ in its self the self”2 that is symbolized or portrayed, whereas the sensory thing does so announce the physical thing. So, Husserl writes, “The physical thing is nothing foreign to that which appears in a sensory body, but something that manifests itself in it and in it alone.”3 Indeed, Husserl argues that it is impossible in principle to either imagine or perceive physical bodies which lack all secondary qualities.4 This entails that the objects of scientific investigation are idealizations of objects in the lifeworld. As Robert Sokolowski explains, “Both the perfectly smooth surface and the ray of light are idealized objects. Such objects could never be experienced in our world; we establish or constitute them by a special kind of intentionality, one that mixes both perception and imagination.”5

Thus, as Husserl argues extensively in his last work The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, the scientific conception of the world is posterior to and dependent on the Lifeworld, the world of prescientific experience. As he writes, “When science poses and answers questions, these are from the start, and hence from then on, questions resting upon the ground of, and addressed to, the elements of this pregiven world in which science and every other life-praxis is engaged.”6 In other words, the scientist necessarily begins and ends with the Lifeworld. This is abundantly clear in the need for experimentation and observation within science. It is not enough to have a perfect mathematical model of the physical universe: this model must be able to be confirmed and verified in direct experience. Hence, Husserl maintains that the “existential status” of the physical thing of science is dependent on the “existential status” of the Lifeworld, and that it is absurd to speak of the physical thing as “really real” and the perceptible thing as “mere subjective appearance.”7 For Husserl, then, we are directly aware of the real world. Contemporary physics is an incredible science which has made genuine and immense advances in knowledge, but it is built upon experience and refers back to it. Thus, as Robert Sokolowski writes, for Husserl, “The world of phenomena is not a veil between us and reality; it is reality itself.”8 

What are your thoughts on Husserl’s understanding of the Lifeworld?

1  Gail Soffer, “Phenomenology and Scientific Realism: Husserl’s Critique of Galileo,” Review of Metaphysics 44, no. 1 (1990), 72.

2 Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, II, 3, §52, trans. W.R. Boyce Gibson (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2017), 160. 

3 Husserl, Ideas, II, 3, §52, trans. Gibson, 160. 

4 Soffer, “Husserl’s Critique of Galileo,” 78.

5 Robert Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 149.

6 Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, III A, §33, trans. David Carr, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 121.

7 Soffer, “Husserl’s Critique of Galileo,” 83-86. 

8 Robert Sokolowski, The Formation of Husserl’s Concept of Constitution (The Hague, Netherlands: M. Nijhoff, 1970), 134.

All photographs used in this post are free to use, either without restriction or under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0, see https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/. Of the latter type, “Rutherford atom” is by Cburnett.


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