For Edmund Husserl, doing philosophy is not an abstract academic exercise. It is not an activity that only occurs in lecture rooms and behind desks. On the contrary, to do philosophy is to return to lived experience in order to describe exactly what is found therein. Thus, it is preeminently concrete and even personal. Of course, philosophy for Husserl must be rigorous, and it must rise above individual idiosyncrasies and preferences: it must articulate that which is universal and necessary. However, philosophy is always done by particular philosophers, and the impetus of all philosophy (as of all science and cultural endeavors) is the Lifeworld. In my last post, I gave a brief introduction to this pivotal concept in Husserlian phenomenology, but in this post, I wish to do something rather different.
In 2017, 2018, and 2020, each time for several months, I travelled to the small Asian nation of Nepal to teach English and math in the foothills of the Himalayas.
(A lesson in the classroom at Saping Medeka Family School)
(Climbing the last stretch of Poon Hill, 3,210m)
(Assembly before school begins)
(A delicious meal being prepared for the Saraswati Puja)
(A view from the school in Saping, Kavre province)
Allow me to quote something I wrote during my most recent journey:
Terraced hillsides, green and brown, dappled yellow with flowers and sunlight; distant peaks, silent, ancient, crowned with virgin snow; the smells of frying spices and wet earth, wood smoke and the life of growing things…and the voices. The voice of eagles crying among the mountains; the voice of drums and pipes echoing in the hills; the voice of silence, pregnant with ideas; and the voice of children, smiles, tears, laughter. This is Nepal, where stone temples watch while russet goats frisk, where girls play with string and boys with marbles, where dogs bark at monkeys and millet wine distills over open fires. And yet, amidst all the color and music, beauty and diversity, there is also simplicity, an offered cup of tea, a wide smile, hands joined in namaste. Humanity, no matter where and how it is manifested, is essentially the same. We all share one nature, and this nature is a gift. Namaste.
So, how does this personal excursus relate to the philosophy of Edmund Husserl? It is simple: during my time in Nepal, I was able to glimpse a new profile or aspect of the Lifeworld.
In his last published work, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Husserl explains that the pre-theoretical world of ordinary experience underlies and makes possible the objective world of science. However, this Lifeworld, for the very reason that it is pre-scientific, is not given to each person or even to each culture in the exact same way. As Husserl writes, “When we are thrown into an alien social sphere… we discover that their truths, the facts that for them are fixed, generally verified or verifiable, are by no means the same as ours.”1 This is why there is a very real sense in which the Lifeworld is “relative” and “subjective.” After all, as anyone who has been immersed in another culture can attest, things of ordinary experience do not always reveal themselves in the same ways. In Nepal, for example, colors are more important than they are in the West, everyday objects elicit different responses than they do for us, time seems to move more slowly, and events occur with a certain fatalism. Thus, the ground and foundation of the sciences, i.e., the Lifeworld, can be seen from distinct perspectives and participated in differently.
However, just because the Lifeworld is “relative” and given subjectively in appearances does not mean that there cannot be a logical, rigorous, scientific investigation into and articulation of it. As Husserl writes, “The life-world does have, in all its relative features, a general structure. This general structure, to which everything that exists relatively is bound, is not itself relative. We can attend to it in its generality and, with sufficient care, fix it once and for all in a way equally accessible to all.”2 For example, space, time, and causality are present in the Lifeworld, and, indeed, they ground their idealized analogues in the physical world. More personally, in my reflection on Nepal that I quoted above, I end by pointing to something that transcends cultures and ethnicities, viz, our shared humanity. Indeed, the fact that individuals from alien cultures who speak entirely different languages can nonetheless learn to communicate with and understand each other reveals that the Lifeworld, while given relatively in appearances, is not “merely subjective”. Thus, articulating the essence of the Lifeworld is one of the crucial tasks of the philosopher.
Hence, as I said at the beginning of this post, philosophy is not a mere academic exercise for Husserl. It is not an abstract, sterile activity. It is, rather, the concrete and fecund clarification of what it means to think, to perceive, and to live.
1 Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, III A, §36, trans. David Carr, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 139.
2 Husserl, Crisis, III A, §36, trans. Carr, 139.