By Ben Daly and Rose Mackey
In his essay On Science and Phenomenology Herbert Marcuse attempts to lay out the ways in which a split has occurred between the scientific and philosophical views on the world, and how this split has been detrimental to the development of human society in the west. For Marcuse this split is located in the relationship between human subjects and the concept of reason, which has been present in the discourses on science and philosophy since the ancient Greeks.
To highlight the manner in which this split has taken place Marcuse attempts to explain an essay written by Edmund Husserl, the famous phenomenologist. The essay that he analyzes in this piece is entitled “The Crisis of European Science and Transcendental Philosophy”. In it, Husserl critiques the enlightenment and modern scientific method. For Husserl, the problem could be traced back to Socratic philosophy, where the state of human being was identified with a certain notion of human reason, meaning that a human being inherently had the ability to reflect on itself, and the world around it, and even cause changes in its surroundings. However, for Plato this relationship (which can also be seen in terms of Descrate’s famous assertion ‘I think therefore I am’) was permitted by the ability of reason to focus on ideals ant the idea that the universe is a rational system. While Marcuse and Husserl probably would not have agreed with Socrates’ definition of these ideals, they find a very important function in the fact that they exist in his philosophy. The notion of reason therefore does not exist in and for itself. In Marcuse’s words “objectivity is necessarily correlated with subjectivity, again the subjective as well as objective structure of reason.” In this way reason can take a skeptical position towards the world, as singular, while at the same time maintaining focused on objectivity. What Marcuse is pointing to then, through Husserl, is the existence of a critical reason, which is actively used towards attaining ends, which are just as important as reason itself.
If Greek philosophy pointed towards reason as a tool that could be used, then for Marcuse the enlightenment lead toward a shift in the role reason played in human society. With the rise of a mathematical view of the world, everything became determinable in a manner that existed only in relation with other things and objects. In this manner reason and the world became detached from universal and objective concepts that were transcendental, instead functioning only on the level of the empirical. Therefore in fields such as the various sciences and medicine, which were ideally to be guided and given meaning by the field of philosophy, instead existed merely to progress for the sake of progress. Reason, removed from any critical investigation into its own ends, could merely be utilized to master and control nature, of which man is a part. What Husserl proposes in opposition to this modern scientific concept of reason is a phenomenological analysis of everyday life, which in itself is a negative process that should supposedly demystify the way in which the subject understands the fact of its existence in the world, which is the proposed goal of the projects of enlightenment, progress, and reason. For Marcuse, Husserl is giving an example of the kind of critical reason that would allow a demystification of the world to take place, while allowing the subject to exist harmoniously and, to a certain extent, with his or her natural environment. Marcuse explains that Husserl gets behind the mystifying concepts and methods of science. In the end of the essay Marcuse asks and answers his own question, “Does this conceptual metalanguage really come to grips with the constituent subjectivity? I think not.”