Wednesday, October 12, 2005

What is Epoché ? Hopkins speaks, pt 1

At the center of Burt C. Hopkin’s article “Husserl’s Epochē: Theory, Praxis or Something in Between?”[1] is an attempt to define the epoché of Edmund Husserl and, in doing so, to reassert the foundational importance of Husserl’s phenomenological method for modern epistemology. In essence, then, Hopkins is interrogating the first principles of philosophy itself.

Husserl claimed that “phenomenology is the method of rigorous science” -- and what else is philosophy? Isn’t philosophy by definition the critique of knowledge? Again, the epoché, said Husserl, is the method of phenomenology. So then, phenomenology is epistemologically dependent upon the epoché, and, therefore, an analysis of the epoché is an analysis of phenomenology’s claim to be philosophy. To analyze the epoché is to raise the question of philosophical viability. Such is Hopkins’ aim. His article seeks to justify Husserl’s claims, both to be a philosopher and to provide a fundamental philosophy. Its conclusion will recommend or decry Husserl’s phenomenology for the practice of modern philosophy.

From the beginning, Hopkins endorses Edmund Husserl with the honorific “Philosopher.” But on what basis? “Because,” writes Hopkins, “he did not manifest the unquestioning understanding of oneself that always exhibits a failure to comprehend one’s own presuppositions and thus a failure really to grasp what one believes one knows.” Again, in the matter of Husserl’s critique of other doctrines, Hopkins repeats:

Rather than rest content with an unquestioning understanding … [Husserl] tirelessly interrogated the presuppositions proper to the conceptuality of each by confronting the latter [concepts] with the contents that fill them in [presuppositions].

Thus, Hopkin’s bid for elevating Edmund Husserl to “Philosopher” rests on the latter’s ceaseless interrogation of the presuppositions underneath every claim of knowledge he could discover, both in himself and others. Hopkin’s presents an epistemology.

Again and again throughout his article, Hopkins presents knowledge as an aggregate of what and how. He writes, “To ask of anything “what it is” already involves, which is to say, already presupposes, some kind of access to that which we are interrogating with respect to its what.”[sic] To ask what something is proves inseparable from the question of how such knowledge is acquired. It is a fundamental question about first principles. – No! -- It is a first principle for the interrogation of any claim to know and, indeed, for recognizing knowledge when it is obtained. “Knowledge means seeing that the contents that our concepts presuppose are in harmony with our presuppositions that our concepts really presuppose such contents.” To know is a harmony derived from the synergy between concept and presupposition. Hopkins’ definition is straightfoward enough, but in praising Edmund Husserl with the laurel he risks his entire argument.

If one is a philosopher, then one has something to teach, something which can be learned. So if Edmund Husserl is a philosopher, then he must have something to teach, and Hopkins claims that he does: the epoché. But can we learn the epoché? Is it something which can be taught? And here is the risk: The answer is “yes” only if we have already have access to it. Bluntly, we can only learn about the epoché if we already know it, if what it is arises from our own innate presuppositions. But this is absurd! How does one learn anything, if what is learned is already known? And what does that say about teaching? Who, then, may teach? Is Husserl such a one? Is he, as Hopkins claims, a philosopher, if not a philosopher among philosophers? Hopkins refers his readers to Plato’s middle-dialogue about human excellence, the Meno, as he begins to answer these questions.[2]

In the Meno, Socrates refuses to separate the question of what something is from the question of how it is taught. Human excellence is not just the doing of excellence the being of being excellent. They two are inseperable. The teaching of human excellence, then, is not like learning a method, but more like the invocation of a new state of being. The point Socrates is making is that only one who already possesses human excellence (through a knowledge of its form, according to Socrates: a gift of the gods) has the know-how (phronesis) to invoke it in another human being. The knower of the form, the true philosopher, can, by dialectic (ἔλεγχος), cause the hearer to recollect their own knowledge of the form. Any real understanding of things must be based on a knowledge of the universal behind them. This sounds like philosophy!

So then, Hopkin’s claim that Husserl is a philosopher is only true if Husserl is, in fact, a philosopher, where a philosopher is recognized by their ability to make others into philosophers. Picking up on the definition above, this means that Husserl should be able to make others into those who have knowledge, and thus can make proper judgments about knowledge. Husserl claims the epoché does this, and so Husserl can only be a philosopher if he can lead those seeking to become philosophers to discover the epoché already within themselves. So the field in question becomes the content of human beliefs.

At bottom, says Husserl, there is the world. The world is the ‘thesis’ of human experience. The world does not show up like anything else. It is unmediated and already there, that which is native to all experience. Therefore, the world is the unsurpassable horizon for all human experience and the durative element of them all. Human belief in the world is elmeental, and, therefore, Husserl calls all fruits of this belief, every experience and question which assumes the world, the “natural attitude.” Hopkins writes:

The existence of the world is accepted by immediate experience as both what it is, that is, as something that is “on hand” for expeirence, and as how it is, that is, “always already there” as the unsurpassable horizon for whatever else shows up in experience. . . . the positing of the world thesis does not show up as a presupposition, but as the way that it, i.e., the world, is. (emphases mine)

More to come...
[1] Hopkins, Burt C. “Husserl’s Epoché: Theory, Praxis or Something in Between?” in Essays in Celebration of the Founding of the Organization of Phenomenological Organizations. ed. Cheung, Chan-Fai, Ivan Chvatik, Ion Copoeru, Lester Embree, Julia Iribarne and Hans Rainer Sepp. Web-published at, 2003. Accessed September 1, 2005.

[2] Cf. Peter King's introduction to his translation of Augustine: Against the Academicians and The Teacher (Hackett, 1995) as well as his article, "Augustine on the Impossibility of Teaching". Also Michael Mendelson ""By the Things Themselves": Eudaimonism, Direct Acquaintance, and Illumination in Augustine's De Magistro" Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.4 (Oct. 2001) and Han-liang Chang "Paradox and the Elenchus in Plato's Meno, Augustine's De Magistro,and Gongsun Long's Jianbailun (Discourse on Hardness and Whiteness)" (Chinese characters might jam pdf).

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