The Study of Religion in Husserl’s Writings

  • James G. Hart
Part of the Contributions to Phenomenology book series (CTPH, volume 16)


In this paper I attempt to systematize Husserl’s remarks in the Nachlass on the study of religion. I will not be dealing primarily with his own philosophical theology which he regards as the culmination of his transcendental phenomenology, but rather with what he thinks religion is and what is studied when people study religion. I will first briefly discuss how religion is a developing cultural phenomenon which comes to have a relationship to philosophy and reason. This leads us to the consideration of a variety of senses of theology.


Religious Experience Transcendental Phenomenology Natural Reason Philosophical Theology Mythic Culture 
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  1. 2.
    I deal with Husserl’s theory of culture more at length in “The Entelechy and Authenticity of Objective Spirit: Reflections on Husserliana XXVII,” forthcoming in Husserl Studies:; also in “The Rationality of Culture and the Culture of Rationality,” forthcoming in the Philosophy East and West (1992).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    As we shall see, Husserl’s theory resembles Max Weber’s view that there is a basic pattern where charisma tends to suffer a decline and to give way to powers of tradition and rational socialization. The “routinization” of bureaucracy is the well-known devolution of the charisma of the great founder. Stanford Lyman called my attention to this parallel at the CARP Conference. For a discussion of these matters, see Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1962), 325–328.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    E III 7, p. 2; see also my “From Mythos to Logos to utopian poetics: An Husserlian Narrative,” Journal of the Philosophy of Religion 25 (1989), 147 ff.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    See The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. David Carr (Evanston: Northwestern University Press: 1970), 283–284; Hua VI, 330. I am grateful to John Drummond for some insights into these matters. As far as I know a phenomenology of religion as such is missing in Husserl. He greeted Otto’s work on Das Heilige as a “first beginning” in the phenomenology of the religious dimension. He told Otto that his speculations, presumably the theory of the innate propensity for the religious, was better left out. But as a beginning it goes to the true origins of religious experience. What precisely he liked about the descriptions of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans we do not learn from this letter. He only volunteers that Otto does not yet offer the radical distinction between the incidental fact and the eidos in religious intentionality and there is still wanting a study of the essential necessities and possibilities of religious consciousness and its correlate—as well as a study of the essential necessities of its development. What he had in mind is perhaps indicated in the discussion in the body of the text. In response to Gertha Walter’s letter (in preparation of her Phaenomenologie der Mystik (Halle: Niemeyer, 1923*70) Husserl offers a theory how we can be touched in “the deepest depths” by noting how the strewn out position-takings and the acquired values of the heart may get reactivated by felicitous Gestalten so that all of one’s life is gathered together in a unique synthesis. Deeper strata of the I are awakened into play and what before functioned as unrelated motives in the passive underground are awakened into a synthesis which permits infinities and powerful new perspectives to open up (A V 21, 92); cf. my “A Precis of a Husserlian Philosophical Theology,” 152–154 and 166–167; (on p. 167 I gather some of Husserl’s remarks on mysticism.) What perhaps Husserl has in mind, and what can bring together these considerations, is the way the religious sphere makes present the ontological-metaphysical actuality of the divine idea. We will come back to this later on in the essay. Finally, Husserl maintains in the correspondence with Dilthey that the phenomenology of religion is, to use Dilthey’s own expression, an empathic study of the inner life of religious persons and communities in terms of the various motivations and life-forms. The historical-factual serves as exemplifications of the way the pure ideal is intended. And the history of religions investigates the historical-factual but is indifferent to the essential-ideal in the same way that actual of physical bodies are indifferent to the essential nature of the spatial-temporal thingliness. Thus the endless relativities of gases, particles, liquids, solids, waves, fields, etc. are all pervaded by the ideal norms of the idea of “corporeal thing.” Similarly we can measure the facts of historical religions against the ideals emergent in religious experience. The truth of religion in this sense would be relative to the various historical disclosures and irrelative in so far as these would be instances of the ideal unity which is manifest in them. See “Correspondencie entre Dilthey y Husserl,” Walter Biemel, ed., Revista Filosoia de la Universidad de Costa Rica I (1957), 101 ff.; translation in Husserl: Shorter Works (South Bend: Notre Dame, 1981), 203–208. See also “A Precis of an Husserlian Philosophical Theology,” Essays in Phenomenological Theology, edited by Steven Laycock and James Hart (Albany: SUNY Press, 1986), 100 ff.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Husserl’s brief description of religion’s hierarchical, centralist, and totalitarian structures parallels Lewis Mumford’s monumental account of the rise of “civilization” in antiquity as the forerunner of the modern “megamachine.” See The Myth of the Machine, Vols. I and II (New York: Harcourt Brace Janovich, 1964).Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    That Husserl, in some sense is philosophically a monotheist and not a polytheist cannot be held against him as a form of cultural prejudice. One may disagree with this position but then one is disagreeing with his philosophical theology, and that is the terrain upon which that difference of opinion must be worked out, not on the level of claims of personal intolerance or Western chauvinism. Similarly, the view of Husserl that religious experiences have some essential features may or may not be a kind of cultural and metaphysical prejudice, e.g., “essentialism.” Such a matter has to be determined by arguments which help decide whether philosophy can escape some sense of allegiance to something like essences and whether the analysis of religious experiences does show, indeed, some essential features. That Husserl presumed to tell the Japanese what authentic culture was is to be expected. The theory of authenticity runs throughout his philosophy. It would be disengenuous for him to do otherwise. I take Husserl to be cautious rather than chauvinistic when it comes to the details and specific meanings of other cultures. Consider, e.g., the reserve and seeming deliberate vagueness, in spite of his clear enthusiasm, in regard to the new translation of Buddhist texts; although he claims for the Buddhist texts a genuine transcendentalism as well as a purity and depth matching anything the West has to offer, and although he is confident the encounnter with Buddhism will be a determining factor from now on in Western culture, he does not make a single specific reference. See Hua XXVII, 125 ff. I, with Merleau-Ponty, do not take Husserl’s Eurocentrism to be chauvinistic. He was as ignorant of other cultures as most of us are; but it seems rather clear that he was not interested in restricting logos to a European form of existence. Rather, the was confident that neither Europe nor America approximated the ideal of logos; indeed he saw clearly that the forms of rationalism that had developed under scientism and capitalism were in danger of destroying any sensibility to a genuinely philosophic culture. Cf. Merleau-Ponty’s remarks in Primacy of Perception (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 89. For another interpretation of Husserl’s view of religion and religious studies, see R.A. Mall’s “The God of Phenomenology in Comparative Contrast to That of Philosophy and Theology,” Husserl Studies 8 (1991), 1–15. I cannot here deal with Mall’ interpretations in detail; readers of his essay will see that we disagree on many points.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    See A V 21, 22a and Hua IX, 497–498; also my discussion in §1. of “From Mythos to Logos to Utopian poetics: An Husserlian Narrative.”Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    See Vorlesungen über Ethik und Werlehre (1908–1914), ed. Ullrich Melle, Hua XXVIII (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1988). Also my “Axiology as the Form of Purity of Heart: A Reading of Husserliana XXVIII,” Philosophy Today (1990), 34, 206–221.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    See Hua XXVIII and also my “Axiology as the Form of Purity of Heart.” The discussion which follows is taken from A V 21, 5a ff.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    I discuss the “absolute ought” at Length in The Person and the Common Life: Studies in a Husserlian Social Ethics (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1992), Chapter IV.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    This is the explanation of mystic experiences in his letter to Gerda Walther in response to her theory of mysticism. See A V 21, 84–92; cf. above, n. 5. Another relevant text is one wherein Husserl observes that if God is regarded as he proposes, i.e., as the entelechy of entelechies, “God thereby can be no object of possible experience Ias in the sense of a thing or a human). Rather God would be ‘experienced’ in each belief that believes originally-teleologically in the eternal value of that which lives in the direction of each absolute ought which engages itlsef for this eternal meaning” (A V 21, 128a).Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    Although there is much work to be done here on the issue of axiology joining and separating Scheler and Husserl, I make an initial run at a few of the issues in “Axiology as the Form of Purity of Heart.” The general will is developed in conjunction with value perception in Ch. II of The Person and the Common Life: Studies in a Husserlian Social Ethics (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1992).Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    This passage, and many others in Husserl’s theological writings, recalls Peirce’s views on the power of ideals: whatever generates devotion and has the power to attract us irresistably cannot be non-actual and merely the outcome of development. For a discussion, see Donna M. Orange, Peirce’s Conception of God, Peirce Studies, N. 2 (Lubboc, Texas: Institute for Studies in Pragmatism, 1984), pp. 70 ff.Google Scholar
  14. 18.
    See “A Précis of an Husserlian Philosophical Theology”, in Essays in phenomenological Theology.Google Scholar
  15. 21.
    Rudolf Boehm, “Husserl und der Klassische Idealismus,” Vom Gesichtspunkt der Phaenomenologie: Husserl-Studien (the Hague: NIjhoff, 1968), 18 ff. In a later text (A V 21, 76a) Husserl is more explicit. People have to survive and act and cannot postpone decisions in the face of unresolved scientific queries. It is typical of everyday practical life that the individual must act in a context of what is scientifically unknown and unpredictable.Google Scholar
  16. 22.
    Iso Kern, Idee und Methode der Philosophie (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1976), 342; cf. also “A Precis …,” 106 ff.Google Scholar
  17. 23.
    Husserl here must be speaking of the proper sense of death, i.e., the cessation of personal identity; the transcendental “I,” in the most basic sense, neither comes to be nor passes away. Cf. my discussion in Time and Religion, edited by J. N. Mohanty and A. N. Balslev (Leiden: Brill, 1992).Google Scholar
  18. 24.
    Whether Husserl ultimately believed that action was possible only if “everything ultiamtely serves the good …,” etc. is not clear to me. I think his meditation on irrationalities as well as his metaphysics point to a more Platonic view, i.e., that the universe is rational for the most part, but the receptacle and/or hyle are eternal and never become perfectly transparent to form. Furthermore, late in his career, he raised the issue of whether there may not be values which we are forced to sacrifice and which remain valid and are not harmonized by that for which they are sacrificed. See A V 21, 80b ff.Google Scholar
  19. 25.
    We may note, however, as the most basic theme of his philosophical theology, that at the irrepressible level of proto-reason and teleology at the foundation of consciousness, i.e., the doctrine of association in the awareness of inner-time, Husserl is motivated to see a divine entelechy at the heart of this hyletic facticity which accounts for how the propter hoc trustfully rides on the post hoc. See my “A Precis ….” Cf. also “Entelechy in Transcendental Phenomenology: A Sketch of the Foundations of Husserlian Metaphysics,” American Catholic Philosophi-Sketch Quarterly Vol. LXVI,No. 2 (1992).Google Scholar
  20. 26.
    See Iso Kern, Husserl und Kant (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1968), 302.Google Scholar
  21. 27.
    See, e.g., Hua XIII, 508 and E III 10, 15b.Google Scholar
  22. 28.
    See the Ninth Proposition of “The Idea of a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” in Kant’s Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 51 ff.Google Scholar
  23. 29.
    See Kant, KRV, B67O ff. and Hermann Cohen’s synthesis in his Kommentar zu Immanuel Kants Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Leipzig: Duerr’schen Buchhandlung, 1907), 157 ff. Cf. Husserl, e.g., Hua III, §§ 83, 143, and 149; also, A V 22, 31–38, E III 4, 61; Hua VIII, 10–16, 33, 48–50.Google Scholar
  24. 31.
    This parallels the basic theme of Husserl’s philosophical theology, the Wunder of reason. See, e.g., Hua VII, 394.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • James G. Hart
    • 1
  1. 1.Indiana UniversityUSA

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