NOTA DE INTROFILOSOFIA: ESTE TEXTO ES UNA TRANSCRIPCION DEL VIDEO DONDE EL PROFESOR WARREN , UNIV DE LEUVEN, COMENTA EL TEMA DE LA I GUERRA MUNDIAL , Y EL MODO EN QUE LA FILOSOFÍA, MEDIANTE UN TEXTO DE EDMUND HUSSERRTL DONDE ES ANALIAZADO EL MODO EN QUE FICHTE VE EL PAPEL DE ALEMANIA EN EL MUNDO , Y EN EUROPA EN CONCRETO. CREEMOS QUE EL IDEALISMO ALEMAN Y SU IMPLICACION POLITICA ES UN ESTUDIO IMPRESCINDIBLE DESDE LA FILOSOFIA MATERIALISTA Y CRITICA
Nicolas de Warren: I’d like to welcome you to the second lecture
of Module Two, ‘A Clash of Civilizations.’
I’m standing here in this quite elegant ceremonial lecture hall
in what used to be the University Library
which was destroyed in August of 1914.
In 1914, with the destruction of the University of Leuven library,
German intellectuals mobilized in defense of the German cause.
And although Husserl was not a signatory to the notorious “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three,”
indirectly, of course, his support of the war implicated him in the support of German
actions during the war,
including the destruction of the University Library.
It is perhaps one of the supreme ironies of the First World War that
Husserl’s own manuscripts were saved on the eve of the Second World War from destruction
and are now housed here at the University of Leuven at the Husserl Archives at the Institute of Philosophy.
One hundred years after the war to end all wars,
we can look back with a kind of dumbfounded amazement at how an entire generation of sophisticated
intellectuals, like Husserl,
seemingly lost all sense of reason and philosophical orientation in supporting the war.
In this regard, the judgment of the German anarchist Gustav Landauer that
‘nothing failed so much in the war as the intellectuals’
has a kind of bitter truth to it.
But, as we will try to explore in this lecture,
this bitter truth belies a certain complexity,
and that complexity is paradigmatically expressed
in the ambiguous attitude of Husserl to the war,
what I would like to call the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ relationship that he has to the war.
For, on the one hand Husserl is a university professor, is a public intellectual,
but on the other hand, Husserl is also a father whose two sons fought in the war
As we’ll explored by both looking at Husserl’s lectures on the idea of humanity in Fichte,
as well as private letters that he writes during the war,
that conflict can be summed up as a confrontation between Husserl as the father of phenomenology
and Husserl as the father of two sons, one of whom was killed at the Battle of Verdun in 1916.
In 1917, with the war having taken its grim toll
on students and academics who had been sent to the front,
in the aftermath of the failed offensive in 1916 at Verdun,
and with an increasingly deteriorating home front due to economic sanctions,
Husserl gave three lectures on Fichte’s ideal of humanity at the University of Freiburg.
These lectures were organized at the behest of the Ministry of War
in so-called ‘Kriegsnot” seminars
– so, ‘seminars in the emergency time of war’, or ‘emergency war-time seminars’ –
and these seminars were largely meant for soldiers,
mostly soldiers who were wounded, who had seen service,
who were now returning to the university.
Many of these soldiers would, in fact, be sent back after this brief university experience.
Husserl would repeat these lectures twice in 1918,
the first time a few months before the Ludendorff spring offensive,
which had as its purpose to decide the war once and for all,
and the second time – and this quite amazingly –
one week before the end of the war in November of 1918 –
So, one week before the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918,
Husserl repeats his lectures on Fichte’s ideal of humanity.
Now, in all three of these iterations of Husserl’s lectures,
Husserl is functioning here as a university professor and as an educator,
as an educator in time of war
and as an educator who is delivering not only a philosophical message but,
as importantly, a political message.
In a letter that his daughter writes to a friend in the early part of 1918,
we get a glimpse of this enthusiasm that Husserl still had for the war,
his sense that the war was not lost.
As she writes:
“Daddy is completely beside himself and sees the complete victory as finally in our
hands. We’ll now see what a genius can do”
And the reference here is to Hindenburg and Ludendorff.
“The Western Front, it is said, is always frozen. There’s nothing that can be done and
the enemies also don’t know what to do.
And now Hindenburg goes to work, and look how it’s going:
the breakthrough will be achieved in three days.”
Now, what’s interesting for us in these lectures
is not so much the content of the lectures,
in the sense of how Husserl presents the main outlines of Fichte’s ideal of humanity,
the main outlines of which he draws from Fichte’s so-called ‘popular writings’ – the ‘Popularschriften’ –
as well as the quite famous ‘Addresses to the German Nation.’
What’s important for us is the staging these lectures, of the staging of this content –
so, the way in which Husserl understands the significance of what it is to speak about Fichte
in the context of the war in 1917 and 1918.
And here, what is striking is the direct connection that Husserl makes
between the First World War and the ‘Befreiungskrieg’ of 1813
– so, the war of liberation of 1813 –
as Husserl announces:
“It is [so, the present – so, 1917, 1918] a time of renewal of all the ideal sources
of power that was once spread out
and the deepest depths of the soul that had already proved their saving power.”
And here there are two terms which are quite crucial in Husserl’s statement.
The first is ‘the depths of the soul’, so, in German, he’s thinking of the idea of
‘Innerlichkeit’, or ‘interiority’;
the second is ‘the saving power’,
so the saving power of the war as precisely a redemptive power,
in Germany “erlösen”,
a redemptive power for the Innerlichkeit or spiritual, if you wish, particularity,
the spiritual relationship of Germany to itself.
The third point that’s quite interesting about the staging of these lectures
is the way in which Husserl will now articulate a certain philosophical and political vision
of death. As he declares:
“Need and death are today’s teachers.
For many years now, death is not an exceptional event which permits itself to hide and to
have its majesty debased through splendid congregations
under piles of bouquets and wreaths.
Death has again won back its wholly primal rite. It is again the great reminder of eternity in time.”
Note this quite striking idea that death is an educator.
By implication, the philosopher as educator is the educator of death, who teaches how to know to die.
Two other aspects that are here interesting
is the way in which death is tied to a notion of remembrance,
we might say in a platonic sense, ‘anamnesis’,
so, death is a reminder of eternity
for in the sacrifice that soldiers are called to,
eternal values are re-actualized, recalled, made present once again.
And the second aspect is the sense in which death is a vision:
indeed, it is a vision for the truth of German Idealism,
for the realization of German Idealism,
through Husserl’s own thinking.
As Husserl announces:
“And so there have grown again for us today organs of vision for German Idealism.”
So, the idea here is that the truth of German Idealism,
which had been forged in the context of the Napoleonic Wars,
can be finally realized once again – indeed, finally realized as such –
in the context of the First World War.
So what is at stake in the First World War is German Idealism.
I’d like to end these remarks with an open question,
and that open question is really an expression of a certain sense of amazement.
The amazement is to imagine what it would have been
to have been a soldier, to have been a student,
one week before the end of the war,
and to have heard this rousing declaration,
coming from the voice of Husserl,
that Fichte speaks to us, the Fichte of the war of liberation.
For it’s clear that this rousing declaration is meant to tell us that the war will be victorious,
but one can ask oneself:
“what is one to hear, what is one to make of this declaration, in the full knowledge,
one week before the end of the war,
that the German catastrophe
is something which no amount of philosophical speaking can avoid?”
What I would like to do now is to turn to Husserl’s letters,
and try to understand the development of Husserl’s ambivalent and complex relationship to the war –
not through the lens, as we have seen,
of Husserl as the public philosopher, the professor of philosophy, the public intellectual –
but more intimately, in the private setting of correspondence, of letters that he writes,
and, principally, in reaction to the death of his son in 1916.
I’d like to start first with a letter that Husserl writes to his wife, Malvine,
after Wolfgang had been wounded in 1915.
As he writes, actually in a postcard that he sends from Brussels,
“Wolfgang is extraordinarily beautiful and well accommodated here,
and has a voracious appetite.
Therefore, the exact day is not of great importance: he is very happy.
The doctor says he has to remain a few more days in bed;
we cannot expect to have Wolfgang back for another week.”
Indeed, Wolfgang would then return home to visit his family after he had healed from his wounds,
and would then be sent back to the front in 1916.
It’s in this timeframe that Husserl writes a letter to his friend and colleague,
the German psychologist Hugo Münsterberg,
who was quite an important professor at Harvard University,
and who at the time was trying to drum up support, American support, for the German
Husserl writes the following:
“The feelings that every death means is that it is a voluntary sacrifice
and this gives a lofty dignity and raises the individual suffering into a sphere above
We hardly live any longer as private persons.”
This sense of individual sacrifice as raising the individual above their own singularity
and as elevating the German nation to a sense of solidarity,
no longer living as private persons,
is clearly something that Husserl himself felt with regard to his own son.
Wolfgang, as I said, would return to the front in 1916 and fought in the Battle of Verdun.
He was then killed in the battle while trying to storm a trench.
In the report of one of his comrades that was sent to Husserl:
“Wolfgang was killed while leading an assault by a burst of French machine-gun fire.”
And obviously, the traumatic news of Wolfgang’s death affected the Husserl family deeply.
In what is undoubtedly one of the most moving documents that we have here at the Husserl Archives,
we have a note that Husserl writes to himself when he tries to imagine,
where he tries to visualize,
the precise location of his son’s death.
As we can read in this note:
“Regarding Wolfgang’s gravesite, according to the communications of Lieutenant Lehrer.
In the grave of our Wolfgang is also buried Sergeant Feldman;
nearby, about six metres east, is Lieutenant Ladenberg;
directly next to Wolfgang’s grave is the grave of Lieutenant Rothe,
very near a mass grave in which twenty-one Germans and some French are buried.”
In this note that Husserl writes to himself, in which he tries to visualize and imagine,
indeed, to see, the precise location of his son’s burial,
one can see something like an arc that is being traced,
linking the death of an individual, Wolfgang Husserl,
to the anonymity of the deaths of many who no longer have names.
This arc encompasses not only the passage from the individual to the anonymous,
but from German death to French death,
such that death, here, becomes all-encompassing.
This reflects, in part, the reality of being killed in the First World War,
where the majority of casualties did not leave physical remains,
and the majority of casualties were never buried in identifiable graves.
Hence the phenomenon of the ‘nameless missing soldier’, ‘the missing of the Somme.’
In this note, we also see the sense in which there is a profound tension between
the sacrifice of the individual, as an individual – in this case, Wolfgang, the son of Edmund Husserl –
and the meaning of that sacrifice for a community,
for the anonymity of the ‘we’ in which we participate in the war.
And this, if you wish, ambiguity of sacrifice
is eloquently perhaps expressed in the term ‘Opfer’, the German word for sacrifice,
which both means ‘victim’ and ‘sacrifice’ – so, both the individual who is the victim
of a sacrifice,
and that sacrifice as something like an individual who gives up their life for a greater community.
This ambiguity of sacrifice between the personal and the public,
the anonymous and the individual,
is something that would forever haunt Husserl’s thinking,
and indeed left its mark in his own reflections on the nature of patriotism and sacrifice.
I’d now like to sort of bring these reflections to a conclusion
by quoting from another poignant document that we have in the Husserl Archives,
a letter that Husserl writes to his student Arnold Metzger in September of 1919 –
so, just a few months short of the one-year anniversary of the end of the war.
In this letter, we see something like another expression of the ambiguity of Husserl’s
attitude to the war,
the ambiguity of Husserl as both public philosopher, public intellectual,
and private father, private philosopher,
as well as Husserl’s attempt to draw some kind of philosophical solace, some kind of consolation, indeed,
some kind of lesson from his ambiguous engagement in the war.
As he writes to his student,
“I am not called to become the leader of a struggling humanity for blessed life.
In the passionate drive of the war years, I had to recognize this.
My ‘diamanion’ had warned me.”
And the reference here to the diamanion is a reference, of course, to Socrates,
and to that voice of conscience that did not tell Socrates what to do
but cautioned Socrates what not to do.
And in a similar vein, one can understand here Husserl recognizing a kind of Socratic moment,
where he understands not so much what he had to do,
or the meaning of what he did,
but a general caution about his ambivalent attitude in the war.