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Edmund Husserls Phenomenology of Randomness

Guillermo Ferrer
Charles University Prague, Central -European Institute of Philosophy

1. Description and Delimitation of the Experience of Randomness

The phenomenological concept of randomness (Zufall) is the central issue of this paper, with
which I would like to deal on grounds of transcendental phenomenology. Thereto, it is
possible to find plenty of clues in Edmund Husserls literary remains. Many of the texts
suitable for a phenomenology of randomness have been already published in the last volume
of the Husserliana-Reihe (XLII), whose topic is precisely a phenomenology of the limits of
experience. My lecture is only a first draft of a phenomenological research about the matter of
randomness. But I hope that our discussion can contribute to precise the importance of the
analysis of this phenomenological field and to indicate possible ways for its development.
In general terms, we can describe our experience of randomness as linked to a peculiar sort of
consciousness, namely of occurrences or events that we could not expect on grounds of the
knowledge of causal relations, motivational connections of our free acts, or of homogeneous
circumstances not yet understood. The difficult approach to this limit-phenomenon shall also
clarify the subjective side of the apparently quite understood mechanic of the world.
Randomness can sometimes appear to the subject of experience as a contrariety
(Widerfahrnis) and as an incomprehensible, absurd factum. Hence, randomness presents an
existential challenge with which we must necessary deal.
On numerous manuscripts Husserl has employed the word Zufall and its plural Zuflle. That
is not just a passing mention, because those expressions are related there to fundamental
philosophical problems: the infinity of worlds horizon and the finite perspective of subject;
the modal concepts of the experience; ethical problems and existential questions about destiny
and death, etc. Husserls approach stands out due to his attempt, not just at a description, but
also at a delimitation of the experience of randomness as such, without using any kind of
explanations that would trace back the unexpected and inexplicable to well-known reasons.
But, it does not mean at all that he refuses every reasonable explanation of events that we
name at first fortuitous or haphazard (casual). Rather Husserl aims at circumscription of a

domain or core of primal experience of the Zufall that, insofar as it is seen from the side of the
subject, withstands every explanation.
Let us consider first situations in lifes world where we are surpassed by the events, without
any possibility at least in the presence of those events- to arrange them in causal orders or
previous calculations. It does not mean that an explanation of unexpected and random
occurrences has become impossible at all, but just that such an explanation would be always
belated; and also subsequent to the very original experience of random events in the world.
Then is the question whether the random events that we have once experienced are all
reducible to retrospective causal explanations or some or many of them are not.
Perhaps we can find the phenomenological key to answer this question on the following
passage: Die Welt ist unberechenbar; und wre sie selbst berechenbar, so ntzte das dem Ich
nichts, das durch Zufall und Schicksal in sie hineingeraten und von ihr und in ihr
herumgezerrt wird. (Hua XLII). That is why we can talk about an experience of randomness
irreducible to any explanation. Worlds horizon never discloses itself at once; thus, any future
event in the world is pre-given, if under the word pre-giveness we understand more than a
simple anticipation of them. Even if we hypothesize a complete calculation or an anticipation
without gaps, that would not eradicate the randomness from lifes world, because such a
complete prevision would not change at all the factum of our exposure to the upcoming events
that we have anticipated.
Therefore, Husserl describes as random events those which affect our practical intentions,
either for good or bad luck. The concept of randomness will not disclose its intuitive content
until we perform an analysis of this kind of occurrences. Randomness concept means neither
an enigmatic cause nor a hidden ground, but a factum in lifes world that we can not know or
describe but in terms of a limit-phenomenon of our experience.
In spite of his interest, Husserls analysis of randomness has been not yet fully explored. An
interpretation of his reflections on this topic could build a meeting point for
phenomenological research, natural and cognitive sciences. Such an interpretation could be
bound as well to extant works about a phenomenology of infinity, of knowledge and
experience modal concepts, and even to an ethical phenomenology. Below I would like to
distinguish and consider separately a theoretical, and a practical dimension of a possible
phenomenology of randomness.
2. Theoretical Dimension of a Phenomenology of Randomness

The first step for a phenomenological theory of randomness shall consist in a

conceptualization of the terms, but insofar, as they result in our experience of an essential
indeterminacy of worlds horizon. This experience arises as soon as new events encounter our
usual anticipations. This is not because we did not weigh before another possible and better
anticipations; rather, the unexpected event - to which we name Zufall- acts contrary to the
very constitution of an anticipatory intuition or knowledge of future occurrences. So to speak,
it seems as if we do not have at our disposal replacement-anticipations to rearrange or typify
the random happenings accordingly to well-known schemas.
Anyway, and this is a very interesting aspect of our modal experience of randomness, random
events do not appear to us as being themselves impossible. Their possibility originates
precisely on the other side of our anticipations and the category a priori of causality. Hence,
our experience of the Zufall does not amount to a mere disappointment of our anticipations or
any imaginable anticipation, but rather this experience is equivalent to the consciousness of
events whose possibility and realization relates to an essential indeterminacy, to a large
extent, of worlds horizon. On her noetic or subjective side, the experience of the Zufall
comes along with a great difficulty to refer back random occurrences to our anticipatory
intentions or causal concepts.
Could we at least conceive the idea of a superhuman being, such as a Laplaces Demon, who
could foresee every future event and calculate all its consequences? From a transcendentalphenomenological point of view we shall exclude this idea, because of the essential infinity,
mostly indeterminate, of the horizon of our worlds experience. That is the reason why
Husserl speaks often about the worlds horizon as ein unendliches Reich des Zufalls. Hence,
we can see to what extent the phenomenology of randomness is linked to a phenomenology of
infinity. But, it is not a matter of the mathematical infinity that we can somehow rule with our
thought, as for instance the works of Georg Cantor teach us to do it. The infinity behind all
the events of experience, even if we explain them causally or not, have its source on which
Husserl calls das irrationale Faktum der Wirklichkeit. Thereunder, Husserl means the very
factum of the existence, real pre-giveness of the world, insofar as it antecedes and founds our










conceptualization. Because of this irrationality of worlds primal being it is always possible

that random events come forward themselves: without prior notice or reason.

We can see now why we do require an analysis of the modal concepts underlying our
experience of the Zufall. The phenomenological question is: How intertwine concretely
notions like necessity, possibility and probability within our experience of the Zufall?
Here I will confine myself to enunciate some working hypothesis, in no case to give now a
satisfactory answer to the question that I have formulated, but rather to indicate a possible
way to approach the underlying problems:
a) By means of a methodical description of experiences like this one of the Zufall, Husserl has
tried to overcome the traditional opposition between necessity and contingency. It is the
very descriptive analysis of our worlds experience that which authorizes us to speak about its
faktische or zufllige Notwendigkeit. On one hand, the existence of the world is given to
us needful and apodictically as long as worlds experience flows concordantly; on the other
hand, the universal how (Wie) of this existence remains for the most part or even infinitely
indeterminate. Thereby, for a scope of infinitely many possible new occurrences remain
always open, among them random events.
We can ask ourselves to what extent the overcoming of the opposition between necessity and
contingency turns out to be a key aspect of a phenomenological description of the Zufall. The
philosophical tradition has tried oft to ascribe the randomness to unknown causes or hidden
grounds, at which it loses its essential contingency. By contrast, there is another kind of
thinking about the randomness, which treats it like a sort of force or power excluding any
regularity and necessity. Against it, a phenomenology of randomness could show us that it
bears on a radical contingency, but at the same time belongs to the factual-necessary
structures of our very experience of the world.
b) In order to deal with randomness and to explain it in some measure, we have at our
disposal probability-intentions, and at a more sophisticated level, probability calculation.
Nowadays, there are many discussions about the applicability of the mathematical probability
theory - which is axiomatically definite - to extra-mathematical situations, especially to those
situations of prevailing random events. Husserl has worked on a phenomenology of
probability that could enlighten on this problem. In the Logische Untersuchungen he sets the
doctrine of probability (Wahrscheinlichkeitslehre) on a level with a pure theory of
knowledge by experience (reine Theorie der Erfahrungserkenntnis) [Hua XVIII, 256-258]. In
other texts about Logic, Husserl examines the theory of probability insofar, it renders possible
a transition from judgments about pre-given real facts to justified conjectures. Besides, there

are plenty of not yet published manuscripts where Husserl carries on his phenomenology of
probability. The content of these manuscripts announces new ways of setting problems which
are decisive for a phenomenology of randomness. For example, in a manuscript of the year
1932 Husserl asks himself questions like this: how a human being can delineate probabilities
within or despite his finitude? Which mean could have an ontological probability
(ontologische Wahrscheinlichkeit) for the natural sciences? Last question it is especially
important if we consider that randomness has become nowadays a major topic of physic,
biology etc.
3. Ethical Dimension of the Phenomenology of Randomness
Now I would like to place emphasis on the ethical dimension of a phenomenology of
randomness. We all know, at least implicitly, that every practical intention whether individual
or social, is at the mercy of randomness. Bad luck, adverse circumstances, the egoism of the
others, all this can delay or impede every of our good purposes. Death can destroy
prematurely and absurdly an ethical good life, as Husserl says.
But there is another question concerning to the ethical aspect of our experience of the Zufall,
which I would like to mention forthwith: because of the factuality of Zufall, it is infinitely
improbable that we can meet to all requirements of the ethical imperatives, whether individual
or formal. However, they oblige us to try to fulfill them completely. Also, Husserl accords
with Immanuel Kant about the unconditional necessity of the ethical imperatives, but he
considers the possibility of their fulfillment in the framework of a phenomenology of the
Zufall. A first conclusion, in this regard, is precisely the infinite improbability to exercise all
our ethical duties, although we shall try it by all means.
Our will cannot be pure, but rather is exposed to the randomness. That is what Husserl calls
Willens-Zufall. But should we talk than about a completely insurmountable WillensZufall? Certainly, as a result of misfortune or even of a fully adverse destiny (feindliches
Schicksal), the attainable good (erreichbares Gut) - as object of an individual will- can
become infinitely small (unendlich Kleines) in comparison with that which we could
actually achieve. However, Husserl thinks that it remains possible to act ethically in any
circumstance. He instances a mother who would know that the end of the world is imminent,
but in spite of it, would abandon herself to the impulse of take care of her child.
Finally, I would like to mention another possible issue of the phenomenology of the Zufall. It
seems to me that Husserl has deeply meditated on the relationship between randomness and

death. In his Randbemerkungen to Sein und Zeit, Husserl makes an observation to the passage
where Heidegger speaks about death as die eigenste, unbezgliche und unberholbare
Mglichkeit: Eine unberholbare Mglichkeit ist auch der universale Zufall, das Schicksal,
das Universum der Irrationalitten. 1 At the margin of another passage about the hiding (by
the One, das Man) of deaths possibility, Husserl writes: Aber da kommt eben
phnomenologisch noch einiges in Betracht. Der Tod ist mit Zufall verwoben, und berhaupt
der Zuflligkeit der Lebensdauer. 2
From my point of view, a phenomenology of randomness could bring a lot to our
understanding of death, if we attend and try to decipher this silent discussion between Husserl
und Heidegger. Here I would like to adventure a working hypothesis: Husserl discuses
Heideggers idea of a decided assumption (bernahme) of deaths possibility by the Dasein.
If death is essentially linked to universal randomness and to contingency of lifes span, then
my future death could not be only my own great possibility. Death, as far it depends on the
Zufall, is not only that which distinguishes me or individualizes me, so that I could run fully
decided to face it. On the contrary, every deaths occurrence is itself, essentially, a contingent
fact - independently of the manner in which we can explain it, even scientifically-, because
theres no way to appropriate of the very source of contingency from which death comes,
neither by knowledge nor by means of anticipations.
Furthermore, instead of isolating the subject or Dasein, death put it within a community,
whose members are exposed to the Zufall. Certainly, there are many passages where Husserl
defends the idea of an immortal transcendental subject. However, this idea does not make of
the subject an absolute. In a similar way to Leibniz, Husserl describes death as a kind of
involution. The transcendental subject lives beyond the death of the constituted empirical
subject, but only as if it was submerged in a deep sleeping without awakening, an eternal
black night (eine ewige schwarze Nacht). Therefore, there is a drama of death that requires of
a phenomenological approach. For each one, death is not just a collapse of the conditions for
an awaken individual life, but also of the conditions for an intersubjective constitution of the
The point here is that any imaginable explanation of death, whether philosophical or
scientific, is able to dilute the very contingency of death in causes or grounds, just because

1 Siehe Randbemerkungen Husserls zu Heideggers Sein und Zeit und Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik,
in Husserl Studies, (11) 1994 [S. 3-63]. S. 32.
2 Ibidem.

we do not have any kind of access to death itself, neither for experience in the first-person or
for anticipation. Even suicide requires of an extreme exposition to the most contingent and
threatening circumstances. Our death will just happen, it fllt dem Menschen zu.
Wren die Subjekte passiv, wre es denkbar, dass sie alle passiv wren, dann htten wir blo
Natur, und als endliche Natur wre sie vollstndig berechenbar. (Hua XLII, 300).
In allem Handeln rechnet der Mensch mit dem Zufall, andererseits mit dem
Wahrscheinlichen und seinen Graden bzw. dem empirisch Gewissen, das doch nur
Antizipation von realen Gegenmglichkeiten ist. (Hua XLII, 300).
Aber demgegenber bleibt immer das unendliche Reich der Zuflle, des Es kann auch
anders sein und anders kommen, und demgem kann mein Handeln sein Zweck verfehlen.
(Hua XLII, 300).
Ist der Willens-Zufall vllig unberechenbar? Und trage ich nicht als praktischer Mensch ihm
bestndig auch Rechnung, indem ich ihn beobachte und aus vergangener Erfahrung lerne und
erkenne, dass auch das Zufllige seine Regelmigkeiten hat und danach einigermaen
vorausgesehen und jedenfalls nach seinen Wahrscheinlichkeiten in Anschlag gebracht werden
kann. (Hua XLII, 300).
Aber wie, wenn das erreichbare Gute sich fortgesetzt verringert? Wie, wenn [] das Gute,
das ich wirken, in mir, in Anderen wirken kann, ein unendlich Kleines wird gegenber dem,
was schon da war, was ich hoffen konnte, was ich wnschen muss? (Hua XLII, 307).
Und wenn die Mutter sicher wsste, dass morgen, dass in einer Stunde der Weltuntergang
sei, wrde sie als wahre Mutter whrend dieser Stunde es versumen, ihrem Kind die liebende
Frsorge, Trstung usw. zu erweisen? Und ist es nicht mit allem Ethischen hnlich? (Hua
XLII, 307).
Der Kampf mit Torheit, mit Wahnsinn, mit Egoismus. Auch das kommt vielfach unter dem
Begriff des Zufalls. Ein grer und schner Plan, eine groe Lebensarbeit wird zunichte
dadurch, dass das rationale Leben des guten Menschen zusammenstt mit dem Egoismus
und der Bosheit Einzelner. (Hua XLII, 317).
Zum normalen Menschen gehrt auch als normal das Erfahrungswissen von der
Unendlichkeit seiner Umwelt als einer fr ihn unberechenbaren und als eines offenen

Bereichs unberechenbarer Zuflle als Strungen seiner wohlabgewogenen, an die praktisch

begrenzte Erkenntnis gebundenen Berechnungen. Das ndert nichts an seinem individuellen
kategorisches Imperativ der Stunde und an dem formalen kategorischen Imperativ fr sein
ethisches Leben. (Hua XLII, 321).