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Henning Peucker

Journal of the History of Philosophy, Volume 45, Number 2, April 2007,

pp. 309-319 (Article)

Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press

DOI: 10.1353/hph.2007.0044

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husserls critique of kant 309

Husserls Critique
of Kants Ethics
H e n n i n g P e u cke r *

this paper will give an overview of Husserls relation to Kantian ethics and, by
showing how Husserl criticized Kant, will also serve to introduce Husserls ethics.
The aim of my investigation is neither to defend Kant against Husserls objec
tions, nor to assess whether Husserls arguments are more successful than Kants
in providing a foundation for ethics. Instead, Husserls discussion of the Kantian
ethical system will serve as a framework for presenting some of the more striking
features of Husserls approach to ethics.
The paper is divided into four sections. First, I make some remarks on Husserls
choice of Kantian texts on which to base his criticism, and point to the more
important systematic problems. Second, I discuss Husserls view regarding Kants
position in the framework of the history of ethics. Third, I present Husserls criti
cism of Kantian ethics in more detail. Finally, I briefly sketch Husserls various
attempts to provide a foundation for a phenomenological ethics.

Husserl lectured on Kantian ethics several times. In connection with his seminars
on Kant, he also wrote many manuscripts about different problems in Kantian
ethics.1 My focus here will be on Husserls lectures on ethics and not so much on
his unpublished manuscripts. Husserl lectured on Kant in his two lecture courses,
Grundfragen der Ethik (1902/03) and Einleitung in die Ethik (1920), which he re

The most detailed general study of Husserls relationship to Kant is Iso Kerns Husserl und Kant
[Husserl und Kant] (Den Haag: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964). For studies that are more specific on ethics
in Husserl and Kant, see Thomas Cobet, Husserl, Kant und die praktische Philosophie (Wrzburg: Knigs
hausen & Neumann, 2003); Steven G. Crowell, Kantianism and Phenomenology, in Phenomenological
Approaches to Moral Philosophy, ed. John Drummond and Lester Embree (Dordrecht, Boston, London:
Kluwer, 2003), 4767. A list of Husserls lectures and seminars on Kant can be found in Rudolf Bernet,
Iso Kern, and Eduard Marbach, An Introduction to Husserlian Phenomenology (Evanston, IL: Northwestern
University Press, 1993), 23644; and in Kern, Husserl und Kant, 42527.

* Henning Peucker is Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter at Universitt Paderborn.

Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 45, no. 2 (2007) 309319

310 journal of the history of philosophy 45:2 april 2007
peated in the summer of 1924. In the former lecture, the section on Kant has
been published in Husserliana XXVIII,2 and the latter is now available in Husserliana
XXXVII.3 Surprisingly, Husserl copied many parts of the Kant section of his earlier
lectures into his lectures on ethics in the twenties.4
In all of these lecturesand, as far as I know, in the manuscripts as wellHus
serl took into account only two of Kants ethical writings: the Groundwork of the
Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason. He does not seem to have
read the Metaphysics of Morals, the Religion, or Kants Lectures on Ethics.5 This fact
about what Husserl read of Kants writings is not unimportant, since Husserls
objections to Kantian ethics are, in the broadest sense, variants of a common
criticism, one which often goes under the name, the reproach of formalism.
The formalism objection is more applicable to Critique of Practical Reason and the
Groundwork, and less to Kants other ethical writings.
More important for an understanding of Husserls criticism of Kant, however,
is Husserls systematic reading of Kant. Husserls main concern is to find an alter
native to Kants strict dichotomy of sensibility and reason. Rejecting Kants strict
division of these two subjective faculties, he tries to find a new way of combining
them. The clarification of the relationships between sensibility and reason, in
clination and duty, affection and willor, in other words, between emotion and
reasonis the most important systematic issue in Husserls confrontation with
Kantian ethics. Husserls central contention is that Kant underestimates the role
of sensibility in the foundation of ethics.

Before entering into this criticism, I will give an overview of how Husserl under
stands Kants position in the history of ethics. Both the lecture from 1902/03 and
the 1920/1924 lecture are, at first sight, oriented towards the history of ethics. But
Husserl always understands the history of philosophy in a systematic perspective. In
general, he regards the history of philosophy as being structured by a teleological
trajectory that culminates in his own phenomenological philosophy. In his lectures
on ethics, we find an approach to history that is similar to that taken in his lectures
on the history of theoretical philosophy, best known through his lecture course Erste
Philosophie.6 Even in ethics, Husserl conceives of phenomenology as fulfilling the
secret longing of the whole modern philosophy.7 Given the claim that the develop

Edmund Husserl, Vorlesungen ber Ethik und Wertlehre, 19081914 [Husserliana XXVIII], ed. Ullrich
Melle (Dordrecht, Boston, London: Kluwer, 1988), 40218.
Edmund Husserl, Einleitung in die Ethik. Vorlesungen Sommersemester 1920 und 1924 [Husserliana
XXXVII], ed. Henning Peucker (Dordrecht, Boston, London: Kluwer, 2004).
At least the parts that present Kantian ethics in the 1920s are partially identical with Husserls
early lectures. Cf. Kern, Husserl und Kant, 119 and 193.
Cf. Kern, Husserl und Kant, 42930.
Edmund Husserl, Erste Philosophie (1923/24). Erster Teil. Kritische Ideengeschichte [Husserliana VII],
ed. Rudolf Boehm (Den Haag: Martinus Nijhoff, 1956). An English translation of Erste Philosophie is
now in preparation by Thane Naberhaus and Sebastian Luft.
die geheime Sehnsucht der ganzen neuzeitlichen Philosophie (Edmund Husserl, Ideen zu einer reinen
Phnomenologie und phnomenologischen Philosophie. Erstes Buch: Allgemeine Einfhrung in die reine Phno
menologie. 1. Halbband [Husserliana III/1], ed. Karl Schuhmann [Den Haag: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976],
133). All translations of Husserls collected writings (Husserliana) used in this article are my own, but
I quote the German text in the footnotes as well.
husserls critique of kant 311
ment of philosophy tends towards phenomenology, there are already contained
within traditional positions in the history of ethics certain concealed moments of
truth that are to be revealed through phenomenology. The phenomenological
investigation into the history of ethics is valuable, Husserl thinks, because it can
liberate this truth from prevailing prejudices. Phenomenology, he believes, is thus
able to provide a reappraisal of traditional ethical positions.
Moreover, Husserls phenomenology attempts to overcome the oppositions that
have dominated the history of ethics. For Husserl, these tensions are, in the end,
merely different versions of the opposition between Empiricism and Rationalism,
as those positions are found in the traditions of the sentimentalists (Gefhlsmor
alisten) and the rationalist moralists (Verstandesmoralisten). Husserl describes the
history of ethics as a struggle between these two different approaches, and he tries
to combine them in his phenomenological theory. Among other things, therefore,
phenomenological ethics has the task of integrating the advantages of both ap
proaches while avoiding their disadvantages.
The sentimentalistsHusserl is thinking mainly of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson and
Humeplace the origin of ethical phenomena, distinctions and concepts in the
sphere of feelings. In our feelings, we react to facts and states of affairs positively
or negatively, which means with basic agreement or aversion, with approval or
disapproval. Feelings give things specific value-properties. The intellectual sphere
of reason or understanding is not capable of grasping these kinds of properties,
because its task is merely the conceptual determination of matters of fact. Only
the realm of pure naturea realm devoid of valuescan be correlated to the ac
complishments of our intellect. There are no concepts like good, bad, virtue,
vice, or value in this sphere. Husserl follows Hume in suggesting a thought
experiment. If we imagine someone who is able to perceive and to think, but
unable to feel, desire or will anything, we immediately realize that this persons
world would be characterized by an absence of any difference in values; everything
in his or her experience would have the same or even no value.8 This indicates
that feelings or emotions play an essential role in the constitution of a world with
objects having different values. To make value judgments, we need emotional at
titudes, because the constitution of these judgments necessarily depends on certain
feelings. Sentimentalists conclude that our moral concepts and judgments are
based not only on our intellectual abilities, but originally on emotional attitudes
or accomplishments. If we had no faculty of feeling, moral concepts would not
have any sense for us.
Although Husserl agrees with these empiricist insights from the history of
ethics, he strongly objects to the position known as emotivism. If morality were
to rest entirely on emotions, he argues, it would become completely subjective.
Because nothing is more changeable than feelings, they seem to be a quite un
reliable foundation for value judgments and morality. Furthermore, since our
feelings exhibit wide individual variation, the judgments based on them would be
highly relative to individual attitudes and circumstances. According to Husserl,
therefore, the inevitable result of the sentimentalist position is relativism in mor

Cf. Husserl, Husserliana XXVIII, 391.
312 journal of the history of philosophy 45:2 april 2007
als. Moral judgments would have a status similar to that of aesthetic judgments,
and the principle De gustibus non est disputandum would be valid for them as well.9
But that is evidently not the case, since normative statements are more than just
a matter of individual taste.
In the history of ethics, rationalist philosophers opposed the skeptical conse
quences of the sentimentalists. They argued against moral relativism and empha
sized the objectivity and validity of ethical rules and norms. Husserl shares with
the rationalists the conviction that there is an unconditioned objectivity of validity
in ethics.10 Traditional rationalists ground the general validity of ethical norms
in authorities like God, the eternal laws of a metaphysically conceived nature, or
even pure reason. Husserl describes the history of ethics as a struggle between
these rationalist positions and the sentimentalists. In his lectures, he discusses the
Cambridge Platonists (Cudworth and More), Clarke, and the Kant of the Critique
of Practical Reason as the most influential examples of the rationalist tradition, and
he agrees with their emphasis on the unconditioned validity and binding force
of ethical norms.
Husserl praises Kants Critique of Practical Reason for the discovery of an absolute
imperative that is strictly and universally valid. Kant, according to Husserl, fought
for a genuine morality, a morality of duties,11 and he discovered the idea of
absolute obligationan achievement that is highly estimable and of immense
value.12 With this idea, Kant could attack the skeptical consequences of the em
piricist approaches, especially the threat of hedonism, which Husserl sees as the
main enemy of ethics.13 Husserls ethics, like Kants, struggles against all relativ
istic tendencies and stresses the idea of universal and absolute obligations.
Despite Husserls general agreement with Kants central aims, however, he
completely rejects Kants foundation for ethics. Ethics cannot rest solely on the
intellectual faculty of pure reason, according to Husserl. Instead, Husserl seeks a
foundation for ethics that takes into account the main insight of the sentimental
ists: that moral conceptslike all other concepts that include a value-contentare
based on feelings or the accomplishments of an affective consciousness (Gemts
bewusstsein). For Husserl, affect-consciousness plays the most basic and elementary
role in the constitution of morals. His ethics, therefore, takes over central elements
of both the sentimentalist and the rationalist traditions. He aims to retain the in
sights of sentimentalists regarding the essential function of feelings, while at the
same time acknowledging the virtues of the rationalist approach, which emphasizes
the absolute validity of ethical norms. Simultaneously Husserl wants to avoid the
problematic aspects of each of these traditions: the problem of relativism, on the
one hand, and an implausibly intellectualistic or metaphysical foundation for
ethics, on the other hand.

Cf. Husserl, Husserliana XXXVII, 148.


unbedingte Objektivitt der Geltung des Ethischen (Husserl, Husserliana XXXVII, 147).

[Kant] tritt . . . fr eine echte Moral, fr eine Plichtmoral ein (Husserl, Husserliana XXXVII, 232).
ein hoch zu schtzendes, sein [Kants] ungeheures Verdienst bleibt ungeschmlert (Husserl, Husserliana
XXXVII, 232).
Hauptfeind (Husserl, Husserliana XXXVII, 239).
husserls critique of kant 313
These remarks should give a general outline of Husserls criticism of Kants
ethics. In the following section I will present his criticism in more detail.

In what follows I will focus on three main points of Husserls criticism of Kant,
each of which builds upon and goes further than the other: (1) the charge that
Kant levels off the distinction between a higher and a lower faculty of desire;14
(2) the criticism of Kants exclusion of any material content from the foundation
of ethics;15 and (3) the charge of formalism with regard to the basic principle of
Kants ethics.16
Husserl rejects Kants refusal to distinguish among different feelings with regard
to their significance for us as a determining ground for our will. According to
Kant, every act of volition that is motivated by a feeling stands, without exception,
under the principle of self-love. Kant denies the traditional distinction between a
lower faculty of desire, which determines the will by sensual pleasure, and a higher
faculty of desire, which determines the will by a more refined or more spiritual
kind of pleasure. This distinction only makes a difference in qualitative degrees,
he thinks, but not in principle. It does not matter, for Kant, which kind of feeling
or expected pleasure determines our will, since feelings occur only for subjective
purposes and hence cannot serve as an objective foundation for morality. In this
regard, therefore, there is no real difference between different kinds of feelings.
The traditional distinction between a lower and a higher faculty of desire is not
important: every will whose determination rests on a feeling is ruled by the prin
ciple of self-love, which is merely empirically or subjectively valid.
Husserl does not attack Kants argument on its own terms. Instead, he supports
the traditional distinction by indicating the differences among, for example, the
pleasure of a meal, of a symphony (and of fine arts in general), or of doing sci
ence. Husserl thinks that it is simply unreasonable to subsume these different kinds
of pleasure under the label of pathological affection, as Kant did.17 He stresses
the distinctions among different feelings and among the objects to which these
feelings are related. More generally, Husserl accuses Kant of sensualizing the
sphere of feelings.18 Because of this sensualization, Husserl argues, Kant could not
recognize the phenomenological differences among feelings, and he, therefore,
had to discount their qualitative differences.
Furthermore, according to Husserl, every volition must be motivated by some
thing that we take to be a good or valuable object. To take something as valuable
means that we are pleased by the object of the will, which we also evaluate posi
tively in our affective consciousness. But if, like Kant, we level off the distinctions
among the different ways in which we like something, we also lose the possibility

Cf. Husserl, Husserliana XXVIII, 41114.; Husserl, Husserliana XXXVII, 20406.; Immanuel
Kant, Gesammelte Schriften, Band V, ed. Preuische Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin: de Gruyter,
1913), 2225.
Cf. Husserl, Husserliana XXVIII, 40711; Husserl, Husserliana XXXVII, 20308; Kant, Schriften
Band V, 2225.
Husserl, Husserliana XXVIII, 41418.
Husserl, Husserliana XXXVII, 228.
Husserl, Husserliana XXXVII, 233.
314 journal of the history of philosophy 45:2 april 2007
of discriminating between motivations of higher and lower value. The distinction
among values with regard to the motivational grounds of the will is very important
for Husserls ethics. According to Husserl, the value of the will is highly dependent
on the value of its motivational foundation, and a good will can be motivated only
by a valuable content, or some good. Such highly valued contents can affect the
feeling ego (fhlendes Ich) in a positive way, that is, in such a way that an act of will
is motivated. Accordingly, the will is motivated by a feeling. This motivation, more
over, cannot be egoistic, since its determining ground is the value of the content
that affects the feeling ego. No selfish interest could here motivate the will other
than the value of the content that is pleasing in our feeling.
Husserls second objection goes one step further in this direction. He attacks
Kants central thesis that no object or material content of the faculty of desire
could establish an absolutely valid principle of morality. According to Kant, a
content can determine the will only empirically, that is, in a way that is individu
ally different and more or less contingent. If we let our will be determined by the
representation of an object, we do so because we hope that the realization of this
object will give us pleasure. But for Kant, to say which kind of content or object
of the faculty of desire is necessarily connected with pleasure is impossible. No
object of the faculty of desire, therefore, can furnish us with practical laws, and the
basic principle of ethics cannot be founded on any such content. Each material
determination of our will follows only the conditions of nature and experience.
In searching for an unconditioned principle of morality, Kant concludes that a
material determination of the will is never unconditioned and is always a typical
case of heteronomy.
Husserl attacks this exclusion of empirical content from the foundation of
ethics. He begins his criticism by listing counter-examples which are intended to
show that there are certain objects that stand in a strictly necessary relation to the
life of the feeling ego. The feeling ego is, in other words, not exclusively governed
by the laws of nature. Everyone, for example, finds pleasure in having knowledge;
knowledge necessarily causes a feeling of pleasure in us. Similarly, the feeling of
joy is essentially connected with a positive experience in our affect-consciousness,
while hatred will always excite reluctance in the feeling ego.19 Husserl takes over
these examples from Brentano,20 though they are fairly problematic. It is important,
however, to understand what he is trying to show with them, namely, that there
are certain objects that we necessarily experience with a specific feeling-quality.
Thus, the relation between these objects and our feelings is not contingent. An
act of will based upon these feelings is not merely empirically determined, since
the relation between the object and the feeling that motivates the act of will is not
governed by causal laws of nature, but by certain laws of essences.

Here, the terminus object is used in the broadest sense for any formal correlate of an in
tentional act. Object is, in Husserls words, everything that can be the subject of a true sentence. Cf.
Husserl, Husserliana III/1, 15, 45; and Husserliana XXVIII, 9.
Franz Brentano, The Origin of our Knowledge of Right and Wrong, trans. Roderick M. Chisholm
and Elisabeth Schneewind (New York: Humanities Press, 1969), 2124. Compare also Roderick M.
Chisholm, Brentano and Intrinsic Value (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 4851.
husserls critique of kant 315
Husserl argues that Kant could not recognize these laws of essences because he
naturalized the whole sphere of feelings and opposed it to the sphere of reason.
Kant thus followed the naturalist prejudice and the view that our affect-conscious
ness is ruled solely by natural laws. Indeed, when Kant integrates the sphere of
sensibility and feeling into the realm of nature, he is influenced by the sensual
ist or naturalist positions that he usually criticizes. The consequence of Kants
interpretation is a division of subjectivity into two totally different spheres: the
natural sphere, which belongs to the causal framework of nature, and the sphere
of reason, which is the realm of freedom. This consequence is most apparent
in the problems raised in the Third Antinomyproblems which for Husserl no
longer arise, because he rejects the assumptions which give rise to the antinomy
in the first place.21
Husserl rejects Kants description of our inclinations and feelings as blind and
irrational, and he thinks that Kant was incorrect to understand sensibility in purely
natural terms. Against this, Husserl stresses the significance of the laws of essences
in governing our emotional life. Such structures of essences govern, for example,
the ways in which motivations from the sphere of feelings affect the wakeful and
active life of the higher ego. For a phenomenological ethics, it is of fundamental
importance to recognize that feelings are not merely a natural matter of human
psychophysical organization22 that can be investigated only from the perspective
of natural science. Instead, the phenomenological description of these feelings
from a first-person perspective has the task of describing the essential structures
and laws that govern the life of consciousness at the most basic level. According
to Husserl, the emotional life is a fundamental part of the human personality, and
we can reveal the basic structures of this sphere. In doing so, we can discover the
motivational effects of this sphere on our will as a unique kind of basic intention
ality. Moreover, this intentionality of feelings already includes a certain kind of
reason, and it would be incorrect to conceive of it solely as a part of nature.
Husserls last criticism of Kant directly attacks the Categorical Imperative as it
is formulated in Kants second Critique. Husserl tries to show that Kants principle
of morality is underdetermined as a merely formal principle. The mere possibility
of universalizing our maxims, Husserl argues, cannot guarantee the ethical cor
rectness of the universalized maxim. Husserl supports this charge by establishing
a parallel between formal-ethical laws and formal-logical laws: neither formal-
logical nor formal-ethical principles are sufficient to determine the correctness
of concrete material propositions.23 In order to decide whether, under a given set

Husserl stresses the strong motivational connection between our feelings and our will, but he
draws an important distinction between this motivational causality in the sphere of subjectivity and the
causality in nature, which is merely governed by natural laws. He can, therefore, say that our actions
are not necessary governed by our feelings. We are free and independent of our feelings when we do
not act blindly and unconsciously, but with insight and reason. Even if the concept of autonomy does
not play such a strong role in Husserls writings as in Kants, Husserl sees our ability to act in a fully
rational and autonomous manner. According to Husserl and Kant, we can achieve our highest degree
of personal and ethical destination only when we act in such a perfect sensible manner.
eine bloe Naturtatsache der menschlichen psychophysischen Organisation (Husserl, Husserliana
XXXVII, 227).
See Husserl, Husserliana XXVIII, 13742; e.g., Was gut ist, das kann formaliter nicht entschieden
werden, ebensowenig wie, was wahr ist, durch die blo formale Logik.
316 journal of the history of philosophy 45:2 april 2007
of circumstances, a positing of will is ethically demanded, we must evaluate the
concrete object of this will. Thus, to determine whether an act of will is ethically
correct, we must consider more than the merely formal question of the univer
salizability of its maxim.
Husserl is not very explicit in presenting this criticism of Kant, but I think his
point can be illustrated with two common accusations against Kantian ethics: the
charge of triviality and the problem of the collision of duties. The first of these
accusations claims that there are many maxims that can be universalized but that
have no ethical relevance. (We can, for example, universalize the maxim that we
should always tie up our left shoelace first.) In order to decide whether a maxim
is ethically significant, we need more than the mere formal criterion of univer
salizability; we also have to know something about the significance and the value
of the aim of the will. The second accusation, concerning the collision of duties,
points to situations where we have to choose from among different actions that
are all ethically demanded but yet are impossible to perform simultaneously. In
order to decide how to act in such a situation, we must evaluate the concrete
material contents and circumstances of each of the contemplated actions. Both
the accusation of triviality and the problem of the collision of duties can only be
overcome, Husserl would argue, when we take into account more than a merely
formal criterion.
The insufficiency of a purely formal ethical law can further be shown by a typical
phenomenological consideration. In his investigation of the will, Husserl main
tains that every act of volition must be motivated by a presentation of something
valuable. We can want only something that we evaluate positively. The evaluation
of something is a necessary condition of volition and is a foundation (Fundierung)
for every act of will. This evaluation is originally not a theoretical act, but what
Husserl calls an act of value-feeling (wertfhlender Akt). The most elementary level
of value experiencewhich, on analogy with the German word Wahrnehmung
(perception), Husserl calls Wertnehmungoccurs in a mode of feeling-conscious
ness.24 At this pre-predicative level of consciousness, things do not merely appear
to us as sensuous; they already carry certain value-properties and thus appear to
us in either a positive or a negative way. Hence, the ego is always affected by more
than just neutral and theoretical objects of pure nature; it is affected by objects
that are qualified with value properties.25
In clarifying the origin and the meaning of our moral concepts and attitudes,
phenomenological ethics must investigate the most elementary conditions of their
constitution. As Husserl puts it, phenomenological ethics is an ethics from be
low,26 that is, an ethics that reflects on the most basic levels of moral consciousness.
Because moral consciousness includes certain values, the phenomenologist must
show how these values are originally given to us. This task leads back to feeling-
consciousness, because it is in our feelings that we find the first difference between

See, e.g., Husserl, Husserliana XXXVII, 7175, 86, 120, 292.
The manner in which Husserl describes how the ego is affected in its emotional sphere by values
is investigated in Christian Lotz, Husserls Genussber den Zusammenhang von Leib, Affektion,
Fhlen und Werthaftigkeit, Husserl Studies 18 (2002): 1939.
Ethik von unten (Husserl, Husserliana XXVIII, 414).
husserls critique of kant 317
positive and negative affections. The value-character of affecting things can then
give rise to, or prompt, acts of will. These acts of the will, according to Husserl,
are always motivated by something that we have already positively evaluated, and
the origin of our ability to evaluate something lies in our feelings.
According to Husserl, Kant underestimated the need for a motivational foun
dation for the will. Because of this, Kant could not recognize that the will always
needs motivation from a concrete material content. In his lectures on ethics from
the 1920s, Husserl writes that for essential reasons, no will is at all conceivable that
lacks a motivational foundation in a feeling evaluation.27 From a phenomenologi
cal point of view, therefore, the idea of a purely formally-determined will makes
no sense. Husserl consequently maintains that Kants concept of a purely formally-
determined will is in the last analysis widersinnig, that is, counter-sensical.28

Let us summarize the positive aspects of Husserls severe, but perhaps not entirely
original or even convincing, criticism. (It would probably not to be difficult to
defend Kant against Husserls accusations, but that is not my interest here.) We
saw that Husserl emphasizes the significance of evaluating acts (wertende Akte) as
constitutive and implicated moments of volition. These evaluations have their ori
gin in a certain kind of value-feeling (Wertfhlen), whose particular structure I have
not been able to clarify here. Husserl affirms the arguments of the sentimentalists
in moral philosophy, turning them against Kant. On the other hand, however, he
raises the objection of relativism against empirically oriented accounts in ethics.
For that reason, he requires an alternative foundation for the presumed binding
force of moral laws to the one Kant had offered.
Now, in order to combine the empiricist and the rationalist traditions in the
way he wants, Husserl must show how a phenomenological ethics canwhile em
phasizing the feeling basis of moralityat the same time argue for absolute moral
duties and moral obligations. In other words, how can we, according to Husserl,
know that our volitions are morally right? How can we decide whether an act of
will is right or wrong?
I will try to answer these questions very briefly, by giving a rough sketch of three
arguments that can be found in Husserls texts on ethics. None of these arguments
is well developed, and each, I will suggest, is highly problematic.
The first argument is based on Husserls distinction between a will that is blind
and a will with insight (einsichtiger Wille). Our will can be motivated either by
tendencies that have not yet been brought to consciousness or through sensible
tendencies. A will whose motivations are sensible can be justified. In this case, we
know what and why we want something; we know the motivational basis and take
the consequences of this will into account. This will would be governed by insight
and reason. Husserl thinks that this kind of rational will is also a good will, because
it would always try to reach the best among all attainable ends.29

[Kant] sah nicht, dass kein Wollen, wesensmig, berhaupt denkbar ist, das nicht im fhlenden Werten
Motivationsunterlagen hat (Husserl, Husserliana XXXVII, 233).
Husserl, Husserliana XXXVII, 214.
Husserl, Husserliana XXVIII, 14353, 153, 35657.
318 journal of the history of philosophy 45:2 april 2007
I think this argument faces at least two problems. First, Husserl seems to com
bine reason with the good in an unacceptable manner, because a rational will
does not eo ipso have to be a good will. Second, the argument is just as formal as
Kants ethics. We are not given any information or criterion with which to decide
which end of our volition would be the best. For that we would need a kind of
material a priori knowledge about the value of different possible objects of the will,
but Husserl did not provide this account in detail, probably because he was aware
of the difficulties in justifying such a conception.
Husserls second way of determining a morally good will leads back to the found
ing levels of the will. We saw that each will is founded (fundiert) in evaluations that
are originally performed by certain feelings. This leads to the question of how we
can know if these evaluations are right. If we knew that an evaluation was right, we
could direct our will to the highest value, and ensure that this will was good.
To the question of the correctness of evaluations, we can find in Husserl a simi
lar answer to the one Brentano provided. Husserl thinks that values are originally
given in certain feelings, namely acts of value-feeling (wertfhlende Akte). These
acts are directed in an intentional manner towards their objects, and, like all other
acts, they can be correct or incorrect. The correctness of these feelings depends
upon whether the feelings are appropriate or inappropriate to their objects. An
appropriate feeling is a feeling that fits its object; it is, as Husserl calls it, proper
(konvinient).30 This is what Husserlfollowing Brentanoalso calls correct feel
ing (richtiges Fhlen).
There are many problems with this idea. The most important problem is con
nected with the concepts appropriate and Konvinienz. How can we know, under
a given set of circumstances, whether a feeling is appropriate or not? We lack any
criterion by which to decide about rightness and wrongness at the level of feeling-
consciousnessunless perhaps Evidenz (self-evidence). Husserls idea of a correct
feeling remains, therefore, highly problematic.
Husserls third attempt to ground the validity of morality leads back to the
level of affection. He tries to justify the objectivity of value-predicates by compar
ing them with other predicates. Although value-predicates are founded in mate
rial-predicates (Sachprdikaten), they are directly related to properties of objects.
Therefore, Husserl sometimes even treats value-predicates quite similarly to other
predicates, calling them Wertschaften,31 on analogy with Eigenschaften (properties,
qualities). He thinks that objects affect us not only sensually, but with their value,
and he calls this special value-affection axiological. Objects have both theoreti
cal properties and value properties, and they affect us through correspondingly
different kinds of data: hyletic data, in the case of theoretical properties, and
feeling data (Gefhlsdaten), in the case of value properties.
This third attempt at grounding the validity of morality is based on Husserls
analogy between perceiving (Wahrnehmen) and valuing (Wertnehmen). In order to
solve the epistemological problem of every value ethics, Husserl thus tends to sen
sualize feeling (das Fhlen). His conception of feeling relies on too strong a parallel

Husserl, Husserliana XXVIII, 23941, 35455, 414.


See Husserls manuscript, A VI 30, 185b. Many thanks to Rudolf Bernet, the director of the

Husserl-Archives in Leuven, who allowed me to cite Husserls unpublished manuscript.

husserls critique of kant 319
with sense perception, and it makes use of his model of content and apprehension
in the sphere of feelings. This attempt is phenomenologically problematic, because
the alleged feeling data can almost never be verified in experience.
As long as these three problems are not satisfactorily solved, it seems that we
have good reasons to be skeptical of Husserls attempted founding of morality on
absolutely valid duties or obligations.32

I am very grateful to Stine Holte, Nicolas de Warren, Satoshi Niimura, and especially Thane
Naberhaus, who helped me correcting and improving this article. I would also like to thank the Hein
rich-Hertz-Stiftung for the fellowship which provided financial support for me while I was writing this
article during my stay at Boston University from 2003 to 2004. An earlier version of this paper was
delivered in June 2004 to the 34th Annual Meeting of the Husserl Circle in Washington D.C.