Potestas Clavium

Part III


On Ethics and Ontology

ou gar deţtai idruse˘s, ˘sper auto pherein ou dunamenon.
It does not need a support, as though it could not carry itself.

- PLOTINUS, VI, ix, 6.

tote de chrŕ he˘rakenai pisteuein, hotan hŕ psychŕ eksaiphnŕs ph˘s labŕi.
But indeed we must believe that we have seen, when light suddenly dawns on the soul.

- PLOTINUS, V, iii, 17.

This section is a reply to criticism made by Professor Albert Hering to my essay Memento Mori. [Shestov's essay appeared in Russian in 1916 in the Russian journal Rouskaia Misl. A French translation appeared in the Revue Philosophique for January, 1925. Professor Hering's criticism, entitled Sub Specie Aeternitatis, can be found in the 1927 volume of Philosophischer Anzeiger (Berne)]


     Hering calls his essay Sub specie aeternitatis. These are words of very great purport. In a certain sense they sum up the philosophic thought of Europe, if not of mankind. Eternity has ever been the object of philosophic thought, and all arguments conceived by the opponents of philosophy have always foundered on the firm rock of eternity. Nevertheless, those who know Husserl's work cannot evade one question: this idea is old and venerable, and even absolutely definite, but in any case not "scientific"; can the author of the Logical Inquiries shelter behind it?

     Sub specie aeternitatis - this is surely the quintessence of that wisdom and profundity which Husserl attacks with such force and passion in his essay Philosophy as Strict Science. Hering, however, disregards this. He even resorts to the scriptures and appeals to the Gospel according to Saint Matthew 10:39. He writes: "Will Shestov's Memento Mori make any impression on the champions of scientific philosophy? Will not his warning to them not to lose their lives in seeking for the logos [I never gave this warning, but I will not enlarge on this point, in order not to diverge from the main issue - L.S.] be answered with reference to the words of the Logos-Messiah: 'He who finds his life shall lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake shall find it?'" I am ready to admit that my Memento Mori will make no impression on the champions of scientific philosophy. I cannot, however, allow them to appeal to the words of the Gospel. It is true that God is called logos in the Gospel, but can the logos of the Gospel be equated with that of the philosophers? And will Husserl's philosophy, which rejects profundity and wisdom, ever agree to admit that it cannot get along in its inquiries without the doubtful support of a young Jew who was condemned innocent to a felon's death two thousand years ago? Husserl's argument is based on self-evident truths; has it then a right to enlist the support of the Gospel commandments? Dostoevsky was able to take the passage in Saint John (12:24) as motto for his Brothers Karamazov; but Dostoevsky is hardly a fitting mate for Husserl. Husserl has never appealed to the authority of Scripture in anything which he has written hitherto, and I am convinced that he will not approve the method discovered by Hering of defending phenomenology.

     After what Hering has said, it is comprehensible that he should think my account of Husserl's views incorrect. I tried to show that Husserl shuts himself off in the strictest fashion from both profundity and wisdom. Hering insists that I am exaggerating, that Husserl made no such clean break with profundity and wisdom, and even recognized that they can be of practical use. But I never denied this; I even said so in my essay. Why, then, does Hering insist on it? Read what he says: "Then philosophers have nothing left but the necessity of a decision... But no one is forced to throw his spiritual salvation to the winds because his speciality, whether it be chemistry or scientific philosophy, says nothing about it." I did not, indeed, say this, but I shall permit myself to state that Husserl will not accept a word of what Hering writes. These thoughts were quite usual toward the end of the last century and the beginning of the present. Even today there are many philosophers who think thus. They have, however, nothing of Husserl in them and are as alien to him as the specific relativism with which, again, many did and still do content themselves. Hering says: "There is no necessity for a decision". How so? There is a necessity. Husserl's whole force, his enormous significance, is based precisely on the fact that he had sufficient acumen to see this necessity and sufficient boldness to take the decision. Before him philosophers clung patiently and even willingly to wisdom. Its rights had been hallowed through centuries, and no one dared doubt them. Every one would have thought it the most frightful blasphemy; but Husserl was not afraid to proclaim aloud what the others dared not confess even to themselves, what they dared not see. Yet Hering tries to justify Husserl, as though he were ashamed for him. I cannot repeat here the quotations which I adduced from Husserl's Philosophy as Strict Science and other works. Any reader interested can look at my Potestas Clavium. If he reads the Memento Mori he will easily be able to convince himself that this was precisely how Husserl posed the question: there is no alternative, we must decide between philosophy and profundity and wisdom, and profundity and wisdom are as out of date as astrology and alchemy.

     Let's continue: "because his speciality, whether it be chemistry or scientific philosophy, says nothing about it." Hering thinks that the questions which the wise have discussed hitherto are no concern of philosophers, as they are no concern of chemists, because they go beyond the limits of their speciality (in another passage he even speaks of a "modest speciality"). And the same opinion is ascribed to Husserl! But Husserl maintains the exact opposite. He says that philosophy is the "science of the true beginnings, of the origins, the rhidz˘mata pant˘n (roots of all things)." And again: "Science has spoken, now it is for wisdom to learn." Once more, I cannot repeat the quotations which I adduced in my essay, but surely the above shows very clearly that Husserl will not be content with the modest role of a specialist which Hering assigns him (when, indeed, did a great philosopher ever display the virtue of modesty?) and is certainly not inclined to leave profundity and wisdom in their old rights. Many are shocked by Husserl's decision and challenging boldness. They think that a bad peace is better than a good war, and try, as far as possible, to soften down Husserl's words or change their meaning. He himself is not at all pacifically inclined. "Perhaps there is no more powerful, more irresistibly progressive idea in modern life than that of science. Nothing can stop its victorious advance. It is, indeed, all-embracing in its legitimate ends. In its imaginary ideal completion it would be reason itself, which can have no authority beside it and over it." Do these words need any addition? And are Husserl's words such that we should hold him for a "modest" specialist? Is Hering right in saying that Husserl is ready to live in peace and good understanding with wisdom and that my account of the thought of the creator of phenomenology is not sufficiently exact?

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