Max Scheler (1874-1928)

A Friesian Critique, based on
An Examination of Max Scheler's Phenomenological Ethics,
by Stephen Richard Wigmore (MA, BSc)

A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Philosophy, The University of Warwick, Department of Philosophy, Decemeber 2015

In my treatment of Nicholai Hartmann, I have already recounted how Max Scheler was recommended to me years ago by my dissertation chairman. My interest, however, in philosophers associated with Phenomenology was limited and, after some reading of Edmund Husserl, I did not see how this involved anything superior to Friesian philosophy.

Some years ago I was contacted by a philosophy graduate student in Britain, Stephen Wigmore, who had read much of the Friesian website and was responding to it with some enthusiasm. He was in the process of writing his dissertation, which, however, was not on any Friesians, but was about Max Scheler. I found this a little puzzling, but, of course, a focused account of Scheler's thought, and a Friesian analysis and treatment of it, would be possible and of value.

Meeting Mr. (or then "Doctor") Wigmore in London, we had a delightful and mutually sympathetic conversation, but exactly what his dissertation was like never quite came up. This was a shame, since our general values and preferences in philosophy seemed to coincide quite nicely. Our conversation was lively and agreeable.

Examining the actual dissertation, I am mentioned a couple of times, but neither Jakob Fries nor Leonard Nelson even once. Rudolf Otto came up several times, but nothing about his Friesian background, which is the context for his theory of Ahndung. That is not unusual in treatments of Otto (since people in philosophy are generally ignorant of the Friesians), but in Wignore's dissertation it was surprising, and also only one aspect of the larger issue, which is that there is no mention, acknowledgement, or discussion of Friesian epistemology at all, with which I would not have thought Wigmore to be unfamiliar. Thus, his dissertation retains its value as a presentation of Scheler, with references to a lot of subsequent Scheler scholarship, but it has no standing as a Friesian critique of Scheler, or even as a Schelerian critique of Friesianism.

The following comments are based on a letter I subsequently wrote to Dr. Wigmore. They will be followed, in time, by an examination of statements from the dissertation, which may amount to an extensive commentary on Scheler, and on Wigmore's explanation, interpretation, and, indeed, defense of Scheler's philosophy. I will supply the Friesian critique that is missing from the dissertation.

The importance of such mutual critiques, between Scheler and the Friesians, would be in relation, first of all, to Scheler’s intuitionism, which is one thing he has in common with all of Phenomenological philosophers, and with some other subsequent ethical intuitionists. What we could say, in turn, that Scheler has in common with the Friesians is the affirmation of the immediate knowledge of matters of value, which also breaks with Kant’s attempt to draw moral rabbits out of the hat of no more than abstract features of formal logic, as he had tried to do (perhaps absurdly) with the “categories” of theoretical reason, but most improbably to derive his Categorical Imperative. Neither Scheler nor the Friesians are tempted to derive morality from a couple abstract features of logic.

Where Scheler and the Friesians part ways is with the meaning of “intuition.” Wigmore is aware of the ambiguity there, that “intuition” can mean a kind of immediate knowledge, or it can mean no more than spontaneous beliefs and opinions, such as solicited by Socrates of his interlocutors. I think Wigmore tries and keep those separate, but I am not sure if the ambiguity does not affect the integrity of Scheler’s theory, and of Wigmore's treatment -- where there is the temptation to abandon intuition as immediate knowledge but ultimately a disinclination to do so, since this would require an epistemology very different from Scheler's.

Leonard Nelson uniquely made the distinction by using both Anschauung and Intuition in German, with the former reserved for immediate knowledge, as used by Kant, and the latter for spontaneous beliefs as the term now tends to be used by Analytic philosophers -- although both Leibniz and Kant, not using the more modern meaning at all, and writing in both Latin and German, had used Latin intuition and German Anschauung as equivalent. Even scholars who today might be expected to be familiar with Nelson's language, like the translators of my article in the journal Ratio [Vol. XXIX, No. 2, December 1987], managed to mistranslate "intuition," starting with the actual title of the article, rendering "Non-Inuitive Immediate Knowldge" as "Nicht-intuitive unmittelbare Erkenntnis," instead of "Nicht-anschauliche unmittelbare Erkenntnis." It was a sad comment on the fortunes of the Friesian School that the last issue of Ratio that remained under any kind of Friesian supervision (having been started by Nelson's student, Julius Kraft) could not get right a terminological distinction used by Leonard Nelson himself.

The most significant difference between the two ideas is perhaps that the latter is going to be fallible and corrigible, while the former, by definition, is not. In fact, spontaneous "intuitions" may be completely wrong. Wigmore seems to prefer the term “indefeasible,” which he uses at one point to mean the fact that the nature of a “dog-like image” is “indefeasible,” even if it turns out there is no dog that corresponds to the image. Unfortunately, this is not true. For an image to be identified as “dog-like,” it must be recognized as “dog-like,” and this requires a mental act of recognition, which is fallible, and the possession of the concept “dog,” which is an artifact of language and so, like other concepts, may be different in different languages, or altogether missing. So the nature of the image is not “indefeasible.” The naïve person might mistake hyenas for dogs, and so their image as “dog-like,” without realizing that they quite distinct from canines (although the images, and the animals, may still seem “dog-like,” which is something different). In Friesian terms, that is all part of “mediate” knowledge, which is fallible and corrigible in its entirety.

The Friesian answer to this business is that the immediate knowledge of value is non-intuitive -- a term that does not occur anywhere in Wigmore's dissertation, that I could find (footnote? I haven't yet read all of them) -- which means that it is not directly present to consciousness. “Intuitions” that may contain immediate knowledge can be given a prima facie credibility but then, as with Socrates, they must be examined. That would still be necessary if "intuitions" included Plato's "recollections" of the Forms, as we see in the Meno. Properly understood, that could itself be the Phenomenological Method.

In those terms, Husserl or Scheler are not far off the track, as long as they do not claim self-evidence; and Scheler’s examination of ethics, or Otto’s examination of religion, provide the data for philosophical treatment. But then issues relevant to the content of ethics, or of religion, arise in turn. The examination itself, and the possibility of errors, falsify the status of the “intuitions” as themselves Anschauung.

Another problem with intuitionism as intuitive immediate knowledge is the probability that many moral beliefs have themselves been learned in childhood, and so may, in total or in part, be artifacts, not of immediate knowledge, but of culture. This works in exactly the same way that language is learned. The grammar of natural languages is picked up and used by children, without their being aware in the slightest of what “grammar” is. Grammar as a study, let alone a science, is a second order examination, non-existent in pre-literate cultures, whose challenges and difficulties become familiar to all who benefit from a competent education. Yet many features of natural grammar remained undescribed until Chomsky, and the Positivists had embarrassed (and discredited) themselves with absurd claims about language, and the contemptuous (and ignorant) dismissal of natural languages. I began to take a “Philosophy of Language” class once at UCLA where the professor announced on the first day that the “language” he was going to talk about was mathematics. I knew immediately that class would be worthless, and it was only later that I found the real thing in Linguistics classes. I might have asked the UCLA professor how you ask “Where is the bathroom?” in the “language” of mathematics.

The possibility that moral intuitions are learned cultural artifacts seems to be entirely missing in Wigmore's dissertation -- which only considers the roughly comparable recent evolutionary explanations for value, which may or may not include a cultural factor -- and perhaps Scheler wrote before such ideas became widely familiar in Anthropology. But not after Wigmore was writing about Scheler, whose system, to remain credible, must respond to such a challenge. Yet the theory doesn’t change things that much, in terms of method. Even cultural artifacts as "intuitions" are still the data of any Socratic or Phenomenological examination; but they cannot be assumed to be immediate knowledge, let alone self-evident.

Behind natural languages there may be, and probably is, “universal grammar,” where the regularities in structure between world languages will not be surprising. Similarly, as Hume would have agreed, the use of the principle of causality in describing natural events is indispensable -- and perhaps an artifact of "human nature." These are clues, just as there are moral clues that there are wrongful forms of killing, and justifiable ones, in every human culture. The clues are for things whose presence sneaks into knowledge more or less unobserved. Yet it may not have been until Freud and Jung that we could say that these features occur unconsciously – if Plato had not said something of the sort already. The “recollection” of the Forms does not as such validate and prove that this is what we possess. An examination is still required, as Socrates had already discovered that spontaneous beliefs manifestly contain a lot of debris and confusions. And humans have all but limitless resources for self-serving confabulations.

Thus, I saw Michael Huemer himself, whom Wigmore often cites for his Ethical Intuitionism [2005], in a debate where he defended the thesis of anarcho-capitalism. Which, frankly, is nonsense. Yet he seemed unable to grasp the basic absurdities of anarchism, capitalist or otherwise. I’m not sure what that would have to do with his intuitionism; but one thing I have noticed with libertarian ideologues (e.g. Robert Nozick [1938-2002]) is their moral reductionism, which perhaps is justified by their “intuitions.”

Thus, I am not sure that intuitionism, as a thesis about immediate knowledge, is necessary to the Phenomenological Method, or that the method is even well or sensibly served by it. Scheler would have been better off with Friesian non-intuitive knowledge.

Since I apparently have many points of sympathy with Wigmore, as I have points of sympathy with Husserl and Scheler, I hope this is not all too harsh. But I was disappointed that Wigmore's use of my materials did not extend to what would be the Friesian critique of Phenomenological epistemology. Other issues also arise, but this is fundamental.

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