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2 Patočka’s Critical Reading of Husserl’s Diagnosis of the Crisis of European Humanity

2 Patočka’s Critical Reading of Husserl’s Diagnosis of the Crisis of European Humanity

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6 Patočka’s Concept of Care for the Soul

rationality of Europe—seeing a way to overcome the crisis of European civilization

in the realization of the idea of philosophy as the self-responsibility of humanity. On

the one hand, Patočka thinks that Husserl’s phenomenological practice of philosophy—his intentional-historical approach to unveiling the original sources of

European science in the Crisis—represents something new in terms of philosophical method and doctrinal contents, “new insofar as it refuses construction and refers

back to the more original sources of experience which can, through prejudice, be

misinterpreted and go systematically unrecognized in their own essentiality.”8 On

the other hand, he holds Husserl’s idea of philosophy and philosophical rationality

as universal scientific knowledge to be a typically old European one. This conception of knowledge posits as the supreme paradigm the intellectual vision of the

knowing subject’s radical self-understanding. It motivates the knowing subject to

assume self-responsibility for this knowing activity as such. That is why, for

Patočka, “Husserl’s entire enterprise is founded upon the idea of the selfresponsibility of knowledge.”9 But this intellectualist idea of philosophy is not free

from presupposition: “It presupposes the self-responsibility of the thinker who

relates to himself. The will to self-responsibility would have no sense, however, if

there were not the possibility of irresponsibility which comes to light, e.g., in the

purely technical conception of science.”10

According to the intellectualist idea of philosophy, the only way for the knowing

subject to avoid losing itself in the things of the external world is to reconquer its

own subjectivity. But since subjectivity is not a thing, the perceptual intuitive

method cannot be directly applied to it. Husserl’s novelty in terms of method is to

have invented the famous procedure of the reduction. Patočka patiently reconstructs

Husserl’s two ways to the operation of transcendental reduction which assures the

reconquering of subjectivity as the ultimate source of legitimacy for the intellectual

vision. These are respectively the well-known Cartesian way and the ontological

way through the life-world as practiced by Husserl in the Crisis. The Cartesian way

encounters more than one serious difficulty. (1) The subject, as absolute consciousness, is presented as a “residue” cut off from the world: this idealist approach makes

it difficult to rescue the intersubjective world which is supposed to be the habitat of

the community of transcendental egos. (2) As the living-body of the subject is

always a Being-in-the-world, the corporeal status of transcendental subjectivity,

once cut off from the world, becomes doubtful. (3) The self-givenness of the intuitive content of a thing (Sache) is not guaranteed; what can be assured is only the

ontological status of the thing given in terms of meaning.11

In contrast to the Cartesian way, the ontological way to reduction via the lifeworld has the merit of suspending the metaphysical positing of the natural world


Jan Patočka, “Die Selbstbesinnung Europas”, op. cit., p. 247; “Réflexion sur l’Europe”, op. cit.,

p. 188.


Ibid., p. 248/188 (German/French).




Ibid., pp. 249–250/189–190 (German/French). Patočka’s explanation of these three difficulties is

extremely succinct; we have therefore somewhat elaborated on his own presentation.


Patočka’s Critical Reading of Husserl’s Diagnosis of the Crisis of European…


without suspending our original belief (Urglaube) with regard to this world. Thus,

this way to reduction makes visible our intrinsic relation with the world; it has the

great advantage of enabling the thematization of “the world-appearance, the world

as framework of appearance.”12 What this reduction brings before the eye is not the

sphere of pure immanence, but the entire realm of exteriority. It is a horizon of infinite possibilities, an inexhaustible abundance within which each appearing thing

can manifest itself. This is what we call the “world,” within the framework of which

everything appears and every kind of experience takes place. Itself “unconditioned,”

it is thus the condition of possibility of all appearance and experience. The world is

“this whole, since always familiar, yet never known in its proper essence.”13

Patočka, however, does not hesitate to point out that Husserl’s concept of world

is not exempt from ambiguity. The world has a double sense. “The world is first of

all for [Husserl] the sum of experientiable beings, the ‘universum’ of all there is.”14

Husserl himself says in the Crisis that the world is there for those naively absorbed

in ongoing life as “Universum der Vorhandenheiten.”15 But as the sum of beings, the

world itself can never be experienced originally. Husserl is of course well aware of

this: “The world, on the other hand, does not exist as an entity, as an object, but

exists with such uniqueness that the plural makes no sense when applied to it.”16

This is why Husserl always says that the world itself is a “world-horizon”

(Welthorizont).17 But to Patočka even the term world-horizon is not univocal. “We

are conscious of the world simply as the horizon of every singular experience, in the

sense that each such experience means an occurrence within this framework of the

whole of being (which it, then, implicitly presupposes).”18 Corresponding to every

appearing object and every explicit act of consciousness there is a particular, multiply articulated consciousness of horizon. Yet, “the most encompassing horizon, the

horizon of horizons, is . . . designated as the world itself; it means nothing other than

an ever inadequate intention of totality.”19 In other words, what can be experienced

are horizons of appearance of singular objects, whereas the horizon of horizons, the

world itself, can never be directly experienced. It comes to the fore only as the intention of the world, i.e., as the objective, but empty intentional pole of subjective

conscious experience. To Patočka, the thematization of the world as horizon by

Husserl is paradoxical inasmuch as:


Ibid., p. 250/190 (German/French): “die Welterscheinung, die Welt als Erscheinungsrahmen.”

Ibid., p. 252/192 (German/French).


Ibid., p. 253/193 (German/French).


Edmund Husserl, Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale

Phänomenologie, Husserliana VI, ed. W. Biemel (Den Haag: M. Nijhoff, 1962 [1954]), p. 151;

The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Eng. trans. D. Carr

(Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1970), p. 150.


Ibid., p. 146/143 (German/English).


Ibid., pp. 141/138, 146/143 (German/English).


Jan Patočka, “Die Selbstbesinnung Europas”, op. cit., p. 253; “Réflexion sur l“Europe”, op. cit.,

p. 193.





6 Patočka’s Concept of Care for the Soul

1. By thinking the world as horizon, in particular as horizon of horizons, Husserl

succeeds in avoiding the difficulties of the Kantian antinomy about the world. In

fact Kant is unable to provide a positive determination of the meaning of the


2. Yet the thematization of the world as horizon goes against the principle of original givenness, so essential to Husserl’s phenomenological method. Admittedly,

the world is primordial, but it can never be represented after the fashion of an

object. Thus it cannot be understood according to the method proper to intentional objects of the conscious subjectivity. For example, the world as horizon of

horizons cannot be assimilated to the horizon of a perceptual object. Since the

world as horizon of horizons can never be given, it cannot be thematized either.

Its thematization is but a quasi-thematization.

According to Patočka, Husserl, in interpreting (and not describing) the world as

horizon, reduces it to the status of “mere ‘horizonal intentionality.’ The world is

thus subjectivized and leveled to a present anticipation.”20

Patočka’s critical examination of Husserl’s failure to truly thematize the world as

horizon of horizons implies a no less critical judgment on the failure of the veritable

thematization of the life-world in the Krisis. Although Husserl attempted to delineate the formal general structures of the life-world, every single life-world is particular: it is the ground of a particular community having experienced a particular

history.21 Thus life-worlds are always plural, one can never speak of the life-world.22

Confronted with the difficulty faced by Husserl in the thematization of the lifeworld, Patočka directs his reflections toward a more profound depth underlying the

life-world which he calls the “world-mystery” (Weltgeheimnis):


Ibid., p. 255/195 (German/French).

It is precisely the historical nature of the life-world that renders its thematization difficult and

complicated. Cf. the in-depth treatment of this problematic by Ludwig Landgrebe in his two articles, “The Problem of a Transcendental Science of the A Priori of the Life-world,” in The

Phenomenology of Husserl: Six Essays, ed. D. Welton (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981),

pp. 176–200; “The Life-world and the Historicity of Human Existence,” in Phenomenology and

Marxism, ed. B. Waldenfels, Jan M. Broekman and A. Pažanin, Eng. trans. J. Claude Evans, Jr.

(London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), pp. 167–204.


Just as Husserl was well aware of the non-givenness of the world as world-horizon, he was also

completely cognizant of the non-givenness and, hence, the non-thematization of the “full universal

being of the life-world”: “But now the paradoxical question: Can one not [turn to] the life-world,

the world of which we are all conscious in life as the world of us all, without in any way making it

into a subject of universal investigation, being always given over, rather, to our everyday momentary individual or universal vocational ends and interests—can one not survey it universally in a

changed attitude, and can one not seek to get to know it, as what it is and how it is in its own mobility and relativity, make it the subject matter of a universal science, but one which has by no means

the goal of universal theory in the sense in which this was sought by historical philosophy and the

sciences?” (E. Husserl, Die Krisis …, op. cit., p. 462; The Crisis …, op. cit., p. 383.) For a further

discussion, cf. Werner Marx, “The Life-world and its Particular Sub-worlds,” in Reason and

World: Between Tradition and Another Beginning, Eng. trans. T. Yates and R. Guess (The Hague:

Martinus Nijhoff, 1971), pp. 62–76.



Patočka’s Critical Reading of Husserl’s Diagnosis of the Crisis of European…


From the historical point of view, there are only life-worlds; all contain an ungraspable

component which is no doxa, but which we interpret, through the doxa, as a sort of hyperdoxa. This ungraspable component is the world-mystery which embraces and penetrates

each and every historical world as a whole, and which fundamentally determines even our

modern . . . world, precisely in the guise of that which is never given as present in person,

but always only as to be projected as present from out of this world.23

The world-mystery is the deepest and most hidden stratum of the life-world. It never

comes to the surface as manifest. It provides, however, the basis on which the various life-worlds project their possibilities. In the case of Western Europe, the modern

techno-scientific, “more and more technicized” world is the result of the projection

of the possibilities of its particular world-mystery.24 The life-worlds of other civilizations, each containing its own particular world-mystery, have not produced this


Now if we try to reconstruct or regain contact with the so-called “primordial lifeworld,” starting out from the scientific, technicized world of modern Europe and

giving no heed to its particular world-mystery; if we think on the one hand that the

universal rationality of modern natural science (European science) is self-evident,

on the other that the life-worlds of all other civilizations, not having projected universal science, do not deserve consideration; if, disregarding thus their particular

world-mystery, we believe to be enacting our self-responsibility, then what we are

actually demonstrating is precisely the Eurocentric essence and reality of Europe.

Thus Patočka concludes that Husserl’s theory of the life-world, thematized in the

sense of self-responsibility as presented above, represents “one of the last links in

the chain of typically European perspectives on foreign cultures and their worlds.

That which is ‘European’ is placed above all other conceptions for seemingly

‘objective’ reasons, on the basis of its ‘universal rationality’; the higher validity of

the European principle, its necessity as opposed to the contingency of the other

paths followed by human development, is naively presupposed, rather than proved.”25

In fact, it is well known that in the Crisis Husserl treats other great civilizations,

e.g., those of India or China, as a “merely empirical, anthropological type.” In his

opinion, only “the Europeanization of all other civilizations” could avoid “a historical non-sense of the world.”26 Patočka was quite aware that such an attitude, full of

Eurocentric overtones, “cannot provide the basis of understanding between different human worlds, cannot pave the way to universal human contact, but only to the

destruction of the fundamental humanities through a generalized evacuation

[Entleerung] of the world-mystery.”27


Jan Patočka, “Die Selbstbesinnung Europas”, op. cit., p. 256; “Réflexion sur l‘Europe”, op. cit.,

p. 196.




Ibid., p. 257/197 (German/French).


Edmund Husserl, Die Krisis …, op. cit., p. 14; The Crisis …, op. cit., p. 16.


Jan Patočka, “Die Selbstbesinnung Europas”, op. cit., p. 257; “Réflexion sur l‘Europe”, op. cit.,

p. 197.


6 Patočka’s Concept of Care for the Soul

Patočka’s critical analyses of the crisis of European civilization show both similarities and differences compared to those of Husserl. Patočka agrees with Husserl

that: (1) the crisis is the loss of meaning of the world as the original ground of

human existence; (2) the crisis is deeper precisely in those respects where Europeans

themselves are not aware of it.28 At the same time, however, he departs from Husserl

in more than one important way: (1) If it is true that Europe is different from other

civilizations by virtue of her universal scientific rationality, that the latter is her

specificity, “it is impossible to prove her supremacy on the basis of this specificity.”29

(2) Whereas Husserl thinks that “the Europeanization of all other civilizations” is

the solution to the loss of meaning of the world, for Patočka the rise to hegemonic

power of Europe is itself “the curse of the European spirit.” The many efficient

means invented by this spirit with a view to dominate the whole of humanity also

serve the ends of self-destruction, as the recent history of the fall of Europe amply


The generalization of this spirit harbors universal dangers of which the most recent history

of Europe offers an eloquent sample. This generalization appears today as an incontrovertible fact. The extra-European peoples all seem eager to appropriate this spirit in the hope of

finding help against their poverty, privations, and need.30

Husserl is optimistic about the saving potential of Europe’s universal scientific reason, whereas Patočka remains skeptical to the possibility of solving the crisis

through universal, rational science: “Is it possible to accept the benefits without

falling victim to the very worst misery, ending in massive repression and destruction

of life? Without letting life itself be emptied for the sake of the means to maintain


When Patočka criticizes the thought underlying Husserl’s idea of “the

Europeanization of all other civilizations”, when he points out that the path leading

back from European scientific rationality to the life-world is still far from a return

to the world itself in the original sense, he is already thinking on the grounds of

intercultural understanding.

The problematic of life-world calls for the same critique addressed by Husserl himself to

the “true world” of natural science: it has forgotten its foundation. As long as this foundation, common to all forms of humanity, however diverse, is not exhumed from its long

oblivion, no real dialogue between “cultures” and “humanities” will be possible, for the

“conversation,” instead of aiming at that which is common, presents as universal its specific

and particular starting-point. . . . Husserl himself falls into this temptation in presenting the

ideal of the European ratio as the universal entelechy of humanity.32

Against Husserl, Patočka emphasizes “humanities” in the plural and calls for dialogue among them.


Cf. ibid., pp. 271–272/210 (German/French).

Ibid., p. 272/211 (German/French).






Ibid., p. 273/212 (German/French).



Care for the Soul and the Philosophical Anthropology Underlying the Mythical…


But how can intercultural dialogue truly begin? On a more primordial common

ground: this is Patočka’s reply. What Patočka suggests is to regress further, to the

world-mystery underlying the life-worlds. This is the level upon which any rational

world is built. This is also the pre-reflective level of the world which can ground an

original reflective understanding of being human. Only on the common ground of

the world-mystery is intercultural dialogue possible.

Everywhere here [in the extra-European cultural traditions] there remains a lively sense of

the world-mystery, a consciousness of the pluri-dimensionality of simple, yet inexhaustible

life. The question now is to ground a spirit, a conception of humanity that will allow this

originality, this ‘self-value,’ this independence to once again become effective—i.e., to give

new life to these forgotten traditions, now re-emerging amid the generalization of a Europe

shaken in her hegemony.33

Laying out the common ground for intercultural dialogue on the world-mystery:

Patočka understands this as one of the tasks awaiting humanity in the post-European



Care for the Soul and the Philosophical Anthropology

Underlying the Mythical Framework of the Greeks

It is in the 1973 seminar Plato and Europe that Patočka presents his reflections on

the common ground of the world-mystery. This is done through an explication of

the idea of care for the soul, in contrast to Husserl’s pure thêoria, as the philosophical heritage of Greek philosophy which is also a European heritage.34

Patočka begins by presenting a tragi-heroic vision of human existence in Ancient

Greece. What distinguishes humans from all other beings is their consciousness of

being capable of truth: man is aware of his capacity for discovering and disclosing

truth. Man is conscious that one of the conditions of possibility of the appearance of

things, of all phenomena, resides precisely in this capacity, inherent in the human

being as such, though he is also cognizant that neither the phenomenal field nor the

beings appearing within it are of his own creation. The tragedy of human existence

consists in the fact that, while conscious of himself as capable of truth, man is also

conscious of his precarious situation in the universe of all there is, namely that the

human being is finite and mortal. This consciousness puts man in a situation of

fundamental distress, which is also a situation of accursedness.35



The very concept of care for the soul is also employed by Edward E. Findlay as a strategic concept to support his overall interpretation of Patočka as a phenomenological philosopher of history

and politics in his book length study: Caring For the Soul in a Postmodern Age: Politics and

Phenomenology in the Thought of Jan Patočka (Albany: State University of New York Press,

2002). Yet this fine study is unaware of the intercultural implications of Patočka’s attempt.


Jan Patočka, Platon et l’Europe, p. 43; Plato and Europe, p. 35.


6 Patočka’s Concept of Care for the Soul


According to Patočka, what is heroic in the Greeks, and the Europeans after

them, is that they succeed in transforming this situation of fundamental distress into

an active and positive project of life. The Greeks achieve this through a philosophical programme: to subject everything in the world, and the world itself, to the examination of the soul, so as to clarify and bring all things to light. This project concerns

not only our thought, but also our praxis. To think and to act always with clarity: this

is a philosophical project.36 Thinking and acting always with clarity is, of course, no

more than a possibility of human existence, there is no guarantee that humans will

necessarily realize this potential. In their project of life, humans (Greeks or—later—

Europeans) believe they can realize it. Though clearly human, this Greek vision of

life, transforming ordinary life into a philosophical life, is not essentially different

from that of the gods.37 It is, therefore, heroic. “Given certain circumstances, man

would be capable of making at least the human world a world of truth and justice.

How this can be achieved is precisely the object of the care for the soul.”38 In other

words, the Greeks practice the care for the soul as a philosophical project which

aims at transforming man from an accursed being into a being capable of truth and


Patočka’s philosophical explication of the Greek vision of human existence brings

into elements from both Husserlian and Heideggerian phenomenologies. The understanding of the human being as a being of truth is common to both Husserl and

Heidegger. The two giants of German phenomenology also share an understanding of

the human being as the being who cares for his own Being as capable of truth. Husserl

however emphasizes the way in which this concern of the human being for his own

Being takes the form of self-responsibility through radical self-reflection (acting as

“functionary of humanity”), whereas Heidegger defines man as a being of truth by

bringing into view his fundamental situatedness: it is because man is thrown into the

world that he is close to things and, hence, capable of truth. Human distress is the

consequence of our awareness of our thrownness. Patočka takes this non-rational element from Heidegger in the understanding of human existence. Seeking anew to

comprehend the meaning of the Greeks’ philosophical life project, he describes as

follows human situatedness in relation to the present-day situation of Europe:

[O]ur task [in these lectures] concerns the supratemporal within the temporal; we have been

asking how to get our bearings in our situation, in the situation of our present world . . .

characterized as one of fall, of a decline evident in all things and which has eminently manifested itself in our times inasmuch as our entire spiritual sphere, built over a period of two

thousand years and materialized in state, legal, and cultural structures that lived and ruled

the rest of the world from the European territory, has within a very short space of time collapsed. We are living after this collapse . . . We wish here to orient our reflections in such a

way that philosophy will not be for us solely that which it always has been and remains . . .

Metaphorically speaking, we are not concerned with the Platonic ascent from the cave, but

on the contrary, with Plato’s second step—the return to the cave.39



Ibid., p. 44/36 (French/English).




Ibid., p. 50/41 (French/English).


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