Michela Beatrice Ferri (ed.) in collaboration with Carlo Ierna, The Reception of Husserlian Phenomenology in North America. New York: Springer, 2019; 482 pages. ISBN: 978-3319991832.
Reviewed by Charlene Elsby, Purdue University Fort Wayne.
Michela Beatrice Ferri’s massive collection of essays (in collaboration with Carlo Ierna) is a thorough guide to how phenomenology came to North America, by whom and to what extent it was received, how those individuals critiqued and revised the phenomenology of Husserl, which students those people taught and what their major conceptual apparatuses were, and the history of the formation of every major phenomenological society currently operating in North America, as well as the major journals. Over the course of dozens of essays, the reader will come to be aware of the major players in North American phenomenology in the 20th century, how their views have established regional interpretations of Husserl (East Coast versus West Coast phenomenology), and how their ideals dictated the norms and practices of the professional community. With contributions from living phenomenological giants, including Robert Sokolowski, Burt Hopkins and William McKenna, Antonio Calcagno, Don Ihde, and Anthony Steinbock (and dedicated to Lester Embree, Ferri’s supervisor and supporter of the volume, d. 2017), this text fulfills its purpose as a living history of contemporary phenomenology in North America, while tracing that history directly back to Husserl. I cannot recommend it highly enough to any graduate student or faculty member who, coming into phenomenology, requires an in-depth knowledge of the various factions and personages, alliances and disagreements that have come to form the state of phenomenology today.
The amount of history in the volume is staggering, and for that reason I would not recommend sitting down to read this book all at once, but rather treating it as a reference. Divided into seven Parts, the text covers the movement of some of Husserl’s students to North America, the establishment of the phenomenological centre at the New School, a catalogue of notable Husserlian phenomenologists currently or recently working in North America, an account of the societies and centres for phenomenology (both new and established), and the history of North American phenomenological journals. There’s a section devoted to differentiating between the regional dialects of phenomenology, and finally a small section on the analytic reception of phenomenology in North America.
The early sections and later sections are the easiest to digest. In the early parts of the book, Ferri collects papers devoted to exposition of the major concepts from thinkers who descended directly from Husserl. With essays devoted to Winthrop Bell and Aron Gurwitsch, these essays outline the transmission of Husserlian ideas to a North American academic audience, as well as provide an introduction to their thought. Here we learn the significant role that Harvard played in transporting Husserl’s ideas to North America, sending several students to Germany to work with Husserl as early as 1902. (Paul Natorp advised William Ernest Hocking to travel to Göttingen, which he did.) Bell was also a student at Harvard who went on to study with Husserl at Göttingen and then returned, being offered an assistantship at Harvard in 1916 (a post that would be delayed until 1922 because of WWI). Bell taught a course on “Philosophy of Value” in which Dorion Cairns was a student. Meanwhile Marvin Farber, a Harvard undergraduate, went to study with Husserl in Freiburg in 1923. Jason Bell’s essay credits (Winthrop) Bell with delivering the first English language course on Husserl in North America, “Husserl and the Phenomenological Movement” at Harvard in 1927. (25) Daniel Marcelle’s article on Gurwitsch and the field theory of consciousness is an excellent introduction to Gurwitsch’s thought, situating his philosophical development in the context of his interactions with Husserl.
The history of the New School’s program to import displaced philosophers from Europe is as informative as it is fraught with intrigue. The section, which highlights the particular contributions of Farber and Cairns, also makes it apparent how phenomenology’s reception in North America was not entirely a theoretical reception. That is to say, it’s not the case that we should think that philosophers in North America considered the weighty ideas of phenomenology and then accepted or rejected them based on their theoretical merit. This section in particular brings to light how additional factors influenced phenomenology’s reception at the New School and in North American institutions more generally, and these factors might be as small as individual personalities or as large as the political climate of the times. Internal politics within the university system certainly played a role in how Husserl’s ideas found new audiences in North American institutions. In general, the section serves as a reminder of how we should not conceive of the history of ideas as a survival of the fittest. Even a brief reflection on how particular disciplines come to be disseminated will show that often, philosophical giants are made when someone in the administration decides to fund a tenure-track line.
At least one of the chapters in this middle part of the book was not meant for light reading, but rather for reference. Ferri’s contribution to the text (with Thomas Nenon) is a list of important 20th century Husserl scholars working in North America. This aspect of the book, along with Daniel Marcelle’s extensive list of North American societies devoted to phenomenology, serve to chronicle the history of phenomenology as it happens. Now from what I understand, the book took a long while from its original conception to its publication, which means that some of the information about presently existing societies is already out of date. For example, the information on the society of which I am an executive member (NASEP) was accurate as of 2014, but because the book was published in 2019, the text probably should not have specified that the society has held exactly three meetings—when there have in fact been more in the intervening period. And with regard to the list of Husserl scholars, Ferri adds a disclaimer specifying that the list is limited to those actively working in the 20th century—that there are now many more, arising within the past twenty years, whose names are not included. Unfortunately, this has the effect of presenting the history of phenomenology as almost entirely male. Brief respites from the maleness of the North American history of phenomenology are Calcagno’s essay, “From Consciousness to Being: Edith Stein’s Philosophy and Its Reception in North America”, which not only focuses on an early female figure in phenomenology but cites many more women, and Daniela Verducci’s essay on A.-T. Tymieniecka. Arendt is also mentioned, though she does not have her own essay—a decision which I think reflects the fact that the volume is restricted to Husserlian phenomenology.
The book picks up again in the later sections, as we’re introduced to the formation and development of the prominent phenomenological societies and journals. The authors of these essays present an extensive historical account of some of the early attempts to establish phenomenology on the continent. I particularly enjoyed reading G. R. Ricci’s contribution, “Importing Phenomenology: The Early Editorial Life of Philosophy”, which is a thoroughly footnoted report of how the Jahrbuch was founded, the changing alliances amongst the early phenomenologists and Husserl’s relations to Ingarden, Heidegger and Reinach, disagreements amongst the North American phenomenologists whose common purpose did not mean that there wasn’t significant dissent, and the founding of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research with the conflicting visions of its editors. While groups of philosophers are generally known to be cantankerous and given to in-fighting, we do not tend to imagine that our historical figures were of the same fallible nature. In this essay, it is clear that they were (and are). In a later essay, Burt Hopkins reports how the Foreign Rights Department at German Publisher Niemeyer disallowed his use of the original title of the Jahrbuch, how the problem was resolved by adding the word “New”, and why the editors made the choice to echo the terminology of Husserl’s Ideas I with regard to the relation between “phenomenology” and “philosophy” in the title of The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy. And if this book didn’t exist, we might not have a chronicle of these very interesting facts.
The volume is not without issues. While the value of its content is abundantly clear, there are some editing issues. These issues range from small to large—there’s an essay with spacing issues, essays with uncorrected typos and other linguistic infelicities, and there are essays that clearly should have been edited with a heavier hand. Ferri undertook an enormous task with this volume, and while these issues exist, they should not deter the reader from recognizing the immense contribution this volume will make to the preservation of the history of the development of phenomenology.
The Reception of Husserlian Phenomenology in North America is a timely volume, chronicling the development of phenomenology in North America almost as it happens, and in anticipation of the needs of future philosophers of history. It should prove an important text to those who aim to form a complete picture of the status of phenomenology in North America now, and also to future scholars as a historical record.