I'm reading the book D. O. Dhalstrom. Heidegger's concept of truth. Digitally printed version 2009, Cambridge University Press (2009), and on page 124 the author states:

There is, for example, a metaphysical sense of naturalism that Husserl deems self-refuting: the theoretical pretense that everything - including, preeminently, ideas and consciousness - is part of "nature", conceived as the ensemble of empirical facts governed by laws uncovered by natural science.

This has the associated note 81 on the same page:

The claim is self-refuting and a pretense because it cannot justify itself; [inbook references here].

Can someone explain in simple terms why is self-refuting this idea of naturalism? I tend to think that there is an strictly logical contradiction in it, but I'm not sure that this is the case and that instead it needs instead of a "proof", an argumentation.

  • 1
    really good question. i am not at all familiar with what you are reading, and haven't read any husserl in a long time... but it reminds me of the claim you cannot use the scientific method to justify the scientific method. the closest i have got to understanding that claim is that IBE cannot be used to justify IBE (and hence the no miracles argument) without circularity. this seems as vicious as hume's riddle of induction (or at least how it can appear). is it vicious? well, i don't think the no miracles argument is visciously circular, but the way husserl phrases that suggests it's likely so
    – user67302
    Aug 17, 2023 at 14:25
  • well you've made your mind up @NotThatGuy
    – user67302
    Aug 17, 2023 at 15:04
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    Presumably, because uncovering laws by natural science is justified by appeal to ideas, logic and mathematics in particular, and through consciousness that delivers perception. "Unrestricted" naturalism also leads to psychologism, with its metabasis fallacy (see How does Husserl's "bracketing" secure a truly presuppositionless study?), and faulty explanations of strict logical laws by vague psychological ones. See SEP, Husserl’s Antipsychologistic Arguments for details.
    – Conifold
    Aug 17, 2023 at 17:51
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    i've not read enough to say that your quote about 'metaphysical naturalism' is about all knowledge being from natural science and its equivalents. however, it's less obvious and trivial that that the mere fact that consciousness can be studied with natural science means that its ideas cannot justify natural science... my knowledge of @Conifold is partly from my understanding of people in general but can be used to justify claims about people in general. it may be fun to doubt otherwise, but... anyway, i'm too sleepy for this
    – user67302
    Aug 17, 2023 at 20:19
  • @legoman I am just conveying Husserl's arguments. One is free to disagree and object to them, but comments here are not for that.
    – Conifold
    Aug 17, 2023 at 20:24

3 Answers 3


It's not self-refuting.

I'll address some justifications I've seen people give for why it is.

It's self-referential, as in consciousness attempts to explain itself

If being self-referential in itself is deemed to be a problem, this would be asserting that consciousness is fundamentally inexplicable, as any attempt at an explanation would suffer from the same problem. Anyone taking such a position would not be able to make any claim whatsoever about the nature of consciousness (whether natural or not), and may be precluded from making any statement whatsoever about any system they're a part of, like saying how fast a car is going, when you're inside the car, or making any claims about your organs or how your body works, at least or especially in as far as it relates to the brain.

This seems to necessitate anyone who has a problem with it being self-referential to reject all of neuroscience and probably psychology, at the very least, because those explicitly involve trying to explain consciousness.

This doesn't actually seem to be a problem at all.

If there were only one single consciousness in existence, I might perhaps agree that we'd be a lot more limited in our ability to explain it (e.g. studying the emergence of consciousness would be out the window). But supposing that you accept the existence of other minds, that allows for a whole lot of potential to study consciousness in a way that doesn't include yourself (although reflecting on your own thoughts does provide a lot of useful insight into what your conscious mind is actually doing, and your own consciousness is the only one you can experience first-hand).

Can reason justify reason?

More specifically, people seem to have an issue with using reason (or logic) to explain or justify reason. But reason is justified by principles of reasoning, logical frameworks, philosophy, and so forth, as well as by the fact that reason has shown to be reliable in corresponding to reality (as best we can tell, and to a degree that has proven to be extremely useful in helping us thrive in the world).

So this wouldn't be self-refuting, because this justification is entirely distinct from how we explain the underlying mechanism of our brains that allows us to reason.

If our thoughts are deterministic, can we really think?

There's also a question of determinism, in that if our thoughts are deterministic, can we really think or reason? And the answer is "yes". ... Or "no", if you've snuck non-determinism into your definition of "think".

But, bottom line: there's nothing in determinism that would prevent us from going through some steps in order to reach a conclusion that depends on certain criteria (which one might reasonably refer to as "think"). If you've ever written some non-trivial code, you'd know that deterministic computers can already do this (even though they probably don't yet meet the definition of being "conscious").

Brain stuff is non-physical?

There also seems to be some vagueness of implicitly asserting that ideas and consciousness and whatnot are non-physical, and then working backwards from there to say that naturalism can't explain that. This wouldn't be self-refuting, but this is also begging the question: assuming the thing you're trying to prove.

Ideas exist within our minds, and consciousness is a part of our minds, so this would be explained as part of explaining how our minds work.

Perception explaining perception?

Some may also take issue with using perception to explain perception, which, if you think that's an issue, seems to lead to solipsism (concluding that other minds and/or external reality don't exist, or that we can't be sure of their existence). But this doesn't seem self-refuting. It's just that we cannot fully prove that our perception reflects reality, but that seem to be the most likely and reasonable conclusion. Failing that, we can also just say that we seem to be observing some form of reality within which we seem to be operating, and that would be sufficient to build a model of what is being perceived, and use that to inform our actions (regardless of whether or not that is "real").

"Eat food to not starve" is something that seems to be followed quite universally across the human race, regardless of beliefs about naturalism or solipsism or whatnot.

Can naturalism account for the experience of consciousness?

People also say that naturalism cannot account for the subjective, first-person experience of consciousness, but this wouldn't make it self-refuting. And this also doesn't seem resolvable to any significant degree (it's unfalsifiable), because someone can just maintain that their own personal experience cannot be explained naturally, regardless of how much evidence is presented, and there isn't really any way to refute that, because it relies entirely on an experience you aren't privy to. You could possibly try to establish some common ground and work from there, although that likely won't be effective. As for me, my thoughts do seem to be quite bound by my desires, preferences, biases and mental limitations, as well as by my environment, none of which I choose* (and I don't think anyone would really disagree that they have similar restrictions). This aligns well with naturalism, because this is exactly what naturalism says. The only question is whether there's anything besides that influence, but vaguely claiming that there is such a thing is little more than an argument from ignorance: it seems entirely unnecessary, as it doesn't provide any explanatory or predictive power, so I'd reject it based on Occam's razor.

* I mean, I could potentially change my environment, but if my thoughts are already determined partially by my environment, that presents somewhat of a chicken-and-egg situation, where I could change my environment to change how I think, but the thought to do so is influenced by my current environment (and here we do know which one came first: it's your environment). I could potentially also reflect on my biases, work on my limitations, etc., but those involve the same problem of the thoughts to try to change them already being influenced by the things you're trying to change.

Note that some non-natural consciousness also seems to come with a massive epistemic burden, in that now you're claiming there's an entire existence beyond the natural, and this somehow interacts with the natural world, and maybe this interaction goes both ways, or maybe it doesn't, and maybe there's some universal consciousness that we all belong to or maybe there's a consciousness for each of us floating around somewhere, and that somehow attaches to each of our bodies upon birth, I guess, and maybe those stick around after we die. As purely a hypothetical philosophical idea, it might be okay, but when you try to make sense of it in the real world, given observable reality, it seems to become rather flimsy and highly doubtful.

  • Reason can justify reason indeed. What reason cannot do though, is refute reason. In this sense, any form of naturalism that attempts to refute reason, "ideas" or "thoughts" is self-refuting.
    – Olivier5
    Aug 19, 2023 at 7:45

If "ideas" and "consciousness" are natural objects, that is, if they are empirical objects governed by laws which are, in turn, uncovered by natural science, we run into the problem whereby such laws are themselves empirical objects, which brings into question how they can function for us as laws. Empirical observation only gives us isolated facts which then have to be brought together, as it were, by 'rules' or a logic that says 'this fact goes with that fact.' There is therefore a distinction, for example, between a science for falling objects (physics), a science for horses (zoology) or a science for apples (botany) which, incidentally, does not prevent any one discipline from impinging on the other in intellectually fruitful ways (a horse or an apple can very well be a falling object, say). This cannot be a distinction that arises 'from the objects themselves': a falling apple or a catapulted horse, merely from what is given in sense-perception, are radically different phenomena (as they regard totally different objects moving in utterly different trajectories) from which we cannot derive the laws of gravitation. It requires an act of imagination, as Galileo demonstrates, to unite them all under the banner of 'falling objects' and investigate them accordingly.

This does not give rise to the thesis that consciousness is therefore a non-physical object. Consciousness, for Husserl, is always intentional; it is always about something. I am never just looking, I am always looking at a tree, an orange, etc. I am never just 'purely' loving or hating: I love my friend, I hate my enemy, and so on and so forth. Whatever it is towards which my consciousness intends, it always appears for me in a certain way. For example, I can only ever see at any one time three sides of a cube, although I know very well that it has six and not three sides. How is it that I can grasp these other sides even though they are not immediately given to me 'empirically'? and it is nonetheless the case that I do grasp the existence of the six-sided cube.

The appearance of any object, real or imagined, is always structured to appear in a particular way and this structure is basically consciousness itself. Although the natural sciences can discover the laws that govern empirical objects, it cannot mount an investigation into how these objects appear to us in the first place and why it is they appear to us in such a way. Such an investigation would require a grasp of their pre-scientific appearance: for example, I do not instinctively understand water as composed of two hydrogen atoms affixed to one oxygen atom - that is something I am taught, and it is, moreover, perfectly possible that I go through my whole life without knowing such a fact even though we know it is true. Yet, water is nonetheless something for me - that is, it appears as a running stream, a necessity of life, something I reach for in thirst, and so on. But this, as pre-scientific, cannot be something natural science looks into.

One might wonder why not psychology or neuroscience, as investigations of "consciousness" or into the matter of the brain, rather than philosophy. Here, Husserl's interest (broadly speaking) is in the meaningful appearances of things, in which the brain does not play any part. Unlike a twitching muscle, scents or tastes, etc. brain activity is something that I have to determine by CT scans and the like - it never appears immediately to me in conscious experience that my neurons are firing. Hence, consciousness cannot be reduced to its physical substrate. Psychology, on the other hand, runs into much the same problem as regards natural science, indicated above. If it treats ideas or thoughts as 'empirical' objects, there remains the question of how we are to apprehend such objects: put simply, since the rules by which we are guided in our investigation are, in some sense, 'mental operations,' it cannot stand that such rules are themselves the phenomena that we are studying.

You might want to check out Husserl's Logical Investigations for his critique of psychologism. Dan Zahavi's introduction - Husserl's Phenomenology - is also quite accessible and very good.

  • this looks like good answer (too dense for me rn) but could use some quotes if you are working from the logical investiogations
    – user67302
    Aug 19, 2023 at 6:13

It is self evident that it is self refuting when we perform the phenomenological reduction, but that cannot be expressed in language, because other minds don't exist for Husserl.

This is why Husserl's phenomenology fails as a philosophy of anything but internal time.

  • I don't believe that "bracketing" (if that's what you mean) cannot be expressed in language. If that is the case you should provide a reference why it is the case. Aug 24, 2023 at 17:06
  • i think i was trying to be sarcastic tbh @user2820579
    – user67675
    Sep 18, 2023 at 8:09

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