Apr 082018

Today is the birthday (1859) of Edmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl, a Moravian philosopher who established the school of phenomenology. In his early work, he developed critiques of logic, and in his mature work, he sought to develop a systematic foundational science based on what he called phenomenological reduction, and argued thatg that transcendental consciousness sets the limits of all possible knowledge. Husserl’s thought profoundly influenced the landscape of 20th-century philosophy, and he remains a notable figure in contemporary philosophy and beyond.

I could get into some pretty deep waters here, but I will spare you too much philosophizing. Maybe you are like most people who don’t like to think too much about meaning, consciousness, and that sort of thing. You just like to get on with your life and let crazies, like me, worry about whether 2 or blue really exist. That’s fine. For me, trying to think as deeply as I can about all kinds of things is what makes me happy. I also like cooking and taking photos. There is room for it all. The fundamental point for me, that Husserl helps me with, is that what we can see and what we can think of is not all there is. I expect most people know this at some level. Great scientists of the past were often religious – sometimes deeply so – because they realized that science can only get you so far in uncovering what exists. Logic too. There is more to the world than our perceptions or our thinking can reveal. Buddhists know this. Christian mystics do too. So did alchemists, Sufis, fakirs etc. Failing to grasp this simple fact shows a lack of imagination, in my oh-so-humble opinion. Husserl profoundly probed the limits of what we can know and how we can know it. Just because there are things that are impossible to know, does not mean that they are not real. I am not going to do more than skate lightly over the surface of Husserl’s thinking. First, some background.

Husserl was born in 1859 in Proßnitz, a town in the Margraviate of Moravia, which was then in the Austrian Empire, and which today is Prostějov in the Czech Republic. He was born into a Jewish family, the second of four children. His father was a milliner. His childhood was spent in Proßnitz, where he attended the secular elementary school. Then Husserl traveled to Vienna to study at the Realgymnasium, followed next by the Staatsgymnasium in Olomouc.

Husserl then studied mathematics, physics, and astronomy at the University of Leipzig from 1876 to 1878. At Leipzig he was inspired by philosophy lectures given by Wilhelm Wundt, one of the founders of modern psychology. Then he moved to the Frederick William University of Berlin (the present-day Humboldt University of Berlin) in 1878 where he continued his study of mathematics under Leopold Kronecker and Karl Weierstrass. In Berlin he found a mentor in Thomas Masaryk, a former philosophy student of Franz Brentano and later the first president of Czechoslovakia. There Husserl also attended Friedrich Paulsen’s philosophy lectures. In 1881 he left for the University of Vienna to complete his mathematics studies under the supervision of Leo Königsberger (a former student of Weierstrass). He received his Ph.D. in 1883 with the work Beiträge zur Variationsrechnung (“Contributions to the calculus of variations”).

As a result of his becoming familiar with the New Testament during his twenties, Husserl asked to be baptized into the Lutheran Church in 1886. Herbert Spiegelberg writes, “While outward religious practice never entered his life any more than it did that of most academic scholars of the time, his mind remained open for the religious phenomenon as for any other genuine experience.” Although a steadfast proponent of a radical and rational autonomy in all things, Husserl could also speak “about his vocation and even about his mission under God’s will to find new ways for philosophy and science,” according to Spiegelberg.

Following his Ph.D. in mathematics, Husserl returned to Berlin to work as the assistant to Karl Weierstrass, yet felt the desire to pursue philosophy. When Weierstrass became very ill, Husserl was freed to return to Vienna where, after serving a short military duty, he devoted his attention to philosophy. In 1884 at the University of Vienna he attended the lectures of Franz Brentano on philosophy and philosophical psychology. Brentano introduced him to the writings of Bernard Bolzano, Hermann Lotze, John Stuart Mill, and David Hume. Husserl was so impressed by Brentano that he decided to dedicate his life to philosophy. Two years later, in 1886, Husserl followed Carl Stumpf, a former student of Brentano, to the University of Halle, seeking to obtain his habilitation which would qualify him to teach at the university level. There, under Stumpf’s supervision, he wrote Über den Begriff der Zahl (On the Concept of Number) in 1887, which would serve later as the basis for his major work, Philosophie der Arithmetik (the Philosophy of Arithmetic) (1891).

Husserl’s thought was revolutionary in several ways, most notably in his distinction between “natural” and “phenomenological” modes of understanding. In the former, sense-perception when it corresponds with the material realm constitutes known reality, and understanding is premised on the accuracy of the perception and the objective knowability of what can be called the “real world.” Phenomenological understanding strives to be rigorously “presuppositionless” by means of what Husserl calls “phenomenological reduction.” This reduction is not conditioned but rather transcendental: in Husserl’s terms, pure consciousness of absolute Being. In Husserl’s work, consciousness of any given thing calls for discerning its meaning as an “intentional object.” Such an object does not simply strike the senses, to be interpreted or misinterpreted by mental reason; it has already been selected and grasped, grasping being an etymological connotation, of the Latin percipere, the root of “perceive.”

In Logical Investigations (1900/1901) and Experience and Judgment (1939), Husserl expressed clearly the difference between meaning and object by talking about several different kinds of names for things. For example, there are names that have the role of properties that uniquely identify an object. Each of these names expresses a meaning and designates the same object. Examples of this are “the victor at the battle of Jena” and “the loser at the battle of Waterloo,” or “the equilateral triangle” and “the equiangular triangle.”  In both cases, both names express different meanings, but designate the same object. A classic linguistic puzzle arises from the fact that what used to be called the morning star and the evening star – two different names, with two different meanings – refer to the same object: the planet Venus. There are names which have no meaning, but have the role of designating an object: “Aristotle,” “Socrates,” and so on. Finally, there are names which designate a variety of objects (e.g. table, chair, rock). These are called “universal names.” Their meaning is a “concept” and refers to a series of objects (the extension of the concept). The way we know perceivable (sensible) objects he called “sensible intuition.”

Husserl also identifies a series of “formal words” which are necessary to form sentences and have no sensible correlates, such as, “a”, “the”, “and”, “however”, “under”, “two”, “group”, and so on. Every sentence must contain formal words to designate what Husserl calls “formal categories.” There are two kinds of categories: meaning categories and formal-ontological categories. Meaning categories concern judgments; they include forms of conjunction, disjunction, forms of plural, among others. Formal-ontological categories concern objects and include notions such as set, cardinal number, ordinal number, part and whole, relation, and so on. The way we know these categories is through a faculty of understanding called “categorial intuition.”

I’ll leave it at that. If you know any philosophy, chances are you know this stuff already, and if you don’t know it, chances are that you don’t care. I get fixated on these ways of thinking because my garbage mind wants to pull together disparate ways of thinking into one vision. Probably hubristic of me. If you want to view the world through one lens only, I wish you all the best. I don’t. When I see a star, I want to think of it in terms of physics, theology, art, philosophy, psychology, astrology etc. All these avenues teach me something, and they can all come together if we allow them to. It is conceivable to me that a grand synthesis of ideas is within our grasp, but we have to work in that direction. Why do you think I write this blog which combines everything under the sun?

Česnečka is a well-known garlic soup from Husserl’s Moravia, now found widely throughout the region. It always involves heavy use of garlic in broth with potatoes, and can be spiced with caraway, marjoram or cumin. You can also add a local cheese, Olomoucké tvarůžky. It is a ripened soft cheese with very low fat content, pungent taste and strong odor. Dishes containing this cheese can usually be recognized by the word Loštické in their names, such as Loštická česnečka. You’ll need some breath mints afterwards. A mouth smelling of garlic soup and Moravian cheese will fell an ox.



1 head garlic, peeled and minced
1 cup diced white onion
2 cups peeled and chopped potato
2 tbsp butter
4 cups broth (beef or chicken)
3 tbsp fresh marjoram leaves
2 bay leaves
fried bread croutons
Moravian cheese (optional)


Melt the butter over medium heat in a heavy saucepan and add the potatoes. Stir the potatoes often and let them turn color slightly. Then add the onions and cook until translucent. Add the garlic and stir well, so that all the ingredients are mixed well. Add the broth, marjoram and bay leaves, and season with salt to taste. Bring to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are as soft as you like them.

Serve in deep bowls with croutons on top, and some grated cheese if you prefer.

Some cooks use an immersion blender on the soup before adding the croutons and cheese to make a smoother dish.



Feb 182018

Today is the birthday (1838) of Ernst Waldfried Josef Wenzel Mach, Austrian physicist and philosopher. The ratio of an object’s speed to that of sound is named the Mach number in his honor. As a philosopher of science, he was a major influence on logical positivism and American pragmatism. Through his criticism of Newton’s theories of space and time, he foreshadowed Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Mach was born in Chrlice (German: Chirlitz) in Moravia (then in the Austrian empire, now part of Brno in the Czech Republic). His father, who had attended Charles University in Prague, acted as tutor to the noble Brethon family in Zlín in eastern Moravia. Up to the age of 14, Mach received his education at home from his parents. He then entered a Gymnasium in Kroměříž (German: Kremsier), where he studied for 3 years. In 1855 he became a student at the University of Vienna. There he studied physics and medical physiology, receiving his doctorate in physics in 1860 under Andreas von Ettingshausen with a thesis titled “Über elektrische Ladungen und Induktion”, and his habilitation the following year. His early work focused on the Doppler effect in optics and acoustics. In 1864 he took a job as Professor of Mathematics at the University of Graz, having turned down the position of a chair in surgery at the University of Salzburg to do so, and in 1866 he was appointed as Professor of Physics. During that period, Mach continued his work in psycho-physics and in sensory perception. In 1867, he took the chair of Experimental Physics at the Charles University, Prague, where he stayed for 28 years before returning to Vienna.

Mach’s main contribution to physics involved his description and photographs of spark shock-waves and then ballistic shock-waves. He described how when a bullet or shell moved faster than the speed of sound, it created a compression of air in front of it. Using schlieren photography, he and his son Ludwig were able to photograph the shadows of the invisible shock waves. During the early 1890s Ludwig was able to invent an interferometer which allowed for much clearer photographs. But Mach also made many contributions to psychology and physiology, including his anticipation of gestalt phenomena, his discovery of the oblique effect and of Mach bands, an inhibition-influenced type of visual illusion, and especially his discovery of a non-acoustic function of the inner ear which helps control human balance.

One of the best-known of Mach’s ideas is the so-called “Mach principle,” the name given by Einstein to an imprecise hypothesis often credited to the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach. The idea is that local inertial frames are determined by the large-scale distribution of matter, as exemplified by this anecdote:

You are standing in a field looking at the stars. Your arms are resting freely at your side, and you see that the distant stars are not moving. Now start spinning. The stars are whirling around you and your arms are pulled away from your body. Why should your arms be pulled away when the stars are whirling? Why should they be dangling freely when the stars don’t move?

Mach’s principle says that this is not a coincidence—that there is a physical law that relates the motion of the distant stars to the local inertial frame. If you see all the stars whirling around you, Mach suggests that there is some physical law which would make it so you would feel a centrifugal force. There are a number of rival formulations of the principle. It is often stated in vague ways, like “mass out there influences inertia here”. A very general statement of Mach’s principle is “local physical laws are determined by the large-scale structure of the universe.” This concept was a guiding factor in Einstein’s development of the general theory of relativity. Einstein realized that the overall distribution of matter would determine the metric tensor, which tells you which frame is rotationally stationary

Mach also became well known for his philosophy developed in close interplay with his science. Mach defended a type of phenomenalism recognizing only sensations as real. This position seemed incompatible with the view of atoms and molecules as external, mind-independent things. He famously declared, after an 1897 lecture by Ludwig Boltzmann at the Imperial Academy of Science in Vienna: “I don’t believe that atoms exist!” From about 1908 to 1911 Mach’s reluctance to acknowledge the reality of atoms was criticized by Max Planck as being incompatible with physics. Einstein’s 1905 demonstration that the statistical fluctuations of atoms allowed measurement of their existence without direct individuated sensory evidence marked a turning point in the acceptance of atomic theory. Some of Mach’s criticisms of Newton’s position on space and time influenced Einstein, but later Einstein realized that Mach was basically opposed to Newton’s philosophy and concluded that his physical criticism was not sound.

In 1898 Mach suffered from cardiac arrest and in 1901 retired from the University of Vienna and was appointed to the upper chamber of the Austrian parliament. On leaving Vienna in 1913 he moved to his son’s home in Vaterstetten, near Munich, where he continued writing and corresponding until his death in 1916, only one day after his 78th birthday.

Most of Mach’s initial studies in the field of experimental physics concentrated on the interference, diffraction, polarization and refraction of light in different media under external influences. From there followed important explorations in the field of supersonic fluid mechanics. Mach and physicist-photographer Peter Salcher presented their paper on this subject in 1887; it correctly describes the sound effects observed during the supersonic motion of a projectile. They deduced and experimentally confirmed the existence of a shock wave of conical shape, with the projectile at the apex. The ratio of the speed of a fluid to the local speed of sound vp/vs is now called the Mach number. It is a critical parameter in the description of high-speed fluid movement in aerodynamics and hydrodynamics.

From 1895 to 1901, Mach held a newly created chair for “the history and philosophy of the inductive sciences” at the University of Vienna. In his historico-philosophical studies, Mach developed a phenomenalistic philosophy of science which became influential in the 19th and 20th centuries. He originally saw scientific laws as summaries of experimental events, constructed for the purpose of making complex data comprehensible, but later emphasized mathematical functions as a more useful way to describe sensory appearances. Thus, scientific laws while somewhat idealized have more to do with describing sensations than with reality as it exists beyond sensations.

In accordance with empirio-critical philosophy, Mach opposed Ludwig Boltzmann and others who proposed an atomic theory of physics. Since one cannot observe things as small as atoms directly, and since no atomic model at the time was consistent, the atomic hypothesis seemed to Mach to be unwarranted, and perhaps not sufficiently “economical”. Mach had a direct influence on the Vienna Circle philosophers and the school of logical positivism in general.

According to Alexander Riegler, Ernst Mach’s work was a precursor to the influential perspective known as constructivism. Constructivism holds that all knowledge is constructed rather than received by the learner. He took an exceptionally non-dualist, phenomenological position. The founder of radical constructivism, von Glasersfeld, gave a nod to Mach as an ally.

In 1873, independently of each other Mach and the physiologist and physician Josef Breuer discovered how the sense of balance (i.e., the perception of the head’s imbalance) functions, tracing its management by information which the brain receives from the movement of a fluid in the semicircular canals of the inner ear. That the sense of balance depended on the three semicircular canals was discovered in 1870 by the physiologist Friedrich Goltz, but Goltz did not discover how the balance-sensing apparatus functioned. Mach devised a swivel chair to enable him to test his theories, and Floyd Ratliff has suggested that this experiment may have paved the way to Mach’s critique of a physical conception of absolute space and motion.

Mach’s home town of Brno is in Moravia which is now part of the Czech Republic, and much of the cuisine is common to the nation as a whole. But there are some distinctive dishes. Moravian chicken pie is one. It can be made as a simple two-crust pie, but is often made with a crumb topping as well, as in this recipe.

Moravian Chicken Pie


Pie Crust

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
3⁄4 cup shortening
6 -8 tbsp cold water


2 ½ cups chopped cooked chicken
salt and pepper
3 tbsp flour
1 cup chicken broth
1 -2 tbsp butter, cut in small pieces

Crumb Topping

¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp butter


For the pie crust: combine the flour and salt in a food processor. Add the shortening and pulse until the mixture is like coarse cornmeal. Gradually stir in cold water just until a dough forms. Divide the dough into two equal pieces. Cover and chill 30 minutes, or until ready to use.

Preheat the oven to 375˚F/190˚C degrees.

Roll out one piece of dough to cover the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie plate and place in the plate. Roll out the second piece of dough for the top crust and set aside.

For the filling: combine all the ingredients in a bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the ingredients into the pie crust and top with the second crust, moisten the edges, and crimp to seal.

For the crumb topping: pulse the butter and flour in a food processor until it is like coarse cornmeal. Sprinkle the topping over the top crust of pie. Cut a few slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape.

Bake the pie 45 minutes to 1 hour, until golden and bubbly.