“Experience”, states the Austrian writer Robert Musil towards the end of his philosophical dissertation On Mach’s Theories which he completed in 1908 under the supervision of Carl Stumpf in Berlin, “teaches us to recognize the existence of astonishing regularities” (Musil 1982, p. 79), thus summarizing the key argument of his sharp (if elegantly and at times ironically put) critique of Mach’s views: In fact, Musil rejects both Mach’s sensualistic version of psychophysical parallelism and his empiriocriticist phenomenalism on grounds that reveal him as an original disciple of Stumpf’s, underway to leave his master’s ideas in favour of a position much closer to Husserl’s, just as the latter had found his own stance a decade earlier by increasingly distancing himself from Mach (cf. Sommer 1988, p. 311).
In my paper, I shall discuss the peculiarities of each of these different, yet intertwined movements in their historical as well as systematic context to put forward my conviction that Musil’s approach deserves to be appreciated as a philosophical contribution sui generis to the discussion between phenomenalism and phenomenology. In his critique of Mach, Musil neither conveniently reiterates the line of Stumpf (which eventually leads to Gestalt theory) nor simply appropriates the view then held by Husserl (who would soon after proceed to transcendental phenomenology), but develops a genuine stance in whose centre we encounter his very own concept of “experience” which later also underlies his literary work – most prominently, the famous unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities (1930 sqq.). By “quality” (rather than “talent” which another translation employs), the well-established English translation of the title renders the original German term “Eigenschaft”, whereas the English translation of the dissertation decides to translate the same concept as “property”; in any case, Musil associates “quality”/”property” (“Eigenschaft”) on the one hand and “experience” (“Erfahrung”) on the other in such a manner that from the latter (which constitutes the former in the first place) unavoidably emerge, as it were, certain “regularities” that cannot be assigned neither to the subject of experience nor to the object experienced – and yet they seem to transcend the sphere of mere sensation in the direction of what might be called normativity.
One is reminded of what Husserl sometimes referred to as “Erfahrungsstil” (cf. Husserl 1962, pp. 63 sq.; cf. also Orth 1991 and Luft 2002, among others). There is, Musil writes, “at least something already to be found in the experiences to which Mach appeals that pushes toward forming the concept of a property” (Musil 1982, p. 42), in other words: The dependence between perceptive experience and conceptual property must not be misunderstood as merely arbitrary – for conceptualization qua idealization is “founded in experience” (Musil 1982, p. 79). Given that in this very sense it does seem necessary, the question remains if it therefore may also be considered normative.