The Life and Philosophy of Edmund Husserl

Last Updated on June 12, 2022 by Lil Ginge

Edmund Husserl was the founder of the philosophical movement called phenomenology. He was one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, especially in the tradition of continental philosophy. His work contributed to philosophy of mind, logic, epistemology as well as related fields like psychology and linguistics.

As Husserl created it, phenomenology is the study of the essential structures of pure consciousness. It is meant to be an a priori rather than empirical or psychologistic program, though Husserl himself thought many of his readers misunderstood this crucial point.

Husserl has had a long influence in the continuation of continental philosophy, from fellow phenomenologists like Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty to deconstructionists like Derrida and even analytic philosophers ranging from Frege to Sellars and more.

The Life of Edmund Husserl

Early Life and Education

Edmund Husserl was born on April 8th, 1859 in a town called Prossnitz, Moravia, which was part of the Austrian Empire. Husserl was from a Jewish family, and his family sent him to gain a German classical education in Vienna at the age of 10 years old.

From 1876 – 1878, Husserl studied astronomy in Leipzig. While there, he also took courses in mathematics, philosophy, optics, and physics. He heard lectures on philosophy by Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of the first institute for experimental psychology. Thomas Masaryk, a former student of Franz Brentano’s, became Husserl’s mentor. 

From 1878 – 1871, Husserl moved to Berlin and continued to study mathematics. He took his Ph.D. in mathematics in Vienne in January 1883, writing a thesis on the theory of variations. After, Husserl would briefly serve in the military but soon would study philosophy with Brentano himself from 1884 – 1886. 

Brentano was a major influence on Husserl’s philosophy, especially Brentano’s lectures on psychology and logic. In 1887, Husserl wrote and submitted his habilitation On the Concept of Number under Carl Stumpf in Halle. At this point, Husserl was baptized and converted from Judaism to Protestantism. He became a Privatdozent at Halle and married a Jewish woman named Malvine Charlotte Steinschneider, who also converted to Protestantism before the wedding. The couple would have three children together.

Husserl incorporated his habilitation into his first published book, Philosophy of Arithmetic, in 1891. Husserl was attempting to create a foundation for arithmetic in psychology, an exercise in what is known as psychologism. Husserl’s early psychologism was criticized by Gottlob Frege in a book review of Philosophy of Arithmetic (Philosophie der Arithmetik).

Mature Philosophy and Later Life

Frege’s critique of Husserl had a major impact on the young scholar and led to Husserl taking a strong stance against psychologism himself. In 1900-01, Husserl published Logical Investigations (Logische Untersuchungen), one of his greatest works. The work was published in two volumes. The first volume is Husserl’s critique of psychologism, whereas the second volume is his introduction of core phenomenological concepts. Husserl took a job as faculty at the University of Göttingen where he stayed for 16 years.

Over the next decade, Husserl’s phenomenology morphed into a Cartesian and Kantian-influenced transcendental phenomenology. Transcendental phenomenology involved a change in philosophical attitude from what Husserl called the natural attitude versus the phenomenological attitude.

In 1913, Husserl expressed his new transcendental phenomenology in Ideas (Ideen zu einer reinen Phenomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie). Husserls’ son Wolfgang would sadly die in World War I during this time. Then in 1916, Husserl became Heinrich Rickert’s successor as full professor at the University of Freiburg. He stayed through his retirement in 1928, when he was succeeded by his famous phenomenological disciple Martin Heidegger.

Husserl died on April 27, 1938 in Freiburg. His unfinished works were rescued from destruction by the Nazis by the Franciscan Herman Leo Van Breda. The first Husserl Archive was founded in Belgium in 1939. Today, there are also archives in Freiburg, Cologne, Paris, New York, and Pittsburgh.

Husserl’s Psychologism and Critique of Psychologism

Psychologism is the philosophical position that mathematical and logical concepts can be reduced to those of empirical psychological mechanisms. Under the influence of the descriptive psychology of Franz Brentano, Husserl’s philosophy was initially psychologisic. But as his thought developed and moved towards the invention of phenomenology, he would come to staunchly reject the view of psychologism

In his critique of psychologism, Husserl argues that pure logical notions are not thoughts or mental events. Rather, logical notions are a priori laws and the transcendental conditions for any theories or judgments (propositions) grounded in any logical reasoning. One problem with the psychologistic view is that it can lead to skeptical doubts about logical truth and knowledge. One of Husserl’s drivers was to eliminate this logical and epistemological skepticism.

Another issue Husserl has with psychologism, which he believes phenomenology solves, is that psychological logicians confuse intentional experiences (thinking, feeling, perceiving, judging, imagining) with the intentional objects of those experiences (tables, chairs, happy, sad, dragons, puppies, numbers). Intentional experiences or acts are not objects and need to be rigorously distinguished to be properly understood. 

It can be argued that Husserl’s ultimately anti-psychologistic stance is one of Platonism.This Platonic view is that a priori laws like those of mathematics and logic exist independently of the human mind and are therefore not reducible to psychology. These laws or truths are ideal or irreal (temporal).

What Is Husserl’s Phenomenology?

Husserl’s phenomenology is a philosophical discipline that attempts to study the essential structures of human consciousness through a description of “the things themselves”. At the same time, it ignores philosophical speculation about the real existence of objects of consciousness. Husserl’s phenomenology was meant as a pure a priori scientific philosophy and not an empirical description of reality. It is a critique of both psychologism and naturalism in philosophy and logic.

One of the most important aspects of Husserl’s phenomenology is the phenomenological reduction (or the epoché). The phenomenological reduction is a shift in intellectual attitude from what Husserl calls “the natural attitude” to “the phenomenological attitude” in which the existences of the objects of consciousness are bracketed, or put out of the question.

For example, in the phenomenological attitude, if one sees a piece of furniture like a chair, one can explore what the essence of this experience is like but one cannot ask whether or not there is a real or actual chair that really exists. The key is to focus on essences and essential structures of conscious experiences, not questions about the real existence of the “external world” that is “outside of consciousness”.

One of the most important findings of Husserl’s phenomenological method is the discovery of the universality of intentionality. Intentionality is a specific feature of consciousness – specifically, the directedness or “aboutness” of consciousness. In other words, when we say that all consciousness is intentional, it means that all consciousness is directed towards or about some object(s).

There is no consciousness without there also being objects of consciousness, whether or not these objects are “real” or “imagined” in some way. Husserl took over this notion from Brentano, although for Brentano it was not an element of any phenomenological investigation but was rather what could be described as descriptive psychology (an empirical, rather than transcendental discipline).

Other Aspects of Husserl’s Philosophical Thought

Meaning versus Object

Husserl rigorously distinguishes meaning from objects. One object can have different names or descriptions and different meanings. For example, “the number that comes after 2” has a different meaning than “the number that comes before four”, but both meanings refer to the same object – the number 3. Similarly, “the present Queen of England” and “the mother of Prince Charles” are different descriptions that refer to the same object.

Formal versus Regional Ontology

Traditionally, ontology is the study or science of being. For Heidegger, this science is specifically a science of essences rather than facts. Ontology is a priori, not empirical. Formal Ontology is the most general form of ontology. It investigates the essences of objects in general. Regional ontologies, however, only explore certain limited domains of objects – i.e. physical objects, mathematical objects.etc.

The Influence of Husserl and Phenomenology

Edmund Husserl has had a major influence on subsequent philosophy, especially in the continental philosophical tradition. That is not to say that Husserl’s disciples stuck to Husserl’s philosophy in any close way. In fact, in the hands of different phenomenologists, phenomenology can become so different it is almost unrecognizable compared with Husserl’s own project of studying the essential structures of consciousness.

Existential phenomenologist Martin Heidegger is the most famous disciple of Husserl’s, but Heidegger rejected much of what made up the core of Husserl’s program and largely went his own way. Some argue that Heidegger’s magnum opus Being and Time, published in 1927, is largely a critique rather than a continuation of Husserlian phenomenology. Aside from philosophy, Heidegger’s political Nazism drove a major rift between the two thinkers in later years.

Other famous followers of Husserl’s phenomenology include the later phenomenologists Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Sartre is famous for his French brand of atheistic existentialism, whereas Merleau Ponty’s own existential phenomenology focused less on social philosophy, ethics and politics and more on perception and psychology, bodily intentionality and even biology. 

Concluding Thoughts on Husserl and Phenomenology

Husserl is undoubtedly one of the most important and influential philosophers of the twentieth century. And phenomenology is one of its most important movements, especially in the continental strand of philosophical thought. 

While Husserl has had a lesser influence on contemporary Anglo-American analytic philosophy, it seems that more thinkers are starting to pick up on the importance of Husserl’s thought and phenomenology in general. 

Whether or not phenomenology will remain a live and powerful influence long into the 21st century remains to be seen. But regardless, Husserl’s status as one of the towering titans of the 20th century of philosophical thought is not going away anytime soon.

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