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Article abstract: Husserl is known as the founder of phenomenology, regarded by many as one of the most significant movements of the twentieth century.

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Early Life

Edmund Husserl was born on April 8, 1859, in Prossnitz, Moravia (then part of Austria), to a German-speaking Jewish family. (The Jewish connection would become a liability later on, even though Husserl had become an Evangelical Lutheran in 1886; throughout his life he remained deeply moral and religious, but not within the framework of a particular sect.) He passed the Gymnasium examinations in 1876 and studied in Leipzig, Berlin, and Vienna, concentrating on mathematics and science as well as philosophy. He gained his Ph.D. in 1882 from Vienna with a thesis in mathematics. After several years of study with the Catholic philosopher Franz Brentano, he moved to Halle, where in 1887 he qualified himself as a privatdocent (unpaid lecturer) and where he remained until 1901. The years at Halle were years of doubt and difficulty, but gradually, through his struggles with the problems of mathematics and logic, he developed his own distinctive system of ideas. It was during this period that he married Malvine Steinschneider, his ever-loyal wife; they had three children, one of whom was killed at the Battle of Verdun.

Life’s Work

In 1900, Husserl published his first important work, Logische Untersuchungen (logical investigations). In 1901, he was invited to the University of Göttingen as an ausserordentlicher Professor. Husserl’s position in the university was not an entirely happy one; his colleagues in the other faculties did not appreciate his work. He owed his promotion to the rank of ordentlicher Professor to the intervention of the Prussian minister of education. By this time, however, the new discipline of phenomenology was proving appealing not only to German students but also to foreigners, and Husserl is said to have had as many as twelve nationalities in his seminar at once.

In defining the term “phenomenology,” it must be kept in mind, first of all, that Husserl’s thought was still evolving at his death; he left behind an enormous amount of manuscript that has gradually been edited and published. His ideas are difficult and sometimes invite confusion with trains of thought that they superficially resemble or that they are connected with historically, such as existentialism. His battlecry “to the things themselves” is deceptive, since it suggests materialism, which he was trying to refute; his “bracketing” might be wrongly taken to suggest the rejection of the things bracketed. Finally Husserl was an inspiring but not an authoritarian teacher, so that, although he had numerous disciples, they do not necessarily reproduce his thought.

Phenomenology can be considered as a philosophy, some would say the only true philosophy, but also can be considered as a method, perhaps simply one among many, suitable for the solution of some philosophical problems but not of others. Phenomenology begins with the analysis of consciousness or experience—they come to the same thing in the end, for consciousness is always intentional, pointing to something outside the ego. While this analysis is going on, the philosopher “brackets” all irrelevant considerations, such as the operations of empirical science and the conjectures of metaphysics about the reality of the material world. These latter are not pronounced meaningless as by the positivists; they are bracketed, put aside for the moment, perhaps to be used on another occasion or by another thinker, but not to be allowed to confuse the present investigation.

Husserl eloquently describes the “stream of consciousness” (or experience) in which from time to time the ego singles out some “thing” (which is most easily conceived as an object but could be a memory or a mood) for special attention, viewing it from various aspects, so...

(The entire section contains 1477 words.)

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