Edmund Husserl

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1477

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 that eventually some “essence” emerges that is not identical with any specific perception. Note, however, that phenomenology does not deal with a shadow or symbol or illusion of some Kantian Ding-an-sich (thing-in-itself) that is supposed to be the ultimate reality; experience is real enough in itself, and the Ding-an-sich has been bracketed. While the stream of experience must include feelings and emotions as they enter into experience, and while the things of experience are given intuitively, this world is also the world of logic and mathematics. In the end, Husserl acknowledges that the only absolute reality is the pure ego and its life; all the external world, including other egos, is “contingent” and might turn out not to exist after all. In practice, however, Husserl treats the world and other egos as confirmed by experience.

In 1916, Husserl was called to an ordentlicher professorship at Freiberg. In spite of the grief and disillusionment caused by the war, he was now at the peak of his authority and prestige. Even in the aftermath of the war, he had invitations to lecture abroad, first in London and later in Amsterdam and Paris. His philosophy, however, was changing. Even before the war, some of his disciples feared that he was becoming “transcendental” in his attempts to found a universal philosophical science on a foundation of phenomenology. Now he was becoming moralistic, hoping that phenomenology would establish the ethical autonomy of man. After his retirement in 1928, he would face further disappointments.

When Husserl retired in 1928, his position went to Martin Heidegger, whom he regarded as his chief disciple and logical successor. Yet the works that Heidegger was publishing at the time seemed to point in an entirely new direction—Heidegger would eventually be hailed as an existentialist. Husserl was deeply hurt, but worse was to come. Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, and, for a time at least, Heidegger supported him. Husserl was excluded from the university and silenced in Germany; many of his associates believed it necessary to distance themselves from him and his ideas. Others were still loyal, and there were some final triumphs. As late as 1935, Husserl was still able to lecture in public and did so with great force and eloquence in Vienna and Prague, which had not yet fallen to Hitler. In 1937, Husserl’s health began to fail, and he died on April 27, 1938.


Husserl’s ultimate position in the history of philosophy is uncertain. His editors complain of the “partisan reception” of his posthumous material and the “uneven character of its discussion”; a survey capturing the full breadth of his achievement is yet to be written. The phenomenon of phenomenology is believed to be important, but the nature of the importance is hard to define.

A scholar of Husserl’s eminence is expected to end his career in a flurry of banquets and Festschrifts. Husserl’s end better fits his character. His years of unrewarded toil as a privatdocent, his Puritanical devotion to his work, and the uncompromising standards of clarity and logic by which he judged his own work find a fitting culmination in the final defiant lectures that he delivered in the shadow of Hitler and of world war. If he could not establish ethical autonomy for man, he could at least establish it for himself.


Barrett, William, and Henry D. Aiken, eds. Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: An Anthology. New York: Random House, 1962. Volume 3 contains a very useful introduction to phenomenology and existentialism by Barrett as well as a series of selections from Husserl that should be meaningful even to the beginning student.

Edie, James M. Edmund Husserl’s Phenomenology: A Critical Commentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Edie believes that phenomenology teaches philosophers “how to distinguish what is properly philosophical in their wide-ranging investigations from the rest” and that it is “the conscience of philosophy.”

Farber, Marvin. The Aims of Phenomenology: The Motives, Methods, and Impact of Husserl’s Thought. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. Farber gives a more extensive analysis of Husserl than does Barrett and also comments on his influence. Includes some moderately informative biographical material.

Farber, Marvin. Philosophical Essays in Memory of Edmund Husserl. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1940. Given the circumstances of Husserl’s death, a standard memorial volume could hardly be expected; not a single German institution is represented, and the authors are said to be “a fair sample of those who . . . reacted to Husserl’s teaching.” The volume can give the reader an idea of the various reactions to phenomenology.

Husserl, Edmund. Husserl: Shorter Works. Edited by Peter McCormick and Frederick A. Elliston. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981. The first two items—the Inaugural Lecture and the encyclopedia article—represent two attempts by Husserl to give a brief summary of phenomenology. Some readers may find the first at least as useful as the commentators. Contains extensive bibliographies of Husserl, including posthumous works and English translations; extensive commentaries and annotations; and a very helpful glossary of terms.

Kockelmans, Joseph J. A First Introduction to Husserl’s Phenomenology. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1967. This work gives a relatively clear and concise overview of the main themes and topics in Husserl’s philosophy.

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