(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Edmund Husserl 1859-1939

(Full name Edmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl) German philosopher.

Husserl was the founder of phenomenology, a philosophical method that seeks certainty about the existence of being and about the authenticity and reliability of knowing. He was a formative influence on twentieth-century thought and methodology, not only in philosophy as one of the progenitors of existentialism, structuralism, and post-modernism, but in literature, music, painting, psychology, and the physical sciences, where his concern for the reduction of investigation to the essential minimum, his identification of the act of perception and the thing perceived, and his postulation of the authority of subjective perception have become standard. Husserl refined phenomenology and its focus throughout his life, moving from a world-based contemplation of actual things and phenomena without presuppositions to a transcendental contemplation of a priori essentials to a philosophy of inter-subjective social relationship in the actual world.

Biographical Information

Husserl was born in Prossnitz, Moravia. His early school career was not distinguished, but he did show aptitude in the sciences and went on to study astronomy, mathematics, physics, and philosophy at the universities of Leipzig, Berlin, and Vienna, where he received his doctorate in philosophy in 1882. A year later he began studying with the psychologist and philosopher Franz Brentano. Brentano's influence was of particular importance because he championed a psychology that described phenomena, rather than the organs deemed responsible for psychological conditions. With Brentano, too, Husserl studied logic and the British empiricists Locke, Hume, and Mill, and developed the belief that philosophy had to be a “strict and rigorous science.” In 1886, with Brentano's recommendation, Husserl became a lecturer at the University of Halle. During his years there, until 1901, his shaping as a philosopher took place, and the fundamental content of his philosophy was formulated. His publication of a theory of arithmetic in 1891 was of particular significance to his thought because it elicited a critical response from the mathematician-philosopher Gotlob Frege, which turned Husserl away from psychologism and toward logic. His 1901 publication of the Logische Untersuchunger (Logical Investigations) was the first full, systematic presentation of phenomenology, and it brought him recognition and esteem. That same year Husserl joined the faculty of the University of Goettingen, where he lectured on the works of other philosophers as well as phenomenology. He also wrote copiously but published only an article titled “Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft” (1910;Philosophy as Rigorous Science”) and the first volume of his monumental Jarbuch fuer Philosophie und Phaenomenologische Forschung (11 vols., 1913–1931; Ideas General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology). From 1916 until 1928 Husserl was a full professor of philosophy at the University of Freiburg, where he remained until his retirement in 1928. During his Freiburg years, his reputation grew to international proportions: he lectured in London, was published in Japan, became a corresponding member of the Aristotelian Society, and was asked to contribute an entry on phenomenology to the Encyclopedia Britannica. During those years a number of important students gathered around him, including Martin Heidegger, whose work was strongly influenced by Husserl's even when it diverged from it. Husserl retired in 1928 but continued to work vigorously, lecturing in Amsterdam, Paris, Vienna, Prague, and within Germany. In 1933 he was invited to join the philosophy faculty of the University of Southern California, which he declined. After 1935 the Nazi government forbade Husserl, who had been born Jewish, though a convert to Lutheranism, to travel or to lecture. In 1938 one of his students, Herman Van Breda, learned that the Nazis were intending to burn Husserl's work. After Husserl's death in 1938, Van Breda managed, with the help of Husserl's widow, to smuggle all of his manuscripts (more than forty-thousand pages, many written in shorthand) out of Germany to safety in Belgium, where they were archived for transcription, publication, and research.

Major Works

All of Husserl's writings considered together constitute a single work formulating and refining phenomenology. From Logical Investigations, “Philosophy as Rigorous Science,” and the volumes of Ideas, through the Meditations Cartesiennes (1931; Cartesian Meditations) and the later “Die Krisis der europaeischen Wissenschaften und die tranzendeatale Phänomenologie” (1936; The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology,) his work shows phenomenology as a philosophy whose ongoing project is to reconcile the Cartesian division between an objective, concrete reality and the subjective constructions of thought; to reestablish the observational methodology of Aristotle; to provide a reliable basis for attaining authentic knowledge; and by means of clarity of thinking and rigor of perception to provide for the ethical interaction between people necessary for the development of civilization and humane association. The last challenge Husserl felt keenly because of his belief that World War I had marked the end of validity and humanity for European thought. After the triumph of Nazism and what he saw as the mystification of thought, this project became even more urgent. Husserl maintained that the actualization of humanity depended upon the freedom of the mind. Establishing and exercising that freedom, as well as providing the description of fundamental human reality, he believed, were the tasks of phenomenology.