Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) was an influential German philosopher and the principal founder of transcendental phenomenology
Husserl was born in Prossnitz, Moravia, in 1859, into an assimilated Jewish family, which gave him a liberal view of religion (in 1886, he was baptized as a Lutheran and remained religious but nonconfessional for the rest of his life). Husserl did not excel in high school but eventually developed an interest in astronomy, which he pursued at the University of Leipzig, and mathematics, which he studied in Berlin and then in Vienna, where in 1882 he received a PhD with a dissertation on the calculus of variation. Husserl found particular inspiration in the teachings of two remarkable scholars: the mathematician Karl Weierstrass (1815-1897) at the University of Berlin and the philosopher Franz Brentano (1838-1917) at the University of Vienna. Husserl's writings have been said to combine Weierstrass's rigorous scientific thinking and Brentano's insights into human psychology. Husserl borrowed Brentano's use of the Scholastic notion of “intention” as the property of human mental activity to be about or directed toward something, whether or not that something exists. Over time, an increasingly complex notion of intentionality became for Husserl the foundation of his transcendental phenomenology.
Following Brentano's suggestion, in 1886, Husserl went to Halle to study with Carl Stumpf (1848-1936), a mathematician and philosopher who had become interested in the perception of space and sound. His Habilitation thesis Über den Begriff der Zahl (“On the Concept of Number”), written under Stumpf's supervision, became the basis for Husserl's first book, Philosophie der Arithmetik (Philosophy of Arithmetic), published in 1891. In 1887, Husserl married Malvine Steinschneider, who was also from a Prossnitz Jewish family with a similar background (before the wedding, Malvine decided to follow Husserl's example and be baptized). Their three children—Elizabeth (known as “Elli”), Gerhart, and Wolfgang—were born between 1892 and 1895 in Halle.
Husserl's second book (which he dedicated to Stumpf) came out as two separate volumes with one main title Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations) and two subtitles. The first volume (Prolegomena to Pure Logic), published in 1900, defines logic as the foundation of all theories and argues that it cannot be reduced to or explained through human psychology (the antipsychological argument). The second volume (Investigations on Phenomenology and the Theory of Knowledge) appeared in 1901 and is a comprehensive discussion of meaning-conferring acts (meaning-intentions) aimed at accounting for the ideal identity of meanings across contexts and speakers. Husserl's position is that when we understand an expression like the Queen of England, there is one essential content (the “meaning-intention”) that we all share regardless of the kind of image or memory that such a linguistic expression might evoke in each of us. Throughout the book, in addition to proposing a formal ontology (a theory of the relation between a whole and its parts) and comparing traditional views of logic with his own, Husserl offers his own analysis of intentional experiences, from the act of wanting or liking something to the feeling of pain provoked by contact with extreme heat. Whether or not one agrees with his specific distinctions, these phenomenological analyses give us an appreciation of the analytical power of Husserl's approach.
Thanks to the interest generated by his Logical Investigations, in 1901, Husserl accepted a position at the University of Göttingen, where he refined his views on the special role of philosophy in providing the foundations of epistemological inquiry, including any kind of science. A major accomplishment during this period was the publication in 1913 of a new treatise titled Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie (Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology), now commonly known as Ideen I, or Ideas (Volume 1), because it was meant to be followed by two more volumes that never materialized during Husserl's lifetime. Ideas refined and expanded the theory first introduced in Logical Investigations and now called “pure phenomenology.” Here, Husserl introduces the notion of “the natural standpoint” or “the natural attitude” (die natürliche Einstellung), the phenomenological reduction (made possible by the époché, i.e., “suspension” or “bracketing” of the natural attitude), the discovery (made possible by the phenomenological reduction) of the transcendental Ego, and the more nuanced exploration of meaning-making acts through the notions of noesis (the process of knowing broadly conceived) and noema (plural noemata; the object of knowledge as such).
While at Göttingen, Husserl attracted a number of brilliant students and followers, including Adolf Reinach (1883-1917), who developed a theory of social acts in the domain of civil law that is a precursor of speech act theory, and Edith Stein (1892-1942), who in 1916 completed a dissertation about empathy (Einfühlung), published in 1917 as a book, which draws heavily on Husserl's views on the subject.
Husserl's efforts were finally fully recognized in 1916 with a chair in philosophy at the University of Freiburg. Unfortunately, this appointment came under the most difficult personal circumstances. In 1914, his two sons had been sent to war. The youngest, Wolfgang, was killed at Verdun in 1916. Gerhart was wounded a year later. Husserl himself fell ill from nicotine poisoning. Six months after Husserl delivered his inaugural lecture at Freiburg on “pure phenomenology” (May 1917), there was another tragic loss: The talented Adolf Reinach was killed in a battle in Flanders. In the meantime, Edith Stein had followed Husserl to Freiburg to transcribe and organize some of his stenographic lecture notes and manuscripts. After 2 years of hard and often frustrating work, she succeeded in producing what became Husserl's book on the consciousness of time, published in 1928 with little recognition of her contribution.
Husserl retired from Freiburg University in March 1928, after helping his former teaching assistant Martin Heidegger to succeed him. In a short time, however, the relationship between the two philosophers deteriorated for philosophical and political reasons, including Heidegger's support—publicly announced during his inaugural speech as rector of the university in 1933—for national socialism and its leader, Adolf Hitler.
Despite some health problems, including periods of profound depression, after his retirement Husserl remained intellectually active and had a strong desire to continue to write and refine his theory. In 1929, he went to Paris to deliver the lectures that became the Cartesian Meditations (first published in French in 1931), where he argued against a solipsistic view of his phenomenology and laid out the argument in favor of transcendental intersubjectivity. In 1935, he was invited to Vienna and Prague to deliver lectures, which were later included in the posthumous volume Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, where he introduced the concept of Lebenswelt (“lifeworld”) to characterize the pregiven, taken-for-granted world of both sense experience and thinking, that is, the world we inhabit when we are in what he had called “the natural attitude” in Ideas. More important, however, in Crisis, Husserl raises the issue of the limitations of the sciences in addressing the meaning of human existence. Anticipating later studies of laboratory work and scientific discovery, Husserl promoted the importance of going beyond what scientists consider facts to reveal what makes them into facts. He wrote, “Merely fact-minded sciences make merely fact-minded people” (Crisis, p. 6). For Husserl, then, toward the end of his life, transcendental phenomenology represented more than a theory of knowledge. It was his proposal for rescuing European civilization from irrationality gone violent and repressive.
The increasingly oppressive German racial laws eventually stripped Husserl not only of his right to teach but of his German citizenship as well. Without a passport, he was not allowed to travel freely, and, given his views on the universal properties of human consciousness, which did not square with Nazi claims of the superiority of the German race, he was also forbidden from publishing in Germany. He became ill in 1936 while revising his Crisis manuscript, was bedridden in 1937 due to a fall, and never fully recovered. He died on April 27, 1938, at the age of 79.
Husserl's wife Malvine and his assistant Eugen Fink succeeded in saving from the Nazis some 40,000 pages of shorthand lecture notes and unpublished manuscripts, plus about 10,000 pages of typewritten transcriptions that had been made during Husserl's lifetime by his assistants. With the help of the Franciscan priest Hermann Van Breda, those documents were sent to the Catholic University of Leuven, where the Husserl Archive was established in 1939. Since 1973, the hard work of dedicated scholars has produced more than 40 volumes of Husserl's works (in the Husserliana series). The translation of some of those volumes into English, French, Italian, and other languages has helped make Husserl's work known to an increasingly wider audience of humanists and social scientists. Husserl's finished and unfinished manuscripts demonstrate that he had something interesting and profound to say about a vast range of fundamental human activities, including knowing, thinking, theorizing, imagining, remembering, reflecting, empathizing, evaluating, and paying attention.
Even though the term phenomenology had been used by earlier writers, Husserl gave it a particular meaning, which he kept refining throughout his whole career. To engage in a phenomenology of our being in the world for Husserl meant to study how objects—broadly defined—are given to us. This means that we need to attend to what appears to us (the phenomena), their essential properties, and the role of our consciousness in recognizing them and making them into what they are—that is, constituting them. To engage in such an investigation, Husserl proposed to ignore the issue of whether or not something exists in the world and to focus instead on our experience of its essential qualities. By engaging in the phenomenological reduction, we are able to “bracket” our taken-for-granted world of the “natural attitude” so that we can examine in detail and without prejudice what is distinctive about a given entity “out there” (a tree in the garden, a friend's voice on the phone) or in our mind (the memory of a face, an excuse we are prepared to use) or about the ways in which we relate to such an entity (e.g., by having beliefs, wishes, preferences, feelings, and fantasies). To engage in phenomenological analysis of the kind proposed by Husserl, then, means to be able to identify the essential qualities of each experience in order to account for its distinctiveness. What makes remembering a trip among friends different from imagining it? What makes being tired after shoveling snow in front of our own house different from shoveling snow as a job? How is the anticipation of the feeling in my mouth while I am about to bite into a sandwich suddenly affected and changed if I become aware of a homeless person watching me? Since observationally, in each of these cases, I might not be able to “see” what is different—a problem for the strictly “observational” sciences—I need to focus on the role played by my consciousness in providing an interpretation in response to or sometimes despite the sense data that are available to me. Through intentional acts of different levels of complexity (e.g., listening to a song, remembering someone's name, looking for a street name, feeling sorry for someone, etc.), we play an active role in assigning interpretations to perceived, sensuous data (hyle) as well as in interpreting culturally rich information. When we read from a text, we are exposed to sensuous data, but our natural attitude is to see those marks as words and not as lines or dots against a white or lighter background (in fact, we need to suspend our ordinary way of looking at a familiar script in order to attend to it as an aesthetic object). Similarly, when we hear people speak a familiar language, we do not hear “mere sounds.” Instead, we hear what they are saying. Even when we do not understand the words (because we are too far or because people are speaking a foreign language we do not understand), we still know that a language (as opposed to gibberish) is being spoken. Husserl conceived phenomenology as a descriptive science that should allow people to distill out the essence of each of these lived experiences. The ultimate goal, however, is not the identification of one's own personal, subjective experience but a general, universal science of lived experiences as such.
In pursuing the essential specific characteristics of human experiences, Husserl identified a transcendental ego—the a priori constituting (pure) subject of all experiences—that partakes in a flow of consciousness. This is a stream, which Husserl discussed in his lectures on time consciousness as the “living” (Lebende) and later (in his lectures later published in Analysis Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis) as the “living present” (lebendige Gegenwart). Husserl's genetic method consists in the uncovering of the origins of our special way of being in the living present and attending to the surrounding world, often in a pre-predicative, pre-reflective, and perceptual mode—which he calls “passive.” The living present is occupied by other human beings who participate in a simultaneous fashion (in a “pairing”) in one's lifeworld.
Even though we cannot enter into another person's consciousness and have a first-person experience of what he or she is thinking or perceiving, in our everyday life we are able to have an intuitive sense of other people's goals, motivations, and even feelings. This is made possible through empathy (Einfühlung), a concept that Husserl borrowed from Theodor Lipps (1851-1914). Empathic apperception makes it possible to see another person not simply as a physical body (Körper) that has a certain weight, size, and shape but also and crucially as a lived body (Leib), which moves, reacts, and anticipates its surroundings in the ways in which our lived body would. When I see another person moving a hand to grasp a cup, I have an immediate, embodied, intuitive understanding of that action as something that I myself might do were I in the same position. This is where the concept of intersubjectivity comes in as the foundation of both objectivity and human sociality. The world is “objectified” not by the simultaneous occupation of the same viewpoint—that is, you and I do not need to be in the same place at the same time to know that the world is the same for the two of us—or by the complete matching of our perceptions, beliefs, or feelings but by the possibility of “trading places” (Platzwechsel). My lifeworld by definition presupposes the lifeworld of others. I can assume that the cup I am seeing from my point of view has another side that is visible to another person standing over there and that were that person to stand where I am, he or she would see it as I do. This is transcendental intersubjectivity, the condition for a shared objective world and for interdependence among humans. I am an alter ego for someone else and, vice versa, he or she is my alter ego. Intersubjectivity is implicated in everything we do and everything we touch, see, hear, smell, grasp, or read, including this text, which assumes a community of readers invested in approximating each other's stream of thought through analogy and a shared world of texts, authors, ideas, and interests.
Husserl's ideas spread into the social sciences in the United States, thanks to Alfred Schütz (1899-1959) and Aron Gurwitsch (1901-1973), who, with other European scholars who had escaped Nazi-dominated Western Europe, taught at the New School for Social Research in New York during and immediately after World War Two. It was partly thanks to interactions with Schütz and Gurwitsch that Harold Garfinkel (1917-2011) developed the field of ethnomethodology, which adopted some of Husserl's key concepts, such as the lifeworld and the method of bracketing. Over the past 2 decades, a number of anthropologists, including Michael Jackson, Robert Desjarlais, and C. Jason Throop, have adopted or revised some of Husserl's key concepts to analyze culture-specific expressions of pain, suffering, illness, and loss. These and other authors have suggested that some of Husserl's concepts offer themselves for an immediate translation into anthropological discourse. The notion of “natural attitude,” for example, can easily be recast as the “cultural attitude,” namely, the taken-for-granted way of being in the world that ethnographers try to capture in their writing. An exploration of Husserl's writings on intersubjectivity can help us describe the tension between autonomy and sociality, or between individual resilience and interrelatedness, that has been documented in so many societies around the world. It can also illuminate contemporary discussions of the phylogenetic and ontogenetic roots of human sociality. Husserl's writings about temporality and a sense of a shared objective world can help ethnographers grappling with how individuals and social groups establish continuity while recognizing change through birth rites, marriages, funerals, and other public events. Just like an otherwise lifeless ink mark on a piece of paper acquires meaning through an intentional act produced by someone who “sees” it as a “word,” so does a gathering of people around a newborn, a young couple, or a dead body constitute the newborn, the couple, or the dead, respectively, into a being(s) of a certain kind and the moment as one within a series of moments that make up the “whole” of the human cycle and, on a grander scale, the history of the community and its tradition. Husserl's writings provide myriad insights into the unfolding interplay of subjectivity and intersubjectivity in the constitution of self and society.
See also Benjamin, Deconstruction; Derrida, Jacques; Walter; Phenomenology
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