Edmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl (1859 – 1938) was a Moravian-German philosopher and mathematician (usually considered German as most of his adult life was spent in Germany), best known as the father of the 20th Century Phenomenology movement.
His work broke with the dominant Positivism of his day, giving weight to subjective experience as the source of all of our knowledge of objective phenomena. Along with Georg Hegel and his own student Martin Heidegger, he was a major influence on the whole of 20th Century Continental Philosophy.
Husserl was born on 8 April 1859 in Prossnitz, Moravia (present-day Prostejov in the Czech Republic, but then part of the Austrian Empire). His father was a Jewish clothing merchant, and the language of the Husserl home was probably Yiddish although it was not an orthodox household.
His father had the means and the inclination to send Edmund away to Vienna at the age of 10 to begin his German classical education (and he was lucky that the recent liberalization of the laws governing Prossnitz’s Jews allowed this), atlhough just a year later, in 1870, he moved back closer to home to the Staatsgymnasium in Olmütz. He was remembered there as a mediocre student who nevertheless loved mathematics and science. He graduated in 1876 and went to Leipzig for university studies, where he studied mathematics, physics, and philosophy.
He moved to the University of Berlin in 1878 for further studies in mathematics, and then to Vienna (under the supervision of Leo Königsberger), where he completed his doctorate in 1883, at the age of 24, with a dissertation on the theory of the calculus of variations. He briefly held an academic post in Berlin, before returning again to Vienna in 1884 in order to attend the philosophy lectures of Franz Brentano (1838 – 1917), which had a great impact on Husserl and was instrumental in Husserl’s decision to dedicate his life to philosophy.
In 1886, Husserl went to the University of Halle to study psychology and to obtain his habilitation under Carl Stumpf (1848 – 1936), a former student of Brentano. There he also converted to Christianity (Evangelical Lutheran) and was baptized. He married Malvine Charlotte Steinschneider, a woman from the Prossnitz Jewish community, who was also baptized before the wedding, and the couple were to have three children. He remained at Halle teaching as an associate professor until 1901, and wrote his important early books, including the “Philosophie der Arithmetik” (“Philosophy of Arithmetic”) of 1891 and the “Logische Untersuchungen” (“Logical Investigations”) of 1901.
In 1901, Husserl joined the faculty at the University of Göttingen, where he taught for 16 years, and where he worked out the definitive formulations of his theory of Phenomenology, which he presented in his 1913 “Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie” (“Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy”). From about 1905, Husserl’s students formed themselves into a groupwith a common style of life and work, referring to Husserl as “the master”. The onset of World War I disrupted the circle of Husserl’s younger colleagues, and when his son, Wolfgang, died at Verdun in 1916, Husserl observed a year of mourning and kept silence professionally during that time.
In 1916, Husserl accepted an appointment to a professorship at Freiburg im Breisgau, a position he retained until he retired from teaching in 1928. Among his students at Freiburg were Martin Heidegger, (who Husserl always looked on as his legitimate heir, although their relationship cooled as Heidegger’s path took him more in the direction of Existentialism) and Rudolf Carnap (1891 – 1970), a leading figure in the Vienna Circle and a prominent advocate of Logical Positivism.
During this time, he continued to work on manuscripts that would be published after his death as volumes two and three of the “Ideen”, and to refine his Phenomenology, as well as on many other projects. After his retirement, he continued to make use of the Freiburg library until denied by the anti-Jewish legislation passed by the National Socialists (Nazis) in April 1933. The rise of the Nazis in Germany also caused Husserl to definitively break with Heidegger.
Husserl died of pleurisy on 28 April 1938 (Good Friday) near Freiburg, Germany.
Husserl developed his own individual style of working: all of his thoughts were conceived in writing, and during his life he produced more than 40,000 pages.
Under the supervision of Carl Stumpf (1848 – 1936), a former student of Franz Brentano (1838 – 1917), Husserl wrote “Über den Begriff der Zahl” (“On the concept of Number”) in 1887, which would serve as the base for his first major work, the “Philosophie der Arithmetik” (“Philosophy of Arithmetic”) of 1891. In these early works, he tried to combine mathematics, psychology and philosophy, his main goal being to provide a sound foundation for mathematics.
He published his major philosophical works while at the University of Göttingen: the “Logische Untersuchungen” (“Logical Investigations”) in 1901 (produced after an intensive study of the British Empiricists), and the first volume of the “Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie” (“Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy”) in 1913. It was in these works, particularly in the “Ideen”, that he introduced the major themes of his theory of Phenomenology, and Husserl himself believed that his work represented the culmination of the whole of philosophy from Plato on, because, as he saw it, he had discovered a description of reality which could not be denied.
Similar to Descartes, more than two centuries earlier, Husserl started from the standpoint that, for each of us, there is only one thing which is indubitably certain, namely our own conscious awareness. That, he concluded, must be the place to start to build our knowledge of the world around us. However, our awareness and consciousness must be awareness and consiousness of something, and we cannot distinguish from experience alone between states of consciousness and objects of consciousness. Husserl agreed with Skeptics down the ages who have asserted that we can never know whether objects of consciouness have an independent existence separate from us, but he insisted that they do indubitably exist as objects of consciousness for us and so can be investigated as such without making any unwarranted assumptions about their independent existence. It was this general idea of Husserl’s that launched the influential school of philosophy known as Phenomenology.
His fundamental methodological principle was what he called “phenomenological reduction”, essentially a kind of reflection on intellectual content. He asserted that he could justifiably “bracket” the data of consciousness by suspending all preconceptions about it, including (and especially) those drawn from what he called the “naturalistic standpoint”. Thus, it really did not matter, in his philosophy, whether an object under discussion really existed or not so long as he could at least conceive of the object, and objects of pure imagination could be examined with the same seriousness as data taken from the objective world.
Husserl concluded, then, that consciousness has no life apart from the objects or phenomena it considers. He called this characteristic “intentionality” (or object-directedness), following Brentano, and it embodied the idea that the human mind is the only thing is the whole universe that is able to direct itself toward other things outside of itself. Husserl described a concept he called intentional content, something in the mind which was sort of like a built-in mental description of external reality, and which allowed us to perceive and remember aspects of objects in the real world outside.
Husserl continued to refine his Phenomenology throughout his life. His last three major books were “Vorlesungen zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins” (“Lectures on the Phenomenology of Inner Time-Consciousness”) published in 1928, “Formale und transzendentale Logik”(“Formal and Transcendental Logic”) published in 1929, and “Mèditations cartèsiennes” (“Cartesian Meditations”) published in 1931. Two more volumes of his “Ideen”, which he had written during his time at Freiburg im Breisgau were published after his death, in 1952.
In his later work, Husserl moved further towards a kind of Idealism, a position which he had initially had tried to overcome or avoid, declaring that mental and spiritual reality possessed their own reality independent of any physical basis. At first, he espoused a kind of Transcendental Idealism, similar to that of Kant and the German Idealists, which asserted that our experience of things is about how they appear to us (representations), and not about those things as they are in and of themselves, and his view generally fell short of asserting that an objective world external to us does not exist. However, as he continued to gradually refine his thought, he ultimately arrived at an even more radical Idealist position, which essentially denied that external objects existed at all outside of our consciousness.