German, b: 8 April 1859, Prossnitz, Moravia. d: 27 April 1938, Freiburg, Germany. Cat: Phenomenologist. Ints: Epistemology; ontology. Educ: Universities of Leipzig, Berlin, Vienna and Halle. Infls: Literary influences include Descartes, the British empricists and Kant; personal influences include Franz Brentano and Thomas Masaryk. Appts: 1891–1901, Privatdozent, University of Halle; 1906–16, Ordinarius, University of Göttingen; 1916–28, Professor, University of Freiburg.
Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, first came to prominence through the publication of his Logical Investigations (1900–1). It was on the basis of this book that the phenomenological movement was formed. The early phenomenologists were most impressed by the call to a return to the things themselves (‘Zu den Sachen selbst!’) in the sense of giving precedence to how things (material objects but also numbers, institutions, works of art, persons, etc.) present themselves in actual experience over the dictates of some theory or system as to how they must be. Such philosophers were strongly influenced by Husserl’s arguments against psychologism, were profoundly realist in outlook and generally exhibited a marked anti-Kantian tendency. It therefore came as something of a shock when Husserl published his next main work, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy (1913). For this seemed to represent a reversal of all that phenomenology had come to stand for. It was not the idea of arriving at pure consciousness by a process of reduction which was found objectionable. Nor was it the idea of intuiting and describing the essential structures of such consciousness (for according to the phenomenologists everything has its essence). Rather what was found objectionable was the idea that everything else is constituted in pure consciousness. This seemed like a capitulation to the neo-Kantians. Thereafter it was no longer possible to speak of a Husserlian school. Husserl himself would continue to insist that the reluctance to follow him in the transcendental direction laid down in his Ideas was based on a failure properly to understand the nature of his trancendentalism. In 1916 he moved to Freiburg, where three years later Martin Heidegger became his assistant. Husserl had great hopes for Heidegger, seeing in him someone of matchless ability who would continue to develop phenomenology along the lines he, Husserl, had laid down. Although not mistaken about Heidegger’s ability, he was mistaken about his identification which his conception of phenomenology. The publication in 1927 of Being and Time, and Heidegger’s succession to Husserl’s Chair a year later, served only to accelerate a process which had been underway for some years: the emergence of Heideggerian phenomenology as the dominant force in German philosophy. As Husserl was Jewish the advent of National Socialism resulted in even greater isolation. But then Husserl always thought of genuine philosophy as an essentially lonely task. He continued to be creative, producing in the last years of his life his monumental Crisis of the European Sciences (1954).
In attempting to convey the essential character of Husserl’s phenomenology it is perhaps best to begin with the notion of the intentionality of consciousness. Consciousness in its various modes has the property of being ‘of something or being directed towards something. For example, in thinking something is thought about, in perception something is perceived, in imagining something is imagined, in fear something is feared. Husserl calls these various modes of consciousness intentional experiences or acts. Unlike his teacher Brentano he does not regard the object of consciousness as being in all cases an inner mental entity. When I think about a mental image my consciousness is directed towards a mental entity. But when, for example, I see this book on my desk this intentional experience, the seeing, is directed towards a material object. What I am concious of is not an inner mental picture of a book but, precisely, a book. Even when I merely imagine a book it is not the case that my consciousness is directed towards a mental image. Each intentional experience, and not just those which essentially involve the use of language, contains something Husserl calls a sense or meaning (Sinn), and it is this which is responsible for the experience’s directedness towards its object.
Intentionality is not a property which consciousness just happens to have. Without it consciousness would not be consciousness. It belongs to the essence of consciousness. The various modes of consciousness, as well as having the fundamental essential feature of intentionality, also have more specific essential features: for example, perception essentially involves sensation. The sense or meaning of the experience ‘animates’ sensation in such away that it becomes an appearance of an object. In perception the object perspectivally adumbrates itself (schattet sich ab). The perceptually presented front-side of the object refers beyond itself to the unseen rearside.
Normally consciousness is directed towards some item in the world and normally this item is regarded as really existing and as really possessing such and such properties. But whether or not the object of consciousness in fact exists, and whether or not it possesses the properties it is intended as having, this mode of consciousness, with this object, exists and can be described by the subject whose consciousness it is. It is possible to describe intentional experiences independently of the question of the real existence and real being-thus of their object. Moreover it is possible to describe the essence of such experiences, the features and structures without which they would not be the experiences they are.
However, even if we disregard the question of the reality of the object of an experience we still regard the experience itself as an event in the world, as belonging to a psycho-physical reality, the human being, which is one item among others in the world. And even when we disregard the question of the reality of a particular object we still take for granted the existence of the world as a whole. This taking-for-granted, which Husserl calls the general thesis of the natural attitude, can be suspended or ‘put out of action’ in an operation which he calls the transcendental reduction. Consciousness on which this operation has been carried out is not itself an item in the world but rather that for which there is a world. Phenomenology as the mature Husserl understands it is the description of the essential structures of this transcendental consciousness or subjectivity. These structures are not inferred by any kind of Kantian transcendental argument but are ‘seen’ by the phenomenological ‘observer’ in the phenomenological, as opposed to the natural, attitude.
Anything, of whatever ontological type, can be an object of consciousness. In the case of each type of entity phenomenology describes the structures of consciousness of such an entity. This includes a description of the entity itself but as object of consciousness, i.e. as phenomenon. In abstraction from questions of real existence and real nature one considers the entity simply as it shows itself to consciousness. Phenomenology also describes the world, as the universal horizon of all that shows itself. The world is not just the totality of objects of consciousness, not just one great big object, but that from within which entities show themselves.
What is the purpose of such description? It is supposed by Husserl to yield ultimate understanding of things. To describe the structures of transcendental consciousness in which something becomes an object of consciousness is to describe the ‘constitution’ of that thing. The world and everything in it, including human beings, is constituted in transcendental subjectivity. As Husserl uses the term, ‘constitution’ suggests a kind of making, a bringing into being. It was in this ‘creationist’ sense that Husserl’s transcendental idealism was generally understood—and generally rejected. However, it has recently been argued that such an interpretation is mistaken. What is constituted in consciousness is not things but senses, not the things that consciousness intends but the senses ‘through’ which it intends them.
In the final phase of his phenomenology Husserl introduces the notion of the lifeworld (Lebenswelt), the world of lived experience. What he calls objectivism seeks to eliminate everything subjective from our representation of the world by allowing as real only those aspects of experience which can be represented by means of the concepts of the mathematical natural sciences. Such objectivism dismisses the lifeworld as mere appearance. But this is to call in question the lifeworld from ths standpoint of what is itself a construction formed on the basis of the lifeworld. The properties and structures attributed by the objectifying sciences to the ‘objective’ world are themselves the product of a process of idealization and mathematization of ‘lifeworldly’ structures. The task of philosophy is not to downgrade the lifeworld but to remove from it the ‘garment of ideas’ which science has thrown over it. However, Husserl’s emphasis on the lifeworld in his later philosophy does not represent a fundamental change in his conception of phenomenology as transcendental phenomenology. The lifeworld does not represent the ultimate foundation, for it is itself constituted in transcendental subjectivity.
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