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Husserl n : German philosopher who developed phenomenology (1859-1938) [syn: Edmund Husserl]

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Edmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl (; April 8 1859April 26 1938) was a philosopher, known as the father of phenomenology. His work was a break with the purely positivist orientation and understanding of the science and philosophy of his day, giving weight to subjective experience as the source of all of our knowledge of objective phenomena.
Husserl was a pupil of Franz Brentano and Carl Stumpf; his philosophical work influenced, among others, Hans Blumenberg, Ludwig Landgrebe, Eugen Fink, Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Lévinas, Rudolf Carnap, Hermann Weyl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Pierre Bourdieu, Paul Ricœur, Jacques Derrida, Jan Patočka, Roman Ingarden, Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), and Karol Wojtyla. In 1887 Husserl converted to Christianity and joined the Lutheran Church. He taught philosophy at Halle as a tutor (Privatdozent) from 1887, then at Göttingen as professor from 1901, and at Freiburg im Breisgau from 1916 until he retired in 1928. After this, he continued his research and writing by using the library at Freiburg.


Education and early works

Husserl was born into a Jewish family in Prossnitz, Moravia, then part of the Austrian Empire, after 1918 a part of Czechoslovakia (since 1993, the Czech Republic).
He initially studied mathematics at the universities of Leipzig (1876) and Berlin (1878), under Karl Weierstrass and Leopold Kronecker. In 1881 he went to Vienna to study under the supervision of Leo Königsberger (a former student of Weierstrass), obtaining the Ph.D. in 1883 with the work Beiträge zur Variationsrechnung ("Contributions to the Calculus of Variations").
In 1884, he began to attend Franz Brentano's lectures on psychology and philosophy at the University of Vienna. Husserl was so impressed by Brentano that he decided to dedicate his life to philosophy. In 1886 Husserl went to the University of Halle to obtain his Habilitation with Carl Stumpf, a former student of Brentano. Under his supervision he wrote Über den Begriff der Zahl (On the concept of Number; 1887) which would serve later as the base for his first major work, Philosophie der Arithmetik (1891).
In these first works he tries to combine mathematics, psychology and philosophy with a main goal to provide a sound foundation for mathematics. He analyzes the psychological process needed to obtain the concept of number and then tries to build up a systematical theory on this analysis. To achieve this he uses several methods and concepts taken from his teachers. From Weierstrass he derives the idea that we generate the concept of number by counting a certain collection of objects. From Brentano and Stumpf he takes over the distinction between proper and improper presenting. In an example Husserl explains this in the following way: if you are standing in front of a house, you have a proper, direct presentation of that house, but if you are looking for it and ask for directions, then these directions (e.g. the house on the corner of this and that street) are an indirect, improper presentation. In other words, you can have a proper presentation of an object if it is actually present, and an improper (or symbolic as he also calls it) if you only can indicate that object through signs, symbols, etc. Husserl's 1901 Logical Investigations is considered the starting point for the formal theory of wholes and their parts known as mereology.
Another important element that Husserl took over from Brentano is intentionality, the notion that the main characteristic of consciousness is that it is always intentional. While often simplistically summarised as "aboutness" or the relationship between mental acts and the external world, Brentano defined it as the main characteristic of mental phenomena, by which they could be distinguished from physical phenomena. Every mental phenomenon, every psychological act has a content, is directed at an object (the intentional object). Every belief, desire etc. has an object that they are about: the believed, the wanted. Brentano used the expression "intentional inexistence" to indicate the status of the objects of thought in the mind. The property of being intentional, of having an intentional object, was the key feature to distinguish mental phenomena and physical phenomena, because physical phenomena lack intentionality altogether.

The elaboration of phenomenology

Some years after the publication of his main work, the Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations; first edition, 1900-1901) Husserl made some key conceptual elaborations which led him to assert that in order to study the structure of consciousness, one would have to distinguish between the act of consciousness and the phenomena at which it is directed (the object-in-itself, transcendent to consciousness). Knowledge of essences would only be possible by "bracketing" all assumptions about the existence of an external world. This procedure he called epoché. These new concepts prompted the publication of the Ideen (Ideas) in 1913, in which they were at first incorporated, and a plan for a second edition of the Logische Untersuchungen.
From the Ideen onward, Husserl concentrated on the ideal, essential structures of consciousness. The metaphysical problem of establishing the material reality of what we perceive was of little interest to Husserl despite being a transcendental idealist. Husserl proposed that the world of objects and ways in which we direct ourselves toward and perceive those objects is normally conceived of in what he called the "natural standpoint", which is characterized by a belief that objects materially exist and exhibit properties that we see as emanating from them. Husserl proposed a radical new phenomenological way of looking at objects by examining how we, in our many ways of being intentionally directed toward them, actually "constitute" them (to be distinguished from materially creating objects or objects merely being figments of the imagination); in the Phenomenological standpoint, the object ceases to be something simply "external" and ceases to be seen as providing indicators about what it is, and becomes a grouping of perceptual and functional aspects that imply one another under the idea of a particular object or "type". The notion of objects as real is not expelled by phenomenology, but "bracketed" as a way in which we regard objects instead of a feature that inheres in an object's essence founded in the relation between the object and the perceiver. In order to better understand the world of appearances and objects, Phenomenology attempts to identify the invariant features of how objects are perceived and pushes attributions of reality into their role as an attribution about the things we perceive (or an assumption underlying how we perceive objects).
In a later period, Husserl began to wrestle with the complicated issues of intersubjectivity (specifically, how communication about an object can be assumed to refer to the same ideal entity) and tries new methods of bringing his readers to understand the importance of Phenomenology to scientific inquiry (and specifically to Psychology) and what it means to "bracket" the natural attitude. The Crisis of the European Sciences is Husserl's unfinished work that deals most directly with these issues. In it, Husserl for the first time attempts a historical overview of the development of Western philosophy and science, emphasizing the challenges presented by their increasingly (one-sidedly) empirical and naturalistic orientation. Husserl declares that mental and spiritual reality possess their own reality independent of any physical basis, and that a science of the spirit ('Geisteswissenschaft') must be established on as scientific a foundation as the natural sciences have managed:
It is my conviction that intentional phenomenology has for the first time made spirit as spirit the field of systematic scientific experience, thus effecting a total transformation of the task of knowledge.

The Nazi era

Professor Husserl was denied the use of the library at Freiburg as a result of the anti-Jewish legislation the National Socialists (Nazis) passed in April 1933. It is rumored that his former pupil and Nazi Party member, Martin Heidegger, informed Husserl that he was discharged, but Heidegger later denied this, labelling it as slander. Heidegger (whose philosophy Husserl considered to be the result of a faulty departure from, and grave misunderstanding of Husserl's own teachings and methods) removed the dedication to Husserl from his most widely known work, Being and Time, when it was reissued in 1941. This was not due to diminishing relations between the two philosophers, however, but rather as a result of a suggested censorship by Heidegger's publisher who feared that the book may be banned by the Nazi regime For example, the review falsely attributes to Husserl the view that he subjectivizes everything so no objectivity is possible, and also falsely attributed to him a notion of abstraction whereby the objects disappear until we are left with the number (or at least with two ghosts). Contrary to what Frege states, already in Husserl's Philosophy of Arithmetic we find two different kinds of representations: a subjective representation and objective representation. Objectivity is clearly stated in that work. Frege's attack seems rather to be addressed at the idea on the foundations of mathematics current in the Berlin School of Weierstrass, of which Husserl and Cantor, however, can not be said to be orthodox representatives.
Furthermore, from various sources it is quite clear that Husserl changed his mind about psychologism as early as 1890, a year before his Philosophy of Arithmetic was published. Husserl stated that when it was published, he had already changed his mind. In fact, he says that he had doubts about psychologism from the very beginning. He attributed his change of mind to Leibniz, Bolzano, Lotze, and David Hume. He makes no mention of Frege as being decisive for the change. In his Logical Investigations, Husserl mentions Frege only twice, one of them in a footnote to point out that he retracted three pages of his criticism of Frege's The Foundations of Arithmetic, and the other one was to question Frege's use of the word Bedeutung to designate reference rather than meaning (sense).
About the difference of sense and reference, Frege thanked Husserl in a letter dated May 24, 1891 for sending him a copy of Philosophy of Arithmetic and Husserl's review of E. Schröder's Vorlesungen über die Algebra der Logik, and in that same letter, he takes Husserl's review of Schröder's book to compare both his and Husserl's notion of sense of reference of concept words. In other words, Frege did recognize, as early as 1891, that Husserl made the difference between sense and reference. The inevitable conclusion is that Gottlob Frege and Edmund Husserl, before 1891, independently reached a theory of sense and reference.
Others point to the fact that Husserl's notion of noema has nothing to do with Frege's notion of sense. For Husserl, noemata are necessarily fused with noeses which are the conscious activities of consciousness. Also, noemata have three different levels: the substratum, which is never presented to consciousness and is the supporter of all the properties of the object; the noematic senses, which are the different ways the objects are presented to us; and modalities of being (possible, doubtful, existent, non-existent, absurd, and so on). Hence, in intentional activities, even non-existent objects can be constituted, and form part of the whole noema. Frege, on the other hand, did not conceive objects as forming part of senses, and if a proper name denotes a non-existent object, then it does not have a reference, hence concepts with no object as argument have no truth value. Also Husserl did not hold that predicate of sentences designate concepts. Also, for Frege, the reference of a sentence is a truth value. Husserl thinks that the reference of a sentence is a state of affairs. So, Husserl's notion of noema is totally unrelated to Frege's notion of sense, just as Husserl's notion of meaning and object is different from that of Frege.
Finally, a comparison between Husserl's conception of logic and mathematics differ from Frege's. While Frege supported the idea that arithmetic could be derived from logic, Husserl's position was that this is not the case. For him, mathematics (with the exception of geometry) is logic's ontological correlate, they are both sister disciplines, but none of them is reducible to the other.

Husserl's criticism of psychologism

Psychologism in logic stipulated that logic itself was not an independent discipline, but a branch of psychology. Husserl, after his Platonic turn, pointed out that the failure of anti-psychologists to defeat psychologism is a result of being unable to distinguish between the theoretical side of logic (which tells us what is - descriptive), and the normative side (which tells us how we ought to think - prescriptive). Anti-psychologists at that time conceived logic as being normative in nature, when pure logic does not deal at all with "thoughts" but about a priori conditions for any judgments and any theory whatsoever.
Since "truth-in-itself" has "being-in-itself" as ontological correlate, and psychologists reduce truth (and hence logic) to empirical psychology, the inevitable consequence is scepticism. Besides, also psychologists have not been so successful in trying to see how from induction or psychological processes we can justify the absolute certainty of logical principles, such as the principles of identity and non-contradiction. It is therefore futile to base certain logical laws and principles on uncertain processes of the mind.
This confusion made by psychologism (and related disciplines such as biologism and anthropologism) can be due to three specific prejudices:
1. The first prejudice is the supposition that logic is somehow normative in nature. Husserl argues that logic is theoretical, i.e., that logic itself proposes a priori laws which are themselves the basis of the normative side of logic. Since mathematics is related to logic, he cites an example from mathematics: If we have a formula like (a+b)(a-b)=a²-b² it does not tell us how to think mathematically. It just expresses a truth. A proposition that says: "The product of the sum and the difference of a and b should give us the difference of the squares of a and b" does express a normative proposition, but this normative statement is based on the theoretical statement "(a+b)(a-b)=a²-b²".
2. For psychologists, the acts of judging, reasoning, deriving, and so on, are all psychological processes. Therefore, it is the role of psychology to provide the foundation of these processes. Husserl states that this effort made by psychologists are a "μετάβασις εἰς ἄλλο γένος" (a transgression to another field). It is a μετάβασις because psychology cannot possibly provide any foundations for a priori laws which themselves are the basis for all the ways we should think correctly. Psychologists have the problem of confusing intentional activities with the object of these activities. It is important to distinguish between the act of judging and the judgment itself, the act of counting and the number itself, and so on. Counting five objects is undeniably a psychological process, but the number 5 is not.
3. Judgments can be true or not true. Psychologists argue that judgments are true because they become "evidently" true to us. This evidence, a psychological process that "guarantees" truth, is indeed a psychological process. Husserl responds to it saying that truth itself as well as logical laws remain valid always regardless of psychological "evidence" that they are true. No psychological process can explain the a priori objectivity of these logical truths.
From this criticism to psychologism, the distinction between psychological acts from their intentional objects, and the difference between the normative side of logic from the theoretical side, derives from a platonist conception of logic. This means that we should regard logical and mathematical laws as being independent of the human mind, and also as an autonomy of meanings. It is essentially the difference between the real (everything subject to time) and the ideal or irreal (everything that is atemporal), such as logical truths, mathematical entities, mathematical truths and meanings in general.

Philosophers influenced by Husserl

Hans Blumenberg received his postdoctoral qualification in 1950, with a dissertation on 'Ontological distance', an inquiry into the crisis of Husserl's phenomenology.
Hermann Weyl's interest in intuitionistic logic and impredicativity appears to have resulted from contacts with Husserl.
Rudolf Carnap was also influenced by Husserl, not only concerning Husserl's notion of essential insight that Carnap used in his Der Raum, but also his notion of "formation rules" and "transformation rules" is founded on Husserl's philosophy of logic.
Ludwig Landgrebe became assistant to Husserl in 1923. From 1939 he collaborated with Eugen Fink at the Husserl-Archives in Leuven, authorized by Husserl. In 1954 he became leader of the Husserl-Archives. Landgrebe is known as one of Husserl's closest associates, but also for his independent views relating to history, religion and politics as seen from the viewpoints of existentialist philosophy and metaphysics..
Max Scheler met Husserl in Halle and found in his phenomenology a methodological breakthrough for his own philosophical endeavors. Even though Scheler later criticised Husserl's idealistic logical approach and proposed instead a "phenomenology of love", he states that he remained "deeply indebted" to Husserl throughout his work. Husserl also had some influence on Pope John-Paul II, which appears strongly in a work by the latter, The Acting Person, or Person and Act. It was originally published in Polish in 1969 under his pre-papal name Karol Wojtyla (in collaboration with the polish phenomenologist: Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka) and combined phenomenological work with Thomistic Ethics.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception is influenced by Edmund Husserl's work on perception and temporality, including Husserl's theory of retention and protention.
Wilfrid Sellars, an influential figure in the so-called "Pittsburgh school" (Robert Brandom, John McDowell) had been a student of Marvin Farber, a pupil of Husserl, and was influenced by phenomenology through him:
Marvin Farber led me through my first careful reading of the Critique of Pure Reason and introduced me to Husserl. His combination of utter respect for the structure of Husserl's thought with the equally firm conviction that this structure could be given a naturalistic interpretation was undoubtedly a key influence on my own subsequent philosophical strategy.
Husserl's formal analysis of language also inspired Stanisław Leśniewski and Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz in the development of categorial grammar.
Husserl also influenced Martin Heidegger. Heidegger's magnum opus Being and Time is dedicated to Husserl.
Kurt Gödel expressed very strong appreciation for Husserl's work, especially with regard to "bracketing" or epoche.
The influence of the Husserlian phenomenological tradition in the 21st century is extending beyond the confines of the European and North American legacies. It has already started to impact (indirectly) scholarship in Eastern and Oriental thought, including research on the impetus of philosophical thinking in the history of ideas in Islam.


Primary literature

  • Über den Begriff der Zahl. Psychologische Analysen (1887)
  • Philosophie der Arithmetik. Psychologische und logische Untersuchungen (Philosophy of Arithmetic, 1891)
  • Logische Untersuchungen. Erste Teil: Prolegomena zur reinen Logik (Logical Investigations, Vol 1, 1900)
  • Logische Untersuchungen. Zweite Teil: Untersuchungen zur Phänomenologie und Theorie der Erkenntnis (Logical Investigations, Vol 2, 1901)
  • Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft (1911, included in Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy: Philosophy as Rigorous Science and Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man)
  • Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie. Erstes Buch: Allgemeine Einführung in die reine Phänomenologie (1913, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology)
  • Erste Philosophie. Zweiter Teil: Theorie der phänomenologischen Reduktion (1923-1924, First Philosophy, Vol 2: Phenomenological Reductions)
  • Erste Philosophie. Erste Teil: Kritische Ideengeschichte (1925, First Philosophy Vol 1: Critical History of Ideas)
  • Vorlesungen zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins (1928)
  • Formale und transzendentale Logik. Versuch einer Kritik der logischen Vernunft (1929, Formal and Transcendental Logic)
  • Méditations cartésiennes (1931, Cartesian Meditations) (english 1960)
  • Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzentale Phänomenologie: Eine Einleitung in die phänomenologische Philosophie (1936, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy)
  • Erfahrung und Urteil. Untersuchungen zur Genealogie der Logik. (1939, Experience and Judgment)
  • Ideen II: Phänomenologische Untersuchungen zur Konstitution (1952)
  • Ideen III: Die Phänomenologie und die Fundamente der Wissenschaften (1952)

Secondary literature

  • Derrida, Jacques, 1954 (French; published 1900), 2003 (English). The Problem of Genesis in Husserl's Philosophy. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.
  • Derrida, Jacques, 1962 (French), 1976 (English). Introduction to Husserl's The Origin of Geometry. This work included Derrida's own translation of Husserl's appendix III of his 1936 work The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.
  • Derrida, Jacques, 1967 (French), 1973 (English). Speech and Phenomena (La Voix et le Phénomène), and other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. ISBN 0-8101-0397-4
  • Hill, C. O., 1991. Word and Object in Husserl, Frege, and Russell: The Roots of Twentieth-Century Philosophy. Ohio Uni. Press.
  • Hill, C. O., and Rosado Haddock, G. E., 2000. Husserl or Frege? Meaning, Objectivity, and Mathematics. Open Court.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel, 1963 (French), 1973 (English). The Theory of Intuition in Husserl's Phenomenology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
  • Köchler, Hans, "The Relativity of the Soul and the Absolute State of the Pure Ego," in: Analecta Husserliana, Vol. 16 (1983), pp. 95-107.
  • Köchler, Hans, Phenomenological Realism. Selected Essays. Frankfurt a. M./Bern: Peter Lang, 1986.
  • Mohanty, J. N., 1982. Edmund Husserl's Theory of Meaning. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
  • Mohanty, J. N., 1982. Husserl and Frege. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Mohanty, J. N., 1974. "Husserl and Frege: A New Look at Their Relationship." Research in Phenomenology. 4: 51-62.
  • Natanson, Maurice, 1973. Edmund Husserl: Philosopher of Infinite Tasks. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. ISBN 0-8101-0425-3
  • Ricoeur, Paul, 1967. Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
  • Rollinger, R. D., 1999. Husserl’s Position in the School of Brentano, Phaenomenologica 150. Kluwer. ISBN 0-7923-5684-5
  • Schuhmann, K., 1977. Husserl – Chronik (Denk- und Lebensweg Edmund Husserls). Number I in Husserliana Dokumente. Martinus Nijhoff. ISBN 90-247-1972-0
  • Simons, Peter, 1987. Parts: A Study in Ontology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Smith, B. & Woodruff Smith, D., eds., 1995. The Cambridge Companion to Husserl. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43616-8
  • Stiegler, Bernard, 1996 (French). La technique et le temps. Tome 2: La désorientation. Paris: Galilée.
  • Tieszen, Richard, 1995. "Mathematics," in David Smith & Barry Smith, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Husserl (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Woodruff Smith, David, 2007. Husserl London: Routledge.


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