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Edmund Husserl, a leader of the German phenomenological movement, taught
at Göttingen from 1901 until 1916, and then at Freiburg im Breisgau from
1916 to 1928. This article presents (A) his biography; (B) various
strategies for interpreting his phenomenology; and (c) a survey of his
BIOGRAPHY. Edmund Husserl was born April 8, 1859, into a
Jewish family in
the town of Prossnitz in Moravia, then a part of the Austrian Empire.
Although there was a Jewish technical school in the town, Edmund's
father, a clothing merchant, had the means and the inclination to send
the boy away to Vienna at the age of 10 to begin his German classical
education in the Realgymnasium of the capital. A year later, in 1870,
Edmund transferred to the Staatsgymnasium in Olmütz, closer to home.
He was remembered there as a mediocre student who nevertheless
loved mathematics and science, "of blond and pale complexion, but of
good appetite." He graduated in 1876 and went to Leipzig for
At Leipzig Husserl studied mathematics, physics, and
philosophy, and he was particularly intrigued with astronomy and
optics. After two years he went to Berlin in 1878 for further studies in
mathematics. He completed that work in Vienna, 1881-83, and
received the doctorate with a dissertation on the theory of the calculus
of variations. He was 24. Husserl briefly held an academic post in
Berlin, then returned again to Vienna in 1884 and was able to attend
Franz Brentano's lectures in philosophy.
In 1886 he went to Halle, where he studied psychology and
wrote his Habilitationsschrift on the concept of number. He also was
baptized. The next year he became Privatdozent at Halle and married a
woman from the Prossnitz Jewish community, Malvine Charlotte
Steinschneider, who was baptized before the wedding. The couple had
three children. They remained at Halle until 1901, and Husserl wrote
his important early books there. The Habilitationsschrift was reworked
into the first part of Philosophie der Arithmetik, published in
1891. The two volumes of Logische Untersuchungen came out
in 1900 and 1901.
In 1901 Husserl joined the faculty at Göttingen, where he taught
for 16 years and where he worked out the definitive formulations of his
phenomenology that are presented in Ideen zu einer reinen
Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie (Ideas
Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological
Philosophy). The first volume of Ideen appeared in the first
volume of Husserl's Jahrbuch für Philosophie und
phänomenologische Forschung in 1913. Then the world war
disrupted the circle of Husserl's younger colleagues, and Wolfgang
Husserl, his son, died at Verdun. Husserl observed a year of mourning
and kept silence professionally during that time.
However Husserl accepted appointment in 1916 to a
professorship at Freiburg im Breisgau, a position from which he would
retire in 1928. At Freiburg Husserl continued to work on manuscripts
that would be published after his death as volumes two and three of the
Ideen, as well as on many other projects. His retirement from
teaching in 1928 did not slow the pace of his phenomenological
research. But his last years were saddened by the escalation of
National Socialism's racist policies against Jews. He died of pleurisy
in 1938, on Good Friday, reportedly as a Christian.
Most commentators, therefore, recognize three periods in
Husserl's career: the work at Halle, Göttingen, and Freiburg,
respectively. Some argue that one or another of these periods ought to
be taken as definitive and used as the interpretive key to unlock the
others. But such an approach highlights disjunctions in Husserl's
thought while neglecting the significant continuities. Important strands
of Husserl's philosophy have their beginning long before his academic
The community into which Husserl was born, Prossnitz, was a
center of talmudic learning whose yeshiva had produced or welcomed
a number of famous rabbis during the two centuries before Husserl's
birth. This scholarly activity was supported by the industries of textile
and clothing manufacture, through which Prossnitz's Jews had
enhanced the prosperity of the region. Jews and Germans were
minorities in the town and appear to have comprised its middle class.
Their interests were naturally allied against those of the Slavic
majority. (For example, the census of 1900 counted 1,680 Jews among
the town's 24,000 inhabitants, according to The Jewish
Encyclopedia.) In the ethnically diverse town, several dialects
were spoken, and the language of the Husserl home probably was
The Jewish community of Prossnitz had established a technical
school in 1843, and it became a public school for all the town's
children in 1869--one year before young Edmund Husserl was sent off
to Vienna's Realgymnasium. 1868 was also a year when civic
authorities called for reform of Jewish education at all levels
throughout Moravia. These developments reflect a movement toward
modernization and integration after centuries of enforced segregation
and legal restriction of Jewish life.
Prossnitz was the second-largest Jewish community in Moravia,
with 328 families. Exactly 328 families; it could have no more,
because of the quota established by the Bohemian Familianten
Gesetz in 1787. The Jewish population was controlled through
marriage licenses. Civil law set specific economic, age, and
educational requirements; but in addition, the license could be granted
only after a death freed up one of the allotted 328 slots. In effect, only
first sons could hope to marry. Others had to emigrate if they wanted
to have families of their own. This population-control policy was
enforced until 1849, ten years before Edmund Husserl's birth. The
requirement that Jews obtain special marriage licenses remained in
effect until late in 1859, some months after Edmund's birth.
But Edmund Husserl's childhood was spent during an era of
liberalization for Prossnitz's Jews. He received an elite secular
education and probably made his father quite proud. At that period,
gymnasia provided separate religious instruction for Christian boys and
Jewish boys. Edmund's Jewish education would have continued in that
context and in the language of secular culture, High German. He could
hear and read the Bible in that modern language as well, for in the
nineteenth century a wave of new translations into the language of
German culture was spawned by Moses Mendelssohn's
groundbreaking work. (Mendelssohn's 1783 translation into High
German was printed in Hebrew characters, phonetically, to make it
easy to read.) Some of these editions were lavishly illustrated for
display in bourgeois homes like Edmund's, and most took into account
the findings of recent historical and philological science. But during
Edmund's childhood, translating the Hebrew Bible was still a
controversial issue. Some educational leaders in the Jewish community
warned that it would undermine Hebrew learning among the young.
Hebrew learning was evidently not prized by a father who would send
his son to the capital to study Greek and Latin at the age when boys
traditionally were sent down the street to learn Hebrew and Torah. To
complicate the picture, in 1870 when Edmund was eleven, a new rabbi
came to serve the Prossnitz community.
One may surmise, then, that Edmund Husserl came by his
knowledge of the Bible through his classical secular education, not his
religious tradition. It was of a piece with the German cultural heritage
for him. It was a source of literary allusions, and in later life he could
compare himself to Moses and to Sisyphus with equal ease.
Literary allusions, along with fragments of correspondence, are
all that remain to us for the reconstruction of what Husserl may have
felt about himself and his work. There is no autobiography per
se. But there are retrospective texts. One of the most illuminating
is the brief introduction that Husserl prepared for the 1931 publication
in English of the first book of Ideen, originally brought out in
Now in his seventies, Husserl complains that most readers have misunderstood his
life's work. When he undertakes to reformulate what phenomenology is and what he
has accomplished, however, he writes from a vantage point that he did not have
some two decades earlier. Husserl becomes, in effect, a critic and interpreter
of his own work, which he describes with a sustained metaphor. He portrays
himself as an explorer who has opened the way into new territory so that others
may conquer, map, and farm it. Of himself, Husserl writes:
"(H)e who for decades did not speculate about a new
Atlantis but instead actually journeyed in the trackless wilderness of a
new continent and undertook the virgin cultivation of some of its areas
will not allow himself to be deterred in any way by the rejection of
geographers who judge his reports according to their habitual ways of
experiencing and thinking and thereby excuse themselves from the pain
of undertaking travels in the new land" (422)
Here is another example of this characterization:
I can see spread out before me the endlessly open plains
of true philosophy, the 'promised land', though its thorough cultivation
will come after me" (429)
By means of this spatial, geographical metaphor of crossing over into the
"new land," Husserl conveys something of the adventure and
pioneer courage that should accompany phenomenological work. This science
is related to "a new field of experience, exclusively its own, the
field of 'transcendental subjectivity'," and it offers "a method
of access to the transcendental-phenomenological sphere" (408).
Husserl is the "first explorer" (419) of this marvelous place.
HOW TO INTERPRET HUSSERL'S TEXTS. Husserl had already employed the spatial metaphor in the 1913
text, although without explicit reference to himself as explorer. In
chapter I-1 of Ideen I he had distinguished states of affairs
(Sachverhaltnis) from essences (Wesen) by assigning
them to two "spheres": the factual or material, and the formal or
eidetic, respectively. These spheres are connected only by the mind's
ability to pass between them as easily as moving around
within either of them; they do not connect on their own, as it
were. That is, no causality obtains between them. "Movement
between" and "movement within" are of course further elaborations
upon the spatial metaphor, and serve to designate the ability of
consciousness to flow along, concentrate itself, linger, combine, focus,
or disperse as it will. Such acts of consciousness belong to these
spheres. They are worldly. They are "psychological."
Husserl's task is to get from those spheres into
another "field" that is quite unlike them. It will be the sphere of
absolute consciousness, consciousness when it isn't going anywhere.
As the title of chapter II-3 puts it, this will be "The Region of Pure
Consciousness." You can't "go there" with consciousness; instead you
have to let the worldly go away and then inhabit what's left. This is the
import of the infamous fantasy that opens paragraph 33: "(W)as
kann als Sein noch setzbar sein, wenn das Weltall, das All der Realität
eingeklammert bleibt?" (In Kersten's paraphrase: "What can
remain, if the whole world, including ourselves with all our
cogitare, is excluded?" )
Now, it's quite curious that Husserl should choose the spatial
metaphor to introduce and induce his phenomenological reduction.
This metaphor invites confusion for anyone familiar with Descartes--
who after all named spatial extension as the substantial attribute of
material being. None of Husserl's "spheres" is literally extended, in the
Cartesian sense; yet all are coextensive (coincident) with material
being--inasmuch as there's literally nowhere else besides the
material universe where they could be. Why then should Husserl
choose such an incongruous and counterproductive metaphor? A
different metaphor (such as "fabric" or "organism," for example) could
have conveyed the notions of coherence, separation, and access that
Husserl intended. What is distinctive about the spatial metaphor,
however, is that it connotes exploration and conquest. If transcendental
consciousness is a promised land, then you need a Moses to lead you
toward it. You need Husserl. When Husserl remarks, in the 1931
Introduction, that he can look down across that land that he has
discovered, but that others will enter, this is a literary allusion to the
figure of Moses, who led his people to Canaan, "the promised land,"
but did not lead them into it (Deuteronomy 34).
If these allusions from 1931 can be taken as a thumbnail self-
portrait, still one must remember that it was sketched during Husserl's
retirement. But Husserl's thought grew and changed throughout his long
career. In his maturity, the philosopher joined his readers in producing
commentary upon his youthful work. The three phases of Husserl's
career--Halle, Göttingen, and Freiburg--invite facile divisions, and
decisive turning points have been suggested within each of those
periods. (The survival of nearly 45,000 pages of stenographic notes
from Husserl's teaching and his private researches has fueled disputes
about when he might have had the first glimmer of a thought that led to
a lecture comment that led to a paragraph that found its way into a
book published long after the man's papers and ashes were shelved in
Husserl himself insisted that the threads of continuity throughout
the evolution of his thought were more significant than any false starts
that later had to be repudiated. It seems well to grant him this point.
Yet on two issues one must take seriously the critical discussion arising
from disjunctions in Husserl's thought: (a) the question whether to
characterize Husserl as realist or idealist, and (b) the question of which
stage of Husserl's evolution--if any--should be taken as the definitive
version through which all other versions are to be read. Husserl
himself, writing as his own critic later in life, took a position on each of
those issues. On (a), he insisted that he was and always had meant to
be a transcendental idealist. On (b), he claimed competence to correct
the insights of 1887, 1900, and 1913 with the insights of the 1920's and
1930's. Thus the mature Husserl would wish to erase the impression
that his early work resolved the realism-idealism conundrum in favor of
realism, and that it did so in fidelity to an insight already expressed in
his earliest work on number.
Various punctuations of Husserl's career by time, place, and predominant
question have been suggested by commentators (for example, Kockelmans 1967:
17-23; Ricoeur 1967: 3-12; Biemel 1970; and Bell 1990). Husserl's phenomenology
developed gradually, but there were several relatively sudden turns and several
stalls. Two examples suffice to illustrate. While at Halle shortly after the
publication of Philosophie der Arithmetik, Husserl distanced himself from
his recent efforts to establish mathematical and logical principles upon the
psychological operations of the mind--a project that he later termed "psychologism."
Many commentators have characterized this as an abrupt turn made in response to
Frege's effective criticism of Philosophie der Arithmetik. However
Mohanty (1982: 13), who examines the Frege-Husserl correspondence along with
other documentary evidence, concludes to the contrary, that:
the seeds of development of Husserl's philosophy from
the Philosophie der Arithmetik to the Prolegomena [i.e.,
the first volume of the Logische Untersuchungen, 1900] were
immanent to his own thinking, so that the hypothesis of a traumatic
effect of Frege's 1894 review of his book and a consequent reversal of
his mode of thinking is not only uncalled for but also unsubstantiated
by the available evidence.
Mohanty, then, provides ample warrant for a reading of Husserl that
pursues threads of continuity between his early mathematical work and the
breakthrough to phenomenology while at Halle.
In a second example of a supposed disjuncture in Husserl's development, there
has been discussion of whether he changed his stance from realism to idealism
between Göttingen and Freiburg. On the one hand, Eugen Fink (1933) and many
others see a consistent evolution of transcendental idealism from the work
Ideen I onward. They tend either to dismiss the earlier works as if they
were merely youthful failures, or forcibly to harmonize the realist passages
with Husserl's later positions. Husserl himself endorsed such a reading. On the
other hand, those who studied with Husserl at Göttingen insist that his work at
that time had validity and integrity in its own right. His former student Edith
Stein (1932: 44-45) remarks that Husserl's disciples were surprised at the
idealistic passages in Ideen, and she calls Fink a latecomer to Husserl's
phenomenology. One of Stein's contemporaries among Husserl students, Roman
Ingarden (1962: 159), says that:
the idealistic tendencies apparent in volume I of the
Ideen had been opposed by his disciples when the work was
being studied during the seminars at Göttingen and . . . his disciples
pointed out many passages in the Ideen which seemed to
contain direct arguments against his idealism.
Subsequently Ingarden presented arguments, based on both the
text of Logische Untersuchungen and his conversations with
Husserl, in support of the view that Husserl originally espoused a
realist standpoint but later abandoned it (Ingarden 1975: 4-8). Further
discussion of the issue is to be found in Kockelmans (1967: 418-449)
and in Van de Pitte (1981: 36-42)--who suggests that the discrepancy
will vanish if one reads Husserl's idealism as an epistemological or
methodological approach to a metaphysically real world.
For his own part, Husserl (1931: 418-9) claimed that his transcendental idealism
had advanced altogether beyond ordinary idealism, beyond realism, and beyond the
very distinction between them. He denied that he ever had held a realist
. . . I still consider, as I did before, every form of the
usual philosophical realism nonsensical in principle, no less so than
that idealism which it sets itself up against in its arguments and which it
"refutes." [Phenomenological reduction] is a piece of pure self-
reflection, exhibiting the most original evident facts; moreover, if it
brings into view in them the outlines of idealism . . . it is still anything
but a party to the usual debates bewteen idealism and realism. . .
Husserl argued that transcendental-phenomenological idealism did not deny
the actual existence of the real world, but sought instead to clarify the sense
of this world (which everyone accepts) as actually
Thus Husserl joins the company of those who read his work
"backwards," from the standpoint of Freiburg, interpreting the earliest
work in light of the transcendental idealism of the latest. This reading
grants no validity to the earlier work in its own right. It sets Husserl
against Kant, and phenomenology's thoroughgoing idealism against
Kantian critical idealism. Fink, in his detailed response to neo-
Kantians' readings of Husserl's phenomenology (1932), scolds them for
even addressing arguments made in Husserl's 1900-1 and 1913
publications--for Fink contends that those positions now must be
assimilated to Husserl's later formulations. The extreme hermeneutical
implications of this stance come clear in Fink's delineation of the
threefold paradox entailed in reading Husserl's phenomenology: (1) It is
inevitably misunderstood if the reader has not first cultivated the
transcendental attitude; yet that attitude arises from the reading. (2)
The words necessarily miss their meaning, and fail to refer effectively
to the pre-worldly realm of transcendental subjectivity, since all
available words are worldly. (3) Phenomenology goes to a realm
beyond logic, individuation, and determination, which ordinarily
structure understanding. In this extreme form, then, the Freiburg
reading of Husserl's work is a locked door for the newcomer who is
trying to get acquainted with Husserl's phenomenology.
Fortunately, there are other hermeneutical options. A second
group of commentators read Husserl "forward" from his intellectual
beginnings at Vienna and Halle. The early work in mathematics and
logic continues to attract the interest of Analytic philosophers. They
are among those who argue that Husserl's concern with numbers and
logical reasoning, stimulated by the Kantian challenge, fructified in the
prescription of eidetic and, eventually, phenomenological reductions.
Besides reading Husserl from Halle "forward" or from Freiburg
"backward," there is yet a third option. One may base one's reading
upon the Göttingen period and upon questions involving the genesis of
the Ideen, as the keystone in the arch of Husserl's development.
This is the stance suggested by Ingarden, who considered Husserl's
later transcendentalism a big mistake, and by Stein, whose own
subsequent works unfold the implications of the realism and
personalism embraced by Husserl at that period. On this view the
world, lost by Kant, is won back for science.
The problems of oneness and unity occupied Husserl throughout all the phases of his philosophical development: his earliest work on number and logic, his pre-war realist descriptive phenomenology, and his idealist transcendental phenomenology. His philosophy in some respects parallels the emergence of modern psychology, with whose tenets it should not be confused. The following are his major works.
"ÜBER DEN BEGRIFF DER ZAHL" ("ON THE CONCEPT OF NUMBER," 1887). Husserl's Habilitationsschrift is subtitled "psychological analyses," and it addresses the question how we recognize manyness within a group. Husserl remarks that the common definition of number--that number is a multiplicity of units--leaves two key questions unanswered: "What is 'multiplicity'? And what is 'unity'?" It is the former question, multiplicity, that occupies his attention throughout the essay. However the latter question, unity, haunts the discussion and refuses to be ignored.
Husserl locates the origin of multiplicity in the activity of combining, which he takes to be a psychological process. After much consideration he identifies this activity as synthesis, or the gathering of items into a set. He notices then that synthetic unities are of two kinds. Either the relationship through which the multiple items belong to the one set is a content of the mental representation of those items (right in there alongside them as another item that can be attended to and counted), or it is not there. In the former case, the unity is physical. Otherwise it is psychical, stemming from the unifying mental act that sets the contents into the relationship.
Having made that distinction between natural or physical unity, and arbitrary or imposed unity, Husserl then goes on to contrast these varieties of synthetic oneness with something else entirely: unsynthesized unity. His example is a rose, whose so-called parts are continuous and come apart only for the examining mind.
"In order to note the uniting relations in such a whole, analysis is
necessary. If, for example, we are dealing with the representational whole which
we call 'a rose,' we get at its various parts successively, by means of
analysis: the leaves, the stem.... Each part is thrown into relief by a distinct
act of noticing, and is steadily held together with those parts already
Ironically, Husserl has struck gold while mining coal, and doesn't quite
recognize what he's got hold of. His description of nonsynthesized
unity comes almost as a byproduct of his attempt to differentiate physical
or real collective combination from psychic combination. He writes:
"... these combining relations present themselves as, so to speak, a certain 'more,' in contrast to the mere totality, which appears merely to seize upon its parts, but not really to unite them [because they're already united, independently of the mind!].... In the totality there is a lack of any intuitive unification, as that sort of unification so clearly manifests itself in the metaphysical or continuous whole" (114).
Husserl has succeeded in distinguishing between natural and artificially
synthesized wholes, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, those
totalities that are known as having been accomplished neither by natural
aggregation nor by mental combination. The unity of such wholes is known
to be real, even though it admits of subsequent mental analysis or
Again ironically, in his concluding discussion of "number"
Husserl neglects to notice the number one even as he employs it to
illustrate how combination works. Substituting the term "and"
for the term "collective combination," Husserl remarks:
"(T)otality or multiplicity in abstracto is nothing other than 'something or other', and 'something or other', and 'something or other', etc.; or, more briefly, one thing, and one thing, and one thing, etc. Thus we see that the concept of the multiplicity contains, besides the concept of collective combination, only the concept something. Now this most general of all concepts is, as to its origin and content, easily analyzed" (116).
Husserl terms the concept something the most general concept. It
stands for any object--real or unreal, physical or psychical--upon which
we reflect. Thus he says that multiplicity as a concept arises out of the
indetermination of the et-cetera that allows the series of "one and
one and one and ..." to go however far you like.
Yet an objection must be registered concerning what Husserl has found
but not noticed. Multiplicity is but relatively undetermined;
ultimately, multiplicity is in fact determined, or reined in, by one
itself. This happens at three points. (a) One is the starting point of the
counting series. Every number except the first number is a multiplicity;
therefore the set of natural numbers is greater (by one!) than the set of
multiplicities. (b) One determines the unit of counting. Only one
something at a time gets counted. The and's must be put in between one's.
(c) Although the series can stop anywhere, nevertheless it has to stop at
one single place, not at several places. Every number is one distinct
Husserl, however, tries to produce the concept number by suppressing
what he has taken to be the absolute indetermination of the something-series.
This is how he gets determinate multiplicity, which he equates with
number. In other words, the and's are the main ingredient for
making numbers Husserl-style. This is incorrect, of course, but it is
incorrect in an interesting way. For example, to make the number five, you
would need four and's. To come up with those four and's, you
would have to count them out; but before you could count to four, you
would need three and's with which to make that four. But... there's
a regression back to one. The number five is four and's, and five
The maddening difficulty of focusing upon combination eventually will
have a happy outcome, which Husserl did not see in 1887. The truly
interesting problem is one, the prime ingredient in numbers and the
determiner whose own determination was to become Husserl's guiding quest.
LOGISCHE UNTERSUCHUNGEN (LOGICAL INVESTIGATIONS,
1900-01). With the turn of the century, Husserl's attention turned from and
to one; that is, away from the mental activity of combining, and
toward that which is reliably there to be combined. He wanted to show that
mental activity is not the source of the latter. Chapter 8 of LU I exposes
and refutes the three premises or "prejudices" of psychologism.
In short, "psychologism" for Husserl is the error of collapsing
the normative or regulative discipline of logic down onto the merely
descriptive discipline of psychology. It would make mental operations
(such as combination) the source of their own regulation. The
"should" of logic, that utter necessity inhering in logical
inference, would become no more than the "is" or facticity of
our customary thinking processes, empirically described.
Husserl's formulation and refutation of the three psychologistic
premises is wickedly clever, but cannot be treated in detail here. (See #
43-49 of LU I.) One example must suffice. Psychologism, Husserl charges,
would place logical inferences on the same plane with mental operations (#
44), and this would make even mathematics into a branch of psychology (#
45). Indeed, math and logic do have structures that are isomorphic to
those of mental operations, such as combination and distinction. But given
that similarity, how then would one distinguish the regulation of
any of these processes from the description of it? Under
psychologism, there's no way. But Husserl makes the distinction in a way
that also shows how regulation (i.e., the laws of logic) comes from
elsewhere than the plane of mental activity.
And he does this by virtue of one. In # 46 Husserl agrees with
his opponents that arithmetical operations occur in patterns that refer
back to mental acts for their origin and also for their meaning. However,
there's a difference between them as well. Mental acts transpire in time:
they begin and end, and they can be repeated and individually counted.
Numbers, in contrast, are timeless. While they can be represented in
mental acts, this representation is not a fresh production of the number
but rather an instantiation of its form. There is only one five.
Any time we count five things, it isn't a production of a new five but
merely a deja vu for the same old five, eternal five. We can't
count numbers themselves, for there's only one of each. (A similar
argument is made in #22 of Ideas I.)
The same goes for logic, Husserl says. Concepts comprising the laws of
pure logic can have no empirical range. Their range or sphere is ideal
singulars, not mental generalizations from multiple instantiations. The
operators of logic are other than those mental acts that happen to share
the same names: "and," "not," "is,"
"or," "implies," "may," "must,"
"should." Psychologically, there can be many factual acts of
combining, negating, etc. Logically, there is only one "and,"
one "not," etc. Husserl concedes here, as he did for arithmetic,
that the logical operators take their origin and meaning from the mental
acts. This accounts for the equivocal character of logical terms, which
refer both to ideal singulars, and to mental states and acts. But if you
fail to notice this equivocation, you become ensnared in psychologism,
losing the possibility of pure logic and unified science.
The danger of equivocation extends over judgments as well. On the one
hand, we can count multiple apperceptive events of affirmation, occurring
psychologically, which proceed in time, begin and end, and recur as often
as we like, in happenings that can be distinguished one from another. On
the other hand, the judgment thus reached remains the same throughout each
act accessing it. It seems to persist and to be called back for encore
appearances; it seems even to have pre-existed its first appearance to me
(# 47). In this latter sense, the judgment is not the same as the mental
act that reaches it. Moreover, the truth of the judgment is neither
equivalent to nor dependent upon the psychological experience of clear
evidence that accompanies the mental act embracing it. Husserl easily
shows this by recalling that in both logic and arithmetic, there are
truths that have never been entertained in any human consciousness, and
indeed could never be humanly conceived (# 50). (Cases of truth without
the possibility of psychological evidence would include the computation of
very large numbers, and decisions about membership in sets that are
uncountably large. The arithmetical and logical operations connected with
such determinations could never be "done" by a human mind or a
computer. Their truth cannot be "factual.")
The number one, then, has become Husserl's touchstone for
discriminating between psychological processes and logical laws. It is his
reality detector. What is psychological (or empirical) comes on in
discrete individual instances--ones--and you can examine their edges. What
is logical (or ideal) comes on as a seamless oceanic unity without
temporal edges, reliably persisting even when not attended to. Husserl's
sensitivity to the modes of unity, first expressed in the
Habilitationsschrift and developed in LU, provides the launching pad for
IDEEN I (IDEAS I, 1913). What launches transcendental
phenomenology is the recognition that those modes of unity correlate with
each other and with a third mode of unity, in ways that are tantalizingly
asymmetrical. These three onenesses are: the factual unity of things and
states of affairs, the eidetic unity of essences, and the living unity of
consciousness as it flows along in a stream of experiences. Each has, and
exhibits, its own distinctive kind of identity and persistence. Factual
and essential unities give objects to the straightforward regard of
consciousness, entering it as items of experience, each in its distinctive
way; but consciousness can also deflect its regard back onto these
enterings and discover its own unity, which is unlike either of theirs.
The possibility of this complex correlation is provided by the
"principle of principles": that intuitions come on to us with
distinctive boundary-conditions that we can accept as sources insuring the
correctness of our knowledge of them. Or in Husserl's formulation:
"... that every originary presentive intuition is a legitimizing source of cognition, that everything originarily (so to speak, in its "personal" actuality) offered to us in 'intuition' is to be accepted simply as what it is presented as being, but also only within the limits in which it is presented there" (44).
The different kinds of unities have different kinds of edges, and these
give away what kind of a unity each of them is going to be. But it's easy
to miss the differences. That happens in the natural attitude, Husserl
says, when all the objects of consciousness are taken as if they were
factual items. Husserl complains that even his Logische Untersuchungen
have been misunderstood as advocating just this error of "Platonic
realism," by those who read into his use of the term
"object" the implication that, through a perverse
hypostatization, every thought turns into a thing (# 22). On the contrary,
he says, the eidetic reduction, operative already in LU, empowers him to
differentiate between how essences appear, and how cases appear.
Now with Ideen I, this distinction is sketched in beautiful
detail. You can tell when the object occupying your consciousness is a
physical thing, because things don't give themselves to you all at once.
What you get instead is a perspective inviting you to move around to the
other side to perceive some more of the thing. All the while the thing
keeps its unity to itself, as the reference point of all the angles it
gives to you, and out of which you must reproduce or copy or simulate the
unified thing as you conceive it. But in conceiving, you don't have to put
an "and" between two separate perceptions, the north face of a
building and the south face, in order to yield the perception of the
building as if it were a sum. These different views are given to you as
continuous, as views of one thing.
Husserl terms this "shading off" or adumbration. (The notion
of off-shading is reminiscent of a multiple-exposure photograph that
captures successive phases of a movement in a single frame. Such photos
were being seen for the first time at the turn of the century. Husserl
also mentions new media such as the stereoscope and the cinema.) In
contrast, essences give themselves to you all at once. Their boundaries
are not sides, but rather laws entailing the characteristic necessities
and possibilities of kinds of things (more about which below). The unity
of any particular essence coheres within that determinate outermost
boundary which free imaginative variations of possible cases must not
exceed if they are to remain cases of this particular kind. Essential
unity is centripetal, so to speak.
Then are those other unities--the ones presenting themselves as
extended or factual--to be termed centrifugal, inasmuch as each spins off
appearances in all directions from an inaccessible center? No, for their
off-shading appears contextualized, as a foreground; and even as we focus
upon the foreground it pulls its background into readiness for perception
as soon as attention may shift to it. Every one is surrounded by a
halo of and's, and beyond that are other somethings, seemingly
without end. Whatever is extended is inexorably connected to whatever else
is extended. (This last formulation, by the way, is an instance of an
eidetic law. But the shift of attention that brings this essential rule
into view is an eidetic reduction, and it wrenches us away from our naive
attention to instances of things naturally appearing, under consideration
here.) Every perception "motivates" another, stretching on
toward expanding horizons.
The shift to the transcendental attitude--that is, the phenomenological
or transcendental reduction--brings to Husserl's notice a third kind of
unity, which discloses the off-shading of things in a startling new way.
We notice now that what is adumbrated is spatial, but the adumbration
itself is not spatial. It arises in consciousness. "Abschattung ist Erlebnis"
(95), while what is adumbrated, das Abgeschattete, has to be
something spatial. The off-shading of things is at the same time the
streaming of conscious life. Peculiarly, the giving off of partial
perceptibilities (by the thing) coincides with the taking up of partial
perceptions (by streaming consciousness). Which one is doing the shading?
Agency cannot be imputed absolutely to either side.
But on the "side" of consciousness, as it were, we now
recognize that we are dealing with more than a progression of life-bites
strung together in series with and's. The stream of conscious life
is not a sum or aggregate; nor is it a generalization. That is, it
exhibits a unity unlike either the sachverhaltig unity of a
factual case or the eidetisch unity of an essence. Husserl must
account for that unity, which he calls an ego, Ich.
Moreover, and of paramount significance, with the benefit of the
transcendental reduction it can now be told that these three kinds of
unities themselves are not connected merely in series, with and's
combining them, as if they were three discrete somethings. Their
relationship is vastly more subtle. In order to understand it, through
reduction we try to isolate unity from what accounts for unity. (We are
not looking for something "prior to" unity -- such as some
"cause" of unity --, because we can't have priority without
having the number one, and oneness is just what is in question.)
Isolating oneness from the live experience-stream means removing the
individual subject (you or me or Napoleon or whomever) from consideration.
What is left, says Husserl, is transcendental subjectivity, "the pure
act-process with its own essence" ("das reine Akterlebnis mit seinem eigenen Wesen").
(Paradoxically, we can see, right here in this formulation, that the
reduction has not at all done away with essence, with states of affairs,
or even with identity. We still have Eigenheit and Wesen,
set in relation within a sentence. But these are now supposedly purified.)
Husserl likens this de-individualized ego to a ray (# 92) or glance (#
101). Characteristically (or essentially) it has two poles or directions:
the noematic and the noetic (from Greek terms noema and noesis,
indicating what is thought and the act of thinking, respectively).
Husserl's discussion of "noetic-noematic structures" fails in
its attempt to show how the ego reaches and secures both the unity of the
known object, and the unity of the knowing subject. But it fails in a
spectacular starburst of insight. Husserl notices that the mental stream
has its own distinctive kind of adumbrations or continuities, which are
more complex than those discussed above, the relatively simple off-shaded
appearings of spatial objects in perception. Beyond that simple sort of
off-shading, consciousness can also turn back on itself and reflect upon
its own intending acts, or on any component thereof. The stream meanders
among spatial objects, but can also at whim objectify aspects of its own
acts of intending, and consider them. This yields a thick layering of
possible objects (# 97). For example, here are some noemata that might
enter the live experience stream: pencils ... writing ... German verbs ...
the frustration of strong verbs ... Ulrike ... memories in general ... the
unreliability of memory ... components of perceptions ... the advisability
of analyzing perceptions into their components ... the smell of popcorn
wafting into the study ... the effort to resist distractions ... and so
Some of these arise directly from things, while others arise as
objectifications of what was inherent a moment ago in the very act of
knowing, the noesis. How can we tell the difference? Husserl answers that
you can tell when the ego-beam has penetrated through to the bottom of the
stack of noemata, so to speak, and has gotten ahold of a thing itself,
because at that point, all the aspects of the thing are known
immanently--really--in the act of perceiving as being contained in the
sense of the thing (# 98). For example, you know popcorn itself when you
are perceiving the taste of butter and salt. (You do not know popcorn when
you read this sentence; instead, you are reflecting on what it is to know
popcorn, and popcorn's qualities are not given immanently within your
object. But then while tasting popcorn, saltiness was given immanently but
Husserl rightly points out that we are able to slide up and down the
pole of the ego-beam at will, moving now toward the thing, now away from
it to consider the act of knowing and its modalities. For example,
noematically I can consider a certain cat who probably exists, but then I
can turn back noetically to assess the degree of certitude that
characterizes my consideration of that selfsame cat as existing (# 105).
Now if we were to slide down to the point where all modalities are behind
us on the noetic side of the pole, and if there we were to face the
object, we would get the pure sense of the object in which its unity is
In # 102 Husserl claims that this can happen, and that we can indeed
slide far enough toward the object that the unity of the noema will be
known as not having been imposed by the act of knowing. At that point, all
of its qualities supposedly will be given immanently, really, contained in
the perception rather than in the secondary conscious act that may grasp
it a split-second later. Its sense will have been captured as something
known with certainty to comprise its qualities, without the interference
of a synthetic conscious act. (If this worked, it would effectively ensure
the objectivity of knowledge, and would win the day for realism against
idealism.) Husserl writes:
"The noematic objects ... are unities transcendent to, but evidentially intended to in, the mental process. But if that is the case, then characteristics, which arise in [those unities] for consciousness and which are seized upon as their properties in focusing the regard on them, cannot possibly be regarded as really inherent moments of the mental process" (248-249).
Rather, they inhere in the object's sense, and subsequently are lifted out
for analysis in the mental process.
The ambitiousness of this claim is matched by that of another, which
has to do with the opposite end of the ego-pole. In # 108 Husserl says
that we can also shinny far enough up the ego-pole that we can capture the
affirming noesis in its purity. All the modalities will have been loaded
over onto the side of the noema, and the no_sis will be a believing
affirmation, pure and simple: an unqualified yes. Thus Husserl insists
that there is a crucial difference between (a) being validly negated and
(b) not-being. For example, he would distinguish (a) denying correctly
that my spayed cat has a kitten, from (b) affirming that the kitten of my
spayed cat is a non-entity. With (a), the negativity inheres in the noesis,
which has not yet been purified of all modality; but with (b), the noesis
would be pure affirmation (# 104).
How correct is Husserl's argument? We must grant that whatever makes
this particular kitten impossible inheres elsewhere than in my knowing
about it, for my denying something can't make it go away. Furthermore,
there's nothing to prevent my forcing myself to think positively the
thought of the kitten that my cat never had. Such a noetic posture is at
least conceivable. However, its mere possibility is not enough to
accomplish Husserl's purpose. Husserl needs to show that this pure
affirming belief really is done, somewhere somehow, in the toughest
case, the case of an intrinsically impossible entity such as the kitten of
a spayed cat. (That is, has anyone succeeded in recapturing that magic
moment of purely affirming noesis with regard to an intrinsically
impossible object? And if so, how would one go about certifying the
Unfortunately, neither end of the ego-ray connects as Husserl had
hoped. At the noetic pole, the purely affirming ego eludes the grasp of
consciousness; so does the pure sense of the thing itself, at the noematic
pole. These terms may remain as ideal asymptotes toward which the ego-ray
continually points while continually falling short. The successful
recovery of the connection between knowing and reality awaits another
strategy, to be mounted by Husserl in the posthumously published second
volume of Ideen.
IDEEN II (IDEAS II). The second volume of Husserl's Ideen
(publication withheld until 1952) is the work of many hands. Husserl was
dissatisfied with it and did not publish it. The first draft was written
very rapidly in 1912, immediately after the manuscript of the first volume
was completed. Husserl added material in 1915, and turned it over for
editing to his assistant Edith Stein, who had come with him to Freiburg
from Gottingen. Stein transcribed the work from Husserl's shorthand in
1916. He gave her further material, and in 1918 she produced a collation
arranged and titled as at present: the constitution of material nature, of
animal nature, and of the cultural world. But Husserl's phenomenology was
evolving, and the manuscript did not suit him. Another assistant, Ludwig
Landgrebe, worked on it 1923-25, and Husserl himself edited it in again
1928. It finally came out posthumously.
If the pursuit of unity had guided Husserl like a north star from his
earliest writing on through the discovery and first articulation of
phenomenology, then in Ideen II that star becomes obscured by
"light pollution" from numerous more recent and competing
insights. Without access to the manuscripts, it is impossible to know with
precision how that came about. In portions of the text as we have it, the
concern with unity remains a significant factor.
However, other portions seem to go against the grain of key insights
from the first volume and the earlier works. For example, in LU and Ideen I,
the material sphere had comprised states of affairs; that is, facts or
cases such as could be expressed in logical propositions. There were
indeed "things" in there, such as roses, yet the emphasis was
upon the factual scenarios into which these things figured. By contrast,
in Ideen II "material nature" is populated with
substantial items, and the fact they are embedded in circumstances has to
be additionally stipulated, almost as an afterthought (# 15c). By the same
token, in the earlier work the eidetic sphere had comprised the forms of
logical propositions and the rules of inference. While there were indeed
"essences" entailed there, nevertheless the emphasis fell upon
the lawful patterns of thinking about being. By contrast, in Ideen II
"animal nature" is populated by psychic items whose unity is
analogous to that of physical things yet whose active engagement with the
latter can hardly be explained.
This shift matters, because judgments and perceptions reach unity in
quite different ways. To certify that one selfsame proposition
(e.g., that the cat is on the mat) returns to our consciousness on several
occasions is quite a different task than to certify that one selfsame substantial entity
(e.g., this mat-loving cat) returns to our sight every afternoon.
Husserl's early discoveries about unity had to do with judgment, and they
were based upon the lived difference between synthetic judgments and
analytic judgments. His ambitions then were not primarily metaphysical or
epistemological. Moreover, it is relatively easy to "feel" the
difference among three sorts of judgment: (a) a synthetic judgment that
arbitrarily groups several items together, (b) a synthetic judgment that
groups things in recognition of some characteristic that all share
independently of the judgment, and (c) a judgment that the unity imputed
to a thing is not owing to judgment at all. The distinction among these
judgment-forms was already established in the Habilitationsschrift.
However the task undertaken in Ideen II is forcibly to transpose
that distinction onto perception, and so to come up with a general test
for certifying when knowledge is genuinely in touch with reality.
This project is set in motion in # 9, where new terminology is
introduced for the threefold distinction first made in "Begriff der Zahl."
(However, now that the transcendental reduction is presupposed, the arrow
of causality should be removed. There can be only correlation or its
absence.) BZ's "psychic relation" now becomes "categorial
synthesis," in which perception serendipitously collects disparate
items into one group, for no special reason intrinsic to the items. BZ's
"content relation" (or "physical relation") becomes
"aesthetic synthesis" (or "sensuous synthesis"), in
which perception recognizes some intrinsic reason for grouping these items
and finds itself constrained to do so by something other than mere whim.
And BZ's uncomposed unity (e.g., "that rose there") becomes the
In BZ, "synthesis" meant a combining judgment: a judgment
that erected a set of things with many members. A set with one
member--that is, a unified thing--obviously needed no synthesizing
judgment to set it up. In Ideen II, however, "synthesis"
means a perception that, while receiving multiple impressions (the
off-shadings or Abschattungen), composes an object out of them. But
this object is a unity, not a group; in fact, it is what Husserl would
earlier have called an uncomposed unity. In other words aesthetic
synthesis--operating now over partial views, not discrete items--finds
that it has a reason for referring those multiple impressions to one
object, even though the unity of the thing never gives itself directly to
consciousness. What is that reason? This question is enticing, because
Husserl is tantalizingly close here to describing a way in which the real
unity of things is available for knowledge.
Husserl works on this question in # 15b, where "the spatial body
is a synthetic unity of a manifold of strata of 'sensuous appearances' of
different senses" (42-43). The spatially extended thing is a unity
drawing together all the experiences we have had of it, and summoning us
toward further experiences of it through sight and touch and our other
senses. It achieves its unity as a spatial location, which seems not to
depend upon whether or not it is actually perceived.
However, Husserl cautions, this unity alone is insufficient to validate
itself. He writes:
"(W)e have first taken the body as independent of all causal conditioning, i.e., merely as a unity which presents itself visually or tactually, through multiplicities of sensations, as endowed with an inner content of characteristic features.... But in what we have said, it is also implied that under the presupposition referred to (namely, that we take the thing outside of the nexuses in which it is a thing) we do not find, as we carry out experiences, any possibility for deciding, in a way that exhibits, whether the experienced material thing is actual or whether we are subject to mere illusion and are experiencing a mere phantom" (43).
Thus, reality is not guaranteed for an isolated item, even when it seems
to be giving us a reason to take it as the unified core attracting its
manifold appearings to one hub of reference. The central location of the
thing is dependent upon its real circumstances, as Husserl goes on to say
in # 15c. The reality of "one" depends on "others";
i.e., on thing-connection. The thing is what it is in relation to its
surroundings. This becomes apparent when things move and change, for their
changes must correlate coherently with reciprocal changes in the things
next to them.
Such co-variance is what certifies reality--or materiality, which
Husserl seems to equate with it. In # 15c, reality means substantial
causality. Within the webwork of material things, everything affects
everything else. The real is the causal. Co-variance across the material
realm, then, is what certifies the oneness and reality of that realm (#
Animated bodies also connect in the webwork of material things (# 13).
Each of them is a center of appearings, a one, just as every other
thing is. However, unlike soulless bodies, each animal is also a zero.
It lives at a point of origination. The animal body bears the zero-point
of orientation for the pure ego (61), as its absolute "here"
(135, 166). Arithmetically, this is a stunning contrast. Every
"something" whatsoever is either a one or a one-and-one-and-etc.
But the animated body, in addition to being just one of those
somethings, is also the one who is zero: the one from whom the counting
starts, the one who chooses whether and where it is appropriate to insert
But any series that is initiated by/at/in the living body is counted
off nonarbitrarily. Such series go in order; they are
"motivated." This is owing to the movement of the body itself
within the material web. The body's own kinesthetic sense will coordinate
with the corresponding changes in sensory perceptions as it navigates
among things. Thus, the zero shifts position in relation to the other
unified centers to which perceptions accrue; but as it does so, the series
of their appearings change in a regular way (63).
What about counting zero's? Are they multiple; are there many human
bodies? Husserl declines to pursue this avenue of approach into the
problem of other minds and human community. Intersubjectivity will treated
instead as an implication of the reality of the material world,
not a precondition for it. The multiplicity of bodies is taken up
only on page 83, where it is admitted that the foregoing analysis has been
framed on the assumption that there would be only one,
"solipsistic," point-zero in reality. Belatedly, other bodies
now are brought into the picture--but not because they are necessary for
its unity, or because they have been apprehended among the realities
presenting to consciousness. The others are brought in because they are
required for the full unification of the thing in reality, whether that
thing is one of the physical bodies or my very own live body. To be is to
be describable (87). Reality for the thing entails a possibility of
appearing to anyone at all. Being counted from one zero-point is not
enough for the real thing. To count, it needs the possibility of being
counted from multiple directions.
The thing is a rule of appearances. That means that the thing is a reality
as a unity of a manifold of appearances connected according to rules.
Moreover, this unity is an intersubjective one.... The physicalistic thing
is intersubjectively common in that it has validity for all
individuals who stand in possible communion with us (91-92).
To be real, the thing must count as a place or location, a center,
independently of any particular point of origin. Yet what grants reality
to the thing is not some consensus reached by observers. Indeed, the thing
may look entirely different to different observers; however, its reality
constrains all to agree that, at least, "it is there." Oddly,
then, the real thing is another kind of zero, for its barest reality
consists in its being an empty place-holder (91-93).
Finally, Husserl makes unity a synonym for the philosophical term
"substance" as traditionally meant. For example, he says that
both the soul and the body are unities, so that an analogy obtains between
psychic unity and material unity (129, 131). Oneness becomes the
ontological form that determines substantial reality (133). The pure ego
is one with respect to an individual stream of consciousness, that
is, before the transcendental reduction has de-individuated the latter
(117); however the pure ego is insubstantial and not one whenever
the reduction is in effect (128).
And so Husserl's quest for unity splinters and spends itself out by
diverting into many contradictory projects pursued by the many
unharmonized voices of Ideen II. Although the manuscript remained
unpublished, it was made available for consultation by a number of
Husserl's younger colleagues. Among the last publication of Husserl's
lifetime was the Cartesian Meditations of 1931, in which he
addressed the apparent solipsism of his transcendental phenomenology. That
work itself was undergoing a comprehensive reworking in partnership with
Husserl's assistant Eugen Fink during the years before Husserl's death in
HUSSERL'S PUBLISHED WORKS: Husserl's publications and his extensive Nachlass
are being brought out in a multi-volume critical edition entitled Husserliana -
Edmund Husserl, Gesammelte Werke, from Nijhoff in The Hague. The major works
published during Husserl's lifetime are the following:
Über den Begriff der Zahl. Psychologische Analysen, 1887.
Philosophie der Arithmetik. Psychologische und logische Untersuchungen,
Logische Untersuchungen. Erste Teil: Prolegomena zur reinen Logik,
1900; reprinted 1913.
Logische Untersuchungen. Zweite Teil: Untersuchungen zur Phänomenologie
und Theorie der Erkenntnis, 1901; second edition 1913 (for part one); second
edition 1921 (for part two).
"Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft," Logos 1 (1911)
Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie.
Erstes Buch: Allgemeine Einführung in die reine Phänomenologie, 1913.
"Vorlesungen zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins," Jahrbuch
für Philosophie und phänomenologische Forschung 9 (1928), 367-498.
"Formale und transzendentale Logik. Versuch einer Kritik der logischen
Vernunft," Jahrbuch für Philosophie und phänomenologische Forschung
10 (1929) 1-298.
Méditations cartésiennes, 1931.
"Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzentale
Phänomenologie: Eine Einleitung in die phänomenologische Philosophie,"
Philosophia 1 (1936) 77-176.
© Copyright 1996 The
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Reprinted with permission.
The original source for this biography can be found here.
Thanks to Dr. Marianne Sawicki for allowing us to use her work.