Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) was the founder of one of the most important philosophical movements of the 20th century, namely, Phenomenology. He was born in Proßnitz in the Margraviate of Moravia in the Austrian Empire (today Prostějov in the Czech Republic) to Jewish parents, and his initial academic pursuits were in physics and mathematics. Indeed, his first published work was Philosophie der Arithmetik (Philosophy of Arithmetic, 1891), and his PhD was in mathematics (1883). However, as I myself have found, the study of mathematics sometimes raises questions which cannot be answered by mathematics but only by philosophy. For example, the exact nature and existence of number, the relation between mathematical cognition and the real world, and the mental processes through which mathematical objects are constituted, are issues that the mathematician as a mathematician cannot address. Thus, even before his doctoral work, Husserl showed a keen interest in philosophy, leading eventually to his studies with renowned Austrian psychologist and philosopher Franz Brentano from 1884-1886. Brentano’s ideas regarding consciousness and logic, and particularly his notion of intentionality, influenced Husserl immensely.
In 1900 and 1901, Husserl published his groundbreaking two volume work Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations), and in so doing he launched the phenomenological movement. In the Logical Investigations, Husserl offers strong arguments against “psychologism,” the view that logic can be reduced to psychology, and he calls for a return to the “things themselves,”1 i.e., to the data of lived experience. His work was met with strong but mixed reactions: some lauded Husserl for his defense of logic and elucidation of knowledge, while others criticized him for apparently succumbing to Platonism. Shortly after the publication of the Logical Investigations, Husserl received an associate professorship at Göttingen, and he gradually gathered a following of students and colleagues who were invigorated by his apparent revival of the spirit of ancient philosophy amidst the idealism and empiricism of modern times. However, after the publication of Ideen zu einer reinen Phenomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie (Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, 1913), in which Husserl articulated his “transcendental reduction,” many saw Husserl as having abandoned realism in favor of some kind of Kantian or subjective idealism. This was continually denied by Husserl, who asserted that his transcendental idealism differed from traditional idealism, even rendering the modern dichotomy between realism and idealism irrelevant. Nevertheless, the debate continues even to this day.
In 1916, Husserl became a full professor in Freiburg/Breisgau, where he remained until his retirement in 1928. At Freiburg, Husserl wrote and lectured prolifically, and after his retirement he gave lectures in Paris and Prague, also publishing several important works such as Formale und transzendentale Logik (Formal and Transcendental Logic, 1929), Méditations cartésiennes (Cartesian Meditations, 1931), and Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften (The Crisis of the European Sciences, 1936). As a German Jew living during Hitler’s regime, Husserl became increasingly troubled by the anti-Semitism of the Nazis, but he died in 1938, a year before the outbreak of the Second World War and three years before the implementation of the so called “Final Solution.” Husserl’s legacy did not end with his decease, however. His philosophy directly influenced dozens of subsequent philosophers, including Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Wilfrid Sellars, and Karol Wojtyla (who would later become Pope John Paul II).
So, who is Edmund Husserl? Certainly one of the most influential philosophers of the last 150 years, he was an excellent teacher, an insightful thinker, and by all accounts a good husband, father, and friend. He referred to himself as a beginner in philosophy, and he continually strove to refine, clarify, and if necessary alter his positions based on the evidence. And, while debates over the ranking of philosophers throughout history are difficult to satisfactorily settle, in my opinion Husserl is the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. However, perhaps nothing expresses who Husserl is and was as well as his own simple statement that he is someone who is “in love with philosophy.”2
What do you think about Edmund Husserl? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
1 Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, vol.1, trans. J.N. Findlay. (New York: Routledge, 1970), 168.
2 Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, Author’s Preface to the English Edition, trans. W.R. Boyce Gibson (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2017), 29.
All photographs used in this post are either in the public domain or are free to use under Creative Commons Attribution, see https://creativecommons.org/licenses/. Of the latter type, this is the order in which they appear: “Edmund Husserl” by Pernak (CCA 2.5), “Heidegger 4 (1960) cropped” by Willy Pragher (CCA 3.0), “Maurice Merleau-Ponty” by Perig Gouanvic (CCA 3.0), and “JohannesPaulusSimonis1985.2 (cropped)” by Rob Croes (CCA 4.0).