Is Husserl a Traditional Idealist?

In my last post, I gave a brief introduction the realism vs. idealism debate. In this post, I wish to give a preliminary answer to the question: is Husserl a realist or an idealist? As I mentioned previously, some of Husserl’s students and contemporaries took him to be an “idealist” in the traditional sense of the term. For example, Edith Stein implies that Husserlian transcendental idealism views the world’s being as “identical in meaning” to its appearances and entails that bodies (whether animate or inanimate) lack “existence independent” of the conscious subject.1 Furthermore, Jeff Mitscherling, summarizing Roman Ingarden’s interpretation of Husserl, argues that for Husserl, “consciousness, entirely divorced from the external, ‘real’ world, constitutes the objects of that world as contents of the subject’s ‘thinking activity.’”2 Mitscherling puzzlingly argues that Husserl both severs consciousness from reality and yet also reduces the latter to the former.3 Ingarden himself proposes that Husserl sees the objects of consciousness as “exclusively created by the cognitive (perceiving) subject.”4

Nevertheless, other scholars, such as Karl Ameriks, John Drummond, and Robert Sokolowski, argue that Husserlian transcendental idealism is not equivalent to any traditional idealism. Indeed, they maintain that Husserlian philosophy is epistemologically realistic, albeit in a non-conventional way. Husserl himself unequivocally states that anyone who identifies his views with those of subjective idealism has entirely missed the thrust of his arguments. For, while he asserts that “the whole being of the world consists in a certain ‘meaning’ which presupposes absolute consciousness as the field from which the meaning is derived,” in a footnote to this passage, Husserl explains that he is using the term “meaning” or Sinn in the German in an unusual and extended way.5 This would indicate that to say things are “unities of meaning” (as Husserl does) does not necessarily entail that that they are contained in the contents of consciousness nor are entirely deducible from consciousness. Rather, Sokolowski argues that Husserl’s position is that consciousness is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the world.6 In other words, “Consciousness does not ‘create’ [objects]; it allows them to emerge as real, but does not make them.”7 Without consciousness, there could be no world, but consciousness alone neither does nor could produce the world. So, Sokolowski argues that Ingarden misunderstands Husserl’s view of the relation between consciousness and reality, a fact which Husserl himself communicated to Ingarden in letters.8 As Husserl writes, the individual transcendent thing is “that which only ‘declares’ itself in formations of consciousness,”9 a statement which only makes sense if transcendent objects have some kind of cognition-independent existence. Thus, Husserl affirms the openness and transparence of reality to consciousness but not the creation of the former by the latter nor the reduction of the one to the other. Indeed, Ameriks argues that a traditional idealist (such as Berkley or Hegel) would deny any essential difference between the immanent and the transcendent, between consciousness and the world.10 For, subjective idealism reduces things to ideas which are really contained in a consciousness, while absolute idealism makes all substance into subject. In contrast, Husserl writes, “Neither the world nor any worldly object is a piece of my Ego, to be found in my conscious life as a really inherent part of it.”11 Thus, Husserl’s elucidation of immanence and transcendence, far from indicating subjective or Hegelian idealism, actually opposes them.

Furthermore, Husserl’s distinction between immanence and transcendence directly attacks the idealism of Kant. For, with his notion of the “thing in itself,” Kant strongly implies that the ideal observer could see things non-perspectivally, viz, without appearances. However, Husserl rejects this Kantian implication. As Ameriks writes, “If someone were to be aware of something nonperspectivally, so that it would be wholly present to mind, that item would be in effect immanent in Husserl’s sense; it would not be what we understand as a physical thing but rather should be regarded as an item of the mind.”12 Thus, Husserl clearly rejects the Kantian view that because transcendent objects are given through appearances, the things themselves cannot be known. His argument against this can be summarized as follows. Husserl maintains that the notion of an objectivity which inherently cannot be encountered or experienced in any way is absurd. As he writes, if something exists at all, “It must be in principle perceptible and experienceable, if not by us, at least for other Egos who see better and farther than we do.”13 Further, as elucidated above, Husserl argues that all transcendent things are given through appearances. Given this, positing an unknown ground of appearances or an unknown thing in itself leads to an infinite regress, since if the thing in itself exists it must be perceptible by some consciousness, but if it is perceptible, it will be perceived through appearances.14 Thus, Husserl asserts that phenomenological transcendental subjectivity “leaves no room for ‘metaphysical’ substructurings of a being behind the being intentionally constituting itself in actual and possible achievements of consciousness.”15 In other words, there can be no Kantian “thing in itself.” 

Therefore, Husserl’s distinction between immanence and transcendence is not idealistic in any Berkleyan, Kantian, or Hegelian sense. The phenomenological reduction, by disconnecting all transcendencies, allows the philosopher to reach the region of pure immanence, a region which includes “the pure ego,” the pure stream of cogitationes, and the world as meant.16 Attaining to this region allows the philosopher to find the firm foundation on which to build up philosophy as a rigorous, apodictic science. For, as Husserl writes, “Natural being is a realm whose existential status [Seinsgeltung] is secondary; it continually presupposes the realm of transcendental being.”17 For Husserl, then, there can be no objectivity without subjectivity, and the world is for consciousness.18 This entails that transcendental phenomenology is not the study of a subsection of the world or of a reality: it is rather the study of that which makes the emergence of the world and all reality possible.19 However, as I have indicated, this claim does not entail traditional idealism nor is it necessarily opposed to epistemological realism. The world is not the fantasy or illusion of consciousness, since, for Husserl, the world is distinct from and irreducible to consciousness. For Husserl, then, the phenomenological reduction does not deny the realism of the natural attitude. Indeed, it is the very opposite, since according to Husserl, the “sole task” of phenomenology is “to clarify the meaning of this world.”20 Thus, just as Husserl’s distinction between immanence and transcendence is essentially opposed to traditional idealism, so is the phenomenological reduction. Drummond summarizes Husserl’s position, writing that in the phenomenological reduction, “the ontological realism at work in our natural attitude is not denied. The world and its objects are all left in place; they are still available for reflection just insofar as they are posited.”21 And as Husserl himself writes in the first draft of his Encyclopedia Brittanica article: “Phenomenology’s transcendental idealism harbours natural realism entirely within itself.”22

This last quote naturally raises the question as to why Husserl advances transcendental idealism. Specifically, what exactly is the nature of Husserlian transcendental idealism and how does it fit into Husserl’s philosophy? In future posts, I will investigate these issues.

What are your thoughts on Husserl’s position in terms of the realism vs. idealism debate? Please share your opinion in the comment section and feel free to subscribe.

1 Edith Stein, “Excursus on Transcendental Idealism,” In Potency and Act, by Edith Stein, IV, 23, trans. Walter Redmond, (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2009), 375-376. 

2 Jeff Mitscherling, “Aristotelian Metaphysics and the Distinction between Consciousness and the Real World in Husserl and Ingarden,” Polish Journal of Philosophy 4, no. 2, (2010), 140. 

3 Mitscherling, “Husserl and Ingarden,” 139 and 147. 

4 Roman Ingarden, quoted in Robert Sokolowski, “Review of On the Motives which Led Husserl to Transcendental Idealism, by R. Ingarden,” Journal of Philosophy 74, no. 3 (1977): 177.

5 Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, II, 3, §55, trans. W.R. Boyce Gibson (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2017), 169.

6 Robert Sokolowski, The Formation of Husserl’s Concept of Constitution (The Hague, Netherlands: M. Nijhoff, 1970), 137-138. 

7 Sokolowski, Constitution, 138. 

8 Sokolowski, “Review of Motives,” 178.

9 Husserl, Ideas, II, 4, §61, trans. Gibson, 181. 

10 Ameriks, “Husserl’s Realism,” Philosophical Review 86, no. 4 (1977), 501-504. 

11 Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, I, §11, trans. Dorion Cairns, (The Hague, Netherlands: M. Nijhoff, 1977), 26. 

12 Ameriks, “Husserl’s Realism,” 500. 

13 Husserl, Ideas, II, 3, §52, trans. Gibson, 159. 

14 Husserl, Ideas, II, 3, §52, trans. Gibson, 159. 

15 Edmund Husserl, “Kant and the Idea of Transcendental Philosophy,” trans. Ted E. Kein and William E. Pohl, Southwestern Journal of Philosophy 5, no. 3 (1974), 14.

16 Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, I, §8, trans. Dorion Cairns, 20-21. 

17 Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, I, §8, trans. Dorion Cairns, 21. 

18 Dermot Moran and Joseph Cohen, The Husserl Dictionary, (New York: Continuum, 2012), 154. 

19 Husserl, Ideas, II, 3, §51, trans. Gibson, 155-157.

20 Husserl, Ideas, author’s preface, trans. Gibson, 21.

21 John J. Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality and Non-Foundational Realism: Noema and Object, (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990), 257. 

22 Edmund Husserl, quoted in “Phenomenology, Idealism, and the Legacy of Kant,” by James Kinkaid, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 27, no. 3 (2019), 594. 


3 responses to “Is Husserl a Traditional Idealist?”

  1. AJOwens Avatar

    Reading about Husserl’s nuanced idealism as you’ve explained it, I’m tempted to compare Whitehead’s discussion of the contrast between realism and idealism in Science and the Modern World (near the end of the chapter “The Romantic Reaction”):

    “The distinction between realism and idealism does not coincide with that between objectivism and subjectivism. Both realists and idealists can start from an objective standpoint. They may both agree that the world disclosed to sense-perception is a common world, transcending the individual recipient. But the objective idealist, when he comes to analyze the reality of what this world involves, finds that cognitive mentality is in some way inextricably concerned in every detail. This position the realist denies. Accordingly these two classes of objectivists do not part company till they have arrived at the ultimate problems of metaphysics.”

  2. Terry Dauenhauer Avatar

    I like Zahavi’s interpretation which I would describe as a [phenomenological] direct realism. Inspired by Husserl’s discussion of the spatial object, as well as Wittgenstein in the TLP, I’ve tweaked this toward a phenomenological perspectivism.

    How does Husserl’s categorial intuition fit with Wittgenstein’s essence of a proposition? Is a signitive intention not like a ‘picture’ of the world which can be fulfilled ? If we take the lifeworld as always already meaningfully structured, then a belief is all that is relevantly the case for a subject whose ‘consciousness’ is just the being of the world given always and only perspectively.

    So we have a kind of realism, but it’s basically a correlationism, because the ‘independent object’ — the world from no perspective — is ruled out as a phrase we can’t make sense, a metaphysical round square.


    It’s great to see such a quality website dedicated to Husserl. I’ve spent too many years not reading him, and I’m amazed now that I’ve gotten around to it.

    1. Michael Teoli Avatar

      Thank you for your excellent comment! I completely agree that Husserl does indeed advance a kind of direct realism, although, as you say, the notion of the world from no perspective is incoherent. Also, your parallels between Husserl and Wittgenstein in the Tractatus are extremely intriguing! I’ve actually been recently rereading the Tractatus, and so I look forward to reading your document on phenomenological perspectivism.

      Thanks again for the thought-provoking comment!

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