Edmund Husserl

8 Apr 1859
27 Apr 1938
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Edmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl (8 April 1859 – 27 April 1938) was a German philosopher who established the school of phenomenology. In his early work, he elaborated critiques of historicism and of psychologism in logic based on analyses of intentionality. In his mature work, he sought to develop a systematic foundational science based on the so-called phenomenological reduction. Arguing that transcendental consciousness sets the limits of all possible knowledge, Husserl re-defined phenomenology as a transcendental-idealist philosophy. Husserl’s thought profoundly influenced the landscape of twentieth-century philosophy, and he remains a notable figure in contemporary philosophy and beyond.

Husserl studied mathematics under Karl Weierstrass and Leo Königsberger, and philosophy under Franz Brentano and Carl Stumpf. He taught philosophy as a Privatdozent at Halle from 1887, then as professor, first at Göttingen from 1901, then at Freiburg from 1916 until he retired in 1928, after which he remained highly productive. Following an illness, he died at Freiburg in 1938.

Husserl was born in 1859 in Proßnitz, a town in the Margraviate of Moravia, which was then in the Austrian Empire, and which today is Prostějov in the Czech Republic. He was born into a Jewish family, the second of four children (boy, boy, girl, boy). His father was a milliner. His childhood was spent in Proßnitz, where he attended the elementary school. Then Husserl traveled to Vienna to study at the Realgymnasium there, followed next by the Staatsgymnasium in Olomouc .

Professor of Philosophy : Following his marriage Husserl began his long teaching career in philosophy. He started where he was in 1887 as a Privatdozent at the University of Halle. In 1891 he published his Philosophie der Arithmetik. Psychologische und logische Untersuchungen which, drawing on his prior studies in mathematics and philosophy, proposed a psychological context as the basis of mathematics. It drew the adverse notice of Gottlob Frege, who criticized its psychologism.

In 1912 at Freiburg the journal Jahrbuch für Philosophie und Phänomenologische Forschung (“Yearbook for Philosophy and Phenomenological Research”) was founded by Husserl and his school, and which published articles of their phenomenological movement from 1913 to 1930.

In his first works Husserl 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 Logical Investigations (1900–1901) 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 it is 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.

Ifluences : Edith Stein was Husserl’s student at Göttingen while she wrote her On the Problem of Empathy (1916). She then became his assistant at Freiburg 1916–1918. She later adapted her phenomenology to the modern school of Thomas Aquinas.

Ludwig Landgrebe became assistant to Husserl in 1923. From 1939 he collaborated with Eugen Fink at the Husserl-Archives in Leuven. In 1954 he became leader of the Husserl-Archives. Landgrebe is known as one of Husserl’s closest associates.

Roman Ingarden, an early student of Husserl at Freiburg, corresponded with Husserl into the mid-1930s. Ingarden did not accept, however, the later transcendental idealism of Husserl which he thought would lead to relativism. Ingarden has written his work in German and Polish.

Max Scheler met Husserl in Halle in 1901 and found in his phenomenology a methodological breakthrough for his own philosophy. Scheler, who was at Göttingen when Husserl taught there, was one of the original few editors of the journal Jahrbuch für Philosophie und Phänomenologische Forschung (1913). Scheler’s work Formalism in Ethics and Nonformal Ethics of Value appeared in the new journal (1913 and 1916) and drew acclaim.

Nicolai Hartmann was once thought to be at the center of phenomenology, but perhaps no longer. In 1921 the prestige of Hartmann the Neo-Kantian, who was Professor of Philosophy at Marburg, was added to the Movement; he “publicly declared his solidarity with the actual work of die Phänomenologie.”

Emmanuel Levinas in 1929 gave a presentation at one of Husserl’s last seminars in Freiburg. Also that year he wrote on Husserl’s Ideen (1913) a long review published by a French journal. With Gabrielle Peiffer, Levinas translated into French Husserl’s Méditations cartésiennes (1931). He was at first impressed with Heidegger and began a book on him, but broke off the project when Heidegger became involved with the Nazis.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception is influenced by Edmund Husserl’s work on perception, intersubjectivity, intentionality, space, and temporality, including Husserl’s theory of retention and protention.

Gabriel Marcel explicitly rejected existentialism, due to Sartre, but not phenomenology, which has enjoyed a wide following among French Catholics. He appreciated Husserl, Scheler, and (but with apprehension) Heidegger. His expressions like “ontology of sensability” when referring to the body, indicate influence by phenomenological thought.

Kurt Gödel is known to have read Cartesian Meditations. He expressed very strong appreciation for Husserl’s work, especially with regard to “bracketing” or epoché.

Hermann Weyl’s interest in intuitionistic logic and impredicativity appears to have resulted from his reading of Husserl. He was introduced to Husserl’s work through his wife, Helene Joseph, herself a student of Husserl at Göttingen.

Colin Wilson has used Husserl’s ideas extensively in developing his “New Existentialism,” particularly in regards to his “intentionality of consciousness,” which he mentions in a number of his books.


The influence of the Husserlian phenomenological tradition in the 21st century extends 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.

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