Edmund Husserl and the Aims of Phenomenology

by Marvin Farber

A. Edmund Husserl and the Foundation of Phenomenology

It is always a hazardous undertaking to attempt to decide which recent or contemporary thinkers may be candidates for membership in the "great tradition" of the history of philosophy. There is good reason to suppose that Edmund Husserl, who was professor of philosophy in Freiburg, Germany, will have earned that distinction, along with such recent philosophers as James, Dewey, and Whitehead. "Phenomenology" has come to be generally known as referring to Husserl's philosophy, despite Hegel's use of the term. Husserl's usage was historically independent of that of Hegel. Like Hegel, he inherited from the great tradition in philosophy, and he was inclined to view his predecessors as either adumbrating or falling short of his own ideas. But his principle of selection was different, since he began with the theory of knowledge rather than with metaphysics. That he might well have been compelled by the requirements of a universal idealistic philosophy to move in Hegel's direction is plausible, and is in fact suggested by some of his later writings.

The name of Edmund Husserl has become a familiar one in recent world philosophy. He is known as the most vigorous critic of the prevailing "psychologistic" philosophies at the close of the nineteenth century. That he was also an opponent of naturalistic or materialistic philosophy, and that he derived much of his motivation from that opposition, is less generally recognized. He is also known as one of the forerunners of the Gestalt psychology; as a profound and fruitful worker in the field of logical theory; as a painstaking descriptive investigator of the structures of experience and its objects; as a champion of the ideal of a rigorous science of philosophy; as a continuator of the idealistic tradition in philosophy; as an effective teacher, with influence on scholars in such different fields of thought as law, psychiatry, mathematics, religion, sociology, and psychology, as well as in philosophy; as one of the conspicuous influences on the development of existentialism; and as the point of departure of the International Phenomenological Society, which was founded in New York one year after Husserl's death in 1938. Certainly Husserl was one of the most seminal philosophical minds in the last century, and he is sure to be intensively studied and critically discussed in the coming generations. It would not be surprising to find a special version of phenomenology ultimately defended as the last stronghold of idealism, or adapted for the purposes of a religious philosophy, in opposition to the philosophical movements motivated and conditioned by the special sciences.

Edmund Husserl was born in Czechoslovakia in 1859, and studied in Berlin and Vienna. He was trained in mathematics, in which field he took his doctor's degree, and also in physics, astronomy, and philosophy. At the suggestion of his friend Masaryk, who was later the president of Czechoslovakia, Husserl attended the lectures of the Catholic philosopher, Franz Brentano, in Vienna. It was Brentano who convinced him of the value and dignity of philosophy as a lifework; and it was through Brentano that he made contact with the tradition of medieval philosophy, and received the first impetus that led to the development of an independent science of phenomenology.

Husserl has left a revealing tribute to Brentano, [1] to whom he always acknowledged indebtedness. His own resemblance to his teacher with respect to the seriousness of his purpose, the whole�hearted devotion to his task, regarding philosophy as a "life or death matter," the absence of humor as a device to enliven lectures or to help score a point, the fatherly treatment of faithful students, and the insistence upon agreement and fidelity; these are traits that must be familiar to all who knew either Brentano or Husserl. Also similar was the apparent inability (which was really in large part disinclination) to understand a novel point of view. Thus Husserl, upon meeting Brentano in later years, found it impossible to convince his old master that he had something radically new to contribute to philosophical thought. But Husserl himself developed the tendency to remain solidly within his own framework of ideas, motives, and definitions. The isolated independence with which he maintained his "inner view" in later years was reminiscent of a Liebnizian monad, with its absence of doors and windows.

Like Kant, Husserl was a slowly maturing thinker. He was past forty years old when be completed his Logical Investigations (1900‑1901), and fifty‑four when his Ideas Toward a Phenomenological Philosophy appeared (1913), a work which marked the development of his transcendental philosophy. His first published work, the Philosophy of Arithmetic, appeared in 1891. This work reflected his background in mathematics, and also his studies in the psychology of the 1880s. There is a legend to the effect that Husserl's first book was refuted by the devastating criticism of the famous mathematical philosopher, G. Frege, of Jena. It is true that Husserl had been under the influence of the psychologistic point of view ("psychologism"), according to which logic and mathematics are grounded in the psychology of thought processes. It is also true that there was some evidence of confusion in this early work, as illustrated by the unfortunate term "content." This term was widely used by psychologistic philosophers, and in Husserl's hands it led to some degree of confusion between the objective order and subjective factors. Thus it could readily be confusing to call the moon a "content." Two things may be noted, however, concerning Frege's criticism: he by no means invalidated the entire book; and he called attention to Husserl's discussion of the immediate apprehension of aggregate‑characters under the beading of "figurale Momente," leaving it to psychologists to evaluate its importance. It is an interesting coincidence that Husserl's emphasis upon "figural characters" should appear at about the same time as Meinong's recognition of "quasi‑qualitative characters" and Von Ehrenfels' discussion of "Gestalt qualities." This signified a correction of the narrowness of atomistic sensationalism. As Husserl expressed it, one discerns immediately the "flock character" when he observes "a flock of birds," or the "column character" when he observes "a column of soldiers." In short, "group characters" may be directly observed.

Although the Philosophy of Arithmetic was a youthful publication, it contained elements that were to be characteristic of the later development of Husserl's thought. Indeed, the basic problem of Husserl's later philosophy may be said to be raised at this point‑the relationship between the principles of mathematics (and logic) and psychical processes. This problem was to be treated more searchingly, and in a new way, in later studies. But it is evident to the careful reader that Husserl derived his determining motivation from the attempt to unite his mathematical and psychological approaches to philosophy.

In the years that followed the publication of the Philosophy of Arithmetic, Husserl extended his studies in psychology and logic. This period culminated in the publication of his Logical Investigations, the first volume of which presented an incisive critique of "psychologism." He was well aware of the decisive nature of the step he had taken in renouncing a point of view, as well as scholars, to whom he had once felt himself close. Admitting the fact of past errors, he accounted for the severity of his criticism of the "psychologistic" logic and theory of knowledge by quoting the words of Goethe: "one is not more strict against anything than against errors only recently abandoned."

The publication of the Logical Investigations brought Husserl fame and academic advancement. At the University of Göttingen he had contact with mathematicians and scientists, and had the opportunity to influence students in numerous fields of scholarship. His concept of a "definite manifold, " �[2] for example, was presented before mathematicians and philosophers.

In 1916, Husserl received his first appointment to a full professorship of philosophy, when he was called to the University of Freiburg. There, as director of the philosophical seminar, he felt stimulated to develop his thought in the direction of a universal philosophy, which took the form of a transcendental, constitutive phenomenology. If his tendency may be designated idealistic, it was not to be identified with any previously existing form of idealism.

This development in the direction of idealism recalls the prediction of the neo‑Kantian philosopher Paul Natorp, who was one of Husserl's early critics. In his discussion of the first volume of the Logical Investigations, [3] Natorp pointed out that Husserl's maintaining an "a priori" aligned him with the transcendental philosophy. Stating that Husserl had extended his little finger to this devil, Natorp predicted that he would have to give the whole hand. That Husserl did more than that is now evident. The reasons were to be more far‑reaching and complex than Natorp could then discern.

It will be of interest to quote from Husserl's own account of his early period, which was conveyed in a letter to the present writer in 1936. He wrote:

External "influences" are without significance. As a young beginner I naturally read much including classics and contemporary literature of the 1870s to the 1890s. I liked the critical‑skeptical point of view, since I myself did not see firm ground anywhere. I was always very far removed from Kantianism and German idealism. Only Natorp interested me, more for personal reasons, and I read thoroughly the first edition of his Introduction to Psychology, but not the enlarged second edition. I zealously read (especially as a student) Mill's Logic and later the work on Hamilton's philosophy. I have repeatedly studied the English empiricists and the principal writings of Leibniz (ed. by J. E. Erdmann), especially his mathematical‑philosophical writings. I first got to know Schuppe after the Logical Investigations when he could offer me nothing further. I never looked seriously at anything by Rehmke. Really, my course was already marked out by the Philosophy of Arithmetic, and I could do nothing other than to proceed further.

This is by no means a complete list of the influences on Husserl, however. William James interested him greatly, particularly the Principles of Psychology. Husserl often spoke of James, who helped to free him from "psychologism," and whose treatment of the "stream of consciousness� inspired Husserl in his descriptive analysis of conscious experience. Mention should also be made of Bolzano, Lotze, Twardowski, Marty, Avenarius, and Dilthey. Bolzano's Wissenschaftslehre provided him with a first draft of a "pure logic" at a critical time in his development, and he was indebted to Lotze for his interpretation of Plato's theory of ideas. [4] He came to know about Shadworth Hodgson after the Logical Investigations, when he was pleased to credit Hodgson with insights into the subjectivistic approach to philosophy. Although it is true that Husserl was far removed from Kant in his early period, it is apparent that his subsequent close study of Kant made a deep impression upon him. The influence of Kant's general program for a transcendental philosophy, and of his theory of knowledge, is seen in Husserl's later writings, such as his Experience and Judgment and his Formal and Transcendental Logic. Kant was criticized for failing to achieve a "pure� theory of knowledge, free from all naturalistic elements. In this sense, what Husserl undertook to achieve, in his way, by means of the phenomenological method, was what Kant had failed to do.

Finally, it may be observed that Husserl's denial of external influences is not to be regarded as plausible. Like all other thinkers, he was historically conditioned in important respects. In addition to the indebtedness to the world of philosophy already indicated (incompletely, to be sure), he was dependent upon the scientific level of his time, especially the prevailing psychology. His social attitudes were mainly the product of his German background; and his antinaturalistic tendency may also be accounted for historically, in terms of the general movement to stem the tide of philosophic naturalism and evolutionism. It is simply not true to say that "external influences are without significance." Husserl was himself far too significant a thinker (whether one agrees with him fully or largely disagrees) to allow him to be detached from the plainly evident conditions that acted upon him. Even the systematic attempt to detach the subject matter of philosophy from the natural world, which includes the cultural world, has its cultural explanation.

Husserl's early use of the term "phenomenology" was either anticipated or independently introduced at about the same time by the American philosopher, C. S. Peirce, who also used the term "phaneroscopy." The predecessors of Husserl in the great tradition of the history of philosophy are to be traced all the way back to Plato. Plato, Aristotle, medieval philosophy (especially by way of Brentano), Descartes, Leibniz, the British empiricists, and, finally, Kant, are all of them contributors to the thought of Husserl. Looking back at Descartes, Husserl stated that he was like Columbus, who discovered a new world without realizing it‑‑the realm of pure subjectivity.

Because of so‑called "racial" reasons, the last five years of Husserl's life under the Nazi rule were unhappy ones. Among his closest students, Martin Heidegger, who had become a prominent existentialist, went over to the Nazis. It is understandable that most of the "Aryan" scholars who had been indebted to him should find it disadvantageous to be associated with him. That Husserl thought much about the evils of the Third Reich cannot be doubted. But it was not his way to enter into the political and social movements of his time, or to take account of them. The severe restraint imposed by his philosophical views left no way of dealing with the sordid conditions that had deprived him of his human rights. He could only appeal to the judgment of eternity, with the firm confidence that he had made a lasting contribution to philosophic thought. He wrote: "And we old people remain here. A singular turn of the times: it gives the philosopher—if it does not take away his breath—much to think of. But now: Cogito ergo sum, i.e., I prove sub specie aeterni my right to live, and this, the aeternitas in general, cannot be touched by any earthly powers."

Although Husserl published a great deal compared with the average output of other scholars, he also bad the habit of withholding much of his work, so that his published writings represented only a fraction of his complete writings. Many thousands of pages of his unpublished writings were left at his death, a large part of them in an obsolete stenographic form. It was necessary to remove the manuscripts from Germany to a place where they could be prepared for eventual publication. A visit to Freiburg by Dr. Herman Van Breda of Louvain led Mrs. Edmund Husserl to entrust that important task to him. With the recent publication of such works as the second and third volumes of Husserl's Ideas, his First Philosophy, and his Phenomenological Psychology, it can be expected that in a few years the most notable of his unpublished works will be available. It will then be possible for all interested persons to decide for themselves whether the real Husserl has been unknown. It is the opinion of some scholars who are acquainted with the manuscripts that they alone will truly portray the significance of Husserl. Without questioning the great importance of the manuscripts, however, it seems more reasonable to maintain that the real Husserl has indeed been rather well known in important respects from his published writings, on which be lavished so much care; and that the manuscripts will provide additional evidence of his descriptive and conceptual powers, with further helpful materials to explain the development of his ideas. There is no need to resort to extreme views. In any case, it is the image of an unfinished philosophy that emerges, not a finished system of thought.

A great number of students and scholars were indebted to Husserl, but it cannot be said that be bad many close followers, at any time in his development. There were very few philosophers who accepted his views without qualification, at the time of his death; and even that small number has decreased by now. Thus, Professor Eugen Fink, who was very close to Husserl as one of his research assistants, has recently chosen to depart from the methodological position of his former master. [5] But it would be a mistake to judge the degree of influence of the phenomenological philosophy in terms of a few faithful adherents. As a matter of fact, the influence of phenomenology has been widespread and diversified.

The spirit of Husserl's work was one which forbade completion. His problems, and his ideal of a rigorous science of philosophy, had an ever open horizon. As Husserl first viewed phenomenology, it was the descriptive science of experience and the objects of experience, with interest restricted to their essential structures. More will have to be said about the definition of phenomenology, but this preliminary statement will help to show that it is first of all a method for philosophy, and that it is reflective and subjective in character. The phenomenological method is intended to be free from all prejudgments and dogmas. Its ideal is the elaboration of a purely descriptive philosophy by means of a well‑defined, "radical" method, for which there are no initial assumptions, at least in the sense of natural experience. In its best examples, and when its own expressed intentions are strictly realized, it is a scientific tendency in philosophy. On the other hand, the nominal adoption and misuse of the phenomenological method has already illustrated the dangers of mysticism, one‑sided and hence misleading description, dogmatism, and assumptive reasoning. Its competent, critical mastery, and constant awareness of the special functions and limitations of the method, should keep it free from such errors.

In the present work, most of our attention will be directed to Husserl, but some mention will be made of other members of the movement and their independent developments. Husserl's Logical Investigations, the most famous of his earlier works, has been widely read by students in Russia, despite the prevailing view that phenomenology, as a subjective philosophy, is in its final consequences reactionary. The same work has been extensively studied in Latin‑American countries, and is in fact known to scholars everywhere. The later publications of Husserl have been read less extensively, due in part to their difficulty, but also to the more disputed direction of his development.

B. The Aims of the Phenomenological Method

The diversity of trends in the phenomenological tendency is due in part to Husserl's own development. Husserl passed through a number of different intellectual periods, and he did not succeed in convincing all the admirers of one period that they ought to go along with him in what he called "the development." Thus Karl Jaspers told him of his disappointment in what was for Husserl a decisive work in introducing transcendental phenomenology—his Ideas of 1913. Broadly speaking, four main periods are distinguished: (1) his early period of interest in basic problems of mathematics, as well as in a psychological approach to logic; (2) the period of the "breakthrough" to phenomenology, which was at first called "descriptive psychology" and conceived as a "neutral" field for investigation, i.e., neither idealistic nor realistic in its commitment, and in fact neutral toward all metaphysics, without �presuppositions" of any kind—in short, as a purely descriptive science; (3) the period of transcendental phenomenology, in which the reduction to the pure consciousness of an individual knower is basic; and (4) the last period of the elaboration of a constitutive idealistic philosophy which is universal in its scope, and in which some attention is given to the concepts of life and historical culture.

It was Husserl's belief that he had succeeded in giving a new foundation to philosophy. "Phenomenology" came then to be understood in two senses. There is the narrower sense of Husserl's earlier period, of phenomenology as concerned with what was formerly known as the realm of empirical psychology. Its aim is to prepare psychology as an empirical science, and to analyze and describe the various types of experience. It also investigates the "sources" out of which "arise" the fundamental concepts and ideal laws of "pure logic." These concepts and laws are to be traced back to their "sources" in conscious experience in order to procure the "clarity and distinctness" required for the epistemological understanding of logic. It should be borne in mind that the terms "sources" and "arise" are placed in quotation marks so that one does not think of any natural processes. The phenomenologist is exclusively interested in essential relations and structures, and not in particular facts or events as such, or in factual accounts of origins. In its wider sense, as developed in Husserl's later work, phenomenology is construed as "First Philosophy," and all sciences are supposed to be rooted in the domain of "pure experience" which it delineates. The "First Philosophy" which is the aim of Husserl's mature transcendental phenomenology represents his first approach to a universal system of philosophy, "valid once and for all time," which would found not only the natural and strictly formal sciences, but the "cultural" sciences as well. This requires a theory of human values and a philosophy of history. It is generally conceded that Husserl has been most successful in the fields of descriptive psychology, theory of knowledge, and logic, and less successful in the field of cultural philosophy, particularly in the treatment of history.

In the phenomenological method, one begins with an individual and his stream of experiences. This mode of beginning has its special merits, but also its limitations. If one wishes to achieve certainty in knowledge, and to examine all dogmatic and naive beliefs, it is necessary to begin with his own conscious experiences. That is to make a "radical" beginning, and a definite field for inquiry has been marked off thereby in any case. But one may not remain restricted to his own experiences if philosophic inquiry is to have access to all regions of experience and knowledge.

Unfortunately, philosophers are subject to general human weaknesses, and one of these is to use a single method exclusively, failing to realize that a method is always adopted for the sake of a particular kind of problem. The phenomenological method is helpful for its range of problems, but it must be used in cooperation with other kinds of method. The extravagant claim that it was the only genuinely philosophical method led to a strong reaction against it, with the unfortunate result that its specific merits were forgotten or ignored.

Specifically, the phenomenological method was intended to achieve the following objectives: (1) to function as a critique of knowledge, providing clarification of basic ideas and a foundation for logic; (2) to describe essential structures of experience, as pure eidetic psychology; (3) to give as complete an account as possible of the part played by the mind in experience; (4) to provide a unified theory of science and knowledge; (5) to define explicitly the universal field for philosophical inquiry, and thus prepare the ground for descriptive analysis; this is done by defining the realm of "pure consciousness," without the usual presuppositions of the naturalistic view of the world (expressed by the ideal of freedom from presuppositions); and (6) to help realize the ideal of a complete descriptive philosophy. The phenomenological method provides a technique for the treatment of "universal" experience, i.e., all types of experience, and therewith a foundation for all knowledge. However, it must itself have a "foundation," from a different point of view. The phenomenologist undertakes to make a "radical" or an "absolute" beginning, by means of a "reduction" to pure consciousness, all things being viewed from the point of view of one's own experiencing of them, and only in so far as they have meaning in and by one's experiences. This "absolute" beginning, although an artificial construction and, as Husserl once referred to it, a "methodological device," assists us greatly in the theory of knowledge. But its place in the total enterprise of experience must not be distorted; it must never be forgotten that the phenomenologist himself is a cultural product and that even his "pure" activities are events in the natural world.

The positive aims of the phenomenological method are thus clear. The method must be reflective, "transcendental" in Kant's sense of the term, i.e., we are to attend to our experiencing of the object, rather than to the object directly; and it must be "pure" in the sense that all beliefs in natural existence (and, indeed, all judgments of existence in general) are placed in abeyance. Thus one achieves the realm of pure immanent consciousness, with its meant objects as such. It will be generally conceded that very much is to be discovered in this immanent realm; but it will not be conceded by all that everything is to be found there.

Negatively, the change from the "natural view" to the inspection of essences in the context of pure consciousness served the historical purpose of avoiding naturalism as a universal philosophy. An alternative to naturalism was offered. This opposition to naturalism was expressed unmistakably in Husserl's famous essay of 1911, entitled "Philosophy as a Rigorous Science." Naturalism as portrayed by Husserl is a result of the discovery of nature in the sense of a unity of spatial and temporal being, with exact laws. It sees only nature, and physical nature to begin with. All forms of consistent naturalism were opposed by Husserl as involving the "naturalizing" of consciousness and the "naturalizing" of what he called the "absolute ideals and norms." Thus he opposed not only materialism, but all other forms of naturalism, including energism, as well as positivism. He argued that naturalism suspends itself in the last analysis. He could refer to his own Logical Investigations, in which he had shown how untenable it was to interpret the principles of logic as laws of thought, and how this led to skepticism. Husserl thought he could similarly show how unsatisfactory was the naturalistic treatment of values. The naturalist he declared to be an idealist who sets up theories that deny what he presupposes in his idealistic attitude. The naturalist preaches, moralizes, and reforms but, in Husserl's view, he denies what is presupposed by every sermon or demand as such. With all due respect to Husserl, it must be admitted that such an argument is hardly more than an ad hominem charge.

It is difficult to understand how anyone could persuade himself that the naturalistic position had been undermined thereby. The ethical views of the evolutionary philosophers (Spencer, Huxley, et al.) certainly merited criticism. But they were not to be disposed of by means of a simple dialectical attack which not only fails to do justice to the merits of naturalistic ethics, but also provides an oversimplified version of naturalism as a convenient target. Moreover, all natural science was declared by Husserl to be naive in its point of departure. Nature is "simply there" for it, and to know what is simply given by means of objective laws is the goal of natural science. This was applied to naturalistic psychology as well. While recognizing the ideal of scientific knowledge, Husserl was concerned with challenging the scientific philosophies of his generation. That they were vulnerable, even in terms of the existing scientific level, cannot be doubted. Husserl could say with right in his Ideas (Section 20): "When it is really natural science that speaks, we listen willingly and as disciples. But the language of the natural scientists is not always that of natural science itself, and is assuredly not so when they speak of 'natural philosophy' and the 'theory of knowledge of natural science."' This also applies to naturalistic philosophies. Was it necessary, however, to go as far as Husserl did in his opposition to them? It is understandable that he was led to take an extremely critical position, in pointing out their defects. It is important to give a careful hearing to such criticism, so that an improved scientific philosophy may result. While by no means all Husserl's criticism of naturalistic philosophies will be accepted, it will be admitted that he has pointed out some of their defects, just as he has helped, in his positive efforts, to enlarge the field of philosophical and scientific inquiry.


1 Cf. the present writer's account in his Foundation of Phenomenology (2d ed.; New York: Paine‑Whitman, 1962). [—> main text]

2 Cf. E. Husserl, Formale und transzendentale Logik (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1929). [—> main text]

3 Paul Natorp, "Zur Frage der logischen Methode," Kant‑Studien, VI (Berlin: 1901), 270‑283. [—> main text]

4 Despite his frequently expressed appreciation of the importance of Bolzano, however, Husserl's critical judgment should not be overlooked. Cf. M. Farber, The Foundation of Phenomenology, pp. 206 ff. [—> main text]

5 Cf. E. Fink, "L'analyse intentionnelle et le problème de la pensée spéculative," in Problèmes actuels de la Phénomènologie, edited by H. L. Van Breda (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1952). [—> main text]

SOURCE: Farber, Marvin. The Aims of Phenomenology: The Motives, Methods, and Impact of Husserl's Thought. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. Chapter I, pp. 1-17.

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