Edmund Husserl: Pioneer of Transcendental-Phenomenological Idealism

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Edmund Husserl developed the philosophy of Phenomenology. Image by Decoded Past

Edmund Husserl developed the philosophy of Phenomenology. Image by Decoded Past

Edmund Husserl (1858-1938) pioneered a revolutionary, new philosophy that later influenced Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Jacques Derrida.  

This controversial philosopher was born in the Czech Republic in Prossnitz, which is now known as Prostějov. Although Jewish by birth, Husserl converted to Catholicism in 1887.  His Jewish origins exposed him to persecution by the Nazis, and towards the end of his life, excluded him from German academic life.

He developed a philosophy that was, basically, a systematic analysis of experiences, in other words, Phenomenology.  He sees the world not as an actuality, but as an actuality-phenomenon.  He acknowledges that he exists, but claims that all that is “not-I” is phenomena.

We can see that he has started from a Cartesian position: “I think therefore I am.” 

More Empirical than Immanuel Kant’s Transcendental Idealism

In her chapter “Consciousness and Thought,” in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Iris Murdoch says that Edmund Husserl’s philosophy is far more empirical, (empiricism being the notion that it is only possible to determine whether anything is true or not through experience) than, for example, Kant’s philosophy, from which originated the concept of transcendental idealism.

This intense focus on empiricism makes Husserl’s theory much closer than Kant’s philosophy, to the subject of psychology. Murdoch continues: “…phenomenology, of which Husserl is said to be the father, may be called a would-be logical kind of psychology…”

One of the ways examples of how Husserl’s philosophy influenced psychology develops from his earliest work Philosophy of Arithmetic. This work was to lay the foundation for a philosophy of mathematics. George Thines, in The Oxford Companion to the Mind, says: “… numbers do not only correspond to sets of elements liable to be counted, they constitute wholes beyond the capacities of immediate perception… From this moment on, they exist only for consciousness as wholes expressed by symbols.”

We can now see, albeit loosely, how this train of thought might progress from mathematics to psychology:

Wholes in consciousness (numbers) = symbols = basic principles (later) developed by Gestalt theorists.


All that is “Not-I” is phenomena as far as we are concerned, says Edmund Husserl. This means objects, colours, in fact, everything we experience. Image by Douglas Cameron, used with Permission.

Husserl “Brackets” the Idea of Actual Existence

Husserl’s “brackets” or “parentheses” depend on the assumption that objects are mere appearance and not necessarily “things in themselves.”  Therefore, the idea of actual existence had to be discarded, or “bracketed” in Husserl’s terminology.

This poses a complete rejection of naturalism. As explained by Marianne Sawicki of Pennsylvania University:

“Indeed, in Husserl’s hands phenomenology began as a critique of both psychologism and naturalism.  Naturalism is the thesis that everything belongs to the world of nature and can be studied by the methods appropriate to studying that world (that is, the methods of the hard sciences.)”  

However, it is important to stress that Husserl intended this “bracketing” as a setting-aside of the viewpoint of natural science, and not a total elimination.

One of the main objections to Husserl’s theory is that, at least, during his lifetime, experimental psychology was unable to provide, “…sufficiently rigorous proofs of its supposed founding role within the general framework of the theory of knowledge.”  The theory of knowledge is otherwise known as “epistemology.”

(Note: “Psychologism,” see above, is a philosophical position which claims that psychology can be used to explain non-psychological facts or laws.)

Directedness Towards an Object

Consciousness is always directed towards objects.  No person is ever just “conscious,” without any object in mind, whether a book, some music, another person, a colour, a feeling – on the contrary, a human being is always conscious of something.  Through this perception, Husserl assumes that consciousness can only be defined as being directed towards an object.

In other words, it is of no consequence whether or not things exist independently of us; a thing is the object of consciousness as far as we are concerned.

“According to Husserl,” says Iris Murdoch, “the basic unit of consciousness is the ‘intentional object.’ This term expresses the notion that all consciousness points beyond itself, is an indication, a holding or framing, of something beyond: a desire is ‘for’ something, a fear ‘of’ something, a puzzle ‘about’ something.”

In other words, she continues, “Consciousness is a series of psychic acts which have intentional objects.”

A Philosophy that Might Outstrip Science

Husserl was seeking a philosophy that was so radical it might outstrip science – and the result was a radical theory of subjectivity.  His ideas revolutionised not only psychology, but also sociology and philosophical anthropology.

“The striking fact in Husserl’s case is that, starting from the philosophy of mathematics, he succeeded in elaborating a radical philosophy of consciousness from which a psychology developed in the course of time.  For these reasons it is impermissible to consider Husserl’s phenomenology just as one philosophical system among others,” says George Thines in The Oxford Companion to the Mind.

Husserl’s Work Influences Modern-Day Philosophers

Edmund Husserl’s later works were Logical Investigations, Ideas, and Formal and Transcendental Logic. His work greatly influences the work of modern-day analytical philosophers.

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© Copyright 2014 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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