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Husserl, Edmund (1859–1938)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD029-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

Through his creation of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl was one of the most influential philosophers of our century. He was decisive for most of contemporary continental philosophy, and he anticipated many issues and views in the recent philosophy of mind and cognitive science. However, his works were not reader- friendly, and he is more talked about than read.

Husserl was born in Moravia, received a Ph.D. in mathematics while working with Weierstraß, and then turned to philosophy under the influence of Franz Brentano. He was particularly engaged by Brentano’s view on intentionality and developed it further into what was to become phenomenology. His first phenomenological work was Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations) (1900–1). It was followed by Ideen (Ideas) (1913), which is the first work to give a full and systematic presentation of phenomenology. Husserl’s later works, notably Vorlesungen zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins (On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time) (1928), Formale und transzendentale Logik (Formal and Transcendental Logic) (1929), Cartesianische Meditationen (Cartesian Meditations) (1931) and Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie (Crisis of the European Sciences) (partly published in 1936), remain largely within the framework of the Ideas. They take up topics that Husserl only dealt with briefly or were not even mentioned in the Ideas, such as the status of the subject, intersubjectivity, time and the lifeworld.

Brentano had characterized intentionality as a special kind of directedness upon an object. This leads to difficulties in cases of hallucination and serious misperception, where there is no object. Also, it leaves open the question of what the directedness of consciousness consists in. Husserl therefore endeavours to give a detailed analysis of those features of consciousness that make it as if of an object. The collection of all these features Husserl calls the act’s ‘noema’. The noema unifies the consciousness we have at a certain time into an act that is seemingly directed towards an object. The noema is hence not the object that the act is directed towards, but is the structure that makes our consciousness be as if of such an object.

The noemata are akin to Frege’s ‘third world’ objects, that is, the meanings of linguistic expressions. According to Husserl, ‘the noema is nothing but a generalization of the notion of meaning [Bedeutung] to the field of all acts’ ([1913] 1950: 3, 89). Just as distinguishing between an expression’s meaning and its reference enables one to account for the meaningful use of expressions that fail to refer, so, according to Husserl, can the distinction between an act’s noema and its object help us overcome Brentano’s problem of acts without an object.

In an act of perception the noema we can have is restricted by what goes on at our sensory surfaces, but this constraint does not narrow our possibilities down to just one. Thus in a given situation I may perceive a man, but later come to see that it was a mannequin, with a corresponding shift of noema. Such a shift of noema is always possible, corresponding to the fact that perception is always fallible. These boundary conditions, which constrain the noemata we can have, Husserl calls ‘hyle’. The hyle are not objects experienced by us, but are experiences of a kind which we typically have when our sense organs are affected, but also can have in other cases, for example under the influence of fever or drugs.

In our natural attitude we are absorbed in physical objects and events and in their general features, such as their colour and shape. These general features, which can be shared by several objects, Husserl calls essences, or ‘eidos’ (Wesen). Essences are studied in the eidetic sciences, of which mathematics is the most highly developed. We get to them by turning our attention away from the concrete individuals and focusing on what they have in common. This change of attention Husserl calls ‘the eidetic reduction’, since it leads us to the eidos. However, we may also more radically leave the natural attitude altogether, put the objects we were concerned with there in brackets and instead reflect on our own consciousness and its structures. This reflection Husserl calls ‘the transcendental reduction’, or ‘epoché’. Husserl uses the label ‘the phenomenological reduction’ for a combination of the eidetic and the transcendental reduction. This leads us to the phenomena studied in phenomenology, that is, primarily, the noemata.

The noemata are rich objects, with an inexhaustible pattern of components. The noema of an act contains constituents corresponding to all the features, perceived and unperceived, that we attribute to the object, and moreover constituents corresponding to features that we rarely think about and are normally not aware of, features that are often due to our culture. All these latter features Husserl calls the ‘horizon’ of the act. The noema is influenced by our living together with other subjects where we mutually adapt to one another and come to conceive the world as a common world in which we all live, but experience from different perspectives. This adaptation, through empathy (Einfühlung), was extensively studied by Husserl.

Husserl emphasizes that our perspectives and anticipations are not predominantly factual: ‘this world is there for me not only as a world of mere things, but also with the same immediacy as a world of values, a world of goods, a practical world’ ([1913] 1950: 3, 1, 58). Further, the anticipations are not merely beliefs – about factual properties, value properties and functional features – but they also involve our bodily habits and skills.

The world in which we find ourselves living, with its open horizon of objects, values, and other features, Husserl calls the ‘lifeworld’. It was the main theme of his last major work, The Crisis of the European Sciences, of which a part was published in 1936. The lifeworld plays an important role in his view on justification, which anticipates ideas of Goodman and Rawls.

Citing this article:
Follesdal, Dagfinn. Husserl, Edmund (1859–1938), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD029-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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