Key Theories of Edmund Husserl

Much reader-response theory had its philosophical origins in the doctrine known as phenomenology, whose foundations were laid by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). The Greek word phainomenon means “appearance.” Hence, as a philosophical attitude, phenomenology shifts our emphasis of study away from the “external” world of objects toward examining the ways in which these objects appear to the human subject, and the subjective contribution to this process of appearing. This “bracketing” of the external world is referred to by Husserl as the “phenomenological reduction,” and it underlies his attempt to achieve certainty in philosophy. Husserl argues that we cannot be sure of the nature of the outside world; but we can have certainty about the nature of our own perception and about the ways in which we construct the world, the ways in which that world appears to our subjective apparatus. This emphasis on subjectivity proved to be enormously influential; it provided the foundations of the Geneva School of phenomenological criticism (including figures such as Georges Poulet and Jean Starobinski), which read literature as embodying the consciousness of its author; it exerted a considerable impact on the reception theories of Wolfgang Iser and Hans Robert Jauss; and it provided a starting point against which Martin Heidegger’s thought reacted.

husserlHusserl wished to establish philosophy on a rational and scientific basis. In his early essay Philosophy as a Rigorous Science (1911), he maintains that at no stage in its development has philosophy ever lived up to its claim of being rigorously scientific. He sees the various philosophies since the Renaissance as following “an essentially unitary line of development.”1 Husserl acknowledges that a “conscious will for rigorous science dominated the Socratic–Platonic revolution of philosophy and also, at the beginning of the modern era, the scientific reactions against Scholasticism, especially the Cartesian revolution.” This scientific impulse, says Husserl, renews itself in Kant’s critique of reason and in the philosophy of Fichte. After that, however, the scientific endeavor of philosophy is weakened by Romantic philosophy, of which Husserl sees the archetypal exemplar as the philosophy of Hegel. It was in reaction against Hegel, partly due to the progress of the exact sciences, that naturalism gained an “overwhelming impetus.” Indeed, the skeptical attitude of naturalism, says Husserl, has decisively shaped philosophy over the last few decades (PCP, 76–77). Such naturalism has been warring against a “sceptical historicism” adapted from Hegel’s “metaphysical philosophy of history” (PCP, 77).

Husserl engages in a critique of both these tendencies, naturalism and historicism, the one professing to attain scientific objectivity and the other denying the possibility of such objectivity and affirming a historical relativism. In contrast with the “metaphysical irresolution and scepticism” of the previous age, Husserl calls for a philosophical science based on “sure foundations,” one that will answer to the urgent spiritual need of our time, one that will satisfy “both intellect and feeling” (PCP, 140, 142). Like Descartes, Husserl insists that, in the spirit of genuine philosophical science, we “accept nothing given in advance” (PCP, 145). Philosophy is “essentially a science of true beginnings, or origins, of rizomata panton [the roots of all things].” We must begin not from previous philosophies, previous biases, misconceptions, and prejudices; rather, we must begin from “things and from the problems connected with them.” Ideas, Husserl insists, are largely given in “immediate intuition,” and it is through philosophical intuition that we will achieve a “phenomenological grasp of essences” (PCP, 147).

Husserl gives a fairly succinct account of his own philosophical position in a lecture of 1917 entitled Pure Phenomenology, its Method and its Field of Investigation.2 Here, Husserl announces that, in response to an urgent need, a “new fundamental science, pure phenomenology” has developed, and he defines this as “the science of pure phenomena” (“PP,” 4–5). One of Husserl’s accomplishments in this lecture is to define and refine the concept of “phenomenon,” which in its simplest meaning refers to “something which appears” (to the subject or observer). Husserl’s most general claim is that “objects would be nothing at all for the cognizing subject if they did not ‘appear’ to him, if he had of them no ‘phenomenon.’ Here, therefore, ‘phenomenon’ signifies a certain content that intrinsically inhabits the intuitive consciousness” (“PP,” 7). Husserl is not only claiming, as Kant did, that we can know the object only as it appears to us, regardless of what it might be in itself; he is also urging that the object is nothing in itself, and its very constitution as an object, as a phenomenon or object which appears, is grounded on the subjective apparatus which intuits it as an object. In a sense, what Husserl is doing is removing the Kantian notion of noumenon which acts as a constraint or limitation upon the constitution of phenomena by the mind: for Husserl, there is nothing beyond the sphere and status of phenomena. The phenomenal world is not merely the only reality we can know; it is the only reality.

Husserl points out the complexity of the term “phenomenon” as it is used in his thought. When we perceive an object (i.e., when an object “appears” to us), this is not a single or simple operation: the object might be given to us, or appear to us, in differing ways. We might look at it from above, below, near, far, past, and present. So we in fact have several single intuitions of the “same” object. And these single intuitions are combined and integrated into “the unity of one continuous consciousness of one and the same object.” Hence, “one unitary ‘phenomenon’ permeates all the manifolds of phenomenal presentation.” In other words, what we call a phenomenon, or object as it appears to us, is in fact an intuited unity of a series of perceptions of an object” (“PP,” 8). On the other side, consciousness itself is a unity of a variety of processes that are performed upon phenomena, such as remembering, referring, combining, contrasting, and ultimately, theorizing. So we have a situation where the “unity of one consciousness . . . constitutes intrinsically a single synthetic objectivity” (“PP,” 9). Again, this situation seems similar to that outlined in Kant’s description of the transcendental ego, which unifies the individual perceptions of the empirical ego; but again, Husserl’s emphasis is different: the entire world of phenomena, ranging from the simplest designations of objectivity to complex groupings and sub-groupings of objects, is constituted by acts of consciousness, by a variety and hierarchy of such acts which themselves must form part of a pattern of ordered unity.

The point here is that it is consciousness that determines objectivity, that classifies and arranges the world of objects and phenomena: without this activity, there simply would be no objects as such. Hence, Husserl has extended the notion of “phenomenon” to “include the whole realm of consciousness with all the ways of being conscious of something . . . all values, all goods, all works, can be experienced, understood, and made objective as such only through the participation of emotional and volitional consciousness.” By way of example, Husserl suggests that no object in the category “work of art” could occur in the world of someone who was “devoid of all aesthetic sensibility” (“PP,” 13–14). The implication, clearly, is that a work of art (like any other phenomenon) cannot somehow exist prior to its reception; it is constituted by the sensibility which receives it as such, as a work of art.

The task of phenomenology, then, is to examine not the world of objects “in itself ” but how this world is constituted by a vast range of acts of consciousness. For example, if something is remembered, we will examine not the object that is remembered but the object as it is remembered. In other words, we will consider how the process of remembering constitutes the object. As Husserl says, a phenomenological investigation will address “the intrinsic nature . . . of the perceiving itself, of remembering (or any other way of representing) itself, and of thinking, valuing, willing, and doing themselves . . . In Cartesian terms, the investigation will be concerned with the cogito in its own right,” i.e., the thinking itself, as well as the object that is thought about (“PP,” 15). As such, phenomenology will be a “science of consciousness” (“PP,” 16).

Husserl insists on making a distinction between “phenomena” and “objects.” Objects, such as all natural objects, are “foreign to consciousness,” whereas phenomena comprise the processes and constituents of consciousness itself. This distinction indicates a sharp contrast, says Husserl, between phenomenology and the so-called “objective” sciences (“PP,” 17–18). These contrasted fields deal with fundamentally different kinds of experience and intuition: phenomenology deals with “immanent” experience, which is a reflection through which we grasp both consciousness and whatever consciousness is aware of. The objective sciences deal with “external” or “transcendent” experience, i.e., experience of something external that is presented to our senses. Husserl claims that what is given to “immanent” reflection is given “absolutely,” and is always certain, always indubitable; whereas, the object of external experience may be proven (through further experiences) to be illusory. For example, the mental process of “desiring” or “liking” is given absolutely: it is intrinsic (not foreign) to our consciousness, and we do not “view” it, as an object, from various perspectives. Another way of putting this is to say that desiring or liking is one of the ways of being conscious; as Husserl says, “to like is intrinsically to be conscious” (“PP,” 19–20). Desiring or liking, then, is one of the forms in which an object is given to us; and we intuit the unity of desire and the object of desire as a phenomenon.

Husserl urges that we can pass from transcendent to immanent experience (since it is the latter alone that yields certainty). When we are in the “natural” (or transcendent) attitude, we execute certain acts of consciousness such as referring and combining; but our focus is not on these acts but on the objects which our consciousness intends. But we can convert this “natural attentional focus into the phenomenologically reflectiveone,” by fixing our attention on our own “currently flowing consciousness and, thus, the infinitely multiform world of phenomena” (“PP,” 22–23). In other words, our focus is now on not the objects as objects, but the objects as phenomena: the objects as they appear to consciousness, together with the structures of consciousness that condition these modes of appearing. As stated earlier, Husserl distinguishes phenomenology as the science of consciousness from mere psychology; the latter, he considers, is inadequate to the task of examining consciousness since it misapplies natural laws to the mind and in fact treats the mind as just another event in the spatiotemporal world of nature and matter (“PP,” 25–26).

In contrast with “psychological experiencing,” phenomenology engages in an intuiting which remains within “pure reflection” and which excludes nature (“PP,” 27). In phenomenology, consciousness “is taken purely as it intrinsically is with its own intrinsic constituents, and no being that transcends consciousness is coposited” (“PP,” 28). Husserl sees his “phenomenological reduction” as a development of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum toward non-Cartesian aims: “phenomenological reduction is the method for effecting radical purification of the phenomenological field of consciousness from all obtrusions from Objective actualities” (“PP,” 30). What does such a reduction involve? First of all, it entails suspending or bracketing or “putting out of action” the whole of“material Nature,” and the entire corporeal world, including my own body, the “body of the cognizing subject” (“PP,” 32). Secondly, we must exclude “all psychological experience,” all consideration of conscious processes being grounded in the body or nature. Hence, “the Objective world,” as comprehending both nature and the psyche, “is as if it were placed in brackets” (“PP,” 33–34).

Once we have done this, what is left over? What is left for phenomenological analysis? Husserl’s answer is “the totality of the phenomena of the world . . . Consciousness and what it is conscious of . . . is what is left over as field for pure reflection” (“PP,” 34–35). He elaborates, saying that we can investigate “every kind of theoretical, valuational, practical consciousness,” and all the objects constituted in it. The difference is that, in our phenomenological investigation, we will treat objects not as independent entities but as “correlates of consciousness.” We can still examine everything that we would have done prior to the advent of this wondrous phenomenological science: “Things in Nature, persons and personal communities, social forms and formations, poetic and plastic formations, every kind of cultural work.” Only, now, we will regard these not as “actualities” but in relation to the consciousness that constitutes them through its “wealth of structures” (“PP,” 35). Hence, in examining pure consciousness, we are examining not only the structures of thought and perception that are immanent in consciousness but also the entire range of “external” phenomena as they appear to, and are structured by, consciousness.

But if our (hypothetical) starting point is a Cartesian one, of an individual consciousness, doesn’t Husserl’s procedure entrap us in solipsism, the narrow belief that the world and its contents are merely the product or projection of a single mind? Husserl explains that pure phenomenology is not an empirical science, viewing each consciousness as imprisoned within an individual body: rather, it is an a priori science, concerned “with the ideally possible and the pure laws thereof ” (“PP,” 38–41). Pure phenomenology, then, is concerned with the “essential laws” to which consciousness and its phenomena are subject (“PP,” 41–42). The philosophical problems involved in a critique of reason must be reformulated in terms of “essential coherences” between various spheres of objectivity “and the consciousness in which it is immanently constituted.” Following Brentano, Husserl sees acts of consciousness as intentional: consciousness is always conscious of something, and it posits or intends the objects toward which it is directed. Such objects are therefore “immanent” in the thinking process of the subject; and, since such immanent objectivity is ideal (certain qualities being abstracted from an object and recognized as its essence), it is an objectivity that is valid for all subjects.

Quotefancy-1328355-3840x2160.jpgAccording to Husserl, what phenomenology grasps is the ideal essences of objects; and, since these essences are immanent in (rather than external to) consciousness, they are grasped intuitively. Husserl sees his method as characterized not only by a “phenomenological reduction” but also by an “eidetic reduction,” a reduction or abstraction to the ideal form (the Greek eidos meaning type or form). As Husserl states, the critique of reason must be regrounded by “a kind of research that draws intuitively upon what is given phenomenologically” (“PP,” 43). In short, Husserl replaces the notion of objectivity with a model of intersubjectivity: coherences are found no longer in nature itself or in objects themselves but in the patterns of our perceptions of objects.

Husserl ends his paper with a confident prediction that phenomenology will “overcome all resistance and stupidity and will enjoy enormous development” (“PP,” 44). While it may not have overcome all stupidity, phenomenology has certainly inaugurated, and has been symptomatic of, an enormous shift, discernible in many fields, including modernist literature, existentialism, deconstruction, and many branches of psychoanalytic and feminist theory, toward examining the world as integrally related to the apparatus of human subjectivity. Where the modern world has left Husserl behind, however, is his Cartesian insistence on isolating the mind from the body and conceiving the mind in an individualistic and atomistic way; subsequent thinkers have indeed built on Husserl’s insights but have tended to ground human subjectivity in a social and historical framework, after the model of Hegel rather than that of Descartes.

Husserl himself, however, saw his “scientific” method of philosophy as answering to a much-needed exigency of the modern world. His inaugural lecture, just examined, was delivered in 1917, while Europe was still being devastated by World War I. In a subsequent lecture, “Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man” (1935), Husserl examined the connection between philosophy and history, and, more specifically, between his phenomenological method and the current malaise of Europe. Husserl effectively begins with the truism, in the wake of world war and economic depression, that the “European nations are sick.” Husserl attributes this condition in part to the failure of the “humanistic sciences” to perform their function of guiding humanity in the spheres of culture, spirituality, and creativity (PCP, 150–151, 153). Blinded by naturalism, says Husserl, the practitioners of humanistic science have neglected to seek a “pure science of the spirit” (PCP, 155).

Husserl sees Europe as a unity transcending national conflicts and localized differences; this unity is “a special inner affinity of spirit,” the “unity of one spiritual image.” Husserl traces this spiritual unity back to the development of philosophy and science in the ancient Greek world; it is the emergence of the spirit of such science and philosophy, claims Husserl, that makes European culture unique (PCP, 156–157). This spirit consisted essentially in a new kind of attitude of people toward their environment: instead of being concerned solely with survival and practical needs, the Greeks acquired interest in systematic and universal knowledge that transcended any immediate application to their own, localized situation. They became interested in knowledge for its own sake, in the concept of a universal truth, and universal standards of morality (PCP, 160). Such an attitude transformed the lives of the Greeks, who began to live according to “ideal norms.” Husserl designates this attitude, interested as it is in the universal, the “theoretical” attitude, carried out by philosophers and scientists “bound together in a common interpersonal endeavor” and devoted to theoria (PCP, 164–165). Such an attitude is unique to European culture (though it has been exported and imitated), and contrasts sharply with the “natural attitude,” with the “naively direct living immersed in the world” that has characterized other cultures (PCP, 166). The theoretical attitude can, however, be integrated into a higher-level practical attitude. In this way, theoria is “called upon . . . to serve humanity in a new way,” by offering “a universal critique of all life and of its goals . . . it is a practical outlook whose aim is to elevate mankind through universal scientific reason in accord with norms of truth in every form, and thus to transform it into a radically new humanity” (PCP, 169).

Indeed, Husserl suggests that the “European crisis” has its roots in the “mistaken rationalism” that has descended from the Enlightenment (PCP, 179). He views Enlightenment notions of reason as “one-sided,” and warns that no one line of “truth must be absolutized. Only in such a supreme consciousness of self, which itself becomes a branch of the infinite task, can philosophy fulfill its function of putting itself, and therewith a genuine humanity, on the right track” (PCP, 181). Husserl once again denounces the objectivism that has descended from the Renaissance and was especially pronounced over the last two centuries, an objectivism that has taken the form of naturalism and psychologism. Husserl sees the crisis of Europe not as due to the collapse of rationalism but as the diversion or exteriorization of reason into forms such as naturalism and objectivism. He ends with a prescient warning: Europe can move from its present ruins into further alienation from its “rational sense of life, fallen into a barbarian hatred of spirit.” Or it can find rebirth “from the spirit of philosophy, through a heroism of reason that will definitively overcome naturalism.” Husserl urges Europeans to rise like the phoenix from “the annihilating conflagration of disbelief ” and to engage once again in “the West’s mission to humanity” (PCP, 192). His words have echoed loudly through the mouths of politicians speaking into the twenty-first century.


1 Edmund Husserl, Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy, trans. Quentin Lauer (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 71. Hereafter cited as PCP.
2 In Husserl: Shorter Works, ed. Peter McCormick and Frederick A. Elliston (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). Hereafter cited as “PP.” Numbers refer to paragraphs.


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Reader Response Criticism

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