Edmund Husserl (1858-1938), A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Edmund Husserl (1858-1938), A Perspective

Who was he? He was a German thinker and founder of ‘phenomenology’. What is the meaning of this term? It is ‘the descriptive analysis of subjective process and events that lies at the heart of all existentialist philosophies’ (Stokes) I believe this is the reason why Stokes regarded Husserl as an existentialist philosopher in his chapter on Albert Camus. Husserl contended that philosophy has to advance like science. But why, how can the child of mother philosophy start teaching its mother? Have the roles changed? I guess as we get older our children treat us as if we’re their children.

Philosophy should proceed from real issues and problems and not simply from the consideration of other philosophers’ writings. It is interesting to note that he seems to have been following Kant’s footsteps, who brought either/or logic of Aristotle into the practical realm of ethics. Kant was under the impression that science was more accurate so we must have it as a role model. Perhaps this explains Kant’s subjectivism. Little did he know that even science could go through changes as Albert Einstein showed us when it came to Isaac Newton’s physics? However, for some reason Husserl didn’t catch this and instead of working on noumetology, as my mentor said, he went to the alley way of phenomenology. Nonetheless, Husserl also conceived this ‘scientific’ undertaking as a non-empirical one. It is rather a conceptual explanation of perception, belief, judgment, and other mental procedures. Husserl, very much like his predecessor Descartes thought of philosophy as basically a rational attempt starting with the self-evidence of one’s own subjectivity. Apparently, he took Cartesian dualism and ‘I think, therefore I’m’ very seriously. This would put him very close to Sartre’s return to Descartes. This shows he never understood Heidegger’s philosophy. Heidegger went against his teacher on this view along with Husserl followers. However, there’s no indication that Husserl agreed with Cartesian dualism. Remember, Heidegger was Husserl’s intellectual heir.

Phenomenology of Husserl starts with the idea of ‘intentionality’, as conceived by Franz Brentano (1838-1917), who was German philosopher and psychologist. Brentano maintained that all conscious states point to a content, although that very content may or may not exist, it may be abstract or particular. We’re always aware of something, which means we’re not pure consciousness. We have something very similar in Zen Buddhism in which the goal is absolute consciousness not being conscious of something.

For example, there’re those who are scared of ghosts. Their fears are directed towards something, namely, ghosts. This, however, is true if we believe in hosts or not. Let us say, if we believe we’re going have rain tomorrow, our belief is pointing towards tomorrow- a possibility rather than an actuality.

 Following Brentano’s footsteps, Husserl proposed that the intentionality of the mind necessitates that we cannot separate the conscious state like fear for instance, from the object of that state, namely a ghost in an ontological sense. They’re one being. They’re able to exist together, as two aspects of a single phenomenon that is they’re two sides of the same coin. Husserl concluded from this that consciousness is ‘directedness towards an object’. In other words, we’re always aware of something regardless. I’m aware of the statement ‘I think, therefore I’m’. It sounds like Husserl is here referring to pre-cogito, which would mean awareness and ‘I’ are ontologically the same. However, some philosophers held that those two are not the same reality or they can exist together.

Zen Buddhists believed once we’re enlightened, there’s nothing but pure consciousness and not conscious of something, because we have practiced the art of detachment through meditation. We have altered the state of our mind. Once you’re completely detached from the objects around you, you’re no longer conscious of them, namely there’s nothing but awareness itself.

For Husserl the mental state and its object exist together in consciousness without indicating that there’s any ‘material’ thing responding to the call. Thus, Husserl thought what is critical to philosophy is to comprehend all the different ways in which this ‘directness’ or intentionality, shows itself. This establishes Husserl’s ‘non-empirical science, which is a clear investigation into the very elements of mental processes. Husserl thought that removing all the possible, ‘contingent’ or unnecessary aspects of conscious experience could satisfy such an investigation. As a result, the inquiry doesn’t need or require what is behind phenomena.

Speculations regarding what is behind phenomenon are open to doubt and skepticism. Very much like Descartes, Husserl finds himself reaching for certainties. Since all ‘knowledge-of- things’ is gained by the intentional objects of consciousness, any science of knowledge should start with the intentional, with what can be known with certainty. Only those appearances which form, borrowing a phrase from Kant, ‘the necessary preconditions of experience’ is able to fulfill such an inquiry.

I’m sure, like myself, are amused with these entire intellectual maneuvering to find out what the reality is finally all about. However, was he successful in this endeavor? I think Heidegger would say no. Beyond an investigation into the very components of conscious experience, Husserl finds out he is confronted with the same problem Descartes was facing. What was that? It is simply, ‘I think, therefore I’m’.  Heidegger stepped backward and began thinking before ‘cogito’ or ‘I think’.  He started with being. I’m, therefore, I think and doubt. But isn’t this what Husserl was dealing with when he talked about consciousness? Husserl discovered that it would be impossible to talk anything certain concerning ‘the external world’. Nevertheless, we could be aware of the world beyond. But Husserl is not as much worried about skepticism regarding ‘knowledge of things’ than ‘knowledge of self’, because he has identified consciousness with the intentional act, while the self is not the act. The self is the observing subject of the act. However, this subject is never given in experience. In other words, this subject is never the object of an intentional act. Husserl seems to have adopted an idea similar to Kant, that the subject of experience is transcendental, namely it is outside of the spatio-temporal causal order. If this were the case that Kant was referring to pre-cogito being, then it couldn’t be Husserl’s position, would it? Husserl also referred to consciousness and intentionality. Didn’t he? After all Husserl accepted Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I’m’. How can Husserl have his cake and eat it too why not? If awareness is of ‘I think, therefore I’m’, then these two are two sides of the same coin. So, Husserl must have agreed with Kant on this matter. However, Kant didn’t believe this pr-cogito is identical with the ‘I’ in ‘I think, therefore, I’m’ of Descartes. You see the problem is more complicated than what you and I think.

Apparently, Heidegger refuted the conclusion that those two are aspects of the same reality. Why? I personally believe Heidegger would have welcomed the pre-cogito awareness as what Kant called it transcendental reality. That may be true, but Heidegger wouldn’t accept the fact that they’re both identical.

Sartre took up what Heidegger rejected. In his ‘Being and Nothingness’ Sartre explained how consciousness is described as a unique phenomenon capable of negating, by denial and imagination, what is real. As a result, it must stand beyond the ordinary causal order, as Husserl, Descartes and many ‘dualist’ philosophers, have been in agreement for a long time.

It is getting messy at the end, I agree.

Kant knew that our true Self is not reachable through pure reason although he brought either/or logic of Aristotle into ethics. The subject of experience belongs to the realm of transcendence, which is outside of the boundary of space-time territories of causal order. Was Kant referring to the pre-cogito being here? Did Husserl hit the target but just like Kant knew he couldn’t reach it? If Husserl was pointing out the pre-cogito reality, namely the awareness, then some credit to him. Was Husserl referring to the ‘I’ in ‘I think….’, then we have another problem. I think he split with Descartes over this matter. The awareness before we make the statement ‘I think…’ is there but it is unknown. Husserl needs a noumetology to go after it. This pre-cogito being is, I think, what Heidegger picked up to work on.

Sartre thought consciousness was unique because it could negate what is real. As a result it must stand away from the ordinary causal order. Little did he know that any negation is a form of affirmation? Sartre apparently misunderstood Heidegger’s philosophy.

Was Husserl telling us about the true Self when he spoke of ‘knowledge of self’ rather than ‘knowledge of things’? Perhaps Husserl was talking about ‘knowledge of the ‘I’ in ‘cogito…? Husserl seems to be stuck between Descartes and Kant here. Whom should he believe? He seems to have endorsed the idea which is similar to Kant’s position. I believe Heidegger is rejecting Sartre’s Cartesian’s dualism of mind/body. And if Husserl is following Descartes, then he refutes him too. I personally don’t think Heidegger was rejecting Husserl’s philosophy. If Sartre had not misunderstood Heidegger’s philosophy, maybe we would have had no conflict between the two thinkers.

The bottom line is that all these great minds were trying to have knowledge of the world beyond, if there’s one. All the way from Descartes to the present philosophers have been trying to intellectually seek the knowledge of the noumenon realm of Kant. The world beyond still evades their perceptions. None of these great thinkers have dealt with the idea that perhaps they should do something with themselves in order to reach the truth. Reason can take us so far but we ought to purify our mind to see the pebbles at the bottom of the creek. Our mind is muddy and needs purification. This is where Husserl went wrong in his phenomenology.

The great seekers of the past were also looking for the truth. However, they were not satisfied with only intellectual endeavor. They went beyond this intellectual exercise to purify their mind. They were not content with ethical regimen. Moral discipline was only a preparation for the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, I didn’t see this in Husserl’s phenomenology. By looking into the pre-cogito awareness Heidegger must have reached the being. I exist or am before I can make the statement, ‘I think, therefore I’m’. Is it possible that this being is what Kant regarded as the subject of experience, which is transcendental and outside of the spatio-temporal causal order? If this were the case, then why Kant said we cannot reach our true Self through pure reason? This pre-cogito awareness seems to be connected to the Ultimate Reality or the unlimited Reality within me. I’m not clear what Kant had in mind here.

Husserl perhaps knew he had to go back to Kant to find a solution not Descartes. After all being a Jewish philosopher, he must have known that in the early Hebrew tradition there was no distinction between soul and body. Then why would he be interested in going back to Cartesian dualism of mind and body? This alone convinces me that he shied away from Descartes. He would have been better off with Heidegger, who concentrated on being.

Husserl was amazing philosopher and a remarkable person.

(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers by Philip Stokes, page 148)