Key Concepts of the Philosophy of Edmund Husserl
Edmund Husserl was a late 19th century and early 20th century Czech mathematician and philosopher, who built on the 19th century philosophical tradition to form the 20th century philosophical school of thought known as Phenomenology. Husserl is considered the beginning of the modern “Continental” tradition within philosophy, a movement of mostly German and French philosophers who emphasize a historical, psychological and sociological approach to philosophy, rather than the scientific emphasis of the “Analytic” school that would dominate within the 20th Century. Husserl would be a major influence on Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre as well as most other great philosophical thinkers within the 20th century.
Philosophy of Mathematics
Husserl began his interest in philosophy by trying to find a philosophical basis for mathematics. In his early views, Husserl was a very strong empiricist and was influenced very strongly by the writing of John Stuart Mill. His initial viewpoint toward mathematics was an empirical one, in which the basis of mathematical knowledge was justified by conceptions drawn from experience. Husserl had this conception of mathematics devastatingly critiqued by the logistician Gottlob Frege and ultimately changed his mind after reading the works of Leibniz and Hume.
Husserl became more determined than ever to find the philosophical justification for the knowledge of mathematics and he began to develop a philosophical system. He rejected the historical viewpoint of knowledge that had become popular, finding the idea that knowledge was somehow based on the time and person whose point of view was perceiving the knowledge to be obviously refuted by the objective knowledge of mathematics. He was unconvinced by the psychological approach that was taken by philosophers such as Nietzsche and historical approach of Hegel and instead created his own idea of epistemology based on a somewhat Kantian viewpoint toward human interaction with phenomenon.
Husserl went back to many of the questions that had interested Descartes while he was addressing his radical skepticism. Nietzsche had stated that all perceptions of phenomenon were based on a perspective and while Husserl accepted this, he was not convinced that this was all that they conveyed. When one looks at the side of a house, they do not perceive simply the single wall that they see but infer that there is a foundation upon which the house was built, three other walls and that objects are contained inside the house, despite having no direct perception of these facts.
Husserl concluded that there were a complex series of concepts involved with the perception of phenomenon. This was the basis of his belief that there were objective ways to evaluate consciousness. Husserl contended that consciousness always has “intentionality,” or as it is sometimes put, “consciousness is always conscious of something.” This is to say that in order for there to be consciousness there must be an object for a conscious being to be conscious of. Husserl rejected the ideas of thinkers with representational theories of reality, who attempted to find an objective knowledge that transcended human consciousness even though they acknowledged that human beings could not escape from the limitations of our subjective viewpoint. Instead, Husserl insisted that consciousness itself was the way in which to evaluate human knowledge.
In this way, Husserl was saying that it did not matter whether the object being considered by the consciousness was real or imagined. If an object was perceived one way and was in fact another then the transcendent form of the object did not matter since the conscious mind could never perceive the form that was transcendent of consciousness. Even completely imagined things have content but only lack a corresponding object. Consciousness has an immediacy that reflects the human experience and approach to knowledge and trying to transcend this consciousness to gain knowledge seemed counter productive in Husserl’s view.
Husserl believed that the mistake of early empiricists (Locke, Berkley, Hume) was to put too many presuppositions on the conception of experience. The early empiricists attempted to divide experience into concepts like “ideas” and “impressions” and Husserl felt that this was putting an artificial structure onto consciousness that was counter-productive to the deriving of useful knowledge. Husserl asks us to begin by suspending any ideas about the physical world outside of ourselves and to instead view all conscious phenomenon as having causal relations to natural processes within the human body.
Husserl asks a phenomenologist to search for the essence of any intentional act and intentional object by stripping away subjective features brought by the person to find its objective features. One example is that in three-dimensional space we can never perceive the whole of an object but only its parts and are always missing the back that we cannot see. Husserl does not want us to examine reality by its relationship to the natural sciences, like an empiricist, but instead to look at consciousness the way a mathematician would, and derive the connections from the seeming abstractions that our consciousness perceives.
Husserl thought that he had revealed the fundamental basis for all knowledge through his system. Even in the sciences, where knowledge is gained through experimentation, he contended that it was the examination of phenomenon within a controlled environment that led to the determining of meaning and therefore it was phenomenology that formed the basis for even the sciences. The concept of phenomenology would be developed by Husserl’s student Martin Heidegger and would also be adopted by the existentialists as a major part of their philosophical school of thought.