It's not easy to understand Husserl without a brief look backwards
at the antecedents of phenomenology, of which he was a late and influential
Although the nature of reality has always been debated,
discussion was particularly fierce - and, in my view, somewhat poignant -
in the 18th and 19th centuries. Greek philosophers some 2 500 years earlier
had, broadly speaking, been divided between those who thought that we are
able to perceive the world as it really is, and those who thought that our
perceptions are copies, as it were, of a perfect reality.
The coming of Christianity settled the matter for a long while. This
world, said Church doctrine, is real enough but rotten to the core. Our
true home is with God, his angels and his saints in heaven where Jesus has
gone before us. Reality is therefore two-tier, one merging into the other
imperceptibly. The heavenly rules the earthly.
The gradual emergence of the scientific method in the Enlightenment in
the West put matters of reality to the test once more. The old questions
had been asked continually during the ascendance of the Christian order.
But unorthodox answers tended, especially in Medieval times, to be
dangerous. As the new breed of what we now casually call scientists began
describing the physical world, so more and more people set aside the
version of reality which ecclesiastical and civil authority had imposed,
sometimes on pain of death.
In the process an increasingly sharp distinction came to be made
between "what's out there" (which scientists describe) and "what's in
here", which only the individual can describe. Which is "reality" - the
objective world we "know" more and more about, or the subjective world we
all "know" intimately but which is unique to each individual?
Some concluded that everything out there is an illusion and that
reality is entirely subjective. Emmanuel Kant held that objects "as they
really are" (noumena or "things-in-themselves") must be clearly
distinguished from how these objects appear in our experience - which he
called phenomena and which are all we can "really know". G W F
Hegel thought this was wrong. The knowledge of phenomena (phenomenology)
is the science of knowing mind as it is in itself.
Meanwhile, the word "phenomenon" had come to be used in the 19th
century as synonymous with "fact", that is, with what is observed to be
the case. In its strongest sense, a phenomenon was a fact discovered by
the scientific method and having a wide consensus in the scientific
Husserl saw himself as utterly dedicated to philosophy. He thought of
it as our attempt to deduce what's true from prior assumptions.
Phenomenology was the means through which philosophy could become
scientific in the sense that it could proceed from description rather than
axiom. It was a method by which subjective reality or the phenomena of
consciousness could be described without uncertainty or provisionality. So
Husserl called phenomenology a "descriptive science" of conscious
It's worthwhile noting that Husserl's first discipline was mathematics,
in which he received a PhD at the tender age of 22 in 1881. Mathematics is
an a priori discipline in the sense that 1+1 = 2, once elucidated,
is "obvious" or necessarily true, and is not empirical. It's roots are in
language, in particular the principle of contradiction (Law of Excluded
Middle) which states that no two identical statements can mean different
things at the same point in time. His other interest was logic. He
explored the relationship between logic and phenomena in Logical
He stuck with the idea that it is possible to find a body of truths
which can't be disputed, truly "objective" facts which would deserve to be
called "scientific". This kind of truth he termed Noema
- which exists (like God) whether or not anyone thinks it. Noesis
is more psychological. It is the way we subjectively perceive reality
(though, confusingly, a noesis may also be a noema). He spent his long life seeking those
noema-type truths upon which our knowledge supposedly rests.
Because he constantly tried to get the prior assumptions correct he more
than once abandoned earlier views, referring to himself as "a perpetual
beginner". Perhaps he hoped for a "science" of consciousness with the degree of a priori
certainty he found in mathematics.
Be that as it may, Husserl was attacked on the grounds that his
approach was psychology under another name. Scientifically "describing"
subjective phenomena is what psychologists do. He countered that, on the
contrary, psychology is (or should be) an empirical science concerned with
facts of observed behaviours and which infers mental processes. Mental
processes can't be observed except by the person who is "having" them, but
we can observe the behaviours which result from them.
On the other hand, phenomenology is concerned, he said, with "essences"
by which he seems to have meant describable subjective truths (noema) upon which
all knowledge rests. Husserl was, of course, writing before our new
ability to scan the brain and observe its processes. But even when we do
that, we're observing the brain - not the mind.
How then are we to distinguish between a phenomenological description
and a psychological description? He pointed out that thoughts are
"intentional". In other words, merely having the thought that "Pigs are
blue" doesn't make them so. If this is so, how is it possible to have a
thought which can be demonstrated to correspond with a truth about what's
Husserl appears to have overcome this problem by inventing a method or
device by which one moves from ordinary perception to a sort of reflective
attitude (Die Idee der Phenomenologie, 1907). He called this
Husserl modified his position constantly over the years, not by
refuting arguments but by adding to his own scheme. He asserted that
phenomenology always describes but never argues.
However, it seems that he never satisfactorily overcame the problem of
describing how his process of reduction actually works. He merely went on
to assert that it leads to a sort of "pure consciousness" which he
called the "transcendental ego". This is a realm which had up to then
never been suspected but which he claimed to have discovered. It was an
absolute foundation for our normal experience and was not accessible to
empirical observation but known only via "eidetic intuition".
The latter is concerned with "universal essences", the unshakable
foundation of all knowledge which was focused into what Husserl called an
"Archimidean point" - an ultimate reality which lacks all presuppositions,
is a priori and autonomous. The intuitive part of the process is
attained, therefore, through a radical suspension of judgement which puts
everything "in brackets" - that is, excludes from an "essence" everything
which does not belong to it (like presuppositions) until one comes to "the
things themselves", the pure phenomena, free of all distortion.
At one stage Husserl maintained that the "transcendental ego" would
remain "real" even if the world ended (echoes of Plato's "Forms"). It's
almost as though each of us consists of two parts in a type of dualistic
relationship. One part is that which relates to the empirical, the real,
physical world. The other is a mysterious, eternal and fundamental self
which can see through and beyond the empirical into absolute truth.
However he later changed the "transcendental ego" into a "correlative"
of the world rather than an alternative mode of perception. It thus lost
its absolute status and became "inter-subjective" rather than "pure"
consciousness. This is not to say that Husserl was satisfied with his
position. He constantly strove to modify it, seeing objections as
indications that what he said needed revision.
If true, Husserl's approach seems to me to demolish traditional
Christianity. Revelation, an essential dogma of traditional belief,
becomes unnecessary because ultimate truth is attributable not to God but
to the depths of pure human consciousness. It is discoverable in Husserl's
More inimical to his position, however, is the possibility that none of
us can think without certain presuppositions. We can't show that
phenomenological statements are true in relation to all other statements,
as any scientific theory must be able to do. We must therefore perforce
start with some assumptions or a priori objective truths.
To put this another way, we are all creatures of our cultures. That is,
there are aspects of our perceptions which are necessarily beyond our
awareness - they are "givens" which we can't question because we don't
know they're there.
A simple example is the subjective perception of weight. It's a
priori obvious that objects are heavy because they "contain" a
"property" of heaviness - not so? If you lived in the 10th century the
answer would be "Yes" because the concept of the weak nuclear force we
call gravity was not and could not be conceived at that point in
Towards the end of his life, Husserl seems to have recognised our
dependence upon culture, and in particular scientific dependence upon
consensus for its provisional truths. He described phenomenology more as
the study of the Lebenswelt or "lived world" than as some kind of
numinous reflection on the foundations of scientific knowledge. It becomes
a way in which our shared experience hangs together. When we reflect we
consider how communal experience coheres, rather than matters of fact.
Husserl's was a brave attempt to unify human experience at a point of
deep conceptual fracture - that between objective and subjective
experience. In some ways, therefore, he foreshadowed 20th century systems
Systems theory attempts to define the world in terms of an
interlocking, hierarchical set of open systems "contained" in a unified
closed system which we call the universe. It has the merit of allowing
physical systems (such as the brain) to be observed in more than one way,
and from more than one perspective, without destroying the holistic nature
of the human being.
Thus if we observe a brain we perceive one set of data as objective.
When we experience the workings of a brain we "observe" by
self-reflection that which we call the subjective. Husserl's "reflection"
can be observed as a physical process in the brain. But the process can be
described just as validly from an "internal" vantage point. Thus I can
test by reflection whether or not my thoughts are internally consistent,
and by science whether or not that internal consistency relates accurately
to other systems, both cognitive and physical.
Husserl, it seems to me, was reaching for something like this. He
needed the empirical clarity and scepticism of the scientific method. At
the same time he sought for certainty about the starting points of enquiry
which, by definition, arise from within the human cognitive system. That
he got neither was, I think, due more to his position in history than
For a technical discussion of Husserl see