Husserl Advances Phenomenology Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Edmund Husserl, the principal initiator of the phenomenological movement, published Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, in which he explained its basic method and insights. The work became a crucial text in twentieth century continental philosophy.

Summary of Event

Phenomenology has meant so many things to so many people that it has become difficult to define precisely. In the eighteenth century, some thinkers interpreted its etymological meaning, “the study of phenomena,” as the analysis of objects and events as they appear in human experience. Some philosophers of the nineteenth century saw phenomenology as the descriptive study of a particular subject, but when Husserl began using the term in the twentieth century, he thought of it as a method of investigating and describing phenomena as experienced within human consciousness. He had come to this notion gradually, having begun his academic life as a student of mathematics and science. When, through the influence of the philosopher and psychologist Franz Brentano, Husserl became interested in philosophy, he wanted to make it into a soundly grounded science. Ideas (Husserl) Phenomenological movement Philosophy;phenomenology [kw]Husserl Advances Phenomenology (1913) [kw]Phenomenology, Husserl Advances (1913) Ideas (Husserl) Phenomenological movement Philosophy;phenomenology [g]Germany;1913: Husserl Advances Phenomenology[03290] [c]Philosophy;1913: Husserl Advances Phenomenology[03290] [c]Publishing and journalism;1913: Husserl Advances Phenomenology[03290] Husserl, Edmund Stein, Edith Merleau-Ponty, Maurice Heidegger, Martin Sartre, Jean-Paul

During the late nineteenth century, Husserl wrote on the philosophical foundations of mathematics, converted from Judaism to Lutheran Christianity, and became critical of those who believed that philosophy could be understood in terms of psychology or biology. He also came to see that mathematicians and scientists were uncritical about the foundations of their own disciplines and unaware that their basic methods and ideas were rooted in the structures of human consciousness. Husserl’s own intellectual odyssey from mathematics to philosophy was animated by his profound passion for certitude.

Edmund Husserl.

(Library of Congress)

During the period from 1901 to the publication of Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie (1913, revised editon 1976; Ideas: General Introdcution to Pure Phenomenology, 1931), Husserl was a professor at Göttingen University, where he devoted himself to the development of ideas that would form the core of his new approach to philosophy. For example, he saw the genesis of all mathematical, scientific, and philosophical systems in the structures and functioning of human consciousness. Early Husserlians epitomized their method with the maxim “to the things themselves,” by which they meant not materialism (which they wanted to refute) but a reinvigorating technique of dealing with empirical experience. Phenomenology was neither scientific psychology nor cognitive science but an exploration of the foundations that undergirded the rational nature of all science. Phenomenologists did not isolate themselves from the sciences, but they tried to understand what really goes on in them, particularly by analyzing their unquestioned presuppositions.

During the decade before Ideas, Husserl discovered and developed the ideas that would form the basis of this first detailed and systematic presentation of phenomenology. For example, around 1906 he conceived and deepened his understanding of “bracketing,” which he would further elaborate in part 2 of Ideas. Bracketing is a method of suspending belief in the objects and events of the natural world so that, unhindered by the insoluble dispute over the world’s existence, analysts can pay attention to their experiencing of these objects and events. In Ideas, Husserl used bracketing not only to describe and analyze the forms of consciousness but also to explore how people know and what they know.

Intentionality is another idea Husserl developed that played an important part in Ideas and became a central theme of the phenomenological movement. Simply stated, intentionality is the property of consciousness being directed at something; Husserl asserted that all acts of consciousness are intentional, that is, that they all have an object. Every mental act must have a content, according to Husserl, because one cannot be aware without being aware of something. Husserl’s study of intentionality led him to the crucial belief that reality was neither material nor mental but experiential. This meant that phenomenology was more a method of philosophizing than an actual philosophy.

Husserl had been investigating these ideas with the help of his students and colleagues at Göttingen, and he wanted to provide them and other interested readers with a methodical summary of his new style of doing philosophy. Ideas first appeared as the leading article in the first issue of the Jahrbuch für Philosophie und Phänomenologische Forschung (yearbook of philosophy and phenomenological research) in 1913. Husserl intended it to be the first volume of a three-volume work, but it turned out to be the only one published in his lifetime.

After a general introduction to phenomenology and an analysis of its basic methodology in part 1, Husserl moved in part 2, “The Fundamental Phenomenological Outlook,” to a discussion of the relationship between consciousness and the material world. This part contains Husserl’s famous analysis of bracketing as well as “eidetic reduction,” which describes the essences underlying the phenomena of consciousness after bracketing. Another reduction, which Husserl considered the most important, concerned the correlation between the phenomena of cognition and its object. This “transcendental reduction” reveals the presuppositions of knowledge by shedding light on the essential structures underpinning experiences and their interrelationships.

In part 3, “Procedure of Pure Phenomenology in Respect of Methods and Problems,” Husserl distinguished between the object that is intended (noema) and the act of intending (noesis). Noema, that which is perceived, is dependent on noesis, the act of perceiving, but Husserl recognized the great variety of experiences that have to be analyzed, for example, the aesthetic experience of works of art and the scientific experiences of experiments and the theories developed to explain them.

In part 4, “Reason and Reality,” Husserl explored the question of precisely what will remain after the entire world, including humans, is bracketed. He responded that transcendental consciousness remains, and he called this the “Archimedean point” for the foundation of human knowledge, because the natural world is dubitable, but the existence of the transcendental ego is indubitable. Thus the proper subject matter of philosophy, as well as of the social and natural sciences, is the human as subject and reality as experienced by this subject who stands above (or transcends) the components of his or her experienced world. Because of Husserl’s emphasis on the absolute reality of the transcendental ego, his phenomenological philosophy has also been called transcendental Idealism. According to his student Edith Stein, Husserl’s Idealism surprised some of his disciples and disconcerted others.


Ideas, the principal foundational document of Husserlian phenomenology, helped foster a movement that had a profound influence not only on philosophers but also on scientists, theologians, humanists, and many others. Husserl’s phenomenology shifted the focus of many philosophers from vague generalizations to the precise analysis of definite phenomena. For some scholars Husserl significantly changed “the tone and direction of Western thought.” The eminent philosopher Martin Heidegger used the phenomenological method in composing his greatest work, Sein und Zeit (1927; Being and Time, 1962), Being and Time (Heidegger) which he dedicated to Husserl. Other important twentieth-century philosophers owe much to Husserl. For example, in France, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s major work was titled Phénoménologie de la perception (1945; Phenomenology of Perception, 1962), and Jean-Paul Sartre’s magnum opus, L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956), has the subtitle An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology. Disciples of Husserl used his phenomenological method in studying anthropology, aesthetics, comparative religion, sociology, and ethics. Edith Stein applied the phenomenological method to intersubjectivity and empathy, and, after her conversion to Catholicism, her theological writings continued to manifest the influence of Husserlian phenomenology. Even Karol Józef Wojtyła (the future Pope John Paul II) John Paul II acknowledged phenomenology’s influence on his philosophical and theological ideas. Phenomenology has certainly not lacked critics, but even Leszek Kolakowski, who concluded that the phenomenological project was doomed to failure because absolute certainty is unattainable by humans, admired Husserl’s quixotic quest for certitude and his immense passion for the truth. Ideas (Husserl) Phenomenological movement Philosophy;phenomenology

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farber, Marvin. The Foundation of Phenomenology: Edmund Husserl and the Quest for a Rigorous Science of Philosophy. 3d ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1968. A lucid exposition of Husserl’s contributions to phenomenology. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kohák, Erazim. Idea and Experience: Edmund Husserl’s Project of Phenomenology in “Ideas I.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. An explication of the first nine chapters of Ideas. Notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kolakowski, Leszek. Husserl and the Search for Certitude. 1975. Reprint. South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001. Kolakowski was the recipient of the first million-dollar John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences, and this reprint makes available an important critical analysis of Husserl’s thought by an insightful scholar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Natanson, Maurice. Edmund Husserl: Philosopher of Infinite Tasks. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973. According to some scholars, this is the first book that anyone interested in Husserl should read.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Barry, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Husserl. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Various scholars explore a range of topics in their attempt to relate Hussel’s ideas to modern concerns. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stein, Edith. On the Problem of Empathy. 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: ICS, 1989. An English translation of the dissertation that Stein wrote for Husserl.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zahavi, Dan. Husserl’s Phenomenology. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003. This book has been called “one of the most accessible and engaging introductions” to Husserl’s ideas and their influence.

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Categories: History