Edmund Husserl

Edmund Husserl

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), a German philosopher, was the founder of the phenomenological tradition. He studied mathematics, science, and philosophy in Leipzig, Berlin, and Vienna. In Vienna (1881-1882) he studied with Franz Brentano, who inspired him to establish the phenomenological method, which later became one of the most important philosophical movements in 20th-century conti­nental Europe, influencing among others Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau- Ponty. Husserl taught at Halle, Göttingen, and Freiburg. Before he turned his interest to the devel­opment of phenomenology, he worked on the philosophical foundations of mathematics (Philosophy of Arithmetic, 1891). In this connec­tion, his discussion with Gottlob Frege, who estab­lished analytical philosophy, was important.

Husserl’s concept of time was initially inspired by what Brentano had taught in Vienna. Two cru­cial insights of Brentano became the foundation of Husserl’s phenomenology: First, the psychic con­tents of an experiencing consciousness can be the subject of an unmediated inner perception; and, second, consciousness is always related to some­thing by intention, meaning that there is no con­sciousness without an intended object. In short, the phenomenal “givenness” of psychic contents and “intentionality” as an irreducible structure of consciousness form the starting points of phenom­enology. Time is the system that orders the con­tents of consciousness first of all, giving rise to before-and-after relations and making the past experiences qua memory accessible to the subject. This means that past experiences become recog­nizable as one’s own experiences; thus, time is a function of self-identity. Until this point, Husserl’s notion of time remains quite Kantian.

The Problem of Subjectivity

Specific to Husserl’s time theory is the problem of a subjectivity that constitutes time but is also related to an original temporally distributed flow of experiences. That means consciousness consti­tutes time and is itself temporal. In order to explain this, Husserl introduces the “absolute consciousness,” a unifying transcendental func­tion of consciousness that is in itself atemporal. This theoretical construct is contentious not only among his interpreters but also for himself because it cannot become the subject of phenomenological analyses. Phenomenology as Husserl has devel­oped it is a philosophy of description in a strictly scientific sense. The goal of philosophy should be the precise description of how things appear to us. It is not about how things are in themselves, but rather how we apprehend them. Our experience is a source of apodictic truths for Husserl. But the individual contents of consciousness do not belong to these truths; it is the way or the structure in which they are given that can be an apodictic truth. The Kantian distinction between the thing- in-itself and how it appears is to be found in Logical Investigations (1900-1901), but in his analyses of time Husserl gave up that sharp dis­tinction. The thing-in-itself is then defined as the identity that can be intuited through manifold apprehensions or perspectives of it. Therefore it no longer belongs to the realm of transcendent things if transcendent is understood as being beyond the reach of our recognition.

The analyses concerning time-consciousness are fundamental to Husserl’s phenomenology because time is not an object like other objects; it is rather the way in which objects are given to and appre­hended by consciousness. That is why time is so fundamental to phenomenology, and its analysis stretches over the whole period of Husserl’s investi­gations. He focuses on subjective time, the time­consciousness and not on an objective “world-time.” In general it can be said that phenomenology is always concerned with how things appear to a con­sciousness. The question of how things are in them­selves misses the point that there is no object without a subject. This does not mean that Husserl is an idealist. He thinks that the attempt to describe something while leaving out the condition that it must be described by someone cannot be a sufficient description and, therefore, cannot be true. Husserl distinguishes two perspectives: the “natural atti­tude” and the “phenomenological attitude.” The former is the perspective we adopt in everyday life, in which we naturally believe in the existence of the world. In the latter, the philosopher suspends all convictions and intentions that belong to the “natu­ral attitude,” especially convictions about existence. This suspension is called phenomenological epoche, and is gained by a reductive method that leads through different levels back to pure intention. Intention is the way in which a consciousness is directed toward an object. There are many ways in which an object can be given to a consciousness (in perception, imagination, representation, etc.). In order to describe the nature of these modes, Husserl uses variation, the so-called eidetic variation, which is a method of distinguishing between contingent and necessary features of the intention. Intentionality is the subjective structure of consciousness, which apprehends an object. In an analysis, a distinction is made between the noema (object of consciousness) and the noesis (corresponding mental activity). They can be analyzed separately, but they are not reduc­ible to one another.

Consciousness and Time

The central question concerning time is how tem­poral objectivity can be constituted by a temporal consciousness. Analogous to this question, the phenomenological analysis splits at first into two subjects: the temporal object (e.g., a melody) and time-consciousness (the succession of now­moments and their becoming more and more past and the anticipation of the impressions yet to come). The constitution of a temporal object, an object that endures identical to itself over time, needs time. That means the time the consciousness takes to constitute a temporal object needs to be just as long as the object endures. While the intu­ited identity of the object appears as an integral whole, the object is in fact given only in successive perspectives or temporal parts. Husserl takes a melody as an example of how time-consciousness constitutes such a temporal object. He asks why we not only hear the successive tones while listen­ing to a melody, but also grasp them as a whole. His explanation is that time-consciousness is not only consciousness of the present moment (“pri­mal impression”), but rather encompasses moments already past (“retention” or “primary memory”) and anticipates others still in the future (“proten­tion”). The now-point is fundamental as a source of the present since consciousness is defined as a continually flowing stream of contents, but the present moment is ideal only in the sense that it has no duration. It is a kind of border between the past and the future. The temporal field, the dura­tion of the present composed of past, primal impression, and anticipation, is necessary for the connection of the different tones and the recogni­tion of the melody. The succession of primal impressions causes the backward-shift of the for­mer primal impressions, and, therefore, the tempo­ral field of what is recognized as present is continually changing. The function of “secondary memory,” which is distinguished from retention, is to keep all continually changing apprehensions in mind, so that the whole continuum of the temporal phases of the melody can be apprehended as a whole. The content of this secondary memory is not present, but remembered or, as Husserl puts it in On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893-1917), the “re-presented present.” This kind of memory is also distin­guished from what is commonly called memory, the reproduction of an impression in the mind. Time-consciousness is clearly distinguished from and not reducible to any other kind of mediated consciousness like imagination, sign-reading, or consciousness of pictorial images; it is a conscious­ness sui generis since it apprehends something as present that is not present as a whole, but that is held in consciousness as if it were present as a whole; therefore, it does not reproduce its contents as, for example, imagination does.

Time-consciousness not only accompanies the constitutions of temporal objects of these specific kinds, such as melodies. It is a type of consciousness that is always at work and necessary for all kinds of object-constitution. For example, if we look at a house, we do not see it as a whole, although we intend it as a whole. In fact, what is given is a manifold of perspectives on that house, which we mentally synthesize. At no stage of this perception is the sum total of perspectives ever given; there is always something absent, but we apprehend the absent perspectives simultaneously with the present ones. Perception of an object is always a process of synthesizing different perspectives or sense data; therefore it is spread over a certain period of time. The perception of things exhibits the same neces­sary temporal structure as the perception of objects that are distributed only in time, like melodies. The problem is to clarify how a consciousness, whose contents are successively and that means temporally distributed, can constitute enduring temporal objects and an objective time.

How Time Is Constituted

Husserl attempted to describe the constitution of time in countless manuscripts. As with all phenom­enological analyses, he tries to elaborate the struc­tures and processes that are at work in every act of consciousness but that do not appear in the normal course of objective events within the natural attitude. The constitution of time has three differ­ent stages. The first is constitution of the objects or things in objective time; they are constituted in the duration of the present by apprehension of past, present, and future together. The second stage is the basis for the first, the object-constituting sense data or the manifold impressions in their wholeness within a so-called pre-empirical or prephenomenal time. This time is called prephenomenal because its succession is not apprehended. The third and most fundamental stage is the wholeness of the “abso­lute time-constituting flow of consciousness.” All these stages represent forms of reflective acts of consciousness that constitute different kinds of objectivity, such as temporal objects, objective time (i.e., measured time), and personal experiences as objects of consciousness. The problem with this model and that Husserl himself was aware of is that of constitution via reflexivity. This concept may lead to a vicious circle: If the constituting reflexivity is not itself atemporal (which is also problematic), it would need to be constituted at a higher-level reflexivity or consciousness, and so on.

Time-consciousness consists according to Husserl of two different but inseparably united kinds of intentionality: The first one he calls “transverse intentionality” (Quermtentionalitat), which has the function of keeping the past phases of an experience in mind in order to preserve its duration and objective identity. This intention is directed onto the duration and process of the expe­rience. The second kind of intentionality is called “horizontal intentionality” (Langsintentionalitat) and, this being the fundamental function, it is directed to the whole continuum of the inner flow of time. It functions as self-reflection, or in other words, the retention of retention. This intentional­ity is the necessary condition of possibility for an awareness of time-consciousness, which Husserl calls “absolute consciousness.” The contentious question is whether this transcendental form of consciousness is to be understood as temporal or not. If it is understood as temporal, the theory ends up in a vicious circle because the transcenden­tal instance itself would have to be constituted by something, and so on. Husserl tends to define it as nontemporal, thus avoiding this vicious circle. But having just shown that objectivity depends on temporality, how can it be consciousness if it is not temporal? If the absolute consciousness were not temporal, it would not be consciousness of something. Husserl saw this problem in his constitutional theory and did not settle the ques­tion definitely.

Later Analyses

In his later manuscripts, which are not yet avail­able in translation, the Bernauer Manuskripte über das Zeitbewufitsein (1917/1918) and Spate Texte über Zeitkonstituition (1929-1934), he constantly revised his theory. There Husserl shifts the emphasis of his thought from analyses of the inner time-consciousness to its intersubjective conditions. He follows the idea of a universal time-structure, which is the necessary condition for both history and the human life-world (Lebenswelt). With the new topic he develops a new method. The former analyses were dedicated to the intentional structure. They described the static relationship between subject and appear­ances of objects, which he called static phenome­nology. Later on he searched for a way in which phenomenology could also explore the conditions for the dynamic process of the flow of conscious­ness and the constitution of objects. This next step he called genetic phenomenology. The later manu­scripts on time exhibit this new direction, as, for example, in his Die Welt der lebendigen Gegenwart und die Konstitution der ausserleiblichen Umwelt (1931), in which Husserl follows the thought of constitution beyond the subject into the life-world. With the ontology of the life-world, Husserl examines both the meaning of and necessary con­ditions for history more closely. From Ideas, in which Husserl maintained that the possibility for objective experience lies purely in the subject, in the transcendental function of consciousness, it was a long way until his later work Cartesian Meditations, in which he speaks of transcendental intersubjectivity. This shift from idealism to ontol­ogy of the life-world was accompanied by the analyses of time. The phenomenology of time therefore is one of the most important topics on the way to a phenomenological philosophy.

Husserl’s Legacy

Among Husserl’s students were Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who also worked on the problem of time. His influence extended beyond these prominent students, though. He influenced Rudolf Carnap’s theory of logical empiricism; Marvin Farber, who introduced Husserl’s phenomenology to the United States; Roman Ingarden, who focused on phenomeno­logical aesthetics; Jean-Paul Sartre and Emmanuel Levinas, two of the most important phenomenolo- gists in France; and Edith Stein. Husserl was also a source of inspiration to Jacques Derrida, the analytic phenomenologist Hubert Dreyfus, and many phenomenological philosophers in Germany and North America.

Yvonne Foerster

See also Consciousness; Derrida, Jacques; Farber, Marvin; Frege, Gottlob; Heidegger, Martin; Idealism; Intuition; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice; Metaphysics; Ontology; Time, Phenomenology of; Time, Subjective Flow of

Further Readings

Bell, D. (1999). Husserl. London: Routledge.

Bernet, R., Welton, D., & Zavota, G. (Eds.). (2005). Edmund Husserl: Critical assessments of leading philosophers. London: Routledge.

Brough, J. (2004). Husserl’s phenomenology of time­consciousness. In D. Moran & L. E. Embree (Eds.), Phenomenology: Critical concepts in philosophy (pp. 56-89). London: Routledge. (Original work published 1928)

Husserl, E. (1973). Cartesian meditations (D. Cairns, Trans.). The Hague, The Netherlands: Nijhoff.

Husserl, E. (1980). On the phenomenology of the consciousness of internal time (1893-1917). In R. Bernet (Ed.), Edmund Husserl: Collected Works, Vol. IV (J. B. Barnett, Trans.). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic.

Husserl, E. (1982). Ideas pertaining to a pure phenomenology and to a phenomenological philosophy (F. Kersten, Trans.). The Hague, The Netherlands: Nijhoff.

Smith, B., & Smith, D. W. (Eds.). (1995). The Cambridge companion to Husserl. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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