Two Thoughts About Edmund Husserl

1.) Building a pure phenomenology, in Husserl’s estimation, isn’t just a metaphysical project centered on the nature of object existence as such; it’s also a call for a radical shift in thinking towards lived experience. About midway through the Crisis of European Sciences, he says that “Perhaps it will even become manifest that the total phenomenological attitude and the epoch belonging to it are destined in essence to effect, at first, a complete personal transformation, comparable in the beginning to a religious conversion, which then, however, over and above this, bears within itself the significance of the greatest existential transformation which is assigned as a task to mankind as such.”[1] The “in the beginning” bit is especially tasty because Husserl’s (a) trying to do the thing he always does where he cushions the claims he’s making with a bit of seemingly superfluous excess verbiage[2] since, honestly, the claim he’s making in this chunk is more or less that the phenomenological transformation is literally comparable to a religious conversion and yet (b) can’t help but mine those filler words directly from the top of Genesis 1:1. The phenomenological transformation is comparable to religious conversion insofar as it portents a completely radical overhaul of how an individual goes about seeing the world; it’s the same thing that animates the phenomenological reduction’s call for the perceiving subject to “bracket” her subjectivized perception of an object in question in order to observe that thing’s pure phenomenological character. And it’s a task “assigned to mankind as such,” even, presumably because the life-world, the field of phenomenological experience that encompasses the intersubjective interaction of perceptual and critical beings, is one populated by mankind as such and so happens to be literally the space in which life and human experience occurs. Husserl’s making a more radical claim than he was ever comfortable acknowledging.

2.) There’s a tragic story about Husserl in the mid 30s that I really love.[3] In it, Husserl is still living in Freiburg, having lost his academic privileges at the University as the result of Nazi laws, without protest from his old student then serving as rector Martin Heidegger. All of Husserl’s friends and former students see what’s going on in Germany and desperately try to talk Husserl into getting out of the country. They all go to his house, where he’s frantically writing pages and pages of manuscript in the attic. When they try to point out to him what the Nazis are doing to the Jews, and what danger he’s in, and how he could find a new university position and do his work safely in America, he calmly refused and said that, if only he could persuade everyone to start using the phenomenological reduction, the Nazis would immediately see the error of their ways, stop their campaign of conquest, and the world would finally be at peace. This moment might be the last apoliticism in continental European thought. Husserl’s claim is, basically, that his framework of phenomenology wholly transcends politics, and through pure comprehension of its principles, it can destroy the political impulse through a big collective “Oh, that’s what we were screwing up” on the part of all humankind without a single eyelash falling askance. That apolitical tendency is the distinguishing feature of all nonviolent utopianism, which is all pretty impossible for the same reason that Husserl’s belief in the saving power of phenomenology was impossible; i.e. belief isn’t good enough to rectify all of the world’s problems[4] and there is indeed more story that will always happen after any Happily Ever After. Husserl never ended up leaving Germany and died in 1938, with the Crisis still unfinished and unedited, before the war started or the Holocaust got underway. It’s one of the few kindnesses of history in Germany at that point that he didn’t have to see the war, in much the same way that you don’t want a little kid seeing a fatal car wreck on the highway.


[1] Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, tr. David Carr (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1970): 137.

[2] Because Husserl is nothing if not a Good German Philosopher, and insofar as the Crisis—written in the 30s as a response to his student-then-critic-then-boss-then-overseer-of-employment-termination Martin Heidegger, but not published until the 50s, by then posthumously—actively attempts to distinguish his philosophy from what he believes to be Heidegger’s rhetorical excess in it, the writing does its best to remind its readers about how nice the Old Way was.

[3] I first heard it from Marci Shore at Yale.

[4] Even if it were conceptually possible to rectify all the world’s problems anyways, the arguments about which are a whole different, and much bigger, kettle of fish.


One response to “Two Thoughts About Edmund Husserl

  1. Pingback: Dancing with the Devil | Drunks and Revenants·

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