Introduction to Phenomenology HTML version

Dilthey (1833–1911), and continuing with the explicitly hermeneutical orientations of,
for instance, the contemporary German thinker Hans-Georg Gadamer (b. 1900) and
the contemporary French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (b. 1913).
Husserl cherished his own role as founder of a new science, even characterising
himself as a Moses leading his people to new land of what he came to call – invoking
the language of German Idealism – transcendental subjectivity, i.e. the a priori struc-
ture and content of object-constituting subjectivity. Husserl also liked to see himself
as a radical follower of the French philosopher Ren← Descartes (1596–1650), who
sought to provide the sciences with a secure epistemological foundation, immune
from all sceptical doubt, by starting with the unshakable truth of one’s self-presence in
each act of one’s own thinking, expressed in his cogito ergo sum. Husserl sometimes
portrayed his own efforts as a revival of the Cartesian project of founding the
sciences on strict certainty, an attempt to explore the essence of the cogito without
falling prey to naïve metaphysical assumptions involving substance, as he believed
Descartes had. Thus he characterised phenomenology as “the secret nostalgia of all
modern philosophy” in his programmatic 1913 work Ideen zu einer reinen
Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie (Ideas pertaining to a Pure
Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book – hereafter Ideas
I).3 In other words, phenomenology actually provided the secure science sought by
Descartes and by Kant (whom Husserl also criticised for getting lost in a purely
speculative faculty psychology). Husserl’s best-known formulation of his transcen-
dental idealist analysis of the structures of consciousness came in his Cartesian
Meditations. First published in French translation in 1931, it remains the most popular
introduction to his work.4 But, over the course of his long career, and in various
universities in which he worked, Husserl characterised the essence of phenomen-
ology in many different ways. While his official theoretical allegiance was to a radical-
ised form of transcendental idealism, his research manuscripts suggest other ways of
developing phenomenological themes, often with more attention to corporeality,
intersubjectivity and the experience of otherness or alterity. Thus, in Crisis, Husserl
was drawn to analyse the ‘life-world’ (Lebenswelt), which is indissolubly linked with
and grounds human experience, the analysis of which offered a corrective to the
reductive scientism which Husserl felt had become enmeshed in the modern scientific
outlook and practice. As more of Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts finally see the
light of day, new dimensions of phenomenology are being uncovered, which are
attracting renewed attentions from philosophers worldwide.
For Husserl, phenomenology unfolded as a living, endlessly expanding field of
‘infinite tasks’, which could be carried forward only by inquirers philosophising
together (symphilosophein), co-workers concerned about the future of humanity itself,
a humanity conceived of as a rational community of knowledge, where science fulfils
rather than dehumanises the human world. In laying out these ‘infinite tasks’, he
assigned regions to be explored by the many gifted disciples gathered around him.
Thus, his Göttingen assistant Adolf Reinach (1883–1917) would undertake the
phenomenology of law, and his Freiburg assistant Martin Heidegger would develop
the phenomenology of religion.5 But Husserl was rarely satisfied with their efforts,
which he tended to see as misinterpretations or distortions of his own work, leading
him to feel unappreciated and even betrayed. Husserl, too, was rather unfortunate in
his choice of would-be successors. His most controversial choice of successor was
Martin Heidegger, whom he had warmly embraced since their first meeting in