Husserl Studies

, Volume 24, Issue 3, pp 167–175

Husserl’s Discovery of Philosophical Discourse


    • School of PhilosophyThe Catholic University of America

DOI: 10.1007/s10743-008-9043-5

Cite this article as:
Sokolowski, R. Husserl Stud (2008) 24: 167. doi:10.1007/s10743-008-9043-5


Husserl’s Idea of Phenomenology is his first systematic attempt to show how phenomenology differs from natural science and in particular psychology. He does this by the phenomenological reduction. One of his achievements is to show that the formal structures of intentionality are more akin to logic than to psychology. I claim that Husserl’s argument can be made more intuitive if we consider phenomenology to be the study of truth rather than knowledge, and if we see the reduction as primarily a modification in our vocabulary and discourse and not as simply a change in attitude. I briefly compare Husserl’s concept of philosophy with those of Plato and Kant.

1 The Text and its Time

Husserl’s five lectures entitled The Idea of Phenomenology were presented in 1907, seven years before the outbreak of World War I. They were part of a course he gave in the summer semester of that year at the University of Göttingen. Forty years later they were edited by Walter Biemel as the second volume in the series Husserliana. Biemel’s introduction is dated 1947, a scant two years after the end of World War II. We now in Chicago are commemorating them in 2007, one hundred years after their original presentation and sixty years after Biemel signed off on his introduction. Much has happened in this century and in these two intervals, the first comprising forty years and covering the First and Second World Wars, the second comprising sixty years and covering the Cold War and its aftermath. We vividly experience the passage of time as we think about this text; it was written shortly after Husserl’s first analysis of inner time consciousness and it contains some remarks about temporality. The lectures themselves, as an event in history and philosophy, involve timing and punctuation, because they mark a distinct turning point in Husserl’s own work, a turning point that occurred during the 48th year of his life. What Husserl called lebendige Gegenwart is activated in many ways in this text and in our commemoration of it; we are engaged in retrieval and recapitulation.

2 The Text and the Problem it Raises

The lectures are short. Each covers about ten pages. The argument of the book follows a familiar pattern, a template that we find in the first volume of Ideas and in other works of Husserl, such as The Crisis of European Sciences. Husserl begins by describing the natural attitude and the world and things that are correlated with it. He then mentions the turn into phenomenology, but mentions it only briefly. Instead of going full throttle into philosophical analysis, he spends time distinguishing his phenomenology from the psychological and naturalistic study of consciousness, calling the turn to phenomenology by the name of the “phenomenological reduction,” and using Descartes’ radical doubt as an instrument in this maneuver. He says that phenomenology’s task is to explore the overall correlation between consciousness and world by analyzing the various forms of intentionality through which we have a world and experience things.

The point of his analysis of intentionality is to account for the transcendence and constitution that occur in it. Husserl wishes to clarify what he repeatedly calls “the enigma [das Rätsel]” of transcendence, the problem of how we as organic, natural entities, can intellectually and consciously possess something that exists beyond us (Hua II, p. 20). He assures us that no reasonable man would doubt that transcendent knowledge is possible and that the world we know does exist, but, he says, “The enigma is, how is it possible [Das Rätsel ist, wie sie möglich sei]” (Hua II, p. 37). In words reminiscent of a passage in David Hume, Husserl says, “Here lie the enigmas, the mysteries, the problems concerning the ultimate sense of the objectivity of knowledge [Hier liegen ja die Rätsel, die Mysterien, die Probleme um den letzten Sinn der Gegenständlichkeit der Erkenntnis]” (Hua II, p. 55).1 Hume’s analogous remark, expressed at the end of The Natural History of Religion, is, “The whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery” (Hume 1993, p. 185). In what is certainly an optimistic remark, Husserl says that while the objectivity of things is an enigma to us, no Rätsel are involved in the way we possess our own cogitationes, because they contain no transcendence and are evidently, unquestionably, and fully present to us.

Husserl’s argument in these lectures remains on a rather general level, in contrast with the more detailed analyses found in the 1907 course that followed them, in which he studies the perception of material bodies. Nonetheless, the five lectures contain many formulations that the philosophical connoisseur will find elegant. Some of the best, I think, are found in the fifth lecture, where he narrows down his analysis of intentionality and describes the kind of intending that deals with the true or validated presencing of things. He examines what we could call “evidential” intentionality, an analysis found again in Sect. 4 of the first volume of Ideas, under the heading of “Reason and Reality, [Vernunft und Wirklichkeit].” In this fifth lecture he lists various forms of givenness (Gegebenheit) and objectivity (Gegenständlichkeit), and he mentions the modes or manners in which they occur (“die verschiedenen Modi der eigentlichen Gegebenheit”). For example, he mentions the givenness of a thing presented in perception, the givenness of a cogitatio extended over time, logical givenness, the givenness of the universal, the predicate, the thing imagined, fictions, and the Sachverhalt. He even mentions the givenness of an incoherence, a contradiction, and a nonexistent, as well as the givenness of mathematical and other ideal things. In an exuberant summation of this list he exclaims, “Givenness is everywhere [Überall ist die Gegebenheit]” (Hua II, pp. 74–75). In all such cases, we are to explore the correlation between the object of knowing and the activities of evidencing that constitute the thing given.

These remarks about givenness, evidencing, and their correlation are philosophically attractive, but there is another theme in this text that is certainly less appealing to our tastes, namely Husserl’s use of the Cartesian motif or what we might want to call the Cartesian obsession. Husserl wishes to establish a secure philosophical starting point based on an “absolute givenness [absolute Gegebenheit],” where, he says, we can “lower our anchor on the shore of phenomenology” (Hua II, pp. 44–45). A little later on, continuing this metaphor and adding an alliteration to it, he says that he hopes to be able to “find a firm foothold on this new territory [in dem neuen Lande festen Fuss fassen können]” (Hua II, p. 45). He claims that there is no transcendence in this domain and hence no lack of givenness, and so we can safely begin our philosophy here. It is only “through a reduction, which we wish to call phenomenological reduction, that I attain an absolute givenness,” bereft of any transcendence at all (Hua II, p. 44). He says that even if I put myself, the world, and my experience of myself into question, I can still retain the “pure phenomenon” of such experiencing and its targets as a domain of philosophical inquiry.

3 The Reduction and the Inquiry into Truth

It would be easy for us to disparage this philosophical move, with its Cartesian overtones, but I would like to find some value in it. What Husserl is trying to show is the following. When we investigate, say, the givenness of a perceived object, and when we describe it as an identity in a manifold of presentations and empty intentions, we are not simply carrying out a psychological description. It is not just a contingent, empirical fact that material things are presented to us in this way. There is a necessity to this form of presentation, just as there are necessities in the way imagined or remembered objects are given and in the way that states of affairs or propositions are intended. The necessity found in such forms of presentation is more like logical necessity than like psychological generality. Most philosophers will admit that logic is different from psychology, but they may not have adverted to the fact that there is something in the way things present themselves that is also different from what the natural science of psychology examines. The structures of presentation, “die Modi der Gegebenheiten,” are more akin to logic than to psychology. This difference became vividly present to Husserl, and he expressed it by the doctrine of the phenomenological reduction, in which he tries to show that even if the empirical world and the empirical ego were put out of action, there would still be a domain for philosophical investigation, just as there would still be a domain of logical necessity. The way in which the elements in a manifold of presentation are linked with one another and with the thing that they present is analogous to the way that propositions or components of propositions are linked with one another and with the objects of reference that lie behind and within them.

Why do the forms of presentation have this affinity with logic? Because both logic and intentionality are related to truth. Husserl speaks a lot about knowledge, Erkenntnis, in The Idea of Phenomenology, but I suggest that he would have made his point more clearly if he had spoken about truth instead. The term knowledge has something of a psychological tone to it. We might easily imagine that bits of knowledge are like natural entities in the mind and that our efforts to attain knowledge are more like impersonal, natural processes. The issue of truth, however, is obviously more resistant to psychologism. It seems clearly to involve responsibility and deliberate consistency. Achieving truth is clearly not just a psychological event. As seen from the psychological perspective, Husserl says, “Knowledge is a fact of nature [die Erkenntnis ist eine Tatsache der Natur], it is an experience of some cognitive organic beings, it is a psychological factum [ein psychologisches Faktum]” (Hua II, p. 19). It would be harder for us to say that truth is a fact of nature, an activity of organic beings and a psychological fact. Truth connotes a personal achievement and the virtue of truthfulness.2 It obviously also involves the dimensions of error, ignorance, confusion, and empty intending, all of which need to be explored in the philosophical treatment of truth, as forms of absence and untruth or falsity that accompany and entangle our attempts to discover and understand things.

Truth occurs in one form when we articulate things syntactically and make rational inferences, that is, when we engage in the truth of correctness; this is the kind of truth that logic primarily deals with. But truth also comes into play in the truth of disclosure, which is prior to and different from the truth of correctness, and this is the kind of truth that phenomenology considers more basic. Both forms of analysis are different from what psychology studies, because psychology does not deal with truth as such. It would obviously be a category mistake to see it as doing so. Psychology may try to deal with knowledge but it can’t deal with truth. I would suggest that philosophy can most vividly be described as the effort to attain the truth about truth, rather than as the search for knowledge about knowledge or science about science.3 The notion of truth is in less danger of being reduced to psychological or natural processes than is the concept of knowledge.

What Husserl does in the reduction is to establish his own philosophy as a distinct intellectual project, one that both secures and tries to understand the achievement of truth. Husserl wishes to enter philosophy in a critical and methodical way. He does not just find himself philosophizing and provoking others, as Socrates did; he tries to justify himself as doing so, not by appealing to the authority of an oracle, but by claiming that his procedure would lead to a more authentic science, an end that would be approved and admired by the cultural audience he was addressing. He claims to bring to completion the science and responsiveness that are already at work in human life. He wishes also to help others to understand what he is doing and to join him in this venture. Just giving a name to this turn to phenomenology, calling it the “reduction,” is an important rhetorical and pedagogical step, because it highlights this event even as it designates it, and it makes it an explicit issue for our consideration.

Furthermore, naming the move into philosophy as the reduction might also have helped Husserl deal with his own philosophical distress at the time. He was particularly anxious to avoid skepticism and psychologism, and he was hard put to it to show how his own work, as developed in Logical Investigations and in many other detailed explorations that he had been working on, was different from psychology. Ulrich Claesges, in his introduction to Husserl’s Ding und Raum, the full 1907 course to which our text was the introduction, says that Husserl was trying to formulate a “unified theoretic starting point [Ansatz]…, without which the many particular analyses of the previous years would have had to remain unsatisfactory” (Hua XVI, p. xiv). Walter Biemel, in his introduction to our text, speaks about this critical moment in Husserl’s life and describes “his doubt concerning himself, which disturbed him so much that he questioned his existence as a philosopher” (Hua II, p. vii). We might say that Husserl was trying to do something analogous to what Kant does in his Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals: to establish the dimension within which he will pursue his philosophy. In fact, twice in our text Husserl says that “philosophy lies in an entirely different dimension,” and he says that this dimension must be “distinguished” from that of any natural science.4 Kant wants to distinguish in principle the domain of moral imperatives from the domain of the natural desire for happiness, and Husserl wants to distinguish in principle the philosophical understanding of truth as such from our various attempts to search for particular kinds of truth.

We might draw another analogy and say that Husserl was trying to provide himself with something like therapeutic counseling, and he was trying to do so all by himself. He was both patient and counselor. He needed to make a distinction between two things that caught him in a bind, a conflict that he could not resolve. Like a patient who cannot distinguish between a present event and a past trauma, or like someone who cannot distinguish between his father and his employer, Husserl was unable to distinguish adequately between philosophy and psychology, and the very naming of the reduction achieved an identification that helped him see two things where he had previously felt or feared only one. He was able to dislodge his phenomenology from something that it resembled and with which it was confused. It is true that the Prolegomena to his Logical Investigations were a sustained attempt to avoid a psychologistic reduction of logic; the distinction between philosophy and psychology is already brewing in Logical Investigations. In the introduction to the second volume of the Investigations, he explains what he calls “the difficulties of pure phenomenological analysis” by appealing to the “unnatural direction of intuition and thought which phenomenological analysis requires” (Husserl 2001, vol. I, p. 170). But if at this early stage the distinction between phenomenology and psychology was already brewing, it was still not formulated. In the Philosophy of Arithmetic Husserl calls his work a kind of psychology, and in the Investigations he is not clear on the distinction between psychology and the theory of knowledge.5 In The Idea of Phenomenology, in contrast, he explicitly distinguishes his phenomenology from psychology by using the word “reduction” to name the turnabout from natural experience and science to philosophy.

4 Philosophical Vocabulary and Discourse

There are many perplexities associated with the idea of the transcendental reduction, especially when it is taken in conjunction with the Cartesian motif. The difficulties are especially related to the question whether Husserl’s philosophy is radically idealistic in the traditional sense. Does he really think we construct the world in which we live and the phenomena that we encounter? I would suggest that these philosophical problems about Husserl’s idealism can be best handled by a reformulation. Instead of speaking about a special kind of reflection and a new kind of attitude, we would do well to speak about a new kind of vocabulary and discourse, one proper to phenomenology. I think that the issues associated with the move into philosophy are made more tangible and more tractable if we take them as adjustments in language and not simply adjustments in attitudes. It is true that we need a new perspective, one different from the “natürliche Denkhaltung” (Hua II, p. 18) that we start with, but we can get a more secure handle on this philosophical attitude, and we can be more convinced that it is something real, by considering it as an adjustment in our discourse than by thinking about it as a shift in attitudes alone.

Husserl himself often observes that our language needs to be modified when it becomes used for philosophy. I suggest that if we focus primarily on reflections and changes of attitude, we get too caught up in internal twistings of the mind, and we get the impression that philosophy is a solitary or even solipsistic achievement. Phenomenology seems to demand that we turn around inside ourselves and stare at our own acts and sensibility, and that we execute these contortions in such a cramped space. If, in contrast, we focus on words and language, the philosophy we arrive at remains more obviously involved with other people. It is more public and less gymnastic, and we have something more palpable or at least more audible to work with. Instead of saying, for example, that we have to carry out a new and mysterious kind of reflection, we can say that when we enter into philosophy we trope the words we use and give them a new significance. We bend or twist our words and not just our attitudes. We try to get others to see the point of what we are saying; we don’t just try to get them to execute exotic intellectual acrobatics. In fact, the successful use and understanding of philosophical language would imply that we have carried out the transcendental reduction, but the words we use give us a lever by which we can more easily make this turn. We don’t do the reduction first and find the words for it afterward.

I have compared Husserl and Kant, and I would like to draw an analogy between Husserl and Plato. The overriding theme in Plato’s dialogues is the nature of the philosophical life and philosophical thinking, but Plato contrasts philosophy mainly with political life and political thinking. The “foil” for philosophy in Husserl is science (especially psychology) and ordinary life, but the main foil for philosophy in Plato is politics. Political life is the analogue in Plato to the natural attitude in Husserl, and in Plato Socrates (or his replacement) is the one who has carried out the transcendental reduction. Now, the citizens and the rulers are themselves already engaged in the truth of things. They are part of a city and not part of a herd, and so their laws, customs, and actions are geared toward truth. If the citizens and rulers were not involved with truth, the sophists would not be metaphysically possible, nor would Socrates. But the citizens and rulers are involved with truth in a partial and pragmatic way, not in an exhaustive and definitive manner, and they do not think about truth as such; they do not stand back and reflect on the intentionalities that make up human life, or on the intentionalities that make up a rational, evidential life. In this they resemble the modern natural scientist, who pursues the truth of things but does not reflect on what the achievement of truth is, not even if he is a psychologist. One has to stand back from politics, just as one has to stand back from physics, biology, mathematics, and psychology, and one must enter into a new kind of theoretic life, if one is to speak coherently about truth and its deviations.6 Socrates helps the city by what he does because he clarifies what the citizens and rulers are after, but it might well seem to the citizen and ruler that he is upsetting the established order. Husserl, likewise, helps science, but it might well seem that he too is throwing everything into disorder and skeptical doubt because he does not allow science and its established conclusions to be the last word.

The life unreservedly dedicated to the discovery of truth comes at things in a radically different way than the life that is engaged in legislation, action, and judgment. Socrates is the paradigm of the philosophical life and his interlocutors represent, in different ways, the people involved in the natural attitude. Husserl resembles Socrates in his own way. He is involved not in any particular science, but in the science with no holds barred, the science that looks at all science, itself included. This venture is not an attempt at a super science, but the action of a philosopher who draws no limits to his investigation. He is concerned with the whole. He knows that this unrestricted inquiry will have to justify itself in a way that physics or psychology, as partial sciences, do not need to justify themselves as adventures in truth, and it is this self-justification that Husserl tries to work out in his theory of the phenomenological reduction.

Plato writes about Socrates as engaged in conversation with other people. Husserl is also involved in something like conversation, as difficult as it may be to see this. The five compositions that comprise The Idea of Phenomenology are, after all, lectures, and from time to time this fact comes through in them. Husserl occasionally addresses his audience in the second person plural and occasionally speaks in the first person plural (Hua II, pp. 47–49), he makes use of metaphors and he sometimes verges on the dramatic. For example, at one point he says that the flow of conscious experience is like a Heraclitean flux, and he asks, “What sort of statements can I make here? Now, as I look on, I can say, ‘This here! (dies da!)’ This thing is, undoubtedly” (Hua II, p. 47). Toward the end of the fifth lecture he says that consciousness is not a bag or a box, it is not a Sack or a Schachtel (Hua II, pp. 71, 74). Rather, he says, things are given to us as identities in a manifold of presentations and appearances, and the philosophical trick is to describe the correlations between the thing and what we do to make it presentable to ourselves and to others: “Is it not also evident, that in the house-phenomenon a house itself appears, and for this reason is it called a house-perception…” (Hua II, p. 72). Husserl’s remarks make clear to us that the relation between a thing and its appearances is a topic of the greatest philosophical interest. He helps us examine how the thing is present in the view we have of it from any particular angle, and he also helps us see how we find terms to speak about its appearances and its appearing, as opposed to speaking about the thing itself, which is the target of our ordinary and scientific discourse.

Husserl did not write dialogues, and he was something of a pedantic professor in the way he lectured and conversed, but he did use language in his philosophical thinking. He used language to communicate the basics of his philosophy to his hearers and readers, but he also used and adjusted it as the support and vehicle for his own turn into philosophy. He could not have thought in any other way, and he could not have executed the transcendental turn by himself within the “sphere of ownness,” bereft of speech and the presence of other minds. His transcendental reduction can fruitfully be interpreted as his attempt to distinguish his philosophical discourse from the ways we use language in our social, personal, and scientific lives.


See also Hua II, p. 34, “Sehen wir näher zu, was so rätselhaft ist und was uns in den nächstliegenden Reflexionen über die Möglichkeit der Erkenntnis in Verlegenheit bringt, so ist es ihre Transzendenz.”


See Williams (2002) for a study of the virtues of truthfulness and their relation to truth.


Aristotle, for example, calls his first philosophy a “theorizing of truth.” See Metaphysics II 1, 993a30; 993b16–31.


Husserl (Hua II, p. 24) says, “Die Philosophie aber liegt in einer völlig neuen Dimension.” On p. 25 he says, “Die Philosophie liegt, ich wiederhole es, in einer gegenüber aller natürlichen Erkenntnis neuen Dimension…”


See Philosophie der Arithmetik (Hua XII, p. 6), where Husserl says that his book will treat “psychological questions” concerning the concepts of multiplicity, unity, and number. As regards Logical Investigations, see Investigation V §7, where he conflates “scientific epistemology and psychology” (II: 91). Husserl dropped this section in the second edition.


In the Crito, for example, Socrates speaks and argues as a philosopher while Crito, who is trying to get his friend Socrates to run away, speaks and argues as a good citizen and a decent man. In the Republic, we have a description of the city as it would be constituted by philosophers, while in the Laws we have a description of a city that makes room for philosophy but is not taken over by it. As V. Bradley Lewis puts it, “Where the Republic presents a philosophic regime, the Laws presents a regime with philosophy” (Lewis 1998, p. 16).


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