existential primer

Edmund Husserl
the bracketing of philosophy

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Edmund Husserl, along with Georg W. F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger, gave shape to much of modern Continental philosophy. Today we use terms like “phenomenology” and “bracket” without appreciating the shift they represented in European thought.

Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…

Do not use this site as a study guide. The Existential Primer is a “living” academic project, unlike a static text. This primer is only a shallow introduction to the thinkers profiled. The incomplete nature of this website might result in misunderstanding the profiled individuals. These pages are revised often because scholarship is never ending. Consult any citations included because within them is where you will find the experts. Read their works!

NOTE: Citations are not in MLA or APA format to prevent “borrowing” from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:

Work; Author, p. Page


Edmund Husserl was born in what is now the Czech Republic on 8 April 1859.

His family was Jewish, yet secular. Like Kafka, Husserl was more “German” than Jewish until World War II made it impossible to ignore Jewish heritage.

Husserl studied at the University of Leipzig from 1876 to 1878 and the University of Berlin from 1878 to until 1881. His education and cultural background were definitely “German” in most ways. Husserl decided to leave Germany in 1881 to complete his studies at the University of Vienna.

During the period from 1884 through 1887, Husserl attended the lectures of Franz Brentano. Under the mentorship of Brentano, Husserl came to view philosophy as complementary to science. Husserl became concerned with linking mathematics and philosophy.

Husserl’s first text, The Philosophy of Arithmetic, was published in 1891 with a dedication to Brentano.


In 1916, Husserl lost a son to World War I.


The rise of the National Socialists in Germany caused Husserl to break with his student Martin Heidegger.


Husserl died on 26 April 1938.

1859 April 8 Born in Prossnitz (Moravia), now part of the Czech Republic.
1876–1878 Attends University of Leipzig, Germany.
1878–1881 Studies mathematics at the University of Berlin.
1881 Transfers to the University of Vienna. Completes a doctorate in mathematics.
1883–1884 Compulsory military service.
1884–1886 Attends the lectures of Franz Brentano, who becomes Husserl’s mentor. Husserl comes to view philosophy as scientific.
1887–1901 Lectures at the University of Halle.
1891 Publishes his first book, The Philosophy of Arithmetic, dedicated to Brentano.
1900, 1901 Publishes Logical Investigations, a two-volume work. The work helps Husserl obtain professor status.
1901–1916 Professor at the University of Gotttingen.
1907 Presents lecture series The Idea of a Phenomenology (published posthumously).
1913 Publishes Ideas: General Introduction to Phenomenology. (Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy)
1916 Son dies in World War I.
(or 1929)
Professor at the University of Freiburg
1924–1925 Rudolf Carnap attends Husserl’s lectures.
1933 Breaks with his student Martin Heidegger when the Nazi party comes to power.
1938 April 26 Dies in Freiburg.



Husserl’s writings and lectures greatly affected the path of existentialism.

The works of Husserl form a slowly declining series: as the fruitful analyses diminish, the metaphysical generalities increase. The Logical Investigations, with its fine studies of Meaning, Intentionality, and Knowledge, is undoubtedly one of the greatest of philosophical masterpieces; in the later works there is much, but not so much, to admire. But the influence of Husserl’s thought increased as its philosophical importance declined: hence the strange drop from Phenomenology to Existentialism.
- Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy & Philosophers; entry by J. N. Findlay, pp. 144-5


There is a thin, blurred line separating phenomenology and existentialism. Edmund Husserl was the leading thinker in the Phenomenological Movement, influencing most future existentialists either directly or indirectly. Husserl’s phenomenology was a descriptive analysis of subjective processes. He described it as the intuitive study of essences.

According to Husserl, the goal of philosophy was to describe the data of consciousness without bias or prejudice, ignoring all metaphysical and scientific theories in order to accurately describe and analyze the data gathered by human senses and the mind. The students of Husserl summarized phenomenology as the study of “the things themselves.”

The pursuit of essences was to be accomplished in phenomenology via three techniques: phenomenological reduction, eidetic reduction, and cognition analysis.

Phenomenological reduction, according to Husserl’s teachings, is the exclusion from consideration of everything which is transcendent and anything else derived via scientific or logical inference. A phenomenologist would consider only what was immediately presented to consciousness. This is familiar to students of Jean-Paul Sartre, who suggested what you know of a person or item is all that you can evaluate. An object, even a person, is only what one sees and experiences of that object. The rest, Husserl suggested, was “bracketed out” from judgment. Husserl referred to this suspension of judgment as epoché.

As an example, via this theory, a color seen by one individual is known only to and by that one person. Measuring it scientifically, comparing to other colors, et cetera, do not truly change that what the individual sees is the only thing consciousness comprehends. The color experienced is the “pure phenomena”, the scientific data are held in suspension, or epoché. Only the phenomenological knowledge is certain, and then only to the individual.

Husserl, like other saints, fell a victim to his own ecstasy: he was unable to come out of this transcendental suspension. The harmless “bracketing” of commonsense realities became the metaphysical thesis that they can have none but an “intentional” existence in and for consciousness. Husserl does not see that we cannot suspend a belief if the belief suspended is meaningless.
- Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy; Findlay, p. 145

Eidetic reduction is the abstraction of essences. The essence abstracted via eidetic reduction is the intelligible structure of the phenomena found in consciousness. The goal is to find the basic components of a phenomena. For example, a chair might include the color, the materials used, and the shapes present in the structure. We apply basic, Platonic forms to all phenomena, according to Husserl. These basics allow us to communicate and describe a phenomena with some accuracy, though this lessens the original phenomena in some manner.

Returning to the example of color, one knows there are component colors. If one thinks to much about the mixture of colors, the color viewed is devalued. Green is green, according to Husserl, not a mixture of blue and yellow subtractives. The scientific knowledge of color is the universal form: there are agreed upon mathematical representations of color. Still, color is a personal and subjective phenomena, further complicated by differences in human senses, such as color blindness.

Cognition analysis is the detailed comparison between the phenomena as presented in consciousness and the universal form of the phenomena. We, as humans, struggle to align our experience of color with our scientific knowledge of color. Phenomenology attempts to reconcile what humans experience with what humans suppose know via theory. There is a distinction between the phenomenon as experienced and the cognition; Husserl compared appearance to that which appears.

Husserl’s Triad: Ego, Cogito, Cogitata

What a phenomenologists considers important is that which can be experienced via the human senses. After reduction and abstraction, what remains is what an individual knows, regardless of the scientific or transcendental data. After removing the transcendental and the scientific, what remains is the Phenomenological Residue of the phenomena. This residue exists in three forms: ego, cogito, and cogitata.

Phenomenological Ego is the stream of consciousness in which one acquires meaning and reality from the surrounding environment. Husserl considered it a great mystery and wonder that a group of beings was aware of their existence, in effect human consciousness is the phenomenological result of introspection. By observing that “I can touch and see my being,” we recognize that we exist. The science proving we exist is not of value to human consciousness. The ego is always present, or nothing exists for the individual.

Cogito or cogitations comprise all the acts of consciousness, including doubting, understanding, affirming, denying, et cetera. The ego exists only as a result of these cogitations and these cogitations continue only as long as we are self-aware.

Cogitata are the subjects of thought or objects of consideration. One cannot deny or understand nothing — something must be under consideration for thought to occur. In the presence of nothing, there is no person, no individual.

Transcendental Idealism

“Everything which is and has reality for me, that is, for man, exists only in my own consciousness,” Husserl stated. According to Husserl, through reduction, the Phenomenological Ego can become and observer of itself, aware of itself, and self-conscious. Since we gain knowledge via this ego, we learn about the ego as we learn about the environment around us.

Humans presuppose that other egos exist. We assume that other humans are self-aware, with no proof of this since we cannot observe the thoughts of others — only their actions. Husserl sought a “community of selves” in which all were aware of each other. “I experience the world not as my own private world, but as an intersubjective world.”

Since we learn about the world through observing external phenomena, and that is how we learn about ourselves, we in effect must learn about ourselves through others. Consider that you need a mirror to see yourself, you have no internal self-knowledge of your facial features. Likewise, you can only observe the results of your emotions and thoughts through the responses of other humans.

The Lebenswelt

The Lebenswelt is the life-world one can view and experience. It cannot be understood via science, which limits it to mathematical formulas and chemical equations. It is one thing to know that water is two hydrogen and one oxygen molecule, it is another to see, feel, and taste water. Cognition analysis allows us to reconcile the scientific with the observed, but we only perform this analysis on demand — it is not an ongoing process. If it were, according to Husserl, the world would lose meaning. This theory was expanded upon by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

The Philisophy of Arithmetic (1891)

Gottlob Frege was critical of Philosophy of Arithmetic, accusing Husserl of relying too much on the metaphysical and not enough on the logical aspects of mathematics. As the recognized founder of mathematical logic, Frege’s criticisms of Husserl nearly doomed the young mathematician’s career as a professor. Husserl’s Logical Investigations secured his reputation ten years later, but Frege and others never accepted Husserl as a practioner of true logic.


Coming soon…


I am still searching for a complete biography of Husserl, and there is little available in the way of basic introductions to his works in English. Also, I admit that I am working my way slowly through my reading lists until I reach Husserl.

Husserl, Edmund; The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology; an Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1970)

Smith, David Woodruff; Husserl (London: Routledge, 2006)

Velarde-Mayol, Victor; On Husserl (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2000) ISBN: 0-534-57610-9 [Amazon.com]

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