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Evolution of the thinking of Edmund Husserl -- father of modern Phenomenology

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Say something about philosophy and phenomenology, please.

  • Jan 21, 2011

For six of the seven years from 1956 through 1963 I was largely immersed in the study of academic philosophy: in Mobile, Alabama, Vienna, Austria (Fulbright student) and Austin (University of Texas). Then I opted for a career as a Foreign Service Officer of the U.S. Department of State. I read very little in academic philosophy until I recently decided to return to my old haunts. I decided to begin by re-familiarizing myself with a discipline or school called "Phenomenology" and its modern discoverer or founder, Edmund Husserl (1859 - 1938).

Back when I studied philosophy virtually full time (1956 - 1963), phenomenology was not widely if at all considered a traditional branch of academic philosophy. The classical divisions that I studied were

metaphysics (ontology),
theodicy (philosophy of religion),
aesthetics (philosophy of beauty)
history of philosophy.

Nowadays, I believe, at some universities phenomenology is treated as a new, separate division within philosophy, along with linguistic analysis and others.

Thales, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Saint Augustine and other great thinkers of antiquity spent their lives in philosophy. That is, they "loved" or pursued "wisdom" day in and day out. Golden Age Athens's non-philosopher leader Pericles once famously orated: "We (Athenians) philosophize, but not to excess!"

These days, a teenager might decide to make a career in philosophy much like any other well established profession: the law, theology, economics, physical fitness. After so many years of writing and gaining respect among his colleagues, he retires like anyone else. Philosophy, that is, is no longer expected to be life-transforming.

Edmund Husserl was an original thinker very much within the well-established general framework of philosophy as practiced from Plato through Descartes, Hume, Locke Kant, Hegel and even Sartre. Alfred North Whitehead once said that all subsequent philosophy is mere commentary on or footnote to Plato.

Certainly, one who knows Plato will feel at home reading Maurice Natanson's 1973 EDMUND HUSSERL: PHILOSOPHER OF INFINITE TASKS. There is constant comparison between what a phenomenologist does and Plato's great Myth of the Cave. In that cave men are chained in place and forced to watch a wall on which torches behind them cast shadows of men and beast who march silently past between prisoners and torches. One day they are freed and out into bright sunshine. From ignorance or partial knowledge into the Idea of the Good.

Husserl's thinking evolved away from the mathematicism, logical positivism and naturalism holding sway in his youth. He felt that all men instinctively believe in the reality of a world outside them that they reach through the "phenomena" presenting themselves in consciousness. He spent his life trying to find a method for finding the necessary, certain, incontrovertible substratum of truth which authenticates our belief in external reality, especially other men and women with consciousness and awareness like our own.

In the process Husserl influenced two radically different students. One was a young woman convert from Judaism to Catholicism, Edith Stein, later a Carmelite nun and recently canonized Catholic Saint, gassed with her sister at Auschwitz in 1942. Husserl said that she was the most gifted student he ever had. And that included Martin Heidegger who became a flaming, much admired senior Nazi under Hitler.

Husserl preferred that his readers be newcomers to philosophy. They brought fewer prejudices to phenomenologizing. And every man must pick his own starting point to begin philosophizing and work out his own reasons for believing in a real world of other knowing egos besides his own. You cannot romp through Natanson's EDMUND HUSSERL. But with patience, you can hardly read a page without new insights.

Say something about philosophy and phenomenology, please. Say something about philosophy and phenomenology, please. Say something about philosophy and phenomenology, please.

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About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #6
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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