This is a preprint version of the paper that appeared in definitive form as "Husserl and Phenomenology, Experience and Essence", Phenomenology and Existentialism, Dordrecht: Springer, 2009, 9-22. The published version should be consulted for all citations.


Husserl and Phenomenology, Experience and Essence

By Claire Ortiz Hill

Abstract. Husserl's search to fathom the complex interplay between experience and essence was at the heart of the dynamic that brought phenomenology into being, and the slipperiness of the issues harbors one of the secrets of phenomenology's impact. The underlying paradox of his phenomenology is that his science of subjectivity was his science of objectivity. At its heart, the science of intentionality is ambiguous, because intentionality points in two directions, towards the world of subjectivity and towards the world of objects. It had, and still has, the impact that signs of contradiction have. To support these claims, I examine the evolution Husserl's ideas underwent at the time the foundations of phenomenology were lain. In particular, I examine the nature of the intellectual crisis that accompanied Husserl's conversion from experience to essences during the last decade of the 19th century. I integrate texts and research first published during the last few decades into the more familiar picture of the genesis of phenomenology.


For Husserl, which came first, experience or essence? That question is as slippery as the famous one about the chicken and the egg. And, since there is probably no completely satisfactory answer to it, it is surely something that is going to be debated as long as there are philosophers to debate it.

However, whether or not there is an definitive answer, the question is well worth asking. For Husserl's search to fathom the complex interplay between experience and essence was at the heart of the dynamic that brought phenomenology into being, and the slipperiness of the question harbors one of the secrets of phenomenology's impact.

The underlying paradox is that Husserl's science of subjectivity was his science of objectivity. He taught that the ultimate meaning and source of all objectivity making it possible for thinking to reach beyond contingent, subjective, human acts and lay hold of objective being-in-itself was to be found in ideality and the ideal laws defining it. In Experience and Judgement, he presents the world constituted by transcendental subjectivity as a pre-given world that is not a pure world of experience, but a world determined and determinable in itself with exactitude, a world in which any individual entity is given beforehand in an perfectly obvious way as in principle determinable in accordance with the methods of exact science.

Yet, while insisting on the primacy of the objective order, Husserl stressed that, for example, logic turns both towards ideal objects, towards a world of concepts where truth is an analysis of essences or concepts, where knowing subjects and the material world play no role, and towards the deeply hidden subjective forms in which reason does its work. He considered that almost everything concerning the fundamental meaning of logic was laden with misunderstandings owing to the fact that objectivity arises out of subjective activity. He considered that even the ideal objectivity of logical structures and a priori nature of logical theories especially pertaining to this objectivity, and the meaning of that a priori, suffered from this lack of clarity since what is ideal appears as located in the subjective sphere and arises from it.

Fortunately, texts and research published during the last few decades are shedding light on many of phenomenology's puzzles. Here, I want to take a new look at what I have called Husserl's paradox by integrating some of this less familiar material into the familiar picture of the genesis of phenomenology. In particular, I want to look at Husserl's conversion from experience to essences during the last decade of the 19th century, a time that resembles our times on some respects.

From experience to essences

To see in what way Husserl's paradox about subjectivity and objectivity is at the heart of the dynamic that brought phenomenology into being, we need to look at the evolution his ideas underwent at the time the foundations of phenomenology were lain.

At first, we know, experience came first. As a student of Franz Brentano, Husserl was not receptive to the claims of metaphysical idealism. Brentano was entirely devoted to the austere ideal of a strict philosophical science as realized in the exact natural sciences. He considered metaphysical idealism odious and despicable.

Only after experiencing the shortcomings of Brentano's empirical psychology did Husserl begin veering in the direction of essences. There were ways in which psychology from the empirical standpoint never came to satisfy him. Once he tried to pass from the psychological connections of thinking to the logical unity of the thought-content, the unity of theory, he was unable to establish any true continuity and unity. The further he delved into his philosophical investigations into the principles of mathematics, the more he grew troubled by doubts as to how to reconcile the objectivity of mathematics and all science in general, with empirical foundations for logic, and the more he saw the need to engage in general critical reflections on the essence of logic and the relationship between the subjectivity of knowing and the objectivity of the content known.

Husserl left dramatic descriptions of ten years of hard, lonely work and struggling during which he aspired after clarity, but only encountered confusion. He felt tormented by the incredibly strange worlds of the purely logical and actual consciousness that he saw opening up on all sides. The two had be interrelated and form a whole, but he did not see how to bring them together.

He was assailed by questions. How are objective, mathematical and logical relations constituted in subjectivity? How can the mathematical-in-itself given to the mind be valid? If everything purely logical is an in itself, something ideal having nothing at all to do with acts, subjects or empirical persons belonging to actual reality, then how is symbolic thinking possible? If scientific knowledge is completely based upon being able to abandon ourselves completely to thought that is removed from intuition, or being able to prefer such thinking over thought more fully in accord with intuition, how is rational insight possible in science? How does one arrive at empirically correct results? We proceed without justification, guided by a psychological mechanism, but this does not answer questions about truth, for a logically unjustified procedure can well lead to true results.

He saw himself standing before "great unsolved puzzles" concerning the very possibility of knowledge in general, as coming "close to the most obscure parts of the theory of knowledge", as powerfully gripped by the deepest problems. Facing only riddles, tensions, puzzles and mysteries, and seeing all around him only unclear, undeveloped, ambiguous ideas, weary of all the confusion, he felt he had to risk setting out on his own. This crisis could be thought of as the birth pangs of phenomenology.

During those years, Husserl kept company with Georg Cantor, the eccentric creator of set theory, who was hard at work discovering and exploring the strange worlds of the pure mathematics and actual consciousness. However psychologistic his mysterious references to inner intuition or to experiences helping produce concepts in his mind might seem, Cantor was strictly opposed to any philosophy that located the sources of knowledge and certainty in the senses or in the supposedly pure forms of intuition of the world of presentation. A good measure of the freedom he felt he possessed as a mathematician came from distinguishing between an empirical treatment of numbers and Plato's pure, ideal arithmoi eidetikoi, which by their very nature were detached from things perceptible by the senses. Originally untainted by the metaphysical idealism that Brentano disdained, Husserl drew near the Platonic idealism that Cantor espoused and renounced the psychologism, empiricism, and naturalism that he renounced.

Husserl's fully conscious and radical turn away from empirical psychology and his espousal of Platonism came about through his study of Hermann Lotze's logic. Husserl said that his own concepts of ideal significations and ideal contents of presentations and judgments originally derived from Lotze, whose interpretation of Plato's Theory of Ideas gave Husserl the key to understanding Bernhard Bolzano's ideas about propositions and truths in themselves, which under Brentano's influence, Husserl had thought of as metaphysical abstrusities, mythical entities suspended somewhere between being and non-being.

The last years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century found Husserl teaching that the ideal entities so unpleasant for empiricistic logic, and so consistently disregarded by it, had not been artificially devised either by himself, or by Bolzano, but were given beforehand by the meaning of the universal talk of propositions and truths indispensable in all the sciences. This indubitable fact, Husserl now stressed, must be the starting point of all logic. This constant talk of propositions, of true and false means something identical and atemporal. No more is meant by the ideality than that it is a matter of a kind of possible objects of knowledge, whose particular characteristics can, and in scientific investigation must, be determined, while they are just not objects in the sense of real objects.

As regards its essential, theoretical makeup, Husserl taught, science is a system of ideal meanings that unite into a meaning unit. The theory of gravity, the system of analytic mechanics, the mechanical theory of heat, the theory of metric or projective geometry are all units, not of mental experiences of one person or another, or of states of mind, but units entirely made up of ideal material, of meanings. And, in this lies truth and falsehood, what science makes into an objective, supra-individual unit of validity logically grasping and dealing with a sphere of objectivity.

All truly scientific thinking, all proving and theorizing, operates in forms that correspond to purely logical laws. Pure logic embraces all the concepts and propositions without which science would not be possible, would not have any sense or validity. While all of natural science is an a posteriori discipline grounded in experience with its actual occurrences, the world of the purely logical is a world of ideal objects, a world of "concepts." Pure logic is an a priori discipline entirely grounded in conceptual essentialities. There all truth is nothing other than the analysis of essences or concepts. With them, we are just not in psychology, in any sphere of empiricism and probability.

The empirical sciences, the natural sciences, Husserl tried to explain to Brentano in 1905, are sciences of 'matters of fact.' The whole sphere of the genuine a priori is, however, free of all matter of fact suppositions. There we stand not within the realm of nature, but within that of Ideas, not within the realm of empirical generalities, but within that of the ideal, apodictic, general system of laws, not within the realm of causality, but within that of rationality. Purely logical laws are laws of essence. He wanted it understood that he was "far from any mystico-metaphysical exploitation of 'Ideas', ideal possibilities and such" of the kind Brentano despised.

A Science of Ideal Being

A rediscovery of metaphysics took place at the end of the nineteenth century, which had seen a positivistic revolt against idealism and Kantian inspired psychologism and a yearning for the real and the palpable that turned the thoughts of many in the direction of the natural world of perceptible facts and events. There had also been a revolt against the various forms of positivism, empiricism, naturalism and materialism that others felt the modern age was foisting upon them. Subsequently, still others wanted to unite what seemed to be two contradictory worlds. They wanted a scientific metaphysics, a scientific idealism.

Lotze played an preeminent role in rehabilitating the respectability of metaphysical inquiry. Trained in medicine, he was initially caught up in the naturalistic movement that sought to extend natural science and its methods over the entire realm of intelligible existence. It taught that what science could not know, could not be. It did not admit any unknowable, supra-sensuous reality and easily evolved into materialistic philosophy that denied it.

Lotze rebelled. He judged the basic ideas of the natural sciences inadequate, disconnected, and often inconsistent. His antagonism was directed toward their pretensions to deal with all the phenomena of human experience. He believed that they had nothing to say about what was most worth knowing. He wanted to show their inadequacy and that there was room and need for philosophy side by side with science.

However, Lotze's genuine respect for the methods and results of the natural sciences, as long as they confined themselves to their own proper domain, deepened his aversion to Idealism, which he saw as having turned its back upon the realm of facts and as having lost itself in the realm of empty thoughts. So to create his new philosophical outlook, Lotze had to clear the way by combating the errors of both philosophers inspired by the natural sciences and the idealists.

In a 1902 Paris doctoral thesis on Lotze's metaphysics, Henri Schoenexplains how Lotze inspired courage in worried and tormented consciences and communicated faith in the triumph of a spiritualistic conception of the world to young people whose confidence had been shaken by the ineffectiveness of idealism and the successes of materialism. To those impressed by positivism, Schoen explains, Lotze gave an exact method starting from observation and not a priori reasoning. He taught a generation disgusted with abstractions to start from given facts.

Schoen saw his generation as being disgusted with materialism, with vague and confused aspirations and disposed to accept a metaphysics not in contradiction with its scientific views. He explains how he was guided and had tried to guide students through the philosophical and psychological crisis of German metaphysics, how he considered a return to the old dogmatism impossible, but saw the inadequacy of pure reason, how eclipsed by idealism, Kant's realism wrought vengeance on the modern metaphysics that aimed to develop the seeds of realism contained in his theory, and not the idealism there as well.

For Schoen, an equal balance had to be maintained between ideality and reality, between the supra-sensible world and the real world. He was completely confident about the future of metaphysics. It was a matter of creating a new philosophical outlook that could satisfy both the modern need for reality and concrete facts and the idealistic and mystical needs of the times.

In his eccentric way, Georg Cantor too was part of the post-Kantian movement to reconcile the findings of modern science with metaphysical views. He made no secret of his intention to supply his new transfinite numbers with adequate philosophical and metaphysical foundations. His views were deeply pro-idealistic. He was an avowed enemy of the new empiricism, of all psychologism, empiricism, positivism, naturalism, sensualism, skepticism, and Kantianism. In 1894, he confided that "in the realm of the spirit" mathematics had no longer been "the essential love of his soul" for more than twenty years. Metaphysics and theology, he "openly confessed", had taken possession of his soul.

Pope Leo XIII was also intent upon reconciling modern science and metaphysics. His influential encyclical Aeterni Patris of 1879 captured Cantor's attention and Cantor's work captured the attention of a number of Catholic philosophers involved in the revival of scholastic philosophy in the spirit of the encyclical. Cantor scholar Joseph Dauben has described the interest generated by Aeterni Patris as a tonic for Cantor's declining spirits.

In talking about what Husserl's contemporaries were searching for, it is important to realize that, while the end of the 19th century witnessed attempts to rehabilitate the respectability of metaphysical inquiry and to situate it centrally on the philosophical agenda alongside rigorous, rational, scientific thinking, alongside this metaphysical revival there was an occult revival. Like our times, the end of the 19th century witnessed a rise in cults, spiritism, Satanism, the occult, magic, witchcraft, and so on. As many were hard at work destroying the superstition of religion, some were indulging in irrational, superstitious, and unsavory pursuits, something that surely fanned antagonism towards any uncritical, unscientific metaphysics, or even a fear of it.

Carl Jung once described the times as having prepared the way for crime. As he saw it, people were living in a lifeless nature bereft of gods. Enlightenment might have destroyed the spirits of nature, but it did not destroy the psychic factors corresponding to them, such as suggestibility, an uncritical attitude, fearfulness, propensity to superstition and prejudice. Even though nature is depsychized, demons do not really disappear, Jung insisted. He saw the psychic conditions breeding them to be as actively at work as ever. "Just when people were congratulating themselves on having abolished all spooks, it turned out that instead of haunting the attic or old ruins, the spooks were flitting about in the heads of apparently normal Europeans. Tyrannical obsessive, intoxicating ideas and delusions were abroad everywhere, and people began to believe the most absurd things...".

Historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke explains that, though there were many forms of modern occultism, its function was relatively uniform. Behind the mantic systems of astrology, and palmistry, the doctrines of theosophy, the quasi-sciences of animal magnetism and hypnotism, the study of the esoteric literature of Cabalists, Rosicrucians, and alchemists, there was a strong desire to reconcile the findings of modern natural science with a religious view. Occult science strove to counter materialist science, with its emphasis upon tangible and measurable phenomena and its neglect of invisible qualities respecting the spirit and the emotions. Cantor's unpublished correspondence shows that he was a Rosicrucian.

Intentionality, a sign of contradiction

Into this intellectual climate, Husserl introduced a science of intentionality that was suitably ambiguous because intentionality points in two directions, towards the world of subjectivity and towards the world of objects. I said that Husserl's paradox about subjectivity and objectivity harbors one of the secrets of phenomenology's impact, because I think that his science of intentionality had, and still has, the impact that signs of contradiction have.

According to Brentano's definition of intentionality, every mental phenomenon is characterized by the intentional or mental inexistence of an object, by relation to a content, direction to an object or an immanent objectivity.

Husserl considered that by indicating the uniqueness of mental phenomena, Brentano blazed the way for the development of phenomenology and made it possible, but that the idea of a pure phenomenology was beyond his reach, because he held fast to his ideal of a strict philosophical science based on the exact natural sciences.

The entire approach whereby the overcoming of psychologism was phenomenologically accomplished, Husserl maintained in 1913, showed that analyses of immanent consciousness had to be seen as pure a priori analyses of essence, that it was in this way that the immense fields of the givens of consciousness as fields for "ontological" investigations" were opened up for the first time. What was new in the Logical Investigations, he maintained in Crisis, was "found not at all in the merely ontological investigations..., but rather in the subjectively directed investigations... in which for the first time the cogitata qua cogitata, as essential moments of each conscious experience as it is given in genuine inner experience, come into their own and immediately come to dominate the whole method of intentional analysis".

So Husserl's science of intentionality produced masterpieces as diverse as Edith Stein's Finite and Eternal Being and Science of the Cross, Emmanuel Levinas' Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, and even strongly anti-metaphysical works like Martin Heidegger's Being and Time and Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness and Existentialism is a Humanism.

Levinas saw phenomenology as reversing the scientific attitude that turned away from the subject for the greater glory of the object and decreed the expulsion of every so-called subjective element from the object, In comparison, Sartre considered that for centuries there had not been a philosophical movement that so "plunged human beings back into the world". He proposed that the profound meaning of the discovery expressed by, "All consciousness is consciousness of something" could be grasped by imagining "a connected series of bursts that tear us out of ourselves, throw us beyond them into the dry dust of the world, onto the plain earth, amidst things…".

The great mathematician David Hilbert wrote of how Husserl was a product of Brentano's school, which was oriented toward the creation of an exact theory of acts of judgment and logic with the goal of constructing a theory of science of the kind Bolzano had in mind, but how, in contrast to other representatives of the school, Husserl had adopted an a priori method and rejected psychologism. From this theoretical stance, Hilbert continued, Husserl befriended the speculative trend in philosophy by strengthening it enormously. For since he had expounded a far-reaching grounding of logic and related sciences, after he came out in favor of the methods of speculative dogmatics, he deflected the criticism of sterility normally attached to its application in the exact sciences. But, the problem was solved only apparently. For his method was in fact psychological, and only owing to misunderstandings about its true nature he was able to post successes on the "a priori dogmatism" side of the ledger.

The democratic socialist Leonard Nelson complained to Hilbert that even if Husserl himself remained protected from mystical degeneration by inhibitions and restraints imposed by secure connections to mathematics that he could not strip away, after his schools had burned its bridges to mathematics, it was frightening to see how unrestrainedly his students fell victim to every excess of Neo-platonic mysticism.

Metaphysics, theory of knowledge and the natural sciences

Husserl communicated the new vision of metaphysics, theory of knowledge and the natural sciences that he developed during the 1890s to the new generation of students in search of a scientific of metaphysics that could stand up to the challenges of the natural sciences. He told them of how he saw the metaphysical needs of his time going unmet and gave this as an explanation as to why spiritism and the occult were thriving and superstition of every kind was spreading.

He blamed the overriding role and authoritative influence that the natural sciences had acquired in the lives of educated people for the prevailing contempt for metaphysics and its transformation into "a kind of a hobgoblin", or its being considered a relic of scientifically backward times on a par with alchemy and astrology. As he saw it, the natural sciences had taken abundant revenge for the injustice they endured from the pseudo-scientific natural philosophy of the Romantics, but in speaking of metaphysics, natural scientists still had in mind a kind of philosophizing that was up to the old tricks of the Hegelian school.

As Husserl told the story, after the collapse of idealistic philosophy in the mid-19th century, a great awkward lull set in when the philosophical race of Titans of Romanticism, with their extravagant promises and flaunting of the requirements of rigorous science, trained to storm the Mount Olympus of philosophy with their dialectical tricks, were flung down into the dark Tartarus of dissension and unclarity, and uneasy disenchantment, even disillusionment, followed the earlier exuberance. Then sounded ever louder the call back to Kant, who had set limits on the presumptuousness of uncritical metaphysics and established the critique of knowledge as the true foundation for philosophy. With the revival of Kantianism, for which an a priori science of concepts was impossible, the word 'metaphysics' took on ominous overtones and people preferred not to use it.

The extent to which the hard questions about the objectivity of knowledge raised by Kant's work could determine one's entire conception of being in the world was a matter of concern to Husserl, for whom such problems could only be solved through a pure phenomenological elucidation of knowledge for which it was completely obvious that theory of knowledge was prior to all natural knowledge and science and on an entirely different plane.

As long as we are in the state of epistemological innocence and have not bitten the fateful apple of the tree of philosophical knowledge, then every science suits us fine, Husserl taught. But, the moment the sphinx of critique of knowledge asks its questions, all sciences, no matter how beautiful, are nothing to us. All the puzzling questions combined signify that we do not understand sciences in general. No naturally obtained scientific result is free of the worm of doubt or unclarity. Therefore, we cannot use any as a premise from which to derive the answer to these questions.

Husserl called for a science of metaphysics to study problems lying beyond empirical investigation, to engage in the exploration of what is realiter in the ultimate and absolute sense, and so provide ultimate and deepest knowledge of reality. He believed that such a science of metaphysics was possible, justifiable, and that human beings could attain knowledge of reality.

Husserl taught that the sciences were in need of metaphysical foundations. But, he strove to make it perfectly clear that by that he "meant anything but a dialectical spinning of the concrete results of these sciences out of some abstract conceptual mysticism". He proposed to have metaphysics understood in a broad sense as radical ontology, as the radical science of Being in the absolute sense, instead of the science of Being in the empirical sense, which we think we know, but upon closer inspection at times turns out to be deceptive and an illusion.

It is certain, he argued, that the knowledge of the world provided by the natural sciences is not definitive knowledge of reality. They are merely sciences of being in the relative, provisional sense sufficient for practical orientation in the phenomenal world. Through them, we attain the practical mastery of nature, a far-reaching orienting of empirical reality, the possibility of formulating laws by which we exactly foresee, foretell and redirect the course of empirical processes, but we are not in possession of definitive knowledge, of ultimate, conclusive knowledge of the essence of nature. Lack of critical insight into the meaning of fundamental concepts and principles makes it impossible to be clear about what has been ultimately achieved and so about the sense in which the results may be considered expressions of ultimate Being.

Husserl believed that it was certain that a most universal concept of what is real in general, of the particularities grounded in the essence of what is real, can and must be delineated. He reasoned that concepts like that of an individual real thing, Being for itself, or thing in the broadest sense, real property in the broadest sense, real relation, time, cause, and effect, are surely necessary thoughts concerning possible reality and require a study of the analysis of essence and of essential laws. There must therefore be, he concluded, a science of real Being as such in the most universal universality, and this a priori metaphysics would be the necessary foundation for empirically based metaphysics, which not only claims to know what lies in the idea of reality in general, but claims to know what is now actually actual.

Husserl saw a science of metaphysics as being so necessary for science that even natural scientists could not do without it. The empirical sciences, he taught, are not creations of a purely theoretical mind. They are not based on absolutely scrupulously lain foundations in accordance with a rigorous logical method. They are subject to principles that govern thinking and research in the natural sciences, that make them possible, and that consequently cannot be searched for by investigations into the natural sciences. Even the most highly developed, most exact natural sciences uncritically use concepts and presuppositions originating in a prescientific understanding of the world. In fact, as soon as they begin reflecting on the principles of their science, natural scientists fall into metaphysics, though they most certainly do not want to call it by that forbidden name.

The realm of truth, Husserl insisted, is no disorderly hodgepodge. Truths are connected in systematic ways, governed by consistent laws and theories, and so the inquiry into truth and its exposition must be systematic. The systematic representation of knowledge must to a certain degree reflect the systematic representation grounded in the things themselves. All invention and discovery involves formal patterns without which there is no testing of given propositions and proofs, no methodical construction of new proofs, no methodical building of theories and whole systems. No blind omnipotent power has heaped together some pile of propositions P, Q, R, strung them together with a proposition S, and then organized the human mind so that the knowledge of the truth of P unfailingly must entail knowledge of S. Not blind chance, but the reason and order of governing laws reigns in argumentation.

Wherever it is a question of reality, in life and in all empirical sciences, he explained, we apply concepts like thing, real property, real relation, state, process, coming into being and passing away, cause and effect, space and time, that seem to belong necessarily to the idea of a reality. Whether or not all these concepts are actually intrinsic to the idea of reality, there surely are such concepts, the basic categories in which what is real as such is to be understood in terms of its essence. Thus, investigations must be possible that simply reflect everything without which reality in general cannot be conceived. This is where the idea of a metaphysical a priori ontology comes in.

For Husserl, the most radical reason why the natural sciences do not provide definitive knowledge of physical and mental reality and therefore require a metaphysics as the science of absolute being is that the possibility and meaning of the objective validity of knowledge is a mystery to us. So, the ultimate meaning of any reality, which for knowledge is just what it posits as real and has determined in a given way, is also problematical for us. In spite of all of natural science, we therefore do not know what reality is and in what sense we may claim to take the results of the natural sciences as being definitive for reality. Therefore, only by theory of knowledge and critique of knowledge practiced upon the natural sciences does metaphysics become possible.

He warned against caving into the old temptation of grounding theory of knowledge upon metaphysics and wanting to solve the radical problems of the elucidation of knowledge by metaphysical underpinnings. Drawing in premises from metaphysics means radically missing the meaning of the genuine problems of theory of knowledge. Metaphysics presupposes theory of knowledge. Therefore, it cannot undergird theory of knowledge. And that brings us back to the paradox about the science of subjectivity being the science of objectivity.