Does (Husserlian) Phenomenology have a Future?

Dan Zahavi


  Husserl is the founding father of phenomenology, but it has often been claimed that virtually all post-Husserlian phenomenologists ended up distancing themselves from most aspects of Husserl’s original program. It has consequently been claimed that phenomenology is a tradition in name only. It has no common method and research program. It has even been suggested that Husserl was not only the founder of phenomenology, but also its sole true practitioner. I think the latter view, which for opposing reasons has been advocated by ardent Husserlians and anti-Husserlians alike, is wrong. It presents us with a distorted view of the influence of phenomenology in 20th century philosophy, and it conceals the extent to which post-Husserlian phenomenologists continued the work of the founder. Although phenomenology has in many ways developed as a heterogeneous movement with many branches; although, as Ricoeur famously put it, the history of phenomenology is the history of Husserlian heresies; (1) and although it would be an exaggeration to claim that phenomenology is a philosophical system with a clearly delineated body of doctrines, one should not overlook the overarching concerns and common themes that have united and continue to unite its proponents.
   Many still tend to think of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology and Heidegger’s and Merleau-Ponty’s hermeneutical and existential phenomenology as excluding alternatives. The argument given is frequently that only the latter introduced the topics of intersubjectivity, sociality, embodiment, historicity, language, and interpretation into phenomenology and that this led to a decisive transformation of the Husserlian framework. Thus, according to the received view, Husserl’s commitment to a Cartesian foundationalism made him conceive of phenomenology as an investigation of a detached transcendental ego for whom its own body, worldly things, and other subjects were but constituted objects spread out before its gaze. If this standard interpretation had been correct, it would indeed have been difficult to maintain that Husserl’s phenomenology had much in common with Merleau-Ponty’s or Heidegger’s phenomenology. But we are dealing with a pejorative caricature that recent Husserl research has done much to dismantle. The continuing publication of Husserliana has made an increasing number of Husserl's research manuscripts available, and a study of these has made it clear that Husserl is a far more complex thinker than the standard reading is suggesting. He frequently anticipated and formulated many of the critical moves made by subsequent phenomenologists.
   Steven Crowell recently claimed that the future prospects of phenomenology will depend on the talent of those who take it up. (2) As I see it, it will also depend upon their ability to articulate and strengthen what is common to the phenomenological enterprise instead of getting involved in the sectarian trench warfare that has regrettably plagued much of its history. A first step in this direction would be for phenomenologists to recognize and embrace the Husserlian heritage. This is in particular so, given that there are core features of the Husserlian methodology that remain indispensable to contemporary phenomenology, the most prominent one being the transcendental reduction.
   But how can one today argue for the indispensability of the reduction? It is well known that already Heidegger criticized it. In truth, however, Heidegger didn’t consider the reduction per se to be a problem, rather he argued that Husserl didn’t think it through in a sufficiently radical manner. This objection has been repeated frequently by Heideggerians ever since. Let us take a closer look at a more recent version of this criticism, the one espoused by Marion.
   According to Marion, Husserl is to be praised for his focus on various modes of givenness, but unfortunately, as it has been put, he “laiss[e] ininterrogée la donation dont il a pourtant accompli l’élargissement.” (3) In other words, Husserl fails to pose the fundamental question concerning givenness as such. What does giving mean, what is at all at play in the fact that something is given? This failure has wide-ranging implications. Rather than letting his investigation orient itself in accordance with the things themselves, Husserl is instead led by traditional, or to be more specific, Cartesian presuppositions and decisions. This is why Husserl’s phenomenology ultimately remains unphenomenological, (4) or at least not wholly phenomenological. (5) The phenomenality of the phenomena is reduced to the certitude of actual presence; (6) it is reduced to objectivity understood as an assured permanence. This focus on objective subsistence goes hand in hand with Husserl’s inability to consider the nonpresent and absent. (7) This is why the Husserlian phenomenon – defined as and confined to presence for consciousness – is a flat phenomenon, a phenomenon without any depth. (8) But it is not sufficient simply to thematize the phenomena – which Husserl managed to do quite well - we also need to thematize their phenomenality. (9) Such a move will bring us from a surface phenomenology to a depth phenomenology. This move which might be considered the second phenomenological breakthrough (after Husserl’s Logische Untersuchungen) was accomplished by Heidegger insofar as he calls for an investigation of the Being of beings. (10)  Thus, another way of describing Husserl’s fundamental mistake is by saying that he never understood that the true and innermost destination of phenomenology is to provide ontology with its proper method. (11) Of course, it could be, and it has been, objected in Husserl’s defence, that Husserl does in fact speak repeatedly of the ontological dimension of phenomenology in works such as Cartesianische Meditationen, Ideen III, Erste Philosophie II, and Formale und transzendentale Logik. But the reply should be obvious. Although Husserl even prior to Heidegger maintained that phenomenology had ontological implications, this in no way signifies that he meant the same by ontology as Heidegger. (12) In fact, Husserl’s ontology is and remains an ontology of objects. Beings are only in the measure that a judgment persists in determining them. His investigation of formal ontology, for instance, aims at articulating the general substratum of predication. (13) But for the very same reason, Husserl’s ontology prevents or prohibits him from understanding the question of Being that Heidegger had posed. Despite Husserl’s frequent emphasis on the cardinal difference between reality and consciousness, he never really understood that this difference amounts to an ontological difference, a difference in Being; rather he consistently took consciousness to be a region that could be objectively determined and failed to realize that its mode of Being differs radically from the mode of Being of worldly entities. (14) To summarize the criticism, Husserl’s transcendental reduction “équivaut à une constitution d’objets. (a) Elle se déploie pour le Je intentionnel et constituant. (b) Elle lui donne des objets constitués, (c) pris dans des ontologies régionales toutes conformes, à travers l’ontologie formelle, à l’horizon de l’objectité. (d) Elle exclut ainsi de la donation tout ce qui ne se laisse pas reconduire à l’objectité, à savoir les differences principielles de manières d’être (de la conscience, de l’ustensilité, du monde).” (15)
   Let me summarize the main points: 1) Husserlian phenomenology doesn’t thematize the very phenomenality of the phenomena. 2) It privileges an active constituting. 3) It doesn’t do justice to the specific mode of being of consciousness since it consistently interprets it as a form of object being. 4) Finally, due to its emphasis on objective subsistence, Husserlian phenomenology has only an eye for presence; it fails to consider the givenness of the absent and non-present.
   If this criticism holds true, I think it is fair to say that Husserlian phenomenology is beset with severe limitations, and that post-Husserlian phenomenology has had no choice but to break out of such a framework. But is the criticism valid? I don’t think so. In my view, Husserlian phenomenology has the resources to tackle all four issues: It has investigated the very dimension of phenomenality, rather than merely different types of phenomena. It has repeatedly emphasized to what extent intentional activity presupposes passivity. It has analysed the non-objectifying mode of Being of consciousness, and it has discussed the interplay between presence and absence in extenso. To put it differently, I think that Husserl himself most certainly passed beyond what might be called a flat, surface phenomenology. If there is anything that lacks depth, it is not Husserl’s phenomenology, but the standard criticism of it.
   It can be conceded straight away that there is an important and decisive difference between an investigation of object-intentionality, i.e., an investigation that explores the difference between perception, empathy, imagination and pictorial consciousness for instance, and the ontological question posed by Heidegger, but it is highly problematic to look for a possible parallel to this radicalization in Husserl’s writings on formal ontology. Rather the obvious and natural place to look is of course in Husserl’s writings on time. To put it differently, any serious attempt to gauge the radicality of the Husserlian enterprise must necessarily discuss Husserl’s writings on the deepest layers of constitution. It must discuss his writings on time and passive synthesis. It is in these writings that Husserl’s most profound reflections on the structure of phenomenality, the nature of subjectivity, and the interplay between presence and absence is to be found.
   Time, or rather space, will not permit me to account in detail for Husserl’s sophisticated analyses of time-consciousness, self-consciousness, constitution, passivity, facticity, alterity, and intersubjectivity. Nor is it necessary, since all of these areas have already been discussed at length by numerous Husserl scholars in recent years. Thus, there is an extensive corpus of research readily available that any serious criticism of Husserl must take into account. So what I will do instead is simply to present a few key passages from different works of Husserl that speak directly against one of the frequently repeated criticisms, namely the claim that Husserl consistently conceived of the being of subjectivity as a form of object being.
   Already in Logische Untersuchungen we find Husserl resisting this suggestion. In the 5th investigation, for instance, Husserl writes that the intentional experiences themselves are lived through, but he denies that they appear in an objectified manner; they are neither seen nor heard. They are conscious without being intentional objects. (16) This is not to deny that we can, in fact, direct our attention towards our experiences and thereby take them as objects of an inner perception, (17) but this only occurs the moment we reflect upon them. In contrast to Brentano, who famously held that our experiences are conscious by being taken as secondary objects, Husserl does not seek to identify the (self)givenness of our experiences with the givenness of objects. As he explicitly states in the 6th Investigation: “Erlebtsein ist nicht Gegenständlichsein.” (18) Or as Husserl was to write 17 years later in the Bernau manuscripts: “Sein sein ist aber ein total anderes als das aller Objekte. Es ist eben Subjektsein...” (19)
   We find Husserl occupied with a similar question in his 1906/07 lecture course Einleitung in die Logik und Erkenntnistheorie.He begins by observing that we are aware of the perceptual object when we are engaged in a perception. But what about the sensations and the perceptual experience itself? They are also conscious, but are not given as perceptual objects; they are not perceived? (20) We know that we can turn our attention away from the perceptual object and towards the perceptual experience. In this sense, it is possible to reflect upon the experience. To repeat the question, how is the perceptual experience given prior to reflection; how is it pre-reflectively present? (21) In 1906/07 Husserl answers the question by distinguishing between consciousness in the sense of experiential being and consciousness in the sense of intentionality. Whereas the latter involves directedness towards an object, i.e., object-consciousness, the former does not. As Husserl explicitly writes: “‘[E]rleben’ bedeutet dann nicht ein Gegenständlich-Haben und auf das Gegenständliche in dieser oder jener Weise ‘Beziehung haben’.” (22) And as he then continues a few pages later:

Nicht verwechseln darf man das Bewußtsein vom gegenständlichen Hintergrund und das Bewußtsein im Sinn des Erlebtseins. Erlebnisse als solche haben ihr Sein, aber sie sind nicht Gegenstände von Apperzeptionen (wir kämen ja sonst auf einen unendlichen Regreß). Der Hintergrund aber ist uns gegenständlich, er ist es durch den Komplex von apperzeptiven Erlebnissen, die ihn gleichsam konstituieren. Diese Gegenstände sind unbeachtet [...] aber etwas ganz anderes für uns als die bloßen Erlebnisse, z.B. die sie objektivierenden Apperzeptionen und Akterlebnisse selbst. […] Das attentionale Bewußtsein des Hintergrund und das Bewußtsein als bloßes Erlebtsein ist ganz zu scheiden. (23)

   Husserl’s position is, consequently, relatively unequivocal. An intentional experience is conscious of something different from itself, namely the object intended. At the same time, the experience also manifests itself. Thus, apart from being intentional, the experience is also characterized by what Husserl occasionally calls its “Urbewußtsein.” (24) This notion of Urbewußtsein, which Husserl already used in the 1906/07 lecture course, is not meant to denote a particular intentional experience. Rather, the term designates the pervasive dimension of pre-reflective and non-objectifying self-consciousness that is part and parcel of any occurring experience. (25
   Much more could be said, but I think it should at least be clear that I find the Heideggerian criticism of Husserl unsatisfactory. Marion is of course right in saying that Husserl frequently comes to us through Heidegger. But is there any reason to assign Heidegger’s Husserl interpretation a privileged status? Is there any reason to consider Heidegger’s account of the limitations of Husserl’s phenomenology a particularly reliable source? I don’t think so. Not only because of its own limited textual basis – Heidegger is by and large only referring to Logische Untersuchungen and Ideen I, but certainly also because Heidegger had his own agenda, his own reasons for wanting to emphasize his own originality vis-à-vis his old teacher.
   Coming back to the issue of the methodology, why did Husserl insist that we have to perform the reduction if we want to do phenomenology? The ultimate aim of the reductive procedure is not to enable us to describe objects or experiences as precisely and meticulously as possible, nor does it aim at an exhaustive investigation of the phenomena in all their factual diversity. No, its true task is to investigate the phenomena qua phenomena, that is, it is concerned with understanding the dimension of phenomenality and to explore its innermost structure and very condition of possibility. This task is a transcendental philosophical task. It is a move from a straightforward metaphysical or empirical investigation of objects to an investigation of the very framework of meaning and intelligibility that makes any such straightforward investigation possible in the first place. Contrary to widespread misunderstandings this methodological step is per se neither committed to Cartesian internalism, to a naïve metaphysics of presence, nor to the privileging of an active and controlling I. In my view, Husserl’s notion of reduction is the original breakthrough. It is the reflective move that once and for all opened the field of phenomenological research. It is an opening that is presupposed in every proposed radicalization by subsequent phenomenologists.


(1) Ricoeur, P., A l’école de la phénoménologie (Paris: Vrin, 1987), p. 9.
(2) Crowell, S.G., "Is There a Phenomenological Research Program?" in Synthese 131/3 (2002): 419-444, p. 442.
(3) Marion, J.-L., Réduction et donation: recherches sur Husserl, Heidegger et la phenomenologie(Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2002 [1989]),  p. 62.
(4) Cf. ibid., p. 78.
(5) Cf. ibid., p. 124.
(6) Cf. ibid., p. 81.
(7) Cf. ibid., p. 89.
(8) Cf. ibid., pp. 90, 93, 97.
(9) Cf. ibid., p. 99.
(10) Cf. ibid., p. 159.
(11) Cf. ibid., pp. 213-214.
(12) Cf. ibid., p. 217.
(13) Cf. ibid., p. 230.
(14) Cf. ibid., pp. 77, 187-188.
(15) Ibid., p 304.
(16) Husserl, E., Logische Untersuchungen II [Husserliana XIX/1-2] (Den Haag: Martinus Nijhoff, 1984), pp. 395, 399.
(17) Ibid., p.424.
(18) Ibid., p. 669.
(19) Husserl, E., Die “Bernauer Manuskripte” über das Zeitbewußtsein 1917/18 [Husserliana XXXIII] (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001), p. 287.
(20) Husserl, E., Einleitung in die Logik und Erkenntnistheorie [Husserliana XXIV] (Den  Haag: Martinus Nijhoff, 1984), p. 242.
(21) Ibid., p. 244.
(22) Ibid., p. 247.
(23) Ibid., p. 252.
(24) Husserl, E.,Zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins (1893-1917) [Husserliana X] (Den Haag: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966), pp. 118-120.
(25) Hua 24, op. cit., pp. 245-247.