Phenomenology is the analysis and explication of the structures of conscious experience making it a core element in all existentialist philosophies. For Husserl philosophy had to proceed, like all science, from real problems and issues and not merely from the works of other philosophers.
Husserl was born April 8, 1859, into a Jewish family in
Prossnitz, Moravia, then a part of the Austrian Empire and now in the
Czech Republic. When he was 10 years old his father, a clothing
merchant, sent him to Vienna to begin his German classical education at
the Realgymnasium. Shortly afterwards he moved back closer to home
transferring to the public gymnasium in Olmütz. Although he did not
excel in school, he developed a passion for science and mathematics.
After graduating from the gymnasium in 1876 Husserl went on to study physics, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy at the universities of Leipzig, Berlin and Vienna. He received his doctorate in 1882 with a dissertation on the theory of the calculus of variations, and after a briefly held academic post in Berlin, he returned to Vienna in 1884 to study with the German philosopher and psychologist Franz Brentano.
Brentano's influence on Husserl was important in that he developed the concept of intentionality, which is central to phenomenology. According to Brentano, all conscious states refer to a subject, even though that subject may, or may not exist. It could be abstract or specific. Intentionality refers to the directedness of consciousness - consciousness is always conscious of something. According to Brentano:
Husserl, following Brentano, then suggested that the
intentionality of the mind entails that 'one cannot separate the
conscious state (love, fear, hate, etc.) from the object of that state.
They can only exist together as two aspects of the same phenomenon.
Thus, according to Husserl, consciousness is just 'directedness towards
an object.' The mental state and the object of that state exist
together in consciousness without implying that there is any material'
object to reference. For Husserl, understanding all the various ways in
which this 'directedness' or intentionality manifests itself
is what is crucial to philosophy. Like Descartes,
Husserl then faced the problem of ascertaining the existence of an
external world separate from one that is perceived to exist.
To get around this point (an objective world) Husserl states that when we observe an object we can at least be sure that it exists as an intentional object. That it is an object of one's awareness is a given. We can 'bracket' the philosophical questions as to whether it really exists by focusing attention solely on the intentional object. Likewise, we can study what he calls the 'content' of conscious awareness without having to make any philosophical assumptions about whether the object really exists. We may be mistaken about the actual existence of the object, but we cannot mistake that fact that we take it to be there.
This natural world remains present even if one's attention is
focused somewhere else. This type of structure, according to Husserl,
is the same for everyone. Its content varies for each person in that
'each has his place whence he sees the things that are present, and
each enjoys accordingly different appearances of things'. This
characterization that Husserl has given is, according to him, a piece
of pure description prior to all theories. His position appears to be
constitutes the objects to which it is directed, while at the same time the external world has a reality of its own.
Unfortunately, Husserl was not able to complete the task which he set for himself - the aim of establishing a firm foundation for all human knowledge. He did however set the stage for the works of Heidegger, his student and intellectual heir, and was a huge influence in the work of such thinkers as Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. In his work Being and Nothingness, Sartre stated that 'all consciousness, as Husserl has shown, is consciousness of something.' Sartre used this point as the foundation for building his existential theory of human freedom.