Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Infuriated by Husserl and Heidegger


In order to take my philosophical adventure further into the unknown, I decided today to read the chapter from the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy on Husserl and Heidegger. I’m determined to overcome my irrational aversion to continental philosophy and I’d hoped this reading might help. I figured better this chapter than the following one on Satre, Foucault and Derrida as, whilst I quite like Foucault, and have enjoyed Satre’s plays, reading Derrida has convinced me that he’s nothing more than an fraud – obfuscating his lack of anything meaningful to say by tossing profound sounding but utterly unclear gibberish at the page and affecting an air of smug mystery. That chapter will have to be saved for when I am drunk or something.

I knew nothing about Heidegger and Husserl until I’d read this chapter, and I knew next to nothing of the movement known as phenomenology that Husserl founded either. Now, I’ve learned that Husserl built his theory of intentionality (directed conciousness) on the distinction between the objective contents of logic – logical facts are exact and knowable a priori – and the subjective content of experience, which is inexact and discovered by induction.

So far so good, but after that I was somewhat overwhelmed by new vocabulary. Things became a little clearer upon repeated re-readings and careful reflection, but in the end I was left wondering ‘so what’ to much of the theory. I’m not sure what agreeing with Husserl that intentionality is ‘a mental directness that obtains and has content whether or not the objects of our attitudes themselves exist’ leads to. Unfortunately, the discussion then moved on to Husserl’s theory of sense perception and everything became clear as mud once more. Sentences such as the following did not help:

“While still repudiating what he calls ‘corrupt forms of ego-metaphysic’, Husserl now considers it phenomenologically evident that pure consciousness exhibits a structure of ownership, centred around a pure, transcendental ‘I’, which is ‘essentially necessary’ and remains ‘absolutely identical’ through the whole of one’s experience (Husserl 1983: 132), but which ‘is not a piece of the world’ (Husserl 1960: 25).”

Say again? On the plus side, I did up taking a detour to read about propositional attitudes, which was interesting and fruitful.

Six pages in and I was losing the will to live. The author asked ‘Does Husserl adequately describe our intentional relation to others?’ and I found myself wondering if he adequately describes anything. Does the adequacy of a description require that it be intelligible? If so, the I’m afraid Husserl failed me.

Onwards to Heidegger then. Sadly, learning about Heiddegger’s association with Nazism did not immediately endear him to me. And Heidegger turned out to be just as wedded to inventing an infuriating new vocabulary to express himself as Husserl. But I persevered, grinding my teeth at sentences like the following nevertheless:

“Like the founding of a state, the presence of God, and genuine philosophical thinking, Heidegger says, works of art let truth ‘happen’ in their own way by disclosing the grounds and limits of intelligibility in an historical world.”

I wish I hadn’t persevered to be honest.

The chapter finished with some suggestions for further reading – I think I’ll pass. Mission failure I’m afraid.


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

3 thoughts on “Infuriated by Husserl and Heidegger

  1. I’m sorry to hear about your difficult experiences with continental philosophy, it often doesn’t seem concerned with making sense. It takes a lot of painful reading, and there’s plenty that isn’t worth it, but also lots that is. You might enjoy Heidegger’s later work, short essays that you can more easily read a few times and get to grips with, and they all connect in some way. Good luck with any future attempts anyway!

  2. Try reading Schopenhauer.

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