Continental Philosophy

Edmund Husserl

What are some key facts about Edmund Husserl’s life and career?

Husserl was born in Prossnitz, Moravia, which became part of Czechoslovakia after World War I and is now in the Czech Republic. His family was Jewish. Husserl studied mathematics in Leipzig and Berlin, and then got his Ph.D. in Vienna in 1883, writing Contributions to the Calculus of Variations that year. For the next two years, he studied psychology and philosophy with Franz Brentano (1837–1917) and then went to the University of Halle for his habilitation (preparation for university teaching) under a student of Brentano. He wrote On the Concept of Number, which he revised four years later, in 1891, as Philosophy of Arithmetic.

In 1886 Husserl converted to Christianity, taking the name “Edmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl.” The next year, he married Malvine Steinschneider, who was to prove a valuable source of information about his work and intentions to academic colleagues. They had a daughter and two sons. In 1901, the Husserls moved to the University of Göttingen. He was promoted to “ordenlichen” professor in 1906, and the next year he traveled to Italy to see Brentano.

Husserl was at this time in correspondence with Wilhelm Dilthey and leading mathematicians, as well as philosophers, about their work and his. German psychologist and philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) visited him in 1913, the same year Ideen was published. While visiting his son Wolfgang, who was injured in World War I, Husserl experienced nicotine poisoning.

In 1916 Husserl was appointed to a professorship in Freiburg. Wolfgang was killed in action that year. For the next two years, Edith Stein was his assistant, as was philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), for whom he obtained a lectureship and helped get an assistant professorship in 1919. The next year, his son Gerhard was wounded, although he recovered. Over the following decade, Husserl and Heidegger were in contact, exchanging ideas and manuscripts.

Because of his Jewish birth, in 1933 the German government barred Husserl from using the library at Freiburg University, or any other German academic institution, although after an immediate public outcry, he was reinstated a week later by a decree. Husserl resigned from the Deutsche Akademie several months after that. His leaving was not only a matter of what had happened at Freiburg but of the growing danger to all Jews in Germany at that time. He was then appointed to the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, but declined because his assistant, Eugen Fink, was not permitted to accompany him. Husserl was not allowed to participate in the Paris Congress of Philosophers in 1937. At his cremation the next year, Eugen Fink eulogized him. Fink had been Husserl’s dedicated and collaborative research assistant for 10 years. In his own work, Fink was to eventually turn from Husserl’s philosophical perspective to that of Heidegger.

Husserl had only published six books during his lifetime, but he had a huge collection of papers and manuscripts. Fearing that the Nazis would destroy them, the Belgian philosopher Herman Leo Van Breda (1911–1974) took them out of Germany, where they became part of the Husserl Archives in Louvain after World War II.


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