Phenomenological influences

By Ian Rory Owen PhD

Husserl’s phenomenology has been an inspiration a number of movements. They share a return to the lived experiences on which empirical psychology, the theory and practice of psychotherapy, psychiatry, social psychology and the human sciences, as well as philosophy, are built. However, in addition to the usual problems of interpreting what authors have meant, in the area of Husserl studies there are a number of additional problems. Some commentators cover over the disunity in the field, to try and create a sense of unity. But there are different schools of Husserl interpretation and disputes about the meaning of the word “phenomenology”. The usual problems of academic study are worsened by multiple translations. This is because writing that was never intended for publication. Of course, there were changes of insight and focus during this time. But there is constancy of themes and positions that are evident on close reading of the original texts. Let us gain some perspective about the context that has been influenced by Edmund Husserl.

The core group of Husserl and his peers were first influenced by the history of philosophy and reacted to empiricism, Kant and Neo-Kantianism. They worked to moderate the zealous idea that empirical sciences can answer all basic questions. The problem that Husserl worked to overcome was to help the users of ideas understand the ideal nature of ideas themselves. Husserl’s guiding thought was the role of pure mathematics in relation to applied mathematics in the real world.

Contemporarily, some key thinkers in phenomenology are Eduard Marbach (1993, 2005), Iso Kern (1997), Elisabeth Stroker (1980, 1993), Rudolf Bernet (Bernet, Kern & Marbach, 1993) and Dan Zahavi (2003). These persons have grasped the full extent of what Husserl intended by their intimate knowledge of his unpublished works. The problem of how to get an overview of the whole can be rectified by attending to good overviews such as those provided by Embree (et al, 1997) and Zahavi (2003), before passing on to more scholarly overviews of the whole (Bernet, Kern & Marbach, 1993). There is also the connection to ontology and hermeneutics through Husserl’s pupil Martin Heidegger. Maurice Merleau-Ponty is worth mentioning as someone who stayed close to the spirit of what Husserl was trying to achieve, in bringing his ideas to the attention of a wider audience (1962). Aron Gurwitsch (1964) is another who was influential and Dorion Cairns (1972) was a major translator of Husserl’s works into English, although he himself differed in his conclusions about what is achievable for phenomenology.

One of the major contemporary uses of Husserlian ideas is the use of the idea of intersubjectivity in child and adult development by Daniel Stern (1977, 1985), Colwyn Trevarthen (1979), Josef Perner (1991, Beran et al, 2012) and Stein Braten (2006). Intersubjectivity is used to describe the inter-responsive nature of human beings in contact with each other and with publicly accessible meanings of all kinds. What it originally meant was a way of concluding on how meaning is public and accessible for any number of individual, private selves. Although not identical to the problem of other minds, Husserl’s approach is similar. Husserl worked to identify the necessary conditions that enable there to be selves and others who together create a common world of meaning. Each self has a sense of others’ views that is gained through social learning of what that self does not have first-hand: The view of the other is another view, entirely different in physical space and not one’s own.

There have been a number of applications of phenomenological ideas in psychotherapy. The greatest influence has been via Heidegger to critique and develop Sigmund Freud’s psycho-analysis (Boss, 1982). This produced the movement called existential psychotherapy (May, 1995, Laing, 1960) and that in turn influenced humanistic therapy. In psychiatry there has been the development of the study of mental health problems known as psychopathology by Karl Jaspers (1963). There the term “phenomenology” has become synonymous with the lived experience of mental health.

The loose grouping called “continental philosophy” took from Husserl, Heidegger, hermeneutics and scepticism to produce existential phenomenology (Sartre, 1958), deconstructionism (Derrida, 1982) and the allied groupings of post-structuralism and post-modernism.

There has been some connection in analytic and post-Wittgenstein philosophy that spots some similarities between Wittgenstein and Husserl (Reeder, 1984).

There is some crossover between phenomenology and cognitive science with Marbach leading in explaining how phenomenology can help (1994, 2007).

Finally, there is phenomenology as an empirical qualitative psychology in America (van Zuuren, Wertz & Mook, 1987, Giorgi, 1970) with further developments in areas such as nursing (Embree et al, 1997).

What these developments share is a keen attention to conscious phenomena as a starting point with the aim of being true to the inherent differences that appear in them and between them. Where the developments differ are in the ways in which they have taken inspiration from Husserl’s writings.


Beran, M.J., Brandl, J.L., Perner, J. & Proust, J. (eds.) (2012) Foundations of metacognition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bernet, R., Kern, I. & Marbach, E. (1993) An introduction to Husserlian phenomenology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Boss, M. (1982) Psychoanalysis and daseinsanalysis. (Trans L.B. Lefebre). New York: Da Capo.

Braten, S. (2006) Intersubjective communication and emotion in early ontogeny (2nd ed). Cambridge: CUP.

Cairns, D. (1972) The many senses and denotations of the word Bewusstesein (“consciousness”) in Edmund Husserl’s writings. In L. Embree (Ed) Lifeworld and consciousness: Essays for Aron Gurwitsch. (pp. 19-31). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Derrida, J. (2003) The problem of genesis in Husserl’s philosophy. (Trans M. Hobson). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Embree, L., Behnke, E.A., Carr, D., Evans, C., Huertas-Jourdas, J., Kocklemans, J.J., McKenna, W.R., Mohanty, J.N., Seebohm, T.M. & Zaner, R.M. (Eds) (1997) Encyclopedia of phenomenology. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Giorgi, A. (1970) Psychology as a human science: A phenomenologically based approach. New York: Harper & Row.

Gurwitsch, A. (1964) The field of consciousness. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Jaspers, K. (1963) General psychopathology. (Trans J. Hoenig & M.W. Hamilton). Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Kern, I. (1997) Intersubjectivity. In L. Embree, EA. Behnke, D. Carr, C. Evans, J. Huertas-Jourdas, J.J. Kocklemans, W.R. McKenna, J.N. Mohanty, T.M. Seebohm & R.M. Zaner (Eds) Encyclopedia of phenomenology. (pp. 355-359). (Trans W.R. McKenna). Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Laing, R.D. (1960) The divided self. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Marbach, E. (1993) Mental representation and consciousness: Towards a phenomenological theory of representation and reference. Norwell: Kluwer Academic.

___________ (1994) Troubles with heterophenomenology. In R. Casati, B. Smith & G. White (Eds) Philosophy and the cognitive sciences: Proceedings of the 16th International Wittgenstein symposium, August 1993. (pp. 247-264). Vienna: H-P-T.

___________ (2005) On bringing consciousness into the house of science - with the help of Husserlian phenomenology. Angelaki: Journal of Theoretical Humanities, 10, 145-162.

___________ (2007) No heterophenomenology without autophenomenology: Variations on a theme of mine. Phenomenology and Cognitive Science, 6, 75-87.

May, R. (1995) The discovery of being: Writings in existential psychology. New York: Norton.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) Phenomenology of perception. (Trans C. Smith). London: Routledge.

Perner, J. (1991) Understanding the representational mind. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Reeder, H.P. (1984) Language and experience: Descriptions of living language in Husserl and Wittgenstein. Langham: CARP/University Press of America.

Sartre, J.-P. (1958) Being and nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology. (H. Barnes Trans).

Stern, D.N. (1977) The first relationship: Infant and mother. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

__________ (1985) The interpersonal world of the infant. New York: Basic Books.

Stroker, E. (1980) Psychology: A new way into transcendental phenomenology: Some thoughts on Husserl’s last part of the Crisis. Southwestern Journal of Philosophy, 11, 67-87.

__________ (1993) Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. (Trans L. Hardy). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Trevarthen, C. (1979) Communication and cooperation in early infancy: A description of primary intersubjectivity. In M. Bullowa (Ed) Before speech. (pp. 321-348). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

van Zuuren, F.J., Wertz, F.J. & Mook, B. (Eds)(1987) Advances in qualitative psychology: Themes and variations. Lisse: Berwyn.

Zahavi, D. (2003) Husserl’s phenomenology. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

© Copyright Dr Ian Owen 2015