Tangled roots of original thoughts

April 7, 2006

In recent years in Anglo-American philosophy, Husserl has begun to be taken far more seriously as a systematic thinker in his own right.

Previously, he tended to be viewed through the eyes of those he taught and otherwise influenced - particularly Heidegger, but also Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Derrida. And, since their way of inheriting the phenomenological tradition took the form of radical critiques of its founder, Husserl himself tended to disappear beneath a range of distinctly unflattering portraits.

Now, however, analytically informed philosophers have begun to explore more systematically the real structure and development of Husserl's thinking in its own terms - no easy task, given the sheer volume of his writings and the continuously evolving, sometime highly self-critical nature of his philosophical project. And he is emerging as a far more sophisticated and self-aware thinker than his phenomenological successors tended to suggest, even with respect to the very issues on which they concentrated their critical fire.

Dermot Moran's new book is an outstanding example of this process of intellectual recovery. It offers an overarching introductory account of the basic themes and key developmental phases of Husserl's thought, giving a clear picture of its intellectual roots in Cartesian and (most importantly) Kantian philosophy, and emphasising its anticipations of insights that are often attributed to later phenomenologists, and held to constitute breaks with Husserlian assumptions. Moran's chapter on Husserl's sensitivity to the intersubjective dimensions of human existence, and his persistent struggles to reconcile this with his conception of the transcendental ego as absolute source of the world, is exemplary in this respect. Equally valuable is a substantial early chapter on Husserl's treatment of mathematics and logic, where he engages productively with Frege and sets the agenda for much of his later work. Moran also stresses the admirable depth of Husserl's commitment to philosophy, understood as the discipline in which the human commitment to a life of reason finds its fullest expression, in the face of the seductiveness of superstition and scientism.

This book would be a very useful guide for advanced undergraduates and graduates who are trying to find their feet with this protean figure and are understandably bewildered by his often opaque and jargon-ridden texts. It is by no means an easy read, but it is accurate, rigorous and critical where criticism is due. And it makes a good case for seeing Husserl's thought as having real contemporary relevance.

Stephen Mulhall is fellow and tutor in philosophy, New College, Oxford.

Husserl: Founder of Phenomenology

Author - Dermot Moran
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 283
Price - £55.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 0 7456 2121 X and 2122 8

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