Husserl’s Issues with Modern Philosophy
Edmund Husserl

Husserl believed that the way philosophy had been viewed in his recent past had completely missed the mark. He believed that the way older philosophies had embraced the sciences as the main method of gaining truth had completely distorted people’s views about reality and the human person (Husserl, 60-61). He believed that this vein of wrong philosophy stretched all the way back to Galileo but really got its grounding under Descartes (Husserl, 60, 62). Descartes truly introduced the aspect of looking at humans as separate from their minds. This is a dualistic approach which Husserl critiques quite thoroughly. Husserl also critiques those who followed along basing their philosophies on taking Descartes view of reality and human existence for granted. Husserl wants to express his issues with these philosophers’ views and also expound how important he believed it was for every thinker to truly understand their view point and where it was coming from, so as not to take any ideas or thought processes for granted.

Descartes’ Universal Doubt and Dualism
Rene Descartes
Descartes introduces the concept of dualism which Husserl takes issues with. Descartes’ dualism separates the mind from the body; separating the ego from the world as it really is. The ego is the mind, the thing that does the thinking and in Descartes view it is separated from all of the body, including thoughts. Descartes arises at this conclusion by undertaking radical skepticism. He begins by trying to employ universal doubt; that is he attempts to doubt everything that cannot be known without absolute certainty. In doing this Descartes is employing the skeptical epoche which is the process of separating oneself from all prejudices in order to look at reality more clearly and surely: “puts out of play, with one blow, all knowledge of the world including those of the straightforward experience” (Husserl, 77).

What Descartes discovers by doubting everything this that there is one thing that he can know with absolute certainty and that is the ego. The ego cannot be denied as something not known because it is the thing that is doing the doubting. This is pushing doubt as far as it goes, leaving the absolutely self-evident existence of the ego: “The ego is excluded, as the thing carrying out the epoche, is not included in the realm of objects, in principle if one actually carries out the epoche in this truly and radical, skeptical fashion” (Husserl, 79). The only way to achieve apodictic knowledge is through empirical science.

However, Husserl believes that Descartes’ skeptical epoche completely misses the mark. Descartes’ universal doubt merely cancels itself out. He believes that the dualistic conclusion that Descartes arrives at is completely incorrect. He believes that Descartes came to his opinion that empirical science is the only way to achieve self-evident knowledge without properly and thoroughly employing the epoche. He believed that Descartes used this as a means to an ends. Descartes had a specific outcome in mind; his whole point in undergoing the thought experiment in hyperbolic doubt was to enforce the use of empirical science as the only way to achieve truth (Husserl, 79). Husserl believes that this in itself is an unjust way to carry out an experiment; to already desire a particular outcome in the manner of Descartes, makes his universal doubt experiment absurd and ridiculous. Husserl believes that this is one of the problems with Descartes, but his biggest issue with him arises from the fact that there is that dualism; the separation of the mind from the body. Husserl believed that was absurd and could not be done; reality should be related to the whole man, not just one part (Husserl, 79).

The Next Chapter: Empiricists
David Hume
David Hume and John Locke were two of the empiricists that Husserl tended to focus his critique upon. Empiricists believe that knowledge exclusively comes from experience. Hume believed that all ideas come from impressions received through the senses. This means that all ideas and experiences are relatively the same thing. Hume denied the use of reason, or rationalism, as a means to arrive at truths and facts because he believes that facts are things that are experience. Things that have not been experienced then, things such as the soul and God, have no reason to be taken as truths or facts. To Hume there is no ultimate truth (Husserl, 86-87).

Hume views mathematics very highly because he sees this field as the only way to acquire facts. He believes that it is the only realm which allows for the determination of absolute certainty (Husserl, 89). Hume has a very hostile view towards ideas that cannot be proven with certainty or are abstract; this means that metaphysical issues and claims should be held up to the same process of investigation as the physical sciences. He believes that there is no need for metaphysics because the world is just how it is; human nature is in the mind, and there is not point in examining the idea any further (Husserl, 86). He believed that the lack of reasoning for the way things are is just something that should be accepted.
Locke has, on the basic level, a similar view as Hume, since they are both empiricists. Locke believes
John Locke
that the human mind is a blank slate, a tabula rasa, and that sensations and experiences are what shape the mind. Every idea comes to one through either experience or sensation. He uses the idea of a soul, rather than the ego like Descartes, but, like Descartes he too believes that the soul is a separate entity from the body (Husserl, 84).

Kant: The Attempt and Failure of Fixing Empiricism's Wrongs
Immanuel Kant
Kant then came along and attempted to correct the issues and wrongs that he finds in the Dualistic tradition that started with Descartes. Kant began by denying metaphysics. He believed that the human mind sorts out sense-data and that the reason for this is that the mind is just wired that way; there is no other type of explanation, it is just the way it is. The way that the brain is wired allows for the sense-data to make sense to the mind and to the human being who experienced the data (Husserl, 93). Kant then has to sort out the area of separate minds and how does everyone perceive the same sense-data in fairly similar ways. Kant believed that all human’s brains are wired in the same way and therefore all humans perceive the world in the same way. The world makes sense to human being only because the mind allows for it and that is because they are just wired that way.

This way of looking at humans and their relation to the world does not truly satisfy Husserl; it is not a true refutation of dualism. Kant’s attempt to “fix” the problems with dualism comes at a fairly high cost: the removal of humans from the world and reducing everything to the chance wiring of the mind. In this view humans never truly to get to know the real world, all that one can truly know is what the mind has been wired to know. This allows only for the ordering of sense-data in a particular manner and not for a true interaction with the real world in itself: the mind is not the only thing that exists (Husserl, 94).

Husserl: The Importance of History
Husserl believed that most of the mistakes of thinkers after the Dualistic view of Descartes was taken to be truth was that they did not look at themselves as a product of their history. Husserl believes that it is the job and a necessity of a philosopher to realize and examine this (Husserl, 70-71). To understand what one is truly seeking one has to understand one’s self as part of the philosophical history. Husserl emphasized the unity within the philosophies throughout history and how understanding the common thread throughout philosophy’s history is a vital step to take (Husserl, 70). He believed that thinkers such as the empiricists merely took for granted the philosophical understandings of thinkers before them: namely they took for granted to dualistic approach to human existence (Husserl, 72). Husserl stresses that it is important to realize where those ideas and supposed truths are coming from in order to make sure to take the most unbiased approach to philosophy.

Husserl himself perhaps gains from other thinkers’ mistakes because he does look at the flaws that he finds throughout history. He believed that if others had done the same thing perhaps they could have reached the place that he did. He believed that many thinkers, including Descartes, came fairly close to reaching a more appropriate understanding of human existence and reality, but tended to stay caught up in skepticism.


Hume, David. Treatise on Human Nature. (Penguin Books, London, 1969).

Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of European Science and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy (Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1970).

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1975).