Roots of German Philosophy, Part Nine: Edmund Husserl (1859-1938)
November 12, 2008
Edmund “Gus” Husserl is the father of phenomenology. Phenomenology is the study of phenomena. Phenomena are things you can perceive with your senses. Some examples: squirrels, sandwiches, volcanoes, breasts, fog, smells, locomotives, people getting stabbed, people screaming, people throwing up, junkies shooting up, car accidents, grass, lawn mowers, geese, television, laundry, buzzing noises, ticking noises, weird voices telling you to kill people when you’re off your meds, cobwebs, ice cubes, hockey fights, everything in stock rooms, and everything that happens in the school cafeteria. These are not to be confused with the reality of these things in themselves, because that would get us into ontology, and we’re not doing ontology today. Now, before Husserl came along (on a Thursday), people just saw phenomena and kept walking because they had other things to do. (Or if they were Canadians, they stopped and stared dumbly for a long time because their lives were so unspeakably dull, and especially if it was an illegally parked car getting towed away, they’d be so fascinated they couldn’t move, and later on they’d be talking about it endlessly to their friends and co-workers.) But Husserl said no, you have to study this stuff. Why? I don’t know why. It’s just philosophy, that’s all. And what is it specifically that you’re supposed to study? And how are you supposed to study it? And then what do you do after that? Beats me. But Husserl is the second- or third-trendiest dead German philosopher (the trendiest comes in Part Ten), so I have to gather my scattered wits and deal with him somehow. He started out as a mathematician and then got into philosophy, and that’s where he lost me. But people are absolutely in awe of mathematicians, that’s for sure. I mean, most people who majored in philosophy can’t even do their own tax returns. Show them a philosopher who got a Ph.D. with a thesis titled Contributions to the Calculus of Variations and he’s automatically up there with God. Also, it helps to have a name that you can make a zippy adjective with. Husserlian. There’s an adjective you can really bash somebody in the head with. The best one of all is Hegelian, and I think that’s why Hegel has such an appeal to intellectuals. But Husserlian is pretty close. In fact, there’s a Husserlian Society right here in Toronto. It consists of a bunch of Somali cab drivers, and they congregate every day at the Baker’s Dozen donut shop at Sherbourne and Wellesley, where the Beaver gas station is. That’s only two blocks from where I live, so I figured I’d go down there and have them explain Husserl to me.
There are six of them huddled around two tables when I walk in, and they’re jabbering in Somali, which sounds like hagda haggalaga kalagga bagga, which I think qualifies as a phenomenon, if not a real thing in itself. But if they can understand it, I guess they can fathom Husserl as well as anyone.
Mohammed invites me to pull up a chair. “Look all these donuts!” he says, gesturing toward the trays behind the counter. “These all phenomena! You can eat them!” The others grunt in agreement. “You are intentionally directed toward the donut, so you eat it!”
“Before it eats you,” I quip. No reaction.
“The reality of the donut is, how you say….” (looking toward Hamid, seated next to him)”…hogda hochta.”
“Bracketed,” says Hamid.
“Yes, bracketed,” says Mohammed. “It is bracketed as a way we regard the donut, not as an inherent quality of the donut itself.”
“Explain him about the logic,” says Yasmina from behind the counter.
“Yes, yes,” says Mohammed. He picks up his tea biscuit. “What is the logical knowledge of this? You must have categorical intuition, along with categorical abstraction and eidetic intuition. You understand?”
“No,” I confess. Much chuckling. Hogda makla bakla gaga!
“Wait, I show you better,” says Mohammed, picking up Hamid’s Boston cream donut. “Logic has three strata.” He points to the chocolate frosting. “First is morphology of meanings, which is the logical syntax, or, how you say…bagada wegdi orga.”
“Formation rules,” says Hamid.
“Yes, formation rules. Then, second,” he goes on, pointing to the cake part of the donut, “you have logic of consequence. This includes the syllogistic logic and propositional logic. Okay?” I shrug. He continues: “The third stratum is the cream filling, which is the meta-logical stratum. Here is where we explore all possible forms of theories.” He gestures with a wide sweep of his arms toward the trays of donuts. “All the donuts are theories. You see? They are all theories to be investigated in their logical relations.”
Just then another cabbie walks in. “Salaam!”
“Salaam, Ismail!” the others respond, happy to see him.
Ismail says to Yasmina, “Black tea, please, Yasmina. One sugar. And a toasted bagel.”
Mohammed says to him, “Help me explain to this man about Husserl.”
“Husserl! Husserl! My hero!” says Ismail, raising his hands toward heaven. When his jacket opens, I see a huge knife tucked into his belt. “Husserl climb the Matterhorn all by himself! You know that?” he says to me.
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“You know Matterhorn?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Husserl climb it, all alone! Sixteen years old! What you think of that?”
“That’s good,” I say.
“He go to top of Matterhorn, and God put the wisdom in his head! When he come back down, he give the world the first idea of the donut shop!”
“The donut shop?”
“Yes! Like thees one! Every donut shop is Husserl idea!…Boogda magalaga,” he says to Yasmina, whereupon she disappears in the back and comes out seconds later with a beautiful framed portrait, which she holds up for the admiration of all. “Husserl!” proclaims Ismail. “You find thees picture in the back of every donut shop in the world! You know that?”
“I had no idea.”
The cabbies chuckle at my ignorance. Ismail gets his tea and bagel.
“Why do you have that knife?” I ask nervously.
“Thees?” He opens his jacket, showing off the knife. “Because I am Husserlian! We are all Husserlians! It is part of our belief system!” The other cabbies open their jackets. They all have similar knives.
“Are those legal?” I ask. The cabbies laugh.
“Is legal!” says Ismail. “Because we are Husserlians! Husserl is the only true philosopher! We will defend his name, and we will defend his ideas!” He pulls out the knife and holds it high. “Moogda hakalaka hajemadi!”
“Moogda hakalaka hajemadi!” the others chime in.
And then an idea hits me. “I know a librarian who is against Husserl. She is stopping people from reading his books.”
“Who is it? Tell me!” demands Ismail.
“I’ll write down her name for you,” I say, reaching for my pad and pen. “Her name is…Phyllis…Jacklin…She’s the manager of the Metro Reference Library. You know, the big one?”
“Yes! I know it!”
I hand Ismail the paper. He looks at it, then folds it several times and does a very slick sleight of hand, holding up his empty palm. The paper has disappeared! “Thees how we take care of her!” he says.
“Wow!” I say appreciatively. “Say, are there any Husserlians in Vancouver?” Yes, yes, the cabbies say. We have friends there. “That’s good,” I say, “because there’s a literary magazine in Vancouver that is very anti-Husserl. They hate Husserl. They write bad things about him.”
“You write down,” says Ismail.
I write another note. “It’s called…Geist…Magazine…” I hand him the paper. He nods, lips compressed in a sinister smile, and puts it in his shirt pocket. He winks at me. “No problem….And thank you.”
I get up to leave. “This has been very interesting. I may not understand everything yet, but I’m on your side!”
“Good! Good! You come back and we talk again!” they say.
So that’s all I can tell you about Husserl. Now, if you ever hear anyone refer to Husserl or describe something as “Husserlian,” just nod knowingly to be polite. And if you ever get into a cab driven by a Somali, for God’s sake, don’t say anything to piss him off!
1. The New Revised Infinite Wisdom, by Shane Churla, 2004, Goonluca Mini-Books.
2. Phenomenology Workbook, by Mike Peluso and Gino Odjick, 2003, Barugon’s Educational Series.
3. Ten Seconds to Death, by Tonya Harding, 1999, Tularemia House.
Copyright@ 2008 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada. E-mail: email@example.com