Heidegger – From Husserl’s prodigious student to fierce critic


Regardless of whether or not we believe that Husserl really uttered the famous sentence “Phenomenology, that’s Heidegger and I – and no one else” (Crowell 2005: 49), it still remains a perfect expression Husserl’s attitude towards his prodigious student. The schism that put an end to this fruitful friendship also gave rise to two different notions regarding the very method of philosophy, a conflict which echoes out even today. The relationship between Husserlian and Heideggerian phenomenology – as well as the relationship between the two authors themselves – can’t be reduced to a simple binary choice, but it consists rather in a complex “dynamic of attraction and repulsion” (ibid.), which has produced profoundly different interpretations that still persist today: while Zahavi for instance claims that Heidegger’s alleged revolutionary insights were already contained in (or, indeed, plagiarized from) Husserl’s later writings (Zahavi 2005), Dreyfus has continually highlighted the originality of Heidegger’s radically different understanding of the fundamental questions of philosophy (Dreyfus 1993).

This article will sketch out the relationship between Husserl and Heidegger by, firstly, describing their personal relationship, primarily in the 1920s (i.e. before Heidegger infamously joined the NSDAP) and, secondly, presenting an overview of Heidegger’s theoretical objections to Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology (mainly following the outline given in Crowell 2005), before finally moving on to the aforementioned contemporary interpretations.

The ill-fated personal relationship

Already as a theology student, Heidegger was concerned with the question of the meaning of Being, which he had first encountered in Brentano’s On the Several Senses of Being in Aristotle (Husserl 1997: 3). It was only a couple of years later, when he had accidentally learned of Brentano’s very promising student Husserl, that he started reading the Logical investigations. His first reading of this work, however, failed to make a deep impression: in spite of his fascination with the “to the things themselves” maxim, he couldn’t find a way to apply phenomenology to the question about Being (ibid.: 4).

Heidegger first met Husserl when he moved to Freiburg in 1916. In the first two years afterwards, the communication between the authors remained rather superficial, with Husserl even stating (in a letter to Paul Natorp) that Heidegger’s habilitation thesis was merely a “beginner’s attempt” [Erstlingsbuch] (ibid.: 6–8). It was, however, a worthy attempt, as Husserl managed to get it published by the Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft in Freiburg, which was only the first of many attempts he made to further Heidegger’s career. In 1918, when Heidegger was sent to the front, the relationship between the two philosophers was already taking on a much more fruitful form, and in one of his letters to his young student, Husserl wrote: “Hopefully, after the glorious victories in the West the war will not drag on too much longer, and afterwards you can return with even greater vigor to the difficult problems you raise, and I will gladly do my part to bring you in medias res and to familiarize you with those res in συμφιλοσοφεῖν” (ibid.: 11).

After the end of the war, some glaring theoretical and methodological differences between the two authors started to appear, as Heidegger strongly criticized the primacy of the theoretical attitude and the transcendental I in Husserl’s works already in his first lectures, Die Idee der Philosophie und das Weltanschauungsproblem. According to Heidegger, it is the historical or situational I [Situations-Ich] that is primary and that the theoretical attitude reduces by way of its de-historicization to the transcendental I, whereas the experience itself is reduced to a “mere directedness to mere objects” (GA 56/57: 205–7). Even more radically, Heidegger also criticized the very notion of givenness, which is itself already a “theoretical form” that conceals its own condition of possibility, namely Being (ibid.: 89; Crowell 2005: 51).[1]The word Being with the initial capital refers to Sein, whereas the lowercase form will be used to refer to (das) Seiende(s). Therefore, the subject as well as the object of the intentional relation are the result of an objectifying reflection and aren’t present (in such a form) in the experience itself, where we can’t find any kind of isolated I, but rather an immediate “life towards something” [ein Leben auf etwas zu] (GA 56/57: 68). If the starting point of phenomenology is immediate intuition – according to Husserl’s “principle of principles” – then this is not understood by Heidegger as a theoretical intuition [Anschauung], but rather a “hermeneutical intuition” [Intuition], which can never be attained by any conceptual system, but only by “a phenomenological life” (ibid.: 110–7).

While Heidegger’s disagreements with his mentor on a theoretical level had been present before 1920, it was in the 1920s that cracks in their relationship started to appear on a personal level as well. In 1923, Heidegger wrote to Karl Löwith that he was “convinced that Husserl was never a philosopher, not even for one second in his life. He becomes ever more ludicrous” (Husserl 1997: 17), and in the same year he wrote to Jaspers, stating that “Husserl has come entirely unglued – if, that is, he ever was ‘glued,’ which more and more I have begun to doubt of late (…). He lives off his mission as the ‘Founder of Phenomenology,’ but nobody knows what that means” (ibid.). Husserl, of course, knew nothing of those remarks and continued to support Heidegger, publishing his Being and Time in his Jahrbuch für Philosophie und phänomenologische Forschung, which greatly helped Heidegger to finally obtain a chair in philosophy in Freiburg. Even though Husserl couldn’t fail to notice certain breaks with his own method in the book, Heidegger (largely unsuccessfully) attempted to quell his doubts by referring to the future second volume of Being and Time, which was, of course, never written (ibid: 21–3).

The crucial breaking point came in 1927, when the two authors were invited to collaborate on the Encyclopedia Britannica article on phenomenology. Husserl first sent Heidegger a draft of the article and, upon receiving his comments, invited him to discuss and compile the final version. The eleven-day discussion, however, wasn’t as fruitful as he expected, as the differences between the two authors’ views proved to be unbridgeable (ibid.: 23f.). Finally, in 1929, when Heidegger took over Husserl’s chair at the University of Freiburg – the chair of the same Husserl who had always persevered in adhering to a strict ideal of science and separating phenomenology from metaphysics – he held an inaugural lecture titled “What is metaphysics?” (!), in which he sharply distinguished philosophy from science, grounding the latter in “the Nothing” (Crowell 2005: 53). From that point on, the communication between the two philosophers completely ceased, and when Husserl died in 1938, Heidegger didn’t attend his funeral.[2]Hugo Ott wrote an article about this in the Badische Zeitung, with the simple and poignant title “Der eine fehlte, der nicht hätte fehlen dürfen – Heidegger”(Husserl 1997: 32).

Theoretical differences

Crowell (2005) sums up the main theoretical disagreements between the two authors in two main points: (1) the question of whether philosophy is an inquiry into Being or a science of consciousness and (2) the methodological dispute over the concept of phenomenological reduction.

(1) Phenomenology – Being or consciousness?

In his copy of Heidegger’s Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, next to the sentence “We understand Being, and yet we lack the concept,” Husserl wrote “We lack it? When would we need it?” (Husserl 1997: 465). According to Husserl, making the question about the meaning of Being one’s starting point overlooks the very radicality of phenomenology, because ontology isn’t any less naive in this regard (namely regarding its own conditions of possibility) than objective science (Crowell 2005: 54). Phenomenology thus has to be the science of consciousness – not consciousness as the object of psychology, but rather transcendental consciousness, in which objectivity itself is constituted (ibid.; Husserl 2012: 133–43). As Crowell puts it: “Pure consciousness is not an entity in the world, but subject for the world; its philosophically salient characteristic is intentionality: all consciousness is consciousness of something as something, thanks to which all entities present themselves with a certain “content” or meaning (Sinn). Phenomenology is thus to be an analysis of how that content, presupposed in all scientific and pre-scientific dealings with entities, gets constituted through ‘acts’ of consciousness and their ‘syntheses.’ Since such acts condition the givenness of any possible beings, all ontological inquiry presupposes the science of transcendental consciousness” (Crowell 2005: 54).

Heidegger makes precisely the opposite argument: intentionality as ontic transcendence presupposes the entire structure of our being-in-the-world as nonintentional ontological transcendence, which is nothing other than what Heidegger terms the understanding of Being (Dreyfus 1993: 36; GA 2: 7ff.). Objects in general are thus only given to us because Dasein transcends beings as a whole towards their Being, or, in somewhat more modern terms: “intentional content cannot be understood as a function of consciousness alone but must be seen as deriving from the structure of being-in-the-world as a whole, that which enables our understanding of being” (Crowell 2005: 55). In light of this view, Husserl’s brand of phenomenology, which Heidegger terms formal phenomenology (GA 2: 154), isn’t made impossible, but it does remain naive insofar it cannot understand the very possibility of intentionality (Crowell 2005: 55).

Crowell sums up Heidegger’s theoretical break with Husserl as a reaction to the latter’s individualism, rationalism and internalism. Regarding individualism, the basic structure of consciousness in Husserl is the Cartesian ego-cogito-cogitatum scheme. The transcendental I thus ends up being a “monadic spontaneity,” and even though intersubjectivity plays a vital role in his understanding of intentionality, the intersubjectivity in question is still constituted egologically, i.e. by a preexisting transcendental I (ibid.: 56; cf. also Husserl 2012: 185–7). For Heidegger, the very idea of a pre-intersubjective I is impossible: if Dasein, as being-in-the-world, is always already being-with-others, then the task becomes to explain the constitution of individuality rather than intersubjectivity (ibid.). We are therefore dealing a radical primacy of the intersubjective, for “[t]he self of everyday Dasein is the they-self [das Man-selbst],[3]They is a translation of das Man, which is used in impersonal German sentences in the same way as the English impersonal “one” in “one does this and that,” “one speaks in such a manner” … Continue reading which is distinguished from the authentic self, which has grasped itself expressly. As they-self, the everyday Dasein is dispersed in the they and must first find itself” (GA 2: 172).

Heidegger’s understanding of intersubjectivity implies that the understanding of Being doesn’t come from oneself as an individual, but it is rather “an intelligibility that resides in the shared social practices prevalent in a particular culture at a particular historical moment” (Crowell 2005: 56). Since the understanding of being is based on practice rather than reason, and since this practice is culturally and historically conditioned, this view is completely opposed to Husserl’s understanding of science as universal philosophy (Husserl 2012: 121) or, in other words, his rationalism.

The question about Husserl’s alleged internalism and representationalism and Heidegger’s (supposed) externalism is highly contentious and can’t possibly be adequately covered in this article, which is why the matter will be presented only in a brief outline. Simply put, Heidegger takes Husserl’s noema to be representationalist,[4]On Husserl’s alleged representationalism see Dreyfus 1993. because it presupposes an understanding of consciousness as some sort of forum internum, although this interpretation is certainly problematic, since Husserl himself explicitly dismissed the view that intentionality can be understood only through the notion of mental representations (Crowell 2005: 57). In other words, Husserl’s noema is “no more in the head than it is in the world” (ibid.).

Another difference on the externalism-internalism spectrum, which is somewhat less contentious, concerns Heidegger’s notion of affectivity and mood (Befindlichkeit and Gestimmtheit, respectively). For Husserl, moods are merely a specific kind of intentional states, whereas Heidegger sees affectivity as a preintentional characteristic of being-in-the-world: the world as a whole is only given to us through moods (ibid.: 58; see also Freeman 2014). Insofar as this affectivity, understood as a passive “thrownness” into the world, doesn’t belong to the active subject, we can consider Heidegger as an externalist. Even in this regard, however, there remains the contentious issue of whether this brand of externalism is really essentially different from Husserl’s supposed internalism, because “nature,” into which the subject is thrown, isn’t the natualistic or objectivistic nature of the natural sciences, but rather an “entity within-the-world” (ibid.: 59). Thus, the “nature” of naturalistic accounts is “immanent to being-in-the-world in much the same way it is immanent to consciousness for Husserl” (ibid.).

(2) Phenomenological reduction

With phenomenological reduction,[5]Briefly put, the phenomenological reduction involves a bracketing of our habitual beliefs about a transcendent world, which is necessary in order to consider phenomena in their givenness and free of … Continue reading we are once more dealing with a topic on which Heidegger’s view seems completely unequivocal at first glance, but soon proves to be far more difficult to pin down. In Being and Time Heidegger dismissed Husserl’s reductions as useless “technical devices,” which contradict the ontological goals of phenomenology (ibid.). However, even though Heidegger doesn’t talk about the eidetic reduction as such, his talk of the essential structures of everyday Dasein seems to be completely in accord with Husserl’s notion of eidetic reduction, i.e. discovering the limits of variability of a given phenomenon in order to gain access to its essential structure. The phenomenological reduction or epoché (i.e. the bracketing of metaphysical judgments) seems even more at odds with Heidegger’s insistence on the primacy of the question of being, but Cromwell points out that the epoché is nothing other than a consistent antinaturalist attitude that is held equally by both phenomenologists.

Regarding transcendental reduction, Heidegger writes: “For Husserl, the (…) reduction (…) is the method of leading phenomenological vision from the natural attitude of the human being (…) back to the transcendental life of consciousness and its noetic-noematic experiences, in which objects are constituted as correlates of consciousness. For us, (…) reduction means leading phenomenological vision back from the apprehension of a being (…) to the understanding of the Being of this being (projecting upon the way it is unconcealed)” (GA 24: 29). Although this might seem to be a decisive break with Husserl’s methodology, it could well be – provided we keep in mind that the Being of beings is their condition of givenness – mainly a terminological disagreement.[6]There is a fascinating further point made by Crowell, which exceeds the scope of the present article and would merit much further discussion, which is why I have decided to only include it as briefly … Continue reading

Conclusion: continuity or a radical shift?

The opinions of contemporary scholars differ widely on the question about the extent to which Heidegger’s phenomenology is methodologically innovative with respect to Husserl. For example, Dan Zahavi – probably the most influential contemporary Husserl scholar – writes: ”Had he, in fact, described his own method in reflective terms, he would have had a harder time making the case that his hermeneutical phenomenology really was a new form of phenomenology, and Heidegger was always concerned to emphasize his own originality vis-à-vis his old mentor. In other words, it would not be the first time that Heidegger had employed a Husserlian methodology without acknowledging it” Zahavi 2005: 97). Although the chapter in question deals with the problem of reflection, which is particularly contentious and has been left out of the present discussion, there is no doubt that Zahavi would make a similar claim regarding the phenomenological reduction and intentionality, as this is closely related to the issue of reflection in Heidegger’s methodology.

Dreyfus (1993) has defended a radically different interpretation of Heidegger’s (and Husserl’s) account of intentionality. In his own words: “Heidegger does not want to make practical activity primary; he wants to show that neither practical activity nor contemplative knowing can be understood as a relation between a self-sufficient subject with its intentional content and an independent object” (Dreyfus 1993: 18), with the latter being his interpretation of Husserl’s view. Although it is certainly far from clear that Husserl would have agreed to this portrayal of his view of intentionality – and, likewise, it is highly problematic that Dreyfus takes Searle’s account of intentionality as a theory that Husserl would have defended – Heidegger’s account of the preintentional characteristics of experience does seem to present an original and innovative approach when compared to Husserl.

Here it is important to note that Zahavi talks mainly about reflection and the phenomenological method in general, whereas Dreyfus focuses on intentionality and being-in-the-world as the theoretical content at which Heidegger arrived with his allegedly original method. If we accept Crowell’s view on this matter – namely his conclusion regarding the originality of Heidegger’s view and, at the same time, the unoriginality of his methodology – then we are dealing with two phenomenologists that, applying essentially an almost identical method, arrived to significantly different conclusions regarding intentionality and perception, which gives us far more questions than answers. The question of whether Heidegger is Husserl’s legitimate successor or his opponent thus becomes a merely historical one, while the new task becomes a productive comparison of the two author’s views, which of course requires us to bring both of them into the same terminological arena. If such a feat seems very difficult – not least due to Heidegger’s incessant insistence on his own complete originality – it nevertheless remains necessary, and some crucial steps in that direction were already taken by authors such as Dreyfus, Zahavi and Overgaard, who have tried to bridge both the gap between different terminological approaches within phenomenology and the one between phenomenology and analytical philosophy, which can offer a much needed insistence on conceptual clarity.


Crowell, S.G. (2005). »Heidegger and Husserl: The Matter and Method of Philosophy«. In: Dreyfus, H.L. in Wrathall, M.A. (ur.) A Companion to Heidegger. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 49-63.

Dreyfus, H.L. (1993). »Heidegger’s Critique of the Husserl/Searle Account of Intentionality«. Social Research 60 (1): pp. 17-38.

Freeman, L. (2014). »Toward a Phenomenology of Mood«. The Southern Journal of Philosophy 52 (4): pp. 445-476.

Heidegger: Gesamtausgabe (GA)

Gesamtausgabe Band 2: Sein und Zeit. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann. 1977.

Gesamtausgabe Band 7: Vorträge und Aufsätze. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann. 2000.

Gesamtausgabe Band 24: Die Grundprobleme der Phänomenologie. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann. 1975.

Gesamtausgabe Band 56/57: Zur Bestimmung der Philosophie. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann. 1999.

Husserl, E. (1997). Psychological and Transcendental Phenomenology and the Confrontation with Heidegger (1927–1931) (ed. and tans. by T. Sheehan in R. Palmer). Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Husserl, E. (2012). Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie. Hamburg: Felix Meiner.

Overgaard, S. (2004). Husserl and Heidegger on Being in the World. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Zahavi, D. (2003) »Husserl’s Noema and the Internalism-Externalism Debate«. Inquiry 47 (1): pp. 42-66.

Zahavi, D. (2005). Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective. Cambridge: MIT Press.


1 The word Being with the initial capital refers to Sein, whereas the lowercase form will be used to refer to (das) Seiende(s).
2 Hugo Ott wrote an article about this in the Badische Zeitung, with the simple and poignant title “Der eine fehlte, der nicht hätte fehlen dürfen – Heidegger”(Husserl 1997: 32).
3 They is a translation of das Man, which is used in impersonal German sentences in the same way as the English impersonal “one” in “one does this and that,” “one speaks in such a manner” etc. It thus references impersonality and anonymity rather than the third person plural.
4 On Husserl’s alleged representationalism see Dreyfus 1993.
5 Briefly put, the phenomenological reduction involves a bracketing of our habitual beliefs about a transcendent world, which is necessary in order to consider phenomena in their givenness and free of any ontological suppositions. The eidetic reduction is a further step, which involves varying a phenomenon in order to establish its essential characteristics. For more on this see e.g. Husserl 2012.
6 There is a fascinating further point made by Crowell, which exceeds the scope of the present article and would merit much further discussion, which is why I have decided to only include it as briefly as possible, in Crowell’s own words:  It is possible for the phenomenologist to bracket her commitment to the existential claim made by any object of consciousness without thereby sacrificing the very possibility of attaining truth, since the phenomenon yields all the basis she needs for the kind of a priori and essentialist truth phenomenology seeks – including truth about meaning and being. However, when the inquiry concerns the transcendental conditions of such ontological inquiry – as it does when I am inquiring into my own being as a cognitively responsible being – the being of the inquirer cannot be bracketed. For I cannot bracket my commitment to being a philosopher (to the practice of philosophy as taking responsibility for the distinction between what is truly seen and what is only emptily asserted) without thereby losing the very topic of inquiry. Commitment to being, in the form of carrying out philosophy as evidential self-responsibility, is at this point – but only at this point – irreducible. As Heidegger was the first to see clearly, phenomenology must become existential because it is here, in the being of the philosopher, that the matter and method of philosophy become one” (Crowell 2005: 63).



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