One of the major – and sometimes overlooked – figures in the New School Philosophy Department was Aron Gurwitsch. It’s a pity that he is not as well known as Hannah Arendt or Hans Jonas because he exerted a major influence on twentieth century continental philosophy and was responsible for what in my view is some of the clearest and most penetrating work in classical phenomenology.
Gurwitsch had a colorful life . Born in Lithuania in 1901 into a bourgeois Jewish household, Gurwitch’s parents moved the family to Danzig in order to avoid the pogroms. Entering the University of Berlin in 1919, where he came under the influence of Carl Stumpf. At Berlin, Gurwitsch studied mathematics, physics, and psychology before auditing Edmund Husserl’s lectures at Freiburg in the mid-1920s and studying under Adhémar Gelb at Frankfurt.
After defending his dissertation, Phänomenologie der Thematik und des reinen Ich, in 1928, Gurwitsch began visiting and corresponding with Husserl. It was during this period that he met Dorion Cairns and Eugen Fink. It was also during this period that he married Alice Stern, whom he had met at a congress in Frankfurt, and settled in Berlin to write his Habilitationschrift. However, when the Nazis came to power in 1933 Gurwitsch lost his stipend and fled to Paris.
During his time in Paris, Gurwitsch was encouraged by Husserl to meet with the sociologist Alfred Schütz. The two were close associates from that point onward. Schütz was trying to develop a classical phenomenological foundation for the social sciences (a good overview of this is available in Schütz’s essay in Farber 1940). Here is an essay on Schütz’s relationship to phenomenology and to Gurwitsch, written by Schütz’s student at the New School, Maurice Natanson. Gurwitsch took up the other end of this foundational project and to this day is is perhaps best known for his work at the intersection of Gestalt psychology and phenomenology. In Paris, Gurwitsch gave a lecture series at the Institutut d’Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques at the Sorbonne. This lecture series was attended by by a young Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Schütz emigrated to the United States earlier than Gurwitsch, and took up a post at the New School in 1943. With Schütz’s help, Gurwitsch followed, and held a number of temporary and visiting teaching positions, mainly in mathematics and physics. He was a professor of philosophy at Brandeis from 1951. It was only upon Schütz’s death in 1959 that Gurwitsch moved into his late friend’s position at the New School.
Louis Proyect recalls Gurwitsch’s lectures style in the mid-1960s:
In a survey of European philosophy that had well over 100 registered students in attendance and which consisted solely of a 90 minute lecture by Gurwitsch given entirely without notes and that only permitted questions from students after he was finished, he demonstrated how the mind-body contradiction implicit in Descartes dictum invited responses that were never satisfactory, often veering off in the kind of solipsism found in George Berkeley who taking Descartes’s ideas to their logical conclusion questioned whether we could ever perceive reality directly since the mind (cogito) always a mediator that both acted on our behalf and got in the way. In reference to Berkeley’s philosophy, Dr. Samuel Johnson once kicked a heavy stone and exclaimed, “I refute it thus!” Although Husserl’s writings are terribly complex, Gurwitsch had the knack of making them quite understandable. Basically, phenomenology sidesteps the whole Cartesian conundrum and treats consciousness as a first-person singular act worthy of study but not really applicable to the kinds of epistemological exercises found in Berkeley, Spinoza, Hume et al. Basically, the focus is shifted toward experience in the world rather than beyond it. As such, it is obvious why it would have an influence on existentialism. For Gurwitsch, however, the real affinity was with Gestalt psychology. Having already mastered physics, math and philosophy, he began a study of Piaget’s writings in order to build a bridge between Husserl’s theories and the new field in psychology that approached consciousness “holistically”.
One of Gurwitsch’s classic papers, “The Last Work of Edmund Husserl,” is available here. Although Gurwitsch considered Husserl the founder of constitutive phenomenology, he sometimes criticized the master on specific points. Here is an account of his critique of Husserl’s theory of hyletic data. For a much more comprehensive view of his work in English, I recommend Gurwitsch (1966) and Gurwitsch (1974), both published by Northwestern. These are listed in the references below.
There are probably two main reasons that Gurwitsch is not usually considered one of the “great” philosophers of the mid-twentieth century. First, Gurwitsch was more interested in the research program suggested by Husserl’s constitutive phenomenology than the creation of a wholly new philosophical system or worldview. This is not to say that Gurwitsch was unoriginal. On the contrary, he not only reinterpreted and corrected Husserl’s theory when necessary but developed his own striking phenomenological psychology. Nevertheless, in the standard Husserl-Heidegger-Merleau-Ponty narrative of phenomenology, Gurwitsch is almost inevitably consigned to the footnotes.
Second, Gurwitsch never made the “existential” turn but remained a classical phenomenologist, attempting to bring about “scientific philosophy” in the Husserlian sense. In the postwar scene, Sartre and Heidegger tend to get more attention than Brentano and Meinong, and the theories of classical phenomenology enthusiasts such as Kurt Gödel and Hermann Weyl are far from mainstream. Arguably, Husserl is increasingly being recognized as a major philosopher of the twentieth century. But the status of his followers’ careful work on the most problematic aspects of phenomenological philosophy is unclear. Perhaps what is needed is not just a revival of Husserl but the revival of the lines of research opened up by Husserl’s mature thought, the mode of phenomenological philosophy exemplified in the seminal works of Schütz and Gurwitsch.
Farber, M. (Ed.) (1940). Philosophical essays in memory of Edmund Husserl. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
Gurwitsch, A. (1966). Studies in phenomenology and psychology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Gurwitsch, A. (1974). Phenomenology and the theory of science. L. Embree (Ed.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
 Embree’s “biographical sketch” was available on gurwitsch.net, a website that now seems to be inaccessible. However, the sketch (perhaps a misnomer since it is of considerable philosophical as well as biographical interest), is available in Life-World and Consciousness: Essays for Aron Gurwitsch, edited by Lester Embree, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972, pp. xvii-xxx. I have also used Richard Zaner’s brief account of Gurwitsch’s life in his editorial introduction The The Collected Works of Aron Gurwitsch (1901-1973): Volume III New York: Springer, 2010, pp. xv-xvii. Both Embree and Zaner were both students of Gurwitsch at the New School.