Gurwitsch, Aron (1901–1973)

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Aron Gurwitsch was one of the leading proponents of and contributors to phenomenology in the twentieth century. He was one of a small number of philosophers who brought phenomenology from Europe to the United States and led its growth into a significant presence there. Gurwitsch's main influence came through his expositions of Edmund Husserl's phenomenology and his original contributions that modified and supplemented Husserl's work.

Gurwitsch was born on January 17, in Vilnius, Lithuania (then a part of Russia), of parents who were descended from a long line of Jewish scholars. Following the pogroms of 1905 and 1906, the family moved in 1907 to Danzig where Gurwitsch received his early education. He began his university education at the University of Berlin in 1919, where he studied mathematics, physics, psychology, and philosophy; here he came under the guidance of the philosopher and psychologist Carl Stumpf. On Stumpf's suggestion, Gurwitsch went to the University of Freiburg in 1922 to attend some of Husserl's lectures. Gurwitsch was so influenced by Husserl's style of philosophizing that he decided to devote his life to the continuation and expansion of Husserl's phenomenology.

Gurwitsch left Berlin for the University of Frankfurt, where he studied with the psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein and the Gestalt psychologist Adhemar Gelb, whose studies of psychological pathologies stemming from brain injuries related to human capacity for abstraction, a topic in which Gurwitsch was interested. During this time Gurwitsch realized that Gestalt theory and phenomenology could benefit from one another. This led him to develop in his doctoral dissertation a field theory of sensory perception in which he rejected Husserl's concept that a nonworldly, transcendental ego was at the basis of the human ability to experience a world and developed a nonegological conception of consciousness that was like the one found later in Jean Paul Sartre's work. The dissertation, Phenomenologie der Thematik und des reinen Ich, was published in 1929. Husserl was impressed by this work and there were regular contacts between them until 1933.

In 1929 Gurwitsch returned to Berlin, with a Prussian habilitation grant, where he worked on and essentially completed Die mitmenschlichen Begegungen in der Milieuwelt (1976). This work concerned basic problems of social phenomenology and contained an original approach to social perception that combined phenomenological and gestaltist insights. Due to the rise of National Socialism that led him to flee Germany and go to France in 1933, Gurwitsch did not publish this book, and it was published posthumously in 1976.

In 1933 and 1934 Gurwitsch began lecturing on Gestalt psychology and phenomenology at L'Institut d'Histoire des Sciences at the Sorbonne in Paris. These lectures were attended by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose major work, Phenomenology of Perception, incorporates much that he acquired from Gurwitsch. Gurwitsch's posthumously published Esquisse de la phénoménologie constitutive (2002) is based on that latter parts of these lectures. In Paris, in 1937, Gurwitsch met the sociologist and philosopher Alfred Schutz. Their correspondence from 1939 to 1959 has been published as Philosophers in Exile (1989). In addition to discussing and exploring intellectual topics, the letters contain a fascinating look at the difficulties of the lives of emigré scholars at that time. With the help of Schutz, who preceded him in 1939, Gurwitsch emigrated to the United States in 1940, and took a position at Brandeis University in 1948, first in mathematics and then, in 1951, in philosophy.

In the United States Gurwitsch began work on his magnum opus, The Field of Consciousness, published first in French translation in 1957, and then in the original English in 1964. In this work, Gurwitsch related phenomenology to the thought of William James and others, offered a criticism of various dualistic theories of perception, and gave a masterful account of Gestalt theory. This is followed by what became the most influential part of the work, his account of perceptual consciousness wherein the field of what one is aware is articulated into theme, thematic field, and margin. Building on Husserl's work, but abandoning what he took to be a dualism in Husserl's theory where higher level cognitive functions worked on lower level sensations to produce the object as experienced (what Husserl called the "noema"), Gurwitsch creatively employed Gestalt theoretical concepts to analyze the structure of the focally perceived object (theme) as well as its relationship to the wider experienced context (thematic field) and to other co-conscious items that are not relevant to the theme and thematic field (margin). His account of the object as experienced (noema) was an alternative to Husserl's theory and led to considerable discussion in the secondary literature. A part of the whole manuscript that Gurwitsch wrote that was not published in The Field of Consciousness was posthumously published as Marginal Consciousness (1985) and contains detailed analyses of human awareness of the margin.

When Alfred Schutzwho held a position at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York Citydied in 1959, Gurwitsch became his successor, joining the phenomenologist Dorian Cairns, and taught there until his retirement in 1972. This was a time when phenomenology attracted much attention in the United States and the New School was a major center for research and study. Gurwitsch, Cairnsand, earlier, Schutzwere major influences on a new generation of phenomenologists. Gurwitsch helped found the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) in 1962, and later the Husserl Circle, two major forums for the presentation of phenomenological research. During this time he republished eighteen essays in Studies in Phenomenology and Psychology (1966). Another group of previously published and unpublished essays dating from 1937 came out posthumously in Phenomenology and the Theory of Science (1974). Along with some of Gurwitsch's influential original and critical work these two volumes contain some of the authoritative accounts of Husserl's philosophy that made Gurwitsch such a leading exponent and interpreter of Husserl's philosophy.

Gurwitsch's interests went beyond Husserl and phenomenology. He also wrote and prepared for publication Leibniz: Philosophie des Panlogismus, published posthumously in 1974 and wrote what was posthumously published as Kants Theorie des Verstehens (1991). Gurwitsch died on June 6, 1973.

See also Gestalt Theory; Phenomenology.


works by gurwitsch

"Phänomenologie der Thematik und des reinen Ich." In Psychologische Forschung 12 (1929): 279381. Translated by Fred Kersten as Phenomenology of Thematics and of the Pure Ego: Studies of the relation between Gestalt Theory and Phenomenology, in Studies in Phenomenology and Psychology, 175286.

Théorie du champ de la conscience. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1957. Translated as The Field of Consciousness. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1964.

Studies in Phenomenology and Psychology. Evanston, IL.: Northwestern University Press, 1966.

Leibniz: Philosophie des Panlogismus. New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1974.

Phenomenology and the Theory of Science, edited by Lester Embree. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1974.

Die mitmenschlichen Begegungen in der Milieuwelt, edited by A. Métraux. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1976. Translated by Fred Kersten as Human Encounters in the Social World, edited by Alexandre Métraux. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1979.

Marginal Consciousness, edited by Lester Embree. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985.

Schütz, Alfred, and Aron Gurwitsch. Briefwechsel 19391959, edited by von Richard Grathoff. München, Germany: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1985. Translated by J. Claude Evans as Philosophers in Exile: The Correspondence of Alfred Schutz and Aron Gurwitsch, 19391959, edited by Richard Grathoff. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Esquisse de la phénoménologie constitutive, edited by José Huertas-Jourda. Paris: Vrin, 2002.

secondary works

Embree, Lester, ed. Life-World and Consciousness. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1972.

Embree, Lester, ed. The Phenomenology of Gurwitsch. Special Issue, The Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 12 (May 1981). Contains secondary bibliography until time of publication.

Evans, J. Claude, and Robert S. Stufflebeam, eds. To Work at the Foundations: Essays in Memory of Aron Gurwitsch. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 1997. Contains further secondary bibliography.

Husserl Studies 19 (1) (2003). This issue is devoted to Gurwitsch's thought.

Other Work

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge & Kagan Paul, 1962.

William R. McKenna (2005)