by Timothy B. Jaeger

It must have been a moment of disbelief when the faculty of the University of Göttingen realized the identity of their prize-winning philosopher. In 1912, Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, established an anonymous essay contest, with first prize going to the overall best piece of philosophy. Over two hundred philosophers submitted essays, with presumably many of Germany’s best and brightest. The winner, to the surprise of many, was neither an established philosopher nor someone with an academic post–nor even a man! The winner was 24-year-old Hedwig Martius, a woman student at the university. Martius in later years would go on to become a prolific and significant member of what is known today as the Munich/Göttingen school of phenomenology, or the ‘first generation’ of phenomenologists (Spiegelberg 1994, §IV, §IV.A). Largely forgotten within the history of phenomenology and continental philosophy, not least being that she was a woman, Conrad-Martius was one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. in Germany (Hart 2020, 1). In recent years, her work has seen a resurgence of interest with several important publications being released or re-released, such as James Hart’s 1972 dissertation on her, Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology in 2020, Ronny Miron’s 2021 collection of essays on her entitled Hedwig Conrad-Martius: The Phenomenological Gateway to Reality, and, most significantly, Crina Gschwandtner’s 2023 translation of Conrad-Martius’ 1921 work, The Metaphysical Conversations. This recent surge of interest and scholarship makes for a timely opportunity to offer a brief intellectual history of this unjustly neglected yet brilliant phenomenologist.

Born in Berlin on February 27, 1888, into a family of doctors, Hedwig Martius’ early life was filled with firsts, a foreshadowing of her pioneering career to come. According to Miron, she was one of the first women in Germany to attend a German grammar school (the Helene Lange School and the Sophien-Realgymnasium) as well as being one of the first women to study at a German university (Miron 2023, 5). She began her studies at the University of Rostock on literature and history, for three semesters, before moving to Freiburg for a single semester and finally landing at the Ludwig Maximillian University of Munich. It was here that her interest in philosophy greatly expanded. In Munich, she was first exposed to phenomenology coursework by the early phenomenologist Moritz Geiger (Student of Theodor Lipps, teacher of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Karl Lowith; see Spiegelberg 1994, §IV.D.). She very quickly became an active member of the Akademischer Verein für Psychologie, better known as the Munich Circle of Phenomenologists. Seeing clearly the talent and determination of his young pupil, Geiger shortly thereafter recommended that she move to Göttingen to study phenomenology directly with Husserl and his second-in-command, Adolf Reinach. It is significant to point out, as James Hart does, that Geiger emphasized in writing to Husserl that Conrad-Martius was “the sharpest philosophically thinking woman I have ever met” and to Reinach that she was “our most gifted Munich philosopher” (Hart, 2). With these strong words of recommendation, she transferred to Göttingen in 1910.

Upon arriving in Göttingen, she found herself amid a thriving community of scholars cultivated by Husserl and Reinach. Among those in her community, a few names that will sound very familiar to readers of continental philosophy: Max Scheler, Alexander Koyré, Jean Héring, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Edith Stein (though she would enter Göttingen after Conrad-Martius had left), and her future husband, Theodor Conrad. She quickly became an active member within the group, eventually even becoming chairwoman of Philosophische Gesellschaft Göttingen following the departure of Dietrich von Hildebrand. It was at Göttingen, in 1912, that she won the famous essay contest with her Preischrift, or, prize essay, entitled Die erkenntnistheoretischen Grundlagen des Positivismus (“The Epistemological Foundations of Positivism”). Riding the wave of her newfound success and publicity, she developed her Preischrift into a dissertation. However, almost immediately she ran up against the limitations that came with being a woman academic in an overwhelmingly male world. Reportedly, Husserl did want to take her on as a doctoral student, but the faculty at the University of Göttingen blocked her application due to her not having the requisite Greek requirements—which would have been impossible for her because no gymnasium in Germany that accepted female students at the time even offered Greek. With Göttingen seemingly a dead end, she returned to Munich to complete her dissertation under Alexander Pfänder, another prominent early phenomenologist. In 1912, she was awarded her doctorate, graduating summa cum laude. A month later, she married her former classmate Theodor Conrad.

While the events of the previous years, in any other circumstance, would have been incredibly auspicious and the beginning of a promising career, for Conrad-Martius, they only proved to be the beginning of her struggles for recognition. Following the completion of her dissertation, she naturally desired to teach, which required her to complete a habilitation. She was promptly rejected by every university she applied to and had to resign herself to the fact that she would not have the life of a traditional academic. However, in lieu of this, as a future student Avé-Lallemant observed “Theodor Conrad…laid the plan of securing the economic foundation and free time for her further philosophical work through the establishment of an orchard farm [in Bergzabern]” (Avé-Lallemant 1994, 213). It was here that the remnants of the Munich-Göttingen school gathered as a memorial to Reinach (who died during World War I), but also increasingly to counter-act the influence of Heidegger throughout the 1920s (Hart 2020, 4). Here, it is worth mentioning Conrad-Martius’ relationship with Edith Stein. While Stein arrived in Göttingen after Conrad-Martius left, the two became close friends following the end of Stein’s tenure as Husserl’s assistant. In fact, it was during a trip to Bergzabern that Stein first read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, an important step toward her conversion to Catholicism. Furthermore, once she converted, Conrad-Martius, despite being a Protestant, received a dispensation from the Church to be Stein’s godmother. The two remained close until Stein’s death in 1942.

Due to the devastation of World War I and the subsequent socio-economic downturn, Conrad-Martius’s writing during the 1920s and 1930s was sporadic and faced an even greater insurmountable obstacle when the Nazis came to power. In the 1930s, she was barred from teaching and publishing since she had a Jewish grandfather. After the war, she finally managed to acquire a lectureship position at the University of Munich in 1949 and quickly published several texts that she kept as unpublished manuscripts during the last 20-30 years, such as Die Zeit (“Time”)(1954), Das Sein (“Being”) (1958), and Der Raum (“Space”)(1958). She died on February 14, 1966.

At this time, I will now explain the great originality of her philosophical project as well as her novel contributions as a phenomenologist. As a member of the Munich/Göttingen schools of phenomenology, Conrad-Martius was first and foremost committed to a form of phenomenological realism, a model following from Husserl’s position in his 1900/1901 breakthrough work, Logische Untersuchungen (“Logical Investigations”). This approach, unique to this school, emphasizes the relation between subjects and objects which are intentionality-independent, i.e. they exist independent of us but can become known to us. It can be described as a concern for the essences of objects in themselves, as opposed to objects given in pure consciousness. Phenomenological realism was prominently developed by Reinach, to whom Conrad-Martius and the other early students saw as the archetypal phenomenologist rather than the more stereotypical expectation of Husserl, as the early realists rejected Husserl’s “turn” to transcendental idealism in his 1913 work, Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie, or Ideas I. She was also critical of Heidegger’s phenomenology of Dasein as set out in Sein und Zeit, or Being and Time (1927). Positioning herself and the Munich/Göttingen school as a third way separate from those traditions, she sought to illustrate the differences of her realist phenomenology against that of Husserl and Heidegger. To demonstrate their differences, it is important to sketch out Husserl’s development of the epochē and the phenomenological/transcendental reduction.

The epochē, or eidetic reduction, focuses on casting aside, or bracketing, our presuppositions and judgments of phenomena to reveal the essence of a given object—to reach “back to things themselves,” as the famous mantra goes. Building off this foundation, in Ideas I Husserl explicitly adopts an idealist framework and thus describes phenomenology as a science of pure consciousness, with the focal point being the transcendental ego. To achieve this methodological end, Husserl employs what he calls the phenomenological reduction, which is accomplished by bracketing our “natural attitude” towards our own experience so as not to influence our perception of things. Instead, “we direct our focus…on pure consciousness in its own absolute being (Husserl 2014, 91). In contrast, Heidegger rejects the transcendental reduction and instead opts for a hermeneutical/phenomenological ontology of existence, specifically the existence of human beings, or Dasein. Dasein, instead of the transcendental ego, is the focal point of Heidegger’s phenomenology, with Being itself being interpreted through the essence of Dasein. In this regard, Heidegger states that “In Dasein itself, and therefore its own understanding of Being, the way the world is understood is…reflected back ontologically upon the way in which Dasein itself gets interpreted” (Heidegger 2008, 36-37). It is Dasein’s understanding of its own Being that reveals the world and all its meaning, hence the importance of resurrecting the question of the meaning of Being in Being and Time.

In opposition to these two strains of phenomenology stands Conrad-Martius and the Munich/Göttingen school. A committed metaphysical and phenomenological realist, she takes issue with Husserl’s idealist position on the broad grounds that it eliminates the independence of the world as well as objectivity. While her crusade against the transcendental reduction might seem to imply that she is opposed to all forms of reduction, she, like the other early realists, identifies phenomenology with the eidetic reduction, or epochē. The epochē is useful to her insofar as it is understood to be an existential bracketing. It deals with a withholding of judgment of the specific beings at hand, but importantly deals not with the supposition of being in general. This reformulation of the phenomenological reduction, with its judgment on the reality of the world, is one of the cruxes of her departure from Husserl (Miron 2021, 196). As she states, “With this fundamental point of departure Husserl’s teaching led transcendental idealism, dominant since Kant, to an unsurpassable apex. Yet, if the reality of the world is bracketed, then in my view the full phenomenon ‘world’ is also disturbed at its core, because the reality of being belongs inseparably to the nature [Wesen] of the world” (Conrad-Martius 2023, 23). Rather, she sees Husserl’s reductions as “losing the world,” which she will ultimately see as absurd since being and Wesen should never be abstracted from phenomena at all.

Her criticism of Heidegger is slightly more nuanced. Both Conrad-Martius and Heidegger specialized in phenomenological ontology and were responsible for doing much of the research in this field in the 1910s and 1920s. In fact, Conrad-Martius’ Realontologie was published four years before Sein und Zeit and her earliest works date around 1912 and 1916, very much predating Heidegger’s ontological phenomenology. Additionally, a lot of her themes regarding the nature of Being and the quasi-mystical ground of Being creatively anticipate Heidegger’s own terminology. On the one hand, she appreciates Heidegger’s rejection of transcendental phenomenology and the pure ego of Husserl in favor of a return to the ontological question of Being. She also appreciates his description of the I as a source of “being capable of one’s own being.” However, like her rejection of Husserlian phenomenology, she accuses Heidegger of fundamentally limiting the scope of phenomenology to the problem of Dasein—of the I. As she writes:

Heidegger radically overcame idealism in the personal I. That is clear. The personal I is no longer consciousness, but it is existence, self-owning being. The gate seems opened wide for a new, true ontology. It was wide open. Then Heidegger himself slammed it shut again, locked it up, boarded it up…, more than would ever have been possible through transcendental idealism, because it had no concept of true reality at all. Heidegger had such a concept as did all the then-current existentialism. But it does so precisely merely at this one single, namely human-personal point (Conrad-Martius 2023, 25).

Heidegger’s focus on Dasein, in the end, has the same effect as Husserl’s focus on the transcendental ego. The objective world is lost as a result of collapsing the world into subjectivity. Heidegger could have taken things in a new direction, by returning the focus to Being itself in itself, but that task seemed to be left to Conrad-Martius. It is from these two criticisms that we see the central point of critique: By focusing too much on the subject, the independence and dignity of the object are lost. Even worse, for her, is that the turn to the subject does not even reveal essential truth at all. As she states in the Metaphysical Conversations, “The fact that we know ourselves from the inside, adds far less to our ability to uncover our nature’s fundamental structure of being [fundamentale Seinsstruktur unseres Wesens] than one usually thinks” (Conrad-Martius 2023, 81).

It is out of this opposition towards Husserlian and Heideggerian phenomenology, as well as her adherence to the realist phenomenology of Reinach, that she developed her philosophies of being, reality, nature, etc. in her major work. The most foundational of her inquiries was into “reality,” an investigation into what grounds Being and beings most fundamentally. She called it Realontology. A crux of her novel method was the observation that real being is that which grounds itself, more specifically, that which finds its own ground within itself, independent of any other being. As her former student explains, “The whole essence of reality rests on its ontic foundedness (seinshafte Gegründetheit) as to its being (seinshaft). This ontic foundedness makes up the core of the phenomenon of reality, which is to be explicated in its essential peculiarity. What is at stake here is therefore the determination of the essence of an ‘existential’ structure” (Avé-Lallemant 1994, 216). These peculiar essences run deeper than mere existence, inverting Sartre’s dictum that existence precedes essence. Essences may come in and out of existence, through a “doorway,” to use her terminology, yet the essences remain grounded and founded within their own being.

Conrad-Martius continued to delve deeper into what it would mean and look like for a being to be founded in itself without having to revert towards idealist modes of thinking. Much as with Husserl, she recognizes the distinction between being and appearance, as well as other relationships held in tension such as being and nothingness, and potency and existence. However, as opposed to filling this gap with pure consciousness, as Husserl does, she embraces this gap and claims that it is precisely this tension out of which Being emerges. This leads us to one of Conrad-Martius’ most important yet mysterious concepts: the abyss, or what I refer to as the abyssal ground of being. This “abyss” is related to the “primordial” nature of being which, alongside selfness and corporeality, Miron lists as the three essential features of being (Miron 2023, 167-192). The abyss is characterized as quiet, deep, and peaceful, not unlike Meister Eckhart’s concept of the abyss where the Godhead dwells. Once being achieves this restful, fulfilled state in the abyss, it can cross the “gateway of reality” and come in and out of existence. Primordiality, then, is between being and nothingness, with Being endeavoring to overcome the nothingness. A thorough application of this concept, which intersects with her theory of the person and the philosophy of nature, can be found in The Metaphysical Conversations.

So, in conclusion, given the resurgent interest in her thought, what can Conrad-Martius provide contemporary readers and scholars? Why ought we to look towards a forgotten twentieth-century phenomenologist beyond simply filling in the cracks of the history of continental thought? First and foremost, I would say that, with the possible exceptions of Edith Stein, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and Roman Ingarden, she had the longest, most prolific, and, overall, most consistent body of work of any early phenomenologist. Her defense of phenomenological realism is rigorous and pointed, explicitly defending the method in a way rarely seen outside the likes of her teacher Reinach. Additionally, from a historical perspective, her work offers a very compelling realist response to Heidegger’s phenomenological ontology. She utilizes many of the same concepts and realms of concern such as Being itself, the world, the abyss, etc. and as such, it is worth comparing closely their respective analyses. This reaches a deeper point regarding the significance of objectivity and the tenuous relationship between metaphysics and phenomenology. Conrad-Martius, as we have seen, was anxious about the implications of an overreliance on subjectivity which risks losing the world. As much of today’s world becomes digitized, compartmentalized on social media—and as the very notions of truth, fiction, and reality become blurred—Conrad-Martius offers a persuasive alternative to keep ourselves grounded on the firm bedrock of our being. Her “rediscovery” in the last five years gives us the opportunity to revisit an all too neglected philosophy that is just waiting to be mined for its invaluable insights.

Timothy B. Jaeger received his M.A. in Philosophy from Boston College, and is currently pursuing Ph.D. studies at Stony Brook University. His general research includes the realist phenomenology of the Munich and Göttingen Schools, the phenomenology of values, ontological phenomenology, and philosophy of religion. His writings have been published in Dialogue, Symposium: The Journal of the Canadian Society for Continental Philosophy, and The Journal for Continental Philosophy of Religion. 

Edited by Jacob Saliba

Featured Image: Photograph of Hedwig Conrad-Martius. Courtesy of the Center for the History of Women Philosophers and Scientists