Gertrud Kuznitzy’s Phenomenology of Nature

The work of Gertrud Kuznitzky (1889-1976, born Elkas, later changed last name Koebner) is unique among early phenomenologists: while she was friends with Edith Stein, she remained an outsider, never participating in the academic debates between Husserl and his early followers. Her most productive period were the interwar years, with the most notable contribution being her first monograph Naturerlebnis und Wirklichkeitsbewußtsein (“Experience of Nature and Consciousness of Reality”), published in 1919.

In the first section of Naturerlebnis und Wirklichkeitsbewußtsein, entitled Das Erlebnis der Natur („The Experience of Nature“), Kuznitzky evokes the experience of nature as a pure appearing of things which simultaneously signifies a spiritual unfolding. The more we experience things as being purely and simply “there”, the more we get a sense that what is there before us is the announcement of a whole that Kuznitzky variously terms sense (Sinn), fullness (Fülle) or truth (Wahrheit).

Importantly, we experience this whole not as lying behind the things, or as something encompassing them. Neither are the things experienced as being parts that, in their totality, would make up this whole. On the contrary: the idea of this fullness or sense of nature is co-originary with, and inseparable from, the appearance of things. The specifically phenomenological difficulty is to address both aspects of this experience, without reducing one to the other. In other words, an account of this experience is at once of the givenness of transcendence (of “nature” as such) and of the immanence of the appearance (of things). Their being co-originary means that one cannot be explained through the other. Neither is nature the cause or antecedent of our experience of it, nor do we come to experience nature (separately) through appearance.

We cannot simultaneously experience givenness and the fact of givenness. To think of what purely appears as given would already constitute an interpretation of it, which would, somewhat paradoxically, make us lose sight of the implicit sense of givenness. To comprehend the originality of the experience of nature as Kuznitzky envisions it, we have to adhere to the unfolding of our own experience of the things without leaving this realm of pure appearance by fathoming some overarching unity. In the face of the transcendence of sense, Kuznitzky exhorts us to remain phenomenologists.

Kuznitzky is not interested in the objective qualities of nature in itself. According to her, we can only address nature as that which purely and simply appears before us. In this sense, it is even questionable if this experience can be described as being of “oneness”, seeing that “to feel oneself one with nature” would already go beyond the immediate relation with the appearance before me.

The idea of “pure” appearance can be framed as seeking to avoid both conceptual and metaphysical overdeterminations of experience. On the one hand, to see a thing as purely appearing means that it is not seen as this or that thing, as determined by a concept which explains what the thing is. As an example, the tree I see in its pure appearing is not a tree in a botanical sense, nor is what I see merely a part of a conceptual object such as “the tree perceived from all sides”. On the other hand, the thing should not be seen as being part of an encompassing metaphysical whole, as being merely expressive of nature, creation etc.

In other words, the experience of nature is, as pure appearance, always directly of nature. Yet this does not mean that the idea of nature reduces to whatever falls into the purview of experience. Importantly, there is a sense in which the appearance is an unfolding of something else. But as soon as we separate this something or form an abstract idea of it, we lose sight of the pure appearance that is the only means to directly experience it. What thus turns out to be central is the relational character of this experience of nature: the pure appearance is an appearance for and before us. What is given cannot be separated from givenness. Vice versa, givenness is that which purely appears.

Kuznitzky stresses that whatever is given in pure appearance is not given in itself. What is given in itself are the conceptual determinations we use to describe things: colors, shapes, kinds etc. Insofar as these determinations are self-sufficient concepts that are only instantiated in real objects, we can also understand them as such, for instance as “the color blue in itself”. These determinations simply “say what they are”[1]. By contrast, insofar as the purely appearing objects are not given in themselves, they refer to something else, namely to the idea of nature which we should be careful not to hypostatize in the face of our experiences.

This does not mean that we cannot know or say anything about them, but that our means to describe our experiencing them must not fall back on general concepts. An intuitive guideline for understanding how Kuznitzky develops the means to describe pure appearance is by thinking of them as being co-originary with the process of appearance itself. In other words, only those terms that can be seen as intuitively reflecting the nature of appearing are apt descriptors of our experience of nature.

The unity of the appearing tree before me is not demarcated by a more or less abstract notion of “tree”, or “oak tree”, nor even by a statement such as “this tree is an oak tree”. The originary unity that appears is exhaustively motivated by the intrinsic features of appearance: “In the way the body is given to me, I experience every aspect of its form as being pervaded by an inner relation (innerer Zusammenhang) connecting every part of the body with every other, in a manner unlike any external thing connected to the body.”[2]

[1] Cf. Kuznitzky (1919, 28).

[2] Kuznitzky (1919, 94).


Kuznitzky, G. 1919. Naturerlebnis und Wirklichkeitsbewusstsein. Breslau: Trewendt & Granier.

[written by Daniel Neumann]

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