Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy (I)
Try saying that five times rapidly.
Reducing such a complex work to a simple blog post is likely to prove a disaster, but I’m gonna try it anyway, keeping the jargon to a minimum. Well, at least explaining the jargon.
Edmund Husserl’s goal was to do away with the problem of dualism and secure a rigorous foundation for philosophy. In order to see Husserl clearly, it’s important to go back to Descartes, with whom many of you are familiar. He’s the philosopher who brought the problem of dualism into sharp focus.
Cogito ergo sum—I think; therefore, I am. This grain of truth has great force, but isn’t sufficient to get Descartes “out of his head” to establish the existence of external things, a condition or philosophical position known as solipsism. How do I know this computer in front of me really exists outside of my viewing of it? What about these hands that I see before me, how do I know they exist? My entire body? You? (Also known as the problem of other minds.) All I know is that I am thinking these things, but I can’t establish their objective reality.
Descartes is forced to call upon God to establish the veracity of “clear and distinct ideas”, (but he used the “clear and distinct ideas” criterion to prove the existence of God…the famous Cartesian circle.) He then assures us that God, being good by definition, would not deceive us in our perception of external objects as real. We, however, are left unconvinced.
Enter Husserl. Husserl goes back to that grain of truth and sits there for a very long while, exploring its implications. He stays in “cogito” and expands on it from the point of view of objects as they appear to consciousness. He says that in order to arrive here, to view consciousness in its fullest, we have to change our “attitude”—our method of thinking—in a radical way.
The “phenomenological reduction” clears away our biases and abstractions. Later, the “eidetic reduction” will allow us to see our own modes of thinking and their objects with greater clarity.
The Phenomenological Reduction
First, he insists that we must bracket what he calls the natural attitude (more on bracketing later). The natural attitude is a bias in which we automatically assume an existence “behind” or “beyond” the phenomenon, as some un-experiencable thing “out there,” some thing in-itself which causes it. (For those of you who know Kantian terminology, we’re talking about noumena). This attitude encompasses both ordinary, man-on-the-street thinking as well as the natural sciences. We “naturally” fall into the natural attitude. These prejudices—especially those of the scientist—Husserl does not disdain, but he makes it clear that they make impossible a pure study of consciousness.
(For the following passage, it’s important to know that “empiricism” is the school of thought which claims that knowledge derives from experience.)
As we must acknowledge, empiricistic naturalism springs from the most praise worthy motives. In contrast to all “idols,” to the powers of tradition and superstition, of crude and refined prejudices of every sort, it is a radicalism of cognitive practice that aims at enforcing the right of autonomous reason as the sole authority on questions of truth…
The essential fault in empiricistic argumentation consists of identifying or confusing the fundamental demand for a return to the “things themselves” with the demand for legitimation of all cognition by experience. With his comprehensible naturalistic constriction of the limits bounding cognizable “things,” the empiricist simply takes experience to be the only act that is presentive of things themselves. But things are not simply mere things belonging to Nature…To make identifications here and treat them as supposed truisms is blindly to push aside difference which can be given in the clearest insight. (Ch.2, Naturalistic Misinterpretations, 19. The Empiricisitic Identification of Experience and the Originarily Presentive Act, 35-36).
The natural attitude assumes that all the phenomena we experience are somehow caused by unexperience-able existences “out there,” by noumena. This is the attitude that Husserl finds dangerous to insight into consciousness and knowledge. What justifies this causal link from unknowable “things in-themselves” to our perception of them? It’s a natural assumption that we make, Husserl calls it “dogmatism” (but he adds, “a term which ought not to express any depreciation”). It’s an odd thing to say, to call natural science “dogmatic” in its very foundations! Husserl wants us to do away with assumptions to start afresh, to be sure that we have laid down the proper groundwork for achieving knowledge. To do so, he calls upon a very useful device—bracketing. (The fancy terminology for this: ἐποχή, Epoché):
In our fundamental findings we have presupposed nothing, not even the concept of philosophy, and thus we shall also proceed in the future. Formulated explicitly, the philosophical ἐποχή that we are undertaking shall consist of our completely abstaining from any judgment regarding the doctrinal content of any previous philosophy and effecting all of our demonstrations within the limits set by this abstention (Ch.2, Naturalistic Misinterpretations, 18. Introduction to the Critical Discussions, 33).
Bracketing is the cornerstone of his philosophy. But what is bracketing? It’s putting aside, neither denying nor accepting. It takes “the place of the Cartesian attempt to doubt universally” (Ibid. 57).
So imagine it like this:
Phenomena [natural attitude]
Husserl insists that we go back to the true things themselves—phenomena, not unknowable objects. He wants to take over the phrase and constitute it within experience. (He has a clever saying, “To the things themselves!”) This lively moment is a rarity for Husserl, so let’s embrace it, even if it is very confusing given the “things in-themselves” terminology.
The Eidetic Reduction (Don’t worry about the big word for now.)
What’s left then is appearances, to be sure, but as they appear to us. Ideas are not mere ‘mental constructs’ but exist alongside sensations as constituted in phenomena. Phenomena is the whole entire world as it is given to us. Now we no longer have to bother with impossible-to-know things outside ourselves, as all things—the objective, the subjective, spatio-temporal objects, a priori ideas—really everything is here. It’s a matter of distinguishing between kinds of phenomena and describing them as they exist in intuition (which is not meant in the sense of “women’s intuition” but as “given”):
Genuine science and its own genuine freedom from prejudice require, as the foundation of all proofs, immediately valid judgments which derive their validity from originally presentive intuitions…one can only ascertain them by insight…by fixing judgments which are faithfully fitted to what is given in such intuition (Ch.2, Naturalistic Misinterpretations, 19. The Empiricisitic Identification of Experience and the Originarily Presentive Act, 35-36).
Husserl wants to establish a science of “Eidos,” a science of essences through intuition or grasping. Eidos is a Greek word for “shape” or “form” which is here not necessarily visual, but indicates that which is invariable and essential to a thing. Some of you may be thinking of Plato’s forms here, but Husserl departs from Plato in saying that these essences are constituted within phenomena.
So what we have here is actually a purer kind of empiricism, a Trans-empiricism which does away with philosophical preconceptions, including the traditional rationalist/empiricist divide. Since experience is now cleared of natural biases, philosophical biases, theorizing and abstractions, we can engage in a different sort of enquiry—seeing and describing.
To those of you who have made it this far, thanks for reading and let me know if you have any questions or thoughts.