The Natural Attitude

First of all, I hope you’re enjoying the holidays. I’ve been baking up a storm… Unfortunately I can only offer you a virtual sampling of treats. But if you look on the bright side, fewer calories.

And now brace yourself for an awkward transition…

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the split between the phenomenologies of Edmond Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, and his student, Martin Heidegger. More specifically, I want to explore Heidegger’s “primordial readiness-to-hand” and Husserl’s “natural attitude.” Both used these terms to express a primary or original way of viewing ourselves in the world, and in this matter they seem to be at odds.


First of all, “primordial” is a strange Heideggerian term with no clear definition so far as I can tell. I gather that it means original, or authentic. It alludes to an experience that somehow feels closer to the true meaning of our being. I realize this sounds poetic and perhaps mystifying, but I’m afraid Heidegger himself was poetic and mystifying. So let’s just say that primordial means primary or authentic.

Now that that’s out of the way…Heidegger says that our “primordial” experience of the world is full of meaning and value, and it’s only later in critical analysis that we strip objects of their meaning to arrive at bare facts. Objects are primordially given to us in “ready to hand” form, which means they’re meaningful by virtue of being available for use—just as a hammer is useful for hammering. Function and meaning seem to be the same. It’s only when objects cease to be useful that we begin to view them as bare facts, as mere material or stuff just sitting there taking up space. This breakdown of usefulness or functionality explains how we come to see the world “objectively,” as something distinct and quite apart from our consciousness.

This “objectivity” (notice the scare quotes) is what Heidegger calls presence-at-hand.

If you want to hear more about this, here’s a video with transcript in which the in-house philosopher explains it all.


Heidegger’s distinction is often taken as a criticism of Husserl, who put forth a seemingly opposite thesis—we originally see the world in its totality as something that exists in an “objective” or bare-factual way as a kind of container for objects. Husserl says that this original way of viewing the world is an unconscious assumption taken for granted, and this taking for granted is what he calls the natural attitude. 

The natural attitude is so named because in most cases it’s an uncritical ‘common sense’ way of experiencing the world. It comes naturally to us, in other words. For instance, while we’re driving, cars exist for us just as they appear, as mere ‘stuff’ that we pass on our way to our destination. Cars are simply there. The world in which they exist is also simply there. Ideas such as justice, kindness, mathematical triangles, Scrabble strategy, etc. are also simply there. We don’t inquire about their fundamental origins, nor do we question their existence or manner of existence. But navigating through traffic or a game of Scrabble is just one way of being in the natural attitude.

The natural attitude also operates in scientific thinking.

I realize this sounds paradoxical. You might be thinking: How can science and common sense be lumped together? Science is anything but common sensical! Husserl doesn’t deny this, nor does he deny that science is by far the higher form of thought. Yet he sees science as operating under and taking for granted the same ontological assumptions that we find in common sense. Yes, common sense forms flimsy opinions whereas science goes beyond opinion. But it’s because common sense fails us that we turn to science—this is important. Both are attempts to discover the objective world as it is in itself, it’s just that common sense will always fall short of this goal because it lets emotion and bias get in the way. Science is the solution that allows us to extricate ourselves from our own biases, and it does this in large part by mathematizing nature. After all, math is the ultimate form of objectivity. Mathematical truths are considered universal and so utterly indifferent to our private whims and fancies that many believe them to have a transcendent existence that we discover rather than invent. It’s no surprise that studies such as psychology only get to be called science when and insofar as they adopt a mathematical approach. So it’s not that science and common sense are the same quality of thinking or comparable in value, but that science’s quest for objectivity derives from common sense. The scientist (qua scientist) and the driver in traffic both believe in an absolute world of bare factual existence. This is taken to be separate from our “subjective” thoughts about it, sometimes to the point of being alien to us. It’s up to me (assuming I’m a scientist) to “subtract” my private, personal thoughts—my dreams, my fears, my hallucinations, my delusions, my opinions, my biases, etc.—to find out what’s really out there. Science does a more thorough job of “subtracting subjectivity” than common sense does, but both are involved in this process. And both are unquestioning about the grounds for this process. This unquestioning seems more problematic in science, which doesn’t realize that it’s not questioning its own fundamental presupposition.

That said, Husserl isn’t trying to delegitimize math or science, or even common sense. His aim is to uncover the structures of our experience phenomenologically, and he thinks the natural attitude gets in the way of this goal because it takes its own unquestioned assumptions for granted. As many of you know, we just don’t do that in philosophy. So Husserl proposes that we bracket the natural attitude. Bracketing means we put aside the natural attitude as if we were sticking it on a back burner or putting it on a shelf out of our way; in other words, bracketing prevents us from falling back into the dogmatic assumptions of the natural attitude while remaining neutral about its claims, neither accepting nor rejecting them. Bracketing is the first step to uncovering the fundamental structures of experience as it is really experienced.

Here are a few earlier posts on Husserl’s phenomenology:

My thoughts:

Heidegger’s “presence-at-hand” seems to me very much like Husserl’s “natural attitude.” They are both modes of viewing the world as “objective” or factual, the difference being Husserl’s claim that this “objectivity” is a natural attitude (which implies that it’s to be taken as primary or primordial) whereas Heidegger believes “objectivity” is secondary or derivative. To put it plainly, Husserl thinks “objectivity” comes first, Heidegger thinks it comes second. Despite this difference, both philosophers use their respective terms to explain how scientific objectivity emerges from the breakdown of everyday usefulness or common sense. According to them, science arises out of the problematic encounters we experience in our “objective” attitude.

But Heidegger’s insistence that this “objectivity” is derivative seems somewhat artificial to me. Phenomenology, at least as I understand it, is about examining experience as it really is. When I examine my experience, it seems that the meaningful mode and the factual mode can exist alongside one another, even in everyday common sense attitudes.  I see no need to derive one from the other, and I think doing so could be overstating the case.

I’m working on a few more posts on phenomenology. My hope is to eventually get around to what kickstarted my return to this subject, William James. Given my record on  posting, I won’t make any promises, and I certainly won’t make any New Year’s resolutions, but we’ll see!

Questions? What do you think? Is the “objective” derived from a breakdown of functionality in a value-laden world? 

And if all this is too much, how’s it going with you? It’s been a long time! What have you been up to?


30 thoughts on “The Natural Attitude

  1. Heavy stuff for Boxing Day, but that’s why I follow your blog! The human mind is complex. Sometimes I see cars as objects, sometimes as handy vehicles for getting around. Which came first? I think it depends on my mood. I might want to sell my car rather than drive it, in which case it is a vehicle to enrichment (ho-ho), or my neighbour’s car might spark greed and envy, or perhaps a feeling of smug superiority. These last feelings are predicated on a whole stack of emotions, assumptions and logical deductions and are not primordial, so perhaps I’m leaning toward Husserl.

    I like to think of the world of ideas as separate from the physical world – although not in a Platonic sense. Thus cars and hammers don’t exist in the real world at all, only in our minds, and then only as ideas. We’re just attaching words and concepts to subsets of the physical universe.

    Hope you’re having a lot of fun baking.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for reading! I knew it was an odd time to suddenly start posting again, but I figured that if I didn’t do it right away, who knew when I’d get around to it.

      You’re probably not gonna believe this, but I had to Google “Boxing Day”. I’ve actually only just heard about it this year. My first thought was that it must have something to do with sports, which would explain why I’d never heard of it. (I didn’t think it had to do with boxing, since that would be too straightforward.) Apparently it’s a day of charity? Or is that what it used to be?

      I’m leaning toward Husserl too, as you probably know. I see his phenomenology as more rigorous than Heidegger’s, which strikes me as somewhat fanciful, though I do appreciate some of what he points out. Of course, I’ve only touched on his philosophy in my posts (and in my reading).

      On what you said here:
      “I like to think of the world of ideas as separate from the physical world – although not in a Platonic sense.”

      Maybe in a Kantian sense?

      “Thus cars and hammers don’t exist in the real world at all, only in our minds, and then only as ideas.”

      What do you think exists in the real world? And what does it mean for something to be physical?

      As for baking, I did an insane amount of it this month and didn’t quite realize how much work I was getting myself into. I’m glad it’s over. I’m especially glad that I have leftover gingerbread and a box of La Burdick’s chocolate (to die for) so that now I can laze about on the couch with my ridiculously gourmet bonbons.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am amazed that you don’t have Boxing Day. I’m not aware of an association with charity. My understanding is that in the nineteenth century, people gave gifts and opened their boxes on the day after Christmas Day. Now we are too impatient for that and open them on Christmas Day itself. Perhaps in the future we will open them in November …

        I echo what Mike wrote. He expressed it so much better than me. What I mean by the physical world is the world that exists regardless of whether we are observing it. There are probably better definitions. A car is a subset of the physical world that we have attached a particular label to. In reality, no two cars are alike, and different people will debate whether a particular object is or isn’t a car. Parts of the car will be replaced over time by non-identical spares or consumables. And the boundary between car and not-car will never be certain, as it interacts electrically, magnetically and gravitationally with the rest of the universe. It is not clear to me that cars exist in a truly objective sense. However, the idea of a car exists in our minds because it is useful. Other physical objects and phenomena that are less useful to us do not have names, because … why bother to name them?

        I like your notion that it is natural for us to model the universe as an objective phenomenon. Ultimately I suspect that language lets us down when we try to discuss such matters, because the definition of objective presupposes objectivity.

        Liked by 2 people

        • “Now we are too impatient for that and open them on Christmas Day itself. Perhaps in the future we will open them in November …”
          Haha! No kidding. It seems the holiday season keeps getting longer and longer, so maybe we’ll have two Christmases—one for November, another on Christmas. And Halloween will take place in both May and October.

          “What I mean by the physical world is the world that exists regardless of whether we are observing it.”
          I see. That sounds pretty close to what I meant in saying “objective” world in the sense that it is defined by its independence.

          “Parts of the car will be replaced over time by non-identical spares or consumables…It is not clear to me that cars exist in a truly objective sense. However, the idea of a car exists in our minds because it is useful. Other physical objects and phenomena that are less useful to us do not have names, because … why bother to name them?”
          This sounds like the Ship of Theseus paradox:

          I wonder, what does exist in a truly objective sense? Is it nameable?

          What you say about language seems to me to be the crux of the matter. The Ship of Theseus paradox arises when we confuse things by taking questions about existence outside of all contexts or if we take the question in a manner different from the way it was expressed. If we’re inquiring about a particular car or trying to identify it from others like it, it makes sense to answer the question in terms of its specific features, and if we need to, we might need to discuss material. If we want to understand cars in general, it makes sense to provide a definition that distinguishes the essential features of ‘car’ from other vehicles. In this case, function matters.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes, you can say that the Ship of Theseus paradox is an example of a general class of intellectual problem where the crux of the dispute or paradox boils down to a lack of clarity over definitions. As Mike often comments, much of intellectual debate over the centuries seems to fall into this trap. Perhaps we could redefine Christmas in this way? Or perhaps commercial pressures already have! Whatever you call it, and whenever you celebrate it, and for whatever reasons, I hope yours has been a good one, despite the heat!

            Liked by 1 person

  2. “First of all, “primordial” is a strange Heideggerian term with no clear definition so far as I can tell…I realize this sounds poetic and perhaps mystifying, but I’m afraid Heidegger himself was poetic and mystifying.”

    This gets to my chief frustration with Continental philosophy, not to mention more generally a fair amount of humanistic writing, the ambiguous language and use of terms in unconventional ways without clearly defining them.

    My take is that we’re constantly constructing theories about objective reality and related meaning, even when we try to narrow our concern to “just the facts”. Constructing predictive models of the world, and what they mean to us, is what we do. We come out of the womb doing it and, assuming we’re healthy, never stop doing it while we’re awake. (Except, perhaps, for some people in deep meditation, but even then I suspect the meditator is still modeling their current experience, or lack thereof, if nothing else.)

    I like the “subtracting subjectivity” phrase. More precisely, the goal, I think, isn’t to subtract all subjectivity, because nothing would be left since we only ever experience the subjective, but to subtract the subjectivity that experience has shown make our models of the objective less accurate, that is more likely to need revising based on later observations.

    I’m eager to see your take on William James. From what I’ve read about him, there’s probably a good amount of his views I’d agree with. I’m curious how pragmatism intersects with Husserl and Heidegger.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know what you mean about cloudy language. It is fairly frustrating, even if Heidegger supposedly had a good reason to be obscure. On that note, William James is so refreshing. I’ll get back to him in a second.

      “My take is that we’re constantly constructing theories about objective reality and related meaning, even when we try to narrow our concern to “just the facts”. ”

      That’s basically what I think too, although I might be coming at it from a different direction. This is why I like Husserl’s phrase “the natural attitude”; it seems to me that theorizing about the world as “objective” comes naturally to us. And in most cases this is itself a meaningful way of viewing the world. I don’t see meaning (or function) as something that’s easily separated from the natural attitude, at least not in some fundamental way that is itself experienced.

      Your take on subtracting subjectivity seems to be a sort of pragmatism…at least that’s the way it seems to me now that pragmatism is on my mind. So how does it work…we know we’ve “subtracted” too much subjectivity when we start running into problems?

      On that note, I do think you’d like William James. First of all, he’s fairly straightforward without sacrificing nuance, and in that regard I think that even if you disagree with him you’ll probably still enjoy the reading. (Of course, his writing does have a bit of an antiquated feel to it—longer sentences, multiple clauses, etc.—but also impeccable grammar, which makes it all easy to follow.) My book group is reading “The Varieties of Religious Experience” (my favorite), and for the first time in our group’s history, this book got a unanimous thumbs up. And no one in the group has a background in philosophy except for me and my husband. In fact, they don’t have nearly as much of a philosophical background as you do, and yet they all find it enjoyable to read. So that should give you some idea of how clear his writing is.

      Secondly, James’ background was in the sciences and his manner of thinking reflects his preference for the empiricist tradition. What’s interesting about him is that he turns to philosophy in part because of the problems he encountered in psychology—specifically “neurological psychology” which was fairly new at the time (maybe he was even a pioneer in this area?). So he seeks out a new epistemological foundation and ends up with what he calls “radical empiricism”. It’s a break from the traditional empiricist camp and a call for a more rigorous empiricism, one that’s truer to experience. His radical empiricism seems to me virtually the same as phenomenology even though he comes at this new manner of thinking from a different background and different methodology.

      Apparently Husserl and most (maybe all) of the phenomenologists read William James. Husserl greatly admired James’ work in psychology. There’s a funny story that James prevented Husserl’s “Logical Investigations” from getting published in translation, saying about this work to the potential publisher, “Nobody in America would be interested in a new and strange German work on logic.” So even though Husserl was a huge fan of James, James apparently didn’t reciprocate. Maybe this was because James had no idea how much of an influence he was to Husserl and how similar their ideas were. (It seems that James was first appreciated by Europeans, specifically by the Germans, before becoming well known in America. Strange.) So anyway, the connection here never became explicit.

      As far as I can tell, pragmatism as such isn’t where the real connection is, although pragmatism does bring one into a frame of mind that’s similar to phenomenological thinking in some very loose sense. The thing is, since James didn’t use the same terms that Husserl used, the connection between them is something you’d likely only notice if you’d studied Husserl. Many of the fundamental ideas about consciousness are too similar to ignore. Actually, what got me intrigued in James was when I noticed this strong connection to phenomenology. I wondered how this could be the case when James didn’t use the word “phenomenology” in his writing.

      But I’ve gone on too long. I’ll explain more in a future post. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • “So how does it work…we know we’ve “subtracted” too much subjectivity when we start running into problems?”
        Something like that. Science needs *some* interpretation, some judgment about what the evidence means, to work. Removing personal bias is relatively easy, at least by this point in history, but removing cultural bias is harder, and species level bias? We can’t be sure we’ve ever succeeded at removing that. AI might eventually allow us to do it, if the AIs aren’t hopelessly contaminated with their creator’s biases.

        Thanks for the info on James’ writing! From what I understand, he is recognized as a pioneer in psychology, American psychology in particular. I’ve read numerous psychologists and neuroscientists who review James’ writings approvingly. He seems to be well respected in that community. A lot of his ideas seem to have held up well in the light of modern neuroscience.

        I’m not surprised that James was famous first in Europe. I’m not sure America’s cultural history with philosophy is a great one. It doesn’t surprise me too much that our biggest contributor to it, contributed an outlook like pragmatism.

        The similarities you find between James and Husserl remind me that most philosophical disagreements amount to people arguing past each other with different definitions. Vague ambiguous language seems to exacerbate this. I can see why scientist prefer to work in equations. Once the collaborators are familiar with it, it seems to minimize a lot of language confusion.

        Looking forward to that post!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Heidegger: your biscuits are yummy-yummy. However, since (over the internet) they are neither ready-to-hand nor ready-to-mouth, there is that awkward transition, their breakdown into mere on-screen-stuff.

    Husserl: according to the natural attitude, these are yummy-yummy biscuits. However, let’s bracket all our previous experiences about biscuits. What we see here are the front sides of some brownish objects.

    Looks like there is not such a big difference between the two in this respect, except for the terminology and their opinion on what comes first. The result is the same: philosophy is dry, there is no yummy-yummy 😦 :-).

    Joke aside; I am not so convinced by both of them. What I am missing in both of them (at least in the way you present them here, which is, of course, incomplete) is the idea that our attitude, our perception, develops during our lifetime and also across history. “Heidegger says that our “primordial” experience of the world is full of meaning and value” – the experience of the adult university professor sitting in his hut in the mountains or in his office is full of meaning or value and this seems to be the starting point (the “primordial”).

    But these meanings and values are the result of knowledge that was acquired before, the result of his life up to this point. Imagine little Martin who has never seen a hammer before, observing his father Friedrich hammering a nail into the wall. Before that, the hammer was just a strange shape. Little Martin learns that that elongated part is a handle, etc.. More knowledge is acquired by trying it himself, by hitting his thumb, by breaking his piggy bank with the hammer, etc. The way a newborn baby sees the world is the original one, but we cannot reconstruct it. Professor Heidegger has forgotten about his childhood, so he thinks his normal way of looking at things is “primordial”, but it isn’t.

    In Husserl’s approach I see the same problem. Our knowledge is developing, there is no stable core, and so which part do you bracket away? You can peel away, in an onion-like manner, one layer of knowledge after the other, but you don’t arrive at a self without knowledge, and you don’t get at the essence of things that way. If we could indeed look at the world like a baby, with nearly no knowledge of the world, we would perceive more or less nothing. So instead, we must move into the other direction and add knowledge. We can always add more (things have many aspects, for example you can never generate a full theory of biscuits, so there is no well-defined essence ( l’existence précède l’essence).

    Will you let us know the recipe, so we can recreate them? Biscuits seem to be great for philosophy, you can use the reciepe-biscuit relationship to explain plato, you can explain hylomorphism with them, etc., – and the proof of the biscuit is, o fcourse, in the eating).

    Liked by 1 person

    • What shall we call these in-edibles? Noumenal cookies? (As opposed to phenomenal gingersnaps?)

      Actually, the gingersnaps were more amusing than they were tasty. To make up for that, I also gave out loads of gingerbread. Five double batches, believe it or not. I don’t know if you were serious about getting the recipe, but in case you or anyone else is interested in doing some easy baking, here’s the recipe:

      (The whipped cream isn’t a part of the original recipe, but the lemon glaze is, and it’s crucial.)

      Now, on to Heidegger! (Maybe he would go down better with a lemon glaze?)

      I think Heidegger would actually be sympathetic to your points, but take all that I say here with a grain of salt. With his term “primordial” I don’t think he means we need to revert back to the experience of an infant. But I do think he means for this “primordial world of meaning and value” to include culture and history, including personal history. For him, these are not separable from meaning. I might have been confusing that matter in all my talk of “function” and “tools”, but all that “equipment” (I believe this is the word most people use when talking about Heidegger) is only understood in context. The primordial way of seeing the world also includes other minds in a totally unproblematic way. For him, we don’t originally have a problem of other minds because originally we are already there with other minds in the fullest sense, without any sort of skepticism in regards to whether or not consciousness is “really there” behind the facade of other people’s skin. There no need to come up with some sort of behavioral analogy either. Primordially, other minds are simply there. Period. End of story. They’re as real as Geordie Bear sitting on the couch next to me looking so sweet and loving. Other minds are simply there and so is culture and history—so, primordiality is actually a kind of holism. “Objectivity” would be discounting or subtracting all such things in order to arrive at universal truths…precisely because they aren’t relative to culture, history, personal history, etc. I’d say the primary way Heidegger diverges from Husserl is his preference for relativism. Husserl still had that mathematician’s tendency to seek out the universal. He wanted phenomenology to be a sort of science of experienced consciousness, and was primarily interested in finding out its universal structures. Not so with Heidegger, who was more interested in being authentic. (That’s where he loses me.)

      As for Husserl, he wasn’t interested in getting at a self without knowledge. I think the method of bracketing is actually a sort of teaching tool directed at those of us who are still stuck in our Cartesian pattern of seeing the world dualistically (subject-object). It’s as if he’s saying, “Let’s take one step at a time. Forget all that stuff you think you know about the world. Now let’s take another look.” Of course, all that stuff you think you know about the world may be right, but it’s the methodology that matter to him at this point. Later on in his writing he goes on to describe our experience and knowledge of the world as open-ended…infinitely so. The horizon of what he calls the “life-world” is a necessary component of our experience, and that is always something in the background, hovering there as a potentiality for exploration. It’s kind of like peripheral vision writ large, applying to both perception and ideas. This is the kind of thing he considered a fundamental structure of experience. (When I consult my experience, I find it rings true.) In other words, there’s no need to look at the world like a baby or to have absolutely no sense of logic or understanding in our phenomenological thinking.

      Of course, for him, existence doesn’t precede essence or vice versa. He finds them both in experience like yin and yang. The essence of perceivable things is our leaping ahead beyond what’s strictly speaking there. This leaping ahead isn’t a mistake in the sense of “jumping to conclusions”, but he’d agree that it’s never complete or well-defined either. The experience of grasping an “object” without ever really fully grasping it, and yet simply accepting that object as being sufficiently grasped…this is the sort of observation he finds in studying experience.

      But one thing’s for sure—No noumena! No noumenal cookies either! The proof is in the pudding!

      Speaking of pudding, I got my husband these for Xmas:

      I only wish these proofs weren’t done algebraically. They’d be much bigger bowls…allowing for much more pudding.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Enjoyed watching anonymous hubby and Geordie’s video once again! Ah, I dunno Tina, all this talk about objectivity just reminds me that we can’t think ourselves to the understanding that (I believe) Husserl had. It seems terribly anti-intellectual, I know, but once we attempt to conceptualise (i.e. think) our way to Husserl’s (or Advaitan, Buddhistic, whatever) understanding, we necessarily and unquestioningly accept the false dichotomous paradigm of subjectivity and objectivity that we are attempting to overcome! Why so? Because the mind can only think in such dichotomous terms. This is why Husserl had (in effect) a meditative method, yes? If and when Husserl’s vision is ‘seen’ (i.e. not thought out, but intuited as awareness knowing itself), it is known starkly, obviously and irrefutably that subject and object are both mind creations, as apprehended. We of course know this intellectually already (where the hell else did consciousness come from?), and yet the dichotomous paradigm overlays and occludes that understanding to the extent that what is apprehended as being ‘out there’ (albeit that it is ‘out there’, in a measurable/spatial sense), is identical to the ‘thing out there’. [i.e. Hubby’s red BMW coupe that I apprehend, is thought to be the red BMW coupe itself.] The world, which is identical to our being (in the sense that we are co-causal in respect to its apprehending), exists seamlessly with the assumed observer/subject, so rendering the subject/object dichotomy false (or something like that).

    “And at last, ascending to the ultimate plane of every philosophy, we discover that the difference between Sensibility and Understanding is again dialectical. They are essentially the negation of each the other; they mutually sublate one another and become merged in a Final Monism.” — Theodor Ippolitovich Stcherbatsky (Professor Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences)

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Intuition” is the right word here. You’re right, we can’t think (reason) our way out of the dichotomy, and you’re also right that Husserl’s method was essentially meditative, in a loose sense of the word. His starting point actually came from Descartes—Metaphysical Meditations—but Husserl stays with these meditative beginnings and leaves off the part where Descartes starts making his usual assumptions to figure out what’s really “out there”.

      Of course, my use of the word “objective” is not in Husserl, and there’s a good reason for that. For a blog post, it seemed simpler to use the word in quotes and just cross my fingers. But I acknowledge that in doing this, I could be contributing to the problem.

      As for getting to Husserl’s standpoint, I think it’s one of those things we have to be open to. It either rings true or not, and it’s easy to dismiss as “subjective” thinking, even though it is most definitely not that.

      I think it’s easier to wrap my mind around the value of phenomenology when I look at it from an epistemological standpoint. Husserl takes us back to Descartes, which reminds us of that rigorous Cartesian sort of questioning: What do I really know and how do I know it? But Husserl stops in that moment before “I” start leaping to conclusions, a la Descartes. He takes us on a detour into experience as it’s experienced.

      But going back to Descartes, apres detour, it turns out that we don’t really know ourselves as “thinking subject” and then the world as some sort of external spatial existence to be mapped out with coordinates. That’s because we can’t know such a world. Descartes sets the problem up so well that he precludes the solving of it.

      My questions is: Do we “naturally” try to know things in such a way that our thinking inevitably sets us up for failure, and if so, why?

      I think we are natural Cartesians, but only in a weak sense. If we take our everyday Cartesianism to its logical extreme, that would mean that we know in advance that we can never really know the world in itself—because that’s the way we set up the problem—and yet we try anyway! Another way of putting it: We set ourselves up as subjects who are always mistaken by virtue of being subjective. (The subjective is defined by contrast to the objective—the world we are trying to know in itself.) WE are the impenetrable obstacle.

      Unless…unless the knower and thing known shouldn’t be formulated as having this problematic relationship. That sounds like the more hopeful route to me.

      But why do we set ourselves up with this impossible problem? Is there some reason for it? Do we not really want ultimate knowledge of things in themselves, but instead a sort of semi-knowledge of things as they appear in their most constant form? This sounds likely to me. And it sounds achievable. But often this kind of knowledge is taken to be ultimate. At the very least we should realize that this manner of thinking is founded on our trying to rip the rug out from under our own feet.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ‘Do we “naturally” try to know things in such a way that our thinking inevitably sets us up for failure, and if so, why?’ — I suppose evolution isn’t concerned with verisimilitude? Then again, it seems the case that quite a few people have some irrational (intuited?) sense that consciousness is a sort of accidental put-up job and therefore is not to be trusted beyond making the coffee. So yes, evolution has set us up for failure, and yet at the same time it’s given us a question: what’s behind the put-up job? For some, that gets channeled into religious doubt, perhaps; for others, the search for a method of discovery (such as a via negativa, or whatever); for others still, faith gets channeled into human reasoning, and which I think is a mistake, or better to say, can only provide us with clues. Take your pick, eh?

        ‘Unless . . . unless the knower and thing known shouldn’t be formulated as having this problematic relationship. That sounds like the more hopeful route to me.’ Well, precisely, but it can’t just be a formulation, a static working hypothesis, because that keeps us trapped within the dichotomy, because it’s thought-based, and all thought is necessarily conditioned within the dichotomous paradigm of subject/object relationship. Catch 22, eh? That’s the problem with all spiritual seeking, of course: it presupposes the seeker as existing independently from the imagined object (enlightenment) which is sought, and which is supposed one day to be absorbed within the imagined subject (the seeker). Either that, or the imagined subject is supposed to one day merge into the imagined object (enlightenment). It’s all couched in dichotomous presuppositions, albeit within a vaguely-conceived monistic goal. Anyway, let’s not get bogged-down with so-called ‘spiritual’ stuff, though parallel’s obvious.

        Liked by 1 person

        • “So yes, evolution has set us up for failure, and yet at the same time it’s given us a question: what’s behind the put-up job?”


          On getting bogged down with spiritual stuff, I’ll save that for a future post. No really. I have one planned, but I’m afraid it’s more of an introduction to the ‘phenomenology’ of William James vis-a-vis the Varieties of Religious Experience.

          Liked by 1 person

    • I think I just realized the meaning of the quote you shared…the dialectical nature of sense and sensibility parallels that of subjectivity and objectivity?

      By the way, I hope you had a Merry Christmas and I wish you a Happy New Year as well! It’s nice to hear from you again!

      How’s the writing coming along?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for asking about the writing Tina. I ran out of steam in the summer, c.40k words in. Actually, there were some quite serious family matters I had to attend to over a period of some three months, and then when the air finally cleared, it just all felt old. I recently read Stephen King’s book on fiction writing (Esme Cloud gave me a copy) and in there he says, whatever you do don’t take a protracted break, or you’ll never go back to the novel. I think he’s right. That said, I’ve not trashed the files, and if the energy comes back I’ll doubtless continue. I feel I had something with the three main protagonists, and was drawing one of them (the narrator) quite well. He was descending into dementia though, so it may have got quite . . . challenging. How’s about TPK? Happy New Year to you, hubby and Geordie!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m sorry to hear you’ve had some family matters. I don’t blame you for running out of steam…life can be pretty distracting.

          And as for doing a protracted break, I figure you should write when you want to! Do it if it pleases you. I think the kind of demands writers make on themselves can get absurd. This is supposed to be fun and fulfilling. (Unless it’s a job, of course.)

          I don’t know about what Stephen King said, though. Maybe that’s true for most people, but I sometimes find that time clarifies the material. Sometimes ideas need to percolate.

          As for the narrator’s dementia, do you think you might be avoiding that challenge? (I would dread it, so that’s why I ask.) And is there some way around having to write from that POV to tell the story?

          I’ve decided to rewrite what I’m now titling “A Footnote to Plato” in omniscient. The story was getting bogged down in various POVs and it wasn’t moving the plot along efficiently. People were confused about what was really going on. I’m glad I wrote from those different character’s perspectives since it gave me a deeper sense of them, but it just wasn’t working out for the story. Now things are starting to click into place. Omniscient is a hell of a challenge to write in, but I’m keeping it light and working on transitions. I tend to write these insanely long scenes just to get at the one bit of information that will move the story along. These each have their own frigging narrative arc! It’s nuts!

          Liked by 1 person

          • “I sometimes find that time clarifies the material.” — Actually, I think I sense that already: the old wood for the trees problem, sort of. The last 6/7k words I wrote felt a bit like fumbling in the dark, but I bashed on with it simply due to enthusiasm reigning over a clear idea of how succinctly to develop the story. I let that energy get the better of me, and although now I’ve got no energy left for the story, I do see it more clearly with the benefit of a bit of distance/time.

            “As for the narrator’s dementia, do you think you might be avoiding that challenge?” — I already have my escape route planned from that seemingly inevitable difficulty, as from the very outset it’s been made clear to readers that one of the other two protagonists will be editing the story. (It’s narrated by one of three protagonists looking back, at the age of 65 in 2020, to the 80s and 90s, and he’s the one in decline). So, what will happen is that Ray (the narrator with incipient dementia) will suddenly cease to appear to write, and Agnieszka (his lover in a polyamorous triangle) completes the second half of the story, not just as editor, but as authoress. [Yes, another challenge: writing as a female.] In this way, we come to question much of what has gone before as well as much of what is being said by Agnieszka. The two of them, along with André, the 3rd in the triangle, become embroiled in an art scam (the theft of a Braque, specifically), one which happened in real life:

            So anyway, the reader has to work out which 1, 2 or 3 of the main protagonists were willingly complicit, or rather had perhaps just become innocently ensnared. The love triangle is tested in respect to loyalties to others, by self-interest (protection from incrimination), and by Ray’s cognitive decline. P.S. In real life, the heist in those links still hasn’t been solved in that the Braque and the other four paintings remain missing, though the thief has been caught. Again in real life, Braque painted at least four versions of L’Olivier près de l’Estaque, and my fictional characters meld with real life in that one of them (André) has possession of one of the others.

            Wow, you’re rewriting TPK. Sheesh, I admire you’re commitment to artistic integrity there Tina. I wish I had some. [Laughs] The little of it I was privileged to see I thought quite exceptionally well-crafted, and nothing on earth would’ve persuaded me to bin it, least of all others’ opinions. But yes, the omniscient thing; I’m currently reading Marquez’ 100 Years of Solitude which is written in that perspective. I have to say I’ve privately re-titled it 422 Pages of Tedium. [I’m afraid I just don’t understand the parallels with Colombian history/culture/politics.] I’m going back to Virginia Woolf next, who’s been a recent total revelation to me — the poetic beauty of her prose (as you know?) is quite mesmerising.


            • Your novel sounds intriguing! And it sounds like POV is carrying the plot? Will the third character come into play as a POV?

              It sounds to me like we have similar writing processes. I tend to let loose and often need to go back and restrain myself…but despite my good intentions, I merely end up letting loose again in another direction. (Hopefully not ad infinitum.) I’ve heard that this is pretty normal, though. In that novel writing class I took a few years back, the instructor told us our first drafts were supposed to be messy. The way she said “messy” made it sound very messy…which gives me hope. Some people, apparently, don’t make a mess as we do. But I don’t know that I could do it any other way. The fun part of writing is letting go, not knowing what the hell you’re doing and stumbling upon a kind of richness that might be fat that needs trimming or might be the very thing you meant to write about all along.

              That said, I’m now in the cutting phase. My God am I in the cutting phase. It hurts, I’m not gonna lie, but in the end it’s nice to see it come together. At this point I have to outline my outlines. Not kidding. I have so many outlines it’s mind boggling. I also have various kinds of outlines, timelines, flow charts, collage charts.

              I really can’t wait to get to the sentence-level edit. Syntax switcharoos are the most fun. To be honest, that’s what’s driving me forward at this point.

              As for the omniscient, it’s surprisingly not that different. The main thing is that you get a lot more freedom to move around scenes. For instance, I’ve broken up several scenes so that I can get at other POVs. Much of what you read will feel basically the same, except imagine that you have a videocamera giving you B-roll at the beginning, then slowly zooming in until the story feels like a close 3rd person. (Which isn’t too different from the 1st person you read.) The “zooming in” is really just a matter of working out cognitive/psychic distance. For example:

              “Dr. Isaac Fischelson didn’t know it, but he was entering his classroom for the last time.” —The easiest way to convey omniscient is to say what the characters don’t know, but I’ll admit it’s kind of cheap. Still. You get the cognitive distance idea here. Omniscient could just be a wide scope of things. Usually the weather. 🙂

              “He flung open the door to the classroom building and stomped out the snow from his boots before entering.” —Could be from his POV, or not. It’s still pretty omniscient.

              “He could hear the chatter of students from his classroom, but he sensed something amiss.”—Now the narrator dips into the character’s mind.

              “Perfume? But his students wouldn’t bother to wear perfume. In fact, they rarely bathed.”—Boom. No more narrator. We’re in Dr. Fischelson’s head.

              And then the rest would be basically a close third. This only works for me because his voice is so similar to the omniscient narrator’s voice. They’re both a bit academic, and that’s an easy voice to fit into omniscient. The really really really hard chapter was the one from Alexandra’s POV. Remember her? She’s absolutely nuts and has a distinctive voice. I did it, though, and it worked out. I don’t know how to be honest. It took for-ev-er.

              As for Virginia Woolf, I found Mrs. Dalloway hard to read. In fact, infuriatingly hard to read. I had no idea who was thinking what or what was going on. Maybe a bit too clever for me.

              Liked by 1 person

          • “Will the third character come into play as a POV?” — No, the reader figures out that he (André) is a dubious type (he’s in advertising/PR, nuff said), and only Ray and Agnieszka write/tell the story. I think I’ve got Ray’s voice down reasonably well, and I’m modelling Agnieszka on someone I’ve known very well for a long time, which should help me out if I do continue with the writing. Whether the two-part (double-authored) idea will work remains to be seen, and I’ll have to see how it feels once the seemingly ever-hapless Ray is left behind (to his dementia) as an unfortunate bystander to unfolding events — the reader, knowing Agnieszka has edited Ray’s words, can’t be certain of them, nor of what she herself says. Is she covering for Ray because she loves him? Is she subtly implicating him to get herself off the hook knowing that his fate is in any case sealed by his condition? Or is she innocent and gullible herself? That’s all the whodunit aspect of it, though it’s also taking a look at the investment art world, and how crooked it’s always been, right up at the highest levels. You might want to launder money through what’s purported to be a Leonardo, or, say, through 666 Fifth Avenue; and if you did want to, it might not even matter if the Leonardo was a fake or the building was hugely overpriced. Buyer and seller are both winners, as is the good old auction house in the case of the former. Did you see the ‘Leonardo’ that got sold the other week? Let’s just say not everyone’s convinced; same with 666/5th. Anyway, I’m trying to do all this with at least a soupçon of wit; buy y’know, it’s easy to find yourself funny when no one else does, and I’m reminded of this every time I get to the grocery store checkout.

            Do you find it draining during what you call the ‘cutting phase’? I don’t really allow myself to get to that point, and kinda spew out a few paragraphs then edit neurotically for fear the vomit will leave a lingering smell. But if I’ve got over-enthusiastic in the writing, then it comes down to a turd-polishing exercise, and that’s what I was talking about when I mentioned the last 6/7k words I wrote.

            I think you’re far more together than me, with your flow charts and everything. I have a fairly basic document which lists the characters, their own timelines, their character traits, and their key points of impact upon the story. This means I need to hold the whole thing in my head in terms of the narrative development, which isn’t a great idea, especially as I’ve taken a huge break once already. I don’t do lists or plan things in everyday life, and tend to approach my writing like I do life: if something needs doing I do it now, and clear the decks. That’s more of my neurosis, I suppose. Really though, the idea of spewing out 70-100k words and then going back and sorting it all out (which is what Stephen King does, btw), is anathema to me. [Hey, is it ‘anathema’ or ‘an anathema’?]

            I agree with you on what you call ‘the sentence level edit’. I find that really fascinating, looking at a sentence structure and melding it so that it somehow seems harmonious and right. It feels like music composition in that respect, each sentence needing to be the perfectly crafted 3-minute pop song; not clever, not necessarily elegant, but right in its simple and balanced self. I rely on punctuation heavily, and some might feel I overuse commas, or am too keen on the venerable semi-colon; ah well. Actually, I was surprised at Virginia Woolf’s addiction to commas, though I suppose she was developing the modernist style back then and was experimenting a bit. I wonder if her hypothetical older self might have pared down the punctuation whilst finding other ways to keep the S.o.C. thing going? And yes, Mrs Dalloway is a Marmite thing, it seems, and Esme Cloud could barely take more than a bite or two when I recommended it to her. She got her own back by making me read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.

            Er, oh yes, subjectivity, objectivity, an’ all that. I’ve rather dragged us off course I’m afraid.


            • First of all, the grocery checkout is a tough audience. No one expects anyone to be funny while standing in line. Second of all, I’m sure you’ve pulled off at least a soupçon of wit in your writing, at least judging by your online wit.

              And I think it’s “anathema”, but only because “an anathema” sounds redundant.

              As for methods and practices, I’m starting to think all fiction writing involves feeling like you’re wasting time. I don’t find it terribly draining because to me it’s an enormous puzzle to solve (remember, I’m working with a big mess.) I’ve gotten used to spending months on entire chapters that end up getting cut. Others spend months rewriting the same five paragraphs, but those make it into the book. I think in the end it might come out even. But I just can’t seem to get a clear sense of the whole, at least not while I’m writing, so I do find it helpful to breakdown each chapter into a series of goals to keep me on track, which I write on a notecard in advance. This is only when I have my act together, a rare occurrence.

              No worries about dragging us off the subjectivity and objectivity theme. I don’t care about keeping the comments section focused on the topic. I’d rather catch up with people!

              Liked by 1 person

  5. This is indeed a heavy lift but thank you for bringing it down to the level of folk like me. 🙂

    Reading this I was reminded of one of my favorite Tomas Aquinas observations – a thing is knowable inverse to the extent it is real. Math, according to his logic, is entirely and unambiguously knowable for the reason that it is pure abstraction – completely unreal. His next step is to explain God as the opposite. I’m not sure if I accept this argument, but it’s a fun way to look at Husserl and Heiddegger.

    Btw, your essay is safely ensconced in the book project I’m working on right now. I’m going to use it as an example of how to use charitable reading as a tool for overcoming the biases and “sacred” truths that come and go in each era.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hm. I think I’d have a different take on math: completely real and unknowable by me. 🙂

      On the essay, I’m not sure biases were overcome, but feel free to use it. My thoughts on Trump aren’t much different, except that he might be a lot dumber than I initially thought. How’s that for the principle of generosity? I actually thought the same thing of George W. Bush—that he could be secretly intelligent, putting on a hick act…until I read his book.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, I agree. I’m actually friends with quite a few Trump supporters (by quite a few I mean maybe 4, but that’s a significant percentage of my total number of friends) and they certainly aren’t stupid. In some cases it was a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils, in other cases it was a matter of actually liking Trump. And I have to admit, the stock market was looking pretty awesome until Friday’s sell-off. (Not that I’m worried about that…I’m kind of glad it happened, actually.) Should Trump get credit? I think he should, at least in part. But I fear the economy will lead Trump supporters (or lukewarm supporters) to think they made the right choice after all.

          Liked by 1 person

          • According to some pretty persuasive stuff I’ve read on Nate Silver’s webpage, presidents typically don’t have much control over the economy in the short term. I mean they can screw stuff up, but their good ideas tend to take time to pay off.

            Foreign Policy on the other hand …

            Though the NK noise campaign seems to have bourne some fruits.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yeah, I think you’re right about the economy. Speculation about what will be good for the economy (such as tax cuts) do something to boost the market in the short term, but that rush of excitement is correcting now. It’s hard to pinpoint which policy and president did the work, and it’s easy for the current president to get credit for things he didn’t actually do.

              Agreed on the NK noise campaign. It seems Trump knows the language of dictators. Surprise surprise.

              Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.