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:
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?