Explanation of Husserl’s Phenomenology

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…

[however,]

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.

My Philosophy

I noticed a lot of people “liked” my last post, but didn’t respond. So I thought perhaps it wasn’t fair of me to ask such ridiculously hard questions without breezily answering them myself. I wonder if you will come back again after you get to know me? This is feeling like a first date.

How do you weigh in on the free will/fate debate?

I decided somewhere back in my college days that experience is what matters most to me, it’s epistemologically prior to external causation. In other words, it’s what I know most clearly and directly. So I experience being free, therefore I am. Although I’m going further than Descartes here.

How do you determine right from wrong?

I don’t really know. This is one of the hardest and most important questions, in my opinion. I think it’s intuition and quite a bit of utilitarianism that guides me, and I’m okay with it for the most part, but it doesn’t solve everything. I’m not a relativist in the extreme sense—I believe in a right and wrong, but I don’t think it’s possible to figure that out without taking everything into context, which requires consideration on a case by case basis.

Are you a rationalist or empiricist or both? (If you don’t know these terms, don’t worry about it. Or just Google ‘em.)

I think it would be best to do away with this whole rationalism/empiricism divide and just describe what’s actually going on in experience, without the need to reduce or dismiss anything. I experience ideas as much as or more than ‘sense data’, so why place ideas in some ethereal realm?

How would you solve the mind/body problem? (Clue: You can reduce things to one or the other, or…actually solve the problem. Good luck.)

I look to phenomenology for the answer to this. I admit it doesn’t really solve the problem, it merely looks at things from a different angle, the angle of experience, to be sure, and feels like it’s doing away with the problem. But if you were to put a gun to my head, I’d choose solipsism over reducing everything to the machinations of our brains. I do believe our minds depend on our brains in some way—I experience this every time I’m under the influence of some drug…like ibuprofen!…or when it’s that time of the month…yes ibuprofen!—but these two aren’t quite the same thing. How do the two interact? Do they? I don’t know. I just base my opinion here on experience as epistemologically prior which I spoke of in the first answer.

Does God exist?

I think it depends on what we mean by God. Yeah, this sounds like a lot of hemming and hawing, but really, I’m not a religious person (possibly because I grew up in the Bible belt), so I don’t want to say “yes” without being a bit careful. However, I’d say “yes” if it meant a sort of Aristotelian God as an end to an infinite regression, as a rational explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. I’d even go so far as to call God “Reason” or “the Good”…I know…you think I’m crazy now.

Is there life after death? Why?

Hell if I know.

If God exists, does that mean there is life after death?

Nope. Not necessarily. Like I said above, God’s existence means nothing, pragmatically speaking, to me.

What is a soul? Does it exist?

I think so. I would call it “mind” to sound more modern, but I feel it.

Do dogs have souls?

Yes indeed. And they go to heaven automatically, whereas we’re stuck in purgatory and forced to crawl around under their dinner tables begging for scraps of meat while they tell us to “get down.”

What about parameciums?

Ugh. Yeah. Okay. Sure.

What is Justice?

Hm. I can’t really answer this one with any detail, but I’ll say it’s a world in which everyone is perfectly happy.

What is Love?

Desire to have full possession of the Good forever. No just kidding. Sort of. I do agree that love is desire, and desire is something you can have only for something you don’t already possess. I think I’d better put this in terms of my relationship with my husband. We’ve been together for nine years. Given the odds of our particular circumstances and what we’ve had to go through, this is quite remarkable. He makes me a better person, the person I want to be deep down. It’s a quiet thing for the most part, and often hard  (because sometimes we don’t know or pursue what’s good for us). I tend to be a recluse, but he knows I’m not, not deep down. So he’ll suggest that I go to a coffee shop to write instead of sitting in my comfort zone here in my office. It’s never a selfish desire to change me, or shape me into something I truly am not. It’s seeing potential and truth and good.

And I like to think I do the same for him, except he doesn’t have much that needs to be corrected. But when he does, I’m on it, I’m on it.

I think when you find someone you understand and who understands you, you’re close to being in love. Getting this far in life is a hard thing. Having real friends is a hard thing too, and I’d extend love here (I could only be saying this because I don’t have that many!) When you have someone who not only understands you, but knows what’s good for you, and makes you see that good, you’ve hit the jackpot. You just go from there trying to return the favor.

What is happiness?

Being in love. (See above). A certain amount of money and good health doesn’t hurt, but isn’t necessarily required.

What is courage?

Knowing and doing the right thing, even though it’s hard. Now this is a tricky question. So don’t take my flip answer at face value.

Does happiness factor into ethics? (In other words, does being a good person mean being a happy person?)

I think happiness does factor into ethics. And I think being a good person means being a happy person for the most part. So this answer seems to conflict with my answer above to the question, “What is courage”? But it doesn’t. Because I believe that when you know and do the right thing, you’ll be happy…for the most part. Why do I say “for the most part”? Because I can imagine some pretty crazy awful scenarios that would challenge this view, but I think, for the most part, it’s correct.

What is the purpose of art?

This is where I expect everyone to get up in arms. I don’t think art is an end in itself. I’m with Tolstoy—I think it must have spiritual ends, otherwise it’s empty.

So now, what’s your philosophy?

What’s Your Philosophy?

BLOGGING EVENT!

Tell the world. Don’t be shy. Yes, we’re used to piggy-backing off the famous philosophers, and that’s why I came up with this prompt. Those well-versed in philosophy will appreciate a grassroots approach, even those who spend every waking hour thinking about the transcendental unity of apperception, believe it or not. No need to read everything everyone’s ever said about anything. Just say what YOU think. So rarely do we get a platform for original philosophical thought. Well, this is it.

No need to answer these any or all of these questions, but I thought they might help stimulate things:

How do you weigh in on the free will/fate debate?

How do you determine right from wrong?

Are you a rationalist or empiricist or both? (If you don’t know these terms, don’t worry about it. Or just Google ‘em.)

How would you solve the mind/body problem? (Clue: You can reduce things to one or the other, or…actually solve the problem. Good luck.)

Does God exist?

If God exists, does that mean there is life after death?

What is a soul? Does it exist?

Do dogs have souls?

What about parameciums?

What is Justice?

What is Love?

What is happiness?

What is courage?

Does happiness factor into ethics? (In other words, does being a good person mean being a happy person?)

What is the purpose of art?

Please leave a comment to link to your post, or leave your ideas directly in the comment box, if you wish.

Happy philosophizing!