Methods of Philosophizing (2)

Philo of Man





Husserl’s Phenomenology: Methods of Philosophizing (Part 2)


In Part 1 of this series of posts, I have presented a review of Gerry and Rhiza’s Chapter on the Methods of Philosophizing in the book titled Introduction to the Philosophy of the Human Person. The review, however, focused only on the section Socratic Method. In this post, I will focus on Husserl’s phenomenology, that is, the phenomenological method of philosophizing the Husserlian tradition.

Gerry and Rhiza begins their discussion on the phenomenological method of philosophizing with a brief historical background of the topic. According to Gerry and Rhiza, phenomenology was originally a form of critique on the Cartesian Methodic Doubt. As we know, Rene Descartes, the acclaimed Father of Modern Philosophy, initiated the philosophical revolution in modernity by offering a method of philosophizing that seeks to ground knowledge on the most universal and self-evident truth: “that I exist and that the I that exists is essentially a thinking I ― the cogito.” This is a variation of the famous Cartesian dictum: Cogito Ergo Sum (I think; therefore, I am). The idea here is that Descartes employed the Methodic Doubt in his search for certainty by systematically doubting everything at first. But in the process of doubting everything, there is one thing that Descartes cannot doubt, that he is doubting. Now, if he is doubting, then he must be thinking. Therefore, if he is thinking, then he must be existing because the act of thinking presupposes the existence of the one that thinks. Thus, with the discovery of the self, of the I that thinks, Descartes concluded that certainty can be attained.

Unlike Descartes who systematically doubted the certitude of the world outside of the self (ego) as his starting point in attaining certainty, Edmund Husserl affirmed the existence of a world outside of the self. And for Husserl (the forerunner of modern phenomenology), the thinking I is always conscious of this world. It is for this reason that Husserl accuses Descartes of failing to properly understand the nature of “consciousness,” which is always a consciousness of something other than itself. According to Gerry and Rhiza, this is the starting point of Husserl’s phenomenological investigation.

In order for us to fully understand phenomenology as a method of philosophizing, we need to define phenomenology first. And so, what is phenomenology?

Husserl’s Phenomenology

Phenomenology comes from the two Greek words phainomenon, which means “appearance,” and logos, which means “reason” or “study.” Hence, etymologically speaking, phenomenology means “study of phenomenon.” The term phenomenon means anything that exists of which the mind is conscious. A “book” is a concrete example of a phenomenon. A book is there existing materially, and the mind is conscious of it. However, phenomenology is formally defined as the investigation of the essence or the nature of material things or things that appear to us.

It is important to note that Husserl did not invent phenomenology out of a vacuum.

Edmund Husserl, the acclaimed Father of Modern Phenomenology (Photo Credit: Free Wikimedia Commons)

The context here is that realism and idealism had reached an impasse toward the end of the nineteenth century regarding that status of the knower and the thing known. As is well known, the realists argue for the independence of the “object” of knowledge, while the idealists argue for the primary of the “subject,” that is, the knower. It is in view of this impasse that Husserl offered his phenomenology as a way out. But instead of making a philosophical speculation of the nature of reality, Husserl argued for the need for philosophy to turn to a pure description of the “what is,” of the thing as it appears to us. Thus the famous Husserlian motto: “back to the things themselves.” In Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, William Barrett writes: “For Husserl, phenomenology was a discipline that attempts to describe what is given to us in experience without obscuring preconceptions or hypothetical speculations.”

With this note, let me now briefly sketch Husserl’s notion of phenomenology as a method of philosophizing. Please note that I will not discuss in great detail Husserl’s model of phenomenology as our concern here is just to know the nature and dynamics of phenomenology as a method of philosophizing. For a detailed discussion on the nature and dynamics of Husserl’s model of phenomenology, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The Phenomenological Reduction,”

Again, phenomenology for Husserl is a discipline that attempts to describe (or understand) what is given to us in experience. In other words, phenomenology for Husserl provides an account of how things (phenomena) appear to our awareness or, ultimately, how the world appears to us in terms of our subjective experience of it. That is why, according to Gerry and Rhiza, phenomenology deals primarily with the determination of the nature and structure of human conscious experience. Indeed, phenomenology is about reflecting upon our everyday immediate or lived experiences in order to gain some understanding of its underlying order, coherence, and structure.

To begin with, within Husserl’s model of phenomenology (which is called pure phenomenology, in contradistinction to the existential phenomenology of his followers, such as Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jean-Paul Sartre) is the idea that we normally view reality from the vantage point of what Husserl calls “The Natural Attitude.” For Husserl, this natural attitude toward things suggests that people conduct their life with the common natural belief that the reality that they inhabit is fundamentally separable from their subjective experience of it. In other words, for those people with a natural attitude, the world is out there relative to their experience of it.

In contrast to this natural attitude, Husserl claims that it is possible for people to adopt a phenomenological attitude, wherein they suspend or “bracket” their belief and natural attitude, and eventually recognize that it is just a natural attitude―that the knowledge that they gained from this attitude is not real or true knowledge. This act of bracketing, which is also called epoche, allows people to turn their attention on the ongoing activity of their consciousness to which their experience of reality or things is ultimately constituted.

According to Husserl, the overall act of employing epoche, that is, suspending or bracketing all preconceived notions and prejudices about a particular phenomenon under study―and then record, identify, and then put to one side―in order for us to gain an understanding of the true nature of reality, is called phenomenological reduction. According to Richard Schmitt, it is called “phenomenological” because it transforms the world into a phenomenon, and it is called “reduction” because it leads us back to the source of the meaning and existence of the experienced world.

According to Frogstuff (see Bracketing and Phenomenological Reduction), “The concept [of epoche or bracketing] can be better understood in terms of the phenomenological activity it is supposed to make possible: the ‘unpacking’ of phenomena, or, in other words, systematically peeling away their symbolic meanings like layers of an onion until only the thing itself as meant and experienced remains. Thus, one’s subjective perception of the bracketed phenomenon is examined and analyzed in its purity.”

It must be noted, however, that in phenomenological reduction, the mind does not make up features of reality that everything must conform to. On the contrary, objects in the world (phenomena) already have some kind of structure or unity, and these objective meaningful features of the things (phenomena) are disclosed to us in our experience by means of the interpretations we can give to them. In this way, our mind can be viewed as active because it can create interpretations of our experience in meaningful ways. However, it must be remembered that there is already something meaningful in the objects (phenomena) themselves which can provide confirmation of or contradiction to that interpretation.

Now, with phenomenological reduction, people are able to have a shift in perspective.  And it is important to note that this basic shift in perspective as a result of the employment of phenomenological reduction enables us to assume a phenomenological attitude toward our experience. According to some scholars, this can produce some surprising insights into the fundamental nature of things. In other words, with phenomenological reduction, one is able to get at the pure phenomena from a user’s point of view. Put differently, through phenomenological reduction, we are able to know and understand the essence or meaning of things as they appear to us.

Let us take “man” as a phenomenon and apply a phenomenological reduction to it in order for us to know the essence of man.

The Natural Attitude may say: “Man is a rational animal.” Here, man is simply perceived as an animal that thinks.

But from the standpoint of a Phenomenological Attitude, the nature of man or the understanding of man depends on how one experiences man. Thus, with a phenomenological attitude, man can be viewed as a being that possesses freedom or a being that escapes definition. Here, man is more than a thinking animal. This means that the meaning of man can vary considerably depending on the way in which we view man, whether from the vantage point of a natural attitude or from a phenomenological attitude.

There are some techniques of doing phenomenology, of the way to go about exploring our consciousness of reality. One way of doing this is to undertake what Husserl calls Eidetic Reduction. By the way, for Husserl, eidetic reduction is a second reduction, which follows the moment we have turned our reflective awareness toward experience by employing the phenomenological reduction. In fact, eidetic reduction is a way of understanding the essence of some experience. This precisely what Husserl calls the movement from fact to essence.

In must be noted that for Husserl, epoche has two fundamental moments, namely: 1) the reduction to the sphere of immanence and 2) the movement from fact to essence. The first moment involves a suspension of the natural attitude and placing in abeyance all beliefs in the transcendental world. It is important to note that Husserl did not use the term “transcendental” in the mystical sense, for example, the way it is used in the phrase “transcendent God.” In order for us to understand Husserl’s use of the word ‘transcendent” or “transcendental,” let us posit this word vis-à-vis the term “materiality.” In Husserlian phenomenology, materiality could mean the physical existence of things, such as tables, chairs, books, trees, cars and the like. On the other hand, transcendental phenomena are those phenomena that have transcended their materiality, such as feelings, thoughts, experiences, memories, and the like. It is for this reason that Husserl’s philosophy is “transcendental” because it is concerned with the conditions of possibility that make an experience possible. Indeed, thoughts, memories, experiences and feelings serve as the conditions of possibility that make an experience possible. The second moment, sometimes called eidetic reduction, involves a shift to consider things not as realities but as instances of idealities, that is, as pure possibilities rather than actualities. In this way, objects are no longer conceived as material things, but as essences―that is, meanings, categories, ideal types, and laws.

Let me give an example in order to drive my point clearly.

We may ask the question: “What is a table?”

Here, it is important to remember, according to some scholars on Husserl, that what Husserl is after is a special moment in the inquirer’s reflective awareness, a special moment which Husserl calls intuition. Husserl distinguishes between perception and intuition. In perception, a person may perceive and be conscious of the fact that she perceives an object, but without understanding its meaning and essence. Intuition, on the other hand, is an insight into the nature and meaning of something through the experience of that something. Now, according to Husserl, eidetic reduction helps bring about an intuition into something as essence by employing a method knows as Imaginary Variation.

In imaginary variation, the inquirer varies all the possible attributes of an experience as a way of exploring what is truly necessary for it to be what it is. Thus, in the question “what is a table,” we may raise the following points:

  1. A table has four legs;
  2. A table is made up of wood;
  3. A table has a flat surface;
  4. A table is rectangular in shape;
  5. A table is used primarily for dining or putting things on it.

Or we may ask the following, as a way of varying all possible attributes of an experience:

  1. Would it still be a table if it has no legs?
  2. Would it still be a table if it has no flat surface?
  3. Would it still be a table if it is not made up of wood?
  4. Would it still be a table if it is not rectangular in shape?
  5. Would it still be a table if it is not used for dining or putting things on it?

Eventually, according to Husserl, this kind of explanation helps the inquirer reach or attain a special moment of intuition about her experience of the table. Thus, she may say: “A table is a four-legged furniture, made up of wood, has a flat surface, rectangular in shape, and is used primarily for dining or putting things on it.” This is what makes a table “a table.” Indeed, this is the nature of the phenomenon (table in this case) as it appears to us, that is, as we experienced it. According to some scholars, this is a kind of “Aha” moment in which the inquirer realizes the overall essential nature of the experience. This is exactly what is meant by the dictum: “back to the things themselves” as that which characterizes Husserl’s project. It must be noted, however, that Husserl’s famous dictum “back to the things themselves” meant “the things as we experienced them rather than take them for granted.”

Finally, some of the implications as a result of doing pure phenomenology is the realization that consciousness is intentional. For Husserl, consciousness is understood as fundamentally intentional. This means that consciousness as an act is always a consciousness “of” or “about” something. Thus, consciousness in Husserlian phenomenology is not directed toward itself, but toward phenomena in the world. It follows, therefore, that any form of thinking is based ultimately on “phenomena in the world.” For this reason, consciousness or thinking is just secondary to the lived experience of phenomena as they show themselves. This explains why for Husserl, the world of immediate or lived experience takes precedence over the objectified world of natural sciences.

In the phenomenological parlance, intentionality denotes two things. First, the intentionality of consciousness means that consciousness is always an act of doing something. Thus, consciousness is an activity. This is what is meant when Husserl said that to be conscious is to experience an act of knowing (noesis) in which the subject is aware of an object. And second, intentionality of consciousness means that consciousness is always referential, that is, consciousness is always pointing or referring to something. That is also what is meant when Husserl said that a conscious act is an act of awareness in which the subject is presented with an object (noema).

Let’s take, for example, the act of thinking about the definition of a table.

Thinking about the definition of a table involves actual thinking (noises). At the same time, it involves a referent, that is, a table (noema). At the end of it all, for Husserl, consciousness is not like a box that contains some perceptions. On the contrary, consciousness is an active ongoing referential process.

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Professor of Philosophy
Silliman University

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