Phenomenology and the ‘natural attitude’

Let’s begin by looking at the ‘natural attitude’.  In the ‘Ideas’ (class reader extracts), sections 27, 28, 29 and 30 contain the core outline of the ‘natural attitude’ (NA) that will concern us at the moment.

Before going any further let me give a ‘pre-philosophical’ definition: the NA is that attitude in which we normally stand, the way in which we go about our life, prior to all questioning of what we are doing or thinking.  The NA is like the unquestioned life, as it were.

Next, I want to point to a key moment found in Section 30 (entitled ‘The general thesis of the natural standpoint’).  The description that is given in S27 is discussed by Husserl and he says that “that which we have submitted towards the characterisation of what is given to us from the natural standpoint, and thereby of the natural standpoint itself, was a piece of pure description prior to all theory.” (Ideas:105).  The phrase I want to point out as crucially important here is this ‘what is given to us from …and thereby of…‘.  What is given to us FROM the natural standpoint is also thereby OF the natural standpoint.  The description, in other words, is both given by the natural standpoint (FROM) and is an accurate account (OF) as well.  This crucial thought is what makes the phenomenological description no longer a subjective account but rather the bringing forward of a ‘given’ from which we can then begin to philosophise.  Why should it be OF the natural standpoint?  If the description is given as a description of the immediate experience of simply being in the NA, then we can all verify this immediately with our own self-evidence.  The description is BEFORE any theory, Husserl says.  We can approach this critically not by simply rejecting the description as accurate or inaccurate by as self-evident or not.  If the self-evidence is unclear then the right approach is to try and describe, yourself, the exact same situation of simple presence to the world in its most self-evident form, prior to any theory.  This ‘prior to any theory’ includes any theory of truth.  We do not understand the description (in S27 in this case) as a case of correspondence with the real, the point of the description is precisely to bring the real, the given, to us, in the description.  The role of self-evidence here, the idea that the self-evident nature of the description is what is intended indicates the crucial role of self-evidence that first arises in relation to logical truths, the truth of which is prior to any theory of truth but exhibits truth in the form of self-evidence (couldn’t be otherwise, or perhaps think of something along the lines of the ‘clear and distinct’ of Descartes – the description of our presence to the world should present itself to us as self-evident, as clear and distinct, as the truth of the cogito or the truths of logic).

The other thing to note that is absolutely critical is that this ‘OF’ phrase (the description is ‘of’ the natural attitude) indicates that the description presents the core meaning of the natural attitude.  It is not just its form that is presented but its meaning as well, and some of the meaning is implicit.  It will be the job of phenomenological analysis to make explicit what is implicit, that is, what meaning is implicit.  The value of the natural attitude is given in the description, albeit implicitly for the most part.  Husserl begins the process of analysis by making explicit the nature of ‘trust’ in the world that is implicit in the natural attitude, the idea that in the NA we simply trust that the world is there for us, that in fact this simple trust in a sense constitutes a key part of the NA itself. The idea here is that if we were not trusting the world, if we were engaging in sceptical enquiry for example, we would already, by engaging in such scepticism, no longer be simply in the NA, we would have already shifted to a sceptical attitude, we might say.  As I mentioned in the lecture, this attitude is expressed beautifully in the simple phrase from Wittgenstein (On Certainty) in which he says that “doubt comes after belief”.  The NA is constituted (made up by) an attitude of trust or naive belief in the presence of the world to us.  This value or meaning is as present to us in te natural attitude as anything you might want to think of that is more ‘sensation’ like, in fact it might even be argued that the meaning is more present than the sensation since it forms the very way in which the sensation is experienced.  In the sceptical attitude, for example, the sensation we have is not one that we immediately and simply accept and as such is a radically different sensation from that which we have in the NA itself.  We might lean back against a wall ‘unthinkingly’ in the NA because we simply trust, whereas in the sceptical attitude we might lean back cautiously and the sensation of the wall would not go unnoticed but would offer something like a relief or confirmation as well as simply its presence.

So the presence of the world which Husserl claims as a fundamental property of our basic (natural) mode of consciousness is given in the description which is neither true nor false but which either works (in making the ‘basic mode of consciousness’ present to us via self-evident presence) or doesn’t work (fails in that task of making the ‘basic mode of consciousness’ present): it is at best a good or bad description but not (properly speaking) wrong or right.

The issue of whether it is possible to get an argument going from the descriptions is critical but it’s a different problem from whether Husserls’ descriptions work or not.  If they don’t work for you, test them – come up with your own.  (I recommend spending some time with the descriptions in S27 of Ideas and really allowing yourself to think about them).

As already mentioned, Husserl suggests that the value of trust is crucial to the NA but he also draws out some other curious implicit meanings, most peculiarly this idea of an ‘infinite horizon’.  The world seems to just be there for us in the NA but it also seems to just extend to infinity and this extension is spatial, temporal and ideal. There is no edge, there is no beginning or end and there is no limit to the imagination.  It is in regard to this that Husserl speaks of the ‘zone of indeterminacy’ (Ideas:102) and the ‘dimly apprehended depth of fringe of indeterminate reality (ibid).

Aside from this peculiar – but also seemingly self-evident – nature of an infinite presence of the world, there is another key characteristic within the natural attitude and that is the concept of mobility.  Within the complete presence we find ourselves in within the NA we also find ourselves free to move – to turn left, right; to look into the future or the past and to conceive of a whole realm of ideal entities such as mathematical entities in which we can absorb ourselves and then return to the NA without it being changed in any way.  We have both a presence and a mobility within the NA and it is this mobility that will become the springboard for the ‘reduction’, the key methodological move of phenomenology.

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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