The phenomenological reduction (notes for students)

The natural attitude contains within it an ability to move, a ‘natural mobility’, and this mobility is going to become the basis for the ‘reduction’ that is the central methodological core of phenomenology. Husserl says: “I can shift my standpoint in space and time, look this way and that, turn temporally forwards and backwards: I can provide for myself constantly new and more or less clear and meaningful perceptions and representations, and images also more or less clear, in which I make intuitable to myself whatever can possibly exist really or supposedly in the steadfast order of space and time” (Ideas: S27 p103).

This movement enables me to consider all possible states of existence, real or imaginary, and is grounded on the basic mobility we encounter in our experience of the world. Notice here the movement of continuity from (1) the immediate awareness that I can move to (2) the immediate awareness that I can range over and understand (in principle even if not in fact) all states of possible existence ‘real or supposed’ (real or imaginary). In going from (1) to (2) there is a subtle shift from a physical movement to an ideal and this is perhaps something to think about further. Is such a move – if it is an accurate account of Husserl’s argument – a legitimate continuity? Can we assume the same sort of movement in ideal activity as in physical? Does the physical give a model for the ideal? This seems a little off, though we should think carefully about what is actually going on here.

Assuming for the moment that such a movement is untroublesome we can see that it does seem to underlie the next key aspect of phenomenology, the reduction. If we exist in the natural attitude for the most part then to be able to ‘step outside’ this attitude to even see the fact that it exists supposes that some sort of movement has occurred. From this incredibly subtle adjustment will flow the capacity to move all the way to what Husserl calls the ‘transcendental reduction’ – but let’s take things slowly.

In the natural attitude the world is present and ‘out there’. This notion of presence and exteriority is formulated in the phrase “presence to hand” (Ideas: S31, p107). In the natural attitude we can move, both physically and ideally, whilst remaining inside this natural attitude. We can turn around (physically), we can turn our attention (ideally) to the past or future, we can imagine ideal realms such as that of mathematics or logic or geometry. All this movement is something we are aware of within the natural attitude and is part of this natural attitude. This capacity for mobility grounds what Husserl will call the “radical alteration”.

In sections 27-30 of ‘Ideas’ Husserl describes the ‘natural standpoint’ or ‘natural attitude’. He does this, he claims, “prior to all ‘theory’.” (Ideas: S30, p105). At S31 he shifts gear – “instead of now remaining at this standpoint, we propose to alter it radically” (Ideas: S31, p107). Notice that he then goes on to make it clear that he is trying to provide, in this section, an argument in principle for the possibility of the ‘alteration’ to the natural attitude that will be called the ‘reduction’. Let’s try to examine this move (what follows is a close-ish reading of the first five paragraphs of Section 31).

1) The view (General Thesis) that the ‘real world’ is a world of facts about things independent of me (“that has its being out there”) is implicit in all acts within the natural attitude. We implicitly mean ‘out there and independent of me’ when we speak of objects from within the natural attitude. When we then make statements such as ‘The trees in front of the Stephen Lawrence building exist’ we are making explicit the claim to existence which is implicit in all experiences within the natural attitude. [To explore this for yourself further look for and examine the use of the word ‘explicit’ in the second paragraph of S31].

2) An implicit thesis can be treated in exactly the same way as an explicit thesis. We can subject an implicit thesis to doubt in that we can doubt ‘everything’ (which includes any implicit theses presumably). [Third paragraph S31 – Husserl also makes it clear that he is developing a thought originally found in Descartes – “we link on here…”]

3) Absolute doubt is grounded on absolute freedom, or rather a ‘perfect’ doubt is found “in the realm of our perfect freedom”. [Fourth paragraph S31 – This is a peculiar line of thought, reminding one of the existentialists in many respects and indeed Sartre is going to develop this line of thought in his work on the imagination. It seems to play the role of argumentative premiss with little direct development or support at this point in Ideas.]

4) S31 Paragraph 5 (where a key move is made paras 6 and 7 also hold important clues and claims however)

To doubt is to doubt the ‘Being’ of “some form or other”. The idea here is to indicate that we can doubt whether a thing is formed in a particular way, but in doing so we don’t doubt that the thing is formed in some way. We can doubt, for example, that the government is formed of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet but in doing so we don’t doubt the existence of a government in some form.

The way we understand this concrete and actual doubt can now be extended, Husserl thinks, beyond actual acts of doubting to the ‘attempt’ at doubting. This is trying to draw us towards examining what is involved in an act of doubting, what the intentional structure of the act consists in. The question ‘what is it we are attempting to do when we doubt?’ might be rephrased as ‘what are we intending in our act?’.

Logically we cannot doubt and also hold to exist one and the same property – I cannot doubt it is raining whilst I stand in the rain and simultaneously stand in the rain as I would do in the natural attitude. Husserls’ central claim here is that “the attempt to doubt any object of awareness in respect of its being actually there necessarily conditions a certain suspension of the thesis”. What thesis? The ‘General Thesis’ referred to at the beginning of the Section and which he has called the ‘Natural Thesis’ which involves taking the world as fcatual and ‘out there’ or ‘being actually there’ which Husserl calls ‘vorhanden’ (otherwise translated as ‘present to hand’).

This notion of the reduction is quite peculiar however. It is critical to understand what exactly is being reduced or bracketted and the main mistake you might make is in thinking that it is reality itself that is bracketed. It is not reality that is bracketed but the Natural Thesis, the understanding of the things nature of existence, not of its existence per se. A radical Idealism would reduce all things to nothing more than aspects of mind (usually my mind or possibly the mind of God). Transcendental Idealism does not reduce the thing to being an element of mind but instead shift ground to the knowledge (in Kant) or access (more egenarlly than Kant, including Husserl) to the thing. The claim is that access to the thing will be mediated by the concepts or meanings I impose on it (this is a slightly worrisome conflation of a concept and a meaning but not one you need to worry about at the moment – you can think about it some more in your Third Year classes on Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Kant).

This passage in S31 benefits from close reading. It is not that the reduction can change the nature of existence (which would suggest a radical Idealism) nor that it removes all questions of existence – “rather it is something unique” (Ideas: S31, p108).

Let’s take an example: I stand in the pouring rain and attempt to examine it phenomenologically via the reduction. I will go through what I take to be the wrong way of analysing the phenomena to begin with and then try to pinpoint what exactly Husserls’ reduction method would in fact bracket.

According to the logical incompatibility of both doubting the particular nature of a thing and simultaneously holding to the existence of that particular nature of the thing, it would seem like I have two options with regard to analysing the ‘wetness’ of the rain. The doubt I establish in bracketing the experience of the wetness is either illusory (merely verbal, say) and I remain in the natural attitude, knowing I am getting wet, OR the doubt is actual in which case I really do step outside the natural attitude (and, some might say, my sanity) and no longer feel wet with the rain. What is being doubted here is ‘the experience of wetness’. In one case it is here and accepted and in the other it is here and yet denied. This way of formulating the reduction makes it seem simply irrational and contradictory or at best an attempt to put forward the argument that the world is simply ‘my experience’ and not a ‘real experience’ (ie; an argument to illusion).

Let’s try another way of formulating the reduction. I am standing in the pouring rain, I experience getting wet. I carry out the reduction and attempt to doubt the experience – it’s raining and I feel wet but, I say to myself, suppose I was in fact not getting wet? Again this is NOT the reduction, it is “a transformation into presumption etc” (ibid). Again, the problem is that this is an argument to the possibility of illusion and this is not phenomenology.

So let’s start again. We accept the experience. We do not try to doubt the experience itself – I am clearly getting wet and it is cold, damp and rather unpleasnt as I’ve now been standing here quite a while and am soaked through to my skin. In attempting to doubt the experience itself is not changed but what is bracketed is the way in which the experience is ‘naturally lived’. normally I simply respond to the rain by avoiding it, trying to stay dry or occasionally revlling in the wetness and playing in the water. I have not bracketed and suspended the experience itself but the WAY IN WHICH THE EXPERIENCE IS LIVED IN THE NATURAL ATTITUDE. This is where the disconnection comes in – not a disconnection from the experience itself but from the way it is lived and this disconnection does not deny the way the experience is lived but precisely takes this lived experience as its data, as what is INSIDE the brackets. I am still getting wet but I have, for the first time, a possible route to access the way in which I ‘live’ getting wet and the implicit meanings involved in such an experience and connected experiences such as ‘avoiding the rain’, ‘playing in the rain’ and the like.

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

One Response

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  1. Maria
    Maria at |

    Thank you – a wonderfully kind & patient explanation of Husserl’s reduction which I battled to get a grip on! Now I have a vivid picture and experience in my mind – I even started thinking about poets and how their minds work at the end of the ‘story’!?!

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