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How to think like a phenomenologist | Psyche

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Guide

How to think like a phenomenologist

Doing Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological reduction will transform your view of the world and your own consciousness

Photo by Jason Wells/Getty

Need to know

Ever since Plato started telling stories about people trapped in caves, philosophers have pondered the relationship between the mind and reality. How can we be sure that the world we think we know is the real world? After all, we’ve all been mistaken before – a person in a store window might turn out to be a mannequin, or two lines that appear to be curved might actually be parallel – so how can we be certain we know reality as it truly is?

Movies such as Shutter Island (2010) and Total Recall (1990) have shown what such a mismatch between our knowledge and reality might look like with dramatic flair (apologies for spoiling a decade-old and a three-decade-old movie, respectively). Perhaps the world in which we think we live is just an elaborate ruse designed to accommodate us or an artificially implanted memory. Perhaps the ‘real world’ lies somewhere beyond our mundane experiences. If that were the case, would we even be able to tell?

The Hering illusion: are the red lines straight, or bowed? Courtesy Wikipedia

Indeed, some philosophers have asked an even more troubling question: how do we know that there is a world beyond our own minds at all? We’ve all had experiences that seemed incredibly lifelike – for instance, dreams (or nightmares) – but that we later learned to be figments of our imagination. Idealists such as the philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) have used this point, alongside other evidence, to suggest that perhaps there is no world outside our minds at all – reality is simply a matter of our own perceptions.

All these possibilities revolve around the question of the relation between mind and reality. This topic has puzzled human beings for thousands of years, and it continues to be debated even today. Indeed, some thinkers consider this question to be the most fundamental issue in all of philosophy or even human life in general. Must we solve this most bewildering of conundrums before anything else we do can have meaning?

The world as experienced

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), the founder of the philosophical subdiscipline known as phenomenology, didn’t think so. Instead, he wanted to raise a very different question. Why, he asked, does it matter? Do we really have to waste our time dealing with such an intractable and convoluted question, or can we find a way to put it aside and focus on what is really important?

One of the primary goals of phenomenology is precisely to get past this thorny issue of the world’s existence apart from our experience so that we can investigate a much more directly relevant topic: the world exactly as we experience it. By setting aside the ordinary philosophical distinction between consciousness and reality, we open up a wide variety of investigations that can help us better understand our ordinary lives.

Still, how is it possible to avoid this messy problem of the relation between mind and reality, which has gotten the better of so many great thinkers throughout history? Husserl’s answer is simple: we just have to do the phenomenological reduction. The reduction is an approach to thinking that explicitly sets aside any questions about mind or reality by themselves and classifies them as beyond the bounds of philosophical enquiry. Instead, from within the reduction, we can focus on what phenomenology views as its primary aim: the intrinsic connections (or, in technical terms, the correlational a priori) between our consciousness and the world in terms of how we experience it. We begin with introspection – Husserl notes that ‘[a]fter all, I could exercise reduction only by starting out from myself’ – but we ultimately relate our consciousness to the world as we experience it: ‘My own human psyche, therefore, I can make evident as a manifestation of the absolute.’ If Husserl and other phenomenologists are right that the reduction is a useful approach to philosophy, then this way of thinking might offer important insights that we would be unable to attain without getting past the millennia-old puzzle that the reduction seeks to avoid.

As we will see, the transformed mindset that is accomplished through the phenomenological reduction can also have tremendous consequences for our understanding of both the world and ourselves even outside this philosophical context. The clarity of thinking that the reduction can produce is certainly useful for philosophers, who – at least according to Husserl – need to maintain a high degree of precision in thinking through the issues they consider. But this uniquely focused way of looking at ourselves and our lives can also provide a new perspective on a broad swathe of our ordinary lives, from our most mundane experiences to our understanding of our place in a world in which, even setting aside the question of whether or not it really exists, we always have to live. The reduction can help us think more clearly about what the content of our experiences actually is (instead of what we merely assume those experiences mean). Even if it’s not the easiest perspective to develop or maintain, doing the phenomenological reduction is an interesting and worthwhile endeavour for philosophers and nonspecialists alike.

Think it through

The reduction requires rigour

So, what does it really mean to get down to business and perform the phenomenological reduction? First, let’s think through what is required to carry out this mental shift. Luckily, Husserl was a phenomenologist, so there’s nothing to buy, nor is there any equipment to pick up (except maybe a pencil and a sheet of paper – you don’t want to forget any insights you might have while phenomenologising!). In fact, since phenomenology can be defined (in just a bit of an oversimplification) as the study of our conscious experience, all you really need is your own consciousness – and if you’re reading this Guide, you’ve already got that squared away.

Nevertheless, the reduction is not simply a matter of continuing our ordinary ways of thinking. One of phenomenology’s main points is the need for rigour – that is, we should be very careful not to allow our thinking to become sloppy by giving in to ingrained habits or unconscious biases that might interfere with our ability to understand the world around us as we truly experience it.

Attending to the natural attitude

As such, the first step in the reduction is to be as clear as possible about what we actually experience versus what we merely assume. This step is more difficult than it might seem. After all, this rigour is not something we tend to practise every day. Instead, from the moment we wake up (indeed, to some extent, from the moment we’re born), we make all sorts of assumptions: this room I see around me, these walls, my keyboard, my chair, etc, all really exist whether or not I (or anyone else) happen to be perceiving them.

Even when we employ more rigorous types of thinking, such as when a physicist or chemist engages in scientific enquiry, these assumptions continue to lurk in the background – the chemist does not hesitate to assume that the chemical reactions she observes exist independently of her perceptions. In general, aside from the time we might set aside specifically to address philosophical questions (and often not even then), we don’t tend to question these underlying assumptions; rather, we accept them simply as the way things are.

Husserl never claims that such assumptions are a bad thing. This way of looking at the world is our natural state (he calls it the ‘natural attitude’), and we can no more give it up entirely than we could decide to grow wings and fly away. The natural attitude helps us get by in our daily lives; I don’t need to think about whether my desk chair or keyboard really exist to sit down on the one and start typing away on the other. For most purposes, these assumptions are perfectly acceptable, useful, and even indispensable – even if we cannot prove them to be undoubtedly true in a way that would rule out a Shutter Island-style deception.

Nonetheless, there are some reasons why we might want to consider issues lying beyond this level. From within the natural attitude, there are certain aspects of our ordinary lives that it never occurs to us to consider more closely. As Husserl puts it, we are ordinarily subject to a ‘universal “prejudice” of world-experience, which hiddenly pervades all naturalness’ – a prejudice of which we are normally not even aware. To attain a deeper level of understanding, however, we must put into question all of those ordinary assumptions – and thus become entangled in the problematic question of the relation between mind and reality.

Accordingly, the phenomenological reduction requires us to distinguish as clearly as possible between those parts of our worlds that are actually direct features of our experience and those that we merely infer. It is intrinsically part of the experience of looking at a tree, for instance, that we see certain shapes and colours, and even that we feel a sense of understanding of what we see as a tree, an idea that has connections to all sorts of other ideas we might have (leaves, photosynthesis, Arbor Day, etc) – but what is merely assumed in this experience is that this tree exists as something completely external to my experience, that it is entirely separate from my consciousness of it and would continue to exist even if there were no conscious beings at all. Husserl refers to aspects of my experience such as the former examples of shape and colour as being ‘directly given’ in experience (ie, given to us by the tree itself, insofar as it is the sort of thing that is capable of being experienced), while aspects such as the tree’s supposed external existence outside consciousness are merely very common assumptions.

Suspending judgment

Once we are clear about these distinctions, we can take the key step in the phenomenological reduction: namely, the mental shift that Husserl calls the epoché, an ancient Greek term meaning ‘stoppage’ or ‘cessation’, but here perhaps more specifically rendered as ‘suspension of judgment’. The reduction by no means requires us to abandon these assumptions or treat them as false – after all, even if we cannot be certain that the tree ‘really exists’ apart from consciousness, the opposite assumption is no more justified.

Nonetheless, in the phenomenological reduction, we must treat what is not directly given in experience as out of bounds when it comes to philosophical investigation. From the point of view of a creature like us, it makes no difference whether the tree exists apart from conscious experience; either way, we can still make useful claims and predictions about the tree insofar as we experience it. (After all, whether or not the tree is ‘really there’, I still need to duck under its branches when walking by if I don’t want to experience the sensations of hitting my head and falling down!) Our focus in performing the reduction is on what we mean when we experience things, not solely on what things are by themselves. As Husserl puts it, through the ‘epoché we effect a reduction to our pure meaning … and to the meant, purely as meant.’

From inside the reduction, philosophy is less a matter of confirming or denying claims about a reality that exists independently of our experience and more a matter of describing the ways in which we encounter the world around ourselves through our experience (Husserl calls this process ‘universal description’). The reduction shifts our focus from what the world is to what the world means for us. Once I stop worrying about whether the tree is really there when nobody is perceiving it, I can focus in more concrete detail on how I relate to the tree – whether it represents an obstacle in my path or a pleasant provider of shade on a sunny day.

Carrying out this shift is not a trivial task. This way of thinking runs counter to our ordinary ways of thinking about the world around us. If the unquestioned assumption that everything we experience has an independent reality characterises the so-called natural attitude, then the attitude we take up through the phenomenological reduction is a very unnatural attitude indeed. It requires us to be as precise as possible when describing what genuinely is (or is not) given in our experience, and that kind of single-minded focus takes extensive practice.

The practice necessary to change our thinking in this way is not terribly different from the sort of meditative focus that has been a cornerstone of many religions and philosophical traditions, such as some forms of Buddhism – and, certainly, that sort of meditation does not come without effort. Performing the phenomenological reduction properly and maintaining a consistent focus on the genuine givens within our ordinary lives is, according to Husserl, the only way we have of really thinking about the actual content of our experiences – the only way in which we can avoid mistaking the assumptions that we constantly make for the real thing.

Examining pure consciousness

So, after the reduction has been performed and everything not genuinely given in experience has been set aside, what remains for us to think about? Quite a lot, it turns out. The reduction does not strip away the world entirely, leaving nothing but our own thoughts and ideas (as idealists such as Berkeley might imagine). Rather, through the reduction we can (re)discover, not only ourselves as conscious beings, but also the entire world – as long as that world is understood as innately connected to our own experiences, ie, as a world of phenomena, rather than as something completely independent.

As Husserl puts it: ‘when phenomenological reduction is consistently executed, there is left us … the openly endless life of pure consciousness and, as its correlate … the meant world, purely as meant.’ Once we limit our investigations to this level – and if we take care to maintain rigour and avoid unwarranted assumptions – we find a wide variety of genuinely given experiential content that we ordinarily take for granted in the natural attitude, but which we can now examine more clearly than ever.

In particular, we discover that what we are truly investigating is neither merely ourselves as isolated thinkers nor a world separate from our experience, but rather the connections between the two. Thinking about ourselves through the reduction is a radical type of introspection, one that simultaneously reveals how we are always reaching beyond ourselves to engage with a world that, in turn, gives itself to our consciousness. By setting aside the question of the mutual independence of mind and reality, the reduction opens up a vast field of new possibilities for us to explore both topics in terms of how they are intimately connected to one another.

From this perspective, I cannot think of myself without considering the world of which I am always conscious – and I cannot explore that world without remarking on the ways in which it interacts with the very consciousness that allows me to perceive it. Instead of separating the two, the phenomenological reduction allows us to see more clearly than ever that we are constantly connected to everything around us (at least, insofar as we have already set aside any questions about the independent existence of that ‘everything’ as required by the reduction).

Thinking through these interconnections allows us to consider ourselves in ways that would never occur to us in the natural attitude. It allows us to think, not merely about what is going on when we see a tree, but also what it means for us to be able to see a tree at all. An example of low-hanging fruit (pardon the pun) in this context is Husserl’s description of how visual experience works – no matter the actual content of what I see, he notes, I can always be sure that whatever I see has a back side (even if that back side might not look like I expect it to, and even if other types of experience, such as hearing a melody, don’t work this way at all).

The point is that, once we have performed the reduction, we can examine different aspects of our experience in this unique way and acquire new insights about ourselves and our world that may turn out to be extremely important. The reduction is only the beginning – once we reach this point, much work remains to be done to describe as carefully as possible what is really going on in our experiences. If I want to understand what a tree truly means for me from within the phenomenological reduction, I actually have to go out and experience a tree in all sorts of ways: seeing it, touching it, sitting with my back against it as I read a good book. Only by putting in the work of describing all of these experiences as rigorously and accurately as possible can I start to understand what this part of my everyday life really means – and that’s just one small part of my life as a whole. But performing the reduction is what allows this work to be done at all, and so, even if more work always lies ahead, the reduction serves as an important starting point for understanding ourselves anew.

While the phenomenological reduction remains accessible to everyone who can think, it cannot be mastered overnight. Nonetheless, since practice in this way of thinking is both simple to begin and, if Husserl and other phenomenologists are right, a fruitful way of gaining new and unique insights into our own lives, it might just be worth your while to give it a try.

Key points – How to think like a phenomenologist

  1. Thinking about how the mind knows reality is an age-old issue. However, solving this longstanding philosophical question may not be necessary in order to think usefully about our ordinary lives.
  2. Phenomenology is about how you experience the world. The goal is simple: to look only at the nature of your experience. Achieving that vantage point, however, is challenging.
  3. The phenomenological reduction requires rigorous attention. In order to really understand the nature of experience, you must think carefully and slowly. Doing phenomenology takes time – and focus.
  4. Attend to the natural attitude. What are the assumptions you make about your experience in order to go about your daily life? Those assumptions constitute your natural attitude.
  5. Suspend your judgment. Now set aside your natural attitude as best you can in order to get at the essential qualities of experience unblemished by day-to-day assumptions. This act is called the epoché.
  6. Examine pure consciousness. Once you’ve bracketed off the natural attitude, all that remains is the essence of existence. Here is where phenomenology truly begins.

Why it matters

The phenomenological reduction and the lifeworld

Does this way of thinking about the relation between mind and reality mean that we should walk around all the time living in the epoché or excluding any thought of a world beyond our own minds? Of course not! First – as Husserl himself noted – that would be impossible. We live in all sorts of ‘attitudes’, of which the phenomenological attitude is only one. Just as (to use Husserl’s example) a botanist has to leave her scientific attitude of carefully analysing a rose’s biology and take up an artistic attitude to see the flower’s beauty, not even the most experienced phenomenologist can stay in the phenomenological attitude forever.

Second, any such attempt would run counter to the entire purpose of phenomenology: to help us better understand the experiences we have every day. After all, the reduction, as intellectually challenging as it might be, is not a purely intellectual exercise. Instead, the point of bracketing all the assumptions we make in ordinary life is precisely to leave the natural attitude so that we can study the natural attitude itself more carefully.

The ‘world’ that we study through the reduction – the world just as it is experienced – is the same world in which we live every day in the natural attitude. To emphasise its entanglement with lived experience, Husserl calls this view of reality as something with which we are always intimately involved the Lebenswelt (a German Frankenword meaning ‘lifeworld’). Ultimately, it is this lifeworld that the phenomenological reduction helps us to understand – even if the reduction is an ‘unnatural attitude’ that takes us outside everyday experience, it always brings us back again so that we can apply the insights we gain from thinking things through philosophically to the most important context: our ordinary lives.

The implications of the phenomenological reduction

Accordingly, by constraining our thinking through the phenomenological reduction, we attain a perspective (or, rather, a variety of different perspectives) on our own lives that we would otherwise overlook. We can then use this perspective to unlock new insights into all of the various regions of the lifeworld. Want to know more about how we experience music or what types of melodies and rhythms produce what sorts of effects? Practise the reduction and focus on the phenomena involved in hearing and the appreciation of art. Interested in why people might disagree about a difficult moral dilemma, such as whether or not it’s ever OK to lie? Put on your phenomenological glasses and turn your gaze toward our experiences of values, especially the moral values at stake.

And the benefits of phenomenology extend to many other topics throughout our lives, from our relationships with others to experiences of physical pleasure and pain, and even to our professional lives (not just for academic philosophers!). If you wanted to put the insights of the reduction to use in a business context, for example, you might look at the Danish consulting company ReD Associates. According to ReD, phenomenological thinking can be a helpful tool to plan out business strategies – for instance, a company developing a marketing blitz for a new toy line might examine how children play from a phenomenological perspective to figure out what features might be particularly important to the kids who are going to receive the toys.

Similarly, in the context of medical care, nurses and other healthcare providers can employ a phenomenological perspective to help them better understand how their patients experience different kinds of medical treatment, which can both soothe patient fears and improve medical outcomes. When it comes to the humane treatment of animals, people such as Temple Grandin have even adopted a phenomenological approach to understand the way that livestock experience places like farms and slaughterhouses, and the resulting insights have led to changes in those institutions to reduce animal suffering. From businesses such as ReD to nurses to animal rights advocates, people trying to understand and grapple with countless aspects of our daily lives have made extensive use of insights drawn from phenomenological methods. It may not be the easiest way of thinking to practise, but nothing worth doing ever really is.

In the end, the phenomenological reduction is a tool that can help us think about what we are doing every day in novel ways. Granted, if Husserl and other phenomenologists throughout the past century are right, it is an indispensable way of thinking for philosophers – just the thing to let us get around the difficult problem of the relation between mind and reality and really get down to philosophical work. But, as we have seen, the reduction also has fruitful implications beyond that context. No matter what scale you want to consider, bracketing every question and speculation that is not genuinely given in your lived experience is a helpful way of understanding those experiences as they really are. Ultimately, whether doing philosophy or living our ordinary lives, the reduction is an important means of accomplishing phenomenology’s foremost goal: getting back to the things themselves!

Links & books

Although I can’t say he’s the easiest-to-read author, I always recommend going straight to the source: in this case, Edmund Husserl. The reduction is an important theme throughout his writings, but its most accessible treatment is probably in his (relatively short) book Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology (1931).

For a more technical treatment of this topic than this Guide, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a solid entry on ‘The Phenomenological Reduction’.

Since acquiring the concentration to maintain the reduction for any length of time is tricky, practice in meditation can be helpful; on this subject, I recommend (among other possibilities) Daniel M Ingram’s book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (2008).

Movies with unreliable narrators can often highlight the importance of distinguishing between what is actually given and what is assumed; in this context, I recommend the classic film Rashomon (1950), by the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, and the American crime drama The Usual Suspects (1995).

Although it might be self-serving to mention it, several examples of how phenomenological insights can help us understand our everyday lives can be found in my own book, Towards a Phenomenology of Values: Investigations of Worth (2021); if you’ve enjoyed my writing here and are interested in how we experience values such as beauty or goodness, you might want to check it out.

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16 March 2022

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