What is the Natural Attitude?

It is impossible to understand Husserlian phenomenology without understanding Husserl’s conception of the natural attitude. In this post, then, I will describe what Husserl means by the “natural attitude” and also outline the consequences of attempting to do philosophy from the natural standpoint. Stated briefly, the natural attitude is, for Husserl, simply the general positing of the world as something out there and independent, and of myself as a being in the world.1 Said another way, the natural attitude is essentially a naïve, pre-philosophical realism. Bear in mind, Husserl does not think that (most of the time) we are aware that we are positing the world in this way. Rather, this thesis of the natural attitude is operative behind the scenes in all our normal activities. Thus, the natural attitude forms the basis of ordinary life, as well as of the natural sciences.

However, as I have indicated in a previous post, for Husserl philosophy cannot become a rigorous science within the natural attitude, since the foundational philosophy must be presuppositionless and apodictic. In other words, in the natural attitude, numerous things are taken for granted and simply assumed to be the case, most particularly the [foundational] “presupposition” that the world and all that is in it are real.2 Thus, scholar John Scanlon writes that the natural attitude is natural “in the sense that it pertains to the nature of experience itself, prior to and independent of any philosophical theorizing.”3 In other words, it is the fundamental, pre-philosophical standpoint, but for Husserl a radically presuppositionless philosophy must go beyond it. 

Moreover, Scanlon argues that the natural attitude is also natural in that an individual living within it is “predisposed to view the world in its entirety as a merely natural environment and to view nature itself as a purely objective mechanical system of physical energy.”4 This outcome of the natural attitude is perfectly acceptable, and even necessary, for the methods of the natural sciences (e.g., physics). However, this can lead to serious problems for philosophy. In other words, for Husserl the attempt to philosophize within the natural attitude inevitably leads to naturalism. Naturalism can take many forms, but essentially it is the conception of consciousness as simply another “thing” in physical nature, subject to the determinism of physical causality. As Wenjing Cai writes, “A naturalistic view is characterized by the idea of reality or nature as the realm of law in opposition to the subjective realm of meaning and reason.”5

Husserl argues that one of the main problems with modern philosophy is its tendency toward naturalism. Naturalistic psychologism, for example, considers logic to be dependent on psychology, meaning that we think the way we do simply because our psyches happen to be structured in a certain way. Thus, for a proponent of psychologism, a being with a differently structured psyche would have a different logic and an alien truth. For example, as Joseph Cohen and Dermot Moran write, “Husserl accuses Kant and certain neo-Kantians of being guilty of anthropologism when they understand logical laws as constraints governing the human mind rather than as purely formal a priori truths.”6 Another kind of naturalism is empiricism, which maintains that all knowledge is of individuals and is grounded in sensible experience. Thus, empiricism would reject the notion of the synthetic a priori truth (i.e., a truth that is universal, necessary, and not a mere tautology) and so also the vision of essences.   

However, Husserl argues that naturalism is absurd and even self-contradictory. Specifically, naturalism implicitly asserts what it sets out to deny.  For example, empiricism’s claim that all knowledge is empirical is not itself derived from experience. Indeed, the central tenant of empiricism, viz, the non-existence of synthetic a priori truths, seems itself to be a synthetic a priori claim, as it is neither analytic nor a posteriori. Said another way, the justification for empiricism’s rejection of essences and its reduction of experience to sensory experience cannot be found in sensory experience. By contrast, Husserl argues that consciousness is irreducible to nature, and that the world is “within the space of reasons through and through.”7 Experience, for Husserl, includes eidetic intuition. Moreover, psychologism undermines the validity of its statements by reducing logic to psychology. In other words, if the validity of judgment is simply the product of contingent psychological structures, then the claim that psychologism is true is nothing more than the assertion that some people have certain psychological states. This means that, for Husserl, psychologism is self-defeating. Ultimately, empiricism, psychologism, and all forms of naturalism arise because of the attempt to philosophize within the natural attitude.

Therefore, in order to achieve apodicticity and avoid naturalism, Husserl maintains that the philosopher operate from an entirely different standpoint and so must suspend the natural attitude. What is this new standpoint and how is the natural attitude suspended? That will be the topic of my next post: the phenomenological reduction.

What do you think about Husserl’s conception of the natural attitude? Do you agree that philosophizing within it inevitably leads to naturalism? Share your thoughts in the comment section and subscribe for future posts.

1 Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, II, 1, §27-30, trans. W.R. Boyce Gibson (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2017), 101-106.

2 Edmund Husserl, “Kant and the Idea of Transcendental Philosophy,” trans. Ted E. Kein and William E. Pohl, Southwestern Journal of Philosophy 5, no. 3 (1974), 22. 

3 John Scanlon, “Husserl‘s Ideas and the Natural Concept of the World,” In Edmund Husserl and the Phenomenological Tradition: Essays in Phenomenology, ed. Robert Sokolowski, (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 232-233.  

4 Scanlon, “Natural Concept of the World,” 233.  

5 Wenjing Cai, “Compatibility and Tensions between Transcendental Idealism and Common-Sense Realism — Husserl and McDowell,” Comparative & Continental Philosophy 10, no. 1 (2018), 96.

6 Dermot Moran and Joseph Cohen, The Husserl Dictionary, (New York: Continuum, 2012), 33-34. 

7 Cai, “Husserl and McDowell,” 93.


2 responses to “What is the Natural Attitude?”

  1. Bad Hombre Avatar
    Bad Hombre

    Excellent essay. Thank you for this detailed explanation of the concept of the natural attitude.

    Most people are primarily interested in superficial things and live at the surface, not going very deep into themselves, hence their experiences can be very shallow.

    They are adverse to hearing or are disinterested or don’t understand philosophy, it either appears as mental masturbation and/or can be a threat to their belief systems.

    This is a the life of Plato’s cave dwellers…content to interact with the shadow, the symbols, of reality.

    A deep understanding of life requires more than intellectual knowledge alone.

    The natural attitude is the everyday, uncritical common sense way in which we live in the world, a perspective wherein we presume ourselves independent from the things around us, that is, we egoistically consider ourselves to be the subject amongst a world of objects, the “measurer” or determinant of values, and yet, at the same time, we presume that all things are controlled by various laws; these presumptions of science impose concretion and precision onto the natural world that is wholly foreign to the actual way in which we experience the world.

    In the natural attitude, like everyday life, we can’t function without taking such ideas as space, time, number, free will, cause and effect, knowledge, language, right and wrong for granted most of the time.

    The way I understand it (I look forward to your next post for clarification,) the philosophic or phenomenological attitude is one of deep critical thinking, where everything can be questioned, the assumptions of physicalism are suspect and the world is one of unity not separation, objects and measurement.

    It seems that problems would inevitably arrive if we mix our natural attitude perspective with our philosophical attitude perspective and combining these two attitudes results in paradox and confusion.

    For example, within the natural attitude a table is solid, whereas within the philosophical attitude a table is 99.99% empty space.

    Do you see any concepts where these two attitudes overlap and agree? What exists in the intersection of their respective Venn diagrams?

    1. Michael Teoli Avatar

      Thank you for your excellent and insightful comment! Your allusion to Plato’s cave dwellers is very pertinent, and you are correct to note that in the philosophical attitude we cannot unquestioningly accept the assumptions of physicalism. Indeed, as you write, attempting to philosophize within the natural attitude results in “paradox and confusion.”

      For Husserl, the natural attitude in unadulterated form is perfectly acceptable and indeed necessary. After all, in order to live, work, and do our ordinary activities, we must take for granted the world and our place within it. And even the natural scientific attitude is correct, as long as it remains strictly within the realm of natural science. In other words, problems only arise when the natural scientist treats his physical scientific method and perspective as philosophical, when the natural attitude becomes naturalism. To build on your example, problems arise when the physicist says that the ordinary view of the table as solid is wrong or illusory. For, the table is both solid as an object in the pre-scientific “Life World” and it is mostly empty space as an object in the world of mathematized scientific ideality. Both claims are true, but from different perspectives. However, the compatibility of these apparently incompatible claims can only be recognized within the philosophical attitude. To say it another way, while the ordinary, everyday standpoint of the natural attitude correctly views the table as solid, and while the scientific standpoint of the natural attitude correctly analyzes the table as mostly empty space, the philosophical attitude rises above both the ordinary and the scientific standpoints in order to clarify them and make them distinct.

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