The Phenomenological Reduction: rising above the world

Over my last few posts, I have outlined various aspects of Husserlian phenomenology, including the descriptive method, the meaning of essences, and the natural attitude. In this post, I will describe Husserl’s conception of the phenomenological reduction. As I have explained previously, Husserl argues that we cannot philosophize within the natural attitude without serious problems, ambiguities, and paradoxes arising. Further, Husserl maintains that phenomenology, as the foundational philosophy, must be presuppositionless if it is to arrive at certain and universal knowledge. Therefore, in order to achieve apodicticity and avoid naturalism, Husserl argues that the philosopher must suspend the natural attitude. In other words, the world and our positing of it must be “bracketed,” “disconnected,” or “set out of action,”1 allowing us to consider that which is given to consciousness just as it is given. This is what Husserl refers to as the “phenomenological reduction.”2

In the natural attitude, we consider the object of perception as a real spatial thing that is affecting our real psyche according to causal laws. We believe the thing is out there, and we participate in this belief. To use an analogy, in the natural attitude, it is as if the world is a valley and we are in this valley, seeing things from the ground level and living within the valley’s ecosystem.

However, we cannot contemplate the valley from within the valley. Thus, a change of standpoint is required. However, this alteration of attitude does not alter anything in the world. As Husserl explains, after the phenomenological reduction, the “posited reality” is no longer there in its concrete existence, and yet “everything remains…as of old.”3 To use an example of a tree in the garden: we suspend the positing of the tree’s real existence, but we do not deny its real existence: its real existence does not concern us. We are interested instead with how it is given in and to consciousness. In other words, we no longer participate in our positings, but they still remain along with the ontical character of the posited objectivity. As Husserl writes, “the phenomenologically reduced perceptual experience is a perception of ‘this apple-tree in bloom, in this garden, and so forth.’”4 Instead of focusing on the tree out there, we focus on our conscious act of experiencing the tree: and because all consciousness is consciousness of something, when we contemplate the act of consciousness, we are also necessarily contemplating the objective correlate of the act, i.e., the tree as perceived.

As Husserl writes, the phenomenological attitude “consists in a splitting of the Ego: in that the phenomenological Ego establishes himself as ‘disinterested onlooker’, above the naively interested Ego.”5 To extend the analogy from before, in the phenomenological attitude, it is as if we rise above the valley (and even above ourselves as a dweller within the valley) and contemplate it from above: we do not alter anything about the valley, nor do we deny its existence; instead, we radically change our standpoint.

According to Husserl, by thus founding philosophy on the region of pure subjectivity, we can make philosophy a rigorous science and achieve apodicticity. 

In order to fully comprehend the phenomenological reduction, it is helpful to contrast it to two things which are related and yet other than it. First, the phenomenological reduction is not Descartes’ universal doubt. For, while Husserl holds Descartes in great respect, even considering him to be the first transcendental philosopher, Husserl makes it clear that he is adopting neither Descartes’ entire method nor the content of his philosophy. As he writes, one of his goals is to “reawaken the impulse of the Cartesian Meditations: not to adopt their content, but, in not doing so, to renew with greater intensity the radicalness of their spirit, the radicalness of self-responsibility.”6 However, for Husserl, the Ego is not a “little tag-end of the world,” and so the ego cogito is not a mere premise for a series of deductions, as seems to be the case for Descartes.7 Furthermore, Husserl writes that Descartes’s universal doubt is essentially an attempt at “universal denial.”8 Husserl, by contrast, is not denying anything given in the natural attitude, nor is he skeptical of the world’s existence. In other words, to suspend the positing of existence is essentially distinct from negating a positing or even attempting to negate it. 

Second, the phenomenological reduction is not the same as propositional or critical reflection. Robert Sokolowski explains that in propositional reflection a proposed state of affairs is (so to speak) put in quotation marks in order to verify its truthfulness. In other words, a proposed state of affairs, no longer simply accepted, is supposed and as such becomes a proposition. For example, if I am standing in an orchard and am told that this before me is an apple tree, I might simply accept the statement unquestioningly as a state of affairs simpliciter. However, if the shape of the leaves suddenly reminds me of a cherry tree, I may begin to doubt the proposed state of affairs. In that case, the apple tree here and now becomes “the apple tree here and now,” simply as proposed, and belief becomes mere supposal. Upon further investigation, I may decide that the proposition is true, in which case it returns to its former status as a state of affairs. Or I might determine that it is indeed a cherry tree, in which case the proposition is denied or negated. The important point here is the quoting and disquoting of the state of affairs.9 

Thus, propositional reflection has a certain parallel with the phenomenological reduction in that both are alterations of standpoint and both are reflective.  However, Sokolowski identifies several differences between propositional and phenomenological reflection. First, there is a difference in scope: the phenomenological reduction brackets the whole world, whereas propositional reflection only turns single states of affairs into states of affairs as proposed.10  Second, there is a difference in kind: the purpose of propositional reflection is to “test the truth of the proposition that emerges from it,” whereas in phenomenological reflection our positings are bracketed “to be contemplated, not to be verified.”11 Hence, John Drummond writes that the simple doubt of critical reflection “remains concerned with the world and the way things are—or are not—in it, and its critical attitude remains continuous with the natural attitude.”12

Hence, while the phenomenological reduction parallels in certain ways both Descartes’ method of doubt and critical reflection, it is essentially different from both of these. In brief, the phenomenological reduction allows the philosopher to focus on the objectivating act of consciousness “with its ‘disconnected’ positing and its ‘bracketed’ objectivity,”13 and all realities are included “within the brackets.” Or, in other words, for Husserl the phenomenological reduction is the suspension of the positing of transcendent objectivities. What does this mean? What is the difference for Husserl between immanence and transcendence? This will be the subject of my next post.

What are your thoughts about the phenomenological reduction? Please feel to comment and subscribe.

1 Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, II, 1, §31, trans. W.R. Boyce Gibson (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2017), 107-110.  

2 Husserl, Ideas, II, 2, §33, trans. Gibson, 114. 

3 Husserl, Ideas, III, 3, §88, trans. Gibson, 259-260.  

4 Husserl, Ideas, III, 3, §88, trans. Gibson, 260.  

5 Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, II, §15, trans. Dorion Cairns, (The Hague, Netherlands: M. Nijhoff, 1977), 35. 

6 Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, §2, trans. Dorion Cairns, 6.  

7 Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, I, §10, trans. Dorion Cairns, 24.  

8 Husserl, Ideas, II, 1, §31, trans. Gibson, 109.  

9 Robert Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 185-194.  

10 Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, 187-189.  

11 Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, 190.  

12 John J. Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality and Non-Foundational Realism: Noema and Object, (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990), 51.  

13 Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality, 54.  


2 responses to “The Phenomenological Reduction: rising above the world”

  1. Bad Hombre Avatar
    Bad Hombre

    Great post.

    In my interpretation, the phenomenological reduction consists of examining our conscious experience and applying a methodology to strip away our naturalistic filters, our veil of perception, eliminating certain aspects of our experience from consideration, in order to determine the universal essence of the phenomenon being investigated, be it concrete or abstract. The reduction is a process of analyzing the conscious experience of the perception of the ‘thing’ in question in order to arrive at universal knowledge or the universal essence of the ‘thing.’ As Dermot Moran mentions on page 15 of The Phenomenology Reader; “the phenomenologist must operate the bracketing and reduction in order to focus only on the meaning constituting character of the act, the noetic act.”

    Husserl believes that through direct experience an observer can obtain the absolute givenness of an object by performing a reductive process to somehow strip away, to bracket out all prejudices, cultural biases, preconceived notions….all transcendent properties…leaving the observer with objective knowledge of the essence of the object being observed. As Husserl explains on page 30 of The Idea of Phenomenology; “the epistemological reduction must be performed, that is all transcendence that comes into play here must be excluded…” This eidetic reduction shifts perspective from fixations on particulars and facts to universals, thus providing knowledge of the universals within conscious experience. An actual experience is not required, the essence of an imaginary concept can also be determined. The eidetic reduction is not confined to perception, it can also be performed on imagination to discover the eidetic intuition of essences. The purpose of this reductive process is to discover objective universal knowledge…if that us even impossible

    He believes that one can experience essences (aka universal knowledge) with indubitable certainty due to epistemological immanence which yields universal truth following successful bracketing with the epoche. One has immanent knowledge of the cogitatio…our thoughts, reflections, thinking, experience. Evidence about external objects is never one hundred percent certain, however reflecting on the cogitatio is indubitable, as the match between what you experience feels like and the idea you are experiencing is perfect. Even though the cogitatio seems subjective and personal, it can contain objectivity because the cogitatio is epistemologically immanent and contains transcendence. Epistemological (intuitive) immanence can be transcendent. Objective knowledge, knowledge possible of things that transcend the mind, is possible through ‘eidetic intuition’, an intuition of forms and universals, and the epoche or eidetic/phenomenological reduction. Knowledge of universals satisfies the criteria of eidetic intuition and meets all the conditions for absolute ‘givenness.’

    We all live within our own Umwelt. Perhaps we share in our individual Umwelts, is also the basic framework of conscious experience, the goal which the eidetic reduction seeks to uncover?

    1. Michael Teoli Avatar

      This is a truly insightful comment! You cover all the main points of the phenomenological reduction: the bracketing, the focus on the constituting act of consciousness, the suspension of transcendent objectivities, the eidetic reduction as a preliminary to the transcendental reduction, and the ability for the philosopher to operate on imaginations. And great quotes from Moran and Husserl.

      Your last sentence reminds me of Husserl’s discussion of individuality and intersubjectivity in the Cartesian Meditations. I would love to hear your thoughts on what Husserl describes as the “primordial sphere of ownness.” Husserl uncovers this realm through another kind of reduction, viz, from the realm of objectivity as constituted by intersubjectivity to that which is constituted purely by the individual ego. Through this reduction, he attempts to explain how the alter ego, the other subject, can be constituted within my own conscious sphere.

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