How to be a Philosopher

What does it mean to be a philosopher? How does one philosophize? Throughout history, numerous answers to these questions have been given. For Plato, to do philosophy is to behold the Forms. For Marcus Aurelius, to be a philosopher is to act virtuously and embrace calm indifference in the face of circumstance. For Descartes, philosophy is the source and basis of all science. But what is philosophy for Edmund Husserl?

(“The School of Athens” by Raphael)

For Husserl, the foundational philosophy is phenomenology, and in a previous post, I outlined the basic meaning of Husserlian phenomenology. Briefly, phenomenology is the presuppositionless science of the essences of experience. The phenomenological philosopher investigates what it means to perceive, to think, to feel, to live, and he does so by stripping himself of all assumptions and suspending his participation in our natural beliefs and positings. Hence, for Husserl, phenomenology is “first philosophy,” and philosophy in some sense founds all other sciences. However, philosophy for Husserl is not the foundation of knowledge in the sense that all knowledge can be deduced from philosophy, nor does it mean that the philosopher necessarily makes the best physicist, statesman, or farmer. That would be closer to Descartes’ view. Philosophy in Husserl’s conception does not replace ordinary experience: on the contrary, it simply describes and elucidates it.

How does this occur? In a previous post, I described what Husserl calls “the phenomenological reduction.” This is the means by which the person who aspires to be a philosopher can actually achieve his goal. For, in the phenomenological reduction, one rises above the natural, everyday participation in the world in order to contemplate and describe it. Husserl maintains that the philosopher must suspend the natural attitude; the world and our positing of it must be “bracketed,” “disconnected,” or “set out of action,” allowing us to consider that which is given to consciousness just as it is given. This is the heart of Husserlian philosophy.

(“The Thinker” by Auguste Rodin)

But what purpose does philosophy serve in Husserl’s understanding? Unlike in certain modern philosophical systems, philosophy for Husserl is not a tyrant which lords it over all other branches of knowledge. Philosophy cannot tell the physicist how to study atoms, nor can it tell the farmer how to grow crops. What philosophy does is to distinguish between genuine and non-genuine cognition. Thus, for example, while philosophy cannot decide between two valid theories of the physical universe, it can elucidate the necessary conditions for a valid theory of the physical universe: e.g., any hypothesis of physics which cannot be brought to direct or indirect intuitive fulfillment (i.e., cannot be experimentally verified) cannot qualify as a valid cognition of physical science. Thus, philosophy allows us to answer questions which no other discipline can even ask about, since all other kinds of knowledge presuppose these answers. And yet, philosophy always arises from and refers back to the Lifeworld, the world of ordinary experience.

Hence, the pursuit of philosophy also serves to enlighten our everyday lives. Husserl elaborates on the relation between the natural attitude and the philosophical attitude: “As a phenomenologist, I can, of course, at any time go back into the natural attitude, back to the straightforward pursuit of my theoretical or other life-interests; I can, as before, be active as a father, a citizen, an official, as a ‘good European,’ etc., that is, as a human being in my human community, in the world. As before—and yet not quite as before. For I can never again achieve the old naivete; I can only understand it. My transcendental insights and purposes have become merely inactive, but they continue to be my own… Thus every new transcendental discovery, by going back into the natural attitude, enriches my psychic life and…that of every other.”1

Scholar Wenjing Cai explains this further: “A transcendental stance enables us to theorize and make explicit the structure of natural life in which an independent world is necessarily posited, and to that extent, the transcendental stance is compatible with natural life… In urging us to ponder upon the independent world in its mode of givenness, transcendental philosophy at the same time takes on the task of remolding our common-sense understanding of the real.”2

Thus, how can one become a philosopher? Through the deliberate choice to radically change one’s standpoint in order to reflect upon experience qua experience. As Husserl often states, this is very difficult to achieve and even more difficult to sustain. However, if a person has the patience and the fortitude to suspend, to bracket, to purify, and to rise above the world, then he or she will discover that few things are more fulfilling. And if you do it, I can promise you this: you will never look on reality in the same way.

(“Girl with Book” by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior)

1 Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, III A, §33, trans. David Carr, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 210.

2 Wenjing Cai, “Compatibility and Tensions between Transcendental Idealism and Common-Sense Realism — Husserl and McDowell,” Comparative & Continental Philosophy 10, no. 1 (2018), 98.

All photographs used in this post are either in the public domain or are free to use under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0, see Of the latter type, “Rodin le penseur” is by Piero d’Houin.


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