Husserl’s Phenomenological Reductions

[Husserl’s figure of time; Cited in Francisco Varela’s webpage]

[Follows “Indubitability”]

[Based on Martin Heidegger’s History of the Concept of Time, as interpreted by Greg Schufreider]

They can be divided into three. First, there’s the (strictly called) phenomenological reduction, by which we perform an epoché, a suspension, a bracketing off of various considerations (most prominent of which are objective correspondence, i.e. the accuracy of thought in terms of its reference to some external reality; and conceptual confirmation, by which we already have ideas about the thing that we then impose as we try to understand it, as we develop our thought of it) so that we focus on the thing itself, i.e. on the thing as it is presented to consciousness. Sure, correspondence and concepts may be accurate (they’re not necessarily false), but we don’t know for sure, i.e. the claims we make about them, our knowledge of the thing along with these considerations (rather than simply the thing itself), is dubitable, which Husserl, quintessential of modernity’s obsession with certainty, wants to avoid.

Instead of bothering with questions of reference, then, and by bracketing off concepts about the thing that we already have (hence the end of philosophy, i.e. of the Western tradition, and the need to restart anew), we go back to the things themselves, let them present themselves (to consciousness). We thus limit ourselves to the experience (rather than thought, which implies a mental event) that we’re having, characterized by the self-givenness of phenomena, given to consciousness, simply (and this is Husserl’s definition of phenomenon, different from Kant’s) as an object of consciousness (but not as a mere idea, as in Descartes). So, rather than thinking, what we have is consciousness and the object of consciousness, which consciousness intends by virtue of it being a Cogito, which necessarily has its cogitata (Another way of explaining intention is to say that consciousness always consciouses, if there is such a verb; in other words, consciousness is always directed toward something.).

As we do this, then, as we perform the phenomenological reduction that reduces our concern to lived experience, i.e. to experience as it is actually lived, we discern that there are different types of experience. In the experience of perception, for example, at one time, we only get one-sided perspectives of the thing (e.g. the front of the desk). The object never gives itself to consciousness as a whole (the whole desk). You need to move and take another look if you want another side (the right side of the desk), which, again, is but another one-sided perspective of the thing. This perspective you need to combine with the previous and with the other perspectives that you anticipate (the back and the left, even the top and what’s under), all of which you then unify to form a coherent perception of the thing (the desk).

These perspectives are not metaphysical; they are not Kantian categories of the mind. Rather, they are phenomenological: they are structures, not of the mind, but of the experience itself. Kant thought of these as mental categories because he missed the dynamics of time, which, yes, for Husserl, is centered on the present (e.g. the right side of the desk), but a pregnant present that retains the past (the front of the desk) and anticipates the future (the back and the left sides), which then allows the formation of a unified perception (the desk). The structures, then, are not of the mind (i.e. happening before the experience), but of the experience, as it is experienced through time (i.e. because experience has a temporal dimension).

We notice, moreover, that this type of experience, i.e. the perception of the desk, is fundamentally different from, say, the experience of imagination. When you imagine something, the imagined object (unlike the perceived object) is always exhausted by intention, by what we intend of it. There is nothing more in the imagined object than what you intended. You can imagine a desk, for example, and at that one instance of imagining, you have a full picture of the desk, as full as you intended it to be. You need not look at another perspective because you already have the full desk as you intended, i.e. you’ve imagined it in its fullness, for whatever contingent purpose you have for imagining it.

If asked, “What’s under the desk?” and you happened not to have imagined that part, well, there is no answer. You need to take another instance of imagination, you have to have another imagined experience (different from the first) to answer the question (which is irrelevant to your purpose for imagining the first imagined experience). Whereas in perception, if asked the same question, well, you can look under the desk (which is but another one-sided perspective of the desk) and it is still the same (instance of) experience. When imagining, moreover, your comprehension of the experience cannot go wrong. You’ve imagined the thing in its entirety; that is all that you intended, thus you cannot be shocked by a detail in the experience. This is not so in perception where (assume that the desk is painted brown) one side can present you with a strikingly different perspective (the back of the desk is colored blue!) than you anticipated.

Perception is thus a fundamentally different experience from imagination, which is fundamentally different from yet other types: dreaming, memory, etc. We can thus thematize the various experiences that we have, recognize the different structures (again, of the experience, not of the mind) as discerned, or, better yet, intuited (since the phenomenon is what gives us, what reveals those different structures). After performing the phenomenological reduction, then, we intuit typologies of experience—this is what the faculty of categorial intuition does. We intuit (because they are self-given; compare to intend) different categories of experience, and this operation we call the eidetic reduction. Again, this consists in phenomenologically describing the experience, not metaphysically explaining or categorizing them.

For consciousness to be able to unify experience (its cogitata), consciousness itself must, to begin with, be unified. As Kant asserts, the subject is different from objects, the constituted unities, in the fact that it is the constituting unity. Husserl concurs, saying that for consciousness to judge that the perspectives are consistent, that the experience is coherent, thus judging it as a unified object, consciousness, the one doing the judging, should itself be unified, i.e. the Cogito is a unified consciousness. The Cogito is thus the pole of experience (in which there is indubitability about everything experienced).

There is thus a further distinction that needs to be made: this time not between different types of experience, but two ways in which we can describe the same object of experience. Objects are immanent when they are given entirely in the same act of consciousness, in one stream of consciousness; objects are transcendent when they transcend any given immanent moment, i.e. when they transcend the immanence of the operations of consciousness. Husserl notes that, in the experience of perception, every (one-sided) perspective is immanently given; however, as a unified object of perception (unlike the unified Cogito), that one perspective is incomplete. The object will thus always transcend any act consciousness is performing. We can be sure of a one-sided perspective, but not of the transcendent object (since, as mentioned above, another one-sided perspective can shock our anticipation of what the next perspective is, ruining the unity of the object we had anticipated). The transcendent object (unlike the immanent perspectives) is thus always dubitable. As such, we cannot posit the transcendent object; this is how Husserl can claim the nullification of the world (but only as a matter of our experience, not of facts). The world is annihilated. We’re never really sure if it (as a transcendent unity) is actually there. Consciousness, on the other hand, always and already unified (since it is the constituting unity), is not affected. The world is nullified, but consciousness, standing separate, over and above objects (which had just been nullified), is unchanged: it remains certain, indubitable.

Consciousness then becomes the absolute being. Consciousness is not a phenomenon like all others: it is above and over all other phenomena. It is not that the world is a being, in which we then include consciousness—Consciousness is what confers being on all other things. It is a self-contained system of being that nothing can penetrate or escape—the irreal, neutral to real and unreal, prior to what we think of as real. It is not the world that constitutes consciousness, but consciousness that constitutes the world. Husserl is thus led to the transcendental ego, asserting the primacy of transcendental subjectivity. By virtue then of this transcendental reduction, this intimates to Heidegger that, rather than a critique of metaphysics, what Husserl creates, standing at the height of the Western tradition, is really but the most sophisticated form of transcendental idealism. But this is not to say that Husserl (and the whole Western tradition) gave a false account of being. Rather, the account was a semblance, which is not truth, but which paves the way to truth. This then becomes the springboard by which Heidegger performs what he claims is the sufficiently phenomenological critique.

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