Experiencing Phenomenology: Why Phenomenology?

First of all, thanks very much to John Schwenkler for inviting to me to blog about Experiencing Phenomenology (Routledge 2016). Long-time lurker, first-time blogger.

Experiencing Phenomenology is an introductory book and, as such, these posts will take something of a different format to some of their (excellent) predecessors. In the book I am not chiefly concerned to advance my own arguments or present my own opinions on the topics that I discuss. These four posts, then, are primarily intended to introduce some issues, rather than present arguments in favour of particular views.

Perhaps my main aim in writing the book was to show how the philosophical work of the ‘classical Phenomenologists’ is closer in spirit to debates in contemporary philosophy of mind than is sometimes supposed. Phenomenology is sometimes thought to fall within the domain of so-called ‘Continental Philosophy’, rather than so-called ‘Analytic Philosophy’. Insofar as I understand what that distinction amounts to, which isn’t very far at all, that seems to me to be a wholly implausible idea. Classical Phenomenology—by which I mean to include the work of Husserl, (early) Heidegger, Stein, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, among many others—addresses a range of issues continuous with both traditions. It is in that ecumenical spirit that I attempt to approach these authors. The book isn’t an ‘analytic’ attempt to appropriate phenomenology, any more than it is an attempt to phenomenologize the philosophy of mind. Rather, it is an attempt to pursue lines of thought that are equally accessible from a number of different perspectives.

Phenomenology, as I understand it, is primarily concerned with the concept of experience and, correlatively, that of appearance (or, equivalently, phenomena). The primary phenomenological questions, then, concern the nature of experience in all its varieties (perception, reflection, imagination, emotion, etc.), and of things as they appear in experience. One might ask, for example, what it is to visualise something; how visualising differs from visually perceiving something; and what the similarities and differences are between how things appear in those two forms of experience.

This way of characterising phenomenology is distinctively Husserlian (see, for example, Husserl 1917). On his account, phenomenology is, first and foremost, a method rather than a body of substantive claims. Two notions are central: the phenomenological reduction (or epoché) and the eidetic reduction. The role of the former is to enable accurate description by reflectively focusing the attention on experience. The phenomenological reduction involves bracketing the belief that we have in the existence of the things of which we are aware. Typically, we take things to transcend our awareness of them. Within the phenomenological reduction, that assumption is set aside. What remains, at least according the Husserl, is a realm of phenomena: entities that are ‘given absolutely’, in the sense that there is nothing more to learn of them beyond how they are given in experience.

Phenomena are, on Husserl’s view, to be described and the reduction allows us to engage in that activity without any hidden presuppositions; without undue influence being exerted by our beliefs about what the objects of experience really are. But the task is not simply to describe how things happen to appear to me, but to describe the essence of appearance. This is where the eidetic reduction comes in—Husserl asks us to bracket the merely contingent features of experience. This, he tells us, we do by taking some phenomenon and varying it imagination, thereby coming to know what is and isn’t essential to phenomena of that kind. So, I see a tree. Adopting the phenomenological reduction I bracket the real existence of the tree, limiting myself to the ‘visually apparent tree’. Now, I imaginatively vary the tree: could it have been a different colour? Yes. Could it have been a different shape? Yes. Could it have lacked a shape? No. Aha! Apparent shape must be essential to visually appearing things.

So the story goes. But the history of phenomenology is, amongst other things, the history of reasons to be sceptical of Husserl’s account. Both Heidegger (1927a) and Merleau-Ponty (1945), for example, are often interpreted as, for various reasons, rejecting the phenomenological reduction. One worry, that brings the issue into contact with some contemporary debates, concerns the Husserlian claim that the phenomenological reduction allows us to practice phenomenology in a way that is presuppositionless. The thought is that by suspending belief in the actual existence of the objects of experience one can capture how things are given in a way that is independent of the question of whether there is really a thing there at all. But this seemingly involves a commitment to what McDowell (1994) calls the ‘highest common factor’ view of experience and is, on the face of it, inconsistent with naïve realist views according to which a relation to the actually existing tree that I see is partly constitutive of the phenomenal character of my visual experience in seeing it. That is, if one supposes that an accurate description of how visually presented things appear requires the postulation of a relation between the perceiver and the perceived, then one will have reason to doubt the phenomenological reduction. Of course inconsistency with naïve realism is not itself a reason to reject the phenomenological reduction, but it would seem to indicate that Husserl’s ‘presuppositionless’ apriori science of experience is in fact no such thing.

A different worry about presuppositionless is to be found in Heidegger’s response to Husserl, and can be approached via the eidetic reduction. What, we might ask, guides our judgements as to whether an imaginatively varied phenomenon counts as an instance of a particular kind? It is implausible, one might think, to suppose that we simply describe what we see; that we read off such information from the phenomena. Rather, claims Heidegger (1927b), it is our ‘pre-ontological understanding of being’ which guides us here. We possess an implicit understanding of what the objects of the various forms of experience are and this means that phenomenology can be neither presuppositionless nor purely descriptive. Not presuppositionless as our ‘pre-ontological understanding’ guides us; not purely descriptive because what is required is an interpretation of phenomena in the light of this pre-ontological understanding.

OK, there are some thoughts about what phenomenology is. Next up, intentionality and perception.


Heidegger, Martin. 1927a. Being and Time. Translated by Joan Stambaugh. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2010.

Heidegger, Martin. 1927b. Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Revised edition, translated by Albert Hofstadter. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Husserl, Edmund. 1917. Pure Phenomenology, its Method, and its Field of Investigation. In Dermot Moran & Timothy Mooney, eds. The Phenomenology Reader. London: Routledge, 2002, pp.124-133.

McDowell, John. 1994. Mind and World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1945. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald Landes. London: Routledge, 2012.


  1. Great job, Joel! I admit that I have not yet read your book, but from what I read above it seems fully in line with my research. While waiting, I look forward to reading the rest of your posts here!
    Cheers, M.

  2. Aaron Henry

    Dear Joel,

    I look forward to reading your book – my copy is in the mail!

    I was just wondering how seriously you take the suggestion that Husserl’s account of the phenomenological reduction entails commitment to a highest common factor view of experience and to the falsity of relational views of experience like naïve realism. Just going by what you have here, I would have thought that Husserl’s account of the phenomenological reduction has no such implication. Suppose naïve realism is true and that the phenomenal character of your experience of seeing a tree consists in a certain relation that you bear to the tree. Presumably you can stand in this relation even if you suspend your belief in the tree’s existence—whether because you begin to suspect that you may be hallucinating or because you bracket your belief in the tree in some other way. Naïve realism (and related views) require only that the relevant relation obtain, not that the subject have any particular beliefs about that relation. So, on the face of things, it seems consistent with naïve realism to allow, with Husserl, that bracketing beliefs about the external world is necessary in order to attend properly to how it appears. Now, one might ask this naïve realist why, on their view, attention to the manner in which things appear should require bracketing beliefs about the world, and perhaps one can argue that this Husserlian view of phenomenological reflection is an unmotivated or unnatural one for the naïve realist to adopt. So, maybe you can generate a conclusion about why the Husserlian view of phenomenological reflection and relational views of perceptual phenomenology are unhappy bed fellows, but it doesn’t seem to me that the two views straightforwardly to contradict each other in the way you seem to suggest here.


    • Joel Smith

      Thanks Aaron, that’s a great question.

      I think that, amongst other things, its going to depend on exactly what one takes the naïve realist to be committed to. Naïve realists typically hold, at least, that the phenomenal character of experience depends on the holding of a particular perceptual relation (call it acquaintance). As you say, presumably one still bears acquaintance to a perceived object whether or not one believes that one does. We are not, after all, naïve realists! So that claim doesn’t yet look to be incompatible with the reduction. But the naïve realist might also say that in order to faithfully characterise the phenomenal character of experience one needs to describe the objects of acquaintance, and that the phenomenal character of hallucinatory cases can be characterised in a derivative way only (as experiences that are indiscriminable from perceptions). If one puts out of play the supposition that one bears acquaintance to the objects of perception it seems that one won’t be in a position to do this. That is, any description one is in a position to give will apply equally to both the good case (perception) and the bad case (hallucination). And that sounds rather like the highest common factor view to me. So, if I’ve accurately described a commitment of at least some naïve realists (and I suspect that, details aside, at least Martin and Fish would sign up to this), then I do think that there is a tension here between a substantive view of perception and Husserl’s supposedly substantively innocent methodological claims.

      • Aaron Henry

        Thanks Joel, that’s helpful. (And my apologies – I’ve been away from the computer).

        You’re probably right that whether or not there is a conflict here will depend on how exactly one elaborates naïve realism. Equally, I think we should be open-minded about the different ways of understanding the phenomenological reduction. I’m mainly curious whether there are ways of understanding these ideas on which they are consistent with each other.

        I should also say that I am happy to accept is that Husserl was not a naïve realist, and that he says other things that are inconsistent with the view. But I’m trying to see how these commitments fall out of his methodology.

        Your key move is here:

        “But the naïve realist might also say that in order to faithfully characterise the phenomenal character of experience one needs to describe the objects of acquaintance, and that the phenomenal character of hallucinatory cases can be characterised in a derivative way only (as experiences that are indiscriminable from perceptions). If one puts out of play the supposition that one bears acquaintance to the objects of perception it seems that one won’t be in a position to do this. That is, any description one is in a position to give will apply equally to both the good case (perception) and the bad case (hallucination).”

        I agree with the first sentence. What I was getting at earlier is that I think one can grant those claims while also holding that properly reflecting on the phenomenal character of one’s perceptual experience of an object requires suspension of belief in the object. If you are in fact seeing a tree, you will wind up perceptually attending to the tree when reflecting on what your experience of it is like and when describing its appearance, but your belief in the tree’s existence need play no role in the description that you give. If you mistakenly believe that you are hallucinating, for example, you might have thoughts that you would express by saying “that tree doesn’t exist; it only appears to be there. And it appears …”. You end up describing the tree and its features.

        So, it seems to me that there is a sense in which the naïve realist can, as you say, “put out of play the supposition that one bears acquaintance to the objects of perception”, in that when reflecting on the phenomenal character of one’s experience the subject needn’t suppose that one is acquainted with anything in order to faithfully describe the character of her experience (and, for all the naïve realist has said, perhaps it’s necessary to do so). But perhaps your point is that there is a rather different sense in which the naïve realist cannot say this. From the theorist’s perspective, the supposition that there is an object of acquaintance in the case of perception is indeed important for the naïve realist. If you are hallucinating instead of seeing a tree, then you are not in a position to do the things that you can do while seeing a tree—e.g., perceptually attend to the tree, form various demonstrative thoughts about its appearance, etc.—though you will behave as though you were doing each of these things and it will seem introspectively as if you are. And I guess the naïve realist will say that the phenomenal character of your experience will be different here than in the good case. Since seeing a tree and hallucinating one are introspectively indiscriminable to the subject, it seems to follow that there are factors contributing to the phenomenal character of her experience which are not introspectively accessible to her. If Husserl’s methodology entails that all of the factors that contribute to determining the phenomenal character of a subject’s experience are fully accessible to the subject when she performs the reduction, then I think I see the conflict you are trying to bring out. But I think we need to emphasize the claim that the reduction is meant to provide the subject complete or exhaustive access to the factors determining the phenomenal character of her experience, whereas the naïve realist is committed to denying that first-person reflection alone can accomplish this.

        Does that sound right to you?

        • Joel Smith

          Hi Aaron

          Yes, that does sound broadly right to me…I think. I take it that the Naïve realist thinks that in order to accurately characterise my visual experience now I need to mention a tree. I must say either that I see that tree or perhaps that I am in some perceptual state that is subjectively indiscriminable from one in which I see that tree. Is that consistent with the restriction imposed by the reduction? Perhaps the latter formulation doesn’t require belief in trees, so yes. But it does arguably require one to refer to trees, so perhaps not. It’s a nice question and, to be honest, one that I’ve not considered in much detail. For what it’s worth, I do think that Husserl assumes that everything required to fully characterise the phenomenal character of experience (or, more simply, appearances) is available via first-personal reflection. These sorts of considerations just don’t enter his mind, as far as I can tell.

  3. Ken

    Hi, Joel,

    Thanks for writing here. I have tried, from time to time, to learn more about Phenomenology, since it seems to be part of the background to at least some strains of embodied cognition. So, I hope you will entertain some elementary questions.

    So, “The phenomenological reduction involves bracketing the belief that we have in the existence of the things of which we are aware. ” I’ve got that, but then I am surprised at what this bracketing appears to be thought to purchase. So, there is “the reduction allows us to engage in that activity without any hidden presuppositions” How does the bracketing do that? Maybe the bracketing does not do that, since the reduction merely involves the bracketing, hence may be more than bracketing. So, one presupposition is that there is an essence of appearance: “But the task is not simply to describe how things happen to appear to me, but to describe the essence of appearance”

    My doubts here sound like simplistic versions of the kinds of concerns you discuss later.


    • Joel Smith

      Hi Ken

      Thanks for this—not simplistic at all! You are, I think, right on both counts. So, first of all, what I have described is what Husserl calls the epoché (or bracketing) which is, in the account he gives in his Ideas I, just the first step in the phenomenological reduction. As I describe it the epoché would, at most, allow Husserl to claim immunity from empirical assumptions (he takes all empirical sciences to rely on the reality of their objects of investigation—I suspect that he is only partially right about that). But it wouldn’t allow him to claim immunity from *all* assumptions, e.g. logical and other broadly a priori claims that, we might suppose, don’t rely on the claim that the objects of experience actually exist. So, Husserl goes on to tell us, we also need to bracket logic, ‘eidetic disciplines’ (i.e. a priori philosophical claims), in order to arrive at a properly presuppositionless starting point.

      Of course, not many people believe that he succeeded in that, since not many people will allow that such a thing is possible—enquiry *always* involves assumptions. And the one that you point to, Husserl’s essentialism, is only the most obvious of those (I mention it briefly in the book). So I think that you’re right both that bracketing isn’t the whole of the reduction, and so isn’t supposed to get you to a completely neutral starting point, but also that Husserl’s claim to have achieved a presuppositionless point is questionable. One way to read Heidegger’s critical stance to Husserl is as pointing out exactly this—his worry, or one of them, being that Husserl has implicitly presupposed a whole raft of controversial (and sometimes false) philosophical claims concerning the being, or nature, of the various entities in play (appearance, subject, object, etc.).

      I hope that makes some sense!

      Best, J

      • Ken

        Hi, Joel,
        Thanks for your reply. It’s good to hear confirmation that I am on vaguely the right track.

        I get the sense from some of the intro books (two? three?) I’ve read that the authors are focused on “selling” the importance of Phenomenology for cognitive science that they do not draw attention to problems. I don’t get the sense that the intro books have been read by “outsiders” to see how well they communicate to us.

        • Joel Smith

          Hi Ken

          I think that’s a fair complaint. It it especially frustrating given the fact that the various phenomenologists tend to disagree with each other in very significant ways—so ‘selling’ phenomenology as a whole can lead to an unfortunate airbrushing of substantive disputes. I’ve tried to avoid the problem in my book but being even handed is hard, so I’m unsure how successful I am in that respect!

          Best, Joel

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