Cave at evening by Joseph Wright, 1774
In recent philosophy of mind, the term “phenomenology” is often restricted to the characterization of sensory qualities of seeing, hearing, etc.: what it is like to have sensations of various kinds. However, our experience is normally much richer in content than mere sensation. Accordingly, in the phenomenological tradition, phenomenology is given a much wider range, addressing the meaning things have in our experience, notably, the significance of objects, events, tools, the flow of time, the self, and others, as these things arise and are experienced in our “life-world”. Phenomenology as a discipline has been central to the tradition of continental European philosophy throughout the 20th century, while philosophy of mind has evolved in the Austro-Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy that developed throughout the 20th century. Yet the fundamental character of our mental activity is pursued in overlapping ways within these two traditions.
There are a number of other issues that can help us define the phenomenological attitude more precisely. The treatment of them will be essentially an explanation of several terms in the phenomenological vocabulary.
Our experience and analysis from within the phenomenological viewpoint yields assertions that are, in principle, apodictic [vocab: expressing or of the nature of necessary truth or absolute certainty]. Apodictic statements express things that could not be otherwise; they express necessary truths. Moreover, they are seen to express such necessary truths. We see that what they say could not be otherwise. There is philosophical necessity in the evidences presented to the phenomenological attitude.
Consider, for example, the statement that a material, spatial object like a cube can only be given in a manifold of profiles, aspects, and sides, and that the cube is the identity given in such appearances. Consider also the statement that an identity is given to us in a blend of presences and absences, or the statement that we can only have a temporal present played off against a past and future. These statements are apodictic. We see that a cube could not be given in any other way, and that the present is never specious but always involves the past and future.
Someone might object that such statements are apodictic because they are so obvious, so trivial, almost so gratuitous; but that is exactly the point. Phenomenological statements, like philosophical statements generally, state the obvious and the necessary. They tell us what we already know. They are not new information, but even if they do not tell us anything new, they can still be important and illuminating, because we often are very confused about just such trivialities and necessities. When we think of how most people understand memory (as the viewing of internal pictures), or how poorly many philosophers have described perception (as, for example, the intake of impressions on some sort of internal screen in the brain), then the importance of stating the obvious becomes obvious itself.
Phenomenological assertions claim to be apodictic because they are so basic and so unavoidable, so ineluctable. Their apodicticity does not stem from the fact that the people who make them enjoy some special revelation of exotic truths that other people have never heard about.
Furthermore, the fact that phenomenological statements and evidences are apodictic does not mean that we can never improve on them or deepen our understanding of them. A philosophical statement can be apodictic and yet fail in adequacy. Adequacy means that all vagueness has been purged from the statement. All the dimensions of the thing have been brought out; all the implications have been drawn. Practically nothing can be so fully presented to us, even in philosophy.
The result is that phenomenological statements can be seen to be necessary (we can see that they could not be otherwise), but they can also call for further clarification. It is perfectly possible to know, for example, that the present necessarily involves The past and future but to be unclear about the full meaning of present, past, and future. We can know apodictically that an object is identified in blends of presence and absence, but we can still be vague about the full import of what it is to be present and what it is to be absent.
The phenomenological reduction and the phenomenological attitude are often called transcendental. We speak of the transcendental reduction and the transcendental attitude. One even encounters the rather clumsy phrases, “the transcendental-phenomenological reduction” and “the transcendental-phenomenological viewpoint.” What does the term “transcendental” mean?
The word means “going beyond,” based on its Latin root, transcendere , to climb over or go beyond, from trans and scando. Consciousness, even in the natural attitude, is transcendental because it reaches beyond itself to the identities and things that are given to it. The ego can be called transcendental insofar as it is involved, in cognition, in reaching out to things. The transcendental ego is the ego or self as the agent of truth. The transcendental reduction is the turn toward the ego as the agent of truth, and the transcendental attitude is the stance we take up when we make this ego and its intentionalities thematic.
When we enter into the phenomenological or transcendental attitude we have to make appropriate modifications in the words that we use. The new context, since it is so unique, requires adjustments in our natural language. Let us call the new language that results from these changes transcendentalese, and let us call the language we speak in the natural attitude mundanese. The two attitudes in are constituted by the kind of intentionalities proper to each, and the languages spoken in each reflect the differences in perspective. The study of the interplay between the two languages, transcendentalese and mundanese, is a good way of teasing out the differences between philosophy and natural experience.
Some of the words in transcendentalese are drawn from mundanese, words such as “identity,” “appearance,” “presence and absence,” and “ego,” but we need to remember that the terms take on a subtle shift in meaning when they are absorbed into the new, philosophical language. The word “science,” for example, takes on a sense different from that of physics and biology when it is said that philosophy is a rigorous science. A new kind of exactness is introduced. Phenomenology is a science in a way different from the sciences of the natural attitude, and the whole argument associated with the transcendental reduction is supposed to help us see what the new sense is.
There are also some words that are coined especially for transcendentalese, words that have no basis in the natural attitude or in mundanese. Two of these are noema and its correlative, noesis. The term “noema” refers to the objective correlates of intentionalities; it refers to whatever is intended by the intentions of our natural attitude: a material object, a picture, a word, a mathematical entity, another person.
But more specifically, it refers to such objective correlates precisely as being looked at from the transcendental attitude. It refers to them as having been bracketed by the transcendental-phenomenological reduction. Sometimes the term can be used adjectivally and adverbially: we can be said to provide a noematic analysis, we can study the noematic structure of some thing, we can consider objects noematically. Any phrases in which these words are used are uttered in transcendentalese. They are philosophical phrases. They presume that the neutrality modification proper to philosophy has been introduced. The use of the term noema signals that we are in phenomenology, in philosophical discourse, and that the things being talked about are being discussed from a philosophical viewpoint, not from one of the viewpoints within the natural attitude.
These points need to be emphasized because the noema can easily be misunderstood. The noema is often taken to be an entity of some sort, something like a concept or a “sense” distinct from the object of consciousness, something that serves as the vehicle by which consciousness becomes referred to a particular thing. The noema is thought to be that by which intentionality is bestowed on consciousness, as though awareness would be self-enclosed if noemas were not added to it. The noema is also thought to be the entity through which consciousness targets this or that particular object, that by which our consciousness is referred to some specific item in the world outside: the noema is taken as a kind of bombsight for intentionality.
This understanding of the noema as a mediating entity is, I believe, incorrect. Later, we will see in greater detail why it is problematic and misleading. At present it is sufficient if I introduce the term and give an initial explanation of what it means. The noema is any object of intentionality, any objective correlate, but considered from the phenomenological attitude, considered just as experienced. It is not a copy of any object, not a substitute for any object, not a sense that refers us to the object; it is the object itself, but considered from the philosophical standpoint.
The term noesis is less misleading, but it also assumes that we have entered into phenomenology. Noesis refers to the intentional acts by which we intend things: perceptions, signifying acts, empty intentions, filled intentions, judgings, rememberings. But it refers to them precisely as looked at from the phenomenological standpoint. It assumes that we have carried out the transcendental reduction. It considers those acts of consciousness after they have been suspended or put out of action by the phenomenological epoché. Noeses are less controversial than noemas because we are not tempted by the term to posit another shadow act parallel to the original one, as we are tempted by the term “noema” to posit a shadow “object” or a “sense” parallel to the real object.
The reason we are less tempted to posit a noesis between ourselves and our psychological acts is that we, living in the Cartesian tradition, have become habituated to accept our introspections as realistic, as putting us in direct touch with our own mental life. This same tradition makes us inclined to deny that we have a direct exposure to things in the world; it makes us demand an intermediary, a representation (the noema), to connect us to the things outside.
We might also mention the fact that noesis and noema, both of which were coined in phenomenology, have the same Greek root, the verb noein, which means “to think,” “to consider,” “to perceive.” The Greek term noesis means an act of thinking, and the term noema means that which is thought. In Greek the suffix -ma added to a verb stem signifies the result or effect of the action expressed in the verb. Thus, phantasms signifies the object of fantasizing, politeuma means the effect of politicizing (the political entity), rhema signifies the effect of speaking (the word), horama means the object of seeing (the view, as in “panorama”), and migma means the effect of mixing (the mixture). The term noema then means the thing being thought or the thing we are aware of.
The adaptation of the Greek term to phenomenology is appropriate. The noema is any object of thought, but considered precisely as such, as being thought about or intended, as the correlate of an intentionality. The viewpoint from which we look at it in that way is the phenomenological attitude. The word “noema” is therefore uttered only from within that attitude. What happens, unfortunately, is that people often take noema in a psychological, epistemological, or semantic sense. They miss the difference of focus between the transcendental attitude and the natural, and they take the noema naturalistically, epistemologically, or semantically. They posit the noema as an intermediary between the self and things in the world, when it should be seen as the things in the world viewed from a phenomenological perspective. Instead of seeing it as a “moment” (an abstract part) in the manifestation of things, they reify it and make it serve as the link between the mind and things.
The remarks in this section about various terms relating to the phenomenological reduction are not a matter of mere verbal convention. They bring out important aspects of the new attitude that defines phenomenology. Also, the definition of the terms will make it easier to express certain doctrines in phenomenology. Mastery of an appropriate vocabulary is not an incidental matter in a domain of knowledge; the things in question cannot be properly brought to light without the words that name them.
Why Is The Transcendental Reduction Important?
At first glance, we might be tempted to think that phenomenology is essentially an exercise in the theory of knowledge, a study in epistemology, but it is far more than that. It does not just try to deal with “the problem of knowledge,” with trying to establish whether or not there is any truth, and with whether or not we can get to the “real world” or the “extramental” world.
Phenomenology did arise in the historical period during which epistemology was the major philosophical concern, and some of its vocabulary and argument sound very epistemological, but it succeeded in breaking out of this restrictive context. It surpasses its origins. It comes to terms with modern philosophy and learns from it, but it also overcomes some of its limitations and reestablishes a link with ancient thought. Most of the misunderstandings of phenomenology come from interpretations that are still so caught up in the problems and positions of modern thinking, still so trapped by the Cartesian and Lockean tradition, that they fail to grasp what is new in phenomenology.
Phenomenology calls for a major readjustment in the understanding of what philosophy is, and many people cannot make this change, because they cannot free themselves from their background and their cultural context. Phenomenology restores the possibilities of ancient philosophy, even while accounting for new dimensions such as the presence of modern science. Phenomenology provides one of the best examples of how a tradition can be reappropriated and brought to life again in a new context.
The doctrine of the transcendental reduction is especially important because it gives a new definition of how philosophy can be related to pre-philosophical life and experience. One of the dangers to philosophy is that it may think that it can replace the pre-philosophical life. It is true that philosophy reaches the summit of reason. It encompasses other exercises of reason, such as those found in the particular sciences and in practical life. It studies how all such partial exercises are related to one another and how they fit into a final context.
Because philosophy complements pre-philosophical reason, it may be tempted to think that it can substitute for such exercises of reason. It may begin to think that it can do better what the more specialized kinds of thinking accomplish. Philosophy may begin to think that it can carry out political life better than the statesmen, better than those who are involved in the perpetual discussion about how our life in community should be led. It may begin to think that it can do a better job than religious persons do in spelling out what the sacred and the ultimate are. It may begin to think that it can replace special sciences such as chemistry or biology or linguistics, because none of them has a sense of the whole. If philosophy tries to substitute for pre-philosophical thinking, the result is rationalism, the kind of rationalism introduced into modern philosophy by Machiavelli in regard to political and moral life, and by Descartes in regard to theoretic matters.
The most important contribution phenomenology has made to culture and the intellectual life is to have validated the truth of pre-philosophical life, experience, and thinking. It insists that the exercises of reason that are carried out in the natural attitude are valid and true. Truth is achieved before philosophy comes on the scene. The natural intentionalities do reach fulfillment and evidence, and philosophy can never substitute for what they do. Phenomenology is parasitic on the natural attitude and all the achievements thereof. Phenomenology has no access to the things and disclosures of the world except through the natural attitude and its intentionalities.
Phenomenology comes only later. It has to be modest; it must recognize the true and valid achievements of the natural attitude, in both its practical and theoretic exercise. It then contemplates these achievements and their correlative subjective activities, but if the achievements were not there, there would be nothing for philosophy to think about. There must be true opinion, there must be prior doxa, if there is to be philosophy. Phenomenology may help the natural intentionalities clarify what they are after, but it never replaces them.
When phenomenology “neutralizes” the intentionalities at work in the natural attitude, it does not dilute, destroy, upset, or ridicule them. It merely adopts a contemplative stance toward them, a stance from which it can theorize them. Phenomenology complements the natural attitude; philosophy complements true opinion and science. Phenomenology may also point out the limitations of the truth and evidences achieved in the natural attitude, but the various arts and sciences already are aware of the fact that they are each partial and limited, although they may not be able to formulate their limitations very exactly. And sometimes the particular arts and sciences may want to become imperialistic themselves and dominate over all the others: physics may try to say that it explains the whole and everything in it, or linguistics may try to do so, or psychology, or history.
When such partial arts and sciences try to master the whole and the other arts and sciences, they become pseudo philosophies, but philosophy can also falsify itself when it tries to lord it over the pre-philosophical forms of knowledge, when it tries to substitute for them. Phenomenology provides a major cultural restoration by recognizing the validity of the arts and sciences in the natural attitude, and also the validity of common sense, of prudence in the practical order. There is a rationalist tendency in modern thought that wants to make philosophy the perfect substitute for all pre-philosophical forms of reason, and phenomenology counteracts this tendency. The modern rationalist trend has, in recent years, broken down into postmodernism, which recoils to the other extreme and denies any center to reason at all. Phenomenology avoids this negative extreme as well, because it never adopted the rationalist position in the first place.
Classical Greek and medieval thought understood that pre-philosophical reason achieves truth and evidence, and that philosophical reflection comes afterward and does not disturb what goes before it. Aristotle did not tamper with the political life or with mathematics; he only tried to understand what they were and perhaps to clarify them to themselves. Phenomenology joins this classical understanding, but what it can add to it is the explicit discussion of the change of locus that is required to enter into the philosophical life. The doctrine about the epochē, the distinction between the natural and the phenomenological attitude, the idea of neutralizing the intentions in the natural attitude, the role of the world and world belief, are all clarifications of what it means to adopt philosophical detachment and to enter into philosophical thinking.
These doctrines are associated with the reduction are not mind-bending conundrums that try to make us obsessively introspective, or puzzles about whether we can get out of ourselves into the “extramental” world; they are clarifications of the nature of philosophy. They are useful in showing how philosophical discourse, transcendentalese, differs from the discourse of human practice and the arts and sciences, mundanese, the language of the natural attitude. When properly understood they can illuminate both the pre-philosophical and the philosophical life.
Finally, the transcendental reduction should not be seen as an escape from the question of being or the study of being as being; quite the contrary. When we shift from the natural attitude to the phenomenological we raise the question of being, because we begin to look at things precisely as they are given to us, precisely as they are manifested, precisely as they are determined by “form,” which is the principle of disclosure in things. We begin to look at things in their truth and evidencing. This is to look at them in their being. We also begin to look at the self as the dative to whom beings are disclosed: we look at the self as the dative of manifestation. This is to look at it in its being, because the core of its being is to inquire into the being of things.
“Being” is not just “thing-like”; being involves disclosure or truth, and phenomenology looks at being primarily under its rubric of being truthful. It looks at “human” being as the place in the world where truth occurs. Through all its Cartesian-sounding remarks about the ways to reduction, phenomenology is able to recover the ancient issue of being, which is always new.