An Appraisal Of Edmund Husserls Phenomenological Reduction As A Method For Philosophy

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Project and Seminar Material for Philosophy


This study appraised Edmund Husserls phenomenological reduction as a method for philosophy. Phenomenology represents a detailed and systematic attempt to understand the structures of first person lived experience. This study examined the relevance of Husserl’s writings and their introduction of the “phenomenological reduction” as the distinguishing characteristic of his transcendental form of phenomenology. A close examination of Husserl’s writings is given to highlight the centrality of the reduction for the justification of basic beliefs. It is subsequently shown how Husserl’s analyses of intentional acts have ongoing implications for the knowledge internalism versus knowledge externalism debate.

This debate revolves around how knowledge is justified and how belief claims are warranted. Although the debate, in its modern form, can be traced back to the mid-twentieth century, Husserl’s methods were not introduced in dealing with internalist and externalist accounts of knowledge attainment until recently. Modern externalists, who for the most part are not phenomenologists, have subsequently largely condemned Husserl’s methods as promoting a strict Cartesian internalist justification of belief claims. These criticisms were met by attempts to characterize transcendental phenomenology as actually promoting something closer to externalism in epistemology.

The following study attempts to show how Husserl’s phenomenology actively engages with problems related to the interiority of knowledge claims but in a radically different way from nonphenomenological approaches promoting internalism. Nonetheless, it is argued that transcendental phenomenology cannot be regarded as anything approaching a mainstream or even reworked “externalist” account of securing knowledge. Highlighting what Husserl calls “the paradox of subjectivity,” it is shown how his transcendental phenomenology develops a sui generis form of internalism. Since few modern internalists make use of Husserl’s texts, and postHusserlian phenomenology has taken something like an externalist turn (as witnessed, for example, in recent interpretations of the writings of Heidegger and Sartre), it is argued that Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology should be taken more seriously by contemporary philosophers interested in knowledge internalism.

These conclusions, subsequently, are relevant to promoting a better understanding of the justification of knowledge claims, both within and outside of the phenomenological program. Husserl’s writings are important to contemporary issues such as the theoretical understanding of the relationship between epistemology and philosophy of science (broadly conceived), as well as the relation of phenomenology to contemporary philosophy of mind.

Chapter One


1.1 Background of the study

To say that phenomenology is primarily a method seems to be a truism (Bernet et al. 1999: 58–87; Zahavi 2003: 43–68). Some believe that the purpose of this method is to highlight a new area of being, i.e., a transcendental domain understood as a space of pure consciousness, which is supposed to be the equivalent of establishing a new beginning of philosophy. Certain misleading statements made by Husserl have undoubtedly contributed to such interpretations.

It seems that the theory of reduction is of key importance in this context because—it might be argued— everything that does not belong to the transcendental domain must be reduced, i.e., ignored and rejected. But why should these elements be rejected? Is this interpretation of the theory of reduction justified at all?
ince the time of Descartes philosophers have sought to establish what justifies true beliefs by examining the epistemic conditions immediately underlying knowledge claims.

As critics of this “foundationalist” model for the justification of knowledge have pointed out, there is a strong element of subjectivism evident in making the warrant for truth hinge on a connection to so-called mental acts. In this way, so the critics of the modern epistemological tradition assert, the evidence required for declaring the truth or falsity of beliefs is gained only at the expense of inextricably connecting an internal private element to the locus of truth. Today, thinkers who still accept an essential role for mental factors in securing warrant for our true beliefs are called “internalists”. Those philosophers who believe that factors lying outside an individual’s mental activity ultimately justify knowledge, by contrast, are called “externalists”.

In this study, Edmund Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology is examined as a philosophical, rather than exclusively methodological, approach for justifying truth-making conditions. Husserlian phenomenology is then interpreted as a defense of foundationalism and the internalist approach in epistemology, that is, a philosophy of the subject. It will be shown how an important contribution of Husserl’s to these matters has been largely overlooked; namely, his phenomenological conception of immediate experience as self-transcending ground for justifying true beliefs.

Husserl’s analysis of the justification of knowledge claims, it is argued, can be shown to stand as a challenge to anti-foundationalist assumptions and externalist theories of knowledge attainment alike. As will be demonstrated, the task of exploring experience and internal relations is especially well-suited for treatment by Husserlian phenomenology since it developed a dynamic analysis of the importance of consciousness as allowing epistemic access to evidence. It is the detailed analysis of perception and thought undertaken by Husserl that allowed him to develop an account of how “objective” and structural features of the world are given directly to experiencing subjects.

As a consequence, and as has already been noted by various thinkers, Husserl’s writings are relevant to the ongoing externalism versus internalism debate in contemporary epistemology. Unfortunately there is, to date, no consensus on precisely how Husserl’s writings should be understood in the context of this debate and arguments both for and against internalism and externalism as best characterizing Husserlian phenomenology can be found. After outlining the central aspects of Husserl’s general strategy for analysing the structure of belief claims, it is argued that his phenomenology supports a necessary emphasis on epistemological internalism. This claim merits stressing since it has recently been challenged by some Husserlians.

In support of this claim, it will be stressed how Husserl’s thought is an expansion of the Socratic/Cartesian project regarding the justification of truth as requiring an account of how rational belief is possible. Since Husserl sought to explain the justification of basic beliefs by reliance on the phenomenological reduction, it is shown that externalist factors, although important to Husserl, cannot ultimately warrant the justification of genuine knowledge claims. For this reason alone, rejecting the internalist aspects of his project does Husserl no favours and, worse, it robs us of some of some very strong arguments challenging the coherence of externalism as a viable basis for grounding epistemology.

Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, therefore, can demonstrate how, in maintaining an indispensable role for mental states as permitting access to evidence, internal states are a necessary condition for helping determine not only how valid beliefs are formed but also how knowledge about the world is established. In this sense, mainly due to his radical understanding of transcendence in immanence and the role played by the transcendental phenomenological reduction in resolving the “paradox of subjectivity”, Husserl’s thought can be shown to manifest a sui generis form of internalism. This study therefore attempts to appraise Edmund Husserls phenomenological reduction as a method for philosophy.

1.2 Statement of the problem

The epistemological problem concerns, simply stated, true knowledge and the means of attaining it. This issue comes about where it is noticed as a problem. Hence, is knowledge eo ipso true knowledge? This depends not only on the meaning of knowledge but also on the context in which one employs it. The sciences represent one such field. The achievement and pursuit of true knowledge is vital to scientific practice and to the meaning of science. Whether one speaks of absolute truths (e.g., in mathematics or logic) or adequation to truth (e.g., in meteorology) the value of a science depends upon its reaching “true” knowledge.

The sciences, however, are not the only field in which knowledge is an issue. In opposition to them, there is prescientific life and the ordinary performance of life as carried out in the life-world. Whereas the problem of “absolutely true” knowledge seldom becomes a theme here, the question of truth is more crucial than one at first imagines. Consider, for example, the occurrence of a car accident. Imagine then the different “true stories” heard from different people involved: the drivers, a passer-by on the sidewalk, etc.

Especially when some interest is at stake (who assumes the culpability), one will hear very (if not altogether) different “versions,” all claiming “truth.” These are “situational truths,” and it is the task of a judge to “judge the truth,” which might lie, as often implied, “in the middle.” Obviously neither the notion of truth nor that of knowledge are taken emphatically (absolutely). The task of the judge entails the “distillation” of “the” truth from different stories. The result is only an approximation to what “really happened.” Truth in this sense is an “idea.” In the example, “truth” is an issue of rhetoric serving certain interests. There is no “absolute truth” about the car accident, although contradicting persons claim “true knowledge.”

1.3 Significance of the study

The significance of this study will highlight how Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology should be taken more seriously by contemporary philosophers interested in knowledge internalism. These conclusions can also be viewed as relevant in helping contemporary philosophers to promote a better understanding of the justification structure of knowledge both within and outside of the phenomenological program. Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology is frequently cited by thinkers working in the humanities and social sciences, but if the assessment of his achievements offered here are correct, Husserl’s mature thought also has important insights to contribute to contemporary epistemological studies in analytic philosophy, including the understanding of the relationship between epistemology and philosophy of science. After providing a critical assessment of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenological reduction in securing essential structures, the study concludes by highlighting the challenges posed by Husserl’s thought to naturalistic versions of externalism and causal accounts of belief formation.

1.4 Justification of the study

In order to present reduction as a special form of inquiry into the obvious and an unmotivated beginning of philosophical reflection, I will first refer to Husserl’s philosophy. Doing so, I want to show the limitations stemming from the common understanding of reduction as reducing the transcendental to the immanence of consciousness. It seems that this exposition offers no explanation of the beginnings of reduction, situating the motivations for reduction vaguely inside the world.

There appears to be more potential in the conception of attitude change that places motivations for reduction in the domain of volition. I will then move on to reconstructing selected elements of Fink’s “phenomenology of phenomenology”. I will point to instances when Fink radicalizes the understanding of reduction and accounts for it as an unnatural attitude that consists in overcoming the naivety of the world. Like Fink, I will eventually approach reduction as a way to dehumanize philosophy and an expression of the will of freedom. Finally—following Patočka—I will take on the question about the beginning of philosophizing in the context of Patočka’s concepts of care for the soul and the three movements of human existence.

The Czech philosopher seems to radicalize the understanding of reduction: not only does he depart from understanding it as isolating the immanence of consciousness, but he also accounts for reduction as an expression of the objection against the obviousness of the world. As I will demonstrate in the last part of the study, PatoÄŤka sees reduction as a continuous inquiry which constitutes the subject of philosophy as the subject of freedom.

1.5 Aim of the study

The aim of the study is to appraise Edmund Husserls phenomenological reduction as a method for philosophy.

1.6 Literature review

From the very beginning of his career Edmund Husserl (1859– 1938) was interested in the epistemological problem of how we obtain objective knowledge.What distinguished Husserl’s writings from those of other logicians or philosophers of the early twentieth century were his detailed explorations of how the attainment of objective knowledge was connected to essentially subjective sources. Husserl’s initial, epistemologically oriented, studies focused on assessing the intentional character of mental states in the attainment of knowledge.

This focus on intentionality and the concomitant role of mental acts for presenting intentional objects was soon found to contain theoretical limitations and Husserl eventually came to radicalize his approach and expand his analyses to embrace fields such as temporality, inter-subjectivity and culture from within a “transcendental” phenomenological perspective. Through his later phenomenological studies, moreover, Husserl sought to provide a more systematic treatment of the role of subjectivity in constituting both theoretical claims (such as the origin of the laws of formal logic in pre-predicative experience), as well as the essential role played by perception in establishing how objects and meanings are given in “intuitive” acts of fulfillment.

From early on, in other words, Husserl maintained that a descriptive account of internal factors was important for understanding the structure of our knowledge claims. It can be shown that Husserl’s concern with belief as a species of internal states plays an essential role in the formation and the later expansion of his phenomenological method, beginning with his exploration of psychologism in the connection of mental acts to logical truth. As is well known, Husserl published the first part of his Logical Investigations (the Prolegomena to Pure Logic) in 1900 and therein catalogued and criticized various forms of psychologism. In the Prolegomena, the psychologistic positions explored included: anthropological and psychological interpretations of the validity of logical laws (cf. Husserl, 2001, vol. 1, §§ 39–40), the theory of thought-economy: a sort of evolutionary or biological reductionism regarding knowledge claims (ibid., §§ 52–6), as well as radical empirical accounts of how we gain knowledge, as found in, for example, the empiricism of John Stuart Mill (ibid., § 26).

While Husserl shared a strong interest in exploring thought and consciousness with earlier psychologists and psychologistic philosophers, he remained a vociferous critic of psychologism throughout his life. This led him to take up some interesting positions regarding subjectivity, objectivity and the connection between the two. To thematize the difference between subjectivity and objectivity in a more adequate manner, Husserl originally understood interior experience in a narrow manner, a result of his focus on descriptive psychological studies of the relation of mental acts to mathematical objects and the objective status of logical laws. In other words, early on, the mental is viewed by Husserl as a medium for revealing the stable elements of adequately given contents manifested in cognitive judgments.

With his “breakthrough to phenomenology”, however, Husserl came to expand the implications of his theory of the intentionality of consciousness. Beginning in the second part of the Logical Investigations, Husserl views phenomenology as resulting from determined efforts “to lay bare the subjective sources (from which) objective scientific judgments originate”.To reveal these sources various descriptive studies of meaningtaking signitive and intuitive meaning-fulfilling intentional acts were utilized.Whenever we think about something, Husserl maintains, the correlate of our thought is an intentional object (Husserl, 1979: 303–348).

Depending what I am thinking about, moreover, my thought content (along with the meaning I intend) need not even exist in the natural world. For this reason, from early on, Husserl came to believe that the structure of mental reference is not essentially related to transcendent entities. Nonetheless, Husserl also quickly began to view his original foray into descriptive accounts of experience as unsatisfactory. Descriptive psychology failed to capture the full import and the dynamic-open structure of intentional experiences. As a corrective Husserl developed his mature “transcendental” approach to phenomenology but only after various attempts at revising and expanding the earlier analytic “descriptive” phenomenology proved unsuccessful.

Chapter Four


In this study, attempts were made to describe reduction as the beginning of philosophizing, focusing on questions such as: What motivates a phenomenologist to perform reduction? How is reduction the beginning of philosophizing? Can one talk about philosophy before reduction? Finally, what is the essence of reduction?
It was shown how Husserl’s thought, from early on, focused on understanding interiority and immanence as essential aspects of experience. Through his transcendental approach to phenomenology Husserl attempted to categorize different forms of immanence and analyse the role of various reflective acts in establishing truth claims. In conclusion, Husserlian phenomenology can be viewed as a sui generis kind of internalism with, as was pointed out, tensions resulting from his position (especially regarding the incorporation of his essentialist framework premised on the transcendental method of reduction, to non-transcendentally conceived ontological categories).

These tensions work to mitigate against affirmations of Husserlian phenomenology as epistemologically externalist. Criticisms of its brand of essentialism, however, do not diminish the usefulness of the role that Husserlian phenomenology can have in better understanding internalism and externalism. For example, externalist positions, in positing a standard for knowledge lying beyond experience (premising, in effect, “a view from nowhere”) and holding beliefs to be ultimately justified independent of any essentially subjective factors, render themselves incoherent from the Husserlian perspective, since they ignore and bypass, rather than engage with, the “paradox of subjectivity”. By contrast, taken seriously, Husserl’s paradox of subjectivity provides an important clue in exploring the nature of knowledge and the connection between experience and science. The above study has shown how a fuller understanding of Husserl’s writings is important to these contemporary concerns.

Nonetheless, any application of transcendental phenomenology to these problems must ultimately move beyond a strictly phenomenological account of the ultimate categories of transcendence or immanence. Insofar as we are interested in understanding interiority philosophically, however, few thinkers provide more resources for exploring this theme in greater detail than Husserl.

An Appraisal Of Edmund Husserls Phenomenological Reduction As A Method For Philosophy

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