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Reeder, Harry P. 1986. The theory and practice of Husserl’s phenomenology. Lanham, MD: The Univ. Pr. of America.

Perhaps the most basic term in phenomenology is “evidence.” Husserl’s central focus, and the core of phenomenology, is the lived evidence we have for our claims. For Husserl, the ideal of evidence is self-givenness. Self-givenness is the presence, in lived evidence, of a “thing” itself. For instance, if I mention a horse to you, you hear a word, a “verbal sound infused with sense.” This is one form of evidence about horses --but a fuller, more fundamental form of evidence is acquired by standing directly before a horse. Talk about horses provides self-evidence for words, concepts, etc. Seeing, touching, smelling horses provides self-evidence for horses. Husserl, following in the tradition of empiricism (but expanding its concept of evidence), wished to provide a method for examining our experience to find what is really self-given there, in order to avoid projections and speculations. Thus the method of phenomenology, called phenomenological reduction and description, is a method for isolating, examining and then describing in detail the structures of our experience. It describes the phenomena as they appear, rather than attempting to explain why they appear as they do. (Reeder 1986:4)

Much of modern linguistics moves too quickly from a description of what is present to an explanation of the data. Husserl’s agenda involves a more thorough observation of what is present to the observer, together with an avoidance of explanatory attempts. This quote also points out the difference between experience of a word and experience of its referent.

Now that we have seen an example of eidetic reduction, a word should be said about what Husserl means (and does not mean) by his use of the term “essence.” The essence of something is a lived meaning-structure, the universal features of that thing as we experience it. As such, the experience of essences has both a priori and a posteriori features. Essences are universal and a priori meaning-structures in that they are atemporal, possible meanings.… But, of course, one would not talk about the essence of, e.g., “chair,” if one had not had some a posteriori, lived experience of chairs (or ideas of chairs). Recall here that the essence of x is found phenomenologically by starting from an experience of an X, which is held in retention, bracketed, and subjected to free variation.

Although Husserl recognizes essences as the a priori possibility of enacted lived meanings, he does not posit them as existing, in the way that Plato seems to have done. For Husserl there is no evidence for such an existence. Rather, they are said to “obtain,” as logicians and mathematicians say about rules, theorems, etc. They are general meaning structures which we discover as identically present in many actual (and possible) cases. (Reeder 1986:9-11)

For Husserl (and Reeder) essences are real, and though they are lived meanings, they are not mere mental constructs, divorced from “objective reality”.

Notice that, although some experiential structures must be identical for two experiences to be experiences of the same object, the whole of the experiences need not be identical. If you experience the amount “one million dollars” as an example in a phenomenology text, it is in part very different from experiencing that same amount as the recipient of lottery winnings. Although the core meaning is the same, the surrounding context gives the lived meaning as a whole a very different texture or gestalt. Husserl thus distinguishes the theme, the aspect of an experience which is focused upon, from the horizons, those aspects of the experience which are consciously present, but which are not focused upon or made thematic. As you read this page, your focus is neither upon the individual words, nor upon the feel of your chair against your back. But these horizonal elements may be disclosed phenomenologically by a careful examination of the experience held in retention.

Notice that horizons may provide either essential or inessential features of an experience. As you read this page, the chair beneath you may feel hot and sticky, cold and hard, or warm and soft. You may even read standing up (if, for instance, you had been unfortunate enough to sit upon a porcupine yesterday). Thus the horizonality of being located in a chair is inessential to the theme “reading the page.” However, try to imagine seeing the page without its being imbedded in a spatio-temporal horizon. This is impossible, because the spatio-temporal horizon is essential to every experience of physical objects in the world. Such considerations as these led Husserl to distinguish essential structures of the various sorts of experiences, as outlined in Section 5 above and in Chapter 5 below. (Reeder 1986:11)

The meaning of an object may be changed because of its relationship to its context. Note how this perspective resonates with M. Walrod’s favourite “inevitable contextual imbeddedness of all discourse” phrase.

Because the phenomenologist uses words to describe experiences, and because a large and crucially important portion of our experience is linguistic, language plays a key role in both phenomenology and the phenomenology of phenomenology. Indeed, an analysis of linguistic expressions provides the starting point of the First Logical Investigation, and of the later Formal and Transcendental Logic. The relationship between experience, thought, concept, and language is analyzed again and again by Husserl, with elements of the analysis appearing in virtually all of his works.

Husserl makes it clear that experience itself is not always linguistic --even after our learning a language has provided us with a set of partial “cultural blinders” --partial, because at least in some cases we can recover the sort of originary evidences from which linguistic conventions derive. Nonetheless, there is a danger in phenomenology, which must be guarded against, that when we conceptualize and verbalize our experiences we may lose sight of the non-linguistic and pre-conceptual experiential origins of some phenomenological descriptions. One way to avoid this danger is to remind oneself that phenomenological speech is about experiences, and that no one string of words can provide the “uniquely correct” description of a phenomenon. Recognizing the contextual nature of linguistic meanings, Husserl notes that phenomenological terminology must be fluid, shifting as new levels of clarity are reached about a particular phenomenon, as will be seen in Chapter 7, below. We must be willing to keep trying new sets of words, to clarify and articulate our linguistic account of experience. Above all, we must avoid letting the words we use get between us and “the things themselves,” the phenomena. This is why it is a grave error to confuse phenomenology with conceptual analysis. Phenomenology begins from a concrete, lived experience which is at most partially linguistic, and must often look beyond words, beyond concepts, to pre-linguistic or non-linguistic experience. (Reeder 1986:15-16)

Reeder distinguishes between conceptual analysis and phenomenology, and also comments upon how much the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis would be allowed to control our perspective on life and the world around us.

Husserl regarded phenomenology as a “scientific” philosophy. Because our everyday view of science is different from Husserl’s wider view of science, this requires some explication. The central features of any approach meriting the adjective “scientific” might be summarized as: evidence, criticism (including self-criticism), explication and logical unity. Science, in this wide sense of trying to understand ourselves and our world, requires evidence to avoid being arbitrary. It requires criticism to avoid error and dogmatic complacency. It requires explication to clarify claims and to avoid hidden assumptions. And it requires logical unity to avoid contradiction: no two statements may enter into scientific discourse if they lead irrevocably to a logical contradiction.

These central features of science do not --and indeed cannot --reject the appeal to “subjective experience,” if only because all evidence is subjectively lived. There is an irreducibly subjective element to all evidence. (Reeder 1986:16)

To say that something is “scientific” is not the same as saying that something is empirically objective, though that may often be thought of as the meaning of scientific. However, the only alternative to this view does not leave us with radical subjectivity, as one might think (and as “postmodernism” may be thought to assert). Phenomenology asserts the reality of evidence, even though it has an “irreducibly subjective element”.

Husserl began as a mathematician: the project of his Philosophie der Arithmetik (Philosophy of Arithmetic) was to provide a psychologistic account of arithmetic, that is, to find an explanation of arithmetic based upon the way human beings think. Psychologism, which Husserl came to see as gravely mistaken, reduces the objectivity of mathematics (and logic) —that is, how we should think if we are to avoid errors —to the factual nature of the way we do think. One way of pointing out the error in psychologism is to note that, on its view, a factual change such as a mutation in the structure of the human brain could alter the nature of mathematical truth. Husserl would counter that, if we all began adding 2 plus 2 and getting 5 due to some physical change, this would not make “2+2=5” true. We would simply be wrong (unless we made some appropriate changes to the axiomatization of arithmetic) Husserl’s project in the Philosophie der Arithmetik failed —but this work contained many descriptive analyses to which Husserl later referred back, re-reading them “in a new key.” It is in this context, that of the meaning of the mathematical justification, that Husserl “broke through” into phenomenology. (Reeder 1986:20)

This is a crucial difference between phenomenology and some approaches that are called “cognitive”. Cognitive science is often seen as an outgrowth of phenomenology, and rightly so. But often the common view of cognitive science comes down to an essential belief that reality as a “cognitive construct” is only mentally real, that the realities we perceive are only mentally real. Husserl points out why this is untrue.

We have seen that phenomenology was originally developed to solve the problem of the epistemological clarification of logic. In order to account for the normative nature of logical thought on the basis of empirical description, Husserl found himself required to abandon the traditional empirical standpoint. In this sense, he was led to his Cartesianism by his Brentanian empiricism. However, once he began trying to describe the normative objects of logic from the standpoint of lived evidence he found it necessary to make a radical break both with the rationalists and the empiricists, to develop a methodology which was more solidly self-critical. Thus his investigations began with descriptions of the linguistic acts through which the de jure laws of logic (which are normative and a priori) achieve de facto instanciation (in a posteriori experience). Because of the nature of these logical objects, Husserl was forced to travel “in zig-zag fashion,” describing these same linguistic acts again and again, as deeper levels of epistemological foundation were reached. (Reeder 1986:37)

Husserl’s Cartesianism (from Descartes) is introspective and rationalist; his Brentanian (from Brentano) empiricism could lead to positivism, but did not do so for Husserl. However, in important ways Husserl takes strong exception to Descartes’ findings about the world. The rationalist elements of Husserl could lead to speculative philosophy that would have little to do with Husserl’s (and Reeder’s) agenda in phenomenological methodology.

Within the phenomena — i.e. the lived evidence — Husserl sought to discover the general, objective structures of the way things appear, in strictly descriptive fashion. The four basic features of phenomenology’s study of “the things themselves” are: intentionality, theme and horizon, retention and reflection, and phenomenological reduction. (Reeder 1986:45)

All of these elements are strictly opposed to a “context-free” grammar which is posited as an abstract, unlearned system within the mind of man. Human motives are central elements of intentionality (as well as the intentional acts of language use); horizon is another word for context; retention is necessary to understand how one is listening, at a given moment, to a text and not merely voweln in syllablen in wordn, etc.; and the phenomenological reduction brings the first three elements in focus to the observer in systematic ways.

When you see an object as an example of a universal, both the individual and the universal (or essence) are present to the mind. Husserl discusses the irreducible nature of the experience of the essence at great length in the Logical Investigations. There he makes clear that the experience of essence is not any sort of mental picture (whether individual or general), and offers many arguments and examples to clarify its nature (incidentally, anticipating most of Wittgenstein’s arguments on this subject). This intuition of essence, or Wesensschau, is to some degree present whenever language is used, since we apply universal terms to particular objects. (Reeder 1986:53)

When we as observers encounter an object, we encounter it as a particular “instance” and as a member of a category of things. These are the two phases of our experience; we see a cat and perhaps say, “I have never seen a cat with quite that colour before”. In this statement we can see both aspects: If we were not aware of the category “cat”, we would not be able to use the term. On the other hand, if we were limited in our experience to only cats of colours we had seen before, we would likewise not tend to use the term “cat”. The fact that we can simultaneously so confidently assert 1) that this is a cat and 2) that we have never seen this cat before proves that when we encounter a cat we encounter both the particular and the universal, even though the universal cannot present itself, in terms of our senses, in the same way as the particular does.

The ego is the source of all lived unities of experience including not only, e.g. the synthesis (based in retention) of different perceptual glimpses of a chair into the unity “chair,” but also the lived unity of the ego itself. using the term “constitution” to refer to the living act of meaning something (perceptually, intuitively, imaginatively, etc.), Husserl explains that the ego constitutes both objects and the ego itself in a temporal synthesis. (Reeder 1986:70)

According to Husserl, it is the operation of a human observer upon the world to constitute “wholes” from fragmentary experiences, whether the encountering of “the same” object from multiple approaches, or the encountering of a category from multiple instances.

Husserl’s phenomenology is not concerned solely with what actually occurs in conscious living as such, but rather uses the method of bracketing and eidetic reduction to uncover essences, which are the transcendental warranting or de jure structures governing actual (de facto) lived experiences. This Chapter will examine Husserl’s account of essence, to clarify this notion. The discussion will focus upon four important aspects of this account: the nature of essence . . ., the “seeing” or givenness of essence . . ., the method of free variation in phantasy . . ., and the relation between essence and actuality (or reality). (Reeder 1986:87)

When we encounter an animal, how different does the “cat” have to be before we call it something else? How different does it have to be before we object to its being called a “cat”. In the case of monotremes (platypus, echidna) why are they understood to be “mammals that lay eggs”, rather than birds who nurse their young?

Husserl’s descriptive and non-causal account of essence has a further implication. Essences are not to be construed (either nominalistically or ideally) as “mental constructs” or psychological products” (including the social kind of “form of life” which Wittgenstein relies upon to reject the very notion of essence). To be sure, the essences appear in mental acts — but one identical essence may be the object of many acts. (Reeder 1986:90)

Intersubjectivity is not the same as “collective consciousness”; intersubjective reality is not only in the heads of humans in community. This has important implications in our discussion of whether the meaning of language is “in the words” or “in the hearers”.

It is because certain eidetic structures are constitutive of the very objective meaning of objects that Husserl extends essence beyond the bounds of human cognitive activity . . . . Note that this does not mean that there cannot be other creatures with other modes of thinking and computing, but rather than communication and mutual understanding with them would require the discovery of relevant eidetic structures (Reeder 1986:91)

This is often thought of as the “common ground” required for communication to succeed. Husserl related this common ground to what he calls eidetic structures, the essences we encounter in objects of the world around us.

Categorial intuition is based in a new form of act, which Husserl calls founded acts, in which the fulfillment is not provided by a mere sensuous content, but rather by an intuition which includes the sensuous intuition as a part. . . . Thus when you look at a page (say, this one) and have the meaning-intention “this page,” the intention is fulfilled directly by the sensuous content of your perception. But when you see the same page with the meaning-intention “a page” you are taking the sensuous content as a mere arbitrary example of “pages in general.” And of course “pages in general” is not the sort of object which could be seen sensuously. However, just because it cannot be sensuously seen, does not mean that it cannot be “seen” or brought to self-givenness in a wider sense of “seeing” or “intuition. . . . So far, then, we have seen that essences are universal meaning-structures, that they can become self-given in founded acts of categorial intuition, and that such founded acts intuitively present objects of a different type (and in a different way) than individual objects. (Reeder 1986:95)

This is another attempt to explain the difference between the two sorts of awareness we have of an object, both as a particular and as exemplary of a category. As Reeder explains we are not able to sense an objects membership in a category, but we still have a very real perception of the object as an instance of a category, and our awareness is not made more remote by its being less encountered as sensory.

As you read this Chapter you are vaguely protending its end, not in the sense (hopefully) of a conscious expectation of its end, but more in the sense that you know its length is roughly set by the length of the book and the number of chapters to follow, and without looking ahead you are aware vaguely of the number of pages remaining, and at any rate, while I continually qualify this statement, adding one parenthetical expression after another, qualifying the qualifiers, and otherwise prolonging an already excruciatingly long and drawn-out sentence, rather like a writer who is paid by the word, you certainly have by now become aware that it is high time for me to end the present sentence. Now, as the previous sentence grew longer and longer, you at first probably felt vaguely unsettled, until after it grew totally out of proportion and you became aware that you did in fact protend the end of the sentence. You didn’t protend a particular end for it, because, unlike the theme from Beethoven’s Fifth, you are not familiar with the content of this Chapter. As the example shows, one of the best ways to find protentions is through the vaguely unsettled feeling of their frustration. (Reeder 1986:117-8)

Reeder here gives us a superb example of the sort of uncomfortable feeling we get when the expectations that arise because of our faculty of protention is frustrated. This is the same sort of faculty that illusionists take advantage of in their performances. It is also the faculty that both allows and compels some people to finish other people’s sentences when they hesitate beyond a certain expected or allowable time frame.

Because of its commitment to description of lived experience the phenomenology of language does not begin with an analysis of syntax, semantics, grammar, or propositions, but rather with analysis of the linguistic meaning-intention, that is, the intentional experience of meaningful language-use. Husserl uses the meaning-expressive act (a speech-act as described phenomenologically) as a paradigm for his analysis of language. This starting point does not, however, limit the phenomenology of language to a descriptive psychology of the speaker. Many features of language-use are quite objective — but the phenomenologist must discover these objective features in subjective acts of lived evidence, to maintain phenomenology’s commitment to a rigorously empirical and evidential approach. (Reeder 1986:123-4)

The area that phenomenology would appear to focus on in language is what many people would call pragmatics. However, it is important to note that, just as phenomenology would not merely focus upon descriptive psychology of speakers, it would also not merely focus upon language use as an “objective data” field of study. Rather, it would approach language use as a very human interaction with the world and with other humans. Whereas much of pragmatics concentrates on explanation of use patterns of communities, phenomenology would continue to focus upon descriptions of language use, just as it would with any other observed phenomena.

The meaning or content of an expressive act is not an intimated mental state or an act of a particular ego, but the objective structure inserted in such an act. (Reeder 1986:128)

Here, Reeder appears to be thinking along very “conduit-ish” lines, with the act viewed as a container which we infuse with meaning. I don’t think he would be very settled in such a dualistic notion. His main point is not to distinguish act from meaning, but rather to distinguish meaning as resident in the act from meaning as resident in the minds of observers.

An expression not only says something, it refers to an intentional object or objective correlate. The intentional object of an expression is what is spoken of, while the meaning of an expression is the manner of addressing that object. (Reeder 1986:129)

This is the same as Frege’s distinction between the reference and the sense, with the latter of Frege being what Reeder calls the “manner” of addressing the object.

For Husserl, not all lived meanings are linguistic: meaning is a wider category than linguistic meaning. Thus Husserl sometimes uses the term “meaning” to refer to the a priori, essential possibility of linguistically expressed meaning or conceptual construction. When a meaning is grasped (the ideal of this grasp being an intuitive fulfillment), we may construct a concept. (Reeder 1986:133-4)

There are three important implications that arise once the possibility of meanings that are non-linguistic is accepted. First, the possibility of experience, thought, and knowledge that is non-linguistic in essence (although, necessarily, capable of being articulated only in language) also arises. Secondly, the possibility that meaning is not reducible to sets of propositions arises. Finally (and dependent upon the second possibility), the possibility that not all linguistic communication is propositional in essence arises.

It might be said that phenomenology itself provides a basis for understanding the nature of language and linguistic change. The phenomenologist, like any speaker, does not invent language, but rather finds and appropriates a pre-existing language which has a history, grammar and vocabulary of its own. In this sense, language, like a stone tool or a dwelling, is an objective, cultural artifact. However, language itself grows and evolves through its use. (Reeder 1986:135)

Though this quote might seem to assume a priori grammar, among the various structures that a speaker would use, the notion here expressed need not be taken in that way. There is room in Reeder’s approach to grammar for Hopper’s idea of emergent grammar.

Because of the shift of focus accomplished by the reduction, phenomenologists must describe familiar (naïve or ordinary) experiences from an “un-familiar” (bracketed, reduced) point of view. The reduction thus affects a shift in language, or better, a shift in the phenomenologist’s use of language. Thus phenomenological texts use terms which in all but our phenomenological lives mean something different. In the naïve attitude, our “normal” state, our experience — including our living of language — is imbued with the metaphysical presumptions of naïve realism. (Reeder 1986:159)

This explains why so much of phenomenological discussion involves the use of “quotation marks”, hyphenated-expressions, and neologisms. The use of former terms seems so wrong in light of newly discovered understanding that the old language seems incorrect and in need of some change to alert the reader of something very different from what was talked about before.

Under the reduction the [exemplar] tree still appears as a tree, but instead of passively accepting the naïve realist belief in its “reality,” the experience of the tree is focused upon to highlight how it appears as real. The methodological reduction of an object to its appearances is rejected by Husserl. He nonetheless recognizes the intentional embedding of any object of consciousness in the overall conscious life of the ego which is intentionally related to that object. The object is not reduced to a concatenation of appearances (phenomenalism). Rather, the mode of givenness, the concrete living presence of the object is described. . . . Thus, the phenomenological reduction does not reduce objects to a set of appearances, but rather helps us to describe the way in which objects are concretely experienced. (Reeder 1986:164)

Though phenomenology admits that the sensory perceptions of an object from various viewpoints is fragmentary and disjointed, the object is asserted as real and whole, and its holism is not dependent upon mere interpretation of the subject, but also upon the nature of the object.

Any experience can, in principle, be examined phenomenologically. But of course there are many practical limitations. Not only are there periods when one simply cannot achieve the intense concentration required for phenomenological description (for whatever reasons of fatigue or circumstances), but also some experiences themselves to varying degrees resist phenomenological scrutiny. Emotions, prejudices and deep-seated beliefs all tend to defy reflection and reflexion. (Reeder 1986:177)

Anything can thus be a candidate for observation, but not everything is equally accessible. In addition, some objects are harder to observe (as a beginning phenomenologist) than others. Language is a fertile area for observations, but not a suitable beginning point for learning the methods of phenomenology. The beginner would be best served to use objects that seem (whether they are familiar or unfamiliar) more concrete and directly present to the senses (more static might be a way of thinking about it) than language data.