Going beyond Husserl -- (but first, what was Husserl's technique?)

By John Bilby

A hundred years later, the value of the work of Edmund Husserl, who created the school of philosophy called "phenomenology," is being recognized now by certain scientists who are seeking to understand and explain the meaning of human consciousness.

According to philosopher Shaun Gallagher, a noted student of Husserl's approach, the resolution of "the hard problem" that is facing scientists who gather at the "Tucson I - IV" conferences -- "Towards a Science of Consciousness" -- that is, the explanation of conscious human experience -- could depend greatly upon the insights of this little-known turn-of-the-century philosopher.

MAM is predicting the solution of the hard problem is nearly within our grasp at last, as we near the turn of this next century. Gallagher--a regular presenter at these interdisciplinary Tucson consciousness gatherings, and a contributing Editor of the prestigious Journal of Consciousness Studies--isn't so certain of that. But he points the way to this goal, through Husserl.

Although you may never have heard of him, Husserl is not only the father of phenomenology, but the grandfather of European existentialism of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, as well (Heidegger, Sartre, Buber . . . ). He could be called a great-grandfather of the Humanist school of philosophy and psychotherapy of the 50's, 60's, and '70's, too (Maslow, Rogers, Perls). So, don't be surprised if he comes out of the shadows as the old man Moses of the coming age of finally cracking the hard problem of understanding how the human mind works.

Human society may be able to use this knowledge to attain peace on Earth. Basically (although the scientists who are looking for it now may not know this) that is what they will find that this knowledge is for.

In the 21st Century, philosophy will call this understanding--if MAM can guess--"the school of experiential sciences." And we are betting this "experiential school" will be a philosophical school that *lasts*. For there will actually be the beginning of an age of enlightenment when this can come to pass.

Interviewed by email, Canisius College philosophy professor Gallagher tells MAM: "We need both neurophysiology and phenomenology, as well as various other disciplines, including a variety of arts and sciences, in order to interpret consciousness and approach a good understanding of human experience."

"The challenge," Gallagher said, "is to bring these various approaches together and to make them talk to one another, and perhaps gain insights into conscious experience that can be made consistent."

But even Gallagher has his doubts: "I don't think that we will necessarily gain complete consistency," he said. "In fact, for various philosophical reasons I think that complete consistency is impossible. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. The more we try, the more we learn and understand, even if we can never reach a full and complete understanding."

No end to the hard problem seen

"So I don't think," he said, "that we will come to a resolution of the hard problem very soon. Perhaps we will never fully resolve it. But that's part of what it means to have a finite human understanding."

"Finite," perhaps, MAM holds, but perhaps not as finite as it seems to those who doubt the hard problem can be solved at all. Quoted during "Tucson I" in the New York Times, April 16, 1996, "Arizona Conference Grapples with Mysteries of Human Consciousness," Colin McGinn, a philosopher at Rutgers University, "argued that people can never understand consciousness. The mystery is too deep."

According to the Times, McGinn "said that for humans to grasp how subjective experience arises from matter 'is like slugs trying to do Freudian psychoanalysis--they just don't have the conceptual equipment.'"

"Conceptual" equipment, no! But, experiential equipment we *do have*. That is Husserl's point! We will look further at McGinn's question about humans having the necessary "equipment" in this article.

The challange that Professor Gallagher has undertaken is to "go beyond Husserl." And Husserl, for all that he accomplished, has indeed left significant areas of his work unfinished, allowing room for that to be done. [See Book Preview in this issue of MAM about Gallagher's latest effort, "The Inordinance of Time," which will be in bookstores in July 1998.]

In an unsigned paper on the Web, author A,1 says that Husserl claimed that through phenomenology, "philosophy can be made into a pure science, which is to be the queen of the rest of the sciences." The author said Husserl claimed "this science is grounded on the absolute certainty which may be achieved through a transcendental examination of consciousness by consciousness itself."

That's a key theme in this present article: "the examination of consciousness by consciousness itself."

And this claim shows a striking attribute of Husserl. He never seemed vague in any way, as if his statements about the human mind were probably, or very highly likely to be true. He said that what his phenomenology reveals is "absolute certainty." In all his writings he talks that way. Although this may be tough to swallow, if one is to study Husserl seriously, it must be taken into account that that is what the man is saying.

Another writer on the Web, "Author B,"2 writes: "As Edmund Husserl taught, transcendental phenomenology, aided by the skilful application of mature contemplation, prepares the mind to recognize the essential properties of its own operation." Here's that theme again!

But, what is the technique that Husserl used to do this? That is the question that needs to be answered. "Unfortunately," this writer said, "Husserl left no clear, concise manual on how the phenomenological reduction (his technique) is to be performed, and students are left more or less on their own to discover the explicit . . . methods."

Note that this use of the word "reduction" should not be confused with the "reductionists," at Tucson III, for example, who seek to reduce the understanding of consciousness to neurophysiological processes and ontological claims, or theories. Husserl's approach is non-reductionist in the Tucson III sense.

"I don't believe that one will be able to explain everything there is about consciousness in computational terms," says Gallagher. "For precisely that reason, I think phenomenology is important. And phenomenology (a first person approach) is a non-reductionist approach. Furthermore, in the standard sense of reductionism, Husserl is clearly a non-reductionist."

Author B suggests that Husserl's methods are paralleled in the practice of Buddhism. "The [phenomenological] reduction is a radical shift of consciousness," he writes, "that requires training to realize with any consistent results. For this reason, transcendental phenomenology may be compared with the other spiritual disciplines, including the Buddhist traditions of contemplation." [See the accompanying article on Charles Tart in this issue of MAM for a compatible view on this.]

In this highly interesting treatise, Author B says: "Husserl taught that what is reduced is the so-called 'natural attitude' about the world; that is (in our terms) the culturally conditioned, cognized environment that is so taken for granted by people that it is tacit and reified, and indeed perceived as being quite 'natural'--the way things are!"

To understand Husserl, it is very important to clearly understand what is meant by this "natural attitude" about the world that we all have. For this "the way things are" is precisely what Husserl means to "step aside from" by his phenomenological reduction (or more precisely, step back from, take a vivid look at! Husserl's move is to see "the way things are" for what it is, and *slip* it, as one slips off a garment that isn't needed at the moment--the epoché, I believe this is called. That sounds like the right word for it. To "t'ai chi" it, might be another way of putting it.).

Author A speaks of this ordinary human consciousness as: "the 'natural attitude' we all have, where everything about cognition and its validity is taken for granted." Another way of putting this might be that we humans tend to believe in and rely on the validity of our thinking. Some people might say, "Well, what else?" But that's where Husserl's phenomenological reduction comes into the picture. That "Well, what else?" attitude about the validity of our thinking is the very first thing that is to be slipped!

Author A says that "the phenomenological standpoint" -- Husserl's standpoint -- [is that] "the critical or aware standpoint [is] achieved after the 'phenomenology of cognition.'"

That would call for the phenomenological reduction of intellectual conceptualization, itself. In other words, phenomenology begins with the phenomenology of cognition. Awareness of thinking, awareness that thinking is going on, in the present: seeing that thinking is happening, seeing the mind talking to itself, and being able to realize that it is only thinking. That is what Husserl says makes possible transcendental phenomenology.

And in this, we have a clear example of that theme that we have been looking at. It is a very precise description of this very human mind (trained through practicing an exercise) that is capable of examining its own nature in the thinking that is going on. That's the kind of "equipment" that is needed for a scientist to solve the hard problem. Without this equipment--or so Husserl might assert--the hard problem can only be addressed theoretically.

To reiterate, awareness of thinking, seeing that one's thinking is happening, seeing the mind talking to itself cognitively, and being able to watch it, recognizing thinking for what it is (i.e. concepts, and not reality, itself) must occur for the "phenomenological standpoint" to be achieved.

A phenomenologist might then say, upon achieving this aware standpoint: "It's only thinking. It's only concepts and ideas about life. It's not the life itself, that I can also see with my eyes and hear with my ears, and taste, and smell, and feel. It's not 'the real thing' that this thinking is about."

And so here, with this objective observation of one's own thinking process, begins the phenomenological reduction. It is the "phenomenology of cognition" that Husserl says must come "before" transcendental phenomenology can be. This state of mind, this "critical" or "aware standpoint" is capable of examining its own nature in the thinking that is going on.

And there are other aspects of our ordinary "natural" way of life (this could be called "the ordinary human condition") that can be examined in this same way, as well: such as our emotional feelings, the activities that are associated with what one wants (could be called "ego"), and the conditioned behaviors that we do every day in our "natural" efforts at coping with life and trying to get what we want.

It would appear that with all of these--emotions, thinking, desires, behavior--one might employ the phenomenological method, and step back and just become aware of, and view each of these, as they are, phenomenologically, in one's self. And then, slip it.

In such an endeavor as this, one would virtually replicate the "transformative work" associated with all spiritual schools. Husserl's methods would appear to be keys to attaining "freedom," "liberation," "deliverance," "salvation," the fruits of "spiritual work on one's self" (indeed, in the Buddhist vernacular, the attainment of "emptiness," or, "no self."). (And, don't worry! One is still there, awake, alive and kicking, so to speak, in "no self." It is just that one has "dropped" one's "natural self" for a little while, through "work on one's self.")

Basic problems of catching on to this

Author A says the problem is that: "No distinction is made between the object of knowledge and the act of knowing." (Perhaps, in this context, "phenomenology" could be summed up as simultaneous cognizance of both the object of knowledge and the act of knowing. One needs to learn the technique in order to do this.)

Author A raises another intriguing point, in saying that, in the state of this "natural attitude," no distinction is made "between different levels of intentionality in the objects of knowledge." (Perhaps this writer implies that--in this "natural attitude"--the objects of knowledge are ordinarily achieved with a very low level of intentionality--that is, they just "arise." In phenomenology, one chooses what one looks at phenomenologically. One does this "awarely." One has the presence of mind to choose some element of "that which does not arise," and one makes it arise in high relief, on purpose.)

The volitional *action* of phenomenology, that is, the technique (which attends to the act of knowing, as well as the known object), requires a very high level of intentionality--an intent that can only be acquired through learning how to do transcendental phenomenology this way, and, then, practicing it, as much as one is inspired to, until one can "get good at it," so to speak, and do it well.)

The statements above about Husserl's intent to use the mind itelf to study the make-up of the mind are very reminiscent of remarks made by Dr. Charles T. Tart at his pre-conference workshop at Tucson lII (see the accompanying MAM article). Speaking of the techniques of the "Skilled Means" that he teaches, Tart says: "The emphasis is on learning actual skills. These skills can make us better scientists [and] improve our ability to obtain actual data about consciousness."

In the pre-workshop write-up (his abstract), he wrote: "In the last century, psychologists tried to develop a science of mind using introspective data and failed. A major reason for this failure is that the ordinary mind has little skill at observing itself."

He asserts that the ordinary state of consciousness that we all enjoy (whatever our level of education), as we go about doing whatever we do every day, is not adequate to the task of observing the mind, or not suited because of the way it is set up. "The 'normal' state of consensus consciousness," he wrote, "is like a virtual reality, generating apparently real experiences based on cultural conditioning and often distorting perception to support these scenarios."3

This is a highly important point. What we take for reality (even the scientists among us) is a distorted version. It is distorted because of the confusing thinking we do about it, the traumatic emotions we have about it, the conflicting desires we have, and the conditioned ways we have of reacting to a troubling world, automatically--without realizing we are "caught" in this conditioned version of reality! (These are the very aspects of ourselves which Husserl's phenomenological reduction can enable us to uncover and "reduce.") And when we are "caught" in that distorted version of reality, the mind is not very good at observing itself, at all!

To reiterate: this ordinary perception of reality, which is "distorted" to Tart, is the very same "natural attitude," that Husserl taught about. His phenomenological method is about "reducing" this "natural attitude." Husserl's reduction results in the ability to get a handle on this "virtual reality," as Tart calls it--that is, see it, for exactly what it is, part by part, and then step apart from it.

Put another way, Husserl's work is about "seeing through" this "natural attitude" that we take for granted, and just experiencing what the mind experiences then.

And so, it can be said, was the work of Dr. Tart at Tucson III, which did seem to "blow the minds" of most of the scores of scientists who did those exercises with "Charley," as he said he prefers to be called.

In fact, about ten percent of the eight hundred conferees who were here attended his workshop. This is a teacher to admire. And he may have made a big difference in the overall future direction of these conferences. For he shared a highly experienceable non-reductive approach in the scientific study of the hard problem with these distinguished colleagues, most of whom seemed to be virtually aglow. Although journalistically a bit imprudent to say so, I must admit I felt aglow when I was there, as well.

That is, all except for one embarrassing time when I reverted from pupil to journalist at a point, and asked the teacher, in the midst of the training: "Would you comment on the relationship of your approach to the 'Hard Problem?'"

"No!" roared Tart, nimbly crossing the stage towards me with the agility of a martial artist (which he also is), and pointing a finger right at my heart. "I'm trying not to get too intellectual today!"

The whole room laughed. As 79 of the 80 students in the training got his point immediately, I sat there with a reporter's blush on my face. "It isn't about thinking," he had said earlier. "We're lost in our thinking. The real point is that we live so much in our concepts, theories, and beliefs that we pay little attention to the real world around us."

Tart approaches this "real world" with a combination of concentrative meditation and Vipassana insight meditation, which are Buddhist in origin, and the self-remembering methods that G. I. Gurdjieff derived from practice with Muslim Sufi dervishes of the Naqshibandi Order--three sets of different yet compatible techniques.

After P. D. Ouspensky, Gurdjieff's most acclaimed pupil, learned self-remembering, (see, In Search of the Miraculous4): he described walking through the streets of St. Petersburg, determinedly keeping a thread of being awake in self-remembering going, until he arrived at a certain tobacco shop and forgot the awareness practice he was attending to. "Two hours later," he wrote, "I woke up in the Tavrichskaya, that is, far away . . . The sensation of awakening was extraordinarily vivid. I can almost say that I came to." He noted: "while immersed in this [two hour] sleep, I had continued to perform consistent and expedient actions."

Ouspensky said he told his companions among the Gurdjieff students that "this was the center of gravity of the whole system and of all work on oneself." He said that "now work on oneself was not only empty words, but a real fact full of significance thanks to which psychology becomes an exact and at the same time a practical science." This is reminiscent of Husserl's bold claim about the place of phenomenology in philosophy.

Ouspensky continued: "I said that European and Western psychology in general had overlooked a fact of tremendous importance, namely, that we do not remember ourselves; that we live and act and reason in deep sleep, not metaphorically but in absolute reality. And also that, at the same time, we can remember ourselves if we make sufficient efforts, that we can awaken." Husserl, too, appeared to be speaking of awakening to the phenomenological experience from the "natural attitude" about the world that we take for granted, awakening into the phenomenological standpoint where the mind can study itself.

But what of Husserl's technique? If he never finished writing down an explication of it, as Author B reported, how much of it can be figured out from what he did write down? Surely one way to approach this might be by comparing it to these other approaches, like Dr. Tart's, that sound so similar. Is it possible that Edmund Husserl "stumbled into" the same knowledge as those Sufi dervishes of the 19th Century? Of course!

And if this technique of Husserl's can be figured out, and learned, and practiced . . . . . will it take Tucson III scientists and philosophers straightaway to the solution of "the hard problem" at Tucson IV? (MAM is rooting on the sidelines that it will!)

Going beyond Husserl

There can be several ways of "going beyond Husserl" that are open for the takers--as far as MAM can see. One would simply be a full explication of his technique, the phenomenological reduction, which he apparently didn't finish before he died.

Another would be through developing superior capacities in using the phenomenological reduction technique -- by getting really good at it, through practice. Students may indeed supercede their teachers. That is the only hope for humanity. Husserl's game was limited by his practice of it and the heart he had for it on a day-to-day basis. Although that may have been great, it seems likely that students come along in later generations who go beyond Husserl in their skill as "*living* phenomenologists." And some of these would solve some of the questions that Husserl left unanswered.

Once we do understand his technique of reduction, what are we going to do with it? We can go beyond the scope of Husserl's career by recognizing new frontiers of practical applicability of the phenomenological reduction in medicine, psychotherapy, human relations, the arts, diplomacy, government, politics, journalism, business, science, education, sports, entertainment, you name it! For the sake of human happiness. For the sake of human health. For the sake of human peace.

Yet another way to go beyond Husserl is the way that is open to the classical philosophers of our time, such as those who will be coming, in the year 2000, to the gathering of "Tucson IV." This would be the completion of the understanding of the solution of the hard problem, the full understanding of human consciousness that has been dreamed of for so many centuries.

I've got a feeling that Husserl would like that! It looks to me like he was the first person in this century to tackle the hard problem. He is "the original Tucson IV delegate of the 1900's!" The hard problem is *exactly* what his whole life's work has been about . . . even though this body of work remains largely unrecognized still.

Husserl has the part of the key to the hard problem that is the phenomenologist's part of the key. And he is waiting "on the bridge" for scientists to come and sit with him, and "just be" with him for awhile, if they will go just that far in their honest and humble search to know.




4. In Search of the Miraculous by P.D. Ouspensky (Harcourt Brace & World: New York) 1949, pp 120-21.

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