Three Types of “Reduction” in Phenomenology

Cellulite reductionJohn Townsend (who does video blogs about Merleau-Ponty) reminded me (here) that there's more than one kind of "reduction" in phenomenology.

Since pretty much none of these were covered in our Husserl episode as far as I recall, I thought this was worth my time to do some quick Wikipedia research and report back.

The phenomenological reduction, or epoché, is a suspension of judgments about the existence or non-existence of the external world. For Husserl, we are normally in the "natural attitude," which assumes metaphysical realism (as opposed to idealism), but he thinks that once we put aside that controversy, we can focus on the phenomena themselves. More generally, this is the phenomenological effort to stop shoving theories into our descriptions of experience, as, say, Hume pretty blatantly does when he states outright that our experience is all just impressions and ideas (which are really just faint impressions). It quickly becomes clear that this project of removing all theory from our descriptions is hopeless, but it's a move in the right direction, in that we want to figure out, at least, what theories are presupposed by experience, which leads to a whole study of language and the ego and all that.

Eidetic reduction is about analyzing essences: what makes the thing you're contemplating what it is. "This is done by theoretically changing different elements (while mentally observing whether or not the phenomenon changes) of a practical object to learn which characteristics are necessary for it to be it without being something else." In our Descartes episode, we brought up the example of the wax: he thought that since you can melt it and smash it, and it's still wax, then its shape wasn't part of the essence of waxiness.

Transcendental reduction, for Kant, is "examining experience in general and dissecting in it what is supplied by the mind from what is supplied by the given intuitions." To get at Husserl's definition (without actually wading back into the Cartesian Meditations, which I am loathe to do), this blog post quoting Steven Crowell in the Blackwell Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism:

Husserl characterizes this as a reduction to “pure” consciousness, that is, to intentionality purified of all psychological, all “worldly” interpretations and described simply as it gives itself. What shows up in the natural attitude as simply there for me - the hammer I use, the rope I notice in the corner - now comes into view as a unity of meaning (a pure “phenomenon”) that is what it is precisely because of its place in the nexus of intentional acts and experiences in which it comes to givenness. The transcendental reduction thus allows phenomenology to study the intentional constitution of things - that is, the conditions that make possible not the existence of entities in the world (the issue of existence has been bracketed), but their sense as existing, and indeed their being given as anything at all.

All three of these moves are fair game for Husserl. I think by "essences" he has something particular in mind, which is not captured by Creeley's use of reduction to explain the analysis of theater performance. On a broader, more common-sense view of the term essence (which would have to, then, include musings like this too), you could certainly do such an analysis, but it's unclear to me what ones insight on Husserl would be contributing to the project then.

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. Billie Pritchett says

    Hello, Mark:

    You mentioned in passing the impossibility of removing all theories from descriptions in the phenomenological reduction, but it seems, as you and the gang alluded to back in the Husserl episode on phenomenology and CARTESIAN MEDITATIONS how completely useless the project is. There is even some contemporary support for its uselessness in a least a couple of different ways: one, in the way that cognitive scientists assume, soundly, it appears, the mind/brain works, and two, in the way in which sociologically or sociologically-oriented work has shown that the scientific enterprise works, and the discoveries in both areas are ostensibly connected.

    The mind/brain seems to possess certain kinds of characteristics that supply intuitions about the world, intuitions that do not always have a one-to-one correspondence with the way in which discoveries in the sciences show how the world works. Among the modules (or whatever you would like to call them) hypothesized are a kind of folk physics, folk biology, and folk mathematics. The folk physics appears to be a kind of push-pull mechanics that approximate somewhat closely to some of Aristotle’s proposals, and the mechanics are agent-initiated. As for the folk biology, things are clearly living or dead, animate or inanimate, and no alternative or intermediate state exists. With regard folk mathematics, and this probably owes more to sociological discoveries than cognitive discoveries although the sociology can inform the cognitive scientists, a minimal classificatory system of ‘one,’ ‘two,’ and ‘many,’ and more numbers are employed relative to certain needs human beings have with regard their environment. All of these suggest that the human experience of the world is theory-laden as a matter of human biology.

    In terms of how science works (and of course, I only speak as a layperson who has surveyed some of the research), it seems that there is no necessity to connect up the world of experience with the world of science. One reason seems to be that other cognitive capacities, often not intuitive, are employed for science, and what often occurs is abstraction from phenomena. The phenomenal experience of the world is only a platform from which to motivate the scientific enterprise, and what appears to happen is that the sciences do not so much provide a full explanation of phenomena but rather attempt to provide an explanation of the laws in terms of putative models of the world that would have to govern at least some aspects of the phenomena for the phenomena to interact the way they do at all. To give a concrete example, and this comes from a discussion Chomsky gave on Youtube (if you would like the link, I could provide it), if you were to show a physicist a video-recording of what is going on outside a window and ask the physicist to explain the phenomena, it would be silly, because physics is nowhere near explaining the phenomenal world as it is experienced like that. It does not mean that physics does not provide explanations, but the job is not necessarily to explain the phenomenal world. This is relevant with respect to phenomenology because trying to provide descriptions of the phenomenal world does not in any way help ground the sciences because the sciences are more interested in the interrelationship of complex phenomena through abstraction and appeal to universal laws that could explain and predict (or maybe ‘retrodict’) on the basis of proposed (abstract) models. This is not to disparage science, but rather to show that the sciences do not have very much use for describing the phenomenal world.

    Maybe I am proposing a longshot, but one insight of Husserl’s project might be that, if you think about it, even any kind of understanding of the world as part of the ‘natural attitude’ or as part of the scientific experience is really an ‘internalist’ investigation. That is, the understanding of the way the world works is informed by making use of and reflecting from and designing experiments on the basis of our own conscious orientation toward the world, and if human beings were a brain in a vat, the investigations could still continue as normal without disrupting either the ‘natural attitude’ or the sciences. And so the sciences and more intuitive understandings of the world are really kind of an examination of consciousness, and even though the sciences attempt to ‘get us out of own skins’ in understanding the world as much as possible, they are still limited by our cognitive faculties and our conscious makeup to understand the world.

    I apologize about the long post, and I hope it is clear. If my comment seems to be wrong in any way, empirically or otherwise, please let me know or please let me know what you think. I have been a fan of the podcast for about a year, and I devoutly listen as each new episode is produced.

    Keep up the good work. And Merry Christmas.



    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Hi, Billie,

      (Sorry for the lag in response; holiday bustle and all.) I think our upcoming discussion with Owen Flanagan may be helpful here. His take on phenomenology comes from William James and is much less technical than the Husserl and his followers. It’s part of the “natural method,” which is just to look what the research says (neurobiological and otherwise) but to check this against first-person reports. These reports should be distinguished from “common sense” of the type that would give us, e.g. folk physics. Experience simply doesn’t reveal what’s going on at the subatomic level, or how exactly death occurs. Even folk psychology is a theory, not a direct delivery from experience (though Flanagan’s discussion of beliefs and desires makes me think that the Churchlands are overzealous in wanting to expunge these from our scientific vocabulary).

      I think I get your point re. science’s inability to explain the phenomenal world, but this seems overstated. No, we can’t explain every aspect of phenomena, because (according to someone like Merleau-Ponty) a science is abstracting from experience to delve into some aspect. So geometry is picking out spatiality itself and then examining that as a concept, such that a Euclidean or non-Euclidean system may not accurately represent the real world, because that’s not the point. Particle physics is burrowing down to a level such that we can’t expect much reference to what we actually see. But when we get to optics, surely that’s explaining something that is pretty clearly part of the phenomena (even if it goes beyond what we can experience to the ultraviolet, etc.), and evolutionary biology and psychology are going to explain pretty sizable chunks of what we experience, though not, as I think you’re saying, the entirety of moment to moment experience. This situation seems to leave room for phenomenology, and I like your formulation of this near the end of your post, which seems to accord well with M-P’s interpretation of Husserl.

      Thanks for posting, and welcome to the discussion! -Mark

  2. Chris says

    I am a bit confused by your post. How is epoche (phenomenological reduction) different from transcendental reduction? Are they not the same thing? Are not phenomenological reduction, eidetic reduction, and cognition analysis, the three reductions? Help me understand this.

    • Sam says

      Chris, the distinction is actually very subtle, and it can be difficult to grasp.

      With the phenomenological reduction, existential judgement is suspended about the empirical world at large, and the field of judgment (let’s call it that for now) is restricted, reduced, to conscious phenomena as they present themselves.

      However, in this case the consciousness that is being described is still itself an empirical one – it is “a piece of the world”, as Husserl says.

      The transcendental reduction, on the other hand, reduces this empirical ego as well, leaving a transcendental ego (transcendental meaning here something more like “transcending all empirical categories”, rather than describing a set of formal concepts in a kind of logical prehistory a la Kant – the transcendental ego is not ontically distinct from the empirical one).

      I run up against the limits of my own understanding here, so I cannot really specify the distinction any further, but this should give you an idea of how to begin thinking about the distinction.

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