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Relative and Absolute Being in Husserlian Phenomenology

The concept of being lies at the center of Edmund Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, but he does not address this idea as forcefully as his successor—Martin Heidegger—will come to do later. Instead, Husserl approaches the concept of being more elusively, proceeding towards it gradually from the side rather than confronting it head-on. As first philosophy, being forms the foundation of phenomenology; it is the starting point. However, it can also be argued that it is the end point, or the goal of phenomenology. In this post, I intend to address the tension between these seemingly contradictory interpretations of being as they relate to Husserlian phenomenology, and in the process of doing so, I will specifically focus on the connection between absolute and relative being, making the case that phenomenology is fundamentally about harmonizing these distinct modes of experience.

Husserl makes it clear at numerous points throughout Ideas I that phenomenology is intended to be a concrete eidetic science of essences: it “purports to be nothing other than a doctrine of essences within pure Intuition.”[1] These “essences” are pinned down either “conceptually or terminologically”[2] through the use of the phenomenological reduction, or positioning oneself in relation to objects and things as they are presented in reality and setting aside one’s prejudices, opinions, and beliefs in the process of doing so. In short, phenomenology is an investigation of the structure of consciousness itself, resulting in ideal meanings that constitute the foundation of all knowledge. Even though the overall goal of phenomenology is framed as ideal knowledge, I argue—and I believe that Husserl would agree to a certain extent—that within this goal there is a subsidiary goal that needs to be accomplished in order for Husserl’s larger project to work; namely, the successful application of the phenomenological reduction.

The phenomenological reduction is at the heart of Husserl’s philosophical project. It is the suspension of what Husserl calls the “natural attitude,” or the mode of being that people regularly adopt in their day-to-day lives. The natural attitude is what people experience when they go to the movies, exchange pleasantries with acquaintances at work, or when they lie on the couch and daydream about an argument from yesterday. It is an experience of the world just as it is, requiring no effort; it happens naturally. The effortlessness of the natural attitude is also what makes the phenomenological reduction challenging. If someone can easily and effortlessly drift through her life in the natural attitude, then how is that person supposed to become aware of it, let alone suspend it entirely? Even if someone wants to become aware of the natural attitude, how is she supposed to suspend the nuances of her own culture? Her perspective? Her opinions? How does one practically suspend the “evaluative and practical functions of consciousness”? [3]

The challenges posed by the phenomenological reduction were not lost on Husserl. In the introduction to Ideas I, he writes that “moving freely within the new [phenomenological] attitude, without falling back into the old attitudes, learning to see, to distinguish, and to describe what is standing right before one’s eyes, all this requires studies of a unique and arduous sort.” If it is taxing to embody the phenomenological attitude, then why would anyone be motivated to pursue it? In Ideas I, Husserl does not provide his reader with a response to this specific question, but he does make it clear that the phenomenological reduction leads to a novel familiarity with consciousness itself, and there is value that can be derived from this understanding.

Most notably, the phenomenological reduction gives one access to that which is mostly forgotten within the natural attitude: the pure ego. The pure ego is what remains after culture, customs, law, religion, arts, politics, and evaluative and practical functions of consciousness are suspended. [4] It is the “residuum” of the phenomenological reduction. It itself cannot be suspended because it is “inherent in every experience.” [5] It is “something intrinsically necessary and something absolutely identical in the course of every actual and possible change of experiences.”[6] The pure ego is the most fundamental component of consciousness—the radiant awareness that illuminates every experience—and because of this, it cannot be suspended.

The pure ego is arguably the most important component of phenomenology because it is the bridge that brings relative and absolute being together. Even if someone were to never engage in phenomenology, the mere presence of her ego would mean that the possibility of understanding would always be available to her. In order to understand the significance of this better, it is important to look closer at the two modes of experience—relative and absolute being—that the pure ego is bringing together.

Husserl describes absolute being as the “primordial category” in which “all other regions of being are rooted” and on which “all of them are thus essentially dependent.”[7] Husserl’s schema of absolute being is not an argument in favor of an “absolute reality” in which the “real actuality” of the world is denied, but rather, he is arguing that “the world itself has its entire being as a certain ‘sense.’’” [8] In the natural attitude, absolute being is all but forgotten; it is inaccessible, hidden. It is not until one sheds the confines of the natural attitude and adopts the phenomenological attitude that she can dwell in the glory of pure consciousness. However, this shift in consciousness is not about abandoning the natural world in favor of pure consciousness, but rather, it is about bringing consciousness into communion with the natural world.

More specifically, it is about bringing pure consciousness into communion with sense-affording consciousness, or relative being, a being that presents itself in profiles and never “affords” itself absolutely.[9] In the natural attitude, relative being appears to be the primary mode of being, but in fact, Husserl argues that it exists “only in ‘relation’ to the first.”[10] On one hand, there is absolute being, a mode of being that exists only for itself, and on the other hand, there is relative being, a mode of being that exists “for a consciousness.”[11] In which case, it is consciousness—or the pure ego—that not only constitutes the connection between these disparate modes of being, but it is also that which serves as the means of understanding this connection. Furthermore, absolute being cannot be “its own object of investigation”[12] because it has no qualities or characteristics to investigate. It is self-contained; “it needs no ‘thing’ to exist.”[13] Therefore, it is the relationship between an individual ego and actual sensory experience that phenomenology investigates.

In Ideas I, Husserl divides relative being into two main categories: being as thing and being as experience.[14] The first transcends perception whereas the latter is more like a perceptual process. In other words, “being as thing” is anything that is an actual object—like a chair, a marble, or a sunflower—and “being as experience” is the way in which that object gets interpreted vis-à-vis perception. “Being as experience” is the only way that an ego can get a unified perspective of a thing. For example, if I want to understand the chair that I am currently sitting in, then I can walk around it, look at it from different angles, in different lighting, sit in it, etc. But with these actions, it is only possible to build a unified perspective of the chair from a series of partial perspectives. It is not possible to see the chair from all sides at once as it exists in its entirety. In which case, there is the thing itself as it exists in the world and then there is the mental process that interprets the thing using a series of partial perspectives.

Furthermore, it is important to note that these partial perspectives are not isolated instances that are free from any context, or what Husserl would call a “horizon,” but rather, they are embedded in the physical environment surrounding the object, and more notably, they are bound to temporality. This means that the duration of a mental process is a reference to a “replete continuum,” or in other words, it “belongs to one infinite ‘stream of experience.’”[15] The ego accumulates experiences over time, and with these experiences, it builds a comprehensive “horizon of experience” that serves as a context from which it can understand and analyze its environment. Within this framework, the pure ego is understood as the component of experience that is unchanging and continuous—the foundation from which experience is built. It is the “one stream of experience, replete in all three dimensions.”[16]

Although the overall objective structure of time is one continuous stream of experience, there are individual moments within this structure that have “distinguishable modes of givenness,”[17] and it is these unique moments that serve as the source of information for a phenomenological investigation. After all, the goal of phenomenology is to be an eidetic science of essences. If one is to understand the essence of an object, and not the contingent facts about how that object exists in reality, then it is important to understand how one relates to that object within the framework of experience. However, in order to determine this essence, it is first and foremost necessary for one to focus on it.

Intentionality, or consciousness of something, is a main theme of phenomenology because it is how the pure ego relates to phenomena in the world. It is the bridge that connects the radiating focus of the pure ego with objects, or the “respective correlate[s] of consciousness.”[18] The way that someone directs her consciousness at something is going to determine the way in which it manifests consciously. For example, if a student directs her consciousness at the concept of “school” with excitement, then she will feel happy on the first day of the term, but if she associates “school” with misery, then she will direct the intentionality of her consciousness at her experience in a completely different way. In which case, and as is hopefully becoming clear, relative being is something like an exchange between that which actually exists in the world, such as school, and the way in which individual people relate to those objects based on their horizons of experience.

For the most part, people drift through life unknowingly directing their consciousnesses at the world in particular ways. This is the natural attitude. It is also why relative being appears to be the primary mode of being. However, it is important to remember that relative being is not the primary mode of being; that category is reserved for absolute being. Within phenomenology, there is a relationship between these two modes of being, and with the phenomenological reduction, one can undermine the normalcy of her perception by revealing the essences of objects for what they truly are.

These two primary categories of being are like two sides of the same coin, with relative being as the “subjectively oriented side” and absolute being—or pure consciousness—as the “objectively oriented side.[19] Absolute being “contains every instance of worldly transcendence in itself,”[20] whereas relative being is a being of the world: it is a “real being of the human ego and its experiences of consciousness . . . in the world, as well as talk of anything that in any way belongs to it in regard to ‘psychophysical’ connections.”[21] Phenomenology is grounded in the world of actual things, but it also speaks to, or dwells, within the transcendental. Therefore, there is a playful courtship between pure and sense-affording consciousness that phenomenology intends to neutralize, and it is the pure ego that acts as the connective tissue uniting these disparate—but related—forms of being together. Within the phenomenological reduction, and through the lens of the pure ego, the individual brings relative being into balance with the world of absolute being—and, in turn, the “world of eidos”—enabling her to study what she finds immanently contained within the sphere of her own consciousness.[22]

In order to accomplish this goal, the fundamental issue of sight will always be a concern for phenomenology. In other words, if phenomenology wants to be an eidetic science of essences, then people who take up phenomenology must learn how to actually see and understand experientially that relative being is not the same as absolute being. In this sense, phenomenology is like a map that can be used to navigate the route back to neutralization. It begins with being—being in the world—and leads back to being—being as absolute. It is as much about the ultimate goal of eidetic seeing as it is about the journey to get there. It is also for this reason that Husserl makes it clear that understanding the relationship between the pure ego and actual sensory experience “fittingly ranks first” within phenomenology.[23] The pure ego contained within every individual can either be objectively or subjectively oriented. From this perspective, the labyrinth of being is to be both revealed and understood.

Notes

[1]. Edmund Husserl, Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological, trans. Daniel O. Dahlstrom (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2014), 120.

[2]. Husserl, 120.

[3]. Husserl, 104.

[4]. Husserl, 104.

[5]. Husserl, 105.

[6]. Husserl, 105.

[7]. Husserl, 136.

[8]. Husserl, 103. Italics elided.

[9]. Husserl, 90.

[10]. Husserl, 90.

[11]. Husserl, 90.

[12]. Husserl, 154

[13]. Husserl, 89.

[14]. Husserl, 74.

[15]. Husserl, 157.

[16]. Husserl, 159.

[17]. Husserl, 160.

[18]. Husserl, 162.

[19]. Husserl, 155.

[20]. Husserl, 91.

[21]. Husserl, 90.

[22]. Husserl, 57.

[23]. Husserl, 153.

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