Again, this was originally a university essay which I’ve not read for years. I remember not liking phenomonolgy much, as it didn’t seem to follow the same analytic rules.

Husserl’s transcendental phenomenological method is designed to enable us to isolate universal essences, on the basis of experience. Explain and critically assess this method, with particular reference to Locke’s discussion of abstraction in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book iii chapter 3.

In this essay I will outline Husserl’s method of transcendental phenomenology. To do this I will break the method down into the three major stages. The first stage of the method is known as the phenomenological epoche, or transcendental reduction. The second stage will be that of intentional analysis. The third and final stage is that of free imaginative variation. Then I will compare this method with that of abstraction put forward by Locke. I will conclude with a discussion of the relative strengths of Husserl’s and Locke’s positions. First, however, a brief discussion of what Husserl was trying to achieve with the phenomenological method.

The aims of phenomenology.

Husserl wanted to find a new science, that would provide the foundation for the traditional empirical science. He claims that the recognised sciences have similar structures. They are structured with a hierarchy of judgements. These judgements ultimately rest on, or are grounded in, evidential foundations. However, Husserl believed the evidence bases used by the existing sciences are not of the correct nature. ‘[S]cience is a human spiritual accomplishment which presupposes… its point of departure’[1]Following the Cartesian method of systematically doubting, Husserl finds all these sciences to be reliant on judgements that are unsubstantiated. Husserl believed a science of the sciences must be developed that could not be doubted.

The epoche.

Husserl claimed that the type of evidence needed for knowledge should meet three criteria. ‘This realm of evidence must be primary; it must be apodictic; and its primacy itself must be apodictic.’[2] This means that the evidence must be present without recourse to theoretical interpretation. The evidence should also demonstrate ‘what must be the case’[3]. Finally, the fact that the evidence is to be directly observed, rather than interpreted, must be necessarily so. Every form of evidence that is not apodictic should have judgement on it suspended. For example, the world, following Cartesian thought, cannot be said to be necessarily real. Therefore, the supposition of reality must be suspended. This bracketing of the theoretical is known as performing the epoche, or the transcendental reduction.

When we perform the epoche, we intentionally remove all naturalistic presuppositions from an experience. For example, we suspend judgement on the reality of the objects of perception. We would also suspend the laws of logic and causality which we adopt in the natural attitude, as again they are not primary or apodictic, but theoretical. The epoche is an attempt to reduce a mental experience to its meaning and content. Any presupposition in an experience that can be suspended, must be. For example, if I am sat in front of a fire, I experience warmth and light. In the natural attitude, I would think of the fire as a real entity in the world, causing the experience of it. In performing the epoche we bracket out the supposition of reality in that I should no longer treat the experience as that of a real fire, but take it only as it appears to me.

The epoche, Husserl argues, leaves us with only two things. On one hand, we have the pure ‘realm of one’s conscious acts or experiences, such as perceiving or remembering something, now describable in a way that does not assume the world’s existence.’[4] On the other hand we have the transcendental Ego. This Ego is that which experiences, and is consciousness. It is transcendental in that it gives itself to us above and before experience. ‘I exist for myself and am continually given to myself, by experiential evidence, as “I myself”.’[5] Both the Ego and cogitations are apodictic and primary.

The cogitations that remain after the epoche are no longer assumed to exist. This does not mean that they are necessarily thought not to exist. They are meant to be entirely theory-neutral. When I bracket out the existence of the objects of the world, ‘I am not negating this “world” as though I were a sophist; I am not doubting its factual being as though I were a skeptic; rather I am exercising the “phenomenological” epoche which also completely shuts me off from any judgement about spatiotemporal being.’[6]

If I experience a table in the natural attitude, I would talk of its size, colour and texture as if I knew them to be properties of an object that exists in the world, distinct of my awareness of it. Having performed the phenomenological reduction, the bracketing out of theoretical suppositions, I would now talk in a different manner, ‘because the whole world, when one is in the phenomenolgical attitude, is not accepted as actuality, but only as actuality-phenomenon.’[7] I would still be able to discuss these properties, but only in reference to the object of perception. I would describe the idea of the table as it appeared to me, without making an assumption either way as to its existence or role in logical deduction.

Intentional analysis.

Husserl, following Brentano, took intentionality to be the referential nature of thoughts. ‘Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not all do so in the same way.’[8] Anytime a thought occurs, it is a thought about something. All acts of thought, or noesis, have an object, a noema. When we express a thought, our meaning is contained in the reference to the noemas of that thought. Following the epoche, Husserl takes the referent to be the phenomenon as experienced, rather than an object in the world. The experience of a phenomenon contains both the object as perceived, and the effects it has. For example, my experience of a deck of cards would be different to that of a hardened gambler. Therefore, I would be referring to a different noema, as a deck of cards contains less meaning to me than to the gambler. In highlighting this, Husserl ‘is in a sense meditating on the kind of relation between sense and reference which Frege had proposed’[9]. However, Husserl’s noema contains both the Fregean sense and the referential function of thought in one complex entity.

Intentional analysis is the non-theoretical analysis of the contents of consciousness. This stage of the phenomenological method is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Without an underlying theory, there is no claim against which the contents of experience are to be judged. Phenomenology ‘is a matter of describing, not of explaining or analysing.’[10]

Once the phenomenological reduction has been performed on an idea, it has been reduced to only the apodictic content. The various aspects of this content can then be analysed. For example, if we are dealing with the image of a red door, we can separate out the experience of redness from that of a door. To understand the nature of the experience, it must be explained without recourse to particular theories. When we experience red, we are not simply seeing one instance of a particular band of colours. We may also experience certain emotions, have particular associations, or remember specific events. These associations are part of the experience itself, and are equally valid for analysis. If an experience arouses fear, for example, this can be examined in such a way as to isolate the aspect of the experience that is fear.

Husserl believed that when we experience, it is not just the particular property that is being directly experienced that is instantiated, but also the universal of which it is an example. To experience something as red, it must be that that particular instance of red also carries, in a sense, the universal of redness. When we bring to mind, or otherwise experience, red, we are automatically aware of the family, if not necessarily the entirety of the family, of shades experienced as red. If this were not the case, an experience would not announce itself as an experience of the type ‘red’, but would need further synthesis. Therefore, knowledge of the universal arises from experience of the particular.

We come to know these universals, Husserl believes, through a process known as ‘eidetic intuition’ or ‘essential seeing’. ‘Husserl believed that it was possible to have an insight into the essential nature of things, that these could be ‘seen’ in a manner analogous to perceptual seeing of a physical object.’[11] This suggests that, once we are in the phenomenological attitude, we are able simply to ‘see’ the essences that compose the noema.

Husserl held that, as ‘[e]ach experience – each cogitatio – has two sides: the cogito, or experiencing, and the cogitatum, or what is experienced’[12], the descriptions provided by phenomenology would fall into corresponding categories. Noetic descriptions will describe the modes of consciousness, or noesis. These modes could be any form of mental act, such as imagining, perceiving, or remembering. Noematic descriptions will explicate the object of experience, as it is experienced. These two forms of description are entwined, as the noema and noesis share a necessary intentional relationship.

This content can then be analysed to show the ways in which the consciousness is structured. Husserl claims that the experience of universals in particulars is a structure of consciousness. It is a fundamental part of experience itself that we experience in this manner, as this acts as a means of linking the meaning of multiple experiences into a coherent world view. We could not know that something was an instance of ‘red’ if this instance did not announce itself as red through the universal. It is this categorisation of particulars into universals that gives rise to consciousness.

Free imaginative variation.

Having found the universal in the particular of an experience, Husserl wished to find which properties are essential or surplus to the experience of a phenomenon as that kind of phenomenon. ‘If an object (in a broad sense) can be imagined to be other than it is with respect to one of its parts or properties, F, without ceasing to be that object, then the possession of F cannot be essential to the object.’[13] However, ‘if to imagine a given object changed in some respect, G, is ipso facto to imagine a numerically distinct object, then we are presented with something that belongs to its essence: the object is essentially G.’[14]

To discover those properties that are essential, Husserl suggested the method known as ‘free imaginative variation’. This starts with the perception, or other bringing to mind, of a pure phenomenon. Then we alter the properties of the, now entirely imaginary, phenomenon randomly. Those alterations that affect the very nature of the phenomenon signify a change to an essential property. If I start the exercise with the image of the table I see in front of me, I would then change one property at a time, demarking between those alterations that affected the fundamental nature of the phenomenon. An essential property would be any property the table must retain to be a table. A table must have a surface on which to place things, as this fulfils the functional role of a table. This surface is an essential property of ‘table’. Non-essential properties might be those such as the colour, size, and shape, as these can be changed whilst the object remains a table.

Finding the properties that are essential to an experience will help ascertain the bounds of the universals within that experience. This clarifies the way in which we identify the presence of one universal, as opposed to another. For example, in the study of colour, we see what it is to be red as opposed to blue, and when the experience of a coloured surface becomes one or the other. Eventually, it is hoped, all the properties that are essential to the presence of a given universal will be discovered through this method, and therefore the complete meaning of the universal.

This process allows us to see not just the way that universals are present in perception, but also the way in which they must be present. Husserl argues the limits and structures of universals must be reflected by the limits and structures of consciousness. This is because, as we have seen, the ego ‘includes also the whole of actual and potential conscious life’[15]. Therefore, the study of mental phenomenon is also the study of the ego.

Locke and abstraction.

Locke discussed a very different method of discovering essences, or universals. He believed that ‘all things that exist are only particulars’[16]. These particulars are abstracted into universals when they are taken out of context. When we have a particular idea, such as that of a glass, it is made particular by its’ ties to a certain time and place. Once I can disassociate the glass I can see from the here and now, I have the concept ‘glass’. Having come across multiple examples, I refine the concept, including those properties that fit the idea, and excluding those that do not. Hence the universal arises from the experience of particulars, but is not instantiated in it.

This is a marked contrast to the method of discovering universals put forward by Husserl. Where Husserl believes the universal is immediate in experience, Locke argues there must be synthesis of particulars. It could be argued from the Lockean standpoint that the Husserlian view of universals is incorrect. The view of Husserl is that a universal may be present in the structure of consciousness, without any instantiation. I have the concept ‘glass’ without necessarily having experienced a glass. Furthermore, having experienced just one glass I could then, through free imaginative variation, understand every possible meaning and form of glass. This appears to be a grand claim.

It seems much more intuitive that we must have experience of several instances of a type before we can know the relevant universal. I believe that I cannot know the universal of a type I have never had experience of. If I were to be introduced to something new, I feel I would have to become acquainted with various things of that kind before I could speculate as to the nature and the bounds of the universals present.

However, the Lockean method is itself not without problems. It does not explain how exactly we come to associate one particular with another, to form the universal. If this is by a process of induction, he falls immediately into the ‘problem of induction’. This states that we can never know something, in this instance the nature or appropriate usage of a universal, through inductive reasoning. Simply, there is no guarantee that past experiences can predict the possibilities of the future.

If Lockean ‘abstraction’ is merely the act of picking a trait and grouping all those things that display it under one universal, it seems a random affair. Taking the example used famously by Wittgenstein, there appears to be no single universal that contains the meaning of ‘game’. Locke does not provide an adequate description of how we can come by such wide-ranged universals.

Existence as an essence.

The first criticism of Husserl I will consider is that put forward by Heidegger. When performing the epoche, Husserl appears to believe that the noema itself remains unchanged. The pure phenomena that remains after the reduction is intended to retain the properties of the experience. Husserl implies that such things as existence are theoretical suppositions attached to the noema, rather than an integral part of the noema itself. In the ‘metaphysical attitude’ this would appear correct, as existence may be posited theoretically.

Heidegger argued that in common perception, one of the necessary essences is that of existence. One of the necessary properties of the noema is that it is experienced as real. When examining an object, we would alter its very nature by suspending judgement on its existence. We experience a pencil as real, rather than experiencing a pencil, and then positing its reality. My experience of a pencil does not assume the reality in the sense thought by Husserl. A pencil that does exist is necessarily different from one that does not, by virtue of its existence. Therefore, the presupposition of existence cannot be suspended with regard to the common experience of a pencil, because existence is itself an essence.

I feel Heidegger has critically undermined Husserl. I agree that when we experience an object, we experience it as real. Therefore, to suspend the judgement on reality is to alter the essence of that which we are experiencing. This leaves us not with the object as experienced, but a different noema entirely. Taking this on board, we cannot perform the epoche to find the pure phenomenon.


I conclude that Husserl has failed in the attempt to provide a basis for the sciences, and has not given an adequate account of the discovery of universals in particulars. The epoche, as argued by Heidegger, is flawed, as there is the assumption that existence is not a property of an experience. It seems that the experience of an object as actual is, in fact, an essential aspect of that experience. To experience something as real is fundamentally different from experiencing it as unreal.


David Bell, Husserl, (London: Routledge: 1991)

Michael Hammond, Jane Howarth and Russell Keat, Understanding Phenomenology, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing: 1991)

Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, (Dortdrecht: Kluwer: 1988)

Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, translated F. Kersten (Dortdrecht: Kluwer: 1982)

Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press: 1970)

John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book iii chapter 3

Thomas Mautner Dictionary of Philosophy, (London: Penguin Group: 1996)

M. Merleau-Ponty Phenomenology of Perception, (London: Routledge: 1962)

Dermot Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, (London: Routledge: 2006)

[1] Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences, p. 121

[2] Michael Hammond, Jane Howarth and Russell Keat, Understanding Phenomenology, p. 24

[3] Thomas Mautner Dictionary of Philosophy, p.32

[4] Michael Hammond, Jane Howarth and Russell Keat, Understanding Phenomenology, p. 24

[5] Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, p. 68

[6] Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, p. 61

[7] Husserl, Cartesian Meditations p. 32

[8] Brentano, cited Dermot Moran, Intrduction to Phenomenology, p. 46

[9] Dermot Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, p.156

[10] M. Merleau-Ponty Phenomenology of Perception p. viii

[11] Dermot Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, p. 134

[12] Michael Hammond, Jane Howarth and Russell Keat, Understanding Phenomenology, p. 47

[13] David Bell, Husserl, p. 194

[14] David Bell, Husserl, p. 194

[15] Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations p. 68

[16] John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book iii chapter 3

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