Husserl and Common Sense

Husserl and Common Sense March 31, 2014

You wouldn’t know as you slogged through his impenetrable prose, but Husserl’s turn to phenomenology was, Jonathan Ree argues, a “belated return to plain healthy common sense” (I See A Voice, 343).

All knowledge comes initially through the senses, the scholastics had said, and early modern philosophers had tried to specify how the impressions coming from five very different senses can be unified in the singularity of our experience. By emphasizing our embodiedness in the world, Husserl broke through the logjam. There is no need to unify disparate sensible experiences, because our experience is always already experience of the whole body in an environment.

As Ree puts it, “The pre-phenomenological philosophers had tried to persuade us that our experience is fundamentally subjective; but they were ignoring the irrepressible objective worldly reference of all our perceptions. The world is not a kind of afterthought, a quality we tentatively infer from regular correlations amongst our sensory ideas. Nor is it subjective three-dimensional geometrical form that we clamp onto certain ideas in order to differentiate them from the inner experiences which take place only in the single dimension of time. Despite the ingenuity of the old subjectivist philosophers, the world is always with us, whether we know it or not” (343-4).

In fact, we have pretty much been phenomenologists all along “if only obscurely”: “You have never really supposed that the content of your experience is defined primarily by the sensory channel through which it reaches you. You perceive people, animals, plants and inanimate things before you perceive colours, shapes, smells, flavours, and sounds. You can be aware of comfort or danger without being conscious of any particular sensory ideas. You have a sense of orientation amongst the things that surround you before you have any knowledge of the mathematics of space and time. In addition, you will respond to stories and events without having to react to the specific sensory medium by which they are conveyed. If you catch and unexpected glimpse of someone you adore, your inner commotion is a matter of love rather than optics. You understand the words or signs of a familiar language without needing to notice the exact sounds or gestures of which they are composed. If you are distraught on hearing of the death of a friends, what you suffer is not auditory distress. Even our dreams are not reducible to subjective sensory imagination: you can dream of your mother, for example, through a dream-image which bears no visible resemblance to her, or through no image at all. Your experience always contains people and stories, words and things, signs and meanings, rather than metaphysical abstractions such as space and time, or the deliverances of the five senses. And that is why phenomenology can easily sound like a belated reawakening of solid common sense” (344).

It sure sounds like it to me, so long as Ree and Husserl is explaining it.

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