Key Ideas in Phenomenology: Applebaum on the Natural Attitude

Aug 18th, 2012 | By | Category: Merleau-Ponty

This is the first in a series of our posts on central ideas in phenomenology—please add your observations, additions, or questions in the comments section! I’ll begin with what Husserl calls “the natural attitude.”

In everyday life we see the objects of our experience such as physical objects, other people, and even ideas, as simply real and straightforwardly existent. In other words, they are “just there.” We don’t question their existence: we view them as facts.

When we leave our house in the morning, we take the objects we see around us as simply real, factual things—this tree, my neighbor’s house, a car across the street, et cetera.  This attitude or perspective, which is usually unrecognized as a perspective, Edmund Husserl terms the “natural attitude” or the “natural theoretical attitude” (1982, p. 5).

When Husserl uses the word “natural” to describe this attitude, he doesn’t mean that it is “good” or “bad”, he means simply that this way of seeing reflects an “everyday” or “ordinary” way of being-in-the-world. When I see the world within this natural attitude, I am solely aware of what is factually present to me. My surrounding world, viewed naturally, is the familiar world, the domain not only of my everyday life. Why is this a problem?

For phenomenologists, this naturalizing attitude conceals a profound naïveté. Husserl claimed that one’s lived experience of being-in-the-world can never be collapsed entirely into being in the empirical world: any instance of actual being here, he argued, is necessarily encountered upon a horizon that encompasses facticity but is larger than facticity. Indeed the very sense of facts of consciousness as such, from a phenomenological perspective, depends on a wider horizon of consciousness that usually remains unexamined. Any individual object, Husserl wrote:

“Is not merely an individual object as such, a ‘This here,’ an object never repeatable; as qualitied [sic] ‘in itself’ thus and so, it has it own specific character, its stock of essential predicables which must belong to it…if other, secondary, relative determinations can belong to it.” (1982, p. 7-8).

Hence any individual object necessarily belongs to multiple “essential species,” or essential structures of consciousness, and “everything belonging to the essence of the individuum another individuum can have too…” (1982, p. 8).

The gray cat I notice crossing the street is both unique and, if investigated phenomenologically, reveals a common structure or essence “cat” that can apply equally well to other members of the species. Indeed without the structure “cat” in some sense accompanying or preceding the experience of this particular gray cat, I would be unable to identify it as such. There would still be an animal present to me, but even this identification is dependent upon another essence, that of “animal.”

The point here is that seeing the individual cat presupposes a meaningful structure that is inclusive of an wider horizon of possible cats—black, spotted, green-eyed; big, small, healthy, sick, four-legged and three legged, etc.—and the empirical cat, the individuum, is the empirical foreground upon a background of possible cats unified by the structure “cat.”

No individual empirical object, Husserl insisted, is absolutely sui generis–rather, it is recognizable as an object in the first place because it is an instance of an essence that can be witnessed in a multiple real (or possible, or irreal) objects. The idea or essence is a “necessary general form,” Husserl wrote in Experience and Judgment (1973, p. 341), a structure of and for consciousness which can be grasped within the reduction. It is this structure (or essence) which makes the very seeing of individual empirical objects as objects possible for us, in other words “that without which an object of a particular kind cannot be thought, i.e., without which the object cannot be imagined as such.”

All of this is evident once one begins to actively phenomenologize; yet from the natural attitude we see everything at face value: there is simply this cat, this tree, this house, simply accepted in their facticity as self-evidently present; we do not inquire further into our perceptions, our intuitions. Expanding on this theme Husserl wrote (in Fink, 1995, p. 166):

“In the natural attitude…to everything worldly there belongs the being-acceptedness: existent in the world, in the world that is always existent beforehand as constant acceptedness of a basis. So also man’s being is being in the world that is existent beforehand. In phenomenology this being-beforehand is itself a problem.”

Phenomenology, of course, seeks to reflect deeply upon the fundamental structures of perceiving and inhabiting the shared world. Adopting a phenomenological attitude means taking on a particular, reflective point of view with respect to what’s given to us in perception. Merleau-Ponty offers an extended and artful discussion of the difference between the natural attitude and a phenomenological attitude in the Phenomenology of Perception (1996). Describing a die (one of a pair of dice), he writes:

“Here is a die; let us considered it as it is presented, in the natural attitude, to a subject who has never wondered about perception,and who lives among things. The die is there, lying in the world. When the subject moves round it, there appear, not signs, but sides of the die. He does not perceive projections or even profiles of the die but he sees the die itself at one time from this side, at another from that, and those appearances which are not yet firmly fixed intercommunicate, run into each other, all radiate from a central Würfelhaftigkeit which is a mystical link between them.” (p. 324)

The longer passage of Merleau-Ponty’s is well worth reading, because he moves on to describe the perceptual shifts that occur when one adopts a phenomenological way of seeing the die. Implied in his words above is that, when I am in the natural attitude, the world and its objects are experienced as always already present, prior to my reflection upon them. Yet this is an implicitly theoretical attitude—for as Husserl noted, there is an unrecognized theorizing about world implicit in the natural attitude.

Simply put, from an empirical or natural standpoint I see my ego as fundamentally separate from the world around me, a world that is obviously already here, quite apart from me, and which has no relation to me other than as my context and the container for other objects of interest to me.

Phenomenology questions the seemingly self-evident assertion that the world is fundamentally separate from me and pre-exists me. This assertion can be seen in the natural sciences when these sciences are practiced unreflectively–an issue taken up by Husserl in the Crisis. One of phenomenology’s primary claims is that the ego is never severed from world, that the sense of “world” is always more than a collection of empirical objects, that I am always implicated in world, and vice versa.



Fink, E. (1995). Sixth Cartesian meditation: the idea of a transcendental theory of method, with textual notations by Edmund Husserl. (R. Bruzina, Trans.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Husserl, E. (1973). Experience and judgment: Investigations in a genealogy of logic. (J. Churchill and K. Ameriks, Trans.)., L. Landgrebe, (Ed.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press. (Original work published in 1948)

Husserl, E. (1982). Ideas pertaining to a pure phenomenology and to a phenomenological philosophy: First book, general introduction to a pure phenomenology. (F. Kersten, Trans.). Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1996). Phenomenology of perception. (C. Smith, Trans.). New York: Routledge.



Thanks to Susi Ferrarello for her helpful comments!

An earlier version of this article was posted on The New Existentialists

houses photo credit: maistora via photo pin cc

die photo credit: Ravages via photo pin cc


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