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Cont Philos Rev (2013) 46:349–369

DOI 10.1007/s11007-013-9267-8

Phenomenology as a way of life? Husserl

on phenomenological reflection and self-transformation

Hanne Jacobs

Published online: 14 August 2013

 Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Abstract In this article I consider whether and how Husserl’s transcendental

phenomenological method can initiate a phenomenological way of life. The impetus
for this investigation originates in a set of manuscripts written in 1926 (published in
Zur phänomenologischen Reduktion) where Husserl suggests that the consistent
commitment to and performance of phenomenological reflection can change one’s
life to the point where a simple return to the life lived before this reflection is no
longer possible. Husserl identifies this point of no return with becoming a tran-
scendental idealist. I propose a way of understanding Husserl’s claim that tran-
scendental idealism makes a simple return to life before phenomenological
reflection impossible. I then suggest that a phenomenological way of life is char-
acterized by an epistemic modesty that follows from Husserl’s transcendental ide-
alism and consider whether and how such a phenomenological way of life is a life
worth living.

Keywords Husserl  Phenomenology  Phenomenological reflection 

Epoché  Reduction  Transcendental idealism  Transformation  Praxis

By means of phenomenology, I reveal the transcendental sense of I, we, and

world; while doing this, I do not only gain access to myself in my ultimate
truth, but, by means of this knowledge, I am also individually another than
who I was.
Edmund Husserl1

Husserl (2008, p. 215).

H. Jacobs (&)
Department of Philosophy, Loyola University Chicago, Crown Center, 3rd Floor,
1032 West Sheridan Road, Chicago, IL 60660, USA

350 H. Jacobs

How should we judge the ‘‘return from the phenomenological attitude’’ to the
natural attitude? In anticipation, I said that, truthfully, there is no such return.
Edmund Husserl2

1 Introduction: Phenomenology and life

Pierre Hadot and others have stressed that since its earliest manifestations in ancient
Greece philosophy has been more than a theoretical discipline. As is first illustrated
by Socrates, philosophy can also be a way of life.3 Consequently, any philosopher
that sees herself as part of this tradition will at some point encounter the question of
how and to what extent philosophy changes the life of the one practicing
philosophy. Since Husserl’s mature transcendental phenomenology is a serious
attempt to take up the task of philosophy as it originated in ancient Greece, my
question is the following: How and to what extent can phenomenological reflection
change the life of the phenomenologist?
At first sight, this question might seem misguided since Husserl’s phenomenol-
ogy—insofar as it is carried out in a purified, transcendental form of self-reflection—
merely aims to render the life of consciousness visible instead of to change it.
Specifically, insofar as phenomenology is a transcendental-eidetic discipline, its aim
is to acquire knowledge of the eidetic structure of transcendental consciousness.4 As
such, transcendental phenomenology merely brings to expression what characterizes,
or at least what could characterize, any conscious life. In this sense then, the
conscious subject that comes to know itself as transcendental consciousness always
already was what it comes to know itself as. Consequently, the relevant question to
ask seems not to be how phenomenological reflection can change the life of the
phenomenologist, but whether it can render its pre-reflective conscious life (and, more
precisely, the structural features of this life) as it actually is.5
However, Husserl himself was sensitive to the way in which phenomenological
reflection might be able to offer more than a specific kind of self-knowledge.6 At
Husserl (2002, p. 56).
See, for example, the collection of Pierre Hadot’s articles translated and edited by Arnold Davidson in
Hadot (1995). The following can be read as an attempt to develop and elucidate the suggestion made there
by Hadot that: ‘‘The reason why Husserl and Merleau-Ponty want us to return to the world of lived
perception, or rather to this perception-as-a-world, is so that we may become aware of it. This awareness,
in turn, will radically transform our very perception of the world’’ Hadot (1995, p. 253). More recently,
Nehamas (2000) has presented an account of philosophy as a way of life from Socrates to Foucault.
See, for example, Husserl (1950, p. 72) and Husserl (1976, §75).
See, for example, Husserl (1976, §79).
Michel Foucault has more closely explored the way in which the philosopher’s pursuit to know herself
was initially intrinsically linked and even subordinated to the care of the self as a way of being that
involved reflection and spiritual exercises (Foucault 2005). In his discussion of the relation between self-
knowledge and the care of the self in ancient Greece, Foucault mentions Husserl’s Crisis (Foucault 2005,
p. 28). On the one hand, the relation between knowledge and transformation seems to be different for
Husserl than it is according to Foucault’s account of this epoch in the history of philosophy. According to
Foucault, a transformation in and through spiritual exercises is what is required to acquire access to truth.
From the point of view of Husserl’s phenomenology, it is the insights that phenomenology yields that
might allow for a profound transformation to take place. On the other hand, however, insofar as

Phenomenology as a way of life? 351

several stages in his thinking, Husserl proposes different ways in which bringing a
life to philosophical and, more precisely, phenomenological expression could bring
significant change to this life. A forthright recognition that phenomenological
description as first philosophy is capable of more than just providing eidetic insight
into consciousness can be found, for example, in the articles that Husserl published
or prepared for publication in the years 1922–1924 in the Japanese journal Kaizo. In
this set of articles, Husserl discusses the possibility of a renewal (Erneuerung) of
humanity by means of a realization of ourselves as rational human beings
(Vernunftmensch). According to Husserl, the way to this new way of being leads
through phenomenology as a transcendental-eidetic discipline.7 Likewise, the later
problematic of the crisis of the European sciences and phenomenology’s response to
this crisis in the form of a profound phenomenological reflection (Besinning) on
what science, knowledge, and philosophy can still mean for human life shows the
potential role of phenomenology in a renewal of life and society alike.8
In the following, rather than dealing with Husserl’s discussion of renewal, I focus
on one particular way in which Husserl comes to think of our individual lives as
possibly changed by phenomenological reflection. Specifically, my aim is to closely
investigate the effect of phenomenological reflection and the acquisition of
phenomenological insights on the one doing phenomenology. Husserl himself gives
the impetus for this inquiry when he suggests (like in one of the passages taken as
the epigraph for this article) that phenomenological reflection can potentially have
such a lasting effect on the one performing it consistently that a return to life as it
was lived before reflection becomes impossible. More specifically, as Husserl
repeatedly states in a group of research-manuscripts from the fall of 1926 published

Footnote 6 continued
phenomenological insight can only be arrived at in and through the consistent practice of bracketing or
epoché, a phenomenological method as practice is a requirement for acquiring phenomenological insight
into or knowledge of oneself.
Specifically, in the Kaizo articles Husserl underlines the need for a Wissenschaft vom Menschen and,
more precisely, the need for a science of human beings insofar as they are Vernunftwesen or rational
human beings—reason being understood as theoretical, axiological, and practical reason. Husserl declares
that such a science should take the shape of an a priori science of the spirit and of humanity (Husserl
1989, p. 7). This science of ourselves insofar as we are rational subjects is nothing else than the
phenomenology that Husserl himself developed as the transcendental-eidetic science of subjective life in
its cognitive, practical, and axiological dimensions. Husserl suggests in these articles that the eidetic
explication of the rational content of what is given in phenomenological self-reflection and the subsequent
normative functioning of these insights is exactly what leads to becoming a Vernunftmensch (Husserl
1989, p. 13).
Husserl (1954, p. 154). See also Husserl (1959, p. 23). Husserl’s account of phenomenological
reflection and renewal as well as its relation to responsibility in Husserl’s Crisis has been the focus of
several studies (e.g. Buckley 1992, part I; Dodd 2005). In a recent work, Siles i Borràs (2010) further
develops the connection between phenomenological reflection and self-responsibility by linking the
principle of presuppositionlessness to the demand of self-responsibility, which motivates him to speak of
an ethics of reflection. Further, on the basis of the Kaizo articles, Husserl’s lectures on first philosophy,
and the Crisis, Brainard (2001; 2007) has provided an extensive account of Husserl on philosophy as
vocation and has argued that the epoché is a life-changing practice, not just for the individual, but for
society as such. What I undertake in this article is different insofar as I aim to provide a
phenomenological description of the different ways that phenomenological reflection changes the life
of the one reflecting.

352 H. Jacobs

in Zur phänomenologischen Reduktion, this point of reversal—or better, of no

return—is the moment at which one becomes a transcendental idealist.9 Why and in
what sense does becoming a phenomenological transcendental idealist make a
simple return to life as it was lived before phenomenological reflection impossible?
More generally, how can a philosophical insight change the life that precedes and
gives rise to this insight? And, finally—even though this question is not explicitly
addressed by Husserl himself—in what way does the prospect of this change or this
change itself make the life of the phenomenologist a life worth living?
In an attempt to formulate a response to these questions, I outline some aspects of
the process of phenomenological reflection and the different kinds of changes
phenomenological reflection can introduce into the life of the one reflecting. I start
with a description of the particular reflective stance created by the method of
transcendental phenomenological epoché and reduction. Then, I discuss the different
ways in which we can speak of an habituality of the phenomenologist. Finally, I
elaborate how in Husserl’s view an unaltered return to the natural attitude is no longer
possible when phenomenological reflection leads to transcendental idealism.

2 Phenomenological reflection: A change of perspective

Husserl was acutely aware that the difficulty of philosophy consists in the fact that it
has to awaken to its own possibility. That is, before being practiced, the very
possibility of philosophy and what shape it should take is not yet conceivable.10
This is the case in Husserl’s view because, unlike any other field of scientific
inquiry, philosophy does not build and expand on what we already know. Further,
philosophy does not have a clearly delineated domain of inquiry within the world.
Unlike, for example, natural science and history (sciences that do investigate a
clearly delineated region of the world), philosophy can only find its proper domain
by opening up a radically new dimension of possible inquiry.11 However, even

The idea of the impossibility of an unaltered return to the natural attitude is one of the themes that recur
throughout the five main texts with appendices from the fall of 1926 (specifically Husserl 2002, pp. 56,
85, 100–104). In several instances, Husserl mentions that it is the moment that one becomes a
transcendental idealist that such an unaltered return becomes impossible (Husserl 2002, pp. 16–17, 74–75,
81, 83–85). These texts were composed with an eye towards publication (Husserl 2002, xxiii). There are
other places where Husserl considers the existential import of phenomenological reflection (e.g. Husserl
1954, p. 140; 1973, p. 205; 2008, pp. 214–215; Fink 1988, pp. 109n, 120n, 126n, 135–136n, 143n). The
manuscripts from 1926 are unique, however, in that they provide more detailed phenomenological
descriptions of the way in which a return to life before phenomenology might become impossible.
The historically oriented reflection in the Crisis on what philosophy amounts to is just the other side of
Husserl’s recognition that what philosophy is can by no means be taken for granted. Likewise, Husserl’s
continuous attempt to provide different ways into phenomenology testifies to the difficulty of even
beginning in phenomenology. This difficulty also explains why Husserl writes in a crucial passage of the
first book of Ideas that he first and foremost has to convince us of the possibility of the phenomenological
epoché (Husserl 1976, p. 53; 1954, p. 151).
As Husserl writes in one of his introductory lectures on the history of philosophy: ‘‘Die eigentümliche
Problemsphäre der Philosophie liegt vielmehr in einer gegenüber allen sonstigen, den nicht-philosoph-
ischen, Wissenschaften völlig neuen Dimension’’ (Husserl 2012, p. 2).

Phenomenology as a way of life? 353

speaking of a new dimension is, as Husserl warns us, misleading since it suggests
that in philosophy we are dealing with an added dimension of the same kind. Thus,
Husserl insists: ‘‘The philosophical dimension does not add on complementary but
similar problems; rather, it introduces new problems of an essentially different
If it still makes sense to state then, as Husserl sometimes does, that philosophy in
its phenomenological guise unlocks a dimension of depth with respect to the two-
dimensional life on the natural plane, this is because phenomenology radically
breaks with our natural life.13 Phenomenology succeeds at this by taking a reflective
distance towards this natural life that cannot be measured within the world in which
we live our lives. But in what does the reflective distance that creates the
phenomenological point of view consist, and how is it brought about? While the
straightforward answer to this question is the phenomenological epoché and
reduction, a look at what Eugen Fink famously termed ‘‘the paradox of the
beginning’’ can give a first indication of how not to understand the reflective
distance initiated by this phenomenological method.14
From the point of view of Husserl’s phenomenology, the paradox of the
beginning consists in the fact that in order to begin in phenomenology it seems that
one must have already begun. Specifically, the method of phenomenological epoché
or bracketing and the way in which it makes phenomenological reflection possible
can only be formulated from the point of view that the method is supposed to make
accessible. The paradox is due to the fact that our life in the natural attitude does not
prefigure the possibility of the radical reflection that phenomenology requires.
Nevertheless, we are dealing with a paradox and not an impossibility because
phenomenological reflection can in principle be accomplished by every one of us.
The question of how to begin in phenomenology can arise because of the all-
encompassing character of the natural attitude, a character that should prevent us
from calling it an attitude at all.15 That is, the natural attitude does not point to
anything beyond itself, which means that everything we encounter within our
natural living in the world approaches us and is understood within the context of this
world.16 Consequently, the phenomenological attitude that thematizes life in the
natural attitude by describing how the world appears to us rather than living within
this world seems to be entirely unmotivated. That is, how can one become aware of
the fact that there is another attitude possible from within the natural attitude? In
other words, how can one awaken to the world as phenomenon instead of being
directed at the things and events that appear within the world?
Understanding the paradox of the beginning in these terms, even without inquiring
further into why and how this paradox inevitably arises, allows one to avoid all too
literal interpretations of phenomenological reflection and of the one performing the
reflection—namely, the disinterested onlooker. So, for example, one should not take
Husserl (2012, p. 2).
This Helmholzian metaphor is introduced in the Crisis (Husserl 1954, §32).
Fink (1966, p. 111).
Husserl (2002, pp. 14 note 1, 67).
Husserl (2002, p. 37).

354 H. Jacobs

the all-encompassing character of the natural attitude too lightly. That is, one does not
perform transcendental-phenomenological reflection when one, like Descartes, turns
from the outside of the world towards the inside of the mind since the inside of the
mind still remains within the world.17 Likewise, one does not become a disinterested
onlooker by ‘‘stepping outside of’’ the world in which we all live our lives in order to
somehow describe this life from an impossible place outside this world. Instead, in
order to open up the dimension of phenomenology, a perceptiveness to a distinction
that normally goes unseen must be acquired—namely, a perceptiveness to the
difference between what appears and the way in which it appears to me.18
In and through this change of interest, we gain access to the subjective dimension
Husserl termed ‘‘transcendental.’’ That is, in and through bracketing everything that we
always already see, we do not exactly accomplish a turn towards the subject; rather, we
become perceptive of the subjective in and through which the world (or, better,
everything that appears within it) is continuously brought to appearance with a certain
sense.19 Applied to a common concrete example, rather than simply seeing the chair,
we become aware of the continuously changing perspectival appearances in which the
chair appears as one and the same, in a certain way, and with its specific sense.
The concept of phenomenon is ambiguous since it can refer to what appears or
to its appearance and to speak of an appearance in which nothing appears or of
something that could in principle not appear is not without difficulties from a
phenomenological perspective.20 For our purposes here, however, this difference in
unity of what appears and its mode of appearing is instructive because it can
elucidate why the subjective surface of the world can be so easily overlooked: it is
not separate from the world that appears in the way that things in the world are
separate. Rather, the incessant flow of appearances is the medium in and through
which a world is there for us. Thus, the phenomenologist accomplishes what is
impossible in the natural attitude: she observes herself seeing. The phenomenologist
captures the act of perception, not because she finds somewhere inside herself an act
of perception that gives access to the outside world, but because she describes the
way in which she sees the world by describing the subjective manners of its
appearance (spatio-temporal, habitual, personal, and cultural). Thus, if phenome-
nological reflection is at a distance, it is in a way that our living in the world is never
at a distance. We are always over there with the things, blind, so to speak, to their
subjective mode of appearance.
See, for example, Husserl’s critique of Descartes (Husserl 1954, §18; 1976, §11). In the following
passage Husserl nicely restricts the spatial metaphor to the constituted realm: ‘‘Das transzendentale Ich
hat kein Draußen; das ist völlig sinnlos. Nur das empirische Ich hat ein Draußen, einfach darum, weil es
im transzendentalen Ich als Glied der Welt gesetzt ist, der raumzeitlichen Welt, als Leib, und als beseelter
Leib, und die Seele dieses Leib als erkennende erkennt ihr Draußen, nämlich all das, was in der Welt ist
und nicht selbst diese Seele, diese ihr eingeordnete Seele ist’’ (Husserl 2008, p. 179).
See, for example, Husserl (1954, p. 146; 2002, p. 94).
Husserl (1954, p. 149).
The first case (i.e. an appearance without something that appears) would amount to a consciousness
that is not world constituting. Husserl does not exclude this possibility (e.g. Husserl 1976, §49; Husserl
1959, pp. 48, 55, 73). The second case (i.e. something that could not appear in principle) is a possibility
that is explicitly excluded by Husserl’s commitment to a phenomenological form of transcendental
idealism. I return to this idealism in Sect. 4.

Phenomenology as a way of life? 355

The accomplishment of this reflective distance does not stop the world from
appearing. This distancing is thus something like a disinvestment or inhibition of
one’s engagement in the world. In fact, it is this engagement that, with its doxic and
constitutional peculiarities, becomes visible for the first time in and through this
inhibition. Thus, the negative connotation of bracketing, inhibition, epoché, and
reduction wrongly suggests that phenomenological reflection annuls the positing of
the world in its existence (operative in both passive perception and the more active
position-takings that characterize our natural living in the world). Instead,
phenomenological reflection brings to visibility how this positing is operative.21
The fact that we are dealing with an inhibition or bracketing, and not a negation,
of our world-directed belief is also the reason why the distance that phenomeno-
logical reflection creates is hard to maintain.22 Any affection from within the world
that manages to capture the interest of the phenomenological observer will interrupt
the self-imposed inhibition of all worldly interest and draw one into the world
whose mere way of appearing one wanted to describe.23 This is not to say that the
phenomenological observer is entirely without interest; her interest just does not lie
within the world. A closer look at how the disinterested onlooker is interested leads
to a second way in which phenomenological reflection introduces a change into the
life it describes—specifically, by giving rise to habitualities.

3 Habitualities: Enduring change

For Husserl, the awareness of the possibility of a shift from the natural to the
transcendental-phenomenological attitude is only the beginning. That is, phenom-
enological reflection can be more than a temporary radical shift of perspective in at
least a twofold way. On the one hand, according to Husserl, phenomenological
reflection is something one should commit to performing again and again. On the
other hand, this recurrent phenomenological reflection can yield insights into the
structure of constituting subjectivity that remain valid beyond the time span in
which one actually engages in reflection. In this way, both the repeated performance
of phenomenological reflection and the acquired phenomenological insights give
rise to the formation of habitualities in the phenomenological sense. As I aim to
show in this section, both forms of habituation allow us to discern how
phenomenological reflection can initiate an enduring change, even if this change
is not yet an all-encompassing life-altering change.
Husserl occasionally refers to the necessity of making a personal commitment to
return to the transcendental attitude.24 That is, in his view, the phenomenological
See Husserl (1954, pp. 155, 169–170; 1959, pp. 86–87; 2002, p. 41).
Husserl (2002, p. 9).
Husserl (2002, p. 45).
One could wonder whether Husserl’s occasional characterization of this personal commitment to a
philosophical life in terms of a resolute decision of the will (Willensentscheidung or Willensentschluss),
which suggests that this commitment is a momentary decision that would shape the remainder of one’s
life (Lebensentscheidung), is convincing (Husserl 1954, pp. 147, 153; 1959, pp. 7, 10, 22). See Buckley
(1992, pp. 135-143). For a positive appraisal, see Brainard (2001, pp. 142–150; 2007, pp. 27–30). While it

356 H. Jacobs

search for insight into how we acquire knowledge and into how we (can) justify this
knowledge in different ways for different ontological regions (e.g. nature, ideality,
spirit) should become a permanent and life-long engagement. What this means is that,
in Husserl’s view, one is only a phenomenologist when one becomes an habitual
phenomenologist (not in the sense that one would become habituated to what
phenomenological reflection discloses with respect to a variety of phenomena, but in
the sense that one instigates an abiding interest into the enterprise of phenomeno-
logical reflection and description). As Husserl rather provocatively states in a
manuscript from 1926: ‘‘One is not a phenomenologist when, in order to satisfy a
fleeting interest that is awakened by the new phenomenological literature, one does
some phenomenology, performs for a while some phenomenological reduction, and
becomes acquainted with a few intentional analyses, or even carries them out oneself.
Rather, one is a phenomenologist, when one has made a personal life choice.’’25
By making such a choice, one would, at least initially, commit oneself to leading
one’s life in a double register, repeatedly entering the transcendental attitude and
describing the life of the natural attitude one will soon again return to.26 For as long
as this is the case, what Husserl calls a ‘‘splitting of the ego’’ occurs. This splitting
amounts to more than a splitting between the one reflecting (the disinterested
onlooker) and the one reflected upon (constituting consciousness). Rather, it
amounts to a split of what Husserl called the personal self or ego.27 To which
phenomenological given does this talk of the splitting and the personal ego refer? A
look at what the descriptive terms ‘‘ego’’ and ‘‘personal ego’’ refer to can elucidate
the way in which an engaged phenomenological reflection introduces a fissure
within the person. This will allow us to elucidate the second way in which we
acquire an habituality as a phenomenologist.
When it is used in Husserl’s transcendental phenomenological descriptions, the
term ego does not refer to some entity populating transcendental consciousness.
Rather, the term ego describes the reflectively discernable centeredness of the field

Footnote 24 continued
is by no means the case that one would just stumble into philosophy or phenomenology (Husserl 1959,
p. 19), Husserl’s own description of the way in which the phenomenological attitude and reflection
change their character in and through repeatedly returning to it indicate that what one commits to changes
over time (see Sect. 4). In this sense then, even if becoming a philosopher originates in a radical decision
of the will, what being a philosopher amounts to is by no means exhausted by this decision.
Husserl (2002, p. 44). Similarly, Husserl speaks of an ‘‘Habitualität der Einstellung,’’ which he
describes in the following way: ‘‘Zu mir als Phänomenologen […] gehört die bleibende Willensrichtung
(Einstellung) auf die phänomenologische Thematik und damit die bleibende Richtung auf den Vollzug
von Akten der Ichspaltung und der Forschung in dieser zugehörigen Art phänomenologischer Epoché –
durch alle Störungen hindurch, aber auch durch Unterbrechungen’’ (Husserl 2002, p. 42). See also Husserl
(1954, p. 153; 1959, pp. 7, 10, 17; 2002, p. 46).
Husserl (2002, p. 16).
As Husserl writes in a manuscript from 1920 that is taken up in the appendix of the second volume of
Erste Philosophie: ‘‘Ich fasse den Entschluss, den zu einer thematischen Wendung, der für mein ganzes
künftiges Leben Geltung hat, mein ganzes künftiges Leben in zwei sich durchsetzende Schichten spaltet
und korrelativ mein personales Ich spaltet’’ (Husserl 1959, p. 424). And in 1926, in the set of manuscripts
under consideration, Husserl writes: ‘‘Als Phänomenologe ein theoretisches ‘Berufsleben’ für mich
begründend, stifte ich eine Teilung meiner Persönlichkeit bzw. Teilung in der Habitualität meiner
Lebenspraxis im weitesten Wortsinn’’ (Husserl 2002, p. 88). See also Husserl (1959, pp. 90, 92–93).

Phenomenology as a way of life? 357

of (wakeful) consciousness. This centeredness means that at any moment some

intentional acts in our wakeful consciousness are patent (as egoic cogitationes)
while others remain latent. This noetic centering is the correlate of the noematic
centering of the field of appearance around what stands in the foreground as the
focal-point of attention.28 Thus, even if, according to Husserl, the ego cannot be
described in and by itself, this does not mean that the statement that the ego lives in
its acts does not have any descriptive power.29 Concretely, the presence or absence
of the ego descriptively refers to the respective patency or latency of an intentional
act or, correlatively, to something being the focus of attention or not. Having related
the term ego back to experience, to what does the term personal ego refer?
In order to do justice to the descriptive potential of Husserl’s terminology, we should
resist understanding the personal character of the ego in terms of accidents added to a
substance-like ego. That is, like the egoic structure of consciousness, the personal
character of egoic consciousness should be understood in terms of the correlation between
consciousness and world as it comes into view and can be described in phenomenological
reflection. Specifically, what makes the ego or egoic consciousness personal is the fact
that what Husserl calls personal habitualities arise in the course of conscious experience,
which has the effect that our surrounding world appears with abiding ontic characteristics,
as incarnating certain values, and in light of certain goals. To give a concrete example
from the axiological sphere, persons and things can appear as valuable without
continuously being under evaluative scrutiny or evidentially displaying what makes them
valuable; their value abides for me once I have posited this value in what Husserl calls a
position-taking (Stellungnahme). It is legitimate to wonder, however, how something like
a belief or valuation can abide in the ongoing stream of conscious experience and how this
gives rise to a world appearing with abiding features and characteristics that reflect my
personal point of view. A closer look at the origin of our habitual convictions, valuations,
and practical commitments can provide some further insight into this issue.
According to Husserl’s phenomenological account, we become persons by
acquiring personal habitualities in and through position-takings pertaining to the
ontic, the axiological, and the practical. Insofar as these position-takings are
intentional acts in which I take a stance with regard to being, value, or a practical
goal, they posit validities (Geltungen), which are the constitutional correlate of taking
a stance. These validities can abide even when the intentional act that initially
constituted them sinks back into the past. More precisely, validity endures without
being actively reconfirmed in and through a process that Husserl calls sedimentation.
Sedimentation amounts to the constituted sense or meaning from past intentional acts
being retained and informing my current awareness of the world in and through
associative syntheses. Due to this sedimentation, something like a personal
commitment, theoretical conviction, or project can be abidingly mine, even if I am
not actively entertaining it.30 For example, when working on a philosophical project,

See, for example, Husserl’s description of the wakeful ego in Ideas I (Husserl 1976, §§ 35–37, p. 80).
Husserl (1976, § 80).
Husserl (1950, p. 101). I have dealt with Husserl’s account of the egoic structure of wakeful life as
well as personal habitualities and sedimentation elsewhere (Jacobs 2010a and 2010b). Heinämaa (2007)
and Luft (2011) also argue for the personhood of transcendental subjectivity.

358 H. Jacobs

one does not constantly have to remind oneself of this project. Instead, the project
being mine amounts to me approaching much of what I read and experience in light of
this project without having to continually renew my engagement with it. The project
has become an habituality and as such it is an habitual way of approaching texts and
even certain situations in the world at large. Insofar as we have many commitments,
however, an abiding project can move more or less into the background when other
commitments are awakened by the current situation at hand. As Husserl points out (in
a seemingly disappointed way), at times one’s commitment to being a parent becomes
more prominent and overshadows one’s professional activities.31
The peculiar way in which different kinds of position-takings and commitments
can abide brings us to a second way in which the activity of phenomenology results
in a personal habituality for the phenomenologist. This second kind of habituation
can help to elucidate why Husserl characterizes the split that phenomenological
reflection introduces into the life of the phenomenologist as a split of the personal
ego or the ego as qualified by its habitual convictions.
When in the phenomenological attitude, one inhibits all world-directed interest
and belief and is thus disinterested. In doing so, however, one does have or acquire
an interest.32 That is, by enabling a new way of reflecting on ourselves,
phenomenological reflection gives one access to knowledge about the different
ways in which different objective entities and worlds (real, imaginary, or ideal) are
given and constituted for us. It is these different forms of intentionality that one, as a
phenomenologist, aims to describe in their essence. Thus, while remaining in the
transcendental attitude, one acquires a certain kind of non-worldly knowledge
within this attitude.33
Keeping in mind that, as was just elaborated, from a phenomenological point of
view, insights and knowledge acquisitions are not just fleeting momentary acts of
cognition, but rather habitually qualify the one acquiring the insight for as long as its
validity is not revised or cancelled, we can conclude that as the phenomenologist
acquires knowledge she will acquire habitualities as a transcendental phenomenol-
ogist.34 What is more, at least for the beginner, the insights acquired in the
phenomenological attitude remain separate and unrelated to the knowledge-
acquisitions of the natural attitude that are bracketed in their validity for as long
as we are in the phenomenological attitude. This separation of phenomenological-
transcendental habitualities from the habitualities that are operative within our
natural life is different from any separation that can occur within natural life. That
is, even if I as a person have different clusters of convictions and commitments that
are separate from or even in conflict with one another, they all share their
embeddedness within my life in the life-world, which is taken for granted in its
validity and bracketed in the phenomenological attitude.
We are now in a position to understand why Husserl speaks of a split of the
personal ego and to comprehend how this split amounts to a split into two different
Husserl (2002, pp. 45–46).
Husserl (1959, pp. 97, 108).
Husserl (2002, p. 19).
Husserl (1954, p. 111).

Phenomenology as a way of life? 359

personal conviction-formations, one belonging to the transcendental attitude and the

other belonging to the natural attitude. Phenomenological reflection results in such a
split since phenomenological insight is acquired on the basis of phenomenological
reflection on our conscious lives.35 These phenomenological insights abide as a
conviction-formation that is radically distinct from any other knowledge acquisition
insofar as the latter all remain within the horizon of the world and the former does
However, we are only dealing with two radically different conviction-formations
(acquired on the natural and transcendental level respectively) and a split of the
personal ego for as long at the two attitudes remain radically distinct, or, more
precisely, for as long as one can always return from the phenomenological attitude
to an unaltered natural way of living in the world. It is exactly this return that
Husserl suggests might become impossible when thinking through the insights that
an engaged phenomenological reflection yields. Insofar as the suggestion that the
phenomenological point of view could not be left behind is certainly puzzling, it is
worthwhile to cite Husserl here in full:
I cannot forget what I as a transcendental investigator have learned, and it may
even be that what I have learned and will continue to learn will have a deeply
influential and transformative meaning for the way in which I am a natural
investigator from now on and can only consistently be so. Yes, it may be that it
will then become clear that I can never again leave the transcendental point of
view. Yes, it may be that this transcendental point of view, once it is taken and
thought through in its consequences, remains and has to remain indefinitely
operative, for as long as I am a scientist. Yes, what is more, it may be that the
universal transcendental way of considering things necessarily has to determine
the total praxis of my life and cannot actually be given up anymore.36
While it is not surprising that phenomenological knowledge acquisitions abide and
that I, when returning to the transcendental attitude after an interruption of the time I
devote to phenomenological investigation, do not have to start all over again and
can rely on my previously acquired insights, what Husserl states here is surprising.
That is, it is not at all clear what it could mean that we could not leave the
transcendental point of view behind. And it is also not clear how insights that do not
pertain to the world of natural life could have a transformative effect on how I live
that life.

What remains unclear in this way of describing the split of the ego is where the habitual engagement
that Husserl requires from the phenomenologist fits into this picture. It seems to me that this habitual
engagement, which concretely consists in the profession (Beruf) of the phenomenologist (e.g. Husserl
1954, p. 139; 2002, p. 20), is initially one among many commitments in the life of the person. This
professional commitment would be unique, however, insofar as it would yield insights that cannot be
incorporated into the network of one’s natural attitude beliefs. What is more, the commitment to the
philosophical profession would also be unique insofar as it could bring an irreversible change to one’s life
in Husserl’s view. I return to this in Sect. 4.
Husserl (2002, p. 101). Similarly, Husserl writes further on that ‘‘im Fall einer konsequenten
Forschung (und insbesondere eidetischen) in der reinen Subjektivität […] die transzendentale Einstellung
nie mehr verlassen werden kann’’ (Husserl 2002, p. 103). See also footnote 9 for further references.

360 H. Jacobs

What is clear, however, is that Husserl cannot possibly be stating that one would
maintain the reflective stance throughout one’s life since our pre-reflective
experience precedes and continues after the intermittent stages of phenomenological
reflection.37 In what sense then does it become impossible for the phenomenologist
to leave the transcendental point of view behind? In the following, I aim to show
that while the reflective attitude inevitably makes room for a straightforward
awareness of the world as I continue to live my life, the insights gained in this
reflective attitude do not only abide, according to Husserl; they could also come to
change the way in which life is lived in the natural attitude.

4 Phenomenological transcendental idealism: A change of life?

Since phenomenological reflection requires the bracketing or inhibition of all mundane

commitments (whether passive or active, personal or cultural, theoretical or practical), it
is not clear how phenomenological knowledge acquisitions could influence the way we
live our lives within the world when not reflecting phenomenologically. Even if
phenomenological knowledge acquisitions might discredit other philosophical accounts
of our experience of the world, insofar as phenomenological insights are not about the
world as such, they remain isolated from the life from which they are drawn.38 It is
consequently difficult to see how phenomenological reflection could have an influence
on the way in which we live our lives when not reflecting.
However, according to Husserl, phenomenological reflection can do more than
provide insight into the nature of conscious experience of the world. That is,
phenomenological reflection can bring about a significant change in the life on
which it reflects when it becomes clear (in and through this reflection) that the world
we bracket is the world that is phenomenologically thematized as the correlate of an
ongoing intersubjective constitution. Once one becomes aware of this identity of the
world in which we live our natural lives, on the one hand, and the world that is the
correlate of our ongoing and open experience, on the other, one has, in Husserl’s
view, become a phenomenological transcendental idealist.39 But how can becoming
That an ongoing phenomenological reflection is by no means what Husserl has in mind when he
speaks of the way in which the transcendental point of view cannot be left behind becomes clear in the
following passage: ‘‘In dem Moment, wo ich zur transzendentalen Interpretation der natürlichen
Lebensart überhaupt und ihrer Welt gekommen bin, zum transzendentalen Idealismus, hat jedes weitere
natürliche Leben, wenn auch im Hintergrund, seine transzendentale Apperzeption, wenn auch nicht
aktuell vom Ich her vollzogen in aktueller Epoché und Reflexion’’ (Husserl 2002, p.16, my emphasis). See
also Husserl (1954, p. 214).
Husserl describes this isolation in the following way: ‘‘Ich lebe ein gespaltenes Leben, ein Leben als
natürliches Weltkind, und ein Leben, in dem das reine Leben, das wirkliche und mögliche, mein Thema
ist, in dem ich als erkennendes Subjekt, als ‘transzendentales’, keine natürliche Setzung mittvollziehe.
Wissenschaftlich: Als natürliches Ich treibe ich positive Wissenschaft, als transzendentales nur
transzendentale. Beiderlei Wissenschaften gehören nicht in eine Ebene, wie alle positiven Wissenschaften
in die Ebene positiven Lebens’’ (Husserl 2002, pp. 11–12). See also Husserl (2002, p. 48).
As Husserl writes: ‘‘Was der ‘Idealismus’ herausstellt, ist, dass Seiendes als objektives, reales nur
denkbar ist ‘in’ einem transzendental-subjektiven Leben, nämlich in Bezug auf Ichpole und eine
gesetzmäßige Struktur ihres Lebens’’ (Husserl 2002, p. 24). Or again, he identifies idealism with the
following view: ‘‘Es gibt absolut nur transzendentales Sein und eine transzendental konstituierte Welt als

Phenomenology as a way of life? 361

a phenomenological transcendental idealist bring about a change in the life of the

phenomenologist? And, more importantly, what does Husserl’s transcendental
idealism amount to?
If a continued phenomenological reflection and description does provide a
fundamental insight about the world (namely, that it is the correlate of our conscious
experience in a sense that is still to be determined), it becomes more plausible that
this reflection could change the way in which we continue to live in this world after
reflection. That is, it becomes more plausible that the insight into transcendental
idealism makes a simple return to the life before phenomenological reflection
impossible.40 In order to fully understand how this is the case, it is, however,
important to understand how the character of phenomenological reflection changes
as we practice phenomenology such that the many individual insights into the
structure of different forms of world-directed intentional acts lead to the game-
changing insight that the world in which we live our lives in the natural attitude is
the correlate of our ongoing experience.
Although the transcendental epoché and reduction initially consist in a radical
bracketing of the world, Husserl is of the conviction that the character of the reduction
significantly changes with the ongoing acquisition of phenomenological insights. A
change in the way in which the method of phenomenological epoché is carried out can
occur because phenomenology does not just describe the essential structures of our
factually unfolding experience of the world. That is, more importantly, phenomenol-
ogy also provides a theory of reason that accounts for how our doxic commitments can
be justified and confirmed—whether we are dealing with, for example, a passively
unfolding perceptual belief or an actively accomplished judgment. In other words,
phenomenology describes what normatively structures our experience of the world by
determining when and how a perception or judgment is, so to speak, on the mark
(triftig). By describing the norms of experience and what justifies both our passive and
active positings, a phenomenological theory of reason describes when and how
consciousness is a consciousness of the world as it is. In developing such a theory of
reason, the character of the epoché also changes.41

Footnote 39 continued
Idee’’ (Husserl 2002, p. 22). See also Husserl (2002, pp. 32, 48, 56, 73, 84). As Luft mentions, at the time
that Husserl was working on these manuscripts in April 1926, he in all likelihood read through his lecture
course Natur und Geist from 1913 in which he deals with transcendental idealism and the possibility of
providing a proof for it (Husserl 2002, p. xxvi; Husserl 2003, nr. 5).
So, in one of several passages, Husserl writes: ‘‘Die Welt kann für mich natürlich nur erfahrene,
gedachte etc. sein in natürlicher Thematik, aber eben diese Welt, die einzige, die für mich ist und je sein
kann, lerne ich nun als Gebilde der transzendentalen Subjektivität kennen […] Habe ich das aber erkannt,
so kann ich mich zwar wieder auf den Boden der vorgegebenen Welt stellen, Weltwissenschaften treiben;
aber alles, was ich dann geradehin urteile, hat jetzt doch seinen Charakter geändert, es ist nicht mehr ein
absolut Seiendes, sondern Sinngebilde der transzendentalen Subjektivität’’ (Husserl 2002, p. 84). For
references to similar passages, see footnote 9. This passage is also quoted by Luft (2011, p. 99).
Husserl is very explicit about this change in the meaning of bracketing or epoché, when he writes:
‘‘Der prinzipielle Sinn der transzendentalen Epoché und Reduktion ist immer derselbe, und doch hat die
Epoché im Beginn der Phänomenologie einen anderen Charakter als nach ihrer Ausbildung der
allgemeinen Strukturlehre von der objektiven Vernunft und transzendentalen Konstitution des Transz-
endenten als Welt’’ (Husserl 2002, p. 59).

362 H. Jacobs

The change that a fully elaborated theory of constitution and reason can facilitate
with regard to the epoché is twofold. First, the character of the bracketing or epoché
changes the moment phenomenology sets down the norms according to which our
experience would be a truthful and justified experience of the world. Since this
change is not one that is, to my knowledge, described in Husserl’s major writings, I
cite the passage in which Husserl describes this change in full:
When phenomenological research reaches the point where it gains constitutive
knowledge, I have to make a distinction and cannot think that epoché means
that one cannot judge the world or anything worldly and that, like the world,
the worldly sciences have to be bracketed. Instead, what is subjected to the
epoché is the naive way that the world is pregiven as being as such.42
In other words, the character of the epoché has changed because our straightforward
judgments and convictions that pertain to the world no longer need to be bracketed.
That is, because a comprehensive phenomenology provides the means to understand
how we posit and to what extent this positing is justified, it also allows us to
recognize our naive doxic commitments for what they are. Consequently, these
commitments no longer need to be inhibited. In this sense, then, the phenomeno-
logical epoché is partially lifted in and through the development of a phenome-
nology of constitution.43
However, this does not mean that the epoché would be entirely lifted. As Husserl
points out in the passage above, our naive manner of living in these doxic
commitments remains bracketed. The way in which this naiveté remains bracketed
indicates a second sense in which a fully developed phenomenology brings about
change. That is, even if the insight into the extent to which we are justified in
believing and in being doxically committed to the worldly correlates of our ongoing
conscious experience changes the character of the epoché in the sense that we no
longer need to inhibit or bracket our beliefs since we have understood to what extent
they are justified, the lifting of the epoché is not complete and does not amount to an
unaltered return to the natural attitude. Differently stated, even if the radical
inhibition is given up, something of our living in the natural attitude is also (still)
given up—namely, the belief in the absolute existence of the world and everything
within it. To provide an example, even though Husserl’s phenomenology of
perception secures our belief in the world of perception, phenomenological
reflection on the very nature of perception (its perspectival character specifically)
shows that an absolute belief in the existence of what one sees at present is naive
since phenomenology shows that it is of the essence of perception that it is in
principle open to correction by future perceptions.44 That is, even if it lifts the

Husserl (2002, pp. 60–61).
In a later text from 1930 that is published in the volume on phenomenological reduction, Husserl
speaks explicitly of a lifting of the reduction in this way (Husserl 2002, p. 245).
We could and should differentiate between the perceptual awareness of things within the world, which
is always to a certain extent presumptive, and the perceptual awareness of the world. Husserl reserves a
different status for our conscious awareness of the world insofar as he regularly entertains the idea that
while my perception of things will never be apodictic, this might be different with regard to the world
(Husserl 2002, p. 96; Husserl 2008, part IV).

Phenomenology as a way of life? 363

reduction, a fully elaborated phenomenology of reason does not bring us back to the
starting point of the reduction. In Husserl’s view, the insight into the way in which
the world that is bracketed at the outset is identical to the world that is constituted in
the manifold of experiences dissipates the absoluteness with which the world is
The moment at which this twofold change has taken place is, in Husserl’s view,
the moment at which one has become a transcendental idealist. On the one hand,
one understands that the world as the correlate of our ongoing conscious experience
is the world that is bracketed at the onset of phenomenological reflection. On the
other hand, the absolute way in which everything within the world makes a claim to
existence is relativized by the transcendental phenomenological perspective.
According to Husserl, our experience would lose its absolute and naive character,
and, in this sense, one would never really return to the natural attitude.46
Even if one agrees that phenomenological reflection leads to transcendental
idealism and the twofold change I have described, one might wonder whether this
insight could really change the way in which we lead our lives. Specifically, even if
we agree with Husserl that the development of a phenomenology of reason leads to
the insight into transcendental idealism, it remains unclear how such an insight
could lift the naiveté of the life of the natural attitude.47 For example, how could
what I have learned as a phenomenologist change the way in which I engage in
practical projects, value certain things, and commit myself theoretically? In other
words, how could a change in the way that the phenomenological epoché is carried
out and understood lead to a change such that I could be said to be living a
phenomenological life?
In my view, Husserl’s suggestion that phenomenological reflection can change
one’s life in a fundamental respect can begin to make sense if we inquire further into
what it means that the world is the correlate of our ongoing experience. There are at
So, for example, Husserl writes: ‘‘In der konsequenten Auswirkung der transzendentalen Fors-
chung \ durch mich [ als phänomenologisches Ich kommt die Welt um ihre Bedeutung als absolutes
Thema. Als konkretes Ich höre ich auf, natürliches Ich zu sein, ich verliere meine Naivität’’ (Husserl
2002, pp. 84–85).
With regard to the loss of naiveté, Husserl writes: ‘‘Aber nachdem wir fortschreitend die Lehre von der
Konstitution ausgebildet haben, haben wir zwar noch die Ichspaltung: aber als unteres Ich nicht mehr ein
natürliches Ich in natürlich thematischer Einstellung. Vielmehr nach der Erkenntnis der transzendentalen
Idealität der Welt ist die natürliche Einstellung oder korrelativ die naive Verabsolutierung der Welt (die
aus der Unwissenheit der transzendentalen Relativität der Welt und eventuell wissenschaftlich aus ihrem
Missverständnis \ stammende [) endgültig aufgegeben, und wenn ich geradehin über Weltliches urteile
und mich wie immer theoretisch und praktisch in der Welt betätige, hat die Welt aufgehört für mich
absolut zu gelten und absolute thematische Sphäre zu sein.’’ (Husserl 2002, pp. 59–60). In short, in
Husserl’s words: ‘‘Dann aber gibt es kein Zurück’’ (Husserl 2002, p. 102).
Husserl states that the phenomenological insights abide in their validity: ‘‘Nun bedenken wir aber, dass
für ihn die transzendentale Erkenntnis in Geltung geblieben ist und dass die Geltung nicht nur das frühere
Seelenleben, sondern auch das künftige und jedes mögliche mit umgreift’’ (Husserl 2002, p. 104). Our
discussion of habituality above describes how a conviction can abide. However, at this point, it is not just
a matter of understanding how an insight can abide throughout one’s life; rather, we are wondering how
one such insight can overthrow the way in which one leads one’s life and change it in an all-
encompassing manner. That is, ‘‘Es gilt klarzumachen, inwiefern es richtig war zu sagen, dass im Fall
einer konsequenten Forschung […] in der reinen Subjektivität […] die transzendentale Einstellung
eigentlich nie mehr verlassen werden kann’’ (Husserl 2002, p. 103, my emphasis).

364 H. Jacobs

least two ways of understanding the claim that the world is the correlate of our
ongoing experience that make it hard to see how becoming a transcendental idealist
makes a return to the life before phenomenology impossible.
First, one could argue that the world is the correlate of our experience because it
is constituted, and constitution amounts to something like construction, production,
creation, or spontaneous meaning-bestowal. If constitution is understood in this
creationist way, the world in which we live our lives would simply be what it is
constituted as in our ongoing experience. Besides obvious problems with this way of
interpreting Husserl’s phenomenological transcendental idealism, this interpretation
does not allow us to make sense of the way in which phenomenology could bring
about a fundamental change in the life of the one reflecting. More precisely, this
kind of idealistic interpretation of the world cannot be translated into the natural
attitude. I cannot and do not straightforwardly experience the world and act within it
while at the same time thinking that the world and others are constructed or
produced by me. For example, my perceptual awareness entails a belief in the
transcendence and independent existence of the world and would thus not be a
perception without this belief. So, upon resuming our straightforward natural life,
the very character of this life contradicts the creationist reading of Husserl’s
transcendental idealism and would not allow us to see how it would change the life
of the phenomenologist.
Second, one could argue that the world is the correlate of our experience because
we always already experience the world as it is. This interpretation makes it equally
difficult to see how phenomenological reflection would come to change our
experience and life when not reflecting phenomenologically. After having described
the way in which we experience the world, we would just continue to experience it
as before. Phenomenological reflection would just confirm our naive straightforward
belief in the absolute existence of what we encounter within the world. However,
phenomenology does not do this because it points out that these beliefs are
presumptuous and in principle open to falsification. So, which interpretation of
Husserl’s transcendental idealism can make sense of Husserl’s claim that
phenomenological reflection taken to its end would irreversibly change our lives
as we live them in the natural attitude?
While Husserl’s phenomenological idealism does indeed posit that the world is
the correlate of our ongoing experience, this neither entails that the world is the
product of our experience, nor that we always already see the world as it is. Instead,
according to Husserl’s phenomenological transcendental idealism, if something is or
exists, it can in principle become the intentional object or correlate of a fulfilled
conscious experience; further, this possibility of a truthful experience must be a real
possibility for everyone in principle.48 Conversely, if my conscious experience of an
objectivity is a fulfilled consciousness of this objectivity, my conscious experience
is of this objectivity as it truly is. However, as Husserl’s phenomenology of, for
example, perception shows with regard to our perceptual experience of things within

As Husserl writes: ‘‘Also Sein und mögliches Bewusstsein, das als erkennendes Rechtsgründe hat,
solches Sein anzusetzen, sind sicher Korrelativa’’ (Husserl 2003, p. 54, my emphasis). See also Husserl
(1950, p. 97; 1976, pp. 84–85, 117).

Phenomenology as a way of life? 365

the world, our perceptual awareness of things is, in principle, suffused with
presumptions that at this moment do not (and never will) enjoy such fulfillment
(Erfüllung). This is the case for many other acts of conscious experience.
Consequently, it is not sufficient just to state that according to Husserl’s
phenomenological transcendental idealism the world is the correlate of our ongoing
experience. We should add that this experience is truthful to the extent that it is
fulfilled. Husserl’s transcendental idealism thus claims the correlation between
being and a possible fulfilled conscious experience.
In light of this interpretation of Husserl’s phenomenological transcendental
idealism, we can again wonder how becoming a transcendental idealist could
prevent an unaltered return to life before phenomenological reflection. I suggest that
we answer this question by inquiring into what kind of abiding habituality the
insight into transcendental idealism could give rise to and into how this habituality
could transform the way in which we live in the world. Since it is not certain that
there are habitual commitments that have this kind of over-arching influence on the
way in which we live in the world, it seems like a good idea to find another example
that does and then to wonder how becoming a transcendental idealist could function
in the same way.
In the manuscripts from 1926 under consideration, Husserl presents a specific
way of leading one’s life that is not the phenomenological one, but that is the result
of an all-pervasive unifying principle—namely, a life that is steered by the ‘‘will to
power’’ in a fundamental way.49 Husserl points out that when one leads one’s life in
a way that is guided by the will to power, one need not constantly be occupied with
acquiring power. Concretely, one may be committed to doing one’s job diligently
and to being a good father without therefore explicitly being occupied with
acquiring power in doing so. However, as Husserl points out, this does not mean that
these other commitments could not still be subservient to the habituated will to
power. The choice in favor of a certain profession might have been made in light of
acquiring increasingly more power. If this is pervasively the case, every decision or
commitment could be an implicit realization of the will to power, which gives these
decisions and commitments their particular character or flavor. This will to power
need not be explicit at every moment for this person to live their life in a way that is
subservient to the accumulation of power.
Having described the way in which a particular commitment could shape the
totality of one’s other commitments, we can now return to the question at hand:
How could phenomenological reflection inform one’s life after reflection in a way
that is equally as pervasive and fundamental as the way in which the will to power
shapes one’s life? More precisely, how could phenomenological transcendental
idealism be such an abiding and overarching principle that one could be said to be
living one’s life in a phenomenological way?
I would like to propose that the fundamental attitude towards the world
(including things, values, projects, and other persons within it) that could result
See text number 2, Sect. 2, ‘‘Universale Willenseinstellungen—bezogen auf die Universalität des
ganzen Lebens, alle Akte modifizierend’’ (Husserl 2002, p. 42). Husserl also gives the example of an
‘‘universale ethische Einstellung’’ in addition to the ‘‘absolute Einstellung auf ein Genussleben’’ (Husserl
2002, p. 43). I focus on the will to power since Husserl provides a more detailed description of it.

366 H. Jacobs

from phenomenological reflection and phenomenological transcendental idealism is

what we could call an attitude of epistemic modesty. It seems to me that epistemic
modesty, insofar as it can apply to any aspiration to truth (be it in the realm of being,
values, or goals) could shape our lives in the way that the will to power could—
namely, by steering one’s decisions, commitments, and projects in a fundamental,
even if not always explicit, way. This attitude of epistemic modesty would more
precisely consist in an abiding, acute awareness of the way in which our
knowledge—whether it pertains to what is true, good, worthwhile, or beautiful—is
fallible without, however, therefore leading us to give up on our aspirations to truth.
Indeed, phenomenological reflection and the ensuing transcendental phenomeno-
logical idealism gives rise to both this awareness and aspiration. Consequently, if
this awareness were to abide as an habituality of epistemic modesty, we could be
said to be living our lives in a phenomenological way.
The aspiration towards truth is guaranteed by Husserl’s phenomenological
transcendental idealism to the extent that it requires that whatever makes a claim to
existence must, in principle, be able to show itself (ausweisen) in that way to any
member of the intersubjective community. At the same time, however, an awareness
of our fallibility is built into this idealism. The phenomenological insight that truth
is within reach does not entail that we either are the creator of this truth or that we
always already have access to this truth. Rather, we are always on the way to truth
insofar as being is the correlate of a completely fulfilled experience that is always on
the horizon. The insight into our epistemic fallibility is but the other side of our
commitment to truth since the awareness of our fallibility is the awareness of the
distance to be travelled to arrive at truth.
If phenomenological reflection could change our lives in an irreversible way by
instilling an epistemic modesty in us that pervades our lives in the way that the will
to power could, we could further wonder: Would such a life be a life worth living?
Let me end with an indication of why the phenomenological way of life could be
considered a life worth living by contrasting it to other forms of life in which the
described epistemic modesty has not taken root. In doing so, I will also be able to
further describe a life governed by epistemic modesty.

5 Conclusion: Epistemic modesty and phenomenology as a way of life

While our natural lives before phenomenology are characterized by a straightfor-

ward trust in the validity with which the world is given to us, this trust that
everything is what it appears to be also makes us vulnerable to continued
disappointment, critique, or surprise.50 There are at least two ways of responding to
this vulnerability that are distinctively different from the proposed phenomenolog-
ical way of leading one’s life guided by the principle of epistemic modesty.
A first possible response would consist in simply resisting acknowledging the
fallible nature of one’s convictions concerning what is true, good, and worthwhile.

In his Kaizo articles, Husserl is painfully aware of this vulnerability and even saw it as the motive for
philosophy (Husserl 1989, p. 30).

Phenomenology as a way of life? 367

If this resistance becomes a structural feature of one’s life, this life would become a
life led in dogmatism. This dogmatism would be an extension, though not without
significant modification, of the naiveté that characterizes life in the natural attitude.
Insofar as it belongs to the very nature of, for example, perception to be
presumptuous with regard to what is seen, naiveté is to a certain extent part and
parcel of conscious life. However, the aforementioned reactive dogmatism is
different from naı̈ve natural life insofar as the commitments of the latter can easily
be corrected and are continuously revised. This openness to correction and revision
is what a reactive dogmatism resists when, after a set of disappointments, one clings
to one’s fallible convictions in a way that closes off any future falsification or
critique. In doing so, one ends up hypostasizing a fallible into an infallible
perspective. More problematically, one thereby also closes oneself off from the
intersubjective community in which one takes part since one excludes the possibility
of others validating or challenging what one deems to be true in and through critical
A second possible way of responding to the vulnerability of our convictions leads
to an equally isolated existence. Instead of solidifying the presumptuousness of
ongoing experience into a dogmatism, one could dwell in the insight that our
commitments are vulnerable and respond with a skepticism that would protect one
from future disappointments and critique. Such skepticism could take different
forms. On the one hand, one could embrace the necessarily partial nature of all points
of view and challenge the possibility of progressing towards an intersubjectively
validated point of view. On the other hand, the skeptic could also decide to withhold
her commitment until the possibility of falsification is excluded. This kind of radical
abstention, however, is not realizable because even the slightest perception entails a
doxic commitment.
The proposed phenomenological way of life would be different from the alternate
ways of responding to the experience of disappointment, critique, and surprise
described above in a two-fold way. On the one hand, the epistemically modest way
of life would be a way of life that is compatible with what characterizes our human
lives (from a phenomenological point of view)—namely, striving for validity
without being able to absolutely secure it. On the other hand, the epistemically
modest way of life differs from the other ways of reacting to the insight into our
finitude insofar as it would not be deterred from revising, renewing, and making
commitments. Moreover, we can easily envision how the epistemically modest
person could function as part of an intersubjective community that together confirms
and challenges their commitments to what is true, good, and worthwhile.
Thus, by acquiring an attitude of epistemic modesty towards what we encounter
within the world, we would move away from a life led by dogmatism in which we
blind ourselves to the way that our perspective is always partial, limited, and
presumptuous. Likewise, we would move away from a way of life that would
exaggerate the perspectival nature of our experience into a skepticism that
forecloses all aspiration to truth. While a phenomenological way of life cannot
change the natural tendency of consciousness to experience the new in light of what
one is already familiar with or to presume something to be true, good, or worthwhile
without being apodictically certain of it, the epistemic modesty it instills in this life

368 H. Jacobs

prevents it from falling into either dogmatism or skepticism. Concretely, this

epistemic modesty would amount to an openness towards what we experience in the
perceptual, practical, and axiological dimensions of our encounter with the world
and others. Even if our naive experience is always already open-ended, it takes a
reflection of a phenomenological kind to realize this, and it is such a reflection that
can shield one from a dogmatism or skepticism that would negate the open-ended
character of our search for truth.

Acknowledgments I would like to thank Steven Crowell for his insightful comments to an earlier draft
of this paper that was presented at the fiftieth annual meeting of The Society for Phenomenology and
Existential Philosophy (SPEP).


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