Experience II: The Lifeworld; the pregiven foreground of a theorised empirical world


The Lifeworld,[1] has been regarded by many commentators as both pivotal to Husserl’s phenomenology and a profound philosophical discovery in its own right[2]. Others might argue that it constitutes instead an adaptation of Heidegger’s being-in-the-world?[3] In this section I focus on its elaboration in Crisis, Part III A,[4] where the Lifeworld emerges in the context of Husserl’s argument for the transcendental ego. I take this passage as my starting point for an adaptation of Merleau-Ponty’s ideas that owe much to this thinking.

Edmund Husserl: 1859-1938


Husserl sought, through a teleological-historical methodology to promote a ‘reorientation’ of philosophy amidst the critical scientific and philosophical malaise then apparent in Europe[5]. Diagnosing the disintegration of cultural values between the two ‘World Wars’, Husserl sought to preserve that philosophy true to the ‘rational spirit’, and a ‘Europe founded on the spirit of truth’,[6] and so to establish an intellectual barricade against Nazi ideology and propaganda. He insisted that his ‘rigorous science’, unlike the discredited sciences of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, had relevance for those seeking an intellectual remedy to the crisis.[7]

Auschwitz, Poland

Auschwitz, Poland

Husserl, like Bergson, lies at the forefront of the revisionist thinking of the twentieth century found so diversely in Whitehead, Heidegger, Dewey, Tillich and Sartre, ‘that human experience is the proper starting point for a doctrine of the nature of reality’.[8] For Husserl, Europe’s particular failure to ground science upon the intuited and experienced pregiven world, is summed up as follows; absurdly he says, ‘…we measure the life-world – the world constantly given to us as actual in our concrete world-life – for a well-fitting garb of ideas, that of the so-called objectively scientific truths’.[9]

The Lifeworld is a phenomenon, ‘correlative to our intentional experiences’, the world of pre-theoretical experience from which we develop a stance regarding nature and develop our own cultural forms. A layer to be inserted ‘between the world of nature and the world of culture or spirit’, problematically for many appreciative thinkers since, this was specifically ‘a layer of meaning constituted by the ‘transcendental Ego’.[10] It is to the Lifeworld precisely that I refer, in reference to the world in which the questioning being, through intentionality, is embedded, and this Lifeworld I regard as the foreground to the empirical world in which the questioning being is embodied. In this sense then the world is fundamental to the Landscape of Being.


The idealized concealment of the path to reality

Husserl declares emphatically that the path back to reality has been obscured, since the time of Galileo, by the ‘surreptitious substitution of the mathematically substructed world of idealities for the only real world’.[11] As a consequence, the world given through perception and continually confirmed by experience has been demoted.[12] With Galileo commences an unchallenged dominance of theoretical science, described bleakly as ‘the surreptitious substitution of idealized nature for prescientifically intuited nature’. Since then, every quest for originary meanings has failed to engage ‘with the prescientific life and its life-world’.[13]

Although this entails something of an excursus, I wish to explore here the consequences of this demotion in dialogue with Merleau-Ponty. I am reminded of an observation I made, late one evening whilst driving home. The moon was an imposing dusty golden globe hanging heavily in the night sky. Its size both awesome and enigmatic, reminding me in a flash of Merleau-Ponty’s own musings on the subject. I was puzzled, for as I drew closer to my home, the moon somehow appeared smaller, somehow tamed. I assumed some past and forgotten physics lesson could have had the clue to my mistaken perception; the earth’s atmosphere or perhaps its curvature could explain what I was observing. Could I trust the testimony of perception, given my inevitable tetheredness to subjective experience, or was it rendered somehow naïve or suspect?

As I show in the next section, Merleau-Ponty abandons Husserl’s alternative to the mediational approach of empiricism, for it too is trapped in the same rationale. According to the generalising emphasis of empiricism our delinquent senses need only attend to the precision of generalised measurement and we will concede that, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, ‘Our body does not have the power to make us see what is not there; it can only make us believe that we see it’.[14] I am embodied in a real world that exists and is indifferent to my individual manipulation of it, hallucination is never constitution in an empirical sense. Nevertheless, the ‘what it is like’ of my empirical embeddedness entails that I can only experience the world I manipulate in experiencing, and I must rely on intersubjectivity to sense that alternative experiencing is possible.

Using corrective apparatus, our deficit attention can be corrected, enabling us to confirm that the moon on the horizon in fact ‘is not, and is not seen to be, bigger than at its zenith’,[15] rather the moon’s apparent diameter remains constant. Merleau-Ponty concurs with Husserl’s appraisal of the empiricist outcome, the judgement that ‘philosophy need attach no importance to any credit which appearance may be thought to enjoy’.[16] In the final analysis whatever our experience has given us in ambiguous perception, ‘the indistinctness is not there’,[17] the empirical world of a science divorced from the experiencing body embedded in it, is constant.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: 1908-1961

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: 1908-1961

Merleau-Ponty of course directed his philosophical critique in equal measure towards this judgement and the early Husserlian idea that consciousness constitutes everything, or ‘eternally possesses the intelligible structure of all its objects’[18]. It is as faulty as the ‘radical empiricist’ consciousness which constitutes nothing at all; in either case human signification has no work to perform. The Husserlian  constituting consciousness, so sharply focused on all its mental objects, both those ‘of which it is unheeding’ and equally ‘those which interest it’, is also a constant.

Because the additional focus brought by the constituting consciousness’ attention heralds no new relationship, it is again an inconsequential luminary whose character is unaffected by all that it shines upon. Why, asks Merleau-Ponty, would such a consciousness attend specifically to anything, since already in equal measure consciousness includes all objects? Empiricism forfeits any internal connection between objects and the acts they trigger. Rationalism, or intellectualism on the other hand, forfeits any contingency or nuanced sensitivity in the occasions of thought. ‘In the first case consciousness is too poor, in the second too rich’.[19]

Drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s thought my argument is that neither the precision of abstracted empirical measurement, nor the precision of idealised thought truly accounts for the Lifeworld reality in which both are made significant because significance is required by the questioning being who is engaged with the world already. In this process the indeterminate is made distinct. So says Merleau-Ponty, ‘If the moon on the horizon appears to me no bigger than at the zenith, when I look at it through a telescope or a cardboard tube, the conclusion cannot be drawn that in free vision equally its appearance is invariable’.[20] The truth of perception is my appropriated experience, contrary to empiricism which is concerned not with what we see but with what we ought to see according to the retinal image, and contrary to intellectualism, which attempts to describe according to an a priori analysis, the moon’s true apparent diameter. When I look freely and naturally, the various parts of the field interact and motivate this enormous moon on the horizon, this ‘measureless size’.[21] .

Husserl has prompted a return to this pregiven world that science has petrified; Merleau-Ponty prompts one to see that the primary apparatus for the grasp of that world is the embodied human embedded within it who seeks significance therein. Science has concealed the fact that towards the Lifeworld alone could practical and theoretical questions be directed, theories constructed, and potentialities explored for that quest. Knowledge of laws, essentially predictions which describe but cannot prescribe, could only be about actual or possible experiential phenomena, even when broadened by experimental observations and verified inductively. All meaningful induction therefore, whether mundane or scientific, depends on the essential meaning of the pregiven world as its horizon. ‘It is this world that we find to be the world of all known and unknown realities’.[22]

Exact science has distracted us from the world of ‘actually experiencing intuition’ containing space-time, physical forms (körperlich), and our own living forms (leiblich) which express our personal way of being. Scientific technique has merely formalised the predictions that always emerged from the human perception that ‘things ‘seen’ are always more than what we ‘really and actually’ see of them’.[23] Perceiving is essentially having-something-itself yet also having-something-in-advance and therefore meaning-something-in-advance. Husserl provokes us to see that the Lifeworld must be restored as the meaning-fundament of natural science.[24]

Galileo: 1564-1642

Galileo: 1564-1642

Idealization and its abstraction has instituted a constricting dualism, and Galileo, Husserl argues, ‘abstracts’ from Subjects as persons leading a personal life, from all in fact that is somehow ‘spiritual’ and from all cultural properties tethered to human praxis[25]. What remains is a mere physicality, physical objects taken to be real components of a physical world and a reduction to ’the idea of nature as a really self-enclosed world of bodies’.[26] Certainly I do not deny the solid demonstrability and repeatability of empirical facts. I wish instead to confirm them in their solidity as true for us on that basis precisely, however likely it may be that molecules and particles have a presence not dependent upon the praxis of the human sciences themselves.

The outcome of an idealised Galilean abstraction is a self-enclosed and determinist natural causality, and dualism. This dissection of the world and transformation of its meaning derive from the methodology of natural-scientific rationality guided by pure mathematics and Husserl contends that many of the unnavigable problems of reason derive from this presumption, and eventually become so pressing that they take centre stage philosophically in Kant’s profoundly influential ‘critiques of reason’. It is towards Husserl’s appraisal of Kant’s investigations that I now turn.[27]

Crisis, Part III A begins by offering an alternative to Husserl’s Cartesian way into Phenomenological Transcendental Philosophy which commenced with consciousness, and starts instead with the pregiven Life-World’[28].

Kant is right to combat the dominant rationalism of his day says Husserl. It has neglected fundamental questions and forfeited understanding of the subjective structure of our world-consciousness underpinning prescientific and scientific epistemology alike. But Kant also, unawares, rests his analysis upon unquestioned presuppositions, rendering his pioneering theories incomplete.

Though seeking a grounding in things themselves, Kant breaks off his quest without resolving the supposedly psychological foundational problems. Husserl suggests that unquestioned presuppositions inhibited Kant’s critique of reason; the authority of science and the spheres of being, so determined, are problematic as a result and Kant runs into particular difficulties with transcendental apperception[29].

The ontic meaning of nature, what sense I can derive from my experiencing of it, underwent revolutionary reinterpretation in Kant, regarding the world of possible experience and knowledge, and the actual truth-meaning of the sciences. Kant’s naturalistic orientation however, inspired by the psychology of his day[30], missed the significance of Husserl’s a priori. The Kantian exploration of subjective conditions for the possibility of knowledge entirely missed the taken-for-granted ‘anonymous’ world of ordinary lived experience. We too can miss this. The hotness of the sun, the atom’s size, the power of a volcano; such data is rendered meaningful in relation to a human scale. Consequently Kant’s suppositions, like those of his contemporaries, overlooked the infinite validity implications available in the Lifeworld which are not reducible to merely psychological processes of sense-data.[31]


The priority of the pregiven world

Applying Kant’s approach, Husserl affirms that the natural everyday surrounding world is presupposed to exist. We are objects among objects as experience testifies, yet also we are Subjects for this world; Ego-Subjects that relate purposefully to it and, through our modes of validity, dwell in a surrounding world we constitute. This unified world persists for us though its meaning-content changes.

Husserl next clarifies the manner in which this of ‘world of appearances’ can be established. Verifying the life of our natural interests depends extensively upon ‘sensibly’ experiencing intuition. According to Husserl, all that exhibits itself in the Lifeworld does so as a mere body, even if it does also possess psychic or spiritual aspects. Attending to the bodily aspect limits us to perceptual receptivity through visual, tactual, acoustical and other faculties[32].

In an emphasis that Merleau-Ponty will convincingly overhaul, Husserl affirms that it is in consciousness that our living body is active too; it can ‘function in seeing, hearing etc., together with the Ego’s motility’, or its ‘comprehensive unity of kinestheses’. In terms of perception, the physical body and living body are essentially different.[33] Fundamental for identity is Husserl’s reiteration here that howsoever we have consciousness of the world as a ‘universal horizon’, a coherent universe of existing objects, each person, individually and collectively, belongs to the world, ‘valid for our consciousness as existing precisely through this living together’. Singular human identity is appropriated as an identity embedded in a shared world; through intersubjective intentionality we have the world and as embodied living beings we act upon it.

The world is pregiven intersubjectively

The world is pregiven intersubjectively

Again it appears that intentionality can be both patent and latent, for ‘we are directed toward thematic objects in modes of primary and secondary, and perhaps also peripheral directedness’. As I have suggested, whether or not a person is aware of the desire that drives their identity in search of significance, this eidos can function unthematically, likewise the questioning being’s correlative capacity for purpose.

Intentionality can of course be self-regarding. Constantly conscious of the world in terms of some object-content or other, we function as subjects of acts, ‘only occasionally being thematically objective as the object of preoccupation with ourselves’.  Nevertheless the world is pregiven for us intersubjectively and so Husserl introduces the notion of habitual acquisition which is not insular, for in the pregiven priority of the world held in common, our consciousness grasps a ‘we-subjectivity’ as a thematic object sometimes to the extent of overlooking the ‘self’-making at work[34].

In summary, the Husserlian Lifeworld is prior to the world of science and its abstractions in three distinct ways. Firstly in a historical sense; in human history generally and in the concrete development of the individual. Secondly the Lifeworld is universally given; though numerous cultures and individuals are out of touch with modern science’s idealizations, experience of the Lifeworld as such, with its actualities and potentialities, is universally experienced. Thirdly and importantly, the Lifeworld has priority in the order of validity of being. Whereas the empirical facts of the matter establish a repeatable instance of a thing pertaining to an experience, it is the meaning of Lifeworld experience which repeatedly affirms the significance of demonstrable things. Thus it is the Lifeworld which furnishes science’s high-order constructions attained by abstraction, idealization, and induction[35].

I find in consequence, a powerful insight from Husserl; the Lifeworld and its existential validity enables a world of science in turn to have existential validity without which the abstract or theoretical entities of science could not be thought and given in intentional acts. The Lifeworld therefore is the foundation of the world of science;  the existential basis in fact for any world.


The Lebenswelt as the world for me 

Though designated by Merleau-Ponty, phenomenology’s ‘most profound stratum’, Husserl regarded  his analysis of the Lifeworld as ‘merely a necessary preliminary stage on the way to transcendental subjectivity’.[36] Prior to thematic reflection, the Lifeworld is a ‘unity of sense’, constituted for Husserl at least, in the pre-reflexive consciousness of transcendental subjectivity, an  ‘a priori’ source of all objectivity and reality. I am not persuaded however by Husserl’s  contention that the world is constituted in consciousness. If the pregiven world, however indeterminate until bought into service in the foreground of experience, is pregiven, then it must in some sense sustain the consciousness that ponders upon it. There can be no pre-reflexive transcendental act without that specific worldly element, one’s body, and without the pregiven world it can have no context for its thoughts.

Of course, Husserl did not argue that being ‘constituted’ in pre-reflexive consciousness actually entails objectivity. He held that objectivity arose through a ‘bestowal of-sense’ which gained verification when the reflexive Cogito, employing the ‘epoché’, retrospectively discerned the fulfilling of universal and necessary laws of ‘intentional constitution’. The world ‘intended’ in pre-reflexive experience is then established as real and objectively valid for all[37].

Fitch Way

Fitch Way

Husserl’s shows that each of the exact sciences are human ‘accomplishments’ presupposing, the intuitive surrounding world of life ‘pregiven and existing for all in common’[38]. Every theory, every practice, every experiment, every tradition, all are subjectively grounded and attain ontic validity thereby. The data upon which they are based, comprise as it were, the indeterminate pregiven background of the world which, once brought forward and rendered in these validities, intersubjectively significant, is subsequently allowed to fall back, endorsed and certified into the world’s background once again.

Let me give an example how the Lifeworld can be the world ‘for me’. My world, existing in the emergent meanings I impart, which are motivated by the way things reveal their utility, is not a world in itself but a sensibility of the world always in the process of becoming, derived from a world indeterminately given. In the mundane tasks of my every day in the pregiven world, there is subjective specificity, a subjective appropriation in every application of common ‘truth’.

One hot and humid afternoon I decide to run in the countryside. My chosen route, the Fitch Way, is a disused railway line of historical interest to some, a nature trail to others, a short-cut route to work in town for others besides, but for me this ‘running track’ is currently a means to freedom and fitness. Available to me, and giving significance to the factual particles and molecules of the world, are the intersubjectively established certainties defined in the manner of ‘trees’, ‘track’, ‘weather’ and ‘time’. ‘Prescientifically, the world is already a spatio-temporal world’ though this is not to be construed as a tidy mathematical ideal.[39] Also available to me are further idealised intersubjectively observed matters of fact understood as hydration, pronation, and pace which, as the filtered background of the world with their ‘occasional’ or scientific coherence, must be appropriated into my Lifeworld and its foreground. The remaining shock-absorption in my running shoes and my physiological condition combine with other ontic validities such as the intensity of my determination and the time I can dedicate to it. Apparatus, advice, terrain, incentives and time; none of these possess an absolute ‘objectivity’ I can experience except in the form of subjective appropriation.

The Lifeworld is the background world  brought into the foreground through appropriation

The Lifeworld is the background world brought into the foreground through appropriation


[1] The term Lifeworld first appears, not in the Crisis but in a manuscript supplementary to Ideas II. It is associated there with the constitution of the personal, spiritual, or cultural world as opposed to the scientific or natural world. David Carr, Husserl’s Problematic Concept of the Life-World, American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Oct., 1970), 332

[2] David Carr cites, and concurs with, Herbert Spiegelberg who states that the most influential and suggestive idea to emerge  from  the study and edition of Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts thus far is that of the Lebenswelt or world of lived experience. David Carr, ibid, 1970, 331

[3] Though I owe this observation to James Luchte, Carr notes that Husserl utilises many existential themes and terms in this work such as Dasein, Existenz, existentiell. Carr, ibid, xxvi.

[4] After briefly introducing the apparent inadequacy of the sciences in the context of European rationalism in Part I and developing  a longer historical polemic focused on clarifying the origins of the opposition between ‘Physicalistic Objectivism and Transcendental Subjectivism’ in Part II,  Husserl turns to the lengthy Part III whose first section we are interested in. Here Husserl outlines in a convoluted and repetitive text his ‘Way into Phenomenological Transcendental Philosophy’ which involves a regressive enquiry commencing with the Pre-given Lifeworld. It has been suggested by Moran  that ‘Europe’ is Husserl’s ‘shorthand’ for the dream of a universal science, a new theoretical attitude, which has its origins in ancient Greece, rather than reference to geographical continent. Dermot Moran, Husserl: the Crisis of the European Sciences, in Introduction to Phenomenology, New York,

[5] Carr notes in his translator’s introduction to the work that Husserl is responding to an invitation to comment on the crisis in European philosophy by the International Congress of Philosophy. David Carr (Trans), The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1970, xvi

[6] Husserl, Open letter to the Congress, in Carr, ibid, xxvii

[7] Carr, ibid, xxvi

[8] Bergson, H. (Eds.) William P. Alston and George Nakhnikian, Readings in Twentieth Century Philosophy, London, Collier-Macmillan Limited, 1963, 50

[9] Husserl, Crisis, ibid, 1970, 51

[10] Moran, ibid, 2008, 181f

[11] Husserl, 1970, 48-49

[12] We note here Husserl’s use of the term τέχνη for an intuitive conceptualising divorced from the sources of truly immediate intuition which substitutes ‘things in themselves’ for an obscuring idealization. This is reminiscent of Heidegger’s use of the term to represent the ‘standing reserve’ which we explore in Chapter Thirteen.

[13] Husserl ibid, 50

[14] Merleau-Ponty, M. Phenomenology of Perception, London, Routledge, 2006, 32

[15] MP. PP, ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] MP, PP, ibid

[20] Ibid, 36

[21] Ibid

[22] Husserl, E. (Trans.) David Carr,  Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1970, 50

[23] This transcendence is a familiar theme which we have observed in the Cartesian Meditations.

[24] Husserl, 1970, 48

[25] Ibid, 60

[26] Ibid

[27] I am aware that this discussion will present a Husserlian Kant; for the purposes of this study will not challenge Husserl’s assessment of Kant or offer alternative interpretations. For a fascinating study of the implications for Ethics of Kant’s reasoning see ‘The Predecessor Culture and the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality’, in Alasdair MacIntyre After Virtue, London, Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd., 2002

[28] Husserl, Part III A, Crisis, 1970, ibid, 103

[29] Ibid, 104

[30] Dermot Moran and Timothy Mooney, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), in The Phenomenology Reader, New York, Routledge, 2002, 62

[31] Husserl, Crisis, ibid, 112

[32] Ibid, 106

[33] Husserl, 1970, 107

[34] Ibid, 109

[35]Zhang R, Phenomenology of interculturality and life-world, in Lifeworld and the possibility of intercultural understanding, 1998, http://www.crvp.org/book/Series03/III-16/chapter_xxi.htm, accessed 22nd August 2012, 13.05

[36] David Carr, VI. Husserl’s problematic concept of the Life-World, in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Oct., 1970), 331

[37] Heidegger dismissed Husserl’s encompassing Lebenswelt however, as an inner psychological event, estranged from body and world. He resisted reduction of Dasein’s moods to private experiences; they had the capacity to disclose the world not merely to express interiority. Openness to the world not psychological richness was the road to the presencing of being. Martin Jay, The Lifeworld and lived experience, in (Eds.) Hubert L. Dreyfus and Mark A. Wrathall, A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism, Malden, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, 96

[38] Husserl, Crisis, ibid, 121 Once again we can see the elevated status that Husserl affords the term intuition. It has in his oeuvre nothing of the vague guesswork contemporary usage implies. Husserl attributes the higher dignity of the modern age given to ‘objective truth’ to the Ancient Greeks.

[39] Ibid, 139-140


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