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Dan Zahavi Revew of Evan Thompson

Dan Zahavi Revew of Evan Thompson

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Published by: Roger Entler on Jan 20, 2010
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Thompson, Evan.
Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind 
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007,568 pp., $49.95 (hardcover), ISBN 9780674025110
Dan Zahavi
Received: 18 January 2009/Accepted: 23 January 2009/Published online: 13 February 2009
Ó
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009
In 1991 Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch published
TheEmbodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience
. The book was animportant milestone. It criticized mainstream computationalist and cognitivisttendencies in cognitive science by arguing persuasively that the scientific study of the mind could not continue to ignore the experiential and embodied dimensions of human cognition. In outlining an alternative it drew on various sources, includingVarela and Maturana’s work on autopoiesis, Buddhism, and phenomenology. Thelatter tradition was by and large defined through the work of Merleau-Ponty, whowas heralded as somebody who in his first major work,
The Structure of Behavior,
‘argued for the mutual illumination among a phenomenology of direct livedexperience, psychology and neurophysiology’’ (Varela et al.1991, p. 15). Husserl,by contrast, was quickly dismissed as a Cartesian, a representationalist andmethodological solipsist who ignored the embodied and consensual aspect of experience (Varela et al.1991, pp. 16–17, 68).
The Embodied Mind 
was quite influential, and what back then might haveappeared visionary has these days become far more mainstream. It is todaycommonplace to speak of embodied cognition, and it has recently even becomefashionable to characterize cognition in terms of 4Es: embodied, embedded,enactive and extended. In such discussions,
The Embodied Mind 
is almostinvariably listed as one of the core references.There is much of merit in Evan Thompson’s new book,
Mind in Life: Biology,Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind 
, a book that can be seen as a follow-upon his earlier book. But one very noticeable feature—a feature that should be of particular interest to readers of this journal—is the remarkable change of appraisalwhen it comes to Husserlian phenomenology. Whereas
The Embodied Mind 
D. Zahavi (
&
)Center for Subjectivity Research, University of Copenhagen, Njalsgade 140-142, 2300 Copenhagen,Denmark e-mail: dza@hum.ku.dk 
 123
Husserl Stud (2009) 25:159–168DOI 10.1007/s10743-009-9057-7
 
basically gave voice to, and repeated, a widespread caricature,
Mind in Life
presentsa far more nuanced and well-informed interpretation, one that relies not only on theauthor’s increased familiarity with Husserl’s own writings but also on his carefulreading of much recent Husserl scholarship. Indeed, although Merleau-Pontycontinues to play an important role, Husserl has gained a central position. This isreadily visible in Thompson’s extensive discussion of, and reliance on, such notionsas static, genetic and generative phenomenology, epoche´, phenomenologicalreduction, constitution, intentionality and life-world. The change in question is sonoticeable that Thompson finds reason to offer an explanation himself. As he pointsout in a brief appendix entitled ‘‘Husserl and Cognitive Science,’’ he simply doesn’tsubscribe to the earlier Husserl-interpretation any longer. He has come to realizethat Husserlian phenomenology contains far more resources for a productive cross-fertilization with cognitive science and Buddhist thought than he initially thought.As he explains, when he co-authored
The Embodied Mind 
not only did he havelimited knowledge of Husserl’s own writings and of the relevant secondaryliterature; his interpretation was also influenced by Heidegger’s uncharitablereading of Husserl, as well as by the quite influential and dismissive criticism thatDreyfus gave voice to in the volume
Husserl, Intentionality and Cognitive Science.
And as Thompson concludes, although Dreyfus should be credited for havingbrought Husserl into the purview of cognitive science, it is urgent ‘‘to go beyond hisinterpretation and to reevaluate Husserl’s relationship to cognitive science on thebasis of a thorough assessment of his life’s work’’ (p. 416).
1 Embodied Dynamicism and Naturalized Phenomenology
In his introduction, Thompson starts out by outlining and discussing some of theprevailing options in cognitive science, including
cognitivism
,
connectionism
andwhat he labels
embodied dynamicism
. Whereas classical cognitivism viewed themind as a digital computer and located it inside the skull, and connectionism saw itas a neural network, embodied dynamicism, the most recent proposal, sees the mindas an embodied dynamic system in the world (p. 4) and explicitly criticizes thedisembodied approach to cognition favored by the two other options. Whereas themore orthodox approaches in cognitive science have persistently ignoredthe subjective and experiential dimension of consciousness, Thompson’s ambitionis to show that a special trend within embodied dynamicism labeled
the enactiveapproach
can make real progress when it comes to bridging the apparent gapbetween the neurophysiological processes that we can describe and analyzescientifically from a third-person perspective and the experiences that we are allfamiliar with from a first-person perspective.To assess Thompson’s proposal fully, however, it has to be seen in light of therecent debate concerning the possibility of naturalizing phenomenology (cf. Varela1996,1997; Gallagher1997,2003; Gallagher and Zahavi2008; Petitot et al.1999; Lutz and Thompson2003; Zahavi2004). On one interpretation, a naturalization of phenomenology entails the attempt tointegrate phenomenology into an explanatory framework where every acceptable
160 Husserl Stud (2009) 25:159168
 123
 
property is made continuous with the properties admitted by natural science (cf. Royet al.1999, pp. 1–2). On such a reading, a naturalization of phenomenology is onethat will eventually make phenomenology part of, or at least an extension of, naturalscience. This proposal de facto denies the legitimacy of methods and questions thatare unique to philosophy. It wants to replace the transcendental clarification thatphenomenology offers with an explanatory account.On another (more cautious) interpretation, phenomenology studies phenomena(including body-awareness, attention, intentionality, social cognition, perceptionand recollection) that are also open to empirical investigation, and, as it is claimed,insofar as phenomenology concerns itself with such phenomena it should also beinformed by the best available scientific knowledge. On this reading, a naturalizedphenomenology is simply a phenomenology that is informed by, and engages in afruitful exchange and collaboration with, empirical science. The phenomenologicalcredo ‘To the things themselvescalls for us to let our experience guide ourtheories. We should pay attention to the way in which we experience reality.Empirical scientists might not pay much attention to the formal structure of phenomenality, but as empirical researchers they do in fact pay quite a lot of attention to concrete phenomena and might consequently be less apt to underes-timate the richness, complexity, and variety of phenomena than the standard arm-chair philosopher.One way to appraise Thompson’s proposal is to see it as being situated somewherein between thesetwo options. Onhisview, it is notonly possible butalsonecessary topursue phenomenology and experimental science as mutually constraining andenlightening projects. For Thompson, phenomenology shouldn’t just provide acareful description and analysis of experience; it should also understand and interpretits own investigations in the light of the empirical exploration of the life of the mind.But according to Thompson, phenomenology is certainly also in a position to teachsomething to the sciences of mind. If our aim is to have a comprehensiveunderstanding of the mind, then focusing narrowly on the nature of the sub-personalevents that underlie experience without considering the qualities of the experienceitself will just not take us very far (p. 273). In that sense, a careful description of theexplanandumisanobviousrequisite.Moreradically,however,Thompsonalsoclaimsthat a naturalization of phenomenology will lead to a renewed understanding of thenature of both life and mind (p. 14). Indeed, on his view, phenomenology provides away of observing and describing natural phenomena that bring out features whichwould otherwise remain invisible to science; features such as selfhood, normativity,subjectivity, intentionality, and temporality. Thus, one of the decisive ambitions of 
 Mind in Life
is precisely to show how phenomenology might enable us to appreciatethe inner life of biological systems (p. 358).For an initial idea of what Thompson has in mind, a useful and obvious point of comparison is Merleau-Ponty’s discussion in
The Structure of Behavior 
. In thatearly work, Merleau-Ponty directly engaged with various scientists of his time,including Pavlov, Freud, Koffka, Piaget, Watson, and Wallon. The last sub-chapterof the book carries the heading ‘‘Is There Not a Truth in Naturalism?’’ It contains acriticism of Kantian transcendental philosophy, and on the very final page of thebook Merleau-Ponty calls for a redefinition of transcendental philosophy that makes
Husserl Stud (2009) 25:159168 161
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