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Which Role for the Body in Perception?

The Debate on Causality, Constitution, and the Transcendental Point of View

Abstract

The aim of this paper is distinguishing between two ways in which the analysis of the role of the

body in perception has been developed. In the contemporary debate on the embodied cognition

research program, one line of discussion focuses on defining whether the body – as an “object” –

can be considered as a “constitutive” part of the physical substrate of perception. The framework of

this discussion is the naturalistic approach of cognitive sciences. Another line of discussion is

animated by those authors who, referring to the phenomenological tradition, try to re-evaluate the

role of the body as “subject” – that is, as a transcendental principle for perception. It is necessary to

distinguish between these different lines of inquiry in order to understand better the theses of each

author. However, the possibility of a theoretical analysis at the interface between the two levels is

open and constitutes the most interesting challenge.

Keywords

Embodied cognition, visual perception, cognitive level, phenomenological level, constitution

1. Introduction

In the domain of contemporary philosophy of cognitive science, Fred Adams and Ken Aizawa

are two of the most tenacious opponents of the embodied and extended theses about cognition and
cognitive processes.1 Yet, at the end of their book The Bounds of Cognition (2008), the authors refer

to some embodied accounts of cognition that are not at odds with their claims about what cognition

is and what physical substrate it supervenes on. According to the authors, these alternative

embodied accounts are fruitful ways to explore embodiment without being committed to non-

standard views of cognition – such as the ones by Noë or Clark they criticize.2 As a significant

example of these approaches, Adams and Aizawa refer, for instance, to Shaun Gallagher’s

theoretical proposal.3

«[…] Gallagher (2005) presents another study of the ways in which cognitive processes (and

conscious experience) are “causally” influenced by – or, as he says, shaped by – being

embodied in the way they are. […] Here we do not propose to examine or critique Gallagher’s

approach or theories. Our only point is to draw attention to the existence of another scientific

project that can be described as the study of embodied cognition, and that does not necessarily

depend on a revolutionary conception of the cognitive or where in the world it can be found

(inverted commas mine) ».4

Adams and Aizawa seem to be sympathetic with (or at least not critical to) Gallagher’s embodied

theory because such a theory is supposed to underline some interesting ways cognition and our

conscious experience are “causally” influenced by our body – which is something that Adams and

Aizawa have no problems to admit.5

However, as the authors themselves recognize, Gallagher is actually talking of the way the body

“shapes” our mental life.

1
See F. Adams, K. Aizawa, Why the Mind is Still in the Head, in: P. Robbins, M. Aydede (eds.), The Cambridge
Handbook of Situated Cognition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2009, pp. 78–95; F. Adams, K. Aizawa,
Defending the Bounds of Cognition, in: R. Menary (ed.), The extended mind, MIT Press, Cambridge (MA) 2010, pp 67–
80; F. Adams, K. Aizawa, The value of cognitivism in thinking about extended cognition, in: «Phenomenology and the
Cognitive Sciences», vol. 9, n. 4, 2010, pp. 579–603.
2
See A. Noë, Action in Perception, MIT Press, Cambridge (MA) 2004; A. Clark, Supersizing the mind: embodiment,
action, and cognitive extension, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York 2008; F. Adams, K. Aizawa, The bounds of
cognition, Blackwell, Malden (MA) 2008.
3
See S. Gallagher, How the body shapes the mind, Clarendon Press, Oxford-New York 2005.
4
F. Adams, K. Aizawa, The bounds of cognition, cit., pp. 177-178.
5
Ivi, pp. 162, 165.
Adams and Aizawa take this shaping role of the body to be a “causal” one, but this is at least

questionable.

Indeed, Shaun Gallagher is one of the most well-known philosophers of mind who tries to re-

evaluate, in his theoretical proposal, the “phenomenological” approach, as it has been developed by

authors such as Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty6. According to phenomenologists, our

consciousness is the horizon in which objects and their meanings appear – that is, «the constitutive

dimension […] ‘in’ which the world can reveal and articulate itself».7 In this sense, consciousness

shows up as a “transcendental” dimension. Moreover, our consciousness is not disembodied, but

specifically “incarnate” in a body with such and such features. Indeed, as we will see, according to

phenomenologists, the fact that we have a body with particular kinetic and practical abilities

“shapes” the way the world is experienced by us, and contributes to the definition of the meanings

objects have for us.8 In this way, our body contributes to the process of transcendental constitution

of the objects and meanings of our world, appearing not as an object but as part of the constituting

subject of some of our experiences. In other terms, it becomes a “transcendental” principle.

Now, the transcendental relationship between the embodied consciousness and the meanings

constituted in such a dimension is not of the same kind of a causal relationship. Causal relationships

are “external” relations between two – already constituted – “objects” in the world. On the contrary,

the relation between the body as a transcendental principle and the objects of our experience is an

“internal” one. It is the relation between a world of meanings and its “subject” or, in other terms,

the relation between the constituted objects and the constituting subject (i.e. the horizon in which

our world appears and articulates itself).

6
See E. Husserl, Ideen zur einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie. Zweites Buch:
Phänomenologische Untersuchungen zur Konstitution (1952), in: Husserliana, vol. IV, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague
Netherlands (Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, Second Book: Studies
in the Phenomenology of Constitution, eng. trans. by R. Rojcewicz and A. Schuwer, Kluwer Academic, The Hague
Netherlands 1989); M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénomenologie de la perception (1945), Gallimard, Paris (Phenomenology of
Perception. eng. trans. by C. Smith, Routledge, London-New York 1981).
7
S. Gallagher, D. Zahavi, The phenomenological mind: an introduction to philosophy of mind and cognitive science,
Routledge, London-New York 2008, p. 25.
8
See E. Husserl, Ding und Raum. Vorlesungen 1907 (1973), in: Husserliana, vol. XVI, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague
Netherlands (Thing and Space: Lectures of 1907, eng. trans. by R. Rojcewicz, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht
Netherlands 1998); M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénomenologie de la perception, cit.
Adams and Aizawa seem not to recognize the specificity of the phenomenological discourse and

keep describing the role of the body in terms of causality, misconceiving the subjective dimension

of the body that phenomenologists want to underline.9

This case of Adams and Aizawa (mis-)reading Gallagher is meant to show that, in the debate on

embodied cognition (EC), different theories and approaches are confronted to each other and

different levels of analysis are introduced. My aim here is proposing the differentiation between two

levels of analysis on which the discourse about the body and its role in cognition has been

developed. I will call the first level “cognitive level”, the second one “phenomenological level”. I

will maintain that EC theories on these two levels have very different theoretical frameworks and

aim at re-evaluating the role of the body in cognition in different ways. The question about the

possibility of a theoretical analysis at the interface between the two levels of analysis will be left as

an open issue.

2. The Cognitive Level: Noë’s Proposal and his Opponents

The EC research program developed in antithesis to the standard cognitive science’s model of

the mind as a system whose cognitive mechanisms can be described as computations on

representations. In this model, computations are generally described as the operations of a Turing

Machine (TM) that can be implemented on whatever physical support. The functioning of a TM is

completely determined by the current state of the machine, the symbol in the cell currently scanned

by the head, and the table of transition rules, so that no reference to the physical support that

performs the operations of a TM is necessary to describe its functioning.10 Opposing the idea that

9
See E. Husserl, Ideen zur einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie. Zweites Buch:
Phänomenologische Untersuchungen zur Konstitution cit.; S. Gallagher, D. Zahavi, The phenomenological mind: an
introduction to philosophy of mind and cognitive science, cit.
10
See D. Barker-Plummer, Turing Machines, in: E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer
2013 Edition), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/turing-machine/; M. Marraffa, La mente in bilico. Le
basi filosofiche della scienza cognitiva, Carocci, Roma 2008.
the human mind can be described as a Turing Machine, defenders of embodied cognition theories

variously aim at re-evaluating the role of the body as the physical support of cognitive processes.11

Among the different cognitive abilities that have been analyzed in terms of EC, I will

concentrate here on visual perception and I will present one of the most famous embodied theories

in this domain, that is Noë’s sensorimotor and enactive theory of perception.12

According to Noë, visual perception is not a process in the brain but an activity on the part of the

whole perceiver. Seeing is a way of exploring the world that is mediated by the perceiver’s practical

abilities. In this sense, «our ability to perceive not only depends on, but is constituted by, our

possession of […] sensorimotor knowledge».13

Noë notoriously defends this thesis by means of several examples. One of them is the case of

subjects suffering of what the author calls “experiential blindness”.

Noë distinguishes between two forms of blindness. One is the most familiar one. It is caused by

disruption or damage to the sensory apparatus and it includes cases brought about by cataracts,

retinal injury or disease, and brain lesions in the visual cortex. The second one (i.e. experiential

blindness), on the contrary, is not due to sensory deficits «but rather to the person’s (or animal’s)

inability to integrate sensory stimulation with patterns of movement and thought».14

The first examples the author provides for this peculiar form of blindness are linked to some

attempts to restore sight in congenitally blind patients whose blindness was caused by cataracts.

Now, cataracts generally impair eyes’ sensitivity by blocking light on its passage to the retina. It

would be reasonable to suppose, then, that removing cataracts in congenitally blind individuals

would allow light’s passage and thus enable “normal” vision.15

11
For a deeper analysis of the development of the embodied cognition research program in opposition to standard
cognitive science, see L.A. Shapiro, Embodied cognition, Routledge, New York 2011.
12
See A. Noë, Action in Perception, cit.; A. Noë, J.K. O’Regan, A sensorimotor account of vision and visual
consciousness, in: «The Behavioral and Brain Sciences», vol. 24, n. 5, 2001, pp. 939–1031.
13
A. Noë, Action in Perception, cit., p. 2.
14
Ivi, p. 4
15
Ibidem.
However, it seems this is not what really happens in these cases, at least as far as some medical

literature teaches us. Noë cites some reports about patients’ experiences after cataracts removal.

One of them is by Oliver Sacks, and it is about his patient Virgil’s experience, immediately after

removing the bandages.

«Virgil told me later that in this first moment he had no idea what he was seeing. There was

light, there was movement, there was color, all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur. Then out of

the blur came a voice that said, “Well?” Then, and only then, he said, did he finally realize that

this chaos of light and shadow was a face – and, indeed, the face of his surgeon».16

According to Noë, patients such as Virgil suffer from experiential blindness. A form of visual

sensitivity seems to be restored. Indeed, the patients do have visual impressions after cataracts

removal. Yet, sight is not restored in the normal sense. Visual impressions remain confusing and

uninformative and do not end up in meaningful experiences.17 According to Noë, therefore, these

patients suffer from blindness, despite rich visual sensations.

The author’s hypothesis is that such a deficit arises because these patients are not able to

integrate their visual sensations with their sensorimotor knowledge and skills – that is, they lack

practical knowledge of the way sensations vary as they move or would move.18 Normal perceivers,

in fact, pre-reflectively and practically know how visual stimulation changes in accordance with

their movements – from the slightest eye-movements to the rotations of head and body – as well as

with the movements of objects themselves. Thanks to this capacity they can perceive a stable,

meaningful, spatialized world despite all, continuous changes in visual scenes. The idea is that

experientially blind subjects lack this ability and so they experience the world around them as «a

blur», as Virgil reports.

16
O. Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, Knopf, New York 1995, p. 114 cited by A. Noë,
Action in Perception, cit., p. 5.
17
See A. Noë, Action in Perception, cit., p. 4.
18
Ivi, p. 6.
Another case of experiential blindness is that of subjects wearing inverting lenses.19 The latter

are constructed so that light from an object on the left enters the eye as if the object were on the

right, and stimulate the parts of the retina and the brain that are normally stimulated by objects on

the right.

It could be reasonable to suppose that subjects wearing such lenses would experience an object

on the right side. Yet, this is not what happens, at least at the beginning. Noë refers to some

experiments by psychologists such as Stratton and Kohler.20 In these cases, the initial effect on

subjects wearing inverting glasses is not an inversion of what is seen. Rather, it is a partial

disruption of seeing itself. On this point, Noë considers the report of Kohler’s subject K.

«During visual fixations, every movement of my head gives rise to the most unexpected and

peculiar transformations of objects in the visual field. The most familiar forms seem to dissolve

and reintegrate in ways never before seen. At times, parts of figures run together, the spaces

between disappearing from view; at other times, they run apart, as if intent on deceiving the

observer. Countless times I was fooled by these extreme distortions and taken by surprise when

a wall, for instance, suddenly appeared to slant down the road, when a truck I was following

with my eyes started to bend, when the road began to arch like a wave, when houses and trees

seems to topple down, and so forth. I felt as if I were living in a topsy-turvy world of houses

crashing down on you, of heaving roads, and of jellylike people».21

Obviously, K is not completely blind. He seems to recognize trucks, trees, and so on.

Nonetheless, his visual world is completely distorted, and unpredictable in its changes.

What is important for Noë to notice here is that, in this case, K does not have any sensory deficit.

He receives normal stimulation. Yet, his visual world appears to be abnormally altered. It seems,

19
Noë finds this case more compelling than the one of congenitally blind individuals. Indeed, he recognizes that in the
latter case subjects’ blindness could depend on deficits in sensory processing mechanisms, not in patterns of integration
between visual sensations and sensorimotor know-how. It could be the case that the inactivity of the retina and the
visual cortex because of congenital cataract led to some kind of stunting of the development of all necessary structures
and neural connections for normal adult vision to be achieved. See A. Noë, Action in Perception, cit., p. 7.
20
Ibidem.
21
I. Kohler, Formation and Transformation of the Perceptual World, in: «Psychological Issues», vol. III, 1964, p. 64
cited by A. Noë, Action in Perception, cit., p. 8.
therefore, that in cases such as this the inability to see normally does not derive from defects in the

sensory system. Rather, Noë proposes that it depends on the fact that normal connections between

movement and visual scenes are completely broken.22 As we have said, we practically know how

the world changes while we move around it and this allows us to perceive it as stable and

meaningful “despite” changes in visual scenes. However, if we wear distorting lenses, the patterns

of dependence between stimulation and movement completely change. If something stimulates my

retina as if it is on my right (being actually on my left) and I move, say, right, the stimulation would

change unexpectedly, because the object is actually on my left. This and similar cases will give rise

to surprising and unanticipated changes as those described by K and, according to Noë, will

contribute to normal vision’s disruption.

Let us consider now the case of normal visual perception of a three-dimensional object.23

Visual perception is intrinsically perspectival. We always see the world from a particular point of

view and from there we can see only “some” aspects of the objects around us. If I am looking at a

cube in front of me and I pay attention to the phenomenology of my experience, in fact, I can easily

realize that what I am really facing are just some sides of that cube, namely its front.

However, it is nevertheless true that in looking at the front of the cube, we actually see the cube

itself. Going back to a phenomenological description of our experience, in fact, perceiving a cube

means perceiving a solid three-dimensional object that has a particular shape. It does not mean

perceiving just a bi-dimensional silhouette.

Now, how can this be possible? How can we reconcile these two apparently contradictory

aspects of perception – the fact that we never see objects entirely from a given perspective and the

fact that, nevertheless, we do perceive voluminous three-dimensional things through the given

aspects?

Noë’s answer is that

22
See A. Noë, Action in Perception, cit., 8.
23
Ivi, pp. 75-79.
«When you experience an object as cubical merely on the basis of its aspect, you do so because

you bring to bear, in this experience, your sensorimotor knowledge on the relation between

changes in cube aspects and movement. To experience the figure as a cube, on the basis of how

it looks, is to understand how its look changes as you move».24

According to the author, when we see an object from a given point of view, we encounter its

aspect from that particular point. But as we move around it – or as it moves around us – we come to

learn how its aspect changes according to movement. Therefore, we experience three-dimensional

objects through their profiles because we experience the “presence” of the hidden profiles that we

implicitly know as visible if we move so and so.25

This is a very widespread phenomenon. It is what happens, for example, when we perceive the

actual shapes of the objects, even if their appearances are in some sense “misleading”. When we

perceive a circular plate from an oblique angle, for instance, we can perceive that plate as circular

even if it actually looks elliptical from that particular point of view. We see the round plate “in” its

elliptical look. This is possible because we implicitly know that we are perceiving the elliptical

aspect “from here” and that the appearances of the round plate do change “so and so” depending on

our positions and movements.26

According to Noë, the case of subjects suffering from experiential blindness, as well as the case

of visual perception of 3-D objects, show that visual perception “constitutively” depends on our

body and our ability to move, as well as on our practical knowledge of the way visual images

change as we move around. In this sense, perception is not a process in the brain, but an activity of

the organism.

This leads Noë to propose the thesis of “active externalism”. Since our visual experience

depends on our embodied nature, we can maintain that the physical substrate of our experience can

24
Ivi, p. 77.
25
Ibidem.
26
Ivi, p. 78.
sometimes cross the boundaries of the skull and extend to the body (and the environment).27 The

cases we mentioned, in other terms, would show that our body is a “constitutive part” – or one of

the “vehicles” – of our visual experience.

This position has been harshly criticized by authors such as Adams and Aizawa.28 In particular,

they maintain that Noë committed the so-called “coupling-constitution fallacy”, which consists in

the erroneous «move from the observation that process X is in some way causally connected

(coupled) to a cognitive process Y to the conclusion that X is part of the cognitive process Y».29 In

other terms, according to the authors, on the basis of the examples he mentioned, Noë is not allowed

to maintain that the body has a “constitutive” role for visual perception, but just that it has a

“causal” role. Constituents are parts of the objects they constitute and contribute to the definition of

“what” such objects are. On the contrary, causes are not parts of the effects they cause and act just

as external contributors. Criticizing Noë’s position, Adams and Aizawa maintain that Noë’s

examples can be perfectly accounted for by means of a more standard thesis according to which

visual perception “causally” depends on our body and our movement. Indeed, the authors argue that

the physical substrate for visual perception – and cognition in general – is our “brain”, whereas our

body is just an external causal contributor.30

The central issue in this debate is where to cut the causal chain of the elements involved in

perceptual processes, in order to define which elements are external contributors and which ones are

“parts” of the process (and thus define what that process is and what its nature is). Where does the

mind stop and the rest of the world begin? This is the basic question of the present debate.31 The

mind is conceived as a part – an “object” – of the world whose boundaries need to be identified to

understand better what its nature is. The background here is the “naturalistic” one, which is a

27
Ivi, p. 221.
28
See F. Adams, K. Aizawa, The bounds of cognition, cit.
29
F. Adams, K. Aizawa, Why the Mind is Still in the Head, cit., p. 81.
30
For a detailed account of Adams and Aizawa’s theses about the vehicles of cognitive processes, see F. Adams, K.
Aizawa, The bounds of cognition, cit.
31
This is the opening question of the well-known paper by Clark and Chalmers on the extended mind thesis (A. Clark,
D. Chalmers, The Extended Mind, in: «Analysis», vol. 58, n. 1, 1998, pp. 7–19).
fundamental assumption of cognitive science. The general idea is to account for mental states and

cognitive processes in terms of properties of the natural world, which can be studied by natural

sciences.32 Our mental life, therefore, is described as the mechanistic functioning of a mechanical

device – that is, as the chain of causal relationships between various states of a cognitive

“machine”.33 In this sense, mental states – and generally, the mind – are described as “objects” in

the natural world – that is, objects in a world of causal relationships among objects. In this

framework, the main interest is exploring the psychological, often subpersonal, mechanisms at the

basis of our cognitive abilities. The idea is explaining how these mechanisms work, which is their

nature and how they are implemented to make cognitive abilities possible.

Since this is the standard framework of cognitive science, I will call this level of inquiry

“cognitive level”.

3. The Phenomenological Level: Gallagher, Merleau-Ponty and the Transcendental

Stance

In dialogue with Noë’s enactivism, philosophers who explicitly refer to the phenomenological

tradition have stressed the role of the body in visual perception.34 They highlight that authors such

as Husserl or Merleau-Ponty have deeply investigated how our embodied nature shapes our

consciousness and our visual experience.

However, even though these theoretical positions are usually identified as embodied theories of

perception, their framework is different from the one of cognitive-level-theories. Let us see why.

According to phenomenologists, consciousness is the horizon in which objects appear – that is,

«the constitutive dimension […] ‘in’ which the world can reveal and articulate itself».35 In this

32
See M. Marraffa, La mente in bilico. Le basi filosofiche della scienza cognitiva, cit., p. 64.
33
See J.A. Fodor, The mind doesn’t work that way: The scope and limits of computational psychology, MIT Press,
Cambridge, MA 2001.
34
See S. Gallagher, How the body shapes the mind, cit.; S. Gallagher and D. Zahavi, The phenomenological mind: an
introduction to philosophy of mind and cognitive science, cit.
35
S. Gallagher and D. Zahavi, The phenomenological mind: an introduction to philosophy of mind and cognitive
science, cit., p. 25.
framework, the way consciousness is structured is studied for its correlation to the ways objects are

given and to the meanings they have. In other words, as phenomenologists would say,

consciousness is studied in its “transcendental” or “constitutive” dimension.36

In this framework, phenomenologists aim at a faithful description of the way experiences are

structured and objects are given. In this sense, they are not interested in causal explanations of the

way perceptual or cognitive processes are brought about. As Gallagher and Zahavi clearly explain,

talking about perception,

«An experimental psychologist would want to provide a causal explanation of how visual

perception works, perhaps in terms of retinal processes, neuronal activation in the visual cortex

and association areas in the brain […] She might devise a functionalist account that explains

what sorts of mechanisms do the work, or what sort of information (colour, shape, distance,

etc.) needs to be processed […] These are important explanations for science to develop. The

phenomenologist, however, has a different task. She would start with the experience itself and

by means of a careful description of that experience she would attempt to say what perceptual

experience is like, what the difference is between perception and, for example, an instance of

imagination or recollection, and how that perception is structured so that it delivers a

meaningful experience of the world».37

36
See E. Husserl, Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie. Eine
Einleitung in die phänomenologische Philosophie (1954), in: Husserliana, vol. VI, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague
Netherlands (The crisis of European sciences and transcendental philosophy. An introduction to phenomenology, D.
Carr, Northwestern University Press, Evanston (IL) 1970, pp. 68-70, 103-170.
The phenomenological notion of ‘constitution’ is very different from the notion of ‘constitution’ we have considered
before in the debate about the boundaries of the mind. In phenomenology, the constitutive dimension of consciousness
is its transcendental dimension, while objects’ constitution is the transcendental process through which objects acquire
their meanings. For the phenomenological notion of constitution, see E. Husserl, Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie
und phänomenologischen Philosophie. Erstes Buch: Allgemeine Einführung in die reine Phänomenologie (1950), in:
Husserliana, vol. III/1–2, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague Netherlands (Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to
a Phenomenological Philosophy. First Book. General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology, eng. trans. by F. Kersten,
Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague 1982); E. Husserl, Ideen zur einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen
Philosophie. Zweites Buch: Phänomenologische Untersuchungen zur Konstitution, cit.; E. Husserl, Die Krisis der
europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie. Eine Einleitung in die phänomenologische
Philosophie, cit.; and S. Gallagher, D. Zahavi, The phenomenological mind: an introduction to philosophy of mind and
cognitive science, cit.
37
S. Gallagher, D. Zahavi, The phenomenological mind: an introduction to philosophy of mind and cognitive science,
cit., pp. 6-7.
There is an important reason why phenomenology is concerned with these descriptive analyses

of the structures of consciousness. Being the horizon in which all objects appear, according to

phenomenologists, our consciousness is also the horizon in which all our “concepts” are constituted.

In this sense, studying consciousness as the basic dimension in which all objects and all our

concepts are constituted cannot be accomplished using, for example, the same concepts that are

constituted in the conscious dimension itself. Going back to Gallagher and Zahavi’s example, for

instance, we cannot account for the “transcendental” dimension of consciousness describing it in

terms of causal relationships between objects in the world and some internal mechanisms as retinal

processes or neuronal activations. This would mean, in fact, using the concept of ‘causality’ and

referring to some particular objects, such as retinal processes and neuronal activations, with their

“already constituted” meanings. This would mean, in other terms, describing the constitutive

dimension of consciousness in terms of the constituted objects, falling in an unavoidable vicious

circle.

This is the reason why phenomenological descriptions avoid making use of all the notions that

we have acquired from sciences – such as those of “neuron”, “retinal process” and so on. All these

notions have been constituted in the horizon of consciousness and cannot therefore be used to

describe consciousness in its transcendental dimension. A phenomenological analysis of

consciousness, therefore, describes just how consciousness appears in the first-person-perspective

experience, “putting into brackets” all the other things we know about it.38 What is important to

notice, however, is that this strategy does not imply the refusal of scientific knowledge, or the

denial of scientific truths.39 It consists just in avoiding making use of them trying to analyze

experience as the condition of possibility for objects to appear.

This clarification shed much more light on an important point of our discussion. As Gallagher

and Zahavi say in the passage quoted above, an experimental or cognitive psychologist would

38
See E. Husserl, Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie. Erstes Buch:
Allgemeine Einführung in die reine Phänomenologie, cit., pp. 57-62.
39
Ivi, pp. 61-62; E. Husserl, Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft (1911), in: «Logos», vol. I (La filosofia come scienza
rigorosa, trad. it. di C. Sinigaglia, Laterza, Roma-Bari 2001, p. 6).
probably want to provide a causal explanation of perceptual or cognitive processes, while the

phenomenologist has a very different purpose. In this sense, psychology and phenomenology appear

to be two different disciplines. If a cognitive psychologist is interested in the causal relationships

between objects in the world and internal mechanisms of elaboration of information, he is not

studying experience as a transcendental principle. On the contrary, he is studying experience as one

of the objective phenomena in the world. In other terms, he is not studying consciousness as a

“subject” for its world – that is, the necessary condition of possibility for any object to appear – but

as an “object” in the world – that is, as a particular phenomenon of the world that is involved in a

chain of causal relationships with other entities, as every object in the natural world.40 This is the

way cognitive science wants to study mental states and mental processes.

According to phenomenologists, both the approach of cognitive science and the one of

phenomenology are valid. Consciousness can be studied as an “object in” the world (that is, as

“psyche”) or as a “subject for” its world (that is, exactly as “consciousness of”). This is so, as

Husserl made explicit, because of a particular feature of ourselves as human beings – that is, the

fact that we are “part” of the world itself, but contemporarily we are the “constituting subjects” of

that world – not of its existence, but of all the meanings it has for us.41

Underlining the role of the body in perception, phenomenologists maintain that the human

consciousness in which objects and their meanings are constituted is an “embodied” consciousness.

As we already mentioned, according to phenomenologists, the fact that we have a body with

particular kinetic and practical abilities shapes the way the world is experienced by us, and

contributes to the definition of the meanings objects have for us.42 In this way, our body contributes

to the process of transcendental constitution of our world, appearing not as an object but as the

constituting subject of some of our experiences. In other terms, it becomes a “transcendental”

40
See E. Husserl, Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft, pp. 3-70; E. Husserl, Die Krisis der europäischen
Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie. Eine Einleitung in die phänomenologische Philosophie, cit.,
pp. 126-127.
41
See E. Husserl, Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie. Eine
Einleitung in die phänomenologische Philosophie, cit., pp. 178-182.
42
See E. Husserl, Ding und Raum. Vorlesungen 1907, cit.; M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénomenologie de la perception, cit.
principle. Investigating the role of the body in these terms is different from asking whether it can be

considered as a part of the physical substrate of perception. In the latter case, the body is considered

as an object, in the former it is considered in its subjective dimension. This is the reason why I

maintain that the transcendental analysis of the body is conducted at a different level from the

cognitive one. I will call this new level “phenomenological level”.

Let us see now why phenomenologists claim that the body has such a constitutive role for the

objects of our experience.

Let us start from an author who is not a phenomenologist but one particularly close to the

phenomenological approach – that is, the American psychologist James J. Gibson.

In order to analyse visual perception, Gibson starts from considering the relationship between an

animal and its environment. The main idea is that, in order to understand adequately perceptual

mechanisms, we need to consider the environment the perceiving animal is related to. Indeed, the

animal and its environment make an «inseparable pair»,43 where each element of the couple implies

the other. An animal cannot even exist without an environment around it, as any environment

cannot be an actual “environment” without an organism to surround. In fact, before life, the surface

of the earth was surely a physical reality, a part of the universe, but not (yet) an environment,

properly speaking.44 It was just a “potential” environment, since the environment is indeed the

world “as” surrounding an animal – that is, the world considered as the objective correlate of the

activities of an animal.

In this sense, the environment is not the world considered as a physical entity – i.e. the world of

atoms and molecules, galaxies and stars – but the world “considered as” a set of those “middle-

sized” entities (walkable surfaces, manipulable objects, edible products) that are variously

meaningful for the animal and all its actions.45 Described at this level of analysis, the world is the

43
J.J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1979, p. 8.
44
Ibidem.
45
Ivi, pp. 8-9.
“ecological” world. According to Gibson, this is the ‘world’ animals experience and have to do

with.

At this level of description, the world is, among other things, a world of “affordances”, which are

what the environment «offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes either for good or ill».46

Affordances are the environment’s properties that constitute “practical” opportunities or obstacles for

animals, their actions, and their goals. In a very general sense, they are “valuable” aspects of the

world, since they can be either positive or negative elements for the animal’s life. The possibility of

being hit by a knife, for example, leads us to consider it as a potentially “dangerous” object – giving

it, therefore, a partially negative connotation. On the other hand, the rigidity of a horizontal surface

gives us the possibility of walking on it in a “safe and comfortable way”; this helps us recognizing

at least a partially positive connotation to that surface.

Each thing in the environment can have many different affordances. For instance, water affords

drinking, but also pouring and bathing. Because of its different features, it can afford different

actions. Moreover, things offer different affordances “in relation to the animal” inhabiting the

environment. While water affords breathing for a fish, it does not afford it for a human being. While

a little hole in a wall can afford hiding for a butterfly, it cannot have the same affordance for an

elephant, and so on. The same environment does not have just different affordances for one

particular animal; it also has different affordances for different animals.

This importantly means that affordances are such only if considered “in relation to” specific

animals. This is the reason why they emerge at the ecological level.

If this is true and affordances are always related to an animal, so that the same thing can have

different affordances for different animals, which are the specific aspects affordances depend on?

Many affordances seem to heavily depend on the physical characteristics of the animals involved.

They depend on the size and weight of their bodies – as the previous butterfly-elephant example

clearly shows. But they also depend on the animals’ kinetic and practical abilities. Water affords

46
Ivi, p. 127.
swimming for an animal that has at least the possibility of developing such an ability. Therefore,

more generally, the possibilities that the body enables, as well as those activities that it prevents or

limits, define the environment as a world of affordances. In this sense, we can say that affordances

are those practical meanings that the environment offers to an embodied subject.

It should be clear now why affordances are particularly interesting for our purposes. They are

specific meanings of the perceived world of an embodied subject. They are the objective correlates

of subject’s kinetic and practical abilities and they are deeply correlated to the physical features of

the subject’s body. This means that these meanings are constituted as such not in a disembodied

consciousness, but on the contrary in an embodied one. In this sense, the body of the experiencing

subject becomes a transcendental principle – i.e. a condition of possibility – for the constitution of

such practical meanings.

Now, the phenomenological tradition has well underlined this aspect of the lived/living body’s

transcendental role. One of the leading authors in this field is surely Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

In his Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty maintains that motility is already a source

of meanings of the world,47 so that «consciousness is in the first place not a matter of ‘I think that’,

but of ‘I can’».48 As he says, in fact,

«I can therefore take my place, through the medium of my body as the potential source of a

certain number of familiar actions, in my environment conceived as a set of manipulanda […]

».49

The body as capable of different movements and actions in the world helps re-defining that

world as a set of things that can, or even “require” to, be manipulated. In this sense, as Merleau-

Ponty says, objects appear as “poles of actions” for the engaged embodied subject. Describing the

situation in which one is working with scissors and leather, in fact, the author says

47
See M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénomenologie de la perception, cit., p. 142.
48
Ivi, p. 137. Differently from Gibson who explicitly focuses on visual perception, Merleau-Ponty considers perception
more generally, not restricting the analyses to vision alone.
49
Ivi, p. 105.
«The bench, scissors, pieces of leather offer themselves to the subject as poles of action;

through their combined values they delimit a certain situation, an open situation moreover,

which calls for a certain mode of resolution, a certain kind of work. The body is no more than

an element in the system of the subject and his world […] ».50

According to Merleau-Ponty, such practical meanings are primarily the objective correlates of an

embodied, “motor” intentionality that allows the subject to practically and pre-reflectively know

“how” to work with them. This kind of knowledge is deeply different from the one derived from a

“representative” form of intentionality, which instead allows the subject to know “that” things are

such and such and “that” they can be manipulated in a way or another. In other terms, the body and

the motor experiences it allows give the subject a practical knowledge of the world that is highly

different and often separable from the representative knowledge she can have about it. For example,

it is possible to know how to type without being able to say where the letters that make the words

are on the keyboard.51 Knowing how to type is not abstractly knowing the place of each letter

among the keys, but it is «knowledge in the hands, which is forthcoming only when body effort is

made, and cannot be formulated in detachment from that effort».52 In this sense,

«The movement of her fingers is not presented to the typist as a path through space which can

be described, but merely as a certain adjustment of motility, physiognomically distinguishable

from any other».53

In this sense, this is knowledge for the body, not for a detached subject of representations.

Learning to type means acquiring a habit that surely implies the grasping of meanings, but

specifically the “motor” grasping of “motor” meanings.54

The possibility of a separation between motor and representative intentionality that emerges in

the case of the skilled typist is also shown by some pathological cases, even though in a reverse

50
Ivi, p. 106.
51
Ivi, p. 144.
52
Ibidem.
53
Ibidem.
54
Ivi, p. 143.
way. In particular, Merleau-Ponty considers some apraxic subjects who have no relevant

disturbances in abstract “representative” functions, but serious deficits in related “practical”

abilities.

«Cases of pure apraxia in which the perception of space remains unaffected, in which even the

‘intellectual notion of the gesture to be made’ does not appear to be obscured, and yet in which

the patient cannot copy the triangle; cases of constructive apraxia, in which the subject shows

no gnosic disturbance except as regards the localization of stimuli on his body, and yet is

incapable of copying a cross, a v or an o, all prove that the body has its world and that objects or

space may be present to our knowledge but not to our body».55

These cases, too, show that motor intentionality and representative intentionality are two

different, even separable, ways of being directed to the world. In this sense, the body can be said “to

have its own world”. This means that the body can re-define the world as a set of bodily-related

meanings and that it can count as a transcendental principle for the constitution of the objects of

experience. In Merleau-Ponty’s own words,

«Our bodily experience of movement […] provides us with a way of access to the world and the

object, with a ‘praktognosia’, which has to be recognized as original and perhaps as primary.

My body has its world, or understands its world, without having to make use of my ‘symbolic’

or ‘objectifying function’».56

Interestingly, external space, too, is often experienced and connoted in relation to our body and

our practical abilities. Not only is it experienced as oriented to my body and me, but it can also be

experienced, for instance, as “near” or “far” from us, as “reachable” or “unreachable”. Generally,

these connotations are not based on the objective distance between us and the objects in space, but,

on the contrary, on our embodied, practical (and even affective) relation to those objects.57 In this

55
Ivi, p. 139.
56
Ivi, pp. 140-141.
57
Ivi, pp. 143-144, 285-288; J-L. Petit, La spazialità originaria del corpo proprio. Fenomenologia e neuroscienze, in:
M. Cappuccio (ed.), Neurofenomenologia. Le scienze della mente e la sfida dell’esperienza cosciente, Bruno
Mondadori, Milano 2006, pp. 187-188.
sense, the external space is a “lived space”, whose meanings are often defined by the movements

and actions we can or cannot perform.

Summing up, the world we live in is, among other things, a world of affordances and practical

meanings for us. These meanings are constituted in the horizon of an “embodied” consciousness,

since our lived/living body turns out to have a transcendental role for their definition. Indeed, these

meanings emerge as related to our body and bodily abilities, and sometimes constitute the objective

correlates of motor intentionality as different from the representational one.

4. Conclusion

The aim of this paper was underlining that in the philosophical debate about the role of the body

in perception (and cognition) two different levels of analysis are introduced. The first one is the

cognitive level, in which it is investigated whether or not the body can be considered as a

constitutive part of the physical substrate of perception. At this level, the body is considered as an

object – that is, a physical part of the world that can (or cannot) be a vehicle of perceptual

experience. This is the level of the debate in cognitive science between Noë and Adams&Aizawa.

The second level is the phenomenological one, where what is at stake is investigating how the

body and its practical abilities shape the way objects are given to us in perception. At this level, the

body is investigated as a constitutive or transcendental principle – that is, in its subjective

dimension. Contemporary phenomenologists such as Gallagher and Zahavi, in line with early

phenomenologists such as Husserl or Merleau-Ponty, develop reflections at this level.

Distinguishing between the two levels is crucial to understand adequately the actual theses of

each author and to avoid misconceptions such as the one of Adams and Aizawa that we considered

at the beginning of this paper. Nevertheless, the necessity of differentiation does not imply that

there could not be a dialogue between the different theories at the two levels. Indeed, for instance,
authors such as Gallagher and Zahavi often refer to Noë’s enactive account 58 and analyses about the

relationship between phenomenology and cognitive science are now being developed. 59 In other

terms, distinguishing between different levels of analysis is crucial because speaking generally

about the role of the body in cognition is not fruitful and does not lead to a clear understanding, nor

a useful discussion, of the different theses proposed. However, the possibility of a dialogue at the

interface between the levels is definitively open. Rather, it is the most interesting challenge.

58
S. Gallagher, D. Zahavi, The phenomenological mind: an introduction to philosophy of mind and cognitive science,
cit., pp. 89-105.
59
M. Wheeler, Science Friction: Phenomenology, Naturalism and Cognitive Science, in: «Royal Institute of Philosophy
Supplement», vol. 72, 2013, pp. 135-167.