S. Käufer and A. Chemero: Phenomenology – An Introduction

Man-to Tang


Phenomenology An Introduction Book Cover Phenomenology An Introduction
Stephen Kaeufer and Anthony Chemero
Polity Press
May 2015
Harcover €68.80, Paperback €21.30, Ebook €17.99

Reviewed by: Man-to Tang (Chinese University of Hong Kong)

There are so many significant figures in the phenomenological tradition that it proves difficult to cover all of them in an introduction. This book gives us an overview of the history and development of phenomenology from its 18th Century philosophical background to contemporary debates in cognitive science, philosophy of mind and psychology, as they are informed by phenomenology. The core of this introduction is organised around three theses. First, the authors expose how the faithful understanding of human beings by phenomenologists can provide an ontological ground to (radical) embodied cognitive science. Second, they explore how responses towards the frame problem (e.g. dynamic system theory, enactivism and the sensorimotor approach), which share similar ideas with phenomenology, “are doing phenomenology” (p.3). Third, putting in perspective the sharp distinction between “continental” and “analytic” philosophy, the authors claim that a “traditional analytic philosophical problem” is pursued in the phenomenological movement.

The frame problem exposed in this book is a traditional analytic philosophical paradox raised by Daniel Dennett. It concerns how a robot chooses its action, or more precisely, how a robot or computer knows what is relevant, without having to consider all the irrelevant things prior to deciding if they are indeed irrelevant. Some philosophers extend this problem to human action, examining whether our actions are similar to those of a computer or a robot. The authors offer four possible responses to this problem. The basic assumption is that “we [human being] certainly don’t seem to do so the way the robot tried to plan its action” (p. 195) and the frame problem is explored through these arguments.

The first response appeals to the dynamic system theory in an embodied cognitive science. It argues that human action is dynamic and self-organizing. This view aims at refuting behaviorism in which action is organized according to a one-one mapping mechanism. In the dynamic system theory, action exhibits regularities without a precise plan or controller, but emerges from the interactions of the part of the self-organizing system. This idea is inspired by Gibson’s egological psychology but also shares similarities with the key Heideggerian concept of Being-in-the-world, insofar as interactions with the world are necessary in order to perform an action. For example, in the building of a bookcase, the human-plus-tool combination consists of a self-organizing dynamic system in the task. The system that governs behaviors is therefore not similar to laws enforced by a controller, but is formed according to the factual situation and its understanding.

The second response draws on the dynamic system theory as it is understood in radical or Heideggerian cognitive science. The argument is that human action is dynamic and self-organizing as well as anti-representational. This response is also inspired by Gibson, but much closer to Heideggerian phenomenology. Indeed, not only does it refute behaviorism but also the metaphysical assumption of mental representation and computation, therefore opposed to the understanding of cognition in terms of representations in computational systems that span body, brain and environment. The world is not first represented by the brain activity and then made significant through only a few of these representations. Instead, the activity happens in interaction with the world through prior experience, which guaranties its significance. It means that when the subject acts with a ready-to-hand tool, the human-plus-tool forms a single, functional system, in which the significance of the tool is already sedimented. To illustrate this, for example, when a player is smoothly playing a video game, he is part of a human-mouse-screen system in which the significance of the mouse and screen are already known without mental representation.

The third response appeals to the enactive approach. This view is based upon autopoietic theory inspired by Merleau-Ponty’s idea of Koerper and Leib. On the one hand, autopoietic systems are operationally closed, meaning that there is a separation of the living system from its environment. On the other hand, the lived body is the one enacting or producing a meaning environment. Therefore, the meaning environment does not exist prior to the existence of the lived body, but co-merges along with the living body. For example, the boatman is affected by differences in water-pressure, the bubbles produced by his respiration under water fill themselves up with oxygen for extended periods of time. These bubbles interacts with the environment, and alter the boatman’s bodily capacities, and, in doing so, alter the meaning of entities in its world. What the boatman experiences is an altered meaningful environment through the bubble.

The fourth response is explored through the sensorimotor approach. Although it can be regarded as enactivism, the authors argue that the two approaches differ insofar as the sensorimotor approach involves the explanatory use of sensorimotor contingencies, which are the relationships between bodily movement and changes in sensory stimulation. In this respect, it is similar to Husserl’s inner horizon. For example, when we look at a tomato, we can can only really see a small portion of it. Yet, we still see it as a three dimensional object having a back, even though this aspect of the tomato is not accessible to our gaze. But we can see the back if we move forward or change focus. That is to say, what we see varies according to how we act. In this respect, the sensorimotor approach does not only describe the meaning-constitution through the intertwining of my body and the environment, but also explains why the different senses differ from one another.

In conclusion, although these approaches seem to be different, the authors agree that they all share three common features: (1) “they all focus on the perception and action of organisms-in-their-environment”; (2) “they all utilize dynamic models as a crucial explanatory tools”; and (3) “they are skeptical of the explanatory usefulness of mental consciousness” (p. 215). All these features can be grounded in phenomenology, as the phenomenological tradition establishes a faithful understanding of human beings and their relationships with the world and others. More importantly, what is argued is similar to the development of phenomenology, insofar as they consist of the refutation of Kant’s intellectualism, Wundt’s representationalism and Husserl’s idealistic interpretation of consciousness and the thematization of embodied being-in-the social-world. As a result, it is appropriate for the author to claim that “phenomenology is alive and ongoing” (p. 5).

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