Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch: The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Second Edition)

The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience Book Cover The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience
Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch. Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn
MIT Press
2017. Revised Edition
Paperback $30.00

Reviewed by: Diane Stringer (University of Adelaide)

Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch offer a masterful encore to their influential book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, first published in 1991. While the primary text is unchanged, the addition of detailed introductions in this 2016 Revised Edition addresses some key developments in philosophy and the cognitive sciences that have occurred over the intervening years. These introductions update, and in some cases amend, the content in the original text. The two surviving original authors, and Jon Kabat–Zinn, who contributes an interesting Foreword to the Revised Edition, invite new readers to enjoy their classic account of how contemporary work in the cognitive science and phenomenology and the contributions made by Buddhist teachings, come together to add to our understanding of the mind.

The lack of the new introduction that the late Francisco Varela would have provided for this Revised Edition makes reading these introductions all the more poignant. The Embodied Mind is an account of how a subjective, personal understanding of our mind, particularly our sense of ‘self’ and its everyday purposes can be informed by a fusion of phenomenology, a Buddhism-based account of our lived experience with contemporary work being done in the cognitive sciences.

At this point, a newcomer to this book might point out that work in phenomenology has already developed this kind of partnership (sans Buddhism) with the cognitive sciences in the service of better understanding human lived experience. For example, the phenomenologist and philosopher Edmund Husserl’s views inform philosophical accounts of our lived experiences as well as work done in the cognitive sciences, as evidenced in the works of Rick Grush (2004) and Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi (Gallagher & Zahavi 2012), amongst others. As this review is aimed primarily at readers interested in phenomenology, I will note briefly that one of the book’s authors, Evan Thompson, changed his view about the relevance of Husserl’s work in phenomenology to this project over the years that have passed between the publication of the original edition of The Embodied Mind and the Revised Edition reviewed here. Thompson now acknowledges that the 1999 edition does not do justice to Husserl’s phenomenological work on lived experience, and acknowledges that in fact Husserl’s work can positively contribute to work on embodied minds and enactivism. In 1999, the authors’ view was that:

“…Husserl claimed to be able to study the intentional contents of the mind purely internally, that is, without tracing the contents of the mind back to what they seemed to refer to in the world” (16).

Husserl’s view in Ideas I does imply that our mind is an entirely mental structure and apparently ignores the “[d]irect embodied aspect of experience” (16-17). However, in Ideas II (1989, p. 37), written at roughly the same time as Ideas I, but published much later, Husserl makes the importance of our interaction with the external world in contributing to our lived experiences much clearer.

Briefly summarised, in Ideas II Husserl describes the way we are always actively testing the world, engaging with the world and predicting what our experiences of the world will be. Sometimes we do this consciously, but our brain also appears to to anticipate the next moment of our experience at a deeper level, usually below the level of our awareness until it is reflected upon. Husserl suggests that our mind not only anticipates this “background consciousness” of the on-going streaming of experience but it also anticipates the “actual hypothetical and causal motivations”: the physical processes that lead us to action and to what we actually “do” (Husserl 1989, p. 268). This indicates that Husserl’s account of lived experience in Ideas II has considerably more relevance to the approach developed in The Embodied Mind than the authors found to be the case in 1991.

Evan Thompson allows that he misjudged the contribution that Husserl and phenomenology could offer to the work undertaken in The Embodied Mind, and outlines the reasons why, in his Mind and Life (Thompson 2007). In his new introduction to the Revised Edition of The Embodied Mind Thompson reaffirms this new view of Husserl’s work. The Revised Edition still focuses on the importance he and his co-authors placed on Buddhist insights into how “first person experiences” are brought about, a view that was startling and fresh in the original edition. Now, though, he also seems to think that more focus on often-overlooked Phenomenological approaches is also important. This is interesting; the rather extreme view that “we can [really] conceive of a mind operating without a self” (235) associated with Buddhist traditions in this book, is a view that seems unlikely to be endorsed by Husserl, whose studies of self–awareness are integral to his work (See for example Husserl 1989, pp. 85-87).

I now turn to the work that the authors undertook in the first edition of The Embodied Mind in 1991 and retain in the Revised Edition. Their main strategy and aim was, and is, to interrogate our lived experience and shed some critical light on our belief that we have a “self”. In The Embodied Mind, Buddhism is favoured as the approach that is ultimately most likely to succeed in grasping key elements of our lived experience and is seen here as a partner to phenomenology and the cognitive sciences in the project of bringing lived experience and science together. Buddhist practices of mindfulness and meditation are used as a bridge between phenomenology and the cognitive sciences (33), in a bid to find common ground. In fact, many aims pursued throughout this book are shared by all three approaches, notably the possibility of developing an account of the self. However, rather than explain the self, the aim of The Embodied Mind is to explain the self away. Why? In part this is because while ‘…the living body is a ‘self-organising system’ (xxxviii), ‘the false sense of self is constructed’ ( xxxix, my underlining). Or, to disambiguate: while the physical self-organising systems that operate cooperatively below the level of our awareness are not problematic in the authors’ view, our inclination to believe that we have a ‘self’ that is somehow intimately related to all we see and think and do, and yet not tangible or identifiable, is an error.

The authors claim “…all of the reflective traditions in human history — philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, religion, meditation — have challenged the naïve sense of self” (59). On the other hand, in our less philosophical experiences we naively assume we have “…lasting, separate and independent selves that it is our constant preoccupation to protect and foster” (63). The Buddhist tradition offers an alternative view, but this alternative implies that we should let go of “ego-centred habit” (250); we should cease seeking to possess and nurture our sense of self, and instead strive to live a life “empty of any egoistic ground” (250). So in summary, these reflective traditions, and notably Buddhism, challenge the naïve sense of self. The Buddhist view of the self is intelligible and if accepted it would have remarkable scope. However, as Hume noted, when we are not thinking as philosophers, we naturally and easily revert back to our sense of self. It seems to me that it is (for example) me (“myself”) who is typing these words right now. It is not something we will give up easily, even in the face of the evidence provided against the naïve view of the self in this book.

“Laying Down a Path in Walking”, the title of the final chapter, is rhetorical and evocative and used here to good effect. The heading describes the progress of a cognitive scientist who can conceive of a mind operating without a self (235) and develops a theory that embodies this conception. This becomes a virtuous circle whereby he can conceive of the idea there is no self in experience, because when he introspects it is nowhere to be found in his experience (235). Is this virtuous circle convincing?

The overall argument that leads to this final chapter, as it is developed in this classic book, is defended quite beautifully, especially in the final chapter. For those who are interested in multidisciplinary approaches to understanding difficult philosophical problems, this book is highly recommended.


Gallagher, S & Zahavi, D. 2012. The Phenomenological Mind, 2nd edition, Routledge, London.

Grush, R. 2004. ‘The emulation theory of representation: motor control, imagery and perception’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 27, 2004, pp. 377-442.

Husserl, E. 1989. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy; second book, trans. R Rojcewicz & A Schuwer, Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht.

Thompson, E. 2007. Mind in Life, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


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