Thomas Fuchs: Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind

Ecology of the Brain: The phenomenology and biology of the embodied mind Book Cover Ecology of the Brain: The phenomenology and biology of the embodied mind
Thomas Fuchs
Oxford University Press
Hardback £34.99

Reviewed by: Diego D'Angelo (Universität Koblenz-Landau)

Thomas Fuchs is one of the leading scholars worldwide trying to merge psychopathology, phenomenology, and neurosciences. In the German-speaking part of the world his name is mostly connected to his book (published in 2007) Das Gehirn – ein Beziehungsorgan. Thanks to his latest publication, this reference book is now available in English with some updates and improvements. This edition is, in Fuchs own swords, “completely revised and extended” (v) and offers an overarching analysis of his approach.

For the purpose of this review, I will not go into details describing the differences between the two edition – this would be mostly interesting for the German speaking readership – and I will restrict myself to the philosophical content, setting aside analysis of and implications for psychotherapy, psychology, and neurosciences. Instead, I will focus on giving a broad introduction to the work, spelling out the reasons why I think that Fuchs’ approach has to be taken very seriously in a wide array of contemporary debates, and what I think could profit from further refinement.

In order to properly sketch out the novelty and conspicuousness of Fuchs’ analysis, it is necessary to pick out, from the international panorama, the antagonistic positions. Having Husserlian and Post-Husserlian phenomenology as carrying pillars of his approach, Fuchs builds up his theory against common assumptions put forward by, on the one hand, (I.) representationalism (as a leading theory in the phenomenology of mind) and, on the other hand, (II.) by the view of the brain as a computational machine or, more broadly, every version of neurobiological reductionism. Interestingly, Fuchs claims that both these views rest on the same unwarranted assumption: they both beg the question, since they want to explain the human subject and her experiences, but end up presupposing this very subject in order to make sense.

  1. As for representationalism, grasping something as a representation (a picture, a sign, a symbol…) of something else requires someone able to grasp this relationship. As in Charles Sanders Peirce’s triangular semiotic relationship, a sign can be a sign of something only for someone that interprets this relation as a semiotic relation. Representationalism conflates sign and interpreter and is therefore not viable for the construction of a full-fledged theory of subjectivity.
  2. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the view according to which subjectivity and mind stand to the brain like software to hardware is right. The argument of Fuchs is metatheoretical: “How is the brain supposed to know itself? How should a physically describable and localized mechanism be in a position to bring forth the world of scientific experience in which it emerges at tthe same time?” (xvii) In standard approaches, the brain is the starting point (as that which produces the mind viz. consciousness) and the result (namely the theoretical product of a series of scientific and methodological steps that lead us to explaining its functioning) at the same time. The brain, even if understood as hardware, presupposes something capable to look and study it (its software): but the subject is nowhere to be found in the brain. Surely there would be no consciousness without the brain, but it is also true that “without consciousness there would be no human brain.” (228) Indeed, according to Fuchs “the mind is not in the brain, for it is the overarching manifestation, the gestalt, and the ordered patterns of all relations that we have to our environment as animate beings, and as humans to our fellow humans.” (207) The neuroscientist that forgets this and takes the brain as the sole origin of the mind “loses sights […] of his own subjectivity“ (43) and thereby of his own brain. Any discourse about the brain clearly presupposes what the brain is alleged to bring forth: namely, “conscious human persons who exist to communicate with each other.” (xvii) This critique can be widened in order to encompass not only theories about the brain, but even the scientific practice as such, and a longer quote explains this: “My thesis reads as follows: the problems of the relationship between brain and mind, as they present themselves today, emerge from a short circuit between the level of natural scientific, in this case, especially neurobiological constructs, and the level of intersubjective, life-world experience, from which the neurobiological special practice has developed and with which it remains always bound.” (62) In a Husserlian fashion, Fuchs claims therefore that “Neurobiology is primarily a highly specialized form of common practice arising from the life-world.” (63)

His own positive theory proposes, as stated by the title, a completely different view of the brain, the body, the subject, and the surrounding world. “We are not figments of our brains, but human persons in the flesh.” (291) The non-reductionistic approach Fuchs puts forward claims that the human person must be ecologically regarded as an organism in its totality, avoiding thinking that, as the adagio goes, we are our brains. The brain is not the production place of the mind, but an organ of relation with the body and with the environment. The brain is a mediating organ: “it can only be adequately understood as an organ of the living being in its environment.” (67) This central claim is quickly said, but not as quickly understood. What does it exactly mean?

First of all, Fuchs questions the centrality of the notion of the mind as something separated from the body and the Umwelt. Following mostly Merleau-Pontian phenomenology, but also the German tradition of philosophical anthropology (mostly Plessner), Fuchs stresses the unity of the living being, a unity encompassing life (as opposed to mind), body, and world, and grounded in intentionality (36 f.). Subjectivity is not restricted to the mind as a “property” of the brain, but is coexstensive to life of the organism and is therefore, in the concepts of today’s 4E cognition, extended: “The peripheral and autonomic nervous system, the senses, the skin, the muscles, the heart, the viscera – all these are carriers of subjectivity too.” (19)

Even if this may seem like a bold statement, its consequence is clear: what we are looking for is therefore not the origin of the mind in the brain, but the function of the brain (and of the central nervous system) in the global life of the human person as a living organism. The starting point, for Fuchs, is indeed the concepts of life and experience (leben and erleben, cf. 31). He argues, along with the phenomenological tradition, that the world experienced in perception is the world we live in and not a mere illusion to be corrected by science. This would amount to what he calls “the idealistic legacy.” (5) Instead, according to Fuchs’ phenomenological, embodied, and enactive paradigm, things are encountered as what they are, since “they are perceived as available for our interaction with them” (9) — they are at the disposal of our own body. This is an important point: the interrelatedness of brain, body, and world can only be stated if our perception of the world can be thought of as a genuine source of knowledge about the world itself and if, at the same time, our body is a part of it.

If the role of the brain is to connect and mediate, a crucial role in this process of mediation is played by the human body, which carries along a twofold structure: the body is both lived body (Leib) and living or objective body (Körper) (12-14). Following Thompson’s groundbreaking Mind in Life as well as Husserl’s Ideas II, the mind-body problem is rewritten as the “LeibKörper problem.” Consciousness is not “born in the brain,” but is an “enactment of life” (45) involving the whole living organism. The conception of embodied subjectivity put forward by Fuchs is thus ecological (whence the title of the book) thanks to the claim that the brain must be studied in conjunction with the whole body and the whole life of the organism, together with its surrounding world. Against the standard view, Fuchs stresses that “none of these emerges as a construct in the brain.” (75)

This rejection of the classical views of the mind-body problem (or of subjectivity as such) in no way amounts to a rejection of natural sciences, their experiments, or their results. One could suppose this to be the necessary conclusion drawn by Fuchs’ account, since this aims to thematize interactions and, in his own words, “mediations” that would be difficult to measure quantitatively within current standard of, e.g., neurobiology, neuophysiology, or even empirical psychology. But this conclusion is actually unwarranted. Fuchs’ approach does not claim for the life of the organism to be the unique object of philosophical, conceptual or phenomenological, reflection; instead, he claims that natural sciences and human sciences (in particular, philosophy and phenomenology) are both needed to achieve a description of the living organism because the living organism itself is two-sided. As stressed before, the dualism of living body and lived body requires two different ways of thinking about life, as instantiated by natural and human sciences. This, in turn, does not produce any kind of new dualism, since these aspects “are objectively distinct characteristics of one and the same living being” (80) – like the two sides of a coin (cf. ibidem). Another quotation helps understanding the full potential of undermining classical dualisms in favor of an “aspect dualism”: “[t]he lived body and life itself therefore become the bridge between the ‘mental’ and the ‘physical.’” Even if this conception still implies duality, namely as the dual aspect which the living being shows, such a duality corresponds not to two essentially distinct domains of reality, but rather to “two opposing perspectives and attitudes, which we can adopt towards life, and which are not mutually transferable.” (213)

Fuchs himself gives some hints at how this separation of the fields of work could be achieved. On the one hand, he dedicates long analysis to the biology of the organism, claiming that under this point of view the organism is to be understood as an active self-organising and autopoietic system in the sense already sketched out by Varela and Marturana in a series of publications, among them the classical The Tree of Knowledge. Since self-organisation and autopoiesis are based on interaction with the environment, and since “directed behavior came before the brain,” (87) Fuchs is able to explain (at least in very general terms) the necessity and vantages of having a brain from an evolutionary perspective: “an organ of integration became necessary […]. The C[entral] N[ervous] S[ystem] mediates, selects, and facilitates organism-environment interactions.” (87) In order to explain the complex feedback structure that impinges on these interactions, Fuchs introduces the concept of “circular and integral causality,” (94) that describes the reciprocal relation between organism and environment.

On the other hand, he suggests new ways to discuss central problems in classical philosophy and phenomenology of mind. The concept of representation, as we have shown before, has been criticized by Fuchs, but he gives us also a positive proposal in order to substitute for it. Instead of talking about representation or information, he introduces the notion of “resonance”, for this concept is able to show, at the level of the lived body, the same feedback structure we found at the level of the living body. The relation between organism and environment has a two-way directedness that has to be accounted for, and this is something that both the concepts of representation and of information fail to achieve. Thus, “the purpose of the cognitive system is not to construct mental representations of external states, but to provide possibilities for embodied actions within the world,” (108) again in accordance with claims recently put forward by 4E cognition. The concept of “resonance” is particularly apt because it describes not only the relation between body and environment, but also between body and brain (cf. 119). Applied to sense perception, the concept of resonance can be further specified as “mediated immediacy” (a concept obviously mutuated from Hegel), insofar as perception always means a mediated “remembering present” or a “re-creation,” (153) which is, in turn, the only immediate access to reality we have – thereby stepping outside of every naive realism, favoring instead a “realism rooted in the life-world.” (171)

In order to describe the interconnectedness of the brain with the surrounding world, a chapter of the book is dedicated to the concept of the person in its intersubjective ramifications. The brain is a “social organ” (175) and research in social cognition needs, exactly in a similar way as the one discussed above, to free itself from representationalism and reductionisms of sort in order to locate intersubjectivity already at the level of intercorporeality. As an example, Fuchs criticizes the hype around mirror neurons since “it should first be remembered that neurons cannot mirror anything.” (187) This is surely true, but at this point Fuchs seems to be unfair to current debates on mirror neurons. The “mirroring” of neurons is just a metaphor (which can be dangerous if substantiated without warrant, for sure), for they fire under certain conditions which involve both the doing and the seeing of an action (for an balanced analysis of mirror neurons also in the context of phenomenology and philosophy of mind see Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, Mirrors in the Brain. How Our Minds Share Actions, Emotions, and Experience). But surely, Fuchs is right in pointing out that human sociality cannot be based alone on neural structure; for it to develop, “real intercorporeality and interaffectivity” (189) are required. Also in this case, Fuchs’ concept of resonance is introduced in order to replace representational concepts: mirror neurons do not “mirror” actions, but resonate socially. They do not represent something, but are rather “specific carriers of embodied social perception.” (191)

In order to sum up, we can say with Fuchs that consciousness “is nothing else but the human organism that one is” (218) and that therefore its origin is not the be found in the brain alone. Conscious experience is “an enactment of life” and “is the superordinate process, which shapes the participating structures at the microlevel, and is thereby incorporated in form of lasting dispositions.” (225)

To conclude, let me point to one way Fuchs’ positions could benefit from some refinement. As quoted above, the dual aspectivity of the lived and living body has the configuration of the two sides of coin – which is a usual metaphor and not at all problematic. But Fuchs further spins the metaphor, claiming that “no side of the coin impacts the other.” (233) Should this mean that the materiality of my objective body has no relation whatsoever to my experience? In this case, the claim would seem rather bold and rather implausible. But – clearly – this is not the claim: the claim is restricted to the absence of any direct, mechanistic psychophysical or psychosomatic causality. Three sets of problems arise here. Firstly, this claim is presented by Fuchs as the result of his analysis and is not defended in extenso. Secondly, I hold that the formulation “no side of the coin impacts the other” is too coarse and that a definition of “impacting” in this context would be required in order to falsify the first interpretation I gave of this claim. Thirdly, even if we restrict (in a charitable reading) the meaning of “impacting” to causal mechanisms, this seems hard to defend. Surely there is no 1:1 causality between the physical and the psychical, but when Fuchs states (as quoted above) that without brain there would be no consciousness (and also that without consciousness there would be no brain, for sure), then there seems to be some kind of direct causality in play. The brain is a necessary (although not sufficient) condition for consciousness, and it seems rather odd to claim that this relationship is in no way causal and in no way an impact. Even accepting his version of the emergence theory, claiming that material processes “facilitate or realize” functions of life, “initiate or trigger them as stimulus” and “disrupt and render them impossible” (248) seems different then claiming that there is no impact and no direct causality. Maybe I am missing something here, but since this certainly is a central piece of Fuchs’ account and indeed of any thematization of the relation between brain and consciousness, it would be nice to have more details as to how strong exactly Fuchs means his claim. I think my critique would hold even if, according to Fuchs, we would be willing to accept the idea of the brain as an “organ of freedom” (242) instead as an organ of determinism. If the brain somehow brings about freedom – by way of mediating, integrating, resonating – then we can claim that at least the possibility of freedom is causally created by the brain.

But this critique is only meant to show how far Fuchs’ approach can bring current discussions on these matters, more often than not swimming otherwise in really muddy waters. Understanding consciousnesses as embodied in an ecological way allows to avoid important impasses in current debates and opens new and astonishingly refreshing perspectives both for empirical and for philosophical research. Moreover, the book de facto bridges the long-standing and outdated divide between so-called analytic and so-called continental philosophy. By drawing from phenomenology, philosophical anthropology, philosophy of mind, and neurophilosophy (just to mention philosophical disciplines without venturing in a list of natural sciences on which Fuchs draws), he shows performatively that there is only good and bad philosophy. And being a piece of good philosophy, Ecology of the brain is a recommended reading not only for everyone interested in psychology, neurosciences, psychopathology and so forth, but also for anyone interested in theoretical philosophy today.

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