Response to Review of Materialist Phenomenology

I am the author of Materialist Phenomenology. First of all I would like to  thank the reviewer for having carefully read every chapter and made an honest effort to understand what is, admittedly, a difficult argument. But nevertheless I feel the need to clarify several misunderstandings. To begin with a rather trivial matter: Husserl does not own the term “phenomenology” anymore than Marx owns the term “materialism”. The latter should refer to the belief that there is a material world that exists independently of our minds, and not to any particular way of conceiving this world (e.g. as involving Hegelian dialectics). The former should refer to any explanation of phenomenal experience, not just to what we have become accustomed to use the term for. These explanations will typically vary greatly from one ontology to another – idealist in the case of Husserl, empiricist in the case of Ernst Mach – and there is nothing in common between the explanations, because their different ontologies take the authors in entirely different directions. The reason why I do not engage with either of these authors as I attempt to create a materialist phenomenology should not be so surprising: there is so little common ground, and so many deep disagreements, that the only engagement possible is criticism, like Merleau-Ponty’s criticism of Mach’s concept of sensation. My project was constructive, not critical.

Moving on to the more substantial questions. The most problematic of the reviewer’s misunderstandings is his assertion that I “claim that between conscious and nonconscious things there is only a difference in degree” and not in quality. And that therefore my attempt to create a non-reductive materialist philosophy of mind has failed. But I never make that claim, in fact, it is exactly the opposite of what I argue. I do say that consciousness and intentionality can vary by degree, but all properties that vary by degree have critical points at which quantitative change becomes qualitative change, as when a continuous change in temperature yields the qualitatively different states of water (gas, liquid, solid). This is a point that has been emphasized by materialists since Engels. But more importantly, extreme qualitative differences can emerge from the composition of parts into wholes. This is the question of emergent properties, properties of a whole absent from the parts but produced by the interaction between the parts, that is still controversial but is becoming more widely accepted every day.

When I break down the hard problem into three simpler ones, it is by using the part-to-whole relation and the concept of emergent properties. I stress this point throughout the book so much I assumed a reader would understand there will necessarily be qualitative differences between the mental levels standing between the brain and full blown phenomenal experience. The lowest level or the simplest components, what I refer to as protoselves, have to be extremely primitive but already non reducible to brain processes: if we can imagine a speedometer that in addition to detecting and measuring speed it can feel rapidity and slowness, we can imagine a protoself. Each protoself specializes on one material property and one property only (e.g. objective reflectance) and produces a unique sensation (e.g. color). We have no idea today how to create such a sentient speedometer but clearly, solving the protoself problem is not identical to solving the hard problem: the latter is to explain full blown human  consciousness, not an ultra-specialized measuring device that has a minimum of sentience. But if we can solve this much simpler problem then by using the part-to-whole relation and the concept of emergence, we may be able to learn how to assemble many protoselves so that the whole they form does not just sense properties but perceives properties belonging to enduring objects. I explain in the book how embodiment is the key to understand this step, from properties to objects. I will spare you the rest of the construction but it is there in the book.

Clearly, none of this will make any sense to idealists who do not believe there are objective properties belonging to objective entities. My entire construction depends on there actually being a world. But then again, what thinker who believes in Darwin (at the very minimum, that there was a time when our species did not exist, but there were already ecosystems, climate, etc.) could possibly deny that. Similarly, the reviewer is puzzled by my attempt to show how much of visual perception is not dependent on language. But that is also a matter of recognizing the historicity of our species. We spent 800,000 years with a material culture of stone tools and a social division of labor but without any language. To believe that perception is “theory-ladden” is to ignore this fact. It is like Adam in Genesis, created by God in already modern form and sent away to name the animals. All of this (biological evolution, the dating of stone tools to show they are much older than language) may seem too “objectivist” to traditional phenomenologists, but that is precisely why I did not attempt to engage with their work.