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

Reviewed by:  Elodie Boublil (Alexander von Humboldt Fellow-Universität zu Köln)

What makes us persons?

By developing an “ecological approach” of the brain, Thomas Fuchs, who is Karl Jaspers Professor of Philosophical Foundations at the Psychiatry Clinic of the University of Heidelberg, demonstrates the powerful illustration that phenomenology is not only relevant for contemporary neurosciences; it also provides human and natural sciences with an accurate description of the phenomenon of embodied cognition. Indeed, Ecology of the Brain. The phenomenology and biology of the embodied mind, which is a revised version of a book published in 2007 (Das Gehirn – ein Beziehungsorgan), is faithful to the Husserlian claim that considers phenomenology as a grounding science.

Fuchs rightly shows that the phenomenological analysis of the brain he undertakes impacts not only on intellectual endeavors in contemporary neurosciences but also displays significant results for medical sciences such as psychiatry, and human sciences such as cultural studies and developmental psychology. The book displays two central theses: the brain is “an organ of relation, interaction, mediation, and resonance”; the mind-body problem is solved by Fuchs’ “theory of the dual aspect of the living being: both as a lived or subjective body and as a living or objective body.” This holistic yet differentiated approach ultimately leads to a libertarian conception of free will, embedded into —yet not reducible to—its biological, social and cultural determinants. Consequently, Fuchs’s book is not only a breakthrough in the philosophy of cognitive sciences. It also opens up a decisive ethical reflection on the worldview that underlies contemporary epistemology. As Fuchs boldly shows it: “The acid test of every epistemology is, when all is said and done, the intersubjective relationship” (27).

The first part of the book aims to defeat the arguments that support neurobiological reductionism and the representationalist concepts that support it. The representationalist paradigm considers that what we call reality is always reconstructed in the brain thanks to neuronal processes. According to such framework, the world is a fictitious entity reconstructed by the subject’s brain. Fuchs refutes this theory by showing the relevance of three phenomenological key ideas: embodied perception, the distinction between the lived body and the physical body, and the co-constitution of the life-world that is an objective shared reality. As Fuchs states: “human reality is therefore always co-constituted or, as we might say, “interenacted” (…). We live in a shared objective reality because we continuously “interenact” it through our joint activities and participatory sense-making.” (27).

The first chapter titled “Cosmos in the head?” denounces the contradiction inherent to neurobiological reductionism, namely the idea according to which world’s perception is reducible to some representations the brain would produce.  According to Fuchs and following ecological theories (Gibson, Thompson, Varela), perception relies on enaction, which is the capacity of a living organism to co-create its environment and constantly adjust to it. This capacity of self-production named autopoiesis requires the contribution of our body, making the embodied nature of cognition a prerequisite to any form of perception. Subjectivity is irreducible to brain processes. As Fuchs puts it:

“nowhere is the subject found in the brain. Rather, the brain is the organ, which mediates our relationship towards the world, to other people, and ourselves. The brain is the mediator making the world accessible to us, and the transformer connecting our perceptions and movements. However, in isolation, the brain would be just a dead organ.” (xvii).

The second chapter demonstrates that intentional consciousness indeed is not reducible to neuronal processes. In phenomenological terms, “consciousness is the presence of the world for a subject” (33). Drawing on the notions of self-affection and intentionality, Fuchs shows that consciousness shall not be reified, as it is always oriented toward goals and meaningful actions, able to integrate the spatiotemporal features of its environment. Perception amounts to the living body’s engagement with the world, not to the “picture” her brain would make of reality. Moreover, our conception of free will is contingent upon the description we make of the causal relations between the mind and physiological processes. Fuchs warns us against the ethical risk conveyed by the determinism proclaimed by neurosciences: “De-anthropomorphizing nature would turn into the complete naturalization of the human being” (xv). The challenge is then to give a scientifically accurate description of the brain while making room for free will and the co-constitution of the lifeworld.

The notions of “dual aspectivity” and “circular causality” developed in the second part of the book are meant to overcome neurobiological reductionism, by introducing a “mediated monism,” able to describe the “integral causality by which living beings become the causes of their conscious enactments of life” (xix). Indeed, in the following chapter, Fuchs elaborates, and ecological theory of the brain understood as “an organ of a living being in its environment” in order to make possible a scientific theory of the brain that is compatible with our first and second person experiences in the lifeworld.

Chapter 3 focuses on the notion of embodied subjectivity and introduces the idea of “dual aspectivity.” The living person is a “dialectical unity of the “subjective body” (Leib) and the “objective body” (Körper)” (91). Relying on phenomenological conceptions of the lived body (Leib) and self-affection, Fuchs recalls that the subjective body is the background of all experiences. Drawing on Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, Fuchs explains that: “the subjective body is the ensemble of all skills and capacities at our disposal. As “habitual body” (Merleau-Ponty 1962, 71), it contains the preliminary drafts of our enactments of life and thus conveys the founding experience of “I can” (Husserl 1989, 266)” (73). However, persons “are also lived body for others,” and his phenomenological description rightly stresses this intersubjective aspect of the embodiment. Intercorporeity is the basis of our experience, whereas objectification – for instance in the scientific examination of the body of others – is secondary. The subjective body and the body apprehended as “living organism” are not opposed to each other. Rather there is a “fundamental coextensivity of subjective body and physical body” (211). This unity is most articulated in the concept of “capacity” that Fuchs takes up from Aristotle: “on the basis of existing capacities a new situational coherence of organism and environment is created” (101). Therefore, as autopoietic systems, living organisms are both differentiated from and continuously related to their environment. Each stimulus leads to the reconfiguration of the entire system thanks to a circular causality that links together the various levels of experience. The brain consequently plays a crucial role in this process, as an organ of mediation and transformation.

Chapter 4 investigates what Fuchs calls the phenomenon of “resonance” between the brain and the living organism. Indeed, after relying on the phenomenological experience to put forward the idea of embodied cognition, Fuchs goes back to the reductionist argument he is opposing and designs the role and status of the brain anew. Fuchs notices the persistence and prevalence of the representationalist concepts even in the neuroscientific frameworks that aim to take our lived experience and intercorporeity into account. An accurate description of the brain’s functions and its relation to the living organism is required in order to escape the representationalist paradigm and to overcome the idea that consciousness is located in the brain. Bodily resonance is strongly at play in inter-affectivity and emotional responses and leads one to think that consciousness is an overarching structure of the living person that involves the entire organism. In such a context, the brain operates as an organ “of regulation and perception for the entire organism” (147). As Fuchs puts it:

“The central function of the brain for the experiencing and acting living creature consists in transforming configurations of individual elements into resonant patterns that form the basis of integral acts of life. Thus, the brain becomes the organ of mediation, between, on the one hand, the microscopic world of material-physiological processes and, on the other, the macroscopic world of living creatures” (169).

Chapter 5 then focuses on this “macroscopic world of living creatures” by exploring the “brain as an organ of the person.” By looking at contemporary findings in developmental psychology, Fuchs aims to demonstrate the validity of his theory of “resonance” in the context of the development of inter-affectivity. Experiences concerning the role of intercorporeity in early childhood and attachment theory as well as studies related to the development of secondary intersubjectivity through joint attention strongly back up Fuchs’s claims. Locating the mind “in the brain” constitute a logical and naturalistic fallacy. Rather, the brain becomes the “organ of the mind” in the sense that it mediates its interactions with our environment and other living beings, including most importantly other human beings. Indeed, Fuchs’s account shows that intersubjectivity is key to the development of the brain, considering its neuroplasticity and recent findings in epigenetics. Such theory bears significant ethical and social consequences regarding education theory and cultural studies. As Fuchs states: “the brain becomes a social, cultural, and biographically shaped organ” (175). The biological level and the social and intercorporeal levels are intertwined from prenatal development:

“in neural terms, this means that every interaction with others, by means of synaptic learning, leaves traces at the neural level; of course, not in the form of localizable, stored “memories”, “images”, or “representations” of the interactions or attachment figures, but in the form of dispositions to perceive, feel, and behave in certain ways” (203).

In Chapter 6, Fuchs goes back to the concept of dual aspectivity in order to draw its implications for a theory of free will. The brain is thus presented as an “organ of relations,” and the mind-body problem rephrased as “body-body problem,” that is to say as a matter of articulating the subjective body (Leib) and the objective body (Körper) in personal individuation. A phenomenology of decision-making shows that the mind is not disconnected from its environment and physiological background and does not intervene and modify reality, as a deus ex machina would do. Claiming the embodied nature of any decision does not mean denying freedom. Rather, it shows that one is potentially free provided she learns through her development to acquire sufficient capacities for inhibition and reflection, which are decisive to personal emancipation and responsibility. The brain supports such a process, as it is an “organ of capacities.”

Consequently, “taking a decision is not the intervention of an autonomous self, but the activity of an embodied subject which must have learned and incorporated the capacities for inhibition and reflection in the course of his biography. Free will is thus a complex capacity of human agents whose components can only be acquired and practiced through a self-cultivation in the course of social interactions” (263). Such understanding impacts on medicine and particularly on psychiatry and its therapeutic practices. Indeed, if the mind is neither purely spiritual nor material but the complex and individuated expression of a mutual implication of the subjective body and the objective body, then medicine should take into consideration both the intercorporeal basis of any encounter and interaction and the plasticity of the brain due to its biological, ecological and personal embedding.

Chapter 7 addresses thereby, more specifically, the implications of the ecological theory of the brain for contemporary psychiatry and psychological medicine, which are mostly influenced by neurobiological reductionism. As Fuchs explains, neuropsychiatry considers that mental illness results from brain disorders that seem to be localizable in the brain. Moreover, the patient is seen as an autonomous individual separated from her environment and relationships. In light of the previous refutation of the dualist framework, Fuchs aims to provide here a new understanding of mental illness able to encompass all the aspects aforementioned, namely the mutual implication of the biological, psychological and intersubjective levels. Therapeutic practices should be grounded into a relational medicine that grasps the meaning associated by the patient with her relationships, situation or condition. As Fuchs puts it: “Depression results from a perceived loss of meaning and social resonance, not from a lack of serotonin” (285). An ecological conception of mental illness must address the dual aspect of the person, “as the living unity and personal organism.” “The existential dimension of self-recognition, relationship, and meaning, which is crucial for every type of intensive therapy, is beyond the reach of neuroscientific methods. Thus, psychotherapy will never become a branch of applied neurobiology. Its essential grounding sciences remain psychology, hermeneutics, and the social sciences and humanities overall” (299).

Chapter 8 summarizes the main achievements realized throughout the book and recalls the most important claim made by Fuchs:  “It is erroneous to identify the brain with the human subject and to look inside for what makes up the person. What essentially characterizes a human person is being in relationships. (…) A person is not a localizable part of the body but is embodied and animate. We do not exist a second time inside ourselves. Human persons have brains, but they are not brains” (301). The brain mediates the various levels of experience but is not equivalent to concepts such as subjectivity, self or personhood. The naturalization of the concept of the human person leads to “self-reification” and represents an ethical danger that does not even fit with the reality of our interpersonal relations. Fuchs’s enterprise shall be praised for its clarity, rigor but also for reminding us of an evident yet dangerously lost experience:

“to truly become themselves, human persons must become real for one another. This is arguably the most profound reason to regard the conception of the subject as a construction of the brain as nothing else but the human person’s depersonalization. For persons are the primordial phenomenon: that is, what shows itself, and what it is present in its very appearing. I hear the other’s thoughts in his words. Grasping his hand, I give him my hand. Looking into his eyes, I see him. We are not the figments of our brains, but human persons in the flesh” (291).

At the end of the first chapter, Fuchs declares: “In the last analysis, the question of what is “really real”—physical matter instead of animated bodies, brains instead of selves, neural computation instead of conscious experience—is an ethical question.” Indeed, it seems that the ethical impact of The Ecology of the Brain should not be underestimated. Four ethical implications should be briefly discussed:

1/ Fuchs’s work recalls the fact that an anthropological and metaphysical picture of the human being lies behind any scientific account of the latter;

2 / a reductionist account of the human being based on neurobiology could lead to new individual and social forms of alienation, especially considering its prevalence in the design of new therapeutic practices which deny the role of intersubjectivity and social interactions in the mental disease;

3/ the picture of the human being presented in the book echoes Simondon’s work on individuation. Simondon explicitly elaborated a concept of “resonance” that builds ethical and existential considerations onto an analysis of perception that is ontogenetic and that draws on Aristotle’s notion of capacity;

4/ Finally, in the context of contemporary moral issues, the reader would benefit from a particular focus on the differences between the notions of living beings, human beings and persons and notably their ontological implications.

The contributions of the German philosophical anthropology to the debates on the ethical significance of the scientific picture of the human being—as evidenced by the reference to Plessner—constitute indeed productive resources to reconsider the self-proclaimed ethical neutrality of neurosciences. As Edith Stein explained in her lessons on the human person, every picture of the human being implies a metaphysical worldview whether it is a nihilistic, an existentialist, a religious or a political one has to be determined. Nevertheless, reflecting on the human being implies meaning ascription and providing a general framework to make sense of her development and her social environment and relations. This is, even more, the case when one has to design therapeutic practices that draw—consciously or unconsciously—on a preconceived distinction between what is normal and what is pathological. In such a context, The Ecology of the Brain questions the pervasiveness of chemical treatments when they are not associated with psychotherapeutic practices taking into account inter-affectivity and the history of the patient and her relations. The relational dimension of any human reality, as described notably by Fuchs in the second part of the book calls inevitably for further reflections in medical ethics and investigations into the medical policies implemented by states, notably in the care strategies related to psycho-trauma. The powerful demonstration in support of a relational ontology featured in this book echoes the works written by French philosopher Gilbert Simondon who developed a conception of individuation that explicitly takes into account these ethical and social implications. To Simondon, one must overcome the hylemorphic and dualist framework that does not capture the reality of individuation processes. Drawing on a renewed conception of information Simondon explains that the person is the result of a “metastable” process of individuation. The pre-individual is a creative and generative force that perpetually decenters and recomposes its individual instantiations. The living organism is characterized by its plasticity, and the challenge is to think together the individuating movement of life and the instantiation of meanings that impact on it and transform potentialities into actions:

“The living being preserve in it an act of permanent individuation; it is not only a result of individuation, like the crystal or the molecule but a theater of individuation. So every activity of the living being is not, like that of the physical individual, concentrated at its limit; there exists in it a more complete regime of internal resonance requiring permanent communication, and metastability which is a condition of life.” (L’Individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information, p. 28)

Drawing on Aristotle in his lessons on perception, Simondon explains further that the idea of “capacity” does not amount to a logical possibility or a representation. It is a “force that becomes a tendency of the living being,” a “desire.” “The individual life relies on differentiation insofar as it relies on integration” (IFI, p. 163). Simondon calls this process “transduction.” “Transduction” describes the operation by which a system passes from one state to another by re-articulating the stages of its development, transindividuality designates this capacity of the subject to adapt and transform, thanks to pre-individual potentialities, and according to the crises which destabilize its existence and punctuate its psychic individuation. It is therefore not a question of objectifying or actualizing a possibility, but rather of potentiating an existing structure in order to extract a new relation to oneself and to the world: “Perception is not the seizure of a form, but the solution of a conflict, the discovery of a compatibility, the invention of a form.” (IFI, 235)  “All the functions of the living are ontogenetic to some extent, not only because they ensure an adaptation to an external world, but because they participate in this permanent individuation that is life. The individual lives to the extent that it continues to individuate, and it individuates through the activity of memory as through imagination or abstract inventive thinking” (IFI, 209). Therefore, it seems that Simondon provided us with a philosophical and anthropological conception of life that would complement Fuchs’s account or at least bridge the gap between the relational ontology that is here phenomenological uncovered yet not explicitly addressed, and its ethical implications for science and technology. Indeed, our picture of embodiment and embodied cognition impacts on any debates on the dignity of the person and the respect of life. The materialistic and reductionist views of embodiment seem to lead to a new kind of Gnosticism fantasizing about an invulnerable subject disconnected from its intercorporeal reality. Fuchs’s book makes a decisive breakthrough in leading us to question the grounds and legitimacy of our technological and “ethically neutral” postmodern lives, as well as the urgency to reflect on what makes us persons, namely becoming free, in the world, with others.

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.

Thomas Fuchs: Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind, Oxford University Press, 2017

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