‘Breathing well is not just a personal but a planetary affair.’
—Drew Leder (226)
There is a new genre in philosophy, it is one that is ‘respiratory.’ So argue Lenart Škof and Petri Berndtson in the introduction to the edited volume Atmospheres of Breathing. Citing Luce Irigaray’s dismissal of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy as ‘one forgetting the breath,’ Škof and Berndtson go on to argue that since Plato, Western traditions of philosophy have indeed been ‘oblivious to breath’ (ix). This narrative forms the impetus for their project, one in which they aim to present ‘an archaeology of breath’ from ‘respiratory philosophers as spiritual archaeologists excavating [the breath’s] hidden ontological, epistemological, ethical, religious and political layers.’ (ix)
Škof and Berndtson ask what kind of philosophy such a respiratory, breathing or breath-full philosophy might be? (x) How would it think and understand relations between thinking and breathing, between philosophy and respiration? And what might the start of such a philosophy be? According to Škof and Berndtson, the message from the ‘great breathers’ is that ‘it is not enough to think – one must also breathe’ (x-xi). Škof and Berndtson ponder whether the relationship between thinking and breathing is a parallel one or whether it is rather ‘a chiasmic relation in which the thinker and the experience of breathing somehow constantly intertwine in an essential manner, perpetually inspiring each other?’(xi). Their question then becomes how do breathing and thinking influence each other as well as whether ‘every thought, even those we barely notice, is at some fundamental level already in a hidden and latent manner a respiratory thought – that is, a thought somehow inspired by the breath?’
Ruminating upon Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan’s assertion that the ‘the fundamental error of philosophy is its constant “forgetting of breathing” (x) Škof and Berndtson argue that in Western philosophy such forgetfulness has ‘made it possible for the dangerous idea of dualism to become a paradigm of modern philosophy.’ (xiii) Perhaps inevitably the blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of René Descartes and the third of his Meditations on First Philosophy. As summarised by Škof and Berndtson, in the relevant section Descartes seeks to ‘address only himself by looking deeper and deeper into himself’ so that he might be more better known and familiar to himself (xii). Such self-knowledge can only be achieved via a withdrawal from the so-called deceptive world of the senses. Škof and Berndtson point out that even though Descartes describes his withdrawal, from the visual by closing his eyes, from the auditory by blocking his ears, it is impossible for him to block his nostrils and mouth, as these are required to breathe. Descartes’ description is therefore erroneous, ‘as he forgets breathing he is not at all truthful in what he writes.’ Had his pursuit of obtaining ‘pure and indubitable self-knowledge’ lead to him blocking his respiratory openings he would have experienced, according to Škof and Berndtson ‘a dreadful experience of anxiety… his sole thought would have been I am feeling terrible. How long can I hold my breath? I really need to breathe.’ Had the philosopher experienced this train of thought, argue the editors of Atmospheres of Breath, Cartesian philosophy would have been absolutely different as would Western philosophy. Tying into Kahn’s proposition, Škof and Berndtson surmise that had Descartes been more aware of own breathing he never would have arrived at his dualistic philosophy (xiii). If the starting principle of philosophy is the experience of breathing, which ‘perpetually intertwines the self, the body and the world,’ then dualism becomes untenable.
A focus upon the breath means that such a philosophical project is resolutely embodied. This ties into Irigaray’s assertion included on the first page of the introduction, that awareness of the breath is in fact ‘essential for an embodied ethics of difference in our globalized, ecological age’ (ix). Daoist philosopher Zhangzi, considered by Škof and Berndtson to be ‘the philosopher for breathing,’ focuses upon fundamental difference of breathing as a way of theorising difference between people (xiv). Whereas a ‘The True Man’ breaths deeply, with his heels, from head to toe with an ‘expanded, cultivated breath,’ those who breathe merely with their throats cannot ‘experience the vastness of breath in all of its spiritual and ontological possibilities and atmospheres.’ Harking back to Descartes, Škof and Berndtson caution ‘it is not enough to think, one also has to breathe. Dangerous are the thinkers who have not breathed enough’ (xiv).
Further reinforcement of the overall thrust of this edited volume is provided by Khan, according to whom the only true error or fundamental wrongdoing in human life ‘is to let one breath go without being conscious of it’ (xiv-xv). For Khan, to be ‘unaware of the phenomenon of breathing’ which is ‘this most important thing in life’ is also to be oblivious to its ‘manifold mysteries’ (xv). Breath is a ‘vast current which goes through everything,’ this atmosphere of breath surrounds, intermediates and flows through everything, it comes from our very consciousness and extends to external being and the physical world. Škof and Berndtson contrast this with an average person’s experience of breathing which is superficial, hence completely missing the profound dimensions of its atmospheres and possibilities. There is a respiratory difference, which is the ‘difference between breathing consciously and freely’ and not doing so and between ‘thinking breathfully and not thinking breathfully’ as well as ‘cultivating and not cultivating breathing’ (xvi). For Irigaray such a cultivation of breathing is linked to ‘the cultivation of ethics in ourselves and in our intersubjective relations’ (xvii). Such difference is in fact a fundamental principle of this respiratory philosophy. For Škof and Berndtson breathing is ‘openness, respiratory openness, a perpetual opening to the atmosphere of air’ (xvi). In such respiratory and aerial openness ‘all questions, problems, and subjects of philosophy appear as questions, problems and subjects of respiratory philosophy. Their appearance takes place within this respiratory openness as the atmosphere of breathing.’
Yet the question remains, what could this new philosophy as respiratory philosophy be? One aspect is a revisionist project proposed by Škof and Berndtson which involves a re-reading of ‘the great thinkers in a respiratory key to examine their relation to the phenomenon of breath’(xiii). This respiratory philosophy aims to see the world in a respiratory way and within the atmospheres of breathing so that one might ‘re-experience all the questions of philosophy as questions concerning the atmospheres of breathing’ (xvi and xv). Such a revision of the world means that everything ‘be re-thought, re-examined, and re-experienced within these atmospheres of breathing’ (xviii) Thus, any ‘questions of life,’ indeed ‘all questions of philosophy become respiratory questions of philosophy’ that is ‘they are seen perpetually from the perspective of breathing’ (xvii). Therefore each chapter in this edited volume investigates philosophical questions from the perspective of breathing and in doing so ‘are transformed into respiratory questions’ (xvii).
The editors have divided the book into five sections: philosophical atmospheres of breathing, philosophical traditions of breathing, voices and media of breathing, breathful and breathless worlds and a postface. However another way of regarding the volume is to see that some of the essays engage in more post-human understandings of breath, others are concerned with philosophies of breath that originate from ancient Hebrew, east Asian or indigenous traditions of thought. A selection take their insights from the discipline of medical science and the domain of poetry. Finally, several chapters engage with what is considered to be classic phenomenology.
The most invigorating chapters in this edited volume focus more on ‘atmospheres,’ on creating a genealogy of matter or media that is breathed. Four in particular go some way in arguing that ‘Breathing well is not just a personal but a planetary affair’ (226) John Durham Peters, a media theorist based at Yale University sets out a ‘deep history of breathing’ (182) beginning with a natural history of oxygen. Though now oxygen is a widespread element, this was not always the case. During its first three billion years the earth was a giant oxygen vacuum, its natural sinks quickly sucking up any available freestanding oxygen. Anaerobic forms of life went on to produce an overabundance of oxygen that could no longer be absorbed by natural sinks. Durham Peters writes of the way in which the earth itself breathes or participates in an exchange of other elements; mountains, oceans and forests acted as planetary lungs, carrying out their exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide (183). The Great Oxidation Event which occurred around 2.3 billion years ago, meant that oxygen as a catastrophic toxin caused the biggest extinction in earth’s history. Organisms which adapted to the new habitat used oxygen as the basis for respiration became the new dominant organisms on earth.
A similar project is undertaken by political theorist Marijn Nieuwenhuis who is based at the University of Warwick. Nieuwenhuis’s project is to unfold a ‘a story of breath as an inspiring medium’ (200) one that has affected ‘metaphysicians, alchemists, chemists, physicians, military commanders, and contemporary law enforcers.’ Nieuwenhuis politicises air, arguing that knowledge about it and its relationship to the body informs processes of governance. Thus Nieuwenhuis’ narrative describes how, in a western context breath is entangled with ‘questions of life, health, biopolitics, death, killing and thanatopolitics.’ Nieuwenhuis’ narrative spans from the ancient Greek concept of pneuma or air as something that separates life from non-life to the Cartesian de-spiritualization of pneuma (201), slowly moving towards a secularization and materialization of air. By the nineteenth century the regulation of air became one of the central priorities of new biopolitical regimes of power (203). Oxygen, as an immediate requirement for human life meant that the quality and availability of breathable air became a crucial biopolitical medium in and through which power could be expressed. Pneumatic research lead to knowledge about gaseous compounds, so that ‘the medium of air could sustain breathing bodies as well as poison them’ (204). Combining chemical expertise with the power of the state, gases such as chlorine and phosgene were the primary agents in twentieth-century gas warfare (205). The aim of gassing, explains Nieuwenhuis was not to ‘kill the enemy, but, as pulmonary agents are designed to do, to take away their breath’ Suffocation of the air was designed to terrorize the enemy physiologically and psychologically rather than to kill.
Nieuwenhuis argues that the idea of gassing being morally superior over other forms of state violence continues to this day in the domestic deployment of ‘non-lethal’ lachrymators of tear gas by contemporary law-enforcement officers (206). Nieuwenhuis borrows Sloterdijk’s term ‘atmosterrorism’ or terrorism of the very atmosphere, to describe the way in which gassing propels the body’s vital respiratory mechanism to turn against itself. As part of ‘modern atmospheric governance,’ air become a medium by which to discipline and punish, it is an extraordinary weapon used to govern populations. As described by Nieuwenhuis, over the course of a century, gassing has transformed from an illegal means to wage war into a legitimate governmental technology to suppress and disrupt the movement of protesting bodies. Nieuwenhuis’ history speaks of bodies and their relationships to air and the atmospheric environment, such relationships have a collective and explicitly political dimension when the very atmosphere is used against the body (208).
Nieuwenhuis’ chapter with its description of how knowledges of respiration have been appropriated to serve ‘biopolitical and thanatopolitical purposes’ ties into arguments made by Durham Peters about techniques and technologies that make up ‘media of breathing’ (179). According to Durham Peters techniques need not take any lasting material form, whereas technologies always require a physical tool or device. Breathing techniques have been developed for activities as diverse as ‘giving birth, singing, yoga’ swimming and deep-sea diving’ whereas modern breathing technologies modify hostile atmospheres or supplement a lacking body with apparatuses (180). Durham Peters creates a four part outline to categorise the media of breathing: there are techniques that affect the breather; techniques that affect the atmosphere; technologies that affect the breather and technologies that affect the atmosphere. Within this matrix Durham Peters places human and animal techniques for holding and modulating the breath, manipulations of the atmosphere, medical enhancements of breathing capacities as well as systematic and intentional alterations of atmospheres through technologies such as those described by Nieuwenhuis.
Just as Durham Peters and Nieuwenhuis create politicised, atmosphere-centric narratives, in her chapter Magdalena Górska, a feminist theorist from Utrecht University, argues for a re-thinking of politics in relation to bodily actions of breathing (247). In terms of the way in which parts of this edited volume attempt to de-anthropocentrize the breath, the highlight is Durham Peters’ description of cetacean and dolphin breathing, with their radically different ear-nose-and-throat complex in which phonating and eating are completely separate (183-184). Durham Peters’ account serves to challenge the blithe assumption that all animals necessarily breathe in the same way. Connected to this is Górska’s account of breathing as a process shared across human and nonhuman life forms. Dynamic breathing is, Górska explains, a matter for ‘human-embodied subjects’ as well as for ‘other animals, over- and underwater beings, plants, soil and elements’ (247). Inspired by feminist physicist and theorist Karen Barad, Górska’s chapter seeks to create a non-reductive understanding of breath. For Górska, breathing is transformed according to which breathing actors, such as oxygen, diaphragm or tree one follows. Far from homogenous, even human breathing is enacted differently in relation to lung specificities, some might be partially collapsed with cancer or coal dust sediment, there are different sizes and different respiratory capacities (248). There are also different rhythms and flows of breathing across different bodies that vary according to age, constitution and size and breath can also be aided by respiratory aids and technologies.
Górska emphasises the diversity of breath as a ‘flow of worldly circulation’ (250). Troubling body-boundaries, breath problematizes distinctions such as inside and outside and ‘complications notions of self, other and environment.’ Lungs that breathe polluted air activate matters of environmental politics, and Górska draws attention to the way in which there is diversity within the breathability of life and air quality, breathing is therefore a deeply political matter: ‘the ability to take a breath and to breathe fresh air is a matter of intersectional situatedness in and enactment of local and global power relations.’ This is summarised in Górska’s point that ‘It matters if and how one can breathe and if and how one’s life is breathable’ (252). Another important point made by Górska is that social power relations or manifestations of oppressive structures such as ‘racism, classism, colonialism, heteronormativity, gender normativity , sexism and ableism’ might create dynamics that affect breathing causing anxiety, panic attacks and changes in breathing. Of crucial importance to Górska is a ‘literal enactment of the struggle for a breathable life’ or ‘nonhegemonic breathable life and existence’ (255).
Integral to the de-anthropocentric thrust within this publication is the postface written by David Abram, an eco-philosopher based in the foothills of the Southern Rockies. Abram posits that climate change is a consequence of taking the air we breathe for granted and ‘failing to respect or notice the elemental medium we’re immersed within’ (263). Although the atmosphere is ‘ungraspable, unmappable and hopelessly unpredictable’ it is indelibly tied to breath and is in fact a ‘ubiquitous and meaning-filled plenum’ (264). Abram writes of how awareness involves a ‘felt experience of earth’s atmosphere’ it is something we are ‘corporeally situated within’ (265) something that is continuous with what twists the grasses and lofts the crows, whether it is imbibed through nostrils or the stomata in leaves. Abram gently reminds that consciousness is not unique to our species, it is in fact a ‘property of the breathing biosphere.’ Abram describes how Inuit and Yupik peoples speak of a breath-soul that dwells in each living being, providing life and awareness to humans, animals and plants and how a person’s breath-soul is her part of the wider mind of the wind (266). Such concepts of a holy wind are subscribed to by Dineh and Navajo as well as Hopi and Zuni. Abram turns to the Hebrew tradition of ruah as a divine wind and rushing spirit (269). Abram points out the primacy of breath in oral traditions, an identification of awareness with the unseen air, the sacredness accorded to the invisible medium in which we are bodily immersed (270). Hence words are ‘nothing other than shaped breath,’ air is intermediary in all communication and is the very medium of meaning. In his chapter Abram writes of the ‘need for air’ for ‘a bit of breathing space, for a chance to breathe, a way to remember what is primary,’ a catching of one’s breath (272). One way in which to do so is through story-telling as this helps to engage with each other face-to-face in corporeal exchange as well as ‘re-new our participation in the more-than human community, in the breathing commons’ (273). It is through listening and the telling of tales, argues Abram that we might bringing our spinning minds ‘back into alignment with the broad intelligence of the biosphere’ and ‘reclaim our membership in the commonwealth of breath’ (274-275).
As mentioned earlier, many of the chapters in this edited volume seek to either enrich phenomenology with insights gleaned from Eastern or indigenous knowledges as is the case with Abram. Petri Berndtson from the University of Jvaäkylä reflects on whether breathing or respiration might teach us an ontology or shed light upon an investigative philosophical project of re-defining being. (26). With the aid of concepts of inspiration, expiration, inhalation and exhalation taken from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Berndtson posits that we are in fact ‘respiration within being’ so that, in respiratory terms, being-in-the-world might be re-phrased as ‘breathing-in-the-world’ (28). Berndtson re-vivifies his project of articulating a new ontology or philosophy with the aid of Japanese Zen teachings that focus on breathing as well as seated mediation or zazen (29). It is from these traditions that Berndtson comes to ‘an inspiration and expiration of being’ or an experience of participating in universal breathing as almost a feeling of being breathed. This idea of a world of nothing but breathing or the way in which we are ‘always already respiration within being’ (37) is encapsulated in a quotation from Zen master Shunryu Suzuki:
What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no “I,” no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door. (30)
Together with a Japanese concept of kū, or the atmosphere of air as open and empty space’ (34) Berndtson summarises that a ‘new atmospheric, respiratory ontology’ requires a ‘constant deepening of our essential respiratory openness to the world of nothing but breathing’ (42). An ontological method of respiratory philosophy is therefore ‘breathing as a fundamental openness to air’ and ‘to silently hearken breathing as mindfully as possible’ (37-38.)
Rolf Elberfeld, a philosopher based at the University of Hildesheim in Germany also explores aspects of the aesthetics of breathing in Japan as well as China. Elberfeld explains that ki in Japanese is a word that means breath as well as ‘a dense entanglement of sensory levels, feelings, physical sensations and moods’ something that transcend distinctions between subject and object’ (73). Ki is also examined by philosopher Tadashi Ogawa in another chapter. Ogawa translates ki as ‘wind’ and discusses it in relation to historical Japanese practices of preventive medicine. Ogawa gives an account of ki as a ‘phenomenology of wind’ similar to the way in which in English one is ‘winded’ when one’s breath is forcefully taken away. Processes of inhaling and exhaling involve breath as ‘air-wind’ moving from the interior to the exterior of one’s body (143). Ogawa adds that ki is associated with the movement and flow of life, it is vitality or ‘the energy of life’ (144).
According to Elberfeld, qi is an old Chinese word for breathing, weather, atmosphere as well as subtle phenomena like movement, relationships references and a ‘fundamental movement in life’ (71). Also included within this publication is a chapter by Jana Rosker, a scholar based at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, which examines the importance of qi for Chinese philosophy. Rosker argues that qi is connected to air and breathing, it is often something physically present, yet invisible (127). Linked to breath, Rosker explains that the word qi is of fundamental and vital significance for any organic existence. As an organic state qi ‘is internalized in the human body, but simultaneously it connects all existing beings in the universe that are endowed with life’ (128). Nothing can live without qi, it is a vital force underlying all forms of life, it is a ‘principle of vital creativity’ and ‘the cause of any change and transformation.’ Rosker gives a genealogical account of the various ways in which qi has been misinterpreted over time, however she concludes by arguing that according to Chinese philosophy qi is a ‘limitless source of all creation,’ an ‘omnipresent cosmic creative flow’ that is evident in human breath (136). It is Elberfield’s hope that in conceiving of breathing as an ‘aesthetic category,’ approaches and descriptions from Ancient China or Japan might prove enlightening for contemporary aesthetic practice (75). Looking at examples from painting, theatre and dance Elberfield introduces some intriguing ideas for example: that actors and audience members form a dense field of unity in breathing (74) and that breathing could be placed at the centre of aesthetic description so that ‘an aesthetic of breathing could develop the attention to the breathing processes in aesthetic processes’ (78).
Tamara Ditrich from the University of Sydney, a scholar in Sanskrit and Pāli creates a methodical account of the significance of breath in ancient Indian religious and philosophical milieu in order to describe how these provide a context for early Buddhist teachings (99). Ditrich examines the role of ‘mindfulness of breathing’ as a key method of mediation in many Buddhist contemplative practices. Ditrich explains that mindfulness, a concept that is currently gaining a lot of attention is an ‘ethical praxis within Buddhist teachings’ that ‘reflects on the intrinsic interrelation between ethics and breath’ (99). Mindfulness is described as an ‘ethical watchfulness,’ a ‘contemplative awareness of mental and physical phenomena arising in the present moment’ (102). Where Ditrich gives an account of breathing taken from her studies in ancient Indian and Buddhist teachings, James Morley, a clinical psychologist and student of yoga based in New Jersey gives an interpretation of the yoga practice of prānāyāma or breath control that is influenced by the existential phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty (115). Morley is particularly interested in elucidating the actual experience of breath control through Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the ‘lived-body.’ It is from Merleau-Ponty that Morely takes the idea that flesh, with its primordial, elemental character is in fact the substance of the world, a crossing point between subject and object, body and world. This has special relevance to yoga in which control of the body is equated with the mastery of external nature (117-118). According to Morley breath control is in fact the ‘master metaphor’ for the goal of yoga which is to achieve a ‘homology’ between body and world.’ For Morley, breath control, integral to the practice of yoga is in fact a ‘concrete experience of the body as a relation between inside and outside. To breathe is to pull external air into ourselves and to rhythmically release outward something of ourselves.’ Morely argues that yogic prānāyāma, as exemplified in the writings of the scholar-practitioner T.K.V. Desikachar resonate with Merleau-Ponty’s explication of interiority, exteriority and his thesis of reversibility. For Morley such accounts of breath control bring Western thought ‘down to earth’ by focusing on the lived human body as philosophical and psychological ground.
Writing at the intersection of eastern traditions, medicine and phenomenology, Drew Leder from Loyola College in Maryland also addresses spiritual practices relating to the breath. For Leder breath is ‘a theatre for the play of health and illness’ (219). From a western biological and medical perspective, together with a phenomenological approach focusing on the lived body Leder argues for breath as a hinge, ‘between many embodied levels, organs, and functions, and between the body and its lifeworld… between trajectories of personal health, illness, and treatment.’ (220). Leder’s hinge recalls the swinging door of Zen, it is defined as a ‘joint or flexible surface that holds together two parts, allowing them to swing relative to one another. Such a ‘living hinge’ is an interface between ‘the conscious and unconscious body;’ the ‘voluntary and involuntary;’ ‘physical dualities,’ ‘the local and expansive act;’ ‘movement and stillness;’ the ‘flow of receiving and returning’ and ‘visible and invisible realms’ (222.)
Breath, according to Leder is a ‘powerful health restorative’ (223) he points out that ‘Slow, deep breathing is probably the single best anti-stress medicine we have [. . .] heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, muscles relax, anxiety eases and the mind calms.’
On a similar note, Havi Carel a philosopher from the University in Bristol who also teaches medical students creates ‘a philosophical framework for the understanding of the experience of breathlessness’ (233). A phenomenological approach is crucial here as such experiences are ‘total and overwhelming to the sufferer, but also largely invisible to the outsider.’ Harking back to Górska’s approach to specificities of breath and panic attacks, Carel points out that ‘Whilst the physiology of breathlessness is well understood, the subjective experiences of breathing and breathlessness are understudied and our vocabulary and concepts with which to understand them are limited’ (234). Carel creates a ‘phenomenology of breathlessness’ in order to explore the tensions between ‘medical and cultural or intuitive understandings of breathing and breathlessness’ (235). Carel turns to Merleau-Ponty for whom ‘embodiment determines possibilities and existence is ‘being able to be.’ Accordingly, in breathlessness, possibilities seem to be truncated, curtailed, or altogether closed off’ (237).
As part of his contribution, Kevin Hart from the University of Virginia turns to the poetry as ‘thoughts that breathe,’ specifically in the poems of Mark Strand (153). For Hart, breath is the very ‘condition of possibility for poetry.’ Binding together phenomenology and poetry, Hart seeks to probe ‘how poems think, how poems breathe’ and ‘how new breath must be found’ (155). Hart mines through themes of breath in Strand’s poems, seeking out whispers, blows and dying breath. Quoting Strand, Hart writes ‘breath is a mirror clouded by words… our words appear only in breath’ and ‘we see ourselves in that cloud’ (157-158). Where Hart turned to poetry, Jones Irwin, a philosopher based in Dublin City University looks at the writing of dramatist Antonin Artaud and his understanding of breath as articulated via Jacques Derrida. For Artaud ‘the question of breathing is of prime importance,’ (169) in his prophetic writings there is a particular focus on breath, bodies and expression, making up what Irwin calls a ‘radicalizing’ and ‘existential perspective’ (168). In combat with the mind-body dualism Artaud stresses the importance of flesh, ‘the rawness of reality’ and a ‘re-inspiration of breath’ (169). As part of his Theatre of Cruelty project, cruelty stands in for the metaphysicians’ theft of breath and life-force. Artaud sought to reinstantiate a ‘body without organs’ that is ‘an authentic self’ who breathes for herself and can ‘inspire cultural and social revolution.’ In 1965 Derrida aligned his project of deconstruction with Artaud’s reinvocation of breath in his essay La Parole Soufflée (the breathed or stolen speech). According to Derrida breath and writing are crucial, however such writing must be a ‘nonphonetic’ and ‘hieroglyphic’ ‘writing of the body.’ Indeed Artaud’s physical theatre was made up of a ‘physical language of ‘shouts, gestures, expressions’ seeking to listen more closely to life and ‘return to sonority, intonation’ and ‘intensity’ (170). Once identities are lost or spirited away by the alienation of everyday existence, bodies must then be ‘inspired’ or ‘spritualised’ in order to be cured (171). Of importance to Irwin, Derrida, Artaud is a transformation of the relationship between art and body (172). The ‘machinery of breath’ must be at work as part of the concept of a ‘subjectile,’ part subject, part projectile, one that engages in ‘new bodily writing, being starts with movement, force before form’ and emphasising radical expression. What is traced is a movement, a process, life-force, existence and fragile, embodied breathing’ as part of a ‘theatre of breath’ (175).
Within his chapter, US-based philosopher David Michael Kleinberg-Levin, like Berndtson seeks to combine insights gleaned from Eastern thought, specifically from Tibetan Buddhism with what could be considered classic phenomenology. Perhaps part of the justification for such an assembling of ideas is that breathing practices from such cultures provides more concrete addition to phenomenological theory which has a tendency to be highly abstract. For his exploration of a ‘hermeneutics of breathing’ Kleinberg-Levin brings together concepts from Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger with those from Kierkegaard, the psychoanalytic theories of Freud, Jung and Lacan together with those of Heraclitus. As part of this project Kleinberg-Levin argues that breathing as psyche and the self as Psyche are closely related and involved with logos as articulation of being, speech and individuation (5-6). There can be no logos or speech without breath and according to Kleinberg-Levin it is only with language that one becomes truly human (6). For Kleinberg-Levin, meditative work with breathing can be a ‘source of transformative energy for process of self-development, fulfillment, individuation’ (5).
Although Kleinberg-Levin’s account is very general there is some acknowledgement of variations in atmospheres, respiratory systems as well as the way in which breathing is always-already spatialised and affected by ‘cultural norms, social interactions, our moods, states of mind’ (11). Like Górska and Carel, Kleinberg-Levin’s story about breathing includes an account of the way in which anxiety can be suffocating, making breathing extremely difficult or laboured. As pointed out in this hermeneutics, an openness is required in which to breathe, the very word anxiety is derived from ‘narrowness,’ a pertinent quotation from Kierkegaard is included: ‘without possibility, a man cannot, as it were, draw breath’ (12). Kleinberg-Levin applies his hermeneutics of breath to a broader argument about how speech is a development of breathing, prayer is a fulfillment of speech and that breathing is ‘essentially a mode of prayer’ (14). Earlier on in the chapter Kleinberg-Levin hints at how breath and the space it occurs within are ‘co-constituting’ (11) and later on, reflects on writings from a Tibetan scholar and the way in which ‘the space outside the body and the space that the body occupies are not really separate (15), they constitute a natural, dynamic unity. Breathing practices produce an ‘ontological body of breath’ one whose breathing is open to the energy fields of the cosmos, it is through the mindfulness of mediation that one might breathe away the ego (16).
In his chapter, Slovenian-based researcher and co-editor of this volume Lenart Škof examines philosophies that are deeply relational in particular theories of Luce Irigaray that consider the significance of dyadic encounters, what Škof refers to as ‘an ethically radicalized mode of between-two, based on the ontology of self-affection, sexual difference, and our mutual mesocosmical breathing’ (53). Škof highlights ideas taken from Irigaray about the way in which those within a couple ‘breathe the same air, but we breathe it differently’ (54). He emphasises the concept of self-affection a something which must be cultivated, embodied as well as centred upon the breath. As part of an ontology of the breath Škof examines Irigaray’s developmental story about the significance of the breath, its necessity for autonomy (56) as well as the importance of creating a ‘reserve of disposable breath.’ Such a reserve of breath is required for ‘keeping and maintaining ourselves in our self-affection, and then for having its share for others in our compassion’ (57). Škof argues that such conceptions of the breath have deeply theological implications.
Throughout Atmospheres of Breathing many of its authors turn to concepts taken from pre-Socratic thinkers. In the chapter by US-based philosopher Silvia Benso, Anaximenes’ conceptions of air are discussed in relation the writings of Emmanuel Levinas for whom it is important to note, phenomenology was considered to be too solipsistic a project. Benso’s chapter seeks to create a Levinasian reading of specific ancient ideas, to find resonances between the two in terms of the way in which they conceptualise air, inspiration and alterity. The crucial passage from Anaximenes, via Aetius is as follows: ‘As our soul [psyche], he says, being air [aer] holds us together and controls us, so does wind [or breath; pneuma] and air [aer] enclose the whole world’ (87-88). According to Benso, for Anaximenes air is substantial, it is a basic form of substance, one that has both material and spiritual features, and the psyche is simultaneously air and breath, it is ‘assimilated to a natural, physical principle’ that is seen at work in the entire universe so that there is, Benso explains, an analogy or structural coincidence between microcosm and macrocosm (88). Here air and breath are synonymous, and breath is something enlivening, a life-force that is ‘forceful, vital, organic,’ there is no breath, except in breathing, a lung-based or ‘pulmonary activity’ of ‘taking in and letting out, of inspiration and expiration.’ Breathing individualises and enables subjectivity, producing physiological, psychological, physical and spiritual life. It is with assurance that Benso delves into the intricacies of Levinas’ thought and its relationship to such ideas. Breath as something both material and spiritual that Benso ruminates in relation to a selection of Levinas’ writings. According to Levinas “An openness of the self to the other… breathing is transcendence in the form of opening up’ and ‘psychism’ is a ‘deep inspiration… an inspiring, breathing the other in as well as a being inspired, animated by the other’ (93). Hence breathing, inspiration and language have animating and ontological force on an embodied level.
On the whole this edited volume goes some way in helping one to re-learn to see the world in a respiratory way, offering various approaches to a ‘world in which ‘everything breathes again’ (xviii). The publication is successful in its proposition of a respiratory philosophy, each chapter ensures that breath cannot be forgotten. In the words of Nobel literature prize winner Elias Canetti the project evokes ‘thoughts that make it easier to breathe rather than thoughts that bite’ (xviii). Škof and Berndtson’s project is indeed a worthy one, particularly when it stresses the importance of the atmosphere which is breathed in, an entity that is too often taken for granted and consumed via processes that are more often than not unconscious.
The second edition of The Embodied Mind supplements the original 1991 text with nearly 50 pages of new material: a foreword by leading figure in mindfulness therapy – Jon Kabat-Zinn – and extensive new introductions by each of the two surviving authors – Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch. This hugely provocative and influential text has certainly earned its republication, and the reader’s experience will doubtless be enriched by the new supplementary material. The book is driven by the idea of a ‘circulation’ between human experience and the sciences of the mind. Rather than insulating our lived experience from emerging insights into the nature of the mind, the authors encourage us towards ‘transformations’ that bring our everyday experience into harmony with our best understanding of the mind and have far-reaching implications for how we live our lives. Furthermore, rather than insulating our scientific inquiry from our everyday lived experience, the authors encourage us to achieve experiential insights that will free us from entrenched misconceptions about the nature of the mind and its place in the world.
The book proceeds in five parts. Part I explores the two elements of the targeted circular interaction – cognitive science and human experience. Here the authors ally their project with that of Merleau-Ponty, though they contrast the phenomenological school’s method of reflection upon experience with their preferred meditative method of open-ended mindful investigation. Part II argues that although cognitivism has uncovered that there is no unified self, it fails to reconcile this conclusion with our lived experience. They propose that the Buddhist tradition offers a deeper appreciation of the absence of the self through which we can learn to experience ourselves in an ego-less manner. Part III explores the question of how the mind should be understood if not in terms of a unified substantial self. The authors draw both on contemporary ideas in biology and cognitive science regarding self-organisation, emergent properties and connectionist architecture, and on related Buddhist ideas regarding karma and the Wheel of Life. Part IV further develops this new ‘enactive’ approach to cognitive science and clarifies their two key conceptual innovations: embodiment and enaction. They explain that the concept of embodiment is intended to highlight:
‘…first, that cognition depends upon the kinds of experience that come from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities, and second, that these individual sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological, and cultural context.’ (173)
They go on to explain that adopting an enactive approach means endorsing the claims that:
‘(1) perception consists in perceptually guided action and (2) cognitive structures emerge from the recurrent sensorimotor patterns that enable action to be perceptually guided.’ (173)
Their radical claim that the world is not pre-given but enacted expands their groundless conception of a mind devoid of ego into a groundless conception of a world devoid of independent objects. Part V reflects critically on the place of groundlessness in contemporary Western thought and draws further lessons from Eastern traditions. In line with their project’s ‘deeply ethical concerns’ (lxvi), the authors conclude by reflecting on the ethical implications of their enactive view.
In his foreword, Kabat-Zinn reflects on the ‘seminal and historic role’ of The Embodied Mind describing the book as brave, edgy and rigorous (xi). This description is at least partly justified. The book is incredibly brave in its scope, encompassing a range of contemporary and historical ideas in phenomenology, analytic philosophy, existentialism, cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, psychoanalysis, cellular biology, evolutionary theory and various schools of Buddhism. It is also edgy in its content, proposing radical reconceptions of the mind, its place in the world and of the entire methodological outlook of cognitive science. It is not, however, a text that I would describe as rigorous. Though impressive and enticing, the authors’ arguments are deeply muddled in some places, and straightforwardly fallacious in others. I will pick out three representative arguments that target methodology, the self and the world respectively.
The first part of the book emphasises the importance of achieving first-person insights into the nature of one’s experience. The authors propose that the reflective methods developed in the phenomenological school face severe limitations, and that their own preferred approach of open-ended mindful investigation avoids these shortcomings. A more rigorous examination, however, suggests that the gap between the two methods is not as profound as advertised. First, the authors exaggerate the extent to which the phenomenological method adopts a theoretical perspective that distorts the pragmatic aspects of lived experience, and the extent to which phenomenological findings are tainted by background theoretical commitments. Second, they exaggerate the extent to which meditative investigation can overcome these impediments. It is well-established that attention dramatically alters experience so, as an essentially attentive activity (78), mindfulness will distort experience rather than simply disclosing it (Dreyfus pushes a related point in his 1992 review of the book). Furthermore, the conclusions reached in the meditative tradition are, like those of the phenomenologists, strongly influenced by theoretical concerns and commitments rather than reflecting lived experience in a manner untainted by theory. Interestingly, these shortcomings of the book’s arguments are conceded in Thompson’s new introduction, though Rosch is a little less concessive on this issue. Neither author, however, recognises that there are similar exaggerations in their discussion of other themes.
Consider their extended discussion of the self. The authors argue that cognitivism is committed to the non-existence of the self: a conclusion with which they strongly agree. They object, though, that cognitive science has failed to provide a viable self-free framework for understanding the mind and has ignored the need to incorporate egolessness into our lived experience. These accusations only stand up if cognitive science is indeed committed to the non-existence of the self, but this commitment is again exaggerated. Various psychological findings do indeed put pressure on the idea of a substantial, coherent, unified and stable self that is the source of thought, the centre of perception and the origin of action. Although one response to this pressure is to deny the existence of the self, another is simply to revise our conception of the self to accommodate these findings. As Dennett puts it, the points raised in the book can plausibly be dealt with by reformation rather than revolution (1993).
One important example concerns our naïve conception of the self as an enduring substance that persists through all our mental and bodily changes. Various considerations suggest that no such substantial entity exists. However, rather than concluding that the self is unreal we can adjust our understanding so that the self is no longer an enduring substance but instead a certain kind of pattern – a ‘perduring’ entity. This kind of view gets short shrift from the authors, who misrepresent it as reducing facts about the self to a matter of perspective (65). Our naïve conception of the self also takes the self to be an essentially conscious entity, yet cognitive science posits unconscious mental processes. Again, we might take this as evidence against the existence of the self, or we could simply revise our conception of the self to accommodate the fact that we undergo both conscious and non-conscious processes. The authors again dismiss such a view too lightly, arguing that if mental processes can be either conscious or non-conscious then consciousness becomes epiphenomenal (56). This is a particularly patent fallacy: the fact that some mental processes can occur non-consciously does not entail that any mental process can occur non-consciously.
This pattern of misrepresenting existing positions also extends to their discussion of the nature of the world. The authors highlight the failings of both objectivism – the view that experience discloses a wholly mind-independent world – and subjectivism – the view that experience projects properties of the mind onto the world. They argue that ‘…Western views have…no methodological basis for a middle way between objectivism and subjectivism’ (230) and propose their own middle-way position according to which the world is enacted by organisms through a ‘history of structural coupling’ (200). On this view, there is a mutual dependence between mind and world such that an organism’s world is ‘brought forth’ by the activities of that organism. Pursuing a middle-way between objectivism and subjectivism is certainly a sensible proposal, but here the authors again exaggerate the distance between their own proposal and existing positions.
They hold that cognitivism is committed to a representational view of the mind, which is in turn committed to the objectivist thought that experience ‘recovers’ how the world is in and of itself. This disregards the myriad positions in both philosophy and psychology according to which we represent ‘response-dependent’ properties: that is, worldly properties that are characterised by the responses they elicit in certain kinds of organism. When faced with problems about the objectivity of colour – problems articulately exposed in Chapter 8 of the book – thinkers such as Locke have claimed that being red is a matter of having the dispositional property of affecting certain kinds of observer in a certain way. The notion of response-dependent properties is prevalent in Western thought, and is even compatible with a representational view of the mind, so it is a mistake to hail enactivism as revolutionary in its carving of a middle-way between objectivism and subjectivism.
It might be objected that this common-place notion of response-dependent properties is disanalogous to the proposed account of an enacted world. The authors are not merely arguing that certain experienced properties only exist relative to certain kinds of organism, but rather that an organism’s whole world is ‘brought forth’ by them. I see two ways of reading the proposed enactive view of the world. On the first reading, enactivism says that everything we experience is in some sense relative to the kind of organism we are. If this reading is accurate, the difference between enactivism and the common-place response-dependent view is merely one of degree: most theorists claim that some of the properties we experience are organism relative where enactivism claims that they all are. This does not mark a radical break from orthodoxy, and might even be read into a number of existing theories such as Kant’s Transcendental Idealism. On the second reading, enactivism says not just that everything we experience is relative to the kind of organism we are but that there is no mind-independent world beyond our experience. This view would certainly mark a more dramatic departure from orthodoxy, but it is not a view that is justified by the arguments offered in the book. The authors do offer an argument from Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna that what is seen is inseparable from the seer and the seeing of it because it is unintelligible for a sight to exist unseen. This is the kind of weak word-play easily unpicked by a keen undergraduate philosopher – a point that the authors come close to conceding themselves (223) – yet the argument is nevertheless given credence. The denial of a mind-independent world is not just poorly motivated in the book, but hard to reconcile with the enactivist framework. It seems we must posit a world that exists independently of the organism to make sense of the organism bringing forth a ‘lived world’ through its interactions with it. This comes out vividly in the authors’ example of ‘Bittorio’ – a ring of cellular automata that brings forth a world of significance through its coupling with ‘…a random soup of 1s and 0s’ (157). Overall then, it is unclear that The Embodied Mind has supplied and motivated a revolutionary understanding of the world at all.
The examples offered above are not the only cases in which the authors misrepresent existing views, nor are they the only cases in which the depiction of their own view is skewed or unclear. It is worth noting that Kabat-Zinn, despite the positivity of his foreword, admits that he didn’t understand most of the book on first reading it (xi). Similarly, Rosch’s introduction alludes to ‘…twenty years of emails from confused readers…’ (xxxviii). It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the whole book as unclear and poorly argued. The text packs in an incredible amount of content, so for every poor argument there is another that is more convincing, and for every muddled or inaccurate piece of exposition there is another that is incredibly clear and informed. More importantly, there is a sense in which criticisms of the lack of rigour in some stretches of the book risk missing the point. Consider the following statement of the book’s purpose:
‘Let us emphasize that the overriding aim of our book is pragmatic. We do not intend to build some grand, unified theory, either scientific or philosophical, of the mind-body relation. Nor do we intend to write a treatise of comparative scholarship. Our concern is to open a space of possibilities in which the circulation between cognitive science and human experience can be fully appreciated and to foster the transformative possibilities of human experience in a scientific culture.’ (lxiv-lxv)
A book that is intended to instigate an intellectual revolution in our approach to the mind can perhaps be excused for misrepresenting the orthodox views it opposes, and for over-stating the promise of the new frontier it signals. A project with this kind of space-opening remit should perhaps be judged not by the arguments behind it but by the legacy before it: that is, by the extent to which the world-view it preaches has gone on to yield valuable results. Such a retrospective evaluation was, of course, unavailable at the time of The Embodied Mind’s original publication, but 26 years on with the publication of this second edition we are in a better position to judge it by its legacy. Despite admitting his limited understanding of the text, Kabat-Zinn talks about the enormous influence that the book had upon his thinking. Perhaps this is representative of the book’s wider influence: even without understanding every claim in the book or accepting every argument, many researchers have had their thinking moulded by the spirit of the book, and have achieved a deeper understanding of the mind as a result.
The two new introductions offer a useful overview of The Embodied Mind’s legacy. Rosch identifies some key ways in which the contemporary landscape of cognitive science vindicates the ideas proposed in the book. She cites the increased appreciation of: the role of phenomenological investigation in the study of the mind; the importance of mindfulness training and the transformative experiences it yields, and; the development of enactivist principles in both psychology and philosophy. Thompson’s list is a little longer. He notes that researchers have increasingly moved away from a stimulus-response model of the brain to models on which brain activity is self-organising, non-linear, rhythmic, parallel and distributed. He places this in the context of a wider advance in our understanding of autopoietic systems. Furthermore, subjective experience is now typically regarded as an efficacious aspect of the mind that offers a suitable target for empirical investigation. Meditation and mindfulness are now commonly employed in clinical practice and Buddhism is increasingly regarded as a valuable player in philosophical debates. Many mental processes are regarded as embodied, including abstract mental capacities that are taken to be grounded in motor-perceptual processes. Finally, the enactivist principle that an organism’s world is not pre-specified but in some sense enacted by the organism has also gained traction.
Although this legacy is quite formidable, we must also note some of the recommendations that have not been so widely taken up. Rosch suggests that mindfulness has not been given the right place in contemporary research, and that its scientific investigation has displayed serious shortcomings. She also suggests that science has not approached the lessons of Buddhism with an ‘open heart’ but instead treated the tradition ‘imperialistically’, incorporating only those insights that are not too disruptive to the scientific status-quo (lii). Individual experience is still too-often disregarded in favour of an impersonal and reductive view of the mind, and there is little appreciation of evidence that, according to Rosch, indicates the separability of mind and body. Finally, little has been done to extend the enactive framework beyond our understanding of the mind to other domains such as symbol-systems, disease and societal structures. Thompson proposes that more attention should be given to enactivism’s radical view of scientific models as ‘…formalised representations of the world as disclosed to our embodied cognition.’ (xxvii). He also claims that experience is still erroneously treated as an object of scientific investigation rather than unobjectifiable, and suggests that more needs to be done to achieve the practical wisdom championed by the book.
The list of ideas in the book that have not proven successful could be extended further, but what should we make of this list? One possibility is that the network of ideas presented in the book form an integrated world view. The last 26 years have allowed some nodes of this network to be incorporated into the mainstream understanding of the mind, and with a few decades more the rest of the network will go the same way and enactivism will become the new orthodoxy. Another possibility is that the proposed network of ideas is not as integrated as the authors advertise, and that one can pick and choose which claims are worth adopting. On this view, the best components have been carved-off, refined and developed over the years while the weaker components have rightly been left by the wayside. I’m inclined to favour the latter interpretation: cognitive science has been reformed in light of the insights captured by the book, but the full-scale revolution that Varela, Thompson and Rosch call for has rightly been resisted. But even if I’m right that not all of the driving claims of The Embodied Mind will be proven true, the point remains that the book has an impressive legacy that marks it as a valuable contribution to cognitive science and as a text worthy of our continued critical attention.
Dennett, D.C. 1993. Review of “The Embodied Mind”. American Journal of Psychology, 106: 121-6.
Dreyfus, H. 1993. Review of “The Embodied Mind”. Mind, 102: 542-6.
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.
A envolvente obra de Varela et al. (1) que aqui será resenhada é um marco no pensamento interdisciplinar entre filosofia (principalmente fenomenologia) e as diversas ciências da cognição. O livro The Embodied Mind, ou ‘’A Mente Corporificada’’ foi originalmente lançado pela ‘’MIT Press’’ em 1991, quando alcançou considerável interesse de leitores das mais diversas áreas do conhecimento. Desde ali, a obra se tornou leitura essencial a leigos e estudiosos da filosofia, ciências da cognição, antropologia, etc. Os autores desenvolvem, em seu livro, uma crítica tenaz ao modelo cognitivista ‘’representacionista’’ e computacional das ciências cognitivas, que se encontrava em voga na época e, em diversas instituições de pesquisa, ainda hoje. O argumento principal delineado pelos autores é o de que para que haja um modelo integrativo de ciência, é preciso considerar aspectos „em primeira pessoa”, ou experiencias, de maneira que estes também possam ser incluídos em estudos empíricos tais como desenvolvidos pelas ditas ciências naturais. Ou seja, cientistas, assim como biológos ou médicos, por exemplo, não devem apenas focar nos fatores biológicos e ‘concretos’ de suas respectivas investiagações, mas incorporar estes no ambiente em que se encontram, e na constante intrerrelação entre sujeito, corpo (organismo), e mundo. Para tanto, Varela et al. argumentam que a ciência cognitiva (e porquê não as restantes, também?), precisariam ser entendidas a partir de um movimento circular entre fenômenos e processos experienciais, aspectos biológicos (organismo como um todo) e ambiente (mundo).
Para os autores, a mente e seus processos não poderiam simplesmente serem entendidos como estando ‘’imbuídos’’ no cérebro e em seus processos neurofisiológicos. Não, o sujeito entende e vai de encontro com a realidade por meio de um corpo vivido também, um corpo ‘’experiencial’’. Para que tal fato possa ocorrer, é preciso que exista uma interação sistêmica bastante complexa entre mente, corpo, e mundo: uma regulação organísmica ‘’autopoiética’’ e autônoma, que confere significação ao sujeito em imediato contato com o mundo. Ou seja, processos cognitivos como ações, comportamentos, percepções, e outros, se dão em uma interação significativa e e-nativa entre sujeito e mundo. Portanto, o sujeito se auto-regula de maneira a significar o mundo e o contexto no qual se encontra. Em ‘’A mente corporificada’’, os autores também acrescentam aos seus argumentos a necessidade de incluir, para que possa haver um entendimento ainda mais mais aprofundado e heurístico sobre a ciência da cognição como inseparável de sua base humana, alguns aspectos da filosofia oriental (budista). Os autores focam principalmente no conceito de ‘’mindfulness’’, que resumidamente corresponde a um estado de profundo autoconhecimento da consciência, no qual o sujeito alcança um estado de consicência ‘’pura’’ acerca de si e seus estados mentais.
Trata-se aqui, certamente, de uma obra brilhante, que deverá continuar rendendo novos frutos aos interessados em pesquisas interdisciplinares. É importante também ressaltar que o livro foi escrito, assim dizem seus autores, de maneira a não ‘’encaixar-se’’ em nenhuma disciplina do conhecimento em particular: ‘’A Mente Corporificada’’, deverá ser tomado como uma obra a ser lida de fato interdisciplinarmente, e o leitor deve ter em mente que é exatamente isto que a destaca dentre tantas outras escritas na grande área das ciências cognitivas. Para os autores, é preciso entender a ciência cognitiva através de uma perspectiva mais abrangente, de acordo com a qual a expêriencia humana estaria constantemente relacionada a processos cognitivos (mentais e corporais). Para tal, o conhecimento humano deve concernir todos os sistemas cognitivos mentais intrínsecos e invariáveis que nos fazem humanos, a partir da junção de processos sensíveis (experienciais) com processos cognitivos e comportamentais, os quais se dão a partir da interação do corpo tanto físico, quanto “vivido” com o mundo. Assim sendo, esta resenha será dividida em duas partes: (1) primeiro, esboçarei brevemente, em sequência, alguns dos temas e argumentos apresentado pelos autores nesta obra. (2) por fim, abordarei alguns aspectos do novo prefácio que foi escrito especialmente para esta nova edição, expondo desta maneira alguns aspectos críticos com os quais os autores já não concordam mais, nos quais é possível perceber o quão substancialmente o próprio entendimento que dois dos autores (Evan Thompson e Eleanor Rosch) têm de que sua obra se modificou com o passar dos anos, e qual seria o impacto presente- e futuro desta para os pesquisadores e pensadores da ciência cognitiva e interdisciplinar. Após estas considerações, também apresentarei uma pequena observação questionadora de cunho pessoal, sobre a importância dos estudos interdisciplinares entre as ciências da cognição e a saúde mental, especificamente a psiquiatria e psicologia.
No primeiro capítulo da obra, Varela et al. apresentam o arcabouço teórico conceitual a partir do qual eles desenvolverão a crítica a modelos de ciência cognitiva baseadas em modelos computacionais e ‘’representacionistas’’. O principal autor da tradição fenomenológica com o qual os autores dialogam é Maurice Merleau Ponty (2), que, em grande parte de suas obras desenvolve uma fenomenologia da corporeidade e da percepção ancorada na ideia de que mente e corpo se encontram intrinsecamente relacionados, de maneira direta. Ou seja, o sujeito percebe e se engaja com a realidade por meio de uma intencionalidade direta que acontece tanto por meio de processos mentais, quanto também corporais. Para que esta dialética relacional e intencional possa ocorrer, certo processos corporais, como a ação, ocorrem de maneira situacional: por exemplo, o sujeito tem consciência de um copo de água e movimenta seu braço para pegá-lo e, por fim, tomar a água. Torna-se então possível dizer que o braço estendido faz parte de um campo significativo: a percepção do copo de água, em conjunto com a sede (desejo fisiológico), e ação, fizeram com que o sujeito percebesse e agisse no mundo de maneira significativa. A percepção ”corporal” que o sujeito teve com o mundo então não ocorreu somente por meio de um ato visual perceptivo, mas o próprio corpo também se engajou, ao mesmo tempo e naquele instante, em um processo significatório, que levou então o sujeito a uma ação. Portanto, a cognição humana não se encontra fundamentada em uma ontologia cartesiana que separa pensamento de corpo, mas em um sistema circular enativo: mente, organismo, e corpo se encontram intrinsecamente inter-relacionados.
Portanto, pode-se dizer que nesta obra, mundo (realidade) e sujeito são constituídos e se constituem por meio de uma constante atividade experiencial vivida: a cognição como um sistema se dá por meio de uma relação direta que o sujeito tem com o ambiente. Para tanto, processos mentais ocorrem, de fato, em ação conjunta com o corpo e o organismo ( sistema neurológico, por exemplo). Assim sendo, os processos cognitivos não devem ser entendidos como sendo puramente fisiológicos ou fundamentados na ideia de que processos mentais podem ser co-relacionados a processamentos computacionais, nos qual a informação perceptual, por exemplo, é recebido como ”input”, processada pelo cérebro, e então representada para o sujeito. Não, os processos são, de fato, enativos; ou seja, eles ocorre sempre tanto internamente (constituição do self autônomo), quanto externamente, por meio de ações emergentes que então ”regulam” e situam significado sobre objetos, outras pessoas, etc.
Um aspecto interessante que os autores sobre o qual os autores também discorrem é a questão relativa a ”Análise Experimentativa e Experiencial” (Experimentation and Experiential Analysis). Para Varela et al., o ‘experimentar’ é frequentemente relacionado à uma ciência paradigmática que se baseia em fundamentos e asserções empíricas clássicas. O budismo, por outro lado, pode ser entendido como uma ciência que investiga fenômenos (especialmente aqueles relativos a estudos em primeira pessoa), por meio de ”mindfulness”, ou um acesso experiencial à consciência e ao mundo subjetivo. Portanto, para os autores, os diversos processos cognitivos sempre se dão em conjunto com o mundo e a subjetividade:
”particularmente impressionante para nós é a convergência que nós descobrimos em meio a temas centrais da doutrina budista, fenomenologia e ciência da cognição-temas relacionados ao self e à relação entre sujeito e objeto”(3).
Os autores continuam analisando e criticando, nos subsequentes capítulos, o viés filosófico-científico cognitivista clássico. A ciência cognitiva dita clássica se iniciou com pesquisas feitas, principalmente, nas áreas da robótica e cibernética. Consequentemente, um dos argumentos fundamentais do cognitivismo clássico é que a inteligência, entre outros fundamentais processos cognitivos, poderia ser basicamente entendida como ocorrendo por meio de computações de representações.
Brooks (7), por exemplo, desenvolveu um primeiro importante passo utilizando sistemas cognitivos ‘’simples’’: ele desenvolveu robôs com sistemas funcionais capazes de ‘’entenderem’’, por meio de processos computacionais, certos aspectos relacionados ao mundo.Portanto, poderia-se dizer que os primeiros sistemas complexos auto-organizadores foram pensados a partir de estruturas que funcionavam, de fato, como um computador. Os robôs eram capazes de elaborarem comportamentos simples que condiziam com estímulos ambientas que eles recebiam. Estes simplesmente processavam informações que recebiam de seu ambiente, por meio de processamentos computacionais; desta maneira, eles já interagiam com o mundo, por meio de comportamentos simples de contato e comunicação, ‘’reconhecendo’’ portanto que tipo de comportamento simples produzir.
Os robôs de Brooks foram um primeiro importante passo rumo a uma ciência da cognição que incorporava processos ‘’mentais’’ e informacionais ao ambiente, que fornecia aos robôs a possibilidade de agir, por exemplo. A partir daí, alguns aurores começariam a explorar a ideia de que a cognição (humana) se dá à partir de um contato direto com o ambiente. Em vista disso, foram desenvolvidas novas perspectivas que tentariam ir além de componentes computacionais que pudessem dar ao sujeito as capacidades de entender e agir em seu ambiente.
Esta hipótese tradicional é obviamente incompleta, por motivos bastante claros: de que maneira estes inputs computacionais podem explicar aspectos referentes à subjetividade, consciência, e fenômenos relacionados? Ou seja, de que maneira um modelo computacional poderia instanciar, por assim dizer, aspectos fenomenais? Para uma grande variedade de pesquisadores em ciência da cognição clássica (4), é preciso que o sujeito represente o mundo, de certa maneira, em sua ‘’mente’’ (no cérebro), por meios de processos ligados à funcionamentos neurofisológicos, para que seja então possível significá-lo. Assim sendo, o sujeito encontra-se assim ‘’conectado’’ com a sua realidade por meio de processos mecanicistas, fundamentado em uma ontologia ainda cartesiana e materialista: mente, corpo e mundo não interagem, realmente, entre si. A representação da realidade é dada ao sujeito por meio de intermediações processuais computacionais: o sujeito tem certas sensações físicas, por exemplo, que são processadas pelo cérebro, que então constrói uma representação interna relacionada à sensação, percepção, ou qualquer outro processo, seja este mental ou corporal, por assim dizer.
Se houver então consciência, ainda assim, esta seria instanciada pelo cérebro, por meio de processos puramente neurofisiológicos, e a experiência seria apenas um epifenômeno. Para os cognitivistas tradicionais, para que tanto processos mentais como corporais possam acontecer, é necessário que o cérebro do sujeito tenha alguma ‘’capacidade’’ de conceber o mundo por meio de processos neuronal-representacionistas que o levem a inter-agir com o ambiente. De que maneira seria então possível correlacionar estados intencionais (experienciais) com processos neurofisiológicos que poderiam levar a alguma ação ou percepção?
Porém, Varela et al., durante todo o percurso de ‘’A Mente Corporificada’’, nos lembram que é de suma importância concebermos que a cognição se faz por meio de uma relação intencional, tanto experiencial quanto organísmica, que o sujeito entretém com o mundo. O próprio organismo intra-celular mantém uma variedade de processos, uma regulação contínua que leva o sujeito a agir, sentir, pensar, etc. Portanto, tanto processos mentais quanto corporais ocorrem, intrinsecamente, por meio da tríade entre sujeito-corpo/organismo-mundo.
Sendo assim, para os autores, a cognição se dá em contato direto com o mundo por nós experiencialmente e corporalmente articulado.
Entre outros autores importantes que destacam o papel da relação primordial entre a percepção visual e a articulação com processos regulatórios sensos motores são O’Regan e Noë (6), por exemplo. Para os autores, a articulação intencional e consciente entre sujeito e mundo não ocorre somente por meio da percepção visual, mas também por meio de certos posicionamentos e ações corporais pelos quais este percorre e ”explora” seu ambiente. Consequentemente, o corpo (tanto físico quanto vivido) é, de fato, componente intrínseco desta autorregulação organísmica que dá ao sujeito alguma experiência sobre si- mesmo, significando também o mundo através do dispositivo ”sense-making” (trad. livre: processo significativo), como diz Thompson (5). O processo de Sense-making se refere a capacidade que o sistema autorregulatório tem de, por meio dos mais variados processos cognitivos e mentais, significar o mundo para o sujeito. O sujeito dá sentido ao seu mundo por meio de ações e percepções incorporadas; que se tornam implícitas a partir do momento no qual o sistema enativo se relaciona com o mundo e o contexto em que este se encontra. Ou seja, o sujeito encontra-se sempre situado cognitivo-corporalmente em um certo contexto vivido, que pode então ser significado experiencialmente.
O self, para os autores, deve aqui ser entendido como uma estrutura móvel e experiencialmente acessível ao sujeito; não por meio de ”introspecção”, como diriam autores que, novamente, reduziriam alguma capacidade de uma possível sensação sobre ”si mesmo” a estados puramente mentais e internos. O self se dá, ele ”acontece” durante a interação que o sujeito tem com o seu mundo, tanto por intermédio de processos mentais como percepções, o imaginário, etc., tanto como processos corporais e fisiológicos como ações, movimentos corporais, entre outros. Varela et al. (3) fazem, neste ponto do livro, uma interessante relação com algumas tradições budistas que tomam o self como estrutura que não é permeada por experiencial alguma ‘’sobre si’’. O termo para este estado, em inglês, é chamado de selflessness. Ou seja, a mente estaria esvaziada de qualquer conteúdo experiencial, estado afetivo, etc. Portanto, o self deverá, penso, ser entendido de fato como um ”algo” maleável e em constante transformação, e não como estrutura fixamente localizável no cérebro, por exemplo.
Aqui, os autores de ”A mente corporificada” continuam desenvolvendo um framework holístico em relação a uma ciência cognitiva que leva em conta os diversos fatores experienciais que também engendram a visão enativista que é proposta na obra. Sendo assim, o self é também composto por uma variedade de fatores ”disposicionais” que constituem a maneira pela qual o sujeito entende seu mundo: a cognição, por exemplo, ocorre aqui em um processo auto-regulatório e ”significador”, é necessário que o self também seja entendido como uma unidade intimamente pertencente ao organismo, sendo constituída por afeto, percepção, corporeidade, impulso, etc. Ou seja, o self não é uma estrutura mental, por assim dizer, mas um processo relacional com o mundo e outros que também inclui, em diferentes níveis de funcionamento, disposições e atividades cognitivas, mentais, biológicas, etc.
Evan Thompson e Eleanor Rosh, em seu novo prefácio escrito especialmente para esta edição revisada, fazem uma série de críticas conceituais com as quais eles dizem não estarem mais satisfeitos, anos após a publicação da primeira edição (1). Isto se dá, também, a meu ver, com os avanços técnico-empiricos das ciências médicas. A psiquiatria contemporânea, por exemplo, conta com instrumentos diagnósticos que têm o poder de localizar mudanças neurofisiológicas mínimas, recorrentes em alguma localização bastante específica do cérebro. Portanto, a neuroimagem certamente se tornou ”parceira” indispensável para pesquisadores na área de neuropsiquiatria. Ainda assim, imagino que Varela et al. nos mantêm constantemente em alerta sobre a importância da pesquisa ”naturalista-biológica” ser feita em conjunto com as ciências humanas. Por conseguinte, enquanto a medicina avança com importantes achadas neurobiológicos, a subjetividade e o significado da existência humana precisarão também ter o seu espaço em uma interação de fatores que muitas vezes é mais complexa do que aquela que uma visão puramente naturalista nos dá.
Esta nova edição da obra de Varela et al. (3) proporciona ao leitor uma perspectiva ampla e bastante inovadora em sua proposta de esmiuçar uma ciência cognitiva que integra uma grande diversidade de outras concepções e visões de mundo tanto científicas (de cunho empírico e teórico) quanto práticas. Por exemplo, se inserido (o que já têm sido feito por alguns) no contexto das ciências da saúde, mais especificamente mental, que vantagens a proposta enativista poderia vir a trazer à psicopatologia, às diversas abordagens psicoterápicas, etc.? Quais seriam as vantagens que esta proposta poderia vir a trazer nas atuais e relevantes discussões interdisciplinares entre as ciências humanas, médicas e biológicas? A leitura desta obra, assim espero, abrirá horizontes de expansão intelectual para seus leitores, que certamente se enriquecerão com uma proposta tão atual e heurística acerca de tudo que nos faz humanos. Vejo como absolutamente necessário que os pesquisadores, estejam estes desenvolvendo os seus trabalhos nas mais diversas áreas do conhecimento, partam do princípio de que é sim necessário pensar e praticar ‘’além’’ da própria disciplina, indo assim ao encontro do que é feito e pensado em outras áreas. É claro que não será nunca possível dedicar-se unicamente ao estudo de uma grande diversidade de autores, áreas do conhecimento, etc. Mas as colaborações interdisciplinares se fazem importantes, já que é desta maneira que pesquisadores poderão construir ”pontes de conhecimento”. Varela et al. certamente se empenharam neste quesito, mostrando o quão frutífera a pesquisa multidisciplinar pode ser.
Por fim, ainda vale expor um breve parágrafo sobre as introduções reescritas por Evan Thompson e Eleanor Rosch ainda se faz necessário. Os autores retomam alguns aspectos do momento em que a obra foi originalmente publicada, acessando criticamente alguns dos pontos temáticos que, com o passar dos anos, se modificaram com relação aos pontos de vista e argumentos da maneira pela qual estes foram inicialmente apresentados. Infelizmente não será possível aqui analisar todos os pontos apresentados pelos autores, mas vale a pensa considerar, por exemplo, a importância que todo o framework enativo desfruta, hoje em dia. A filosofia ”incorporificada” se tornou aliada importante das ciências naturais, configurando assim novas bases empírico-teóricas para a apreciação dos mais diversos fenômenos subjetivos, cognitivos e inter-relacionais humanos. Já existem, além da perspectiva enativista, outras versões dos chamados ”e-approaches” à mente, que cada vez mais se estabelecem como contraponto às divisões demasiado dualistas das ciências, em geral.
Porém, é óbvio que entre estas perspectivas também há divergências teóricas bastante significativas: algumas ainda se apoiam em uma ontologia dualista, outros propõem modelos internalistas ou externalistas no que diz respeito a eventos e conteúdos mentais e perceptuais, etc. De qualquer maneira, a fenomenologia atual também se encontra muito mais avançada em sua investigação rigorosa das estruturas experienciais, desta maneira se destacando como importante aliada, principalmente, do movimento enativista. Para Rosch, e eu apoio completamente esta linha de argumentação crítica, a grande pergunta, de agora em diante, seria*, dentre muitas outras: o que mais temos a aprender, no que diz respeito as ciências naturais e ao método investigativo da primeira pessoa, ou subjetivo?
O enativismo, como proposta filosófico-empírica de investigação das estruturas processuais cognitivas e experienciais deverá, a meu ver, tentar adequar-se a entendimentos científicos materialistas e/ou reducionistas, para que seja possível encontrar assim caminhos investigativos que possam ser feitos em parceria. Certamente será muito importante que os pesquisadores se mantenham atentos a estes questionamentos, para que não haja exageros de ambos os lados: a ciência natural precisa cuidar para que ela não se aprisione em enquadramentos demasiado reducionistas, e o enativismo, com a sua investigação de sistemas autônomos experienciais e cognitivos complexos, deve manter-se aberto para a eventual e cuidadosa integração de aspectos que vão além de seu escopo investigativo.
Brooks, R. (2002). Flesh and Machine: How Robots Will Change Us. New York: Pantheon.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). The Phenomenology of Perception. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
O’Regan, J. K., Noë, A. (2001a). A sensorimotor account of visual consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24, 939 –973. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X010007.
Thagard, P., “Cognitive Science”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL .
Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology and the Sciences of Mind (1st ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. MIT Press.
Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., Rosch, E. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (6th ed.). Cambridge, MA.
Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., Rosch, E. (2017). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA.