Christoph Durt, Thomas Fuchs, Christian Tewes (Eds.): Embodiment, Enaction, and Culture

Embodiment, Enaction, and Culture: Investigating the Constitution of the Shared World Book Cover Embodiment, Enaction, and Culture: Investigating the Constitution of the Shared World
Christoph Durt, Thomas Fuchs, Christian Tewes (Eds.)
MIT Press
Hardcover $55.00

Reviewed by: Anya Daly (University College Dublin)

Enactivism as a theoretical framework that addresses diverse domains is establishing itself firmly as the paradigm of the 21st century.[1] Not only does it have the potential to bridge the so-called analytic-continental philosophy divide and the east-west divide, but it also offers cogent reinterpretations of key issues in all the disciplines concerned with the human and animal sciences. The enactivist account challenges and is differentiated from paradigms that explicitly or implicitly rely on rigid external-internal oppositions as well as those grounded in a reductive materialist metaphysics such as the currently popular paradigm of neurocentrism.  Any persisting Cartesian dualisms in addition to monist reductivisms are thus revealed as bankrupt endeavours in the investigation of consciousness, agency, subjective experience and our shared worlds.

This current collection of essays presents a rich offering of interdisciplinary scholarship from some of the leading thinkers alongside emerging scholars connected to the enactivist tradition and its progenitor phenomenology; their remit – to investigate how the various dimensions and domains of our shared world are crucially informed by cultural modes of embodiment and enactively galvanized cultural contexts. Many of the chapters were presented as papers at the conference Enacting Culture: Embodiment, Interaction and the Development of Culture, October 15-17, 2014, University of Heidelberg, Germany. This was the final conference marking the end of the European Commission funded Innovative Training Network, Towards an Embodied Science of Intersubjectivity.

Embodiment, Enaction and Culture: Investigating the Constitution of the Shared World comprises 20 chapters organized around 4 themes: Phenomenological and Enactive Accounts of the Constitution of Culture; Intersubjectivity, Selfhood and Persons; Cultural Affordances and Social Understanding; and Embodiment and its Cultural Significance. It is important to note that, while the title may be taken to suggest otherwise, any reader expecting the cultural themes of aesthetics to be addressed in this book will be disappointed. The writers in this current collection represent the disciplines of philosophy, neurophysiology, cognitive science, psychology, psychiatry, sociology, anthropology and evolutionary studies and so address ‘culture’ in the broader sense. This volume will be an important resource not only for philosophers, but also for those researching and teaching in any of the disciplines represented here by these various writers.

As Merleau-Ponty has declared “the very first of all cultural objects which enables all the rest to exist, is the body of the other person as a vehicle of behavior (Phenomenology of Perception: 364). As soon as I perceive the living body of an-other, my environment attains significance not just as the context and means of my possible agency but also that of the other. Through the potentialities and actualities of interaction, our bodies form a system” (Daly, 2016). Merleau-Ponty here articulates the central organizing insight that motivates this collection of essays; that culture, embodiment and sociality are intrinsically and dynamically interdependent.

Christophe Durt, Thomas Fuchs and Christian Tewes in their introduction acknowledge the intellectual debts of enactivists to the ground-breaking book, The Embodied Mind (1991), in which the authors, Francisco Varela, Eleanor Rosch and Evan Thompson, launch the enactivist vision; and they in turn have acknowledged their intellectual debts to biology, Buddhist philosophy, phenomenology and specifically the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty. As the editors explain, the writings address the constitution of the shared world through the interrogations of “participatory and broader collective sense-making processes manifested in dynamic forms of intercorporeality, collective body memory, artifacts, affordances, scaffolding, use of symbols, and so on.  The contributors investigate how preconscious and conscious accomplishments work together in empathy, interaffectivity, identifications of oneself with others through emotions such as shame, we-intentionality, and hermeneutical understanding of the thoughts of others. The shared world is seen as something constituted by intersubjective understanding that discloses things in the shared significance they have for the members of a culture” (Durt, Fuchs, Tewes, 2017:1). The initial inspiration for enactivism came from the biological sciences with the idea that the organism both geared into its environment through its active sensorimotor engagement and itself became cognitively constituted through this engagement; in other words, the salience of the environmental features depended on the survival requirements of the organism and the perceptual, agentive and cognitive capacities of the organism reciprocally became structured by the demands of the environment. In the cultural domain, enactivism interrogates how collective cultural activity constitutes worlds of shared significance, not, as the editors insist, in any constructivist sense but rather in the mode of disclosure. And they give recognition to Merleau-Ponty and his notion of the ‘intentional arc’ for this enactivist notion regarding the human life-world. Due to its perspicacity and relevance to this book, it is worth repeating here:

The life of consciousness – cognitive life, the life of desire or perceptual life – is subtended by an “intentional arc” which projects round about us our past, our future, our human setting, out physical, ideological and moral situation, or rather which results in our being situated in all these respects. It is this intentional arc which brings about the unity of the senses, of intelligence, of sensibility and motility.  (Phenomenology of Perception, 2006: 157; 2012: 137)

The chapters in this volume address all of these various aspects of the cultural world from the everyday sensorimotor perceptual engagements, to affective intersubjective life, through to artifacts and technology, to institutions, and finally to the psychopathological which, in the breakdown and failures of the ‘intentional arc’, provide unique and incisive insights into the life of consciousness.

It is impossible in a review to do justice to each and every chapter in this broad collection and so I will briefly discuss only a few that have relevance to my own current research interests.

The collection begins with a groundwork piece by Dermot Moran, who sets the scholarly context for much that the later chapters depend, with his essay – ‘Intercorporeality and Intersubjectivity: A Phenomenological Exploration of Embodiment’. His opening statement gives recognition to the centrality of phenomenology for revolutionizing philosophy in the twentieth century by offering a radical reconceptualization of human existence that continues to inform the philosophy of mind and action, and the cognitive sciences.  Moran offers a rigorous analysis of the lines of investigation, the conceptual convergences and divergences of key contributors in the phenomenological tradition.  Given the complexity of the domain and that intellectual debts were not always explicitly acknowledged in both some of the primary literature and the secondary literature, this is no mean feat.  Importantly, he alerts scholars to the fact that in the evaluations of Husserl’s work, his later “original, radical and fundamentally groundbreaking explorations of intersubjectivity, sociality, and the constitution of historical cultural life” (25) are often overlooked. And while Moran reminds us that this later work was key to both Heidegger and Schutz, it is Merleau-Ponty, in the preface to his opus Phenomenology of Perception, who famously ‘outs’ Heidegger as having developed central ideas in his Being and Time on the basis of Husserl’s unacknowledged later work Ideas II (Phenomenology of Perception, 2006: viii; 2012, lxx, lxxi). Moran is more circumspect about this omission on the part of Heidegger and turns his focus on Husserl’s mature reflections to give them the appreciation they deserve and, moreover, set the record straight. Specifically, Moran’s interrogations are concerned with Husserl’s elaborations of the role of lived embodiment in the intentional constitution of culture, our mutual being-for-one-another and the riddle of transcendental subjectivity.

Moran alerts us to the Husserlian origins of key concepts found in the work of later phenomenologists such as ‘world-consciousness’, ‘generativity’, the interrelation that holds between objectivity and intersubjectivity – as he writes: “The sense of objectivity is co-constituted by us, and we are constituted as living beings in relation to this backdrop of world” (27).   And it is this co-constitution of worlds that become expressed in all the various dimensions of culture. The discussion then turns to a key distinction in the phenomenological analyses of body and embodiment between Leib (lived body) and Körper (physical body), more readily associated with the work of Merleau-Ponty, but nonetheless, as Moran notes, already present in the writings of Fichte, Husserl, Scheler, Stein and Plessner.  So too, the signature notion of the ‘I can’ as elaborated by Merleau-Ponty is prefigured in Husserl’s later work and this contributes to self-constitution as much as denoting capacities and powers in world-engagement.  Here we have the dialectical dynamic as expressed through the enactivist framework and this is further elaborated on in discussions tracking the scholarly sources of enactivist ideas such as co-constitution, embeddedness and participatory sense-making in the earlier notions of situatedness, reversibility, empathy, intercorporeity and intersubjectivity.

One of the discussions that especially drew my interest was that concerning intrauterine lived experience from the perspectives of mother and fetus. Whereas Merleau-Ponty, drawing on Piaget, erroneously argues for an indistinction of perspectives between mother and fetus or newborn, Husserl recognizes that there is both an attunement and distinction between subjectivities from the beginning. Moran identifies a number of correspondences between the thinking of Husserl and current research in developmental psychology, referencing in particular the work of Colwyn Trevarthan (37). Vasudevi Reddy in Chapter 6 – ‘The Primacy of the “we”’, develops an account compatible with and extending some of Trevarthen’s founding ideas.

Ezequiel Di Paolo and Hanne de Jaegher, in Chapter 4 ‘Neither Individualistic nor Interactionist’, give a review of key debates in the enactivist account of intersubjectivity that continue to generate controversy, suggesting that some of these have arisen in the first place due to misinterpretations which call for clarification. This is exactly what they seek to do, differentiating those accounts that intersect partially with enactivism but which failed to appreciate key aspects from those that remain attuned to the central organizing insights of enactivism.  There are two misreadings that they target particularly. Firstly, there is a confusion, they claim, between the operational account of social interactions versus interaction as participatory sense-making. They write: “The realm of intersubjectivity is animated by a force that is neither what goes on in people’s brains or in their self-affective bodies nor what occurs in social interaction processes – if we consider each alternative on its own.  On the contrary, intersubjective phenomena emerge only as a dynamic relation between these two broad domains: the personal and the inter-personal.  Any emphasis on either side of this relation at the expense of the other fails to capture the complete picture” (87). It is exactly this insight that is prefigured in Merleau-Ponty’s argument that while I am always “this side of my body”, there is nonetheless an internal relation between self and other and that it is this category of otherness at the heart of subjectivity which underwrites relations between external others. He writes: “Between my consciousness and my body as I experience it, between this phenomenal body of mine and that of another as I see it from the outside, there exists an internal relation which causes the other to appear as the completion of the system” (Phenomenology of Perception, 2006:410; 2012:368). The crucial point di Paolo and de Jaegher defend is that “social interaction and embodied agency are equiprimordial loci of scientific and philosophical inquiry” and further that “intersubjective phenomena emerge only as a dynamic relation between the two broad domains; the personal and the interpersonal” (87); the relation thus transcends the relata; and importantly while the relata maintain their autonomy, their coupling “constitutes an emergent autonomous organization in the domain of relational dynamics” (89).  They furthermore stress that the coupling is never guaranteed, because if we allow the “autonomy conditions for both interaction patterns and participants, the experience of the other never achieves full transparency or full opacity but rather intermittently moves through regions of understanding and familiarity toward provinces of misunderstanding and bemusement, corresponding to phases of interactive coordination or breakdown respectively” (91). The second misreading they target is the claim that enactivism is unable to account for interior life, as in imagining, planning and thinking, without recourse to representation.  In brief, Di Paolo and de Jaegher argue that the ‘agent-world’ coupling in the here and now is not, contrary to representationalists’ claims, the only possible source of meaning-generation for enactivists. Due to the length constraints of this review I will not rehearse the careful and persuasive arguments they marshal in support of their case, but just note that in the section titled ‘Deep Entanglement’, de Jaegher and di Paolo, recruit experimental neuroscience to add force to their analyses.  So too they address the emergence of hybrid accounts that seek to patch the holes in their theoretical frameworks by aligning with another theory; these accounts never achieve coherence or explanatory sufficiency; and notably, they often smuggle in Cartesian commitments entirely incompatible with enactivism, such as the distinction between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ cognition.

Chapter 6, ‘The Primacy of the “We’’, brings the integrated expertise of philosophy, phenomenology, developmental psychology and cognitive science together to investigate collective intentionality in human sociality.  The authors, Ingar Brinck, Vasudevi Reddy and Dan Zahavi stress the importance of clarifying both the theoretical commitments and the on-the-ground science regarding collective intentionality so that when it is invoked in the diverse disciplines, from psychology, politics, anthropology through to economics etc., these invocations will be on a surer footing.  Despite the philosophical work already accomplished in this domain, the authors argue that there are a number of key issues that remain controversial and unresolved.  As they write: “… it is by no means clear exactly how to characterize the nature, structure, and diversity of the we to which intentions, beliefs, emotions, and actions are often attributed.  Is the we or we-perspective independent of, and perhaps even prior to individual subjectivity, or is it a developmental achievement that has a first- and second-person-singular perspective as its necessary precondition? Is it something that should be ascribed to a single owner, or does it perhaps have plural ownership? Is the we a single thing, or is there a plurality of types of we” (131). Here I recognize particularly the issues with which Zahavi has been grappling over the past few years, reaching evermore refined articulations of the philosophical questions and precision with regard to the philosophical stakes.

Reddy brings the developmental psychological perspective into the investigation suggesting that the empirical claims and the conceptual interpretations originally expressed in Piaget’s research from the 1960s, notably the claims of a fusion of perspectives between the neonate and others, are coming under serious challenge. She stresses the significance of the empirical research regarding “infant discrimination at birth between internally and externally originating sensory stimulation, fetal distinctions between own and other bodies as targets for actions, and early forms of social interactions” (133). Reddy draws on other cutting edge research (other than her own) in infant and fetal attention, interaction, affectivity, neural response etc., to give further support to her key claim that the self-nonself differentiation and sense of agency are ontogenetically basic and well in advance of being able to pass the ‘mirror self-recognition’ test and also in advance of any awareness of group affiliation or its converse social ostracism.

Zahavi and his coauthors develop one of the key lines of their argument in opposition to that of Hans Bernhard Schmid (2014), who argues for a plural self-awareness that precedes both self-experience and other-experience. They rightly argue that not only does this imply an unacceptable ‘fusion’ but also that Schmid has failed to differentiate between “social relatedness, common ground, and we-intentionality” (137). They further argue that while the first two shared experiences are necessary for interaction, ‘we-intentionality’ cannot be guaranteed, most notably in conflictual situations.

Brinck, Reddy and Zahavi build a rigorous case for the view they are defending.  They conclude by differentiating between three possible options: “First, the we is conceptually and developmentally prior to the I and the you.  Second, the I, the you, and the we are equiprimordial.  Third, the I and the you are conceptually and developmentally prior to the we” (142).  It is the third option which they favor.  Nonetheless, I would like to suggest there is another option that has not been considered and which has clear philosophical support from Scheler and Merleau-Ponty; the philosophical support of this view from Husserl is somewhat ambiguous.[2]  This fourth option proposes that the I and the we of primary subjectivity are equiprimordial but without fusion; these, the constitutive modes of identification and belonging, both underwrite and become further shaped and developed at the secondary level of concrete interpersonal relations.  According to Scheler there is an a priori ‘logic of the heart’ that underwrites:

… all morally relevant acts, experiences and states, in so far as they contain an intentional reference to other moral persons; obligation, merit, responsibility, consciousness of duty, love, promise-keeping, gratitude and so on, all refer, by the very nature of the acts themselves, to other people, without implying that such persons must already have been encountered in some sort of experience, above all without warranting the assumption that these intrinsically social acts… can only have occurred and originated in the actual commerce of men with one another. They demonstrate that even the essential character of human consciousness is such that the community is in some sense implicit in every individual, and that man is not only part of society, but that society and the social bond are an essential part of himself; that not only is the ‘I’ a member of the ‘we’, but also that the ‘we’ is a necessary member of the ‘I’ (Scheler, The Nature of Sympathy, 1913) my italics.

Merleau-Ponty writes:

We must conceive of a primordial We [On] that has its own authenticity and furthermore never ceases but continues to uphold the greatest passions of our adult life and to be experienced anew in each of our perceptions.  (‘The Philosopher and His Shadow’, Signs, 175)

For Merleau-Ponty, Otherness is a category internal to the subject and without which apprehension of external others would be impossible; the internal sense of otherness can thus be understood as ‘others-like-me’ – ‘us’ or ‘we’, which necessarily requires differentiation from ‘others-not-like-me’.

What I dispute in Brinck, Reddy and Zahavi’s account is the assertion that: “I can be aware of myself (for instance, as a subject of experience or embodied agent) without being reflectively or prereflectively aware of myself as part of a we, and I can be aware of another without that awareness necessarily giving rise to a shared we-perspective” (143).  Just as in the perception of a figure, the ground even though indeterminate is nonetheless a positive presence that is always there, so too in the awareness of myself as an embodied agent or subject of experience, there is always the implicit awareness of myself as belonging to a particular we, whether of species or culture which necessarily informs engagement in that particular context.  With regard to the awareness of another, that other is always culturally situated as like-me or not-like-me, as belonging to my sphere of we-ness or not.  And so whether or not the encounter gives rise to a shared-perspective, depends entirely on the intersubjective identification of we. For further discussion of this alternative view, see Merleau-Ponty and the Ethics of Intersubjectivity, (Daly, 2016).

Matthew Ratcliffe, in Chapter 7 – ‘Selfhood, Schizophrenia, and the Interpersonal Regulation of Experience’, extends the discussions of enactivism into the domain of psychopathology. The central thought that Ratcliffe pursues in this chapter is that while understanding psychopathology in terms of disturbances of the self offers fruitful reconceptualizations of problematic issues within psychiatry, the invocation of minimal selves remains to be fully and convincingly articulated.  Ratcliffe cites Zahavi’s articulation of this notion (151) – that the minimal self is the most fundamental, underpinning all forms of self-experience and that whereby the integrity of experience itself is assured.  This integrity of experience is challenged in schizophrenia in ways that are more profound than in other mental disorders, and hence, according to Zahavi, schizophrenia must be understood as a disturbance of the minimal self.  While Ratcliffe does not dispute any of the above, he insists that the minimal self needs to be understood also in terms of the concrete interpersonal in contrast to Zahavi’s view that minimal selfhood is anterior to interaction.  Thus Ratcliffe challenges the widely held view, as above, that schizophrenia originates solely in disturbances of the minimal self and proposes that rather the interpersonal dimension is also key as both the source of a precipitating trauma and oftentimes also the means of compounding misidentifications and delusions.  Ratcliffe builds an integrated analysis from diverse philosophical sources and clinical research, concluding that trauma and damage to basic trust vindicate the claim that investigations of schizophrenia must take account of relational factors rather than regarding it as a solely individual disorder.

The next chapter ‘The Touched Self’ also offers a critique of Zahavi’s account of the minimal self.  While neither Ratcliffe nor Ciaunica and Fotopoulou dispute the existence of a minimal self, they do, however, dispute how this minimal self is conceived and constituted; both of their accounts insist on the importance of the concrete interpersonal to the sense of ‘I’.  For Ciaunica and Fotopoulou, selfhood, even minimal selfhood emerges in the mutuality and proximity of social interactions. It is to the editors’ credit that they invited Zahavi to respond to these critiques and in this way we have the advantage in reading, of witnessing the evolution of this aspect of the self debates.

In Zahavi’s own words, his account of the minimal self is that “experiential episodes are neither unconscious nor anonymous; rather they necessarily come with first-personal givenness or perspectival ownership.  The what-it-is-likeness of experience is essentially a what-it-is-likeness-for-me-ness (Zahavi and Kriegel, 2016)” (194). Importantly for advancing the debate, Zahavi identifies a significant shift in Ratcliffe’s account from the stronger claim that the minimal self is interpersonally constituted to the claim that the minimal self is not an unchanging core of selfhood and with this Zahavi then asserts that his “thinner and more minimalist self is a condition of possibility for Ratcliffe’s interpersonally constituted minimal self” (195).  And I agree with Zahavi that a minimal self is the condition of possibility of interpersonally constituted minimalist selves, but would like to suggest following the same thread of thought in my response to Chapter 6, that the minimal self includes both the ‘I’ and ‘we’ (without fusion); and this is how subjects can break out of egoic isolation, how they can be constitutively open to the later interpersonal dimensions (Daly, 2014, 2016).

I was interested to read Zahavi’s response to the chapter from Ciaunica and Fotopoulou; that he had also found that their criticisms had not hit the mark and that there were some idiosyncratic and confusing use of terms – such as ‘mentalization’. Nonetheless, in my view, Ciaunica’s and Fotopoulou’s identification of the need to tackle the affective dimension of minimal selfhood is a most promising avenue of investigation. I hope that they pursue this and that they also reassess and refine their philosophical differences with Zahavi in future work. Zahavi is proving his value as a philosophical provocateur in the esteemed tradition of Socratic gadflies!

Chapter 11, ‘The Significance and Meaning of Others’, is yet another demonstration of the breadth of scholarship and versatility in thinking that Shaun Gallagher brings to all his writings.  In this contribution, he examines social cognition through the lens of hermeneutics, focusing specifically on the distinction between significance and meaning with regard to interpretation.  Gallagher weaves together a number of the key threads in his philosophical repertoire to deliver a compelling case for pluralism with regard to social cognition. The chapter begins with a clear survey of the contributions from leading historical figures in the hermeneutical tradition, contrasting the traditional approaches to textual interpretation (Hirsch and Betti) which sought to establish meaning as the truth of the text, in other words, that which corresponded to the author’s original intention, with that of Gadamer who gave priority to significance – the interpretation that the reader brings to the text. While it is Hirsch who introduces the distinction, as Gallagher points out (219), for Gadamer any access to the meaning of the text is inevitably via an interpreter and so significance always informs meaning. There is no objective unchanging meaning. These interpretations can be further complicated and deepened, as Gallagher reminds us with Habermas’ notion of ‘depth hermeneutics’ which brings into play all the cultural and socio-political forces that shape any interpretation. Gallagher writes: “In this view, the deeper meaning is equivalent not to the author’s intentions, or to the original audience’s understanding, but to a realization of how certain socioeconomic forces shaped such intentions and understandings and their subsequent interpretations” (220).

In what follows, Gallagher employing hermeneutical practice in the domain of social cognition, maps the notions of meaning and significance onto the current theory of mind accounts, noting the theoretical and methodological ‘fit’ between Theory-Theory (TT) and traditional hermeneutics, whereas his own account of Interaction Theory (IT) coheres well with the Gadamerian account. Gallagher offers cogent critiques of the purely inferential TT account and he builds a convincing case for his hermeneutical analysis of social cognition in terms of interaction (IT) and also understanding others through the dynamical processes of narrative. To my mind these comparisons of differing theoretical domains testify yet again to not just the viability but even moreso the perspicacity of the enactivist account which coheres with the insights of Interaction Theory.

Chapter 12, ‘Feeling Ashamed of Myself Because of You’, by Alba Montes Sánchez and Alessandro Salice is one of the most philosophically satisfying papers I have read on this subject.  It offers a succinct and critical synthesis of the literature, and furthermore identifies precisely the point that these other accounts overlook. The ‘I’ is co-constituted with the ‘we’ and this underwrites our susceptibility to feeling shame for others on two counts; shame-inducing others as members of our in-group and also in the wider sense as belonging to our human species.  And it is this rendering of the primordial ‘we’ to which I have previously referred (in this review) and also in the context of the empathy debates (Daly, 2014, 2016). They distinguish their current proposal from earlier discussions which focus on the fact that “shame is not possible for a monadic, isolated self” (Zahavi 2014, 2012; Montes Sánchez 2014), that “the self of shame is intrinsically social”, arguing that there is an additional aspect to shame which is able to account for hetero-induced shame (231), when one feels shame because of the behavior or experience of another.  I have now removed the ‘Shame’ paper off my ‘to-do’ list.  This current chapter from Montes Sánchez and Salice has not only made this entirely redundant but they have also accomplished their analysis of this overlooked aspect of shame in such a superb way that it would be extremely difficult to improve on.

Daniel Hutto and Glenda Satne’s Chapter 5, ‘Continuity Skepticism in Doubt: A Radically Enactive Take’ is, like a number of chapters in this collection, another foray into the fine-tuning of the articulation of the enactivist account so as to ensure that counterfeits are not mistaken for the real-thing.  Their particular aims are to clarify the related issues of content, representations and evolutionary continuity in the REC account and its rivals. Importantly, they stress that content-involving cognitions are compatible with the REC account, but are only available to those entities that have some mastery of sociocultural practices. This will be a particularly rewarding read for those already familiar with the debates and acronyms as the analyses not only reference earlier critical engagements between the various proponents but also offer an incisive if not fully resolved response to the continuity skeptic.

Chapter 10, ‘The Emergence of Persons’, by Mark. H. Bickhard, takes the discussion into the domain of metaphysics and as he stresses he is drawing on process metaphysics not entity metaphysics to give an account of the emergence of persons.  Bickhard defends a view that aims to challenge the account of Radically Enactive Cognition and its critique of representationalism.  He argues that even some of the more primitive life forms require normative truth-valued representational capacities.  It seems that the conflict between the two accounts might be reconfigured by; firstly, determining what constitutes mastery of sociocultural practices; and secondly, whether what constitutes representation may be construed more broadly beyond narrow cognitivist formulations.

Chapter 16, ‘Neoteny and Social Cognition: A Neuroscientific Perspective on Embodiment’, by Vittorio Gallese, proposes a new model of social perception and cognition through the simulationist paradigm, and suggests what might qualify as the neural underpinnings for such an account.  The thrust of Gallese’s argument is that a closer examination of neoteny (according to Stephen Jay Gould – that humans “retain in adulthood formerly juvenile features, produced by the retardation of somatic development” (309)) will support his claim that embodied simulation plays a key role in evolution and ontogeny.

The discussions are all philosophically interesting, but in my view the last section deserves special mention; here Gallese ties his analyses of neoteny with the aesthetic experience of fictional worlds.   And while I would challenge Gallese’s claim (Daly, 2018) that during “the aesthetic experience of fictional worlds, our experience is almost exclusively mediated by a simulated perception of the events, actions and emotions representing the content of fiction”, nonetheless, that he brings this aspect of human experience into the debates is important. As I alerted in the beginning of this review, the artistic dimensions of culture were a regrettable but understandable omission from the selection of chapters.

Chapter 17, ‘Collective Body Memories’, by Thomas Fuchs extends the usual considerations of memory and body memory as individual experience into the intersubjective and collective domains, drawing principally on phenomenology and also indicating intersections with enactivism and dynamical systems theory.  Fuchs’ key thought is that the similarities of embodiment and the commonalities of the human situation and practices, contribute through familiarity and repetition to the transfer of bodily memories and habits across time to become collectively embedded in cultural practices and rituals. Our bodies respond with a collective ‘know-how’ when solicited by the cultural situation or the interactive dynamic which have roots in a bodily remembered past.  These all serve to establish and consolidate collective body memory.  He writes: “Cultures preordain and suggest certain ways of sitting, standing, walking, gazing, eating, praying, hugging, washing, and so on.  In so doing, they induce certain dispositions and frames of mind associated with these bodily states and behaviors: for example, attitudes of dominance or submission, approximation and distance, appreciation and devaluation, benevolence or resentment, and the like” (333).  Fuchs examines bodily memory from the perspective of the individual experience, within the interactions of a dyad and also social groups across the domains of philosophy, psychology, sociology, sport and everyday culture.  His thorough scholarship conjoined with his thought-provoking analyses add an important dimension to the overall aims of the project.

The final chapter, ‘Embodiment and Enactment in Cultural Psychiatry’, by Laurence J. Kirmayer and Maxwell J.D. Ramstead, examines the implications of cultural diversity for individuals undergoing anomalous experience in psychopathology, in illness, and also for those seeking to intervene on behalf of these individuals.  They propose there is a bi-directional relevance between the paradigms of embodiment, enaction and narrative practice, with the concerns of cultural psychiatry.  None of these approaches dismisses the value of neuroscience in the understanding of human experience, but nonetheless there is a warranted wariness of the neurocentric tendency in much modern psychiatry.  The focus of this chapter as the authors outline is to examine “the cultural neurophenomenology of mental disorders that focuses on the interplay of culturally shaped developmental processes and modes of neural information processing that are reflected in embodied experience, narrative practices that are structured by ideologies of personhood, culturally shared ontologies or expectations, and situated modes of enactment that reflect social positioning and self-fashioning” (397).  They specifically draw on the phenomenology of delusions to establish their case that “psychopathology cannot be understood completely in neurobiological or individual terms but requires a broader social and cultural perspective” (Kirmayer and Gold, 2012) which also takes account of the often blurred lines between what is considered pathologically mentally ill and what may be described as self-limited forms of psychopathology that are not debilitating (399).  The analyses extend from enaction, to predictive processing, to metaphor and embodiment, to the metaphoric mediation of illness narratives, to embodiment, enactment and intersubjectivity in delusions, to cultural ontologies and constructions of normativity, culminating in a discussion of the cultural neurophenomenology of psychopathology. Each analysis displays a breadth and acuity of scholarship that deserves a more extended treatment – another book perhaps.

Unfortunately, this review could not do justice to all the chapters in this collection.  These other chapters include: ‘We Are, Therefore I Am – I Am, Therefore We Are: The Third in Sartre’s social ontology’ by Nicolas de Warren; ‘Consciousness Culture and Significance’ by Christoph Durt; ‘The Extent of Our Abilities: The Presence, Salience and Sociality of Affordances’ by John Z. Elias; ‘The Role of Affordances in Pretend Play’ by Zuzanna Rucinska; ‘Ornamental Feathers Without Mentalism: A Radical Enactive View on Neanderthal Body Adornment’ by Duilio Garofoli; ‘Movies of the Mind: On Our Filmic Body’ by Joerg Fingerhut & Katrin Heinmann; ‘Painful Bodies at Work: Stress and Culture’ by Peter Henningsen & Heribert Sattel.


Given the potential scope of such a topic it is of no surprise that other equally important dimensions of enaction and culture were not included in this volume such as those flagged in the introduction – notably the work achieved by Lambros Malafouris in regard to material culture and his fascinating book How Things Shape the Mind (2013), appreciatively referencing Shaun Gallagher’s earlier book How the Body Shapes the Mind (2005).  So too Richard Menary’s work in the area of ‘tools’ as elucidated in his books Cognitive Integration: Mind and Cognition (2007) and as editor of and author in The Extended Mind (2010).  The fine arts, music and theatre, the high-cultural domains, are conspicuously absent (apart from the last section of Gallese’s chapter) and this is a great pity particularly given the centrality of Merleau-Ponty’s thought to the origins of enactivism and his enduring fascination and appreciation of painting in revealing our shared worlds. Nonetheless, the chapters included in this volume present new insights, refinements of the debates and extremely valuable contributions to our understandings of the cultural dimensions of subjectivity and intersubjectivity both in anomalous experiential contexts and in the everyday context.


Daly, Anya. 2014. “Primary Intersubjectivity: Empathy, affective reversibility, ‘self-affection’ and the primordial ‘we’”. Topoi, Special Issue: Embodiment and Empathy: Current Debates in Social Cognition, Vol. 33, Issue 1,

Daly, Anya. 2016. Merleau-Ponty and the Ethics of Intersubjectivity. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Daly, Anya. 2018. “Merleau-Ponty’s Aesthetic Interworld: From Primordial Percipience to Wild Logos”. Philosophy Today.

Durt, Christoph, Thomas Fuchs, Christian Tewes (Eds). 2017. Embodiment, Enaction and Culture: Investigating the Constitution of the Shared World. Boston: MIT Press.

Gallagher, Shaun. 2017. Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gallagher, Shaun. 2005. How the Body Shapes the Mind. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Pres.

Husserl, Edmund. 1989. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy – Second Book: Studies in the Phenomenology of Constitution, Trans. R. Rojcewicz and A. Schuwer. Amsterdam: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Jardine, J. 2017. Empathy, Embodiment, and the Person: Ipseity and Alterity in Husserl’s Second Ideen. Copenhagen: Faculty of Humanities, University of Copenhagen.

Kirmayer, L. J., and I. Gold. 2011. “Re-socializing psychiatry: Critical neuroscience and the limits of reductionism“. In Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience, (eds) S. Choudhury and J. Slaby, 307-330. Blackwell.

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How Things Shape the Mind. Boston: MIT Press.

Menary, Richard (Ed). 2010. The Extended Mind. Boston: MIT Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1962, 2006. The Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. London: Routledge Kegan Paul.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 2012. The Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Donald A. Landes. Abingdon, New York: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1964. “The Philosopher and his Shadow”, Signs. Trans. Richard C. Mc Cleary. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Scheler, M. 1970. The Nature of Sympathy. Trans. P. Heath, Hamden, CT: Archon Books.

Schmid, Hans Bernhard. 2014. “Plural Self-awareness”, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. 13:7-24.

Varela, Rosch and Thompson. 1991. The Embodied Mind. The MIT Press.

Zahavi, D. and U. Kriegel. 2016. “For-me-ness: What it is and what it is not”. In Philosophy of Mind and Phenomenology: Conceptual and Empirical Approaches, (eds) D.O. Dahlstrom, A Elpidorous and W. Hopp, Routledge, 36-53.



[1] See Shaun Gallagher’s latest book – Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

[2] In Ideas II, and in the section titled – ‘Transition from solipsistic to intersubjective experience’ (trans, 1989), Husserl outlines various implications of pursuing the solipsistic thought experiment, indicating that it is only in the interaction with others, particularly in conflictual situations, that the intersubjective sphere and a shared world can be established. Nonetheless, he points to an underlying condition for any interaction to take place in a footnote. “Of course, this conflict should not be considered total. For a basic store of communal experiences is presupposed in order for mutual understanding to take place at all” (84). It is this that I would suggest is pointing to Merleau-Ponty’s ‘primordial we’, and Scheler’s ‘I’ within the ‘we’, and the ‘we’ within the ‘I’.  The intrasubjective experience of belonging to a ‘we’, lays the ground for shared intersubjective experience and this is not a fusion because the attention constantly shifts between ‘I’ and ‘we’, just as perception shifts between figure and ground. An alternative interpretation of this quote was suggested to me by James Jardine, “namely that Husserl is here indicating that, in order for reciprocal understanding to occur I must ‘assume’ that the other’s experiential world is similar to mine in certain respects (an assumption that is then confirmed in the ongoing course of the other’s expressive ‘behaviour,’ particularly when that behaviour exhibits that the other has recognized and is responding to me as a fellow embodied subject). The term which Husserl uses here, ‘gemeinsam,’ could just as well be translated as ‘common’ rather than ‘communal’” (Jardine, 2017).

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

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

Reviewed by: Tom McClelland (University of Warwick)

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.


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

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

Reviewed by: Diane Stringer (University of Adelaide)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch: The Embodied Mind, Revised Edition: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Revised Edition), MIT Press, 2017

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