Peter Antich: Motivation and the Primacy of Perception

Motivation and the Primacy of Perception: Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Knowledge Book Cover Motivation and the Primacy of Perception: Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Knowledge
Series in Continental Thought, № 54
Peter Antich
Ohio University Press · Swallow Press
Hardback $95.00

Reviewed by: Jim Gabaret (Paris 1 University)

Motivation and the Primacy of Perception, the edition of Peter Antich’s doctoral thesis, is a study of the notion of ‘motivation’, which has been the focus of extensive investigation in recent years. The term refers to an affective and perceptive awareness of possibilities towards which the agent feels drawn[1]. The notion is part of an already well-established phenomenological tradition but it could still prove useful for epistemologists as it suggests a “Merleau-Pontian epistemological program” (p. 6). Merleau-Ponty’s notion of motivation has already been described as a compelling alternative to the empiricist and rationalist assumptions that underpin modern epistemology[2]. The question of how knowledge can be grounded in experience without reverting to a naive empiricism is a fundamental challenge to contemporary philosophy of cognition. By placing the French phenomenologist in dialogue with major contemporary figures of the Anglo-Saxon philosophy of mind, Antich’s clear and scholarly book identifies some of the most important issues in the transition from perception to judgments, even if it does not resolve them all.

But how exactly can phenomenology help epistemology? First, this book aims to understand knowledge as an intentional state, a type of experience distinct from wishes, imaginations and perceptions, with the tools of phenomenology. But it also allows us to overcome epistemological issues once the phenomenologically inadequate terms in which they were expressed have been replaced. We must indeed understand how, without simply causing knowledge, our embodied experiences can motivate and ground beliefs about the world. In a very merleau-pontian fashion, Antich highlights in turn the difficulties of empiricists and rationalists, causal and intellectualist explanations of perception and knowledge, or conceptualist and non-conceptualist programs, as well as disjunctivism and conjunctivism, in order to propose a middle way, beyond the false difficulties created by these dualistic alternatives.

However, by creating a specific zone between a causally explicable physical world and a reason-justified knowledge, are we not blurring the differences between experience and knowledge, or between the most immediate perceptive norms and the norms of judgments, which are more prone to interpretation or verification? The notion of motivation, a process where we would spontaneously and bodily grasp meanings pertaining to our worldly situation, prompting us to believe or act in a certain way, could wrongly incite us to naturalize a meaning that is in fact always intentionally produced. Antich’s challenge is to solve an age-old problematic dualism about experience and knowledge, by bridging the “space of causes” and the “space of reasons” – and, what is more, to do so without falling into an obscure monism.

Critical overview: the main theses

  1. Causes, reasons and motivation:

The first thesis of the book (chapter 1) is that the traditional epistemological dichotomy – found for instance in Sellars or McDowell – between reasons and causes (or justifying and explaining) is false. If we ask why something happens, we can answer with an objective cause, a conscious reason or a motive that has triggered it. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty says motivation is not only what grounds our will in action but is also a perceptual and an epistemic ground. Perception motivates our beliefs: it does not justify them (there is sometimes a gap between our motivated beliefs about the external world and reality) but it does not simply explain them either. But does such a spontaneous normative relation between the perceptive world on the one hand, and us, our body or our knowledge on the other hand, actually exist? Is it absolutely irreducible to justifications by reasons, or to explanations by causes?

According to Antich’s distinction, causal relationships hold between objects and events and affect everyone the same way, while a motive has an effect on us because of its meaning which appears as the actual cause of our action or thought but is relative. Causes explain why something is the case, reasons explain what should be the case, as far as our knowledge is concerned; motivation also explains what should be the case, but as far as our beliefs are concerned, in front of a perceptual scene. Therefore, it accepts several beliefs (but in finite number and in accordance with certain norms). The norms of perception that motivate our beliefs are for instance equilibrium and determinacy (when a hesitation occurs, it is meant to be solved and doubt to disappear), veridicality, or a « good grasp » of the object perceived. Indeed, contrary to imaginings, perceptions are experienced as non-optional. In front of two conflicting motives, one is right and has to be followed and the other denied. Motives are not norms in themselves, says Antich, but the aspect of what I perceive with perceptual ends in mind. Nevertheless, since motivational processes are not conscious choices, they are intrinsically characterized by normativity.

Antich also distinguishes between motivation and reason. A reason is explicit and revisable while a motive is spontaneous, implicit and cannot be changed. For instance, the Müller-Lyer illusion cannot be affected by reason. Antich then gives much more “intellectual” examples, which are prone to changing interpretations where we might revise our motivation just like with reasons, but he maintains a difference by putting emphasis on the explicitness of reasons. I know the right way to strike the ball on the tennis court without reasoning, because the trajectory of the ball is a motive for my body to position itself in a certain way. If I had to reason, I could not have the same spontaneity.

There are intuitive relations between perceptions: for instance, the notes of a melody bear an intrinsic relation to each other that gives them their meaning, and the retention-protention structure which unifies them is constitutive of perception. Likewise, the gestalt principles of grouping are perceived relations supposedly “out there” in the perceptive field: the groups of dots we see when looking at dots separated by regular spaces are not our creation, but the grouping arises spontaneously, through our perceptive contact with the world. The grounding relations are similar: some are active and intellectual (explanation or justification) but others are spontaneous and bodily relations (motivation). Motivation has the specificity of being a reciprocal relation: a “proactive” influence of a motivating factor and a « retroactive » influence of the motivated on the motivating. Similarly to a melody where the last note influences the meaning of the previous ones, my motivated beliefs or actions can shed a new light on what motivated me: if the death of my friend is the motive of my journey of grief, my decision to go on the journey might, in a logical sense, “confirm this sense as valid”.

  1. The primacy of perception and its relation to grounding.

Antich’s second thesis (chapter 2) is that all our knowledge is based on perception and that perception is, as Merleau-Ponty says, a “nascent logos” with a “silent thesis” which explains the birth of knowledge.

Of course, knowledge cannot be reduced to perception. Knowledge is about states of affairs, it is propositional, thetic, explicit, it depends on symbolization and takes place at the level of verification, in the logical space of reasons, while perception is an experience of meaningful things, one devoid of judgment and verification. Knowledge seeks a greater degree of certainty than that found in perception, and it has a universality through truth that the particular and perspectival perception can never reach.

But despite the differences, every item of knowledge includes in its ground at least some component, not of reason, but of motivation, which is itself an effect of perception. Although they can endure beyond the perception upon which they are founded, knowledge, meanings and intellectual evidence depend on perceptual evidence.

This is the “primacy of perception” explained by Merleau-Ponty: the perceived world is the presupposed foundation of all rationality, value and existence (see The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays). This notion is to be distinguished from empiricism insofar as science and reflection are not mere transformed sensations. In spite of the founding character of perception, the founded knowledge is not merely derived from this perception; for only through what is founded does that which founds become explicit (p. 51): “it is only through the founded that the founding appears” (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 414). This double relation (bottom-up and top-down) between the perceived object – which is a fragment of meaning that calls for determination by attention and knowledge – and the thetic understanding that fixes the perceived object and finally makes it exist, imply that the perceived object is the motif, rather than the rational warrant or the natural cause, of the “knowing event” (p. 54). Motivation is thus an epistemic mode of grounding in which perceptions can be that which spontaneously grounds items of knowledge without deliberation. It gives weight to some beliefs and not others, sometimes against my judgment (optical illusions), but does not give actual reasons.

  1. Particular experience, evidence and universal knowledge.

In chapter 3, Antich focuses on particular judgments about the perceptual world: “How can nonpropositional perceptions justify propositional judgments?” (p. 70). Antich abandons the alternative between causality and reason in order to overcome the debate between Davidson’s coherentism and McDowell’s “minimal empiricism” or foundationalism. According to Davidson, our beliefs are only justified by other beliefs: natural events do not belong to the space of reasons, and perception cannot be a justification but causes our belief. But he does not explain the normative fact that there are right and wrong descriptions of the perceptual scene and the phenomenological fact that perception is neither a mere sensation nor an explicit perceptual belief disconnected from its sensory content.

Rejecting the “Myth of the Given”, McDowell, on the other hand, argues that perception does not directly cause our beliefs but that the nonpropositional content of perception noninferentially justifies it through active and reflexive dispositions. But he does not take into consideration the spontaneous aspect that characterizes such perceptions as optical illusions, which are obviously not liable to revision by active thinking. Ordinarily, we do not actively think about the relation between perception and perceptual judgments, nor are we free to revise or alter this relation under the recommendation of active thinking, says Antich.

When we are faced with new experiences, many perceptions are even indefinite and ambiguous; this proves that judgment is not intrinsic to perception – on the contrary, the former determines and enriches the perception. But the perception still grounds the judgment, which without it would be empty and merely verbal. The concept of motivation helps to understand the intimate bond between knowledge and perception in terms of fulfillment. We can freely form an a priori judgment about a state of affairs but it is empty until it achieves evidence, in Husserl’s terms, that is to say until it is intuitively fulfilled by a perception which makes it evident and thus motivated.

One might ask whether this is not simply putting a name to a difficulty rather than explaining it. But the wager of phenomenology is that a good description already contains the beginning of an explanation. In his article “Merleau-Ponty’s Theory of Preconceptual Generalities and Concept Formation” (2018), Antich more precisely explains the formation of concepts as a bridge from perception to knowledge. Against theories of concept formation using abstraction, he very convincingly defends a merleau-pontian account of the birth of concepts from “preconceptual generalities” which organize experience at the most basic level. In The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty indeed exhorts us to “replace the notions of concept, idea, mind, representation, with the notions of dimensions, articulation, level, hinge, pivots, configuration”; but he does so in order to preserve perception from conceptual analysis, and not because concepts should be evacuated. To understand how we are able to identify, categorize and then exert our conceptual capacities towards experience, it is useful to understand the conceptual availability of intuition. But since Merleau-Ponty does not generally think of perception as having conceptual content, in his new work on motivation, Antich wishes to stay neutral with regards to the role of concepts in perception, even though an elucidation of this question might have shed a new light on these debates.

  1. Experience, abstraction and a priori knowledge: overcoming the rationalism-empiricism divide

Chapter 4 focuses on universal judgments beyond perceptual experiences. It advocates to follow Merleau-Ponty’s path to overcome the alternative between rationalism and empiricism. According to the empiricist, for knowledge to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, or between truth and mere logical consistency, it must be grounded in experience. Merleau-Ponty assumes that even abstract scientific concepts like “time” have meaning for us only due to our perceptual experience of time. But the universality of knowledge transcends any singular experience, replies the rationalist. Contrary to the empiricist claim, such concepts as high numbers or time, universals and terms as diverse as “quark,” “chiliagon,” and “modus ponens” and at least some intellectual content (like a priori knowledge) are not reducible to experiential content and evidence, and might even be innate.

Rationalists still have a hard time explaining how such concepts can be self-evident then, as Merleau-Ponty noticed: intellectual evidence (just like perceptual evidence) actually relies on a foreground/background structure, such that any proposition can appear evident only in virtue of a background set of beliefs not simultaneously raised to explicit awareness. That is why every judgment can be doubted and is open to correction. There is a historical situatedness of all evidence (at least in their apprehension). Of course, some propositions known analytically seem presuppositionless since they are apodictically known only because their negation is inconceivable, but they can be labeled as “consequent” rather than “true” if they are not fulfilled in reality. We have to admit that a judgment always relies on other presuppositions. Particular experience grounds a priori knowledge by motivation.

Some moderate rationalists like Laurence Bonjour (In Defense of Pure Reason) argue that any argument, even the ones of the empiricists, depends on some a priori justification, for instance accepting the conclusion of an inference. If the rules for justified inference from experience were derived from experience, they might not themselves be justified, and no knowledge would be. Nevertheless, it can be motivated, says Antich: motivation is not a mere contingent occasioning ground for knowledge, but a funding ground. It creates a transcendent and necessary knowledge which originates in perception but is not reducible to it. Perception, being contingent, cannot justify the necessity of our knowledge, but it can motivate knowledge containing necessary truths. It can ground many of our ideas which are neither caused by our senses nor produced by our imagination, like personal identity, substance or causality, doubted by Hume but which are not mere fictions. The same goes for quantities: first, young children can perceptually distinguish magnitudes, but they have to learn a count list made of numbers, then learn to map their representations with this list in order to acquire the concept of natural numbers, and to finally acquire the concept of succession and the mastering of very large numbers, according to Susan Carey.

  1. Perceptual faith against skepticism

Primacy of perception anchors knowledge in ordinary beliefs. But Antich recognizes that this motivation process cannot provide a justified true-belief account of knowledge. “A belief counts as knowledge, just in case it is a normatively motivated true judgment”, without the need of an explicit justification (p. 60). Chapter 5 focuses on this perceptual faith, the fact that I trust my perception to be of the world, and not a mere appearance. It is not an active position-taking expressed as a judgment about existence, but an experience of inhabiting the world with our body prior to all verification, which cannot justify but grounds our knowledge about the world.

But here the skeptic’s objections arise. Perception sometimes fails to distinguish itself from illusion. Our belief in the perceptual world, because it is not justified, may then be understood as a psychological natural fact about us, caused in us, but lacking normative import. Knowledge could then be entirely inexistant. Rationalists like Descartes or Kant tried to answer skepticism by use of a nonperceptual faculty: reason. But we may not need this recourse to reason if we consider that the skeptic’s desire for justification is simply excessive and should be ignored. Our perceptual faith is a spontaneous and involuntary feature of our perception: it is not an ordinary belief susceptible to error.

Sometimes, hallucinations can of course trick us, but patients can ordinarily distinguish them from perceptions, because differences in the horizonal content are available. One might argue that one can actually find an epistemological disjunctivism in Merleau-Ponty, but this is not Antich’s point: the disjunctivist’s claim that perceptions are intrinsically different from illusions does nothing to dispel the skeptical threat that I may not be able to distinguish them. Such a certainty is simply not needed. In a first-person epistemic perspective, we don’t need a reason to justify our belief that we perceive and are not victims of a hallucination: we simply perceive it. Illusion cannot disqualify perception either in our epistemology because it essentially depends on ordinary genuine perception (the possibility of a false experience presupposes the possibility of a true one).

Again, we may have simply named on a problem that still remains unsolved, and perceptual faith has not been justified but only described. But Antich defends that such a description is neither a psychology of knowledge merely explaining the formation of our beliefs, since the normativity of motivation make them acceptable, nor an actual justification, since trying to justify perceptual faith would reproduce the mistake made by reflective philosophies which look for excessive warranties and reasons to every belief. Asking for more, like the skeptics, would equate to “requir[ing] of the innocent the proof of his non-culpability”, as Merleau-Ponty says: the task of philosophy, rather than justifying or describing the perceptual faith, is to return to it.

  1. Merleau-Ponty versus Kant: grounding transcendental knowledge in experience

Chapter 6 deals with consequences of the abovementioned thesis on the opposition between Kant’s and Merleau-Ponty’s attempts to overcome the rationalism-empiricism debate. Kantian experience is an empirical cognition: a conscious presentation referring to an object which has unity through concepts, that is to say, a judgment. It needs to follow certain rules in order to be necessary, justified then objective. In saying so, Kant may describe conditions for experience in the sense of justified empirical judgment, but not in the sense of perception. For Merleau-Ponty, perception is not a judgment – it is the pre-predicative givenness of the thing – and does not need to be justified, but only motivated. Kant emphasizes the need of an intellectual synthesis like causality in order to experience objective time order, while Merleau-Ponty argued for a passive temporal synthesis which does not need the principle of sufficient reason, since temporal processes are given as wholes and not as distinct moments to be ordered. Perception is not governed by categories, and yet it is objective, since its objectivity derives from motivation, “perception’s spontaneous sensitivity to norms” (p. 164). Moreover, transcendental justification is ultimately motivated in the course of experience, which challenges the a priori status of the categories and the synthetic principles.

Chapter 7 addresses the question of metaphysical knowledge (cognition through mere concepts) which seems to be allowed (contrary to Kant’s thesis) by Merleau-Ponty’s concept of motivation: does Merleau-Ponty release metaphysics from Kant’s bounds? Antich answers this question by focusing on Kant’s Third Paralogism, namely, the identity of the self. Kant considers that intuition only gives us objects, so empirical apperception can give me successive determinations of my mind like a stream of presentations, but it is not a perception of myself as a subject. But Antich shows that the fact that I perceive things and make normed judgment about self-identity is a tacit cohesion of experience (a “tacit cogito”) and a direct self-perception rather than an a priori judgment. According to Merleau-Ponty, the self is made of a stream of continuous experiences that are always internally related and are the background against which each particular experience acquires its meaning: this field implicitly unifies my existence. Contrary to Kant’s view of the self, which fails to account for how transcendental and empirical apperception can “merge” and intend the same determinative (active) but also determined (passive) subject, Merleau-Ponty’s tacit cogito allows us to consider the pre-reflective self as both passively synthesizing the flow of consciousness and as synthesized within the flow of consciousness. The return to motivation, then, does not exactly open the door to metaphysics but does “put transcendental and empirical apperception into dialectic (i.e., it shows both types of apperception to be insufficient in themselves and to be parts of a larger whole)” (p. 193). Perceptions are therefore moments of a common structure, something which is neither a fixed foundation nor a contingent multiplicity, but rather what Merleau-Ponty calls transcendence. It does not mean that we have to embrace groundlessness and skepticism, but that we have to accept that within the contingent, the quest of necessity is permanent and that not ultimate justification, but motivation and negotiated ambiguity, constitute our path towards to an always progressing knowledge.


Debates inside phenomenology

Antich acknowledges in the notes that his decision to give a unified view of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of perception is open to discussion (see Renaud Barbaras, The Being of the Phenomenon: Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology). It might have been interesting to further discuss this point.

Moreover, Merleau-Ponty is the main inspiration for this study, but Peter Antich also borrows from the phenomenological tradition, as his very rich and stimulating notes underline. Despite his criticism of Husserl’s intellectualism, Merleau-Ponty in fact takes up the notion of motivation from him[3] and from Edith Stein[4]. The idea also appears in Anscombe (Intention, 1957), but also in Anthony Kenny (Action, Emotion and Will, 1963), who sees it as a pattern of behavior that invites people to see my action in a certain light, or in Paul Ricoeur (Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary, 1950), who sometimes speaks of a motive as an antecedent of action and sometimes as a general trait of action (a personal, social or human tendency). It would have been fruitful to study even more closely the links of dependence but also the profound differences that may separate these philosophers[5], in order to grasp the specificity of the Merleau-Pontian concept of motivation.

The notion of motivation finally comes up in Merleau-Ponty’s discussion with Sartre[6], when dealing with the question of freedom in situation. The fact of having ‘motives’ implies that freedom is never indeterminate or absolute, but according to Sartre, it is always the free subject who gives a situation or a motive its meaning and its motivating power. Yet Peter Antich does not really put this contextual use of the notion of motivation into perspective: he chooses instead to understand the notion at a level that is often more fundamental and less free than action, that of perception, and it leads him to mix, in his demonstrations, examples of very spontaneous and unthinking perceptual acts, and actions (such as undertaking a journey) where reflection on motives, their interpretation and the self-narrative that one makes in an often intellectual way carry much weight, while using the same notion of ‘meaning’ in both cases, and claiming that this meaning always comes spontaneously in context.

Debates about perceptual and veridical normativity

Antich tries to create space between a physicalist reductionism and a theory of knowledge merely internal to the space of reason and disconnected from our experience. He therefore encompasses various phenomena, towards physical or gestalt effects susceptible of a purely physical explanation, but also mental representations and judgments whose origin in experience he tries to understand. But there is much debate about the relevance of avoiding at all costs a reductionist approach of gestalt effects which would describe them as a purely physical process. One phenomenon gives rise to another, not through objective causation, but through “the sense it offers”, says Merleau-Ponty (PhP, 51). But is it not possible to explain illusions or gestalt effects in terms of spatial and temporal contiguity or of an impact of light, textures, and distances on our perceptual system? On the other hand, cognitive « motives » such as reinterpretation of an ambiguous perception, or groundings for our action (for instance a travel we begin because our friend just died) could be given a comprehensive justification in terms of reasons. If there is a retroaction which transforms the whole, it seems to be purely internal to my decision process and my approach of the event: it does not define the intrinsic meaning of my friend’s death, which can be interpreted in many other ways by his other friends or his family, and it does not affect the existence of the event itself. According to Merleau-Ponty, the reinterpretation of the motive in light of the motivatum makes us forget the actual event. But this amounts to admitting that it is our intentionality that has changed, our beliefs or our memories, but not reality itself.

Of course, this continuity seems to be helpful to understand how our knowledge could be grounded in experience: if we consider that gestalt effects are already normative and have meanings, though they are not conscious and voluntary, it could explain how our judgments are also normed in ways we do not control in order to follow the truth. But are these norms exactly the same?

Any activity can be good or bad, depending on whether it fulfills its conscious purpose or not. We can thus say that perceptive activity contains norms of satisfaction: in certain situations, I see badly, because of the distance, an obstacle, or shortcomings in my body, and if I want to perceive, I have to move backwards or forwards, remove the obstacle, or put on glasses. We know this without thinking about it because we are already “experts” in perception (see H. Dreyfus et C. Taylor, Retrieving Realism, 2015). This habit of perception invites us to make anticipations and to see the world continuously, without contradiction between the data of the different sensitive organs or between different moments of experience. In the sense that it has standards of success or failure, perception is normative, which has already been commented on a lot. But are these not descriptive rather than normative features? And if this normativity is the same for perception as for any action that our body considers pragmatically successful or unsuccessful, can it have an epistemic force to guarantee true knowledge? If “seeing well” consists in succeeding in satisfying a practical need to operate within the perceptual scene, can we ever draw from perception a normativity that would concern “true seeing”?

Antich himself is careful to distinguish norms about true judgments (reasons) and perceptive norms which motivate beliefs, when he tries to avoid a reductionist approach which would consider motives as implicit reasons. But then, he faces two difficulties: are motives indeed different from reasons? And if they are, how is their normativity related to the one in the space of reasons, and how can we bridge the gap between motivation in experience and reasons justifying knowledge? It may seem easier, to answer the second issue, to say that there is a continuum between explicit and implicit reasons, as is suggested by Merleau-Ponty himself: sometimes, “motivation” seems to mean the incorporated rules we possess as reason to act or believe in a certain way even if we are not aware of reasoning anymore. It would help in avoiding to disconnect reasons from experience and invent a purely idealistic realm, because reasons are rarely as pure and different from perceptual motives as one might think.

But in section 9 of the first chapter, Antich argues against the idea of implicit reasons by saying that some motives are so amorphous that they can never be made explicit and function as reasons. But this argument seems to reduce the field of « motivation » to indeterminate phenomena, which are quite rare and are not the kind of examples that the author considers in the rest of the book. Of course, it would not be useful to do away with the distinction between perception and reasoning, or between unexplicit belief and clear knowledge. But seeing the kinship between these two categories may allow us to conceive of them as two types of intentional aiming without assuming that motivation is based on a meaning inscribed in reality itself rather than on our intentionality. This would help to understand how a perception can change, as one “changes her mind”, and how it can have in common with knowledge a certain dimension of commitment vis-à-vis the real to be identified or characterized. Interestingly, Antich admits that the meanings produced by motivation are not the motivating meanings, that for instance a light on the wall can draw my attention but is not a compelling force, and that « the light does not drag me along behind it, but awakens within me an intention ». There seems to be room for the intentionality of the subject here. But following Merleau-Ponty’s path between objectivity and subjectivity and refusing the divide, Antich claims that the contributions of both perceiver and perceived are inseparable from the normativity of perceptual motivation: “the idea is (…) not that the subject is solely responsible for the epistemic normativity of perception. Rather, the subject is responsive to the normative significance of perception.” (ch. 2 note 25). Antich later specifies that the subjective role of the perceiver is merely to desire to or be oriented toward seeing the world “as it is”, implying that most of the motivation comes from the side of the world.

The naturalization of meaning

The benefits of Merleau-Ponty’s analysis relies greatly on the essential « fact about perception » which is described in Phenomenology of perception: the idea of a “spontaneous sense”. At the level of the body, at the level of individual history and at the level of society, there are spontaneous valuations “in us”: the perceptual scenes appear to us to be great or small, easy or difficult to reach, and desirable or not, depending on our physiological constitution, our experiences, the lifestyle of our society, and the methods of solving problems that seem ordinary and habitual. This can give the impression that situations are “calling” us in one way or another.

But as Jakub Capek explains, “there are only norms for a being capable of assuming them, carrying them, and, in certain cases, turning away from them”[7]. It is essential to realize that it is always our human commitments that give one meaning or another to an event that motivates us to act or think: Merleau-Ponty himself admits that a form of freedom within these spontaneous valuations and these motives – and motivated by them – is always possible; but to conceive of this, one must not naturalize the meaning of a motive and the value of things in the things themselves. Otherwise, we could no longer go back and change their meaning.

If motivation is conceived as a part of an “operative intentionality” which does not oppose but deepens Husserl’s conception of intentionality, it has to be described as a way of aiming at things and giving them meaning (even if it is outside of the egoistic consciousness, involuntarily and in a pre-predicative and bodily functioning) rather than a passive reception of natural meanings already out there in the world (the “world” itself being the way we make sense of reality). But Merleau-Ponty often implies that the world itself comes to us as already bearing a sense. Indeed, perception does not give us a set of mutually indifferent atomic sensations but an arrangement of figures on a background, which cannot exist (or at least mean something) without another, and which make us do things according to the meaning they have for us.

The few examples given by Merleau-Ponty to prove the existence of such natural senses are ambiguous. If we unconsciously register the reflection of the light in the human eye even though painters forgot it for centuries, it does indeed mean that we can register information without focusing our conscious attention on it, but not that it is in itself a natural information of “livelihood” which cannot be explained. And if we first see a tree on the beach and subsequently reinterpret it as a shipwreck, or if the distance between two objects appears to change when I discover other objects interposed between them, without any conscious decision, does this really mean that we perceive meanings without an intentional movement? Does it not actually prove that, precisely because it can change, meaning is not a given but a construct (even if bodily, necessarily, naturally and unconsciously built)? Quoting Stein, Antich admits that a single state of affairs can always be interpreted in a variety of manners, but he says that “it defines a range of possibilities” (p. 36), as if these interpretations were contained in reality as possible meanings.

The difficulty may lie in the fact that Merleau-Ponty and Antich mix examples related to interpretative meaning with gestalt effects. But these existing gestalt effects are not meanings: they are physical relations between objects. This naturalization of meaning could be a major theoretical difficulty. Many of our perceptions seem to vary depending on the context and meaning has thus often been taken to be “intentional”, to pertain to the ways in which we aim at things rather than to the things themselves. Antich says his analysis keeps the grounding relations “internal to the sphere of meaning” without taking a stance on its ontological location: “Some form of mentalism (the view that what justifies a belief is a mental state) is probably most congenial to my view—though even this would raise thorny questions about Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of meanings” (p. 60), he recognizes. But this point is important, and Antich often seems to implicitly give an external reality to these meanings in order to distinguish them from our intentional conscious judgments. In chapter 2 note 33, he says that “motivation is a responsiveness to normative forces exerted by the phenomena themselves.”

Why is it important to distinguish motivation from causes and reasons and to give it natural meaning? First, Antich’s aim may be to ground truth in something real; lacking this foundation, Merleau-Ponty’s account seems to relativize knowledge which proceeds from mere motives rather than from rational explicit justifications. But as in many other cases, it might also have to do with morality. Antich’s example page 61 illustrating “dispositions” which guide us from experience to belief and knowledge is particularly striking: “For example, if I have a disposition to act generously, this just means that under ordinary circumstances, I will act out of a responsiveness to the relevant normative forces of a situation (e.g., the wants or requirements of those around me). » It inclines toward an innate spontaneous moral sense. The project is commendable but can also lead to biases, especially since morality is susceptible to change, and it would perhaps be preferable to note that it depends on an intentional commitment which is continually relaunched.

At the end, we can say that Antich’s clear, precise and stimulating book offers many glimpses of Merleau-Ponty’s contributions to contemporary epistemology. It highlights the places where the philosophical investigation must be carried on today, toward the understanding of the links between reality, action, perception, meaning, intentionality and knowledge. The localization of problems and their correct description being one of the major tasks of phenomenology, one can only appreciate the way in which Antich deploys his own phenomenology in order to highlight its advantages in contemporary debates, and the manner in which he opens a path to many lines of work in the future.

[1] Dreyfus, H. L., “The Return of the Myth of the Mental”, Inquiry, 50(4), 2007; Kelly, S. D., “Merleau-Ponty on the Body”, Ratio (new series), 15, 2002; O’Conaill, D., “On Being Motivated”, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 12 (4), 2013.

[2] Wrathall, M., “Motives, Reasons, and Causes”, In T. Carman (Ed.), Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[3] Walsh, P. J., “Husserl’s Concept of Motivation: the logical investigations and beyond”, History of Philosophy & Logical Analysis 16 (1), 2013.

[4] Bello, A. A., Causality and Motivation in Edith Stein, in Poli, R., Causality and Motivation, Frankfurt, Ontos Verlag, 2013.

[5] Carman, T., “The Body in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty.” Philosophical Topics 27, 2, 1999.

[6] Gordon, R., “Let’s Get Rid of Motivation: Sartre’s Wisdom.” Sartre Studies International 12, 1, 2006.

[7] Čapek, J., « Motivation et normativité : Réflexions sur le concept de liberté à partir de Merleau-Ponty », Bulletin d’Analyse Phénoménologique [online], V. 16, 2 (2020).

Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling (Eds): The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Agency

The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Agency Book Cover The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Agency
Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy
Edited By Christopher Erhard, Tobias Keiling
Hardback £133.00 eBook £27.99

Reviewed by: Florian Markus Bednarski (PhD researcher at Leipzig University and The Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences)

The topic of this new Routledge Handbook is Phenomenology of agency. It is a very well selected topic and a nicely edited volume. The aim of a handbook should be to provide the reader with a selection of essays that cover the most important aspects of a given research focus. The editors must choose contributions carefully to achieve this goal. Before describing the structure and content of this volume in greater detail, some words about the subject of the book will be helpful to better understand the editors’ aim.

Very briefly, Phenomenology of agency is any kind of theorizing about and reflecting on agents’ experiences while performing actions. This theorizing and reflecting, or more generally philosophizing, can be either an attempt at achieving a better understanding of what actions are, or one might be interested in how it feels to act. Contemplating phenomenology of agency can thus lead to manifold findings for the interested reader. Further, the topic of this handbook has several anchor points in different areas of philosophy, among which philosophy of mind and philosophy of action feature most prominently, as well as being of interest for other research fields such as psychology, sociology, political science, cognitive and neuroscience.

Two aims of the handbook are specified by the editors (2). The first is to highlight writings of phenomenologists such as Edith Stein, Hans Reiner and Alexander Pfänder. All belong to a first generation of Husserl followers and worked mainly before 1940. Contributions presenting their work are to highlight the continuity of the phenomenological tradition after Husserl.  The second aim is to increase awareness of how significant phenomenology of agency is for any philosophical account of action. Several contributions discuss phenomenological influences on debates about intentionality, freedom, rationality and morality.

In the introduction, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling not only provide an overview of the book but they also explicate some considerations behind the selection of the contributions. They describe three notions of the term phenomenology. First, the historical tradition founded by Edmund Husserl, second the philosophical method to prefer the “first-person-perspective” in the analysis of philosophical problems, and third the “what-it-is-like” notion of phenomenology. The editors admit that those differentiations might not be accepted without restrictions by every philosopher; however, the selected contributions are to include any of the three notions of the term phenomenology (2). And so, the reader will find chapters describing the work of Husserl and his companions, for example by Karl Mertens, who provides a good overview of Husserl and Pfänder’s writing on action theory (15-28). Besides the historic route, readers can explore methodological points of view on agency in several chapters, for example by Tobias Keiling on László Tengelyi’s discussions of first-person experience of action (235-259). A few chapters further widen the scope of this handbook to the experiential “what-it-is-like” notion of phenomenology, for example Shaun Gallagher’s contribution on phenomenological perspectives in cognitive science (336-350). Although the better part of contributions is concerned with historical or methodological rather than experiential notions of phenomenology, which is most widely spread in interdisciplinary research areas, the handbook does integrate all three perspectives.

Hence, in 27 Chapters and over more than 400 pages this handbook provides an overview of important figures, systematic disputes, and further aspects of the phenomenology of agency. The editors, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling, both mainly interested in the philosophical tradition of phenomenology founded by Edmund Husserl, attempted to select authors and topics from a wide range of relevant areas in philosophy. The handbook is divided into two parts. Part I (5-259) introduces important figures and follows a mainly historical route through the landscape beginning with Franz Brentano. Part II is itself divided into two sections. The first (264-350) dealing with more general systematic questions and the second (352-413) highlighting further aspects such as freedom, morality, and rational action. The handbook also includes an index (415-424) of used terminology, which will be much appreciated by experienced users searching for specific references.

In the following, some chapters of each part will be reviewed to give the reader an impression of what to expect from this volume, beginning with the first chapter “Franz Brentano’s critique of free will” by Denis Seron (7-14). Franz Brentano never provided a full account of action, nor did he discuss the phenomenology of agency in greater detail. Phenomenology of agency is only mentioned in reference to how Brentano grounds his determinism in his radical empiricism. This is so because radical empiricism does not accept an ability to perceive possibilities. According to radical empiricism we can only perceive what is actual and not what is possible. This premise renders indeterminism necessarily false because indeterminism is based on the principle of alternative possibilities, which states that we can at least want to act otherwise. If the reader is interested in how this argument unfolds, chapter one of this volume is a well-crafted starting point.

Denis Seron contributed a short but concise chapter on Brentano’s critique of free will. For the reader it might be of great interest to learn more about Brentano’s radical empiricism. In particular, how he understands immediate consciousness and why he thinks that empirical arguments can only be given based on experience. Brentano’s assumption that one cannot perceive oneself doing otherwise opens up many questions about phenomenology of agency. How can humans be curious and creative in performing bodily movements (e.g. in dancing) if one is only able to perceive oneself doing what one is determined to do?

In a short and fast flowing chapter, Michael L. Morgan describes Levinas’ perspective on agency and ethics (147-157). Morgan’s central aim is to try and explain to the reader what Levinas meant when he wrote “to be a ‘self’ is to be responsible before having done anything” (as cited in Morgan, 2021, 148). In the course of the text, Morgan cleverly uses descriptive stories, such as the one of a judge in court, to clarify how Levinas understands freedom as given to the subject. Especially the notions of responsibility-for-the-other and radical disinterestedness are important to understand Levinas’ profoundly ordinary story about freedom of agency.

Michael L. Morgan delivers a precise text full of intuitively accessible argument. This chapter is especially interesting for readers interested in a perspective on phenomenology of agency that is not inherently fused with a subjective self. Levinas’ writing about agency is interested in the role of interpersonal responsibility and a societal dimension as opposed to viewing agency from a capacities and abilities of agents’ point of view. This chapter adds a further dimension to the topic of phenomenology of agency, highlighting once more the diversity of approaches to the debate.

In chapter fourteen, Thomas Baldwin provides a well-structured overview of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writings about agency (175-188). The significance of phenomenology of agency for any account of action in general becomes stringently clear in this chapter. Baldwin first summarizes Merleau-Ponty’s critique of traditional dualism, the body viewed as an independent physical entity which is moved by a will, which surmounts to a differentiation between an objective body and a phenomenal body. In what follows, Baldwin describes how this ambiguous view of the body helps Merleau-Ponty give an embodied account of agency: “Hence we should replace the conception of agency as the control of a physical body by an abstract mind, and view it instead as the interplay between the pre-personal being in the world of our organism and a personal self which uses this being in the world to understand and change it.” (181)

The next two paragraphs on agency and the will are intended to connect this embodied account to further issues, for example intentionality and rationality. In this context, it is useful that Baldwin directs us to further literature related to these questions, such as Davidson, O’Shaughnessy and McDowell.

In general, this chapter fits well into the context of this volume, and Merleau-Ponty is an important Philosopher whose work bridges some wider gaps between philosophical traditions. His thinking certainly originates in Husserl’s idea of phenomenology but never became a one-sided affair. His writing contains many references to empirical science and Philosophers from the analytic tradition. Finally, it is beneficial for the reader to gain insights not only into Merleau-Pontys main work ‘Phenomenolgy of Perception’ but also some rather unknown texts such as ‘The Structure of Behavior’.

This written dialogue between Martine Nida-Rümelin and Terry Horgan is a well-structured text in which two philosophers discover the precise details about their disagreement on satisfaction conditions of agentive phenomenology (264-299). The central debate between both concerns whether satisfaction conditions of agentive phenomenology can be formulated in alignment with a materialist metaphysics of mind. However, a rather intriguing aspect of this chapter is Nida-Rümelin and Horgans’ discussion about the precise understanding of each other’s view. It is a delight to read an argument in which participants consistently reflect on their opponent’s point-of-view and attempt to represent this viewpoint as accurately as possible before formulating any critique.

Henceforth, it is not surprising that Nida-Rümelin and Horgan discover that their main disagreement covers conflicting background assumptions. This chapter thus provides the reader with two learning possibilities. First, a densely packed debate about two opposing accounts of phenomenology of agency. Second, an expert lesson in how to take part in a philosophical debate.

Chapter twenty-one discusses how the will, the body and action are connected (314-335). Robert Hanna guides the reader through his own work while highlighting influential work by O’Shaughnessy, Frankfurt and Kant. Brian O’Shaughnessy explicated one of the most detailed embodied theories of the will and Robert Hanna is one of only a few philosophers’ who have extended their views on this foundation. He starts by introducing trying theories of action and shows how those theories can establish free agency as a natural fact of life. After having considered other options for theories of agency, for example causal theories, Hanna moves on to introduce his own account of the veridical phenomenology of essentially embodied free agency. One aspect of this account is that it entails that “we must not only have veridical psychological freedom, but also be at least fully disposed to believe, or actually believe, ourselves to have an unfettered, non-epiphenomenal, real causally spontaneous will.” (329) In fact, a central aspect of Robert Hanna’s theory about free agency is that phenomenology of agency is essentially an experience of free agency. The remainder of the chapter is committed to debunking strategies from defenders of hard determinism by showing that they themselves will not experience their actions as not-free, because if they did it would most likely cause them to lose their mind.

Hanna tells one of the most interesting stories of the whole volume. For beginners, it might be hard to follow parts of the argument because Hanna presupposes some basic philosophical knowledge. Nevertheless, this chapter is a well-chosen addition to the mostly Husserl influenced texts of the first part of this handbook.

The underlying structure of mechanisms and functions involved in bringing about the sense of agency has been the topic of cognitive science. Shaun Gallagher has greatly influenced this research in recent years. In chapter twenty-two of this volume, he takes stock of what has been achieved and where the research needs refinement and a new direction (336-350).

Three main areas of theoretical debate can be identified. First, defining phenomenology of agency in terms suitable for empirical investigation. Distinguishing between a sense of agency, the feeling of doing something and a sense of ownership, the feeling of owning a body has turned out to be useful but not uncontested. Second, identifying cognitive mechanisms responsible for the sense of agency and ownership. Empirical investigations have since provided extensive grounds for the assumption that some form of comparator mechanism gives rise to both senses. Third, the role of intentions for agency and the relation of both. This turns out to be the most slippery debate as several researchers still contest different notions of intention as well as agency.

Gallagher has an in-depth knowledge of the field and draws a well-structured picture of the status quo. Readers will find a surprisingly inspiring perspective in the last paragraph of the chapter. Here Gallagher points out some of the main challenges of empirical research on the phenomenology of agency. WEIRED (White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) samples and few interdisciplinary exchanges have led to a one-sided picture painted by cognitive sciences so far. This might seem like a straightforward critique of the field, but Gallagher rather wants to point to a new direction for the years to come.

This chapter is a delight for the interdisciplinary motivated reader and one of the few outlining future directions for researchers to explore.

Galen Strawson explains in a dense and fast flowing chapter how the experience of freedom relates to the experience of responsibility (352-361). The reader might be surprised to see an author who himself defends a strict determinism point of view about agency write about the experience of the exact opposite. As it turns out, Galen Strawson believes that everything we do is determined and nevertheless we feel as if we are free to act otherwise.

The chapter follows a clear structure. First Strawson discusses whether experience of freedom involves only sense-feeling phenomenology or if it goes further and involves cognitive phenomenology as well. In the next part, he introduces his own notions of radical freedom and ultimate responsibility and shows how those terms help to clarify relations between experience of freedom and questions for responsibility. Finally, Strawson outlines how experience of freedom is included in compatibilist and incompatibilist positions. Most refreshingly, this chapter analyses one of the oldest philosophical questions in relation to illustrative content. Strawson adequately uses thought experiments, pathological case studies and empirical experiments to strengthen the expressiveness of his text.

Constructing large handbooks is a generally challenging undertaking. In the present case, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling committed to an especially complex project, editing a handbook about a yet to be clearly defined research topic. Phenomenology of agency turns out to be a topic of great variety and yet the editors of this volume managed to select interesting contributions. The first part of the volume provides the reader with an overview of influential writers from the past, beginning with Franz Brentano. In the second part of the volume, the reader will find informative links between phenomenology of agency and action theory in general.

Overall, readers will discover well written essays from experts on specific topics related to a common theme. Given that the target group for handbooks is mostly students of philosophy and related fields, some critical aspects need to be mentioned.

Although all contributions included in these twenty-seven chapters have some connection to the topic ‘Phenomenology of Agency’, the novice reader might be surprised by the variety of perspectives represented here. Erhard and Keiling describe three notions of the term phenomenology in their introduction to this handbook. Both conclude that concerning this terminological query they “expect this volume to stir rather than settle a discussion of that question.” (2) Some contributors included a paragraph about their own position on the dispute in the beginning of their essays. This manifold of opinions about the topic ‘Phenomenology of Agency’ of this handbook makes it hard to find a larger common ground between the individual texts. For the reader it will be helpful to have a specific question or viewpoint of interest in mind when using this handbook. Thus, rather than introducing a research topic, the volume is a reference book for either historically interested readers or students with already formulated research questions.

While the contributions present a wide range of views on agency, one aspect that is essentially neglected throughout the volume is the close connection of agency and development. This aspect is probably one of the most overlooked perspectives in Philosophy and it has been missed by the editors of this volume as well. Developmental aspects of psychological phenomena are rarely given much attention in philosophical projects. This is the case for the 27 chapters of this handbook. Furthermore, the development of phenomenology of agency in infancy is neither mentioned nor discussed in any detail. Despite recent debates in developmental psychology and cognitive sciences (Jacquey et al., 2020; Sen & Gredebäck, 2021), developmental aspects are rarely recognized in philosophical debates today. Philosophers tend to disregard how fascinating questions about phenomenology of agency are inherently linked to early cognitive development. Including a chapter about the current states of these discussions would have increased the value of this book for students and experienced readers alike.

While reviewing this volume, a further aspect of the editing process became obvious: The selection of contributors for the individual chapters. The handbook has 27 chapters, of which twenty-two were written by male contributors and four by women. Chapter nineteen is a collaboration between Martine Nida-Rümelin and Terry Horgan. Further, the better part of contributors work in the Western Scientific Hemisphere. Only Genki Uemure from Okayama University in Japan stands out. This leads to a biased representation of views on the topic of this volume. Perspectives from researchers from South America, Africa and Asia would have been a valuable and unique addition to this book. The reader might be interested in learning about views of Buddhist Philosophers on the relation between agency, phenomenology, and non-self. Selecting contributors and topics with a more diverse background would display the debate taking place on a global stage.

The editors stated that Terry Horgan, John Tienson and George Grahams’ assessment of the neglect of phenomenology of agency in philosophy of mind (2003) encouraged them to take on the project of producing this handbook (1). The result of their efforts is a textbook that will encourage many discussions about a fascinating topic.



I thank Elizabeth Kelly for her careful comments and suggestions about the manuscript.


Horgan, T., Tienson, J. and Graham, G. 2003. “The Phenomenology of First-Person Agency.” In S. Walter and H.-D. Heckmann (eds.), Physicalism and Mental Causation: The Metaphysics of Mind and Action. Exeter: Imprint Academic, 323–340.

Jacquey, L., Fagard, J., O’Regan, K., & Esseily, R. 2020. “Development of body know-how during the infant’s first year of life.” Enfance (2): 175-192.

Sen, U., & Gredebäck, G. 2021. “Making the World Behave: A New Embodied Account on Mobile Paradigm.” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, Mar 1, 15:643526. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2021.643526.

Peter Antich: Motivation and the Primacy of Perception, Ohio University Press, 2021

Motivation and the Primacy of Perception Book Cover Motivation and the Primacy of Perception
Series in Continental Thought, № 54
Peter Antich
Ohio University Press · Swallow Press
Hardback $95.00
6 illus. · 264 pages