Emmanuel Alloa: Resistance of the Sensible World: An Introduction to Merleau-Ponty

Resistance of the Sensible World: An Introduction to Merleau-Ponty Book Cover Resistance of the Sensible World: An Introduction to Merleau-Ponty
Emmanuel Alloa, Translated by Jane Marie Todd, Foreword by Renaud Barbaras
Fordham University Press
2017
Paperback $28.00
152

Reviewed by: Shawn Loht (Baton Rouge Community College, USA)

This book is the first English-language translation of Alloa’s 2008 text, which originally appeared in French under the title La résistance du sensible: Merleau-Ponty critique de la transparence. Emmanuel Alloa is a student of the prominent Merleau-Ponty scholar Renaud Barbaras, and an occasional editor of Chiasmi, the leading journal for Merleau-Ponty studies.  Although the length of its body chapters comes in under 100 pages, this book is less of a standard introduction to Merleau-Ponty than a dense thematic, historical study of key issues figuring into the philosopher’s development from the early works up the unfinished texts in progress at the time of his death. The three principal chapters analyze the transformation and interior narrative of Merleau-Ponty’s thought across the three subjects that figure foremost in his legacy.  Chapter One examines the notion of perception in the context of the early texts The Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception. The second chapter takes up Merleau-Ponty’s conception of language, with particular attention to the essays in the middle-period Signs and the abandoned work The Prose of the World. The third chapter, entitled “Ontology of the Visible,” studies Merleau-Ponty’s late attempts to formulate a phenomenological ontology centered in the visible and sensible. The book does not cover any aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s political or social philosophy. Throughout, Alloa discusses in depth the philosopher’s engagement with numerous influences and contemporaries including Husserl, Sartre, Fink, and Saussure. Methodological emphasis is likewise placed on the genesis behind Merleau-Ponty’s shaping of central concepts and terms.

Alloa’s statements in the Introduction of the book provide an overview of how he understands the core idea of Merleau-Ponty’s thought: while perception is ultimately the philosophical concept that overtly engaged Merleau-Ponty, it is the resistance of the sensible that the philosopher actually grappled with. By this notion of resistance, Alloa indicates that the sensible is what is obvious to perception, yet which cannot be penetrated by analysis (5-7). In highlighting the concept of the “obvious,” (or ob-vious) Alloa refers to what is in front of one and standing against one. For the sensible characterizes not merely what perception encounters, but also the experiential world as a whole (7). In Alloa’s view, this is decisive for Merleau-Ponty’s work because it provides a more focused approach than Husserl’s epistemological project of uncovering the conditions of knowledge. As Alloa sees it, Merleau-Ponty’s fundamental insight in this regard is recognizing that what is sensible, what is in front of one, resists; it is not transparent and never will be so. (In making this observation, Alloa is cueing upon the important difference Merleau-Ponty demonstrated from Husserl early in his career: the view, contra Husserl, that a complete reduction is never possible.) As Alloa observes on this score, treating the sensible as the entry point for philosophy is a more tangible and direct method than Husserl’s approach of beginning phenomenological description with the structures of consciousness. Moreover, Alloa suggests that for Merleau-Ponty, the perspectival limit of perception characterizes the essence of philosophizing as well, viz., to philosophize means to grapple with what resists and refuses transparency. This consequence results because thought is by nature also conditioned by the sensible; thinking is permeated by vision, and vice versa.  Therefore, to return to the things themselves, as is phenomenology’s mantra, entails thought becoming sensible (9, 11).

In the book’s first chapter, Alloa sets up the premises of Merleau-Ponty’s early studies on perception. He suggests that the first two major works, The Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception, are of a piece insofar as the former attempts to show why a phenomenological account of experience cannot be reduced to a behavioral psychology, while the latter describes the phenomenology of sense experience in a positive fashion (16-17).  Structure describes human perception critically, from the outside looking in, whereas the Phenomenology is written with an emphasis on the first-person perspective of sense experience.  Alloa sees here not so much a tension in approaches as much as Merleau-Ponty’s developing recognition of a conflict between body and soul; the concept of behavior comprises the locus for Merleau-Ponty’s insight that sense experience is contingent on the milieu of the living being, which Alloa later identifies as the body (24). The phenomenon of behavior reveals an unnoticed synthesis of inner and outer, mind and body, such that this concept is seen as operative prior to any sort of dualism, yet not transparent to perception either. To parse Alloa’s claim here just a bit, the notion is perhaps not unlike Heidegger’s observation in Being and Time that to be a Dasein entails already existing in a world of immediate surroundings where things have their essence in their use; Dasein is neither an inner nor outer, but instead projective being-in-the-world.  Alloa sees a link between Structure and the Phenomenology in Merleau-Ponty’s implicit emphasis on the opacification of perception, or the notion that perception is underwritten by a lack of transparency.

Alloa similarly regards Merleau-Ponty’s career-long dialogue with Gestalt psychology as having its seeds in these early works.  For Merleau-Ponty, the concept of Gestalt is decisive for highlighting the world’s very appearing as structured (20), where perceptual consciousness is the “site” of this emergence.  The forms of the ready-made world of experience are not merely in the world, but emerge with the world.  For similar reasons, the mind-body relationship is not an instrumental one.  This observation brings to the fore the concept of “milieu”, which Alloa regards as a cornerstone of Merleau-Ponty’s early development.  The mind-body relation is founded on embeddedness in a milieu, where phenomenology entails describing an inventory of that milieu (20).  Yet Alloa highlights that Gestalt psychology in its traditional guise is insufficient for Merleau-Ponty because it fails to adopt a way of thinking about life; Gestalt psychology overlooks the dialectic between the living thing and its milieu, failing to recognize the dynamic identity of the physical and mental structures of experience (22-23).  The milieu comprised by embodiment functions as Merleau-Ponty’s corrective to the shortcomings of Gestalt psychology and scientific mechanism, for embodiment comprises the union of life and environment.

The topic of transcendence takes Alloa into Chapter Two.  Alloa suggests that Merleau-Ponty’s engagement with language during and after the early works epitomizes his effort to describe the unity of bodily movement and creative freedom (38).  “When the subject is collapsed to its corporeal condition alone, there is no longer any possibility of explaining how one moves beyond oneself” (33).  Transcendence, Alloa writes, is for Merleau-Ponty less important in the manner of establishing a new notion of epistemological or metaphysical foundation; more important in Merleau-Ponty’s view is the very act of transcending.  The act of transcending is coextensive with the opacity of the world (33).  Citing the Phenomenology, Alloa observes that an a priori ecstasy of the human subject orients one fundamentally toward this opacity, toward what one is not (33).  The first section of Chapter Two, entitled “Expression,” suggests that human expression for Merleau-Ponty comprises the extension of idealization or intellect into the embodied state.  Human movement is not merely a bodily activity but includes gesture (35).  In this light, following the Phenomenology, the body is the actuality of expression and represents the movement of expression (35).  As a result, language for Merleau-Ponty is forever to be subordinated to the phenomenon of expression as bodily act (39), which is to say, Merleau-Ponty does not endorse a pure grammar or universal linguistics.  Whereas, these are notions that for instance would be familiar to readers of Husserl’s Logical Investigations.  Moreover, Alloa highlights that the diacritical character of language, which Merleau-Ponty adopts from Saussure, further justifies the claim that language can never be made pure or universal.  Citing the abandoned text The Prose of the World, Alloa highlights that this character of language means signs, morphemes, and words only convey meaning in their assembly; language constitutes the practice of discriminating signs from one another.  And given language’s origin in the embodied state, these features have a coextension with the sensible.  Language’s diacritical character “will acquire the value of a perceptible interval forming a pattern on the sensible fabric itself” (45).  Yet, the transparency of language in human experience also reveals its resistance, echoing Alloa’s leading claim at the book’s start.  Namely, like the sensible, language’s character is to efface itself through its very transparency (51).

Alloa finishes this chapter by taking up the lines of questioning that permeate Merleau-Ponty’s middle works, especially Signs, Prose of the World, and the Nature lectures, on the issue of exactly where language resides.  Language does not reside in mere signs, symbols, or words, nor does it reside in meaning.  Where does language have its being?  Alloa sketches Merleau-Ponty’s position this way: “We must place ourselves at the very site of language in the process of making itself – between the given and what makes possible the act of giving – without conceiving of Saying on the basis of the already Said but also without relegating language to a sphere of pure potentiality, without isolating an abstract linguistic structure of yielding entirely to a completed embodiment in a concrete signifying formula” (53).  In brief, as Alloa describes it, the meeting of embodiment and linguistic signs requires one to describe the immaterial but not simply ideal birth of sense-making (53).  Alloa finds that painting for Merleau-Ponty provides one such avenue, to the extent that it comprises a “silent” form of expression, originative in the bodily gesture of the hand, yet also indicative of a verbal lack of mastery of the world and the world’s means of expression.  As such, painting exemplifies the birth of sense-making.  “The painter’s canvas becomes the site of an experience of relinquishment, an exposure to an outside where the protective envelope of everyday language disintegrates” (55-56).

The third and final chapter offers a focused account of the genesis leading to Merleau-Ponty’s late philosophy, particularly his interest in developing an “ontology of the visible.”  Texts of especial importance are the philosopher’s final published work “Eye and Mind” and the posthumously edited Visible and Invisible.  In Alloa’s description, this late period of the philosopher engages the question of how something can be given to one as visible, and of how words can function to describe this occurrence (60).  Merleau-Ponty’s task during this period is to uncover the roots of the visible. Again, painting is decisive because the thought-process shown in work of masters such as Cezanne reveals the visible as resistance to transparency.  Alloa characterizes the philosopher’s stance this way: “Thinking as a painter means submitting to the laws of resistance and experiencing feelings within the limits of the sensible” (61).  The ontology of painting consequently affords Merleau-Ponty an entry point into the ontology of the visible not by way of what is seen, but by way of what is becoming-seen, becoming-visible (64).  This last brings Alloa to the crux of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of “flesh.”  Because art has its essence not in works but rather in realizing the sensible bonds of experience and world, art helps to instantiate the “flesh” binding the world and human being (65).  Given that “flesh” is an obscure concept in Merleau-Ponty, difficult to pin down precisely, Alloa devotes significant discussion to it.  Flesh is not a physical or atomistic substantial presence (which may be implied in Merleau-Ponty’s characterization of it in Visible as an element) but it is materially immanent in the sensible (65).  Yet flesh is not to be understood as a Leibnizian monad, transposing the principles of life onto nonliving materiality.  Alloa cites an unpublished note written by the philosopher in 1960 to the effect that the flesh of the world is not derivative from an understanding of the flesh of the body (67).  Rather, the human body we know is made of this very flesh of the world.  But again, one can ask, what is flesh and where does it come from?  Alloa concedes that Merleau-Ponty’s position on this issue could be ambivalent at best, given that the philosopher was still exploring this question at the time of his death.  One compromise, Alloa suggests, is to follow a clue from the Nature lectures, namely Merleau-Ponty’s remark that the sensible is the flesh of the world.  In other words, the sensible is the bond uniting experience and world, inner and outer, just insofar as it emerges in the interstices of the subjective and objective, not lying in just one or the other.  On the other hand, Alloa also suggests that the more ambiguous “flesh” perhaps better expresses what is neither subjective nor objective, but beyond these, that through which something sensible is sensed (68).  Alloa’s meaning seems to be something like the following: the sensation I experience through touching an object such as a pine cone is not merely fostered through my hand’s affectivity nor through the pine cone’s sensible characteristics (e.g. prickly, resinous, woody).  Rather, this experience have of the sensible is fostered by a “between” that allows sensible and sensing to meet.  I find Alloa’s discussion of flesh to be especially helpful and an illuminating part of the book.

Alloa rounds out the final chapter with some reflections on the underlying commitments of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the sensible.  Alloa writes that Merleau-Ponty’s theory of perception must become an ontology of the sensible because this is the only way to obviate dualism.  And conversely, the sensible must be the seat of ontology because the sensible is the ultimate ground of experience, the medium in which being inheres without needing to be posited (80).  Here, Alloa’s characterization of the sensible is not unlike Heidegger’s observations that being in its guise of ereignis comprises the groundless ground.  For Merleau-Ponty, the sensible is the ultimate, yet ungrounded given.

In summary, this short but dense book by Emmanuel Alloa is a challenging read. It is also a rewarding one for those willing to do the work to digest carefully his many insightful observations on Merleau-Ponty’s thought and development. Alloa makes a very good case for the notion that despite Merleau-Ponty’s stops and starts with various issues, there is nonetheless a guiding thread to his thought’s development.  To be truthful, however, there is an aspect in which this book is frustrating to use as an “introduction” to the philosopher, just because it is written at an astute historiographical level, not one for beginners.  One might wonder why the book’s title was altered for this English-language edition.  Alloa does not provide extensive exegetical readings of any specific books of Merleau-Ponty, opting instead for frequent citations of one or two lines of text, whose meaning Alloa typically takes as self-evident.  There is a measure in which these frequent citations seem taken out of context or otherwise lacking in justification for the lay reader. There is also a noticeable dearth of examples that might help to illustrate for a novice what is at stake in crucial distinctions. This is a book that will much better serve those who are already decently versed in Merleau-Ponty and who possess a workable understanding of at least some of Merleau-Ponty’s key themes. To that end, Alloa’s book will offer potential as a guide for connecting the various topics in Merleau-Ponty’s works and establishing a beginning-to-end narrative.

 

Fritz Heider: Chose et médium, Vrin, 2017

Chose et médium Book Cover Chose et médium
Matière étrangère
Fritz Heider. Introduction, traduction et notes par Emmanuel Alloa
Vrin
2017
Paperback 14.00 €
100

Helen A. Fielding, Dorothea E. Olkowski (Eds.): Feminist Phenomenology Futures, Indiana University Press, 2017

Feminist Phenomenology Futures Book Cover Feminist Phenomenology Futures
Helen A. Fielding, Dorothea E. Olkowski (Eds.)
Indiana University Press
2017
Cloth $95.00
400

Keith Whitmoyer: The Philosophy of Ontological Lateness, Bloomsbury, 2017

The Philosophy of Ontological Lateness: Merleau-Ponty and the Tasks of Thinking Book Cover The Philosophy of Ontological Lateness: Merleau-Ponty and the Tasks of Thinking
Bloomsbury Studies in Continental Philosophy
Keith Whitmoyer
Bloomsbury Academic
2017
Hardback $102.60
224

Shaun Gallagher: Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind

Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind Book Cover Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind
Shaun Gallagher
Oxford University Press
2017
Hardback £30.00
272

Reviewed by: Maxime Doyon (Université de Montréal)

In Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind, Shaun Gallagher offers a strong defense of enactivism against what he calls ‘cognition-in-the-head’ (1) approaches to mind such as those of contemporary neuroscience and classical cognitivism. Throughout the book, Gallagher develops his own enactive view by engaging in a series of critical debates with more recent version of these and related models such as Theory of Mind (ToM), Predictive Coding (PC), Action-Oriented Representationalism (AOR), B-formatted Representationalism, and the Extended Mind approach, etc. Even when they positively refer to bodily action and to interactions with other people, or build into their theory contextual elements and somatic factors, these theories all fail to provide a coherent and holistic account of cognition because they all end up making the fatal mistake of buying into representationalism. From an enactivist point of view, cognition is a complex affair that has more to do with doing or transacting with one’s environment than with representing it. Cognition, as Gallagher puts it, is “a kind of dynamic adjustment process in which the brain, as part of and along with the larger organism, settles into the right kind of attunement with the environment – an environment that is physical but also social and cultural” (160; emphasis in original). In a sense, the book reads as a detailed explanation and justification of this claim.

Gallagher proceeds thematically, unpacking the details of his enactive model to cognition peu à peu as he guides us through some of the current debates in contemporary philosophy of mind. The scope of the topics discussed is broad and impressive. Gallagher deals successively with questions and problems that bear on action and representation (Chapter 1, 2 and 5), social cognition and intentionality (Chapter 4), perception (Chapter 6), free will (Chapter 7), affects and emotions (Chapter 8), posture and rationality (Chapter 9), and the various practices of thinking (Chapter 10). Scattered throughout the book, but laid out in a more systematic fashion in Chapter 3, Gallagher also provides the historical background of the enactivist position, which he situates (as we could expect) in phenomenology, in Gibson’s ecological psychology, and perhaps more surprisingly in pragmatism.

The strength and the originality of Gallagher’s position lie in his radically embodied and truly holistic conception of cognition. Not only does he, like other enactivists, emphasize the ‘unsurpassability’ of the brain-body-environment triad as the basic explanatory unit of mind, but he also stresses like no one else the profound impact of affects, culture and environmental factors on cognition without falling into the trap of representationalism. As Gallagher himself recognizes, however, this approach represents a real challenge and “often comes with strong calls to radically change our ways of thinking about the mind and about how to do cognitive science.” (40) The envisaged change might in fact be so radical that Gallagher entertains (but does not develop) the idea that enactivism may in the end “be better thought as a philosophy of nature than as a scientific research agenda.” (22) This does not mean that we should turn our back on science, or stop collecting empirical data about the functioning of the mind; it rather means that it may be necessary to revise a certain number of assumptions about the mind, and to redefine the relation between science and philosophy.

In the remaining space at my disposal, I will engage in a rapid survey of what I take to be the most interesting ideas and claims to be found in this excellent book. I will draw special attention to Gallagher’s specifically normative conception of intentionality, for although it is not by any means an explicitly developed concept, it is nevertheless powerfully operative throughout.

* * *

Expectedly, Chapter 4 (“Enactive Intentionality”) opens with a critique of the “Brentanian” or “neo-Cartesian concept of intentionality” (66), but Gallagher then quickly makes two interesting moves: first, he centers the discussion around a specific problem, namely that of understanding other minds, and criticizes in passing some of the dominant theories in social cognition (Theory-Theory, Simulation Theory, Mirror Neuron approach, etc.). Second, and in line with the preceding chapter (3. “Pragmatic Resources for Enactive and Extended Minds”), Gallagher positively elaborates his own enactive alternative by tracing its origins in both the phenomenological and pragmatist traditions. If the profound impact of Merleau-Ponty’s notions of intercorporeality and operative intentionality on the enactivist program should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the literature (cf. 77-79), the rapprochement with pragmatism is however quite original (even if not unique; cf. Menary 2007). But Gallagher is convincing, and shows with great acuity how both the first and second generations of pragmatists share some deep philosophical commitments with enactivism. Peirce “foreshadows the externalist turn” (50) taken by the enactivists and the extended mind advocates (cf. 52ff.); Dewey’s understanding of perception as based on the idea of sensori-motor coordination anticipates Noë’s and O’Regan’s talk of sensori-motor contingencies (cf. 50); Mead’s characterization of perceptual space as a “manipulatory area” (51) is close to Heidegger’s ready-to-hand (Zuhanden) and Gibson’s concept of affordances, while Dewey’s notion of “situation” is precisely the kind of concept that can serve both to “motivate a rapprochement between enactivist and extended mind theories” (54)[1], and address some of the most important objections levelled against both theories (cf. 60ff.). Clearly, the point of drawing conceptual resources in the pragmatist and neo-pragmatist traditions is not only of historical interest; it is also philosophically motivated.

Taking his cues from Robert Brandom’s normative account of intentionality (1994), Gallagher pursues this discussion in Ch. 4 by arguing that the enactive account of intentionality he is advocating is “consistent with a non-simulationist version of neo-pragmatism. Indeed, it shows us how to connect very basic operative intentionality with the neo-pragmatist emphasis on social/normative aspects of behavior.” (80) The key move to understand both how Gallagher connects with and moves beyond the neo-pragmatist framework lies in the expanded scope of the normative that informs his concept of intentionality. Intentionality is – pace Brandom – “already pervasive” (81) in a variety of normative, but still pre-social and pre-linguistic activities and behaviours. The idea, which is not formulated as such but which readers of How the Body Shapes the Mind (2005) must already be familiar with (see esp. Ch. 3 and 9), is that intentionality is originally normative in the sense that it is rooted in the neonate’s first encounters and interactions, which are meaningful experiences. The neonate sees the actions of the caretaker as calling forth certain responses on her part (not any response), thereby triggering an intentional dynamic of actions and behaviours guided and constrained by implicit normative cues. The actions of the neonate – which are properly speaking inter-actions – then show both how the mind is normatively attuned to its environment and “intersubjective from the very start” (81). Hence, “there is no mystery about where this non-derived intentionality comes from. It comes from the others with whom we interact, or more precisely, it is generated in our interaction.” (81) The same learning mechanisms and normative patterns of influence repeat in adulthood. Even at a mature age, perception remains strongly permeable to the influence of our social milieu: “we learn what objects are significant and valuable through our interactions with others, or even just our perception of what they are doing with objects in the environment. We learn to see the world along these lines of significance and value, and oftentimes objects that fall outside of such lines don’t even register.” (159)

Gallagher’s specifically normative conception of intentionality is also at the forefront of Chapter 5 (‘Action without Representation’), but this time more explicitly so. After introducing what he takes to be “the classic concept of representation” (83), the chapter brings us to the heart of one of the most heated debates in contemporary philosophy of mind and action, namely, whether there is any place for representation in action. Unsurprisingly, Gallagher answers in the negative, and develops a strong anti-representationalist argument that he sets against the background of various proposals (Action-Oriented Representations (AORs), Pre-Intentional Representations (PIAs), B-Formatted Representations, Minimal Robust Representations (MRRs), etc.) that have been put forward recently by advocates of the enactive program and/or the extended mind approach (Michael Wheeler, Mark Rowlands, Andy Clark, etc.). The discussion is detailed, at times difficult, but it gets to the bottom of things. One possibly useful way of understanding Gallagher’s argument against representationalism is to insist on the incompatibility between the ‘teleological/normative’ and the ‘decouplability’ constraints of representation. While the former characteristics say that something is representational iff it is also teleological or normatively turned towards something it tracks, the latter feature says that something is representational iff it is decouplable from what it represents. These are widely (but not universally) accepted characteristics of our concept of ‘representation’, but they are not easily compatible with one another when it comes to action. According to Gallagher, you can’t have it both ways: you cannot both track your goal and be ‘off-line:’ “But it is difficult to see how an aspect of motor control that is a constitutive part of the action can be considered decoupled from x, which it may be tracking, or, for that matter, from the context, or the action itself. Isn’t this kind of anticipation fully situated in the action context?” (92) Insofar as motor control is part of the action, it is situated; but then it is not decoupled from the movement and the proprioceptive/kinaesthetic feedback it generates. It is online, and it is precisely for this reason that it can keep track of its object or of the action itself. This is the problem predictive coding is facing: “To think that the anticipatory emulator involves a decoupled process is to think that such anticipations can be detached from perceptual and proprioceptive input, which they clearly cannot be. They are part of the online process of action; as such they register not simply some future state, but the trajectory of the action (from present to future).” (92) The problem is serious, for not only is the perceptual and proprioceptive input de facto part of the ‘online’ process of action (according to Gallagher), but they are also necessary to meet the requirements of the normative constraint (or so I would like to claim). For in order to act ‘intelligently’ or ‘adequately’ upon something, I need to know how things stand in relation to me. This knowledge is informed by the pervasive self-sensitivity generated by perceptual feedback (including, but not limited to, proprioceptive awareness). In this sense, going ‘off-line’ is equivalent to losing touch (even if only momentarily) with one’s own perceptual situation, and this can only mean that one also loses ‘grip’ on the normative orientation of the action. The point can be recast in the following manner: if predictions are in some ways ‘decoupled’ from the ongoing perceptual process, or if they come in succession, then the organism can’t continuously cast its own actions in evaluative terms, and make the required adjustments when they are needed. But this is nothing very special; it is rather something that any ‘smart living organism’ continually does.[2]

Since the elementary unit of explanation of this ‘online’ process of action is the brain-body-environment triad, “the true locus of normativity” is therefore, as Rowlands puts it, “to be found on the outside” (2012, 136), in the world. The consequence to draw from this is clear enough: “the problem of explaining our normative grip is no longer the problem of representation; it’s rather the problem of explaining how we are dynamically coupled to the world.” (105) What thus takes the place of representation in this non-representationalist account of action and perception is the complex dynamics of perceived affordances and motor responses. In this ongoing process of interaction and adjustments, intentional directedness depends crucially on “physically determined factors” (97) such as distance, lighting and position, and is bodily realized, not accomplished in representational processes.

This is a thought that Gallagher pursues in the next chapter (6. ‘Perception Without Inferences’), this time laying more emphasis on perception than on action, and criticizing in turn some of the most important inferential models currently debated in the literature (especially ToM and Predictive Coding). The core idea is nevertheless the same as in the preceding chapter, which it nicely complements: “Perception is enactive (…), but nonetheless epistemic and ‘smart’ because attuned to context” (112). Anticipating on some of the key ideas of Ch. 8 (‘Making Enactivism Even More Embodied’), Gallagher’s aim here is to argue (contra Bayesian inferentialism) for the directedness of perception, and to explain how the sources of our normative attunement are complex, rich and varied. In his descriptions, the radicality of Gallagher’s position becomes all the more apparent, even within the enactivist camp. While Noë’s and O’Regan’s “emphasis on sensori-motor contingencies and the role of action in perception” is certainly on the right track, it nevertheless “builds itself on a conception of embodiment that remains too narrow”, as “it leaves out important aspects of affectivity and intersubjectivity” (150). Perception is more complex and more embodied. Not only is it (non-inferentially) informed by culture and beliefs, but perception is also modulated by moods, practices, skills and “all kinds of affective processes” (118) and “somaesthetic factors” (151) such as hunger, fatigue, and sexual attraction. Evidently, these affective aspects “usually operate in a pre-noetic fashion” (151), but they still have a profound impact on our perceptual lives as they motivate “a sense of interest or investment” (153) captured by the notion of “perceptual interest” (Id.), which is said to be wider in scope than Husserl’s concept of the ‘I can’ (but which is not, I believe, significantly wider than Husserl’s own concept of ‘perceptual interest’[3]). But there’s more. “Even variations in circulation and heartbeat can influence perception” (Id.), just as does the whole repertoire of our “embodied practices and postures, behavioural habits, and intersubjective interactions” (125). These complex dynamics lead Gallagher to recognize very lucidly at the end of the chapter that “enactivism offers a holistic conception of cognition that is difficult to operationalize” (125) or test scientifically according to the current (mostly neuroscientific) standards. This is not a major concern though, for this is where the motivation to think of enactivism as a philosophy of nature instead of as a scientific research program comes from (cf. 125ff.).

Finally, Gallagher addresses in the final 10th Chapter (‘The Practice of Thinking’) the so-called ‘scaling up’ problem (Chemero 2009), which is the challenge for the enactivists to explain in system-dynamical terms our higher-order cognitive aptitudes. For if enactivism seems to be rather well suited to deal with lower-order or basic types of processes such as those involved in action and perception, higher-order cognitive tasks such as memory, imagination, and mathematical reasoning seem to represent a more serious challenge for enactivists, as these are apparently “representation-hungry” capacities (Clark and Toribio 1994). As anyone can expect at this point, this is not how Gallagher sees things. After providing a brief overview of E. Thompson’s (cf. 188) and D. Hutto’s (188ff.) own enactivist ‘solutions’ to the problem, Gallagher proposes a series of brief “interventions” (191) on the questions of imagination, deliberation, and mathematical reasoning. In the case of imagination, Gallagher (somewhat surprisingly) takes his cues from Gilbert Ryle’s account in The Concept of Mind. Like Ryle, for whom “there is no one thing that the imagination is” (192), Gallagher argues that “imagining involves a variety of different practices – some of them actively embodied, some of them involving the manipulation of bits of the environment, some of them sitting still and picturing something by manipulating concepts or thoughts or images (re-enacted perceptions) – which in any case may still involve affective and kinaesthetic aspects of embodiment.” (195) Like playacting (which is Ryle’s favoured example), imagining often takes the form of an embodied practice that is closer to “pretending and simulating” (192) than to mental seeing or projecting. In all instances, however, imagination involves “dealing with affordances” (195), which may include “toys, props, artifacts, instruments” (193), and even concepts or thoughts. “Pragmatically considered, concepts and thoughts can be regarded as nothing other than affordances that offer (or solicit us to) possibilities to follow one path or another as we engage in thinking” (195). In this sense, Gallagher conceives of imagining as “a kind of active engagement with possibilities” (193). Even if it is quite clear that this is the route that the enactivists must take to address the worries of the so-called ‘scale up’ problems, I wonder whether this general characterization is sufficiently developed to fully convince its detractors. In any case, the same strategy is mutatis mutandis applied to ‘mathematical reasoning’ (cf. 204ff.), a thought that brings Gallagher to the conclusion that, on the enactive point of view, thinking practices in general are better regarded as enactive performances that depend, for their realization, on our embodied skills.

All in all, this book is a much welcome addition to the literature. It is thought provoking, engaging and original in many respects. It provides not only an excellent survey of the current literature on embodied cognition in general and enactivism especially, but it also formulates new arguments, forges new concepts and proposes ideas that will certainly animate interesting debates in the years to come.

Literature

Brandom, R. (1994). Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chemero, A. (2009). Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Clark and Toribio (1994). ‘Doing without representing?’ Synthese 101: 401–31.

Doyon, M. (forthcoming). ‘Husserl on Perceptual Optimality’ (under review).

Gallagher, S. (2005). How the Body Shapes the Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Husserl, E. (2004). Wahrnehmung und Aufmerksamkeit: Texte aus dem Nachlass (1893–1912). Ed. T. Vongehr and R. Giuliani. Dordrecht: Springer.

Menary, R. (2007). Cognitive Integration: Mind and Cognition Unbounded. London: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Ryle, G. (1949). The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson.

Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology and the Sciences of Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., and Rosch, E. (1991). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: MIT Press.


[1] “As extended and enactive, the mind is situated in the way that Dewey defines this notion.” (59)

[2] This is a line of thought that Merleau-Ponty developed in great detail in the Phenomenology of Perception, when he shows how bodily postures and position are in a constant process of regulation and readjustment. In this book, Gallagher revisits this topic (Ch. 9) and expands on ideas first developed in How the Body Shapes the Mind. For a similar argument in a biological context, see Rosch, Thompson and Varela (1994) and Thompson (2007).

[3] See Husserl (2004)) and my Husserl on Perceptual Optimality’ (under review; forthcoming).

Günter Figal: Freiräume: Phänomenologie und Hermeneutik, Mohr Siebeck, 2017

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Carmelo Calì: Phenomenology of Perception: Theories and Experimental Evidence, Brill, 2017

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