Thomas Fuchs: In Defense of The Human-Being

In Defence of the Human Being: Foundational Questions of an Embodied Anthropology Couverture du livre In Defence of the Human Being: Foundational Questions of an Embodied Anthropology
Thomas Fuchs
Oxford University Press
Hardback $45.00

Reviewed by: Elodie Boublil (University Paris Est Créteil; UPEC, France)

‘Persons are living beings, not programs’

Fuchs’ phenomenological theory of embodied anthropology

Thomas Fuchs is Karl Jaspers Professor of Philosophical Foundations at the Psychiatry Clinic of the University of Heidelberg. He chairs the research section « Phenomenological Psychopathology and Psychotherapy » at the Psychiatric University Hospital Heidelberg.

His latest book, In Defense of the Human Being, meticulously demonstrates how corporeality, vitality, and embodied freedom are intertwined and defeat any attempt to reify human beings, either through identifying them with machines or through digitalizing their existence thanks to algorithms and the digitalization of the lifeworld.

Indeed, the book argues that the standard humanistic paradigm displayed by Western societies, especially since the Renaissance, is superseded by a technological and transhumanist view that aims to develop an even more predictable and controllable version of the human being. Fuchs explains: “It is not my concern to defend humanity against an accusation but against a questioning. Because today, in question is what one could call—with unavoidable imprecision—the humanistic image of man. At the center of this image is the human person as a physical or embodied being, as a free, self-determining being, and ultimately as an essentially social being connected with others.”

Challenging and questioning our image of humanity entails another questioning that targets the philosophical and anthropological validity of our moral and ethical claims (dignity, personhood, responsibility, etc.). In other words, defending humanity responds to the urgent need for grounding our anthropological image of the human being based on the findings of contemporary science. Far from debunking the humanistic paradigm, Fuchs argues that recent findings concerning embodied freedom, relationality, the plasticity of the brain, etc., prove authentic our relational and embodied experience as human beings, and defeat the mechanical view of the body as well as the chimera of artificial intelligence and other transhumanist projects. In so doing, Fuchs admirably shows that endorsing the latter will alienate rather than emancipate human beings and may lead to new psychological conditions if technology is not used appropriately. As such, Fuchs’s book deserves to be known and read as it successfully defeats the diagnosis and predictions of Yuval Noah Harari’s book: Homo Deus (2017), according to which « Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm » (Harari, 2017, p. 381; Fuchs 2021: 3). To do so, Fuchs deconstructs three assumptions that lie behind this « scientistic view of humans »: reductionist naturalism, the elimination of the living, and functionalism according to which « phenomena of consciousness are attributed to processes of neuronal information processing. « The author puts forward a philosophical anthropology that insists on “embodiment and aliveness” to characterize the person:

“No abstract inwardness, disembodied consciousness or pure spirit are the guiding ideas of a humanistic view of the person, but the person’s concrete physical existence. Only when it can be shown that the person is present in her body itself, that the person feels, perceives, expresses, and acts with her whole body, do we escape confinement in a hidden inner space of consciousness, an inaccessible citadel from which only signals penetrate to the outside world, signals which can no longer be distinguished from the those of artificial intelligence. Furthermore, only when persons have an embodied freedom, i.e., determine themselves as organisms in decisions and actions, does subjectivity become more than an epiphenomenon, i.e., really effective in the world”.

The book is divided into three parts: 1/ Artificial Intelligence, Transhumanism, and Virtuality; 2/Brain, Person, and Reality; 3/Psychiatry and Society. The first two parts delve into the anthropological and existential implications of the brain paradigm already explored in the Ecology of the Brain (2017) to show their impact on the way individuals relate to themselves and each other. Fuchs demonstrates the philosophical inconsistencies of the assimilation of the brain to machines and algorithms, the self-reification at stake, and its psychological consequences for the subject. Part three illustrates the necessity to provide society with an adequate anthropological foundation to address pressing issues such as aging, dementia, or psychological conditions.


The first chapter clarifies the distinction between human and artificial intelligence. Debunking the dream of replacing humans with robots thanks to algorithms, Fuchs explains the epistemological and ethical implications of dematerialization and the disincarnating process at stake. His critical analysis of « information » plays a key role as Fuchs rightly explains that “information only exists where someone understands something—that is, news as news signs as signs. Information exists only for conscious living beings or for persons. » In other words, a computer does not « understand » messages; it « computes » them. This clarification brings to light how human beings project their abilities, states of mind, and emotions into machines. In other words, we should be aware that “we are only dealing here with metaphors.” Subsequently, this chapter retraces the history of the digital revolution to underline the categorical differences between human intelligence and AI. Fuchs claims that « there can be no real intelligence without life and consciousness » and that, therefore, the idea of « artificial intelligence » or « artificial life » is self-contradictory. Opposing Harari’s claim that « organisms are algorithms, » Fuchs claims that « programs » are not persons and persons are not programs. Technological artifacts rely on simulation, yet they lack qualitative and differentiated experience. It also applies to the brain’s functioning: “The brain is not a control center, but an organ of resonance and relations (Fuchs, 2018). Only living beings are conscious, feel, sense, or think—not brains and not computers. Persons are living beings, not programs. » Consequently, this chapter appraises the challenge addressed to medicine and scientific research by artificial intelligence as it unconsciously challenges the image we have of human beings, their finitude, and their capabilities. Ultimately, artificial intelligence addresses not only epistemological and ontological questions but ethical dilemmas as it pretends to become a new compass to consider our existence against its performance.

Chapter two expands on this idea by assessing the worldview and ideology developed by transhumanism. Transhumanism seems to do away with what is the most salient feature of humanity: namely, embodiment. Indeed, by considering human beings either as purely “biological machines” or “pure minds” to be programmed, transhumanism denies the very “foundation of our existence” and the irremissible power of “cultural shaping” in the way we conceive of our physical nature. In other words, instead of fully acknowledging life’s dynamism and the realization of freedom through the « embodied enactment of life, » transhumanism reveals a process of self-reification that relies on a « false concept of consciousness. » Moreover, the utopia of the « new man » liberated from finitude and mortality eradicates the very idea of freedom and accomplishment, as limitations and resistance precisely confer its value to any endeavors: “transhumanist utopias thus counteract the very efforts that have so far supported the idea of improving the human world – the efforts to achieve social, cultural, and moral progress based on individual and collective efforts, progress that cannot be achieved by technical reconstruction of the human being but only by self-education, self-development, and the common shaping of the lifeworld.” The chapter ends with a consistent criticism of neuro-reductionism and the fantasy of “mind uploading” that relies on an epistemological and philosophical fallacy. The epistemological mistake consists in identifying the brain and the person; the philosophical dead-end annihilates freedom at the very moment it seeks to expand it: indeed, contrary to what transhumanism argues, « this embodied and thus, of course, mortal individuation is the price we have to pay in order to experience the freedom and wonder of earthly existence. » Transhumanism is ultimately a form of neo-Gnosticism that carries significant ethical consequences.

Chapter three focuses on the impact of neuro-constructivist paradigms on our intersubjective relations through the example of virtuality. Does the virtual world help us develop and improve empathy, or does it compromise its flourishing? “What consequences may ensue for intersubjectivity and relationships in our society because of increasing virtualization of perception and communication? How is empathy transformed when it is increasingly directed to a virtual other?” According to Fuchs, empathy relies first and foremost on our corporeality and the embodied dynamics of inter-affectivity. Recalling Scheler’s conception of empathy, Fuchs explains that “we experience the other person primarily as a psycho-physical unity of expression.” What we generally understand as perspective-taking or imaginative transposition (putting oneself in the other’s shoes) reflected a different level of empathy that the author describes as “explicit empathy »: “it seems necessary to differentiate between a primary, implicit, or bodily empathy and an expanded, explicit, or imaginative empathy. The latter already involves an element of “as-if” and thus of virtuality.” The question thus arises whether we could disconnect primary bodily empathy and imaginative empathy, as it happens in “virtual empathy.” According to Fuchs, “the culture of growing virtuality and simulation is connected with disembodiment, a retreat from bodily and intercorporeal experience. Simultaneously, empathy tends to separate itself from these experiences and to shift into virtuality – into a space where we are confronted by hybrid forms of the other as a mixture of appearance, simulation, and illusion, and where the medium and the mediated reality intercorporeal pole toward the virtual and projective pole of the spectrum.” Consequently, the “media-based idealism” that inspires our digital age may well give us the impression that we are all easily interconnected, yet it considerably undermines the reality of the qualitative experience we undergo while facing – for real – the presence of the other. Indeed, virtual communication lacks non-verbal synaesthetic interaction. It modifies and structure our attention and often reinforces individual projections and ego-centeredness rather than achieving genuine empathy. Fuchs then concludes with an epistemological and ethical claim: « only when others become real for us in this manner can we become real for ourselves. Today, our relationships come increasingly to be mediated, even produced, by images. But no one encounters us through a smartphone. The virtual presence of the other cannot replace inter-corporeality. “

The second part of the volume provides a critique of cerebrocentrism and the way the brain paradigm shapes our conception of reality and self-identity.

Chapter four analyzes the abusive identification between person and brain and the way such an approach to personal identity lays further the ground for a simplistic approach of reality and subjectivity: “for neurobiology, the brain becomes the new subject, the thinker of our thoughts and doer of our actions; subjectivity itself is only a useful illusion.” This neurobiological conception disqualifies our ordinary conception of freedom and decision-making. It entails a deterministic conception of the human world as if thoughts and actions were governed by predictable movements and neuronal connections. According to this worldview: “persons are cerebral subjects, and images of the brain are the modern icons of the person.” On the contrary, Fuchs aims to show that “the brain is only an organ of the person, not the seat of the person. In other words: personhood means embodied subjectivity.” This chapter thus reinvests the previous critique of neuro-constructivism to show that the latter reinforces the Cartesian paradigm of exteriority that does not match the reality of our embodied interactions with ourselves and the world. Drawing on the analysis developed in The Ecology of the Brain, Fuchs shows that the person is not reducible to her brain, even if this organ – as a mediating organ – is key to her understanding of the world. Persons are “embodied subjects” and “living beings.” Neurosciences are thus wrong to undermine the role played by the body – as a lived body – in our understanding of the world as the brain cannot be dissociated from the living organism it draws upon: “this ‘cerebrocentrism’ neglects the interrelationships and circuits in which the brain is situated – as if one were to examine the heart without the circulation or examine the lungs without the respiratory cycle. The reason for this is that the neurosciences have no concept of a living organism. They are still trapped in the computer metaphor of the mind.” To Fuchs instead: “Conscious experience therefore only arises in the overarching system of organism and environment, through the interplay of many components to which the brain and the entire body with its organs, senses, and limbs belong, just as much as the appropriate objects of the environment. The brain is the organ that mediates these interactions; in short: an organ of mediation and relation. But, in the brain itself there is no experiencing, no consciousness, no thoughts. (…) the brain is therefore a crucial condition of the possibility of personal existence in the world. However, the person is not a part of the body, but the body-mind unity, the living human being. Persons have brains, they are not their brains.”

Chapter 5 concludes this critique of cerebrocentrism and argues for a libertarian conception of embodied freedom. Even if freedom may be philosophically challenged by determinism, we all have decisions to make in the experience of our day-to-day lives. Thus, our lived experience of freedom is irreducible and must be accounted for. Consequently, Fuchs develops a concept of embodied freedom that reflects the person’s life and does not limit its course to unfolding brain activities or the weight of individual determinations and constraints. According to the author: “If one wants to find the cause of a person’s actions, one must not look for them in an « I » or in the brain but only in the person with all their mental and physical states, or in other words, in the person as an embodied subjectivity.” The person as an embodied subjectivity is thus the source of all decisions. This conception defeats linear causality and psycho-physical determinism to claim back our human sense of responsibility and freedom. To Fuchs, the critical element lies in the person’s self-relation. Drawing on the notion of « circular causality » analyzed in depth in his previous book, The Ecology of the Brain, the author does not oppose the mind and the organism but instead merges the two poles into an « overarching structure » that interrelates the level of life and the level of existence. This view is not only philosophical. Fuchs demonstrates that it corresponds to a true scientific conception of the human being as a person that is more realistic than the scientist accounts based on cerebrocentrism. He further argues that “we do not find any empirical findings in the scientific world that are insurmountably opposed to our experience of freedom of choice” and that it is the human being’s responsibility not to get trapped in a worldview that might lock herself « in the cage of determinism. »

Chapter 6 questions the worldview elaborated by neuro-constructivism and how it has disrupted our sense of the lifeworld to replace it with the « brain world. » According to this worldview, reality is a construction and simulation of the brain, and our world of senses is “a world of illusion.” Fuchs shows that such a conception is not new and relies on a hidden Cartesian dualism that divides the world into artificial “inner” and “outer” dimensions. « Representationalism » objectifies human reality and amounts to a process of « de-anthropomorphizing » that divests the human being from its same characteristics as an embodied living being. Contrary to this perspective, Fuchs recalls his account of perception based on sensorimotor interaction. According to the enactive conception, « embodiment, lifeworld, and reality mutually ground each other. » Mutual perception and recognition frame our perception of reality and prevent us from reducing our first-personal lived experience to brain mechanisms.

Chapter 7, titled “Perception and Reality: Sketch of an interactive realism,” goes a step further by elaborating on the enactive approach to perception and embodiment to promote a « lifeworld realism. » It argues that “the fundamental reality is not the world of measurable quantities and particles abstracted by the special sciences, in particular physics, but the common reality of the lifeworld constituted by implicit intersubjectivity. » In other words, the brain should be conceived as a « mediating or relational organ, not as an internal producer of perception. » Neuroconstructivist approaches seem to reproduce the type of disconnected sense of reality one founds in schizophrenia. According to Fuchs, “The “ego tunnel” in which one lives according to the neuroconstructivist conception, the movie-in-the-head that is supposedly presented to us by our brain, is only a pathological state that patients experience in psychosis (Fuchs, 2020). In everyday experience, on the other hand, we find ourselves in the shared world, constituted by the implicit intersubjectivity of perception ».

The third and last part of the book focuses more directly on the role and status of psychiatry in contemporary society and the scientific landscape.

Chapter 8, « Psychiatry: between psyche and the brain, » investigates psychiatry’s relation to the spirit and analyzes its various discourses’ epistemological and historical roots. Fuchs recalls the specific status of psychiatry and its historical relation to natural and human sciences. Contemporary reductionism makes psychiatry contingent upon a kind of neurobiological monism: « Mental disorders are brain disorders » is the guiding principle of biological psychiatry today,”  Fuchs explains. Following his previous critique of neuro-constructivism, the author offers an alternative account of psychiatry as “a comprehensive relational medicine” – a practice that reconnects with the interpersonal aspect of reality’s experience. According to this view, the impact of environmental and social factors on the individual is as much significant as the genetic and biological factors involved in mental illnesses. Following the tradition of phenomenological psychiatry (Binswanger, Straus), Fuchs defends a global approach of the person in this chapter. Indeed, psychiatry’s « primary object is not the brain, but the person living in relationships. »

Chapter 9 explores the relationship between embodiment and personal identity and how it may be disrupted in dementia. Personal identity is a « basal self-experience » coextensive to embodied experience. It refers to a non-predicative sense of self that yet unifies our stream of consciousness. Echoing Merleau-Ponty’s description in The Phenomenology of Perception, this phenomenological account of personal identity does not require narrative skills or reflective processes to characterize one’s sense of self. Instead, it argues that the ecological and enactive approach of the subject includes the constitution of personal history at the level of the habitual body.

From this perspective, Fuchs analyzes contemporary approaches to dementia, primarily based on externalist or discursive accounts that miss the crucial role of embodiment in preserving the subject’s first-person perspective. According to Fuchs: “the concept of embodied personhood and history is able to change our image of dementia. In place of a brain and cognition-centered perspective, we may adopt the view of the patients in their own individual embodiment, which, for its part, is embedded in social and environmental contexts. (…) A concept of person grounded solely in rationality and reflection inevitably stigmatizes people with severe cognitive deficits. By contrast, bringing in a concept of person orientated towards embodiment and inter-corporeality, the response and relational capabilities of patients become a significant foundation of their personhood—such as the ability to give expression to joy, gratefulness, sorrow, or fear that is still preserved”.

Finally, the last chapter – chapter 10 – compares and contrasts the cyclical time of the body with the linear time of modernity. Expanding on the concept of physical memory, Fuchs analyzes the alterations of the experience of time in various mental illnesses and how they conflict with the demands of modernity. Modernity and, in particular, Western economies rely on a linear time that is always prone to be accelerated. The cyclical time of the organic body also matches the cyclical time of the unconscious brought to light by Freud in « repetition compulsion » – a sense of time that is also profoundly disrupted in other mental illnesses. Fuchs gives the example of the manic patient and the one suffering from depression. Both conditions reveal a specific way to relate to the modern lifeworld or to be cut off from it. As the author explains: « precisely as a fundamental disorder of temporality, depression, like no other mental illness, reflects the conflict between the primary, cyclical structure of life processes and the rule of linear time, which has been established in Western culture since modern times. Desynchronization, falling out of linear world time, becomes a latent threat in our competitive and accelerated society, which has to be fought against continuously. In depression, these efforts fail, the individual lags hopelessly behind, and decoupling from the common time becomes a reality. » Implementing back a rhythmization of one’s life, based on the cyclical time of the body, could help restore a connection to oneself and others.


In line with his previous book (The Ecology of the Brain), Thomas Fuchs continues his critical, epistemological and phenomenological work by offering us a book resolutely turned towards pressing contemporary issues: the virtual world, aging, the status of care for the most vulnerable in our Western societies. Far from the gnostic fantasies of transhumanism, Fuchs offers us a phenomenology of the life of the mind that is both resolutely human and existentially fruitful.

The legacy of Jaspers and existential psychiatry (Binswanger, Straus, Minkowski) is evident here. Any scientific project is the consequence of a specific anthropological vision of the human being. What we could call the de-anthropologization of the world in favor of a technocentric approach must also be considered a contemporary worldview. We are then facing the following alternative as a limit situation: either the headlong rush into the ideological consolidation of this worldview and the deadly reification of the human and the living as a whole or an existential leap that allows us to reconcile a scientific approach to the world and a critical phenomenology of our relationship to it. By offering us a salutary deconstruction of contemporary scientism, which claims to master and go beyond the limits of the body and consciousness through technology, Fuchs offers an approach as accurate as adjusted to science, denouncing the myths of its metaphors (information, dematerialization, etc.). The author admirably demonstrates that this worldview is based on a normative conception of normality and dictated by a representation of the human being designed to match our contemporary pleonexia.

The book is vibrant, and we would like to highlight three aspects of it: 1/ the phenomenological deconstruction of contemporary psychiatry and the highlighting of an expanded concept of consciousness that reintegrates its ethical dimension and its embodied anchorage; 2/ the defense of a humanism that is less the classical humanism of the spirit than a humanism of the living, embodied spirit. In other words, the philosophical critique of Cartesian ontology calls for its overcoming in a renewed humanism anchored in phenomenological realism. 3/ The crucial role of the concept of the lifeworld and the relational and interpersonal dimension of any properly human existence.

Fuchs would undoubtedly acknowledge the words of Erwin Straus, who already stated in his writings that: « The object of psychiatric action is not primarily the brain, the body, or the organism; it should be the integral man in the uniqueness of his individual existence as this discloses itself – independently of the distinction between healthy and sick – in existential communication » (Philosophy and Psychiatry); or the words of Binswanger for whom psychiatry is a « science of man, of human existence. » It is not a question of denying some illnesses’ biological and organic dimensions. Instead, it is necessary to articulate this level of analysis and understanding with the existential and relational possibilities that give it meaning and inscribe the latter in the biography of a person. The richness of Fuchs’ analysis shows that this is not a theoretical bias. Recent scientific findings make the phenomenology of embodied cognition and enaction more credible and inescapable. In other words, contrary to the contemporary ideology developed by novelists like Harari, freedom is not the founding myth of our humanity but its real and embodied fulfillment. Fuchs insists on this crucial point: « Humanism in the ethical sense, therefore, means resistance to the rule and constraints of technocratic systems as well as to the self-reification and mechanization of humans » « The defense of man is, in this respect, not only a theoretical task but also an ethical duty.  » (Fuchs).

The high prevalence of mental illnesses in our contemporary times is explicitly correlated with a weakening of the social bond and atomization of the existence of individuals that can only increase in the schizoid world of the “technological mind.” Conversely, the examples of care, and in particular the care of older people with dementia, show the importance of interpersonal relationships and real socialization to guarantee the well-being and dignity, and self-esteem of one’s person. The ecology of the embodied self, therefore, requires us to question our modern systems based on the performance of individuals and self-sufficiency in order to consider the resources of our vulnerability and finitude, especially at the ethical and relational levels:  » As the other becomes real for us in his body, we also become real for ourselves, as bodily beings appearing in their bodies. Embodiment, lifeworld, and reality mutually ground each other” (Fuchs, 155). Isolating someone is undoubtedly the best attempt to destroy her humanity. The valorization of the disembodied spirit in our contemporary societies through digitalization – an ideological perversion of Cartesian ontology – alienates us at the very moment it thinks it can liberate us.

Fuchs’ phenomenological realism insists on embodied cognition and its constitution in the lifeworld (Lebenswelt). It is constitutive of our free relationship with others and the world in that our choices and environments determine each other. Interactive realism goes beyond materialist monism and Cartesian dualism in favor of a relational ontology whose primary constituent is interdependency:  « Because perception, according to my first thesis, is neither an activity of the brain nor a process in an inner mental world, but rather an active engagement of living beings with their environment, or in short: perception means sensorimotor interaction. (Fuchs, 158).

The aesthesiological and cosmological dimension of perception promoted by interactive realism allows us to overcome the explanatory gap. Indeed, « only humans can grasp objects and situations as such, i.e., independently of a purely subjective perspective » (Ibid.) From this perception arises a form of responsibility towards other human and non-human forms of life. In other words, any epistemological perspective on the human being also implies an ethical perspective on freedom, truth, and reality. Such a perspective opens new philosophical ways to existential psychiatry, in the tradition of Straus, as we have said, but also of Minkowski.

We can only rejoice at this demonstration which brilliantly defeats the worldview of neuro-constructivism and the fallacy of the technological mind who pretends “to encounter us through a smartphone.” Fuchs’ book keeps all its promises and offers an essential analysis that holds the human being and the world together. This phenomenological approach departs us from the paradigm of power and mastery that foments some posthuman conceptions in favor of a paradigm that resynchronizes life and embodiment to make us responsible for our ways of being and living together within the common world, here and now. As such, by defending the human being, Fuchs defends all forms of life against the reductionisms or relativisms alienating them.

James Jardine: Empathy, Embodiment, and the Person, Springer, 2021

Empathy, Embodiment, and the Person: Husserlian Investigations of Social Experience and the Self Couverture du livre Empathy, Embodiment, and the Person: Husserlian Investigations of Social Experience and the Self
Phaenomenologica, Vol. 233
James Jardine
Hardback 103,99 €
XIV, 282

Karol Wojtyla: Person and Act and Related Essays, The Catholic University of America Press, 2021

Person and Act and Related Essays Couverture du livre Person and Act and Related Essays
Karol Wojtyla. Foreword by Carl A Anderson, Translated by Grzegorz Ignatik
The Catholic University of America Press
Paperback $75.00

Thomas Fuchs: Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind

Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind Couverture du livre Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind
Thomas Fuchs
Oxford University Press

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

What makes us persons?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hermann Schmitz: Zur Epigenese der Person

Zur Epigenese der Person Couverture du livre Zur Epigenese der Person
Hermann Schmitz
Verlag Karl Alber
Paperback 29,00 €

Reviewed by: Corinna Lagemann (Freie Universität Berlin)

Der Kieler Phänomenologe Hermann Schmitz befasst sich seit den 60er Jahren mit einer umfassenden Würdigung und Kritik der traditionellen phänomenologischen Theoriebildung. Das umfangreiche Kernstück und gleichzeitig die Basis seines Schaffens ist das fünfbändige System der Philosophie, welches seine gesamte Konzeption umfasst.

Eine der wichtigsten Säulen seiner Theorie ist die Leiblichkeit. Der Leib, verstanden als das, was der Mensch in der Gegend seines sicht- und tastbaren Körpers spürt, bildet die Grundlage für Subjektivität, für die Konstitution von Eigen- und Fremdwelt, für die Erfahrung von Zeit und Raum und damit auch für die Genese der Person. Der Begriff der Person stellt eine weitere zentrale Größe in Schmitz’ Werk dar. Personalität zeichnet sich durch die Fähigkeit aus, etwas für sich selbst zu halten und sich bei gleichzeitiger leiblicher Verwurzelung im Hier und Jetzt aus den unmittelbaren Bezügen zu lösen.

Schmitz selbst formuliert dies in diesem Band wie folgt:

« Der Bewussthaber beginnt mit Sichspüren durch affektives Betroffensein in bloßer absoluter Identität, gefangen in Situationen, von deren Nomos er geführt wird, und befreit sich dann mit Hilfe satzförmiger Rede aus dieser Gefangenschaft, indem er sich durch Vereinzelung und Neutralisierung zur Person erhebt, die mit persönlichen Stellungnahmen in die Welt eingreift, dabei aber weder von den Situationen loskommt, aus denen sie Konstellationen schöpfen muss, noch vom affektiven Betroffensein, mit dem sie ihr Personsein und sogar ihre absolute Identität verlöre. » (S.136)

Im vorliegenden Band Zur Epigenese der Person (Karl Alber Verlag 2017) geht es um eben dieses Konzept. Es handelt sich dabei nicht um eine Monographie, sondern um eine Sammlung von einschlägigen Aufsätzen, die in den Jahren 2015 und 2016, oftmals in Form von Vortragsmanuskripten, entstanden sind. Das Buch besteht aus 9 Aufsätzen, die zwar prinzipiell voneinander unabhängig sind und die sich in Teilaspekten wiederholen, allerdings liegt hier keine zufällige Ansammlung von Texten vor, sondern die Aufsätze folgen einer Systematik, die im Begriff der Person selbst begründet liegt.

Damit beschreibt der erste Aufsatz mit dem Titel « Der Aufbau der Person » nicht nur genau diesen (nämlich den Aufbau der Person), sondern liefert gleichzeitig den roten Faden durch den gesamten Band. In diesem Text wird die Konstitution der Person geschildert, angefangen beim affektiven Betroffensein, in welchem der Mensch sich selbst spürt, jedoch noch ohne Möglichkeit der Distanzierung. Darauf aufbauend beschreibt Schmitz den Einsatz der leiblichen Dynamik, d.i. die individuelle Auseinandersetzung mit diesem Betroffensein, die sich in leibliche Kommunikation ausweitet, d.h. auf die Umgebung ausgedehnt wird. Daraus, so Schmitz, ergeben sich Situationen, in denen sich der Mensch befindet; Ganzheitliche Mannigfaltigkeiten, die durch binnendiffuse Bedeutsamkeit zusammengehalten werden, d.h. durch Sachverhalte, Programme und Probleme, die – und hier erfolgt der Übergang zur Personalität – durch die segmentierende satzförmige Rede abstrahierend vereinzelt werden können. Damit ist eine Distanz vom rein leiblichen präpersonalen Geschehen gegeben, welche der Person zu eigen ist.

In den folgenden Aufsätzen werden dementsprechend zunächst das präpersonale leibimmanente Geschehen von Engung und Weitung verhandelt (Kap. 2 « Enge und Weite ») und daran anschließend die Ausweitung der leiblichen Dynamik auf die Umgebung (Kap. 3 « Leib und leibliche Kommunikation »).

Die folgenden Kapitel dienen der Einführung der sogenannten Halbdinge, die quasi als Brücke von der leiblichen Dynamik zu leibexternen Gegenständen dienen; Phänomene, die sich gemäß Schmitz’ Theorie von Volldingen durch ihre unterbrechbare Dauer und ihre unmittelbare Kausalität unterscheiden (Vgl. S.84). Sie verfügen über eine unbezweifelbare, oftmals objektiv spürbare Präsenz, ohne dass man sie als konkrete Gegenstände dingfest machen könnte. Beispiele sind der Wind, Musik, aber auch Schmerz, atmosphärische Gefühle und Probleme, die einen nicht loslassen. Im 4. Kapitel des Bandes wird exemplarisch der Schmerz verhandelt. Schmerz stellt im leiblichen Geschehen einen Konflikt dar, er ist insofern ein Stück weit dem reinen präpersonalen leiblichen Geschehen enthoben, als er eine Konfrontation, eine Auseinandersetzung erzwingt. Dem Schmerz kann man sich nicht indifferent hingeben und darin aufgehen.

Auch im 5. Kapitel « Schall und Farbe » geht es um Halbdinge, die auf unterschiedliche Arten die leibliche Dynamik involvieren und bestimmte Arten der leiblichen Kommunikation bzw. der Einleibung darstellen und somit über den eigenen Leib hinausweisen. Hier unterscheidet Schmitz die aktivischen Eigenschaften des Schalls, der als Widerfahrnis auf den Leib einwirkt von den eher statisch-passiven Qualitäten der Farbe.

Das 6. Kapitel « Sucht als habituelle Fixierung durch einseitige Einleibung » stellt innerhalb des Bandes gewissermaßen eine Scharnierstelle dar. Obgleich Hermann Schmitz gleich eingangs seine Abneigung gegen dieses Thema betont (er hält sich nicht für kompetent), gelingt ihm hier eine sehr spannende Annäherung an dieses Phänomen. Denn er widmet sich hier nicht den Abhängigkeiten nach Substanzen, sondern vielmehr nach bestimmten Verhaltensweisen. So beschäftigt er sich anschließend an Robert Gugutzer eingehend mit der Sportsucht. Schmitz definiert Sucht als « Fixierung des affektiven Betroffenseins an etwas, das den Betroffenen fesselt, an dem er hängt, von dem er nicht loskommt. » Dies sei eine Form der einseitigen Einleibung. Die Scharnierfunktion bezieht dieser Aufsatz daraus, dass er über den Begriff der einseitigen Einleibung die präpersonalen Themen mit den personalen eng verzahnt und damit einen Übergang zu den folgenden Texten schafft.

Die nächsten beiden Texte, Kap. 7 « Bewusstsein von etwas (Über Intentionalität) » und Kap. 8 « Geschichte als Herausforderung durch das Unerwartete » lösen sich das endgültig vom Leib und beschäftigen sich zum Einen mit einer Kritik der traditionellen Phänomenologie, insbesondere mit Husserls Begriff der Intentionalität, desweiteren werden hier Konzepte von Raum und Zeit verhandelt, die deutlich dem personalen Bereich zuzuordnen sind, da sie weit über das leibliche Geschehen hinausreichen.

Der letzte Text nun, « Praxis in der Sicht der Neuen Phänomenologie », widmet sich dem menschlichen Bereich des willentlichen Handelns, welches sich von der bloßen leiblichen Aktivität des Tieres (und des Menschen auf präpersonaler Ebene) unterscheidet. Hier spielen Themen wie Konstruktion, Werkzeuggebrauch und Begriffe wie Weltbildung und -gestaltung eine Rolle, zu denen der Mensch als personal entwickeltes, mit freiem Willen und Abstraktionsvermögen ausgestattetes Wesen in der Lage ist.

Der Band richtet sich an Leser, die mit Hermann Schmitz’ Neuer Phänomenologie vertraut sind. Die Texte sind in Schmitz’ sehr eigener Terminologie verfasst, beziehen sich in hohem Maße auf seine eigenen früheren Schriften und es gibt keine Einführung in die Begrifflichkeiten, die bei Schmitz recht originell verwendet werden und teilweise von ihm selbst entwickelt wurden.

Für Kenner des Schmitz’schen Theoriegebäudes ist dieses Buch sehr hilfreich, bietet es doch eine neue werkimmanente Aufbereitung eines zentralen Themas.

Lobend zu erwähnen ist neben dem klaren systematischen Aufbau das sehr gute und umfassende Register, das die weitere Recherche innerhalb seines umfangreichen Systems vereinfacht.

Auf den ersten Blick mag man die vielen Wiederholungen insbesondere der Leibthematik als störend empfinden. Allerdings bleibt dies nicht aus, will man den Begriff der Person von allen Seiten umfassend beleuchten; außerdem sei daran erinnert, dass es sich um eine Sammlung von Aufsätzen handelt, die unabhängig voneinander entstanden sind und jeder für sich dieses Thema in berechtigter Art und Weise behandelt.