In the opening lines of the excellently compiled essay collection by Luís Aguiar de Sousa and Ana Falcato titled Phenomenological Approaches to Intersubjectivity and the Values (originally published August 2019), it becomes clear that the innovative aspect of this work is not the tried and true cognitive discussion of the role the complex phenomenon of intersubjectivity plays in our lives, although most of section I is dedicated to this “classical” discussion. It is rather the volume’s focus on the axiological parts of our existence that is of particular interest. In this review, I will present a short summary of the articles and essays presented in the volume, as well as offer commentary and critique of their central themes. I have selected only a few due to length constraints. I also present some further discussions in order to contextualize for the wider debates in phenomenology.
We can begin with the introduction, for there it is stated that the approach the collection intends to take, is axiological. According to the editors, it is the case that “what makes this volume special and distinct from other collective works on the phenomenology of intersubjectivity is its insistence on the axiological—that is, the ethical and existential—dimension of phenomenology’s account of intersubjectivity.” (2) However, further explication or discussion dedicated to accounting for what exactly the field of “axiology” denotes is not pursued.
“Within continental philosophy, phenomenology is more widely understood and engaged with than axiology. As such, it would have been prudent to dedicate more time to accounting for what exactly axiology is. Especially since “there has been a renewed interest in phenomenology in recent Anglo-American philosophy” (1).
This seems to imply the equal familiarity between the two on behalf of the readers though; phenomenology on the one hand, and axiology on the other, where it can be claimed that between the two, phenomenology is arguably the more known. This is not necessarily the case, however. That said, it is indeed true, as the editors also claim, that the essays in the collection quickly move from the more classical debates about how to account for the presence of the other, (the realm that is often most interested in the cognition-focused Anglo-American philosophy) and into the realm of ethics and even theology. This fact, is most welcome. This is especially the case given the explicitness with which this fact is confirmed. It is the case, for instance, that the ethical dimension of the phenomenological quest of investigating our social natures as intersubjectively constituted creatures, often looms in the background of the contemporary phenomenological writing, and this is the case for almost all the writing on intersubjectivity both classic and more recent. Yet surprisingly, this very fact does not seem to be explicitly focused on, as the ethical dimension of the phenomenological project, often approached at the end of a given text, trails off or is relegated to “another occasion”. This is where “values” comes in, and as such, this collection can be seen as a form of bridge between the two now less estranged banks of intersubjectivity and the values, crossing the river of phenomenology that gives rise to both.
The book is divided into three parts, each with their own focus. The essays in part I. are dedicated to “The Cognitive and Epistemological Dimension of the Problem of the Other” consisting of 5 essays. Although thorough, this section is perhaps the least original, as it is dedicated to the classical discussion from within the writings of some major phenomenologists, such as Merleau-Ponty and Husserl. Yet, the interesting thing is how the essays in the section, despite what can be claimed is the generally unoriginal approach of their points of departure—exegesis of the classical texts (which Zahavi, in several places, claims is the tendentious trap of much contemporary phenomenology)—all have original streaks in several of their main points. For instance, the text by Jorge Goncalves on Intersubjectivity in Psychiatry brings phenomenology to bear on some background assumptions in psychiatry concerning the status of the self. He shows how longstanding debates in phenomenology can greatly help the psychiatrist get a grip on his or her patient, and the latter’s fundamental needs. He concludes that although some of the prevailing theories in psychology concerning our access to the other’s mind, namely Theory-Theory and Simulation Theory, can provide relevant and helpful explanations for psychiatry, the fundamental problem remains the same: how to truly open oneself up to the other person, when the other person resides on the outside of “normality”. The conclusion is that phenomenology, with its traditional methodological operation manifested in the attempt to “suspend judgment and perceive things themselves as they are” (109) may prove to be more successful in this perennial and forever pertinent endeavor. Goncalves fails however, to note that a recent formulation of this “phenomenological approach” is termed “interaction theory” by Gallagher, as the latter opposes them explicitly to Theory-Theory and Simulation Theory as on equal footing.
A more classical exegetical discussion is found in another paper, the paper presented as chapter 1 by Paul F. Zipfel which is a thoroughgoing and careful analysis of Husserl’s notion of inaccessibility.
From the get-go, it becomes clear that, although well written, the essay is best read by someone already initiated into the core ideas of Husserl’s phenomenology. Introductory remarks are not made, and we jump right into the middle of the action, which is subtended by the paradoxical question of how the other appears to the subject, because of, not in spite of, his or her inaccessibility. The main thesis defended by Zipfel is that inaccessibility is a “function of the originality of the conscious act” and as such, is quite a fundamental part of our encounters with the other. A preparatory section is dedicated to the important, if somewhat exasperated discussion of direct versus indirect experience, before Zipfel moves into “the originality of experience” as he accounts for how that which is most original in the other subject’s experience, is not directly given to the experiencer of the other, but rather in the form of a “consciousness of a consciousness that is not my own.” This is quite subtle, and Zipfel presents some good examples in order to clarify this complex point. He draws on several contemporary commentators, as well as meticulous readings of Husserl’s own reflections as recounted on Cartesian Meditations and Husserliana in order to develop his discussion. The main conclusion in the essay is that the other is accessible exactly in his/her inaccessibility. The other person’s mind is in many ways directly perceived, but not fully or completely. There is always some mystery that eludes us, always something left to explore, yet this is what opens the door to ethics, and what we might call “the mystery of the other.”
The perhaps most original essay in part 1 is chapter 4, by Roberta Guccinelli, in which she discusses the notion of “the ecological self”. Interesting though it is, the author can be said to perhaps assume too much, as she jumps straight into it with the question of whether an “ecological self really exists” which is presumptuous due to its assumption that the reader has dedicated some time pondering this question, and it also perhaps assumes an already parallel standpoint taken on the very notion of the self, on the readers’ part. That said, Guccinelli’s approach to Scheler, attempting to use his phenomenology to (re)construct a self that is not just intersubjectively constituted, but ecologically constituted (what we might call “eco-subjective”) is most welcome. Although there has been literature that have drawn the background conceptual links between phenomenology and ecology out into the explicitly ethical open (like David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous), Guccinelli’s focus on the Self, along with Guccinelli’s usage of Scheler’s phenomenology in that regard, is highly interesting and original.
I stand by the contemporary Husserl scholar Dan Zahavi’s general comment mentioned in the bracket above, that there is a widespread tendency among current phenomenologists to dabble in egregious over-exegesis of the original source material. This is done with the best educational intentions, but it often only serves, ironically, to render it tiresome to the pragmatically oriented reader, who in many cases simply wants to see its immediate relevance to the discipline (nursing-studies, psychiatry, biology etc.) i.e. their own field. I have to present a lengthy quote which can help to moderate this view a little, which with its helpful and thorough discussion of the difference between (and similarities of) Husserl and Merleau-Ponty’s views on intersubjectivity, makes us see how the underlying and “classical” discussion is as alive and relevant as ever. Here are the concluding sentences from the final part of chapter 3, by one of the editors, de Sousa himself, as he compares Merleau-Ponty and Husserl.
Merleau-Ponty’s view has the great merit of making a very strong connection between subjectivity and intersubjectivity—of showing, in other words, that it is only possible for us to form the idea of other subjects because our self is radically different from the Cartesian self, and vice versa. As a result, Merleau-Ponty manages to turn Husserl’s account of intersubjectivity on its head, undermining the foundations of Husserlian phenomenology (even if this remains polemical from a Husserlian point of view). (79)
Now, it might be argued that there is an overabundance in the literature when it comes to the exegetical accounts of what the phenomenological forefathers actually meant to say, and that there should be a stricter separation between “scholarly work” and “contemporary application” in the literature than what is currently fashionable, but that belies the way phenomenology is actually working. The early founding phenomenologists themselves, as de Sousa more than hints at above, argued intensely amongst themselves, and any usage of phenomenology today will have to take a stand on the premises in the debate in order to present their positive views on the applicability of the discipline to other fields. Especially when phenomenology meets contemporary empirical research. And these roots go way back to Husserl’s concern with The Crises of the European Sciences. More immediately engaged was Merleau-Ponty for instance, who was very much up to date with the empirical sciences of his day. Indeed, he was informed by the empirical sciences to such a degree that the neurological and psychological case studies buttressed central aspects of his phenomenology. Those studies are indispensable to his magnum opus, Phenomenology of Perception, and the approach developed therein. When the psychologist J.J. Gibson read Merleau-Ponty, he was directly inspired by the philosopher’s concept of motor-intentionality to develop his interactionist view of perception as directly action-guiding in The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.
Today, links are drawn between Heidegger’s Being and Time and recent developments in the cognitive sciences. These links were first drawn by Hubert Dreyfus in his (in)famous reading of Heidegger’s existential analytic and phenomenology and used as a direct attack on the program of early research into artificial intelligence in the early 70s. From the get-go, the writings of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (as well as Gabriel Marcel, as we see below) were greatly influencing literature and literary criticism in a sensitive and highly creative time in French writing. This could not have been done without the direct and indirect influence of Husserl, and his early investigations (that Raymond Aron, Sartre and de Beauvoir were exposed to and inspired by) of intentionality. In other words, exegetical or not, phenomenological and existentialist ideas have always, in one way or another, been in mutual engagement with the broader cultural streams, and in turn been affected and changed by them. As such, it can be claimed that “the problem of exegesis” is not a problem at all, but part and parcel of what good phenomenology is all about. So much for part I. of the collection.
In part II. “The Ethical and Existential Approach to the Problem of the Other” the essays become more general, as the consequences of the phenomenological analyses discussed are pursued with a more general look at their ethical and theological import. Part II consists, then, of five essays, ranging from Scheler’s phenomenology of otherness, through discussions on Being-With and Being-Alone in the young Heidegger, Sartre and intersubjectivity, Gabriel Marcel’s thesis of availability on the importance of solicitude for our understanding of fundamental philosophical enquiry.
The perhaps most interesting and informative essay in part II is written by Elodie Malbois, and sets out to account for Gabriel Marcel’s oft neglected contribution to the phenomenological literature. Malbois’ twenty-six page essay can in many ways be described as an homage to Marcel’s thinking, as well as an analysis of his central focus on the notion of “Availability”, which he considered as not just an essential part of how we relate to others, but as an indispensable mode of authentically connecting with them. It actually turns out that for Marcel, intersubjectivity as a phenomenon can only strictly speaking be said to occur when you are available to the other person. Physical proximity, embodied encounters and basic perceptual openness to other people are perhaps necessary preconditions, yet they are hardly sufficient for genuine familiarity with the otherness of the other. The otherness of the other can only appear in the intersubjective mode once the fundamental phenomenon of availability is in play; indeed, intersubjectivity proper for Marcel is not fully understood without reference to availability. But in what, then, does availability consist?
As most phenomena that are closest to us, it is hard to describe. A central role is ascribed to attention; for the available person is according to Marcel hetero-centered, that is, focused on the other. A problem that can arise even within this positive account of the necessity of attention for understanding the phenomenon in question, is that one often runs the risk of simply paying attention to oneself through the other. Malbois uses a Marcelian example of a young man who goes to a party and finding himself quite unable to feel that the others are looking at him, judging him with their gazes. Now, the point here is that while the other man is indeed directed at the other minds, and take their otherness in many ways, seriously, this is not to get to know them better, but rather, involves a return to the self, as he only cares about their minds insofar as they care about him. He is encombré soi, “cluttered up in himself” (187). So being truly available is not just about having your mind directed at another’s mind, and the other person’s object of attention (for that object might just be you) but actively engaging in the other person’s perspective, the other person’s position. This is where Marcel, according to Malbois, allows himself concepts such as agape to slip in, while, according to the latter, arguing further about the necessity of using them (ibid.) But the important roots with Christian theology and mysticism are evident, as being concerned with the otherness of the other for his/her own sake finds its parallel in the language of the believer. Love and charity are central concepts, and they of course imply this fundamental mode of (basic) self-sacrifice through a forgetting of the self for the sake of the other. This is where the original analysis of intersubjectivity turns axiological. Other aspects endemic to classical existential and phenomenological problematics come up, such as authenticity, which for Marcel is tied to availability, a concept that itself turns increasingly complex as Malbois exposition strides forth. Malbois is throughout careful in her discussion, as she never presumes the question of exactly how best to define “availability” to be a settled one. The essay is a well written and critical homage in its entirety, and ends on the thoroughly axiological account of availability as a reciprocal act happening between minds.
The other essays in part II. share the trend of arriving at what we might call “the deeper level” of intersubjective analysis, as the thorough analysis of the phenomenon is pulled in the direction of viewing it as constitutive of our very being-in-the-world, and the fundamental and indispensable parts of this structure. Such as Scheler’s notion of love (chapter 6), which turns theological, or Heidegger’s differentiation between Being-With and Being-Alone (chapter 7) and Sartre’s ambivalent account of intersubjectivity, the chapter (chapter 8) in which André Barata brings in the outspoken atheist Sartre’s more theological reflections on Nothingness, God and, (the classical) question of what love is.
Then, finally, there is part III in which we move into the more esoteric parts of the phenomenological problematics concerning intersubjectivity. Chapter 11 is dedicated to a discussion on the development and connection between Merleau-Ponty’s thinking and Foucault’s by Gianfranco Ferraro, and in it he draws the lines towards what he dubs “a contemporary ontology of immanence” (241). The essay is a difficult read, not just due to the inherently difficult source material discussed, but also due to the lines drawn. Although the original quest set out on from part 1 of the essay, namely that of accounting for the “possible influences and relations between the two authors” and their varied import for the new ontology of the subject emerging after World War 2, I fear that too much is already at stake from the get-go, and that Ferraro fails to bring everything together in a fruitful way. There simply seems to be too many thinkers involved, as Levinas, Heidegger and then Deleuze are brought to bear on the debate. One not well versed in the continental development over the last 100-50 years will have a great difficulty following the many stranded argumentations. That said, for the initiated, the lines drawn are interesting (though at times confused) and merit further investigation.
A refreshing essay is presented by Grace Whistler, constituting chapter 13 in which she discusses the interesting links between form and content in Albert Camus’ L’Etranger. She argues that Camus indeed intended to communicate his very philosophy in the simple style of L’Etranger, which best comes out in the French wordings, which she does her best to convey in an English manner. The essay is nothing short of an analysis of what Whistler takes to be the essential relation between literary style and the content of the philosophy in question. She claims that Camus can be said to attempt a direct showing (show don’t tell) of Merseault’s world through his prose, allowing us to experience it directly as intersubjective. The essay is well written and highly original.
Chapter 14 with its essay entitled “The Poetry and the Pity” is easiest the odd one out in the collection. This is something the editors themselves note in the introduction It is a poetic post-ludium depicting the echoes of the voices crying out from our not-so-distant past; the voices of pain from World War 1. The essay highlights in an effective yet indirect way the running theme throughout the collection; namely the ethical consequences of phenomenology. It is poetically fitting that an essay that does not explicitly engage with phenomenology and intersubjectivity, all the same points us towards the redeeming powers of narrative, which we, now more than ever, are in dire need of.
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.