Sensorimotor subjectivity and the...
Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences DOI: 10.1007/s11097-005-9003-x C Springer 2005 Sensorimotor subjectivity and the enactive approach to experience EVAN THOMPSON Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto, Canada (E-mail: email@example.com) Abstract. The enactive approach offers a distinctive view of how mental life relates to bodily activity at three levels: bodily self-regulation, sensorimotor coupling, and intersubjective in- teraction. This paper concentrates on the second level of sensorimotor coupling. An account is given of how the subjectively lived body and the living body of the organism are related (the body-body problem) via dynamic sensorimotor activity, and it is shown how this account helps to bridge the explanatory gap between consciousness and the brain. Arguments by O���Regan, No�� e, and Myin that seek to account for the phenomenal character of perceptual consciousness in terms of ���bodiliness��� and ���grabbiness��� are considered. It is suggested that their account does not pay sufficient attention to two other key aspects of perceptual phenomenality: the autonomous nature of the experiencing self or agent, and the pre-reflective nature of bodily self-consciousness. Key words: Enactive cognitive science, self, sensorimotor, subjectivity The enactive approach The name ���the enactive approach��� and the associated concept of enaction were introduced into cognitive science by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch (1991) in order to describe and unify under one heading several related ideas.1 The first idea is that living beings are autonomous agents that actively generate and maintain their identities, and thereby enact or bring forth their own cognitive domains. The second idea is that the nervous system is an autonomous system: it actively generates and maintains its own coherent and meaningful patterns of activity, according to its operation as an organizationally closed or circular and re-entrant sensorimotor network of interacting neurons. The nervous sys- tem does not process information in the computationalist sense, but creates meaning. The third idea is that cognition is a form of embodied action. Cog- nitive structures and processes emerge from recurrent sensorimotor patterns of perception and action. Sensorimotor coupling between organism and envi- ronment modulates, but does not determine, the formation of endogenous, dy- namic patterns of neural activity, which in turn inform sensorimotor coupling. The fourth idea is that a cognitive being���s world is not a pre-specified, external realm, represented internally by its brain, but a relational domain enacted or brought forth by that being���s autonomous agency and mode of coupling with the environment. This idea links the enactive approach to phenomenological
EVAN THOMPSON philosophy, for both maintain that cognition bears a constitutive relation to its objects. Stated in a classical phenomenological way, the idea is that the object, in the precise sense of that which is given to and experienced by the subject, is conditioned by the mental activity of the subject. Stated in a more existential phenomenological way, the idea is that a cognitive being���s world ��� whatever that being is able to experience, know, and practically handle ��� is conditioned by that being���s form or structure. Such ���constitution��� on the part of our sub- jectivity or being-in-the-world is not subjectively apparent to us in everyday life, but requires systematic analysis ��� scientific and phenomenological ��� to disclose. This point brings us to the fifth idea, which is that experience is not an epiphenomenal side issue, but central to any understanding of the mind, and needs to be investigated in a careful phenomenological manner. For this reason, the enactive approach has from its inception maintained that cogni- tive science and phenomenology need to be pursued in a complementary and mutually informing way. According to the enactive approach, the human mind is embodied in our entire organism and embedded in the world, and hence is not reducible to structures inside the head. Our mental lives involve three permanent and in- tertwined modes of bodily activity ��� self-regulation, sensorimotor coupling, and intersubjective interaction (Thompson and Varela 2001). Self-regulation is essential to being alive and sentient. It is evident in emotion and feeling, and in conditions such as being awake or asleep, alert or fatigued, hungry or satiated. Sensorimotor coupling with the world is expressed in perception, emotion, and action. Intersubjective interaction is the cognition and affec- tively charged experience of self and other. The human brain is crucial for these three modes of activity, but it is also reciprocally shaped and structured by them at multiple levels throughout the lifespan. If each individual human mind emerges from these extended modes of activity, if it is accordingly em- bodied and embedded in them as a ���dynamic singularity��� ��� a knot or tangle of recurrent and re-entrant processes centered on the organism (Hurley 1998) ��� then the ���astonishing hypothesis��� of neuroreductionism ��� that you are ���noth- ing but a pack of neurons��� (Crick 1994, p. 2) or that ���you are your synapses��� (LeDoux 2002) ��� is both a category error and biologically unsound. On the contrary, you are a living bodily subject of experience and an intersubjective mental being. This paper focuses on the second of these modes of bodily activity, on dynamic sensorimotor activity. Recent dynamic sensorimotor approaches to perception and action have made important contributions to the scientific and philosophical understanding of consciousness (Hurley 1998 O���Regan and No�� e 2001a,b Hurley and No�� e 2003 No�� e 2004). My aim in this paper is to build on these advances in order to address what I have elsewhere called the ���body-body problem,��� the problem of how to relate one���s subjectively lived body to the organism or living body that one is (Hanna and Thompson 2003
SENSORIMOTOR SUBJECTIVITY AND THE ENACTIVE APPROACH TO EXPERIENCE Thompson 2004). My approach will be to link the dynamic sensorimotor account of perceptual experience to both an enactive account of selfhood and a phenomenological account of bodily self-consciousness. Phenomenology: Subjectivity and bodily self-consciousness The body-body problem is a non-Cartesian way of recasting the explanatory gap between the conscious mind and the physical body. In the body-body prob- lem, the gap is no longer between two radically different ontologies (���mental��� and ���physical���), but between two types within one typology of embodiment (subjectively lived body and living body). The gap is also no longer absolute, because in order to formulate it we need to make common reference to life or living being. The body-body problem concerns the relation between one���s body as one subjectively lives it and one���s body as an organism in the world. This problem is in turn part of the general problem of the relation between oneself and the world, for one���s living body is part of the world and one���s body as one subjectively lives it is part of one���s sense of self. We can thus ask two questions: how does one���s lived body relate to the world and how does it relate to itself? Addressing these questions is one way to approach the body���s sensorimotor subjectivity. The relation between one���s self and the world encompasses the relation between one���s self and one���s body. Descartes, in his Sixth Meditation, points out that one���s self is not located in one���s body as a pilot within a ship, but instead is ���very closely joined��� and ���intermingled��� with it, so that the two ���form a unit.��� Nevertheless, self and body remain two, not one. Merleau- Ponty, in contrast, rejects this dualism. One���s self is not merely embodied, but bodily: ���But I am not in front of my body, I am in my body, or rather I am my body��� (1962, p. 150, my emphasis).2 Yet Merleau-Ponty also re- fuses to understand the proposition ���I am my body��� in a materialist way, as meaning that I am (or my self is) nothing more than a complex physical ob- ject. Instead, he maintains the original position that I am a bodily subject, that is, a subjective object or a physical subject. In this way, he rejects the traditional concepts of mind and body, subject and object, as well as the on- tologies they imply (dualism, materialism, and idealism) (see Priest 1998, pp. 56���57). In keeping with this original view, Merleau-Ponty maintains that the rela- tion between self and world is not primarily that of subject to object, but rather what he calls, following Heidegger, being-in-the-world. For a bodily subject it is not possible to specify what the subject is in abstraction from the world, nor is it possible to specify what the world is in abstraction from the subject: ���The world is inseparable from the subject, but from a subject which is nothing