Merleau-Ponty, Agency and Embodied Cognition

In many of his writings philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) identifies two opposing notions of consciousness that characterize our thinking: one construes consciousness as radically different from the world - epitomized by both the concepts of a Cartesian soul and the Kantian transcendental ego. The other view identifies consciousness with some lump of physical matter such as the brain, nervous system, or body. It holds that the doings of consciousness can be fully explained by appealing to causal laws. This conception is found in 'scientific' thinking about subjectivity. Merleau-Ponty however rejects both notions.

Merleau-Ponty suggests that what we ordinarily think of as mental states and activities are constituted by bodily engagement with the world. The subject of these states and activities is thus essentially embodied. But to understand this form of bodily subjectivity, we need to reject the traditional idea of the body as a mere object, a piece of biological mechanism, which somehow contains consciousness within it. Instead, Merleau-Ponty argues, we need to recognize that the body is a form of consciousness - a living sentient enitity. And, since it is the body's interactions with the world that generate our mental states and activities, consciousness is not separate from its environment. It is essentially embedded within it.

Moreover, Merleau-Ponty argues that the two flawed conceptions of consciousness go hand-in-hand with two notions of 'the world'. One takes the world to be constituted by the subject. Merleau-Ponty sees the transcendental idealism of Kant and the early Husserl as exemplifying this position. The other construes the world as existing independently of consciousness, which is just one of many things within it. This view is supposedly endorsed by the natural sciences. Merleau-Ponty rejects both of these conceptions as well.

Below is a draft of a paper to be delivered to The Aristotelian Society on November 22, 2010 by Komarine Romdenh-Romluc in which she explores Merleau-Ponty's alternative conception of embodied human agency and consciouness rooted in a dynamic interaction with the environment. Enjoy:
Agency and Embodied Cognition
By Komarine Romdenh-Romluc

The dominant account of agency takes actions to be brought about and guided by intentions that represent the agent’s performance of the action. Merleau-Ponty offers an alternative view that denies intentions are essential for action. He holds instead that the agent’s activity is brought about by her apprehension of her environment, without the need for any intervening thoughts that represent her performance of it. I argue that two considerations advanced in favour of the thesis that human cognition is embodied are in tension with the dominant account of agency, and speak in favour of Merleau-Ponty’s view.
Read More (PDF) @ The Aristotelian Society


Jack Crow said...

What if there is simply no thing - consciousness - there at all?

What if the modern idea of "consciousness" is just a re-packaging of soul/anima/geist/spirit, often shorn of an animating deity?

What if no "consciousness" actually exists (as a thing), but instead a very material body has a very material memory (copious, but limited) combined with sensory awareness (this is not a noun, here) - which allows the memory of past memories, or the repeated and seemingly fluid memory of the memory of the body's multitude of interactions?

I don't know. Maybe English is also just a shitty language to discuss this in, since it depends so damned much on the lie of the verb form "to be."

michael- said...

Hey Jack, great to hear from you again. I've really enjoyed the recent posts on your blog. You don't seem to demand conclusions, but rather seem content to point towards what should be thinkable. There is a deeply ethical sensibility in this approach.

As to your comments, I agree totally. There is no such THING as consciousness. The existence of conscious intelligence is a capacity that is expressed by entities with specific kinds of organic bodies in particular ecological (and symbolic) contexts. Cognition is an embodied, enacted, affective and situated process.

In “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist? (1904) William James convincing argues that there is no such thing as “mind-stuff”:

For twenty years past I have mistrusted 'consciousness' as an entity; for seven or eight years past I have suggested its non-existence to my students, and tried to give them its pragmatic equivalent in realities of experience. It seems to me that the hour is ripe for it to be openly and universally discarded.

And I agree with James: any theory of “mind” or consciousness that posits mental experience as an “it” is inadequate and almost wholly irrelevant to the investigation of how our mental life functions. Such sloppy theorizing risks completely missing what is actually taking place when humans have conscious experience. The notion of 'consciousness' is, thus, in many ways worse than useless. “Those who still cling to it”, suggests James, “are clinging to a mere echo, the faint rumor left behind by the disappearing 'soul' upon the air of philosophy.”

Incidentally, you might find the discussion of ‘self and mind’ going on over at Gary Williams’ blog interesting. There I outline some other concerns I have with terminology when trying to understand human sentience.

Check it out here.

I’d be interested in getting your reaction.


Jack Crow said...


Shiny good reply, and I'm grateful for it, and the links. I'm in between home stuff, so I don't have enough minutes and seconds to say further than that. I'll try to check in on the "Minds and Brains" discussion as soon as possible.

Thank you also for your kind words.



michael- said...

no problemo Jack, just keep keeping on...

Zog Kadare said...

Sounds similar to Alva Noe and "externalism". Personally I reject all this stuff on the basis that it has nothing to do with our actual experience of ourselves; It all reminds me of behaviorism. It feels like the need to do 'avant guard' theory is exasperating every field (and the desire of universities as institutions to kill the 'post secular' urge or whatever. I find it to be hyper-abstractions presented as facts (Badiou with his math craze etc. being qua being etc.)that recall the warnings of Adorno and Heidegger against gestell and so forth (and then since this is not fashionable it looses argumentative force).

Zizek and his old fashioned Cartesian subject make more sense to me.

michael- said...

Zog, I find it hard to believe that anyone these days believes in an un-embodied subject? Does not all human consciousness exist within the context of Flesh (the body)?

I too share your reluctance with the kind of abstractions found in Badiou’s writings, and among those who talk about pure Being (being quo being), but I think the kind of theory of subjectivity I would support is much more concrete and empirical than either camps.

I certainly don’t deny the existence of ‘qualia’ – first-person subjective experience or a sensation of self – but I don’t consider it a metaphysical substance. Human experience is ‘what it is like’ to be a hominid from the perspective of a particular hominid. Consciousness is thus more an event, something that happens to becoming-creatures such as us, than a completely distinct object.

In sum, the kind of theory of self I would support goes far beyond dualisms, behaviorism (which itself is a very crude ideology), or any such other isms. What I would suggest is a tentative theory of sentience that is guided by empirical evidence and intensive phenomenological research.

Zog Kadare said...

Sorry, my comment didn't have anything to do with the Ponty thing. I was just glancing at the comments.

I don't have any problem saying everything is 'flesh' based, but it seems totally empty to me to do so; except at a political level.

'Quantum teleportation' is 'physical' and it is demonstrated 'empericaly' in a lab; any infinite number of things physics doesn't understand and can't reach are 'physical'. If you look closely at a photon or an electron you simply find nothing; it just get smaller and smaller; to say everything is physical is just to force the creation of a new word for that rare form of physicality that allows for the unique happening that is the human consciousness or soul or agency or sorge or ...

Even many religions accept one substance; simply speaking of a rarefied substance and a vulgar one. And metaphysical substance; what is it except saying that there is what we can as easily posit as physical, but is currently beyond our ability
to detect or get to; just as we can not see radio waves with the naked eye?

However, at bottom I think we live in the reified concept of the 'physical' and its 'hard reality'. The myth of scientism that disavows pragmatism and claims ultimate truth is in man's grasp. Science simply deals in metaphor when you get right down to it ('particle' 'wave' these are just ways to representing something we can neither see nor experience: the double slit experiment etc.), but it is presented as hard and real and pounded into us from childhood.

Related Posts with Thumbnails