Tuesday, 4 April 2017

A Continuing Plea for Phenomenology

Bio-enaction provides us with a compelling picture of how the body plays an inextricable role in subjecthood. Cummins and de Jesus, in their paper "The loneliness of the enactive cell: Towards a bio-enactive framework" staunchly maintain, as one of their central claims of bio-enactivity, "that cognition, or mentality, including subjective phenomenology, is not a uniquely human trait but rather something which exists across the phylogenetic scale" (6). There are many merits to the bio-enactive model, such as the proposition that each organism possesses a distinct, corporeally-driven value-ridden view of the world (in short, a milieu). However, it seems that in its effort to give full credit to this idea of various milieus as a result of distinct subjects, bio-enaction places itself in deep, almost impressive, denial of a great deal of phenomenology (despite its saying otherwise), and this is problematic for a great many reasons.

Phenomenology is a philosophy that uses as its method of inquiry our very experience, and as such it has a great deal of weight to bear on cognitive science, especially now that cognitive science has come to see the inextricable importance of perspective. The best phenomenology cannot get away without speaking of cognition, for it is a deeply entrenched part of our experience. Similarly, cognition cannot and should not get away without reference to phenomenology, because otherwise it is characterising something that does not exist.

In his essay "The Person: Subject and Community," Karol Wojtyla gives a phenomenological account of the person and the person's deeply social nature. As a phenomenologist and a personalist, Wojtyla focuses upon not just man's behaviour, but the experience of behaving socially. For Cummins and de Jesus (as well as for Merleau-Ponty), we are primordially intersubjective by merit of our bodies. Wojtyla would not disagree with this, and he furthermore agrees with the claim that each organism is a subject. However, for Wojtyla the point of interest is "not only that people do exist and act together as a plurality of personal subjects, but also that we are not able to say anything essential about this coexistence and cooperation in the personalistic sense, that is, by way of community, if we do not begin with man precisely as a personal subject" (Wojtyla 289). Wojtyla points out here that the insights of phenomenology are not merely comforting fluff, but substantial insight, crucial to any model of intersubjectivity.

Without the insights of phenomenology, we will always fall short in our characterisation of intersubjectivity. There is a level of intersubjectivity that we can characterise without phenomenology, the intersubjectivity that the sociality of the body offers, but it remains in denial of our experiences of deeper phenomena, such as alienation, participation, and love. Such phenomena are not without cognition, and thus should not be ignored by cognitive science just because it deems them too human.


  1. Very interesting considerations Mary Joan, thanks! Paulo and I tend to lean rather differently on phenomenology. My main debts there are towards Hans Jonas and, of course, Merleau-Ponty. But we are rather consciously refraining from leaning too heavily in this particular paper, because of what we see as an overly strong reliance on Husserl, especially early Husserl, in some other work. We really are not trying to minimize or ignore the phenomenological!