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[appeared in Journal of Consciousness Studies, December 2007]

Evan Thompson
Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind
Harvard University Press, 2007, 557 pp., ISBN-13: 978-0-674-02511-0

Evan Thompson’s collaboration with the late Francisco Varela produced The Embodied Mind in 1991 and continued until Varela’s untimely death in 2001. They had planned a book together (sometimes cited as ‘forthcoming’ in this journal, for instance in a 2003 article), but as it continued to evolve, Thompson decided to take full authorial responsibility for Mind in Life. Yet it remains a tribute to Varela and his enduring legacy as represented in the concepts of autopoiesis, neurophenomenology and the enactive approach to cognition, incorporating also Thompson’s work on intersubjectivity and empathy (see JCS 8:5-7). The fruit of their partnership is a remarkable interweaving of first-, second- and third-person perspectives on the nature of experience, revealing ‘the deep continuity of life and mind’ by integrating the views from within and without.

Thompson begins by outlining the enactive approach, which traces the roots of cognition to the nature of self-organizing systems: ‘living beings are autonomous agents that actively generate and maintain themselves, and thereby also enact or bring forth their own cognitive domains’ (p. 13). Autopoiesis, as a theory which aims ‘to specify what it is about a cell that makes it living’ (p. 97), serves to correlate the origin of life with the origin of mind. From the cellular level on up, organisms maintain organizational closure while opening themselves to the external world: the reciprocal dynamic of ‘structural coupling’ between cell and environment develops and evolves into the ‘circular causality’ operating within more complex bodies and their brains. Thompson cites Walter Freeman and other neuroscientists on this circularity (see JCS 6:11-12), but also traces its philosophical roots back to Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Since ‘any living system is both an autopoietic and a cognitive system’ (p. 127), the subject of experience is both the living body of biology and the ‘lived body’ of phenomenology. Not by brain alone does mind live (much less some part of the brain), nor is development guided by genes alone: this is a resolutely holistic view, drawing upon dynamic systems theory to reveal the limitations in ‘genocentric’ accounts of evolution.

Thompson’s goal in all this is not to propose a new theory of life, mind or consciousness, but ‘to bring phenomenological analyses of experience into a mutually illuminating relationship with scientific analyses of life and mind’ (p. x). Phenomenology, broadly defined as ‘any systematic project of investigating and describing experience’ (p. 474), ‘offers a way of seeing the inner life of biological systems’ (p. 358). But no project can be systematic without deploying specific methods and concepts, and Thompson draws most of these from the ‘classical’ phenomenology of the Husserlian lineage. One whole chapter is based on (and named after) Merleau-Ponty’s Structure of Behavior, and the entire tradition is well represented from the early twentieth century up to the present. Perhaps most remarkable is Thompson’s emphasis on Husserl’s own ‘philosophy of the lived body’ (p. 16)—partly to correct what he now sees as a premature dismissal of it in The Embodied Mind. Though Husserlian terminology is notoriously abstruse, Thompson makes an articulate case for its cogency by using it to frame some key points, for instance in a chapter on temporality. Yet he also goes beyond what Husserl himself thought possible in terms of ‘naturalizing’ phenomenology, or using a scientific analysis to illuminate the nature of experience.

This brings us to neurophenomenology, which aims to ‘generate new data by incorporating careful phenomenological forms of investigation into the experimental protocols of neuroscientific research on consciousness’ (p. 339). The term was introduced by Varela but is now being used a bit more broadly by others. Here I will try to specify the Varela-Thompson version of it by contrast with that of Thomas Metzinger, who advocates a somewhat different style of phenomenology. In Being No One (2003, p. 625), Metzinger says that ‘innovative methods for arriving at more precise first-person descriptions of the target phenomenon are of highest relevance’ to the scientific study of subjectivity, but also that ‘these descriptions have to be optimized beyond the terminologies of classic philosophical phenomenology’. The terminological difference between Metzinger and Thompson is symptomatic of a deeper divide over concepts and methods. The key question might be crudely put this way: in the act of perception, just how much can the subject sense of her own internal process?

We can’t assume that all experience has a subject/object structure—indeed it does not ‘in immersed skillful action’, according to Thompson (p. 314)—but our analysis of perceptual experience cannot avoid such a structure. Our accounts of the experience necessarily divide it into perceived object and perceiving subject, however mutual we take their interaction to be in the act of perception. When Metzinger speaks of ‘first-person descriptions of the target phenomenon,’ he is talking about an object-oriented account, which is the only possible kind if the subjective side of perception is ‘transparent’ or inaccessible to the subject herself. Thompson, on the other hand, asserts that whenever an object is perceived by a subject, the body itself is also ‘experienced in an implicit, tacit and prereflective way’ (p. 249-50). While admitting that perception is normally transparent, he argues that this limitation can (with some effort) be overcome: a specially trained subject, working with a skilled experimenter, can gain better access to the subject side of the experience and thus give a better account of it. The purpose of the training is to cultivate ‘the capacity for sustained attentiveness to experience,’ which ‘enables tacit and prereflective aspects of experience, which typically are either inaccessible or reconstructed after the fact according to various biases, to become subjectively accessible and describable in more accurate ways’ (p. 339). This enhanced attentiveness must be achieved without shifting attention away from the object: ‘the right way to think about phenomenological analysis is … that we direct our attention to the appearance of the object, or the appearance of the world more generally, while vigilantly keeping in mind that appearances are objective correlates of subjective intentional acts’ (p. 287).

To illustrate how it works in practice, Thompson reports in some detail on two studies applying this method, but of course its long-term fruitfulness in the laboratory remains to be seen. Skeptics may feel that first-person reports could be just as useful if they focussed on the phenomenon and relied on inference (rather than direct access to ‘prereflective bodily self-consciousness’) to characterize the inner workings of perception. But such reservations cannot diminish the value of the book as a whole, given the scope of the enactive approach and the depth of its explication here. Theoretical biology, mathematical models of dynamic systems, and phenomenological analysis here join hands to make Mind in Life a remarkably comprehensive contribution to the science and philosophy of mind.

Gary Fuhrman

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