Symposium Collège de France - Academia Europaea
December, 9-10 1997
The Impact of Neuroscience on Philosophy of Action
D. Andler, A. Berthoz, N. Depraz, H. Flohr, P. Jacob, F. Lestienne, P. Livet, R. Misslin, R. Ogien, E. Pacherie, J.-L. Petit, J. Proust, G. Rizzolatti, J.-M. Roy.
Progress in Neuroscience in the last 30 years has brought a considerable amount of experimental data with a gradation from the "infrapersonal" level (neural transmission, genetic regulation of receptors, synaptic potentials, etc.) to "personal" level (motivation, intention, decision, planification, memory, relation between perception and action) and even at the "suprapersonal" level (intersubjectivity, language, theory of mind, etc.). In addition, recent developments of neuropsychology associated with a new method of brain imaging are bringing, in humans, an explosive amount of data on problems which concern higher cognitive functions in the brain of humans and imply affective behaviour and general social behaviour.
Empirical research seems to confirm (with the present method of population recordings of neurons in the brain of alert animals, brain imaging, experimentations in low gravity or in modified sensory environments) that it is pertinent to distinguish a higher, cognitive, level of hierarchical organization of behaviour, and the problem is therefore posed of the independence of such cognitive processes with respect to their anatomical and physiological bases.
This has led neuroscientists to increase interest in the philosophy of mind, both for obtaining some guidelines in its experimental endeavours and expecting from this situation new philosophical ideas.
It is perhaps inevitable, because they have to use such well known categories of the (rather worn) philosophical theory of human nature, as : will, intention, motivation, conscience, attention, intentional orientation, goal oriented behaviour, desire, etc., that they appear to be indulging in what could be called by the professional philosophers "de la naïve philosophie spontanée de savant".
But, on the other hand, reversing their approach from the bottom up to a top down approach, they seem to be no more afraid to vie with the same philosophers in understanding behaviour in highly generic or ordinary language terms, as they are led to the common idea of a correlation between, for instance, anxiety and memory, between motivation, motor intention and bodily movement during voluntary action, between awareness of action of another agent and movement, between body scheme and reduction of degrees of freedom of movement, between egocentric reference, and maintaining the spatial orientation of the body in zero gravity conditions, etc.
The problem for philosophy is, therefore, to know whether it has to cling to, or to abandon its own private ground, which is traditionally "human mind", because the discovery of neurons which could code very high level aspects of behaviour, or of environment corresponding to the cognitive aspects of behaviour, deprived from its autonomy both the phenomenological description and the logical analysis of the psychological language. The independance of phenomenology and the analytical philosophy, which specifically address themselves to human behavior (conceived as stratified in levels) at the level of its "significance", is questioned by the fact that this same human behaviour seems to be accessible at all levels by only one type of approach, the empirical and theoretical approach represented by contemporary neurosciences.
So, that this "intentionality" that Husserl was fighting to protect against positive research in the name of the legitimacy and irreplaceability of a subjective point of view on the mind, may after all be accessible to this neuroscientific exploration. Similarly, if we consider now these "reasons which explain actions", that Wittgenstein had pretended to isolate from the causal determinations because of the grammatical autonomy of ordinary language with respect to specialized languages of sciences, the causes which underly these "reasons" in the motor and premotor areas of the cerebral cortex seem to be progressively understood.
- "Is it therefore that, by looking to the brain in vivo and in actu, the neurophysiologists may be pushing the philosophers out of material ?" The question we would like to address in this symposium is precisely this challenge and we would like to discuss what contemporary philosophers can contribute to this debate. Philosophers have to examine if they can do better in answering this challenge than reinvindicating for each type of approach the right of pursuing without interference its own proprietary way. And the neuroscientists have to decide if they feel they are sufficiently prepared to contribute to the necessary reorganization of the "philosophy of mind", an endeavour which is, of course, much larger than just making a stimulus histogramm and measuring the electrical activity of neurons.
Particularly encouraging are the new dispositions that emerge from some recent evolutions in philosophy. On one side, in analytical philosophy, there is a sensible decrease of the credit for semantical, conceptual or grammatical argumentations in favor of the independance of the mental and of the philosophy of mind by contrast with the cerebral mechanisms and neuroscience. The theme of "naturalization of epistemology and of the theory of mind" is in fashion. However, we must be alerted to the fact that under the considerably watered down guise of the multiple realizability of the one and the same mental programme in various, arbitrarily differing, neural implementations that the functionalists sustain, Wittgenstein's bold rejection of every future possibility of a cerebral reading of our intentions and meanings is still alive and kicking, as the reservations of the neuroscientist community in relation to their suggestion betrays.
On the other side, in phenomenology, although the influence of the heideggerian hermeneutics has retarded the acceptance of the necessity for an empirical enquiry and of a neurological outcome to the attempts of some philosophers of this tradition to overcome the cartesian dualism and integrate the ego in the body (Maine de Biran's"effort"; Husserl's "Kinästhese"; E. Straus' "Sinn der Sinne"; Merleau-Ponty's "la chair" ), some new readings of the (published or unpublished) texts of Husserl from the thirties has created an opening, by calling attention to his attempts at finding the roots of action, below the level of its conscient and voluntary agent, in a new theory of pulsional intentionality.
In summary, the loss of impact of the until recently prevailing "antipsychologism" and "antinaturalism" inspired by Frege at the beginning of this century, has created, on both sides of the present philosophical horizon, the conditions for discussion of independence of the philosophy of mind with respect to the neurosciences. Discussion which inevitably includes questioning the former propensity of these sciences to despise the philosophy of mind and undermine the cognitive issue to the point of sparing themselves of the necessity of accounting for the behaviour as a whole, and being content with correlating "simple" sensory stimuli and low level motor reactions. So, that we believe that such a symposium will be useful to both communities and corresponds to a real need at the present time.
The organizers of this meeting are Pr A. Berthoz from Collège de France, Pr J-L. Petit from Strasbourg, Pr G. Rizzolatti from Parma. Both Pr Berthoz and Pr Rizzolatti are members of the Academia Europaea. Pr Petit and Pr Berthoz have now some years of common cooperation. They have organized together a series of workshops on Philosophy of Action which were held both in Strasbourg and in Paris. They have brought together during these meetings philosophers, psychologists, neuropsychologists, psychiatrists, primatologists, roboticians, theoretical physicists and neuroscientists.