Commentary to Helena De Preester: The deep bodily origins

Publié le par Jean-Luc Petit


Commentary to Helena De Preester: The deep bodily origins

of the subjective perspective: Models and their problems?

Jean-Luc Petit

Consciousness and Cognition 16 (2007) 619–622


      This commentary will prove to be not unrelated to the question of the right way phenomenology might be put on the path of a possible naturalization. A kinaesthetic theory of constitution borrowed from later Husserl, A. Berthoz and myself recently suggested in Physiologie de l’action et phe´nome´nologie (Odile Jacob, 2006), would find in a physiology of anticipation and action a more convincing implementation than in representational cognitive science. And what H. De Preester wants to do: embodying the constitutive processes, is also something similar to what Husserl has been doing later on. She also agrees with us in the criticism of a neuroscience which remains under the sway of the representationalism. However, she prefers to rely on ‘the in-depth body’, i.e., those bodily layers that are not under voluntary muscle control, and that seem as such not to be captured via kinaesthesia. At the risk of appearing excessively keen on a proprietary theory, I would like to enquire on the reasons of her choice by thinking over her models in neuroscience:

(1) In view of the closed-loop architecture of functional networks in the brain, one might wonder whether
A.D. Craig’s tracking down relay nuclei along the spino-thalamo-cortical tract suffices in backing his proposal of a distinctively ‘interoceptive’ theory of ‘the visceral self’ that would owe next to nothing to exteroceptive or motor components.

(2) In A. Damasio’s representational model of consciousness I diagnose the source of his failure in bridging
the gap between homeostatic processes regulating the organism’s internal milieu and the self of subjective experience.

(3) De Preester’s solution of the difficulty of constituting the subjective perspective as an object by turning
its miscarriage into a way out might provisionally be put to the test in comparing it with a rare psychiatric condition (heterotopoagnosia) in which the patient, evincing loss of objectifying capacity instead of ‘‘a rise of the subject’’, literally ‘‘sticks to the subject-pole’’.

      (1) De Preester echoes Craig’s overdone insistence on the ‘superficial, cutaneous, object-oriented’ character
of body scheme, in contradistinction to the properties of what the same author calls ‘the visceral self’, a visceral self that he tries by this contrast to put to the fore. Yet, the sharpness of such opposition might rather be blurred by the plasticity of functional representations of the body under the modulatory influence of motivational-cum-motor signals from limbic system. In a cortico-subcortical closed loop, motor intentions gathering in anterior, motor singular and supplementary motor and premotor areas, are currently supposed to project their efference copies on somatosensory postcentral maps, the typical territories of body representation. On theexistence of this feedback circularity, Craig himself might be called to witness: 

      ‘‘Nonetheless, it is equally
important to recognize that the anterior cingulate cortex [...] is co-activated [...] consistent with the view that an emotion is both a feeling and a motivation. Notably, this provides the active agent that is missing from the somatic marker hypothesis, in which Damasio conjectured that the subjective ‘I’ is generated only as an illusory by-product of the re-mapping. [...] this reflects the active modulation by the behaviourally motivating agent (limbic motor cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex) of the feeling represented by the image of the expected state of the body (in the right anterior insula) (Craig, 2002 p. 663).’’

      The point of acknowledging this motor dimension of motivation is that it parallels a former enterprise
made by Husserl in order to flesh out his theory of constitution by coupling the sensory field proto-images (Abschattungen) in the perceiver’s changing viewpoint on the one hand, and the kinesthesia which keeps this perceiver continuously aware of his bodily postures and motions and intentions on the other. The constitution of the own body on this enriched basis in the later opus of Husserl would better be compared to the recent attempts in neuroscience towards an in-depth body theory of consciousness. Husserl’s kinesthesia might be understood as crossing ‘proprioception’ and ‘interoception’, the very same aptitudes that Craig takes pain at parting one from the other. In view of that, we cannot but protest against the prejudice (not altogether absent in De Preester) of a Husserl, incapable of surmounting the formalism of his former theory. In fact, Husserl reveals himself in manuscripts of the years 1930 to have been aware of the issue of a ‘thickened’ consciousness. Insofar as his Abschattungen-kinesthetic associations tend to prohibit any subject–object splitting, such associations are no other than ‘the interoceptive material [which] ‘sticks’ to the perspective itself’ (De Preester).

      (2) From the point of view of a physiology of anticipation and action (
Berthoz, 1997; Berthoz and Petit,
2006), Damasio’s theory of consciousness is torn between two trends. On the one hand, his allegiance to Cannon’s static, conservative concept of homeostasis (Cannon, 1932) for the description of the proto-Self confines it to automatic feedback control devices devoted to maintaining the stability of the organism’s internal milieu. Hypothalamus and brain trunk could be fulfilling this function of ‘‘thermostat’’ (Damasio, 2002, p. 184). At this level, no question of the projective, anticipatory and dynamic character of the living body, to say nothing of intentionality. On the other hand, due to his admission of the representational model of cognitive science, his description of autobiographic Self appears to rely on the resources of a developed consciousness. This is why he views no reason to restrain his use of ‘images’, ‘maps’, ‘narratives’, ‘memory’, ‘inference’, ‘planning’, or even ‘imagination’ and ‘creation’. But the price to pay for such two-way approach is opening a gap between the substrate of consciousness and its superstructure, a gap which makes impossible any account of the emergence of consciousness. By way of a transition, we are left with an ambiguity. Referring to homeostatic devices, ‘‘representations’’ are no more than patterns of activity in neural circuits, to which we might have access by electrodes or brain imagery and to which there is no sense to attribute subjectivity. Referring to our feeling of selfhood, on the other hand, ‘‘representations’’ are intentional acts of representing something as an object for a subject. However emphatic, his denial of the solution to the problem of the Self by introducing homonculi in the brain is of no avail (op. cit. p. 246–249). Only by magic could a re-representation proceeding from the higher cortical levels of integration of somatosensory information (cingulum and postcentral gyrus) transform a representation that is mere configuration of neural activation into an act of sensing oneself in such and such a state (op. cit. p. 224). Once one has cleared away this confusion between biological individuality and the subjectivity of consciousness, Damasio’s equation of any feeling of the state of the organism with the subjective perspective proves to be an arbitrary move. The lesson of this failure is the urgency of getting rid of this hierarchy: homeostasis—representation, stripping high level cognition of its monopoly over anticipation and trying to recapture the rootedness of the anticipatory dimension in the acting body as a forerunner of intentionality.

      A difference between Damasio’s and Husserl’s programs is that Damasio tries to generate self-consciousness by piling up levels of neural integration departing from unconscious stabilizing automatisms familiar to the biologist. Husserl, for his part, attempts at an autonomous constitution of consciousness without any presupposition of preconstituted objectivity. From where does he take his departure? The answer cannot be from a prior unconsciousness, nor from a preconstituted, objective consciousness. This constitution has to be a process constantly in the making. Husserl’s famous analyses of inner time consciousness (Husserl, 1966) might be viewedas a real life experiencing by the subject of the way he contributes by his own activity to the displaying in a temporal perspective of the objects of his field of attentional (auditory) consciousness. Viewing his analyses in this manner, we realize that consciousness is rather a process than a state of mind. Never at rest in this process, the acting subject is constantly pushing forward (as pro-tentional) towards the expected continuation or return of the sound and pulling backwards (as re-tentional) in the direction of the just heard sound. The to and fro of this ceaseless shifting of attention results in the weaving of an horizon of subjective dispositions and anticipations in relation to the event to come or to the object to appear. And such dispositions and anticipations make possible for this object to appear to the perceiver—and not only to appear to him but also to be recognized as one and the same by him. This process of conversion of retention into protention, i.e. of projecting the retained profile of things past upon whatever object experience keeps in reserve for the perceiver, might be indefinitely extended in a tempting extrapolation : ‘‘[All] reality, declares Husserl, is realization of an anticipatory consciousness (Husserl, 2001, p. 46)’’.

      De Preester is surely justified to pick out the formal nature of the constitution of time consciousness in Husserlian theory. But, having said that, it has to be advanced as a rejoinder to the objection that the formal emptiness of such constitutive process was eventually bodily filled up in the later part of Husserl’s oeuvre, by

recruiting the kinesthetic system as operator in the constitution of the physical thing and in the constitution of the own body (for a detailed proof of the contribution of kinesthesia, see Berthoz and Petit, 2006, Chap. VI

and VII).

      Capitalizing on such developments, I would prefer stay to the connection between protention (as defined above) and action in Husserl’s later theory. And stress the fact that in his later oeuvre Husserl made his possible for freeing the protentionality of time consciousness from its former subjection to retention (in the 1905 lectures) and at the same time for embodying the constitutive process of time consciousness in the kinesthetic systems of the body of a perceiver. In fact, in his later conception of the ‘‘transcendantal constitution of the object of perception’’, (i.e. the active contribution of the perceiver in giving sense to his objects of perception), both theoretical moves were no merely casual parallels. Far from that, these moves prove to be intimately conjoined and helping along each other in the way of a generalized theory of the active implication of the subject

in perception. Our expectation of the continuation of a melody requires no more than its prior perception and retention. But our inner sense of the intentional orientation of our actions cannot possibly depend on the prior existence of the future state of things at which we are aiming. This merging of time (open) protentionality and action (unfulfilled) intentionality would eventually provide us with the non objective directionality that De Preester requires for a constitution of the subjective perspective not limited to the constituting of its constituted object.

      (3) We are told that some brain lesioned patients display a surprising symptom, called
allotopoagnosia, an
inability to designate objects in the surroundings, including body parts of other persons: heterotopoagnosia (Degos et al., 1997). When they are asked to point with their finger the ceiling or the window, or the nose, mouth or ears of the examiner, they look passively at the suggested goals, or, if one insists, they point at their own forehead, their own nose, etc. Their spontaneous answerings to any request of explanation suggest a confusion between their own and the other person’s body, a confusion which turns on themselves any attempt to  designate another person’s body. They speak as if they felt incapable to drag themselves away from themselves in order to execute the task of designation: ‘‘It’s your mouth on your face’’; ‘‘Your ears stay beneath mines’’; ‘‘I cannot possibly point at what I have already!’’; ‘‘I just couldn’t manage to locate you outside of myself: you were inside myself!’’. Returning to De Preester’s proposal, she puts her finger on a constitutive process of objectivation implied in the normal mastering of the subjective perspective. Such process is implied each time we point at something or somebody. The interruption of this process, she suggests, might provide to the theoretician a glimpse on the essence of the subjective perspective as irreducible to an object. But our qualm in relation to such theoretical way out is that interrupting the objectivation process has not necessarily—at least when it is traumatic—the positive value that she thinks. When (using her own words) ‘‘the epistemological spacing required for the constitution of objectivity is lacking’’ the subject has to do with ‘‘a miscarried object [which] can never detach itself from its origins in the in-depth body’’: the very same description might ambiguously be understood as referring to the deficit of agnosic patients.


Berthoz, A. (1997). Le Sens du mouvement. Paris: Odile Jacob.

Berthoz, A., & Petit, J. L. (2006). Physiologie de l’action et phe´nome´nologie. Paris: Odile Jacob.

Cannon, W. B. (1932). The wisdom of the body. New York: Norton.

Craig, A. D. (2002). How do you feel? Interoception: The sense of the physiological condition of the body. Nature reviews Neuroscience, 3, 655–666.

Damasio, A. (2002). Le Sentiment meˆme de soi. Paris: Odile Jacob.

Degos, J. D. et al. (1997). Selective inability to point to extrapersonal targets after left posterior parietal lesions: an objectivization disorder? Neurocase, 3, 31–39.

Husserl, E. (1966). Zur Phänomenologie des Inneren Zeitbewusstseins (1893–1917). Haag: Martinus Nijhoff.

Husserl, E. (2001). Die Bernauer Manuscripte über das Zeitbewusstsein (1917/18). Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer.IN PRESS



Publié dans philosophie

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