Précis of 'Physiologie de l'action & Phénoménologie'

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Jean-Luc Petit

Physiologie de l’action et Phénoménologie by A. Berthoz and J.-L. Petit

A Précis

At the material basis for the book were sessions of interdisciplinary discussion held in 2000-2003, at the time when Jean-Luc Petit was exempted by the French ministry of education from his teaching duties in University Marc-Bloch, Strasbourg II and delegated on behalf of the French National Research Centre (CNRS) to Pr Alain Berthoz’ Laboratory of Physiology of Perception and Action (LPPA) at Collège de France, Paris.

The approach was the following: J.-L. Petit, a phenomenologist specialist in the philosophy of Husserl and who wanted to put phenomenology to work as a tool for examining the presuppositions underlying the work of the empirical researcher, wrote out a number of texts which he then presented to the physiologist for critical review. The discussions were recorded and transcribed. So the book really emerged out of the drafts produced by a philosopher.

But these drafts were themselves developed out of collaboration between J.-L. Petit and A. Berthoz going back some ten years, first at the University of Strasbourg where, from 1993 and on, J.-L. Petit organised an interdisciplinary workshop on the Philosophy of Action and then later at A. Berthoz’ lab, a collaboration which resulted in seminars, articles, theoretical debates, workshops for students and researchers in the cognitive sciences, etc.

This confrontation should have resulted in a book presented in the classic form of a dialogue. The authors decided to try and bring together the two facets of its construction into one text, at the risk of covering over the disagreements and the debates that have gone on between them. Not that, in their view, the divergences are negligible. But because it has seemed more important to try and capture what emerged in the most fruitful moments of their dialogue as the shared intuition of a physiology of action capable of drawing its basic notions from phenomenology rather than the predictable communication of this or that ‘ideological position’. In effect, the principal aim of the book is to confront the kinaesthetic theory developed by Husserl with recent theories and discoveries in the field of the physiology of perception and of action.

Chapter One is meant to be a kind of manifesto, calling the attention of the reader to the originality of a new theoretical disposition, not in philosophy but in neuroscience, for which the authors coined the name: ‘a physiology of action’, and in the name of which they criticized the current inflated usage of representation in the cognitive sciences. Their proposal, by the way, is definitely not merely that to replace this concept of representation with Husserl’s kinaesthesia. Such a proposal developed out of the blue, and without first establishing the necessary context for the reader to appreciate the reasons of such apparently highly speculative move, could only lead to misunderstanding. Chapters II to VIII are devoted to lay out all the empirical and theoretical details and as much as possible of the backdrop philosophical motivations of such positive proposal.

What we wanted to do is focus on the emergence of a physiology that promotes the concept of action, an action irreducible to any sensori-motor contingencies dependent upon bodily movements, construed as measurable changing of place in physical space. And drawing attention to the similarity we see between this physiology of action and Husserl’s theory of kinaesthesia has no other rationale than that of holding at bay any behaviouristic tendency and sustaining the constitutive capacity of action in perception and cognition. For us, action is no mere motor output, but a power of anticipating its own future consequences, a power of mentally simulating – or emulating – the properties of things or processes, and so has to be understood as a source of sense-giving relative to the world of human experience.

In this regard, Husserl opened up a new perspective for empirical science, freeing it from its former limitation to stimulus-bound reactions, or even to the sensory reception and transformation of external information. Conferring upon the kinaesthesia of the perceiving agent a leading role in the transcendental constitution of the agent’s sense of being, in his later oeuvre, he acknowledged the importance of and put the finishing touches to the great tradition of Kant – Helmholtz – Poincaré. What this tradition has achieved – but at this date without any benefit for the cognitive sciences – is a ‘naturalization of the transcendental’, i.e. an embodiment, in the lived experience of the human being, of the operations which make it possible for this human being to perceive objects or to entertain goals to be realized through its worldly transactions. Moving on from abstract conditions of the possibility of knowledge (as in Kant’s doctrine), we eventually find ourselves dealing with concrete, formative operations in which the agent is active and mobilizes (or inhibits) the effective resources of its organizational structure. The recognition that this activity, despite the fact that it proceeds from within (not from without), possesses a constitutive significance is an important move in physiology – as also in phenomenological philosophy – all the more so, since we neither ignore nor discount the bias towards empiricism and positivism of empirical research.

Trying to be concrete, we did not hesitate in citing as an example the habitual behaviour of the physiologist, so familiar for the auditors of Berthoz course at College de France. He gets up from his chair and, in order to explain locomotion, orientation, change of point of view, etc., makes himself understood by acting. As if he felt that in remaining seated and inviting his audience to take account of objects of purely theoretical import he would be instilling in himself, and in his auditors, forgetfulness of their common posture. At one stroke, by moving his body he becomes once again the agent he never should have stopped being, the agent who moves and who, in moving, moves himself and also his audience, an audience composed of agents just like himself.

But, far from trying to show that communication, perception and cognition are uniquely and exclusively grounded in the gestures one makes with one’s arms and face and the postures one takes with one’s body during the act of communication, perception, etc. (which amounts to a sensory-motor, peripheral theory of perception with which we disagree), the change of ‘posturing’ we allude to is mainly theoretical and epistemic : it is a large scale change of disposition of the physiologist in dealing with its domain of investigation. Let us stress the fact that the postures in question are not primarily of the subject but of the physiologist in his office of studying the behaviour of the subject. And that what is meant here by ‘change’ is not the movements of the subject but a different theoretical approach. This very move is philosophical in essence and it finds in Husserl, and more precisely in Husserl’s life-long effort to find a way of rooting the sense of being in the bodily experience of the living being, a possible systematizing scheme, or so we argue.

In this regard, we should not underestimate the philosophical bearing of the behaviour adopted by the physiologist. In fact he is recreating the Socratic method, which obliges the disciple to become his own master by putting himself to the test – or even the pre-Socratic method: that of the sage who said nothing, but who restricted himself to simply wagging the tip of this finger and so, by the simple exhibition of this movement, refuting all the logical sophisms constructed to deny the very possibility of movement.

As a result of this invitation to re-produce the process by which the incarnate subject constitutes itself, each exercise of this physiology of everyday life is a new occasion. When one explains a cognitive strategy used by many of us to memorize our journeys and one demands of those present at the lecture: ‘Reproduce in thought the route you took to get to the Marguerite de Navarre amphitheatre [lecture hall in Collège de France]’, it is not a matter of adopting complicated protocols of measurement nor of assigning artificially impoverished tasks making possible the recording and control of significant variables in the laboratory. What is at stake is of philosophical, more exactly, hermeneutical, interest. At the end of the day – after lab researchers having paid the indispensable tribute to electrodes implanting or histogram constructing or even mathematical equation representing of data regularities – all that matters for a correct interpretation of the facts is that each subject should be capable of carrying through the action and that, in so doing, he should be able to freely recruit the brain structures whose activation conditions the realization (actual or virtual) of the behaviour in question.

The physiologist is not in fact satisfied with constructing mathematical models, as if the objects of his research were any physical system of whatever kind. He regards his task as incomplete just as long as he has not raised the level of all this model building to that of the ‘cogito of the physiologist’. The Descartes of the Philosophical Meditations sought in his reader a subject capable of constituting itself as a thinking being by the very fact of carrying through, for him or herself, the ‘I think’. In the same way, the physiologist invites his auditor or his reader to carry through the corporeal cogito, a cogito that activates in his brain the relevant networks of action and the relevant mental simulation of movement, that is, the simulation of the movement one wants to make (or refrain from doing), that one is prepared to carry out or that one observes someone else carrying out. The orator-professor-actor practises this gestural thinking because he thinks that only the production of this personal effort could give to the totality of the mechanisms involved in moving (and not just in movement but also in perception and cognition) the meaning of a reality lived out from within. The putting into practise of these mechanisms derives its meaning from the personal situation of someone confronted with circumstances and with his own biographical context.

Any organism equipped with a brain already possesses all the resources necessary for what it is no longer appropriate to describe as a perceptual processing of sensory information derived from without but which should more properly be described as a continual affection of its self by itself on the part of a being who both acts spontaneously and is sensible to the effects upon itself of its own action. For he both experiences these effects in his body and objectifies them in his environment, an environment he projects in advance and, in so doing, discovers and appropriates at the same time. Theories of the passive impregnation of the organism by an information coming to it from without, therefore, have to be replaced by a theory of the constitution of (an internal model of) the world by the organism itself. An organism which takes possession of the world just as, by the same token, he also takes possession of his mind and his body, by appropriating them and developing internal models of them. What under normal circumstances this organism is never confronted with is the pure stimulus, free from all interpretation, with data never before subsumed under any perceptual, cognitive or practical categories. Speaking generally, the organism deals with objects it has itself actively ‘constituted’ as such. It only has to interact with those natural events that satisfy (or fail to do so) its provisional expectations, or at least to verify or modify the style of such expectations, with other organisms apprehended from the first as like or unlike itself, etc.

Some readers might presumably regret that we did not sufficiently open up lateral perspectives on work published after the discussions that served as the basis for our book. There have indeed been quite a few since that time (2000-2003). It would indeed have been surprising if, since the discussions registered at that time, and especially with all the books and articles published in the meantime by us (see bibliography), no one had had the idea of writing about action or about phenomenology from the standpoint of action, or even to engage in a dialogue between phenomenology and the neuro-sciences.

But is it really necessary that we take into account all that has been published since (often in reaction to what we have said) in order to claim the right to defend our own positions ? Surely not, and for two main reasons. First, because our position remains original with regard to the later literature, no one yet having ventured to even attempt to justify empirically the Husserlian theory of kinaesthetic constitution in its radical transcendentality (a word that still arouses suspicion in cognitive circles).

Second, because if one takes these authors severally and individually one sees that they pursue a path divergent from our own, either because they follow Francisco Varela, whose positions we have taken into consideration (Alva Noë), or because they remain within a strictly phenomenological frame of reference or at least an intra-philosophical frame of reference (Dan Zahavi) or because their interest in empirical research is focused on a particular problem, for example the body scheme, or the explanation of schizophrenia (Shaun Gallagher), or again because they maintain an unbridgeable ‘Wittgensteinian’ gap between philosophy and the neuro-sciences (P. M. S. Hacker) or because they have openly chosen to follow a non-phenomenological, even hostile to phenomenology, because analytically oriented path (Marc Jeannerod and Pierre Jacob). It might have been sympathetic from our part to take note of their existence and make allowance for their significance, etc. in an appendix, but this would have changed nothing as regards our own proposal.

The need for a radically new approach, the relevance of our own proposal as a possible alternative and its difference from the trends dominant in analytic philosophy of mind, in the cognitive sciences and especially the cognitive neurosciences as they are practised today, simply has to be emphasized. In particular, it is not because certain analytical philosopher or certain cognitive psychologist have for some time now employed (and not without distortion) terms such as ‘intentionality’, ‘intersubjectivity’ or ‘phenomenology’ that it becomes true to say that the philosophy of mind or cognitive psychology already contains everything one might want to find in a phenomenology of intentionality and of intersubjectivity, at least as this was originally conceived by Husserl, or even as it has been re-interpreted later by such figures as Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty etc.

Certain exceptions might well be worth going into in more detail. For it is certainly true that not all the authors in question are satisfied with the strategy of re-naming as ‘intentionality’ what used to go by the name of ‘reference’ or ‘aboutness’, or even that their familiarity with phenomenology does not often go much further than what Daniel Dennett or Hubert Dreyfus or Thomas Nagel or John Searle have been able to get out of it. This is why we have been happy to pay attention to an approach like that implied by the collaboration of analytic philosophy with the cognitive sciences, an approach adopted under the name ‘simulation theory’, by Alvin Goldman a well known analytical philosopher of action and of cognition and Vittorio Gallese, a neuro-physiologist who is both contributor to the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ and passionately committed to Husserlian phenomenology. For all that, we are obliged to point up the difference between their theory of ‘embodied simulation’ as a new brand of ‘simulation theory’ and the Husserlian kinaesthetic theory of constitution that we ourselves are defending.

What seems not to be duly acknowledged in some quarters is that no theory is authorized in changing phenomenology, or even in legislating about the correct description of our lived experience in phenomenology. Far from distorting phenomenology in order to adapt it to any presupposed ‘explanation’, theory has to take phenomenology at face value and try to cope with it in an explanatory satisfactory way. So that the insertion of any kind of mediation (i.e. representation and inference) into the phenomenon of the direct perception of the other’s intention in their gestures and actions, can only be imputed to a misguided intellectualism of blind theoreticians. No argument can counter the evidence that towards myself, my intentions, plans, decisions, etc. I do not have the same attitude that I could have towards a tool, or any material (or mental) device. Yet, that is precisely what simulation theory partisans are assuming : the simulating subject would be using his own practical reasoning scheme as a model, a mental machine of sorts, as if he could detach himself, as an observer, from himself, as an agent.

Simulation theory partisans seem to be unaware of the fact that transferring personal predicates of personal agents onto sub-personal (and so, definitively impersonal) systems in the brain is a typical homuncularist move. So far as you please, mirror neurons can ‘resonate’ – or ‘echoes’ or ‘map’ or suchlike technical jargon, which usage is up to the theoretician – with other systems in the same or even in other brains. But, they cannot possibly do this ‘as if’ something were the case. Because one cannot attribute to brain systems the faculty of conceiving or recognizing intentions, nor of ‘simulating’ in the non metaphorical sense of entertaining an intentionally contrary to the factual mode of representation, without portraying these systems as little personal agents inside the brain. Neuroscientists (not to say philosophers) would be wise to meditate on Leibniz’ timely (or timeless) good advice: “Beware of the temptation of explaining why clocks ‘say the time’ by postulating a time-saying faculty in the cogwheels in order for them to manoeuvre the hands and put them at the right place on the face!”

Contrary to what simulation theory proponents seem to believe, the interpretation of the function of mirror neurons (or resonant systems) in simulation theory terms is not the only possible one. In fact, simulation theory is but one special line of interpreting these newly discovered, intriguing brain circuits – and a line that is dangerously exposed to overstatement and inflationary speculation. It amounts to an attempt to undermine a possible challenge to the standard, representational and computational model of cognition by infiltrating into the confusing notion of ‘simulation’ the solipsistic conception of the human mind, as a representing and computing machine disproved of body nor any necessary interaction with an environment or with other minds.

In fact (in contrast to the present day cognitive science literature, which is under the sway of the aforementioned paradigm), another interpretation is conceivable. The new line is tentatively although not in a very illuminating guise referred to under the title of ‘enacting’. To put it straight, we should be more radical than many among its proponents. We have to conceive brain function departing from action and from its very inception in intention, rather than from the reception of external signals at the periphery of body. It is not impossible that Berthoz’ and Llinàs’ ‘emulation’ concept (as an alternative to simulation) points in such a direction: at least that is my personal guess. The toppling of the traditional hierarchy that used to subordinate action (prejudiced as motor limb movement) to a passive, sensory receptivity of external information would enable neuroscience to naturalize Husserl’s intuitions. Especially the intuitions he expressed in his late theory of transcendental, subjective and intersubjective constitution: the organism as an agent constitutes conjointly with others the common ground of their interaction and their common objects of interest and goals (and does not received them already preconstituted). So, that there is no mystery in the fact that it directly perceives actions and even intentions in a world that is above all life-world, i.e. a world of its own subjective, and intersubjective Praxis, not of an objective, absolute Theoria.

Having said that, I will not quibble too much with the mildly paradoxical statements of those who might venture in accusing us of using the straw man strategy against representations, while not hesitating themselves to trace our supposedly inadequate procedure to a method which is customary in continental philosophy. This alleged method, evoking a ‘bête noire’ in the analytic tradition, formerly served to open an unbridgeable gulf between the two traditions in philosophy. It is however worth noting that, since the heady days of Gilbert Ryle and R. M. Hare, even analytic philosophers themselves have been brought to admit that future generations may come to view this usage of continental philosophy as analytical philosophy’s foil as an unfortunate and unsavoury caricature. See, as testimony of a recent change of mind, S. Glendinning: The Idea of Continental Philosophy (2007).

Even though it is doubtful whether the English-speaking public interested in cognition, and particularly the readers of Cognitive Semiotics has ever evinced a natural (that is cultural) affinity for the notions and habits of the thinking implied by analytic philosophy and so has contracted a similar attitude of ignorance-cum-aversion towards phenomenology, it is nevertheless reasonable to suppose that the notions and practises of phenomenology should not be well known to this public. And this, more especially since we want to apply these notions rigorously, along lines dictated by Husserl’s own texts. It is for this reason that we have tried to make things easier for our readers by including extensive footnotes bearing on a pedagogical explication of the principal notions in question. Appendices I and II, written by J.-L. Petit, offer with appropriate references an introductory exposition of the Husserlian theory of constitution in a genetic perspective.


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