Neurobiological data & Husserlian constitution - I

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Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 2 : 281–298, 2003.

© 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

On the relation between recent neurobiological data on

perception (and action) and the Husserlian theory of constitution



Université Marc Bloch (Strasbourg) and Collège de France, Laboratoire de Physiologie de

l’Action et de la Perception (UMR C9950 CNRS, Paris)

Received 12 July 2002; received in revised version 2 February 2003


Abstract. The phenomenological theory of constitution promises a solution for “the problem

of consciousness” insofar as it changes the traditional terms of this problem by systematically

correlating “subject” and “object” in the unifying context of intentional acts. I argue

that embodied constitution must depend upon the role of kinesthesia as a constitutive operator.

In pursuing the path of intentionality in its descent from an idealistic level of “pure” constitution

to this fully embodied kinesthetic constitution, we are able to gain access to different

ontological regions such as physical thing, owned body and shared world. Neuroscience brings

to light the somatological correlates of noemata. Bridging the gap between incarnation and

naturalisation represents the best way of realizing the foundational program of transcendental


Key words: action, constitution, kinesthesia, mirror neurons, plasticity



Progress in the contemporary sciences of the brain still remains quite ambiguous.

To be sure, a good many prejudices concerning the functioning of the brain

have been dismantled. No one now believes in the brain as an organ genetically

fixed in its anatomical structure, its homuncular or retinotopical topography,

nor in its functioning, as an organ which is essentially receptive and

reactive and which functions as a link between environmental stimuli and

physical movements, strictly compartmentalised and ordered in a hierarchy

reaching from peripheral receptors to the associative centres and from there

to motor activity, etc. These prejudices have not withstood the onslaught of

evidence relating to the epigenetic variability of the cerebral network, to the

flexibility, modified by usage, of the synaptic connections, nor that of the

activational potential of the neuronal network, whether spontaneous or induced,

whether preparatory, or anticipatory, whether concerned with the projection

of hypotheses or decisions, or with the internal simulation of actions,

events or external processes. These transformations have made it possible for

the neurosciences to gain access to the higher activities of the human mind

and in so doing have opened the way to the cognitive neurosciences.

Does this mean that the phenomenology of our conscious experience, until

now solely accessible in its meaning (even in its expressible meaning) to

the reflective approach of phenomenological (or analytical) philosophy can

now be dealt with in parallel from the standpoint of the biological processes

which underlie and run parallel to this level of meaning? A certain popular

literature has sought to furnish a short and dogmatic response to this question:

the biology of the brain has up till now disregarded the mind – from now

on it will explain it! It is our contention that another reply is possible. Starting

out from the Husserlian theory of the transcendental constitution of the

meaning of the being of objects we are beginning to find in recent neuroscientific

evidence, and in new fields of research, quite definite parallels which make

it possible for us to propose an alternative solution to that of dogmatic

reductionism. The rootedness of the possibility of meaning in a corporeal

experience rests upon the presupposition of the existence of a particular somatological

organisation which is, so to speak, the contingent apriori of the

field of meaning. The mechanisms brought to light by the neurosciences seem

to me to present valid candidates for this function. For the neurosciences can

be integrated into the foundational programme of transcendental constitution.

In response to the demand for an ultimate explanation, the philosopher today

can, as never before, fall back upon those circuits and schemas of cerebral

activation which stand in correlation to perception and action. The optimistic

conclusion is the following: instead of abolishing the transcendental project,

the naturalisation process can contribute to its fulfilment. The world of experience

is endowed with meaning by us: the contingent organisation of our

nature has made this possible. Can this hypothesis be justified? And are we

entitled to push matters even further than this?

Let us be more definite about our ultimate ambitions. In fact, what we idealize

is a functional neurodynamics for the constitution of one’s own body,

and more broadly, a functional neurodynamics for the transcendental constitution

of a world of meaningful experience through constitutive operations

such that the subject itself can perform them with its own body. Let me clarify

matters further. A rapidly growing body of discoveries in the specialized domain

of brain cartography has been transforming the traditional dispute between

phenomenology and positive science regarding the adequate treatment

of the body into an obsolete quarrel – even though most philosophers remain

as yet ignorant of this development. Up to now, phenomenology has been used

to call attention to the difference (not without dramatizing the conflict) between

the fixity of the anatomical structure of the physical body (Körper) and

the free fluidity of the meaning patterns of the subjective experience of one’s

own body (Leib). From now on, the critical question should be: whether or

not such a contrast is on the point of disappearing altogether. In fact, neuroscience

has resolutely shaken off its former belief in a rigidly somatotopic

representation of the peripheral organs of the body within the frontiers of a

definite somatosensory mapping of the territories of the centro-parietal cortex

and thalamus. Accordingly, a new methodological approach is forcing its

way through brain science labs, putting on their common agenda the setting

up of a global online recording of constantly moving functional activation

patterns. These constantly changing patterns distribute themselves over varying

regions of cerebral tissue at a rate determined both by the performance of

the behavioral tasks and the ability of the system to recruit the necessary cerebral

resources. Such representational plasticity, far from being genetically

predetermined in all its localizational specifics, proves itself to be induced,

shaped and modulated to a considerable extent by the unique experience of

the organism in its environment. Laying our bet on the chances of a new relationship

between phenomenology and objective science, we want to take

advantage of the opportunities created by these developments. And (assuming

some speculative license) we want to coordinate the flow of functional

activity of the brain with the flow of lived experience of the body in an attempt

to bridge (or at least narrow down) the gap between activation patterns

and meaning patterns, the assumption being that they are mutually indispensable

correlates underlying the auto-affection of the acting person.

But such a phenomenological reinterpretation of the biological data only

covers one half of our program, the second half of which consists in a reinterpretation

of phenomenology itself. The traditional criticism of that brand of

phenomenology known as transcendental constitution is directed at an alleged

submission of all meaning formations in the life world to the sense giving

power of a Cartesian cogito, a move that turns this cogito into a kind of creative

god, and that makes an enigma of the rootedness of our meaningful experience

in the body. Such criticism may have had some credibility thirty years

ago. But, nowadays, after the transcription and publication of the bulk of

Husserl’s manuscripts in the Husserliana series, this position can no longer

be sustained. We have enough evidence of the constant efforts made by Husserl

in his later work, to affirm unhesitatingly that a transcendental (i.e. subject

relative) constitution of the sense of being is not only compatible with, but

also actually requires a corporeal embodiment of the constitutive operations

through which the objects of experience are endowed with meaning. On the

one hand, the constitutive operations have been transformed into real actions

of which we can be fully conscious as we accomplish the relevant movements.

On the other hand, the somewhat disembodied activity of the cogito has been

integrated into the fully concrete somatosensory experience of kinesthetic

systems through which we are aware of and control our movements. As a result,

the promotion of kinesthesia to the status of the principal operator in the process

of constitution has meant that the role of the body has been generalized to

each and every dimension of our daily experience of a world uniquely peopled

by the products of constitutive operations. So that the body, and not the

cogito, traditionally conceived as an abstract reference lacking in any material

substratum, has turned out to be the true pivotal center around which all

our subjective experience of a meaningful world revolves. Returning to

the neurosciences, the gap that we try to bridge is reducible to a semantic

difference between two expressions: the “modulation by experience” that

neuroscientists postulate as the contribution of the somatosensory system

to perception, and the “constitution by experience” that transcendental phenomenology

views as the contribution of kinesthesia to the perceived world.


Two conceptions of consciousness

Consciousness in act

When we are actively engaged with something, we are directed towards this

thing which thereby becomes our object. The thing is there, right at the centre

of our attention. We are directed toward it. We apply ourselves to it. We are

absorbed in it. Even though we remain fully alert we are, so to speak, deflected,

torn away from ourselves. In not being present to ourselves we are for this

very reason both absent from ourselves and present to something which is not

our self. This experience of being outside ourselves and of being integrated

into something external to ourselves is experienced as both fascinating and

upsetting, something obscurely felt as a threat to our intellectual comfort.

In the philosophical tradition, few authors (and rarely in all parts of their

work) have succeeded in successfully overcoming the peculiar difficulty of

grasping this consciousness in act, especially if one considers how important

it is not to water it down and then replace it with something which has little to

do with it. For in fact we are exposed to all kinds of pressures and to all kinds

of temptations which lead us to dogmatically reduce our approximate and

indicative forms of expression to a pseudo rational norm and so to objectify

and substantialise or hypostatize them, by arbitrarily imposing topical and

demarcational distinctions: there is an outside and an inside, physical things

outside and their mental representations inside, etc.


Consciousness as a place

The understandable determination to take up a stand on something solid and

to enjoy the reassuring certainty of dealing with something real has led many

philosophers to give up trying to grasp this consciousness in act. They preferred

to delimit an area which they could arrange as they pleased by populating

it with objects of a certain type, a rather peculiar type certainly, but which

could be treated in accordance with a standard method. Locke launched this

tradition by interpreting Descartes discovery of the cogito in his own way.

Getting rid of the act as much too ephemeral he opened the way to any future

psychology by transforming human mentality into an interior space: tabula

rasa, a blank sheet of paper, the mirror of external objects . . .

Consciousness is the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind. . . Light and sound

force an entrance into the mind. . . The ideas come into the mind. . . There are such ideas

in men’s minds . . .The furniture of the yet empty cabinet (Locke 1961, I, p. 19).

This problematic of inside-outside, which comes down to systematically rejecting

the act character of consciousness and replacing it with a spatialised

fantasy confirmed by an obsession with boundaries has resurfaced today via

the representational theory of mind espoused by analytical philosophy and –

under its influence – cognitive science. The only valid question now appears

to be whether we have conscious access (awareness) to certain internal events

(Fourneret and Jeannerod 1998; Libet et al. 1983).


Publié dans philosophie

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