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Autopoietic Enactivism, Phenomenology, and the Problem of Naturalism: A Neutral Monist Proposal

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In this paper, I compare the original version of the enactive view—autopoietic enactivism—with Husserl’s phenomenology, regarding the issue of the relationship between consciousness and nature. I refer to this issue as the “problem of naturalism.” I show how the idea of the co-determination of subject and object of cognition, which is at the heart of autopoietic enactivism, is close to the phenomenological form of correlationism. However, I argue that there is a tension between an epistemological reading of the subject-object correlation that renounces to search for its metaphysical ground, and the enactivist focus on the biological basis of cognition, which seems to imply a view of nature as the metaphysical ground of the conscious mind. A similar problem arises in Husserl’s phenomenology in the contrast between the idea of the fundamental subject-object correlation, the concept of nature as a correlate of transcendental constitution, and the investigation of the corporeal and material grounding of consciousness. I find a way out of this problem by drawing on the distinction between static and genetic phenomenology. I argue that the investigation of the temporality of experience in genetic phenomenology leads us to investigate the metaphysical ground of the subject-object correlation, understood dynamically as co-constitution and co-origination. Then I propose to complement phenomenology and enactivism with a form of neutral monism, which conceives of the co-constitution of subject and object as grounded in a flow of fundamental, pre-phenomenal qualities.

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  1. I must clarify here what I mean by the distinction, which I will use in the course of the paper, between ontology and metaphysics. With “ontology,” I refer to an analysis of the distinctive features, the mereological structure, and the reciprocal relations between entities within a certain domain of inquiry, e.g., tables, chairs, etc. (objects of sense perception); beliefs, desires, etc. (objects of psychology); cells, DNA strands, etc. (objects of biology); molecules, atoms, etc. (objects of physics). Such an analysis is not necessarily interested in the relationship between different ontological domains and therefore with the question concerning the ultimate nature of these entities. On the contrary, I take metaphysics as dealing with the relations between different ontological domains, within a theory of the fundamental or ultimate reality. In this way, metaphysics deals with the classic mind–body problem and with the choice between views such as materialism or physicalism (ultimate reality is physical and everything else is grounded in it), substance dualism (there are two fundamental substances), emergentism (consciousness “strongly” emerges from the physical domain as a new high-level property of physical systems), panpsychism (the fundamental entities are physical and mental at the same time), and neutral monism (there is a fundamental reality that is neutral to the mental-physical distinction).

  2. In Sect. 4, I will clarify that the difference between these forms of enactivism lies in their different accounts of perception and in their different stance on the problem of naturalism. In particular, I will claim that sensorimotor and radical enactivism tend to be committed to direct realism and to an objectivist view of nature.

  3. Different ways of pursuing the project of “naturalizing the mind” that presuppose objectivist naturalism are reductive physicalism, naturalistic property dualism, and strong emergentism (see e.g., Chalmers 2003, 2006). At the end of this paper, I will specify in what sense the neutral monist view that I am proposing can be conceived of as a different form of metaphysical naturalism that is based on a non-objectivist conception of nature.

  4. For the debate on metaphysical grounding see Bliss and Trogdon (2016).

  5. Meillassoux introduces polemically the term “correlationism” to refer to a widespread approach in philosophy, starting from Kant, according to which “we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (Meillassoux, 2012: 5).

  6. See Broad (1925), Chalmers (2003) for a taxonomy of metaphysical positions in philosophy of mind.

  7. Nagarjuna is the founder of the Madhyamaka, which is one of the main philosophical schools of Buddhism.

  8. On this point, Thompson refers to Von Uexküll’s concept of Umwelt: “An Umwelt is an animal's environment in the sense of its lived, phenomenal world, the world as it presents itself to that animal thanks to its sensorimotor repertoire” (Thompson, 2007: 59).

  9. Forrest calls these first two senses of co-determination empirical and cognitive.

  10. Forrest calls this third sense of co-determination transcendental.

  11. These aspects of the Madhyamaka and of autopoietic enactivism are highlighted by Bitbol (2003; 2012).

  12. For this reading of Varela’s neurophenomenology see Bitbol (2012), Bitbol and Antonova (2016), Vörös et al. (2016).

  13. See Chalmers (1996, 2003, 2006, 2016a).

  14. These “anti-metaphysical” aspects of the original version of enactivism are highlighted for instance by Vörös et al. (2016), Bitbol (2012), Bitbol and Antonova (2016), Pace Giannotta (2017).

  15. The reference to Jonas’s philosophy of nature is also central to Thompson (2007).

  16. For an overview see Yoshimi (2015), Zahavi (2003).

  17. Below, I will consider the objection according to which the problem that I am considering here can be easily solved by taking into account Husserl’s distinction between empirical and transcendental consciousness.

  18. I highlight here the contrast between the concept of nature as “condition for the existence of something,” which is a metaphysical notion, and the concept of nature as “being constituted in regular concatenations of consciousness,” which can be understood either as an epistemological notion (nature as the object of knowledge) or as a metaphysical notion (nature as metaphysically constituted by consciousness, which would be metaphysical idealism).

  19. In particular, Husserl stresses the constitutive role of the sentient dimension of the body, i.e., the body as locus of phenomenal consciousness. For this reason, Bernet claims that in Husserl’s investigation of corporeality we can already find a “phenomenology of the flesh” (Bernet 2013: 64), before its subsequent development especially by French phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty, Lévinas, and Henry.

  20. Of course, both subjectivist and objectivist theories of colors are presented nowadays by considering the results of the most recent empirical studies on color vision, but they differ in how they account for these results (see Maund, 2012; Cohen, 2009a).

  21. I define this view color relationism (Pace Giannotta, 2018), which is a specific case of a more general qualitative relationism (Pace Giannotta, 2020), in order to differentiate it from Cohen’s “color relationalism” (Cohen, 2004, 2009b), which is still a form of subjectivism and, specifically, is a dispositionalist form of color relationalism. Cohen develops his view also in contrast to the enactivist one, claiming that the latter has “implausibly idealistic consequences” (Cohen, 2009a, b: 226). I will argue in a moment that, on the contrary, the enactive account of color can be better framed in terms of neutral monism.

  22. For the mathematical aspects of this incommensurability between color spaces see Thompson et al. (1992: 401).

  23. Autopoietic enactivists motivate this claim by referring to the observable behaviour of different animals. For example, pigeons are tetrachromats and they group objects in relation to their wavelengths into categories that “though different from the groupings humans perform, nonetheless seem to be categories of hue” (Thompson et al., 1992: 380).

  24. Similar considerations have been developed by proponents of neutral monism such as Mach (1914) and Russell (1921).

  25. In the light of the above-seen analysis of perception, I can now briefly clarify the difference, to which I referred to in the introduction, between autopoietic enactivism, sensorimotor enactivism, and radical enactivism. Proponents of sensorimotor enactivism also conceive of perception in terms of sensorimotor interaction between organism and environment, but they do so within an objectivist position that echoes Gibson’s ecological theory of perception and his form of naïve realism (see Noë and O’Regan, 2002: 572, 580). In this way, the notion of “environment” in sensorimotor enactivism seems to refer to an objective pole of the cognitive relation that is pre-constituted and directly perceived by the animal. In fact, Noë explicitly defends a form of “actionist (or enactive) direct realism” (Noë, 2012: 65). However, the authors of TEM conceive of their view also as an alternative to Gibson’s direct realism (Thompson et al., 1992: 399). Concerning Hutto and Myin’s “radical enactivism,” the central thesis of their view—developed also in opposition to AE—is that perception is “contentless.” According to them, perceptual states don’t have any “phenomenal content,” thus being forms of direct access to the world. In this way, they also seem to advocate a form of direct realism.

  26. I have to clarify that I am proposing a possible development of Husserl’s genetic phenomenology and not strictly an interpretation of it. That is, I am not claiming that, in the end, Husserl was a neutral monist. It may well be that, in the end, he was a metaphysical idealist (as claimed by various authors, see Yoshimi, 2015: 1) or that he remained faithful to the “metaphysical neutrality” of phenomenology (in the sense that phenomenology is not committed to any metaphysical view). I am just suggesting that neutral monism is a viable way of developing genetic phenomenology—and enactivism—that is worthy of being considered.

  27. For instance, Husserl claims that also “a judging consciousness of a mathematical state of affairs is an impression” (Husserl, 1991: 95/100) and that “belief is actual belief, is an impression” (Husserl , 1991: 103/109).

  28. Husserl claims that genetic phenomenology investigates the genesis of the “monadic individuality” (Husserl, 2001a, b: 635), referring with this expression to the concrete subject of experience.

  29. This empiricist and qualitative version of neutral monism must be distinguished from other versions, such as Sayre’s neutral monism of information (see Stubenberg, 2018: 22).

  30. This is a “neither view” of the neutrality of the elements and must be distinguished from a “both view,” which claims that the basic entities are physical and mental at the same time (Stubenberg, 2018: 3). The latter is better understood as a dual aspect monism or panpsychism.

  31. This point marks the difference between the qualitative version of neutral monism (or panqualityism) and panpsychism. Chalmers (2016a) defines panqualityism as a version of panprotopsychism (i.e., the view that fundamental entities are not conscious per se but are precursors to consciousness).

  32. The following passages from Mach (1914) help to illustrate this proposal: “bodies do not produce sensations, but complexes of elements (complexes of sensations) make up bodies,” “all bodies are but thought-symbols for complexes of elements,” and “the elements in question form the real, immediate, and ultimate foundation, which it is the task of physiologico-physical research to investigate” (Mach, 1914: 29).

  33. Suarez (2017; 2020) puts forward a form of phenomenological naturalism which conceives of nature as the ground of phenomenal manifestation and as neither subject nor object. My proposal intersects with Suarez’s but, unlike him (Suarez, 2017: 443), I suggest neutral monism as a viable way of developing a phenomenological naturalism. I think that also Merleau-Ponty’s concept of flesh, developed in The Visible and the Invisible (Merleau-Ponty, 1968), goes in this direction, but this is matter for further inquiry.

  34. This point is stressed by various proponents of neutral monism, see e.g., Coleman (2015: 98).

  35. On this point, Parrini (2018) stresses the difference between Mach’s neutral monism and those metaphysical views of the past that aimed at absolute and definitive results in their attempt to find the ultimate components of reality (Parrini, 2018: 47). This is because Mach proposes his view more as a scientist than a philosopher, conceiving of his view as a “covering theory aimed at contributing to the unification of science” (Parrini, 2018: 35) that shares with the metaphysics of the past mainly the “tendency to maximum generality” (Parrini, 2018: 47).


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I would like to thank Philipp Berghofer, Bernhard Geißler, Markus Seethaler, and Michael Wallner for useful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. This work was supported by grants from the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst (DAAD, Annual Research Grant) and from the Österreichischer Austauschdienst (OeAD, Ernst Mach Grant).


This work was supported by grants from the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst (DAAD, Annual Research Grant at the Department of Philosophy II, Center for Mind and Cognition, Ruhr-Universität Bochum) and from the Österreichischer Austauschdienst (OeAD, Ernst Mach Grant at the Department of Philosophy, University of Graz).

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Pace Giannotta, A. Autopoietic Enactivism, Phenomenology, and the Problem of Naturalism: A Neutral Monist Proposal. Husserl Stud 37, 209–228 (2021).

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