A dilemma for Heideggerian cognitive science


‘Naturalizing phenomenology’ by limiting it to the ontology of the sciences is problematic on both metaphysical and phenomenological grounds. While most assessments of the prospects for a ‘naturalized phenomenology’ have focused on approaches based in Husserlian transcendental phenomenology, problems also arise for non-reductive approaches based in Heideggerian existential phenomenology. ‘Heideggerian cognitive science’ faces a dilemma. On the one hand, (i) if it is directly concerned with the nature of subjectivity, and this subjectivity is assumed to be ontologically irreducible to its physical enablers yet still metaphysically dependent on them, then Heideggerian cognitive science will either leave that metaphysical dependence an unexplained instance of supervenience, or ground it in speculation about brute metaphysical laws that have an unclear relationship to the ontology of the sciences. On the other hand, (ii) if Heideggerian cognitive science is not directly concerned with the nature of subjectivity, but is instead merely aimed at the development of a Heideggerian phenomenological psychology, then it doesn’t fully address the ontological implications of phenomenology’s transcendental approach, and so, while it might succeed in explaining the realization of psychological phenomena scientifically, the existence of subjectivity will remain inexplicable based on the ontology of the sciences. Neither strategy succeeds in ‘naturalizing phenomenology’: (i) either rejects scientific naturalism, or makes its requirements trivial, while (ii) either rejects the transcendental dimension of phenomenology, or fails to address its ontological implications.

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  1. 1.

    An anonymous reviewer helpfully described the argumentative core (§§5-6) of the paper as “a dilemma of dilemmas” for Heideggerian Cognitive Science (HCS), and provided the following illuminating reconstruction of its form.

    Either A or B.

    If A then A1 or A2.

    If B then B1 or B2.

    All of A1-B2 are problematic.

    A: HCS is concerned with subjectivity.

    A1: HCS is based on unexplained supervenience.

    A2: HCS is based on brute correlations.

    B: HCS is not concerned with subjectivity, but rather phenomenological psychology.

    B1: HCS rejects the transcendental dimension of phenomenology.

    B2: HCS fails to address the ontological implications of phenomenology.

  2. 2.

    See Dan Zahavi (2009) for an overview of the aims and motivations of Husserlian phenomenological psychology.

  3. 3.

    See Jeff Yoshimi (2010) for an examination of Husserl’s views on the ‘psycho-physical conditionalities’ relating mental and bodily states. Yoshimi argues that Husserl’s view on the mind-body relation can be understood in terms of ‘partial supervenience.’

  4. 4.

    See Maxwell Ramstead (2015) for an account of Husserlian ‘somatology.’ Somatology is an empirical science that deals with mind and body insofar as these figure in our experiences of embodiment (e.g., it uncovers contingent psychophysical dependencies connecting sensations and bodily states). Somatology represents the (ontologically) ‘naturalizable’ part of the phenomenological project, but crucially (as Ramstead admits), not all aspects of subjectivity can be understood in the terms of a ‘naturalized’ scientific ontology—in particular, its epistemic role as the transcendental condition of the possibility of knowledge (Ramstead 2015, pp. 949–53).

  5. 5.

    Husserl anticipates these points in his later work (cf. Zahavi 2003a), but I will restrict my discussion to Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty’s development of these themes as the focal points of a phenomenological approach to ontology.

  6. 6.

    So, for example, with respect to the transcendental role of body, Merleau-Ponty writes that “To have a body is to possess a universal arrangement, a schema of all perceptual developments and of all inter-sensory correspondences beyond the segment of the world that we are actually perceiving” (2012, p. 341).

  7. 7.

    As Heidegger puts it, “the ‘factuality’ of the fact of one’s own Dasein is ontologically totally different from the factual occurrence of a kind of stone. The factuality of the fact of Dasein, as the way in which every Dasein actually is, we call its facticity” (2010, p. 56).

  8. 8.

    Heidegger’s central arguments for this claim are developed in §13, and especially §43 of Being and Time (2010, p. 59 ff. and 193 ff., respectively.).

  9. 9.

    As Heidegger puts it, “even what is real is discoverable only the basis of a world already disclosed. And only on this basis can what is real still remain concealed” (2010, p. 195).

  10. 10.

    Heidegger argues that our mode of being makes the mode of being of objective reality possible, but this doesn’t mean that the existence of real objects depends on us—only their ontological status as independent (2010, pp. 203–4). A more detailed treatment of this tricky point is beyond the scope of this paper, but see David Cerbone (2005) for an admirably lucid discussion.

  11. 11.

    Yoshimi (2015) argues that Husserl provides no warrant for moving from phenomenology to ontology since, for all Husserl says, phenomenology concerns only our subjective experiences, and not reality as it is in itself. Zahavi (2003b) has attempted to defend phenomenology (including Husserl’s) against this worry. Whether or not Husserl’s account of phenomenology falls prey to the charge, Heidegger’s account of phenomenology as fundamental ontology is specifically designed to avoid it.

  12. 12.

    Again, this is a point about the mode of being of facts, not a point about the worldly states of affairs that make facts obtain. See Cerbone (2005), and footnote 9, above.

  13. 13.

    Roy et al. clarify that “In this context the notion of natural property refers first to neurobiological properties, but it should be taken in a broader way as designating the whole set of properties postulated by the most fundamental sciences of nature, however abstract these properties might actually be and whatever their philosophical interpretation” (1999, p. 44).

  14. 14.

    See Matthew Ratcliffe (2013) for another such argument distilled from Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Ratcliffe focuses on subjectivity’s role in making possible our ‘sense of reality’ as a ‘space of possibilities.’ See also the papers in footnote 20, below.

  15. 15.

    Yoshimi argues that Husserl’s arguments for transcendental idealism fail (2015), with the result that “phenomenology has nothing distinctive to offer to the cognitive sciences” (2016, p. 301). He suggests that what remains of phenomenology is “perhaps the most detailed repository of phenomenological observations in existence” and “a style of work, a kind of holistic, interpretive attitude” (2016, pp. 301–2). These are slim remainders on which to base a research program, so I would take the result of this evaluation to constitute the elimination, rather than the naturalization of phenomenology. In any case, my defense of the transcendental approach in §2 is based on Heidegger’s account of phenomenology as fundamental ontology, which avoids many of the issues regarding Husserl’s transcendental idealism, e.g., in Ideas I.

  16. 16.

    In my view, the strength of arguments in favor of the transcendental approach remains underappreciated, but even if one remains skeptical about their success, it remains a valuable exercise to articulate how current developments in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind measure up in relation to phenomenological ontology. My own view is that phenomenological ontology is already as ‘naturalistic’ and as compatible with the findings of natural science as we ought to want. If that’s right, then phenomenology and cognitive science can be integrated simply by giving up the ontology of scientific naturalism.

  17. 17.

    Roy et al. offer a historical analogy between the development of a unified mathematical dynamics of terrestrial and celestial bodies (i.e., classical mechanics), and the development of a unified mathematical dynamics of the physical and the phenomenal. They claim that since classical mechanics led to a theoretical unification of previously disparate ontological domains, we have reason to think that a formalized phenomenology will allow us to do the same. To my knowledge, however, the promised unification of the physical and the phenomenal based on a formalized phenomenology has yet to materialize.

  18. 18.

    Fekete and Edelman allow that even if consciousness can be subsumed under mathematical laws, it may be that no explanation of the existence of consciousness will be forthcoming from the sciences: “consciousness is a fundamental property of reality: not only is it a fact, but only through it can we derive other (therefore secondary) facts. Just as science in general cannot explain the existence of fundamental properties of reality (such as gravity), yet can go a long way toward explaining reality once those fundamentals have been cast in the form of ‘laws’ (i.e., equations), so a mathematical theory of consciousness … can go a long way toward consolidating the science of the mind” (2011, p. 823).

  19. 19.

    See Gallagher (2012), Ramstead (2015), and Yoshimi (2016) for further recent discussion of methodological approaches to naturalization.

  20. 20.

    See Roy et al. (1999) and Yoshimi (2016).

  21. 21.

    See Ratcliffe (2002) and Dermot Moran (2008, 2013) for articulation and defense of Husserl’s criticisms of scientific naturalism. Zahavi (2004, 2010, 2013) endorses a pessimistic view of scientific naturalism, but identifies two other ways of moving forward on the project of naturalization that might meet with more success: first, there are the methodological approaches discussed above; second, there are approaches that attempt to bring phenomenology and naturalism together at the level of ontology by ‘phenomenologizing nature’ (Zahavi 2004, pp. 343–4).

  22. 22.

    To be clear, I would reject interpretations of Husserl along these lines as uncharitable, but it must be acknowledged that Husserl’s language in Ideas I about the “self-containment” and the “absolute being” of consciousness (1983, p. 112), and his claim that pure consciousness would remain untouched by the “annihilation of the world of physical things” (1983, pp. 110, 127), do lend themselves to transcendental subjectivist readings. By contrast, Heidegger is read by more than a few scholars as a kind of realist, rather than any kind of subjective idealist (Carman 2003; Dreyfus and Spinosa 1999; Glazebrook 2001; Wheeler 2005, 2015).

  23. 23.

    Wheeler is drawing here on a distinction made by John McDowell between constitutive and enabling understanding (McDowell 1994). As Wheeler explains the distinction: “Constitutive understanding […] is a characteristic target of philosophy… It concerns the identification, articulation and clarification of the conditions that determine what it is for a phenomenon to be the phenomenon that it is (e.g. what it is for a certain kind of creature to competently inhabit its world)” (2013a, pp. 142–3). By contrast, “Enabling understanding is the characteristic target of empirical science… It reveals the causal elements, along with the organization of, and the systematic causal interactions between, those elements, that together make it intelligible to us how a phenomenon of a certain kind could be realized or generated in a world like ours (e.g. how some creature-specific mode of competent world-inhabiting is causally enabled in a purely physical universe)” (Wheeler 2013a, p. 143).

  24. 24.

    Hubert Dreyfus also seems amenable to this division of labor when he suggests that dynamic models of the brain might show “what the brain is doing to provide the material substrate for Heidegger’s and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological accounts of everyday perception and action,” while “the job of phenomenologists is to get clear concerning the phenomena that must be explained” (2012, pp. 91–2; see also Dreyfus and Taylor 2015, p. 101).

  25. 25.

    Similarly, Roy et al. claim that “the heart of the problem of naturalization is to make intelligible the fact that one entity can have both the properties characteristic of matter and those characteristic of mentality in spite of an apparent heterogeneity between them” (1999, p. 46).

  26. 26.

    See Pessoa et al. (1998) for a discussion of the conceptual and methodological issues surrounding explanation by isomorphism in vision science. While Pessoa et al. find empirical support for the existence of neural-perceptual isomorphisms in particular cases (e.g., cases of neural ‘filling-in’), they conclude that there is no reason to adopt analytic isomorphism as a methodological principle—i.e., they conclude that there is no reason to adopt “the a priori claim that isomorphism is conceptually preferable to nonisomorphism in cognitive neuroscientific explanation” (1998, p. 783). Gallagher (1997, pp. 201–6) argues that isomorphisms are neither necessary nor sufficient for cognitive scientific explanation of phenomenological structure.

  27. 27.

    See Jaegwon Kim (1998, 2005), Andrew Melnyk (2003), and Sydney Shoemaker (2007), for detailed discussion of the metaphysics of realization.

  28. 28.

    Although Wheeler defends “extended functionalism” as “an attractive position with good philosophical and cognitive-scientific credentials” (2010, p. 249), he ultimately denies that he is committed to the claim that functionalism provides the correct constitutive account of our psychology: “I am not proposing functionalism as a way of specifying the constitutive criteria that delineate the mental states that figure in our prescientific, folk (i.e., commonsense) psychology. Thus, for example, I am not advocating functionalism as a way of specifying what it is for a person to be in pain, as we might ordinarily think of that phenomenon. That ambitious brand of functionalism faces a range of well-documented objections that are widely thought to be fatal to the view” (2013b, p. 279).

  29. 29.

    I assume here that Wheeler means to allow for ontological irreducibility, which concerns relations between the natures of objects, rather than representational irreducibility, which concerns relations between the intentional contents of models or theories. See van Gulick (2001) for more on this distinction, and for an overview of approaches to reduction in the philosophy of mind, more generally.

  30. 30.

    As Wheeler puts it: “because it stops a long way short of reductionism, minimal naturalism does not demand that a complete cognitive science of Dasein would be a complete understanding of Dasein, although it would be a complete enabling understanding” (2012, p. 191).

  31. 31.

    Metaphysical accounts of ‘weak emergence,’ like the powers-based subset strategy developed by Jessica Wilson (1999, 2011) and Sydney Shoemaker (2001, 2007), and the dynamic co-emergence view developed by Evan Thompson (2007), won’t help to secure the kind of ontological irreducibility that is needed in this context either, since they focus on securing the causal efficacy of emergent features while avoiding causal overdetermination. The claim that Dasein is ontologically distinct from its enablers isn’t the claim that Dasein has an emergent form of causal efficacy, so to claim that Dasein is ‘weakly emergent’ in the sense of having such efficacy, won’t capture the relevant sense of ontological distinctness. Moreover, Thompson (2007, pp. 162–5, 236, 2011) argues that the intelligibility of the relation between subjectivity and the living body requires transcendental explanation, which would imply that the intelligibility of embodiment cannot be accounted for solely by means of a metaphysics of emergence, weak or strong.

  32. 32.

    Wheeler’s view is that making physicalism a component thesis of minimal naturalism will either be redundant since “some form of physicalism will be assumed by science,” or mistaken since “science will embrace the existence and the causal-explanatory powers of non-physical stuff” (Wheeler 2013a, p. 141fn13).

  33. 33.

    Dreyfus, by contrast with Wheeler, seems to acknowledge that Dasein cannot be causally explained when he says that “A theory of the physical causal powers of natural kinds tells us only what is causally real, it cannot account for Dasein’s ability to deal with entities in various ways and so make intelligible various ways of being, thereby disclosing various beings including the entities of natural science” (1990, pp. 260–1).

  34. 34.

    Pace Wheeler’s attempt to ‘domesticate’ the transcendental (2013a, pp. 158–61), Heidegger’s radical historicism doesn’t imply that cognitive science’s enabling explanations could make the mode of being of Dasein intelligible if only the cultural conditions were right, and if only we let science influence our sense-making in the appropriate ways. Heidegger accepts that historical shifts can and do alter the framework within which we find things intelligible, but this doesn’t imply that the condition of the possibility of our having such a framework is identical to, or could be explained by, some being or other. Cognitive science is addressed to beings, not to being.

  35. 35.

    Ontologically speaking, the mode of being of worldly objects depends on the mode of being of Dasein, but ontically speaking, the existence of worldly objects doesn’t depend on the existence of Dasein. See footnote 9, above.


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Thank you to Evan Thompson, Katharina Kaiser, Dan Zahavi, and two anonymous reviewers at Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences for their invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I’d also like to thank Alva Noë, Hubert Dreyfus, and the participants of the 2014 seminar at UC Berkeley on “The Nature of Nature” for discussions of Heidegger’s relationship with naturalism. This work was supported by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the International Balzan Prize Foundation.

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Suarez, D. A dilemma for Heideggerian cognitive science. Phenom Cogn Sci 16, 909–930 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-016-9487-6

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  • Heidegger
  • Phenomenology
  • Phenomenological psychology
  • Naturalism
  • Metaphysics
  • Ontology