Merleau-Ponty and the radical sciences of mind


In this paper, I critically reconstruct the development of Merleau-Pontyan phenomenology and “radical embodied cognitive science” out of Berlin-School Gestalt theory. I first lay out the basic principles of Gestalt theory and then identify two ways of revising that theory: one route, followed by enactivism and ecological psychology, borrows Gestaltist resources to defend a pragmatic ontology. I argue, however, that Merleau-Ponty never endorses this kind of ontology. Instead, I track his second route toward an ontology of “flesh.” I show how Merleau-Ponty’s arguments for this ontology depend upon criticisms of Gestalt Psychology to which radical embodied cognitive science remains vulnerable, and show that it leads him to a romantic philosophy of nature.

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  1. 1.

    The most prominent view here comes from Andy Clark and Dave Chalmers (see, for instance, Clark 1997; Clark 2008; Clark and Chalmers 1998).

  2. 2.

    “Enactivism” covers a rather broad terrain in contemporary cognitive science, including so-called “sensori-motor enactivism,” according to which perceiving is necessarily acting in an environment (see, e.g., Noe 2005; O’Regan and Noë 2001). For some discussion of the terrain of enactivist cognitive science, see Ward and Villalobos (2017); see also Gallagher (2005) and Stewart et al. (2010). The extent to which sensori-motor enactivism is compatible with the total rejection of a representational model of cognition is in some dispute (and many sensori-motor enactivists seem content with some version of ‘weak’ representationalism). In what follows, I focus on the strand of autopoietic enactivism developed out of the work of Varela et al. (1991; see also Thompson 2007) and the ‘radical’ enactivism most prominently defended by Hutto and Myin (2012). The classical expression of ecological psychology is Gibson (1979).

  3. 3.

    Many of the empirical arguments necessary to adjudicate these rival views—that is, radical versus representational embodied cognitive science—are well trod and I do not intend to address them here. For some discussion, however, see, in addition to the resources in n. 1, e.g., Chemero (2011).

  4. 4.

    Especially influential here, of course, is Hubert Dreyfus (see, for instance, Dreyfus 2002).

  5. 5.

    Heft attributes this claim to personal communication from Gibson (Heft 2001: p. 161).

  6. 6.

    To be clear, this point is not lost on Chemero (see, for instance, chap. 4 in Kaupher and Chemero 2015). But Chemero does not emphasize the importance of Gestalt Theory in the history of the ‘radical’ branch of embodied cognitive science.

  7. 7.

    For discussion of the relationship between Wertheimer and Einstein, see Miller (1975).

  8. 8.

    See Lewin (1935) and discussion in Merleau-Ponty (2010c).

  9. 9.

    For some discussion of this point, as well as a broader look at the contemporary significance of Gestalt theory, see Wagemans et al. (2012).

  10. 10.

    Merleau-Ponty (2003: p. 87). The language of the “transcendental” in Merleau-Ponty invites some elaboration, since the degree to which Merleau-Ponty is a transcendental thinker at all is a subject of much critique. I am using that term to signal a particular reading of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy that Sebastian Gardner has helpfully contrasted to what he calls the “psychological” reading of Merleau-Ponty (see Gardner 2015). It is the latter reading of Merleau-Ponty, I think, that has historically encouraged the close connections radical cognitive scientists see between his own work and the enactivist and ecological strands of cognitive science. I am trying, by contrast, to encourage the view that, throughout his career, Merleau-Ponty does not have the narrower aim of contributing to a “theory of perception” but rather that his concerns are ontological through and through.

  11. 11.

    As I noted in the introduction, the Merleau-Pontyan roots of autopoietic enactivism are noted explicitly by Varela et al., who, in The Embodied Mind, take their position to initiate “a new lineage of descent from the fundamental intuition of double embodiment first articulated by Merleau-Ponty” (Varela et al. 1991: p. xvii). Since the publication of that text, many autopoietic enactivists have moved beyond an explicitly Merleau-Pontyan phenomenological framework, encouraging the affinity of their views with Hans Jonas’ phenomenology of life (see, for instance, Thompson 2007). Jonas’ position is attractive in this context, since its organizing thesis—in Degenaar and O’Regan’s formulation—is that “a philosophy of life comprise[s] a philosophy of mind,” so that “one may suspect that a philosophy of mind and consciousness always is a philosophy of organic life” (see Degenaar and O’Regan 2015). However, it is just this way of conceiving consciousness (namely, as a form of life) that Merleau-Ponty will subject to transcendental critique. In this sense, the objections I will be tracking here apply, or could be understood to apply, to Jonas as well. I thank an anonymous reviewer for urging me to clarify this point.

  12. 12.

    See for some discussion here, McGann (2016: p. 2).

  13. 13.

    In fact, Gibson objects less to the principle of a physical reductivism than one might suspect. In an unpublished note from 1967, he writes that “properties taken from ecology” might be “ultimately ‘reducible’ to [properties taken from mathematics and physics],” but then argues that “the psychologist cannot wait on such a reduction” (Gibson 1967).

  14. 14.

    The question of the independence of affordances has touched off a long tradition of dispute since the publication of the Ecological Approach to Visual Perception in 1979. For some overview, see Chemero (2011: chaps. 6 and 7). For a sense of the variety of the terrain, see Turvey (1992), Sanders (1997) and Rietveld and Kiverstein (2004). For present purposes, I have tried to word this in such a way that it is consistent with Chemero’s considered view, which I address later in this section: “Affordances do not disappear when there is no local animal to perceive and take advantage of them. They are perfectly real entities that can be objectively studied and are in no way figments of the imagination of the animal that perceives them. . . . But affordances do depend on the existence of some animal that could perceive them, if the right conditions were met” (Chemero 2011: p. 150).

  15. 15.

    This is not exactly a claim Gibson endorses. “Biology,” he notes, “begins with the division between the nonliving and the living,” whereas ecological psychology is a psychology; the relevant division is “between the inanimate and the animate” (Gibson 1979: p. 152). On closer inspection, however, the distinction might turn out to be without a difference: enactivists center organismic activity—that is, life is motile life, and, as Chemero will insist, the attempt to embrace ecological psychology under the heading of “radical embodied cognitive science” urges the ecological position in such a way that it is best conceived as “a branch of biology.”

  16. 16.

    Maturana (1980); quoted in Kee (this volume); thank you to the Editors for pointing me to this reference.

  17. 17.

    There are much deeper connections between embodied cognitive science and what I am calling “pragmatic ontology” than can be explored here. Indeed, Chemero’s proposal is meant to exploit the influence on ecological psychology of William James, whom Gibson counts alongside Koffka as one of his “ancestors.” In discussing this influence, Chemero focuses on how an ecological psychology that conceives the environment in the way that he takes Gibson to conceive it bears a close connection to James’ radical empiricism. My targeting of the pragmatic conception of meaning that I take to structure ecological and enactivist conceptions of the environment is somewhat afield of that discussion. However, I do mean my discussion to present at least an implicit challenge to those who read the phenomenological tradition as sharing in the inheritance of pragmatism.

  18. 18.

    I want to thank an anonymous reviewer for urging me to clarify this point.

  19. 19.

    This is DeJesus’ criticism of autopoietic enactivism, for instance (see Kee 2018, this volume, on this point). Its target is Jonas.

  20. 20.

    Merleau-Ponty (1942: p. 126): “A consciousness, according to Hegel's expression, is a ‘penetration in being,’ and here we have nothing yet but an opening up.”

  21. 21.

    For detailed discussion of this point, see my discussion in Muller (2017: Sect. 5).

  22. 22.

    Mass seems to us a yearning for the mid-point, for the goal and place of rest; inertia a little partial rest on a thing’s own mid-point through its connection with itself; motion a foreign drive, a communicated and onwardly effective striving which overcomes rest, disturbs the rest of foreign things, until it finds its own rest again” (Herder 1778/2002: p. 187).

  23. 23.

    For the concept of flesh as a “relational ontology,” see Bannon (2011).

  24. 24.

    In cognitive archaeology I am thinking particularly of material engagement theory. The key text here is Malfouris (2013), though see also Vaesen (2012), Boivin (2008), Knappett and Malafouris (2008), Renfrew (2004), Knappett (2011), and Malfouris (2010). See also Ransom (2017), Kiverstein and Farina (2011), and Clark (2010: chap. 2).


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This project was supported by a Faculty Fellowship grant from the College of Humanities at California State University, Northridge. I wish to thank two anonymous reviewers for their detailed and enormously helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

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Correspondence to Robin M. Muller.

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Muller, R.M. Merleau-Ponty and the radical sciences of mind. Synthese 198, 2243–2277 (2021).

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  • Merleau-Ponty
  • Phenomenology
  • Gestalt psychology
  • Cognitive science
  • Enactivism
  • Ecological psychology