Merleau-Ponty and the radical sciences of mind

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  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).

References

  1. Bannon, B. (2011). Flesh and nature: Understanding Merleau-Ponty’s relational ontology. Research in Phenomenology, 41(3), 327–357.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Barandaran, X., et al. (2009). Defining agency: Individuality, normativity, asymmetry and spatiotemporality in action. Adaptive Behavior, 17(5), 367–386.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Boivin, N. (2008). Material cultures, material minds: The role of things in human thought, society and evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge university press.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Carbone, M. (2015). Flesh: Toward the history of a misunderstanding. In The flesh of images (M. Nijhuis, Trans.). Alband: SUNY Press.

  5. Chemero, A. (2011). Radical embodied cognitive science. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Chomsky, N. (1959). A review of B. F. Skinner’s verbal behavior. Language, 35(1), 26–58.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Chomsky, N. (1967). Preface to “a review of B.F. Skinner’s verbal behavior (1959). In L. Jakobovits & M. Miron (Eds.), Readings in the psychology of language (pp. 142–143). Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Clark, A. (1997). Being there: Putting brain, body, and world together again. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Clark, A. (2008). Supersizing the mind: Embodiment, action and cognitive extension. Oxford: Oxford.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Clark, A. (2010). Material surrogacy and the supernatural: Reflections on the role of artefacts in ‘off-line’ cognition. In L. Malfouris & C. Renfrew (Eds.), The cognitive life of things. McDonald Institute: McDonald Institute.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. J. (1998). The extended mind. Analysis, 58(1), 7–19.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Colombetti, G. (2010). Enaction, sense-making, and emotion. In J. Stewart, O. Gapenne, & E. Di Paolo (Eds.), Enaction: Towards a new paradigm for cognitive science. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Degenaar, J., & O’Regan, K. (2015). Sensorimotor theory and enactivism. TOPOI, 36(3), 393–407.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Dreyfus, H. (2002). Intelligence without representation: The relevance of phenomenology to scientific explanation. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 1(4), 367–383.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Gallagher, S. (2005). How the body shapes the mind. Oxford: Oxford.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Gardner, S. (2015). Merleau-Ponty’s transcendental theory of perception. In S. Gardner & M. Grist (Eds.), The transcendental turn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Gibson, J. J. (1967). Note on an elaboration on the distinction between the proximal and distal stimulus. unpublished note from Aug. 1967, published online as Purple Perils. http://www.trincoll.edu/depts/ecopsyc/perils/folder3/elaboration.html.

  18. Gibson, J. J. (1979). Ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Gibson, J. J., Reed, E., & Jones, R. (Eds.). (1982). Reasons for realism. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Heft, H. (2001). Ecological psychology in context. New York: Psychology Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Herder, J. G. (1778/2002). On cognition and sensation in the human soul. In Philosophical writings (M. Forster, Ed., Trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  22. Hull, C. L. (1920). Quantitative aspects of the evolution of concepts. London: Psychological Monographs.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Hutto, D., & Myin, E. (2012). Radicalizing enactivism. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Katz, D. (1950). Gestalt psychology: Its nature and significance. New York: Ronald Press.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Kaupher, S., & Chemero, A. (2015). Phenomenology. New York: Polity.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Kee, H. (2018). Phenomenology and naturalism in autopoietic and radical enactivism: Exploring sense-making and continuity from the top down. Synthese. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1851-3.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Kiverstein, J., & Farina, M. (2011). Embraining culture: Leaky minds and spongy brains. Teorema, 30(2), 35–53.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Knappett, C. (2011). An archaeology of interaction: Network perspectives on material culture and society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Knappett, C., & Malafouris, L. (Eds.). (2008). Material agency: Towards a non-anthropocentric approach. New York: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Koffka, K. (1924). Growth of the mind. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Koffka, K. (1935). Principles of Gestalt psychology. New York: Harbinger.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Köhler, W. (1920). Die physischen Gestalten in Ruhe und im stationdren Zustand. Munich: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Köhler, W. (1940). Dynamics in psychology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Köhler, W. (1947). Gestalt psychology: An introduction to new concepts in modern psychology. London: Liveright.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Köhler, W. (1959). Gestalt psychology today. American Psychologist, 14, 727–734.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Lewin, K. (1935). A dynamic theory of personality. New York: Lewin Press.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Malfouris, L. (2010). Metaplasticity and the human becoming. Journal of Anthropological Sciences, 88, 49–72.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Malfouris, L. (2013). How things shape the mind. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Maturana, H. (1980). Biology of cognition. In H. R. Maturana & F. J. Varela (Eds.), Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. Dordrecht: D. Reidel.

    Google Scholar 

  40. McGann, M. (2016). Enactivism and ecological psychology: Divided by common ground. Constructivist Foundations, 11(2), 312–315.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1942). The structure of behavior (A. Fisher, Trans.). Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

  42. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). Indirect language and the voices of silence. In Signs (pp. 39–83) (R. McCleary, Trans.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

  43. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1969). The visible and the invisible (A. Lingis, Trans.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

  44. Merleau-Ponty, M. (2003). Nature. (A. Lingis, Trans.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

  45. Merleau-Ponty, M. (2010a). Consciousness and the acquisition of language. In Child psychology and pedagogy (T. Welsh, Ed., Trans.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

  46. Merleau-Ponty, M. (2010b). Structure and conflicts in child consciousness. In Child psychology and pedagogy (T. Welsh, Ed., Trans.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

  47. Merleau-Ponty, M. (2010c). Human sciences and phenomenology. In Child psychology and pedagogy (T. Welsh, Ed., Trans.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

  48. Merleau-Ponty, M. (2013). Phenomenology of perception (D. Landes, Trans.). New York: Routledge.

  49. Miller, A. I. (1975). Albert Einstein and Max Wertheimer: A Gestalt psychologist’s View of the genesis of special relativity theory. History of Science, 13(2), 75–103.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Muller, R. M. (2017). The logic of the chiasm in Merleau-Ponty’s early philosophy. Ergo, 4(7). https://doi.org/10.3998/ergo.12405314.0004.007.

  51. Noe, A. (2005). Action in perception. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  52. O’Regan, J. K., & Noë, A. (2001). A sensorimotor account of visual consciousness. Behavior Brain Science, 24, 939–1031.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Ransom, T. (2017). Process, habit, and flow: A phenomenological approach to material agency. Phenomenology and Cognitive Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-017-9541-z.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Renfrew, C. (2004). Towards a theory of material engagement. In E. DeMarrais, C. Gosden, & C. Renfrew (Eds.), Rethinking materiality: The engagement of mind with the material world. Cambridge: McDonald Institute.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Rietveld, E., & Kiverstein, J. (2004). A rich landscape of affordances. Ecological Psychology, 26(4), 325–352.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Sanders, J. (1997). Ontology of affordances. Ecological Psychology, 9(1), 97–112.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Smith, B. (1988). Gestalt theory: An essay in philosophy. In B. Smith (Ed.), Foundations of Gestalt theory. Philosophia: Munich.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Stewart, J., et al. (Eds.). (2010). Enaction. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  59. Stoffregen, T. (2003). Affordances as properties of the animal–environment system. Ecological Psychology, 15(2), 115–134.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Sundqvist, F. (2007). The Gestalt according to the Berlin school. Gestalt Theory, 29(3), 223–241.

    Google Scholar 

  61. Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Turvey, M. (1992). Affordances and prospective control: An outline of the ontology. Ecological Psychology, 4, 173–187.

    Google Scholar 

  63. Vaesen, K. (2012). The cognitive bases of human tool use. Behavioral and Brain Science, 35, 203–218.

    Google Scholar 

  64. Varela, F., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The embodied mind. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  65. von Ehrenfels, C. (1890). Über ‘Gestaltqualitäte. Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie, 14, 249–292.

    Google Scholar 

  66. Wagemans, J., et al. (2012). A century of Gestalt psychology in visual perception I. Perceptual grouping and figure-ground organization. Psychological Bulletin, 138(6), 1172–1217.

    Google Scholar 

  67. Ward, D., & Villalobos, M. (2017). Introduction to “varieties of enactivism”. Topoi, 36(3), 365–375.

    Google Scholar 

  68. Watson, J. (1924). Behaviorism. New Brunswick: Transaction.

    Google Scholar 

  69. Wertheimer, M. (1938). Gestalt theory. In W. Ellis (Ed.), A sourcebook of Gestalt psychology (Vol. 2). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Robin M. Muller.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Muller, R.M. Merleau-Ponty and the radical sciences of mind. Synthese 198, 2243–2277 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-02015-6

Download citation

Keywords

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