Analyzing the outline of the endless literature on consciousness, the separation between science and philosophy rather than being overcome, seems to come back in different shapes. According to this point of view, the hard problem seems to be how to study consciousness while avoiding a slip back to the old dualism. This article outlines the advantages of the phenomenological method. This method, more than getting over the mind-body separation, anticipates it through an open gaze, able to bring back the human presence as something structurally “ambiguous.” Reintroducing Husserl’s scientific project in a complete way, Francisco Varela opened up a research area yet to be explored, which promises to be fertile for neuroscience, provided that we accept that radicalism essential to phenomenology.
In his 1996 paper “Neurophenomenology: A methodological remedy for the hard problem,” Francisco Varela called for a union of Husserlian phenomenology and cognitive science. Varela’s call hasn’t gone unanswered, and recent years have seen the development of a small but growing literature intent on exploring the interface between phenomenology and cognitive science. But despite these developments, there is still some obscurity about what exactly neurophenomenology is. What are neurophenomenologists trying to do, and how are they trying to do it? To what extent is neurophenomenology a distinctive and unified research programme? In this paper I attempt to shed some light on these questions.
Open peer commentary on the article “Never Mind the Gap: Neurophenomenology, Radical Enactivism, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness” by Michael D. Kirchhoff & Daniel D. Hutto. Upshot: I strongly agree with Kirchhoff and Hutto that consciousness and embodied action are one and the same, but I disagree when they say this identity cannot be fully explained and must simply be posited. Here I attempt to sketch the outlines of just such an explanation.
Open peer commentary on the article “Enaction as a Lived Experience: Towards a Radical Neurophenomenology” by Claire Petitmengin. Upshot: The neurophenomenological project is too ambitious technically, but highly appealing on the philosophical level, as can be learned from the extremely high ratio between theoretical and empirical work concerning neurophenomenology accumulated thus far. While “radical” neurophenomenology could possibly create, in highly unique projects, “mutual generative constraints,” will the hard problem be dissolved? I argue that although using micro phenomenology, as long as experimental designs inspired by front-loading phenomenological insights are reviewed by the regular scientific mind, the question of validating the phenomenology with objective measures remains, and will keep blocking the outbreak in this promising field. Since “we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them,” it is timely for the scientific community to practice an attitude shift.
Open peer commentary on the article “Never Mind the Gap: Neurophenomenology, Radical Enactivism, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness” by Michael D. Kirchhoff & Daniel D. Hutto. Upshot: We point out that the significance of the neurophenomenological approach to the “hard problem” of consciousness is underrated and misunderstood by the authors of the target article. In its original version, neurophenomenology implies nothing less than a change in our own being to dispel the mere sense that there is a problem to be theoretically solved or dissolved. Neurophenomenology thus turns out to be much more radical than the enactivist kind of dissolution promoted by the authors.
Open peer commentary on the article “Never Mind the Gap: Neurophenomenology, Radical Enactivism, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness” by Michael D. Kirchhoff & Daniel D. Hutto. Upshot: It is not clear what Kirchhoff and Hutto mean by identity when they claim that there is no gap between the phenomenal and the physical. Understanding the relation between causation and diachronic constitution, I suggest that phenomenal-physical existence is better characterized as a dynamically articulated form, structure, or gestalt.
Open peer commentary on the article “Never Mind the Gap: Neurophenomenology, Radical Enactivism, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness” by Michael D. Kirchhoff & Daniel D. Hutto. Upshot: I show that the gap problem is of no threat to the enactivist approach; moreover, if the enactivism model is thoroughly thought over through extending ontology, it may turn out that the gap should be naturally built in the wholeness of the world at the level of its self-cognition.
Open peer commentary on the article “Never Mind the Gap: Neurophenomenology, Radical Enactivism, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness” by Michael D. Kirchhoff & Daniel D. Hutto. Upshot: Kirchhoff and Hutto argue that the metaphysical commitments of neurophenomenology, as formulated by Varela in 1996, endorse a form of non-reductionism, which assumes and does not resolve the hard problem of consciousness. Although I share Kirchhoff and Hutto’s conceptual concern, I disagree that denying the gap between the phenomenal and the physical, opting for an identity theory in a radical enactivism framework, is a promising alternative to a better understanding of human experience.
This is nominally a book review of Hutto and Myin’s Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds Without Content (The MIT Press, 2013). But it is a narrowly focused and highly prejudicial review, which presents an analysis of a contradiction at the heart of the book. Radicalizing Enactivism is a powerful and original philosophical argument against representations in cognition, but it repeatedly endorses an old-fashioned representationalism about language. I show that this contradiction arises from the authors’ unexamined, reflexive adoption of traditional linguistic concepts and terminology, which presuppose a representational interpretation of linguistic capacities and phenomena. The key piece of evidence for this analyses is the separability of Hutto and Myin’s substantive remarks on the ontogeny of language-dependent cognitive capacities, which they explain in terms of scaffolding and decoupling, from the representational gloss on those remarks that they present as if it were simply identical with observed empirical matters of fact. They follow a model laid out in Hutto’s earlier work, in which everyday linguistic activity is understood as instantiating abstract public vehicles with representational content (i.e., sentences which express propositions). I argue that this model is susceptible both to pre-existing arguments against representational theories of language and to a variant of their own ‘Hard Problem of Content’. The take-away lesson from Radicalizing Enactivism is that anti-representationalist accounts of language remain unconvincing – even to radicals like Hutto and Myin – because they have no way of explaining the phenomenal experience of literate speakers, wherein words really do feel like instantiations of abstract forms with determinable semantics. I suggest that anti-representationalists can address this by focusing on the ways in which patterns of attention become stabilized and interpersonally regularized as we learn language.
Upshot: We respond to three main challenges that the commentaries have raised. First, we argue that to deal successfully with the hard problem of consciousness, it is not enough to posit a remedy by which to move beyond the hard problem. Second, we argue that it makes no sense to explain identity. Yet this does not commit us to definitions by fiat. The strategy we pursue here, and in the target article, is not to explain identity but to explain away the appearance of non-identity. Finally, while we are sympathetic to Varela’s call for a paradigm shift in consciousness studies, we argue here, and in the target article, that this call can only be properly successful if the hard problem is dismantled.