Gallagher, S. and M. Sasma. 2003. Phenomenology and neurophenomenology: An Interview with Shaun Gallagher. (Od fenomenologie ke kognitivní vûdû). Aluze: Revue pro literaturu, filozofii a jiné (Czech Republic) 2: 92-102.


Phenomenology and Neurophenomenology: An interview



The following is an interview conducted by Michal Sasma for a Czech journal on May 15, 2003 following my Hebdomades Lectures at the Philosophy Department of the Univerzita Palackého v Olomouci, Czech Republic (May 12-15, 2003).  This was a series of eight lectures entitled "Phenomenological interventions in the cognitive neurosciences" and delivered over the course of a week.  Olomouci in the Czech Republic is located near Husserl's hometown, and is the town where he attended elementary school.  Philosophically, the town is also known as the place where Wittgenstein spent some time as a young soldier in the Austrian army.  There's a strange story about him spending time thinking, on the roof of the city hall, sitting on a couch which he put up there with the help of the son of the mayor.  I don't believe it, although it is likely that he was there as a soldier.  Also, someone suggested that only one American before me gave the Hebdomades Lectures (all others being Europeans).  The American was said to be a guy named Quine -- I'm not sure that I believe that either, but I don't mind spreading rumors.


Univerzita Palackého


The space between phenomenology and the cognitive sciences


Sasma: ... Now let me inquire further into the idea of neurophenomenology or naturalized phenomenology. In the introductory essay to the famous collection of papers called Naturalizing Phenomenology, the editors (Roy, et al., 1999) had to be very persuasive to show that it is possible to naturalize Husserlian, transcendental phenomenology. Still, there are also other, non-transcendental phenomenological approaches that might be more compatible with the idea of naturalization. Prominent among these is the body-focused phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty. Now, I wonder precisely which type of phenomenology suits best your idea of mutual constraint between phenomenology and cognitive science? Or, to limit your answer to a pair of alternatives, which do you prefer, the Husserlian idea of phenomenology as a kind of almost geometry-like science looking for a priori structures of experience - or the empirically corroborated phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty which has given up the transcendental reduction?


Gallagher: Yes, I think I take more from Merleau-Ponty than from Husserl. And that's one difference between me and Varela, who, although influenced by Merleau-Ponty, was more influenced by Husserl. I've always thought that Merleau-Ponty, if he were alive, would be working with the cognitive scientists - I don't think he'd have any problem with that. The difficulty Varela was wrestling with is a certain kind of anti-naturalism in Husserl's thought. Varela was going head-on at phenomenology in the sense that he took Husserl's phenomenological reduction and tried to make use of it within experimental science. In contrast, I have a much easier time because I am much more on the side of Merleau-Ponty, and that also implies the kind of approach I would take in terms of how you get phenomenology into the empirical sciences experimenting with cognition, consciousness and so forth. Varela talks about - talked about - using phenomenological methods, training subjects in the phenomenological method and using that in the context of experimental science. Antoine Lutz, who has continued experiments that he started with Varela, has shown that in certain contexts of neuroscientific practice this actually works (Lutz, et al., 2002). My own view of how phenomenology could be used in experimental science presents, I believe, a wider set of possibilities: in addition to Varela's neurophenomenological approach you can also take insights from phenomenologists and their analyses and influence the kinds of questions that are asked in the experiments. In other words, you can influence the experimental design by basing it on concepts and distinctions that have been developed in phenomenology.  This is what I have called "front-loaded" phenomenology, because we are taking phenomenology seriously at the beginning stage of experimental design (Gallagher, 2003).


Sasma: If I understand you correctly, then your mission within the cognitive sciences is to make use of certain concepts or conceptual frameworks developed by phenomenologists, particularly by Merleau-Ponty, in empirical research. On the other hand, Varela and his followers are actually trying to put phenomenology in practice, whether by doing it themselves or by training their experimental subjects. I must confess that the latter approach seems to me more consequential, in fact more "phenomenological", than the former, even though I realize it's not quite clear why it should still be called "philosophy". Anyway, the first kind of approach seems to be treating phenomenology as a completed and, in a way, dead sum of knowledge. How about bringing your own phenomenological insights into play?


Gallagher: I think you can do both. I don't think phenomenology is dead in any sense. You don't have to take your phenomenological concepts just from Husserl or Merleau-Ponty, but you can also take their work and actively extend it and use phenomenological methods to make distinctions and to ask different kinds of questions. And then you can take whatever results you can gain from such analyses and use them in your own scientific experiments. Or, if you don't get involved directly in the science, you can at least interface with experimenters and try to influence the kinds of questions they're asking and the kind of procedures they're using. So I don't think of phenomenology just as the texts of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty; it's indeed a practice - I agree with Varela on that. You practice phenomenology, and then you see if it can work to inform some experiments.  Also, it's important to see where that goes - to see whether the results of the experiments suggest further phenomenological refinement.


Sasma: So here we have two different ways in which phenomenology could contribute to cognitive science. But what about looking at it from the opposite perspective - how precisely can cognitive science help us make progress in phenomenology - for it's a mutual constraint that's being talked about, not a one-way constraint?


Gallagher: Actually, "mutual constraint" is Varela's phrase (Varela, 1996).  The phrase I used, in the article that appeared just after Varela's, is "mutual enlightenment" (Gallagher, 1997). I think “constraint" might be too strong. Still, I think even this more radical view is defensible. What are neuroscientists trying to achieve by looking at neurons in the brain? They are trying to explain some kind of experience. And here comes phenomenology with its methodical approach to experience saying "take a look, this is what you're trying to explain, this is what your experiments should be about". Of course, a lot of cognitive scientists say “we can't really use phenomenology; we don't really want to pay any attention to that", but in fact they have to because either formally or informally they have to talk about experience at some point. Still, the other way - the putative constraint phenomenology receives from cognitive science - is harder to argue out. Phenomenologists start objecting, especially those who understand phenomenology as a purely descriptive and controlled looking at what experience is, which is free from any influence of theoretical constructs. Because - these phenomenologists would argue - it doesn't matter how the brain operates, it's not going to change experience; phenomenological descriptions of consciousness will remain the same no matter what the neuroscientists or psychologists discover.


Sasma: And what's your own opinion about this?


Philosophy Courtyard



The gorilla and phenomenology


Gallagher: I think it's possible that the science can certainly inform phenomenology. Cognitive science is able to discover things, even about experience, that are out of the phenomenologists' reach. I'm in a permanent search for good examples of this, but let me try one out here. There are studies of change-blindness, where the strategy is as follows: a person is looking at something and she is instructed to pay close attention and to describe some aspect of what she is seeing.  In her concentrated attention she somehow fails to notice a very obvious change that takes place in what she is observing.  Not a change in her conscious experience, but a change in the object attended to.   An excellent example of this is on the web - an experiment by Daniel Simons at the University of Illinois - where subjects are shown a 30-second video in which some people kick around a ball. And the instruction you give to your subject is this: "Take a look at this video. What I want you to do is count the number of times the ball changes hands".  Now, as the subject is looking, a guy dressed in a gorilla suit walks into the middle of this group of people and he stops, looks directly into the camera, waves his hands wildly and then he walks off. And then you finish the experiment by asking "OK, so how many times did the ball change hands?"  I did this little experiment with my students in class.  You get students raising their hands and saying "I counted 37 times" and another student raises her hand: "No, no, no, it was 36 times." So you have a discussion of how many times the ball really changed hands and so far nobody has mentioned the gorilla. And then you ask "OK, and how many people saw the gorilla?" And they'll say "What are you talking about? What gorilla?" And they are all very surprised when you play the video again and they see a gorilla.  In fact they suspect you have fooled them: "How could it be the same video? I didn't see the gorilla there before!" Now, this is a wonderful experiment about what we don't see if we're focused on something, if our attention is caught up in something. So, what would a phenomenological analysis of this case be? Or more precisely, what exactly should the phenomenological description of that be? If I'm counting the times the ball changes hands and in my visual field, right in front of my nose a gorilla enters and I don't notice it, what should a phenomenologist say about that? Well, here's an experiment that tells us something about our experience. I think it's a good example of how cognitive science could inform phenomenology.


Another example I've been thinking about - but I'm not sure if it works - comes from Dennett who mentions a very simple experiment: I ask the phenomenologist to describe what is in his peripheral visual field.  Now it depends on how good this phenomenologist is.  Most people if asked what they can experience in their visual field will provide a relatively detailed description.  They tend to say that everything in the peripheral field looks relatively clear. In fact, though - and you can perform this test on yourself - if I fix my eyes at the focal center of my visual field, and a large and bright red object is introduced into my peripheral vision, I will have no idea what color that object is. Our peripheral vision is not as sharp as we think it is.


Slunecko: This might be due to the fact that the important information a living organism can get from its peripheral visual field - for instance in case of being endangered - is connected with movement.


Gallagher: Yes, that's right, you get movement from your peripheral field much better than you get color or shape.  I'm not sure how phenomenologists would do in this kind of experiment.  We would expect them to bracket out the automatic answer given by most people about the acuity of their peripheral field. So the experiment might not tell them more than they already know.  Indeed, as I think of it, this might be a case of what we should call experimental phenomenology - and something that phenomenology can tell the cognitive sciences.


Sasma: I have to confess that I'm not totally convinced by these examples. Both of them do show that statistically most subjects ignore or respectively misinterpret the way their visual field is structured or influenced by attention. This, however, doesn't rule out the possibility that some subjects - call them "phenomenologists", "good disinterested observers" or whatever - could be trained, either by themselves or by the experimenters, to attend to their experience in a substantially more subtle way than their untrained colleagues, as you have just suggested in regard to the second example. (This point is being argued out by some scholars writing about usage of vipassana meditation in cognitive science.) Talking about the first example, it's likely, or at least possible, that such trained subjects would be able to come up with descriptions that would provide some account of the change of the visual field caused by the gorilla-man - even though this account wouldn't need to amount to the subject's explicitly reporting the gorilla-show. The other example is different from the first one in that all it shows - if I understand it correctly - is that the subjects in question have a wrong theory of perception, not that there are limits to the perceptual experience itself which only science can provide to it "from the outside", so to say.[1] And again, the trained subjects may do one hundred percent better here. Let me be still more specific and suggest one possible way the trained subject could respond to the gorilla test, if taken in a phenomenological fashion. What would his description of the experience be? I think it would have to contain a note of the kind "I was concentrating just on the ball and I didn't really see what else there was on the screen". Now, if you add a note like that to an otherwise naive description, you will get a sort of alibi for the first-person phenomenological account against the third-person charge of not seeing the gorilla-man. The careful description would be the first-person account of the experience while the gorilla itself would belong to the third-person account.


Gallagher: That's true. I would say that a good phenomenological account of my experience when I am there trying to count the number of ball exchanges would not include the gorilla. Because I'm concentrating, I didn't see the gorilla there. So the phenomenological description would leave the gorilla out. Objectively, third-person, you would say the gorilla is there though - but that itself is an interesting fact! Not only for the cognitive scientist but for the phenomenologist as well. It tells the phenomenologist that his description of a visual field might leave something out that is objectively there. This "something" is not in my experience, and then the question is "why isn't it in my experience?"  Indeed, the phenomenologist might even claim that he has given a good account of what was in front of him; and certainly he would be interested to know that he missed the gorilla that was in front of him.


Sasma: It might be represented somehow in the experience, but not necessarily as the gorilla...


Gallagher: If it is, that's even better! It might be represented somehow, as an "absence" or however you want to put it, but if it is, does the phenomenology capture it as such? And the scientist will say it should capture it. Well, cognitive science in this sense is at least enlightening the phenomenologist about something that has to do with with the structure of attention - and this is surely something the phenomenologist should be interested in.


Sasma: So far we have been thinking of the relationship between cognitive science and phenomenology either very generally or on a rather terminological level (Should we speak about a "constraint" or "enlightment"?). Let's go more to the heart of the matter now: Is the cognitive scientist actually in a position to correct the phenomenologist's descriptions? Is he entitled to tell the phenomenologist "you've missed something, so try to look better next time" etc.?


Gallagher: If the cognitive scientist sends the phenomenologist back to the drawing board, so to speak, thinking "I'd better review the phenomenological description to see what's really there" or something like that, I think it's too late. The phenomenologist has already given his description. If you then tell the phenomenologist "You know, there was a gorilla there. Go back and see what you can find" - that's already changing the experience. The phenomenologist can't go back to the original experience - he is now going to be looking for a gorilla, and that just changes everything.  Rather, the lesson cognitive science teaches the phenomenologist is that phenomenology has certain limitations. You could describe in some sense your experience and yet, there might be something there you're missing - and I don't mean the gorilla, but something about the nature of experience.  And this might just be an implicit part of experience in some fashion. It might be a structure or indivisible part of your experience that you are leaving something out when focusing. That might be an important fact for phenomenology. It tells us, the cognitive scientist as well as the phenomenologist, something about the nature of attention, something about what attention does to our visual field.


Sasma: But if phenomenological description leaves in principle something out, what about the difference I have mentioned between truly phenomenological description made by a trained or so to speak "professional" phenomenologists on one hand and "phenomenological" description made by just any subject on the other? Can we still maintain that difference as a difference in principle - and what should it be based on?


Gallagher: OK, I am tempted to say almost immediately, that's an empirical question. We'd have to have an experiment: have a non-phenomenologist from the street do the gorilla experiment and have the phenomenologist sit next to him and do the gorilla experiment and provide a phenomenological description and then see what the difference between them is. It's difficult because on the one hand the instruction was not to give a phenomenological description of what you see - the instruction was to count the number of times the ball changes hands. And that's a different kind of task. How would the phenomenologist go about giving a phenomenological description of what happens when he actually addresses that task and starts counting the ball exchanges? Should he be paying attention to counting the exchanges? But he would also have to provide some kind of phenomenological description of what that experience was like. Things get very complicated by other questions. How precisely is phenomenology different from what the instructed subject might be doing? Could someone count the exchanges under a phenomenological reduction? I think a phenomenologist would say yes. And then still, it's a difficult task to give a phenomenological description of that. So I think we really have a nest of problems here that would be difficult to solve. And I'm not sure if I am going to be able to give you an answer now that would satisfy anybody on that question.


Sasma: Could you specify what kinds of sentences are representative for phenomenology as the method? We will probably agree that sentences like "There were 36 ball-exchanges" are not prototypical phenomenological descriptions.


Gallagher: That's right. The phenomenologist is not really interested in counting the ball exchanges. He is interested in the experience of counting the ball exchanges. So he is interested more in structural features of what's happening when he is engaged in that kind of operation.


Sasma: But to do that, to unveil all the structural features of his experience while fulfilling a task, the phenomenologist has to be using the scientific account; he has to be using the fact that there is something missing in his direct experience, right?


Gallagher: No, I don't think that the constraint the cognitive scientist brings to the phenomenologist is "Oh, your description is wrong." The description is not wrong - it's the description of the experience and maybe the phenomenologist would then be very concerned to identify structural aspects of that experience.  But I don't think that the scientist is then in any kind of position to say, "There, you are wrong about that description - that's not what you experienced".  I think that's a possible objection of the phenomenologist: "No matter what the cognitive scientist tells me, he's not going to be able to tell me that I'm wrong about my experience". And I think that's fine. Another way for the cognitive scientist to put it is to say that there is something missing: "Your phenomenological description is not wrong, it has just left something out that was there" - and that should be interesting enough for the phenomenologist. That should give phenomenologists some pause and motivate them to say, "Yeah, now what does that mean in terms of the experience that I had?"  What is it about my experience, or about the structure of my experience, that prevents me from seeing the gorilla.  Somehow the experience was rather focused, so it tells me something about attention. Nothing the cognitive scientist will say is going to change the phenomenological description, but in some sense the experiment will point out the limitations of that description - and the fact that there's something going on that you can't capture with a simple phenomenological description might be very important, especially in thinking about consciousness.  


Sasma: But even if the message of the cognitive scientist to the phenomenologist stays with a note that his description is missing something, then for the phenomenologist to get interested, the "missing" object must be relevant to his own business. In other words, both of the guys have to share a common object of reference. Otherwise the phenomenologist could always avoid the direct interface by arguing: "The cognitive scientist is pointing at objects that I have no ambition to catch in my description - the real objects of the world. I've bracketed these out in the epoche and represent them in my description as the purely formal correlate 'x' of my intentional acts". The phenomenologist will always be justified in responding "so what" to anything the cognitive scientist points out.


Gallagher: Well, most phenomenologists do say "so what." And the idea is "well, maybe we shouldn't say 'so what'." Maybe we should say 'let's figure this out' or 'let's think about this'.  I think that there is a common object of reference.  Both the phenomenologist and the enlightened cognitive scientist are interested in the experience.  I want to get the cognitive scientists to say that too - they are interested, they need to be interested in the experience.  Obviously, the experimenters are not interested in explaining the gorilla - the object in the real world - they are interested in explaining why, in our experience, we seem to miss the gorilla.


Slunecko: Back to the problem of common frame of reference. When the phenomenologist says "In my phenomenological description there's no gorilla," the cognitive scientist could hypnotize him and demonstrate to him that he's got the gorilla in his memory of the experience - he's attended to it unconsciously. So the phenomenologist's description is - should be - about the gorilla, the problem is he just doesn't know.


Gallagher: That would be a very interesting complication. If you could be hypnotized and suddenly in your experience you could recall seeing a gorilla - why didn't that register in the first place? Why didn't it show up in my phenomenological description? That's a good point. Beyond that, I have enough difficulty talking to phenomenologists about non-conscious perception - a concept that is very well developed in neuropsychology, but is thought to be a contradiction in phenomenology.


Sasma: So let us leave this rather detailed and fragmented discussion for a while and sum up the main points. What are the hardcore ideas of your project of cooperation between the two disciplines - what's your final verdict about their "mutual enlightment"?


Gallagher: So, phenomenology-cognitive science. Well, as we've said it's not that the cognitive sciences are supposed to improve the phenomenology but somehow rather, in my word, enlighten it - to make the phenomenologist think about some things differently. A lot of this, I think, depends on how you define phenomenology. To give you a definition, I will have to go back to when you were asking me: "Is it Husserl or Merleau-Ponty?" - and I said "It's Merleau-Ponty". As I've said, unlike Varela I'm thinking more in line with Merleau-Ponty, and maybe I even borrow some of the insights of the early Heidegger. This is not to say I'm leaving Husserl out, especially the later Husserl (I mean his genetic phenomenology - but even the early Husserl has a lot of resources to offer, as for example, Jean-Luc Petit has pointed out in regard to Husserl's early discussions of kinaesthesia - especially interesting in light of the recent work on mirror neurons). Merleau-Ponty himself read Husserl, of course. He went to the Husserl archives in Leuven to study his texts, and was inspired especially by Ideen II. But then Merleau-Ponty was also very interested in reading psychology and neurology - he was interested in looking at case studies (for instance the famous case of Schneider in Phenomenology of Perception), and he wanted to carry phenomenological insights into the interpretations of those case studies, trying to show how phenomenology has something to offer psychology and neuroscience. So today, Merleau-Ponty would be, I think, right in there saying "this is enlightening my phenomenological discourse, my understanding of what experience is." So if we define phenomenology as an attempt to understand what experience is, then we can certainly use both, the phenomenological method as outlined by early Husserl (as long as we understand his anti-naturalism in the right framework, and not as anti-science), as well as phenomenology as understood by Merleau-Ponty.  Remember Merleau-Ponty's comments on the phenomenological reduction in Phenomenology of Perception - that it's incomplete or really incompletable - and then you'll see that it opens the door of phenomenology a bit to the possibility that it can learn something, maybe even learn from the cognitive sciences about its own limitations.


Philosophy Department



Phenomenology and heterophenomenology


Sasma: When you spoke about the difficulties your idea of "mutual enlightment" encounters both among scientists as well as phenomenologists, you mentioned that a large number of cognitive scientists (and, I must add, some philosophers of mind coming from the analytical tradition) have a hard time granting phenomenology the important role we believe it in fact has in formalizing the explanandum, i.e., experience. This negative attitude, it strikes me, might be a result of a curious widespread ignorance of the technical, methodological meaning the term has in Husserl's founding texts. Instead, "phenomenology" is often simply used as a synonym of "subjectivity" - not as a formalized account of experience but as that experience itself.


Gallagher: Yes, scholars use the term “phenomenology" in different ways. Even psychologists use the word “phenomenology" quite frequently as another word for experience, not for a method. So, of course, we have to keep in mind that the usage of the word depends on the kind of tradition we are part of.

Sasma: A good example of an emptied, flattened usage of the word is, I think, Dennett's much disputed "heterophenomenology". I suppose that as phenomenologists in the strong sense of the word, we would agree that Dennett's project of heterophenomenology doesn't seriously harm our position and his arguments against what he calls "first-person science of consciousness" are somehow tricky. Perhaps we all vaguely feel that Dennett's behaviorist skepticism, so to say, is unable to grasp the full meaning of experience, it mistreats the phenomenological evidence. Is there a healthy grain in our intuition or can Dennett mock us for being mere folk-psychologists?

Gallagher: Well, first of all, what Dennett calls first-person data generated in experimental situations is already in a sense predetermined by the kind of tasks, questions, and the instructions the experimenter gives to the subjects. And quite frequently what happens is that the experimenter will ask very specific questions because they're interested in specific kinds of issues and data. That, in a sense, is already introducing theoretical considerations into the generation of that phenomenological data. The first-person data is already shaped, pre-figured and pre-determined by the kind of questions that are being asked by the experimenter. So, first of all, what we're starting with are just reports of experience and certainly not the methodological, phenomenological descriptions. So we're taking reports of experience that have been shaped already by the experimenter and then Dennett is taking and treating those simply as third-person data (as bits of narratives or whatever), and measuring up that first-person data with those other third-person data sets that are generated in the experiment. So, what that means basically is that you cannot say that Dennett is treating first-person data seriously and certainly what he is starting with is totally different from what phenomenologists start with.  


Sasma: Husserl's idea of phenomenology rests heavily upon a supposition that there are some a priori structures of our experience (be it the noematic apriori of eiditic invariants or noetic correlational apriori). Can one still think in terms of a priori structures of consciousness in the context of front-loaded (or neuro-) phenomenology? Wouldn't it often be the case that where the phenomenologist could see "a priori connections" between certain aspects of experience, the neurologist would find just accidental groupings of neurons? Could you name a couple of examples of such survivors of a priori structures in naturalized phenomenology? (the temporal frame? the Gestalts?...)

: It depends on how one defines a priori structures. There is a neo-Kantian idea that proposes a relative apriori -- not as absolute as Kant's apriori. Also, there is a tradition in theoretical biology (e.g., von Uexkull) that identifies certain biological capacities (shaped by evolution) as apriori for the organism. So to the extent that neuroscientists would talk about hard wiring and certain limits placed upon perception or cognition by that hard wiring, then one could identify a priori constraints / conditions. So relatively stable structures of conscious experience (although disruptable by brain damage, etc.) might count as apriori. More abstractly, one might say that a statement like "All experience is embodied experience" might represent a kind of transcendental fact. I would think that the latter is not something that would change at all, and is something of an absolute (although obviously not accepted by everyone). Some other things could change over time or by circumstance, but not that.

: This non-Kantian definition sounds sympathetic. Applied to our case, a priori structures of experience are those that are relatively stable (and not necessarily "independent from experience", as Kant would have it) within the life of an organism. What needs to be added, I think, in order for phenomenology to do useful work, is the condition that at least some of these structures must be graspable by primarily first-person accounts. It is this second condition that Dennett disputes. According to him, the only reliable account of experience is the one provided by behaviorist-like analysis of the interviewing scientist. What would you respond to this?

: I would ask Dennett how he would define rationality -- and therefore, how to define science. Certainly, Dennett doesn't want to give up science. So I would throw the issue back to him. How can he justify the idea of science without some way of accounting for first-person experience -- at least the first-person experience of the scientist that somehow allows the scientist to do science?







Fragments from the history of AI: from computationalism to the enactive approach.


Petru: The era of cognitive science was initiated by the outburst of cybernetics and information theory in 1940's and 1950's, and until very recently it was governed by the metaphor of the brain as a kind of computer. What is left of this idea of mind as a computation?


Gallagher: Well, I don't think there's a lot left. I think it's usually now considered to be a wrong starting point. We've started with the computational model and then tried to explain the brain with it. In 1990's we made great progress in understanding how little we know about the brain. So now that we are getting a little bit of knowledge about it, we also are starting to realize that it's a much better approach to start with the brain and to learn from it as much as we can, and then, with that knowledge at hand, to go back into the computational fields and try to build neural networks in connectionist models (and dynamic-systems models) that would do more justice to the question of our brain. So if the whole task of AI is to build something like intelligent machines then what we've learned, I think, is that it's better to go in that other direction, starting with mapping our brains and trying to build something like an artificial brain. The problem with computationalism is that the brain is not simply a computational machine, it's much different and we are still learning how it works.


Sasma: In their book Embodied Mind, Francisco Varela and his co-authors subdivided the history of cognitive science into three phases: computationalist era, connectionist era, and finally the present era of what the authors call "enactive," open-ended approach. What profits do you think could this last approach bring to the aim you've mentioned - creating an artificial brain? And further, how do you see the chances of the enactive approach in trying to influence or even to enter the mainstream philosophy of mind, AI and cognitive science?


Gallagher: That's a big question. The way I understand the enactive, open-ended idea, is that it's not enough just to think about what's going on in the brain. It wouldn't be enough to build an artificial neural system.  The brain is a part of the body, and the body, which is located in an environment, also contributes to experience. So we have to re-define what we call system. The old definition of system was "whatever is in the box", e.g., whatever is in this computer chip or whatever is in the brain - "here's the system that we're trying to explain". So we tried computationalism, and it failed; now we are trying to build the system from the ground level according to the principles that we know from the study of the brain, but still, we don't have the complete story. The complete story has to put the brain into the body and the body into the environment. And then we define the system as all of those elements added together. And we should add that this system is extended in time (it takes time for experience to develop), and that the environment is also social.  I don't think that we can explain experience, cognition, or even the brain, without taking intersubjectivity into consideration.  And so what we have to understand are the interactions that occur between the organism and the environment, between one organism and another, and within the organism between the brain and the rest of the body (Gallagher, 2004). So that's a much bigger job than the older conceptions of cognitive science. But I think that if you ignore these other larger parts of the system, you're never going to get the smaller parts of the system right. Because it is a system. So if we just try to design artificial brains without taking into account the embodiment or ecological aspects of our experience in the environment, then we're going to fail. That's what I think Varela is suggesting, and Merleau-Ponty too, and I think they were right.


Sasma: The enactive theory would certainly satisfy any philosopher, but how do scientists - according to your experience - react to it? Do they take it seriously?


Gallagher: I think that some scientists might say that it makes sense at a kind of ideological level. For some it is in the distant background.  Others, like Gibsonian ecological psychologists, and Varela (remember that he was a scientist first, and to the last), may want to move it forward.  But in terms of a particular scientific project, one has to figure out ways to test it. In this sense it can operate as a background theory, as an emerging paradigm, and it can work in a way similar to the way that a paradigm guides the interpretation of observations and experiments. Scientists think in this way: "Right now I am trying to understand how Broca's area contributes to language" - they ask even more specific questions in order to get their experiments off the ground. Furthermore, experimentation requires you to control elements of the system that you are not testing. So one has to ignore the bigger picture in the actual experimental practice.  Science is done as one small project at a time, and it is often difficult to see the bigger picture in the small projects.  One always has to take a step back to see the bigger picture.  I think that's where philosophy comes in.




Gallagher, S. (In press, 2004). How the Body Shapes the Mind.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gallagher, S. 2003. "Phenomenology and experimental design," Journal of Consciousness Studies 10 (9-10): 85-99.

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[1] Michal Sasma: To prove this, one would have to argue that certain kinds of phenomenological descriptions necessarily contain mistakes which cannot be corrected “from within" (from the 1-st-person phenomenological perspective). Nevertheless, to prove that CS could enlight phenomenology amounts to merely showing that in some specific cases, the CS is faster in identifying the mistakes which however can in principle be reecognized as such also “from within".