• Overview of Fetzer Symposium
  • Summary of Symposium Presentations


    Keynote Address by Evan Thompson


    As you know, the purpose of our meeting is to explore the possibilities for forging new approaches to consciousness based on the phenomenology of lived-experience and the cognitive science of the mind, brain, and organism. Although historically phenomenology and cognitive science have often been opposed to each other, this attitude has changed significantly in the past ten years or so: a growing number of people–many of whom are in this room (and still many others I couldn’t invite)–believe that cognitive science and phenomenology can complement each other, or better yet, that they must complement each other if there is to be a mature, cognitively satisfying–and, one might add, ethically satisfying–science of consciousness.

    Nonetheless, there remain many questions about how phenomenology and cognitive science can relate to each other. It seems to me that in the end these questions all circle around the central question of what kind of science the science of consciousness is or can be. Put another way: if we are to have a cognitively and ethically satisfying understanding of consciousness, what form must this understanding take?

    What I propose to do in this opening talk is to set out a provisional framework for these issues so as to stimulate our discussions over the next few days. Let me begin by going right to the heart of the matter and asserting two central points that, for me, form the crux of the issue. I’ll call these points the Core Dyad.


    1. Empathy is the precondition (the condition of possibility) for the science of consciousness.
    2. Empathy is an evolved, biological capacity of the human and other mammalian species (such as the apes).

    The first side of the Core Dyad comes from phenomenology. I’ll explain its precise meaning later in the talk, but the basic idea is that the mind as a scientific object is constituted through empathy. The second side of the Dyad comes from cognitive science and is comparatively straightforward. My aim in putting the two together, side-by-side, is to create a kind of hub or axis for all of the many different issues that can be raised about consciousness and intersubjectivity as seen from the viewpoints of phenomenology and cognitive science. But the fundamental question, for me, is how to conceptualize or understand the relationship between these two poles.

    I will come back to all of this later. Right now what I want to do is to prepare the way, first from the direction of cognitive science, and then from the direction of phenomenology.

    Enactive Cognitive Science and the Embodied Mind

    The development of cognitive science over the past two decades or so has seen a movement away from the classical, cognitivist view that an inner mind represents an outer world using symbols in a computational language of thought, to the view that mental processes are embodied in the sensorimotor activity of the organism and embedded in the environment. This viewpoint has come to be known as enactive or embodied cognitive science.

    Enactive cognitive science involves the following three theses:

    For example, the perception of space doesn’t arise from a unified model of space in the brain, but from many specialized sensorimotor neural assemblies that enable bodily movement (of the eyes, head, and so on). The perceptual space of the world isn’t a uniform external container, but rather a medium molded by our sensing, moving bodies.

    Emergence pertains to systems in which local elements and rules give rise to global patterns of activity. What enactive cognitive science stresses is that emergence via self-organization is a two-way street that involves reciprocal causality. That is, in addition to the ‘upwards’ causation of consciousness by neural-somatic activity, there is a reciprocal ‘downwards’ causation of neural activity by the animal or person as a conscious subject. For example, Francisco Varela’s group in Paris has shown in epileptic patients that purposeful cognitive activity on the part of the patient changes the neurodynamic patterns of epileptic activity. Similarly, J. Scott Kelso has shown that the conscious intention of an agent (say, to move a finger a certain way) is able (within limits) to stabilize one dynamic pattern of neural-somatic activity and destabilize another. Therefore, instead of thinking that there is a one-way determination of consciousness by the brain, we need to think of there being a two-way co-determination of consciousness and neural-somatic activity. (But notice that this co-determination is not mind-body dualism, because no appeal is made to a disembodied mind: everything going on is thoroughly incarnate.)

    The moral for the science of consciousness of these two theses–the embodiment thesis and the emergence thesis–is that brain-states in the head are not sufficient to determine the contents of consciousness. And the reason, again, is that the activity of the neurson themselves is influenced or modulated by the embodied awareness and agency of the whole animal or person.

    Now these two theses. although by no means uncontroversial within the larger context of cognitive science, have been reasonably well-explored compared with the third thesis, which is less well-charted, and is the focal point for our meeting:

    I think the easiest way to approach this point is through the importance of affect and emotion in cognition. Classical cognitive science was cognocentric, but new developments, especially in affective neuroscience, show that affect or emotion is actually the basis of mind. In a nutshell, whereas the classical cognitivist paradigm would have it that we are cognizers first and foremost, it turns out that we are above all emoters, and cognition is always secondary to emotion and its organizing influence.

    The prominence of affect reinforces the two enactive theses of embodiment and emergence. Doug Watt describes affect as ‘a prototype "whole brain event",’ but I think it would be better to say that affect is a prototype whole-organism event. The reason is that affect has numerous complex dimensions that bind together virtually every aspect of the organism–the psychosomatic network of the nervous system, immune system, and endocrine system; physiological changes in the autonomic nervous system, the limbic system, and the superior cortex; facial-motor changes and global differential motor readiness for approach or withdrawal; subjective experience along a pleasure-displeasure valence-axis; social signalling and coupling; and conscious evaluation and assessment. Thus the affective mind isn’t in the head, but in the whole body; and affective states are emergent in the co-determination sense: they arise from neural-somatic activity that itself is conditioned by the ongoing embodied awareness and action of the whole animal or person.

    Now, having just described affect as a prototype whole-organism event, I’d like to go one step further to say that affect is a prototype two-organism event, by which I mean a prototype self-other event. I think it’s worthwhile to touch briefly on some of the diverse evidence for this point, evidence that also gives some substance to the second pole of the Core Dyad (that empathy is an evolved biological capacity):

    To sum up so far, let’s see what we get when we put our three enactive theses together. The moral of the first two is that sub-personal brain-states aren’t sufficient to determine the personal contents of consciousness, because the embodied awareness and action of the whole person modulates neural activity. We can take this point one step further if we combine it with the third intersubjectivity thesis: sub-personal brain-states aren’t sufficient to determine the personal contents of consciousness, because these contents emerge enactively in the coupling of self and other, and this social coupling too modulates the neural activity of the individual brain.

    Now, from the point of view of a philosopher, the point I’ve just stated is a little fuzzy, so let me briefly make it a bit more precise:

    1. First, a negative point: When I deny that brain-states are sufficient to determine the contents of consciousness, what I mean is that there is no uniformity or correspondence of content between brain-states and conscious states. A brain state per se never has the kind of content that can match, or be one and the same as, the content of a conscious state. This means that the whole search for a neural correlate of consciousness–a neural correlate whose content matches the content of consciousness–is misguided. Sub-personal neural states have a kind of content that is wholly different from the kind of content that belongs to personal consciousness.
    2. Second, a positive point: the kind of content that does belong to personal consciousness–to embodied human consciousness–is intersubjective; it is enacted by the structural coupling of self and other. One of the aims of this meeting is to see whether we can say more precisely just what this means.

    The Turn to Phenomenology

    At this juncture, a natural place to turn for insight is phenomenology, by which I mean Husserlian phenomenology. Phenomenology is important for our purposes for several reasons:

    What I’d like to do now is turn explicitly to the topic of empathy as it figures in these analyses.

    Empathy and Self-Awareness

    Let me preface this part of my talk by saying that I do not propose to launch into a detailed discussion of the Husserlian phenomenology of empathy and intersubjectivity. There are others in the room far more capable of this than I–Eduard Marbach, Natalie Depraz, and Dan Zahavi–and they will each be leading discussion sessions later. All I propose to do is to sketch a few points, to take us back to the first point of the Core Dyad that empathy is the precondition of the science of consciousness.

    We often think of empathy as the cognitive capacity of being able to picture things from another person’s point of view, but one of the contributions of phenomenology has been to show that empathy is grounded on the lived-body, or to put it another way, that what psychologists call ‘cognitive empathy’ is grounded on more fundamental levels of bodily empathy.

    When we see another person, we don’t perceive his or her body as a physical thing that appears to have a mind; we see the Other as a person, that is, as another embodied subject like ourselves. This apprehension of the Other as a person is founded on our immediate grasp of the Other’s body as a lived-body like our own. The first point about empathy, then, is that it isn’t simply or even primarily the comprehension of another’s particular experiences or mental states (sadness, joy, and so on); on a more fundamental level, it’s the experience of the Other as an embodied being like oneself.

    Now, this sort of experience has many levels and aspects, which Husserl and others have analyzed in detail. For example, in the Report I circulated prior to this meeting, I followed Edith Stein’s presentation of the empathetic apprehension of another’s bodily presence as involving the apprehension of the Other

    What I’d like to do, however, is jump to the relation between empathy and self-awareness, in particular to the relation between empathy and one’s first-person awareness of oneself as an embodied subject. Here the guiding question is: how is it that one can appear to oneself as a mundane or worldly subject of experience?

    Part of the answer, of course, is that one can perceive and feel one’s own body. But this sort of first-person experience isn’t sufficient. One reason is that the lived-body, from the first-person perspective, always systematically hides parts of itself. The lived-body is that by means of which we feel, perceive, and move, and therefore it can’t be given to itself completely in perceptual experience. As Husserl puts it in Ideas II: ‘The same Body which serves me as means for all my perception obstructs me in the perception of it itself and is a remarkably imperfectly constituted thing.’ Another related reason is that a worldly object (such as the body) is something that is intersubjectively available, something that can be apprehended from another perspective besides my own. So to comprehend my body as a worldly object I need to adopt the perspective of the Other; I need to empathetically grasp how the Other perceives me.

    In the Report I circulated, I made this point by saying that if one were confined to one’s own first-person point of view, such that one had absolutely no empathetic openness to others, and hence to how one would be experienced by another, one would be incapable of grasping that one’s own body is a physical object equivalent to the other physical objects that one perceives. A physical object is something that can be present to perception, but the lived-body, from an exclusively first-person perspective, cannot be made present in this way. Therefore, as long as one’s experience were locked within an absolutely first-person perspective, one’s body would be like no other physical object; it would be a ‘remarkably imperfectly constituted thing.’

    One important way to elaborate this idea is in terms of a special kind of reciprocal or reiterated empathy. In reiterated empathy, I see myself from your perspective. At the level of bodily empathy, this means that I empathetically grasp your empathetic experience of my own body as another lived-body. By acquiring this perspective, I am able to experience myself not simply as a physical thing that is sentient ‘from within,’ but as a being that is recognizably sentient ‘from without,’ that is, from the perspective of the Other. In this way, my own self-awareness as a human person is inseparable from recognition by another, and from the ability to grasp that recognition empathetically.

    The Core Dyad

    (1) Empathy as the precondition of the science of consciousness

    We’ve now reached the point where we can return to the Core Dyad, beginning with the first phenomenological side. If the phenomenological analysis of empathy and self-awareness is right–and I need to stress that Husserl’s original analyses are philosophically and phenomenologically precise, careful, and multidimensional, whereas all I’ve done is give a crude schematic sketch of one or two general points–if the analysis is right, then it follows that the naturalistic perspective on consciousness that we pursue in cognitive science presupposes empathy as its condition of possibility, in particular the reciprocal empathy by which self and other are co-determined. By this I don’t mean simply that cognitive science is an intersubjective enterprise that depends on the shared, pre-theoretic lived-experience of scientists. I mean something more radical. I mean that the very object of enactive cognitive science–the embodied mind–is constituted as a scientific object through reciprocal or reiterated empathy in the human life-world.

    This is a point that Husserl himself makes about the human organism (and eventually the whole of the realm of nature). The basic idea is captured in a passage from Dan Zahavi’s new book Self-Awareness and Alterity, which I’d like to quote:

    it is… through the Other’s perception of my body (which is in many ways superior to my own, for instance, when we are dealing with a visual presentation of my neck or my own eyes), and through my appropriation of his view on my body, that a naturalistic self-apprehension is made possible. It is through the Other that I learn to carry out an objectifying, ideative, and abstractive apprehension of my own body, which conceives it as a part of nature, as a mere complex of physiological organs embedded within and determined by causal relations in the world.

    I think this point has profound implications for the field of consciousness studies. Let’s take the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, also known as the problem of the ‘explanatory gap’ between consciousness and nature. Many philosophers have argued that there seems to be a gap between the objective naturalistic facts about the world and the subjective facts of consciousness. The hard problem is the conceptual and metaphysical problem of how to bridge this gap. Now, there are many critical things that can be said about the hard problem, but what I want to point out is that it depends for its very formulation on the premise that the embodied mind as a natural entity exists ‘out there’ independently of how we configure it or constitute it as an object of knowledge through our reciprocal empathetic understanding of each other.

    In fact, since this is a constructive gathering of friends, let me digress for a moment and go out on a limb and say what else troubles me, as a philosopher, with the very notion of the hard problem. (What I’m about to say is not the sort of thing that I could comfortably say if I were wearing my ‘neurophilosopher’ hat at a cognitive science meeting!) One way of formulating the hard problem is to ask: if we had a complete, canonical, objective scientific description of the natural world, including the brain and the organism, would it logically entail the presence of consciousness? Unless such a description would logically entail the presence of consciousness, then consciousness must be an additional, non-natural property. This is how David Chalmers, for example, presents the hard problem. But now the problem I have with this whole way of thinking is that it assumes that the very notion of there being a single, canonical description of the natural world makes sense, which is highly doubtful, and it assumes that in arriving at such a description we are somehow stepping outside of consciousness so as to get a viewpoint that does not in any way presuppose consciousness. In other words, the hard problem depends for its very formulation on what philosophers call transcendental realism or metaphysical realism. And from a phenomenological point of view–but also from a pragmatist one–this is the paradigm of a nonsensical or incoherent metaphysical viewpoint.

    Coming back to the constitution of the embodied mind as a scientific object through empathy, there is another way of making this point, one which is phenomenological, but also resonates with William James’ thought, and this is to assert the primacy of the personalistic perspective. By this I mean that our relating to the world always takes place within a matrix whose fundamental structure is I-thou-it (and this is reflected in linguistic communication: I am speaking to you about it). The hard problem gives precedence to the impersonal and sees it as the foundation, but this is to put an excessive and extreme emphasis on the third-person in the primordial structure of I-thou-it. And what this extreme emphasis doesn’t take into account is that the mind as a scientific object has to be constituted as such from the personalistic perspective in the empathetic co-determination of self and other.

    The upshot of this line of thought with respect to the hard problem, then, is that the hard problem is philosophically wrong-headed, and therefore can’t be the foundational problem for consciousness studies. The problem can’t be ‘how to go from mind-independent nature to subjectivity and consciousness?’, because natural objects and properties aren’t intrinsically identifiable; they’re identifiable only in relation to intersubjective experience.

    (2) Empathy as an evolved, biological capacity of the human and other mammalian species.

    Let me now briefly turn to the other side of the Core Dyad, and then I’ll bring this talk to a close.

    It’s important to realize that even though the embodied mind may be constituted as a scientific object on the basis of the lived-body and empathy, it doesn’t follow that the embodied mind and the lived-body are two different entities, or belong to two different orders of reality. They are, rather, we might say, two aspects of one single spatiotemporal individual. Husserl himself wrote an intriguing statement to this effect toward the end of his life in 1934: ‘The lived body is at one with the physical body, membered thus and so… [it is] precisely organ and system of organs.’

    Now, it is precisely because the lived-body is ‘at one’ with the organism that phenomenology needs to go outside itself to embrace other ways of knowing, natural science in particular. On the one hand, phenomenology is needed to understand the lived-body as the primordial subject of lived-experience. As Merleau-Ponty says, it isn’t possible to understand embodied experience without ‘abandoning the body as an object… and going back to the body which I experience at this moment.’ On the other hand, without biology and cognitive science we can know nothing of the lived-body as an organism in the vast web of life that is always anterior to ‘the body which I experience at this moment’ and that claims this body as its own. Ontogeny and phylogeny are replete with whole arrays of what Shaun Gallagher calls ‘pre-noetic’ factors–factors that operate to structure experience but that aren’t accessible to direct experience, and therefore fall outside the abilities of phenomenology.


    I hope I’ve now said enough to explain why I think both sides of the Core Dyad are essential and inseparable. To conclude, I want to say a few things about where, for me, all of this leads.

    First of all, if the foundational issue for consciousness studies isn’t the hard problem, then what is it? The line of thought I’ve presented leads to the conclusion that it is the issue of how we put together, in a non-reductive and mutually illuminating way, the personalistic and the naturalistic perspectives. Put another way, the issue is how do we join phenomenology and cognitive science to each other in a mutually enlightening and productive relationship? One aim of this meeting is to tackle this issue directly.

    Second, my own view is that such a project can’t be adequately described by saying that cognitive science and phenomenology simply constrain each other. To constrain means to limit, to coerce, or to confine, as by bonds. But the point isn’t that cognitive science and phenomenology should limit each other, but rather that they should flow into and out of each other, and thereby give rise to the kind of self-understanding that is appropriate to the multifarious dimensions of our being-in-the-world. The model for this kind of relationship isn’t constraint. Perhaps it’s something like the hermeneutic circle, in which we come to a new understanding through acts of interpretation that emerge out of a prior background understanding.

    Third, to pursue such a project it seems to me that two concrete steps need to be taken. One is for phenomenology to give much more attention than it has so far to the development of methods for the careful and sustained examination of conscious experience, methods that are intersubjective and open to the empirically-based descriptions of biology and cognitive science. A common misconception is that phenomenological reflection is a form of solipsistic introspection, but this is a mistake because otherness or alterity, and empathetic openness are built into the very structure of consciousness. As Dan Zahavi puts it in his book: ‘the reflective relation of consciousness to itself might also be described in terms of a self-othering, i.e., even if consciousness could turn its attention so completely toward itself that everything else were excluded, it would not escape the confrontation with Otherness.’ One of my hopes for this meeting is that we can spend some time discussing these aspects of phenomenological reflection

    The other step is for cognitive science to gather its data and construct its theories in a manner that is commensurate with phenomenology and that looks to the phenomenology of the lived-body as its natural complement. Among other things, this means incorporating phenomenological methods and data into its research protocols.

    Finally, I began by saying that many of us believe that cognitive science and phenomenology must complement each other if there is to a cognitively and ethically satisfying science of consciousness. In the Report I circulated, I took a first and very preliminary stab at addressing this normative and ethical side of studying consciousness by drawing attention to empathy as the basic affective capacity that underlies what Margaret Donaldson calls the ‘value-sensing’ modes of mind, and I tried to build a bridge from these ideas to the emotion of compassion. Another hope I have for this meeting is that we can keep these ethical issues in mind. To this end, I would like to close with a quotation from Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s book Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind, because it raises the ethical issues explicitly, in relation to both empathetic experience and the scientific study of self and other:

    Can we learn to live with these higher animals [chimpanzees and bonobos] that are clearly no longer unfeeling, unthinking, stimulus-bound creatures of meat and bone? Can we meet them on their own terms? How shall we forge a new ethic that takes into account not only our fellow human beings and the fragile ecosystem of the planet, but the needs and wants of all manner of other sentient beings as well? Is it possible to structure a future in which not only Homo sapiens, but other conscious beings inherit the earth as well? We are still the creatures that plan ahead the farthest, at least in any conscious sense. What kind of world should we create with our great planning skills and our newfound knowledge of the minds of apes?



  • Overview of Symposium
  • Summary of Symposium Presentations