Human Consciousness:

Integrating Phenomenology and Cognitive Science

Report to the Fetzer Institute

on the Symposium held at Seasons, September 24-27, 1999

[Abridged Version for Internet]

Prepared by

Evan Thompson, Ph.D.

© Evan Thompson & the Fetzer Institute, 1999

  • Overview of Symposium
  • Summary of Symposium Presentations
  • Keynote Address (Evan Thompson)


    1. Objective

    The purpose of the symposium was to take the first steps toward developing a new kind of science of consciousness, one in which personal lived-experience plays a central role, both as a realm of data and as a means of first-person exploration of the mind. The aim of the meeting thus contrasts sharply with the current standard scientific approaches to consciousness, which endeavor simply to show how consciousness could arise from the brain, but do not undertake any systematic investigation of conscious experience for its own sake. In contrast, the tradition of Phenomenology, derived from the philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), is based on the idea that the study of the mind must be rooted in direct attention to the character of one’s own experience; accordingly, it proposes a particular method for cultivating such attentiveness–the method of phenomenological reflection. The main aim of the symposium was to see whether the method and findings of phenomenological reflection could be brought into a productive alliance with the cognitive science of consciousness. The focus of the meeting was the intersubjectivity of human consciousness (the relation between self and other), and the place of empathy in human experience, both key themes of Husserlian phenomenology and of recent cognitive science.

    Prior to the meeting, I provided to the participants the report I prepared for the Fetzer Institute, "Human Consciousness: From Intersubjectivity to Interbeing." This text served as the position paper for the symposium. Three key points form the core of this text:

    1. Individual human consciousness emerges from the dynamic interrelation of self and other, and is therefore inherently intersubjective. Cognitive science and the philosophical tradition of Phenomenology provide the main support for this point.
    2. A deep understanding of intersubjectivity requires an understanding of empathy as the basic mode of experience in which one relates to others and understands their experiences. Empathy is developmental and opens up pathways to self-transcendent or non-egocentric modes of "interbeing." Phenomenology and the contemplative and meditative psychologies of the world’s wisdom traditions provide the main support for this point.
    3. Real progress in the understanding of intersubjectivity requires a "science of interbeing" that integrates the methods of cognitive science, Phenomenology, and contemplative and meditative psychologies. The previous two points provide the main support for this conclusion.

    1. Overview of the Meeting

    The presentations and discussions during the symposium focused mainly on intersubjectivity and empathy as seen from the vantage points of cognitive science and Phenomenology (Points 1 & 2 above). There was less discussion of the contemplative and meditative perspective (Point 3), due in part to the last-minute cancellation of Dr. Margaret Donaldson, whose work provides the bridge in my report from cognitive science and Phenomenology to meditative psychology. Thus the transition from intersubjective consciousness to interbeing still needs to be explored more fully.

    I opened the meeting with a keynote address in which I set out a provisional framework for the issues to be discussed (the text of this lecture is attached as an appendix to this report). My guiding question was:

    If we are to have a cognitively and ethically satisfying understanding of consciousness, what form must this understanding take?

    I then proposed two key points, which I termed 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).

    These two points are related in the form of a circle: On the one hand, consciousness as an object of scientific study is an abstraction from the mutual empathetic understanding we human beings have of each other in our day-to-day lived-experience. On the other hand, this mutual empathetic understanding is part of our natural evolutionary heritage and can be studied as such by biology and cognitive science.

    On the basis of these two points, I proposed that the foundational issue for consciousness studies is the problem of how to put together in a nonreductive and mutually illuminating way the ‘naturalistic’ perspective of empirical science and the ‘personalistic’ perspective of human experience. Phenomenology–the disciplined examination of human lived-experience–was proposed as the bridge between these two perspectives.

    With this framework in place, a number of common themes emerged during the symposium from the presentations and subsequent discussions. These themes can be divided into two categories: (1) foundational issues; and (2) ethical implications and practical applications.

    1. Foundational Issues

    These foundational issues led naturally to a number of issues about ethical implications and practical applications, especially in medical or clinical contexts.

    1. Ethical Implications and Practical Applications

    1. Presentations of Special Relevance to Fetzer
    2. Among the invited presentations, two stand out as being of special relevance to the work of the Fetzer Institute–those of S. Kay Toombs and Jonathan Cole. Both talks are relevant to the Fetzer Institute’s programs in science on psychosocial and spiritual effects on health, on complementary and alternative medicine, as well as its program in education on relationship-centered care.

      Prof. Toombs spoke on empathy as the basis for understanding the lived-experience of illness. She discussed how Phenomenology is essential for bridging the gap between science and experience in the context of the doctor-patient relationship, and on how the physician’s capacity for empathetic understanding can be enhanced through specific embodied practices, such as mindfulness meditation, and through the training of empathetic listening to narratives of illness experience.

      Dr. Cole spoke about his research on clinical pathologies of facial expression and perception. He discussed how our very sense of self is constituted in the face, and experienced in the interaction between faces, and how pathologies disrupt this experience in various ways. He also showed that these pathologies cannot be adequately understood without phenomenological narratives of first-person experience.

    3. Outcomes

    1. In the final meeting, I identified and reviewed the core points and issues that emerged from the meeting. This document was circulated to the participants.
    2. The participants decided to form themselves into a working group on Intersubjectivity that would continue to collaborate on these issues.
    3. It was agreed that the next meeting needed to focus explicitly on ethical implications and practical applications in a specific area, such as medicine, child development, and/or our relations to the animal world.
    4. I also expressed the view that the perspective of contemplative and meditative psychology needed to be explored more fully, especially meditative practices that focus on the training of compassion (such as Heart Prayer in Christianity and the meditations on self and other in Buddhism).
    5. A core group of participants from the first meeting would be invited to the second meeting, while other new participants would be invited according to the specific focus of the meeting.
    6. The long-term aim of the group would be to work intensively together to develop paradigms or exemplars of a phenomenological science of consciousness, which could then be presented outside the group to the wider scientific community.
    7. A web-page on Phenomenology and Cognitive Science would be formed to provide resources to the wider community. This web-page would be provided by the Center for Consciousness Studies at Tuscon, and would be maintained by Shaun Gallagher and Evan Thompson.

  • Overview of Symposium
  • Summary of Symposium Presentations
  • Keynote Address (Evan Thompson)


    Summary of Symposium Presentations

    Following is a brief synopsis of the main points made by the invited speakers in their presentations (not including Evan Thompson: see Appendix 3 for the text of his keynote address).

    (1) We need to construct ‘generative passages’ between cognitive science and phenomenology. These are pathways that lead from cognitive science to phenomenology and from phenomenology to cognitive science. Cognitive scientific studies of the brain are scientifically incomplete without the inclusion of phenomenological data from first-person experience. Hence the science of consciousness needs to be a ‘multinaturalism’ that encompasses a plurality of first-person, second-person, and third-person methods of research. (2) These points were illustrated by the case of experiencing another on the basis of his or her bodily presence, and the neural substrates for such experience in so-called ‘mirror neurons’ (neurons that respond both to self-initated, goal-directed actions, such as grasping an object, and to the perception of the same actions as performed by another).

    (1) Phenomenology studies forms of possible experience–possible perceptions, memories, and so on–rather than actual individual experiences. In so doing it tries to uncover the invariant form or essence of experiences–what makes a perception a perceptual experience rather than a memory, for example. (2) In the case of empathy, we do not have direct access to other people’s experiences; we represent them to ourselves on the basis of their perceived bodily expression and on imagining how things look from their perspective. (3) There is an asymmetry of access to the data between phenomenology and cognitive science: phenomenology has access to first-person subjective data, whereas cognitive science has access only to public, objective data. The role of phenomenology in relation to science, therefore, is to interpret the findings of science from a first-person perspective.

    (1) The body-part we feel most embodied in is the face. (2) The face is not simply an expression of a self that others can see, because our very sense of self is constituted in the face, and experienced in the interaction between faces. (3) Certain sorts of mental states are directly percievable in facial expression. (4) Clinical studies of pathologies of facial experience reveal the centrality of the face to ordinary self-experience, and these pathologies cannot be adequately understood without phenomenological narratives of first-person experience.

    (1) A distinction needs to be drawn between ‘body image’ and ‘body schema.’ The former is one’s conscious image of one’s body; the latter is one’s largely unconscious set of perceptual and motor capacities. (2) Clinical studies with a patient who has lost all proprioceptive sensibility show that body image and body schema can be functionally dissociated. (3) Body image and body schema are central examples of the kind of phenomena that need to be understood through an integrated phenomenological and cognitive scientific perspective.

    (1) Phenomenology is essential for bridging the gap between science and experience in the context of the doctor-patient relationship. (2) Empathy provides a direct basis for grasping the experience of illness-as-lived. (3) The physician’s capacity for empathetic understanding can be enhanced through specific embodied practices, such as mindfulness meditation, and through the training of empathetic listening to narratives of illness experience.

    (1) Husserlian phenomenology enables us to distinguish several different sorts of intersubjectivity: (i) the perception of another; (ii) self-alterity, the experience of one’s self as Other, for example in memory or imagination; (iii) self-alteration, the dynamic unfolding of the ego in time as inhabited by the Other. (2) Husserlian phenomenology also enables us to distinguish several different sorts of empathetic coupling between self and other: (i) the passive association of my lived-body with the lived-body of the Other; (ii) the putting of oneself in the place of the Other in imagination; (iii) the interpretation or understanding of myself as an Other for you; (iv) ethical responsibility in the face of the Other. (3) The phenomenological perspective is one of ‘transcendental empiricism’–lived-experience of necessity is where we start from and return to, and therefore has primacy over scientific abstractions, but at the same time always depends on various material and formal preconditions to which we have no immediate access.

    (1) It is important to distinguish between a number of different possible senses of intersubjectivity: (i) as a contingent, social superstructure of individuals; (ii) as constitutive of the very nature of consciousness; (iii) as the inherent openness of embodied consciousness to the Other. (2) The main philosophical and phenomenological issue about intersubjectivity is whether the second or third sense is the right one. (3) Empathy occurs mainly in concrete bodily encounters with others and has for its precondition the inherent openness of embodied consciousness to the Other.

    (1) If one carefully considers the world as understood by physics, one will see that there is actually no gap between the third-person perspective of physics and the first-person perspective of consciousness, because the very notion of what is physical refers back to the first-person, or to a proto-first-person perspective.

    (1) Chimpanzees and bonobos are not only empathetic among themselves, but there can be rich dimensions of interspecies human-animal empathetic understanding. (2) Bonobos have to be seen not simply as another animal species similar to us in certain respects, but as ‘bonobo people.’

  • Overview of Symposium
  • Summary of Symposium Presentations
  • Keynote Address (Evan Thompson)