THOMPSON, 2005 – Sensorimotor subjectivity and the enactive approach to experience


THOMPSON, Evan. Sensorimotor subjectivity and the enactive approach to experience. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, v.4, n.4, p.407–427, December 2005.


  • The enactive approach offers a distinctive view of how mental life relates to bodily activity at three levels: bodily self-regulation, sensorimotor coupling, and intersubjective interaction.
  • An account is given of how the subjectively lived body and the living body of the organism are related (the body-body problem) via dynamic sensorimotor activity, and it is shown how this account helps to bridge the explanatory gap between consciousness and the brain.
  • The name “the enactive approach” and the associated concept of enaction were introduced into cognitive science by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch (1991) in order to describe and unify under one heading several related ideas.1 The first idea is that living beings are autonomous agents that actively generate and maintain their identities, and thereby enact or bring forth their own cognitive domains. The second idea is that the nervous system is na autonomous system: it actively generates and maintains its own coherent and meaningful patterns of activity, according to its operation as na organizationally closed or circular and re-entrant sensorimotor network of interacting neurons. The nervous system does not process information in the computationalist sense, but creates meaning. The third idea is that cognition is a form of embodied action. Cognitive structures and processes emerge from recurrent sensorimotor patterns of perception and action. Sensorimotor coupling between organism and environment modulates, but does not determine, the formation of endogenous, dynamic patterns of neural activity, which in turn inform sensorimotor coupling. The fourth idea is that a cognitive being’s world is not a pre-specified, external realm, represented internally by its brain, but a relational domain enacted or brought forth by that being’s autonomous agency and mode of coupling with the environment. p.1
  • According to the enactive approach, the human mind is embodied in our entire organism and embedded in the world, and hence is not reducible to structures inside the head. Our mental lives involve three permanent and intertwined modes of bodily activity—self-regulation, sensorimotor coupling, and intersubjective interaction (Thompson and Varela 2001). Self-regulation is essential to being alive and sentient. It is evident in emotion and feeling, and in conditions such as being awake or asleep, alert or fatigued, hungry or satiated. Sensorimotor coupling with the world is expressed in perception, emotion, and action. Intersubjective interaction is the cognition and affectively charged experience of self and other. The human brain is crucial for these three modes of activity, but it is also reciprocally shaped and structured by them at multiple levels throughout the lifespan. p.2
  • The body-body problem is a non-Cartesian way of recasting the explanatory gap between the conscious mind and the physical body. In the body-body problem, the gap is no longer between two radically different ontologies (“mental” and “physical”), but between two types within one typology of embodiment (subjectively lived body and living body). The gap is also no longer absolute, because in order to formulate it we need to make common reference to life or living being. P.3
  • The body-body problem concerns the relation between one’s body as one subjectively lives it and one’s body as an organism in the world. This problem is in turn part of the general problem of the relation between oneself and the world, for one’s living body is part of the world and one’s body as one subjectively lives it is part of one’s sense of self. We can thus ask two questions: how does one’s lived body relate to the world and how does it relate to itself? Addressing these questions is one way to approach the body’s sensorimotor subjectivity.  p.3
  • The relation between one’s self and the world encompasses the relation between one’s self and one’s body. p.3
  • Things in the world bring forth suitable intentional actions and motor projects from the subject (the subject is a project of the world), but things in the world have specific motor senses or affordances only in relation to the motor skills of the subject (the world is projected by the subject). This body-environment circuit of motor intentionality is constitutive of what Merleau-Ponty calls the “intentional arc” subtending the life of consciousness, which integrates sensibility and motility, perception and action (1962, p. 136). The intentional arc and being-in-the-world overall are neither purely first-person (subjective) nor purely third-person (objective), neither mental nor physical. They are existential structures prior to and more fundamental than these abstractions. p.3
  • But if one’s body is the vehicle of being in the world, and is in this way a condition of possibility for experience, how or in what way can it too be experienced? This question asks about how one experiences oneself as a bodily subject, or how a lived body experiences itself as a lived body. p.4
  • A familiar theme of phenomenology, going back to Husserl, is that the lived body is a presupposition of the world’s perceptual presence. Things are perceptually situated by virtue of the orientation they have to our moving and perceiving bodies. p.4
  • One can, of course, also experience one’s body as an object, for example by looking directly at it or at one’s reflection in a mirror. In such cases, one is dealing with what has been called the conscious “body image” by contrast with the unconscious “body schema” (Gallagher 1986b, 1995). The body image is the body as an intentional object of consciousness. It is consciousness of the body-as-object (Legrand 2005). In the body image, the body is experienced as owned by the experiencing subject, and the image is typically a partial representation insofar as conscious awareness usually attends to only one part or area of the body at a time. The body schema, on the other hand, is neither an intentional object of consciousness nor a partial representation of the body, but rather an integrated set of dynamic sensorimotor principles that organize perception and action in a subpersonal and nonconscious manner. This distinction between body schema and body image, however, leaves out a fundamental form of bodily experience, namely, prereflective bodily self-consciousness (Zahavi 1999, pp. 98, 240; Legrand 2005). On the one hand, the body schema is not phenomenologically available to the subject: “The body schema… is not the perception of ‘my’ body; it is not the image, the representation, or even the marginal consciousness of the body. Rather, it is precisely the style that organizes the body as it functions in communion with its environment” (Gallagher 1986a, p. 549). On the other hand, one’s consciousness of one’s body is not limited to the body image, nor is the body image the most fundamental form of bodily consciousness. On the contrary, most of the time one’s body is not present as an intentional object, but is experienced non-intentionally and pre-reflectively. This kind of experience is consciousness of the body-as-subject (Legrand 2005). It corresponds to the relation of the lived body to itself, that is, to one’s experience of one’s body as perceiving and acting, rather than as perceived.4 Sartre calls this sort of self-consciousness “non-positional” or “non-thetic,” because it does not posit one’s body as an object; Merleau-Ponty calls it prereflective. Authors in the analytic philosophical tradition have described it as a nonobservational form of self-awareness (Shoemaker 1968, 1984). p.5
  • Pre-reflective bodily self-consciousness is evident in touch, for we not only feel the things we touch, we feel ourselves touching them and touched by them. When I pick up a cup of hot tea, I feel the hot, smooth surface of the porcelain and the heat penetrating my fingers, and these sensations linger for a time after I have put the cup back down on the table. Such bodily experience offers not only the experience of physical events that relate one’s body to things, but also the experience of sensorial events that relate one’s subjectively lived body to itself. p.5
  • These brief phenomenological reflections are enough to show that consciousness involves the body in a unique double way. One experiences one’s body as both subject and object. One’s body is the intentional object of one’s consciousness when one attends to one or another aspect or part of it. The content of this kind of bodily awareness corresponds to the body image or one’s body-as-object. But bodily consciousness cannot be reduced to this sort of experience, because one also pre-reflectively and nonintentionally experiences one’s body-as-subject. The challenge for any scientific account of consciousness is to preserve this unique double character of bodily self-consciousness. p.6
  • Legrand has worked to give an account of bodily self-consciousness that meets these criteria (Legrand 2005). She argues that bodily consciousness in the case of action consciousness is reducible neither to awareness of one’s intentions to act nor to proprioception understood as an internal mode of identification of the body, and therefore cannot be based on either efferent or afferent mechanisms alone. Bodily consciousness consists in experiencing one’s body as a locus of the convergence of perception and action, and therefore depends on a matching of sensory and motor information, so that perception and action are coherent (see also Hurley 1998, pp. 140-143). There must be a specific match between (i) the intention to act, (ii) the motor consequences of this intention, including the guidance of bodily movements during the executed action, and (iii) the sensory consequences of this action, including both proprioception and exteroception. p.7
  • This strategy of working on both sides of the gap is precisely the one pursued by the dynamic sensorimotor approach. Rather than looking to the intrinsic properties of neural activity in order to explain experience, this approach looks to the dynamic sensorimotor relations among neural activity, the body, and the world. The concept that has dual currency for this approach is the concept of dynamic sensorimotor activity. On the mental side, perceptual experiences are explicated as ways of acting, constituted in part by the perceiver’s implicit and practical knowledge or skillful mastery of the relation between sensory experience and movement (O’Regan and Noë 2001a; Noë 2004). The senses have different characteristic patterns of sensorimotor dependence, and perceivers have an implicit, skillful mastery of these differences. On the brain side, neural states are described not at the level of their intrinsic neurophysiological properties or as neural correlates of mental states, but rather in terms of how they participate in dynamic sensorimotor patterns involving the whole active organism (Hurley and Noë 2003). p.7
  • What it is to experience the world perceptually is to exercise one’s bodily mastery or know-how of certain patterns of sensorimotor dependence between one’s sensing and moving body and the environment. p.8
  • Ongoingness means that an experience is experienced as occurring to me, or happening to me here, now, as though I was inhabited by some ongoing process like the humming of a motor. Forcible presence is the fact that, contrary to other mental states like my knowledge of history, for example, a sensory experience imposes itself upon me from the outside, and is present to me without my making any mental effort, and indeed is mostly out of my voluntary control. Ineffability indicates that there is always more to the experience than what we can describe in words. Finally, subjectivity indicates that the experience is, in an unalienable way, my experience. It is yours or mine, his or hers, and cannot be had without someone having it. But subjectivity also indicates that the experience is something for me, something that offers me an opportunity to act or think with respect to whatever is experienced (Myin and O’Regan 2002, p. 30). p.8-9
  • According to the sensorimotor approach, perceptual experiences are active manifestations of a kind of skillful knowledge and are defined in terms of potential for action. In general it is difficult to describe the knowledge underlying a skill. Thus ineffability is explained by our being unable to describe verbally our implicit, practical knowledge of the sensorimotor patterns constitutive of perceptual experience. p.9
  • The dynamic sensorimotor approach needs a notion of selfhood or agency, because to explain perceptual experience it appeals to sensorimotor knowledge. Knowledge implies a knower or agent or self that embodies this knowledge. p.10
  • According to the enactive approach, agency and selfhood require that the system be autonomous. An autonomous system is a self-defining or selfdetermining  system, by contrast with a system defined and controlled from the outside or a heteronomous system. An autonomous system is one whose component processes meet two conditions: (i) they recursively depend on each other for their generation and their realization as a system, and (ii) they constitute the system as a unity in whatever domain they exist (Varela 1979, p. 55). p.10
  • The paradigm is a living cell. Its components are molecular and exist in the chemical domain, but the system as a whole is a biological individual or agent. Its individuality and agency are based on its having a self-producing or autopoietic organization: it is organized as a selfproducing and self-maintaining network that constructs its own membrane boundary and actively regulates its background or boundary conditions so as to remain viable in its environment (Maturana and Varela 1980; Bitbol and Luisi 2004; Bourgine and Stewart 2004; Di Paolo, this volume). It is thanks to this autopoietic organization that the system qualifies as a genuine autonomous agent. p.10
  • The nervous system establishes and maintains a sensorimotor cycle, whereby what the animal senses depends directly on how its moves, and how it moves depends directly on what it senses. This operationally closed organization of the nervous system underwrites the animal’s autonomy, such that it meets the environment on its own sensorimotor terms. p.10
  • This self-producing organization defines the system’s identity and determines a perspective or point of view in relation to the environment. Systems organized in this way enact or bring forth what counts as information for them; they are not transducers or functions for converting input instructions into output products. For these reasons, it is legitimate to invoke the concepts of selfhood and agency to describe them. p.11
  • Adding an enactive account of selfhood to the dynamic sensorimotor approach goes only part way toward addressing the body-body problem. In addition we need to include subjectivity in the sense of a phenomenal feeling of bodily selfhood linked to a correlative feeling of otherness. p.11
  • “Ongoingness means that an experience is experienced as occurring to me, or happening to me here, now, as though I was inhabited by some ongoing process like the humming of a motor. Forcible presence is the fact that… a sensory experience imposes itself upon me from outside, and is present to me without any mental effort, and indeed is mostly under my voluntary control” (Myin and O’Regan 2002, p. 30, my emphasis). Each italicized phrase describes an aspect of the subjectivity or first-personal character of experience. p.12
  • Pre-reflective bodily self-consciousness is close to Hurley’s notion of “perspectival selfconsciousness” (Hurley 1998, pp. 140-143). Perspectival selfconsciousness is awareness of one’s own intentional motor agency in perception. This sort of awareness is constitutive of having a unified perspective on the world, such that one is able to keep track of the interdependence of one’s perception and action. According to Hurley, perspectival self-consciousness does not involve conceptually structured thought or inference (but see Noë 2002 and 2004). Perspectival self-consciousness is not equivalent to everything phenomenologists mean by the notion of prereflective self-consciousness, but to that part of bodily self-consciousness that involves action consciousness. p.15
  • Pre-reflective bodily self-consciousness is consciousness of one’s body-assubject and therefore is not equivalent to proprioception, if proprioception is understood as a mode of perceptual awareness of one’s body-as-object. Whether proprioception should be understood this way is a matter of debate among philosophers. Bermúdez (1998) argues that proprioception is a form of perception; Gallagher (2003) argues that it is a form of non-perceptual bodily awareness; Legrand (2005) argues that it is a form of perception but is not sufficient for pre-reflective bodily self-consciousness. p.15

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