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, 2005.


Abstract. 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. This paper concentrates on the second level of sensorimotor coupling. 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. Arguments by O’Regan, Noë, and Myin that seek to account for the phenomenal character of perceptual consciousness in terms of ‘bodiliness’ and ‘grabbiness’ are considered. It is suggested that their account does not pay sufficient attention to two other key aspects of perceptual phenomenality: the autonomous nature of the experiencing self or agent, and the pre-reflective nature of bodily self-consciousness.


  • 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) – Varela first thought of the name “the enactive approach” in the summer of 1986 in Paris when he and Thompson began writing The Embodied Mind. At one point before introducing the term “enactive,” Varela had been using “the hermeneutic approach” to emphasize the affiliation of his ideas to the philosophical school of hermeneutics—an affiliation also emphasized by other theorists of embodied cognition at the time (see Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 1991, pp. 149-150). The first and second ideas summarized above were presented in Varela’s 1979 book, Principles of Biological Autonomy. They were developed with Humberto Maturana, and grew out of Maturana’s earlier work on the biology of cognition (Maturana 1969, 1970; Maturana and Varela 1980, 1987). The remaining ideas were presented by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch (1991), by Thompson, Palacios, and Varela (1992), and were elaborated by Varela and Thompson in a number of subsequent papers (e.g., Varela 1991, 1997; Thompson 2001; Thompson and Varela 2001; Varela and Thompson 2003).  P.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 an 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
  • Stated in a classical phenomenological way, the idea is that the object, in the precise sense of that which is given to and experienced by the subject, is conditioned by the mental activity of the subject. Stated in a more existential phenomenological way, the idea is that a cognitive being’s world—whatever that being is able to experience, know, and practically handle—is conditioned by that being’s form or structure. Such “constitution” on the part of our subjectivity or being-in-the-world is not subjectively apparent to us in everyday life, but requires systematic analysis—scientific and phenomenological—to disclose.  p.2
  • 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).  p.2
  • 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. If each individual human mind emerges from these extended modes of activity, if it is accordingly embodied and embedded in them as a “dynamic singularity”—a knot or tangle of recurrent and re-entrant processes centered on the organism (Hurley 1998)  p.2
  • the “body-body problem,” the problem of how to relate one’s subjectively lived body to the organism or living body that one is (Hanna and Thompson 2003; Thompson 2004). My approach will be to link the dynamic sensorimotor account of perceptual experience to both an enactive account of selfhood and a phenomenological account of bodily self-consciousness. 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 relation between one’s self and the world encompasses the relation between one’s self and one’s body. Descartes, in his Sixth Meditation, points out that one’s self is not located in one’s body as a pilot within a ship, but instead is “very closely joined” and “intermingled” with it, so that the two “form a unit.” Nevertheless, self and body remain two, not one. MerleauPonty, in contrast, rejects this dualism. One’s self is not merely embodied, but bodily: “But I am not in front of my body, I am in my body, or rather I am my body” (1962, p. 150, my emphasis).2 Yet Merleau-Ponty also refuses to understand the proposition “I am my body” in a materialist way, as meaning that I am (or my self is) nothing more than a complex physical object. Instead, he maintains the original position that I am a bodily subject, that is, a subjective object or a physical subject. In this way, he rejects the traditional concepts of mind and body, subject and object, as well as the ontologies they imply (dualism, materialism, and idealism) (see Priest 1998, pp. 56-57).  P.3
  • “The world is inseparable from the subject, but from a subject which is nothing but a project of the world, and the subject is inseparable from the world, but from a world which the subject itself projects” (Merleau-Ponty 1962, p. 430). To belong to the world in this way means that our primary way of relating to things is neither purely sensory and reflexive, nor cognitive or intellectual, but rather bodily and skillful. Merleau-Ponty calls this kind of bodily intentionality “motor intentionality” (1962, p. 110, 137). 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.4
  • 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
  • To be spatially related to something requires that one be embodied. To say that we perceive a given profile of something, all the while aware that it has other absent but possibly present profiles, means that any profile we perceive contains references to these other profiles; each profile implicates the others. These references correspond to our ability to exchange one profile for another through our own free movement, by tilting our heads, manipulating an object in our hands, walking around something, and so on. P.4
  • In this way among others, perceptual experience involves a non-intentional and implicit awareness of one’s lived body, an intransitive and pre-reflective bodily self-awareness. P.5
  • 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. P.5

“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). P.5

  • Pre-reflective bodily self-consciousness – 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
  • According to Husserl, this self-othering dynamic is a precondition for empathy, in the broad sense of being able to recognize others as subjects like oneself on the basis of their bodily presence (Zahavi 2003, p. 113). It is precisely the body’s double status of being a “subject-object,” a subjectively lived body (Leib/körperlicher Leib) and an objective living body (Körper/leiblicher Körper), as well as the dynamic interplay between ipseity (I-ness) and alterity (otherness) inherent in this ambiguity, that grounds one’s ability to recognize other bodies as bodily subjects like oneself (see Thompson 2001, 2005). 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.6
  • 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
  • Forcible presence and ongoingness are to be explained in terms of  “bodiliness” (or corporality) and “grabbiness” (or alerting capacity) two complementary features of the way sensorimotor systems operate, and that distinguish perceptual awareness from non-perceptual awareness or thought. Bodiliness is the dependence of sensory stimulation on one’s bodily movements. The greater the change is to sensory stimulation resulting from bodily movement, the higher the degree of bodiliness. P.9
  • There remain the two characteristics of ineffability and subjectivity. 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. Subjectivity is explained in the following way:
  • Someone is perceptually aware of something because she is interacting with it. It is her putting all the resources she has onto whatever she is conscious of that makes her conscious of it. So, once she is conscious of it, it is ‘for her’—it is her subjective project to which she is devoting all her capacities. So, consciousness is, by definition, ‘for the subject’ (Myin and O’Regan 2002, p. 39). p.9-10
  • This account is illuminating to the extent that it accounts for important characteristics of experience in dynamic sensorimotor terms. But I believe it is incomplete in two ways. First, it needs to be underwritten by an enactive account of selfhood or agency in terms of autonomous systems. Second, it needs to enrich its account of subjectivity to include pre-reflective bodily selfconsciousness.
  • 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. But what organization does a sensorimotor system need to have in order to be a genuine sensorimotor agent with a correlative sensorimotor environment or Umwelt in von Uexküll’s (1957) sense?
  • 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). An autonomous system can also be defined as a system that has organizational and operational closure: the result of any process within the system is another process within the system (Varela 1979, pp. 55-60; Varela and Bourgine 1991).7 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
  • 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
  • Central to the enactive approach to experience is the idea that cognitive science and phenomenology can be linked in a reciprocal and mutually illuminating way. The enactive approach uses phenomenology to explicate cognitive science and cognitive science to explicate phenomenology. Concepts such as lived body and organism, bodily selfhood and autonomous agency, the intentional arc and dynamic sensorimotor dependencies, can thus become mutually illuminating rather than merely correlational concepts. p.15

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