Existential Phenomenology and Cognitive Science

Mark Wrathall and Sean Kelly

University of California - Berkeley

[1] In What Computers Can't Do (1972), Hubert Dreyfus identified several basic assumptions about the nature of human knowledge which grounded contemporary research in cognitive science. Contemporary artificial intelligence, he argued, relied on an unjustified belief that the mind functions like a digital computer using symbolic manipulations ("the psychological assumption") (Dreyfus 1992: 163ff), or at least that computer programs could be understood as formalizing human thought ("the epistemological assumption") (Dreyfus 1992: 189). In addition, the project depended upon an assumption about the data about the human world which we employ in thought - namely, that it consists of discrete, determinate, and explicit pieces which can be processed heuristically ("the ontological assumption") (Dreyfus 1992: 206).

[2] Dreyfus argued, however, that these foundational assumptions formed a seriously flawed picture of human being, meaning that research conducted on the basis of the "information-processing model of the mind" was incapable of shedding any light on the workings of human cogition (see Dreyfus 1991: 177ff).

[3] Dreyfus' argument relied on insights gained from the phenomenology of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. By paying attention to the phenomenon of cognition, one learns that thought doesn't seem to be, at least for the most part, a process of rule following manipulation of discrete mental representations of the world. In addition, phenomenology gives us reason to suspect that what goes on in the mind cannot even be formalized in such terms.

[4] The most familiar consequence of Dreyfus' arguments, at least to practitioners of the cognitive sciences, has been its (mostly negative) implications for "good old fashioned" AI (see Haugeland 1985; Winograd and Flores 1986). But the relevance of phenomenologists like Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty to cognitive science is found not simply in their critique of traditional pictures of human being, knowledge, and thought. As important is their positive contribution to understanding the phenomena with which cognitive science is concerned.

[5] This issue of The Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy is devoted to articles exploring the relationship between phenomenology and cognitive science. All too often, phenomenology and cognitive science and, more generally, continental philosophy and analytic philosophy, are regarded as incommensurable. This is an easy (if somewhat superficial) conclusion to draw, given the obvious disparities in the vocabularies, styles, and even conferences attended by philosophers identifying themselves with one or the other tradition (see van Gelder [4]).

[6] Rather than arguing against this sort of incommensurability in the abstract, the articles in this issue demonstrate that it is not as radical as often thought by exploring how the continental tradition in philosophy and cognitive science can "inform" each other.

[7] For instance, even though questioning the relevance of phenomenology to investigating mental states (see Okrent [44]), Okrent argues that Heidegger's work on the nature of the intentional provides important insight into the conditions of thought. Okrent begins by noting an ambiguity in the project of artificial intelligence (see [8]). Whether the mind is a program can mean two different things. First, it might be an "ontological" question about the being of things which have thoughts - that is, a question of what it is for something to have a mind (see [8]). On the other hand, it might be an "ontic" question about the kinds of things which can have thoughts (see [10]). Okrent argues that Heidegger's discussion of intentionality provides an answer to the first question, but leaves the second question unresolved. Thus, Okrent claims, Heidegger isn't directly relevant to determining whether computers can think. But his investigations into intentionality show us what it would take for something to count as thinking. In particular, attention to the conditions of the possibility of intentionality demonstrate that the mind can't be a program (see [63]). But as importantly, focusing on the issue of intentionality establishes what it would take to resolve the ontic question whether a machine can have a mind.

[8] van Gelder illustrates the relevance of phenomenology to cognitive science by comparing the phenomenological discussion of time consciousness (see van Gelder [6]) to the different models developed within cognitive science for accounting for auditory pattern recognition (see [17]). Phenomenology, van Gelder argues, provides a constraint on theory construction in the cognitive sciences - if the model cannot account for our experience of the phenomena at issue, it at least should be able to explain why our experience is deceptive (see [27]). At the same time, cognitive science can often explain or correct the phenomenological account of the experience (see [35]).

[9] Dreyfus' article demonstrates a similar approach to relating cognitive science and phenomenology. In this case, Dreyfus uses a phenomenology of skills (see Dreyfus [6]) to support a neural-network model, which need not make any appeal to representations and rules in simulating human cognition (see [48ff]). In order for the net to approximate human thought, however, the net needs to "perceive" the same relevant similarities in the situations it encounters that humans do (see [53]). And the ability of humans to co-respond to relevant similarities, Dreyfus argues, is dependent on our embodiment, which determines what shows up in our world through innate body structure, as well as the basic general skills and cultural skills which are inscribed in the body (see [54]). Thus, a phenomenology of embodiment describes the direction which neural-net research must take in order to better approximate human being.

[10] All this is not to deny that there are very real and important differences between phenomenological and analytic approaches to these problems. But these differences, far from rendering existential phenomenology irrelevant to the concerns of cognitive science, may prove to be an advantage in moving the discipline out of some of the "conceptual straightjackets" hindering progress in research in the cognitive sciences.

[11] Sanders' article argues directly that cognitive science is in need of precisely such a reconceptualization (see Sanders [3]). As long as current research in cognitive science is conducted on the basis of an understanding of human being in terms of "centralized, internal minds" receiving and storing representations while controlling a "bodily machine," it will fail to describe fully what it is to be human (in addition to having a difficult time accounting for much of its own data). To the extent that cognitive science tries to understand the brain in isolation from the organism as a whole, Sanders argues, it is relying on an indefensible representationalist picture of the brain (see [30]). To get over this picture, Sanders claims, we need to shift from an internal, representationalist paradigm of the mind to an externalist, ecological paradigm. Sanders thus argues for an "ecological" approach to cognitive science as a supplement to traditional, "analytic" approaches (see [5]).

[12] Although the four articles contained herein are very different in aim and focus, they share a common foundation in the works of phenomenologists such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Husserl. For those readers unfamiliar with the phenomenological tradition, we will briefly discuss Heidegger's and Merleau-Ponty's treatment of an idea central to several of these articles, and presupposed in all of them - namely, that of non-representational intentionality.

[13] Both Heidegger (1889 - 1976) and Merleau-Ponty (1908 - 1961) did the bulk of their work before the AI project got off the ground, indeed before there were machines recognizable as modern day computers at all. Nevertheless, both philosophers were working against well established, representationalist views about the nature of language and perception - views which are assimilable to representational assumptions underlying much of the contemporary work in AI and cognitive science.

[14] The representationalist theory of meaning is closely aligned with the correspondence theory of truth. Together these theories present an account of the truth and meaning of sentences in a language that goes something like this: the meaning of a sentence is determined by the features of the world that it represents, or takes itself to be representing; a sentence is true just in case the way the world is represented by the sentence corresponds, part for part, with the way the world actually is. Thus, the meaning of the sentence "Snow is white," on this account, is understood in terms of the stuff in the world represented by the word "snow," the property in the world represented by the word "white," and the relation between them represented by the word "is." And the sentence "Snow is white" is true just in case the relation between snow and white in the world is the same as the relation between "snow" and "white" in the sentence.

[15] Heidegger denies both the representationalist theory of meaning and the correspondence theory of truth. In the first place, phenomenological reflection shows that assertions, rather than representing the way the world is, actually point it out directly. The difference between pointing-out and representing is that on the representationalist view a needless third term between language and the world is introduced, namely the representation. This third term is a philosophically motivated mediator that is not supported by the phenomenological data. To say that an assertion points-out the way the world is, on the other hand, to say that it shows us the world in an unmediated manner, it lets the things in the world be seen "from themselves." Heidegger is explicit about this: "the pointing-out has in view the entity itself and not, let us say, a mere `representation' of it - neither something `merely represented' nor the psychical condition in which the person who makes the assertion `represents' it" (Heidegger 1962: 196/154). Language tells us about the world, not about our representation of it: "what is discovered for sight is not a `meaning,' but an entity in the way that it is ready-to-hand" (1962: 196/154).

[16] Heidegger also denies the correspondence theory of truth, this time for a conceptual rather than a phenomenological reason.(1) The basic idea is that sentences and things are not of the same type, so without an account of what exactly the correspondence relation is, to say that the one corresponds to the other is a meaningless task. Heidegger lays out the problem this way: "In the adaequatio something gets related; [namely the intellectus and the res] ... With regard to what do intellectus and res agree?" (1962: 258/216). Implicitly the answer is that "it is impossible for intellectus and res to be equal because they are not of the same species" (1962: 259/216). But assuming that we do use language to say true things about the world, and in doing this language gives the world "just as it is," we are still left with the question of how this is possible. This is the question that Heidegger pursues in Being and Time.

[17] Thus the account of meaning and truth that Heidegger gives in Being and Time is not so much an account of linguistic meaning or propositional truth as it is an account of the conditions of their possibility. Heidegger does not deny either that assertions have meaning(2) or that sentences, at least in some very general and empty way, correspond to the world(3). But he does deny that one can make sense of the human notions of meaning and truth by studying only their linguistic manifestations. The meaning of an assertion, like its truth, is only the most derivative form of a human phenomenon that is grounded in an array of more basic non-linguistic intentional structures. We understand the linguistic manifestations of meaning and truth only when we understand the way they are made possible by these more basic forms of intentionality.

[18] For instance, one of the most basic intentional relations to the world that we have is the relation of skilfully coping with things in it. When I use a chair by sitting in it or use a pen by writing with it I am related to those things in an intentional, even if non-linguistic, way: my actions are directed at the chair and the pen in such a way that conditions of satisfaction for effective chair or pen use are set up, even though these conditions of satisfaction are not adequately described in mental or linguistic terms. Skillful coping is only one of several different kinds of pre-linguistic intentional behaviour, the most fundamental of which Heidegger calls familiarity or being-in-the-world. By showing how the possibility of linguistic meaning and truth is derived from this single, unitary, intentional phenomenon called being-in-the-world, Heidegger shows both how it is possible for assertions to point-out things in the world directly, without the need of a representational intermediary, and also how it is possible for assertions to correspond to things in the world without fear of category error. The inadequacy of the representational analysis of linguistic intentionality can then be understood to follow from the fact that this representational analysis "lacks an ontological understanding of its foundation, and therefore, of the range of its appropriate application" (Dreyfus 1991: 213).

[19] Merleau-Ponty, in Phenomenology of Perception, attempts to give an accurate phenomenological description of the way perception works that is in many ways parallel to the phenomenological description of language that Heidegger gives in Being and Time. Again, the phenomenological account is developed in opposition to a representational account of the intentionality of perception, one that Merleau-Ponty calls intellectualist. This representational account sees perceptual experience as the result of the manipulation, in accordance with constant laws, of determinate data that stand for features of the environment and the perceiver's relation to it. Merleau-Ponty denies both that such features of the environment, like the appearance, the distance and the orientation of an object, are already determinate in the perceptual experience, and also that the analysis of perceptual experience in terms of laws for manipulating these variables is an accurate account of the way perception works. An example is apropos.

[20] Consider the case of perceptual constants. An object in the world appears to us as a certain size and shape regardless of variations in the perspective from which we view it. So for example, a pencil held six inches from my eyes does not appear to be any bigger than the same pencil held three feet from my eyes, even though the retinal image of the pencil held close by is much larger than the retinal image of the pencil farther away. This is the experimental data in need of explanation.

[21] A ready account for the representational theorist is something like the following: there are certain determinate variables that represent various features of the environment and the perceiver's relation to it which, when taken together, adequately describe the relevant differences in the perception of an object from a variety of perspectives. Among these variables is included the perspectival appearance of the object (akin to the image it casts on the retina), the apparent distance of the object from the perceiver (as a determinate value), and the apparent orientation of the object away from its "natural" state (as a determinate value as well). According to the representational view, these variables are all available, as determinate values, directly in the perceptual experience of the object. I never see a pencil proper, but I always see a retinal image that is a certain number of inches away and rotated a certain number of degrees from its "natural" position. Constancy of size, then, is maintained by means of a law relating the retinal image of the object to its apparent distance from the perceiver, and constancy of shape is maintained by means of a law relating the retinal image of the object to its apparent orientation.

[22] The representational account, then, depends upon the representation, in perception, of certain determinate variables that account for features of the environment and the perceiver's relation to it, and upon certain laws for coordinating those variables. Shape and size constancy, on this account, are not features of the real object, but features of the "constancy in the relations between the phenomenon and the conditions accompanying its perception" (Merleau- Ponty 1962: 300).

[23] The problem with this account, according to Merleau-Ponty, is that it gives us a perceptual consciousness "which embraces and constitutes the world" (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 303). It embraces the world by taking in determinate features of it, and it constitutes the world by building the perceptual experience out of these features in accordance with laws of constancy. Neither of these stages is phenomenologically accurate, the first because it leaves out the phenomenon of the body, the second because it leaves out the phenomenon of the thing.

[24] The body is that involved situatedness of my perceptual experience which ensures that the correlative perspectives from which I come to grips with a thing are not determinate features of a rigorously interrelated system but pre-determinate kinaesthetic attitudes that tend towards a norm: "The distance from me to the object [to take only one of the determinate features posited by the intellectualist account] is not a size which increases or decreases, but a tension which fluctuates around a norm" (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 302). The intellectualist, in positing a determinate variable that represents apparent distance from the perceiver, misses the phenomenological fact that such distances are experienced not as determinate values, but rather as pre-determinate deviations from an optimum not yet achieved.

[25] Likewise, the thing is not an entity whose constant size and shape are constituted by me in the process of perception. Rather the reverse. The very possibility of determinate features characterizable in terms of law-like relations is enabled by the self-evidence, in perception, of the thing with its definite size and shape: "Far from its being the case that the thing is reducible to constant relationships, it is in the self-evidence of the thing that this constancy of relationships has its basis" (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 302). The thing is precisely that optimum towards which each of my perceptual attitudes tends, and so is given implicitly in all of them. It is the "one culminating point of my perception which simultaneously satisfies these three norms [distance, orientation and appearance], and towards which the whole perceptual process tends" (1962: 303).

[26] Phenomenologically, when I perceive a thing I experience a series of pre-determinate kinaesthetic attitudes (the body) which tend towards a maximum unity (the thing). The phenomena of body and thing are not reducible to intellectual processes but require a different kind of analysis altogether: "The constancy of forms and sizes in perception is therefore not an intellectual function, but an existential one, which means that it has to be related to the pre-logical act by which the subject takes up his place in the world" (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 303).

[27] The greatness of Cézanne's painting, according to Merleau-Ponty, is that it attempts to capture precisely this pre-determinate type of perception in a way that painting by the laws of perspective, as the Old Masters did, or by the laws of the retinal image, like Monet and the Impressionists did, can never do: "It is Cézanne's genius that when the over-all composition of the picture is seen globally, perspectival distortions are no longer visible in their own right but rather contribute, as they do in natural vision, to the impression of an emerging order, of an object in the act of appearing, organizing itself before our eyes" (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 14).

[28] Phenomenological reflection shows that neither language nor perception is analysable in purely representational terms, since much of what is important in the phenomenology of these acts occurs at a pre-linguistic level. For Heidegger there is something correct about the representational account of language, since at the most derivative stage assertions have meanings in a way that vaguely resembles this representational account. The mistake of the representational account is to define intentionality as a phenomenon that inheres only in the sentences of a language, and not also, and more fundamentally, in the pre-linguistic intentional behaviour like skillful coping that come before them. In divorcing assertion from the pre-linguistic intentional structures that make it possible the representational account addresses only the most derivative aspect of the phenomenology of language, and it addresses even that most derivative aspect in a way that is misleading at best.

[29] In a similar way, Merleau-Ponty understands the allure of the intellectualist account of perception. It is true that there is a certain attitude we can achieve in which apparent distance and apparent orientation are understood as determinate variables which are presented to us along with a retinal image. This attitude, however, is only the most derivative way of perceiving, and it is made possible by the more basic, pre-determinate type of perception that is grounded in the phenomena of the body and the thing.

[30] Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty are both committed to the phenomenological method, and this means they are committed to explaining apparent phenomena like language and perception by uncovering the background phenomena that make them possible. This is a difficult task, however, since the foregrounded phenomena we are interested in explaining, namely language and perception, work against the possibility of being explained by covering up the things that make them possible. As Heidegger says: "Whenever a phenomenological concept is drawn from primordial sources, there is a possibility that it may degenerate if communicated in the form of an assertion. It gets understood in an empty way and is thus passed on, losing its indigenous character, and becoming a free-floating thesis" (Heidegger 1962: 60-61/36). Similarly, Merleau-Ponty claims that embodied perception is hidden by the determinate object it makes possible: "The positing of the object [as a determinate entity] therefore makes us go beyond the limits of our actual experience... with the result that finally experience believes that it extracts all its own teaching from the object.... Obsessed with being, and forgetful of the perspectivism of my experience, I henceforth treat it as an object and deduce it from a relationship between objects" (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 70). The representational accounts of language and perception both fall prey to this inherent threat that phenomenology constantly attempts to combat.

Received 2/10/96.


Davidson, Donald (1984). "Truth and Meaning." In Inquiries into Truth and Meaning. New York: Oxford University Press.


Dreyfus, Hubert L. (1972). What Computers Can't Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. New York: Harper & Row.


--- (1991). Being-in-the-world: A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time, Division I. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, c1991.


--- (1992). What Computers Still Can't Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Frege, Gottlieb (1967). "The Thought." In Philosophical Logic, P. F. Strawson (ed). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Haugeland, John (1985). Artificial Intelligence: The Very Idea. Cambridge, MA.


Heidegger, Martin (1962). Being and Time. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (translators). New York: Harper.


Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962). Phenomenology of Perception. Colin Smith (translator). New York: Humanities Press.


--- (1964). "Cézanne's Doubt." Hubert Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus (translators). In Merleau Ponty, Sense and Non-Sense. North Western University Press.


Winograd, Terry and Fernando Flores (1986). Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Pub. Corp.


Note the similar argument found both in Frege and in Davidson. See Frege (1967: 18-19) and Davidson (1984: 40).


See (Heidegger 1962: 195/154): "assertion... too `has' a meaning."


See (Heidegger 1962: 258/215): Heidegger accepts the characterization of truth as the agreement of knowledge with its object, but then clarifies that "this characterization of truth as `agreement,' adaequatio, homoiosis, is very general and empty." He admits that "every agreement, and therefore `truth' as well, is a relation.... Yet manifestly not every agreement is a convenientia of the kind that is fixed upon in the definition of `truth."'
 ©1996 Mark Wrathall and Sean Kelly
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The Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy, 4 (Spring 1996)