The Forgotten Phenomenology: “Enactive Perception” in the Eyes of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty


  • Roi Bar Freie Universitat Berlin



Enactivism, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Perception, Agency


This paper compares the enactive approach to perception, which has recently emerged in cognitive science, with the phenomenological approach. Inspired by Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, the enactive theorists Alva Noë and Evan Thompson take perception to be a result of the interaction between the brain, the body and the environment. Their argument turns mostly on the role of self-motion and sensorimotor knowledge in perceptual experience. It was said to be entirely consistent with phenomenology, indeed its revival. However, this issue is under debate. To show this, I begin with analyzing the enactive conception as a physicalist attempt to overcome the challenge of dualism and representationalism. I then turn to Husserl’s transcendental method and argue that Noë’s solution, unlike Husserl’s, remains naturalistic, as it does not take the phenomenon of intersubjectivity and the constitution of the “cultural world” into account. Afterwards I turn to Merleau-Ponty and demonstrate that there is some certain common ground with Noë, but also major differences. I conclude that the enactive approach is not completely refuted by the phenomenological one, insofar as the latter partly contains the first. Yet the enactivists deal merely with the necessary physiological conditions of perception qua animal perception, not with the sufficient sociocultural conditions for the understanding of human perception, like the inquiry into the historical and linguistic circumstances under which the understanding of human mind is made possible. The reason why the recent transformation of phenomenology into neurophenomenology is perceived as a revival is virtually inherent to the specific scientific ethos of enactivism and reveals a certain oblivion of the objectives of philosophical phenomenology.