Anthony Morgan, MA student of philosophy and psychiatry at the University of Warwick, reviews Enactive and Phenomenological Approaches to Intersubjectivity. A conference held at the Centre for Subjectivity Research, University of Copenhagen, Thursday February 7th to Friday February 8th .

Despite not really knowing much about the area of intersubjectivity, I felt drawn to this conference as I was acquainted with the work of a number of the speakers, including Dan Zahavi, Shaun Gallagher, Thomas Fuchs, and Vasudevi Reddy. In addition, I have always had an interest in the area of interpersonal relationships and have often felt that their importance can be sidelined by focusing too much either on the individual or on society. The conference was organised by an interdisciplinary group called the TESIS network (Towards an Embodied Science of Intersubjectivity), so the emphasis of the conference was very much on embodiment and situatedness in the world rather than brains in vats, so to speak. The conference was very interdisciplinary in scope, with speakers coming from fields including developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, phenomenology, and psychiatry. The extent to which this interdisciplinary approach actually works is a different matter, but judging by the extraordinary number of apple macs being closely engaged with during certain talks, one senses that a true dedication to interdisciplinary immersion was strictly for the more virtuous members of the audience. In what follows, I will try and make some sense of the random scribbles that filled up my notebook over the two days. Hopefully it can offer a flavour of proceedings.

So, some of the questions that emerged from the start included: Are self-disorders social? How do we share a world? What is the relation between culture and intersubjectivity?

Vasu Reddy, a developmental psychologist from Portsmouth University argued that we would do better to think of intentions as adverbs rather than nouns, paying closer attention to the manner in which an action is done than to ideas of static intentions existing ‘in the head’. It is noteworthy that over the course of the conference, many things including emotions, agency, consciousness, and other traditionally ‘in the head’ phenomena were argued to be not ‘in the head’ so much as embodied and embedded within an environment – amenable to direct perception rather than inference (whether via simulation or construction of theories). Reddy argued that the ‘cognitive revolution’ in psychology has killed off talk of motivation, meaning, relevance, and so on, focusing on ‘how’ questions over ‘why’ questions. One of her key questions was ‘why do infants bother relating to others?’ She suggested that children are in fact drawn into action before consciously making intentions. In this sense, intentions and actions may constitute much the same kind of thing, in contrast to the traditional linear models for which cognitive psychology is so famed. Alan Costall, Reddy’s colleague at Portsmouth, has been arguing, along with Reddy, for the non-revolutionary status of the ‘cognitive revolution’ for years now. Perhaps their persistence is about to start paying off and we can really try and create a truly ecological, embedded and embodied approach to psychology.

Ezequiel Di Paolo and colleagues have been championing the enactive approach for a while now. Emerging from the work of Chilean biologist Francisco Varela, and refined by the likes of Evan Thompson (for example in his book Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind), the enactive approach focuses on areas like autonomy, sense-making, emergence, embodiment, and experience, arguing that these concepts can be integrated into a single overarching framework rather than being cut off from each other in opposing academic ghettos, as has traditionally been the case. One of the key papers detailing the enactive approach is subtitled ‘Theoretical sketches from cell to society’, which clearly points to this integrative approach. Like Reddy, Di Paolo emphasised that organisms are in interaction before they are able to consciously form intentions. Insofar as humans seem to be able to understand each other prior to forming intentions, Di Paolo argued that in interaction we do not solve the problem of other minds so much as dissolve it. He argued for the importance of participatory sense making, the idea that through interactions meanings emerge that are largely independent of the individual wills of the two agents involved. In other words, 1+1>2. I find this idea intuitively very appealing and plausible, especially as I am often aware of the power of interactions to take on ‘a life of their own’, so to speak. Understood in this way, we can reformulate our understanding of the relationship between autonomy and heteronomy. Perhaps it is as a result of the heteronymous ideals of religion that we in the secular west seem to find any notion of heteronomy slightly offensive, but what Di Paolo’s work suggests is that we cannot help but submit to heteronomy in interaction. An interesting thought that emerges from this is that the breakdown of intersubjectivity in depression and schizophrenia may serve precisely this purpose – to avoid the discomfort or even terror of being swept up in the process of interaction, a process that pulls the individual beyond his autonomous boundaries (it is perhaps no coincidence that Louis Sass has suggested that the only truly autonomous people are to be found amongst certain people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, who not only reject interaction with others, but even shared language, and so on). We affect each other far more than we may be comfortable to accept; insofar as the enactive approach may allow us to realise this crucial and generally overlooked fact, it is clearly of the utmost importance not just at a scientific or philosophical level, but also at an ethical and political level.

In her keynote talk to round off day 1, neuroscientist Cristina Becchio picked up on some of the discussion from earlier in the day to demonstrate some empirical evidence to support the idea that intentions are not hidden mental states that are not accessible to perception, but that in fact people use movement kinematics in order to infer intentions. In this sense, we literally perceive intentions, according to Becchio.

Unfortunately my alarm let me down on day 2 and I arrived late to Shaun Gallagher’s standing-room-only talk. I managed to pick up his defence of direct perception, i.e. we can grasp meaning without having to resort to x-ray goggles or simulation, and so on. While arguing that direct perception is far from infallible (movement can be very ambiguous), like many on the previous day Gallagher argued for the literal embodiment of intentions and emotions. There is something slightly unsettling about this idea – the Cartesian idea of the disembodied consciousness gave us the illusion that we could hide ourselves from each other, while the direct perception theory suggests that we are, so to speak, open books. But once again, this is surely a step in the right direction as well. It forces us to accept what we see and feel; it forces us into greater responsibility for the wellbeing of the other, whose emotions we literally see registered in their gestures and their bodies. Of course, this too is fallible. Would we want to simply say that anger is nothing other than, for example, an expression on someone’s face? There are clearly many aspects of the experience of emotions that cannot literally be read from the person’s body, especially in conditions like depression and schizophrenia. This is why the call for a phenomenologically informed ‘radical empathy’ that Matthew Ratcliffe has recently suggested seems so important. There is clearly a risk that in wanting to move things ‘out of the head’, in the end nothing remains in the head. In the midst of the move towards interaction, we do need to retain some concept of the individual, fragile as it may be as a construct (or I assume we do anyway).

Dan Zahavi spoke after lunch. Zahavi is the head of the Centre for Subjectivity Research. He was discussing group personhood, i.e. the idea that the concept of person can be applicable beyond the individual. Zahavi’s work seems to have moved from exploring the self (which as Kenneth Gergen points out is at heart an individual concept, however you look at it) to empathy, and now he has moved onto the idea of personhood extending beyond the individual. It seems a very natural trajectory, and one in fitting with the general approach of the conference. Zahavi argued that the kind of ‘we-intentionality’ that emerges in groups of two or more is an irreducible relational phenomenon, one that does not exist independent of the individual intentions, but that cannot simply be reduced to individual intentions. Contra John Searle who argued that any talk of group minds is ‘at best mysterious and at worse incoherent’ or Michael Bratman who argued that ‘there is no single mind which is the fusion of your mind and mine’, Zahavi (in a move reminiscent of Bennett Helm’s recent work on plural agency) argued that this was in fact entirely plausible.

The event closed with keynote speaker Hans-Bernard Schmid, who, so to speak, ‘supersized’ Zahavi’s talk. Perhaps it is because he has apparently been pushing the group personhood/social ontology position for a while, and so now that it is catching on he needs to up the stakes, but Schmid suggested that we should move beyond simply ascribing intentional states to groups, and should in fact ascribe states of consciousness to groups. In this sense, there is not only ‘something it is like to be me’, but there is also ‘something it is like to be us’. It’s certainly a bold claim! He may or may not be right, but either way he was a very engaging speaker and rounded off the conference in style.