Tag Archives: conventions

Overcoming loser philosophy: Comments on Käufer and Chemero’s Phenomenology: An Introduction

If you are studying affordances, or studying the role of the body in perception and cognition, then you ‘are not merely influenced by phenomenology,’ you are ‘doing phenomenology, insofar as [you] are pursuing the basic ideas and insights this tradition was founded on.’ So claim Stephan Käufer and Tony Chemero (K&C) at the start of their new bookPhenomenology: An Introduction (2015).

Now, one would be forgiven for thinking it’s safe to ignore this book, on the grounds that a) it’s got the word ‘Phenomenology’ in the title, and b) it’s got the words ‘An Introduction’ in the title. But don’t let’s get hung up on those two details. K&C are pursuing a serious project here. They aim to show that the phenomenological tradition is alive, and that it provides the necessary foundation for embodied cognition research. The message of the book might be summarized thus: Nothing in embodied cognition makes sense except in the light of lived experience. It’s a good message, and I hope people take notice.

I am not going to summarize, in this post, all of the book’s discussion of the history of phenomenology. The book does a nice job of covering the major thinkers while also weaving in the story of how psychology emerges as a separate discipline seeking to differentiate itself from philosophy, without ever quite succeeding. There are chapters on Kant and Wundt, then Husserl, Heidegger, the Gestalt psychologists, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre and Beauvoir, then James Gibson, Hubert Dreyfus, and a final chapter giving a brief overview of the current state of play in embodied and enactive cognitive science. I will quickly go over a couple of the important ideas from the Merleau-Ponty chapter, then I’ll get into K&C’s discussion of what, in their view, are the most interesting current issues in the field.

Merleau-Ponty and the lived body

A hand holding the handle of a coffee cup

Can you really be sure that that coffee cup has a backside? (Source)

Husserl spends a lot of time fretting about this kind of question: How can it be that, when we look at a tree, we seem to experience the tree as having a backside, even though, right now, we can only see the front? Husserl’s solution is to posit that the tree that we experience is a mental entity, an intentional object: we see the tree as whole because we’re not directly experiencing the tree itself, we’re experiencing a copy of the tree that’s internal to our consciousness. Husserl sees this as a methodological move that allows him to ignore the question of whether the tree really does have a backside or not, or, for that matter, whether there’s any tree there at all.

Merleau-Ponty provides a different way out of the problem. He distinguishes between the lived body, which he also calls the habit body, and the objective body, or the body as an object. He uses this distinction to explain what’s going on in phantom limb cases where people who have lost a limb report still feeling pain or sensation at the location where the limb used to be. The way we normally experience the world, Merleau-Ponty says, is as a lived body that exhibits skills and habits. In phantom limb cases, the skills and habits have formed in the presence of the limb, and these skills and habits remain intact even though the objective limb itself is no longer present. The loss of the limb means that the habit body is no longer in harmony with the objective body. Now when the individual encounters a situation which used to involve the limb, the situation may still be perceived as one in which the old action is possible, but the objective body no longer supports this action.

To return to Husserl’s problem, Merleau-Ponty points out that when we encounter an object from a particular aspect, we do not do so as disembodied observers, but precisely as lived bodies. This allows us to say that when we encounter a tree, or a coffee cup, we experience these objects as having a backside to the extent that our bodies are disposed to act on the whole object. We see a tree that we can walk around, or a cup that we can wrap our fingers around. The backside is not in our perception, but in the complete act of engaging with the world.

Incidentally, this also provides the solution to a problem Chemero raised in his previous book (though K&C do not acknowledge this): how do we perceive that a beer can contains drinkable beer, if we are not representing the contents? Chemero (2009, 118) uses this example to motivate the claim that perception must be grounded in constraints and conventions. It is held that the label on the beer can is conventionally related to the presence of beer. We, as perceivers, have access both to the convention and to the label, and together these indicate the presence of beer inside the can. But Merleau-Ponty’s account of the lived body renders unnecessary any such appeal to conventions. We don’t need to perceive the beer itself, any more than we need to perceive the back of the coffee cup. Our bodily skills mean that we can just act in the presence of the beer can. And sure, it might turn out, after all, that the beer can contains sour milk, or that the coffee cup doesn’t actually have a backside. But such considerations do not normally enter into our activities. We do not live in a world where we have had to interact with milk-containing beer cans or backside-less coffee cups, so there’s no reason why our habit body would come to be shaped by such eventualities. In general, we get along just fine.

Now onto the current problems in the field. First: affordances.

Affordances, invitations, and the frame problem in ecological psychology

Affordances, it is generally said, are opportunities to act on the environment. But that raises a question: how is it that only some affordances come to be selected for action? It would seem to be the case that a detached observer is required to do the selecting—some mental controller that sits inside the organism and is able to assess the available options. This is a problem that Gibson was aware of, as shown in this passage that K&C quote twice (Gibson, 1979, 225): ‘The rules that govern behavior are not like laws enforced by an authority or decisions made by a commander; behavior is regular without being regulated. The question is how this can be.’ (Another way to put this is to say that the ecological approach provides a theory of the structure available to perception, but not a theory of behaviour as such; see this post for discussion.)

The way K&C present this is as a version of the frame problem—a problem in AI research that gave rise to much philosophical bellyaching in the 1980s, most notably from Dan Dennett. The problem is this: how can a robot ever be expected to choose its next action, given the infinite number of facts that the robot could, in principle, take into account before making its selection? As K&C see it, the only way out of this problem is to appeal to dynamical systems. An actor is a dynamical system. And the actor is nested inside a larger dynamical system—its environment. If the actor is a dynamical system then it does not need to mentally entertain any of the possible actions available to it; rather, it just acts, and it learns by changing over time. Engaging with the world not only changes the world, it also changes the internal dynamics of the actor. The outcomes of actions can have the effect of reconfiguring the attractor states within the actor’s nervous system. Here K&C appeal to Walter Freeman’s work on the neural dynamics of the rabbit olfactory bulb. If the rabbit experiences a particular scent and subsequently gets food, then this will have the effect of subtly re-configuring the rabbit’s nervous system, which will affect how the rabbit responds to the same scent the next time it encounters it (207). The frame problem dissolves because now everything is dynamic. (But I’ll have more to say about the frame problem below.)

In order to fix how we talk about affordances, K&C recommend that we follow Withagen et al (2012) in making a distinction between mere affordances and invitations. Affordances are the possibilities to act, which are always infinite in number; invitations (a term borrowed from Merleau-Ponty) are the subset of affordances that stand out at a given moment as live options. Withagen et al make this distinction in the context of a discussion of agency. K&C use it to appeal again to dynamical systems. K&C discuss the example of someone engaged in the activity of building a bookcase. The bookcase builder does not attend to an infinite world of possibilities, but only to aspects of her environment that are relevant for her ongoing project. The dynamics of this organism–environment system (builder plus bookcase-parts plus tools and so forth) have become self-organized into ‘a temporary, special-purpose dynamical system’ (203), one in which only certain affordances actually invite behaviour.

The future of phenomenological cognitive science

This is all well and good as a description of what it’s like to be a living being engaged in activities in the world. But where does it get us? How can we turn the insights of phenomenologists into a productive programme of empirical research?

How K&C propose to do this rests, in large part, on a phrase that they borrow from Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi (2008), who say that, in their empirical studies of behaviour, researchers should front-load phenomenology. Unfortunately, it is not very clear exactly what work this phrase is supposed to be doing. K&C define front-loading phenomenology as ‘designing scientific experiments specifically in order to test posits concerning phenomenology’ (218). This suggests that phenomenology itself should be the subject matter of the research. But this seems at odds with what Gallagher and Zahavi themselves say (2008, 38; emphasis added): ‘The idea is to front-load phenomenological insights into the design of experiments, that is, to allow the insights developed in phenomenological analyses to inform the way experiments are set up.’ Here, it seems that phenomenology is not the subject matter of the research per se, but is part of the experimental methodology: thinking in terms of phenomenology is just part of the experimenter’s toolkit for setting up useful experiments. In their own recommendations for conducting future research, K&C seem to vacillate between two different types of strategy, neither of which seems to exactly match what Gallagher and Zahavi are after.

Strategy 1: Directly investigate stuff that phenomenologists have actually said. An example of research using this strategy is Chemero’s work with Dobri Dotov (Dotov et al, 2010), on how equipment can go from being ready-to-hand to being unready-to-hand. In the experiment, subjects are asked to play a computer game in which they have to move a mouse cursor about on a screen. At some point in the game, the experimenter interrupts the link between the mouse movement and the cursor movement. This is like what happens when you get a bit of water on your laptop trackpad, or in the old days when you got a bit of fluff taffled up in the mouse’s rollerball. As we know from having experienced this kind of thing, the disruption is apt to put us off what we had just been doing and may well cause us to flail about in an attempt to regain control of the situation. Dotov et al present this in explicitly Heideggerian terms, as a disruption that shatters our smooth coping with equipment in the environment. And they have a way of quantifying this: the disruption goes along with a disruption of the subject’s movement dynamics, which move from exhibiting pink noise (or 1/f noise, which is assumed to be characteristic of smooth coping) towards exhibiting white noise (characteristic of random movement, or flailing about). This is neat as a ‘demonstration’ of an idea from Heidegger’s phenomenology. But it is not clear how this is supposed to serve as a model for doing cognitive science in general. Are we to restrict our empirical efforts to attempting to prove Heidegger correct?

Strategy 2: Reduce everything to maths, but do so in a way that you hope is consistent with phenomenological theorizing. The second strategy is to subsume everything under the logic of dynamical systems modelling. This is defended on the grounds that complex systems are inclined to ‘self-organize and so have a tendency to behave like much simpler systems,’ and therefore ‘one will often be able to model these systems in terms of extremely simple functions, with only a few easily observable parameters’ (200). And the logic of these systems means that, in principle, it’s possible to study any phenomenon, from the level of the cell to the level of whole societies, all in terms of relatively simple dynamical equations. One might object that by reducing everything to maths, you have taken yourself outside of the realm of phenomenology altogether. Equations don’t have feelings. And there’s nothing that it’s like to be an equals sign. More to the point, there’s nothing that it’s like to be a cell or a basketball team either. Experience only operates at the level of individual organisms. By collapsing everything into mathematics, have we not lost sight of the very thing—lived experience—that caused us to so admire the phenomenologists in the first place? Surely we’re owed at least a hint of an explanation as to why it’s desirable to model experience-involving processes in exactly the same way as non-experience-involving ones. But according to K&C, there is no problem here: it’s perfectly possible to do dynamical systems modelling and still be in the business of successfully front-loading your phenomenology (201). What’s important is that the way you choose what phenomenon you are going to model in the first place should be informed by a suitably phenomenological worldview.

I have to say, I think K&C give a fair account of the current state of play within phenomenologically-informed cognitive science (that is, in enactivst and dynamical systems research). Still, neither of these two strategies strikes me as being particularly attractive.

The second strategy, in particular, seems to be too much in awe of the frame problem. I suspect that part of the motivation for trying to reduce everything to dynamical systems explanations is the worry that unless everything is expressed in the same language (mathematics) then we will never exorcise the creeping spectre of dualism and we’ll be forever stuck with some version of the frame problem. But there’s a reason why the frame problem originated where it did—in the field of artificial intelligence research. The old project in AI had the goal of building a robot with the capacity to act autonomously in a natural environment. In order to achieve that, AI researchers were going to have to be able to build a robot that could select its actions from a seemingly infinite set of possibilities. But why should we non-AI researchers take that as a model for our own psychological programme? I just don’t buy that building a working model of a behaving, living system is a realistic goal for psychology. Or a useful one. I’m much more interested in using psychology as a set of tools for intervening in real-world problems: how can we design cities that are better adapted to how we want to live, or educational resources that are better suited to how we learn, or clinical environments that better draw out the capacities of people we currently deem to be mentally ill? As such, I just don’t care about the frame problem. And neither should you!

What I’d like to see developed more is a strategy more closely aligned to that definition from Gallagher and Zahavi: to front-load phenomenology is to use phenomenology as a tool for designing experiments that can actually inform us about how we engage in specific activities—a tool that will allow us to pursue genuinely useful research. This is what Andrew was getting at in this post on dynamical mechanistic explanations. And I’ve argued (Baggs, 2014) that the appropriate way to conduct research is to take a task-oriented approach; that is, we can identify an activity that is of interest to us, from the perspective of outside analysts, but to do so we must identify a dynamic that is meaningful from the perspective of the actor. Taking this kind of approach allows researchers to study phenomena—such as steering a car round a corner, or learning to walk—that are phenomenological through and through. (See Wilson and Golonka, 2013, which sets out the general strategy for actually employing the task-oriented methodology.) The task-oriented approach seems much more worthy of the label ‘phenomenological’ than does the reduce-everything-to-maths approach.

But this is an argument for the future. For now, I’ll say that I very much enjoyed reading K&C’s book. What the book does well is it places current research in embodied and enactive cognitive science in a long-ish historical context. In doing so, the authors reveal that, far from being ‘radical’, in the sense of being outlandish and hopelessly outside the mainstream, these approaches are grounded in a solid phenomenological tradition. We inheret from Heidegger and from Merleau-Ponty a view of action as skilled engagement with the world, by a lived body. Indeed, taking this long view, it is the cognitivist AI programme that turns out to be the historical aberration. Hubert Dreyfus drily explains this in an excellent interview from 2005 (K&C also quote a different passage from this interview):

The people in the AI lab, with their “mental representations,” had taken over Descartes and Hume and Kant, who said concepts were rules, and so forth. And far from teaching us how we should think about the mind, AI researchers had taken over what we had just recently learned in philosophy was the wrong way to do it. The irony is that the year that AI (artificial intelligence) was named by John McCarthy was the very year that Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations came out against mental representations. [Dreyfus may be a little muddled on the dates here—EB] (Heidegger had already done so in 1927 with Being and Time.) So, the AI researchers had inherited a lemon. They had taken over this loser philosophy! If they had known philosophy, they could’ve predicted, like me, that it was a hopeless research program, but they took Cartesian philosophy and turned it into a research program. Anybody who knew enough philosophy could’ve predicted it was going to fail. But nobody else paid any attention. That’s why I got this prize.

K&C have shown us the direction to take if we are to avoid falling back into loser philosophy. They have done us a service.

Further reading/listening

  • There’s a great Brain Science Podcast interview with Tony Chemero talking about the book, to be found here.


Speaking is a type of acting, but being spoken to is not a type of perceiving

I have a paper in the newly published issue of the journal Ecological Psychology. The paper sets out the case that language-use should be understood as fundamentally a form of acting. I contrast this with a view of language-use as fundamentally a form of perceiving information via conventional patterns.

The argument may come across in the paper less clearly than I had hoped. The paper is part of a special issue on the topic of “Language as a public activity”, which is introduced by the editors, Bert Hodges and Carol Fowler (Hodges and Fowler, 2015). The editors valiantly attempt to provide one-paragraph summaries of all the papers in the issue. And they do an excellent job of summarizing mine (they’ve even highlighted a couple of things about it which I wasn’t aware of, for which I’m grateful). But there are a couple of statements in their summary which I would not endorse, which tells me that I wasn’t clear enough about those claims. So in this post I will try to try to do a couple of things: (a) summarize the argument I think I tried to make in this paper, and (b) set things out in a more intuitive way.

To understand speaking we need to understand how populated environments are structured

I tried to argue against the view that language-use necessarily involves conventional patterns. Conventions are to be understood here as mappings between invariant patterns (e.g., the word “dandelion”) and events (e.g., the perceiving of a dandelion). I don’t think we need to appeal to any such notion of conventions to explain how speaking works.

The key is to adopt a developmental perspective on language-use.

Children, when they are learning to speak, do so in an environment that contains other actors. And although none of these actors will be constantly present at every moment throughout the child’s growing up, there will nevertheless be a handful of actors who form part of the furniture of the child’s surroundings.

Now, the actors in a child’s environment themselves create structure through their own activities. For instance, sometimes an adult will point to some object and say something like, “Ooh, look at that giraffe!” One of the advantages about being a child (as opposed to being, say, a dictaphone) is that you don’t have to wait for other actors to produce these structures: if you want to explore the structure of your surroundings, you can perform an action that disturbs things and that thus creates potentially meaningful new patterns.

This is something that children do all the time. It happens even in situations where the child’s behaviour seems at first glance to be little more than a series of responses to an adult’s prompting, e.g. in ritualized games of the type where an adult repeatedly asks the child “Where’s your nose?”, “Where’s your mouth?”, etc. See this video of a child interacting with his grandmother.

When the child cannot immediately produce the appropriate response to the prompt “Where’s your mouth?” (a little after 1:30), he does not disengage but continues to attend to what the adult is saying. Notice that this behaviour from the child functions as a means of eliciting further behaviour from the adult. What looks like a failure to respond is in fact a form of engagement. At any moment, the child could choose to wriggle out of the adult’s grip and find some other activity to get involved in. But he doesn’t. In reality, the child is driving the game as much as the adult is. Even an apparent absence of response can in fact be an active attempt by the child to disturb the structure of his surroundings.

It is not always easy to notice that learning to speak is such an active process. (Notice how, a couple of times in the video, the grandmother interprets the child’s attentive non-responding as the child’s way of saying “this is boring”.)

When viewed in the wild, learning to speak does not look like a process of inferring mappings over a set of forms and a set of meanings. It looks like a series of explorations by the child of the environment it finds itself surrounded by—an environment that contains other actors who respond in meaningful ways to the child’s own activity. It is not the case that in learning to speak the child must learn some abstract set of patterns that we call a language (e.g. English). The child’s environment contains mostly just a small set of actors who are intermittently present. The child’s immediate task is to learn how to influence and manage the behaviour of these particular actors. There’s no need to learn an abstract set of conventions that can be used to communicate with an ideal conversation partner: what matters is what’s in the child’s surroundings.

Speaking is acting to alter the layout of a populated environment

A young child points out of a train window

A young speaker manages her environment (image source)

If my claim is that we should not view (early-childhood) speaking as involving conventional mappings, then I need to be able to provide an alternative account of what speaking, in fact, is. This is hard to do but I think it’s worth a try.

Again, let’s start with the infant at the early stages of learning to talk. The infant is born with the ability to make sounds. Different types of verbal action will result in different kinds of responses from the infant’s environment. From the day the infant is born, it can act on its environment by crying. Crying is a type of acting that not only disturbs the ambient sound patterns in the environment; it also perturbs the activity of other actors in the infant’s surroundings (see Thompson et al, 1996). But crying is not a very accurate means of eliciting a response: caregivers respond to crying but don’t immediately know exactly what to do to bring the crying to an end.

As the child’s repertoire of sound-making skills expands, the child will be able to elicit increasingly specific responses from its caregiver-containing environment. The crucial developmental shift occurs when the child learns to control its verbal actions with reference to a specific type of relation that exists in its environment: relations that stand between other actors and other objects and events in the environment (this occurs at around nine months of age; Tomasello calls it the “nine-month revolution”). At this stage, the child starts to point to, and to name, objects and events.

How does this work? Well, it works because of the caregiver’s own history of learning. If the infant produces some sort of sound that approximates “doggie”, this orients the caregiver’s attention towards dog-shaped objects in the caregiver’s environment. How does this work? I confess, I have no real idea. But I don’t think it needs to involve conventions. The caregiver does not need to recognize the conventional link between this particular sound pattern and this particular object. The sound orients the caregiver’s attention because the caregiver’s nervous system is configured in such a way that the one immediately triggers the other. The caregiver’s nervous system got that way because of activities the caregiver engaged in in the past. What matters is that this link within the caregiver’s nervous system (between sound pattern and object) is a persisting piece of structure in the infant’s environment. The infant cannot directly perceive the caregiver’s nervous system, but can perceive the behavioural patterns that it generates. The infant can repeatedly produce the sound “doggie” at irregular intervals over weeks and months, and the sound will reliably go along with the caregiver’s attending to the object. This is the kind of structure that the child needs to be able to attend to in order to learn to speak—in order to learn to elicit meaningful responses from its environment.

One difficulty here is that, while it seems reasonable to view speaking as a kind of acting, it is not very clear how we should view the status of the addressee.

Being spoken to is something we do; it is also something that we have done to us

I liked this sentence from Sabrina’s paper, which is also in the special issue (Golonka, 2015): “A tacit assumption in ecological psychology seems to be that anything that has an effect on behavior must be grounded in the perception of an affordance and, therefore, must be guided by law-based information.” I think that’s true: ecological psychology is disposed to overlook anything that’s not information-based, first-person control of an activity.

But suppose I punch you in the leg. This will certainly have an effect on your behaviour. You’ll probably hobble around for a bit and complain. Your behaviour here is not grounded in the perception of an affordance. It is not a response to informational input. It is a response to an internal change in you as a system which I, rather rudely, brought about.

Being spoken to is a bit like being punched in the leg, sometimes. When you are spoken to, your attention is directed towards things that you yourself are not in control of selecting. It is the speaker who selects what you are to attend to, and the speaker achieves this by performing an action that perturbs your nervous system in an appropriate way.

To get things a little clearer here, being spoken to is two things:

  1. Being spoken to is acting: in order to engage with someone in the first place it is necessary to seek that person out and to not run away from them, and in order to keep the situation moving it is necessary to actively attend to the situation you are in and to make appropriate adjustments to your own behaviour (as the kid in the video does)
  2. Being spoken to is something you undergo: it is having your nervous system perturbed by the actions of another actor—the speaker

How these two processes fit together is a central problem for any psychology concerned with the problem of acting in a populated environment, or with collective activity.

What should be evident is that the second item here—having your nervous system acted upon (like being punched in the leg)—cannot really be described as a case either of acting or perceiving. It is not a straightforward case of perception-action because what is going on here is not under the control of the person being spoken to.

As a field, we have not yet come up with a satisfying way to capture this non-voluntary aspect of public language as part of our theorizing. My hunch is that a big reason for this is that we have been trying to extend James Gibson’s account of visual perception to deal with something which it is not equipped to deal with. Gibson’s description scheme treats perception as the activity of a single actor exploring its environment, which, for the purposes of much of his work he treats as if it were inanimate: the environment is described as a set of objects and surfaces whose structure is projected into energy arrays. The problems of explaining behaviour in a populated environment are, quite reasonably, largely set aside in Gibson’s books. But as a consequence, the description scheme he ends up with is one that cannot straightforwardly be extended to describe what’s going on in multi-actor settings. If we want to understand how speaking works we’re going to have to look beyond the perceiving-acting behaviour of the individual; we’re going to have to try to understand the larger context within which speaking behaviour is situated.


The editors of this special issue are searching for a way of describing language that is compatible with the anti-representational tenets of the ecological approach. This is clearly a difficult project. There are several traps that must be avoided.

One of these is the temptation to simply map the terms “speaking” and “listening” onto the terms “acting” and “perceiving”. Doing so obscures the nature of speaking as a form of action directed at an environment that is structured by the presence of other actors.

Another trap is the temptation to see linguistic meaning as fundamentally a relation between a word form and an event in the world. This is a disembodied view of meaning. In reality, meaning does not need to be disembodied in this way because meaning is distributed throughout the entire system that a child finds itself in. In the paper I wrote that: “The act of speaking is not meaningful because of the words it contains but because of the effect it has on the meaningfully structured environment into which it is directed.”

Clearly there is much more work to do before we can claim that we have a useful description scheme for talking about language in a properly ecological or enactive way. Are we moving towards one? Hard to say. I’d like to see a lot more attention paid by anti-representational researchers to developmental processes and to the peculiarities of the structure of settings that contain multiple actors. Until we have an account of speaking that is anti-representational from the ground up we risk falling back into the familiar conception of speaking as the sending of messages in a speech code. I think we can do better than that.