XI: Chemero on Ecological and Embodied Cognitive Science

Our final pre-conference readings are a couple of short papers by Anthony Chemero.

‘Self-Organisation Writ Large’ (Ecological Psychology 20(3); available here) considers a view of nature as self-organising ‘all the way down’ – from animal/environment systems to autocatalytic chemical reactions – and argues that such a conception of nature would require reconceiving affordances and their role in the explanation of cognition. (The ideas from hyperset theory and the initial levels of self-organisation are worked through at a more leisurely pace in ‘Autonomy and Hypersets’, Biosystems 91(2), available here)

‘Sensorimotor Empathy’ (Journal of Consciousness Studies 23(5-6); available here) argues for a particular way of understanding the role of sensorimotor interactions in social coordination and conscious experience, and suggests how these interactions can be operationalised and studied.

Each paper engages with the question of what our cognitive science should look like if we are to understand cognition in terms of forms, structures and processes, as the Gestalt Psychologits and Phenomenologists we have been considering suggest. Penultimate drafts of each paper are available on Tony’s academia.edu page.

VII: Sheredos on Merleau-Ponty and Gestalt Theory

For our seventh reading we have a recent publication by regular contributor to the blog, Ben Sheredos. ‘Merleau-Ponty’s Immanent Critique of Gestalt Theory’, forthcoming in Human Studies, examines Merleau-Ponty’s attitude towards Gestalt Theory in The Structure of Behaviour.

This paper is of particular relevance to our project since, in addition to treating the relationship between Phenomenology and Gestalt Psychology, it also deals with the third strand of our project: the way in which ideas from these two traditions should inform contemporary cognitive science. As Ben notes, Merleau-Ponty’s work on the relationship between Phenomenology and cognitive science has been taken up by recent writers (such as Hubert Dreyfus and Evan Thompson) who emphasise the importance of continuous, looping dynamical interactions with the environment in explanations of cognition. However, Ben argues that the ‘circular causality’ characteristic of such dynamics is distinct from the ‘circular dependence’ that Merleau-Ponty takes to characterise the relationship between elements of a gestalt structure. Ben’s paper makes the case that understanding the nature of this circular dependence is the key to understanding both Merleau-Ponty’s critique of Gestalt Theory, and the sense in which Merleau-Ponty believed Gestaltist ideas could nonetheless inform our thought about the proper relation between Phenomenology and cognitive science.

For readers unfamiliar with The Structure of Behaviour, don’t worry – the paper includes thorough and lucid summaries of all the relevant parts of the text. Ben has kindly shared a .pdf version of the paper with us, which you can access here. The published version is available here.

Please leave questions and reactions in the comments – see you there!

IV: Gurwitsch on Gestalt Psychology

Our fourth reading is Aron Gurwitsch’s ‘Some Aspects and Developments of Gestalt Psychology‘, a 1936 survey paper that serves as an interesting complement to the Smith survey with which we began. Alongside Merleau-Ponty, Gurwitsch is the Phenomenologist most associated with developing the ideas of Gestalt Psychology, and this reading covers his take on the origins of Gestalt Psychology, the differences between the Graz and Berlin schools, and his conception of the philosophical importance of Gestaltist ideas.

The essay is reprinted in both vol. II of his collected works (Springer, 2010), and his Studies in Phenomenology and Psychology (Northwestern University Press, 1966). We’ll include a link to the text in our email about this reading, but if you miss that and don’t have access to the text, just email me, Alistair or Rosa.

As always, leave questions, observations and reactions in the comments to the post, and bear in mind that you can continue to comment on this and our other readings at any time. Some of our earlier posts are accruing some interesting comments that you might like to check out.

We’ll be posting our next reading in three weeks time.

III: Merleau-Ponty on Gestalt Psychology and Phenomenology

Our third reading is our first foray into Phenomenology, as we try to get to grips with Merleau-Ponty’s relationship with Gestalt Psychology. We’ll be looking at two fairly short pieces. The first is the 1947 essay ‘The Metaphysical in Man’, an exploration of Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the human sciences which begins with some reflections on Gestalt Psychology before moving on to consider linguistics and sociology.

The second reading consists in some excerpts from the Introduction to the Phenomenology of Perception. I’ve picked some of the passages where Merleau-Ponty is explicitly drawing on Gestaltist results or reflections, and a couple of places where he adds caveats to his admiration of Gestalt Psychology. The first excerpt consists in a few pages from the initial ‘Sensation’ chapter of the Introduction and is intended to provide some brief context for the next passages in the selection. Merleau-Ponty introduces the claims that there is a fundamental indeterminacy to perceptual experience, and that perceived qualities exist only as parts of complex structured wholes. Next are some pages from the second chapter, on ‘Association and the Projection of Memories’, where Merleau-Ponty makes further use of some Gestaltist work in his characterization of the structure of the perceptual field. Some of his remarks here anticipate his partial critique of Gestalt Psychology in the next chapter, ‘Attention and Judgment’, from which the penultimate excerpt is drawn. Finally, I’ve included a few pages from ‘The Phenomenal Field’, the last chapter of the Introduction section of the Phenomenology, which focus both on the concept of gestalt, and Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the relationship between psychology and his Phenomenology.

For those new to Merleau-Ponty who’d benefit from some brief orientation before diving in to these readings, Taylor Carman’s ‘Merleau-Ponty and the Mystery of Perception’ provides excellent relevant backdrop.

As always, remember that you can continue to comment on this and our other posts at any time, and that we welcome suggestions for further readings at the intersection of Phenomenology, Gestalt Psychology and Embodied Cognitive Science. Enjoy!


Carman, Taylor (2009). Merleau-ponty and the mystery of perception. Philosophy Compass 4 (4):630-638.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945/2012). Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris: Gallimard, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes. (excerpts available here)

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1947/1964) “The Metaphysical in Man,” in Sense and Non-Sense, translated by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), pp. 83-98. (available here)

Phenomenology: Background

Phenomenology is a methodology that aims to carefully examine and describe the properties of experience, and to draw philosophical conclusions from these descriptions. Characterised in this way, Phenomenological arguments and methodology are pervasive in philosophy – think, for example, of the role which clear and distinct apprehension of ideas plays in Descartes’ meditations; or of Hume’s argument that causal connections between events are not directly perceived. Contemporary discussion of Phenomenology, however, usually refers to a specific trajectory in the history of philosophy, beginning with Edmund Husserl and passing through Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others.

Thinkers within the Phenomenological tradition differ both as to the structures and properties of experience they emphasise, and the philosophical conclusions they draw from their characterisations of experience. To take just one influential example, consider the fact that objects within the visual field are experienced as having depth – some parts of an object appear nearer to me than others. Merleau-Ponty (1945/2012, pp.265-270) argues that this structural property of visual perception is explained by our status as situated, embodied perceivers, who must take in the spatial properties of objects from a particular vantage point. Moreover, our way of experiencing depth is explained by Merleau-Ponty in terms of our status as agents, who are able to skilfully change their perspective on the object in order to bring different aspects of it into view. Merleau-Ponty thus argues from an observation about the spatial structure of first-person experience to a conclusion about the active, embodied nature of perception.

Other experiential structures on which Phenomenologists have focused include the emotional or affective, temporal, intersubjective and owned character of experience. The diversity of Phenomenological reflections on these topics, and conclusions drawn from them, resist easy summary. An excellent recent introduction to some of the most influential Phenomenologists is Kaufer and Chemero (2015). An alternative treatment, organised by topic rather than by Phenomenologist is Smith (2016).

One important question for Phenomenology is the extent to which it can be integrated with natural science. Whilst some Phenomenologists (such as the early Husserl) aim only to describe and categorize structures and properties of experience, many others (such as the late Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) ascribe a transcendental role to experiential structures identified by their analyses. The entities and categories postulated by natural science are understood as sophisticated abstractions from the lived experience that Phenomenologists characterise. As Merleau-Ponty puts it:

‘I am not a “living being,” a “man,” nor even a “consciousness,” possessing all of the characteristics that zoology, social anatomy, and inductive psychology acknowledge in these products of nature or history. Rather, I am the absolute source. My existence does not come from my antecedents, nor from my physical and social surroundings; it moves out towards them and sustains them.’ (2012, lxxii)

Since contemporary interest in Phenomenology has often focused on mining Phenomenological works for insights that can be integrated with cognitive science, the apparent tension between the naturalist basis of science and the transcendental orientiation of many Phenomenological thinkers has become an important topic, with many debates centering on whether the descriptive fruits of Phenomenology can be divorced from any transcendental commitments of their authors. See Gallagher and Zahavi (2013) and Wheeler (2013) for treatments of this issue, and the talk from our recent conference by Komarine Romdenh-Romluc for a view of the relationship between Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and science.

For more detailed introductions to Phenomenology, see the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy articles on Phenomenology, Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Luis de Sousa’s talk from our recent conference includes a treatment of Husserl’s key concept of the ‘Phenomenological Reduction’ and the way this is taken up by Merleau-Ponty. The recent book by Kaufer and Chemero (2015) is the best introductory overview of Phenomenology for newcomers, while Gallagher and Zahavi (2013) gives a good idea of the ways in which current work attempts to integrate Phenomenology and philosophy of cognitive science.


Gallagher, S., & Zahavi, D. (2013). The phenomenological mind. Routledge.

Kaufer, S., & Chemero, A. (2015). Phenomenology: An Introduction. John Wiley & Sons.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945/2012) Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald Landes. Routledge.

Smith, J. (2016). Experiencing Phenomenology: An Introduction. Routledge.

Wheeler, M. (2013). Science friction: Phenomenology, naturalism and cognitive science. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 72, 135-167.