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by Franciso J. Varela and Jonathan Shear (Editors)
Imprint Academic, 1999
Review by Adriano Palma, Ph.D. on Jan 16th 2002

The View from Within

The book consists in ten original texts, followed by many (shorter) pieces dubbed the peer commentaries and responses. It is perhaps worthwhile to introduce the terminology for those who did not follow last century’s debates on consciousness. Sciences (natural and human alike in this respect) are often taken to be expressed and expressible only in third person, in a fully objective fashion, open to inspection, as it were, for anybody interested. Some, by no means all, mostly in philosophy take the view that the phenomena of consciousness introduce a new kind of perspective, the first person, or inherently subjective, or non reducible to anything but first person experiences, etc. The further step taken by some states that even evidence pertaining to consciousness is first person(al) in nature, i.e. what we get “from without” is a report (possibly the report of introspective observation). There remains however a “within”, a within reachable only by the subject of the experience itself. To make this clear some use the idea that experiences have a qualitative “feel’ to them (in philosophy those are even baptized in Latin “qualia”) and the feel itself is, though under some conditions reportable and expressible, something accessible only to the one person having the experience. Examples of this kind are the particular feel of, say, the taste of coffee, or the visual impression of a shade of color. In the philosophy of mind much has been said about this divide. Opinions vary along the whole spectrum of conceptual possibilities. As usual some philosophers take first person perspectives and qualia to be so obviously there that discussion is beside the point, others go all the way to a simple denial that any such thing even exist or can exist.

Varela and Shear look in particular at the methodological side of the debate. They take it for granted that first person experiences do take place. While nobody denies experiences exist a rather large set of positions denies that first person evidence is useful or even available in any sense for theories.

The two editors set out to show that two particular claims are correct.

1. There is a growing integration already possible between first-person evidence and more general theories about minds with respect to consciousness
2. Interestingly there is particular tradition, Husserl’s philosophy, that can be profitably recruited for insights about what kind of phenomena are to be investigated, as well as to provide methodological and conceptual tools.

I shall concentrate only on some of the issues raised. It is very difficult to assess the heritage of Husserl, since I am not clear even on what his central thesis were, nor whether one can track a precise continuity between his early anti-psychology and philosophy of mathematics works and his later worries about the decay of the Europe of his time. What is interesting for the philosophy of mind is that, at the very least in Varela’s contribution (to my mind one of the most interesting in the volume) one encounters a paradox. Varela presents and ably defends the view that some of the, more or less, Huseerlian views on the constitution of internal time find precise correlations with neurological evidence. Husserl is famous for his view of “internal” time (or time as experienced by a subject) as showing a structure of “nowness”, retention, and protentions, respectively as present, past, and future. Varela doesn’t pretend to be a philologically faithful Husserl scholar. Rather, he makes the much more interesting point that some of those insights find confirmation in purely physical terms; to wit in the “clocks” that one can assign reliably to the firings and structures of neural assemblies. And those happen to be, up to a point, matched by Event Related Potentials (ERP) observations.  I urge readers to consult the text since these remarks do not do justice to the wealth of data presented. My point is rather that as soon as we accept all of this we face a sort of paradox. The more evidence we collect and confirm on the correspondence between what are by definition reports from subjects and a variety of independent data, the more we produce a perfectly third person theory of the phenomena in question. Varela, at least in conversation, was very much aware of this and I think this is the reason he liked to think of his views as neurophenomenology. Orthodox Husserlians find this repulsive since they take the heritage of Husserl to be of a purely conceptual sort, or even more strongly, against any theory of anything. Some take Husserl to have held views that are purely prescriptive, and hence to have no scientific application of any kind: a sort of late Buddhist invitation to “bracketing” the world and human experience of it to achieve different states of awareness. Varela would have none of this.  (See in particular his reaction to Owen & Morris (in the commentaries.)) The two commentators hold the view that Husserl was an “arch-anti-naturalist”, meaning that his theories or perhaps philosophy in general ought to have no “circulation with natural sciences of any kind at all” (p. 272))  In so doing, I think, he was rejecting the stronger strains of the first person perspective theorists. A neurophenomenological theory of consciousness, or of the fragments to us available, is a perfectly kosher third person style theory. This opens, even in the book under review, the way to the criticism (voiced, for example, by B.J. Baars) that we already have a discipline that look also at first person reports, that takes seriously and with some caution the introspective capacities of subjects, and that tries to build theories on such basis. The discipline is psychology, or at any rate the more cognitive oriented psychologists take themselves to be doing exactly that and by no means all refuse to take on board some result of introspective reports.

That said, it remains fairly surprising that the purely a priori reflections by Husserl can find such an astonishing confirmation in today’s research, assuming of course that we are presented with hard evidence (it does look that way to me.)

Many of the papers here collected have an interested even independently from one’s interest in the application of Husserl’s phenomenology to current research. For instance David Galin argues against the massive confusion (not invisible even in this very volume) between a phenomenal experience (qualia and the like) and person’s point of view; Pierre Vermersch and William Lyons debate the extent to which introspection is (just) the absence of annoying distractions or not. Some of the papers exaggerate the reliance on academic jargon (not everyone really cares about the ever present threat of an hermeneutic circle) but on the whole the book can be readable by an interdisciplinary audience. I fear it will upset the Husserlians, or at least the strict ones, but it was Husserl who pushed to return to “things themselves”. If consciousness is indeed part of the furniture of the universe, there should be no difficulty in recognizing the value of accessing it from many different angles. On a purely technical side (a philosophical side), it seems to me that it remains rather unclear what distinguishes Varela and Shear’s views from Daniel Dennett. Both appear to countenance data from first person experience and both seek to integrate the data within a single framework Dennett (in his Jean Nicod lectures, Paris 2001) goes to great length in claiming that no matter what subjects say about their experiences, the very reports are data to be explained. It remains to be seen whether a finished and polished theory would take the reports to be veridical or subject to the countless possibilities of self-deception of any kind. Varela & Shear, not in jest, describe their stance in regards to first person methodologies as: “don’t leave home without it, but do not forget to bring along third-person accounts as well.” (p. 2) Possibly here the differences are more a matter of style and tradition rather than hard disagreement.


© 2002 Adriano Palma


A. P. Palma, Univ. Paris-X and Inst. J Nicod, Paris