University of Toronto
Thomas Nenon, President of the Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology, Inc., presents the Ballard Prize to Evan Thompson.
Evan Thompson. Mind in Life. Harvard University Press, 2007.
Evan Thompson exhibits an exceptional grasp of phenomenology. His phenomenological scholarship is very impressive — he’s surely no dilettante, unlike many scientists who employ curbstone versions of the method. His training was in philosophy. His work demonstrates thoughtful differences with Kant, an appropriate respect for Husserl and acquaintanceship with Edith Stein, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Gurwitsch, Kern, Brough, Mohanty, Depraz, Dreyfus, Bernet, Marbach, Drummond, Held, Jonas, Patocka, Sheets-Johnstone, Zahavi and many others in the Continental tradition as well as philosophers from other schools such as Sellars, Nagel, Dennett and Searle, as well as competence in the biological and cognitive sciences.
Thompson’s analysis of autonomous dynamic systems cast into cognate phenomenological language requires grasp of genetic phenomenology and, Thompson believes, generative phenomenology, as well. Be this as it may (he makes an excellent case), Thompson provides a wealth of information about contemporary sciences and mathematics. Phenomenologists do well to keep abreast of such developments if we are to follow Husserl, the “true empiricist.” According to Thompson, “…we need richer accounts of the structure of experience, and we need scientific accounts of mind and life informed by these phenomenological accounts. Phenomenology in turn needs to be informed by psychology, neuroscience, and biology.”
Thompson begins by noting that cognitive science is “incomplete,” since it ignores emotions and motivations, subjects and their others, and provides no account of consciousness. Thompson recommends the image of mind as “an embodied dynamic system” rather than the operative metaphor of the mind as “digital computer.” The Connectionism from the 1980s was replaced by Dynamicism in the 1990s, he tells us. They both emphasize self-organizing dynamic systems. Dynamic systems approaches is that the structure that Husserl sets forth in Inner Time Consciousness works well for neural and cognitive scientists when locating the neural pathways for experience in the brain. “The working hypothesis of experimental neurophenomenology…is that…first-person data can be used to guide neurodynamical experimentation.” (366)
Thompson condones explorative strategies that will use introspective accounts of experience given by subjects trained in phenomenological description and prompting by questions from the researcher. The trajectories that subjects describe may disclose isomorphisms in symbolic systems. Nevertheless, the dimensions of temporality are not evenly divided into three equal parts. Protentions, which reach into an unknown future, must be “unfulfilled” intentions whereas retentions are determinate. More importantly for Thompson, however, protentions are motivated and their efficacy is a function of their emotional context and its power to attract or rebel. The bridge to phenomenological theory passes between emotion and intentionality’s need for it as desire strives towards its fulfillment.
Mind in Life concludes with a careful analysis of the Husserl/Stein theory of the constitution of the intersubjectivity and the experience of empathy. Unlike many interpreters, Thompson recognizes the significance of Stein’s insistence that in empathy, the other is not the I. In empathy, he writes, “I mentally transpose myself to the other’s place to comprehend the object of the subject’s experience from his or her point of view.” (388). Note: not how the I would feel in the other’s place, but the other’s feelings from where he is. Thompson continues to keep in mind that the lived body associates with other human bodies in order to make meanings. These meanings are, after all, what our colleagues in neuroscience want to locate in the brain.
Applied phenomenology at its best!