Phantom Originary Intentionality: Thought of the Day 16.0

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Phantom limbs and anosognosias – cases of abnormal impressions of the presence or absence of parts of our body – seem like handy illustrations of an irreducible, first-person dimension of experience, of the sort that will delight the phenomenologist, who will say: aha! there is an empirical case of self-reference which externalist, third-person explanations of the type favoured by deflationary materialists, cannot explain away, cannot do away with. As Merleau-Ponty would say, and Varela after him, there is something about my body which makes it irreducibly my own (le corps propre). Whether illusory or not, such images (phantoms) have something about them such that we perceive them as our own, not someone else’s (well, some agnosias are different: thinking our paralyzed limb is precisely someone else’s, often a relative’s). One might then want to insist that phantom limbs testify to the transcendence of mental life! Indeed, in one of the more celebrated historical cases of phantom limb syndrome, Lord Horatio Nelson, having lost his right arm in a sea battle off of Tenerife, suffered from pains in his phantom hand. Most importantly, he apparently declared that this phantom experience was a “direct proof of the existence of the soul”. Although the materialist might agree with the (reformed) phenomenologist to reject dualism and accept that we are not in our bodies like a sailor in a ship, she might not want to go and declare, as Merleau-Ponty does, that “the mind does not use the body, but fulfills itself through it while at the same time transferring the body outside of physical space.” This way of talking goes back to the Husserlian distinction between Korper, ‘body’ in the sense of one body among others in a vast mechanistic universe of bodies, and Leib, ‘flesh’ in the sense of a subjectivity which is the locus of experience. Now, granted, in cognitivist terms one would want to say that a representation is always my representation, it is not ‘transferable’ like a neutral piece of information, since the way an object appear to me is always a function of my needs and interests. What my senses tell me at any given time relies on my interests as an agent and is determined by them, as described by Andy Clark, who appeals to the combined research traditions of the psychology of perception, new robotics, and Artificial Life. But the phenomenologist will take off from there and build a full-blown defense of intentionality, now recast as ‘motor intentionality’, a notion which goes back to Husserl’s claim in Ideas II that the way the body relates to the external world is crucially through “kinestheses”: all external motions which we perceive are first of all related to kinesthetic sensations, out of which we constitute a sense of space. On this view, our body thus already displays ‘originary intentionality’ in how it relates to the world.

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