MERLEAU-PONTY’SMODIFICATION OF PHENOMENOLOGY:
COGNITION, PASSION AND PHILOSOPHY
ABSTRACT. This paper problematizes the analogy that Hubert Dreyfus has presented
between phenomenology and cognitive science. It argues that Dreyfus presents Merleau-
Ponty’s modiﬁcation of Husserl’s phenomenology in a misleading way. He ignores the idea
of philosophy as a radical interrogation and self-responsibility that stems from Husserl’s
work and recurs in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. The paper focuses
on Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the phenomenological reduction. It shows that his
critical idea was not to restrict the scope of Husserl’s reductions but to study the conditions
of possibility for the thetic acts. Merleau-Ponty argued, following Husserl’s texts, that the
thetic acts rest on the basis of primordial pre-thetic experience. This layer of experience
cannot, by its nature, be explicated or clariﬁed, but it can be questioned and unveiled. This
is the recurrent task of phenomenological philosophy, as Merleau-Ponty understands it.
In his introduction to Husserl, Intentionality and Cognitive Science (1984),
Hubert Dreyfus presents a far-reaching analogy between cognitive science
and phenomenology. He argues that Jerry Fodor’s symbolic computational
account of mental action is essentially similar, in its crucial points, to
Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological analysis.
Dreyfus also states that
Husserl’s existentialist followers, Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-
Ponty, abandoned Husserl’s “cognitivism” and “privatism”, and that their
fundamental critique can be directed, by analogy, against Fodor-type
computationalism (1984, 2–3, 19–27).
This claim is crucial to Dreyfus’ own criticism of symbolic cognitive
science: he bases his argument on existentialist notions and concepts.
a recent paper, he suggests that the new developments in artiﬁcial intelli-
gence – the artiﬁcial neural networks – provide a computational model that
is in accordance with the existentialist understanding of our experiences
So, the analogy is completed: neural networks challenge
Fodor’s symbolic paradigm in a same way that existentialism challenged
Dreyfus’ suggestion is striking. It has affected both cognitive science
enthusiasts and critics. The enthusiasts think that the new scientists of
cognition, thanks to their computational models (the symbolic and the
connectionist), manage ﬁnally to transform psychology and philosophy
of mind into positive sciences.
The critics believe, on the contrary, that
Synthese 118: 49–68, 1999.
© 1999 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.