Embodied higher cognition: insights from Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of motor intentionality

Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 22 (2):369-397 (2023)
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This paper clarifies Merleau-Ponty’s original account of “higher-order” cognition as fundamentally embodied and enacted. Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy inspired theories that deemphasize overlaps between conceptual knowledge and motor intentionality or, on the contrary, focus exclusively on abstract thought. In contrast, this paper explores the link between Merleau-Ponty’s account of motor intentionality and his interpretations of our capacity to understand and interact productively with cultural symbolic systems. I develop my interpretation based on Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of two neuropathological modifications of motor intentionality, the case of the brain-injured war veteran Schneider, and a neurological disorder known as Gerstmann’s syndrome. Building on my analysis of Schneider’s sensorimotor compensatory performances in relation to his limitations in the domains of algebra, geometry, and language usage, I demonstrate a strong continuity between the sense of embodiment and enaction at all these levels. Based on Merleau-Ponty’s interpretations, I argue that “higher-order” cognition is impaired in Schneider insofar as his injury limits his sensorimotor capacity to dynamically produce comparatively more complex differentiations of any given phenomenal structure. I then show how Merleau-Ponty develops and specifies his interpretation of Schneider’s intellectual difficulties in relation to the ambiguous role of the body, and in particular the hand, in Gerstmann’s syndrome. I explain how Merleau-Ponty defends the idea that sensorimotor and quasi-representational cognition are mutually irreducible, while maintaining that symbol-based cognition is a fundamentally enactive and embodied process.

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Jan Halák
Palacky University


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