The Life & Mind Seminar Network

Seminar #24: An analysis of reflexive monism

Posted in Seminars by Tom Froese on August 20, 2007

The next Life and Mind seminar is taking place Wed. the 22nd of Aug., at 16:30 in room Pev1 1A01.

Miriam will lead a discussion on: An analysis of Reflexive Monism – Towards an “any-person’s” account on consciousness

In a nutshell, I am going to briefly present Velmans’ reflexive approach to consciousness and discuss his notion of the thing-itself, which I take to create a problem for him. I will then show how I think Velmans connects to neurophenomenology and enactivism.

All welcome.

In order to see the extended abstract click .

“Until Descartes, every thing at hand for itself was a ‘subject’; but now the ‘I’ becomes the special subject, that with regard to which all the remaining things first determine themselves as such. Because – mathematically – they first receive their thingness only through the founding relation to the highest principle and its ‘subject’ (I), they are essentially such as stand as something else in relation to the ‘subject’, which lie over against it as objectum. The things themselves become ‘objects’.” Heidegger, Modern Science, Metaphysics and Mathematics

I wish to put forward an account on consciousness that is based on Max Velmans’ Reflexive approach to consciousness (Velmans 1993, 2006). His approach is non-dualistic and non-reductive. It is non-dualistic in that it postulates an ontological monism. Therein it is similar to physicalism. However, where physicalism takes the reality to be physical, in Velmans’ approach the physical is only the epistemologically complementary part of the mental, it is one perspective. Where physicalists explicitly or implicitly reduce the mental to the physical, in Velmans’ approach it becomes one other equally legitimate perspective. Conscious experiences are not reduced to mere brain activities, or characterised as macroproperties of the brain, but they are to be taken into consideration in their own (epistemological) right. For Velmans, the phenomenal, subjective experience has to be at the heart of every scientific investigation of consciousness.

Velmans’ approach is a type of dual aspect theory. Mental and physical perspectives are two ways of accessing knowledge of an underlying third, the ur-reality. In the light of consciousness, this tertium quid is the ur-mind. Reflexive monism is thus an approach that commits to an ontological monism and an epistemological dualism. But why is it reflexive?

In the reductionist account there is a separation of contents of consciousness and the material world, as well as of the subject and the perceived object. Velmans aims to reconcile this difference in that he emphasises that every conscious experience, be it that of a dream, a bodily sensation or a cat perceived as being located “outside” is the private phenomenal experience of a subject. According to this, objects we perceive as being located in the outside world are not objectively given (in the sense of “observer-free”), rather “physical phenomena are part of what we experience rather than apart from it.” (Velmans 1993)

Velmans’ approach is called “reflexive” because we experience the things themselves reflexively. That is to say, that in contrast to an idealist account that takes the objects to be mere manifestations of the mind, in reflexive monism, there are really things in the world causing the perception of objects, i.e. experiences. Velmans’ term “perceptual projection” (Velmans 1993) expresses that these real things (the things-themselves) impinge our senses and cause the brain to project these as being either outside ourselves, inside our heads, or somewhere within our bodies.

It is the thing-itself that acts as a reference fixer for mental or physical representations, i.e. observed phenomena result from interaction with things themselves. However, Velmans’ notion of the thing-itself is different from Kant’s. Where Kant takes the thing-itself to be transcendent to our knowledge, in Velmans’ opinion, we do have knowledge of the thing-itself (“ur-mind”).

I suggest to examine this idea more carefully, for it seems to create a problem, if not a contradiction for Velmans’ approach. On the one hand, Velmans claims an epistemological dualism, i.e. the mental and the physical are experiences of the underlying things-themselves, and they must not be confused with them, for there is no identity between a phenomenal experience and its respective thing-itself. On the other hand then, Velmans claims that the thing itself can be known in that physical and mental descriptions reveal true aspects of it, and the reason for that is, that this real thing-itself, i.e. the ur-mind, is psychophysical in its nature.

It seems that introducing a thing-itself that is knowable, i.e. actually is what we think it is, is misleading: Velmans seems to subtly transfer the dualistic split he actually seeks to avoid back into the sphere of things-themselves, for the ur-reality seem to separated into elements that are (ur)mind and those that are not-(ur)mind.

I suggest that we keep the idea that physical and mental perspectives are describing the same underlying reality, but in contrast to Velmans, I take this reality to be one, a reality that is neither physical nor mental in itself. Human beings are part of the world, i.e. they are in the world. The difference between physical and psychological descriptions relies not on the fact that the world is psychophysical but rather on the fact that human beings “objectify” different parts of the world. In the case of physical descriptions these parts of the world are objects/ or events that are different from themselves, whereas in case of mental descriptions, human beings take themselves as the object of experience. It seems that Descartes’ inheritance still lives on, in that we turn ourselves from being part of the world into subjective centres that make sense of the objective world. (Heidegger, ibid.)

It is because I have an experience of my self (in the sense of an entity in the world) that I take this experience to be inside of my head, because it is my head, belonging to me. I thus situate myself and relate myself to other objects/events in the world, by drawing a systemic border. And accordingly, objects that are different from me are experienced as not belonging to me, and explained within another “observational arrangment”. (Velmans) However, as Velmans’ accurately points out, these experiences are all taking place within the phenomenal realm, i.e. they depend on a human-specific structural design.

I take a slightly modified (or clarified?) version of Velmans’ approach to be a reasonable alternative to reductive and non-reductive accounts on consciousness. Once we do not only acknowledge the crucial role of the phenomenology of consciousness, but also allow for the first-person perspective to be a reliable way of getting knowledge (about ourselves), the ground is set for a research methodology that will account for both, experiences of ourselves and descriptions of how other people experience our experiences of ourselves, an agenda that considers first-person and third-person explanations of consciousness: neurophenomenology.

This reciprocal approach on the study of consciousness has been suggested by Varela and other researchers (for instance Lutz, A.,2002, Thompson, E. and Lutz, A., 2003, Varela, F. and Shear, J., 1999, Varela, F.; Thompson, E and Rosch, E., 1991) Their claim is that the study of consciousness strongly requires the consideration of 1st-person data. Although classical phenomenology (Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer) already acknowledges the shortcomings of 3rd-person methods in explaining consciousness by putting forward a view that asks the researcher to go back to “the things themselves”, neurophenomenologists emphasise a practical dimension that has to naturally follow from this critique: Instead of a studying consciousness from a distant, and purely theoretical perspective, one has to “put hands on practice” and look at the phenomenal experience itself.

This implicates to give up a “just take a look attitude” (Varela and Shear 1999) for it is far from evident that subjects in every day life are actually aware of their phenomenal experiences. The consideration of 1st-person data thus requires a method that involves a training of subjects in experience and the generation of intersubjectively shared catalogues of reported experiences. (Lutz 2002) However, “it would be futile to stay with first-person descriptions in isolation” (Varela and Shear 1999). This is why, in addition to a more refined 1st-person method that should provide subjects with sufficient training in experience and reporting it, 3rd-person methods will be used as well. This peaceful combination of 1st- and 3rd person science leads to a “2nd-person science”. Where Dennett’s method (heterophenomenology, Dennett 1999, 2001), restricts the experimenter to only observe the subject from an anthropologic intentional stance, in Varela’s method the experimenter has to adopt a full 2nd-person in that she is empathetic, i.e. that the experimenter herself already had the experience the subject is referring to.

Combining Velmans’ reflexive approach with neurophenomenology might lead to an account that is still naturalistic, as it puts forward an ontological monism that refers to one reality that human beings perceive according to their physiology. However, the phenomenal experience is not denied, but rather plays a crucial role if consciousness is taken to be as exactly that what happens when a subject has (any) conscious, subjective and phenomenal experience, be it of objects/events in the world that are not herself, or of herself. The gap between 1st- and 3rd- person perspectives appears to be bridgeable as every 3rd-person description necessarily depends on a 1st-person experience. In the spirit of neurophenomenology, 1st-person and 3rd- person methods might put reciprocal constraints on the study of consciousness.

So far these reflections have mainly considered the 1st- person perspective on consciousness. But they did not provide information about how consciousness is caused or constituted. This is a related but fundamentally different question that I also wish to tackle:

Velmans (in press) agrees with the enactive account on consciousness in that consciousness clearly depends on more than the brain. The interaction with the environment and the mastery of sensory motor skills are similarly crucial to him. However, Velmans argues against enactivism in that he takes it to only replace the physicalist’s and functionalist’s neural representations with sensory motor activities by still maintaining a reductive attitude in explaining consciousness from “the outside” by means of a third-person perspective. He objects that enactivists do not only claim that sensory motor activities have causal relevance but that they also consider sensory motor interactions with the environment to be constitutive for consciousness. He argues that, in contrary, the causal relevance should not lead to a constitutive relevance. Sensory motor interactions remain preconscious. Consciousness itself happens in the brain and is only established by neural activities.

According to my view, Velmans is right in that replacing neural representations with sensory motor activities and then trying to explain consciousness solely from a 3rd-person’s perspective creates conceptual confusion and an explanatory gap. Velmans’ critique would hold if enactivists were ignorant about the phenomenology of consciousness. However, in my view, nothing speaks against an enactive approach that considers first-person data as well. The claim that consciousness is constituted by sensorimotor interactions with the world does not rule out that human beings have particular experiences of these interactions. I suggest to save enactivism in that sensory-motor interactions with the world are indeed not only causal, but constitutive for consciousness.


5 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Miriam Kyselo said, on August 22, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    “…the primary metaphysical and conceptual datum in the philosophy of mind is neither a subjective conscious mind, nor an objective material body, but rather an animal, construed as essentially a bearer of metaphysically complementary mental and physical properties.”

    Thanks Tom, for the reference to Hanna’s and Thompson’s paper. (The Mind-Body-Body Problem) – I feel that it is a good way of putting it. If you remember my little drawing, then, I have the feeling, this is what I was aiming at. If we consider Uexkuell’s world-environment notion, then we have exactly this – species (or as Thompson puts it, “animals”) that are in the world and that have different perspectives on it.

  2. Mike Beaton said, on August 24, 2007 at 11:01 am

    Is the idea that the mental and the physical are ‘complementary’ possibly misleading?

    That sounds to me like they are two different ‘forks’ you can take, starting from the more fundamental Ding an Sich. In that ‘forking’ view, it sounds like there is no way to relate mind to world, except by the mere, unarticulated belief that they do relate. E.g. starting from mind – how do I ever know that there is a physical world, at all? Why not just be an idealist?

    The physicist Roland Omnès suggests a circular relation. For a summary, see and (the present author being one of the main contributors to those articles! (at least, as of 24 Aug 2007)).

    Starting from mind, we can know the physical world – but starting from the physical world we can also know what mind, physically, is. There needs to be a mind to know the physical world, but there needs to be a physical world, to have minds in it. Is this really so surprising?

    People might have an opinion as to whether this way of thinking (a circular relationship) is really different to what Velmans?, Thompson?, Varela? say.


  3. Miriam Kyselo said, on August 24, 2007 at 4:39 pm

    Hanna and Thompson’s idea is that the Body-Mind-Problem faces the Body-problem (there is no theory of the true nature of the physical world – doesn’t this concern the question “How do I ever know that there is a physical world?) and is thus “unintellible”. They hold that the real problem is the Mind-Body-Body problem. The relation of

    i. consciousness,
    ii. the lived/living body (Leib) and
    iii. the body as a material object (Koerper)

    Each part of the “MBB”-problem can be accessed in a “non-Cartesian, non-question-begging” way. Consciousness can be explained by first-person methods, the Leib by first-second and third-person and the Koerper by third-person methods of physics, chemistry and biology. Mental properties derive from phenomenology and physical properties from third-person criteria.
    And thus their “surprisingly simple solution”: a dual-aspect theory, according to which the Leib (animal) bears both mental and physical properties.

    My question: isn’t that still question-begging? I worry that the idea of phenomenological and physical properties as two aspects of animals or Leib misses one point: to explain why we have these different properties and how they relate. Hanna and Thompson simply say: we are not talking about the actual nature of the physical world, we are just taking what we have – a scientific perspective. But that is the problem: how to relate physics to phenomenology? Will this tertium quid help?

    Now, Velmans says that both perspectives are aspects of the ur-mind. Although I am (even more, after the talk) convinced that this idea is problematic, it might hint at something else, which Velmans also says, namely that both perspectives rely on the conscious experience of a subject. But does this mean we have to start from the mind? Isn’t that question still based on the implicit idea, that there really are two different things, the mental and physical, or the mind and the matter?

    I like the idea of taking the animal as the conceptual basis, but I wonder what to make of the notion of Leib. The question is maybe not “How can something (the animal/leib) be both a bearer of mental and material properties?”, but rather: Why can something be both a bearer of mental and material properties? Because, as we know at least from human animals, it lies within their cognitive and perceptual abilities to make a difference between themselves as objects and objects that are not themselves. Human animals have one brain, one body (and maybe, one Leib) – but they have only one basic way of using it. It depends on the object of attention, how (based on the way human animals perceive, recognise or experience), the perspective, i.e. “observational arrangement” change. There is no need to assume an underlying third that is either psychophysical, physical or psychological. There is the animal and it has different ways to make sense of the world and of itself as a part of that world.

    I haven’t read Omnes, but Velmans seems to want more: the underlying thing, mental and physical are aspects of. And for Thompson, at least considering the article I mentioned above, I think it must be something else as well. There needs to be an animal that bears both, mental and physical properties. However, according to “The Embodied Mind”, yes: the relationship is circular. Or in their (Thompson, Varela, Rosch) own words: “Cognitive science is janus-faced”.


    Tom, do Hanna and Thompson confound something when they contrast dual aspect animalism with anomalous monism? They say: To say that a single thing is the bearer of both mental and material properties, and thereby the locus of both mental and physical events, is not to say that mental particulars or events are identical with material particulars or events

    Why can’t we assume both: an identity (at least from the 3rd person perspective) relation of conscious experience and their physical correlates, and on the other hand: the relation of physical and mental, i.e. 1st- and 3rd-perspective?

    A preview-function would be very convenient…

  4. tomfroese said, on August 29, 2007 at 10:07 am


    It’s been quite a long time since I’ve read this article so I’m not quite sure about the particular details of their argument.

    One important idea is that, in contrast to the standard mind-body problem, our concepts of the Koerper and Leib both require us to make reference to living being. So this can give us at least a conceptual common denominator.

    What about the ontological ground? The sense that I got from reading the article is that the Leib is treated quite closely to Heidegger’s notion of Dasein, that is, a kind of being which is neither subject nor object, but which can become a proper subject and be viewed as a proper object under certain circumstances (be they scientific, philosophical, or breakdowns of everydayness).

    As such I would suggest that perhaps we need to consider the ongoing stream of embodied-embedded experience as ontologically basic and concede that no questions can be asked beyond that phenomenological bedrock.

  5. Max Velmans said, on October 1, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    Dear All

    Miriam did send me an email about a month ago asking about my views on some of the issues that you discuss in your seminar – and hopefully she forwarded the replies on to you.

    I did not realise at the time that you were having a seminar (I came across it by accident on the web) – so, although it is a little late, if you are still unclear about any issues you might like to have a look at the latest summary of Reflexive Monism (JCS 2008, in press) which is available in a prepublication form at This goes into many of the issues you discuss in more depth. Given what came up in the seminar, you might also have a look at my paper on “Heterophenomenology versus critical phenomenology” in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 6, 221-230 – online at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: