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Expanding the Extended Mind: Merleau-Ponty’s Late Ontology as Radical Enactive Cognition

8 July 2016


In this essay, I argue that the late ontology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in particular the system he began to develop in The Visible and the Invisible, can be conceived of as a form of Radical Enactive Cognition, as described by Hutto and Myin in Radicalizing Enactivism. I will begin by discussing Clark and Chalmers’ extended mind hypothesis, as well as the enactive view of consciousness proposed by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch in The Embodied Mind. However, neither Clark and Chalmers’ extended mind hypothesis nor the enactive view of consciousness advanced by Varela et al. are radical enough to fully capture Merleau-Ponty’s late ontology. Inasmuch as Hutto and Myin’s formulation combines features of the extended mind thesis and enactivism, and expresses both in a sufficiently radical fashion, it overcomes the deficits of both theories and can serve as a translation, so to speak, of Merleau-Ponty’s “ontology of the flesh” into contemporary terms. In particular, their formulation makes explicit several central aspects of his theory: the intimate, mutually constitutive relationship between perceiver and perceived world, the equal weight given to the contributions of perceiver and world within this relationship, and the displacement of representational content from its central position in the understanding of consciousness. It is thus the ideal vehicle for demonstrating some perhaps unexpected ways in which Merleau-Ponty’s thought is compatible with contemporary conversations concerning the nature of mind.


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