Central and East European
Society for Phenomenology

Conference | Paper

Intersubjectivity, Mirror Neurons, and the Limits of Naturalism

Anthony Longo

Thursday 2 December 2021

10:20 - 11:00

Zoom 1-1

One of the key debates in contemporary philosophy of mind is set between naturalistic and phenomenological accounts of phenomenal consciousness. In this debate, the question at stake is, to which extent phenomenal consciousness can be naturalized, i.e., be explained in terms of physical processes such as the neurological ones. This paper explores the possibilities and limits of naturalizing the experience of intersubjectivity. Traditional theories of intersubjectivity in the analytic tradition have explained the experience of “other minds” in terms of mental or cognitive faculties, i.e., either by attributing mental states to others or by relying on one’s faculty of imagination. This paradigm was fundamentally challenged by the discovery of mirror neurons. The existence of mirror neurons, indeed, illustrates that an experience of intersubjectivity is already present on a more primitive, precognitive, and embodied level. A similar argument already had been made in the first half of the twentieth century by phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl. This motivated Vittorio Gallese, one of the discoverers of mirror neurons, and other philosophers to connect the functioning of mirror neurons with Husserl’s phenomenology of intersubjectivity as presented in his Cartesianische Meditationen (CM). In doing so, these contributions are at the same time an attempt to naturalize the experience of intersubjectivity. I argue that such attempts are grounded in an inadequate interpretation of Husserl’s analysis. A close reading in the context of his other published works shows that Husserl’s analysis in CM should be understood as a reductio ad absurdum and not as a phenomenology of intersubjectivity proper. Attempts to naturalize intersubjectivity based on the analysis presented in CM, therefore, run into a circular argument. As such, they bypass a more primordial experience of intersubjectivity, which Husserl thematizes in Ideen II as the experience of an “expressive unity” and which resists any project of naturalization from within.