I recently attended the conference “Science of the Self: the Agency and Body Representation Research Forum”, which took place in Sydney on November 20-22. The conference was organized by a group of researchers from Macquarie University (Vince Polito, Regine Zopf, Simmy Poonian, and Mariia Kaliuzhna, who did a great job putting together an exciting program, and also selecting a wonderful location). The conference featured four keynote presentations, and it gathered researchers working on the topics of embodiment and agency, most of them from an experimental perspective.
Christopher Erhard, postdoctoral visiting researcher from the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich (LMU Munich), holder of a DFG fellowship, currently working on a Habilitationsschrift on the Phenomenology of Being Active and related issues.
Using resources both from the (largely neglected) early and classical phenomenological tradition and from contemporary approaches, the overall goal of my project is to rethink the active-passive distinction from a phenomenological point of view.
Often disorientated, but also seduced by the complexities of the topic, I’ve been revolving around the same question for a year: How can phenomenology and embodied cognitive science help us understand cases of abnormal embodiment, like cerebral palsy?
Currently I’m working on the theory of affordances, as originally proposed by Gibson in 1979. The notion of affordance, conceived as the opportunities for action for an agent in an environment, has played a central role in embodied cognitive science -especially in the radical, non-representationalist versions-. One of the reasons is that it provides a tool to explain the engagement of the animal (or person) with its environment avoiding the issues associated with explaining cognition in terms of representations and computations.
In the first half of the 20th century, lively debates were going on in Europe concerning the foundations of sociality and interpersonal understanding. Participants in these debates included central figures of the phenomenological tradition, such as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Max Scheler, and Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as lesser known figures, including Alfred Schutz, Gerda Walther, Edith Stein, and Karl Löwith, amongst many others. Contributors to these debates didn’t come only from philosophy, though. Founding figures of German sociology like Georg Simmel and Leopold von Wiese provided important inputs. Psychiatrists like Ludwig Binswanger and Medard Boss were also significantly interested in the topic of sociality, as were other thinkers whose contributions spanned the boundaries between philosophy of sociality, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of language, like Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, and Ferdinand Ebner.
Thomas Szanto, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at CFS, on a Complex Affective Trias
Thanks to my generous Marie Curie project funding (SHARE), recently, I could spend three wonderful months in Europe’s probably most vibrant capital, Berlin—vibrant not only in terms of its notorious night-life, but just as much in terms of its research community.
From May to July I was a Visiting Researcher at the DFG-funded Collaborative Research Center (CRS), “Affective Societies: Dynamics of Social Coexistence in Mobile Worlds” http://www.sfb-affective-societies.de/en/index.html. The CRS is an interdisciplinary research platform, spanning 11 disciplines and involving 70 researchers, based at the Freie Universität Berlin and lead, as Co-PIs, by the philosopher Jan Slaby (http://www.janslaby.com/), who kindly invited and hosted me for the research stay, and the sociologist Christian von Scheve (http://www.polsoz.fu-berlin.de/soziologie/arbeitsbereiche/emotionen/team/Professur/scheve.html).
I immensely profited from discussions with Jan and Christian and other colleagues at FU Berlin. The forthcoming paper on “Emotional Self-Alienation”, which I was mainly working on during my stay, was much inspired by their exciting work, in particular, by Christian’s work on “feeling norms” (esp. von Scheve 2012, 2013), and Jan’s work on the exploitative and manipulative flip-side of situated and extended cognition approaches (esp. Slaby 2017).
I am writing from my home in Sheffield, nearly two weeks after returning from Copenhagen where I spent the month of September ensconced in the research community at the Center for Subjectivity Research. I spent that time quietly getting on with some work of my own, but every day discussing various philosophical issues with the Center’s members (to my great advantage). I have nothing but very warm memories of the academic environment and how kindly I was welcomed into it for a month.
Since 2011, the Center for Subjectivity Research has been involved in a large-scale project on the empathy funded by the VELUX FONDEN. A central objective had been to investigate what empathy is and what role it plays in interpersonal relations.
In recent years, an increasing number of disciplines have shown interest in empathy, be it psychiatry, affective neuroscience, developmental psychology, anthropology, or philosophy. The increasing amount of work being done in the field hasn’t resulted in any converging consensus about what exactly empathy amounts to. In fact, if there is any agreement, it is about disagreeing about the definition of empathy.
These days, my 2 years stay as a visiting post doc at the Center for Subjectivity Research comes to an end. It has been a great time of learning and also a great pleasure. The people working at or visiting the Center have provided me with valuable feedback and hints for my work on collective atmospheres and also – though in a less theoretical way – with an impressive example of a good working atmosphere.
In the world of phenomenological publishing outlets, there is a new kid on the block: Routledge Research in Phenomenology. This book series – which is edited by Komarine Romdenh-Romluc, David R. Cerbone, and myself – publishes volumes that relate phenomenological arguments and ideas to a broader range of current philosophical problems. It also offers more historically informed studies of themes and figures from the phenomenological tradition, with the aim to be a rich resource of new ideas and approaches that promise to enliven contemporary debates. Clearly written and rigorously argued, these books ensure accessibility to a broad philosophical audience and to theorists working in other disciplines.