Thomas Netland / Phenomenology and Science

This Spring I enjoyed a four-months stay (February-May) at the Center for Subjectivity Research as a visiting PhD researcher. Having spent the first months of my PhD period (Fall 2018) mostly on teaching duties at my home university in Trondheim, Norway, the Center’s friendly and inspiring atmosphere proved the perfect environment for me to really get started on my project. Søren Overgaard and Felipe Léon’s MA course on Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, which I was so lucky to get to attend twice a week during my stay, helped me greatly in gaining a better understanding of a philosopher that is central to my research. I’m also grateful to the Center’s staff and my co-visitors for many stimulating conversations throughout my visit in Copenhagen.

In my PhD project, I’m investigating the relations between philosophical phenomenology and scientific approaches to life and mind. In particular, I’m interested in phenomenology’s methodological and metaphysical role in the research program known as “enactivism,” and the question of how/whether the mutual enlightenment between phenomenology and science advocated by (some) proponents of this program is possible. The problem, in (arguably too) simplified form, is this: How can first-person and third-person approaches inform each other? One concern here is why we should take phenomenology’s studies of subjectivity as such to have any consequences for our scientific understanding of mind and cognition. Another is that phenomenology traditionally is defined by a “bracketing” of the “natural attitude” that scientists take for granted, thus seemingly making its area of study indifferent to results from empirical research. My overarching working hypothesis, which I’m not alone at holding in the field, is that making adequate sense of a cooperation between phenomenology and science requires a rethinking of our traditional concepts of both nature and (transcendental) philosophy, and that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology contains some helpful pointers for how this project can be carried out. In particular, I think Merleau-Ponty’s often-neglected first work, The Structure of Behavior, provides a fruitful conceptual resource with the notion of structure, conceived as ontologically prior to the subject-object distinction.

Writing an article-based dissertation, I’m approaching this general topic through engagement with narrower questions in three different articles, two of which I worked on during my time at the CFS. In the first, which was the main focus during my stay, I take a stance in a debate between two strands of the enactivist camp, known as “sensorimotor” and “autopoietic” enactivism, arguing that the latter is supported by a phenomenological consideration of the meaning inherent in perceptual behavior.

I presented a draft of this article at one of CFS’s weekly research seminars, and benefited greatly from the constructive feedback I got. The research seminar is a meeting of CFS’s staff and visitors, consisting of a roughly 40 minutes long presentation followed by an equally long discussion. In addition to these weekly presentations, which I learned a lot from, I also enjoyed the many guest lectures organized by the Center during my months there. Moreover, I was so lucky that this year’s Nordic Society for Phenomenology conference (April 25-27th) took place in Copenhagen, hosted by the CFS. With a number of interesting talks, an overall smooth organization, and even great weather most of the days, I don’t think the conference could have gone much better.

At the CFS I found an environment where I was able to both make considerable progress with my work and make new friends. I’m looking forward to my next visit to Copenhagen!


Thomas Netland
PhD Candidate
Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)


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