1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Egenis · Events

Department seminar with Dr Stephen Burwood: 'Head, Brain and Self: a Phenomenological Entanglement'

Seminar   28.01.2013






Dr Stephen Burwood, University of Hull

Organised by

Department of Sociology and Philosophy, University of Exeter


Amory Building, Rennes Drive, University of Exeter

Room no: Amory B315

Event details


3.30 - 5.00pm


We often spontaneously speak of some thought or perceptual experience, for example, as occurring in our heads. For example, we seem quite naturally to say things such as "I have an idea up here" or "I'm sorry; this doesn't seem to be functioning properly today," whilst at the same time pointing to our heads. Likewise, intelligence and stupidity are commonly and unreflectively attributed by such phrases as "She is empty-headed" or "There's nothing going on in his head." Such locutions appear to support a surprisingly widespread view that in some way we are located in our heads, a view sometimes further explicated in terms of us being our brains. It is equally unexceptional for someone nowadays to speak of themselves in terms of the latter; for example, in cases of body dysmorphia. In certain circles this also appears to have become philosophical commonsense, perhaps motivated by contemporary materialist philosophy of mind in which thought-tokens are said to occur in the brain and legitimated by the success, more generally, of the brain sciences. Nonetheless, this view has little to commend it and even a proponent, such as Nagel, is likely to concede that it is "hard to internalise". It has now received some philosophical attention and has been derided as the "mereological fallacy" in neuroscience (Bennett & Hacker) and is beginning to come under sustained criticism from supporters of the "extended mind" (e.g. Noë).

I do not wish to revisit these arguments but examine certain phenomenological considerations that do not often get an airing. It is unlikely that the foregoing locutions encode in everyday speech theories in the philosophy of mind or the discoveries of the brain sciences, at least not straightforwardly. Nonetheless, they may be a response to certain features of embodied experience that accusations of fallacious reasoning may unhelpfully obscure. "Philosophical doctrines," Drew Leder claims, "arise out of the life-world and attain popularity and credibility only to the extent that they harmonise with lived experience." With certain caveats in place, this is a view with which I have some sympathy. However, the examination of this lived experience may also explain why this particular thesis—that we are, essentially, our brains—is hard, in fact impossible, to internalise. Phenomenology might not be the royal road to metaphysics; but we should take seriously its role in offering constraints on our theorising, especially our theorising about our own natures.

Further details