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Symposia. Pragmatism and Phenomenology. A Metaphilosophical Reconsideration

Habits of Mind

New Insights for Embodied Cognition from Classical Pragmatism and Phenomenology
Catherine Legg and Jack Reynolds


Although pragmatism and phenomenology have both contributed significantly to the genealogy of so-called “4E” – embodied, embedded, enactive and extended – cognition, there is benefit to be had from a systematic comparative study of these roots. As existing 4E cognition literature has tended to emphasise one or the other tradition, issues remain to be addressed concerning their commonalities – and possible incompatibilities. We begin by exploring pragmatism and phenomenology’s shared focus on contesting intellectualism, and its key assumption of mindedness as representation. We then outline distinctive insights from both traditions regarding the nature and role of habits, in order to put forward a habit-based epistemology as an alternative to the Cartesian idea-based epistemology that has dominated modern philosophy. We pay particular attention to the work of classical pragmatist C.S. Peirce, arguing that his semiotics, which analyses sign-use as habit, shows how theorists of embodied cognition can break a certain false dichotomy between embodiment and logical or intellectual structure which has prevented them from fully theorising propositional knowledge. In this way, our work both augments and challenges the Dewey/Merleau-Ponty connection that has been much more extensively explored by the field.

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1. Introduction

  • 1 Honorable exceptions include work by Sandra Rosenthal, Carl Sachs, Mark Okrent, and others. See in (...)

1Pragmatism and phenomenology are two distinct philosophical traditions which show some striking commonalities. Both methodologically foreground experience and lived problem-solving in ways that mainstream analytic philosophy generally does not. Yet because the two traditions developed in different geographic locations before today’s globalized academic industry, they have arguably not engaged and learned from one another as much as they might.1 In this paper we seek to change this, by exploring some features of pragmatism and phenomenology that enable them to collaborate propitiously in the rapidly developing field of 4E cognition (Shapiro & Spaulding 2021). Although the two traditions contributed significantly to the genealogy of this field, which has been acknowledged (Gallagher 2017; Thompson 2007; Hutto & Myin 2013; Clark 2008a; Clark 1997; Chemero 2009), we believe that it can benefit from systematically re-examining its roots in these two traditions taken together, as much of the existing literature has tended to emphasise one or the other.

2We shall specifically explore distinctive insights from both traditions regarding the nature and role of habits. We shall seek to motivate a habit-based epistemology, as an alternative to the Cartesian idea-based epistemology that has arguably dominated modern philosophy. We pay particular attention to the work of classical pragmatist C.S. Peirce, as we believe that his semiotics, which analyses sign-use as habit, shows how theorists of embodied cognition can break a certain false dichotomy between embodiment and logical or intellectual structure which is arguably hampering their work. In this way, our work both augments and challenges the Dewey/Merleau-Ponty connection that has already been extensively explored in the field (Gallagher 2017; Godfrey-Smith 2015; Hutto 2011; Menary 2010; Clark 1997).

  • 2 Of course this was by no means the only influence on both traditions. For phenomenology, Husserl’s (...)

3We begin our argument (section 2) by outlining intellectualism, as a background view that both pragmatism and phenomenology resisted, to some degree forging their own positive outlooks via that resistance.2 We explore the crucial intellectualist assumption of mindedness as representation. We then briefly introduce the field of 4E cognition (section 3), before turning to habit as a supplement to most current 4E approaches and detailing how it is theorized by pragmatism and by phenomenology (section 4). Then we examine the current state of debates concerning intellectualism in embodied cognition (section 5), noting the lack of consensus over whether the mind can be said to represent in any sense. Finally, we present our own view of “habit as embodied representation” (section 6), which combines anti-intellectualist insights concerning embodiment found in key phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty with a novel intellectualism to be found in the semiotics of Peirce.

2. Intellectualism and its Discontents

4Lily knows that Canberra is the capital of Australia. Aroha knows how to play the violin. What, if anything, do these “knowings” have in common? Traditionally philosophers have sharply distinguished knowings such as Lily’s, that can seemingly be encapsulated and transmitted in propositions (“knowing-that”), from knowings such as Aroha’s, that seem at least partly held in the body (“knowing-how”). Within such a framework, knowing-that has tended to be privileged as the sole and proper domain of epistemology and philosophy of mind, due to its supposed immediacy (under certain assumptions about the mind), and its clear interface with reasoning technologies such as speaking, writing and formal logic.

5Although this distinction goes back to Aristotle, it drew considerable strength from Descartes’ metaphysical cleavage of mind from body in an attempt to establish indubitable knowledge. This led to understandings of knowing in terms of disembodied ideas or “propositions in the head” (today often referred to as “mental content”). This metaphor of the proposition in the head produces the key intellectualist idea that mindedness consists primarily in representing the world (in some manner or other), rather than, say, transacting or coping with it. This focus on representation has further entrenched philosophers’ tendency to treat even the most sophisticated “knowing-how” as not knowledge proper, but “mere” bodily skill. The cultural effects of this in downgrading (or “disenchanting” à la John McDowell) our embodied experience have arguably been profound, both reflecting and perhaps also contributing to a socio-economic division of labour characteristic of modernity. Husserl made this cultural and political point in polemical terms in his Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1970), suggesting that intellectualist understandings of reason and rationality had produced a crisis of justification – for philosophy, the natural and human sciences, and our culture. In more recent times, and notwithstanding their criticisms of Husserl’s alleged residual intellectualism, Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus begin their book, Mind Over Machine (1986) with Blaise Pascal’s famous line: “the heart has its reasons that reason does not know.” They conclude the book with a grim diagnosis of what they see as intellectualism’s damaging effects in encouraging the outsourcing of our knowing to “logic machines” which manipulate disembodied propositions:

[A]t all levels of society computer-type rationality is winning out. Experts are an endangered species. If we fail to put logic machines in their proper place, as aids to human beings with expert intuition, then we shall end up servants supplying data to our competent machines. (Dreyfus & Dreyfus 1986: 206)

  • 3 That said, pragmatism has been accused by some of neglecting animal intentionality (Haugeland 1990) (...)

6Pragmatism and phenomenology both evolved at least in part through critiquing intellectualism. Pragmatism rejects intellectualism because it neglects the role of agency in structuring meaning. As John Dewey famously noted, we are not just “spectators” (that is, representers) of reality, we also “intervene,” and this should be included in the very notion of experience (Dewey 1925; Hildebrand 2008). Relatedly, Robert Brandom writes: “A founding idea of pragmatism is that the most fundamental kind of intentionality (in the sense of directedness towards objects) is the practical involvement with objects exhibited by a sentient creature dealing skillfully with its world” (Brandom 2008: 178). Both claims hark back to Peirce’s founding statement of pragmatism in his famous “Pragmatic Maxim,” that the entire meaning of a concept consists in the “effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings [that] we conceive the object of our conception to have” (Peirce: CP 5.402). Here Peirce expressed a methodological ambition to bring philosophy closer to the natural sciences, by seeking to understand concepts not merely through verbal definitions but also through experimental testing of hypotheses. This brings the so-called “cycle of inquiry” into the heart of pragmatist philosophy of language (Rosenthal 1994). Thus, while pragmatists have done important work emphasising the social dimensions of linguistic meaning, they analyze cognition within a broader naturalistic context.3 In pragmatism’s early decades, evolutionary theory – newly developed and causing a cultural sensation – was a particular influence on Peirce and Dewey (Pearce 2020; Margolis 2010). For these reasons, pragmatists tend to see philosophical theories as vindicated by their explanatory power. Peirce especially emphasized this (Peirce: CP 5.265).

  • 4 Of course, it is generally agreed today that we do not need to reason reflectively, or be conscious (...)

7Phenomenology rejects intellectualism primarily because it seems to contradict important aspects of lived experience. Firstly, it doesn’t seem that our everyday worldly coping, at bottom, constitutes or even necessarily involves propositional knowledge.4 Husserl’s phenomenology noted this, whilst also seeking to delineate essential experiences from which he believed that propositional knowledge derived. Many of his insights were deployed by subsequent phenomenologists, including some who criticized intellectualism more radically, notably existential phenomenologists like Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty.

8Although Heidegger’s discussion of the ready-to-hand/present-at-hand/unready-to-hand mode of relating to the world is very important for the phenomenological critique of intellectualism, and directly influenced Gilbert Ryle’s anti-intellectualist arguments (see Thomasson 2002), we will focus on Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception provides the clearest explicit phenomenological engagement with intellectualism, arguing that intellectualism (along with empiricism) cannot do justice to two vital and intimately connected aspects of lived experience – the body and perception. Thus Merleau-Ponty claimed that “one’s own body is the always implied third term of the figure-background structure” (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 115), which is characteristic of visual experience, in particular. As Carl Sachs nicely glosses: “if all perception has a figure/ground structure, and the figure/ground structure is only intelligible because of the role of bodily behaviour, then perception is only intelligible in light of bodily behaviour” (Sachs 2015). In addition, Merleau-Ponty suggests that habits are always both motor and perceptual (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 175), a claim we will examine below in the context of “higher-order” cognition. Overall, the body and perception form a structural “couple,” for him, and many of the problems he diagnoses in the history of philosophy ramify across both areas.

9For Merleau-Ponty, intellectualism privileges conscious judgment and reflection, granting the body no special significance, no intentional mode of comportment or attunement. He urges that the body needs to be understood on its own terms, the “I can” (or, sometimes, “I cannot”) rather than the “I think.” Merleau-Ponty ultimately advances the apparently anti-intellectualist claim that what he calls “motor intentionality” grounds “reflective intentionality” (including philosophical understanding), a claim we will consider further below. For now, however, it is important just to emphasise that this motor intentionality (also called operative intentionality) is not purely bodily in any reductive sense. It includes what Merleau-Ponty calls an “intentional arc” (1962: 157, cf. Dreyfus 1998), which posits a feedback loop between our perception of the world and action possibilities within it. It also includes cultural and historical context, and “creates the unity of the senses, the unity of the senses with intelligence, and the unity of sensitivity and motricity” (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 157).

10Regarding perceptual experience, Merleau-Ponty states:

there is a significance of the percept that has no equivalent in the universe of the understanding, a perceptual milieu that is not yet the objective world, a perceptual being that is not yet determinate being. (Ibid.: 54)

11According to him, then, there is a “world of perception” (to borrow a title of his) that is irreducible to the universe of the understanding, at least if the latter is guided by what he calls the “prejudice of objectivism,” which construes the perceived world as unable to be accepted as reliable or real (either methodologically or ontologically). Any attempt to translate the perceived world into objective terms and categories imported from the sciences, according to Merleau-Ponty commits the “experience error” (1962) – taking what we intellectually know of objects and retrofitting it onto our account of what it is like to experience them. In this way, the perceptual world, like the motor intentionality associated with embodiment, is envisaged as the ground for propositional forms of knowledge and judgement, and so cannot be fully comprehended through them. We might question whether this results in a “bifurcation” between embodied and rational knowing (cf. Sachs 2015), which makes it difficult to explain how our living agency obviously manages to integrate the two. While we cannot resolve complex interpretive questions about Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy here, other than to note that the role of the “intentional arc” in motor-intentionality suggests there is no straightforward bifurcation, we will return to some of Merleau-Ponty’s insights concerning habit in juxtaposition with Peirce.

  • 5 The concept of experience has actually become something of a sore point in the pragmatist tradition (...)
  • 6 Merleau-Ponty also emphasizes phenomenological description in contrast to explanation in his “Prefa (...)

12To sum up, pragmatism and phenomenology’s shared legacy of contesting intellectualism has given them significant philosophical commonalities. Both draw on a rich concept of experience5 that “outruns the propositional.” Both deny the explanatory adequacy of objectivism, understood as commitment to a world of “things in themselves” understood as entirely independent of experience or agency. At the same time, the two traditions (at least in their classical forms) have some key differences. Firstly, whereas much pragmatist theorising is driven forward by explanation, phenomenology classically sees itself as focused much more on description, sometimes expressed as “the study of structures of experience” (Smith 2013).6 By contrast, Peirce wrote: “We have no power of introspection, but all knowledge of the internal world is derived by hypothetical reasoning from our knowledge of external facts” (Peirce: CP 5.265). Secondly – and not unrelatedly – where pragmatism is strongly aligned with naturalism, classical phenomenology has tended to see itself as more of a first philosophy, at least with Husserl, and also drawing liberally on transcendental arguments (Margolis 2010; Aikin 2006). Finally, pragmatism’s defining interest in agency leads it to thematise many traditional philosophical issues in newly processual terms. A prime example is the concept of knowledge which, although it is much discussed by phenomenologists, is neglected by pragmatist epistemologists in favor of inquiry, understood as the process of “fixing belief” (Bernstein 2010; Rosenthal 1994).

3. 4E Cognition

13A significant recent challenge to intellectualism is presented by a rapidly-growing philosophical and interdisciplinary movement advocating embodied, embedded, extended, and enactive (“4E”) cognition (Gallagher 2017). As the complexity of the name suggests, this is a broad “umbrella” movement, which hosts a wide range of views advocating various degrees of “reform” to “revolution” (Dennett 1993) in the relevant mind sciences. Theorists of embodied cognition (the movement’s initial designation) make three key claims: i) the nature of an organism’s concepts somehow depend crucially on the nature of its body (“conceptualization”), ii) traditional notions of representation and inference should be jettisoned in favour of more body-oriented vocabulary (“replacement”), iii) the body plays a constitutive, not merely a casual, role in cognition (“constitution”) (Shapiro & Spaulding 2021: §2.1). Seminal early embodied cognition literature referenced classical phenomenologists as inspiration. Meanwhile, theorists of embedded cognition hold that an organism’s knowing can be enhanced (or otherwise) by its context: “the cognitive capacities of an individual are enhanced when provided with the opportunity to interact with features of a suitably organized physical or social environment” (ibid.: §2.2), whilst theorists of extended cognition go further by viewing the “suitably organized physical or social environment” as literally part of the cognitive system.

  • 7 For a more detailed delineation of 4E cognition into 8 key theses, see Gallagher (2017: 6).

14Arguably the most radical of the “four Es” is the enactive approach to cognition, first developed by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch (1991), drawing on earlier work by Varela and Hubert Maturana. This view holds that the world is not antecedently given, but co-created through natural organisms’ capacities for “participatory sense-making.” Cognition consists not in a representational mapping of the world but a structural coupling with it, through evolved capacities such as sensori-motor coordination and affectivity, in order to coordinate useful action. Thus enactivist approaches have strong links to dynamical systems theory. A key enactivist theme has been a so-called Life-Mind Continuity Thesis (Thompson 2004), which holds that the basic structures which create life are the basic structures which create mind.7 Whether representation and structural coupling should be understood to preclude one another is an important question which we shall consider below.

15Tetris-playing is often given as an illustrative example of embodied cognition. As the blocks “fall” down the screen, there is insufficient time to mentally represent and revolve them, so expert players generally conduct “epistemic actions” that alter the physical and informational environment they are absorbed in, by spinning the blocks on the screen (Clark 2008a). Clark contrasts these epistemic actions with “pragmatic actions,” such as directly placing the pieces. Seeing the pieces in different orientations on the screen helps to prime the players’ embodied “motor understandings” of how to place them. The Tetris players’ success through such techniques is difficult to explain for those who understand mindedness purely as representation, since by revolving pieces on the screen, then observing them, the players effectively outsource some of their cognition to the world. The question, however, is whether in such situations the players’ bodies should be considered inherently cognitive and intelligent, or whether they simply supply inputs for cognition and hence can be accommodated within more traditional, representationalist accounts of the mind.

16Here a variety of views may be found across the field of embodied cognition. Some radical theorists contend that certain kinds of embodied action constitute cognition (Gallagher 2017; Krueger 2018; Gallagher & Varga 2014; Noë 2004), so that we can literally think and know with our bodies. On weaker readings, the body merely causes or functionally accompanies cognition (Adams & Aizawa 2008; Clark 1997). A middle position in this debate is occupied by so-called “action-oriented representations” (see Wheeler 2005, but cf. criticisms by Gallagher 2017). It is not yet clear which if any of these views imply anti-intellectualism, understood as commitment to nonconceptual (“mind-less”) knowing, or even behaviourism (Alksnis & Reynolds 2021). Some theorists claim that anti-intellectualism is clearly warranted for “basic minds” (Hutto & Myin 2013); others dispute this (Noë 2004).

17Meanwhile, 4E cognition arguably struggles to fully theorise the phenomenon that Cartesianism took as paradigmatic of mindedness: knowing-that. A particular issue concerns what is sometimes called “off-line” (Wheeler 2005), or putatively “representation-hungry” cognition (Clark 1999: 347). We are thinking here of phenomena such as imagination (Hutto 2015), long-term planning (Bruineberg, Chemero & Rietveld 2019; Wilson 2002), and logic and mathematical reasoning (Gallagher 2017; Clark 2016). The last is sometimes referred to as “higher order cognition.” In such cases, there appears to be no direct responsiveness to – or structural coupling with – the environment and its affordances, so how can cognition be “enacted”? It might be thought that here the mind needs to fall back on representations in order to think at all. Andy Clark, who introduced the talk of “representation-hungry” cognition (initially with Josefa Toribio in 1994), elaborates in Supersizing the Mind, providing some examples that suggestively connect both “kinds” of knowledge:

Examining cases as diverse as designing a bridge or a building or laying out a magazine cover, Gedenryd details the different uses of sketches, prototypes, thumbnails, storyboards, and scenarios […] What these all have in common is that they allow human reason to be disengaged (to reach out to that which is absent, distal, or otherwise unavailable) while at the same time providing a concrete arena to deploy perceptuomotor routines of a fundamentally world-engaging kind. In such cases […] reason is disengaged but not disembodied […] we create a physical mock-up, a model, drawing, or prototype upon which to deploy more basic, coupling-style perceptuomotor strategies such as the use of just-in-time sensing and binding, leaving information in the world rather than putting it all in the head […] the use of models and surrogate situations allow us to deploy such skills in the service of reasoning about the distal, absent, counterfactual, or impossible. (Clark 2008: 155-6)

18We will suggest that by combining insights from pragmatism and phenomenology, we can build a pathway towards theorising such cases through the concept of habit.

4. Habit

  • 8 Winfried Nöth notes that Peirce’s notion of habit manages to mediate two further key philosophical (...)
  • 9 As with the concept of experience (see fn 5), use of the concept of habit drops off significantly i (...)

19A habit is an intelligible pattern of behaviour which tends to occur regularly, and often automatically, and tends to reinforce itself the more it is manifested. Habit has been a key concept in pragmatist epistemology since Peirce defined all belief as habit (more specifically: “an intelligent habit upon which we shall act when occasion presents itself,” Peirce: CP 6.435). By this he intended to sidestep modern philosophy’s widespread methodological dependence on introspection or “intuition” as a guide to belief. It is also worth noting how, as a carrier of belief, the concept of habit marries intelligibility with embodiment. In this way, Peircean habit serves as both a mediator of Cartesian mind-body dualism8 and an early precursor to 4E cognition’s “Mind-Life Continuity Thesis,” particularly insofar as Peirce held that habits themselves show literal “growth.” Indeed, Peirce himself traced his theory of cognition through evolutionary biology in his essay “A Guess at the Riddle” (Peirce 1992: 245-79). Dewey’s philosophy also made extensive use of the concept of habit. Although it is explicitly mentioned more in his ethics (Dewey 1922) than his epistemology, the latter focused around the “cycle of inquiry,” understood as moving from unsettled to settled mind-world couplings, meaning that the concept of habit was implicitly present there.9

20The phenomenological tradition has its own history with the concept of habit. Whilst phenomenological reflection has a Cartesian inheritance that is affirmed by some (i.e. Husserl), it involves another trajectory in which all forms of conscious experience (thought, reflection, self-awareness, etc.) are analyzed genetically and envisaged as presupposing pre-reflective experiences and “passive syntheses” in the conscious lived body. Whilst what is called static phenomenology focuses on formal and constitutive conditions of all possible experience, genetic phenomenology thematizes the body and its habits. As Evan Thompson puts it, “the lived body constitutes itself and its surrounding environment through the involuntary formation of habits, motor patterns, associations, dispositions, motivations, emotions and memories” (Thompson 2007: 30).

21Although not explicitly named, habits are presupposed in what Martin Heidegger called our ready-to-hand mode of relation to objects in Being and Time, which he privileged in regard to the present-at-hand mode of manifestation of objects extracted from their context of use and social setting. As Heidegger famously put it: “the less we just stare at [e.g.] the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it, the more primordial does our relation to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is – as equipment” (Heidegger 1962: 98 [69]). This remark is broadly aligned with the comment from Brandom cited above in Section 2, which derives from Brandom’s own direct engagement with Heidegger in Tales of the Mighty Dead (and related claims independently made by Dewey). Heidegger went on to discuss the pre-reflective, habit-rich connection that obtains among hammers, nails and doors given a certain project (fixing a door), which he called an “equipmental nexus.”

22Some of Heidegger’s insights about this were usefully applied to debates in embodied cognition, first by Hubert Dreyfus (1992), then by Michael Wheeler in their respective engagements with artificial intelligence, and online and off-line cognition (Wheeler 2005). They noted the difficulties for AI systems accommodating the intricacies of on-line cognition in a manner that is timely, context-sensitive, and sufficiently flexible to enable some fluidity and adjustment. In brief, they argued that any intellectualist AI program would confront serious difficulties with the connected issues of meaning holism and embodied skills/know-how (Dreyfus 1992: xii; cf. Wheeler 2005: 174). For them, the strategy of explaining (and then emulating in an AI system) context-sensitive behavior through representations or rules was destined to confront what came to be called the “frame problem.” In brief, this is “the problem of putting a ‘frame’ around the set of beliefs that may need to be revised in the light of specified newly available information” (Fodor 1983: 112-3, cited in Wheeler 2005: 178), so that any AI system can ignore irrelevant facts which would prove computationally intractable.

  • 10 Dreyfus (1998) argues that for Merleau-Ponty habits and skills are treated synonymously. However, p (...)

23But it is Merleau-Ponty (and then Dreyfus, via his interpretation of Merleau-Ponty’s work) who has offered the most resources for understanding habit in the phenomenological tradition. Merleau-Ponty and Dreyfus would concur with Peirce that all beliefs are habits, but would likely deny that all habits are beliefs (which for them would likely remain an intellectualist position). For both, habits are forms of basic know-how that are not adequately understood as mechanistic stimulus-response pairings. Habits enable skills, or might even be considered to already be basic skills.10 They exhibit context-sensitivity and flexibility. Any recurring habit will never encounter precisely the same environmental conditions, and must therefore be responsive to subtly different circumstances, within cognitive and emotional limits. Already in Structure of Behavior (1963 [1938]), Merleau-Ponty made related claims about how various kinds of animals can draw on their mouth and various different limbs to extract the reward for a given task, suggesting at least some flexibility rather than an instinctive stimulus-response relation between just the mouth, or the paw. This know-how, or “l’habitude” as Dreyfus puts it, is not merely a routine or program, since one needs to flexibly switch attention between global aspects of performance and the execution of specific motor control.

24For both Dreyfus and Merleau-Ponty, as for some pragmatists, an important claim is the anti-intellectualist one that this kind of embodied know-how cannot be translated without remainder into knowledge-that. This is reflected in the following important quotes from Merleau-Ponty about habit:

Habit expresses the power we have of dilating our being in the world, or of altering our existence through incorporating new instruments. (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 166)

We said earlier that it is the body which “understands” in the acquisition of habituality. This way of putting it will appear absurd, if understanding is subsuming a sense datum under an idea, and if the body is an object. But the phenomenon of habituality is just what prompts us to revise our notion of “understand” and our notion of the body. To understand is to experience harmony between what we aim at and what is given, between the intention and the performance – and the body is our anchorage in the world. (Ibid.: 167)

25The first remark anticipates theories of extended cognition, since Merleau-Ponty discusses the use of a cane, piano, car, and even a hat, as part of an enlarged body-schema. He also prefigures a more pervasive construal of the significance and reach of habit by understanding it as “expressing the power of dilating our being-in-the-world.” The second quote also illustrates the habit-based approach we are working towards. Here it is worth asking: does Merleau-Ponty discuss intellectual habits of “mind,” over and above habits of the intelligent body? Although he apparently envisaged this in his view of habit as a general power of dilating our being-in-the-world, and in the elusive but intriguing “intentional arc,” he does not focus on it in detail – hence there is room for further additions within the terms of his philosophy.

26The importance Merleau-Ponty gives to habits in his analysis of operative/motor intentionality is motivated by his reflections on the case of Johann Schneider, following earlier analyses by Adhémar Gelb and Kurt Goldstein. Schneider’s injuries sustained during the First World War rendered him able to grasp objects or parts of his body in well-defined practical contexts, but not to readily point to his nose if asked. Merleau-Ponty contends that this shows the need for “the recognition of something between movement as a third person process and thought as a representation of movement – something which is an anticipation of, or arrival at, the objective and is ensured by the body itself as a motor power […] a ‘motor intentionality’” (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 127). For Merleau-Ponty (and then Dreyfus) an important idea is that in perceiving and interacting with the world we seek an optimal Gestalt. We have a bodily orientation to the world, and seek equilibrium with it, relative to a given project, and this facilitates and scaffolds the acquisition of habits and skills. Our background dependence on this embodied orientation is shown most perspicuously in instances where it is absent, such as in Schneider’s injuries, which mean that he effectively needs to reason about means and ends regarding his own habits.

27All of this shows how the concept of embodied habit may help to mediate a further traditional philosophical dualism between reasons and causes. Usually it is thought that our beliefs are rationally responsive to the world. “Causes,” by contrast, are often conceived of scientifically, or sometimes as akin to a brute desire, in which case the direction of fit to the world is different (in desire we seek to make the world conform to what we want). Merleau-Ponty’s work shows that the body and its habits and skills create a range of embodied motivations, or affordances in J. J. Gibson’s terminology, which do not readily fit classical construals of either reasons or causes, or their relevant directions of fit (world to mind or mind to world). It is on this basis that we seek to theorise mind and intelligence as a distinct kind of habit-development which can also accommodate intellectualist intuitions concerning knowledge-that.

5. Intellectualist Debates within Enactivism

28In this section, we show how certain anti-intellectualist currents that formed pragmatism and phenomenology have flowed into contemporary enactivism. At the same time, we argue that enactivism has not yet been able to fully resolve the problems created by intellectualism in modern philosophy. Intellectualism has recently been vigorously discussed in mainstream philosophy, due to recent high-profile rebuttals of well-known anti-intellectualist arguments from Ryle (1946) by “neo-intellectualists” (Stanley & Williamson 2001; Stanley 2011). Yet neo-intellectualism has been extensively critiqued (e.g. Levy 2017; Hetherington 2011; Cath 2011) with no resolution in sight. We believe these debates are proving intractable as they have not engaged substantively with the debate’s original sources in both classical pragmatism (Dewey 1910) and the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger that Ryle covertly drew on (Thomasson 2002).

  • 11 As Kathryn Nave nicely puts the point about the relationship between visual experience and action, (...)

29Within enactivism, current critiques of intellectualism have played a prominent role. Gallagher has done valuable work here, drawing explicitly on both phenomenology and pragmatism. For instance, he has shown that intellectualism struggles to account for basic facts concerning neo-natal perception and human interaction, such as joint attention (Gallagher 2005). With Benjamin Aguda (2020), Gallagher has also challenged neo-intellectualism by showing how the “presentational” (i.e. embodied) dimension of particular skills and abilities is far more empirically significant than Stanley (2011) admits. Kinematic aspects of movement reflect a variety of intentions that are often not propositionally articulable from the first-person perspective, although clearly environmentally responsive – for instance, differing when one grasps an apple to eat it versus to throw it. We should also note that these environmental affordances (cf. Nave 2022: 404) have a particularity and specificity that is difficult to account for through intellectualist postulation of implicit propositional knowledge of the agent, or more generic “action-selection policies.”11 With Dan Zahavi (2008), Gallagher has also developed a promiscuity objection against intellectualism: if concepts are posited across all skilled behaviour, we arguably lose important distinctions for both our everyday lives and scientific inquiry. For example, to suggest that we theorise when picking up our pen for note-taking seems overstated, and the burden of proof is on those who want to inflate the idea of skill and theory in this way. Whilst we think these enactivist objections to intellectualism are sound, they do not yet positively address what the intellectualist is looking for – some positive account of knowing-that within enactivism. Ultimately for the 4E trajectory to progress this needs to be resolved.

30Unsurprisingly Merleau-Ponty has had a formative influence on enactivism. His accounts of embodiment, perception, and habits challenges dualistic treatments of them, mainly through illuminating a motor or operative intentionality that is neither reason nor unreason (i.e. not a mere causal reflex), and these are points that Dewey also made within pragmatism. We have already noted that Merleau-Ponty seemed to take an overall anti-intellectualist stance, though not to the same extent as Dreyfus. Merleau-Ponty, like Ryle, came to talk of habit as a “knowledge in the hands” which is intermediate between reflective knowledge and involuntary action, though he had a less mechanistic construal of habit than Ryle, for whom habits are single-track dispositions (Miyahara & Robertson 2021). Merleau-Ponty repudiates representationalist views of mindedness and embraces embodied cognition when he states, “whether a system of motor or perceptual powers, our body is not an object for an ‘I think,’ it is a grouping of lived-through meanings which moves towards its equilibrium” (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 153). The “I think,” then, or the level of belief, is grounded in a more basic comportment towards the world. As he states:

  • 12 Gallagher’s translation appears to be a slight revision to Donald Landes’ translation of Phenomenol (...)

The body’s motoric experience is not a particular case of knowledge; rather, it offers us a manner of reaching the world and the object, a “praktognosia,” that must be recognized as original, and perhaps as originary. My body has its world, or understands its world without having to go through “representations,” or being subordinated to a “symbolic” or “objectifying function.” (Merleau-Ponty, as cited in Gallagher 2017: 79)12

  • 13 While we cannot undertake a full and detailed consideration of that literature here, see Jurgens 20 (...)

31On this construal, there is a privilege or priority of embodied and “operative” intentionality. It serves as the ground for other forms of cognition (such as propositional knowledge), but cannot be reduced to them. Does this oppose one form of knowledge to another? Is it anti-intellectualism? It is not completely clear. After all, a “grounding” relationship is not necessarily an oppositional one; rather, it involves in this case a transcendental claim about what is presupposed. In this instance, the claim is that theoretical knowledge presupposes the more basic operative/motor intentionality. A wide range of developmental factors would need to be considered to fully specify the nature of this “praktognosia” and its primordiality in regard to knowledge-that – especially as construed along the Peircean directions we outline.13 Much also depends on what being “subordinated to a symbolic function” entails. Still, it is reasonable that Merleau-Ponty’s work has been received as anti-intellectualist, given some of the remarks we have cited, and given that habits of the mind in higher-order cognition are not treated by him in detail, beyond reflections on the practice of philosophy itself and some broad remarks about science and mathematics.

32In his Enactivist Interventions (2017), Gallagher cites the following remark from Dewey which closely aligns with these Merleau-Pontyian ideas. Dewey, Gallagher states, argues for an understanding of perception starting:

not with a sensory stimulus, but with a sensori-motor coordination […] it is the movement which is primary, and the sensation which is secondary, the movement of body, head and eye muscles determining the quality of what is experienced. (Dewey 1896: 358-9, quoted in Gallagher 2017: 50)

33Dreyfus (2002a, 2002b, 2007) also drew on Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of the body to theorise expertise (e.g. Aroha’s violin-playing) as founded in perceiving bodies and their skilful habits, rather than “mental representation.” Dreyfus claims that as an agent attains proficiency in a skilled activity, their behaviour is guided much less by explicit rules, and much more by directly perceiving in a situation what it requires of them, acting accordingly, then assessing their success in hindsight to fine-tune their expertise. However, Dreyfus’ denial of the need for mental representation in the expert subject has been criticised for swinging too far towards anti-intellectualism and omitting important dimensions of the phenomenology of human expertise, which is more complicated than he typically allows, showing reflective thought feeding back upon practice (Sutton 2007; Hoffding 2014).

  • 14 Although it is not his focus, Dreyfus is not inattentive to these kinds of points that Hutto, Galla (...)

34Important questions appear unresolved here about how concepts and bodily habits inter-relate within a given human agent, who imagines, remembers, and plans much of their online coping. This is so especially if we agree with Dreyfus that habits are not mere mechanisms, and involve learning and a degree of socio-cultural permeation,14 which enactivists also hold. We suggest that while Merleau-Ponty and Dreyfus invaluably theorised bodily habit as its own form of intelligence, their view still needs to be supplemented to account for the “off-line” or “representation-hungry” phenomena, such as memory, imagination, and planning mentioned earlier. In the next section, we present some suggestions of our own about how this should happen.

6. Habit as Embodied Representation

35Simply put, we need a more unified account of knowing-how and knowing-that, which can only be provided by a less anti-intellectualist enactivism. We believe the seeds of such an account lie in Peirce’s pragmatist analysis of intelligence as self-control: the capacity for an organism to alter its own habits through developing new habits, against a background attunement with the world. Winfried Nöth explains this aspect of Peirce’s philosophy, which Peirce dubbed “the law of habit,” as follows:

Peirce’s theory of habit is a dynamic theory in the sense that it does not restrict itself to describing why and how we have habits, but also examines how habits increase and how they diminish. The law of habit, as Peirce calls it, includes the habit of habit-change. Peirce speaks of the “habit of taking and laying aside habits.” (Nöth 2016: 40)

36This understanding of habit as self-modifying anticipates an important founding concept for some – although not all – enactivisms: autopoiesis, or adaptive self-organization (Di Paolo, Cuffari & De Jaegher 2018; Thompson 2007; Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991).

37We believe that this account can ground an analysis of knowing-how as cultivated habit. Habit enculturation is part of Dreyfus’s story, but as we have noted, he did not elaborate on habits of mind (understood in regard to propositional knowledge), nor address in detail the sophisticated relationship that obtains between prior planning and imagining and “in the zone” skilful action. In order to address these issues, we must now return to the crucial issue of representation, and redeem our earlier promise to consider whether it and structural coupling should be understood as contrary ideas.

38Firstly it must be admitted that many 4E theorists do hold this dichotomy as foundational of their position. For instance, Thompson’s work is strongly anti-representationalist (cf. 2007). So-called radical enactivists like Hutto and Myin also say “minds fundamentally interact with rather than represent the world” (Hutto 2015: 68). However other theorists of embodied cognition hold that representation survives in modified “action-oriented” form (Clark 2016, 2015, 2013; Wheeler 2005). Still others hold that it should be understood as “non-derived content intrinsic to the brain” (Adams & Aizawa 2008). This fundamental disagreement has led the field into a series of unproductive “representation wars” (Williams 2018; Clark 2015). We believe the problem here lies in an impoverished understanding of representation itself.

39We believe that Peirce offers important new resources for addressing this through his semiotics – which Dewey eschewed. A unique feature of this theory is the way it analyses meaning as fundamentally triadic. Signs must be interpreted in order to function (Peirce (CP: 5.594) states, “a sign is not a sign unless it translates itself into another sign in which it is more fully developed”). This process of continual reinterpretation of signs mirrors the growth of habits, which is not surprising since – as noted earlier – for Peirce, all signs are habits. Of particular importance in Peirce’s semiotics is his distinction between icons (pictorial signs), indices (pointers) and symbols (signs whose meaning is established through convention, such as words) (Peirce 1992/1998, 1931-1958). He assigns to each sign-type a distinct and complementary functioning (cf. Peirce: CP 4.531), for a particularly complete account). Legg has explored how the functioning of the three sign-types might be deployed within an enactivist approach to cognition, as follows:

The key function of iconic signs is to represent schematic structure, by embodying it nondiscursively: “showing” not “saying” […] Crucially, this schematic structure includes logical form (Legg 2012), which means that iconicity lies at the very heart of rationality. On the other hand, the key function of indexical signs is to determine what in the world a concept or proposition is about, through establishing an existential connection that is unmediated by general concepts. Peirce commented that a key role of the index is precisely to focus the sign-user’s attention on something salient […] Meanwhile, symbols’ key function is to represent generalizations, such as “white” or “metal,” which become more useful in our thinking the more deeply they are entrenched. (Legg 2021: 14762).

40Legg notes that within Peirce’s pragmatism, an account of ‘embodied propositions’ can be constructed on the following model. When a cognitive agent is given certain cues (indices), this triggers in their imagination certain hypothetical experience-schemas (icons), according to which if a certain act is performed, a certain kind of experience will follow. These increasingly reliable and entrenched triggers from index to icon come to constitute habits (symbols) (Legg 2021: 14762; see also Legg & Black 2020). This account is radically new, insofar as it reconstructs rather than rejecting the notion of representation, but also avoids Cartesianism, insofar as cognition is understood to reside not in the organism’s mind or brain, but in its habits, which include the body/organism and the world it experiences. As Legg explains:

This account does not invoke content understood as an informational commodity that is “stored” (for instance in the mind). Yet it does understand knowledge as comprised of articulable propositions, rather than merely as whole-organism world-directed intentions. (Legg 2021: 14766)

  • 15 Although we cannot explore this here, there is also suggestive work emerging concerning the signifi (...)

41The role of Peirce’s concept of the iconic sign in this account links powerfully to certain current discussions in cognitive science regarding “structural representations” (Gładziejewski & Miłkowski 2017; Williams & Colling 2018), and “perceptual symbol systems” (Barsalou 1999). While part of the idea behind embodied cognitive science is to challenge the adequacy of classical computational concepts like symbol, representation and inference, as we saw in Section 2, it is sometimes assumed that this must entail “throwing the representational baby out with the bath-water.” Perhaps, instead, it is a matter of more adequately refining those concepts. For instance, in Barsalou’s case, a more bodily-informed cognitive system might be built by theorising perceptual symbols which are modal and retain information about the source of their origin, rather than purely comprising amodal classical computational symbols (Shapiro & Spaulding 2021).15

  • 16 They are also pathologies of both bodily and mental habits, of course. Many conditions can arguably (...)

42Enactivism often describes itself as founded on agent-world interaction as opposed to representation. But considering only specific interactions in particular times and places tends to downplay human cognition’s inherent reference to past and future – and consequent capacity for “off-line reasoning” (Wheeler 2005; Wilson 2002). This includes what is sometimes called “time travel” – for instance, transporting ourselves imaginatively to a desired future state, then planning how to get there. Taking habit as the foundation of our new theory of knowing helps us to theorise these human cognitive capabilities. Since habits are general, they do not pertain only to operative knowledge, but also constitute theoretical knowledge. Habits of mind include both the “ground-level” habits we acquire through feedback and associative learning from the environment, and our patterns of thinking and planning about those habits, which create self-control.16 In the long quote by Clark cited at the end of section 3, we saw that ostensibly “representation hungry” phenomena are those where the mind appears to be at least partially “disengaged” from its immediate environment in order to reason about “the distal, absent, counterfactual, or impossible.” Much of such reasoning arguably takes place imagistically, and as such, can be theorised through Peirce’s concept of iconic signs (Legg 2012, 2008).

43This kind of schematic thinking enables hints of the future to be given in the past and present. From the perspective of the phenomenological tradition, this corresponds to the “retention” and “protention” that Husserl theorised as together comprising the living-present. In short: habits are responses to temporal existence, involving a synthesis that can be more or less contracted, and in human and some other metazoa, allow for memory of past happenings, whether in episodic or procedural memory. This synthetic quality helps to explain how habits are not mere mechanisms, but have an inferential and abductive dimension. More complex forms of cognition retain and expand on these abductive elements, enabling us to parse more or less likely explanations for the facts that lie in front of us, in an ongoing process of living inquiry (Rosenthal 1994).

  • 17 This move was famously made by Chomsky concerning the childhood acquisition of language, on the gro (...)

44On this basis, we can reconceive knowing-that as a particularly sophisticated form of knowing-how, thus, in a sense, vindicating intellectualism and anti-intellectualism simultaneously. In addition, however, we think that Peirce’s habit-based account has deep implications for reconceiving epistemology from mainstream tacit reliance on empiricism (essentially: causal accounts of knowledge – the mind as passive receiver of data) back towards an older rationalist tradition which relies on “intuition” (the mind as active synthesizer of understanding) (Legg 2012: 21). There is some connection here with Merleau-Ponty’s two-fold critique of empiricism and intellectualism, which makes some related points to Peirce, denying views of perception that make it depend on an initial empiricist-inclined construal of the poverty of the perceptual stimulus,17 and which then needs augmentation by something else (such as representation or simulation). Merleau-Ponty’s trajectory involves “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” understanding of cognition and intelligence, starting with perception, habits, and embodied know-how, and seeking to understand more complex, representation-involving cases from that basis, rather than the other way around, which would be the cognitivist/intellectualist trajectory.

7. Conclusion

45We began this paper with a broad comparative study of classical pragmatism and phenomenology, focused broadly on their shared mission of refuting intellectualism. We then presented some issues at stake in using both traditions to understand embodied cognition, with particular attention to unifying cognitive understanding and bodily skill via the concept of habit. Navigating the boundary between forms of knowing that are more and less intellectual, and creating dialogue between them, is a pressing social issue, particularly for the education sector and industries grappling with artificial intelligence. For instance, what kinds of human expertise can be captured and transmitted in propositional form (either for teaching to students or for programming into a computer), and what can only be directly emulated or discovered through experience? Thus our new insights can potentially impact a wide range of disciplines, including psychology (e.g. implicit bias and addiction, where habits go awry), and the mind sciences (e.g. robotics and AI). As a more general cultural contribution, successfully understanding and managing our own habits – as opposed to mere goal-setting – is increasingly acknowledged as crucial for increasing productivity in all areas of human life, since much of our behaviour is the result of ongoing training, rather than conscious choice.

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1 Honorable exceptions include work by Sandra Rosenthal, Carl Sachs, Mark Okrent, and others. See in particular Rosenthal & Bourgeois 1980; Aikin 2006.

2 Of course this was by no means the only influence on both traditions. For phenomenology, Husserl’s anti-psychologist and anti-naturalist arguments were also key background factors, even if this adversarial stance is not as apparent in the work of other phenomenologists, notably Merleau-Ponty. Pragmatism is also less committed to anti-psychologism and anti-naturalism, but see a recent 2017 special issue of this journal dedicated to this question, Calcaterra & Dreon 2017.

3 That said, pragmatism has been accused by some of neglecting animal intentionality (Haugeland 1990).

4 Of course, it is generally agreed today that we do not need to reason reflectively, or be conscious of representations in order to behave intelligently, but intellectualists contend that such reconstruction of our behaviour is necessary, with some holding that tacit propositional structure must be present even at the “subpersonal” level, following Dennett 1969.

5 The concept of experience has actually become something of a sore point in the pragmatist tradition, with so-called “neopragmatists” Rorty and Brandom seemingly repudiating it, and so-called “New Pragmatists” attempting to reinstate its importance (Legg & Hookway 2021: §4.3; Bernstein 2010; Legg 2005).

6 Merleau-Ponty also emphasizes phenomenological description in contrast to explanation in his “Preface” to Phenomenology of Perception, but for a revisionist interpretation of the role of abductive argument in phenomenology that brings it closer to pragmatism on this score, and which is arguably still in accord with the methods and overall ambitions of Phenomenology as a whole, see Reynolds 2022, and 2017.

7 For a more detailed delineation of 4E cognition into 8 key theses, see Gallagher (2017: 6).

8 Winfried Nöth notes that Peirce’s notion of habit manages to mediate two further key philosophical dualisms – culture and nature, and the conventional and the innate (Nöth 2010: 82).

9 As with the concept of experience (see fn 5), use of the concept of habit drops off significantly in linguistic neo-pragmatists such as Rorty and Brandom.

10 Dreyfus (1998) argues that for Merleau-Ponty habits and skills are treated synonymously. However, perhaps a better way to frame it – in regard to Merleau-Pontyian exegesis and substantively – is to see them as on a spectrum whereby habits are basic skills, but can be enhanced in various ways.

11 As Kathryn Nave nicely puts the point about the relationship between visual experience and action, contesting Clark’s understanding that experience-based selection is concerned only with generic action types: “The kind of actions that visual experience allows us to select between are not just abstract types like ‘eat’ vs ‘throw,’ but rather the particular sort of throws that would, or would not, achieve my goal, given my current bodily position and environmental situation” (Nave 2022: 404). These concrete action-possibilities are relative to particular organisms and their particular environmental niches, as well as specific morphological constraints.

12 Gallagher’s translation appears to be a slight revision to Donald Landes’ translation of Phenomenology of Perception, which rightly re-introduced the anti-representationalist component that is present in the French original but was omitted by Colin Smith in his original English translation. Thanks to Bill Hamrick for clarification around this.

13 While we cannot undertake a full and detailed consideration of that literature here, see Jurgens 2022.

14 Although it is not his focus, Dreyfus is not inattentive to these kinds of points that Hutto, Gallagher and others give more attention to. For example, he discusses the enculturation of child-learning, and the anthropological practices of gift-giving (via Bourdieu), at length.

15 Although we cannot explore this here, there is also suggestive work emerging concerning the significance of epigenetic inheritance in cells for learning and memory, which appears to make some related points (cf. Meloni & Reynolds 2021).

16 They are also pathologies of both bodily and mental habits, of course. Many conditions can arguably be understood in this way, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, trichotillomania, and various anxiety disorders. Exploring that requires another paper, however.

17 This move was famously made by Chomsky concerning the childhood acquisition of language, on the grounds that the rapid and sophisticated acquisition of linguistic skills could not derive from the piecemeal and limited exposure that the children had (as well as any explicit training). Chomsky did not attend in any serious way to the importance of embodied gesture and to joint attention and other pre-linguistic forms of communication in interaction with care-givers. For an alternative picture, see Gallagher 2005; Jurgens 2022.

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Electronic reference

Catherine Legg and Jack Reynolds, “Habits of Mind”European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy [Online], XIV-2 | 2022, Online since 17 October 2022, connection on 28 March 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Catherine Legg

Deakin University

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Jack Reynolds

Deakin University

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