LIS Professionals and Social Justice

As we have already seen, the raison d’etre of libraries is to serve the public by providing information resources that support the individual in their search for knowledge. Underlying this goal is the promise of patron privacy, inclusiveness, and the ability to gain unrestricted access to freely loaned materials. Seldom, however, do libraries actually understand their collections on an intellectual basis beyond pure subject analysis and derivation of access points. Indeed, the resources may be sitting there on the shelves, but their content and larger societal implications may elude the busy LIS professional. In this elusion, there may be consequences, as libraries and librarians have been targeted in the recent past for their purported role in providing information resources which have served a decidedly non-utilitarian purpose (i.e. channeling racism, religious intolerance, hatred, xenophobia, etc). Therefore it is important to think of a library collection from a social justice perspective.

This is exactly what John Buschman and Dorothy A. Warner do in On Community, Justice, and Libraries. They admit that sometimes the core values of the ALA produce unintended outcomes. But they invoke the philosophy of John Rawls to explain how libraries can act as arbiters of social justice rather than unwitting accomplices to moral turpitude.

RawlsWe live in a pluralist society where religious, philosophical, and moral ideas are not equal among all citizens. Indeed, this is an inevitable result of living in a homogeneous society. But Rawls reconciles the concept of democracy with incompatible members of society. According to Rawls, a just society is one that distributes primary social goods fairly. We can understand these goods to be, not commodities tied into market systems, but goods of an intrinsic moral worth, such as liberty and equal opportunity. Rawls brings an institutional focus to the concept of social justice. So what libraries do and how they do it in a given community is meaningful in a democracy.

So how should LIS professionals reorient their work, making it less of a rote process of bibliographic output and control to circumscribing information resources within a wider social justice framework?

The work of Karen Schmidt et al. in Approaches to Selection, Access, and Collection Development in the Web World: A Case Study with Fugitive Literature provides one example. This group of Librarians from regional Chicago libraries focused on collecting “fugitive literature” in the form of information resources published or disseminated by hate groups and political fringe groups. While this collection strategy was unsavory and perhaps daunting, it illustrates a group of LIS professionals willing to immerse themselves in literature that deals explicitly with social justice (in this case a body of divisive literature that injures the realization of social fairness). They worked to understand the origins and meanings of this primary source material, sadly current in our society, in order to describe it and make meaning out of it. Their collection emanated from groups as varied as the New Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, Jewish Defense League, Council of Conservative Citizens, American Renaissance, the National Socialist Movement, and various KKK affiliations.

Their web collection strategy relied on deep thinking. Indeed, when collecting resources that belong to other communities, it is necessary to wipe the slate clean. LIS professionals must become true ethnographers, as diving into a collection strategy with preconceived ideas will result in a biased interpretation of materials, which will muddle the social justice lens. Another hurdle for LIS professionals to be aware of in this regard is the existence of linguistic differences. As Schmidt et al. noted, different cultures will likely use unique vocabulary to describe their beliefs and valued resources, which in stringent membership communities such as hate groups are heavily codified. For instance, in the hate group literature, no one conducting the study knew what the number 88 stood for in the white supremacist groups. This is an example of the need to conduct deep research, not just on Web resources, but on all informational resources generally.

Information Needs and Information Seeking

In Donald Case’s chapter, Information Needs and Information Seeking, we are introduced to some of the foundational theories of information-seeking behavior from Robert Taylor, Charles Atkin, Nicholas Belkin, and Brenda Dervin. Following Case’s logic, it is assumed that information-seeking behavior is based on an underlying need, analogous to Abraham Maslow’s definition of needs. While there have been scholars who have questioned the idea that searching for information has anything at all to do with needs, I think that there is indeed a primal itch or an innate human instinct toward knowledge. Or perhaps better stated, there is an innate instinct toward gathering information in order to make sense of the world around us. In Andreas Ekström’s Ted Talk on the moral bias behind our search results, Ekström mentions that we become human in the process of searching for knowledge, a particularly salient quote when considering this question. Indeed, Maslow insisted that the urge for self-actualization was deeply entrenched in the human psyche. Self-actualization is, of course, contingent on personal knowledge, and knowledge, as we have seen, requires information gathering.

The problem with any part of cognitive science is that there is a tendency to only accept objective data and to dismiss out of hand as unscientific anything related to qualia; feelings and mental states that cannot be measured in concrete, empirical terms. For example, some scholars maintain that there is a problem with quantifying information needs because these behavioral states emanate from a first-person view of phenomenal conscious activity, and there is no empirical way to determine if what one is experiencing (in this case an expression of needing to know something) is truly a need or not. Well, this thinking veers dangerously toward solipsism, which I have always had a problem with. We can argue that needs are mental or physical states that are expressly felt and immediately recognizable (i.e. hunger, thirst, warmth, etc.). But if we allow that it is possible to be unaware of one’s needs, then the question opens up into wider terrain.

People seek information for different reasons, and they filter and interpret information in different ways. If we follow the school of thought that considers information-seeking behavior to be driven by nothing more than a rational judgement that some uncertainty exists that can be resolved by specific information, we are ignoring other contexts in which information-seeking can occur and function.


This is why Brenda Dervin’s sense-making theory is important. Dervin’s theory identifies the information-seeking process with emotions, as well as cognitive processes. Dervin’s information seeking illustration explains the theory visually. In Dervin’s research, the search for information is based on a need that arises within a person. This need can be intrinsic or extrinsic based on the person’s situation. The situation is the starting point of the information seeking process. For instance, a person may seek information because they are in a class in graduate school. The process of searching will be influenced by past experiences and previous knowledge.

Sense-making theory emphasizes emotions and feelings. The bridge to the outcome will be influenced by environmental and biological factors. Maybe health will deteriorate or mood will dampen, which will make the information-seeking process seem more arduous and burdensome, and this strain will inevitably color the results or outcome. On the other hand, strong heath and a positive attitude will likely result in faster and more thorough information processing.

Dervin’s sense-making theory is based on everyday life, so it is not context specific or spatially oriented. Time and space are infinite factors. As an example, in undergraduate school, there were times when I had to drive a distance to procure a book at another academic library because my research project was dependent on said book, and it could not wait or my outcome (my term paper) would suffer. Indeed, the search for information may be quick or it may be long, depending on the query and the scope of the question. In Ekström’s words, one may be looking for an “isolated fact,” or they may be searching for knowledge, which is a much more complicated and intricate thing. But knowledge is part of what makes us human, and it is driven by an innate need.

Becoming Librarian 2.0


Emil Cioran

In Becoming “Librarian 2.0”, Helen Partridge et al mention that an increasing number of positions in libraries are becoming more and more technologized. As technology is always changing, there is a professional call for librarians to be “nimble” and on their feet in regards to acquiring technological competencies. In other words, to be a 21st century librarian, one must be willing and ready to adapt to change. This requirement forces the LIS professional into a very self-reflexive mode. In past ages, jobs would require a circumscribed set of skills, or a finite amount of knowledge for workforce readiness. But Librarianship is a field in flux, and LIS professionals are constantly reevaluating what they know, and if that knowledge is still relevant. Almost on a daily basis. With the fast pace of technology, it seems that what the LIS professional knows is never good enough, and that a constant reinvention of their professional identity is imperative for success. Indeed, we must be in a state of becoming, willing to trade our old competencies for new ones. In a way, this is very disruptive to the development of a secure sense of self. I am reminded of a quote from the pessimistic philosopher Emil Cioran: “Man starts over again everyday, in spite of all he knows, against all he knows” (A Short History of Decay). Still, this requirement to change is not all bad. For example, technology has reduced the barriers to service that existed between librarians and users. A “social web” has now emerged which facilitates a more participatory culture (Partridge et al, 316).

The Librarian’s 2.0 Manifesto:

One of the wonderful things about this field is that you do not have to be an IT expert to be a successful Web 2.0 librarian, or a “Librarian 2.0” as Partridge et al term it. Indeed, Laura Cohen’s 2006 Manifesto attested to this fact. In her manifesto, there is an emphasis on meeting users and bringing library services to them in new, networked spaces. But there is no need to be a technological guru, as adopters of the Manifesto have focused “more on interpersonal skills and less on technological competencies” (Partridge, 317). At most, the Librarian 2.0 must be able to manipulate and use new media platforms like blogs and social media sites. There are no professional requirements to know how to code or troubleshoot technical problems related to computers, unless these are simple connectivity issues with clientele. Indeed, the technology competencies for librarians only call for “the ability to engage with and use technology to meet client and community needs” (Partridge et al, 318). This is not a very tall order.

Partridge et al attempt to define Librarian 2.0 on their own terms, identifying the skills, knowledge, and personal attributes required. Their focus groups arrived at some thematic conclusions that echo the original Manifesto by Cohen, and the subsequent literature on Library 2.0. The main conclusion from Partridge et al was that, while a fundamental understanding of popular technology is required to be a Librarian 2.0, IT skills are not. Following this consensus, the LIS professional should be expected to stay abreast of Tech trends. Of course, this does not require a computer information degree. It simply requires a readiness to learn.

As for the rest of the requirements, they are pretty boilerplate, I think. The other Librarian 2.0 competencies mentioned by Partridge et al are independent of knowing how to operate technology. These are the liberally-applied skills of Research, Communication, Teamwork, User-Focus, and Business savvy, combined with the right Personal Traits for Librarianship. These last requirements are not reliant on any technological acumen, but are traditional Library school skills which can later be applied to the technological environment. Indeed, the authors even note that their respondents agreed that most of the competencies required to be a successful Librarian 2.0 were not in any way new competencies, or based on greater knowledge of Information Technology. But I disagree with the authors assumption that the Librarian 2.0 is a “guru of the information age,” only because I think the term “guru” connotes a deeper understanding of computer technology. Still, the takeaway is that becoming Librarian 2.0 has “less to do with technology and more about quality transferable skills and interpersonal abilities” (Partridge et al, 332).

Finally, another thing that struck me was that participants in the Partridge et al study noted that the LIS profession was organic, and not artificial or robotic in any automated or “do it yourself” sense. I think this fits well with my interpretation of Frank Webster’s technology argument, of which my opinion was that an information-driven society is more dependent on organic networks (constituents of people) and less on the technology itself.

Frank Webster, Information, and Meaning

In his densely critical piece, Information Society, the British sociologist Frank Webster raises objection after objection to the postulation that we are living in an information society or an Information Age. An “age” – or one might say an “epoch” – is a period in historical time that highlights the defining characteristics of a society. Society, in turn, is a social dynamic or an amalgam made up of the combined work efforts, as well as the cultural and artistic achievements of a given population, whether that population be global or domestic. For instance, we speak of the Industrial Age, when mechanization flourished, aided by technological innovations like the steam engine or the cotton gin. Another age that is often highly touted is the Space Age of the 50s, even though that Age arguably precipitated the Cold War. Indeed, ages are unarguably created by paradigm shifts that dramatically change the context and existential means of a society. So what about the Information Age? Has information changed our society? Without question it has. But I don’t think the explosion of information has necessarily changed our society for the better.

Webster writes that “when we delve a little, it becomes apparent that the concept is actually vague and imprecise, even of dubious value” (Webster 2605). A key criteria that Webster goes by is that an Age should be a period during which a society advances. Human history has, of course, had decidedly bad ages – the Dark Ages? – but in considering the question regarding information, Webster would have us keep societal advancement in mind. He goes on to suggest that those who say we are in an Information Age are subscribed to a forward-thinking, progress oriented viewpoint. Webster admits that this viewpoint seems intuitive and almost unmistakable when thinking about the advancements in Information Technology. But he cautions that information and computer technology may not be advancing society on a scale analogous to the Industrial Revolution. In fact, he argues that social commentators who champion the Information Age have made rather apocryphal statements and predictions about the future (past predictions concerning the present and our current future), claiming that we have reached a fever pitch in technological innovation and that we are also reaching a moment in time which other prognosticators refer to as Singularity.

But to call our age an Information Age is a bit of a misnomer, I think. In principle, I agree with Webster. New technologies are released almost every day, creating new abstractions and new ways of dividing our attention. Webster says, “…new technologies are announced and it is unproblematically presumed that this announcement in and of itself heralds the information society” (Webster, 2607). I also agree that technology is an asocial phenomenon; an outside influence (and a rather disruptive one at that). By definition, then, technology does not, ipso facto, define the social world. It is people that define our social world. My question is… could it be that a truly information-driven society is more dependent on its organic networks – its constituents of people – and less on the technology itself? I think so.

Although I am mainly responding to Webster’s technological argument, his other sections also informed my thoughts. I couldn’t decide whether to address Webster’s technology argument, or his cultural argument. In his cultural argument, Webster mentioned Jean Baudrillard and the “death of the sign.” I appreciate the discussion on signification and the collapse of meaning. I consider an information society to be a society that can distinguish between good (factual) and bad (falsified) information, using mature information literacy skills, critical thinking, and cognition. If these elements were at work presently in our society, I think we would be seeing far less fear, racism, and disrespect. What we have now, instead of an information-based or enlightened society, is more akin to collective hysteria… a highly reactive and accusatory society (or Age, but you can hardly say we’re advancing…), where everyone thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. I think the overabundance of information from media sources is a hindrance to deep information gathering and signification of meaning. Now, in the search for meaning, things become more meaning-less. That’s Baudrillard. That’s Derrida. And more familiarly to the library profession, that’s Information Overload. This is why I think Information Professionals are crucial to tempering the madness.

Towards a Neurophenomenology of Consciousness

In David Chalmers’ seminal paper “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness,” Chalmers’ laid out his binary model of the hard and easy problems. The easy problems of consciousness are those which can be explained by computational or neural mechanisms, whereas the hard problem relates principally to experience and qualia. Reframed as a question, how can individuals have subjective mental experiences that arise from “soggy grey matter?” (McGinn). Moreover, why are these experiences different, and capable of producing a rich inner life? Chalmers showed that functional explanations simply failed to give a satisfactory account of phenomenal consciousness, and he moved to suggest that what was needed was an “extra ingredient” to bridge the explanatory gap in the science of the mind (Chalmers).

Responding to Chalmers’ non-reductive conclusion in 1996, the Chilean biologist, philosopher and neuroscientist Francisco Varela offered an alternative conception to the hard problem. Eschewing characteristic arguments associated with functionalism, reductionism, and mysterianism, Varela made the case for a first-person study of consciousness combined with cognitive scientific methods. Borrowing from the tradition of continental phenomenology, he maintained that consciousness is irreducible and “[l]ived experience is where we start from and where all must link back to, like a guiding thread” (Neurophenomenology 334). In other words, to arrive at any genuine knowledge of the world (and our place in it) presupposes a first-person view of phenomenality. Many philosophers of mind privilege the first-person view (Varela noted John Searle and Ray Jackendoff as examples), agreeing that consciousness is irreducible. However, they claim that such a position suffers from self-referential problems, and is therefore impossible to quantify or explain empirically. Varela attempted to move beyond this mere pessimistic surrender to the question. He proposed a first-person starting point, reinforced by a disciplined examination of experience, using both past and present methodologies. Ultimately, I feel that Varela’s neurophenomenology is an intellectually honest approach to the science of the mind. Cognitive science has so compartmentalized the brain that some philosophers are given to abstract analogy, comparing brains to robots or computers. These types of assertions are ontologically destitute, retaining little semblance of an originary, lived experience that, I believe, is necessary for understanding consciousness. Although the school of phenomenology has historically been neutral with regards to ontology, a co-determination of both external and phenomenological analysis offers a promising way ahead for studying consciousness.

Privileging a first-person view of consciousness invariably implies a phenomenological inspiration. Varela focused on the “anni mirabiles” for phenomenology: Edmund Husserl in the West, William James in the United States, and the Kyoto School in Japan (Neurophenomenology 335). Most fundamental to Varela’s project was Husserl. It was Husserl who inaugurated the method of phenomenological reduction, which consists of “bracketing” all our “folk or scientific opinions, beliefs, and theories about consciousness” (Gallagher 686). To this end, consciousness and the phenomenal field are stripped of any theoretical conclusions made by science or psychology. In other words, experience and qualia are returned to their essences for renewed study. Husserl advocated this return “to the things themselves,” precisely because lived experience is pretheoretical (Neurophenomenology 336). It would seem, then, that phenomenology is antithetical to the whole enterprise of science, since science seeks to understand reality. However, Husserl sought a firm grounding for epistemology (a necessary prerequisite for any scientific endeavor), which was to be without naïve allegiance to objectivism or scientism (Gallagher 686).

Enter Husserl’s concept of intentionality, borrowed from his preceptor, Franz Brentano. Husserl maintained that consciousness has an intentional character, meaning that one is always conscious of something. In other words, consciousness is object-related, which entails that experience is influenced by phenomena. However, an object can also be intended without it actually existing. For example, one can imagine a unicorn and relate to that object abstractly, rather than perceptually. Indeed, whether generated inwardly or outwardly, for Husserl, “[a]ll that is needed for intentionality to occur is the existence of an experience with the appropriate internal structure of object-directness” (Zahavi 21). Varela used this schema to defend the attitude of reduction, which he saw as necessary to “turn the direction of the movement of thinking from its habitual content-oriented direction backwards towards the arising of thoughts themselves” (Neurophenomenology 337). The phenomenological reduction, then, construed in this fashion, would affect a genuine approach to the study of the mind.

By following the premises of phenomenological reduction and intentionality, Varela maintained that the immediacy of experience gained a more vivid, intimate character. Varela noted that “[t]his gain in intimacy with the phenomenon is crucial, for it is the basis of the criteria of truth in phenomenological analysis, the nature of its evidence” (Neurophenomenology 337). What one intuits, then, is of exceeding importance. However, intuitive evidence still requires symbolic inscription, such as “an ‘embodiment’ that incarnates and shapes what we experience” (Neurophenomenology 337). Here, I believe, Varela was suggesting a radical change in Western epistemology. Based on his readings of Buddhist mindfulness/awareness, meditation, phenomenology, and cognitive science, Varela was pushing for a reflection of experience that necessarily includes the animate, breathing body. Moreover, for a proper reflection, the mind must be coordinated with the aforementioned body. Given the mind’s tendency to get distracted, it can be difficult to attune the mind-body relation. This is why Varela rounded off his discussion on the aspects of a phenomenological-reduced conscious by emphasizing the importance of skill-training in attentive bracketing, intuition, and illuminative description (Neurophenomenology 338).

The mind-body problem was explicated by Varela to show how abstract, disembodied reflection has traditionally dominated Western thought. For Varela, the Cartesian problematic was not simply a theoretical speculation separate from the body, but a speculation that originates in “a practical, lived experience. . . involving the mustering of one’s whole mind and body” (The Embodied Mind 30). Here, Varela drew parallels between his mission and the pragmatism of philosophers like William James. Varela was interested in what the mind-body relation was capable of doing in a very real, pragmatic sense. James had been unequivocal about pragmatism, concluding his lecture on “What Pragmatism Means” by stating that “[p]ragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses and to count the humblest and most personal experiences” (James 36). Pragmatism, then, is a method that stands firm against rationalism and abstract, scientific dogmatism. Varela upheld this idea, and in keeping with classical phenomenology, he claimed that science was a “theoretical activity after the fact,” incapable of recapturing or explaining the richness of experience (The Embodied Mind 19). Maurice Merleau-Ponty developed this idea further in his book Phenomenology of Perception, and these insights largely paved the way for Varela’s phenomenological reduction.

Before the phenomenological reduction of Husserl, the dominant field of psychology posited introspectionism as the fundamental course for quantifying human experience. The idea inherent in early experimental psychology was that mental phenomena were physical, and it was therefore up to psychology to investigate mental structures (Zahavi 13). Husserl rejected this notion, because he saw psychologism as suffering from several categorical errors. Namely, that psychology was in a position to claim the theoretical foundation for logical empiricism. In order to come to a closer understanding of experience, introspectionism suggested that subjects reflect on their experiences as if they were an unbiased, outside observer. For obvious reasons, this research program failed, because subjects’ reflections were influenced by their very own preconceptions of the mind. Indeed, this preconceptual analysis was what Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger referred to as “the abstract attitude of the scientist and the philosopher” (The Embodied Mind 30). Where phenomenology differs from mere introspectionism is in the technique of bracketing, or maintaining a critical distance from quick or easy descriptive processes. Other philosophers, such as Tim Bayne and Daniel Dennett, have been unable to draw this distinction between introspectionism and the method of phenomenological reduction. Here, it will be important to consider some typical objections to phenomenology before returning to Varela’s outline for neurophenomenology.

Tim Bayne has argued against the idea that phenomenology is a unique or privileged method for describing the first-person nature of consciousness. At the same time, however, Bayne admits that his knowledge of phenomenology is “limited.” He goes on to assert that phenomenological reduction and introspection are dubious methods which both attempt to do the same thing; that is, explain conscious experience (Bayne 351-352). Bayne’s only concession to phenomenology is that (à la Husserl’s concept of eidetic essences) phenomenology is more strictly involved than introspectionism in trying to discover the necessary structure of consciousness. Still, Bayne maintains that, while Varela may have been occupied with the noble goal of trying to understand the essential structure of consciousness, there is nothing in his research program that offers a promising way ahead in the science of the mind. Furthermore, Bayne takes issue with Varela’s use of James’ pragmatism. He notes that James was “a good old-fashioned introspectionist,” which somehow makes Varela’s high estimation of him suspect (Bayne 355). However, even if James was critical of phenomenology (a footnote in Andrew Bailey’s paper “Beyond the Fringe” suggests that he was), his pragmatism still lends considerable support to Varela’s attempt to guide a factual study of the mind. Indeed, pragmatism is not only compatible with first-person methodologies to science; pragmatism can be profitable for these methodologies as well. So, Bayne’s criticism is without merit.

The opposition between first-person and third-person accounts of consciousness has been debated ad nauseam by philosophers. Varela’s opinion was that “so-called third-person, objective accounts are done by a community of concrete people who are embodied in their social and natural world as much as first-person accounts” (Neurophenomenology 340). Varela was attempting to bridge the objective and subjective divide into a harmonious relation. However, other philosophers balk at harmony, and are adamant against a first-person approach. The most prominent philosopher among third-person advocates is probably Daniel Dennett. A radical eliminativist, Dennett has characterized phenomenologists as being “deeply into obscurantism” (Masís 71). In Consciousness Explained, he notes that Husserl’s philosophy is “a special technique of introspection” (Dennett 44). We have already seen that this is false, but Dennett is still comfortable with maligning the continental tradition and saying that phenomenology has “failed.” As a cognitive scientist, Dennett reasons that “[e]ven if mental events are not among the data of science, this does not mean we cannot study them scientifically. . . a theory [of mind] will have to be constructed from the third-person point of view, since all science is constructed from that perspective” (Dennett 71). Since traditional phenomenology is not objective enough for Dennett, he outlines his own techniques for explaining phenomenal experience by coining new terms like autophenomenology and heterophenomenology.

According to Dennett, heterophenomenology is a “neutral path leading from objective physical science and its insistence on the third-person point of view, to a method of phenomenological description that can (in principle) do justice to the most private and ineffable subjective experiences, while never abandoning the methodological scruples of science” (Dennett 72). Dennett claims that worldly experience (Husserl’s Lebenswelt or lifeworld) is a “theorist’s fiction,” and first-person experience is characterized by so-called autophenomenology, which is simply a naïve account of one’s phenomenal experience. Basically, what Dennett means is that our interpretations of our own subjective experiences are invariably false. He asserts that what we believe to be going on in our day-to-day mental lives is just part of a “grand illusion.” For example, anyone with a headache would authoritatively claim that their experience of that headache is a painful one. But Dennett warns us against making such authoritative claims. In his words, “[y]ou are not authoritative about what is happening in you, but only about what seems to be happening in you” (Dennett 96). For Dennett, these illusory seemings run the gamut of mental events, and he maintains that the structure of conscious experience is not accessible on a “personal level” (The Embodied Mind 48). As if there were a “homunculus” working behind the scenes of our conscious awareness, what we perceive to be real, for Dennett, is not real at all. Dennett’s computational theory of the mind, then, “reduces phenomenological experience and subjectivity to something merely private and ineffable” (Masís 76). But what philosophers like Dennett fail to comprehend is that the transcendental stance of phenomenology is not purposefully obscure. Phenomenology, as a philosophical endeavor, is characterized by rigorous attention to neutralizing a certain dogmatic attitude towards reality, thereby focusing on sense and meaningfulness in the world of lived experience (Masís 82). Therefore, phenomenology does not investigate private and ineffable seemings, but reality as such. Dennett’s heterophenomenology, then, has very little to do with classical phenomenology. He relies too heavily on verbal reports and a posteriori beliefs about experience, which place him in error precisely because phenomenology has shown that experience is pretheoretical. Indeed, this argument characterizes the dividing line of Chalmers’ binary approach described at the outset of this paper. Dennett, on the other hand, seems to be in favor of a dogmatic, theoretical attitude that is somehow equipped with the necessary scientific tools to explain consciousness. As Jethro Masís amusingly says, he is “bewitched by a certain species of scientism” (Masís 86).

Varela argued that experience was not private or ineffable; it was intersubjective. Experience is something that is shared between and among body-subjects that are in the world. Intersubjectivity, then, illuminates a second-person approach of cognition and allows for empathy within the framework of the mind. Recently, Natalie Depraz has elaborated on intersubjective validation in respect to Husserlian phenomenology. She contends that openness toward worldly-embedded body-subjects (persons) “enables [us] to deal with a second-person approach oriented toward the third-person one. . . without going into the heterophenomenological stance, which is counter-productive as far as a lived experiential intersubjectivity is concerned” (Depraz). In other words, being open to the world as a first-person cognizing subject allows for a relational mutuality of experience. Where physiological responses are observed to be similar across a broad sample size of isomorphic subjects experiencing the same external phenomena, it is unlikely that experience is either private or ineffable. Indeed, a neurobiological proposal is therefore necessary for any proper understanding of intersubjective validation, as well as Varela’s research program on the whole.

Thus far, the information presented here on Varela et al. has been largely conceptual. However, the reader looking for concrete scientific examples should realize that Varela did not shirk away from scientific inquiry. Indeed, as a biologist and neuroscientist, Varela’s approach to the mind was intimately bound up with empirical effort. Still, he believed that scientific research on consciousness was to be done from the safety-net of phenomenological reduction. For Varela, the neural correlates of consciousness were something “to be established, not just as a matter of philosophical commitment or physicalist assumption, but from a methodologically sound examination of experiential invariants” (Neurophenomenology 344). Therefore, a disciplined method of gathering first-person data is necessary in order to study consciousness in a scientific way. Following these desiderata, Varela’s neurophenomenology is just such a disciplined method of experience and cognitive science. In Varela’s words, “the hypothesis presented here provides an explicit avenue to conduct research in cognitive science as if both brain physiology and mental experience mattered” (Neurophenomenology 344). Clearly, brain physiology and mental experience do matter, as we have seen from the perspectives of first and second-person approaches. In this sense, Varela’s neurophenomenology builds productively on the work of Searle, Christof Koch, and Chalmers. For instance, neurophenomenology is naturalistically-oriented, it seeks out the neural correlates of consciousness, and it grants “structural coherence;” albeit with an added ontological value (Neurophenomenology 345). All things considered, Varela’s contribution, I believe, deserves a deep respect from individuals associated with the philosophy of mind.

First-person science, by way of Varela, still has numerous philosophically-stubborn minds to convert before it becomes the dominant approach to cognitive science. Fortunately, there are adept phenomenologists continuing the work of the late Francisco Varela, who regrettably passed away in 2001. Alva Noë and Evan Thompson are two such philosophers who endorse the marriage of classical phenomenology and cognitive science. Following Varela, Noë and Thompson advocate an embodied and enactive cognitive science, in which an organic philosophy based on the lifeworld and originary, lived experience is the starting point. Western science, as we have seen, has been characterized by disembodied and abstract modes of thought, incommensurate with ideas that suggest “mind and world are mutually overlapping.” But Varela maintained that “cognitive science cannot escape this circulation, and must cultivate it instead” (Neurophenomenology 346). For neurophenomenology, cultivation is feasible in practice. The goal of phenomenological description, as explained by Varela, is of no more difficulty than attaining a know-how skill, such as playing a musical instrument. Indeed, neuroplasticity suggests that the mind does entail transformation. For instance, Varela and Thompson have argued in favor of neural causation, indicating that consciousness can be a volitional act. This observation comes from their studies on meditation, which Thompson has since elaborated on in his work on contemplative neuroscience.

Contemplative neuroscience “views attention, awareness, and emotion regulation as flexible and trainable skills, and works with experimental participants who have undergone extensive training in contemplative practices designed to hone these skills” (Thompson 187). Thompson’s work remarkably demonstrates that conscious experience can be willfully controlled by individuals trained in mindfulness/awareness and meditation. If this is the case, we are not in need of that little homunculus which Dennett likes to place at the center of his Cartesian theater. Thompson, like Varela, invokes the psychology of James to describe how voluntary attention is ordinarily captive to the whims of a wandering meta-consciousness, spontaneously giving rise to transient thoughts and memories. Given the dilemma that cognitive scientists face with respect to introspected verbal reports, Thompson suggests that a neurophenomenology of volitional consciousness is a useful approach to understanding conscious experience. Thompson mentions Antoine Lutz et al., who studied advanced Tibetan Buddhist meditators and compared them to novice meditators. Ultimately, the researchers found that higher gamma waves accompanied practitioners self-reports of increasing meditative clarity (Thompson 193). These studies indicate that neural networks are complex systems which “arise spontaneously given the local couplings among the network’s components and the way those couplings are globally constrained and regulated” (Thompson 193) Therefore, consciousness is characterized by reciprocal causal relations. However, this new insight into the neurobiology of free will has been criticized by neurophenomenology’s detractors as well.

Thompson’s neurological evidence has been misconstrued by Bayne as being characterized by “some kind of (token) identity theory.” In a desperate rebuttal, Bayne claims that the acceptance of “global order parameters” goes against the neurophenomenological stance that the mind is necessarily embodied (Bayne 358-359). But this statement makes Bayne sound ignorant of the facts. These studies, after all, were performed on advanced meditators who were consciously regulating their bodies. Bayne’s strongest argument, however, comes immediately after this oversight. He says that, “merely establishing that there are causal relations does not suffice to close the explanatory gap” (Bayne 359). This is a disheartening conclusion for neurophenomenology, but it is certainly not off the mark. Without a doubt, Bayne’s conclusion is the strongest part of his paper. He maintains that, even if cognitive scientists were able to empirically verify an isomorphism between phenomenal states and neuronal states, the “explanatory itch would remain” (Bayne 360-361). Indeed, any formal mathematical model would only permit predictions of phenomenal states on the basis of neural data. Explaining why particular neural states have a particular phenomenology would still be the mysterious lacuna in every consciousness laboratory. It may seem reasonable, then, to throw in with Colin McGinn and other mysterians. We may never be able to answer the hard problem due to a certain “cognitive closure” (McGinn). Still, it is useful to maintain an optimistic attitude going forward. As long as there is work to be done in the field of neuroscience, the continental tradition of phenomenology offers, I think, the best philosophical position for orienting oneself with respect to the matter.

 Works Cited

Bailey, Andrew R. “Beyond the Fringe: William James on the Transitional Parts of the Stream of Consciousness.” The View From Within: First-person approaches to the study of consciousness. Ed. Francisco Varela and Jonathan Shear. Bowling Green, OH.: Imprint Academic, 1999. Print.

Bayne, Tim. “Closing the gap? Some questions for neurophenomenology.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 3 (2004): 349-64. Web.

Chalmers, David J. “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2.3 (1995): 200-19. Web.

Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. 10th ed. Boston, MA.: Little, Brown and Company, 1991. Print.

Depraz, Natalie. “Empathy and second-person methodology.” Continental Philosophy Review 45.3 (2012): 447-59. Print.

Gallagher, Shaun. “Phenomenological Approaches to Consciousness.” The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness. Ed. Susan Schneider and Max Velmans. 4th ed. Malden, MA.: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. 686-96. Print.

James, William. Pragmatism. 10th ed. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 1907. Print.

Masís, Jethro. “Phenomenological Skillful Coping: Another Counter-Argument to Daniel Dennett’s Heterophenomenology.” Journal of Philosophy of Life 2.1 (2012): 67-91. Web.

McGinn, Colin. “Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?.” Mind V, July 1989. Web.

Thompson, Evan. “Contemplative Neuroscience as an Approach to Volitional Consciousness.” Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will. Ed. George F. Ellis, Nancey Murphey, and Timothy O’Connor. N.p.: Springer, 2009. 187-97. Web. <>.

Varela, Francisco J. “Neurophenomenology: A Methodological Remedy for the Hard Problem.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 3.4 (1996): 330-49. Web.

Varela, Francisco J., Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. 20th ed. Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press, 1991. Print.

Zahavi, Dan. Husserl’s Phenomenology. Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 2003. Print.