Embodied and disembodied rationality: what morbid rationalism and hyper-reflexivity tell us about human intelligence and intentionality

Giovanni Pen nisi and Shaun Gallagher

1 Introduction

Traditional conceptions of the human mind rely on the assumption that what sets us apart from the other animal species is rationality. Since Aristotle, the ability to solve problems and to understand causal relationships between different events by means of deduction, syllogistic reasoning, and inference have been considered differential marks of our ontology. Thanks to our peculiar cerebral and anatomical configuration, we are the only living creatures that develop language-based skills such as judgement making, propositional knowledge, and mind-reading. These considerations have resulted in an “intellectualist view” (Noe, 2005, 2009, 2015), namely the misconception that “rational deliberation is the most basic kind of cognitive operation” (Noe, 2009: 99). There appear to be at least two fallacies intrinsic to this position. On the one hand, it seems to imply that logical thought is the first (if not the only) “mental tool” we resort to in order to face everyday challenges such as taking a decision or carrying out intentional, goal-directed actions. On the other hand, it both rests on and reinforces the common idea that the quality of being rational can be attributed only to those acts that depend upon the use and the mastery of language.

In this chapter, we will critically challenge the principles of this intellectualist picture not only by redefining the role that some of the correlates of our linguistic rationality have with respect to more basic, embodied mechanisms, but also by arguing that such mechanisms are foundational to a peculiar kind of intelligence. We will call this intelligence “embodied rationality” (Gallagher, 2018a) and argue that this concept does not aim at downgrading the importance of our highest cognitive functions, but rather at explaining how the latter integrate with a complex system of implicit forms of non-conceptual know-how. We will develop the concept of embodied rationality by exploring a phenomenological approach to perception and skilful performance; then, we will consider the case of schizophrenia, a pathology marked by a breakdown in the process of interaction between tacit and explicit knowledge and in which the embodied aspects of rational behaviour are suffocated by “a hypertrophy of intellectual and static tendencies” (Sass, 2001: 251), that is, what Minkowski (1927) has called “morbid rationalism”. We will consider the notion of morbid rationalism and compare it to that of “hyper-reflexivity” (Sass, 1992, 2000) in order to show that the analysis of these phenomena is extremely useful for both revealing the detrimental effects of a lack of embodied rationality and assessing the relationship between the latter and our highest, logical, and reflective functions.

Finally, we will introduce the concept of disembodied rationality to account for the inability of the schizophrenic patients to optimize their bodily and cognitive responses to environmental inputs due to the interference of their hyper-reflexive attitude. This condition is reflected in two typical symptoms, namely the breakdown in body-schematic processes (Chapman, 1966; Fuchs and Schlimme, 2009) and the disruption of the protentional function of time consciousness (Fuchs, 2007; Stanghellini et al., 2016). The correlation between these phenomena will be addressed in the final part of the chapter.

2 Rationality and normativity

Following Stanovich (2011), we distinguish between a weak and a strong sense of rationality. The weak sense, which is the one underlying the dictionary definition, refers to the quality of being in accord with reason; it has its roots in the Aristotelian conception of man as the rational animal. Because we are the only species that can be in accord with reason (and violate, consciously or not, its principles), other animal species must be considered ontologically arational (de Sousa, 2007). In contrast, the strong sense, which is the one used in cognitive science (Stanovich, 2011), has a prescriptive value and is opposed to irrationality: “rationality (and irrationality) come in degrees defined by the distance of the thought or behavior from the optimum defined by a normative model” (3). This is the working definition of rationality we use throughout this chapter.

Whereas, according to Stanovich, the idea that rationality can be delineated as the extent to which our thoughts and actions adhere to a set of established rules sparks no controversy in cognitive science, there is no consensus as to whether these rules should be considered a linguistically organized form of knowledge or not. Such a disagreement, for example, can be found in the opposition between McDowell’s (1994) view on the ubiquitous presence of concepts in our normative openness to the world, and the Husserlian tradition, which holds that perception is intrinsically normative, although not structured in propositional terms (Husserl, 2001; Crowell, 2013; Doyon, 2015a). What is at stake here is the notion of normativity itself, together with the possibility of determining to what degree language is implicated in it.

Following McDowell, the relation between mind and world is normative in the sense that we, as rational animals, are in the position to assess the truthfulness of our beliefs and to make judgements about things being so and so (McDowell, 1994: xii); in doing this, we provide a regularity (a norm) to the structure of perceptual content on the basis of the conceptual one. The way the world appears to us is thus determined by our intellectual understanding of it and by the pervasive power of our propositional knowledge. Importantly, the tendency to apply the principles of our linguistic competence is a constitutive element of perception, something we cannot even try to avoid doing:

when we enjoy experience conceptual capacities are drawn on in receptivity, not exercised on some supposedly prior deliverances of receptivity. ... In experience . . . one’s conceptual capacities have already been brought into play, in the content’s being available to one, before one has any choice in the matter.


Therefore, McDowell establishes an intimate and indissoluble connection between language and perception, which is proven not only by the fact that we are always (at least in principle) capable of providing a justification for, say, thinking that we are looking at one particular object rather than another; most notably, this link emerges as a form of “conceptual shaping” (Siewert, 2013), a relationship in which the way things like chairs, apples, and nails appear to us depends on our knowing-that, namely our understanding that apples, chairs, and nails must have certain features in order to be defined as such. However, as Siewert noted:

[I|t is left unclear why . . . the manner in which the nails appear, from which I judge them to be a certain way, could not have been experienced by those whose lack of inferential abilities would deprive them of any concepts of nail or length.


Why, then, should we consider the set of rules in virtue of which a nail is a nail (i.e., its being short, sharp, and made of steel) a language-bound kind of normativity, if the same regularities could be assessed even by those who have no clue about what a nail is? Furthermore, one might wonder: is our conceptual knowing-that about objects a necessary condition for us to grasp how to use them, that is, our know-how? And what about the relationship between our explicit knowledge of the rules we have to follow in order to carry out skilful actions and the possibility to perform them? Do we need the former to secure the latter, as the intellectual-ists claim? These are the questions we are going to answer in the remainder of this chapter, relying on the phenomenological approach to the issue of normativity in perception and skilful performance.

2.1 The normative character of perception

The attempt to provide an account of our experiential openness to the world that could be “both non-conceptual and yet responsive to norms” (Crowell, 2013: 127) was one of Husserl’s main aims. His descriptions of perceptual intentionality, in fact, “all draw upon normative vocabulary” (ibid.: 130). Traces of such a lexicon can be found, for example, in his lectures on transcendental logic, in which Husserl (2001) claims that

there are originally prefigured ways [norms] of possible verification . . . intrinsic to the sense of every objectivity being experienced.


[There is] a universal regularity encompassing the course oflived-experiences, a regularity that prefigures a firm determination for future consciousness from past consciousness.


[T]he spatio-temporal world and the correlative regulation of the stream of consciousness not only exists, but exists precisely for the ego, ... as a pre-givenness, an availability, as a readiness for possibilities of cognitive activity that are to follow.


What emerges from these passages is Husserl’s fundamental idea that understanding the norms that govern our interaction with the environment (the “norms of possible verification”), allowing us to anticipate or envisage what is to come in our perceptual experience, does not rely on our capacity to internalize these rules in propositional form and then put them to the test of reality, but rather depends on the intrinsic temporal structure of our consciousness. This issue was also addressed in Husserl’s lectures on the phenomenology of the consciousness of internal time (1991), in which he explained that the content of an act of perception, for example, looking at a tree or hearing a melody, is never determined by the single sensorial datum we have access to in any given moment, such as the side of the tree we are in front of or the note that is being played now (see 355; also Gallagher and Zahavi, 2021: 83). On the contrary, every act of being directed at intentional objects, whether they are physical entities like trees or event phenomena like melodies, is characterized by the impression that these objects have a temporal extension and by a related anticipatory sense of what is to follow if, say, one circles around the tree to look at a part of it that is now hidden from sight, or continues to listen to the melody.

This way of experiencing the perceptual contents as a cohesive unity that transcends the present moment, unfolding in a temporal continuum that encompasses also our future dispositions towards what is there, depends on the peculiar nature of our consciousness, which, for Husserl, has the fundamental function of structuring the flow of time in three seamlessly integrating aspects: the primal impression, which is a mode of appearance of the intentional object that cannot provide us any temporal information about it, as it is constituted by every single ‘now’ in which a portion of the object is given to the senses; a retention, namely a particular kind of non-representational, “primary memory that continuously attaches itself to the [primalj impression” (Husserl, 1991: 32) and that, adding to the actual ‘now’ of every perception, allows us to experience the intentional object as a phenomenon that extends across a time span; and a protention, which is the intuition that something is about to happen in the very next phase of the perceptual process, an anticipation based upon the combination of the retentional sense of the just-past moments and manifests itself as the expectation we have towards the future modes of appearance of the object. Importantly, the protentional aspect is a feature of consciousness that is constitutive of our engagement with both familiar and unfamiliar entities. In this respect, it is sufficient to think about the first time we listen to a song: “it is not that we perceive only the present (and past) of the melody and then spontaneously postulate a future; we perceive the future of the melody - though the character of that perceived future may be more or less indeterminate” (Blaik-lock, 2017: 473). Although it is true that in cases like this our protentions might be guided by some normative coordinates, such as the system of rules that takes the name of musical ‘style’ or ‘genre’, it is just as true that even those who have no conceptual awareness of these rules - for instance, those who ignore what a scale is or are unable to distinguish the sound of the notes - or have a very naïve and superficial acquaintance of that genre, may have “the vaguest of protentions of the future shape of the music” (475).1

The crucial point of Husserl’s argumentation is that our normative openness to the world, that is to say, our sense of the rules that govern our perceptual relationship with the world and that enable us to grasp what to do with and what to expect from it, is not to be understood as the direct expression of some level of knowledge of these rules in the form of a knowing-that, but rather as the natural tendency to project ourselves into the future of our perceptions, anticipating more or less predictable outcomes that will “set the standards against which the agent’s performances will be measured” (Doyon, 2015a: 45). Needless to say, the accuracy of the expectations on the basis of which we adapt our bodily and cognitive responses to the intentional object may depend on many factors, such as the number of previous interactions we’ve had with it or the context in which the action takes place, but this is not the point. What we want to highlight here is that the normative character of perception lies in its being structured in such a way so that it predisposes us to continually attribute what Husserl calls the “norms of possible verification” to our experience, not in its alleged function of confirming (or disconfirming) our propositional knowledge about the objects and the events we have access to. Therefore, perception is to be considered as having a basic, prepredicative and intrinsic coherence, which is interdependent with what Husserl and Merleau-Ponty call ‘operative’, ‘bodily’, or ‘motor’ intentionality.

2.2 Operative intentionality and coherence in skilled action

Some of the disputes over the non-conceptual yet normative character of the perception of intentional objects also concern the field of skilful performance. There is no doubt that the ability to carry out bodily activities that require a high level of expertise - for example, following a choreography, driving a car, or playing tennis - is intrinsically normative, as it presupposes a deep knowledge of how one has to move one’s body in order to reach a certain goal or to successfully combine the actions that make up the whole performance. Even in this case, however, there is no consensus as to what degree language or propositional knowledge is involved in accomplishing coherent or skilled movement. Whereas, as we will see subsequently, some proponents of intellectualism support the Aristotelian claim that “what makes an action an exercise of skill, rather than mere reflex, is the fact that it is guided by the intellectual apprehension of truths” (Stanley, 2011: 174), some representatives of the phenomenological approach to skilful performance hold that skilled performance rests on at least two, closely intertwined processes, each of which is independent of the intellectual apprehension of truth: body-schematic (intrinsic) control and a performative self-awareness (Gallagher, 2005a, 2017, 2018b, 2020a; Legrand, 2007).

The body schema enables the agent to immediately and pre-reflectively adapt bodily responses to perceptual inputs and to constantly readjust the position of the body - of the head, of the limbs, etc. - in order to have the best possible “grip” on or attunement to the environment, from both a perceptual and a practical point of view (Gallagher, 1986, 2005a). Examples of how the embodied agent follows “a schema of all types of perceptual unfolding to conform to the logic of the world” (see Merleau-Ponty, 2002: 380—381) can be found in an extremely wide range of circumstances. Consider the example of eyestrain when the body makes close to automatic postural and motor adjustments even before the subject becomes aware of the oncoming headache. In such cases body-schematic processes operate “prenoetically” (Gallagher, 2005a), and pre-reflectively, as they do in everyday walking or when we make voluntary and goal-targeted movements.

Here we note that the dynamic organization of the body schema is also structured by the same Husserlian conception of intrinsic temporality - the retentional, impressional, protentional structure. Thus, Merleau-Ponty, referencing this same structure, and following the neurologist Henry Head (1920), reconfirms that each present moment of the body-schematic process is ‘charged with a relation’ to what has happened before so that movement incorporates past moments into the present:

At each successive instant of a movement, the preceding instant is not lost sight of. It is, as it were, dovetailed into the present, and present perception generally speaking consists in drawing together, on the basis of one’s present position, the succession of previous positions, which envelop each other.

(Merleau-Ponty, 2002: 161)

These retentional aspects of movement are further integrated into anticipatory or prospective aspects already noted:

Each instant of the movement embraces its whole span, and particularly the first which, being the active initiative, institutes the link between a here and a yonder, a now and a future which the remainder of the instants will merely develop.

(ibid.: 161)

These kinds of anticipatory processes pervade motoric actions; they can be found in hand-mouth coordination in infants, where the mouth opens to anticipate the hand (Butterworth and Hopkins, 1988; Lew and Butterworth, 1995); in visual tracking (Berthoz, 2000); in postural adjustments (Babinski, 1899); in fast correction of reaching and grasping movements (Georgieff and Jeannerod, 1998; Jeannerod, 2001; MacKay, 1966). Likewise, these dynamical aspects of the body schema involve a kind of intrinsic control attuned to worldly affordances and to the intentions of the agent. That is, they are not completely automatic; rather than being blindly repetitive of the same movement in each situation, the fine-tuned and non-conscious details of the body schema adjust to changes in the environment, and to changes in agentive intention (see Section 2.3). The fact that these prospective processes “are immanent in virtually everything we think or do seems inescapable” (Haith, 1993: 237).

Although the body schema is a system that involves close-to-automatic motor responses that, ontogenetically, start to form during fetal development (Gallagher, 2005b) and are responsible for phenomena such as early mouth-hand coordination and neonate responses to caregivers (Gallagher and Meltzoff, 1996), it is also characterized by a good level of flexibility. This is shown by empirical studies that have demonstrated the incorporation of tools and instruments, like rakes, sticks, and tennis rackets into the agent’s body schema (Maravita and Iriki, 2004; Fourkas et al., 2008), or by the fact that one can train one’s body schema, as when a dancer works on his coordination to improve his movements or when a tennis player learns new techniques.

The functioning of body-schematic processes by themselves, however, is not sufficient to account for the complexity of skilful practices. Contrary to what some anti-intellectualists maintain,2 in fact, the “maximal grip” (Merleau-Ponty, 2002) that the expert performer has on the situation due to his fine-tuned motor control processes is not everything he needs. Skill within a context of, say, a cricket or a basketball game requires more, because the player “has to strategically take into account the precise situation (the layout of the field, the position of other players, the speed of the ball, and so forth) that involves a mindful sense of where she is going to put the ball” (Gallagher, 2020a: 46). This ‘mindful sense’ is what we may call performative (Gallagher, 2005a) or ‘situated’ (cf. Christensen et al., 2016) awareness.

Performative awareness involves both a heedful consciousness of one’s surroundings and a tacit and pre-linguistic sense of “proximity” to the purpose of one’s intentional actions. It is one’s awareness of bodily and environmental aspects relevant to one’s ongoing action, and is functionally meshed with body-schematic processes. It has its origins in the early stages of life, allowing the infant to correct and improve coordinated movement, for example. To have a performative awareness of, say, my hand using a joystick while I play a videogame, is not to have a reflective or intellectual attitude towards my hand, or even an explicit monitoring of my hand. It is rather an awareness that accompanies a know-how, a sense of what I can do in order to achieve my goals. In this respect, children and adults are similar, insofar as they are both guided by a sense of the ongoing course of the immediate action that provides them with a good grip on whether their goal-directed gestures are on target or not. Of course, this peculiar kind of sensitivity can be enhanced over time and with training. In the course of early development, infants learn what is reachable and graspable, how best to grasp a particular object, and so on. It is no coincidence, moreover, that experienced athletes are particularly good at detecting the correctness of their movements: one thinks, for example, of the basketball player who knows he missed a shot before the ball even touches the hoop and moves accordingly to get the rebound right away, or of the tennis player, who feels he has just hit the ball too short and immediately knows what he needs to do (at least approximately) to prepare for the return (see Doyon, 2015b).

Coping with the environment sometimes involves letting the flexible nature of our body-schematic processes guide some of our actions. The importance of letting oneself be guided in a pragmatic attunement enabled by the body schema is evident in both ordinary actions - such as walking — and skilful performances? A number of theorists, however, point out that this body-schematic process is not sufficient to account for the complexity of what goes on in something like dance or athletic performance, because being engaged in a skilful practice always involves the performative awareness that one is moving or doing something in terms closer to an optimum defined by the agent’s intentions and by the context itself (e.g., Christensen et al., 2016; Legrand, 2007; Montero, 2015; Shusterman, 2008). As we will see, these observations about body-schematic processes and performative awareness are enough for us to refuse the intellectualist position and pave the way to the development of an embodied approach to rationality (Gallagher, 2018a).

We will deepen and extend our understanding of how the concepts of body schema and performative awareness function in the next section. In Section 3, we will then show that these phenomena are extremely problematic in schizophrenia and how this is reflected in the emergence of a disembodied kind of rationality. Before that, however, we need to discuss what we mean by embodied rationality and how this notion may fit the working definition of rationality we have adopted.

2.3 Embodied rationality

When we describe rationality in terms of the ‘proximity’ of our thoughts and actions to an optimum defined by a normative model, we might assume that our conceptual understanding of what is contained in this system of rules - a form of knowing-that - plays a fundamental role. As a consequence, we might be prone to think that our ability to carry out skilful performances - our know-how - depends on our knowing-that. There are at least two possible interpretations of such a claim: the first is that, in order to become skilled in a certain practice - say, driving -one must first be able to assess the truthfulness of some propositions, such as the ones that prescribe the exact order in which we have to press the pedals or those that tell us how to coordinate the movement of the gear stick with that of the clutch. The second is that, assuming the importance of an intellectual apprehension of the norms in order to make their application possible, we may think that the former always precedes the latter, and that our performances can be defined as skilful only when our propositional knowledge about what it is correct to do or not to do guides our actions. In this view, “knowing how to perform a skill is simply a matter of knowing the appropriate propositions governing its instantiation” (Fridland, 2014: 2737).

The distinction between these two interpretations corresponds to the difference between what Noë (2015) calls the intellectualist insight (which he endorses) and the intellectualist thesis (which he rejects). Whereas the insight is somehow implicit to the position of the intellectualiste (Williamson and Stanley, 2001; Stanley, 2011; Stanley and Krakauer, 2013), the thesis represents its epistemological core and, in Noë’s opinion, an unnecessary stretch. Take, for instance, the following statement, which is meant to illustrate that motor skills depend on the knowledge of facts (Stanley and Krakauer, 2013):

Part of having skill at throwing a curve ball is having the knowledge that throwing a curveball requires picking a baseball up (as well as knowing what to do with it when it is in your hand).


If we were to read this example in light of the intellectualist insight, we should assume that throwing a curve ball is an ability that “requires training past baseline” (4), the result of a learning process that allowed the trainer’s verbal instructions on how to position the single parts of the body and to shape the hand to turn into a complex motor skill. In this sense, it is true that know-how depends on the knowledge of facts, as it can be developed only after a phase during which the novice’s understanding of what he is taught plays a key role and in which his need to “consult” the propositional knowledge he has acquired takes over physical action (see Stanley, 2011: 185). If, on the other hand, we were to read the example in light of the intellectualist thesis, we should suppose that being able to throw a curve ball is the same thing as having a certain number of beliefs about what one has to do with one’s hand and body. Most notably, the thesis argues that it is precisely the kind of knowledge that gets expressed in judgement that guides the action (Stanley, 2011). The difference between the thesis and the insight is slight but fundamental and can be explained with another example, which takes into account the unpredictability of a dynamical context such as a tennis game.

According to Stanley and Krakauer (2013), when an expert tennis player switches from one technique to another - say, from a groundstroke to a drop shot - based on the position of the opponent, he is “injecting” in the ongoing course of the activity a peculiar kind of knowledge about that activity (ibid.: 4). This kind of knowledge is “the knowledge of what to do to initiate actions of that sort, [which is] a feature of skill that explains the fact that the manifestations of skill are intentional actions” (ibid.: 5). Therefore, for Stanley and Krakauer, skills are intentional - and, hence, a paradigmatic example of Aristotelian rationality - insofar as they are expressions of the agent’s ability to voluntarily choose among a wide range of rule-based options that he has stored in terms of knowledge of facts about that activity, a form of propositional knowledge-that. This explanation, however, does not do justice to the nuanced complexity intrinsic to the concept of skill, for at least two, closely interrelated reasons: first, for any case one might think of, “knowing how to do something implies that you have the ability to do it (and vice versa), whereas the corresponding propositional knowledge has no such practical entailments” (Noe, 2015: 6); that is, of course, unless one wants to support the unlikely hypothesis that everyone who is able to read a manual or to follow the trainer’s instructions is a virtually great performer.4

The second reason is that even knowing what to do to initiate an action, as well as deciding whether to resort to one action rather than another, can hardly be considered as a display of the knowledge required for expert performance, at least in the sense implied by the intellectualist thesis. As Fridland (2014) notices, in fact, it is difficult to fathom how single propositions with a generic value -i.e., “I know what to do to perform a groundstroke”, or “I know that when the opponent does x, I have to do y” - could ever account for the elegant, precise, and fine-grained control exhibited in various manifestations of the skilled action (see 2743-2744). Being a skilful performer is most of all a matter of being able to turn one’s well-trained and rule-based motor routines into adaptive, dynamic, and context-sensitive responses when needed, “of building and accessing flexible links between knowing and doing” (Sutton et al., 2011: 95). This ability, in turn, depends on the expert’s capacity to keep track of the ongoing course of the performance, exercising a mindful control over the action that is made possible by the constant emergence of performative or situated awareness (discussed later). Therefore, although the intellectualists are right when they claim that some kind of conscious control is a necessary condition for a performance to be defined as skilful, “the mistake is to think that a performance is only rational if control is exerted in the mode of judgement, as if from outside” (Noe, 2015: 7).

Many authors (Fridland, 2014; Christensen et al., 2016; Montero, 2010, 2015; Hagendoorn, 2003) have focused on the different types of conscious control involved in athletic performances, providing several accounts of skilful practice that refuse rational intellectualism - as well as the idea that being an expert is just a matter of going on automatic pilot. For instance, Fridland counters the intellectualist thesis by saying that

when a baseball pitcher decides to throw a curveball instead of a fastball, this decision is an instance of strategic control. Also . . . knowing what one has to do to in order to initiate an action is part of strategic control.. . . Strategic control [is what] guides motor skill by integrating fine-grained automatic routines with the personal-level goals and intentions of the agent.

(Fridland, 2014: 2744-2745)

What Fridland calls strategic control over skilful actions is closely connected to performative awareness. Whereas performative awareness is the tacit sense of what one can or cannot do in order to reach specific goals, given the overall contextual circumstances, strategic control is what allows the agent to modulate and implement in the course of the performance the actions called forth by performative awareness. Fridland gives several examples of how strategic control governs the activity (see 2744-2746). In similar fashion, the concept of a meshed architecture put forward by Christensen et al. (2016) “proposes that controlled and automatic processes are closely integrated in skilled action, and that cognitive control directly influences motor execution in many cases” (43). One of the ways in which cognitive control exerts its influence is by a “parameterization of the action, or action ‘gist’” (43-44), which is

a particular way of performing the action appropriate to the circumstances. For instance, the soccer player may form a gist in kicking a pass that aims to put the ball into a particular area with a particular weighting that will wrongfoot a defender and allow a teammate to run onto the ball.


Action gist clearly shows that knowing-how is much more than knowing what to do (i.e., to pass a ball) and when to do it, as it is a manifestation of skill that depends upon context sensitivity, individual differences, personal sub-goals, and other elements whose combination can be explained only by an approach that takes into account the role of performative awareness and the dynamical complexity of bodyschematic processes (Gallagher and Aguda, 2020).

Another important feature of skilfulness that is enabled by performative awareness and body-schematic processes is selective attention (Fridland, 2014; Wu, 2014; Sutton et al., 2011), which can be described as the expert’s proficiency in focusing only on those aspects of the perceptual scene that are relevant to the achievement of his goals. Selective attention is a fully-fledged part of skilfulness insofar as it improves over time and with training, as demonstrated by the neuroscientific data on the regional brain activity of novice sportsmen, who show a high activation in the areas implicated in “the maintenance of global, rather than selective attention . . . and a lack of attentional focus . . ., which contrasts with the highly selective motor system activation in the experts” (Milton et al., 2007: 810; see also Gray et al., 2004). Selective attention is neither the result of some sort of automatic reflex or mindless process nor the outcome of the agent’s top-down voluntary decision to focus on some details rather than others; it is rather the result of a bottom-up intrinsic control (Gallagher and Varga, 2020). Body-schematic processes in expert performance are already context-sensitive, open, and adaptive, rather than automatic or general, and as such they elicit selective attention, a heedful, goal-oriented form of perceptual consciousness. In this regard, the mindfulness that includes performative awareness and selective attention is not imposed as a type of top-down cognition; it’s rather something closer to an attuned habit. Habit, in this case, is, as Merleau-Ponty (2002) describes it, when the body acquires the power of responding with a certain type of solution to a certain form of situation. Instead of blind automatic repetition, habit is intrinsically intelligent and reflective of an operative or motor intentionality. That is, it involves an intelligence, a rationality built into the agent’s bodily movement.

To sum up, we can state that skilfulness is the result of the interaction among various elements. First of all, it depends upon the normative character of our perception and bodily action. In Section 2.1, we presented the phenomenological argument that perception is normative as it is intrinsically linked to the temporal structure of consciousness, which provides us with an anticipatory sense of the (immediate) future modes of appearance of the intentional object. Extending this observation to the example of the expert tennis player, we can say that part of his expertise consists in perceiving the various salient details of the scene - the distance from the net, the other player’s body language and position on court, etc. -as bearers of a protentional sense of action possibilities to efficiently counter the opponent’s shots. As Crowell (2013) puts it

the perceptual optimum of a tennis ball in flight is relative to the best place for my body to be in order to return it; . . . perception is feelingly guided by an optimum because it takes place in the context of practices in which the body seeks to improve its stance in, and by means of, its dealings with things in the world.


Secondly, we can say that skilfulness depends upon the integration of bodyschematic processes and performative awareness. One of the ways in which the expert improves his dealing with things in the world, in fact, is by attuning and enhancing both body-schematic processes - i.e., learning new basic techniques, getting better in the overall coordination, etc. - and the sense of goal-directedness of his actions - i.e., becoming more precise in discriminating whether his movements will be on target or not, or discovering new possibilities intrinsic to his own body (see Doyon, 2015a).

Lastly, we want to stress that every account of skilfulness should address the relationship between body-schematic processes, performative awareness, and phenomena such as strategic control, action gist, and selective attention - elements of the meshed architecture that makes bodily performance intelligent. This is because, in our view, only an agent who entertains a context-related awareness that he is moving or doing something in terms closer to his aims can develop a good sensitivity towards the way in which he has to modulate the actions or orient his attention.

Moreover, action gist and selective attention provide a valid explanation for the emergence of know-how, for they both represent a kind of “cognitive control on execution [that] is not through ‘step-by-step’ [viz. reflective, or procedural] control of the movement” (Christensen et al., 2016: 44), but rather manifests itself as a pre-reflective attunement to the situation that is refined with experience, practice, and the formation of intelligent habits.

The foregoing considerations about the nature of skilfulness bring us to a final, crucial point, namely that the processes involved in the carrying out of skilful activities are the same that govern intentional and goal-directed daily actions. In saying this, we are neither qualitatively nor quantitatively equating the abilities that are displayed during a challenging performance with the physical and cognitive requirements necessary to accomplish easy, targeted, motor tasks. Rather, we want to highlight that both skilful performances and everyday intentional, goal-directed actions rely on some shared, ontogenetically determined basic mechanisms. Take, for instance, the act of grasping an object to use it: on the one hand, grasping is one of those motor programs that are enabled by innate structures that generate body-schematic processes corresponding to elemental aspects of the movement (i.e., the extension of the arm or the rotation of the wrist, see Gallagher, 2005a: 48) and processes such as a primary form of proprioceptive, pre-reflective self-awareness (p. 76); on the other hand, grasping depends on more complex capacities that are refined with practice and differ according to the purpose the agent wants to achieve, for example, adjusting the hand to the shape of a glass in order to drink from it vs. adjusting the hand to the shape of a glass in order to throw it (see Ansuini et al., 2006, 2008). Of course, we are so accustomed to grasping objects in order to use them that, once this skill is mastered, it produces an almost irrelevant cognitive effort. However, this does not imply that, at some point, action gist and selective attention do not take place, but rather that they are ‘absorbed’ into the intelligent habits of bodily movement and our systematic engagement with things in the world.

Examples of how conscious processes like action gist and selective attention are integrated into the habitual functioning of the body schema through practice can be found in a range of motor acts extending from the simplest (e.g., reaching, grasping) to the complex (e.g., dressing, driving). The case of grasping, however, is sufficient to illustrate why the relationship between performative awareness and phenomena such as action gist and selective attention enables us to identify “a rationality that is intrinsic in the hand” (Gallagher, 2018a: 88). As an agent reaches to grasp an object to use it, his hand shapes itself into the right posture in a way that is close to automatic but yet perfectly appropriate to his purpose, showing that “central forms of flexible and adaptive actions which are clearly not the product of deliberation or explicit reflection can nonetheless be best understood as involving certain sorts of (dynamic, embodied) intelligence” (Sutton et al., 2011: 79). This peculiar kind of intelligence is explained by the fact that the hand is part of a brain-body system that is guided by an ongoing sense of goal-directedness of one’s actions and by conscious processes that both draw on and update the body schema, allowing us to have a pre-reflective attunement to most of the relevant environmental contingencies. Therefore, when we talk of embodied rationality, we mean that our efficiency in reaching an optimum in everyday situations that are clearly rule or norm-based - like all goal-targeted actions - is not conditional upon the conceptual understanding or the explicit application of these rules, but rather depends on the embodiment of conscious mechanisms that are refined by simply being in the world.

3 Schizophrenia and disembodied rationality

In the previous section, we said that when we perform intentional, goal-directed actions:

  • a) The intrinsic temporal structure of our perception includes a primordial and vague anticipation of the future modes of appearance of events and objects in the world.
  • b) There is a pre-reflective attunement to objects and things in the world, thanks to the embodied processes involving action gist and selective attention. Such processes work along with and enhances the function of our body schema -that is to say, with time and practice, we become able to effortlessly carry out an increasing amount of intentional and goal-targeted actions.

These core features belong to a basic kind of intentionality usually characterized as motor intentionality, operative intentionality, and intentionality-in-action (see Gallagher, 2012; Pacherie, 2006), and help to explain why we can talk of an “embodied” kind of rationality, namely a “sensitivity towards the worldly norms” (Doyon, 2015a: 48) that manifests itself in our ability to reach an optimum in most of our everyday activities without recurring to an explicit (reflective or conceptual) recalling of the procedural rules we have to follow in order to perform goal-targeted actions.

Embodied rationality can fail in various circumstances and often in specific psychopathologies. Here we examine schizophrenia as one such failure. If the normative character of perception and the performative aspects of motor intentional behaviour can be defined as the foundations of our ‘embodied rationality’, then certain symptoms of schizophrenia can be considered as involving a ‘disembodied’ kind of rationality. Many authors, in fact, have proposed that the early stages of the illness are characterized by (1) a breakdown in the pro-tentional function of time-consciousness (Fuchs, 2007; Stanghellini et al., 2016) and by (2) a disruption of body-schematic processes (Chapman, 1966; Fuchs, 2005; Fuchs and Schlimme, 2009), that is, a deficit in both selective attention and action gist.

(1) The disturbances in time perception of the schizophrenic subjects have been known for a long time. In his pivotal Lived Time (1970), Minkowski described the peculiar temporality experienced by schizophrenics as characterized by a perpetual feeling of immobility that has been vividly captured by the words of one of his patients:

There is an absolute fixity around me. I have even less mobility for the future than I have for the present and the past. There is a kind of routine in me which does not allow me to envisage the future. The creative power in me is abolished. I see the future as a repetition of the past.


What Minkowski’s patient depicts in terms of a pervasive and unescapable feeling of motionlessness is rooted in an initial impairment in the protentional function of consciousness. As Fuchs (2007) has noted, in fact, the prodromal stages of the schizophrenic syndrome are marked by the emergence of “gaps” in the temporal flow, gaps that “leave the patients with the task of‘rational reconstruction’ of meaningful thinking or speaking” (233). One of the first symptoms that arises, thus, is a lack in the sense of being ‘projected’ towards the future modes of appearance of the intentional objects. For example, a patient of Bin Kimura (1994) complained about the fact that

[wjhile watching TV . . ., though I can see every scene, I don’t understand the plot. Every scene jumps to the next, there is no connection. The course of time is strange, too. Time splits up and doesn’t run forward anymore.


When interviewed, many other patients reported different kinds of unusual experience of the dynamics of time (see Sass et al., 2017: 22-26), expressing an overall inability to anticipate even the most predictable outcomes in the unfolding of perceptual events and a correlated condition of uncertainty that often resulted in a sense of anxiety or in the feeling that anything - but especially bad things - could happen. This deficit in the anticipatory function of consciousness was also experimentally tested. For example, Frith (1992; Frith and Done, 1988) showed that, during the execution of an intentional movement correction task, schizophrenics perform like normal subjects when they are provided with a visual feedback, but, unlike normal subjects, fail to correct their mistakes when they are deprived of such a feedback. In line with these findings, a study conducted by Singh et al. (1992) evidenced abnormal pre-movement brain potentials in schizophrenia, which the authors addressed as the effect of a dysfunction in those brain areas that are “associated with physiological constructs such as readiness, preparation, initiation, planning, volition and intention to act” (39).

Consistent with the foregoing data and with the observations made by Merleau-Ponty about the interdependency between the temporal structure of consciousness and operative intentionality (see Section 2.2), once the protentional function is impaired “even bodily movements appear ‘out of the blue’and interrupt the intentional arc” (Fuchs, 2007: 234). This happens because the protentional function of consciousness is a necessary (even though not sufficient) condition for the sense of agency (see Gallagher, 2000: 222), that is, the pre-reflective sense of being the source or the willful initiator of my intentional action:

[WJithout protention, whatever intention I may have, whatever sense I would have of what I will do or think, what I will to do or to think, is disrupted. My non-observational, pre-reflective sense of agency, which is tied to control over my own actions, and control over my own thoughts, and which I normally experience within a protentional framework, will be deferred by the lack of protention.

  • (223)
  • (2) In one of the most important papers on the issue of disorders of attention and perception in schizophrenia, McGhie and Chapman (1961) explained that, in the early stages of the disease, patients struggle to keep their attention focused on just one element of their surroundings. According to one of their patients, trying to concentrate is like “trying to do two or three different things at the one time” (104). Moreover, some of the subjects who were interviewed by the authors talked about a desynchronization between visual and auditory stimuli, whilst some others reported they could never avoid getting distracted from what they were doing or thinking about (see also Oltmanns, 1978). These symptoms were often accompanied by a failure in distinguishing between salient and secondary aspects of the scene (figure/ground reversal) and by a heightened awareness of background auditory sensations (see Sass et al., 2017). In other words, with the onset of the pathology, schizophrenics’ attention is directed “not by the individual’s volition but by the diffuse pattern of stimuli existing in the total environment situation” (McGhie and Chapman, 1961: 105). This lack of selective attention has the immediate effect of depriving the patients of their implicit know-how, preventing them from having a tacit understanding of how to perform actions in a way that is appropriate to the circumstances (action gist). As Chapman (1966) puts it, the patients

appear to have lost access to previous learning so that they are often unable to initiate an action simply by contemplating its goal. Instead, their attention seems to be taken up with the intermediate steps, which now require conscious co-ordination. . . . The schizophrenic’s psychomotor performance is consequently slow and deliberate and readily interfered with.


The psychopathological literature is full of reports on subjects who suffer from a complete absence of spontaneity when it comes to perform even the automatized and easiest motor tasks. This symptom can be accounted as a deficit in action gist, because the pre-reflective control that is usually associated with intentional actions and that manifests itself as an effortless parameterization of the movements is superseded, in schizophrenia, by an exasperated thematic attention towards every aspect of the bodily action, a hyper-reflexive attitude (Sass, 1992, 2000) that takes over operative intentionality. This is shown, for example, by the following excerpts:

I can’t do simple habits like walking or cleaning my teeth. I have to use all my mind to do these things and sometimes I find myself. . . having to use tremendous control to direct my feet and force myself round a corner as if I’m on a bicycle.

(Chapman, 1966:231)

I am not sure of my own movements anymore. It’s very hard to describe this but at times I am not sure about even simple actions like sitting down. It’s not so much thinking out what to do, it’s the doing of it that sticks me.

(McGhie and Chapman, 1961: 107)

At times, I could do nothing without thinking about it. I could not perform any movement without having to think how I would do it.

(Fuchs and Röhricht, 2017:132)

If I do something like going for a drink of water, I’ve to go over each detail - find cup, walk over, turn tap, fill cup, turn tap off, drink it.

(Chapman, 1966: 239)

The fundamental indication coming from the foregoing passages is that the performative dimension, as one of the first cornerstones on which the experience of the lived body is grounded, is impaired. In short, in the prodromal phase of the illness, patients start to feel overwhelmed by the pattern of perceptual stimuli that surrounds them, reporting a lack of fluency in the unfolding of time and events. The breakdown in the fluency of perceptual experience results in the loss of the dynamicity intrinsic to every action, a disruption of the pre-reflective, implicit control over one’s movements that the patient tries to gain back through a deliberate and thematic reconstruction of the single steps he has to follow in order to carry out the action. However, this hyper-reflexive tendency towards one’s body and movements has a counterproductive effect and “can easily become a kind of self-propagating spiral. The person who attempts, for example, to reassert control and re-establish a sense of self by means of introspective scrutiny may end up exacerbating his self-alienation and fragmentation” (Sass, 2001: 261).

Hyper-reflexivity is linked to another typical symptom of schizophrenia, namely what Minkowski (1927) has called morbid rationalism. Morbid rationalism is “an attitude comprising an effort to submit some or all aspects of life under [a set of] schematic and often algorithmic rules, typically associated with focus on irrelevant details” (Parnas, 2019: 4). Defined as such, morbid rationalism may be thought of as something very similar to hyper-reflexivity; however, there are a few important differences. First of all, whereas hyper-reflexivity is considered a phenomenon that is “equiprimordial” (Sass, 2000: 152) with the alteration in the implicit sense of being a source of intentionality (that is to say, they arise together and fuel each other, according to the spiral structure described previously), morbid rationalism has “a secondary status in relation to the decline of the ‘intimate dynamism of our life’ and of vital contact with reality” (Sass, 2001: 256) caused by the joint effect of hyper-reflexivity and the lack of intentionality. Secondly, whereas hyper-reflexivity is the exaggerated way in which “an agent or self takes itself or some aspect of itself as its own object of awareness” (Sass, 2000: 152), i.e., focusing on the different parts of one’s body during a motor act, morbid rationalism is an exaggerated form of awareness that affects many (if not all) aspects of the patient’s life. Morbid rationalism, in fact, is the tendency to see not only oneself, but other people and even objects as guided by merely logical rules; in this sense, morbid rationalism may be conceived as the more evident manifestation of the patient’s “loss of natural self-evidence” (Blankenburg, 1971), as the paradigmatic example of what happens when rationality is reduced to simply knowing-that. Consider an example mentioned by Parnas et al. (2002):

A famous vignette of a schizoid father, who buys, as a Christmas present for his dying daughter, a coffin, illustrates this odd friction. The act is rational from a formal-logical point of view, because a coffin is something that the daughter eventually is going to need, yet nevertheless it is bizarre by any ordinary human standard.


This example shows not only why “schizophrenic rationalism is not merely an exaggerated rationalism, but one that lacks both the vitality and the flexibility or souplesse that is characteristic of human rationality in its more normal forms” (Sass, 2001: 256), but also why it is important to highlight the differences between hyper-reflexivity and morbid rationalism. These phenomena, in fact, represent two different “stages” of the patient’s detachment from the embodied aspects of life. On the one hand, the hyper-reflexive attitude is a sort of “compensatory mechanism” through which the patient tries to make sense out of a world that starts to fall to pieces due to perceptual disturbances (fragmentation of the intentional arc, loss of selective attention); however, this mechanism has the immediate effect of further distancing the patient from the embodied and performative dimension of the self, i.e., preventing him from relying on the ‘know-how’ that manifests itself in action gist and leading him to parameterize the action in a deliberate way, in the form of “I need to think how to move my body to carry out even the most banal actions”. On the other hand, morbid rationalism is a form of detachment from the social and intersubjective dimension of our being in the world (i.e., loss of common sense) that might be rooted in the hypertrophy of the tendency to objectify one’s own bodily experience; therefore, morbid rationalism shows how fundamental it is for the subject to follow a rationality that is not only the application of logical or language-based rules, but rather is based in those embodied and pre-reflective processes that allow us to optimize our cognitive and bodily responses to the environment.

This last consideration is corroborated by the data on another symptom of schizophrenia, which is typically observed in patients with persecutory delusions: hyper-intentionality, namely the tendency to attribute an excessive amount of intentions to others and even to inanimate objects (Peyroux et al., 2014; Bara et al., 2011; Ciaramidaro et al., 2014; Backasch et al., 2013). Hyper-intentionality is an interesting phenomenon for two reasons: first of all, because it shows that the ability to understand other people’s intentions is deeply interconnected to the concept of operative intentionality. As Fuchs (2005) puts it, in fact, “we use the operative intentionality of our body as an instrument for understanding the other’s intentions” (99); therefore, if the patient’s intentional arc and body-schematic process are impaired due to perceptual disturbances and hyperreflexivity, it follows that even others’ actions will be perceived as fragmented and will call forth an explicit, pseudo-logical explanation. Secondly, our ability to understand other people’s intentions is another example of ‘embodied rationality’, because it is the product of the activity of the kind of bodily attunement associated with primary intersubjectivity (Trevarthen, 1979; Gallagher, 2020b) and of our practical attunement to the world and to others that comes with experience. Traditionally, however, it has been explained as a form of‘linguistic’ or ‘intellectual’ competence (Theory of Mind), which ignores embodied rationality. Here again, well-known problems with social cognition in schizophrenia5 suggest that hyper-intentionality can be accounted for as one of the effects of the breakdown in the embodied processes of operative intentionality and the social forms of understanding that are deeply rooted in the embodied and performative aspects of intentional behaviour.

4 Conclusion

In this chapter, we showed how the phenomenology of perception and the study of skilled performance can challenge the principles of the intellectualist picture of rationality, first by delineating the intrinsic temporal-normative patterns that characterize perception and its embodied mechanisms, and second, by arguing that such mechanisms are foundational to the peculiar kind of intelligence we called ‘embodied rationality’. We argued that embodied rationality does not downgrade the importance of our higher order cognitive functions, but rather explains how the latter integrate with a complex system of implicit forms of non-conceptual know-how which include body-schematic processes, performative awareness, and such intrinsic aspects involving strategic control, selective attention, and action gist. We then considered how schizophrenia involves a breakdown in the processes of interaction between tacit and explicit knowledge such that the embodied aspects of rational behaviour are distorted by hyper-reflexivity, hyper-intentionality, and morbid rationalism. We suggested that such disruptions lead to a form of inflexible disembodied rationality that prevents schizophrenic patients from optimizing their bodily and cognitive engagements with their environment. As evidenced in clinical reports, symptoms of this kind of disembodied rationality include a breakdown in operative intentionality, and specifically in body-schematic processes, and the disruption of the protentional function of time consciousness.


  • 1 This point about following a rule is more generally, of course, a famous point also made by Wittgenstein. See, e.g., Gallagher (2020c).
  • 2 The harshest critic of intellectualism is Hubert Dreyfus, who is well known for claiming that what distinguishes the novice, the advanced beginner, and the competent person from the expert is the fact that, whereas the former three need to think while they act, the latter does not rely on any kind of mindful process and “acts arationally” (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 2000: 36). Following this line of thought, Dreyfus defines expert performers as “absorbed copers” (see Dreyfus, 2002, 2007) whose skilfulness lies precisely in their capacity to “ignore” the rules they know and to let themselves go to the automatisms acquired during the many hours of practice. We do not have enough room to provide a critical account of Dreyfus’position (see Gallagher, 2018b; Montero, 2010; Sutton et al., 2011); however, we want to highlight that some authors (Noe, 2015; Fridland, 2014; Sutton et al., 2011) have noticed that intellectualism and the anti-intellectualist view of Dreyfus, rather than being opposite poles, can be considered as the two sides of the same coin, for they both misrepresent the role played by cognition in the carrying out of skillful performances.
  • 3 In a series of interviews conducted by Hoffding (2018) with the Danish String Quartet, some of the musicians reported that in certain occasions “you [just] let the body function on its own. . . . You’re surprised about how much the fingers remember themselves. Let the fingers play. Just use the activity of the brain not on what you’re playing. Let go and think about something else” (198-199). As Hoffding explains, however, this is just one of the several modalities of experiencing one’s engagement with the performance that an expert musician may undergo; many others, conversely, require mindfulness and situation awareness.
  • 4 In order to avoid such a controversial position, Stanley and Krakauer claim that skills also require “motor acuity” (Shmuelof et al., 2012), namely those “practice-related reductions in movement variability and increases in movement smoothness” (Stanley and Krakauer, 2013: 7) that are involuntary, mechanistic, and independent of the agent’s attention. However, as Fridland (2014) argues, adding motor acuity to the equation does not make the intellectualist account of skillful performance more accurate. To prove this point, Fridland uses the following example: “Carrie wants to improve her basketball playing skills. Carrie has played basketball before . . . [Therefore] she knows that in order to play basketball, she needs a basketball and a basket and she needs to pick up the basketball in order to start playing (that is, she knows how to initiate her basketball playing actions), and she also knows how to hold the basketball and shoot and dribble. . . . Now, if all there is to developing her expertise at basketball is knowing these things plus improving her low-level motor acuity, say, reducing the variability in the trajectory of her finger, wrist, and elbow movements, then Carrie is as skilled before she practices as after. This is because reducing the variability in her movements is just basic, non-epistemic, non-intelligent procedural stuff and skill is not this sort of stuff but knowledge - it is knowledge how. If this is right, however, then the intelligence of skilled action and the intelligence of unpracticed intentional actions are exactly the same” (2743).
  • 5 As Parnas et al. (2002) indicate, “the dimension of intersubjectivity is also fundamentally impaired (disorders of social and interpersonal functioning, inappropriate behavior). These three dimensions are inseparable: I, we, and the world belong together - and they are all afflicted in the schizophrenic autism” (132).


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