Prof Galen Johnson – Ponty, Embodiment, and the Future

Due to my given course of life, I have – at the time of this writing – few acquaintances who are philosophers. Prof Galen Johnson, head of the philosophy department at the University of Rhode Island happened to have my father do flooring work in his house many years ago – and after being introduced, I have gotten together with Galen to talk philosophy once every three or four years.

This time, instead of talking about my choice of major or choice of graduate school – I wanted to ask Galen about the perspectives of Marleau-Ponty on the potential modern topics of transhumanism.

Below are some of the topics we juggled, and my reflections on them. 

Movement and Embodiment – “Machines Don’t Think”

Prof. Johnson informed me (a relative “newbie” in the world of Ponty), of Ponty’s belief in a complete unison of movement and “embodiment” with thinking. When I asked what he meant, Galen explained “you’re thinking with your pencil right now.” Ah, writing – embodied though – I get it.

Ponty sees a connection of thought always with movement. Whether through pacing, through action (the result of thinking), actual “thought” always have a physical expression.

When I asked Galen about Ponty’s thoughts the possibility of a sentient, self-aware, super-intelligent computer, Galen asked “Would the computer have arms and legs?”

“It might, but lets say this one does not, just a screen and speakers for communication” I replied.

“Then Ponty would say that whatever ‘it’ is doing, it is not thought, but is something else.”

Galen himself mentioned to me that he believed in the notion of “retreat” into the mind, of the mind as sactuary, and of the possibility of intelligence, thought, and experience without a necessary physical manifestation (a notion I hold as well). He states, however, that Ponty would not call anything without embodiment and movement to be a being capable of “thinking” – as he defines it.


This is an interesting notion of “thought” needing to yield an explicit physical response in the world. I can’t pretend to understand enough of Ponty’s notion to argue – but it does bring up some interesting ideas.

For example, could we call movement on a screen to be “movement?” Could we call the movement of sound waves (which indeed produces a physical effect, and at the right pitch could yield the physical result of – for example – breaking glass) some kind of “movement?” Why or why not?

Also, if the computer – with only a screen, a speaker, and a super intelligence (but no moving parts) was capable of communicating and influencing human beings or other sentient beings – could this be enough of a physical “yield” in the world to call what the computer is doing to be “thinking?”

I would be interested to know of Ponty’s thoughts on these topics.

“Everything is Historical” – Body Included

Prof. Johnson stated that Ponty himself would not have seen the “transhuman transition” to be a “transgression,” but rather a healthy “transposition.”

(I write a lot of blogs, please let me have occasional fun with alliteration.)

Galen stated that Ponty would consider “everything is historical,” there is the past, there is what will be in the future, and there will be evolution and transition – with the human body and human experience not being an more except from this algorithm than anything else. Fish crawled on land, man developed tools, and man may develop himself in the same continual process.

In fact, Galen stated that Ponty would have very much wanted to know about the result of putting the “super-computer” we talked about before into a human or physical form.

“The Cartesian Nightmare”

I brought up with Galen the possibility of the future being a world of virtual reality – of the possibility for us as humans to literally customize our experience, to enhance our present experience or completely escape to another world with virtual reality.

Galen refers to this circumstance as a “Cartesian nightmare,” referring of course to Descartes’ proposition that he might merely be a fleck of sentience, being continually tormented with “experiences” which are really being brought before him by a “demon” or entity which strews him along the perceptions and experience of existence, when in fact none exists.

For Ponty, Professor Johnson says, this is the worst of all situations – and Ponty would never choose to live this kind of virtual experience – that this kind of disassociation from the “real” world could do nothing but harm in the end. Galen said “a computer has no hands to hold or hug with.” Believing embodiment to imply movement, it also seems to imply that a “Matrix”-type situation would imply – in Ponty’s eyes – a lack of real “thinking,” and indeed maybe being.


It seems to me that it is impossible to talk about most any topic – expecially the future of humanity – without the lenses of our own experience and preferences to play a part to some degree. It seemed to me, that Galen’s own response to the far-out idea of a virtual reality was a bit of a reflection of his own feeling about the possibility of that kind of reality. Similarly, I assume that my own inclinations crept into the conversation in ways that I – with my blind spots in reflection – wouldn’t have even noticed.

I am certainly not a blind proponent of virtual reality and a “Matrix”-like transition for humanity. I believe that the technology would be neither “good” nor “evil” in and of itself, but that it would require “phronesis” or “practical wisdom” to apply the technology properly to humanity.

I believe that if such a virtual reality technology were to be developed and become all-immersive, then we could likely have a seamlessly more “physical” and “embodied” experience than we do now, never knowing that we are not “really” moving. If the experience is identical – is either one really preferable? If virtual reality were able to be controlled to be a perpetually rich, fulfilling experience – far beyond the extesies of “regular” human existence – then who’s to say it wouldn’t be “experientially” embodied, or that most people wouldn’t simply take the escape permanently.

In reflecting on this point – the idea of not knowing the difference even if you were in a brain vat, I asked Galen what Ponty would do if he was told that he was in fact, and had always been, in a brain vat. Galen stated that in this case, Ponty would have a passion to discern how to know if in determining if we would ever know either one to be truth.

– – –

A huge thank you to Prof Galen Johnson for taking the time to sit down. Galen if you are reading this, know that it’s a big deal for me to speak with someone as wise as yourself – I appreciate it more than you know.

You can learn more about Galen himself here at his university profile. He is author of a great many books, including The Retrieval of the Beautiful: Thinking Through Merleau-Ponty’s Aesthetics and The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting.

– Daniel Faggella