Right now I’m halfway through Alva Noe’s Action in Perception. I won’t say much about it, mostly because I think a lot of the conclusions he draws are very close to Merleau-Ponty. That is, if you’ve read MP thoroughly, a lot of Noe’s conclusions will not surprise you. The difference, perhaps, is that Noe’s concerns are different in that he is concerned with refuting major theses in Anglo-American epistemology and cognitive science. Of course, MP was pretty much up to the same thing. Don’t get me wrong, I love Noe’s approach and largely agree with the direction of his research. In fact, I’m more inclined to side with Noe because he’s not committed to a phenomenological framework, but rather uses phenomenology to fill out his empirical approach. Noe’s book in large measure reads as an empirical extrapolation of MP.
The funny thing about Noe is that he constantly refers to contemporary philosophers of mind to secure points that could just as easily be found in MP, as though the philosophers of mind were the first to reveal said points in print. It’s true that Noe begins some of his chapters with epigraphs from MP, perhaps signalling that what follows is merely an extrapolation of the Frenchman’s work. That’s just speculation, whereas in fact much of the credit for the view that perception is action (or enacted) is credited to everyone but MP. This practice is not unique to Noe, but is a consistent feature to many folks working in enaction and embodied cognition/extended mind theory. Taylor Carman has some comparison of MP and Noe in his Merleau-Ponty.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that Noe has to be a better historian of philosophy. I don’t want to read him writing at length about MP; I want to read him writing about what he writes about. What I do think is happening, however, is something of a waste of energy through redundant argumentation. Forgive me for saying this. I am not at all interested in fighting for the “Merleau-Ponty said it first!” claim. But I do think that Noe’s book wastes a fair amount of time arguing for theses that have already been established. The difference is that Noe’s looking for empirical grounds where MP provides phenomenological grounds. Although, it is also true that MP drew upon empirical research. Noe is ready to lean heavily on Gibson’s ecological approach to perception in ways that he is not ready to lean on MP, too.
[Update: I’d love to hear from anyone who can explain the key difference between Noe’s view and MP’s. Please comment if you’d like to start a dialogue about this.]