Hubert L. Dreyfus Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Meaning, Relevance, and the Limits of Technology: Conversations with Hubert L. Dreyfus, Professor of Philosophy, UCB; November 2, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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The Disembodied Internet

But now I want to get from there to an issue which isn't computers. I got interested in writing this book about the Internet because there's no longer a question of making artificial minds by using computers. Heidegger trashed AI and it trashed itself. But now, people have said -- it's hard to remember, it's only maybe ten years ago -- that the marvelous thing about the Internet is that we don't have to have bodies on the Internet; book cover in cyberspace, everybody is in touch with everybody else, nobody's limited by their body, by how they look, by their local situation. I have a good friend -- I dedicate the book to him, Nat Goldhaber, who is an important venture capitalist, who said, "Isn't it great? We're going to be able to sell everything on the Internet and see everything on the Internet, and our bodies will be irrelevant."

There were people called "extropians" at MIT who said, "We'll become immortal because everything that's important about us is what we can transmit on the Internet and everything else, that mortal part of us, we can leave behind." So, there was all this anti-body hype, and there's where Merleau-Ponty comes in, because in the quote you read, Merleau-Ponty says that it's our body with its skills which enables us to relate to things by going around them, and relate to people by this interesting capacity called intercorporeality, where I don't have to figure out from your gestures and how you look what you're thinking and what you're doing, I respond immediately with my gestures and my look. To Merleau-Ponty that intercorporeality seemed magical. Whenever he couldn't explain anything that was his word for it.

Now they've discovered something called mirror neurons. It turns out that the same neurons in apes that perceive a certain movement, if I'm grasping for something [for example], also are the neurons that produce the movement, so that it's no accident that when you see me doing it, you directly respond. They never mention yawning, but yawning would be the clearest case of this. Yawning is intercorporeality. If things are boring and I yawn, you don't have to figure out what it meant, you can't help but yawn. So, Merleau-Ponty describes all the ways the body is, as he puts it, geared into the world. And that's what the Internet definitely leaves out.

I just have to put in another comment -- a book I didn't show you because I didn't write it, but I published it, in a sense. There was a fellow graduate student named Samuel Todes who was very influential on me. I didn't mention him when we talked about my graduate [years], but if I went into Continental philosophy it was also largely because he was the only one I could talk to. He had this idea -- it's very important -- that the body has a structure. In Merleau-Ponty you hear always that the body has a capacity to act, to be open to the world, to go around objects, but Todes says, "Well, we've got a front and a back, an up and a down, we move forward more easily than we move backward, we can't protect ourselves from behind." There's a lot to having a body that Merleau-Ponty doesn't see. So, I published Todes' book, Body and World, because I think it's the next stage that people will have to pay attention to. I talked about it in my presidential address. This says that until computers could (which I don't think they ever will,) have bodies enough like ours, and feelings like ours, they can't be intelligent.

And now the Internet: if we were disembodied on the Internet, we wouldn't be able to acquire skills, we wouldn't be able to see what was relevant and not relevant, we wouldn't be able to relate to other people. So, the Internet turns out to be a marvelous example of what we can and can't do without a body.

I think my Internet book is, in a sense, out of date. All this hype about how our civilization is going to be changed by the Internet, it's as important as the discovery of writing and so forth -- it's all gone. I mean, the Internet is a very, very useful tool. It's like the telephone, about as philosophically interesting and important. They both are disembodied. And it's interesting how the phone is more embodied because you can hear somebody, and how embodiment is creeping into the Internet. With Skype, my wife and kids are all doing international conferences now, talking to each other over the Internet, because clearly talking is better than messaging because there's a hint of the body in the voice -- not fully, but beginning to be.

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