The articles and essays in this website range from off-the-cuff blogs to worked-out pieces. They also range from the short to the long. Many of these pieces are introductory (i.e., educational) in nature; though, even when introductory, they still include additional commentary. Older material (dating back mainly to 2005) is being added to this blog over time.
Monday, 28 September 2015
Embodied Cognition & Anti-Realism
It can be said (just to get it out of the way) that
there's no direct denial of the world (or of an “independent
reality”) by the/most theorists of embodied cognition. Neither is there
a stress on subjectivity. What theorists of embodied cognition do
claim is that the way the world is perceived (as well as how it's
conceptualised and categorised) is determined by how each animal is
embodied within that world.
can also be said that metaphysical realists have always known about
what they've called the “limitations” of our senses and minds
when it comes to correctly understanding the world. They believed
that those limitations, however, must be transcended in order to
represent the world in the most accurate (or truthful) manner
possible. Of course many would argue that human beings can't
transcend their embodiment in that they can't escape from their
physiological and anatomical nature (which, in turn, determines our
sensorimotor experiences). Yet reason and cognition itself (even if
embodied) can surely transcend some of these limitations.
In certain sense
(weak or strong) it can be said that some of those engaged in
embodied cognition are anti-realists or even idealists (of some
other appropriate metaphysical ist). Indeed many
uphold the self-description 'constructivists'.
In terms of
anti-realism, it's the case that theorists of embodiment don't uphold
the cognitivist/classicist (or, for that matter, realist)
position that the world is determinate and “cut at the joints”
into kinds/universals, facts or whatever. Or, rather, they happily
admit that this may well be so. Nonetheless, such a world isn't
passively mirrored or even represented by our cognitive system/s.
Instead, because human beings are built in very particular ways
(as well as being essentially “goal-directed”), this largely
accounts for how the world is represented or even 'given' to us.
Thus even if the world is determinate and neatly cut at the joints,
that wouldn't matter because our sensorimotor systems aren't built to
perfectly replicate the world.
cognitivists/classicists are realists in the traditional metaphysical
sense is hard to say. They're certainly seen (by workers in embodied
cognition) as viewing human beings (as well as other organisms) as
passive re-presenters of a determinate and circumscribedworld.
Or, in Richard Rorty's phrase, (at least some) cognitivists see human
minds as “mirrors of nature”.
I've just compared
embodied cognitivists to anti-realists, though pragmatists is
also a good description of them – at least in a limited
theorists and pragmatists have
often said (in the last 100 years or so) that, from an
evolutionary point of view, there's often little point in mirroring
or even (precisely) representing nature. (That's if it's
metaphysically possible in the first place.) Like the theorists of
embodiment, they've argued that the precise mirroring of nature can
often be counter-productive from an evolutionary (or goal-directed)
point of view. More precisely, accurate representations (or even
truthful ones) may end up being time-consuming or irrelevant. What
matters is getting a job done. And that job is (usually) survival.
Other questions to
ask may be about how we human beings are embodied (along with our
sensorimotor machinery) and how that will determine how we represent
the world. Indeed how we represent/view the world is also determined
by how we deal with the world. In the words of the theorists
of embodiment, we human beings “construct” the world (or
construct “our worlds”).
Are the theorists of embodiment taking a line similar to that which the
British Empiricists took when they argue that the formation of mental
concepts and categories is determined – or made possible – by the
specific sensorimotor experiences (as well as their limitations)
This is empiricist
in that our senses (or our sensorimotor
experiences) are seen to be the basis of later concepts
and categories. That parallels (at least to some extent) the
British empiricist theory that “sense
impressions” are the basis of later “ideas”.
Indeed Locke famously said
that there's “nothing in the mind
that wasn't first in the senses” . Cognitivists of
embodiment, however, add the important detail that humans - as well as other animals - are limited to which concepts and categories they can
form by the nature of their sensorimotor experiences and therefore by
their physiological and anatomical nature.
So what about Kant?
Kant argued that
the our a priori and transcendental “categories” and
“concepts” determine (therefore also limit or constrain) all
experiences . In the case of embodied cognition, however, it's
categories and concepts determine experience.
experiences determine our categories and concepts.
transcendental (if in a weak or metaphorical sense) is the
psychological and anatomical embodiment of the animal concerned. It's
that embodiment which will determine the types of sensorimotor
experiences animals have. Thus those embodied experiences also
determine the nature of the resultant concepts and categories formed
by human beings and perhaps also by other species of animal.
Construction of the Physical/Social World
emphasising how "conceptual schemes", languages, "language-games", "paradigms", "epistemes", etc. somehow “construct” the world (as
relativists, anti-realists, etc. have done), theorists of embodiment
emphasise how bodies, sensorimotor experience, engagement and the
environment play parts in constructing the world.
In the case of
relativists, anti-realists and older types of constructivist, the
arrow pointed from mind to world. However, in the case of embodied
cognition, the arrow seems to point from world to mind. Thus:
→ mind (metaphysical realists, etc.)
← mind (anti-realists, relativists, idealists, etc.)
→ mind/body (theorists of embodiment)
inspection, however, it may be better to say that for the theorists
of embodiment the arrow points in both directions: from world to
mind/body and from mind/body to world. That's partly because the
world hasn't completely dropped out of the picture. The environment
(along with the goal-directed behaviours and actions aimed at that
environment) clearly has a causal impact on minds and bodies.
However, the sensory and embodied nature of human beings helps us
“construct” (to some extent) that world at the very same time.
↔ mind/body (theorists of embodiment)
philosophers have moved beyond the simple physiological and embodied
construction of the physical world into areas which are a
little bit more controversial.
Lakoff and Mark Johnson , for example, argue that such
embodied constructions involve the projection of “schemas” which
help us to understand the world. The important point here is that this
understanding is deemed (by Lakoff and Johnson) to be “metaphorical”
positions can also take on an explicitly political hue. In
constructivist epistemology, for example, construction is seen (at
least by people like Ernst von
Glaserfeld ) as being a “radical, creative, revisionist
process”; not one of mirroring nature or even one of representing
(as such) the world. In this process, human beings (or persons)
construct a tailor-made “knowledge system” that represents not
nature and society; but a subject's experiences of nature and society. Not only that:
the knowledge system is intended to (politically) rectify the
existing representations/constructions of the world which the subject
is unhappy with.