Embodied Mind, Meaning, and Reason: How Our Bodies Give Rise to Understanding

Embodied Mind, Meaning, and Reason: How Our Bodies Give Rise to Understanding

by Mark Johnson

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Mark Johnson is one of the great thinkers of our time on how the body shapes the mind. This book brings together a selection of essays from the past two decades that build a powerful argument that any scientifically and philosophically satisfactory view of  mind and thought must ultimately explain how bodily perception and action give rise to cognition, meaning, language, action, and values.
A brief account of Johnson’s own intellectual journey, through which we track some of the most important discoveries in the field over the past forty years, sets the stage. Subsequent chapters set out Johnson’s important role in embodied cognition theory, including his cofounding (with George Lakoff) of conceptual metaphor theory and, later, their theory of bodily structures and processes that underlie all meaning, conceptualization, and reasoning. A detailed account of how meaning arises from our physical engagement with our environments provides the basis for a nondualistic, nonreductive view of mind that he sees as most congruous with the latest cognitive science. A concluding section explores the implications of our embodiment for our understanding of knowledge, reason, and truth. The resulting book will be essential for all philosophers dealing with mind, thought, and language.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226500393
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/20/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Mark Johnson is the Philip H. Knight Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon.

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Cognitive Science and Dewey's Theory of Mind, Thought, and Language

Over eighty years ago, half a century before the term cognitive science had even been coined, John Dewey developed his view of mind, thought, and language in ongoing dialogue with the biological and psychological sciences of his day. He drew on empirical research in a number of fields, including biology, neuroscience, anthropology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, social psychology, and linguistics. Dewey's approach thus offers a model of how philosophy and the cognitive sciences can productively work together. The sciences reveal aspects of the deepest workings of mind. Philosophy evaluates the underlying assumptions and methods of the sciences, and it places the empirical research on cognition in its broader human context, in order to determine what it means for our lives.

In a nutshell, Dewey's theory of mind is naturalistic, nonreductive, and process oriented. His view is naturalistic in that it employs empirical research drawn from a number of natural and social sciences. It eschews explanations that rely on supernatural notions, rejecting any idea of a nonempirical ego or pure rationality. However, even though Dewey appropriated modes of inquiry characteristic of the sciences, he took great care to avoid the reductionist tendencies that limit the explanatory scope of certain sciences. His account is thus nonreductive because he saw that no single scientific account, cluster of scientific perspectives, or particular philosophical orientation ever tells the whole story. Consequently, he insisted on a plurality of methods from various sciences, he recognized multiple levels of explanation for mental phenomena, and he famously used art and aesthetic experience to reveal the depths of human experience and understanding. His view is process oriented insofar as it always regards experience and thinking as ongoing processes of organism-environment interaction. He never hypostatizes cognitive functions into discrete faculties and never turns dynamic cognitive processes into fixed structures.

These three defining aspects of Dewey's view are manifested in his insistence that any useful philosophical account of mind, thought, and language must do justice to the depth and richness of human experience. Experience is Dewey's most important notion. It is meant to include everything that happens — both from the side of the experiencing organism and from the side of the complex environments with which that organic creature is continually interacting. Experience "includes what men do and suffer, what they strive for, love, believe and endure, and also how men act and are acted upon, the ways in which they do and suffer, desire and enjoy, see, believe, imagine — in short, processes of experiencing" (Dewey [1925] 1981, 18).

Dewey argued that we are the inheritors of seriously mistaken views of mind, thought, and language that are the unfortunate result of fragmenting experience into subjective versus objective elements, passive versus active processes, and mental versus physical components. He was especially disturbed by early empiricist views of experience as built up out of passively received atomistic sensations that must somehow then be synthesized into unified experiences.

In stark contrast to such reductive and atomistic accounts, Dewey argues that the basic unit of experience is an integrated dynamic situation that emerges through the coordination of an active organism and its complex environment. Experience thus has aspects of the organism and characteristics of the environment in dynamic relation. It is only within such a multidimensional purposive whole that we mark distinctions and recognize patterns relative to our purposes, interests, and activities as biological and social creatures. In an early important article, "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology" (1896), Dewey challenged the reigning stimulus-response view of experience, according to which a given, passively received, perceptual stimulus gives rise to some action (response), either immediately or via some inner mediating mental ideation. Dewey argues that experience does not come to us as discrete stimuli and responses; rather, it comes to us as unities organized relative to our ongoing engagement with (i.e., action within) our environment. Dewey's point is that "the reflex arc idea, as commonly employed, is defective in that it assumes sensory stimulus and motor response as distinct psychical existences, while in reality they are always inside a co-ordination and have their significance purely from the part played in maintaining or reconstituting the co-ordinations" ([1930] 1988, 99). Dewey's resistance to any account that trades on rigid dualisms, hypostatized functions, or one-dimensional reductive explanations is thus based on his argument that all such accounts falsify our experience.

A Nondualistic, Functional View of Mind

Dewey founds his theory of mind and thought on the assumption that a human being is a living organism, with at least a mostly functioning brain and body, engaged in continuous interaction with various environments, which are at once physical, social, and cultural. Mind has deep biological dimensions, but it is also fundamentally a social phenomenon. The critical challenge for any naturalistic view like Dewey's is to explain mind solely in terms of dimensions of experience, without "the appearance upon the scene of a totally new outside force as a cause of changes that occur" (Dewey [1938] 1991, 31). What are known as "higher" cognitive functions (e.g., conceptualizing, reasoning, language use) must be shown to emerge from "lower" (perceptual, motor, and affective) functions, without relying on nonnatural entities, causes, or principles.

Dewey's naturalism is thus defined by what he calls the "principle of continuity," according to which, "there is no breach of continuity between operations of inquiry and biological operations and physical operations. 'Continuity' ... means that rational operations grow out of organic activities, without being identical with that from which they emerge" ([1938] 1991, 26). In other words, Dewey attempts to explain "mind" and all its operations and activities nondualistically, as grounded in bodily operations of living human creatures, who are themselves the result of prior evolutionary history and who have typically passed through a crucial sequence of developmental stages that have shaped their cognitive capacities and their identity.

In light of the principle of continuity, the old distinction between nonliving things (the physical), living things (the psychophysical), and creatures capable of thinking and communicating (the mental) must be reconfigured in terms of "levels of increasing complexity and intimacy of interactions among natural events" (Dewey [1925] 1981, 200), such that novel biological and cognitive functions emerge at each higher level. The psychophysical is distinguished from the merely physical by the emergence of sentience and self-movement in an organism. The mental emerges in select species through the development of the ability to conceptualize, reason, and communicate symbolically. Mind is thus embodied:

Since mind cannot evolve except where there is an organized process in which the fulfilments of the past are conserved and employed, it is not surprising that mind when it evolves should be mindful of the past and future, and that it should use the structures which are biological adaptations of organism and environment as its own and its only organs. In ultimate analysis the mystery that mind should use a body, or that body should have a mind, is like the mystery that a man cultivating plants should use the soil; or that the soil which grows plants at all should grow those adapted to its own physico-chemical properties and relations. (Dewey [1925] 1981, 211)

Dewey coined the term "body-mind" ([1925] 1981, 217) to avoid the dualism inherent in speaking of body and mind. The terms body and mind are thus merely convenient abstractions from our primary experience, which is an ongoing process of feeling-saturated awareness and thinking that has physical, emotional, intellectual, social, and cultural dimensions inextricably woven together. He summarizes: "Body-mind simply designates what actually takes place when a living body is implicated in situations of discourse, communication, and participation. In the hyphenated phrase body-mind, 'body' designates the continued and conserved, the registered and cumulative operation of factors continuous with the rest of nature, inanimate as well as animate; while 'mind' designates the characters and consequences which are differential, indicative of features which emerge when 'body' is engaged in a wider, more complex and interdependent situation" (Dewey [1925] 1981, 217).

In other words, we can appropriately speak of mind whenever our engagement with our environment involves capacities for recognizing patterns, marking distinctions, and coordinating behaviors by means of symbolic interactions. Mind is an evolutionary accomplishment that cannot exist without a body in continual interaction with its world. Thus, for Dewey, mind is not an innate capacity or a distinct metaphysical entity or substance. Rather, mind emerges out of the strivings of certain highly developed organisms who have learned to inquire, communicate, and coordinate their activities through the use of symbols. Mind is the primary vehicle by which creatures like us are able to sustain our existence, pursue our various conceptions of well-being, share meaning, and engage in the distinctive forms of inquiry that mark our species. Dewey attributes mind only to humans, because he thinks that they alone are capable of the complex symbolic interaction and communication that he regards as necessary for the mental in its fullest sense. However, notwithstanding Dewey's anthropocentrism, most ethologists today would surely grant some form of mind at least to certain higher primates who appear to communicate symbolically and to coordinate their behaviors in acts of problem solving and social intercourse.

Dewey's nondualist functional approach is quite compatible with mainstream views in cognitive neuroscience today, according to which organism and environment are correlative terms, definable only in relation to their continuous interaction. There is no mind without a functioning body and brain, nor a functioning brain without cognitive activity engaging the world. Cognitive neuroscientist Antonio Damasio captures these organism-environment and mind-body couplings in a way that Dewey would embrace: "(1) The human brain and the rest of the body constitute an indissociable organism, integrated by means of mutually interactive biochemical and neural regulatory circuits (including endocrine, immune, and autonomic neural components); (2) The organism interacts with the environment as an ensemble: the interaction is neither of the body alone nor of the brain alone; (3) The physiological operations that we call mind are derived from the structural and functional ensemble rather than from the brain alone: mental phenomena can be fully understood only in the context of an organism's interacting in an environment" (1994, xvii).

Given his insistence on the multidimensionality and nonduality of experience, the only thing Dewey might add to this quotation is perhaps that not only are brain and body an indissociable organism, but so also body and environment constitute an indissociable organic whole. In Experience and Nature, Dewey emphasizes all this complex interconnectedness in his provocative claim — a claim that would be completely at home in contemporary cognitive neuroscience — that "to see the organism in nature, the nervous system in the organism, the brain in the nervous system, the cortex in the brain is the answer to the problems which haunt philosophy" ([1925] 1981, 224). However, Dewey understandably devoted more attention to the social and cultural dimensions of mind than one might expect from a neuroscientist like Damasio. For Dewey, mind emerges when symbolic interaction and sharing of meanings becomes possible for a group of creatures. Mind represents the horizon of potentially shareable meanings available to certain highly complex organisms, whereas individual consciousness is a particular organism's actual awareness of specific meanings: "Mind denotes the whole system of meanings as they are embodied in the workings of organic life; consciousness in a being with language denotes awareness or perception of meaning; it is the perception of actual events, whether past, contemporary or future, in their meanings, the having of actual ideas. ... Mind is contextual and persistent; consciousness is focal and transitive. Mind is, so to speak, structural, substantial; a constant background and foreground; perceptive consciousness is process, a series of heres and nows" (ibid., 230). This passage construes mind as an intersubjective network of meaning, and consciousness as an ongoing process by which we can be aware of meanings and the emergence of new meaning. However, I do not think it precludes our speaking, in a derivative fashion, of an individual organism (for example, a person) having a "mind." Yet, no individual alone could have a mind unless there had been other conspecific social animals to establish a shared system of meaning and to coordinate their behavior via that system. Dewey would say that certain animals develop what we call "mind" only when they acquire a specific set of interacting functional capacities within a communal context in a society. "As life is a character of events in a peculiar condition of organization, and 'feeling' is a quality of life-forms marked by complexly mobile and discriminating responses, so 'mind' is an added property assumed by a feeling creature, when it reaches that organized interaction with other living creatures which is language, communication" (ibid., 198). To say that I have a "mind" is to say that I am an organism whose potential for very complex interactions has risen to the level where I can communicate meanings with other creatures (who have "minds"); can engage in various modes of inquiry, reasoning, and creativity; and can coordinate activities with others using symbols that have shared meaning for us.

However phenomenologically rich this description of mind might be, it still leaves us with the critical problem of explaining how processes that we call "thinking" can emerge for certain types of animate creatures, yet without any breach of continuity with their basic biological functions.

Thought as Embodied Cognition

If there is no pure soul or transcendent ego to serve as the locus of thinking, then where does it come from? Once again, Dewey's answer is experience. All thinking arises from bodily processes of organism-environment transaction, and it takes whatever value it has from its ability to enrich and transform that experience. In his Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938), Dewey famously argues that our views of thinking and logic have been mesmerized and held captive by disembodied, a historical, and overly intellectualized theories of cognition. We tend to fixate on certain concepts, logical principles, and methods of thinking as though they constitute eternal, pure, universal structures of an allegedly transcendent reason. This kind of selective abstraction reinforces the illusion of a pure seat of thought in something variously called "mind," "reason," or "pure ego." Our ability to think then becomes an utterly inexplicable mystery, on a par with the alleged mystery of how mind can affect body. On this view, thought and its supposedly universal logical forms appear to be absolute givens that drop down from above into certain species of bodily creatures, as though their embodiment had no role in shaping their conceptualization and reasoning.

In sharp contrast with this disembodied view, Dewey honors his principle of continuity by arguing that thinking is a naturally evolving process of experience that occurs only for certain complex animals, under certain very specific bodily conditions. Thinking operates through the recruitment of sensory-motor and other bodily processes. Following William James and C. S. Peirce, Dewey crafts a nondualistic, body-based theory of human cognition, a view grounded in the brain science and psychology of his day, but also remarkably consonant with so-called "embodied cognition" views in contemporary cognitive neuroscience, as summarized by Don Tucker:

Complex psychological functions must be understood to arise from bodily control networks. There is no other source for them. This is an exquisite parsimony of facts.

There are no brain parts for abstract faculties of the mind — faculties like volition or insight or even conceptualization — that are separate from the brain parts that evolved to mediate between visceral and somatic processes. (2007, 202)


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Table of Contents

Introduction: Bringing the Body to Mind

Chapter 1: Cognitive Science and Dewey’s Theory of Mind, Thought, and Language
Chapter 2: Cowboy Bill Rides Herd on the Range of Consciousness
Chapter 3: We Are Live Creatures: Embodiment, American Pragmatism, and the Cognitive Organism
Mark Johnson and Tim Rohrer
Chapter 4: The Meaning of the Body
Chapter 5: The Philosophical Significance of Image Schemas
Chapter 6: Action, Embodied Meaning, and Thought
Chapter 7: Knowing through the Body
Chapter 8: Embodied Realism and Truth Incarnate
Chapter 9: Why the Body Matters


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