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The Embodied Mind - Book Summary

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A bit of background for this subject: 

I'm currently in the process of doing research for an eventual philosophy book I'm planning on writing. The book will focus on cultivating Construct awareness, and on a process for examining the emotional attachments we form to the Paradigms we use to navigate Reality. My basic aim is to make these subjects more accessible for a general audience of otherwise educated people who are non-specialists, and who may not have been exposed to any of these ideas in an explicit way.

As such, the last year or two of my life has involved copious amounts of reading across a wide variety of epistemological and sociological subjects, which includes taking detailed notes on what I read.

It occurred to me that it might be a worthwhile endeavor to share a few of the summaries I've developed for the books I've been reading over the past few years, both as an opportunity to revisit my notes and also as something which might pique someone else's interest enough to pick up the work in question.

The first book I'll be providing a summary of is The Embodied Mind by Francisco Varella, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. The work is a fascinating exploration into the depths of human consciousness that manages to challenge reductionist paradigms in penetrating ways, while developing an alternative paradigm for studying consciousness that honors the rich immediacy of direct experience while being grounded in science.

To keep this post at a reasonable length, the summary will necessarily be partial, and only hit up some of the more important points of a very complex and nuanced work. In short this will be part summary part interpretation, of course filtered through my own perspective that's coupled to my interests and purposes.


Summary and Interpretation of The Embodied Mind

The Embodied Mind is a scientific and philosophical exploration of mind which attempts to build a bridge between cognitive science and Eastern contemplative practices by articulating the role that our embodiment plays in the ways that our pre-reflective, direct experience is structured.

The authors outline an (at the time) newly emerging Enactive Paradigm of mind within cognitive science as a lens to chart a 'middle way' between the extremes of:
(1) materialist paradigms which posit that cognition consists of unproblematic representation of a fixed world that consists of pre-defined features (the disembodied mind hypothesis)
(2) solipsistic paradigms which posit that the mind 'creates' Reality independent of an intersubjective world

In this Enactive paradigm that the authors build a case for, the mind is neither disembodied nor is it independent of the world. Rather, in the Enactive paradigm minds are intrinsically embodied (in a body) and embedded (in an environment), and the mind exists in a reciprocal relationship with both of these elements. Far from being a passive process that 'happens' to a mind, consciousness is recontextualized as a purposeful and participatory activity in which the mind both shapes and is shaped by the Reality that it's embedded in.

Which is another way of saying that the fundamental activity of minds is to disclose (or Enact) worlds. That this is so is a necessary result of evolutionary forces which have crafted organisms which are geared for survival, and which need to be able to perceive threats and opportunities in their environments in immediate and pre-experiential ways. What Reality is on an experiential level for a snail and for a human being are very different because the structure of the two organisms is such that they become coupled to their environments in very different ways, necessitating radically different forms of world disclosure to be able to meet their survival needs. What Reality is for a being cannot be understood separately from the bodily structure of that being, from its environment, and from what that being doesThe implicit assumption that they are challenging here is that there exists a 'neutral' Reality, which minds form unproblematic representations of.

The advantage of this approach is that it enriches the discoveries of an empirical scientific approach with the insights that can be gained from paying close attention to the immediacy and closeness of our direct experience. In this way, the enactive approach to mind can begin to heal the division of mind from the natural world caused by materialist paradigms which have rendered cognitive science without a subject. Furthermore, this paradigm offers a promising avenue to address the meaning crisis within Western culture by providing the voice of authority in our culture, which is to say that of science, with a means to make itself relevant to the rich immediacy of our lived experience. 

What the Enactive paradigm resists is the notion that the mind is best understood by ever more complex layers of abstraction (which is precisely the approach of both traditional cognitive science and most of Western philosophy). Rather, what the Enactive paradigm proposes is to couple our conceptual models to the mindfulness practices that have been developed over thousands of years by contemplative traditions such as Buddhism.

In grappling with the role that philosophy has played in forming our basic conceptions of mind in the West, the authors contrast the Western approach of treating philosophy as a detached and theoretical endeavor with the approach of contemplative practice taken in the East. By developing wisdom traditions which have over thousands of years been able to cultivate rigorous methodologies for interrogating one's direct experience, theory hasn't been something that's been largely divorced from practice, like it's been in the West.

In charting the paths that cognitive science has taken since the discipline's establishment in the 1940s and 50s, the authors distinguish their own approach from the earlier Representationalism and Emergence paradigms of first and second generation cognitive science.

The guiding metaphor and model for the representationalist paradigm within cognitive science has been the digital computer. According to this paradigm, cognition is understood as syntactic manipulation of symbols which represent features of a pre-existing world. The Emergence paradigm envisions a 'society of mind' in which cognition is an emergent phenomenon of much smaller syntactic manipulation 'machines' working in parallel. The main difference from the representationalist paradigm is that cognition is thought to be a result of a highly distributed rather than a highly centralized set of processes.

The problem with both the representationalist and emergence paradigms is that in both model it is unclear what the connection between cognition and consciousness is, and as a results consciousness seem to serve no necessary function and supposedly "isn't good for anything". Which is needless to say a strange position to take for what's inarguable the most central and important aspect of our lives; namely that it feels like something to exist in the world.

So in both cases science ends up being disconnected from our direct experience under the accretion of layers of abstraction. Both of these paradigms serve to reenforce untenable notions that the mind is disembodied, and as such that cognitive science can tell us nothing about our direct, lived experience.

Interpenetrating these examinations of the relationship between cognition and consciousness is an exploration of how some of the contemplative practices of Eastern wisdom traditions such as Buddhism may offer a bridge for cognitive science to integrate methodologies to examine our direct experience. Most prominently, they point to mindfulness practices which point to the lack of a fixed, permanent (or transcendental) self as an experiential confirmation of some of the findings of cognitive science. 

What the authors make a point of demonstrating are the inadequacies of seeking an absolute ground in either an 'external world' or in a 'dis-worlded mind', by showing how mind and world exist in a relational way through a form of structural coupling. Which is to say that any hard and fast separation between the two is (an admittedly sometimes useful) layer of abstraction that we impose upon an undivided Reality, born out of a habitual tendency to grasp after an absolute ground to anchor our understanding of Reality to.

Edited by DocWatts

"The mind is inherently embodied.
Thought is mostly unconscious.
Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical." - George Lakoff

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