Mark Johnson (University of Oregon

Feeling William James’s But

            In my opinion, one of the hardest philosophical challenges a person will ever face is to take seriously the embodiment of mind. What makes this so difficult is that almost everything we have learned about the mind, thought, meaning, and language somewhere involves a mind-body split at the deepest levels. If we really understood the significance of human embodiment, it would require a massive overhaul of many of our most cherished philosophical views. Moreover, as Drew Leder has shown in his book The Absent Body, both the nature of our perceptual mechanisms and our general physiology give us experiences in which it seems to us that our thoughts and other cognitive processes transcend our bodies.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that so few philosophers have ever really appreciated the significance of our bodies in everything we experience, think, and do. Among this handful, James, Dewey, and Merleau-Ponty stand out, because they understood how philosophy, along with many of our  cherished views about ourselves, is stood on its head by the fact of embodiment. I don’t think there’s any more radical claim in philosophy than Dewey’s provocative assertion 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. (LW, vol. 1, 224)

Organism, nature, nervous system, brain, cortex—all inextricably tied up together in massive ongoing interaction. These are the keys to philosophy. Dewey, following James, knew that embodiment lies at the heart of all experience, inquiry, and thought. It strikes me that one particular aspect of the work of James and Dewey that is still too little appreciated is their attention to psychological research, neuroscience, physiology, and brain lesion and aphasia research as an integral part of their thinking about what it is to be human and how we think. When was the last time you heard a talk at a SAAP conference that recognized the importance for pragmatist philosophy of the sciences of the embodied mind? But surely, were they alive today, James and Dewey would be engaging current cognitive science and exploring its implications for philosophy.

            Now, I am a late convert to pragmatism. I received the gospel in the revival tent of Brother Thomas Alexander. His was the Church of the Deweyan Aesthetic. That is, he preached salvation through acceptance of the aesthetic dimensions as the key to life, value, and meaning. Every fiber of my being resonated with this emphasis on tension, pattern, feeling, drama, and desire as the stuff of life. In my converted state, I have subsequently visited other pragmatist alters, especially those erected for the worship of William James, but I have forever retained my loyalty to the doctrine of the aesthetic as the heart of experience.

            It is with this aesthetic gospel in hand that I want to explore one central aspect of the embodiment of mind, the part having to do with logical thinking. In my own work on the embodied mind, thought, and language, I continually meet the objection that, although perceptual and spatial concepts may be tied to our embodiment, surely it cannot be the case that either mathematics, logic, or any other formal system is body-based. To say that formal systems are  "body-based" means that even our most abstract concepts and propositions, along with all the reasoning we do with them, are shaped by the nature of our brains, our bodies, and the environments we inhabit. This is not simply the obvious thesis that we need brains in order to think. Rather, it is the strong claim that the very nature and structure of formal reasoning depends crucially on the ways our bodies and brains operate. As Dewey puts it, for a naturalistic theory of logic like this, "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." (LW, 12, p. 26).

James and Dewey knew that the radical thesis of embodied thought ultimately requires a global explanation of how even our most abstract and apparently universal cognitive structures are grounded in aspects of our bodily experience—in perceptual structures, motor capacities, feelings and emotions. This is the fundamental challenge facing any naturalistic, non-reductionist view of mind. Neither James nor Dewey carried this project off completely, but we can find no better starting point than their work for dealing with these profound issues. All I can do here is to sketch the outline of what such a theory of embodied reason would have to involve, and I will also suggest that some of the insights they generated nearly a century ago are today being supported by empirical research in various cognitive sciences.

            To cut to the chase, the key to the embodiment of thought is the qualitative dimension of all experience. Dewey understood above all else that thinking is a matter of the qualitative relations of aspects of experience. Whatever distinctions we might make in our explicit trains of thought are merely abstractions and selections from the complex experiential situations of which those thoughts are a part.

By the term "situation" in this connection is signified the fact that the subject-matter ultimately referred to in existential propositions is a complex existence that is held together in spite of its internal complexity by the fact that it is dominated and characterized throughout by a single quality.(LW, 5, p. 246).

The "quality" is what makes the situation the situation it is. A particular quality that characterizes a situation is never merely a subjective state or feeling; rather, it is in and of the entire situation, and so is as much an objective feature as it is a subjective experience.[1] We thus experience the qualities of various situations as unique, specific, and highly complex—this particular agonizing final exam, that passionate encounter, the angry exchange we had last night, yesterday’s mesmerizing performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

            Any "object" or "relation" that we notice in our experience is but an abstraction from the experienced situation. It may be a highly useful abstraction, but it is an abstraction nonetheless, and it gets its determinate meaning from that situation as a whole.

The situation as such is not and cannot be stated or made explicit. It is taken for granted, "understood," or implicit in all propositional symbolization. It forms the universe of discourse of whatever is expressly stated or of what appears as a term in a proposition. The situation cannot present itself as an element in a proposition any more than a universe of discourse can appear as a member of discourse within that universe. (LW, 5, 247).

            The commonplace idea that thought abstracts from experience is nothing new or shocking. What is new in Dewey’s treatment is his emphasis on the felt dimensions as part of defining quality of a situation. His insistence, which runs against virtually all traditions of logic, is that thinking ineliminably involves feeling. In Art as Experience Dewey illustrates this qualitative aspect as most prominently manifested in works of art, where every detail of the work is affected and governed by the pervasive quality of the whole work.

            One consequence of this is stunning. Logical thinking is inextricably tied to feeling and to qualitative experience:

The underlying unity of qualitativeness regulates pertinence or relevancy and force of every distinction and relation; it guides selection and rejection and the manner of utilization of all explicit terms. (LW, 5, 248).

Pertinence, distinction, and relation are the very stuff of logic. And they are all matters of qualitative experience; never merely effects of  some illusory abstract, disembodied thought.[2] Dewey balks at calling these qualitative dimensions "feelings," because this lends itself to subjectivization and serious misinterpretations. However, "feeling" is, a perfectly appropriate word for what is involved here.

            Eugene Gendlin has beautifully and profoundly explored such tacit dimensions of all thinking. He asks, for example, how a poet in the midst of composition can ever know which word or phrase will best carry forward the meaning she is struggling to express. Beneath any structural or symbolically formulatable expression lies the felt dimension that is working out the meaning of the situation we strive to understand.

The poet tries this line and that. Many lines come. Some seem good. The poet listens into what each of those lines can say. Poets constantly listen into an unexplored openness—what can this new phrasing say? A great many such lines come and are rejected. The poet reads to the end of the written lines again—and again. Each time that . . . . comes.

. . . .

The blank is vague, but it is also more precise than the poet can as yet say. It cannot be said in common phrases. . . . This . . . . demands and implies a new phrase that has not yet come. So the . . . . is actually more precise than what has ever been said before—in the history of the world. (Thinking Beyond Patterns, p. 61).

            Gendlin is making two crucial points about the embodiment of human thought. First, the explicit forms, patterns, and structures that we articulate in gesture, speech, and drawing are always aspects of a specific felt, experienced situation. This is what Dewey is talking about when he says that thought is shaped by the felt quality of an experience:

When it is said that I have a feeling, or impression, or "hunch," that things are thus and so, what is actually designated is primarily the presence of a dominating quality of a situation as a whole, not just the existence of a feeling as a psychical or psychological fact. To say I have a feeling or impression that so and so is the case is to note that the quality in question is not yet resolved into determinate terms and relations; . . . (LW 5, 248)

Thinking is always accompanied by what is colloquially called "intuition," which is "the realization of a pervasive quality such that it regulates the determination of relevant distinctions or of whatever, whether in the way of terms or relations" (LW 5, 249). This is precisely what logic is all about.

 To appreciate fully the embodiment of thought, we must always remain cognizant of the richness, complexity, and efficacy of experience. Dewey notices our tendency to abstract patterns and dimensions of our experience and then act as if they could exist independent of, and even prior to, that experience. This tempting move  creates the illusion of disembodied thought. It is the first step to the ruin of philosophy.

Gendlin’s second crucial point is that the situation—what he calls the "that" or the "blank" (the  . . . .)—is at once both vague and precise. It is vague in the sense that it harbors a vast horizon of possibile connections and continuations of the thought. But it is also very precise in that it is the situation that specifies how we must think, speak, and act to carry forward the meaning of the situation in a fluid fashion.

Gendlin’s observations about the poet apply equally to the logician, for the precision of the situation with all its intricate structure is what gives rise to logical relations, which are, as William James argued with his characteristic boldness and flare, felt by the person doing the reasoning.

            If there be such things as feelings at all, then so surely as relations between objects exist in rerum natura, so surely, and more surely, do feelings exist to which these relations are known. . . . .

   We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold. (Principles of Psychology, I, pp. 245-46).

Can you feel William James’s but? If you can’t, then there is something wrong with you, something suppressed and absent from your proper self-understanding. To feel James’s but is to feel the quality of a situation as a kind of hesitancy or qualification of something asserted. When you think the thought "I may go home, but I won’t be on time," you are expressing some unsatisfactory qualification of your anticipated situation. You are feeling that, if your situation should develop in a certain way (namely, that you go home), there will still exist a certain indeterminacy and unresolved character to the situation as it has developed to that point. Similarly, the feeling of "and" is a feeling of one thing being connected to another, linked in experience. The feeling of "if" is a feeling of expectancy of something to come, taken in light of the character of a present experience.

Reasoning is not the manipulation of abstract, meaningless symbols according to formal syntactic and logical rules. Rather, reasoning is our intelligent animal way of working through the implications of situations in pursuit of an embodied understanding that allows us to function successfully within the problematic situations that we encounter. Feelings of "furtherance" and "hindrance" of our thinking play a key role in how we know what follows from what in our thinking.[3]

            James makes exploratory forays into the vast uncharted territory of qualitative experience. Logical relations, he explains, are denoted by mere logical skeletons, such as verbal formulae or written symbols, but the relations themselves are in experience. "A is B, but . . ." has a "difference in felt meaning" from "either A or B." James explains:

   The truth is that large tracts of human speech are nothing but signs of direction in thought, of which direction we nevertheless have an acutely discriminative sense, though no definite sensorial image plays any part in it whatsoever. . . . These bare images of logical movement . . . are psychic transitions, always on the wing, so to speak, and not to be glimpsed except in flight. Their function is to lead from one set of images to another. . . (Principles of Psychology, I, pp. 252-53).

            The Principles of Psychology has page after page of such wonderful adumbrations of the felt quality of logical relations. While I cannot here explore all of these riches, I want to note one surprising comment that James makes in the paragraph immediately following his claims about the feeling of if, and, and but. What is remarkable is that, in this discourse on logical thought, James sees the importance of the brain. He says, "We believe the brain to be an organ whose internal equilibrium is always in a state of change—the change affecting every part." (PP, 246).

            Why, in a section on logical relations, would James start talking about the brain? The striking answer is that, in order to understand the basis of logic, we need to know something about the brain and body. And James’ claim that the brain’s "internal equilibrium is always in a state of change" connects directly to contemporary research in the cognitive sciences about the nature of conceptualization and reasoning. To cite just one stellar example, Antonio Damasio’s justly celebrated work in cognitive neuroscience argues for the central role of emotion in certain types of reasoning, and he presents evidence that emotions are indicators of changes in our brain and bodily states. Using a combination of brain lesion studies, fMRI, and PET scan techniques, researchers are studying the way that emotions allow us to be aware of changes in our bodily equilibrium, which must be maintained if we are to survive and function in our environment. Damasio’s basic thesis is that

The body, as represented in the brain, may constitute the indispensable frame of reference for neural processes that we experience as the mind; that our very organism rather than some absolute external reality is used as the ground reference for the constructions we make of the world around us and for the construction of the ever-present sense of subjectivity that is part and parcel of our experiences; that our most refined thoughts and best actions, our greatest joys and deepest sorrows, use the body as a yardstick. (Descartes’ Error, xvi).

One of the crucial ways in which the body serves as a yardstick for thought is via emotions, which, Damasio argues, are indicators of changes in the state of the organism that we call our "body." So, if the body is monitoring its ongoing flow of interactions with its environment, it will need to identify changes of state, since it is always trying to maintain a certain level of homeostasis, by which I mean a systemic overall balance, consistent with a level of intensity that directs it within its environment. Thus, Damasio describes feelings as "the sensors for the match or lack thereof between nature and circumstance." (DE, xv). This is where felt logical relations of the sort described by James and Dewey come into play, for they allow us to manage various possibilities that emerge for action within a situation. Logical relations, as James saw, are about the felt possibilities and connections among what cognitive scientists today call "neural activations." He saw that logic, being about relations and tendencies, concerns the swift transitions we experience as we move from one thought (as a relatively substantive and stable embodied state) to another. He saw that logic lives and moves in embodied experience, and that it cannot be understood apart from the workings of our brain in our body in our environment. Real logic is embodied—spatial, corporeal, incarnate.

            If logic doesn’t merely fall down from the Platonic heavens above, then it must surely rise up from our embodied experience as functioning organisms within changing environments. It is this that James and Dewey understood about reason, thought, and logic. Better than anyone before or since, they saw that the recognition of this fact requires a serious reconsideration of the very nature of human understanding and value. It forces us to rethink our entire conception of thought, concepts, reasoning, logic, and mind.

            Just how radical is the thesis of the embodiment of logic and reason? There are at least two possible interpretations of the thesis. The weak interpretation is that feelings accompany our cognition of logical relations. While this might be a surprising fact, it would not challenge traditional views of logic as purely formal. The sceptic—someone who still wants to see reason as autonomous, disembodied, purely formal, and wholly transcendent—could easily embrace this weak version. Such a sceptic will protest that, even though we might have feelings associated with our grasping of logical relations, those relations themselves are transcendent structures of pure reason (or the essence of thought as such).

            This transcendent, absolutist view of logic is precisely what James and Dewey are rejecting. Feeling, they are saying, is never merely a concomitant to an autonomous logic; rather, feelings of quality, connection, and direction lie at the heart of logical reasoning. To say that reason is embodied means that you can never fully understand its capacities and its workings without reference to facts about human bodies, brains, and environments. On this view, formal relations are not arbitrary, but instead are highly motivated and meaningful. Meaningful form comes from the nature of our bodies and the patterns of interaction we have with our environment. As Dewey insisted, thought is never wholly divorced from feeling, value, and the aesthetics of our embodied experience. There is always a feeling of our rational thought:

Hence an experience of thinking has its own esthetic quality. It differs from those experiences that are acknowledged to be esthetic, but only in its materials. The material of the fine arts consists of qualities; that of experience having intellectual conclusion are signs and symbols having no intrinsic quality of their own, but standing for things that may in another experience be qualitatively experienced. . . . .(T)he experience itself has a satisfying emotional quality because it possesses internal integration and fulfillment reached through ordered and organized movement. . . . What is even more important is that not only is this quality a significant motive in undertaking intellectual inquiry and in keeping it honest, but that no intellectual activity is an integral event (is an experience), unless it is rounded out with this quality. Without it, thinking is inconclusive. (Art as Experience, p. 38).

On Dewey’s view, all thought is situated and all thought that has some distinctive aesthetic quality that guides it. We feel the quality of the situation and thus grasp the tendencies and directions carrying forward the meaning of the present situation. We feel how to ‘go on’ connecting one thought to another.

The embodied character of logic and thought is perfectly consistent with the fact that logical relations can seem to transcend particular situations and have a universal character. We tend to abstract structure from situations and attempt to apply it to situations that seem to us to be similar in kind. Sometimes this will work, especially when the new context is mostly stable and continuous with previous contexts in which the logical relations arose. The mistake, one that is deeply etched in our intellectual tradition, is to think somehow that this relatively transcendent character of logical relations could actually erase the embeddedness of thought in concrete situations with their concrete qualities. In the arc of inquiry, we start with problematic situations, move reflectively through symbols in acts of reasoning, and return to experience by way of test and concrete carrying forward of meaning and resolution of difficulties. Steven Winter has done a marvelous job of showing the disastrous consequences in legal reasoning whenever logical relations are mistakenly taken as absolute and context-dependent. The mistake is to fail to appreciate the meaning of those relations for this present situation, with its distinct context and connections to past and future experience.

            Logical form is meaningful. It is meaningful by virtue of the character and quality of our experience. It draws its motivation, movement, and life from the qualities of specific situations about which we are inquiring and reasoning. This is why the embodiment of reason makes a difference, both to how we think and to how we understand what it means to be human.

[1] Dewey insists that the quality is neither subjective nor objective, but rather is of the situation itself as experienced: "A variety of names serves to characterize indeterminate situations. They are disturbed, troubled, ambiguous, confused, full of conflicting tendencies, obscure, etc. It is the situation that has these traits. We are doubtful because the situation is inherently doubtful." LW, 12, p. 109.

[2] This naturalistic, situated view of logic is characterized in a general way by Dewey in his Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, pp. 21ff.

[3] Principles of Psychology, vol. I, p. 259.