Homing in on the Range


Comments on Mark Johnson’s ‘Cowboy Bill Rides Herd on the Range of Consciousness.’ SAAP Meeting, Portland, Me. March 2002.

Robert E. Innis

Philosophy Department

UMass Lowell


Mark Johnson has raised with exquisite compression and breadth a set of deep and perplexing issues of more than merely ‘academic’ interest.  They revolve around the question of how we are to construct a phenomenologically adequate and empirically supported account of the human organism as a distinctively configured, indeed both internally differentiated and stratified, conscious self.

I will highlight in my comments four hinges on which the swinging door of Johnson’s discussion hangs and turns: (1) the relationship between the empirical and the phenomenological, (2) the notion of embodiment, (3) the relations between the concept of self and the concept of consciousness, and (4) the semiotic dimension. I will in the course of my remarks also gesture toward some extensions and parallels that indicate the further implications of what is at stake when we venture out on the lonesome plain of consciousness, surrounded by ‘our’ or ‘our fellow’ doggies.

(1) The Empirical and the Phenomenological

            Following William James’s lead, Johnson clearly and rightly sees that any comprehensive attempt to deal with the twin and intertwined enigmas of consciousness and human selfhood must merge "science with phenomenology." There are a number of questions we could ask here. First, there is the question of priority and the conceptual scope of the two orders of empirical investigation and descriptive or phenomenological analysis. The ‘cognitive neuroscience’ that Johnson adduces, represented in the case at hand by Damasio’s well-known work, investigates the human organism first and foremost as a system defined by the presence of certain cognitive ‘organs’ located in the brain, which is clearly a functionally differentiated spatio-temporal object subject to various electro-chemical states and changes of state. Their ensemble makes up the enabling conditions (Polanyi: boundary conditions) of the various functions and powers of consciousness.

But, it seems to me, we only know what to look for in this ensemble if we have performed a full phenomenological inventory of consciousness as experienced. Such an inventory is guided by certain conceptual decisions about what the ‘significant joints’ are in the plenum of consciousness. The Jamesian frame (there are clearly other possible frames for delineating the groundlines of consciousness) is guided by certain root metaphors that his project lives or dies by: consciousness is a stream not a lake (Peirce’s metaphor), a process of tying up, of binding together (also of ‘releasing’), characterized by ‘warmth’ or ‘coolness’ of self-appropriating thoughts (or thinkings), of enfolded and enfolding feelings, and so forth. My first point is that ‘cognitive neuroscience’ is actually dependent on a phenomenology of some sort, understood in the broad sense of a descriptively adequate model. Once we give up, which Johnson and Damasio so clearly do, a kind of cognitive scientific version of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness with its obsession with ‘locating’ consciousness at a specific ‘place’ in the brain, we are in a position to begin a large scale enterprise not of reduction but of correlation. In this sense, it is the prior phenomenological account that functions as the essential heuristic device for cognitive neuroscience. It guarantees that cognitive neuroscience look for the right things and rely upon an adequate set of categories. Rather than philosophy's looking to cognitive neuroscience for support, it is the other way around. Indeed, we even need to perform the essentially hermeneutical task of recognizing symptoms of either defects or the distinguishing features of achievements before we can set up our experimental procedures for investigating their neural substrates.

The 'medical' side of cognitive neuroscience (including the biopsychological side) has both a purely theoretical and a ‘practical’  or ‘therapeutic’ dimension. The theoretical side, to the degree that it is defined by treating the brain as an electro-chemical system of systems, is parasitic upon a prior hermeneutics of knowing, a prior attempt at a complete self-reflective inventory. The ‘practical’ or ‘therapeutic’ side encompasses ‘treatment, ‘caring,’ ‘intervention,’ whether surgical, pharmacological, physical (as in physical therapy for stroke victims), or ‘semiotic,’ that is, ‘therapy’ in the common psychological parlance. The mapping of correlations is first and foremost for the sake of curing or compensating for defects in a consciousness system already known by other means and which functions as the normative model of how consciousness should function. But, I think, as we will see when we discuss the relations between the self-concept and the consciousness-concept, that such a model is neither value-free nor independent of the cultural matrices of meaning in which the conscious self is formed. Such a model is motivated.

To conclude my first point, I think that rather than merging the empirical and the phenomenological, we should rather distinguish them and their respective tasks, and that we should then recognize that the phenomenological, which is both methodologically and substantively prior to the empirical, is itself dependent on a vast range of motivated conceptual decisions that function as our root metaphors of consciousness and the self. Cognitive neuroscience is not so much interpreting as in need of interpretation, since it is parasitic both theoretically and practically on other analytical frameworks. Which frameworks belong around the table besides James’s?

(2) The Notion of Embodiment

‘Embodiment,’ as used in cognitive neuroscience, is not a novel or even a revolutionary notion. The long history of the ‘mind-body’ problem, which antedates its definitive Cartesian formulation, is sufficient indication that there is some ‘world-knot’ (to use Schopenhauer’s term) that challenges us to untie it. There are a number of ways, however, of understanding the embodiment of consciousness.

First, there is what I would call ‘endosomatic embodiment’ or ‘immanent embodiment.’ This is what Johnson and Damasio (and James) are first concerned with establishing. It has become a focal point of 'Continental' phenomenology in the 20th century. Not only is the body ‘in’ consciousness; consciousnes is ‘in’ the body. How are they related? Well, how are the operational principles of a machine ‘in’ the machine? The boundary conditions of the machine as a physico-chemical system ‘make possible’ the operational principles of the machine. No boundary conditions, no machine (that is, no ‘real’ as opposed to a merely ‘thought about’ machine). But we know what the boundary conditions are, or must be, because we have formulated the point or purpose of the machine, its 'logic,' and have sought out the appropriate materials to embody it in. ‘Consciousness’ did not ‘seek out’ an appropriately structured body in which to realize its functions. Nor did an appropriately structured body ‘seek out’ a way of becoming conscious, of becoming an embodied consciousness, and hence the ‘locus’ of novel principles. Consciousness has emerged as a novel felt center of novelties or novel operations of a distinctively configured physical system, with which it is indissolubly joined. In this the embodiment of consciousness, and its relation to its neural substrates, is no different than the embodiment of the idea of a typewriter and its relation to its (clearly non-neural) substrates. The typewriter must be embodied. Sentience must be embodied. Cognitive neuroscience is related, in one respect, to its ‘object’ the way an engineer is related to his or her ‘machines.’ Both are concerned with ‘boundary conditions.’ Strangely enough, the cognitive neuroscientist is not asking the question, What is consciousness?, but rather, How is consciousness ‘realized’? It is realized first and foremost as a structured field of ‘feelings’ that ‘qualify’ a body of a specific sort. This is the common, but quite differently arrived at thesis, of both Susanne Langer and John Searle. It is an indispensable starting point.

Consciousness and machine principles are ‘made possible’ by their boundary conditions, but are not identical with them. The boundary conditions have to make possible, or support, the realization of precisely the full reality of whatever has ‘emerged’ from them, even if the emergence is fundamentally ‘conceptual’ and not ‘existential’ in the sense of a substantialist metaphysics. The punchline is that we can admit that consciousness is an emergent property of an organism, operating according to its distinctive principles, but does not have to be thought of as a ‘thing’ but rather as a relational field or self-assembling order immanent in the organism. The embodiment of consciousness, in this sense, is not so much a discovery or a theorem to be proved as it is a lived premise from which a whole set of analytical tasks derive. This is precisely what James, Johnson, and maybe even Damasio are driving toward. I think the best story about this matter is still that given by Polanyi in Part IV of his Personal Knowledge and by Merleau-Ponty in his classic The Structure of Behavior with its schematization of the ‘ascension’ and interpenetration of embodied orders: physical, vital, human.

            Secondly, there is another sense of embodiment, which we could call ‘exosomatic embodiment.’ The feeling of living in our bodies (Damasio’s the feeling of what happens) is matched by the feeling (and the shift of feeling) attendant upon extending our bodies out to and indwelling a vast field of ‘subsidiaries’ (in Polanyi's use of that term) which are experienced as if they were parts of our bodies. Just as consciousness, in one of its functions, brings our bodies into focus, integrates our bodies, whose ‘meaning’ consciousness is, because we indwell our ‘natural’ bodies, so consciousness, by indwelling its extensions (its ‘artificial’ body), ‘qualifies’ itself in a radically Deweyan sense. Just as human consciousness has the ‘quality’ it does because it is the consciousness immanent in a human body, so the ‘quality’ it takes on in exosomatic embodiment is dependent on the material properties, features, and interactions of its ‘supports’ and ‘extensions.’ This embodiment takes, I think, two principal forms: (1) technical embodiment, embodiment in tools, machines, apparatus and (2) semiotic embodiment, embodiment in sign systems of all sorts, broadly defined within the great Peircean triad.

            Technical embodiment constitutes the generative basis of our ‘built world.’ It sets up objective situations, in the Deweyan sense, that we indwell, situations that define that ‘quality’ that Dewey made the center-piece of his aesthetics. Not just art works have the ineluctable ‘aura’ that Dewey pinpointed. Technical embodiment is construction of tentacles that ‘qualify’ our access to the world, introducing shifting boundaries between the organism and the environing world with which it is indissolubly intertwined. The ‘mapping’ of somatic image fields, sensory modalities, and affective tonalities ‘within’ consciousness is an ‘incorporation’ of the world. If the world traces itself upon the deepest parts of the live creature’s body, in addition to the analytical and theoretical question of the ‘how’ of embodiment, there arises the critical and normative question of the ‘what’ of embodiment, of what we are embodied in when we advert to the natural and social conditions that define the fields of situations that we, as Dewey wrote in his great ‘Unit of Behavior’ essay, do not respond to but respond into. The ‘embodied’ nature of consciousness, in the first sense of the term,  makes no ‘technical’ embodiment an indifferent process. Such embodiment can tear us to pieces by introducing or inducing rhythmic structures to consciousness that have severe and deleterious somatic consequences. Here 'cognitive neuroscience' and 'phenomenology' go over into cultural criticism.

            Semiotic embodiment encompasses a lot of territory of the range where Mark Johnson has been engaged in philosophical ranching. He well knows (as do my students, who have generated royalty money for him) that we use complex schematizations to model and to form ourselves. That is not our topic now. But I would like to emphasize that every sign system, because it is itself materially embodied, incarnates or carries a distinctive feel or quality in addition to its ‘content.’ Visual perception has a different ‘feel’ from logical deduction. The different ‘orders of reality’ or ‘many worlds’ of James’s Principles have their own distinctive feels. Dewey took this idea a long way, seeing its social relevance. And of course it is at the heart of Peirce’s whole project. What I am saying here is that the broadening of the scope of embodiment flows directly from following the lines of analytical barbed wire that Johnson is laying down as he moves around on his land.

            In sum, as Dewey pointed out in Experience and Nature, "meanings acquired in connection with the use of tools and of language exercise a profound influence upon organic feelings" (Dewey 1925, 227).

            (3) Self, Consciousness, and Mind

            What about the relationship between the central concepts of 'self,' 'consciousness,' and 'mind?"

Listen first to the following text from Dewey’s Experience and Nature in light of this question. It bears directly on the choice of a conceptual framework that will inform our phenomenology.

While on the psycho-physical level, consciousness denotes the totality of actualized immediate qualitative differences, or ‘feelings,' it denotes, upon the plane of  mind, actualized apprehensions of meanings, that is, ideas. There is thus an obvious difference between mind and consciousness; meaning and an idea. 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 meanings; it is the perception of actual events, whether past, contemporary or future, in their meanings, the having of actual ideas. The great part of mind is only implicit in any conscious act or state; the field of mind—of operative meanings—is enormously wider than that of consciousness. Mind is contextual and persistent; consciousness is focal and transient. Mind is, so to speak, structural, substantial; a constant background and foreground; perceptive consciousness is process, a series of heres and nows. Mind is a constant luminosity; consciousness intermittent, a series of flashes of varying intensities Consciousness is, as it were, the occasional interception of messages continually transmitted, as mechanical receiving device selects a few of the vibrations with which the air is filled and renders them audible (1925, 229-230).

Compare this with Damasio’s contention in The Feeling of What Happens:

The term mind, as I use it in this book, encompasses both conscious and non-conscious operations. It refers to a process, not a thing. What we know as mind, with the help of consciousness, is a continuous flow of mental patterns, many of which turn out to be logically interrelated. The flow moves forward in time, speedily or slowly, orderly or jumpily, and on occasion it moves along not just one sequence but several. Sometimes the sequences are concurrent, sometimes convergent and divergent, sometimes they are superposed (Feeling, 337 n7).

Such texts issue perhaps more challenges than settled conclusions. But they certainly point to embodiment and to the ‘fact’ that consciousness is a processual achievement and a constant task. What is distinctive in the texts I have cited is that the analytical pair is ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness,’ not ‘consciousness’ and ‘self.’ What really is the relation between these notions? Damasio writes that "in all the kinds of self we can consider one notion always commands center stage: the notion of a bounded single individual that changes ever so slightly across time but, somehow, seems to stay the same" (Feeling, 134). What is needed, he continues, is some "structural invariance" (135) that insures "continuity of reference across long periods of time. Continuity of reference is in effect what the self needs to offer" (135).  I suspect, then, that the key to answering this question lies in Dewey’s phrase "consciousness in a being with language." The autobiographical or extended self first emerges by reason of the appropriation of language and its time-binding powers, which make possible the required continuity of reference. The '‘extended" self, assuming neurological integrity as its enabling condition, arises precisely in the movement of ‘extending’ the conscious organism into language and ultimately into all other semiotic systems, which not only consolidate the self but express and develop it. If we take the matter further and think of Peirce’s contention that his ‘mind’ was just as dependent upon his ‘inkstand’ as on his brain, we arrive at another way of seeing the ‘mind’ and that dimension or aspect of it that we call the ‘self’ as essentially embodied, both endosomatically and exosomatically. Exosomatic embodiment, in fact,  constitutes the prime ‘places’ where the self is formed and stabilized. But I am not sure that to explore this part of the back forty we need to have recourse to neuro-chemistry. The task seems to be rather to develop a semiotic phenomenology of the social world or even a ‘cultural hermeneutics’ or 'discursive psychology' quite generally. Jerome Bruner, along with Rom Harré and Grant Gillett, for example, have given us important leads in this direction, with no essential advertence to ‘cognitive neuroscience.’ Cognitive neuroscience helps us understand part of the failure to achieve or to maintain selfhood. The process itself is to be understood on its own terms. It belongs to a different order, the semiotic order, understood broadly within the arc from Peirce to Mead (and passing through Dewey).

            (4) The Pervasive Ambiguity of the Semiotic Dimension

            Even the most cursory reading of both Mark Johnson’s paper, his books, and the books of Damasio show that semiotic terminology permeates their analyses. Strangely enough, I wonder whether there is not, in spite of the focal emphasis on ‘feeling,’ a constant temptation to a latent Cartesianism and an intermingling of categories and explanatory levels. When one talks of "the body’s mapping of its current physical state" (Johnson, 5), who ‘reads’ the map? When one talks of the "brain’s representational devices" (5) who is ‘using’ or interpreting these devices?  If the body-state itself is a map, do we need a ‘map-reader’? If the neural substrate of mind consists of "multifarious interacting signals" (5), for whom or of what are they signals? If the brain gives us an "imaged, nonverbal account" (5) of a state if affairs, if the core self makes ‘use’ of "body-state mapping" (5) to apperceive itself and to relate itself to the environing world by representing it, we have to be extremely careful to understand just what we are saying. Even if we want to follow the lead of Damasio we are not allowed to short-circuit the attempt to model precisely the relationships between the ‘interpreted,’ the ‘interpretation,’ and the ‘interpreter.’ It seems that focussing upon the organism as a locus of images and signals that point both ways—‘in’ toward the organism and ‘out’ toward the world—forces us to find very refined and nuanced conceptual resources to handle the Janus-faced character of the body as locus of feeling. Can ‘feeling’ do the necessary work here? It is clear that feeling and meaning (indeed, the apprehension of meaning) are intimately connected. But does ‘to feel’ mean to ‘interpret’? Do we not perhaps have to go beyond the ‘feeling of feeling,’ which nevertheless is an indisputable datum, to a more differentiated account of semiosis or symbolic projection as the interpretation of signs? Damasio incredibly refers en passant in his The Feeling of What Happens to Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key, but totally ignores her great trilogy, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, which, in my opinion, cuts a much more revolutionary and philosophically relevant path through this thicket.

            Sign, object, interpretant make up, in the Peircean frame, the irreducible triadic core of semiosic action. The body as sign (as locus of signs) makes itself known as it makes the non-self known. The interpreter-self is found ‘in’ their dynamic triadic ‘play.’ But this interpreter-self is also the locus or place (topos) where the play of semiosis takes place. The problem we are faced with, consequently, is, How can we have a self-interpreting and intentionally structured organism without introducing Cartesian premises and a substantialist self? For a sign cannot interpret itself. Signs and their interpretants belong to different domains. Polanyi wrote in his Personal Knowledge: "Some say that we merely speak in two different languages when referring to thought on the one hand and to neural processes on the other. But we speak in two languages because we are talking of two different things" (389). By 'things' here we should understand 'orders.' The ultimately semiotic reason is given by him in a paper written in 1969 (‘On Body and Mind,’ The New Scholasticism, 43: 202):

But I am concerned with the analysis of conscious processes. I can repeat therefore tha the bearing by which we understand both the input and the output of a neurological process must be established by ourselves, by our interpretation of the behavioral and neural signs of this input and output. The neural functions supply these signs, but they do not supply their interpretation. Since this interpretation forms no part of the nervous system, the system cannot be said to feel, learn, reason, et cetera. These are experiences or actions of the subject using his own neural processes.

            Are we back once again to a crypto-Cartesianism with the subject ‘using’ his neural processes? No. Polanyi wants to retain the pivotal notion of emergence, while repudiating substantialist conclusions. "The mind," he writes, "harnesses neurophysiological mechanisms; though it depends on them, it is not determined by them" (‘Life’s Irreducible Structure,’ Knowing and Being, 238). In this sense, then, "mind is the meaning of certain bodily mechanisms; it is lost from view when we look at them focally" (238). Echoing the work of the neurophysiologist Rothschild, Polanyi asserts, in agreement with the Dewey position cited earlier, that "the mind is the meaning of the body" (222). 'Mind' is a semiotic notion, not a substantialist notion.

            So, to understand the meaning of embodiment and to understand the embodiment of meaning is a dual and intertwined process. But I think that this task, looked at from the point of view of philosophy that does not stand in awe of cognitive neuroscience, must take us toward a more comprehensive descriptive and normative partitioning of the plenum of consciousness as a field of feelings and the feelings of feelings, and leave the partitioning of its neurophysiological substrates and their correlations with conscious states to others. [1]

[1] Further treatment of these issues can be found in my Consciousness and the Play of Signs (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) and Pragmatism and the Forms of Sense: Language, Perception, Technics (State College: Penn State University Press, forthcoming the Fall of 2002).