CODE:  TP-17
Dewey Gets It Right One More Time--The Key to Philosophy

Abstract: Dewey, as usual, gets it right when he says that the key to solving many important philosophical problems is the recognition that human experience requires a functioning human brain, in an active body, coupling with complex physical, social, and cultural environments. Just ask contemporary cognitive scientists why this is so.

Here is my favorite quotation from Dewey: "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"(LW1,224). This sweeping claim drives some of my Deweyan friends bananas, because it sounds so reductionist, so brain-oriented. My claim is that this is just one more occasion where Dewey, as usual, gets it exactly right--the key to so many philosophical problems is to understand the central role of embodiment in all experience, thought, and communicative interaction.

To be a human being requires a functioning human brain, in a living human body, interacting with complex physical, social, and cultural environments, in an ongoing flow of experience. What could be more self-evident than the fact that human mind is intrinsically incarnate? And yet, most people do not believe this. Traditional Western philosophical and religious traditions routinely assume the transcendence of mind over body. They assume that our inmost essence is mental and spiritual, and not bodily. To live in our culture is to unwittingly soak up the metaphysical mind-body dualism that pervades our commonsense views of cognition, knowledge, language, and values.

Over the past twenty years "embodied mind" has become a buzz-word in philosophy and the cognitive sciences. I want to address the question of what it means, philosophically, to say that mind is embodied, and I will then try to highlight some of the more profound philosophical implications of the incarnation of mind. Giving up the notion of transcendent, disembodied mind and thought forces us to reconsider some of our most taken-for-granted views about what it means to be human.

The growth of cognitive neuroscience over the past twenty years requires a revolution in philosophical thinking about mind. It is no longer respectable to do armchair philosophy of mind and language, if it ever was. A philosophy of mind that is not empirically responsible--that is, a philosophy that does not pay attention to empirical research in brain science, biology, psychology, linguistics, and anthropology--is an embarrassment today. And, once you begin to look at the remarkable recent work in the cognitive sciences, the notion of disembodied thought loses its credibility. Consciousness, feeling, thought, and reasoning require a more or less healthy living brain, in a living body, continually engaging an environment.

James and Dewey were the most scientifically and philosophically sophisticated naturalists of their day. They appreciated the critical importance of modern evolutionary theory for our understanding of human nature, and they realized that philosophy must grow hand-in-hand with the best science available. They gave us realistic models of what an empirically responsible philosophy would look like. Pragmatic naturalism starts with the assumption that human beings are natural organisms in ongoing interaction with their environments. It then tries to explain everything we attribute to 'mind'—perceiving, conceptualizing, imagining, reasoning, desiring, willing, dreaming—as having emerged from ever more complex functional bodily capacities, as part of an ongoing evolutionary process in which organisms seek to survive, grow, and flourish within different kinds of situations.  As James puts it:

Mental facts cannot be properly studied apart from the physical environment of which they take cognizance.  The great fault of the older rational psychology was to set up the soul as an absolute spiritual being with certain faculties of its own by which the several activities of remembering, imagining, reasoning, and willing, etc. were explained, almost without reference to the peculiarities of the world with which these activities deal.  But the richer insight of modern days perceives that our inner faculties are adapted in advance to the features of the world in which we dwell, adapted, I mean, so as to secure our safety and prosperity in its midst (1900:3).

This evolutionary embeddedness of the organism within its changing environments, and the development of thought in response to such changes, ties mind inextricably to body and environment. The changes entailed by such a view are revolutionary. We do not have two entities or substances--body and mind--but rather "mind " as an emergent experiential process of organism-environment coupling that makes possible the having and sharing of meanings. In Dewey's words,

Since both the inanimate and the human environment are involved in the functions of life, it is inevitable, if these functions evolve to the point of thinking and if thinking is naturally serial with biological functions, that it will have as the material of thought, even of its erratic imaginings, the events and connections of this environment. (LW,1:212-213).

Another way of expressing this rootedness of thinking in bodily experience is to say that there is no rupture in experience between thinking and such processes as perceiving, feeling, and moving one's body.  More complex levels of organic functioning are just that—levels—and nothing more, although there are emergent properties of 'higher' levels of functioning. Dewey names this connectedness of all cognition the 'principle of continuity,' a principle that denies any ontological gaps between various levels of functional complexity: "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, 12:26)

What the continuity thesis entails is that any explanation of the nature and workings of mind, even the most abstract conceptualization and reasoning, must have its roots in an organism's capacities for perception, feeling, object manipulation, and bodily movement.  Dewey described at least three primary levels of organization that would be relevant to an account of mind. First, there are inanimate material processes-- "the physical" level. Second, there is the level of living things that have needs, interests, and satisfactions--the "psycho-physical." Third, there are organisms that possess mind (the "mental" level). From this perspective, the problem for the naturalist is to explain how changes in organization and complexity give rise to emergent potentialities and actualities (ever more impressive functional processes), and to do this without introducing new ontological entities, structures, or forces. Dewey explains,

The distinction between physical, psycho-physical, and mental is thus one of levels of increasing complexity and intimacy of interaction among natural events. The idea that matter, life and mind represent separate kinds of Being is a doctrine that springs, as so many philosophic errors have sprung, from a substantiation of eventual functions. (LW 1: 200)

In other words, the error of splitting off "mind" from "body" (or the animate from the inanimate, or the mental from the merely living) is a result of treating functional events and processes (Dewey's "eventual functions") as if they were kinds of beings or entities. The naturalistic form of explanation that Dewey is urging focuses on emergence of new capacities and functional unities, rather than new kinds of being. For example, the fact that living organisms (the psycho-physical) have properties and can do things that merely inanimate physical entities and structure cannot do is the result of new organization that gives rise to new potentialities:

In the compound word [psycho-physical], the prefix "psycho" denotes that physical activity has acquired additional properties, those of ability to procure a peculiar kind of interactive support of needs from surrounding media. Psycho-physical does not denote an abrogation of the physico-chemical; nor a peculiar mixture of something physical with something psychical (as a centaur is half man and half horse); it denotes the possession of certain qualities and efficacies not displayed by the inanimate. (LW 1:95-96)

Many people who might accept this continuous development from the inanimate to the animate will, nevertheless, be quite unwilling to extend the same form of naturalistic explanation to the emergence of mind. However, Dewey's principle of continuity demands that we treat mind as not a thing, but as another emerging process of interactions. Some organisms develop what we call "mind", when they achieve levels of functional organization that make communication and shared meaning possible for them, thereby opening up a new world of possibilities for dealing with the life problems they encounter.

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. (LW 1:198)

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 share meanings with other creatures (who have "minds"), can engage in various modes of inquiry and reasoning, and can coordinate activities with others using symbols that have shared meaning for us.

Once we understand that mind is a functional achievement, it ceases to be surprising that mind is always continuous with body, and could not exist without body. That is why Dewey speaks of the "body-mind", and not of body and mind. It is difficult to find the language for adequately expressing the mind's embodiment. Saying that mind is "embedded" in bodily activities immediately raises the specter of some thing (the mind) embedded within some other thing (the body). Dewey tries to express the body-mind continuity and permeability as follows:

Since mind cannot evolve except where there is an organized process in which the fulfillments 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. (LW 1: 211)

One of Dewey's great insights, then, was that higher cognitive activities are operations that rely on "structures which are biological adaptations of organism and environment." As I see it, an adequate naturalistic account of mind must show how our capacities for so-called higher mental operations like conceptualization and reasoning make use of our animal capacities for perception, feeling, and bodily movements.

The Philosophical Importance of Embodied Cognition

I began by boldly proclaiming that acknowledging the embodiment of mind requires us to rethink some of our most cherished assumptions about human nature. Let us consider briefly the most significance implications for our view of human nature, mind, and thought that follow from Dewey's conception of the "body-mind."

1. No Mind Without a Body-- Nobody can prove that there cannot be such a thing as a disembodied mind or soul. However, anyone who is the least bit familiar with neuroscience or medicine will know that there are certain bodily conditions without which functions like breathing, moving, perceiving, being conscious, reasoning, feeling, and talking are not possible, at least as those function are present in human beings. So, even if there were a body-less soul that survives after death, it could not feel, experience, think, or value like we humans do. If you had a disembodied soul, that soul would not be YOU, for it would lack your body, your thoughts, your memories, your feelings, and your emotions. Consequently, the doctrine of embodied cognition is very much a "this-worldly" orientation--a philosophical perspective grounded in the experiences, thoughts, values, and actions of an intrinsically embodied consciousness that appears to be a tiny part of a sweeping evolutionary process of continual (if somewhat slow) change.

2. Mind is Not a Thing, but rather a Process/Achievement-- Although we are born with many cognitive capacities that are necessary for human experiencing and thinking, it is a bit misleading to say that we are born "with a mind," as though that were some fixed pre-given structure. To "have a mind" is to rise to the level of being able to sustain a complex ensemble of functions that characteristically involve thinking, deciding, feeling, and communicating with others. When a person ceases to be able to execute these functions, it is fair to say that he has "lost his mind," which is not the loss of a thing, but rather a failure to sustain a certain dynamic process of higher level functioning.

Neither is consciousness a fixed thing or a simple property. According to cognitive neuroscientists Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi (2000), consciousness is an emergent dynamic unity of a process that results from "a special kind of morphology--the reentrant meshwork of the thalamocortical system--as it interacts with the environment" (p. 216). Consciousness is the result of the temporary achievement of what they call a "dynamic core," in which there emerges an integration, within a certain narrow window of time, of various highly differentiated functional neuronal clusters.

3. Operations of Mind are Shaped by the Body-- Because "body" and "mind" are just different aspects of an ongoing interactional process of experience, the nature of our human bodies determines both what we can experience and think and also how we think (i.e., conceptualize and reason). The body is in (that is, working in) the mind, just as much as the mind is in the body. Damasio states this grounding hypothesis as follows:

... the body, as represented in the brain, may constitute the indispensable form of reference for the neural processes that we experience as the mind" (1994, xvi) 

[T]he apparatus of rationality, traditionally presumed to be neocortical, does not seem to work without that of biological regulation, traditionally presumed to be subcortical. Nature appears to have built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it." (1994, 128)

The lower levels in the neural edifice or reason are the same ones that regulate the processing of emotions and feelings, along with the body functions necessary for an organism's survival. In turn, these lower levels maintain direct and mutual relationships with virtually every bodily organ, thus placing the body directly within the chain of operations that generate the highest reaches of reasoning, decision making, and, by extension, social behavior and creativity. (1996, xii)

The involvement of sensory-motor capacities in all of our conceptualizing and reasoning, concrete and abstract alike, is thus a grounding assumption of contemporary naturalistic theories of mind influenced by recent cognitive science. The challenge for "embodied cognition" theories is to explain how all of our most marvellous acts of language, communication, abstract conceptualization and reasoning, and creativity involve the recruiting of sensory-motor functions for "higher" cognitive functions.

4. Logic and Reasoning are Body-Based-- In commonsense folk models and in philosophical and mathematical theories alike, logic has virtually always been thought to be the essence of rational thought, and thus to transcend the body. Like mathematics, it is supposed to be pure (disembodied), universal, and absolute. But if the ways of the body are actually constitutive of what and how we think, then logics (plural) have only as much validity as do the shared patterns of bodily experience upon which they rest. Logic doesn't drop down from the heavens of pure reason; rather, it rises up from recurring patterns of embodied inquiry. In Principles of Psychology James had already argued that logic is tied to felt relations within bodily experience:

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 feeling exist to which these relations are known.  .  .  . We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold. (1890, vol. I, 245-46)

A hundred years later, Damasio (1994) has famously used clinical and neuroscientific evidence to argue for the role of emotion in certain types of reasoning. Damasio's work has opened the door to a serious reconsideration of James's seemingly preposterous claim that what we call logic requires an intact and functioning emotional system and that our bodies play a crucial role in what makes sense to us and how we reason about it.

5. Language and Symbolic Interactions are Grounded in the Body-- Cognitive Linguistics tries to explain language as a result of many general cognitive capacities acting in consort, rather than as the result of so-called "autonomous" language modules. It presents empirical evidence that patterns and processes of sensory-motor experience underlie linguistic meaning and other forms of symbolic interaction. For instance, there are detailed analyses of how the words we use to talk about mind and mental activities are defined relative to cognitive models that are based either directly on structures of sensory-motor experience or else on systematic conceptual metaphors that are themselves indirectly based on aspects of sensory-motor experience. A good example of this process is our use of visual metaphors to understand abstract conceptualization and reasoning, such as when we say, "I see what you mean," "What you said was quite illuminating," "Bush is blind to the facts," and "From which point of view are you speaking?" In other words, most cognitive linguists seek to explain how patterns of organism-environment coupling and interaction (including perception, manipulation of objects, emotional responses, and body movements) can be the basis for patterns of abstract thought and language. What Lakoff and Feldman have christened The Neural Theory of Language project carries this embodiment explanation further by trying to discover the neural processes that make thought and language possible.  They are developing "constrained" or "structured" connnectionist neuro-computational models--models that utilize known neural architectures--of the workings of various body-based schemas, images, and concepts. Both Cognitive Linguistics and the NTL paradigm typically argue that abstract conceptualization is the result of metaphorical extensions of body-based concrete concepts and sensory-motor capacities.

6. The Mind is Not the Brain/The Body is not a Lump of Flesh-- In all of these developing accounts, it should be clear that "the mind" cannot be reduced to "the brain," and "the body" is never merely a living material lump of skin and bones. The "body-mind" shows itself in many ways. First, there is the physiological organism made of flesh, bones, blood, muscles, nerves, and the many organs of perception and life-maintenance, all co-ordinated in complex interactive functional systems. Second, there is no body without the brain and central nervous system that make experience possible and that permit us to monitor and to modify our body-state and our ongoing interactive couplings with our environment. Third, "the body" does not terminate merely with the fleshy boundary of our skin. It extends out into its environment, such that organism and environment are not independent, but rather interdependent aspects of the basic flow of (bodily) experience. That is why there can be no account of the body without an explanation of the recurring affordances of the environment that evoke and sustain certain specific types of bodily engagements with our surroundings. No treatment of embodied understanding can ignore the cultural artifacts, institutions, rituals, and shared practices that give the body its medium for action and determine its meaning for members of that culture. Consequently, the scientific and philosophical senses of embodiment are far richer and more expansive than our ordinary commonsense conceptions, because they encompass virtually every aspect of experience, meaning, thought, and symbolic interaction.

7. Embodied Values-- One of the most under-developed areas within the Embodied Cognition paradigm is the origin and nature of values. In his latest book, Looking for Spinoza, Damasio has speculated on where our values come from for embodied creatures like us. Naturalistic views of mind typically see values as emerging from the needs of organisms to survive, grow, flourish, and (for humans) find meaning within the types of environments they inhabit. Those human environments are at once physical, social, cultural, moral, economic, political, gendered, racialized, and spiritual. So, while many of our values will be given fairly directly by the needs of our bodies to preserve themselves and to grow--we need air, water, food, shelter, warmth, and a host of biological conditions--other values will be tied to our nature as social creatures, and gendered animals, as requiring political organization, and as wanting to find meaning in and for our lives. It has become evident to those who look carefully at the range and variety of values found throughout cultures and across history that no one set of values can be certified as absolute, universal, and eternal. Although there will be many shared values across cultures, due to the commonalities of our bodies and the recurring features of the similar environments we inhabit, value pluralism is an inescapable fact of the human condition. I trust that you will recognize these as oh-so-Deweyan views.

8. No Single Method or Discipline can Tell the Whole Story of Mind and Body

The multi-dimensionality of the body-mind also explains why no single method or approach could ever capture the workings of mind. We need what Patricia Churchland has called the "co-evolution of theories"--the dialectical working together of multiple strategies and methods from many disciplines. We need cognitive neuroscience to study the neuro-chemical bases of experience, thought, feeling, consciousness, and valuation. We need physiology to explore the whole-body perceptual and motor processes that underlie thought. We need phenomenological descriptions of the structures and qualities of experience. We need cognitive linguistics, psychology, and anthropology to investigate the bodily schemas and sensory-motor operations that underlie all aspects of cognition. We need developmental psychology's account of the emergence of the self, of thought, and of language. We need all the humanistic disciplines that study human meaning making in literature, music, dance, and the plastic arts. And we even need philosophies of embodied cognition that try to see how all of these various accounts of embodied mind hang together, and to figure out what they tell us about who we are and how we should live.

These are only some of the radical implications of the intrinsic incarnation of mind. That mind is incarnate strikes me as amply supported by large bodies of empirical research in second-generation cognitive science. Thus, on these issues as well as many others, Dewey is once again correct, and his brain-body-environment quote seems perfectly obvious, and profound.

"Dewey Gets It Right One More Time--The Key to Philosophy"

[Traditional Paper]

Abstract: Dewey, as usual, gets it right when he says that the key to solving many important philosophical problems is the recognition that human experience requires a functioning human brain, in an active body, coupling with complex physical, social, and cultural environments. Just ask contemporary cognitive scientists why this is so.]