Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why am I writing this blog?

When I first considered going to philosophy graduate school, I began by trying to identify philosophers who had viewpoints similar to my own. In particular, I looked for anyone who was actively arguing against representationalism (the idea that cognition is best described, or can only be adequately described, with reference to mental representations or representational states). There was very little to choose from. The most straightforward argument of this sort that I could find was an unpublished draft article by a professor who specializes in Buddhist philosophy. I quite liked the article and contacted the professor, who encouraged my interest but informed me that it placed me on the “lunatic fringe” of the field.

Five years later the situation has improved a bit. This past spring Alva Noë (one of the other professors I had tracked down earlier) published Out of Our Heads, which puts forward the argument that consciousness does not reside solely in the human brain — or even the human body. In it Noë makes the bold claim, “We are not world representers. We have no need for that idea.” Later this year comes the publication of Anthony Chemero’s Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. He draws the term radical embodied cognition from Andy Clark, who defines it as the position that “[e]mbodied cognition is best studied by means of noncomputational and nonrepresentational ideas and explanatory schemes.” In his unpublished draft, Chemero cites a few dozen publications as exemplifying this point of view, and adds that there are many others as well.

And yet, despite the increased visibility of non-representational arguments (Noë’s book in particular has received a great deal of attention), they still linger uncomfortably on the edge of the lunatic fringe. Andy Clark himself, one of the best-known advocates of embodied cognition, takes pains to distance himself from the radical viewpoint. In his recent book Supersizing the Mind, he talks freely about representations as essential parts of our cognitive landscape.

It is clear from the strong reactions on both sides of the argument that there is a deep division here. I had a direct experience of this at a Philosophy of Mind discussion I organized to discuss Out of Our Heads. Only one other participant (a non-philosopher friend of mine) agreed with me that Noë’s claims made perfect sense. The discussion was dominated by various arguments about why he couldn’t possibly be right, interspersed with contrarian comments from me and my friend — at least one of which was met by audible gasps.

The fact is that from the perspective of mainstream philosophy of mind and cognitive science, arguments against representationalism simply do not make sense. There are good reasons — or at least, powerful reasons — behind this, and one of my goals will be to explain what those are. This is the defensive argument: we’re not crazy; you just think we are, and I’ll tell you why. I will also be going on the offensive. I don’t simply believe that radical embodied cognitive science deserves some respect and some space at the philosophical table. I believe that the conventional representational point of view is deeply, fundamentally flawed, and that the field is in dire need of a radically different alternative. My mission is to demonstrate that. I hope it works.

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