Sunday, August 16, 2009

Part 4a. It Takes a System to Raise a Mind

In this part of the blog I’ll expand on the points I introduced in Part 3, related to the differences between representational and non-representational approaches (see the summary here). This time I’ll give many more concrete examples. I won’t spend much time looking at specific representationalist explanations, for three reasons: 1) that’s not my field of expertise, and I don’t want to spend lots of time researching to be sure I accurately capture the subtle distinctions between different people’s points of view; 2) those subtle distinctions don’t really matter for the points I’m making here; and, most important, 3) representationalism is so dominant throughout philosophy of mind and cognitive science that it will be much more familiar to most readers than the alternative approach I’m going to present.

While this approach tends to come across as radical within current, mainstream philosophy of mind and cognitive science, there are other disciplines in which it is the rule rather than the exception. Over the past eight years I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to — and at times immersed in — several of these, including the Alexander Technique, interpersonal neuropsychology (as applied therapeutically), and systems-centered approaches to communication and organizational development. I’ll focus on these the most because I know them the best, but will also say a little bit about other fields of study that share the same kinds of parallels, including American naturalism (which connects in interesting ways to the Alexander Technique), certain Buddhist teachings, and some areas of robotics. It’s fascinating to me that while there is little superficial resemblance between these disciplines — they have emerged out of diverse historical backgrounds and serve very different purposes — they seem to share four related characteristics:

  1. Explaining specific behaviors and experiences rather than context-independent capacities
  2. Lack of reliance on mental entities (such as representations) to explain experience and behavior
  3. Emphasis on not-purely-mental processes and/or systems rather than any individual entity (mental or otherwise)
  4. Lack of rigid boundaries between mind, body, and world

My suspicion is that these characteristics emerged in different orders within the different disciplines I’m discussing (e.g., in some (1) came first; in others (2) came first; and so on). It seems to me that these ideas are intimately connected, so that once you truly embrace any one of them and take it to its logical conclusion, it naturally suggests the others. While some readers may not agree that all four are essential to any radical embodied cognitive perspective, I think it’s clear that any perspective that does embrace all four would qualify as a radical embodied approach. (Number 2 alone should do it, or at least numbers 2 and 4.)

The Role of Wittgenstein
Before leaping entirely outside the bounds of philosophy, I’m going to give some attention to my favorite philosopher: Ludwig Wittgenstein. I believe that within the field, Wittgenstein’s later writings provide the most solid foundation for a radical cognitive science perspective. The problem is, his approach is indirect (teaching through narrative examples and aphorisms, rather than linear argument) and also more negative than positive (challenging other approaches rather than putting forth a substantive, viable alternative). It’s no wonder that different people come away with drastically different opinions about what he was getting at. While I’m pretty confident about my own understanding, I can’t be certain that it is entirely accurate. (I hope others who have studied his writings will help me there.) However, I have found the ideas so powerfully useful that I’d stand by them even if I discovered that Wittgenstein meant something entirely different.

Progression of This Section

I’m going to divide up this section by discipline or subdiscipline — for each one, illustrating the ways in which it displays the four features outlined above and demonstrating how it helps to explain various aspects of mental life in a non-representational way. I’ll start out with the later Wittgenstein and then express the other sections as parallels to his ideas (Wittgenstein was an Alexander Teacher, Wittgenstein was a Buddhist, etc.). It would be much more accurate to link them directly to embodied cognitive science (e.g., Radical Embodied Cognition is Buddhist, or Alexander Teachers are Radical Embodied Cognitive Scientists) but also much less catchy. So we’re going with the Wittgenstein connection. In the last couple of sections I’ll make a link to other contemporary philosophers who have put forth non-representational approaches to the mind.

I’ll link up each section to this post as soon as I write it:

4b. Wittgenstein Was an Embodied Cognitive Scientist: i, ii(a), ii(b), ii(c), ii(d), iii, iv
4c. Wittgenstein Was an Alexander Teacher
4d. Wittgenstein Was a Social Neurophysiologist
4e. Wittgenstein Was a Systems-Centered Trainer
4f. Wittgenstein Was a Buddhist
4g. Wittgenstein Was a Naturalist
4h. Wittgenstein Was a Robotic Engineer
4i. Wittgenstein and Noë
4j. Wittgenstein and Chemero

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