The central point: When looking at causes of actions and events, people have a strong tendency to look for fixed things that are isolated in space and time — while neglecting the “background” conditions or context that make those actions and events possible. This is at least true in American society today, probably all the more so for philosophers — and particularly noticeable when looking at ourselves and our own behavior.
I will relate this to meaning and understanding eventually (some patience is required here; this post ended up being much longer than I expected). But first consider what seems to be a straightforward physical activity: walking. Ask yourself — what makes walking possible? How are human beings able to walk?
What kind of answers occur to you? One of the first answers that comes to mind might be particular muscles — especially the big leg muscles. If you tend to be more interested in the brain, you’ll probably think about the brain's involvement, speculating about specific neuronal interactions or computational programming that might control walking. Getting a little more nuanced, you may think about our vestibular system, which provides a sense of balance.
Among the answers that are unlikely to occur to you are: the continuous presence of a solid surface beneath us; the reliable operation of our planet’s gravitational force; and the availability of open space (areas in which the density of matter is sufficiently low that a human body can easily move through). In other words, you’re likely to overlook all the external conditions that are relevant to — indeed, absolutely essential for — the process of walking. People’s answers tend to focus on one isolated area of space: their bodies. And usually, very limited parts of their bodies, like in this case the legs or, what tends to get credited for nearly all human behavior these days: the brain.
These answers also tend to focus on one isolated point in time: the eternal present. There’s generally no consideration of all the preparatory interactions that lay the foundation for walking — all the experiences, behaviors, and responses necessary for a growing child to develop the ability to walk. In addition to this personal history, we tend to neglect the larger historical context, which is arguably also relevant. Certainly, we would not be able to walk if we had not evolved in a particular way — responding to specific selection pressures, within a specific environmental context, on a specific kind of planet.Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these tendencies we have. I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t say we can walk because of our various muscles, organs, nerve impulses, etc. As Wittgenstein advises us, “Say what you choose, so long as it does not prevent you from seeing the facts” (Philosophical Investigations, section 79). It is absolutely true that these aspects of our bodies enable us to walk — provided that all the rest of the greater systems in which we are embodied and embedded remain in place. Again, relating this to Wittgenstein: “‘I set the brake up by connecting up rod and lever.’—Yes, given the whole of the rest of the mechanism. Only in conjunction with that is it a brake-lever, and separated from its support it is not even a lever; it may be anything, or nothing.” (PI, section 6)
The problem comes when we forget the necessity of "the whole of the rest of the mechanism," which can easily “prevent [us] from seeing the facts,” leading to some fairly significant misunderstandings about how human beings actually function in the world. I'll give just a few examples here.
THE LARGER ENVIRONMENT: GRAVITY
In the context of the Alexander Technique (the subject of the next long series of posts to come), an understanding of gravity plays an important role in correcting misconceptions about how the human body operates. Generally, gravity gets a bad rap. It gets blamed for all sorts of problems — like the tendency of spinal discs to become compressed over time, so we all get a little shorter as we age. (Not to mention wrinkles and the sagging of various body parts.) There’s a sense that we need to fight the effects of gravity. If only we didn’t need it to keep us stuck on to the planet, it may seem, we’d be better off without that pesky force.
In fact, this understanding gets things precisely backward. Our bodily structure functions as a complex suspension system that is spring-loaded by the gravitational force. When we’re not interfering with it (e.g., by using our large voluntary muscles to try to do the work that our tiny little postural muscles ought to be doing), this system works beautifully with gravity to keep us upright and buoyant and moving freely. Therefore, gravity can actually play a very important role in explaining how we’re able to walk, and what gets in the way. (Alexander teachers talk about this as a matter of course.)
The role of gravity in walking might seem more intuitive to us if we didn’t have an exaggerated sense of our separation from our environment — both conceptually (we think of ourselves as being independent, somewhat isolated entities) and perceptually (we feel as though we’re separate). (When I talk about the Alexander Technique, I’ll explain how such perception can shift, so that we no longer experience ourselves as being quite so separate from our surroundings.) It might also seem more intuitive if we had a broader, more long-term view of human capacities; since humans evolved on a planet with a gravitational field, it’s not surprising that our bodily structure is well adapted to respond to gravity.
Now, it still may not be clear why any of this is a big deal. (Much less how it’s related to meaning and understanding, but I promise I will get there before too long.) One of the biggest problems comes when we encounter a phenomenon that we want to study and our biases prevent us from seeing the full picture of what’s happening; as a result, we wind up with a distorted model of reality. Andy Clark gives a fantastic example of this in his book Being There, when he discusses the stages that infants go through in learning to walk. Newborns, when held up away from the ground, will perform well-coordinated stepping motions. Those motions disappear at about 2 months of age, only to reappear between 8 and 10 months as the infant starts to be able to support its weight on the feet.
In trying to explain this phenomenon, there is a temptation to look for an isolated, internal causative factor. “According to a ‘grand plan, single factor’ view,” Clark says, “we would expect these transitions to be expressions of the maturation or development of some central source — for example, the gradual capture of reflex-like processes by a higher cognitive center” (page 40). The truth is, what determines these stages is not some internal, central controlling source, but the interaction of multiple different factors — including, crucially, gravity. “In the upright position,” Clark explains, “the resistance of the leg mass at about 2 months overwhelms the spring-like action of the muscles” (page 41). An attempt to find the cause of the behavioral change by looking just at the infant’s muscles or brain or nerves or anything else internal is doomed to fail because the cause is not in there.The action is, to use one of Alan Watts’s terms, relational. In looking just at the leg, or at the body it’s attached to, we neglect to consider the relevance of the space it is moving through. Should that space change, the action (and, we might say, the capacity for action) changes: a 3-month-old infant cannot perform stepping motions in open air, but has no problem doing so when the lower body is immersed in water.
THE LARGER BODY: OTHER ORGANS & SENSES
When you begin walking, where does the movement begin? What drives the action? Take a minute and consider this.
If you answered the foot, or the knee, or any other part of the lower limbs, you're in very good company, but you're wrong. The natural motion of walking actually begins with the head. As the weight of the head shifts forward, the body is thrown slightly off-balance, and the motions of the lower body help to catch us; this process has been described as "controlled falling."
Again, why is this a big deal? Because whenever it becomes important to figure out what's actually happening when somebody walks, a tendency to neglect certain parts of the body or certain bodily functions can get us into trouble. I heard a great story about this recently from a very insightful Alexander teacher (one of the people I studied with a few years ago). She once worked with a woman who had been to see many different health professionals to help with a long-standing problem with limping. Nobody had been able to give her a diagnosis; thorough medical examinations revealed no abnormalities in her lower body (which, of course, is where they had all been focusing). In a matter of minutes, the Alexander teacher was able to figure out what was actually happening. She knew this woman had an unusual characteristic: she had one false eye. (Of course, the doctors knew this too, though it never factored into their diagnosis.) She asked her to raise up her finger to the center of her field of vision. Lo and behold, the woman raised her finger not to the true center, but far off to one side. What needed to change was not her leg, but her visual perception — or rather, her integration of her visual perception with her kinesthetic sense and proprioception, so that as she moved she would be able to gather more accurate information about her spatial relationships to the world around her. (Alexander lessons did prove to be effective in this respect.)
Notice how a bias toward localization makes it impossible to understand a situation like this one. You could study this woman's legs until the end of time and you would never find the problem, because it was never in there. Note that this doesn't mean the problem was entirely in her head or brain either. Again, we're looking at a relational phenomenon — we can't identify something in the brain, or nervous system, or leg muscles as being the cause. Rather, it was a wide variety of bodily systems interacting, within the larger context of the wider, physically and visually present environment, that led to her peculiar way of walking.
THE LARGER HISTORICAL CONTEXT: TRAINING & CONDITIONING
It is also important to keep in mind the role of past training and conditioning. The mere presence of muscles and nerves does not in and of itself make movement possible. For any type of movement, it takes practice — often lots and lots of practice — to set up the neuromuscular pathways required for coordinated action. It’s a gradual process.
Remembering that walking is a capability that develops slowly over time can help insulate us from a range of biases, including the tendency to see the ability to walk as something 1) unitary; 2) localized internally; and 3) primarily proactive rather than responsive.
If we see walking as a unitary phenomenon, we may be tempted to look for a unitary cause (tendency 1) — say, a sort of neurological program for walking (lift leg, then bend knee, then extend knee and lower heel, etc.). To be able to walk, in this case, would be to have some version of this program. Of course, this program would be localized internally (tendency 2). And the emphasis here would be on what the person (or the program) initiates, or puts out into the world, rather than on how he/she/it responds to the world (tendency 3). This approach puts the burden of explaining all the complexity of real-life practice on some internal controlling mechanism. If you consider how complex walking really is (just think of all the different surfaces we walk on, all the obstacles we navigate around, all the other things we do while walking), you can start to appreciate just how great of a burden this is.
In the history of robotics, designers have increasingly moved away from models using centralized control. I’ll talk about how this relates to cognition in the next post. Related to walking, the most advanced robots today are inspired by old-fashioned toys that were first developed in the 1800s, using no internal motors at all. Walking emerges from the interaction of the toys’ physical structure with the environment; the movement is driven by gravity. The robots do use internal power sources, but operate much more efficiently by taking advantage of various features of body structure and the physical environment. For instance, all of them have arms that swing opposite the legs (as ours do) to help with balance.
One of these robots, called Toddler (developed at MIT), uses a learning program to teach itself to walk. Apparently it is the first walking robot “to learn to walk without any prior information built into the controller.” A major advantage is that Toddler learns to navigate over a variety of different walking surfaces. In this way, it can display sophisticated abilities not because something complex is programmed in from the outset, but because complex behavior emerges from ongoing, continuously shifting interactions with an environment. Here it’s obvious that the ability to respond is at least as important as the ability to initiate. (For more details on this and other walking robots, see this article.)
Just about everything I have said here about walking has a direct analogy to meaning and understanding. If we could only appreciate these as activities (things we do, like walking and eating and playing soccer), rather than fixed states or mental contents (things we have, like neurons and colons and shin splints), we would avoid all sorts of confusion. Since this post is already quite long, I will explain this line of reasoning in a new one.