Human embodiment is key to human cognition

any adequate account of meaning and rationality must give a central place to embodied and imaginative structures of understanding by which we grasp the world.” ~ Mark Johnson (p.xiii The Body in the Mind)

“Without imagination, nothing in the world could be meaningful. Without imagination, we could never make sense of our experience. Without imagination, we could never reason toward knowledge of reality.” ~ Mark Johnson (p.ix The Body in the Mind)

We human beings have bodies. We are “rational animals,” but we are also “rational animals,” which means that our rationality is embodied. The centrality of human embodiment directly influences what and how things can be meaningful for us, the was in which these meanings can be developed and articulated, the ways we are able to comprehend and reason about our experience, and the actions we take. Our reality is shaped by the patterns of our bodily movement, the contours of our spatial and temporal orientation, and the forms of our interaction with objects. It is never merely a matter of abstract conceptualizations and propositional judgments.” (p.xix)

Views of human cognition

‘Objectivist’ theories of meaning and knowledge

Using the term ‘Objectivism’ to refer to an “offending cluster of assumptions” (pp.ix-x) about meaning and rationality, Johnson writes: “Objectivism is not merely an abstruse philosopher’s project; it plays an important role in all our lives. In its nonsophisticated manifestation, as a set of shared commonplaces in our culture, it takes the following general form: The world consists of objects that have properties and stand in various relationships independent of human understanding. The world is as it is, no matter what any person happens to believe about it, and there is one correct “God’s-Eye-View” about what the world really is like. In other words, there is a rational structure to reality, independent of the beliefs of any particular people, and correct reason mirrors this rational structure.
To describe an objective reality of this sort, we need language that expresses concepts that can map onto the objects, properties, and relations in a literal, univocal, context-independent fashion. Reasoning to gain knowledge of our world is seen as requiring the joining of such concepts into propositions that describe aspects of reality. Reason is thus a purely formal capacity to connect up, and to draw inferences from, these literal concepts according to rules of logic. Words are arbitrary symbols which, though meaningless in themselves, get their meaning by virtue of their capacity to correspond directly to things in the world. And rational thought can be viewed as an algorithmic manipulation of such symbols.
There is nothing about human beings mentioned anywhere in this account – neither their capacity to understand nor their imaginative activity nor their nature as functioning organisms nor anything else about them. Thus, according to recent versions of Objectivism, the humanness (the human embodiment) of understanding has no significant bearing on the nature of meaning and rationality. The structure of rationality is regarded as transcending structures of bodily experience. And meaning is regarded as objective, because it consists only in the relation between abstract symbols and things (with their properties and relations) in the world. As a consequence, the way human beings grasp things as meaningful – the way they understand their experience – is held to be incidental to the nature of meaningful thought and reason.
This view of the objective nature of meaning and rationality has [-p.xi] been held for centuries by philosophers in the Western tradition, and, in the last several decades, it has come to define the dominant research program in a number of related disciplines.” (pp.x-xi)

“On the Objectivist account, there are no truly different alternative conceptual systems for grasping aspects of our experience. Apparently different systems are allegedly reducible to one universal set of concepts that map directly onto the objective features of the world. In recent years, there have been studies of the [-p.xiii] semantics of non-Western languages done in very great detail – sufficient detail to demonstrate that the conceptual systems underlying some of them are fundamentally different from, and even incommensurable with, our conceptual system. For example, we have found that the conceptions of space and time upon which certain non-Western languages are structured is radically different in kind from the conceptions on which familiar Indo-European languages are structured.” (pp.xii-xiii)

The classical Objectivist view of knowledge assumes that “science” produces successive theories that progress ever and ever closer to the correct description of reality. And, even though we will never achieve the final, complete account, it is believed that genuine empirical knowledge involves universal logical structures of inference whose results can be tested against theory-neutral “objective” data. This foundationalist view of knowledge presupposes an Objectivist view of both meaning and rationality. As a result of an impressive and mushrooming body of research on the growth of scientific knowledge, this Objectivist view has been turned on its head, at least in its strong version. We have learned that what counts as knowledge is always a contextually dependent matter – there are no “theory-neutral data” in the required Objectivist sense, and criteria of rationality are ineliminably evaluative and dependent on our purposes and interests. Consequently, most versions of Objectivist theories of meaning and rationality have been undermined by our new understanding of the nature and development of human knowledge.” (p.xiii)

“Putting the Body Back into the Mind”

“The key to an adequate response to this crisis is to focus on something that has been ignored and undervalued in Objectivist accounts of meaning and rationality – the human body, and especially those structures of imagination and understanding that emerge from our embodied experience. The body has been ignored by Objectivism because it has been thought to introduce subjective elements alleged to be irrelevant to the objective nature of meaning. The body has been ignored because reason has been thought to be abstract and transcendent, that is, not tied to any of the bodily aspects of human understanding. The body has been ignored because it seems to have no role in our reasoning about abstract subject matters.
Yet… the embodiment of human meaning and understanding manifests itself over and over, in ways intimately connected to forms of imaginative structuring of experience. The kind of imaginative structuring [discussed here] does not involve romantic flights of fancy unfettered by, and transcending, our bodies; rather, they are forms of imagination that grow out of bodily experience, as it contributes to our understanding and guides our reasoning.” (p.xiv)

“[One such] type of embodied imaginative structure …is metaphor, conceived as a pervasive mode of understanding by which we project patterns from one domain of experience in order to structure another domain of a different kind. So conceived, metaphor is not merely a linguistic mode of expression; rather, it is one of the chief cognitive structures by which we are able to have coherent, ordered experiences that we can reason about and make sense of. Through metaphor, we make use of patterns that obtain in our physical experience to organize our more abstract understanding.” (pp.xiv-xv)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Mark Johnson (c1987) The Body in the Mind: The bodily basis of meaning, imagination, and reason. University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London.


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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