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Archive for the ‘Philosophy of Mind’ Category

extendedmind
There’s a great new article on the extended mind, titled, “How Google Is Making Us Smarter“, in Discover Magazine’s latest issue. You should definitely check it out.

The theory of the extended mind suggests that the mind is not contained exclusively ‘inside’ the skull, but rather that it extends into the external environment. While our mind can use the structure of our brain to store information, it also uses other structures in the outside world for cognitive functioning too. The classic example for this is the use of notepads or chalkboards as extended memory. To aid in the memorization of things, like classroom lessons or a friend’s phone number, we often utilize records stored on chalkboards or cell phones to remind us later of the information. According to this theory, the mind is intricately connected to its external environment through this kind of cognitive scaffolding. In fact, this externalism is necessary for real time, efficient action in the world. It bypasses the problem of an information bottleneck that would hamper real time cognitive processing if we had to store all of the relevant information about the world internally.

The article in Discover debunks the old myth that increasingly useful technology is making us dumb and lazy because it lessens the burden on our own brains. Rather, technology like the internet is making us smarter, because it is increasing our capacity to network with the extended world.

The theory of the extended mind was first proposed by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in a short essay aptly titled “The Extended Mind” in 1998.

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Andy Clark

Andy Clark


Andy Clark is currently a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where he is also Chair in Logic and Metaphysics. Previously, he was director of the Cognitive Science Program at Indiana University in Bloomington.

His extensive publications on embodied cognition, connectionist neural networking and cognitive science have made him one of the key figureheads in the field, which he has helped to popularize and make accessible. This includes the keystone book, Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again, as well as Natural Born Cyborgs and Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Cognition and Cognitive Extension. He has also written a fabulous introduction to the philosophy of cognitive science, titled Mindware. You can access a list of his publications, and you can view many of them too, from his page at the University of Edinburgh.

Clark might be classified as an anti-representationalist, believing that mental representations are not detailed internal constructions of the world, as in a Cartesian theater, but rather that cognition is constructed by the world. That is, the world acts as cognitive scaffolding, and cognition is constructed through an intricate environmental interplay between mind, body and world. Clark’s position is typically referred to as the theory of the extended mind.

He also anticipates the development of cognitive prosthetics, electronic enhancements to aid the integration of the human mind with technology.

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vitruvian
Michael L. Anderson has put together a nice field guide to embodied cognition (PDF) which you can access online by following that link.

Centrally, the article outlines that the field of embodied cognition is:
(1) Starkly opposed to Cartesianism.
(2) Denies the conceptual divide between humans and animals, reconnecting our conception of humanity to an evolutionary continuum.
(3) Against cognitivism, or the view that cognition is rule-based manipulation of symbols.
(4) In favor of the view that intelligence emerges from situated, active integration within an external environment and context, rather than primarily within the internal confines of an individual brain or enclosed entity.
(5) On the cutting edge of artificial intelligence design, as well as showing immense potential in enhancing human intelligence through computation.

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merleau
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) was a French philosopher and phenomenologist. He continues to be credited as the most influential figure in the development of a philosophical understanding of the importance of the body and corporeality.

His most central work in this regard is The Phenomenology of Perception. Through a phenomenological examination of perception, Merleau-Ponty argued for the significance of the body in perception and conception, which was in opposition to Cartesian dualism– the view that there is a fundamental schism between the mind and body.

Merleau-Ponty instead posited that the body is entailed by perception rather than an object of it. Through this discovery, he breaks down the subject/object dichotomy and concludes that the traditional notion of the Cartesian “cogito” must be replaced by what he refers to as the “body-subject”.

His particular brand of phenomenology was influenced by the desire to refute what he viewed to be the two most misguided tendencies within Western philosophy: empiricism, the view that knowledge comes entirely from sense impressions, and idealism, the metaphysical view that the world is constructed from the mind alone. Thus, his work is fundamental in rearticulating the relationship of the mind– or subject, to the world– or to objects. Ultimately, he argued that knowledge must be constituted of practical, lived and active exposure to the world.

Merleau-Ponty was also a trained psychologist, having lectured extensively on child psychology, development and education. Unfortunately, his life was cut short by a sudden stroke at the early age of 53.

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Francisco Varela

Francisco Varela


Francisco Varela (1946-2001) was a Chilean biologist, neuroscientist and philosopher, and is on the shortlist of visionary pioneers who conceived the interdisciplinary thesis of the embodied mind.

He began his academic career studying medicine and biology but also had a wide philosophical orientation, being primarily influenced by the work of phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Varela also became a Tibetan Buddhist in the 1970’s. Undoubtedly influenced by both, he was well-positioned to join an understanding of the body in nature with an internal examination of consciousness and experience. His interdisciplinary connections were extensive, which ultimately led to the co-founding of the Integral Institute, a thinktank specifically aimed at sharing ideas between different disciplines.

The ultimate accumulation of his expertise was the publication of the canonical book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, co-authored with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch. He is also responsible for introducing the term neurophenomenology, which conjoins the distinct methods of inquiry from phenomenology and neuroscience; a fundamental union in the development of the embodied mind thesis.

Varela is also responsible for introducing the concept of autopoiesis to biology, which refers to the self-creation and self-maintenance of biological systems.

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Over at Edge, a video interview and written transcript have been posted of Alva Noë discussing many of the philosophical problems concerning consciousness, and how a paradigm shift toward an embodied understanding of mind might help to resolve those problems.

Within it, Noë notes that most modern cognitivist research about consciousness and experience within neuroscience and classical cognitive science are actually just recycling many of the old problems of consciousness within a new framework. In other words, although the framework has changed, the same ways of understanding– the same paradigms– are still in place.

He uses the metaphor of a dancer to refocus instead on the importance of movement, action and the environment in the making of consciousness. He also ponders the mysteries of pictorial paradoxes about reference and meaning, and again discusses how an embodied approach offers answers.

Alva Noë is a professor of Philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley.

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George Lakoff

George Lakoff


If any single figure could be considered the guru for the current embodied philosophy movement, it has to be George Lakoff. Although technically a linguist, he is probably best known for his extensive interdisciplinary work in cognitive science, conceptual metaphor and politics. His published work includes the closest thing to a bible in the embodiment movement, Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, which he co-authored with Mark Johnson. And he co-authored the breakthrough book, Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being, with Rafael Núñez, which has spearheaded the entire field of embodied mathematics.

Arguably, Lakoff’s original foray into embodiment began within his work with conceptual metaphor, which has revolutionized the importance of that subfield within the embodiment movement. His work there can be most accessed in the books, Metaphors We Live By (with Mark Johnson) and More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (with Mark Turner). And one work which bridges many of these earlier ideas is Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. His other contributions to linguistics have included proposing generative semantics as a substitute to Chomsky’s generative syntax.

Obviously Lakoff’s work here has been canonical, but he’s also well known for his political work, which primarily regards political rhetoric and political linguistics. As a political strategist, Lakoff has often been hailed as the “liberal Karl Rove”. He is the founder of the progressive think tank, the Rockridge Institute.

George Lakoff is currently a professor of Cognitive Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1972.

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