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Posts Tagged ‘Perception’

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According to a recent New York Times article, military pilots of unmanned Predator drones, who operate the drones from Las Vegas, over 7,500 miles away from where the drones are flying, experience more fatigue than actual pilots flying manned planes. The reason? Sensory isolation.

Since drone pilots operate remotely, they rely entirely upon cameras mounted on the planes to guide the planes through their environment. Unlike pilots who fly manned planes, who are embodied in the very situation that they’re operating within, drone pilots experience “significantly increased fatigue, emotional exhaustion and burnout”, according to the article. This overwhelmingly showcases the importance of taking into account the embodiment of perception and awareness.

Perhaps due to the predominance of a disembodied paradigm, these results may seem anti-intuitive. Shouldn’t the pilots who operate remotely, thousands of miles from harms way, have it easy? It turns out that reliable, healthy perception and cognition rely heavily upon sensory cues which can’t be abstracted from the conditions of lived, physical embodiment. Basically, it’s difficult to perceive the environment unless you’re actually in it.

That’s a powerful lesson. Understanding perception, or building a computer or robot which perceives, necessitates embodying the subject into the environment.

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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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Donna Haraway

Donna Haraway


Donna Haraway is currently a professor of the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She began her career studying Zoology and Philosophy, and eventually earned her Ph.D. in Biology from Yale in 1972.

Haraway’s most central contribution to the study of embodiment comes at an intersection between her diverse scholarship in the history of philosophy, the science of biology and feminist epistemology. A critic of the traditional notion of objectivity as ‘a view from nowhere’, Haraway instead proposes that objectivity must be situated knowledge. In her own words, from Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective:

I am arguing for the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity.

Utilizing the metaphor of knowledge as vision, she argues that a nuanced understanding of vision and perception reveals that an object of sight (and likewise, an object of knowledge) cannot be conceptually or empirically removed from an embodied, structured and filtered context– from a situated point of view.

Her contributions to epistemology are paramount, but she is also acclaimed for her deconstructions of the masculinized metaphors and narratives which direct the science of primatology. She is also a major critic of essentialism, and is famous for her “Cyborg Manifesto”, wherein she utilizes the metaphor of the cyborg to fog traditional demarcations, dichotomies, conceptual divisions and social constructions regarding gender and race.

As a proponent of the power of technology to liberate, she is a constant contributor to cyberculture.

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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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