I have sometimes joked with my philosophy of mind and cognitive science students that when I was a young lad in graduate school, people didn’t have bodies. But, surprise, now they do! It’s a bloomin’ miracle! What I mean by this is that, judging from the philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, logic, and theory of knowledge discussions in Anglo-American philosophy starting in the 1960’s and continuing even to the present day, it was almost as if humans, or any other rational creatures, didn’t appear to need a body in order to think and reason. Sure, you needed a body to generate perceptual input, but, beyond that, you would be hard pressed to find any serious treatment of the role of the body in meaning, understanding, and reasoning. Somehow, people were just supposed to be able to process abstract concepts and propositions in a rule-like way, and then use them to reason in accordance with logical principles, without any serious dependence on the particularities of their bodies.
Even though this relatively disembodied orientation is still popular today, over the past two decades there has been a marked increase in recognition of the crucial role of the body and brain in the constitution of mind and meaning. We seem to have awakened to the discovery that all the meaning we can experience and make, all the thinking we engage in, and all of our communicative acts are the result of our embodied minds, as they engage our various environments.
So, how did we get our bodies back from the philosophical body snatchers? What events ushered in this new appreciation of embodied cognition? The chief answer is probably the rise of the cognitive sciences, but we need to be quite careful about which brand of cognitive science we reference, since there are disembodied and embodied versions. One of the most deeply rooted metaphysical dualisms in Western philosophical and religious traditions is the alleged dichotomy between mind and body, which are taken to be two radically different types of substance or process that happen to be yoked together temporarily to constitute a human being. This mind-body dualism is often used to support the idea that shared concepts, universal reason, and absolute knowledge are possible because mind transcends any particular embodiment.
Although the first wave of cognitive science has typically assumed some form of materialist ontology, thereby avoiding any strong mind/body dualism, it has not wholly avoided disembodied approaches to cognition, insofar as it claims to explain mental operations with little or no dependence on our bodily makeup. For example, first generation cognitive science – which emerged in the 1950’s and 60’s by combining artificial intelligence, information-processing psychology, analytic philosophy of mind, and Chomskyan generative linguistics – assumed that nothing about the body per se essentially shapes the nature of our meaning, concepts, or reason. Hence, the Mind As Computer metaphor was taken to be intuitively obvious, and mental operations were construed as formal operations on meaningless symbols in a computational program. Of course, you would need a body (as “wet-ware”) capable of executing the mental program, but that program itself was supposedly defined independent of the nature of the body and brain. It is usually assumed that these arbitrary and meaningless symbols within the program could somehow be given meaning by being placed in relation to external states of affairs, such as objects, properties, and relations. It is in this sense that first generation cognitive science can be regarded as disembodied, since the mental operations and functions were not thought to be derived from our bodily makeup and actions in the world.
Over the past thirty years, however, a second generation of cognitive science has emerged, built on the recognition that mind and its cognitive operations are intrinsically embodied. The development of a more adequate cognitive psychology and the emergence of cognitive neuroscience played a key role in how we have come to appreciate the bodily constituents of mind. From this perspective, to speak of mind, meaning, and thought as embodied means far more than just that mind and language require a living brain, in a living body, acting within certain types of environments. That is true, but the embodied cognition hypothesis goes even further to insist that both what we think and how we think, what is meaningful and how it is meaningful, and what we can communicate and how we communicate are shaped by the nature of our bodies and brains, relative to their engagement with the environments in which we dwell and act. In Philosophy in the Flesh (1999) George Lakoff and I surveyed some of the major research in psychology, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, and cognitive neuroscience that argues for the rejection of mind-body dualism and reveals the central role of the body in human meaning-making and reasoning. Second generation cognitive science has now diversified and grown over the past two decades, but in its earlier days, its embodied cognition hypothesis had two parts: (1) meaning and conceptual structures arise from the nature of our brains, the character of our bodies, and features of the environments we routinely interact with, and (2) in order to conceptualise and reason abstractly we recruit structures and contents of body-based sensory, motor, and affective meaning processes.
The first part of the embodied cognition view focuses on how meaning emerges from our bodily engagement with our surroundings via structures and processes that operate most of the time automatically and without requiring conscious awareness or control. What Lakoff and I called “image schemas” are recurring patterns of sensory-motor-affective experience that arise from the ways our bodies inhabit and interact with our environments. For example, we are creatures who normally can stand erect and move around in a gravitational field in which we routinely experience up-down orientation. Consequently, a body-based Verticality schema is one of the most basic meaningful patterns of our mundane bodily experience. We project up-down orientation onto space, physical objects, and other people, relative to our own embodiment (just as we project front-back, right-left, and near-far).
Another example of experientially constituted image schematic structures stems from the ways we interact physically, many times a day, with containers of all shapes, sizes, and uses. This gives rise to a Container schema, which basically consists of a boundary, an interior, and an exterior, typically realised either in two or three dimensions.
An important discovery of image schema research is that each image schema has its own corporeal or spatial logic, which grows out of the ways our bodies interact with certain recurrent patterns and relations in our environment. In other words, logic and reasoning are grounded in the body. For instance, our experience with containers reveals transitivity of containment: if object X is in container A, and container A is in container B, then object X is in B. This is a spatial container logic that even infants learn by playing with nesting cups and boxes, by hiding objects in containers, and through other manipulations of physical containers. We thus learn the logic of image schemas without any need for reflection, merely by engaging with objects, moving our bodies in space, and interacting with other people, which allows us to discern relations and patterns of meaning and thought in a bodily manner.
Image schemas are conceptual, not linguistic per se. However, they underlie the meanings of linguistic terms. For instance, the English word in activates a container schema, with the interior of a bounded region profiled (or activated). The word to (as in “Sally went to the store”) is based on a source-path-goal schema with the goal profiled within a scene. The English word into is generated by combining a container schema with a source-path-goal schema, so that source (or starting point) of the source-path-goal schema is mapped onto the exterior of the container or bounded region, while the goal is mapped onto the interior of the container. So, “into” captures motion of a trajector from outside a bounded region, across the boundary, and ending at some point (the goal) within that bounded region (as container). In recent years, it has been shown that image schemas do not just underlie linguistic terms and sentences, but also operate in all forms of non-linguistic symbolic interaction and expression, such as spontaneous gesture, architecture, music, visual advertising, dance, cinema, and ritual practice.
Over the twenty-five years since Lakoff and I introduced this idea, extensive cross-linguistic research has shown that the meaning of spatial and bodily terms in languages around the world employs these image schemas. Although not all languages have words that mark exactly the same spatial terms or relations, languages around the world utilise the same basic image-schematic structures, by means of which they understand the kinds of spatial relations that are noted in a particular language. This should not be surprising, since human bodies tend to have relatively similar size, makeup, and capacities, and humans tend to exist in environments that offer similar affordances for interacting with one’s surroundings.
It makes intuitive sense to say that our spatial relations and perceptual terms are defined via bodily image schemas, but what about our abstract concepts, such as mind, will, justice, truth, and rights? Abstract concepts have traditionally been thought to require disembodied cognition, meaning, and reasoning, because they are thought to abstract from our particular bodily engagements with our surroundings. To the contrary, the embodied cognition perspective claims that abstract conceptualisation works by recruiting structures and processes from sensory-motor source domains (i.e., domains of perceiving, doing, and feeling) to structure our understanding of certain abstract domains. Cross-domain mappings of this sort are called conceptual metaphors. For example, languages around the world employ the conventional metaphor of Understanding Is Seeing, in which the source domain (vision) structures our conception of the target domain (understanding). Objects in the source domain (vision) map onto, in the target domain, concepts known. Seeing maps onto understanding. Light maps onto conditions for understanding an idea. An obstacle that obstructs clear vision maps onto any condition that blocks understanding. It is this conceptual mapping that gives rise to linguistic expressions in the target domain that are drawn from the sensory-motor source domain, such as “I see what you mean,” “Can you shed more light on that idea,” “That was an illuminating argument,” and so on.
Via mappings of this sort, the spatial or bodily logic of the source domain is utilised to conceptualise and reason about the target domain. We also import our knowledge of the source domain into our reasoning about the target domain. In this way, reason itself is shaped by our embodiment, as the corporeal logic of the source domain allows us to draw inferences within the target domain.
Cognitive linguistics, which emerged in the 1980’s as a major embodied-cognition alternative to Chomskyan generative disembodied approaches, has subsequently provided hundreds of analyses of foundational metaphors in every discipline and field, such as everyday speech, science, law, morality, politics, religion, and virtually any experiential domain you can name. Many of these metaphors have been studied cross-culturally to determine which, if any, appear to be universal and also how they are differently elaborated in various cultural systems.
So far, I have said nothing about a crucial aspect of our body-based cognition, namely, the brain. Every time I spoke earlier about the ways our bodies shape what we can experience and think about, as well as how we think about it, I was including the brain at the heart of the process. Just as the makeup of our bodies (our physiology, emotions, organ systems, etc.) constrains and enables what we experience and think, likewise, brains operate via certain neural architectures that determine how the brain can process sensory input, generate bodily actions (including manipulating objects, moving one’s body, feeling emotions, speaking, etc.), and engage in reasoning.
It is, of course, impossible to go into any detail here about how brains-in-bodies-in-environments actually work, but we can at least say that brains are not general purpose processors. That is, brains evolved in the context of specific kinds of interactions with the specific kinds of environments in which humans have developed and are trying to realise their values and goals. The shorthand for this is that thought is for action, or even that thinking is a form of action. Consequently, what and how we think has emerged in the context of the many functions served by various modes of thinking.
We are currently in the early stages of the growth of cognitive neuroscience, which is developing new techniques for neural imaging and is discovering how various functional clusters of neurons operate together to constitute our experience, create meaning, and shape our understanding and reasoning. However, even at this early stage, there are some promising neuro-computational models of various aspects of human perception, movement, understanding, reasoning, and communication. Two notable characteristics of these models are especially relevant to the embodied cognitive perspective. The first is that our brain-body-mind tends to recruit existing neural structures and processes (e.g. sensory and motor processes) to perform abstract conceptualisation and reasoning. This is the principal way evolutionarily prior bodily capacities are exapted for new purposes and functions. Second, there is now experimental research showing that when we read or hear or think certain sentences, we actually simulate in our brains what is being described in the sentences. This view is known as simulation semantics, and it reveals how perceptual images, motor actions, action planning, and emotional responses are activated when we read or hear descriptions of scenes and events. This is just another manifestation of the embodiment of meaning and understanding at the most visceral level of our making sense of things.
The cognitive neuroscience literature is far too technical and vast even to summarise briefly, but the main method involves constructing computational neural models that are capable of acquiring perceptual concepts, image schemas, conceptual metaphors, and abstract concepts, to name just a few of the most important cognitive processes. These neural models are “embodied,” just insofar as they start out with built in architectures that are known to exist in animal and human brains. I’m referring to such neural architectures as orientation sensitive cells, centre-surround structures, motion detectors, neural gates, re-entrant neural circuits, and so on. Models utilising such neural architectures have been constructed that can learn perceptual and motor concepts, image schemas, and metaphors that are expressed in a variety of different languages.
A fully adequate, comprehensive, and rich account of meaning and thought is not going to rest solely on neural models. Because there are emergent properties of dynamic systems, we need a multiplicity of explanatory systems, each suited to the organisation and emerging phenomena at the various levels of inquiry, from atoms and molecules, to neurons, to brains, to bodies, and eventually to complex physical, interpersonal, and cultural environments. The good news is that there is already some convergent evidence, arrived at via different methods of inquiry, suggesting the central role of our embodiment in everything we attribute to mind, thought, and communication.
Recently, I have been concerned that our mostly structural analyses of embodied cognition tend to overlook the crucial role in human meaning-making and understanding of qualities, patterns of feeling (such as build-up of tension, release, pulsing etc.), and emotions. In The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (2007), I have tried to connect these deeper sources of meaning to our earlier analyses of conceptual structures that underlie our capacity to grasp and to communicate meaning through symbolic interaction, such as language, spontaneous gesture, sign language, and various types of artistic making. Cognitive neuroscience is providing abundant empirical evidence for the presence of these deep meaning processes in what we think and how we think about it.
One of the more surprising implications of the study of these deep pre-reflective, emotion-laden, embodied aspects of meaning, conceptualisation, and reasoning is that they are the very structures and processes that have traditionally been explored in aesthetics and art theory. In Anglo-American philosophy of mind and language, virtually nobody took seriously the idea that the best place to search for the deepest sources of mind and meaning is in the arts. Following the lead of people like Rudolf Arnheim and John Dewey, we must reconceive aesthetics as pertaining not just to art and what is misleadingly called “aesthetic experience”, but rather to all of the ways we have of making meaning. On this view, since aesthetics is about all of the meaning-making elements and processes that arise from our body-minds and their immersion in the world, we can find in our engagement with the arts everything that goes into understanding, knowing, and communicating. Dewey famously argued that art is a consummation of meaning, and so we should start with this eminent manifestation of meaning and value, if we want to understand how humans create and experience meaning. In our quest to understand how thought and language work, let us pay special attention to the aesthetics of life, for that will place us squarely within the deepest sources of our meaning and understanding – our bodies.