April 2011


Andy Clark’s central, and surprising thesis, is that mind is not what exists between the ears, but is rather the mesh of brain, body, and world itself. At the beginning of Supersizing the Mind, Clark relates an anecdote from Feynman to illustrate this idea. Charles Wiener had expressed delight in discovering a collection of Feynman’s notes and sketches, indicating how wonderful it was to have a record of Fyenman’s day-to-day work. As Clark puts it, Feynman reacted with unexpected sharpness:

“I actually did the work on the paper,” he said.

“Well,” Weiner said, “the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.”

“No, it’s not a record, not really. It’s working You have to work on paper and this is the paper. Okay?” (from Gleick 1993, 409)

The point of this anecdote, in Clark’s view, is that the pencil and paper are quite literally parts of the mind in the process of cognition. What is on the paper is not, for Clark, something that merely records a trace of cognition, but rather the brain, body, and these external artifacts are all the cognition. In a manner that immediately brings Morton’s Ecological Thought to mind, it is this mesh that is cognition. Here it’s important to note that there is no Hegelian style idealism here. Clark is not asserting “the identity of substance and subject”, such that substance is subject and subject is substance. Clark’s position is thoroughly materialist. The pencil and paper are material entities. His point is that they are not merely props or tools for cognition, but that entities such as this play a key role in cognition by affording and constraining possibilities of cognition through their use.

Throughout his work Clark’s emphasis is on real-world cognition in insects, animals, artificial lifeforms (like cockroach robots) and humans. Biological and technological lifeforms, argues Clark, perpetually offload problems of cognition on the external environment so as to maximize real-time responses to situations and to minimize “expensive” computation (representation). Why for example, have a complicated mental map of my living room, when I can use the living room itself (as perceived by entities such as humans) as its own best model? In other words, organisms perpetually rely on the scaffolding of the world in their cognition. This scaffolding consists of relatively stable regularities in the environment. In the case of humans, Clark argues, a large part of this scaffolding consists of culture in the form of institutions, technologies, and language. Thus, for example, my iPhone is literally, for Clark, a part of my memory. Rather that relying heavily on internal memory to recall everyone’s phone number and email address, rather than encoding all of the dining recommendations I’ve heard from friends, family, and the media, I can instead simply turn to my iPhone and pull these things up. The iPhone itself becomes a part of the cognitive process. However, Clark’s thesis is much stronger than this. Cultural institutions and technologies begin to think for us. In Being-There Clark gives the example of an office where there are all sorts of subroutines for particular actions (“place the pink form in the bin labeled x”). The institutional structure does not require any centralized planner nor agents that have an overall representation of how the office works, but rather all the subroutines, including their material elements, collaborate in a distributed fashion together to produce a set of regular results. The institution as a whole has cognition in and through its mesh. This mesh wouldn’t be able to function without brains, but those brains are only a component in these cognitive processes. This is what allows us to claim that cultures and societies think. A big part of this thesis, and I can’t develop it in detail here, is that there are a variety of ways in which natural and cultural environments channel and structure cognition.

My intuition is that the thesis of extended mind has tremendous social and political implications (which sadly Clark doesn’t explore in his work as far as I can tell, but which is a boon for all of us working in the vein of OOO). Here I will only bookmark some of these implications, opening a space to develop them in the future. First, if Clark’s thesis about the extended mind is true, we can’t speak univocally about the “human”. Foucault had already recognized this in the close of The Order of Things when he spoke of “the death of man”. In speaking of the death of man, I believe Foucault had dimly glimpsed the death of man thesis (in OT he showed how “man” was the product of a set of institutional and discursive constructions, i.e., what Clark calls “scaffoldings”). If the extended mind thesis is right, then there will be as many different minds as there are brain-body-world assemblages. Marx glimpsed this when he argued that the factory worker and the farmer were two entirely different species in the Manifesto. He develops this further in his chapter on the working day in volume 1 of Capital where he shows how the industrial factory fundamentally transforms the nature of homo sapian existence. Here we sorely need a well developed version (not just nods, but fine-grained analyses) of Deleuze and Guattari’s ethology as developed in A Thousand Plateaus, where the being of entities is understand in terms of what they can do, not by representational resemblances (recall the famous thesis that “the work horse is closer to the ox than the race horse”). Here sorting of entities isn’t based on embodied resemblances, but on capacities to do. When this is meshed with the extended mind thesis, we begin to sort cognizing beings based on extended assemblages involving brains but also world and technologies (this, incidentally, is what allows us to take into account arguments that discuss the role that privilege plays for particular groups and that the absence of privilege plays in other groups).

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I wonder if anyone would be interested doing a readingngroup devoted to Andy Clark’s Being-There this Summer? Such a reading group would focus on, I think, an account of the role of “media” in cognition and the extended/distributed mind hypothesis. That, at least, is what I’d focus on in my posts.

For reasons that baffle me, wordpress has seen fit to change the blog settings for iPad users, introducing a new software called “onswipe”. This new program takes away all your formatting for users of iPads, and also makes your blog impossible to search. I find that this program is extremely buggy and is prone to continuous crashes. However, this is easy to fix. All you have to do is hit the “appearance” tab in the sidebar of your dashboard. From there you will see an “ipad” link towards the top of your appearance page. If you click on that there will be a box you can check to turn “onswipe” of. It would be great if some of you would consider making this modifications so your blogs can be more easily navigated using iPads.

For those who might have wondered, I’ve been absent lately because I’ve both been swamped and mightily depressed. Often it seems as if I cycle in and out of depression, going through periods where I’m extremely productive and then falling into periods where I can barely get out of bed, where I border on autism, where I completely lose interest in everything and cannot focus on anything, and where I fall into thoughts of self-loathing and frustration, only aptly described by Lars in his comedy-tragedy Spurious (but without the comedy or W.), leading to a plethora of destructive and suicidal thoughts. Fortunately it seems that I’m beginning to turn a corner. I would also like to say that I’ve very much appreciated the emails and comments of those who have contacted me during this time.

At any rate, in the last few days I’ve been preparing my reading lists for my Fall metaphysics and ethics courses. I’m pretty excited about both of these courses. For the last few semesters my metaphysics course has largely been about God and God’s relationship to the world, focusing on Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. Exhausted by this routine, I decided to take a different approach next semester. In my metaphysics course I will thus be teaching Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, and ending the course with Andy Clark’s Being-There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again. Clearly this course will focus on events, processes, relations, ecology, and cybernetic conceptions of the world. In my ethics course the theme will be similar. We’ll be reading Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life, Alfonso Lingis’ The Imperative, Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, and Badiou’s Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. The courses should, I hope, be both timely and a lot of fun.

At any rate, I wanted to return to Andy Clark’s Being-There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again. I hadn’t read this book since graduate school, but it rewards rereading and is, indeed, one of the most exciting books I’ve ever read on cognition, mind, and our relationship to the world. Clark’s book is written in a crisp, clear, entertaining style that moves fluidly between research in cognitive science, developmental psychology, artificial life research, and neurology. All of this is used to formulated an account of situated and embodied cognition that challenges models of mind that conceive cognition primarily as symbolic manipulation divorced from an environment. In what follows I’d like to outline some theses on cognition more or less inspired by Clark’s book.

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Thinking more about the question I posed earlier with respect to Spinoza and Mandel’s gorgeous follow-up I find myself returning to themes I discussed a month or so ago: the evolution of freedom. In discussions of empiricism Deleuze repeatedly emphasizes that the central tenant of empiricism is that abstractions do not explain, but must be explained. Deleuze is a transcendental philosopher in the tradition of Kant, yet he differs from Kant insofar as he holds that things such as categories and forms of time and space must be given a genetic account. We cannot, Deleuze contends, treat these as transcendental givens, but must instead provide a genetic or developmental account of how these things come to be. This is the secret of the theme of aesthetics and learning that pervades Difference and Repetition.

When Deleuze refers to aesthetics, he is not referring to art or the appreciation of beauty per se (though that too), but rather aesthetics in the sense of Kant in the first Critique, where there are transcendental, a priori givens of sensibility. Time and space, for Kant, are a priori forms of sensibility in the dual sense that 1) all phenomena presuppose space and time, 2) time and space are not sensed through the five senses (they aren’t like tastes, smells, touches, sights, and sounds), and 3) they originate from mind, not world. For Kant, mind structures phenomena in terms of time and space, rather than time and space being properties of things-in-themselves. We thus here get a form of transcendental intuition. Where empirical sensations such as sounds or sights must be received from the world, space and time, according to Kant, originate from mind and structure the sensations of experience. In this way Kant hopes to account for why sciences like geometry and arithmetic are possible a priori or independent of experience. Insofar as mind structures world in this way we don’t have to await sensations of time and space in the way we must await the taste of a cherry doughnut to know what it will taste like.

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Right now I’m teaching part I of Spinoza’s Ethics in my intro to philosophy class and I find myself wracking my brain on his position on free will and determinism. Here’s the problem as I see it: For Spinoza everything is the result of efficient causes such that for any event X that occurs, event Y is the only possible event event that can follow and could not have been otherwise. Spinoza applies this principle across the board, such that it, presumably, would include all human thought, feelings, etc., etc. (am I wrong here?). If this is accurate, then humans would be a bit like zhu zhu pets:

In the video, the zhu zhu pet appears to be acting for the sake of goals, purposes, ends or final causes, but this is entirely an illusion. In reality the zhu zhu pet’s actions are just a product of efficient causes or the movement of its gears and so on. Presumably this would be the case for human beings as well. The zhu zhu pet cannot act otherwise than it acts because it’s actions are purely the result of the mechanisms or efficient causes that produce these actions. This too would be the case for humans.

So here’s where I find myself confused. Presumably Spinoza wishes to accomplish something in writing the Ethics. He hopes to provide us with the tools that would allow us to overcome the slavery of sad passions so that we might have joyous affects. The problem is that this project and Spinoza’s thesis about determinism seem to be mutually exclusive. If Spinoza’s determinism is true then it would seem to follow that every thought and feeling I have is already pre-determined by preceding thoughts and feelings. I would have no power or control over what I think or feel but would be like an unfolding code or algorithm. Those people who someday attain joyous passions would be predetermined to do so in much the same way that the movements of the zhu zhu pet is predetermined, while those people who are predetermined to remain mired in sad passions would be predetermined to do so. Yet the project of freeing myself from sad passions through knowledge of causes seems to entail that I must have some minimal freedom that allows me to purposively engage in these activities. In other words, it seems to require that I can choose to take up this project.

I feel like I must be missing something fundamental in Spinoza or that I must have misunderstood him in some very basic and fundamental way. I am asking these questions in earnest here and am not trying to spark and interpretive battle over Spinoza. If anyone has any insight here it would be deeply appreciated.

Over at Ecology Without Nature, Morton cites one of the questions he received at DePaul:

I was interested in how your work and other critiques of correlationism deal with the question of epistemology and justification. Kant’s critique of our attempt to grasp the real is precisely a caution against onto-theology… I wonder how these worries about falling into an onto-theology that can never ground itself or provide justification are dealt with in such a critique of correlationism.

In response, Morton says a bit about the sciences. I personally think epistemology has little to do with science and that it makes little in the way of contributions to the sciences. Scientists just do not bother themselves with the finger waving of the epistemologists and the rules they claim govern inquiry into the world. The closest we get to epistemology having an impact on the science is in the critiques that folks such as Foucault, Haraway, Latour, Gould (The Mismeasure of Man) etc., where systematic biases in various discourses are disclosed. In a number of respects, epistemology is a thoroughly parasitic discourse that is of interest and importance only to philosophers.

The question Morton cites here strikes me as being based on a fundamental and very common misunderstanding about the nature of what OOO is claiming and arguing. It confuses epistemological realism with ontological realism. Epistemological realism is the thesis that our representations represent entities as they are in-themselves. Epistemological realism is the thesis that we can represent other entities in the world as they are. Ontological realism is the thesis that entities are irreducible to our representations of them.

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