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Embodying the Mind and Representing the Body

Two papers of note from the special issue “The Body Represented/Embodied Representation” of Review of Philosophy and Psychology and one from the current issue:

A Moderate Approach to Embodied Cognitive Science – Alvin Goldman

Embodying the Mind and Representing the Body – Adrian John Tetteh Alsmith and Frédérique de Vignemont

In Defense of Phenomenological Approaches to Social Cognition: Interacting with the Critics – Shaun Gallagher

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Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception

New translation reviewed by Eran Dorfman

Sixty-seven years after its publication in French and fifty years after its first translation into English, the long-awaited new translation of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception has finally come out. This classical work famously grounds experience in the body, showing how the latter conditions perception and action in various domains such as spatiality, temporality, language and otherness. Merleau-Ponty’s work, however, has been accused of many flaws in the last half-century: it would alternately be called a dull imitation of Husserl and/or Heidegger, a symmetrically opposed reproduction of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, a conservative philosophy of the “subject” or finally an outdated attempt to deal with contemporary science. Nonetheless,Phenomenology of Perception has survived all these accusations, and this new translation proves its contemporary relevance, which continues to grow. The work seems to have a discrete yet long-lasting power that keeps inspiring new generations of scholars and practitioners from various and sometimes opposed traditions and disciplines. What is the secret of Phenomenology of Perception which attracts its reader despite the efforts it demands?

It was about a year ago that I visited Ponty’s grave at Père Lachaise.

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Extended mind, architecture and design

Chalmers’ and Clark’s extended mind thesis cited in this article from an architecture and design publication.

Turning to philosophy and robotics gives us a new insight into what might be going on. In 1998, A. Clark and D. Chalmers proposed the “extended mind” concept, where the workings of our mind actually extend beyond the brain and into our surroundings. An interplay takes place between our thoughts and internal memories, and knowledge and information stored outside yet within ready reach. Mobile robots do, in fact, use their environment as their memory — they have no stored internal memory, and thus save enormous computational overhead. Rodney Brooks’ Mars Explorer works in precisely this way. Its ability to navigate its environment comes from an “intelligence” that links internal processors with external information.

This implies that the environment is crucial to the development of our brain: our mind is an integral part of our environment, and if we wish it to engage our intelligence, the environment should embody the same degree of organized complexity as our neurological processes themselves. Two possible connective scenarios are thus strikingly contrasted. 1. In an information-sparse, minimalist environment, our mind stops at the skull’s interior. 2. In a coherently complex environment, our mind can extend into and interact with the visual information stored outside. In the latter case, we are situated in a vastly richer information field that drives our brain’s growth in order to process and interpret this information.

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Remembering Herbert Simon

Simon died this day in 2001. Check out these two books – Models of a Man (as with most edited books this is uneven, but there is still much to recommend it) and Herbert A. Simon: The Bounds of Reason in Modern America, an excellent intellectual biography. Speaking of Simon, I have a paper coming out entitled “Mindscapes and Landscapes: Hayek and Simon on Cognitive Extension” to be found in a collection edited by Roger Frantz and Robert Leeson Hayek and Behavioural Economics” Vol 4 of Archival Insights into the Evolution of Economics with an introduction by non-other than Vernon Smith (whom I met in Tucson last May) and a host of other luminaries such as Herb Gintis, Deirdre McCloskey, Gerry Steele and others. Here is the abstract for my paper:

Hayek’s and Simon’s social externalism runs on a shared presupposition: mind is constrained in its computational capacity to detect, harvest, and assimilate “data” generated by the infinitely fine-grained and perpetually dynamic characteristic of experience in complex social environments. For Hayek, mind and sociality are co-evolved spontaneous orders, allowing little or no prospect of comprehensive explanation, trapped in a hermeneutically sealed, i.e. inescapably context bound, eco-system. For Simon, it is the simplicity of mind that is the bottleneck, overwhelmed by the ambient complexity of the environmental. Since on Simon’s account complexity is unidirectional, Simon is far more ebullient about the prospects of explanation. Hayek’s social externalism functions as a kind of distributed “extra-neural” memory store manifest as dynamic spontaneous orders. Simon’s organizational rule-governed externalism negotiates the “inner” world (the mind) with the “outer” world through a homeostatic interface that offloads the cognitive burden into the environment. Their respective externalisms may differ in detail but not in spirit in that it ameliorates their shared presupposition of cognitive constraint. Even though any “optimization talk” for Hayek and Simon is objectionable, knowledge acquisition can be represented by a contextualized stigmergic swarm optimization algorithm that gives due emphasis to both the individual and the environment. The key insight is that “perfect” knowledge is both unnecessary, impracticable and indeed irrelevant if one understands the mechanism at work in complex sociality, a stigmergic sociality that in effect augments or scaffolds cognition.