Against embodied practice

Everyone from designers to educators to New Agey types seems to be talking these days about ’embodied practice.’ I believe there is a more literal meaning as well as a more figurative one. According to the literal meaning, one is actually to be involved in some activity where one is conscious of being an embodied human being. According to the figurative meaning, one must get ‘out of one’s head’ and throw oneself fully into doing something or other. Or, rather, concepts–misunderstood to be the kinds of things that are only mental–are thereby to be put ‘into the world.’ I disagree.

In an earlier set of posts about philosophy of mind (for an overview, see here), I have already suggested that our commonsensical, modern conception of mind is in error. From this, it would follow that our desire for ’embodied practice’ would be taking on board a misconception of our mental life. That is to say, if one’s mind is, somehow or other, separate from the physical world, then it would seem attractive to speak of ’embodied practice.’ But this is a mistake.

In this post, I examine only the literal meaning of ’embodied practice’ with a view to showing that it is in error. I will likely consider the figurative meaning in the next post.

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How self-knowledge is possible

I pick up where I left off in the last post. Recall, first of all, that the picture of the mind as a some ‘place’ or ‘substance’ that contains important things (ideas, faculties, images, conceptions) deep within me is a mistaken picture of minding. Recall, second of all, that the question which springs from the picture of the mind as ‘having’ deep inner contents is this one: ‘How can I know my mind when, being inner contents deep within me, it is neither observable nor perceptible?’ Worse yet, ‘How can I know myself when these deep inner contents are, as Freud sought to show, well beyond the grasp of the conscious mind?’ It is wrongheaded, I have held, to insist that knowing myself involves undertaking forms of ‘deep introspection.’ Indeed, the entire edifice seems to be a systematic way of our never knowing ourselves. Looking in the wrong place, we continue asking the wrong questions with the result that we are endlessly perplexed.

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How self-knowledge became necessary yet impossible

The idea that the mind is a substance-like thing or an executive set of functions (a dashboard of sorts) residing in the head will lead to perplexities. I have already held that the mind is not ‘substance-like,’ that it does not reside in the head, that it does not contain a suite of activities, and that it doesn’t have a residence in anywhere. One of the many dangers inherent in this conception arises out of the literal belief in the metaphors of ‘inner’ and ‘outer,’ ‘internal’ and external.’ Believing in these, one finds it necessary to investigate each on its own (what is the inner? what is in the inner? what is the outer?) and then to connect one up to the other.

The commonest perplexities are centered upon the problem of other minds, the problem of representation, and the problem of self-knowledge. The problem of other minds: ‘How can I know another person when his inner contents are not accessible to me?’ Because of doubt, I may come to a general sense of mistrust of others as well as a particular distrust of my friends and lover. The problem of representation: ‘How can I know the world when it is ‘out there’ beyond the reach of my thoughts which are invariably ‘in here’?’ So, I may become cosmically lonely, trapped as I seem to be within the ‘inner’ circle of my own consciousness.

Now, we turn to stating the problem of self-knowledge: ‘How can I know my mind when, being inner contents deep within me, it is neither observable nor perceptible?’ Worse yet, ‘How can I know myself when these deep inner contents are, as Freud sought to show, well beyond the grasp of the conscious mind?’ For most people, the demand to ‘know thyself’ in some fashion or another has remained even though it has become impossible, given these terms, to ‘know thyself.’ This modal conflict–something’s being necessary yet impossible–gives rise to perplexity. It is a perplexity that cannot be resolved until we have cleared the ground.

We cannot do well without coming to an answer regarding ‘knowing thyself.’ In the next post, I will consider how to put this picture aside and how to re-address–from the right standpoint on minding–the vital question of self-knowledge.

Mind and world: Isolation or world-involvement

Recall where we are. We are in the midst of dismantling an erroneous picture of the mind and, in so doing, we are making it possible to inquire into the everyday mental activities we perform: into how they operate, into how they involve us n the world, and into how to bring them out when they are going well.

Part of that erroneous picture of the mind seeks to ask and answer the mistaken question of where the mind is and then to describe what goes on in there. The mind, it is held, is (a) a substance that exists (b) within the head and (c) in which certain functions are executed. These assumptions can be combined to form a picture of the ‘private drama’ about which Gilbert Ryle writes with a critical eye.

What makes this picture suspicious, at least in part, is the distinction it assumes between ‘inner contents’ and ‘external reality.’ The question for epistemology then becomes how the inner contents of the mind represent the external world. Given this puzzle, the epistemologist seeks to tell a certain kind of story about representation in order to show how the mind is connected to the world.

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Light laughter and genuine curiosity

There are two connected attitudes toward living a well-led life that cannot be adopted by anyone who believes that the mind is inherently sickly and prone to illness. (The sickly mind is consistent with the metaphysical view of the world as being bad and ugly.) These attitudes are light laughter and genuine curiosity, and both spring from a common source: the affirmation of life.

Yesterday, I opened a letter to one philosophical friend,

Our conversation began lightly, proceeded lightly, something that is only possible when the atmosphere of the world, the world perceived resplendently is light. Perceiving the world in itself lightly and beautifully, one responds immediately by smiling and laughing lightly. Only by affirming the world as basically good and beautiful does laughter come forth. I take this to be the logical point of the Book of Genesis: God created the world in its essence as good. Not this bit or that bit but the whole. Yet once this world in itself is no longer disclosed and darkness settles in, drawing our attention to some of its darkening parts, enveloping us in the particulars, the ‘ignorant armies clashing by night,’ laughter can no longer come forth. 

There is no light laughter, only aggression, cruelty and empathy elevated to an ascetic ideal, when the mind is held to sick and ill thoughts of itself, of other minds.

Nor is there curiosity as Vico understands it. In New Science, he elaborates,

Curiosity–that inborn property of man, daughter of ignorance and mother of knowledge–when wonder awakens our minds, has the habit, wherever it sees an extraordinary phenomenon of nature, a comet, for example, a sundog, or a midday start, of asking straight away what it means.

Ignorance comes from astoundment with what there is, how it is, and why it is. Perplexed or fascinated, we surround the occurrence or the phenomenon with plentiful questions. The world magnificently, deliciously reveals itself to be a more interesting place than we had conceived of or imagined. Experimenting, essaying, probing, inquiring, hypothesizing, postulating, meditating allow us to become better acquainted with the world. Then, a practice may emerge in which we inquire and meditate time and again so that the curiosity is channeled, educated, refined, cultivated into a way of thinking.

Light laughter deepens one, giving rise to silent appreciation. Curiosity, cultivated well, becomes a desire for wisdom.