Etymologies, and the Basic Idea of Embodied Cognition.

St Jerome Reading’, Georges de la Tour. (Public Domain.)

One time, I read this fascinating book titled ‘Metaphors We Live By‘ by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. It was recommended to me by a good buddy– who mostly guides my intellectual development by his whims, and who coincidentally suggested the title of this blog.

The central thesis of this book is what I guess you could call the central thesis of embodied cognitive science. This is the idea that cognition is inseperable from embodiment, and that therefore embodiment influences all cognition. It’s sort of like taking Plato backwards.

I won’t go into it any deeper than that. Instead, I’ll just briefly talk about why I like Lakoff and Johsnon so much by talking about my favorite example of their approach to language: their analysis of undertaking a ‘project.’

They suggest that starting a project involves projecting yourself into the future, which itself is intelligible in terms of literally throwing a personal image into a possibility space like a projectile, forwards in time.

They note that this is something only humans can really do in an embodied sense– our closest relatives, the chimps, aren’t coordinated enough to properly throw things at distance. Now that may or may not be so. But it makes a form of sense.

Anyway, I’ve been spending the last few weeks coming up with analyses like these for some concepts I found interesting. Just noting them down in my spare moments. Maybe some will tickle you. I hope they do. They’re basically pretend, but I think all of them have an interesting idea at the center.

Continue reading Etymologies, and the Basic Idea of Embodied Cognition.

Dreyfus on Heidegger No. 4 and 5; also, The Conclusion to This Series for The Moment.

Some Bloke Taking a Stand on a Rock. Image: Caspar David Friedrich,
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

This is going to be my last set of notes on Dreyfus’ lectures for two reasons. The first is that as I go, I’m becoming really vividly aware of how little of this I get, and the second is that I’m not convinced these pieces are going to be accessible enough to be worth putting up. If I’m wrong, and if anyone is really keen for me to keep going, I’d be happy to– but as it stands without any indication that it’s worth it I’ll probably leave it here.

That all being said, I think the content in these lectures wraps up what we’ve seen so far really nicely, and I think if you listened to lectures one to five and read my notes alongside them you would have an interesting experience.

Continue reading Dreyfus on Heidegger No. 4 and 5; also, The Conclusion to This Series for The Moment.

Dreyfus on Heidegger No. 2 and 3; also, Schizophrenia and Addiction as Loss of Contact.

In this post I’m going to cover what I took away from Dreyfus’ second and third lectures on Heidegger’s Being and Time. It’s worth noting that a lot of the material he covers in these lectures is prompted by questions from the audience, and so it gets a little bit circuitous.

The following notes are less an attempt to reconstruct the lectures rather than my attempt to take something somewhat discrete and self-contained from them.

I. The World Relationship and Styles of Being.

A lot of the content of these two lectures is to do with the way that Dasein relates to the World. So, rehashing the definitions we explored in the last post, that has to do with the way that personal being relates to and is interdependent with the being that the world has. Dreyfus acknowledges that it will take a lot of groundwork to explain this fully, so it’s worth bearing in mind that the discussion that follows here will only cover certain aspects of the Dasein-world inter-being relationship.

The most explicitly interesting material in lecture 2 regards what Dreyfus calls the difference between Styles of Being and Modes of Being. I’ve written previously on what Fromm calls the ‘having’ and ‘being’ modes, but in Heideggerian terms, these would be styles.

So, just as a terminological point: a mode of being is the difference between Vorhanden (substances), Zuhanden (equipment) and Dasein (personal being, the being for which being is an issue.) A style of being is something like the way that Dasein relates to the world.

Dreyfus gives the example of Japanese and American parenting styles– he cites a supposed ethnographic point to the effect that Japanese parenting styles emphasize a soothing and calming relational approach, whereas American parenting styles emphasize a the formation of an ‘energetic individual.’ Japanese parents apparently tend to place the baby facing upwards in bed, so they can sing to and soothe it, whereas Americans put babies into bed facing belly down, so that they are more capable of walking and wandering.

Now, whether these findings are representative of actual behavior is neither here nor there. The important part is that for Heidegger via Dreyfus, a style of being is expressed in a not necessarily reflective way, and that these styles of being express structures of relationship and value that we inherit or are situated in as a feature of being Dasein. I don’t need to be aware of the way that I put a baby down for it to be expressive of a style of being that I’ve inherited from my world.

At this point it’s probably worth defining some of the relevant features of the world for Heidegger via Dreyfus. Dreyfus cites an example of dialogue from Terence Malik’s film on Heidegger on the difference between the Earth and the World: “The World has people in it, the Earth doesn’t need to.” 

This also gets us into a position to understand another substantial point of Heidegger’s. Dreyfus explains why Heidegger employs phenomenology to understand being in terms of the relation that Dasein bears toward the world, quoting Heidegger: “Being depends on us, but beings do not.” 

This means that the way we relate to beings says something about being as such, and being as such is dependent on us, in that we are Dasein for its nature. 

However, it is important to note, as Dreyfus does, that this does not mean Heidegger is an idealist. Putting it in the terms of mainstream philosophy: there are mind independent substances– this is confined to the Vorhanden. But the nature of an object as Zuhanden is dependent on Dasein for its nature, because the structure of associations and values that imbues the Zuhanden with the nature of what it is– for example a hammer or a horse’s hairbrush– is dependent on Dasein.

There could be no culture without personal beings. Remember: while being depends on us, beings do not.

This leads into an interesting distinction Dreyfus makes between ‘The Physical World’ and ‘The World of Physics.’ While it’s true to say that there are certain practices, values and customs in the World of Physics without which it would not be what it is, it is not true to say that those practices, values and customs also inhere in the Physical World necessarily.

All of this is to say that for Heidegger via Dreyfus, the world is not the world without Dasein, and Dasein is not Dasein without the world. Each part can only be understood holistically, taking the other into account. Unlike as in traditional substance ontology, for example what we might find in Descartes, there is no separation between subjectivity and objectivity.

My culture and my world are interrelated, and they determine my style of being which in turn determines the ways in which I interact with my culture and my world. My culture and the set of my associations determines the way that the Zuhanden appears to me, and the way that I would equip myself with it.

Given, as we saw in the notes for the last lecture, that Dasein is determined by the way it equips itself through the Zuhanden– for example how a Carpenter becomes a Carpenter when he avails himself of hammers and wood and nails– we start to get an idea for how complex and interrelated the structure of being is.

II. Definition and ‘The Existential Analytic.’

Towards the end of the second lecture, Dreyfus brings up a few definitions, that I think it would be valuable to reproduce here. Those definitions are for ‘the ontic’; ‘the ontological’; ‘the pre-ontological’; and of ‘fundamental ontology.’

To say of an aspect of something that it is ‘ontic’ is to say that it is to do with ways of relating to that something that are substance ontological. That’s a really confusing claim.

Basically, I’m thinking ontically about something if I’m thinking about it in terms that Aristotle or Descartes could understand– in terms of a subject-predicate duality. Remember, this is the view of the world that Heidegger is trying to build on; it is not the only way to relate to being, recall from my last post that the Zuhanden is a pretty clear example of being that is non subject-predicate.

To talk about something ‘ontologically’ is to talk about the mode of being it inhabits. If I’m talking about the distinctions between the Zuhanden and the Vorhanden and Dasein, then I’m talking about ontology.

For Heidegger via Dreyfus, to do or talk about something ‘pre-ontologically’ is to relate to something’s mode of being in a sort of naive or initial way. Japanese and American parents treat babies the way they do in a pre-ontological manner.

If they spoke about the differences without reference to the Zuhanden or the world of associations they inhabited, they would be speaking about the ontological– remember, they’re talking about styles of being– in a pre-ontological manner.

Finally, Dreyfus defines ‘fundamental ontology’ as the study of what any ontology is about. So, for Heidegger, his whole project is the project of a fundamental ontology.

Understanding the relationship between World, Dasein, Vorhanden and Zuhanden is understanding being itself, so that’s what Heidegger is most interested in. Remember that ‘the question is being’ is Heidegger’s question.

If we bear in mind that ‘being depends on us’, then you start to get an idea for why Heidegger is so concerned about Dasein and phenomenology. Recall that Heidegger calls the sort of being that Dasein has ‘existentence,’ and you get why his solution to the problem of fundamental ontology is what he calls ‘the existential analytic.’

In order to get to the bottom of what being is, we need to understand the being for whom being is a problem, because all of being being depends on it.

I found this last bit to be very nifty, because it situates philosophy back in the realm of the personal. There is no understanding without the perspective of some whom that understands. 

So far we’ve mostly spoken about material from lecture two, though I’ve gone over to lecture three to find material to fill in gaps I had. So let’s talk about my main takeaway from lecture three now.

III. Coping with The World, and the Affordances in The World.

I’ll want to come back to some psychological theory here, because behaviorism and the ecological theory of perception are two theories that I think are really interestingly related to the concepts of coping/dealing and affordance respectively.

A personal note: I’m realizing more and more that I should just read Gibson on the ecological theory rather than rely on second-hand accounts as I’ve been doing so far. Maybe I’ll write a book review.

A lot of what follows is going to be interpretative and reconstructive– that’s just my style. If you want Dreyfus’ word for word account, the links for the two lectures are in the first paragraph of this article.

For Heidegger via Dreyfus, coping is part of the way that the world determines the being of Dasein. It does this by offering certain affordances, which Dasein is available to avail itself of in order to cope. Dreyfus notes that another way to understand coping is as ‘dealing’, which is another translation for the German term which he does not give. 

So here’s the model: Dasein is presented with the world, with which it must cope. It copes with this world by way of relating to certain affordances in the world. The relation with the affordances themselves are the process of coping. 

Let’s say my world presented me with the need to build a house, assuming that it renders me a carpenter. That means that the tools of carpentry, and the materials with which a carpenter builds a house offer me the affordances necessary to cope with the demands of the world on me by building that house.

In doing so, this reinforces my being a carpenter, inasmuch as I have built the house in action, and now also inasmuch as the world contains in it a house which has the aspect of having been built by me. 

Both my being and the whole world shift in reaction to the coping actions I take in relation to the affordances which the world has offered me. This is yet another area in which the being of the world and the being of Dasein are inseperable.

Dasein is not what it is without the world, and the world is not what it is without Dasein to relate to it.

Okay, so affordances determine coping which determine being. Here’s an example: my vocabulary happens to be quite limited in Spanish, but I can speak a little bit, which means that I can only offer certain types of responses. If we model personality as the range of responses that a person would give– and accepting that would is constrained by could; it can’t be true if I would do something if I couldn’t– then we might say that personality is actually constrained by the range of affordance my world gives me, which means the interplay of the problems I face in the world of Spanish speakers and the equipment afforded me by my knowledge of Spanish.

Coping is what happens when the equipment given to me by my knowledge of Spanish is sufficient to deal with the problems I’m facing.

But in this case, if the affordance of my Spanish knowledge determines the coping strategies I can employ, and in this case the range of coping strategies I can employ determines my personality, then it seems like the world is determining my personality. My available methods of coping determine my being.

Next we’re about to depart pretty substantially from Dreyfus and Heidegger and see if I we can find space for Psychology. If we take something like Skinner’s Behaviourism as a starting point, we can start to say all sorts of interesting things, mechanically speaking, about how the world and the coping relation I can bear towards it determines my being.

IV. Coping and Determining Styles of Being.

Imagine that my world offers me only the opportunity to suffer and the opportunity to avoid that suffering without changing a thing about it.

That’s right, I’m tying Heidegger back into my work in mental health! It seems that my attempt to cope would afford me only certain opportunities. It also seems that coping is the naturally preferential place to be– but we’ll talk more about why that is in my post that involves lecture four.

Take the example of addiction: an addict is in such a world that coping is addiction, especially given the relationship that most addicts have to the helping functions in society or lack there-of. 

The world affords them addiction. It may afford them other equipment, but in the cases of addicts I’ve met, their ejection from society and loss of the cultural machinery that underlies the affordance of more generally adaptive coping strategies means other equipment just isn’t available.

Often, the only world that appears to them is the world of addiction and addicts. Therefore the only equipment they can avail themselves of is the equipment of addiction. So the only kind of existence they can live is an addiction.

From a behaviouristic standpoint, an addiction is a problem because it’s self-reinforcing. It begets itself biologically, but it also begets itself because it removes the addict from any world that might afford them another opportunity. We might say the same of an extreme avoidance reaction.

Consider the theory that trauma is a key player in the aetiology of schizophrenia. I have a few gut hypotheses to the effect that schizophrenia may be related to the divorce of the meaning-making faculty from reality.

Vervaeke would call this ‘the lost of contact epistemology.’

If the trauma hypothesis correct, then schizophrenia involves– in at least some cases– the loss of the ability to adapt models of the world due to the loss of contact in an extreme avoidance reaction, leading to a runaway, rapidly mutating internal model of reality. I feel the need to note that this model of schizophrenia as the formation of an encapsulated meaning-making faculty, divorced from reality initially came to me from the work of Ian McGilchrist.

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the exact same thing over and over, and expecting different results. We might understand this as an inability to update your model. There’s a reason that psychotherapy involves helping the client reflect on themselves– why a very notable mechanism of change in therapy is the insight and perspective the client gains into their own situation.

Here is the bottom line, or the most valuable insight: beware the world that offers you only the option of leaving it, and beware the world that does not offer you the option to leave it. In either case, your optionality is out the window, and with it, so goes your adaptivity.

If you’re stuck in one world, you can’t leave when it stop being an adaptive place to live, so to speak. If we acknowledge that our affordances determine our coping, and our coping determines our being, we should be careful inasmuch as is possible to choose which worlds we inhabit. As I’ve discussed before, we should beware who’s feeding us. Otherwise, we just might end up like Pavlov’s Dogs!

Dreyfus on Heidegger No.1; also, Thoughts on Ecological Perception and Self-Image.

The False Mirror,’ Magritte.

In my sort of quest to understand Heidegger, I’ve been looking for a suitable lecture series. The reason he’s such a live figure to me is that he figures substantially in Peterson’s lectures on personality, specifically in the borrowed notion that Human Being is an essentially purposive being: human being is oriented being for a given purpose, and that it’s better to pick a purpose than have none.

He is also a key resource for John Vervaeke regarding his thought on the Meaning Crisis both directly and indirectly through his student Nishitani. 

These guys get me excited, as longer-term readers will probably know. In order to get properly to grips with them, and also just to check something off my philosophical bucket list, Heidegger now must be pursued and shaken down for all he’s worth. So far, he’s turning out to be more than enough fun to justify the effort.

Continue reading Dreyfus on Heidegger No.1; also, Thoughts on Ecological Perception and Self-Image.

Why Heidegger Needs to Be Impossible to Understand, and Why it Might be Worth Calling Things The Wrong Name.

I.

I’ve been spending the last few weeks working through Heidegger’s Being and Time. It’s fascinating, but also super difficult to understand.

One of the reasons it’s so difficult to understand is that Heidegger insists on inventing specialist terminology. I really understand the motivation behind it, which is that language can often obfuscate the truth of Being if Being is seen only through the lens that language allows, but I also think it might be worth trying to get some of his ideas out in plain-er English.

Instead of talking about some of his ideas, it’s probably worth puzzling over the idea that language can obfuscate Being. But first, let’s see what he means by ‘Being’ as opposed to ‘being/s.’

For Heidegger, Being-with-a-big-B is something like ‘what it is to be.’ It’s something more and also something less than just ‘the sum of all the beings.’ He sees it as the main thing worth investigating, because it seems to be the thing that is always relevant to any investigation, but which has been mostly ignored since Plato’s Sophist and Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

Now, on to justifying all his weird mystical terminology.

II.

From the perspective of cognitive theory, more specifically map theory, we get an idea of the relationship between a representation and the represented. The phrase the map is not the territory is an expression of the idea that we might potentially confuse the representation of something with the thing itself. Kant figured that we could never understand the thing in itself because the way it presented itself to us always alienated it from us. The noumenon is always separated from us by the phenomena.

For Heidegger, there’s a real worry that language will separate us from the phenomena. The language at fault is the language of an outdated Philosophy. Heidegger would claim that the ontologies of the past– the metaphysical attempts made by previous philosophers like Descartes– ran us down a track of thinking which was a sort of dead end.

It’s no secret that Philosophical terms like ‘essence’; ‘category’; etc., end up working their way into every-day language. For example, the English ‘idea’ finds its origin in the Greek ‘eidos’, which originally expressed something like ‘the view of x’ where x is whatever the eidos is of.

If that’s true, and if a particular language implies a particular mode of looking at the world, then we ought to be very careful with the language we use when we’re asking questions about really fundamental topics. The more fundamental a topic is, the less we can allow external preconceptions to influence us. Speaking metaphorically, I suppose we need more sensitive instruments to examine more fundamental topics: in the same way we need an electron microscope to examine very small objects, we need a very clean language to examine topics like Being.

But it’s not at all obvious why language needs to be especially clear in order to talk about Being. I’ll have to admit this is where my understanding starts to break down, but I’ll try and make my best argument to see what I can come up with.

As far as I can see, Heidegger emphasises language free of preconception because he’s trying to avoid invoking any particular ontological perspective. If Metaphysics asks questions like ‘how many kinds of substance are there?’, then Heidegger is asking questions that are really quite prior to that. Let’s say that there is some set of specialist vocabulary A, and some set of specialist vocabulary B, and that using either of those sets of specialist vocabulary seems to prompt you to view the world from the perspective of the group of people who originated either set.

An example of this sort of arrangement might be Marxist and Capitalist ways of viewing the world. It seems to be the case that really committing yourself to understanding Marxist concepts prompts you to view the world in a Marxist way. If we accept the Marxist definition between use-value and Capital value, for example, then we’ll start to experience the world in those terms. If we start to look at the world in terms of marginal gains, expenditures and over-heads, then we’ll start to see the world in Capitalist terms.

These is somewhat like Heidegger’s idea of handiness. For Heidegger, an object is handy if I relate to it with a particular purpose or essence involved. It’s handiness is the function it presents itself to me as having. Heidegger probably invented the ecological theory of visual perception.

Chairs are handy, and so are any people that I bear determinate relationships to. This isn’t to say I objectify people, just that I relate to them in such a way that their value to me cannot be divorced from how I experience them. Chairs are handy in that I set in them. People are handy in that they tell me good jokes and might want to share dinner with me. The potential actionality of something can’t be ignored when I relate to it, or when I relate it to someone else.

A bar of chocolate on a table is edible. That it’s edible is unavoidably part of the way it presents itself to me. If the same bar of chocolate was in an unbreakable box of transparent material, it would become some sort of odd art installation, and it would cease to present itself to me as food. But if that same box also had a hungry child in it, the same chocolate bar would present itself to me again as food, but simply for someone else. In the third case, it presented itself as food to me again because it presented itself as food to someone else. The actionality of the child affected the handiness of the food.

The language available to me affects what I can pay attention to. If you have ever studied anatomy, then you’ll know about the strange and pleasing sensations of realizing that your body is far more detailed and intricate than you ever realized. It’s quite possible that this changed your perception of yourself. Perhaps it made you more aware of the relationship between your emotions and your body, or perhaps it made you more calm in general.

If this happened, then it’s because the your body presented itself in a different way to you. If that was so, then the way the world presented itself to you differed. There is a connection, then, between the maps of reality that are entailed by our vocabularies and the way the world itself emerges.

The problem with Being is that it neither is any being, nor is directly apparent. That means to get an idea of it, we have to look at all the beings very closely and carefully. If our linguistic tools aren’t up to snuff, we’re going to miss detail in the phenomena; we’re going to have wrong ideas; or we may accidentally conflate categories that are distinct.

III.

Now, this was my best attempt at justifying Heidegger’s odd use of language, and it strikes me as somewhat odd that I’ve done so by being simultaneously very sloppy with my language. If I’ve been able to do that, it’s probably because Heidegger’s thinking was so clear in his invented terms. It’s also worth noting that I’m stealing perspectives and arguments from Logical Positivism and Wittgenstein, who I see as taking a very similar approach towards a sort of conceptual sensitivity in language.

One interesting question for Science would be to ask whether the ways we label things actually affect the implicit predictions we make about those objects. For example, in a priming paradigm: if I convinced you that there was such a language wherein children were called ‘dogs’, would you be less amused by the child barking due to some judgement on an implicit level? Would the presence of the child in a glass box with a Frisbee change the handiness of the Frisbee?

Or another fun possible experiment, slightly less ethically dubious, and also possible less related. I’m including it because I think it would probably be interesting: we could spend a whole day teaching participants to use the wrong words for things, and then put them in time-limited situations where they had to be able to quickly reach for a particular object. For instance, we might put a knife, a lighter, a fan and a bottle of water in front of them, and then teach them to habitually use the term ‘water-bottle’ when they mean ‘lighter’ and vice versa.

I’m not sure what my hypothesis here would be. One question to examine would be whether or not it made any of the participants anxious on some level to put a water-bottle next to a big puddle of conspicuously flammable material.

If this experiment were to shine any light on Heidegger, it would probably be because I had completely misunderstood him. I’m just going to put that out there now.

But in any case, these are not questions for Philosophy; these are questions for Psychology– or perhaps, if you want to be fancy, Cognitive Science. That means trying to do hypotheticals on them is a waste of time. As it stands, nobody will give me volunteers to lie to or children to lock in glass boxes. Instead, I’ll just have to hope that someday, someone else is more able to persuade an ethics committee to let them have those things than I am.

IV.

One final note: it wouldn’t be one of my essays if I didn’t recommend an experiment at the end.

I was recently reading Impro by Keith Johnstone, which is full of interesting exercises designed to prompt you to drop the sort of overly restrictive cultural-cognitive-affective bondage that he figures school imposes on you.

The one I found most valuable was to go around for about ten seconds shouting out the wrong names for things in a room. It’s really simple. Just go around for ten seconds and call things whatever they aren’t. I called a lamp a Fishman, and a punnet of cherry tomatoes were simply ‘Sperm.’ The point isn’t to make sense. In fact, the point is probably to try and suspend sense in order to see what you can learn about it.

You will probably realize something about just how tenuously words are related to ‘reality.’ Or maybe you’ll just call a punnet of cherry tomatoes ‘Sperm’ and feel like a real wanker afterwards. Who knows?

What’s most interesting is that he claims that you’ll get a little giddy and that the colors in the world will seem somewhat brighter and more saturated at the end. In my experience, and in my partner’s experience, this was absolutely the case. I would encourage you to try it, just once or twice. He claims that he can produce this experience in his students, but then that might just be suggestion.

This sort of discussion does make you wonder whether those Zen types like Dogen were on to something when they advised us to ‘think not thinking.’