Embodiment means Rethinking too
What does it mean to adopt an embodied view of the world? The actual experience of your body — for instance developed through yoga or mindfulness — is of course vital to this, but it’s not enough. Some radical and critical thinking is required as well, because otherwise it’s easy to unconsciously continue with disastrous assumptions from the highly disembodied tradition of most human (especially Western) thought. So there are two extremes of response to this — let us call them ‘holistic’ and ‘cognitivist’, and I want to argue here that they both miss the point of what embodiment implies.
The holistic practitioner’s approach — and its limitations
Let’s start with the holistic end, which I often find with people who practise embodied disciplines. They’ve understood something very important that those without experience of such disciplines are likely to miss, and that is that awareness of our body can change the whole way we feel and think at a basic level. I think the most basic reason for that is that bodily awareness gives us context in all the judgements we make through our lives. We can lose a sense of context because of two particular features of our brains (whether separately or together): the so-called ‘Reptilian’ brain that can jolt us into states of dominant anxiety or obsession, and the left pre-frontal cortex, which constructs beliefs that it assumes to represent how the world ‘really is’. The left pre-frontal cortex is very prone to assuming that it has the whole story (see Iain McGilchrist’s work), and excluding wider information from our bodies, senses and imagination. This tendency can be made still worse when our anxiety or obsession gets us to make hasty, panicky judgements. Awareness of the body can limit both of those tendencies. It can enable us to relax, pay attention to what is happening beyond our obsessive constructions of it, and adapt much better to our circumstances — that’s the starting point for mindfulness.
However, unfortunately it’s quite possible to be more mindful, aware of your body, no longer hijacked by extreme states, and yet still immersed in disembodied assumptions. That’s because you may just have taken in such assumptions from the culture around you, where they have been normal for thousands of years. These assumptions are far-reaching, and their effects should not be underestimated. Here are some of them:
- That the meaning of language comes directly from a relationship between propositions (claims) and reality, rather than from your body
- That we can ‘know’ things by matching propositions in language with reality
- That if we have a profound or insightful experience in our body, this must tell us something we can put into language about ‘reality’
If you think that these kinds of assumptions are necessary or unavoidable, then I recommend the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, two leading figures who have offered a clear alternative to it through their writings on embodied meaning during the past forty years. Lakoff and Johnson have shown how meaning is best explained as a set of associations we build up through neural connections in the course of our active experience from infancy. This starts off with very basic and general forms of meaning (what they call embodied schemas and basic level categories), and then gets gradually more complex as we use metaphor to build up ever more complex meaning from these basic building blocks.
I’m convinced that embodied practice and embodied meaning need to go together. Without embodied meaning, embodied practice often seems to be associated with holistic kinds of assumptions, that profound or insightful experience helps us ‘know’ about the universe as a whole, or at least gives us a magic key to always judging rightly in our situation. It is indeed vital to try to take into account as much of the systems around us as we can, but at the same time we need to keep bearing in mind the limitations that our bodies place on the justification of our beliefs. As sceptics have been pointing our for millennia, our bodies mean we only have a limited, situated perspective. We also have a limited understanding, dependent on how much complexity of the meaning we have managed to build up, shared with our culture. If we take embodiment seriously, we have to recognise that our language does not and cannot ‘represent’ reality, so that also means that intuitive experiences also do not give us a hotline to ‘reality’ that we can use as a shortcut. Instead we need to appreciate our insightful experiences as profound sources of inspiration that can motivate us in further critical exploration of our beliefs.
The cognitivist scientific view — and its limitations
So embodiment does not justify sweeping intuitive claims about ‘reality’. On the other hand, there is another extreme kind of appropriation of embodiment, which comes from the academic end of the spectrum. This comes from cognitive scientists and allied naturalistic philosophers. These academics, I have noticed, almost never use the term ‘embodied meaning’, although this was the one used by Lakoff and Johnson. Instead they talk about ‘embodied cognition’ or ‘4E cognition’ (embodied, embedded, extended and enactive cognition). Their understanding of cognition is, of course, complex, but buried in the very use of this word is a basic misunderstanding of the implications of embodied meaning. The most common definition of ‘cognition’ is something like ‘the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding’, and thereby hangs the difficulty: understanding is lumped in with ‘knowledge’ as though it depends on it.
Yet embodiment is incompatible with belief in ‘knowledge’. ‘Knowledge’ is a pervasive idea that imbues our culture, but it depends overwhelmingly on the idea that we can match our verbal propositions in language to reality. ‘Truth’ is one of the conditions for knowledge, but claims of truth require such a match. Embodied meaning shows that language doesn’t work like that, yet this basic point seems to be constantly ignored by most academics discussing the subject, who misleadingly use the always-absolute term ‘knowledge’ for a non-absolute quality even when they have a very nuanced account of it. Embodied meaning doesn’t show that our claims are necessarily false either — but rather points to the Middle Way. That is, that we need to reframe this whole set of terms about how we discuss our beliefs and how we justify them, avoiding the absolutes on both sides. Our beliefs are justified to a degree, perhaps a very high degree, by examined experience, not by a matching of words to reality.
This ‘cognitivist’ interpretation of embodied meaning also tends to miss other crucial aspects of embodiment by participating in the cultural cult of ‘knowledge’. One of these aspects is that embodied perspectives are also normatively moral perspectives, because values are a basic part of our experience, and can be justified by a weight of examined experience just as factual claims can be. But the fact-value distinction (see another recent blog) is often taken for granted in cognitive science, falsely separating value from ‘knowledge’. Another crucial aspect that tends to be missing is the recognition of individual experience of the body and its limitations. Instead, ‘embodiment’ has just been turned into another idea that has been subsumed into a basically disembodied scientific worldview.
Embodiment requires the Middle Way
That’s why I think embodiment basically requires the Middle Way, or at least some such wider understanding of how critical thinking and embodied practice fit together. In a word, it can’t be fitted either into a ‘business as usual’ traditional religious approach in which bodily experiences are just slotted into an otherwise dogmatic scheme of absolute beliefs. Nor can it be fitted into ‘business as usual’ science, when this is interpreted in a profoundly disembodied way that does not always take into account the limitations either of individual bodily experience, or of the ways we understand language (even when these themselves have a now well-established alternative scientific explanation). The embodied perspective is profoundly challenging to our disembodied assumptions, and it is time we took it seriously in a wider way rather than appropriated it to a narrower one.
For more detailed argument on the limitations of so-called ‘embodied’ cognitive science, see my academic article on this on Researchgate. For a more detailed account of embodied meaning in relation to integration and the Middle Way, see my book Middle Way Philosophy 3: The Integration of Meaning, also available free on Researchgate as part of the Middle Way Philosophy Omnibus Edition. In the coming years I am planning to replace this with a new and updated book on embodied meaning and integration as a part of the new Middle Way Philosophy series to be published by Equinox.