Since the publication of The Embodied Mind (1991), the cognitive sciences have been turning away from the mind-as-program analogy that dominated early cognitivism towards a conception of cognitive functioning as embodied in a living organism and embedded in an environment. In the past few years, important contributions to embodied-embedded cognitive science can be found in Noe (Action in Perception), Chemero (Radical Embodied Cognitive Scie Rnce), Thompson (Mind in Life), Clark (Being There and Surfing Uncertainty), and Wheeler (Reconstructing the Cognitive World).
[A note on terminology: the new cognitive science was initially called “enactivism” because of how the cognitive functions of an organism enact or call forth its world-for-it. This lead to the rise of “4E cognitive science — cognition as extended, embedded, embodied, and enacted. At present the debate hinges on whether embodied-embedded cognitive science should dispense with the concept of representation in explaining cognitive function. Wheeler and Clark drop “enaction” because they retain an explanatory role for representation, even though representations are action-oriented and context-sensitive.]
The deeper philosophical background to “the new cognitive sciences” includes Hubert Dreyfus, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Dewey, Wittgenstein, and J. J. Gibson (who was taught by one of William James’s students). It is a striking fact that embodied-embedded cognitive science promises to put an anti-Cartesian, anti-Kantian critique of intellectualism on an scientific (empirical and naturalistic) basis. Embodied-embedded cognitive science is a fruitful place where contemporary cognitive science meets with the best (in my view) of 19th- and 20th-century Eurocentric philosophy.
That’s important for anyone who thinks, with Peirce, that science has some uniquely epistemic position because scientific practices allow the world to get a vote in what we say about it (Peirce contra Rorty).
The philosophical implications of embodied-embedded cognitive science are quite fascinating and complicated. Here’s one I’ve been thinking about the past few days: embodied-embedded cognitive science can strengthen Kant’s critique of both rationalist metaphysics and empiricist epistemology.
Kant argues that objectively valid judgments (statements that can have a truth-value in some but not all possible worlds) require that concepts (rules of possible judgment) be combined with items in a spatio-temporal framework. But Kant was never able to explain how this “combination” happened; and as a result subsequent philosophers were tempted to either reduce concepts to intuitions (as in Mill’s psychologistic treatment of logic) or reduce intuitions to concepts (as in the absolute idealism of Fichte and Hegel). As C. I. Lewis and Sellars rightly saw, however, neither Mill nor Hegel could be right. Somehow, receptivity and spontaneity are both required and they must somehow be combined (at least some degree). But how?
Andy Clark’s “predictive processing” model of cognition (in Surfing Uncertainty) offers a promising option. According to Clark, we should not think of the senses as passively transmitting information to the brain; rather, the brain is constantly signaling to the senses what to expect from the play of energies across receptors (including not only exteroceptive but also interoceptive and proprioceptive receptors). The task of the senses is to convey prediction errors — to indicate how off the predictions were so that the predictions can be updated.
And this bidirectional flow of information takes place between any different levels of neuronal organization — there’s top-down and sideways propagation from the ‘higher’ neuronal levels and also bottom-up propagation from the ‘lower’ neuronal levels (including, most distally, the receptors themselves).
Now, here’s the key move: the bidirectional multilevel hierarchy of neuronal assemblies matches (but also replaces) the Kantian distinction between the understanding (concepts) and the sensibility (intuitions). And it explains the one major thing that Kant couldn’t explain: how concepts and intuitions can be combined in judgment. They are combinable in judgment (at the personal level) because they have as their neurocomputational correlates different directions of signal propagation (at the subpersonal level).
But if embodied-embedded cognitive science allows to see what was right in Kant’s high-altitude sketch of our cognitive capacities, and also allows us to vindicate that sketch in terms of empirical, naturalistic science, it also thereby strengthens both Kant’s critique of empiricism (because top-down signal propagation is necessary for sense receptors to extract any usable information about causal structure from energetic flux), and his critique of rationalism (because the proper functioning of top-down signal propagation is geared towards successful actions, and our only source of information about whether our predictions are correct are not is the bottom-up prediction errors).
And because we can understand, now, both spontaneity and receptivity in neurocomputational terms as two directions of information flow across a multilevel hierarchy, we can see that Kant, C. I. Lewis, and Sellars were correct to insist on a distinction between spontaneity and receptivity, but wrong about how to understand that distinction — and we can also see that Hegel and neo-Hegelians like Brandom and McDowell are wrong to deny that distinction.