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Embodied Cognition’s Philosophical Roots

Andrew Iliadis
By Andrew Iliadis
Ethical Technology

Posted: Sep 21, 2013

Current theories about “embodied cognition” – the notion that our minds are in some sense determined by our bodies – stand to revolutionize the way we think about who, and what, we are. But the philosophical roots of embodied cognition teach us that our minds might not be the abstract things we always thought they were.

Current theories about “embodied cognition” – the notion that our minds are in some sense determined by our bodies – stand to revolutionize the way we think about who, and what, we are. But the philosophical roots of embodied cognition teach us that our minds might not be the abstract things we always thought they were.

Ever since René Descartes (1596-1650) posited his famous notion of the dualism between mind and matter, philosophers have debated (sometimes bitterly) the relationship between the physical and the mental. His well-known dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” gave pride of place to the mind over the body. Throughout history, some philosophers have attempted to reject this claim. Today, the debate surrounding it is formally known as the “mind-body problem.” The debate can go deep, and if you follow it far enough you will eventually find yourself mired in the bloated metaphysical argument between two abstract categories of thought: epistemological idealism versus ontological realism.

Epistemological idealism holds that “reality” is ultimately comprised of mental phenomena, sense data, or what philosophers now call “qualia.” For example, if Bob sees a “red apple,” this red apple exists only in Bob’s mind and does not reflect anything like a red apple in “nature” (epistemological idealists need not be rid of nature as a category). Bob’s red apple is irreducible to something in reality. More specifically, its “redness” or its taste belongs solely to Bob. These qualities originate in him. Ontological realists, instead, hold that there are quantifiable objects out there and that these comprise, prima facie, mentalist conceptions. If Alice sees or tastes a red apple it is because, at bottom, there is something out there independent of her that, through various transmissions of information, makes her apprehend a red apple. Naturally, a great deal of how we think about the world depends on the solution to this problem (with ripples that extend into other philosophical debates). As is often the case in philosophy, epistemological idealism and ontological realism can be shown to be two sides of the same coin. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

One reason why progress in solving the mind-body problem has been stunted is that philosophers and cognitive scientists are doggedly determined to, as Plato put it, “carve nature at its joints;” to separate nature into neat categories by chopping at their weakest bits. Often, the carving happens according to methods that originate from an idealist or realist stance. Philosophers have a bad habit of beginning from axiomatic propositions: things are either “idealist” or “realist,” “true” or “false,” “right” or “wrong.” But when we cast aside this desire to carve nature at the joints we find that such absolute distinctions are no longer tenable, and that the search for “natural kinds” (in philosopher’s parlance) always was a philosophical goose-chase. In the quest to understand the mind-body problem, we might benefit by avoiding talk of absolute natural kinds and adhere to the following maxim by the philosopher Luciano Floridi: “Do not ask absolute questions, for they just create an absolute mess.”

You could say that what we need in order to solve the mind-body problem is a heaping dollop of pragmatism. Maybe philosophers should stop asking questions in terms of our “minds” and “bodies” and instead try to find a middle ground. There is one word that might help. Perhaps we should seek answers not in terms of our minds or bodies but instead in terms of our “technologies.” Since the ancient Greeks, philosophy has been mired in thinking episteme. It is time we turn to techne. Not to the philosophy of mind, but to the philosophy of technics.

Thinking cognition in terms of technology is proving useful, and cognitive scientists as well as philosophers are beginning to circumvent the impasse of the mind-body problem via the theory of embodied cognition. Embodied cognition is the idea that cognition is predicated on not only our bodies but, in a more radical branch, on the technologies that we use. Here, the body is no longer seen as peripheral but rather as constitutive of the very process of thinking. Embodied cognition is thinking in action.

The quest to explain embodied cognition is really another example of philosophy getting it right the first time. There have been many figures in the history of philosophy who argued for a radical break from the idea that our minds were something that reflected or represented nature. They intuitively sought to explain the mind in terms of the body and in terms of its action, eventually leading to profound ideas on the essence of technology.

Today, cognitive scientists are turning to some of these unexpected philosophical theories and sources, and this has allowed for a productive dust-off and redeployment of some useful concepts that once remained hidden, deeply buried in either branch’s past. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) famously thought that an individual’s Being (with a capital “B”) consisted not just in our minds but in how we exist physically in the world. Heidegger thought that our actions produce their own kind of knowledge, and that knowledge was not something unique to our minds. He writes: “The kind of dealing which is closest to us is […] not a bare perceptual cognition, but rather that kind of concern which manipulates things and puts them to use; and this has its own kind of ‘knowledge.’” Much of Heidegger’s masterpiece, Being and Time (1927), focuses on this and related concerns as he set out to show how Being consists of an integrationist framework. You could say he championed a type of action-oriented philosophy. “‘Practical’ behavior,” Heidegger writes, “is not ‘a theoretical.’”

Putting aside Heidegger’s later reservations about technology, this practicality of thinking – thinking being “put to use” – describes cognition as something completely embodied. Heidegger saw “the ontological meaning of cognition” as “a founded mode of Being-in-the-world.” He sought not to place the idea of space in the subjective mind, nor did he seek to put the world in objective space. The “subject” (Dasein), according to Heidegger, is unlike the contents of its mind or the wild world “out there.” He reminds us that “it” – the subject – “is spatial.” For Heidegger, “reality is never primarily given in thinking and apprehending,” and “cognition” (Erkennen) is “not judgment.” “Knowing” (Wissen), instead, is a “relationship of Being.” Heidegger may have been the first big player who argued for something resembling embodied cognition, but there would be other philosophers who were partial to the idea, particularly in France.

Another key figure for understanding embodied cognition has been the great French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961). His book Phenomenology of Perception (1945) has been instrumental in breathing life into the theory. He believed that all “cognitions are sustained by a ‘ground’ of postulates” and “by our communication with the world as primary embodiment of rationality.” Quoting the poet Paul Verlaine, Merleau-Ponty tells us that “the work of the mind exists only in act.” Merleu-Ponty’s philosophy would rub-off on one of his students, Gilbert Simondon (1924-1989), who would then take many of these ideas and apply them directly to technology, or what he called (using his preferred term) “technics.” However, the most interesting proponent of this thesis, from a philosophical but also more fact-based scientific approach, was the French anthropologist and paleontologist André Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1986).

Leroi-Gourhan sought to explain from an evolutionary perspective how the mind is constrained – even created – by and within our bodies and the objects that we use. In his groundbreaking work Gesture and Speech (1964), he writes: “What we must now do is trace the stages that have led to a liberation so great in present-day societies that both tool and gesture are now embodied in the machine, operational memory in automatic devices, and programming itself in electronic equipment.” In the book, Leroi-Gourhan shows how the “cerebral” view of evolution is mistaken as he posits physicality, or more specifically technics, as constitutive of the affordances and constraints that produce thought. For Leroi-Gourhan, as in Heidegger, technology has its own kind of thinking.

Leroi-Gourhan begins the book by tracking the history of humanity in terms of the technologies that we have used. He starts with biological technologies: the nail, the claw, our erect posture, the snout, the pincer, the shell. He then shows how we eventually externalized each of these from our bodies with the use of technology. Instead of teeth, we created chopping tools and spears. These then freed up the mouth, which eventually became used for communication and speech in particular. Eventually, as Leroi-Gourhan’s book gets more and more philosophical, he thinks about how “tools, language, and rhythmic creation are three contiguous aspects of one and the same process.”

Leroi-Gourhan puts technology on the same ontological footing as our brains and argues that technics is responsible for constraints and affordances on us just in the same way as, say, morals are. He saw the “intermingling” of tools and gestures “in organs extraneous to the human” as having “all the characteristics of biological evolution because, like cerebral evolution, it develops in time through the addition of elements that improve the operational process without eliminating one another.” He talks about how “the incisor became a chopper” and how “our only organic tool capable of cutting, worn on the projecting end of the jaw, became transferred to the hand via the incisive action of a splintered pebble.” Unlike the Australopithecus at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s great film 2001: A Space Odyssey, there is no clean break for Leroi-Gourhan between some sort of primal animality and the birth of consciousness through the use of tools. There is only a curved line, aided and abetted by the use of technology. In fact, the only thing that Leroi-Gourhan does grant to the human is our somewhat idiotic tendency towards nonadaptation. He writes that we are “a tortoise when we retire beneath a roof, a crab when we hold out a pair of pliers, a horse when we bestride a mount. We are again and again available for new forms of action, our memory transferred to books, our strength multiplied in the ox, our fist improved in the hammer.”

The idea that technology aids in our manipulation and processing of the world around us suggests a certain externalizing of thought. Indeed, the externalization of thinking was one of Leroi-Gourhan’s key theses. Memory for him was something not entirely human. He said that the “history of the collective memory can be divided into five periods: that of oral transmission, that of written transmission using tables or an index, that of simple index cards, that of mechanography, and that of electronic serial transmission.” He believed in the idea that our functional understanding of the world adhered to laws governing matter, and that these cannot by a matter of principle “be regarded as human attributes except to a very limited extent.”

Leroi-Gourhan was a quiet and shy man. He was not the bold futurist that his words might make him out to be. He was interested in provable facts, but had the temperament of a philosopher which allowed him to follow them to their logical conclusion. For him, we, as humans or simply as organisms, have been dependent on technology for a very, very long time. Longer than perhaps even “we” have been around. This privileging of the human was something that Leroi-Gourhan sought to do away with. He saw no difference between man, animal, and technology. “Our moral and physical comfort,” he writes, “is based on our wholly animal perception of the safety perimeter, the enclosed shelter, or socializing rhythms; it would be pointless to look once again for a division between animal and human in order to explain our own feelings of attachment to the rhythms of social life and to our inhabited space.”

Philosophers now find themselves in a funny position. Do they follow this train of thought, developed by some of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century – who sat and pondered the notion of what it means to think and who interrogated what the thunderclap of consciousness is all about – and agree with them that perhaps thinking is not merely the product of our own personal reflection? Or, rather, should they imagine, as the great philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) once did, that thinking comes instead from the outside. “Do not count upon thought to ensure the relative necessity of what it thinks,” Deleuze writes in Difference and Repetition (1968), one of the greatest and most creative works of philosophy of the 20th century. “Rather, count upon the contingency of an encounter with that which forces thought to rise up and educate the absolute necessity of an act of thought or a passion to think.” For Deleuze, “something in the world forces us to think,” and “this something is not an object of recognition, but a fundamental encounter.”

If Deleuze’s profound thesis is right – that what we think of as thought is not reflection but something else entirely, something dependant on exteriority and encounter – then we should consider what it means for life and our technologies. Not in terms of anything like the scary-sounding (to some) misnomer “posthumanism,” but merely in terms of technology’s relationship to intelligence and, if you like, in terms of the humanity in the machine. A car is an artifact of intelligence. The Large Hadron Collider is also the embodiment of intelligence. Design is intelligent. Can Homo sapiens still be, given the prejudices with which we hold fast to old philosophical dualisms? That remains to be seen.


Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York. Columbia University Press. 1995.

Floridi, Luciano. The Philosophy of Information. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 2013.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson. Oxford. Blackwell. 2001.

Leroi-Gourhan, André. Gesture and Speech. Trans. Cambridge. MIT Press. 1993.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. London. Routledge. 2005.

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Andrew Iliadis is a Doctoral Student in Communication & Philosophy at Purdue University and Managing Editor at Figure/Ground Communication. His research interests are in philosophy of information and communication, history and philosophy of science, and philosophy of technology. He keeps a blog called Philosophy of Information & Communication.
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