Friday, August 3, 2012

Embodied Mind, Aesthetics, Transcendence

I am reading a fascinating book by Mark Johnson called The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics and Human Understanding that argues against mind-body dualism and affirms the essential connection of aesthetics as a general activity of human awareness and intentionality that is not limited to Art, though Art, according to Johnson, is a vital  model of the sort of acute attention toward meaning-making we might follow to make our lives more meaningful. The connections to Musil's explorations of feeling and reason, and his struggles to map out the keys to how to live through aesthetic experience,  his search for a "day-bright mysticism" which did not devolve into wishy-washy anti-intellectualism, and his quest for a meaningful grounding for ethical behavior should be obvious.
In contrast to Monsieur Teste's disembodied mind (discussed below) and the whole tradition of separation of thought and experience, reason and emotion, Johnson spells out what it would mean to embrace what he calls an embodied mind theory, whereby "the apparatus of meaning, conceptualization, and reasoning" are "intrinsically shaped by the body" and its sensory relationship to the environment, to others, and to nature.  Johnson exposes the treacherous consequences of centuries of maligning the body and the feelings with which its "impure" reason is associated. There is, according to Johnson, no such thing as "pure reason, " and the desire to "free oneself from the body" is called a "dangerous idea". The consequences of adopting an embodied mind view include the acceptance that there is no such thing as a disembodied soul, "no transcendent soul or ego," that meaning is grounded in physical, bodily, environmental experience, which is always shifting, that reason is a series of embodied "processes by which our experience is explored, criticized, and transformed in inquiry...[Reason] is tied to structures of our perceptual and motor capacities and ... it is inextricably linked to feeling," that "imagination is tied to our bodily processes and can also be creative and transformative of experience". "Our ability to make new meaning, to enlarge our concepts, and to arrive at new ways of making sense of things must be explained without reference to miracles, irrational leaps of thought, or blind impulse. We have to explain how our experience can grow and how the new can emerge from the old without merely replicating what has gone before". "New meaning," he concludes suggestively, "arises from and remains connected to preexisting patterns, qualities, and feelings".  Another particularly thorny consequence of embracing  the embodied mind theory would be to acknowledge that there is no such thing as "radical freedom,"i.e., "no transcendental self, no disembodied ego, to serve as the agent of free choice...". This embrace, Johnson notes, calls us to discover a "view of choice that is consistent with cognitive neuroscience and its insistence on the embodied mind and yet which doesn't make a shambles of our notions of moral responsibility".  This begins to be partly answered by Johnson's seventh consequence, a consequence which challenges many of our most cherished views of imagination, creativity, and transcendental freedom,even though we no longer rely on otherworldly visions of the divine, heavens, or disembodied souls: "Human spirituality is embodied" and not "vertically" transcendent. The dream of vertical transcendence, of escape above and outside of the body,  attempted to "solve the basic human problems that stem from the fact of human finiteness" out of a feeling that "the body must somehow be transcended if there are to be any satisfactory answers to the human condition of limitation, helplessness, and finiteness". The embodied mind theory, in contrast, suggests a glorious embodiment, a spirituality "grounded in our relation to the human and more-than-human world that we inhabit" ...a horizontal transcendence, "namely our ability both to transform experience and to be transformed ourselves by something that transcends us: the whole ongoing, ever-developing natural process of which we are a part".  Amen to that.

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