TA 110 (Mind and Metaphysics)


Commentary 11 (to C10, Muller on Mark Johnson)




by William A. Adams

18 December 2008, poasted 27 December 2008




I agree with Herbert Muller's recent comment in this forum that Johnson's book, Meaning of the Body is confused and self-contradictory.  The book is part of a recent tidal wave of interest in  "embodied cognition." 


I once heard someone in a pizza parlor ask the clerk, "How big is the fourteen inch pizza?"  That is not an unreasonable question, according to embodied cognition theorists, who have amply demonstrated that estimations of size, distance, and much else are best accomplished pre-conceptually, in terms of the body's location and activity (Klatzky et. al, 2008).


In reviewing the Klatzky book I noted, "Early theories of cognition focused on 'disembodied'  information processing, problem solving, memory retention, and computational linguistics. The embodied cognition movement arose in reaction, tapping sources like William James, Jean Piaget, James Gibson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Francisco Varela, who emphasized the importance of situational context, especially bodily context, in understanding cognition."  (Adams, 2009, forthcoming).



The embodied cognition movement has a legitimate complaint about the "brain-in-a-vat" computational theory of mind that dominates cognitive psychology today.   But the movement overreaches when it suggests, as Johnson does, that it has a solution to the mind-body problem.   The most common confusion, expressed by Johnson, is to pretend that the brain is not part of the body but somehow a physical homunculus who can substitute for subjectivity.  



Nevertheless I think Johnson's idea that the purpose of the body is artistic expression is useful.  Taken literally, that idea would suggest that the body itself is an expression of the mind.   Some philosophers have suggested as much, especially in regard to gender (e.g., Butler,1993).   But Johnson's focus on artistic expression frames the question in terms of social epistemology.   If we accept that "art" is defined socially (Danto,2000), then what Johnson is saying (or should be saying) is that the body is defined socially, although I don't think he is actually saying that. 



What if the body were literally, a projection, or construction, of the socially embedded mind, just like democracy money, marriage, and a host of other social objects ?  Rather than being some rock-bottom grounding of cognition, it would be effect rather than cause.  It would be a highly reified projection, its apparent physical givenness virtually unquestionable, but an as-if givenness nevertheless.  The purpose of the body would be twofold: first, to define individual subjective uniqueness, that is, to keep us apart; and second, to enable intersubjective expression and understanding, that is, to bring us together.   Johnson focuses on this second function of the body, and in that, I think he is not wrong.






Adams, W.A. (2009). Embodied cognition gropes for coherence.  [Review of the book Embodiment, Ego-Space and Action ]. PsycCRITIQUES-Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, forthcoming.


Butler, J. (1993).  Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex'. NY: Routledge.


Danto, A. (2000).  The Madonna of the Future :  Essays in a Pluralistic Art World.  NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Klatzky, R.L., MacWhinney, B., and Behrmann, M. (Eds.). (2008). Embodiment, Ego-space, and Action. N.Y.: Psychology Press.




Bill Adams

     e-mail <wiladams (at) chapman.edu>