4E Cognition and Beyond the Humanist/Post-Humanist Debate? (Arthur Whitman)

Furthering the relevance, raised by Taney and Sarah, of the contemporary cognitive and neuro-sciences to the possibilities of reevaluating the role of form and meaning in art (and the arts): I'd like to put forth the idea of "4E" cognition, recently popular in those fields. The idea, basically, is that human (and animal) thought is embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended. (I'm linking below to a short video by philosopher Shaun Gallagher, which offers a succinct account of each of these intertwined dimensions.)

I can perhaps be forgiven for the naiveté of my speculations here as a non-academic (I trained as a painter and am active as a newspaper art critic). But I think a brief consideration of these "E's" might help clarify some of my misgivings, raised tentatively in an earlier post, concerning the radical critique of humanism being bandied about here. (If we are challenging binaries here, I think the humanism/post-humanism dichotomy is fair game too, especially given the moralistic shadings being offered by some participants.) 

The notion of embodiment, shared I think by everyone here, is one that clearly ties us to our creaturely, more-than-human natures. As I wrote earlier, "Our capacities for abstract and deliberative thought are rooted in those for perception and affect." I'd reckon as well that it provides directly for an at least modest human uniqueness (Gallagher, below mentions hands). I think it offers a challenge both to the rationalist-intellectualist view of the radically autonomous ego but also to postmodernist views concerning a radical decentering of self and agency.

Without going into detail, the idea behind embeddedness, enaction, and extension pertain to the fact that thought is an active process that takes place in an ecological setting--which for many species at least, is a socio-cultural as well as a narrowly physical one. We are in of our habitats and milieus. Again, and without wanting to draw a sharp boundary between humans and other animals, I would venture that what is most distinctive about homo sapiens is our elaborate and cumulatively extended cognitive ecology. I believe that this pertains to art as a human practice and I'm willing to argue further that it is not mere chauvinism to say so. 

Shaun Gallagher's video Q&A, recommended. 


arthur said...

I'll add that I think "meaning" in art ought to be taken in the broadest--and deepest--possible sense, to encompass the most creaturely and sensual aspects, as well as the more abstract, symbolic, metaphorically, and discursively-elaborated ones. Why take anything off the table?

Deborah Barlow said...

Thank you Arthur for this clarifying post. This is a memorable phrase, "our elaborate and cumulatively extended cognitive ecology."

The Gallagher interview you included was succinct and very useful as well. (I was delighted that it took place at a Buddhist retreat.)

Taney Roniger said...

Yes, Arthur -- thank you for this. Until your post I had not been aware of the last two E's in the 4E model, and they do add greater depth to what we mean by the first two. And thanks also for the Shaun Gallagher video. I think it was Sarah who mentioned a book of his earlier. I'm looking forward to reading him.

As far as humanism and posthumanism go, I don't think anyone is suggesting that there's no *difference* between our own and other species. We certainly do have many distinct features (the opposable thumb, an extended cognitive ecology, a greater number of synapses between neurons, etc.). But then, other species have features and capacities that we can only dream of having! (Who wouldn't want to be able to fly, or explore the depths of the sea without technological augmentation, or communicate across vast distances with echolocation?) The point, I think, is that while we are in some ways distinctive, this in no way entitles us to treat the rest of the world as our dominion. It's our arrogance and sense of entitlement to which posthumanism objects -- and the devastation of our planet that these things have made possible. But perhaps you're speaking specifically about art, perhaps wanting to claim it as a solely human activity. The evidence against this is pretty clear (I highly recommend Carrie's book!). I suppose I would ask what she did earlier, which is why is it so important to you or anyone that art be ours alone? We may practice a different *kind* of art than, say, bowerbirds, and our art may have given us some magnificent achievements, but why does any of this have to mean that we can't share art with other species?

Carrie Rohman said...

I, of course, echo Taney's very cogent response here. It's the exclusivity tied to the arrogance tied to the hierarchies that troubles. And indeed, why are our differences so elevated in our minds, when other creatures have capacities that we could never dream of replicating? And again, what motivates our deep reservation about understanding artistic capacities as part of our evolutionary inheritance? To quote Darwin, the differences are of degree, not kind.

It comes to mind, just now, that some philosophers working on personhood as a legal category are arguing that cetaceans could be seen as *more* intelligent and evolved than humans, if we take intelligence to seriously mean the ability to thrive and flourish with others, in an ecosystem, without destroying it.

Also, I hate to do it (!), but even the opposable thumb is not a given and needs to be seen as part of our humanist hype. See Tom Tyler's wonderful book Ciferae: A Bestiary in Five Fingers, for a brilliant deconstruction of the humanist concepts of the hand, handedness, handiness (very much linked to cognition and creativity, think Heidegger etc.). Tyler contextualizes what Stanley Cavell calls "the romance of the hand and its apposable thumb." Cary Wolfe has also had an important hand (!) in debunking this through-line in continental philosophy, where the mythology of the hand is continually linked to speech, thought, world-making, etc.

Taney Roniger said...

Carrie, I will have to look into the Tom Tyler book! I remember your preference for feet and footedness in Choreographies, which was very compelling.

Re: the status of cetaceans: Did you know that in the United Kingdom the octopus is an honorary mammal? Talk about arrogance! I like to imagine the octopuses' response to that. I imagine it would be something like, Thanks but no thanks, you incorrigible humans! We're perfectly fine down here delighting in our chromatic displays and shape-shifting hijinks while your type roams the earth scorching and destroying. (And yes, Arthur, I say this fully cognizant of all the wonderful things we do too. It's just that our selfishness with regard to the planet is the urgent issue of the day!)

arthur said...

A lot to unpack here, and thank you Carrie and Taney for your thoughtful comments. Re art and human uniqueness, a lot of course depends on how you want to define and elaborate the category--and clearly there's not much consensus in that debate (And yes, Carrie, I am intrigued by your book and will seek it out.) I am open to the idea of art as a more-than-human, perhaps animal kind.

That said, I'd reckon that art qua human activity is unique in ways related to what I've been saying about our extended cognitive ecology. Human artistic practices, in particular, involve the elaboration of style--individually and culturally--in a way that is historical and cumulative. Again, I'm all for more emphasis on the creaturely and immediately sensual and expressive dimensions of art-making. But that's not all that's going on here and it seems reductive to treat it as so.

I'll add that the capacity for reflection enabled by language and discourse add another layer to our understandings of art that loop back on our more immediate, sensual grasping of art. Are there excesses and limitations here? Yes, but we have to accept and understand our species-centric understanding and practice before we critique it and look beyond it.

arthur said...

Re human anatomy and human uniqueness (sorry to go on about the latter, but it's inescapable and important to consider), what is most important (or it seems) about characteristics like the opposable thumb, bipedalism, and the enlarged cortex is precisely the extended cognitive niches they allow us to construct. That is, our uniqueness is not (so much) something inside us. It's something we make, or help make.

I don't assert the moral or cognitive or spiritual superiority of human beings. But species-specific interests and perspectives are not dispensible. We live in human social and cultural worlds and to see beyond this--particularly in a global, all-encompassing way--takes considerable acts of the imagination, an grasping of otherness that itself is a comp,ex cultural achievement.

Dave Abram said...

Umm, I just want to lean in with a brief note of appreciation for what Arthur is trying to accomplish here ever so delicately, and with some real art, given that he's walking thru the minefield of a conversation carried by folks (myself included) who seem convinced that we've somehow freed ourselves from human-centrism (as if this two-legged bodily shape with its corporeal proclivities was not still at the center of our perceptual field, coloring every facet of the cosmos that we consider). Surely it ain't chauvinism to feel into and seek to articulate a few facets of the unique weirdness of one's ownmost form of embodiment, given that each creature bodies forth its own strange gifts. I mean it's surely kinda helpful (now and then? once in a blue moon? not all the time, for heaven's sake) to ponder the goofy habits and splendid biases we carry in common with others of our curious species, since if we don't ponder that conundrum we're liable to miss the outrageous otherness of the others - of octopi and orb-weaving spiders and drought-stricken aspen groves - construing them all through the unnoticed biases granted by our particular style of flesh. That being said, I hafta say how different it seems to inquire into the unique oddity of our form of animality not as a way to justify our dominion (or to license our inane impulse to objectify everything else and bend it to our purposes), but simply as a way to listen more deeply outward, as a way to better relate to all these other shapes and styles of radiant weirdness.

arthur said...

Yes, well, I did promise Taney, in accepting her invitation, that I would play the role of skeptic and killjoy. I do feel compelled to deliver!