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The Meaning of the BodyReview - The Meaning of the Body
Aesthetics of Human Understanding
by Mark Johnson
University Of Chicago Press, 2007
Review by Tom Sparrow
Jun 10th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 24)

Mark Johnson's book is a welcome contribution to the recent philosophical literature meant to expound the ontological, epistemological, aesthetic, and moral implications of research coming out of second-generation cognitive science. It belongs in the company of theorists like George Lakoff, Antonio Damasio, Eugene Gendlin, Shaun Gallagher, and Francisco Varela. Its specific aim is to develop and defend a theory of embodied cognition which gets beyond objectivist and dualist metaphysics, and which is intended to ground the meaning of human experience in body-environment interactions. As Johnson puts it: "This book is about meaning--what it is, where it comes from, and how it is made" (ix). This engagement with the whence and whither of meaning is situated by Johnson in the field of aesthetics, by which he means "the study of everything that goes into the human capacity to make and experience meaning" (x). Using this broadened definition, The Meaning of the Body argues for the bodily/aesthetic basis of all philosophy--as well as logic, mathematics, and language (cf. 102, 181, 195)--and for an expansive understanding of meaning as such. In Johnson's words, "meaning is not just a matter of concepts and propositions, but also reaches down into the images, sensorimotor schemas, feelings, qualities, and emotions that constitute our meaningful encounter with our world. Any adequate account of meaning must be built around the aesthetic dimensions that give our experience its distinctive character and significance" (xi-xii).

Part I describes how meaning begins to take shape in the body's sensorimotor processes and affective encounters with the environment. Part II turns to contemporary cognitive neuroscience in order to explore the corporeal source of concepts, language, and even mathematics. The final portion of the book, Part III, turns the world of art--aesthetics narrowly understood--in an effort to show the deep correlation between its structures and processes and those which abide in our mundane experience of meaning--aesthetics broadly conceived. Many of the difficult problems arising out of Johnson's postdualist perspective are addressed with evidence from cognitive science and supplemented with phenomenological descriptions. He shows readers how many of the philosophical insights developed through the history of pragmatism and phenomenology are now being confirmed by scientific research (27). Perhaps the chief virtue of The Meaning of the Body is its explication of the philosophical consequences of this evidence. Johnson acknowledges that questions of novelty and creativity pose a particularly difficult problem for his theory, but he defers these problems for subsequent writings (13).

Johnson's project is admirable for the manner in which it defends the primacy of the qualitative, affective, and kinesthetic dimensions of cognition. This gives it a polemical edge that is aimed at readers in analytic philosophy who still hold onto objectivist prejudices or continue to argue for the supremacy of the mind over the body and the rational over the emotional. Despite its allegiance to contemporary cognitive science and cognitive linguistics, the book adamantly resists reductionism. It does this by deploying a synthetic methodology which combines philosophical perspectives from pragmatism (especially Dewey) and phenomenology (especially Merleau-Ponty) with empirical evidence gleaned from cognitive science. Each of these positions has something essential to say about the aesthetic life of the body, and thus each position is required in order the capture the richness and complexity of what Johnson calls the "embodied theory of meaning." This theory maintains the organic continuity of mind, body, and environment; it refuses to acknowledge an ontological difference between "mental" and "physical" processes, and strenuously argues for the continuity of lower and higher order cognitive processes (25, 67, 122-123). Johnson will ultimately conclude that any comprehensive account of the meaning of the body must necessarily include analyses of its five key dimensions: the biological, ecological, phenomenological, social, and cultural (275-278).

The book is written in a non-technical style and reads quite smoothly given the body of literature it engages. When needed, the author explains technical concepts thoroughly and elucidates them with familiar examples. He also does the reader the service of frequently recapitulating and anticipating his arguments. The text would be of interest to a general audience and treats themes that most readers have probably considered in their daily lives; it also tries to undo some of the most prevalent popular assumptions about the mind's relation to the body (7). But it aims ultimately to reach the Anglo-American philosophical community and force them to reevaluate the role of the qualitative and affective in human understanding. Indeed, Johnson's book seeks to undermine most of the foundational premises of analytic philosophy of mind and language.

Overall, Johnson's book is a fresh and productive response to the problem of embodiment, the metaphysics of subjectivity, and the question of the body's place in the constitution of human experience. Building from emergent work, it signals a new direction in the theory of meaning and justifies its approach with plenty of evidence from the cognitive sciences. However, Johnson's heavy reliance on recent research in the cognitive sciences tends to obscure or efface the history of the philosophical problem it is addressing: the nature of embodiment. This is a history which includes giants like Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Bergson, as well as underrepresented, yet vital, thinkers like Maine de Biran, G.H. Mead, Hans Jonas, and Michel Henry. It is true that Dewey and Merleau-Ponty are cited as invaluable antecedents to Johnson's perspective, and that Dewey is drawn upon quite liberally to buttress Johnson's own position; but the absence of references to the vast body of primary and secondary literature produced within the phenomenological and pragmatist movements works to obscure the actual state of the problem of embodiment. Many of the theses advanced by Johnson regarding the primacy of feeling, emotion/affect, quality, movement, and spatial comportment have been defended and criticized for decades in the continental tradition, but they are treated as though they have only gained legitimacy thanks to the efforts of very recent cognitive science. Johnson acknowledges this issue very early in the book by noting that "phenomenology has been marginalized within mainstream Anglo-American philosophy and has consequently not had the salutary influence on our conception of human understanding that it deserves" (x). I would suggest that, despite his effort to combat this problem, one of the unfortunate shortcomings of Johnson's book is its tendency to prolong the marginalization of phenomenology by assimilating many of phenomenology's hard-won philosophical achievements into the research results of contemporary cognitive science. This elision helps reinforce the view that phenomenological philosophy is valuable primarily, or only, as a supplement to empirical research.

Johnson does an admirable job of trying to bridge phenomenology and cognitive science; this is one of the strengths of his undertaking. Johnson is right to employ a synthetic methodology that takes seriously empirical findings and fuses them with the testimony of phenomenological or first-person descriptions. It would be ill-advised for phenomenologists of the body to conduct themselves in ignorance of the natural sciences or for the natural sciences to claim a comprehensive view of human experience while neglecting the "subjective" dimension. In a certain respect, The Meaning of the Body simply confirm a century's worth of ontological and epistemological arguments, advanced by phenomenologists and pragmatists alike, with relatively recent scientific evidence. By situating the science of the body and Dewey's naturalism at the basis of his approach, however, Johnson inadvertently keeps phenomenology in a subservient role and fails to do justice to its impact on the history of body studies. This appears to be, perhaps ironically, a methodological consequence instead of a deliberate criticism leveled at phenomenology. Thus, instead of displacing the dominance of Anglo-American analytic philosophy by bringing the phenomenological/continental field to the forefront of the theory of meaning, Johnson's pluralistic methodology circumvents a lot of philosophical history and presents (unintentionally, I feel) the embodied cognition/embodied meaning movement as the more legitimate force in post-Cartesian or postdualist philosophy. This, of course, does not diminish the value of Johnson's contribution--which should create a shift in the embodiment debate, open new debates in aesthetics, and with any luck "reconstruct" the face of Anglo-American philosophy (264)--but it does little to help draw the continental tradition out of the shadow of analytic philosophy of mind.

© 2008 Tom Sparrow

Tom Sparrow is a doctoral student in the department of philosophy at Duquesne University.

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