The New Philosophy of Mind

Despite the popularity of criticizing Descartes’ understanding of the mind, philosophers and theorists remain in the shadow of Descartes. This is evident from the fact that endorsing a theory of mind largely means congratulating its author for being “thoroughly anti-Cartesian,” while criticism typically amounts to a theory’s remaining “too Cartesian.” Amidst the contemporary rush to de-center the mind and overthrow the Cartesian paradigm, two distinct trajectories emerge: the body and the environment. These days, there is nothing particularly radical to the assertion that the mind is thoroughly embodied. This is accepted as fact, with debates focusing on the conceptual particularities and the empirical substantiations. Slightly more radical is the idea of “the extended mind”—succinctly articulated by Andy Clark and David Chalmers in their 1998 paper by the same name—which de-centers the mind not only from the skull, but from the entire organism. Key to both trajectories are analyses of the complex set of causal relations that constitute cognition. In these analyses, something counts as a component of cognition if it plays a significant role in the causal network that enables a certain cognitive task. Debates in this field have largely focused on how significant a certain feature of the body or the environment must be in order to be counted among the causal components of cognition. For instance, the presence of oxygen is obviously an enabling condition for cognition, insofar as an organism requires it to be alive. For Clark and Chalmers, however, oxygen is not sufficiently proximal to the cognitive functions in question to actually be counted as a component of mind. Were we to extend the criterion of causal proximity too far, we would end up with a rather trivial insight, as all of the basic laws of nature would be included in cognition.

How then, are we to determine a criterion of causal proximity for determining whether a feature of the body or environment is to count as a component of cognition? This question exposes the shaky ground that theories of embodied and extended mind stand on. Malcolm MacIver, who argues that the unique structure of bat ears is responsible for a kind of non-neural cognition, falls prey to the same (ultimately Cartesian) presupposition as Clark and Chalmers when he reasons that “although we may not have a clear definition of cognition, we have some intuition about when we are closer to it or further away from it.” Indeed, we do have “some intuition” about proximity, but it is more likely than not based upon a Cartesian presupposition about what counts as cognition in the first place. I propose that we build on Descartes' insights rather than seek to demolish them. More specifically, I wish to focus on Descartes' conclusions concerning the consciousness that characterizes our cognitive states. Strictly defining cognition in functional terms (as contemporary rhetorics of embodiment and environmental embeddedness typically do) leaves out an essential property of mind--its irreducible qualitative and subjective character. The phenomenological tradition, especially Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, have never lost sight of this essential feature of mind, and thus provides a logical starting point for the reorientation that I am calling for. This is not to totally discount the value of functional analyses of cognition. To deny functionalism is not to deny function (as David Woodruff Smith often reminds us). However, if we wish to have an adequate understanding of cognition, we must account for its embodiment and environmental embeddedness without losing sight of what it is like to think--i.e., we must do the phenomenology of embodiment and the phenomenology of being-in-the-world. Only in this way can we gain a clearer understanding of our intuitions regarding what cognition is, thus putting us in a position to evaluate precisely how Cartesian we ought to be.

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