Empathy and Method

The mind is thoroughly embodied.  Or, an even better way of making the point would be to say that the mind is bodily.  Philosophers seem to get that now.  Books and articles on the "embodied mind," "embodied cognition," and the "bodily self," are too numerous to count.  John Haugeland articulates this line of thought with particular skill in his article "Mind Embodied and Embedded" (1995).  To sum it up quickly and generally: the mind, as we know it in our own conscious experience, wouldn't be what it is without the innate morphology of the body (embodied) and the environmental context that constitutes a causal/developmental history (embedded).  So to answer Thomas Nagel's famous question, "What is it like to be a bat?" we'd have to say, "Well Tom, in order to know that, we'd have to occupy bat bodies, do all the stuff that bats do for several years, and, well, pretty much live the life of a bat." 

Unfortunately, while some philosophers are "getting it," others are taking it too far.  Mark Johnson's book The Meaning of the Body is one such case.  Johnson offers lengthy critiques of contemporary analytic philosophy, but his basic message is clear: abstract analyses of things like "propositional content" and "reliable teleoinformatic processes" are moments in a general forgetting of the bodily roots of meaning.  But I think Johnson misses the mark here.  I agree with him that we must be mindful our essentially embodied sense-making capacities, but I refuse to follow him down his grumpy path: "Damn kids today have forgotten about what's important!"

For me, high-level conceptual work is just as much a matter of inter-personal understanding as winking at someone across the subway car.  Both are embodied forms of sense-making. Cognitive phenomenology refers to the phenomenal aspect of understanding an argument, or doing a proof and finally getting it.  David Foster Wallace called it "that click" of understanding.  Even in working alone with the curtains drawn and the fire reduced to a low smolder, one doesn't really get something until one has gotten to the point of being able to communicate just what it is one has grasped.  Likewise, a typical part of understanding something is having it explained to you, usually by a skilled teacher.  The skilled teacher doesn't just spit the facts at you and leave the rest for you to sort out.  The skilled teacher circles back on points made earlier, connecting them to what was just said.  He draws diagrams, uses examples, provides illustrations, uses different words.  He paints a picture of something such that not only does the student see what he means, but also comes to see how it could all make sense in the first place.  In order to share some propositional content, it is usually a pretty good idea to get the other to represent it in the same manner.  It's not necessary, but it tends to work.

This reveals that empathizing with others--seeing the world from their points of view--is our default means of understanding.  Empathy is more than a special object of philosophical inquiry.  It is important for both content and method.  Empathy may very well reveal valuable insight into the phenomenology of understanding.  If empathy turns out to be the phenomenal aspect (what it feels like) of understanding, then this entails the (practical) importance of collaborative work in philosophy and other modes of inquiry.  So, unlike what Mark Johnson thinks, analytic philosophers who practice conceptual analysis do “plumb the depths of the qualitative feeling dimensions of experience and meaning.”  They do so precisely through the capacity for which he faults them: “develop[ing] elaborate conceptual schemes for identifying the so-called cognitive, structural, and formal aspects of experience, thought, and language”.  Such high level intense thought elicits the most high level and intense empathy.  A strong feeling of power emerges from moments of intense understanding.  In essence, these are moments of intense connection—the feeling of communion through shared meaning.  There is something that it is like to get it.  And it is a human goal to elicit the sort of feeling that causes one to proclaim, “Holy shit! Now I see what you mean!” 

Forgive these philosopher’s, Johnson, for they know not what they do.  They are skillful craftsmen, absorbed in their latest fabrication.  You need not remind them that before they became such proficient runners they could barely walk.  Calling for a return to the “deep” bodily roots of meaning and understanding could be easily interpreted as a call to return to childhood.  True, we must be mindful of our roots, but were we always trying to return to our roots, our moral and technical understanding of the world would remain infantile.   And if Freud has taught us anything, the conscious life of the infant is far from rosy. 


  1. Is Johnson claiming that, when philosophers of mind discuss (say) propositional content, they are neglecting the mind's embodiment in the sense of abstracting from it? Or is he claiming that there is no such thing as propositional content, that bodily form and environmental context color cognition to such an extent that any given propositional content (which we think of as something a human could share with a space alien) cannot correspond to anything going on in the mind?

    If he means the former, then his claim strikes me as true but hardly a good complaint against talk of propositional content. It's like complaining that geometrical talk neglects the fact that shapes are embodied. If he means the latter, then I'll have to read his book to see how he justifies such an assertion. (Of course, I guess I should read his book before criticizing it either way…)

  2. Joe, sorry for taking so long to publish your comment and reply. I forgot that I have to come on and moderate comments. I think Johnson's claim is closer to the latter of the two options you identify. Johnson has gone so far as to say that a human concept like "justice" is rooted in our embodied sense-making activity, and has its origin in the phenomenal concept of 'balance'. This may very well be true and something that could be justified by cognitive neuroscience in the not so distant future; but I disagree with Johnson that when we develop conceptual schemes meant to describe formal categories that we need to make constant reference back to our own contingent form of embodiment. I think it is much more exciting to try to think "pure subjectivity" a la Kant. I agree that subjectivity is essentially embodied and embedded, but that doesn't necessitate reference to THESE bodies and THIS context.