The Future of Philosophy of Mind

Philosophy of mind is a lively field overflowing with competing theoretical frameworks. In my own estimation, most contemporary debate centers around the competition between computational representationalism and 4EA philosophy of mind. For those who don’t know, 4EA refers to the school of thought which claims that the mind is not a representing computer, but rather, an embodied, embedded, enacted, extended, affective, dynamic system. There is a lot to unpack in this mantra. Embodied refers to the phenomenological tradition of Merleau-Ponty and the emphasis on the lived body as the starting point for philosophical investigation of cognition. Embedded refers to the fact that the neural system is embedded or nested within a organized body and environment and cannot be analyzed independent of its behavior within both a physical environment and a social-cultural milieu. Enacted refers to the way in which action-control is not a matter of sensing-modeling-planning-acting, but rather, regulating the  intrinsic behavioral dynamics of autopoiesis (emergent self-organization) so as to effectively utilize resources in the environment. Extended refers to how the cognitive system actively offloads tasks onto external environmental props so as to free up limited cognitive resources (e.g. using a notepad as external memory storage). Affective refers to how the intrinsic behavioral dynamics of emergent self-organization are driven by an emotional attunement or affectivity that valences stimuli in terms of meaningful salience thresholds e.g. good/bad, inviting/threatening, etc. Such affectivity is grounded by what Damasio calls “background feelings” and what Ratcliffe calls “feelings of being-in-the-world” or “ways of finding oneself”.

In my (admittedly biased) opinion, 4EA philosophy is a superior philosophical/empirical paradigm for interpreting the vast majority of psychological research in a metaphysically respectable fashion.

But this is not the future of philosophy of mind.

In order to glimpse the future, we must take extension more seriously. We must look beyond the artificial thought experiments involving notepads and walking canes and instead develop an appreciation for how mind is extended and changed by propositional reasoning i.e. narrative practice, the giving and asking for reasons (rational stories) for actions and events (with implicit inferential commitments holding us responsible for the things we do/say). This is why I think people like Robert Brandom and Daniel Hutto are going to take us into the next generation of cognitive science: 4EAC. Embodied, embedded, enacted, extended, affective, constructed.

Julian Jaynes has already cleared the underbrush to prepare the way for social-linguistic constructivism. And not your Grandpa’s neutered Sapir-Whorf hypothesis either. I’m talking about the linguistic construction of consciousness and higher-order thought itself. In other words,Vygotsky, not Whorf. Indeed, “Saying that consciousness is developed out of language means that everybody from Darwin on, including myself in earlier years, was wrong in trying to trace out the origin of consciousness biologically or neurophysiologically. It means we have to look at human history after language has evolved and ask when in history did an analog ‘I’ narratizing in a mindspace begin.”

The introduction of constructivism into 4EA philosophy of mind will provide a new intellectual trajectory for understanding the unique structure of human consciousness in distinction to our nonverbal animal cousins. Whereas Alva Noe and Evan Thompson have done an admirable job capturing the essence of animal consciousness (what I simply refer to as “nonconscious cognition” or “behavioral reactivity”), they have unwittingly conflated two distinct levels of mentality: primary and secondary consciousness, prereflective and reflective awareness,  cognition and metacognition, automatic and controlled processes, etc. As I put it in a footnote to my recent paper, “What Is It Like to Be Nonconscious? A Defense of Julian Jaynes“:

Unfortunately, even thinkers within the externalist paradigm for perception have overlooked this important point, placing the “mystery” of consciousness in terms of explaining the nonconscious what-it-is-like of phenomenal sensory experience. So while I agree with Alva Noë (2004, 2009) when he argues that visual perception is a process of enactive exploration of the world enabled by automatic sensorimotor skills, when he claims that this body-world interaction fully constitutes the conscious mind, he too is falling into the trap of confusing consciousness with cognition, mistakenly thinking that the latter subsumes the entirety of the former. Moreover, this conflation is so rampant that  even when Andy Clark (2009) argues against the notion that we can explain consciousness by recourse to an enactive account of perception, he still buys into the original claim that what needs explaining about the conscious mind is “the elusive ‘what-it-is-likeness’ that seems to characterize a subject’s experience of a certain kind of redness, of a certain voice, or of a pain in her stomach” (p. 1-2). If Jaynes is right, then such what-it-is-likeness is not what needs explaining in coming to terms with the “mystery” of consciousness. Instead, what needs explaining is narratizing within a functional mind-space through cultural-linguistic conditioning in childhood.


Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

5 responses to “The Future of Philosophy of Mind

  1. Since we’re in the fad of naming underrated philosophers, I would like to propose that the path to future that you mention has already been sketched, not by Brandom, but by Gareth Evans (notice that I say sketched, since Evans unfortunately did not live enough to pursue his work). Evans had already sketched (and partially pursued) a program in which the interaction of our non-conceptual capacities (that we share with, as you put it, our non-verbal animal cousins) and our conceptual capacities was at center stage. Given that the Pittsburgh Neo-Hegelians (i.e. Brandom and McDowell) tend to over-emphasize the role of our conceptual capacities in cognition, perhaps a good dose of Evans’ account of this interaction is precisely what we need to get philosophy of mind right on track…

  2. gregorylent

    in the west, and in academia, maybe … but that is just a tiny corner of the philosophy of mind world. and quite irrelevant to actually having value for improving an individual’s awareness.

    you really cannot do justice to this field without knowing sanskrit, which has a language subtle enough to actually have some value in expressing concepts around “philosophy of mind” … there are five words, as example, for various aspects of “mind” that english just crudely lumps together with the one word.

    and distinctions between terms such as awareness, mind, consciousness, self, knowing, etc, are very well thought out, and have been for centuries..

    and then let us talk about verification … you cannot do “philosophy of mind” without comprehension of the sadly belittled word (in the west) “mystic” … and knowing the self is far more important than quoting studies …

    frankly, you don’t know shit, to say it in a direct (not at all mean, please understand) way that may perhaps catch your attention for a moment.

    meet a saint, hang out with some enlightened (yes, it is real) people, get exposed to concepts from other, older, cultures, (and yes, they have as much academic bs as the west, yards of interpretations of scriptures, as example, so it takes some times) and probably most beneficial, start a meditation practice, one that reveals not a technique, but who is meditating..

    and keep going, don’t look to your colleagues for confirmation, even if they hire you or can give you tenure, have enough balls to be independent, free from the canon …

    ok, enough …

    enjoy, gregory lent

    • Gary Williams


      Far from “catching my attention”, your negative comments and disparaging “holier-than-thou” attitude simply makes me tune out anything you have to say.

  3. Pingback: 4EA | A Body's In Trouble

  4. “Julian Jaynes has already cleared the underbrush to prepare the way for social-linguistic constructivism. And not your Grandpa’s neutered Sapir-Whorf hypothesis either. I’m talking about the linguistic construction of consciousness and higher-order thought itself. In other words,Vygotsky, not Whorf.”

    I’m curious what you mean when you speak of “your Grandpa’s neutered Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” and “Vygotsky, not Whorf.” I personally see no conflict between Jaynes on one side and Sapir and Whorf on the other. They are simply offering two different varieties of linguistic relativity. The main difference is that Jaynes is articulating a very specific set of hypotheses as part of a larger explanatory theory that is more in line with a strong Whorfian hypothesis, stronger than Whorf ever argued for in his own writings. Then again, Whorf’s framework wouldn’t have precluded a Jaynesian approach either, as Whorf’s framework was much broader and more general in including many possible approaches. Since then, linguistic relativity has expanded even further in terms of evidence and understanding. Whorf, in some sense, was too cautious. That seems like the conclusion of Jaynes when he spoke about it with Brian McVeigh:

    McVeigh: “The fist thing I want to ask you about is language. Because in our book, language plays an important role, specifically metaphors. And what would you say to those who would accuse you of being too Whorfian? Or how would you handle the charge that you’re saying it is language that determines thought in your book? Or would you agree with the statement, “As conscious developed, language changed to reflect this transformation?” So, in other words, how do you handle this [type of] old question in linguistics, “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?””

    Jaynes: “Well, you see Whorf applies to some things and doesn’t apply to others, and it’s being carried to a caricature state when somebody, let’s say, shows [a people perceives colors] and they don’t have words for colors. That’s supposed to disprove Whorf. That’s absolutely ridiculous. Because after all, animals, fish have very good color vision. But there’s no doubt about it, Whorfian hypothesis is true for some of the more abstract concepts we have. Certainly, in that sense, I would certainly be a Whorfian. But I don’t think Whorf went far enough. That’s what I used to say. I’m trying to think of the way I would exactly say it. I don’t know. for example, his discussion of time I think it is very appropriate. Indeed, there wouldn’t be such a thing as time without consciousness. No concept of it.”

    Following that dialogue, Jaynes and McVeigh discussed how temporal experience, linguistic tenses, and linguistic aspects (McVeigh: “between continuing action and perfected action, imperfect action, whatever.”) relate to consciousness and the historical development of languages. “But those categories of aspect did not necessarily have anything to do with time and that what happened as consciousness was introduced, this idea of spatialized time develops and introduces along with it aspect [which] use aspect and it just means aspect. . . At the same time, sometimes aspects acts like, well, temporal markers. In other words, it takes the place of tense.” The discussion goes on into the supposed confusion and lack of curiosity among most linguists of that period.

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