Andy Clark’s work in the philosophy of mind has long had a strong influence on my thinking. I’ll have a bit to say about how his extended mind thesis figures into philosophical practice in my upcoming talk for the Media Ecology Assocation, but in this post I want to explore his work on predictive processing and perception, as he’s converging on similar conclusions to my own about the nature of perception, understanding, imagination, and action—namely, that they all arrive together in the co-construction of experience.
His tools and models for making this claim are different from my own, and so what most interests me in this context is how his (more advanced) resources—including a computational theory of the brain, coupled with extended and embodied notions of cognition, hierarchical predictive processing models, and Bayesian accounts of inference—match up with what I’ll shorthand as the transcendental–phenomenological resources of philosophy that I’ve been using in my recent posts. Clark is not strictly speaking a cognitive scientist, but he’s definitely closer to the “neuro” in “neurophenomenology” than I am. What’s at stake for me here is the following question, How accurate and useful are these transcendental–phenomenological resources in the face of cognitive science?
In my last few posts, I’ve been working my way through the ideas set down by the late great Hubert Dreyfus. While I end up disagreeing with Dreyfus on a number of issues, particularly on the role of conceptuality in practical action, I still see him as largely setting the terms of the debate. As part of my effort to understand Dreyfus, I’ve been undertaking a parallel study of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who had a pronounced influence on Dreyfus. Below is a short summary of how I understand a few of Merleau-Ponty’s key insights. (Readers familiar with Merleau-Ponty won’t find too much ground-breaking interpretation in this post, but it does serve to ground the larger investigation I’ve been engaged in.)
His major work, Phenomenology of Perception, was first published in France in 1945. As the title indicates, the work deals with articulating a philosophy of perception. Drawing from his predecessors Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty in this effort gave primacy to the body’s practical comportment with the lifeworld (Lebenswelt), the historically situated and intersubjective horizon of experience from which all theoretical and scientific investigation begins, and to which it must always return. In emphasizing the body’s dynamic behavior as central to epistemological investigation—a move seen as early as his 1942 work The Structure of Behavior—Merleau-Ponty continued the work of his predecessors in returning to twentieth century philosophy the central role of embodiment in philosophy and psychology alike (the latter effort being greatly informed by gestalt theory and the neurological sciences of Merleau-Ponty’s day).
This is the third post in my exploration of the role of concepts in perception and action. The earlier posts dealt with the work of Hubert Dreyfus, John McDowell, and Barbara Gail Montero. In my last post, I ended on the question of how solicitations and motivations from the environment draw us to act in intuitively immediate (but nonconceptual) ways through a so-called space of motivations (as opposed to a Sellarsian space of reasons), suggesting that some degree of conceptual comportment is required even in unconscious action. To this end, I endorsed the views of McDowell and Montero against those of Dreyfus. In this post, I continue to explore how we ought to talk about concepts in this context.
In order to understand how a space of motivations might work, it seems likely that the conceptual must to some degree be ingredient in the structure of intuition, in the cultivated rationality or second nature of McDowell’s account. But what is a concept on this view? It certainly cannot be the kind of declarative, propositional, and detached representational item that Montero and Dreyfus both agree impede expert action, and even everyday practical comportment, for that matter. Concepts in this sense must be something else, they cannot be, as Dreyfus notes elsewhere, “context-free principles or rules that could be used to guide actions or at least make them intelligible,” simply because the objects and affordances we encounter are not context free either, they are rather singular, relational, and tied to uniquely complex ecologies of materials and processes. How, then, do we talk about concepts without falling back into the Myth of the Mental?
Over my last few posts, I’ve been working my way through Hubert Dreyfus’s and John McDowell’s accounts of concepts in perception and action. I tend to follow McDowell in seeing the conceptual as co-arising with perception, as opposed to Dreyfus, who sees practical action as largely nonconceptual and automatic. However, in seeing the conceptual as basic to perception, one need not assume a definition of concepts that requires explicit propositions, declarative speech, or conscious rule following, as Dreyfus suggests.
Barbara Gail Montero is persuasive on this issue in her view that language can and does mediate sensory attention, but that we as actors are quite capable of attending to details without articulating in words what, exactly, we are attending to. “For example,” writes Montero, “you are not or at least need not be thinking this sunset exhibits the most spectacular array of colors I have ever seen. Nonetheless, you may be attending to the scene before you.” Montero continues, “According to Dreyfus as well as a number of psychologists the expert performs best when she does not conceptualize her actions. I take conceptualization roughly to be a process of understanding one thing as falling in a certain category, a process which can be, though is not necessarily, verbalizable.”