An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2006

Mind incarnate: from Dewey to Damasio

Mark Johnson
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Mark Johnson is Knight Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Oregon. He is the author of “The Body in the Mind” (1987), “Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics” (1993), and, with George Lakoff, “Metaphors We Live By” (1980) and “Philosophy in the Flesh” (1999).

To be a human being requires a functioning human brain, in a living human body, interacting with complex physical, social, and cultural environments, in an ongoing flow of experience. What could be more self-evident than the fact that the human mind is intrinsically incarnate?

And yet, most people do not believe this. Traditional Western philosophical and religious traditions routinely assume the transcendence of mind over body. They assume that our inmost essence is mental and spiritual, which they regard as distinct from the bodily. To live in our culture is to unwittingly soak up the metaphysical mind-body dualism that pervades our commonsense views of cognition, knowledge, language, and values.

Until quite recently, only a handful of intellectually courageous philosophers have outspokenly embraced a nondualistic view of mind and pursued the radical implications of such a view. Baruch Spinoza stands out in this regard, followed much later by Friederich Nietzsche and then the pragmatic naturalists Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey in America, and also the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty in France.

Over the past twenty years, the situation in philosophy has begun to change. The terms ‘embodied mind’ and ‘embodied cognition’ have become buzzwords in psychology and the other cognitive sciences–and also, increasingly, in philosophy itself. Taking this change seriously is no small matter. If we give up the notion of a transcendent soul and a disembodied mind, then we must give up as well some of our most commonly cherished assumptions about what it means to be human.

Whenever philosophers want to challenge mind-body dualism, they nearly always criticize René Descartes (1596– 1650)–with good reason. Descartes claimed that reflection on our inner experience demonstrates that bodies are physical substances, extended in space and time, whereas minds are mental substances, having no spatial extension. Bodily substance exhibits and supports one set of ‘attributes’ (e.g., digestion, perception, body movement, locomotion), whereas mental substance supports a quite different set of characteristics (e.g., thinking, willing, reasoning).

The appeal of the idea of disembodied mind–to Descartes and to many people today–appears to be based on three considerations.

First, if the mind exists apart from the body, then life after death would be metaphysically plausible because a ‘mind-soul’ might be able to survive the death of our fragile human bodies.

Second, mind-body dualism seems to explain how human freedom and moral responsibility might be possible in a physical world governed by cause and effect. If the seat of our moral reasoning and willing lies in nonphysical substance, then, indeed, a part of us (i.e., our moral personality) may not be causally determined and could be the source of free choice and action. This idea underlies the great appeal of Kant’s assumption of a transcendent ego–the locus of rational willing that is not subject to the laws of nature governing all phenomenal beings and things. Kant eschewed Cartesian substance dualism, but his notion of the transcendent ego (as a “transcendental unity of apperception”) is his substitute for Cartesian mental substance.

Third, our everyday experience appears to confirm the disembodied character of our thinking. We often seem to experience our minds as different from, and even independent of, our bodies. For example, at this very moment, as I write these words, I am going to will myself not to reach over to pick up my cup of tea that calls out to me to take a drink. ‘I’ must control ‘myself,’ so it would seem that the ‘I’ that does the controlling must be different from and independent of the ‘self’ that is controlled. Our conceptual system and therefore our language incorporate this ostensible dualism.

Merleau-Ponty attributed this apparent experience of disembodied mind partly to the fact that in perception we are not aware of our bodily organs doing the perceiving: “The moment perception comes my body effaces itself before it and never does the perception grasp the body in the act of perceiving.”1 More recently, the American philosopher Drew Leder, in his intriguing book, The Absent Body, has catalogued the many ways in which the very nature of our bodily capacities causes us to experience perception and thinking as disembodied. In a chapter on what he calls the “ecstatic body,” for example, Leder shows how the structure of bodily perception hides the activity of the organs and processes of perception, as we attend only to what is being perceived and not to the conditions of that perception. . . .

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  • 1Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingus (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 9.