Posted by: L | August 10, 2007

Mind-in-Body: The ugliest part of your body..

Reviewing Shaun Gallagher’s How the Body Shapes the Mind, Oxford University Press:

What’s the ugliest
Part of your body?
What’s the ugliest
Part of your body?
Some say your nose
Some say your toes
But I think it’s your MIND…
I think it’s your mind

Leslie Marsh at, with some ruminations on the nature of embodiment (that is, consciousness as rooted in your body and not a free floating ghost in your head):

“Embodiment, a well entrenched paradigm within computer science and artificial intelligence circles, challenges the notion of the body as merely an antenna-like device, a receptacle for somatosensory and sensorimotor input..”

and again,

“One’s sense of location is not simply a function of our beliefs about the location of our body: it is the two-way cybernetic looping between brain, body, and world that matters. Knowledge includes knowledge of the constraints and possibilities of the human body’s interaction with the world, a notion that chimes very nicely with Arthur Glenberg’s research (not cited by Gallagher) at the Laboratory for Embodied Cognition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In a nutshell, Glenberg suggests that an ability to understand sentences seems to incorporate an agent’s knowledge about how its body might interact with objects in its environment. Gallagher does pose some profoundly intriguing questions concerning the relationship between embodiment and language. Returning to the case of “IW” Gallagher observes that “the self-organizing intentionality of language, including gesture, remains intact” because gesticulatory language is not dependent upon body schemas (p. 126).”


Will be back to cud-chew this as much as it deserves…..but meanwhile,

Beheaded rattlesnake sends man to hospital, according to AP:

“Anderson and his 27-year-old son, Benjamin, pinned the snake with an irrigation pipe and cut off its head with a shovel. A few more strikes to the head left it sitting under a pickup truck.
“When I reached down to pick up the head, it raised around and did a backflip almost, and bit my finger,” Anderson said. “I had to shake my hand real hard to get it to let loose.”

The same danger probably attends any kind of head severed from its body…..

Thus this blog and this post…

Getting back to Marsh and Gallagher. ‘IW” in the post is the name of a patient with a pathology of the sensory nerves. Those are the afferent nerves – the incoming ones that give you sensations of your limbs. IW’s problem is the damage this pathology has done to the feedback mechanisms needed for him to control his muscles and posture (functions included in the technical terms, proprioception and kinaesthesia).

What Gallagher found (if I have understood this right) was that IW had – as a compensation – developed a certain conscious monitoring of his skills. In normal people, that monitoring would simply have been in the background, not conscious, not part of his image of his body (not BI, body image). Instead, the monitoring would have been part of the pre-conscious “skill” or “capacity” of the body.

IW’s case suggests that people’s normal monitoring of their limbs is shaped by such pre-existing skills or capacities (what Gallagher called BS, or body scheme). BS is thus (at least, partly) innate. It’s prior to a person’s conscious idea of his body (BI) and doesn’t need BI to exist.

To explain that a bit more, Gallagher takes the example of people without limbs who still display persistent sensations of having those limbs in their brain activity – a phenomenon called aplasic phantoms. Where do these patients get these sensations from? Obviously not from the nerves in their limbs – since they don’t have any. So the sensation (of the limbs) must exist not in the physical appendage but in the nerve activity – as an embodied thought. That means that the sensations of the limbs are not simply stuck in the cranium like something tucked away in an attic but are distributed all over the whole body in the network of nerves.

There are interesting conclusions to be drawn from that. Once this limbless patient got a prosthetic, for instance, he or she would only have acquired a physical, tangible mechanism which would have to catch up with and fit into the awaiting body scheme (BS) which already had the necessary skills and sensations contained in it. In other words, the Body Scheme, with its pre-existing, taken-for-granted skills, exists apart from the actual limb.

So, what do these fascinating but arcane matters mean for practical politics? A lot.

One implication is that when you use sentences, for example, the likelihood is those sentences take the shape and structure they do because of the way you are situated in the world, the way you interact with it and see it. So the ideas that come out of your sentences are likewise “situated.” They can’t be uprooted and taken out of their human context.

(Update: Rereading the review, though, I see this sentence, which seems to contradict my assertion:

“the self-organizing intentionality of language, including gesture, remains intact” because gesticulatory language is not dependent upon body schemas.”
— so I await correction on this)

That should make us very suspicious of understanding concepts outside the exact historical and practical place in which they arise, for one thing. It should make us hostile toward using logic or theory in some kind of ahistoric, untextured, abstract way…..

Another inference. We might be wise to approach libertarianism not as an ideology about liberty – as people generally do — but as a pragmatic employment in particular historical situations of a libertarian way of “going on.” Which would be defined more as a how of things….more than a what. This attention to the process rather than ends would be what is generally called liberalism.

But liberalism is usually associated with a greater degree of state involvement than what is usually associated with libertarianism. Which is why I part company with it. It seems to me that liberals — so-called in politics today — are actually aligned with politics that are socialist and no where near liberal or libertarian positions. On the other hand, I would say that Paul’s constitutionalism, while not strictly libertarian, would be close it. I would suggest that democratic politics in a large state cannot by its nature be libertarian – or even liberal in the common usage. More on that in another post).

What more can we draw out from this research?
Attention to procedure, rather than to substantive ends…

Making the process fairer — rather than reaching for a predetermined fair goal.

Making things less political and more ethical, maybe…

Not sure if I am clear here or simply babbling….. But it’s 9 pM and I am beginning to lose touch with my embodied existence…



  1. Hi Lila,

    Though not salient to the above post, I thought you’d like to know that Frank Zappa whose lyrics I quote in my review, was a libertarian. His self-described his outlook which he terms “Practical Conservatism” can be found in his “autobiography” (Chapter 17, The Real Frank Zappa Book; see also Barry Miles’ excellent biography).

    What is of course so interesting is that Zappa was so independent of mind, an unsual trait in show-business circles.

    A point that often needs to be made is that Zappa’s “bohemian” lifestyle is perfectly compatible with his avowed socio-political outlook (Oakeshott another example). To be a libertarian or a conservative (in the Burkean sense) is however incompatible with the megaphone morality (fundamentalism) of neo-conservatism. Conservatism in the Burkean tradition or libertarianism in the Hayekian tradition (or indeed liberalism in the Millian tradition “experiments in living”) emphasize the necessarily adaptive dynamicism of cultural life and the dispertion of knowledge (moral or technical). This is profoundly at odds with the incoherent foundationalism that neo-cons expouse.


  2. MWQ —

    Thanks for that. Dispersion of knowledge — yes, that’s an important point, isn’t it..

    Another thing — there doesn’t seem to be any differentiation (in the social sciences, I mean) between different types of reasoning and differences in what counts as evidence….social scientists seem to make their arguments as if they were plotting points on flat pieces of paper, all alike…a model that is simply off the wall.

    (BTW, I am not sure how that sentence I referenced qualifies what your post was otherwise suggesting…)

    Having a technical vocabulary does help too, doesn’t it….adaptive dynamism…
    I’ll try and come up with a funky short hand for that, sometime.

    The Indian road is adaptively dynamic…that’s why anyone can actually get anywhere despite the chaos. People come by and say, oh look, no one follows any rules — how do they survive? But it’s so crowded, if you actually followed rules (the kind that can be written down) you’d never get where you wanted. Instead, people ignore the written rules but watch each others’ verbal and other cues constantly and sort of squeeze through…

    I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t follow rules..but sometimes something more complex is at work that excessive and literal rule-following doesn’t get to.


  3. I also like that you brought up Mill. Much more pragmatic and dynamic than you’d think from what some (like Gertrude Himmelfarb, for eg.) say about Millian liberalism…

  4. I very much like your Indian road analogy. It ties in nicely with my particular interest in stigmergy (the paper I sent you) and complexity in general.


  5. I confess, I haven’t read that yet, although I mean to as soon as I get a bit of a break….my reading is piling up…

  6. Not to worry. Though it gets technical, much of it is pretty accessible. I’m now working on a paper that might have more appeal to you: very briefly it involves locating Hayek’s neglected philosophical psychology within the current concerns of non-Cartesian cognitive science.

  7. Not a question of appeal..I find that whole area fascinating..just not enough hours in the day

  8. Also – I think classical liberalism/libertarianism is incompatible with neoconservatism yes, but surely also incompatible with big government of any ideological stripe – with the entire ethos of the managerial society…which includes big corporations, I think. Size is the issue with me. After a certain size, individualism is impossible..

    I think certain kinds of anarchist socialism (left libertarian) and traditionalism, some forms of conservatism (rooted in communities not the state)…ARE compatible with libertarianism …Hayek, I have reservations about, though – seems more doctrinaire than I like.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: