Tuesday, October 25, 2005

questions on scaffolding and affordances

First, I am pretty enthralled with this metaphor of scaffolding. Wittgenstein develops it in his On Certainty, but, if memory serves, he treats scaffolding as inherently faulty--the very reason he worries about his ability to know truths, like is there a God. Clark applies the metaphor to our leaky minds and the external structures we build in order to function. Scaffolding is an enabler rather than impediment. But in a spooky and interesting way, these two uses of scaffolding are more similar than different, depending on one's mood. A glass half empty/half full sorta thing. Wittgenstein's text, like Descartes', is also a first-person reflection on the nature of thought and being. Did The Embodied Mind mention Wittgenstein? Think so, but can't remember.

Second, this entire book seems to be all about affordances. The human mind functions the way it does because of its ability to use the world as a "wealth" of affordances. I liked how this work expands the notion of affordances to social knowledge, language, culture, rather than just physical objects in an environment (a tree available for climbing). In another class, I'm working on a research project about women recovering the rhetorical tradition from a history that excluded them. Most credit the advent of post structuralism with allowing this project to even start. So, post structural theory can be an affordance? So, schemas function as affordances? I worry that I may be misapplying the term. It seems if one stretches this concept too far, it loses its power.

Thirdly, I struggled to grasp the way the author reconciles models of computational with the enactive, connectionist brain as "associative engine." I also had a hard time understanding how we rely upon symbolic processing for certain things, like advanced cognition. For Clark, like for Varela, et al., this is a layer "above" the coupling stuff happening below. So, what does Clarks's discussion add to Varela's (the is a real question, not a rhetorical one...I want someone to tell me so I don't have to reread).

Unrelated aside: I focused mostly on the first four and last two chapters to get at this text. Otherwise, the concepts tended to blur and overwhelm. I felt like Otto in A Fish Called Wanda ("what was that middle part?").


Blogger Jim said...

I don't think you're stretching the idea of scaffolding/affordances too much (what's the difference between the two? we should talk about this). It seems like new historicism could also be "scaffolding" for opening up the conversation about women in rhetorical theory. Either way, new modes of thinking enabled/were enabled by thinkers to start working through an issue that "wasn't there" before.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Anthony M. said...

Your first point reminds me of the story Socrates tells in the Phaedrus, about the invention of writing. Writing is a really old fashioned external cognitive scafolding. In Socrates' story, the guy/god who invents writing (Theuth?), like Clark, thinks it'll be a great help to the human mind. The king (Thamus?), like Wittgenstein, says it will screw us up.... ok...

I also like the idea that theory (post-y or otherwise) is an affordance. It doesn't seem like a stretch at all since, at least in Clark's definition, an affordance can be "an opportunity for...interaction which some... state of affairs presents to a certain kind of agent" (172).

1:02 PM  
Blogger IB said...

mdl, I liked the questions you raised! I cannot reply to your first question since I am not very familiar with Wittgenstein. But in reply to your second topic: I think you are not stretching the concept of affordances too far. As long as a certain cultural schema or a word for a concept does not exist, the individual mind cannot make use of it. A kind of cycle seems to open up now that I am writing this. In terms of Fleck and Wenger, the schema or the words to express a certain concept evolve through interactions between individuals and between individuals and the world. Once they exist, the individual mind can use them as an affordance and they form the basis for further interactions and development of new schemas and words.

As to your third part, you confused me a little bit. The way I understood it, is that coupling takes place above other processes and not the other way around. It seems that I, too, have not quite understood how Clark fits both computational and embodied/enactive processes into the picture.

3:34 PM  

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