Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Reading Clark reading Varela

An aside: BEING THERE entertained me (am I allowed to be entertained?) and (mostly) satisfied my urge for a synthesis of our recent cognitive science readings with some of the cultural anthropology earlier in the course (though it did, despite revealing, via chapter-titles, a rather insistent desire to be likeable and fun, verge at times on the dense/overly technical).

In any case, despite the wealth of material available, I wanted to call attention in my post to the passage on page 173 in which Clark explicitly acknowledges THE EMBODIED MIND as an influence on his work and elaborates a few key differences. In particular, he notes: “Varela et al. use their reflections as evidence against realist and objectivist views of the world. I deliberately avoid this extension, which runs the risk of obscuring the scientific value of an embodied, embedded approach by linking it to the problematic idea that objects are not independent of mind.” What might objective, independent reality mean for Clark, then? How exactly does he re-establish a ground beneath our feet, as it were? And how are Varela et al. “obscuring the scientific value” of an embodied approach to cognition (is this condescension at the book’s incorporation of Buddhism, or does Clark mean that questioning objects independent of mind doesn’t allow for the kind of look at artifacts/external scaffolding that interests him?)?

Clark also distances himself from Varela et al. by claiming a space for representation and information-processing in models of cognition. I wondered how effective you found Clark’s re-conception of representation as control mechanism, rather than mirror/encoder of the world; that is, as a structure rather than a description. It seems such a radical re-conception that I wondered if (and how) the word still applied.

Finally: I was amused that in footnote 41 to Chapter 7, Clark attempts to find seeds of conflict among the coauthors on the issue of representation: “I cannot help but suspect that there is some disagreement among Varela, Thompson, and Rosch on this issue for in places (e.g., pp. 172-179) their argument deliberately stops short of this radical conclusion whereas elsewhere (e.g. chapter 10) it seems to endorse it.” It seemed v. contrary to the spirit of that book to pick out strands of selfhood, but do you think THE EMBODIED MIND contains inconsistent attitudes toward representation?


Blogger mdl said...

Thanks for your post, Eileen. I too want a clearer understanding of how this work is different from the Embodied Mind. Your post points to some good places to start.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Anthony M. said...

I don't think you're that far off in taking this point of differentiation as Clark's (partial? friendly? ??) condescension to the last book's incorporation of Buddhist understandings. Or at least a suggestion that they aren't as serious/valuable as Western science that enables us to know the Real world. I think he's basically trying to say "Some people are crazy enough to question whether there's 'really' a world 'out there,' but that's a silly metaphysical question." Or maybe it's "If there isn't 'really' a Real world 'out there', we might as well give up thinking, so let's forget about that."

That is, I think Clark's "objective independent reality" is the standard one we've always thought of and taken seriously. He's defending this difficult group of ideas he's describing because he thinks (knows?) that to do something with "scientific value" you can't be a crazy/relativist/metaphysics-obsessed/superstitious Buddhist (or substitute postmodernist) and say there might not be a fixed, objectively Real world. He seems to think that that kind of stuff might make you feel good or something, but it's not about truth or practical things. Varela and co. would disagree....

1:31 PM  

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