Wednesday, October 12, 2005

turning negatives into positives

One of the more interesting phenomena I have observed since I began graduate school it the push to think negatively: when we examine a particular work, one of our first tendencies is to argue how it is wrong. Only this week, we were given before class a written assignment to criticize the book under discussion. This resulted in 15 people tearing the book apart for the guts of three hours. The instructor had to ask late in the day – “was there anything in this book that you liked?”

The move to jump on the negative appears to be institutional. How we progress and differentiate ourselves partly involves thrusting spears into the shoulders of the giants on which we stand. One of the most startling aspects of The Embodied Mind – and there is much starting news in this text – is its inclusiveness. Open practically any page and you will find synthesis rather than division. An example: “the most interesting relation between subsymbolic emergence and symbolic computation is one of inclusion, in which we see symbols as higher-level description of properties that are ultimately embedded in an underlying distributed system” (101). By looking at different, and sometimes opposing, ways of looking at the world, this book shows how it is possible to generate creative thinking that builds on the past rather than divides it.

The most radical claim in this book – that there is no self – is not new, although it is the first time we have seen it on this course. How it is presented here is certainly new to me, however. There are two reasons for this: first, the book is written from three perspectives: a psychologist, a philosopher, and an immunoligist-turned-neuro-scientist; second, it incorporates a world faith, Buddhism, and situates it in an emergent-cognitive context. I find the combination of these two elements – the interdisciplinary approach, and the inclusion of a faith-based system of knowledge – terrifically exciting. What it all means, I am not sure. The fusion of such disparate fields means that practically anyone who reads this book is going to be at a loss in some areas.

As a template for building new knowledge, however, it is an exciting step; I am looking forward to seeing what we make of it on Thursday.


Blogger mdl said...

Hi Shawn, I totally agree. Perhaps we feel we need to "criticize" to "criticize" if you know what I mean. And I also like how they incorporate the two models: one's at play on top, but the real cognition is at play down below. But, then I was thinking, it is still pretty much saying that traditional cognitivists are out of it and that their theory is the "true foundation." Do you know what I mean? It's rhetorically handled well, but it's just as dismissive as saying, "you people are only scratching the surface."

2:54 PM  

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