Monday, December 13, 2010

With your feet in the air...

Andy Clark wants to argue that we don't just think in our heads and, against Descartes, that the mind is both embodied and extended.  I sort of agree.  But his piece for The Stone reminds us why ordinary language is important in philosophy.  For one thing, he begins and ends with references to the Pixies' "Where is My Mind?" without showing any sign that he has noticed how psychedelic the song is.  The question it asks is not a normal question.  Yet Clark offers an answer as if it were a perfectly straightforward question.  This doesn't prove that he's making a mistake, but it's a sign that maybe something is wrong.

Secondly, as if aware of this, he resorts to some rather odd language:   
Is it possible that, sometimes at least, some of the activity that enables us to be the thinking, knowing, agents that we are occurs outside the brain?
This seems like a strange way of asking whether thinking and knowing occur outside the brain.  The answer to the question "Where does thinking occur?" is: where there is intelligent life.  I.e., in such places as libraries and studies, in comfy chairs and so on (as well as in less obviously intellectual locations, too, of course).  Saying that we think inside our brains is like saying that we see inside our eyes.  It is, in other words, a mistake.  I expect that this is one possible reason why Clark uses the odd form of words that he does.  But the answer to the odd question is just: Of course.  One activity that enables me to be the thinking, knowing agent that I am is eating.  Another is breathing.  These activities involve the brain, but they do not take place inside it. 

I'm not saying anything new here, as most people who read this are likely to know.  It's the kind of point that I'm told Peter Hacker makes repeatedly in some of his recent work.  And he takes his inspiration from Wittgenstein.  But it's not as if Hacker's work has changed the direction of neuroscience or the philosophy of mind.  Amazon quotes a reviewer from Philosophy saying of this book that: "Whether this book leads to a reconfiguring of contemporary neuroscience and the philosophy associated with it will tell us much about the dynamics of contemporary intellectual life."  I suspect that it will not have the reconfiguring effect that Hacker would like to see.  

But what would this tell us about the dynamics of contemporary intellectual life?  That people ignore philosophers?  That's part of it, but Clark is a philosopher, as are many of the people that Hacker criticizes.  It seems to be more that people don't want to have to deal with human beings.  We prefer things (like brains) to people (or "the thinking, knowing agents that we are").  And this preference is surely linked to the need for an organized campaign to defend the humanities in universities and colleges.  There is money to study brains, but not to study human beings qua human beings.  I doubt Clark thinks as he does because of any financial incentive, but the forces pushing him to think as he does are perhaps the same ones that push others to attack the humanities as worthless.  Scientism, in a word, I suppose.  (I should emphasize the word perhaps here--I can't know why Clark thinks as he does.)


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