27th September, 2023
|Session 1 – Chapter 7: The Cartesian Anxiety
|Dr Sebastjan Vörös
11th October, 2023
|Session 2 – Chapter 8: Enaction: Embodied Cognition
|Dr Valérie Bonnardel
25th October, 2023
|Session 3 – Chapter 9: Evolutionary Path Making and Natural Drift
|Dr Ezequiel Di Paolo
|17:00 CET (!)
8th November, 2023
|Session 4 – Chapter 10: The Middle Way
|Dr Jay Garfield
22nd November, 2023
|Session 5 – Chapter 11: Laying Down a Path in Walking
|Roshi Dr Joan Halifax
6th December, 2023
|Session 6 – Concluding discussion
|Dr Evan Thompson and fellow guest speakers
Session 1 – Chapter 7: The Cartesian Anxiety
In his talk, Dr Vörös will delve into Chapter VII of The Embodied Mind, intriguingly titled “The Cartesian Anxiety”. This short and almost deceptively simple chapter plays a pivotal role in the book, as it marks the transition from the first, and more critical part, in which the authors outline the general framework of their narrative and highlight the shortcomings of opposing views, to the second, and more constructive part, in which they provide a positive account of their own perspective. The reason why this chapter is so significant is because it hints at the multilayered nature of their positive account: the latter, according to the authors, is not only intended as an alternative scientific (theoretical) model but also as a more general, all-encompassing existential stance towards the world and others. Put differently, Varela, Thompson and Rosch try to bring our attention to the existential roots of the theoretical views they are critiquing, arguing that they originate in a deep-seated anxiety and grasping for firm, secure foundations (both epistemic and epistemological).
In his talk, Dr Vörös will begin by summarising some of the main points laid down during the previous presentations, thus situating the chapter within the book’s overall framework. Then, he will flesh out the three central thematic clusters of the chapter: the notion of representation; the Cartesian anxiety; and the (preliminary) steps to a middle way. Finally, he will offer some tentative pointers for how these ideas will be further developed in the remainder of the book.
Session 2 – Chapter 8: Enaction: Embodied Cognition
Dr Valérie Bonnardel will present and discuss chapter 8 of the book, entitled “Enaction: Embodied Cognition”. After a brief presentation of cognitivism and its impact in cognitive psychology syllabi as they are typically taught in universities today, the lecture will present the chapter itself. Given the limitations of cognitive realism in providing a satisfactory understanding of human behaviour (and its failure to account for human experience), concepts of embodied cognition, enaction, and structural coupling are proposed to address these limitations. This alternative theoretical framework is illustrated in the domain of colour perception where a more sensible conceptualisation of the colour phenomenon is made possible through cognition considered as embodied action.
Session 3 – Chapter 9: Evolutionary path making and natural drift
Chapter 9 of The Embodied Mind helps us envision what an enactive cognitive science looks like. A good part of the chapter is dedicated to exploring an analogy between the situation in the sciences of the mind and in theoretical biology. Evolutionary thinking, which is central to biology, has been dominated by the adaptationist programme, very much in the same way that cognitive science has been dominated by the computationalist/representationalist dogma. The parallels between the two ways of thinking are many, including a preference for reductionist, linear, modular, and internalist explanations. In both cases the environment plays the role of an independent set of problems and it is the task of evolution and of cognition to find optimal solutions to these problems. The chapter explores strong criticisms of the adaptationist programme in biology. They broadly correspond to the authors’ own criticism of computationalism in cognitive science. In the process, an enactive alternative comes into sharper focus and crucially, a move from criticism into a positive science of life and mind begins to take shape. This move is illustrated by the then nascent (re)birth of autonomous robotics, which the authors describe as a kind of enactive AI.
- Levins, Richard and Lewontin, Richard. (1985). The Dialectical Biologist. Harvard University Press.
- Oyama, Susan (1985/2000). The Ontogeny of Information. Developmental Systems and Evolution. Duke University Press.
Session 4 – Chapter 10: The Middle Way
Chapter 10 of The Embodied Mind holds up well after over three decades, testimony to the insight it reflects and to the power of the ideas derived from the Madhyamaka tradition on which the authors rely. In this lecture and discussion, Dr Jay Garfield will invite us to take a step back for a more comprehensive view of groundlessness. He will first draw attention to the connections of its ontological, epistemological, methodological, and ethical dimensions to one another. We can then explore how to conceive of groundlessness in terms of the Madhyamaka doctrine of the two truths, the Sellarsian vision of the two images, the Huayan metaphor of the net of Indra (and non-well-founded set theory), and the Chan vision of the pervasiveness of cognitive illusion.
Beyond the chapter itself, there is nothing that anyone needs to read. But suggested reading – if anyone wants to do some extra work – might include:
- Chapter 24 of MMK,
- Chapters 2 and 4 of the Cowherds, Moonshadows: Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy.
- Chapters 5 and 12 of the Cowherds. Moonpaths: Ethics and Emptiness.
- Chapter 1 of Garfield, The Concealed Influence of Custom: Hume’s Treatise From the Inside Out,
- or chapters 4, 5, and 7 of Garfield (ed.), Wilfrid Sellars and Buddhist Philosophy,
- or the epilogue by Bob Sharf to Deguchi, Garfield, Priest, and Sharf, What Can’t Be Said: Paradox and Contradiction in East Asian Thought.
Session 5 – Chapter 11: Laying down a path in walking
This concluding chapter examines some of the ethical dimensions of groundlessness in relation to the concern with nihilism that is typical of much post-Nietzschean thought. In the humanities—in art, literature, and philosophy—the growing awareness of groundlessness has taken form not through a confrontation with objectivism but rather with nihilism, scepticism, and extreme relativism. Indeed, this concern with nihilism is typical of late-twentieth-century life. Its visible manifestations are the increasing fragmentation of life, the revival of and continuing adherence to a variety of religious and political dogmatisms, and a pervasive yet intangible feeling of anxiety, which writers depict so vividly. It is for this reason—and because nihilism and objectivism are actually deeply connected—that the chapter turns to consider in more detail the nihilistic extreme.