Prof. Mark Johnson at the University of Oregon: Language and Embodied Mind (2016)

  • Mark Johnson argues that “aesthetics lies at the heart of our very capacity to make meaning, to have any experience at all.” 

  • “Human meaning…goes beneath the depths of language into the depths of our engagement with the world."

    • If you want to understand human meaning and communication, and experience, cognition, values—you have to delve deeply into the body, and the way the body engages its environment, to see how meaning is built up from that.

      • This is a profoundly aesthetic undertaking 

      • Any useful theory of communication must be centrally focused on the phenomena we will discuss now:

  • Aesthetics concerns everything that goes into our ability to grasp the meaning and significance of any aspect of our experience, and so it involves form and structure, the qualities that define the situations of our lives, our felt sense of the meaning of things, our rhythmic engagement with our surroundings, our emotional interactions, and so forth.

    • Meaning reaches down into the body, and aesthetics is about all of the ways in which meaning emerges for us.

  •  "Art is an exemplary manifestation of meaning-making"

    • That's why we care about it when we do​

  • Mind is embodied. 

    • Embodied cognition theory: Mind, meaning, thought and value all arise from the ongoing interactions of a bodily organism with its environment. That environment is at once physical, interpersonal and cultural. 

      • ​An organism in ongoing interactions with its environment is the fundamental structure
        • Consequently, there can be no disembodied meaning. 

  • The cognitive science of the embodied mind (since the 1970s) 

    • The fundamental assumption is that human beings are embodied human animals, and therefore all our meaning, thinking and communicative practices emerge from our visceral engagement with our world ​

      • (human) Being is interactive, transactive, enactive 

        • If you want to understand where meaning comes from, and how language, communication and value are possible, you've got to see the organism embedded in its environment  ​

    • From an evolutionary perspective: We appropriate sensory-motor, affective, motivational structures evolved for survival, for abstract reasoning, thought and communication 

      • ​"...our behavior and experience must be understood to be elaborations of primordial systems for perceiving, evaluating, and acting. When we study the brain to look for networks controlling cognition, we find that all the networks that have been implicated in cognition are linked in one way or the other to sensory systems, to motor systems, or to motivational systems." -- Don Tucker, Mind from Body( 2007).

  • You cannot give an adequate account of meaning by only talking about "brain;" the brain is always in ongoing interactions with environment 

  • Embodied Meaning: Meaning arises from our bodily and interpersonal interactions with our environments 
    • To say that something is meaningful is to say that it calls forth in some way experience, either past, present or future possible experience
      • Meaning is thus relational: It is about how one thing, quality, or event relates to or connects with other things or events.
    •  The meaning of something is what it affords you, by way of experience
      • i.e. A bottle affords pick-up-ability, drink0ability, throw-ability​
        • The meaning of it gets cached out in ​its "affordances" 
          • Physical, sensory, perceptual affordances and also social roles, etc. ​
            • i.e. The water in the bottle ​can be associated with religious ritual
  • Most of the meaning we engage, the thought that goes on, is not conscious.
    • It is not accessible by consciousness
    • Meaning operates within a vast, continuous, unconscious or barely conscious process of organism-environment transactions​
      • Involves images, patterns, qualities, feelings, emotions ​
      • Sometimes we conceptually, propositionally develop these meanings, but the big mistake is to take that as though that's what meaning is. 
        • If you take that view--that the locus of meaning is sentences, language, etc.---you will never understand whmost of what human beings. You won't understand art, you won't understand ritual practice, you won't understand music, you won't understand parts of poetry, spontaneous gesture, and on-and-on​
          • because these are not propositional in structure ​
  • Example of meaning-making: ​A baby lays on its back kicking, grasping, moving. A year later the child now begins walking, holding things in its hands purposefully. 
    • ​The baby learns the affordance of its environment ​​
    • She learns how her world becomes possible for her, and what it means 
      • In a primitive way ​
  • Think of the ways your body engages its environment. You experience:
    • Verticality​​
    • Containers
    • Things moving from a source along a path towards a goal 
      • You move your own body in that way to achieve purposes ​
    • Balance ​and loss of balance 
    • Center and periphery
    • Front-back
    • Near-far
    • Iteration 
      • These structures are meaning at the most primitive level ​
        • They are meaningful for us, and shared by human beings​
          • These can be elaborated culturally so that you get differentiation 
            • All around the world people make use of "image-schematic" structure in their lives, it shows up in their language and their symbols, etc. ​
  • Bodily logic of Image-Schemas 
    • The container schema ​involves:
      • ​A boundary (2 or 3 dimensional)
      • An interior (within the boundary)
      • An exterior (outside the boundary) 
  • So how do we get to abstract concepts???
    • The Embodied Cognition Hypothesis holds that "abstract" concepts are constructed by recruiting the meaning and logic (inference) structure of our sensory-motor-affective experiences
    • Basic metaphors take a bodily and social source-domain (like vision) and they map it onto a domain that we regard as more abstract ​
      • These metaphors are not accidental or arbitrary, they're motivated profoundly by our bodily engagement with the world and the way our environments are structured, and put us in touch with important aspects of our being 
        • 30 years of cross-cultural work on this ​​
      • Example: Affection is Warmth
        • Subjective Judgement: Affection​
        • Sensory-motor domain: Temperature​
        • Experiential basis: feeling warmth while being held affectionately 
        • Examples: "I received a warm welcome;" "Our relationship has cooled off recently"
  • Metaphor is not just a linguistic device, it’s a fundamental device of our making sense of things

    • i.e. Types of Spontaneous Gesture (see video at 23:40) 

      • Beat Gestures 

      • Iconic Gestures 

      • Metaphoric Gestures

        • i.e. “On the one hand… but on the other…” Uses physical experience of weighing things 

      • See Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal About Thought by David McNeill (2007) 

  • Emotion in Meaning and Thought (Antonio Damasio)

    • An organism in environment has to maintain a homeostatic balance if it's to live and survive and flourish 

    • The body has developed automatic mechanisms for determining how the body’s being affected by its environment, and responding accordingly 

      • Emotional response patterns are just that: Automated patterns that run on the basis of our ability to monitor our body states and see what changes need to be made. Sometimes we feel those changes in our body states and then we say we feel an emotion. 

        • What could be more meaningful than your body’s affective engagement with its environment?

          • It’s telling you how things are going for your right now. 

    • Emotions lie at the heart of our ability to make sense of our world and act intelligently within it.

      • Emotions are a fundamental part of meaning. 

  • The Embodied Aesthetics of Human Understanding

    • When the body's taken seriously, then aesthetics gets thrust front and center, as the starting point of all philosophical reflection.

      • Aesthetics concerns everything that goes into the meaning of any situation: perceptions, images, qualities, feelings, emotions, affect contours, etc.

      • Aesthetics, as Dewey noted, is not just about art and aesthetic judgment, but rather about how we experience and make meaning, so that art and so-called "aesthetic" experience are simply exemplary events of meaning-making.