Embodied knowledge vs. flesh and blood11 min read

As DiMaggio (1997) originally noted, most sociological theories of action make assumptions about the nature of cognition even as they dismiss any explicit discussion of cognition in favor of “social” explanation. Thinking about how culture comes to be taken up by the mechanisms of cognition and how it influences action through those mechanisms would, theoretically, address deficits in sociological theories of action and, at the same time, correct the bias towards extreme individualism that pervaded the cognitive sciences from the 1950s to the 1990s (which, as Dryfus (1992) has been screaming for his entire career, made them useful for writing chess-playing programs and little else). Persons, according to this view, are not mere symbol-processing machines, but culturally-informed symbol-processing machines, whose chaotic interaction with the myriad cultural forms of everyday life naturally produces both behavioral and cultural variation (DiMaggio, 1997: 272).

As new theory tends to do, these symbolic-schematic accounts of how action comes to be solved some problems and created a few more. In cognitive science, the symbol-processing model simply failed to manifest its promises in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics. From the 1980s through the early 2000s, most programmers and engineers tried to mimic intelligent behavior by writing programs composed of internally consistent symbol systems. While this produced some laudable feats (one thinks of Deep Blue’s famous triumph over the then world chess champion Gary Kasparov), they were limited to extremely bounded tasks that lent themselves to abstraction. In contrast, physical tasks that nine-month-old babies did with ease were arduously recreated by robotics engineers only to fail as soon as the environment in which they were performed was slightly altered. This begged the question: if human intelligence is basically a complex symbol-processing mechanism, then why are artificial symbol-processing systems so unbelievably inept at tasks so simply any human could perform with without any amount of thought or attention?

In sociological theory, the symbol-processing model of culture and cognition painted a picture of an agent who, rather than simply responding to culture, could explore and engage with it. But the nature of the mechanism(s) that allowed for this remained opaque. In other words, if culture is internalized as cognitive architecture, what is the process of internalization? How are the cultural “logics,” “schemas,” and “heuristics” that, in interaction with the social world (or “stimuli” for the cognitive scientists) acquired and applied?

Embodiment in Social Theory

Enter the embodiment perspective. The turn towards embodiment, both within culture and cognition (Ignatow, 2007; Strand & Lizardo, 2015; Winchester, 2016) and, increasingly, within cognitive science itself (Edelman, 2004; Rowlands, 2011), has been an attempt to address these issues. In social theory, the embodiment perspective accounts for culture’s internalization by theorizing that the systems of thought that ground our ability to engage with the world – perception, the formation of habits, and the execution of habitual behavior – are essentially informed by the iterative interactions of the body with the world. For some thinkers, a capacity for “deliberation” is a feature of embodiment (Joas, 1996; Winchester, 2016), this capacity itself depends on the repertoire of habits that result from the body’s immersion in the world. Our capacity for action and the cognitive schemas and logics on which it depends finds its root in the body’s grounding in a stable world from which, through infinite experimental explorations from the first day of life until the day we die, it amasses “embodied knowledge.”

This theory of cognition has been extremely fruitful for cognitive scientists and robotics engineers. Robots fitted with exploratory learning algorithms have fared far better at problem-solving in various arenas compared to their symbol-processing predecessors (Edelman, 2004). In sociology, too, the conceptualization of knowledge as fundamentally embodied is enjoying somewhat of a heyday in sociological theory (e.g. Martin, 2011). And no wonder, since theories of embodied knowledge have several advantages over symbol-processing theories of cognition. For example, they provide an explanation of how cultural knowledge is acquired, maintained, and changed over time. In addition, they lend themselves to habit-oriented theories of action. And finally, they continually situate subjects within the world they inhabit, making a retreat into the theatre of the mind in order to “deliberate,” “calculate,” or “problem-solve” in a wholly abstract fashion analytically unnecessary. This feature of the embodiment perspective has been particularly attractive for action theorists interested in dismantling the legacy of the Cartesian model of the human subject (Crossley, 2013; Scheper-Hughes & Lock, 1987; Turner, 1984; Whitford, 2002), and for sociological theory more generally because it provides a detailed explanatory account of the inseparability of individual and society (Joas, 1996; Martin, 2011).

Beyond Representationalism

Nevertheless, despite the radical situatedness advanced by contemporary theories of embodiment in culture and cognition, a specter of their theoretical predecessors remains. Specifically, the theorization of embodied knowledge tends to conceptualize that knowledge not as a feature of the flesh and blood of the physical body in the world, but as a series of representations of bodily capacities developed and stored in the brain. Ignatow (2007: 122), for example, refers to a “repertoire of embodiments…stored in memory with cognition and language rather than in a separate location.” This makes sense intuitively. The brain, after all, is the ultimate site of the choreography of habitual behavior. We might speak of “muscle memory,” but the effortless sequencing of movements to which that phrase refers relies on patterned neuronal connections in the motor cortex. By themselves, the muscles that articulate activity know nothing of these connections. It is therefore often easy to ignore the physical body in favor of the cognitive representations that map the repertoire of habits it has access to.

But to do so is to mistake the choreography for the dancer. When we neglect the role that the flesh and blood of the physical body plays in the development and maintenance of habitual behavior, we describe embodiment only in its foundational capacity, its ability to give rise to the world immersion that characterizes experience in moments of habitual flow. Even in these moments, however, embodiment is continually vulnerable to breakdown. When we are ill or injured, for example, the cognitive infrastructure that encodes embodied knowledge can no longer make itself manifest. This aspect of embodiment – its vulnerability to disorientation and ungroundedness – is as much a feature of its nature as its ability to act as the bedrock of being-in-the-world.

This is an observation that Maurice Merleau-Ponty made more than half a century ago. Like contemporary theorists of culture and cognition, Merleau-Ponty (1962, p. 102) conceived of habit formation as “a rearrangement and renewal of the corporeal schema”; but he was also always careful to emphasize that the corporeal schema, or “habit-body”, was only intelligible when married to a corresponding “body at this moment.” The specific habit-creating character of human subjectivity, “always already” immersed in its world, relies fundamentally on the fact that the flesh and blood of the physical body (unlike its cognitive representation in the nervous system) extends into that world.

As such, the body is simultaneously an objective part of the world, on the one hand, and the foundation for subjective experience, on the other. This insight allows Merleau-Ponty to account both for the effortless enactment of habitual behavior that structures daily life and the ever-present possibility of a breakdown in the flow of experience it gives rise to: “The fusion of soul and body in the act, the sublimation of biological into personal existence, and of the natural into the cultural world is made both possible and precarious by the temporal structure of our existence” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 97, italics added).

Recognizing the possibility of breakdown as an essential element of embodiment is important for its conceptualization for two reasons. First, it is simply an accurate description of the reality of embodied experience: our habits are accessible and deployable only to the extent that we possess a body capable of enacting them. “Embodied knowledge” is not enough. Second, a recognition of the tenuousness of embodied knowledge opens up a novel space for theorizing how ruptures in the flow of existence produce behavioral variation. Like disjunctures between ideology and the material conditions of life (Swidler, 1986), or ruptures in the relationship between habitus and history (Bourdieu, 2004), breakdowns in the relationship between the physical body and the cognitive structures that map its history of activity give rise to opportunities for creative behaviour, as subjects are forced to contend with the experience of being “thrown” into an action that they are newly incapable of performing.


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