Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Michael Kimmel - The Arc from the Body to Culture: How Affect, Proprioception, Kinesthesia, and Perceptual Imagery Shape Cultural Knowledge (and vice versa)

From the new issue of The Integral Review, an interesting and theoretically complex article by neuroscientist Michael Kimmel, an expert in metaphor, imagery, socio-cultural embodiment, and literary cognition. In his most recent work, Kimmel has turned to Enactive Cognitive Science, with an ethnographic focus. His work is a perfect example of the transdisciplinary models on which this issue of Integral Review is focused, combining "phenomenological and biomechanical methods for studying improvisation in dance, martial arts, bodywork and other sophisticated interaction skills."

The Arc from the Body to Culture: How Affect, Proprioception, Kinesthesia, and Perceptual Imagery Shape Cultural Knowledge (and vice versa) 

By Michael Kimmel [1]  


This essay approaches the complex triadic relation between concepts, body, and culture from an angle rooted in the empirical cognitive research of the past three decades or so. Specifically, it reviews approaches to how the body gives a substrate to and shapes cultural cognition. One main section examines how the body contributes to cultural learning and another how abstract cultural concepts and reasoning are grounded in sensorimotor experience, perception, and inner somatic states. Both sections’ purpose is to survey and briefly critique different theoretical frameworks, probe into their complementarity, and summarily evaluate to what extent higher cognition is embodied. The third main section outlines elements of an epistemological framework that connects culture, concepts, and the body in a sensible way. The paper closes with a discussion of how the embodied cognition paradigm advances a rapprochement of different areas both within cognitive research and beyond.


The cognitive sciences are currently witnessing a surge of research that integrates questions that traditionally were the prerogative of the social sciences and humanities. One cornerstone of this development is an anti-Cartesian view of the human body as a shaper of higher cognition, somewhat parallel to the much cited “body-turn” in the social sciences. A growing camp of cognitive scientists now emphasizes that cognition is not disconnected from the human body, but grounded in sensory percepts, affect and other inner somatic experience, as well as imagery and sensorimotor activations. The debate revolves around the catchwords “embodiment” (of language or thought) and “(perceptual) grounding” or “perceptual simulation”. In this essay I will introduce empirical and theoretical developments of this field. The perspective applied takes into view the contribution of the body and bodily experience to cognition, thereby opening a compellingly fresh vista on ancient quandaries about the human condition bogged down by centuries of dualism and a general disregard for the body. Across academic disciplines contributions to this long-term paradigmatic agenda have cropped up, consolidated, and built up momentum towards a critical mass. The best indicator of “embodiment’s” coming of age is a currently emerging theory net that combines methods as well as viewpoints, radiates outwards, and stimulates empirical research.

The paper’s specific task is to demonstrate how recent research fundamentally reshapes our understanding of cultural concepts, reasoning, learning, and communication. In doing so, I will survey approaches from linguistics, psychology and anthropology that address these issues. I shall therefore deliberately insert the socio-cultural aspect into a triadic equation together with the body and cognition. This has a double implication: Researchers who understand culture as a generic property of being human use the notion of embodiment to emphasize that human knowledge is rooted not only in physical interaction with the world, but bodily mediated social intersubjectivity. A complementary viewpoint most typical of linguists and anthropologists investigates cultures (in plural), thus prompting questions like: “What is universal about the body and what varies?” and “How do human patterns of anatomy, locomotion, affect, etc. to the extent that they are transcultural, constrain or enable specific cultural manifestations?” [2]

We may begin with a couple of summary observations about recent theorizing that I aim to flesh out in due course, both as regards points of consensus and certain rifts:
1. Cognitive theory is moving away from a view of meaning encapsulated in the “mind”. As the cognitive philosopher Mark Johnson succinctly formulates in an interview, a presently growing view sees meaning as “located in the complex, dynamic arc of interactions that includes brains, bodies, environments, and cultural artifacts and institutions” (Pires de Oliveira & de Souza Bittencourt, 2008, p. 45). Correspondingly, we are currently witnessing a growth of three overlapping research trends that focus on socio-cultural, embodied, and collective/ distributed cognition, respectively. With this triple turn away from the internalistic and disembodied orientation of past cognitive theory research is reaching a point where it is effectively “growing into” the agenda formerly thought to belong to the social sciences.  
2. In the embodiment paradigm, my present focus, the body shapes human reasoning and it is a medium for acquiring conceptual skills. Thus, many recent theories bootstrap higher levels of cognition from basic perceptual and bodily skills. With this we have come to a better, although not full, understanding of abstract concepts. I propose that the foundations of abstract thought constitute a key site for our understanding of the relation between body and culture, particularly as they relate to the important but vague notion of ideological “superstructure”. In this field, there is an essential complementariness between views that develop the compositional structure of complex schemas (i.e. morphology) and those that analyze the ontogenetic development of abstract ideas.  
3. Embodied cognition views abstain from pitting the body against culture. They agree that it is false to assume that abstract “metaculture” is remote from and ontologically set apart from the body, as many traditional accounts both in the cognitive and social sciences presuppose. Many recent analyses show that bodily constituents (e.g. schemas of verticality, path, or balance) become scaffolded to shape abstract concepts, abstract concept learning often happens via bodily practices, and so forth.  
4. The precise relation between body and culture is more debated. It depends on whether we ask cultural phenomenologists, cognitive linguists, or cross-cultural psychologists, to name a few key positions. In my view, a unilateral determination of culture by a (universal) body does not match up with the joint weight of comparative research, although some approaches selectively emphasize this. We need to take scholars seriously who emphasize that inchoate body experience can be inherently cultural or that cultural models in turn filter and modulate what the body contributes to cognition. Starting from an inherently reciprocal causation between culture and body, our task is to work out the specifics and examine the relative contribution of each by domain in a cross-cultural view.  
5. Embodied theorizing is still far from monolithic regarding the specific aspects of the body it focuses on. Even when we only look at abstract concepts bodily cognition can refer to anything from kinesthetic or spatial schemas used to build metaphors, via inner affects to subtly “simulated” sensorimotor action tendencies. In fact, various strands of research rarely interact at present. As one important future site of inquiry, I shall pinpoint two complementary, but seldom combined viewpoints. One of these asks how cultural concepts help us reason and create inferences, while the other asks how cultural concepts become motivational by creating qualitatively saturated somatic states that give rise to “embodied commitments”. 
The present challenge therefore lies in connecting various perspectives in a nuanced way. An integrative view should make space both for cognitive universals and cultural situatedness, allow for several types of embodiment (e.g. affective and perceptual simulation), and specify how methods and theories at different levels converge (e.g. abstracting and context-situated views). To do this, this paper must cultivate an epistemological sensitivity, while resting on the conviction that key issues like how universal the body is and how putative universals shape cultural ideas also decisively depend on data from as many fields and as many cultures as possible. This strategy alone will allow us to incrementally build domain-specific evidence, so as to avoid premature generalizations.

Here is the plan of the essay: The remainder of this section introduces what the “body” and “embodiment” mean and in reaction to which traditions the paradigm entered the arena. The second section discusses the body’s role in cultural learning and, as a contested but decisive battleground, the nature of abstract concepts. Along the way a host of largely complementary empirical approaches to embodied concept analysis are surveyed. The third section identifies a number of epistemological challenges we face in connecting the triad “culture”, “concepts”, and "body” without succumbing to reductionisms (such as typically result from a narrow scope of research methods). [3] The concluding section traces the ways in which the cultural side of the embodied cognition paradigm calls into question disciplinary boundaries. It fosters a rapprochement between cognitive scientists, anthropologists, (social) psychologists, sociologists, and linguists, and beyond this may establish a genuine interface within a “vertically integrated” common architecture that reaches out to the humanities (cf. Slingerland 2008).

Notes from above text:
1. Michael Kimmel is based at the University of Vienna. Trained in cognitive linguistics, he has extensively published on metaphor, imagery, socio-cultural embodiment, and literary cognition. More recently he turned to Enactive Cognitive Science, with an ethnographic focus. As the leader of a research team he presently combines phenomenological and biomechanical methods for studying improvisation in dance, martial arts, bodywork and other sophisticated interaction skills.  
2. To anticipate a possible misunderstanding it should be noted that a large body of literature on cultural cognition either operates outside the embodiment paradigm (e.g. by positing propositional cultural schema, narratives, reasoning or argumentation patterns without a notable embodied aspects to them) or discusses phenomena that include embodiment, but go beyond it. It is not my present intention to review these, a task that would take a separate paper (see Shore 1996, Cienki 1999, Kimmel 2002, 2004). 
3. Note that I will avoid on purpose the debates on representationalism, objectivism vs. constructivism, and the mind-brain issue.  
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