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Human Cognition is an Embodied Activity


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Human Cognition is an Embodied Activity


We have all grown up to consider thought to be primarily a matter of language and propositions. We have not generally been taught this notion explicitly but have acquired it through social osmosis (picked it up without conscious effort because it is a notion that permeates our culture, i.e. it is a traditional notion). “…there is thought without language; this is possible because thought originates in our sense of spatial and kinesthetic orientation in the world.”


Common sense or, as cognitive science labels it, folk theory informs us that “all things are a kind of thing”. All things have in common with other things certain characteristics; i.e. all things belong in categories with other like things. Things are categorized together based upon what they have in common. It might be worth while to think of category as being a container.


In classical or conventional terms we categorize things in accordance with what are regarded as being that which is essential to that kind of thing. All things that are essentially the same fall into the same category. What is essential to a tree is that which is necessary and sufficient for that thing to be classified as a tree. To categorize a thing, i.e. define a thing, is to give its essential characteristics.


In some way or another all creatures must categorize. At a minimum all creatures must distinguish friend from foe or eat and not eat. Categorization is part of the fundamental needs for survival of the creature. If the mouse mistakes a snake for a stick that mouse becomes toast; the same categorization problem applies to the lion and to the man.


Categorization is meaningful. Meaning is not a thing; something is meaningful for a creature only when there is an association between that thing and the creature. “Meaningfulness derives from the experience of functioning as a being of a certain sort in an environment of a certain sort.” It is meaningful to a soldier when s/he mistakenly categorizes a tank to be only a harmless bush or an enemy to be a friend.


There is nothing more meaningful for a creatures’ survival than correct categorization of the world in which that creature lives.


Most all of us have heard the story of a group of blind men who were taken to touch an elephant to learn what elephants were like. Each of the blind men touched only one part of the elephant and then later, when comparing notes of what they felt, learned that they were all in complete disagreement as to what an elephant is. This story is useful for demonstrating how “reality” may be viewed based upon one’s perspective. That which often appears to be so obviously “true” may be just a matter of point of view.


Imagine now how the blind man, who had touched the leg of the elephant and “categorized” it as like a tree or the one who had touched the tail of the elephant and “categorized” it as like a rope, might change their “categorization” had they been given a ride sitting on top of the elephants back.


Scientists in the field of cognitive science inform us that categorization is neither consistently very abstract nor consistently very concrete. “It is rather consistently functional.” The first level of categorization is “followed by an endless process of further categorization which moves in both the abstract and the concrete direction.”


These scientists inform us that they have “found that there is a level of categorization that is psychologically basic in the sense that: (1) categories at his level are learned earliest and named first; (2) category names at this level are the shortest and most frequently used in the language (e.g. “dog”, “cat”, “ball”, “chair”, “car”, “dime”,); (3) things at this level are remembered more readily and identified more quickly; (4) items at this level are perceived holistically, as a singular gestalt, rather than identified by a specific, distinctive features; and (5) there tend to be distinctive motor programs for interacting with objects at this level.”


Human cognition is an embodied activity!


Quotes from A Clearing in the Forest: Law, Life, and Mind by Steven L. Winter director of the Center for Legal Studies at Wayne State University Law School

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