Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch

The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience

Review by Todd Willison, 2008

Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991. 260 pages.

In the introduction to The Embodied Mind, authors Varela, Thompson, and Rosch state that the “existential concern” that “animates” their work “results from the tangible demonstration within cognitive science that the self or cognizing subject is fundamentally fragmented, divided, or non-unified.” (xvii) In other words, human cognition, as cognitive science has increasingly affirmed, has no “ultimate foundation” or “ground.” (xx) The authors’ work is driven by their desire to recognize this fact without also demeaning the value and transformative potential of cognitive experience when understood as embodied action. Cognition may be groundless, they concede, but it is not without meaning and ethical importance. Rather, if cognition’s groundlessness is embraced, as it is shown to be in the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, and increased mindfulness and awareness of its groundlessness is engendered, cognitive experience becomes the gateway to compassion, leading away from the destructive ethical tendencies of absolutism and nihilism and toward an ethic of concern.

The work is divided into five parts. Part I simply serves to introduce the reader to both cognitive science and to the study of human experience, showing how both are to circularly inform each other throughout the rest of the work. Parts II-IV are theoretical explications of three approaches to cognitive science, the first two of which are presented as flawed while the third is advocated as an original contribution by the authors. The first approach to cognitive science, presented in Part II, is simply named cognitivism, and its weakness lies in the fact that it treats the brain as a machine that represents the outside world through a series of computed symbols. The second approach presented in Part III, named emergentism, is seen as a potential improvement over cognitivism since it questions the notion of representing the world computationally through symbols, but in the authors’ view it does not go far enough in its critique, since, rather than abandoning the notion of representation altogether, it merely replaces the notion of representation through symbols with the notion of representation through connections and patterns that emerge in cognitive activity. The third approach presented in part IV, called the enactivist approach, seeks to remedy the failures of the first two approaches by doing away with the notion of representation altogether, emphasizing that “cognition is not the representation of a pregiven world by a pregiven mind but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind on the basis of a history of the variety of actions that a being in the world performs.” (9)

Central to the enactivist approach defended by the authors is the notion of open-endedness. The authors go to great lengths to emphasize the importance of open-endedness, arguing that even in a Darwinian understanding of the universe, the notion of open-endedness is compromised if human cognition is viewed as something that is adapting itself to an optimal goal. This is why, in the authors’ view, “representationism in cognitive science is the precise homologue of adaptationism in evolutionary theory.” (194) Both approaches are overly constrained rather than truly open-ended. But the driving notion behind enactivism is a radical open-endedness in which all evolvement naturally drifts not toward what is optimal but only toward what is viable. (205) The embodied mind forms the world through a lived history in a way that is constrained only by what is viable and by the “path we have laid down,” and there is thus “no ultimate ground to prescribe the steps that we take.” (214) This open-endedness and groundlessness in human cognition becomes the very basis for ethical transformation that is then presented in Part V, which (relying largely on examples from Mahayana Buddhism) shows how the embrace of groundlessness leads one to form the world not only with scientific intelligence but also with compassionate concern for the dignity of all human experience.

Because Varela, Thompson, and Rosch approach their topic with a detailed sensitivity not only to cognitive science but also to phenomenological and ethical considerations, their work has the potential to evoke in its readers a poetic depth of concern for the complexity of human cognitive experience and its ethical implications. The reader gains from the work not only an intricate exposure to scholarship in the cognitive scientific fields (although the work may be a bit dated by this point) but also intimate appreciation of the deeper existential concerns that drive the authors in their task. The reader is asked not only to recognize the groundlessness of cognitive experience but also to take responsibility for this experience, a commendable aspect of this work that should place it high in the estimation of all who wrestle with its ideas.