Content and Comportment: On Embodiment and the Epistemic Availability of the World

Michael O’Donovan-Anderson
Rowman & Littlefield, 1997

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"Content and Comportment argues persuasively that the answer to some long-standing questions in epistemology and metaphysics lies in taking up the neglected question of the role of our bodily activity in establishing connections between representational states—knowledge and belief in particular—and their objects in the world. It takes up these ideas from both current mainstream analytic philosophy—Frege, Dummett, Davidson, Evans—and from mainstream continental work—Heidegger and his commentators and critics—and bings them together successfully in a way that should surprise only those who persist in maintaining this barren dichotymization of the field."—Anthony Appiah , Princeton University

“Interesting, original, and insightful.”—Philip Dwyer, University of Saskatchewan, PHILOSOPHY IN REVIEW

“Content and Comportment provides for an excellent analysis of important epistemological theories.”— The Review of Metaphysics



It has become a commonplace in philosophy (and in the theoretical humanities more generally) to assert the ultimate inaccessibility of material reality, to interpret the experienced limitations of the human intellect and epistemic capacity as evidence of our cognitive inadequacy to the world. This conviction takes myriad forms – historical, cognitive, social, linguistic – but can be fairly recognized (if not defined) by its metaphors: We are “trapped” by our senses, our historical moment, our race, “limited” by our conceptual schema, our language, our moral conscience. We cannot get “outside” of the web of concepts, “around” the veil of sense, “beyond” the horizon of language to see the world as it is. These metaphors give expression to the notion that our mind “inside” cannot grasp the reality “outside” because we are confined by personal, social, historical, ethical or linguistic walls which, however flexibly they may be bent to the shape of the world, still intrude their impervious bulk between us and the reality we seek to know.

Although this study has more particular motivations and, of necessity , a specific and somewhat limited scope, it is most generally intended as a step in overcoming such metaphors of cognitive confinement, and of the dualism which both supports and is implied by them. It is far from my intention to deny the difficulty and uncertainty of matters of empirical investigation; but I want to insist that we are more open to the world – more epistemically porous – than the picture of our confinement allows. William James, himself acutely aware of the trials and tribulations of Natural Science, nevertheless observes that “[e]xperience . . . has a way of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulations.” This seems to me just right, but understanding how it can be so will, I think, require us to put aside our dualistic prejudices, our easy confidence that it is in fact possible (or even necessary!) to understand mind as over against body, thought over against action, or a cognitive “inside” to be opposed to a material “outside” with precise delimitations and impenetrable boundaries.

As I have indicated, I will not be addressing these issues as such (w ould that I could!). It must suffice for me here to question the accuracy of the cognitive psychology which matches so well the dualistic picture of epistemic confinement hanging in so many philosophic homes. What I mean to resist is the move to identify our empirical porosity, our epistemic openness, entirely with sensation. I will not deny the plausibility of the vaguely neo-Kantian notion that our senses deliver something (impulses? information?) which is arranged, synthesized or otherwise interpreted by large-scale cognitive structures to produce (conceptually structured) beliefs. This picture is probably right in outline, but here, as always, the devil is in the details. When it is supposed that the deliverances of our sense organs constitute the whole of our epistemic contact with the world, then we can retain this plausible account only by conceding our cognitive confinement. This concession is unwise, and, if I am right, also unnecessary, for, important though our sense organs are, they do not provide our only means of knowing the world. I will be arguing for a cognitive and epistemic psychology which gives pride of place to bodily activity, to the behavior of the mindful body. It is in this mindful, embodied activity that I will locate a kind of epistemic openness – another epistemic conduit – which lets the world seep through conceptual boundaries real and imagined, and reveals us as beings cognitively in touch with (because physically in) the world.

Cognitive content, this is to say, has much to do with thoughtful comportment. Indeed, I do not think it too bold to say that thinking – at the very least, empirical thinking about physical objects – is something that only embodied beings can do. In developing this insight about the connection between embodiment and thought I hope to find the resources to deny our confinement, and to clear a space for the possibility of objectivity. Although we may never see the world whole, it is possible, perhaps, to see some of its parts truly.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Intentionality and the Fourth Dogma of Empiricism
1.1 Introduction
1.2 Knowledge and Epistemic Access
1.3 Epistemology and Aboutness
1.4 Epistemology, Intentionality, and Descriptions
1.5 Knowledge and the Body

Chapter 2: The Deferred Project of Ontology in Frege’s Semantics
2.1 A Brief Overview of Frege’s Philosophy
2.2 On Sense
2.3 On the Use of Proper Names
2.4 The Deferred Project of Individuation

Chapter 3: Pragmatism, Realism, and the Fourth Dogma of Empiricism
3.1 Progress, Truth, and Epistemic Openness: Peirce and James
3.2 The World Well Lost?: Davidson and Rorty
3.3 McDowell and the Fourth Dogma of Empiricism

Chapter 4: Embodiment and the Epistemic Availability of the World
4.1 Locke’s Gold: Nominal Essences and the Limits of Knowing
4.2 Space, Place, and Information:
Realism and Material Particulars
4.3 Individuals and Independence
4.4 The Body’s Access to the World
4.5 Of Transcendental Arguments and Swamp Men
4.6 Interaction, Knowledge, and Natural Kinds