…the beginning and end of humane knowledge

It is perhaps unsurprising that modern cognitive theory – scientific studies related to the mind – can often seem similar to scepticism.  Both see the body as the (potentially flawed) source of all knowledge; biology, so to speak, is the key to what human beings know, or think, or do.

Recent thinking in cognitive science has encouraged the notion of the ’embodied mind’, a notion difficult to quarrel with.  The embodied mind or the embodied brain insists that ‘the mind/brain’, in the words of Ellen Spolsky, ‘is a construct of the interactions of the body and its nervous system within its environment…’; ‘we cannot dissociate the mind from the body’ (1).  To do so would be to commit what Antonio Damasio sees as Descartes’ Error (1994).

Cognitive science has suggested, through an analysis of perception, that the body has an innate mode of representation – rooted, as the work of George Lakoff insists, in images and metaphor.  Jean M. Mandler’s research in cognitive science has sought to unpick the way that the brain is embodied and how it relates to discourse, asking ‘how children are able to think, that is, to go beyond perceptual categorization to form concepts’ (587).  One answer posited by Mandler is through what she terms perceptual analysis:

 …the process in which a given perceptual array is attentively analysed, and a new kind of information is abstracted.  The information is new in the sense that a piece of perceptual information is recoded into a nonperceptual form that represents a meaning.  Sometimes perceptual analysis involves comparing one object with another, leading to conceptualizing them as the same (or different) kind of thing…(589).

One form in which perceptual analysis occurs is through what George Lakoff, Mandler, and others have termed ‘image-schemas’ :

‘A bounded space with an interior and an exterior is an image, but an extremely skeletal and schematic image.  Sometimes we map this image-schema onto other images, such as our relatively rich image of a house, a garage, or the outline of a country on a map.  But we can also map these image-schema onto abstract target domains that themselves do not inherently contain images, such as wakefulness, alertness, and living’ (Lakoff and Turner 97)

Thought is, therefore, necessarily based on metaphorical images – especially spatial images, and as thought becomes more complex, so do the image-metaphors:

‘It is important to distinguish image-metaphors from image-schema metaphors.  Image-metaphors map rich mental images onto other rich mental images.  They are one-shot metaphors, relating one rich image with one other rich image.  Image-schemas, as their name suggests, are not rich mental images; they are instead very general structures, like bounded regions, paths, centers…and so on…’ (99)

All perceptual information is mapped onto images in order to be made sense of.  It is through this mapping that we are able to think conceptually, to understand concepts from the most basic to the most abstract, from ‘table’ to ‘Death’.

The notion that metaphor is central to cognitive as well as literary thought has been enthusiastically championed by some literary critics, who merge the discursive and cultural thought of literary criticism with the bodily-orientated research of cognitive science.  Such research is critical of poststructuralist theory’s purely linguistic approaches to literary and historical texts, as Elizabeth Thomas Crane eloquently states in Shakespeare’s Brain (2001): ‘it is a ‘failure to think about the brain that prevents most contemporary accounts of subject formation in the body from noting that just as surely as discourse shapes bodily experience and social interactions shape the material structures of the brain, the embodied brain shapes discourse’ (7).  In the work of Crane, Amy Cook (Shakespearean Neuroplay 2010), Ellen Spolsky (to some extent), and others, cognitive science provides answers concerning conscious thought and artistic expression, offering the claim that ‘cognitive science…provides increasingly convincing evidence that the body does shape thought and language, that the early experiences of living in the body are the armature on which consciousness and thought are formed’ (Crane 9).

Such a way of thinking about consciousness, however, contains its own errors.  As Raymond Tallis has eloquently argued in a number of essays and articles, the brain does not mean the mind; it is a necessary but not a sufficient cause for consciousness.  Crane’s excitement about cognitive science is careful enough to avoid such scientism, but even so, Tallis insists that any form of criticism that reduces consciousness to bodily experience is flawed: ‘all the computing power in the world, any number of mysterious co-operative automata, would be insufficient to stand in for the necessary sense of ‘knowing what I am doing…’’ (148).

Indeed, such a belief in the nobility of the human mind, the piece of work that is man, needs defending against the danger inherent in the (inconclusive, contested, and conjectural) claims of some cognitive linguists and neuroscientists.  Damasio assures us quite beautifully that ‘the truly embodied mind I envision…does not relinquish its most refined levels of operation, those constituting its soul and spirit.  From my perspective, it is just that soul and spirit, with all their dignity and human scale, are now complex and unique states of an organism.  Perhaps the most indispensable thing we can do as human beings, every day of our lives, is remind ourselves and others of our complexity, fragility, finiteness, and uniqueness’ (252).  Clearly these are compatible with the embodied mind.  Yet, earlier in Descartes’ Error, his language undermines the human soul and spirit: ‘having a mind means that an organism forms neural representations which can then become images, be manipulated in a process called thought, and eventually influence behaviour by helping predict the future, plan accordingly, and choose the next action’ (90).  We have, it appears, at least approached the ‘automaton’ that Tallis dismisses, and conscious thought is become but a ‘process’. Combining with the image-metaphors and image-schemas of Mandler and Lakoff and Turner, our mental images – including the provocative, unsettling, and beautiful metaphors of art – can be seen as biological behaviours, images that come from ‘neural representations’.  If, for example, Hope is the thing with feathers, it might also be a necessary, brain-produced image-schema, required for our understanding of the abstract concept ‘hope’. (A revolting explanation of a beautiful poem, I’m sure you’ll agree.)

Cognitive literary theory, then, seeks a similar ‘decentering’ to poststructuralism’s iconoclastic view of the human being, an albeit mediated iconoclasm:

Like postmodern theory, these cognitive approaches recognize that human cognition and the symbolic systems through which it works are neither unified nor primarily rational.  For cognitive theory, however, the preeminence of fuzzy categories in human mental functioning does not imply complete lack of agency or a triumph of irrationality.  If you do not expect human cognition to be unified or logical, a way is cleared to supplement deconstruction (which essentially rediscovers its fragmentation and irrationality over and over again) with analysis of the patterns that do emerge from cognitive processes’ (Crane 13)

Excitingly, this combination allows, for Crane, a merging of biological and cultural influence.  Because cognitive science sees the brain’s relationship with its environment as a two-way process, culture can become equally (although the extent of culture’s role is debated) as important as biology in forming a subject.  Yet, that formation is dangerously dependent upon physical processes – processes that privilege the brain, at that – and is consequently at risk of doing exactly what Tallis opposes: rendering consciousness and the creation of art the result of biological functions and needs. (In his essay ‘Explicitness and Truth (and Falsehood)’, as elsewhere, Tallis has noted that consciousness provides no evolutionary or biological advantage to the survival of humankind.)

Early modern scepticism also insists that the body is the centre of all human knowledge.  The senses, writes Montaigne (in John Florio’s translation), ‘are our maisters’.  Aptly, he notes that ‘science begins by them & in them is resolved’ (Ff4r).  It is a staple of sceptical arguments in the period that ‘the senses are the beginning and end of humane knowledge’, and as ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond’ and other sceptical tracts confirm, this includes knowledge of beauty, morality, and time. Both cognitive science and scepticism seek to reduce all knowledge to bodily experience, even as they both acknowledge that sensory experiences can be fragmentary, fragile, and deceptive.  Scepticism, too, frames knowledge in visual terms – it insists that visual experiences are the chief route to ‘true’ knowledge.

These visual experiences again combine the optical obsession of scepticism with the image-centred neural knowledge posited by cognitive science.  Both make reference to synaesthesia.  Amy Cook states, ‘synaesthesia is not just a metaphor but it helps to explain metaphor’ (24-5).  V.S. Ramachandran and E.M. Hubbard note that ‘it has often been suggested that concepts are represented in brain maps in the same way that percepts (like colours or faces) are’ – the suggestions outlined broadly above.  Accordingly, they argue that we might be able to ‘think of metaphors as involving cross-activation of conceptual maps’ in a similar manner as synaesthesia cross-activates perceptual maps – X tastes red, or Y smells high-pitched.  This supposition is used to question whether ‘it might explain the higher incidence of synaesthesia in artists and poets’, because the crossing of perceptual senses (sight, sound, taste, &c) might provide a ‘greater propensity and opportunity for creatively mapping from one concept to another’ (17) – ‘The Red – blaze – is the Morning / The Violet – is Noon – …

Montaigne, again, offers synaesthesia as part of his outline of sceptical arguments:

‘For, besides, what is tyed to the proper effect of every sense, how many arguments, consequences and conclutions draw we vnto other things, by comparing one sense to another? (Ff5r)

How important it is to conceptual understanding and knowledge that the senses are able to translate to each other, to compare, for ‘we haue nothing else to hold by’ (Ff5r).  In both modes of thought, sensory images and metaphors are the very basis and the most primitive form of knowledge.  Synaesthesia allows us to move forward in our conceptual understanding, to complicate it and explore avenues of ‘truth’ and ‘things’.  Indeed, cognitive science and scepticism both claim knowledge to be a result of bodily experience, and well it might be.

All this is not to question the important advances made in cognitive science and neurobiology, advances that will no doubt hugely benefit mankind.  Nor is it to suggest that all use of that science in literature is redundant, which likewise would be incredibly foolish.  Ellen Spolsky offers a more exciting glimpse of the implications of an ’embodied mind’ for literary studies, when she suggests in the brilliant Satisfying Scepticism (2001) that

the architecture of the embodied mind itself provides the possibility of the mind’s freedom, as well as of its constraint.  The identification of body and mind does not entail any more or any less determinism than does living in one culture rather than another.  What our species is apparently determined to do, is to produce culture, and culture lets us control nature (3).

Indeed, Spolsky’s study aims to suggest some of the relationships between the body and the mind in the period, to show how the bodily obsessions of scepticism – its anatomical, sensory, and visual impulses – are important for both intellectual and physical stimulation. Clearly, the body is central to the understanding of oneself and of humanity – or, more accurately, it is an integral part of human thought.  If we acknowledge that the brain cannot as yet explain all aspects of consciousness, that our biological understanding provides only a limited insight into our ‘minds’, then the fashion for body-centric thinking might prove particularly useful, allowing us to ask questions between the failings of Cartesian dualism, the postmodern ‘decentred’ self, and a view of humans as pure organisms or automata.

Certainly, though, the parallels between sceptical thought and modern cognitive science exist.  Both insist upon empirical thought, upon bodiliy experience as a measure of humanity.  Sometimes, however, this experience provides no reassurances, no explanations.  For the moment, we might have to agree with Montaigne and with Plutarch that

wee have no communication with being; for every humane nature is ever in the middle betweene being borne and dying; giving nothing of it selfe but an obscure apparance and shadow, and an vncertaine and weake opinion.  And if perhappes you fix your thought to take its being; it would be even, as if one should goe about to graspe the water…(Gg2r)


Works Cited

Cook, Amy.  Shakespearean Neuroplay: Reinvigorating the Study of Dramatic Texts and Performance through Cognitive Science.  NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Crane, Mary Thomas.  Shakespeare’s Brain: Reading with Cognitive Theory.  Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Damasio, Antonio.  Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the human brain.  1994.  London: Vintage, 2006.
Lakoff, George and Mark Turner.  More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor.  London: Uni Chicago Press, 1989.
Mandler, Jean M.  ‘How to Build a Baby: II Conceptual Primitives’.  Psychological Review, 99.4 (1992), 587-604.  PsycArticles.  Web.  5 Feb 2013.
Montaigne, Michel de.  ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’.  Essays vvritten in French by Michael Lord of Montaigne…Trans. John Florio.  London: 1613.  Y1v-Gg3.  Early English Books Online.  Web.  13 December 2012.
Ramachandran, V.S. and E.M. Hubbard.  Synaesthesia – A Window Into Perception, Thought and Language.  Web.  http://ww2.psy.cuhk.edu.hk/~mael/papers/RamachandranHubbard_Synaesthesia.pdf.  7 Feb 2013.
Spolsky, Ellen.  Satisfying Skepticism: Embodied Knowledge in the Early Modern World.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.
Tallis, Raymond.  One the Edge of Certainty: Philosophical Observations.  Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999.



  1. I actually know someone who said that, after reading “Hope is the thing with feathers”, she couldn’t stop picturing her own hopefulness as a budgie. I don’t know what that tells us about the modern brain 😉

    On a slightly more academic note, I thought the idea of the senses (and particularly visual perception) being “the beginning and the end of humane knowledge” has interesting implications when it comes to early modern writers who want to pass off their work as entirely truthful – I’m thinking particularly of histories, since that’s what I’m working on. It seems to me that the main difference between early modern and medieval chronicles is not their inclusion of visual details but of invented speeches for the historical characters (I just read one, from 1611, in which two of the three chapters on Edward II’s reign are taken up by a conversation between the Earl of Lancaster and a hermit!) which suggests that auditory witness was considered particularly important to “truthful” history – maybe because of a perception that the important events of history were made primarily by words?… I don’t think I’m arguing anything in particular…but hey, interesting post! 🙂

    1. Thanks Kirsty, that is an interesting tension, and something to think about. It is especially curious, perhaps, when considering stage-histories and their division between verbal rhetoric and images (topically, Richard III, with its ghosts, visions, and moral emphasis on the visible body…) I recently attended a talk by Philip Schwyzer in which he suggested that Shakespeare’s play might have contributed, in some way, to the emerging obsession, in the 17th c. with finding Richard’s (and the princes’) remains. Maybe the word-liness and verbal truth of history chronicles comes into conflict with the more empirical modes of thought at the turn of the century…again not arguing anything in particular, but it’s interesting to think of e.m. history chronicles prioritising auditory witness as the source of human, historical truth…

    2. And maybe Dickinson’s poetry can re-write perception in human brain! That would be quite a defence of the humanities…

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