The Poetics of Thought

Wriggling Redly

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 25, 2009

This is an addition to an earlier posting regarding the evolution of cognition and the role of sensorimotor activity and the function of something like ‘action representations’.

A useful distinction to begin to draw here may be that between ‘sensation’ and ‘perception’.   I would like to offer that the first of these terms, sensation, refers to the operation of the sensorimotor system in relation to the environment, whereas the second term, perception, is a higher order process.  For example; there is a  part of the sensorimotor system associated with ‘seeing’ which consists of the eyes and parts of the visual cortex, and also the motor mechanisms which focus the eye, saccade the eyeball in its socket, adjust the dilation of the pupil according to light levels (and the desirability of the object looked at), etc.  Together this combination of sensory and motor activity produce the sensation of seeing.  This is not the same as perception as I want to use the term however.  In order for the results of this sensational  seeing to be perceived there needs to be a further operation in which this sensorimotor activity is held as a representation and then made available to other, perhaps specially evolved, cognitive processes.  It is this secondary or  higher order processing of sensation and action that constitutes perception.  To paraphrase Antonio Damasio (2000),  sensation is what happens, perception is the feeling of what happens.

Nicholas Humphrey presents an interesting narrative description of this distinction in his essay ‘The Privatization of Sensation’ (2000).  He suggests that a simple organism, perhaps something like an amoeba, having only the simplest form of sensorimotor engagement with the world, is capable of sensation but not perception.  Such an organism, in the presence of a chemical salt would, he claims, react to that chemical according to the physiological inevitabilities of its embodiment.  The composition of its cell walls and its own internal chemistry would be affected by the saltiness of its environment and this affect would express itself in, for example, a characteristic wriggling.  Alternatively, if light of a particular wavelength, say a wavelength that would be visible to us as ‘red’,  were to fall across this creature another, very different, set of physiological changes would be initiated, perhaps noticeable as a different but equally characteristic wriggling.  Humphreys suggests that it would not be irrational to think of the first of these ameobic behaviours as ‘wriggling saltily’ and the second as ‘wriggling redly’.  Of course, this perception of different wrigglings as characteristic of different environmental stimuli would not be available to the organism itself since it does not have the necessary cognitive apparatus for this kind of secondary observation, (basically an apparatus in which this sensorimotor engagement was represented in some way).  If it were to evolve such a capacity however, then it would be able to not only actively participate in the production of sensation  but also to have perception of  this sensorimotor engagement.  It would not only be part of what happens it would also perceive the feeling of what happens.


DAMASIO, A. R. (2000) The feeling of what happens: body and emotion in the making of consciousness, London, Heinemann.

HUMPHREY, N. (2000) The privatization of sensation. IN HUBER, L. & HEYES, C. (Eds.) The Evolution of Cognition. Cambridge, MA, USA, MIT Press.

Other Spaces

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 25, 2009

In the last posting I spoke of the ‘phenomenal space’ of subjective being and how the facts of our embodiment bring with them an intuitive understanding of space.  This space has particular characteristics that flow from the nature of our embodiment and from the environment in which that embodiment comes together.  What I would like to indicate here is that we also live in other, complementary spaces which also inform how we construct thought and meaning.

In the appendix to his book on relativity theory (2003) the physicist David Bohm addressed some of the issues around perception that come out of some of the idea in that book.  Part of this concerns the relationship between perception and space and how the ability to occupy different positions in space changes the nature of perception and the objects that such perception embraces.  He gives the example of seeing an ellipse, perhaps the ellipse formed by looking at the top of a coffee cup as it is held in the hand prior to drinking from it.  Even though the visual image presented to the organ of sense, the eye, is this ellipse it is not seen as such.  Perception seamlessly interprets the top of the cup as circular, even though we at no point see this circle in its most essential form (if we did we would have a lapful of coffee).  The process at work here is that the visual sensorimotor system responsible for engaging with the top of the cup is not stationary, fixing its gaze unswervingly on this object.  Instead it is an eye in motion (even if that motion is relatively slight) and each motion of eye, head, hand, and arm changes the orientation of the cup to our eye and simultaneously changes the shape of the ellipse in lockstep with this motion.  Extrapolating from this constantly changing but systematically related data the perception of the top of the cup is made up not from a single viewpointed image but of this extrapolation, the circle we rarely see.  This process points up an understanding of space in which it is not only egocentrically oriented around the axis of the unmoving situated body.  The space that Bohm indicates is one in which our ability to move and to quite literally see things from different angles is taken into account.  In this space there is no inevitable perspectivalism, and the railway tracks which lead off toward the horizon are seen as the parallel lines that they surely are.  This is the scientific method in miniature, in which the evidence of the senses are peer reviewed by those same senses but from other places and at other times.

There is also another space, perhaps an extension of the last, which arises from our being in a world shared by other beings with similar senses.  The space that I occupy is also entertained by you and by others, and the number of eyes which look out onto this space multiply accordingly.  Experiencing this space involves social processes  and the sharing of sense through interpersonal and extrapersonal means.  This is the kind of sense which one gains from learning and becoming informed.  It is common sense because it is held in common, available not only to one individual through the intuitive sense of their subjective embodiment but to anyone who cares to learn.  The common sense alluded to here, whilst it may offer a viewpoint on the universe which seems, to some at least, arbitrary, gyratory, and lacking the privilege of centeredness, is also a sense which places our eyes everywhere and gives us what Thomas Nagel (1986) paradoxically referred to as ‘the view from nowhere’.  In the vast incomprehensibility of space there is not a single place anywhere that one cannot conceive oneself as occupying and the totality of one’s image of the universe is a collation of all these possible viewing positions.

It seems likely, therefore, that we are creatures who simultaneously inhabit not one space but several.  There is the space of subjectivity and self-centeredness, in which the world radiates out from one’s body, diminishing with distance in both size and importance until it disappears over the horizon, and there is the space of experience which presents the world to us in the different ways available to mobile animals; And then there is the space of objectivity, in which we occupy all the centres of the universe at once and the peripheral horizon disappears. The first space is our birthright; the product of our animal embodiment and our embeddedness in the environment.  The second we earn through motion and exploration.  The third is our New Found Land; the result of the gradual enlightenment of our species and the vision admitted by that light.

When Primack and Adams (2006) draw attention to the potential for existential anomie afforded by the internalization of Newtons’s impersonal space, they are reminding us that such learning is not only the acquisition of rational, disembodied facts.  They recognize that the images we hold of space, on the grandest scale possible, are also constructive of the fabric of our understanding.  The intuition that comes with subjective embodiment is joined by other intuitions, which may at times be at odds with the first.  Each of these spaces is at work in our cognition, and each is active in our intuitions.  Each appears, unbidden and often invisible, in the poetics of our language, and each space is used to contain the ideas and objects of our experience, the stuff of meaning and thought.


BOHM, D. & NICHOL, L. (2003) The essential David Bohm, London, Routledge.

NAGEL, T. (1986) The view from nowhere, New York, OUP.

PRIMACK, J. R. & ABRAMS, N. E. (2006) The view from the centre of the universe, London, Fourth Estate.

Phenomenal Space

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 23, 2009

“Every person is at the center of his world, and circumambient space is differentiated in accordance with the schema of his body” (Tuan, 1971).

(I haven’t got time to write this right now.  I’ll try to get back to it tomorrow, or maybe on Friday)


TUAN, YI-FU (1977) Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.


Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 22, 2009

In their book ‘The View from the Centre of the Universe’ Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams say this:

In their hearts, most people are still living in an imagined universe, where space is simply emptiness, stars are scattered randomly, and common sense is a reliable guide. In this imagined universe, we humans have no special place and often feel insignificant. (2006: 3)

What I want to begin here is a thought that parts company with Primack and Adams and their version of this heartfelt common sense.  I want to suggest that common sense tells us that space is anything but simple and that humans do indeed have a special place.  I want to begin though with the big picture of space before bringing it up close and personal.

Thomas Kuhn’s notion of the ‘paradigm shift’, articulated in ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ (1968), postulated that occasionally there are major changes in the way that science understands (all or part of) the world. The most commonly-cited example of such a shift concerns space and how it is conceptualized.  This is the Copernican revolution from an Earth-centered universe to one centered on the Sun; a revolution in which the old order of theories, models, diagrams, and mechanisms is dismissed in favour of the new. In Kuhn, it is a necessary consequence of this revolutionary overturning that what went before it becomes wrong and that apostles of the new, (after moving through a brief period of being heretics) become keepers of the new flame and upholders of the new truth. Old is wrong, new is right.

According to Primack and Adams (ibid) a more accurate understanding of what happens during these times is not a replacement of one truth by another but rather the re-interpretation of the data of the world such that it applies to a wider set of circumstances and covers a larger set of phenomena.  They give the example of Newtonian physics giving way to the relativity of Einstein, an apparent paradigm shift in which new knowledge describes the universe in ways which are more complete than the old.  What they point out however is that Newtonian physics is not rendered wrong by the development of this new science, it is simply redefined as a description of parts of the universe only; basically the middle-sized and slow moving parts; and as long as its methods are applied only to those parts it is as accurate, and more efficient, that any other model or method.  It was, after all, Newtonian physics which put men on the moon.

This understanding of certain descriptions of the world having different applicability than others also applies to our understandings of space; the Ptolomaic picture of the Earth-centered universe is not ‘wrong’ in any transcendental sense,  it is instead a local interpretation of the data concerning planetary movement. In many cases it is preferable to work with the assumption that the Earth is stationary and central rather orbital and peripheral. When we make appointments or set our watches we do not consider this as stating the location of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun, or the number of degrees through which it has rotated. We refer to sunrise not Earthfall and we watch the Sun go down over the ocean, not the Earth turning its face away into the darkening night. For most purposes the Ptolomaic model of the universe in which Earth is the centre of attention is sufficient. This is not to say that when we use such Earth-centered concepts we are using a kind of lazy shorthand, or are being inaccurate. When the application of the Ptolomaic paradigm is limited to specific uses such as these it is as accurate, and more efficient, that the Copernican.

On the even more local scale of embodied experience, we can extend this notion of overlapping or simultaneous paradigms to include the apparently self-evident wrong-headedness of Flat Earth theory. The Earth when seen from space is obviously a ball and any depiction of the Earth as a two-dimensional surface is demonstrably inaccurate. However, in day to day life we routinely work with the assumption that it is indeed a flat plane, and are rarely proved wrong. When we measure a room prior to fitting a carpet, or stake out the foundations of a building, we do not take the spherical nature of the Earth into account. It would be perfectly possible to include this curvature in our calculations but since this difference would be insignificant (smaller by far than the variations in the landscape itself) it would be foolish to do so. It is at this level that embodied experience and the paradigms which make up that experience, become available as accurate, relevant theory.

There are, therefore, good pragmatic reasons why we might assume that the Earth is flat and why we might live large parts of our lives in the shadow of that assumption.  Furthermore, there would be very little reason at all why we should develop an intuition which suggests otherwise.  From the perspective of our evolutionary history there would be no benefit to be gained from this kind of abstract spherical knowing, in stark contrast with the distinct advantages claimed by those of our ancestors who cared less about such abstractions and more about the tiger hiding in the bushes at the other side of the, apparently flat, clearing in this forest.  Given the tiny slice of human history during which knowledge of the curvature of the Earth would be advantageous, basically since the advent of extended seafaring, it is wildly unlikely that we would have a naturally intuitive grasp of this reality.  Our phylogeny, as well as our phenomenology, constantly proposes and confirms our position as Flat-Earthers.

If this seems ludicrous then it is worth noting in passing that the Copernican model tends to promote an understanding of the universe which is as partial in its own way as the Ptolomaic which preceded it. A casual interpretation of the Sun-centered model seems to indicate a stationary star orbited by moving planets, but of course, in relativity, nothing is stationary in absolute terms and by most accounts the Sun itself is hurtling at several thousand miles an hour in the direction of Andromeda, with the planets flailing around it like the loose reins of a runaway horse. Copernicus put his thumb on the Sun and momentarily arrested its wild flight and, in doing so, revealed a pattern in the relationship of the movement of the planets, but the Copernican map is not of the territory of the real solar system, any more than a 2-dimensional map of the Earth is an accurate rendition of the real globe. It is more a graph or schematic showing the pattern of relations he discovered.

What I want to suggest here is that, whilst we are able to fully grasp the idea of the Earth as a ball spinning in the empty space that Primack and Abrams attributed to common sense, in fact this sense is anything but common.  In point of phenomenal fact our senses tell us, and told thousands of generations of our ancestors, that we are standing on a plane, beneath a dome of sky, looking out to a horizon that encircles us.

This is one of the experiential logics of embodied space that I believe structure our cognition and that I want to explore.  This organised perception of space, in which the organising principle is the human sensorimotor system, contributes to the repertoire of structures which allow meaning and thought to emerge.

All space, from the most counter-intuitive of Einstein and Hilbert to the most transparently familiar of Newton and Descartes is rendered sensible through the confabulatory cognitive operations I have talked about earlier.  Yet it is this embodied phenomenal space which perhaps we are most comfortable describing in terms of a ‘poetics’, as indeed Gaston Bachelard did in his most famous book ‘The Poetics of Space’ (1994).  The philosopher Michel Foucault had this to say about Bachelard’s work, which resonates strongly with the sense I am groping for here:

“Bachelard’s monumental work and the descriptions of phenomenologists have taught us that we do not live in a homogeneous and empty space, but on the contrary in a space thoroughly imbued with quantities and perhaps thoroughly fantasmatic as well.  The space of our primary perception, the space of our dreams and that of our passions hold within themselves qualities that seem intrinsic: these is a light, ethereal, transparent space, or again a dark, rough, encumbered space; a space from above, of summits, or on the contrary a space from below, of mud; or again a space that can be flowing like sparkling water, or a space that is fixed, congealed, like stone or crystal.” (1986:23).

Embodied phenomenal space has a poetic logic of its own; the local interpretation of universal laws that our bodies obey and perform.  This space, I would argue, is the one which most readily provides the capacity in which meaning and thought might emerge.


BACHELARD, G. (1994) The Poetics of Space, Boston, Beacon Press.

FOUCAULT, M. (1986) Text/Context of Other Space. Diacritics 16.1 22-27.  (online at

KUHN, T. (1968). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

PRIMACK, J. R. AND N. E. ABRAMS (2006). The view from the centre of the universe.  London, Fourth Estate.


Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 21, 2009

As has already been argued, perception is a function of the sensorimotor systems, and the different modalities in which that sensorimotor system operates, the different physical senses of touch, taste, sight etc,  gives structure to that perception.   If Mark Johnson is correct in claiming that perception is one of the capacities from which meaning and thought emerge then the structure of meaning and thought, the organised and coherent relationships between ideas, must in turn emerge in part from structures within perception.  In other words, our ability to think in organised and meaningful ways is reflective of our ability to perceive the world in organised ways.

The organisation of perception comes from the regular and consistent ways in which the physical senses operate.  To take the visual sense as an example, different wavelengths of light appear to the visual system as different colours, but these differences are not random or disorganised.  The colours of the spectrum always follow one another in regular and predictable ways and this regularity (as well as the range) provides an organising template for meaning and thought to base themselves upon.  Similarly, there is a consistant relationship in the apparent visual size of an object and its distance from us; objects that are further away seem smaller than those close up.  This also is a feature of visual experience which has structure and regularity that can be adopted by conceptual cognitive functions.  Other sensory modalities, hearing, touch, taste, olfaction, proprioception, have their own set of organised variables which enlarge the number of  possible structures  that might be utilised as frameworks for meaning and thought, and the relationships between the modalities provides additional complexity.  Some sense perceptions echo one another closely; the shape of an object tends to be similarly perceived both by the hands and the eyes; whereas other senses complement one another through their difference; the colour and the sound of a musical instrument overlap one another only at the margins.

In ‘The senses considered as perceptual systems’ J.J Gibson writes that “the senses can obtain information about objects in the world without the intervention of an intellectual process” (1966:1).  It may be more accurate to say that it is not that the senses work without the intervention of intellectual processes, but rather that their operation is constructive of intellectual processes.  Furthermore, the structured differences that the senses detect in the world and which we experience as perceptions give structure to the meaning and thought that make up these intellectual processes.


Gibson, J. J. (1966).  The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

God and Atoms

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 19, 2009


In ‘How to Know God’, Deepak Chopra claims that “(t)he same brain responses that enable you to see a tree as a tree, instead of as a ghostly swarm of buzzing atoms, also enable you to experience God” (Chopra 2000:17).

As I have suggested in previous postings, there are undoubtedly mechanisms within the neural labyrinths of the mind which take the raw data of the world and transform it into our imagination of that world. This data, filtered through the sensorimotor and central nervous systems, is cast together into the unified experience of conscious awareness. Not only is the ‘buzzing cloud of atoms’ transfigured into matter through this process but also the disparate elements that make up the physical tree are also brought into union.  In neuroscience this is referred to as ‘binding’, but was known in medieval times as the ’sensus communis’; the common sense of singular being in which seeing this branch, this leaf, this twig, is transformed into the communion of ‘tree’.

Chopra is right to suggest that these binding and consilient sense-making processes are not limited to the construction of those parts of the imagined world which appears as physical reality. It is this ability to build coherent and singular patterns out of fragmentary data which also allows us to conceive of conceptual ‘objects’ which are experienced purely cognitively, and which appear to have the same imagined wholeness as trees and rocks. These are the mechanisms which lie behind our apprehension not only of God, but also of theories and archetypes, of quarks and leptons, black holes and big bangs, love, justice, time, and anger. Such phenomena are inherently abstract, leaving no direct impression on the senses in the way that buzzing clouds of atoms seem to. And yet the sensus communis which makes the sense of a tree out of the imagination of atoms also makes sense of these ephemeral, disembodied, and evansescent entities. All of these, trees, gods, and atoms, are recognisable patterns in one’s imagination of the world.

This does not mean however, that because all these entities are similarly produced within the individual imagination that all are necessarily equal, that all are equally ‘real’. What Chopra does not go on to say is that one’s individual imagination of a tree as represented in the dancing photons impacting one’s retina is also simultaneously available to the other senses.  The imagination of the material tree is not only a visual image; evanescent entity of visual light, but is also an object with hardness that dramatizes its existence in the impact it would make on the body, should I be foolish enough to try to walk through it.  In fact we have a name for entities which are purely visual; we call them ‘mirages’.  The evidence of one’s eyes is not always sufficient to ensure epistemological certitude, but such certitude can be approached as objects engage multiple senses and begin to enter the sensus communis.

What Chopra also neglects to mention is that the tree that he indicates; this ‘ghostly swarm of buzzing atoms’,  exists not only in the individual imagination but also within the imagination of anyone with eyes standing near where you are standing and looking where you are looking. The ghostly swarm of buzzing atoms (which is neither ghost nor swarm, and most certainly does not buzz), appears in the interpersonal imagination of the objectively described world.

This is similarly the case with at least some of the abstractions noted above; a good theory is one which appears robust not only in the imagination of a single individual but in the minds of many, and which maintains its robustness in the face of attack and competition, whether this be in the form of organised scientific attempts at falsification, or the more vernacular processes of scepticism and doubt. It is through these processes that such theories as natural selection, heliocentrism, and relativity come to exist not as follies, ideosyncratically located within the private garden of an individual mind, but as monumental metaphorical objects in the common ground of the shared imagination.

The U.S. constitution forbids the construction of religious icons on government land, and similarly there is no statue of God in the public park of interpersonal reality. Whilst it is likely that the God concept is a result of the same processes of binding and imagination that produce the image of the tree, there is little agreement regarding the nature, appearance, provenance, role, or substantive nature of this God. To the extent that he, she, or it appears within the interpersonal imagination at all it is often only as the ill-defined subject of sectarian discord and is only maintained through institutional dogmatism, wishful thinking, and theological hand-waving.


Chopra, D. (2000). How to know God: the soul’s journey into the mystery of mysteries. London, Rider.

Prototypical Objects

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 18, 2009

In the last entry I began to unpack what kinds of variables mark out the category of those entities we think of as ‘objects’, including such aspects as size, shape, substance, weight, etc.  What I want to move onto here is a discussion of the overall category of ‘objects’ as a whole.

Until recently it was widely assumed to be the case that our ability to understand our perceptions, concepts, and experiences in terms of distinctions between types was modeled on what are sometimes called ‘classical’ categories. That is, experiences could be grouped together according to whatever necessary and sufficient conditions served to define that category. So, for example an even number is a category of integer in which the necessary condition is that it be wholly divisible by two. This is not a sufficient condition however as we must also require that this division leaves no remainder or involves no fraction. We can say therefore, that any number that we generate, providing these conditions are met, is a member of the category of even numbers. Any number which does not meet these conditions cannot be placed in this category. These conditions define the terms of what it means to say that any number is even.

It should be evident from this that classical categorization, in setting up clear definitions based on necessary and sufficient conditions, establishes a form in which any entity, a number in this case, is either a member or not a member of such a category. There are no liminal cases, no fuzzy boundaries, and no irregularities. This clarity is, indeed, the strength of such a method, and classical categorization underpins much taxonomy and typing, as well as Aristotelian logic and the Law of the Excluded Middle, and is the default method of categorization employed within most (disembodied) systems of organization from the separate branches on Diderot and D’Alembert’s tree of knowledge to the Dewey Decimal system in our libraries. As a means of structuring information such that it is impersonal and apparently rational it is stunningly effective; the only drawback is that, when it comes to understanding how categories are constructed within human cognition and human epistemology, it is woefully inadequate.
The major studies into human systems of categorization were initially carried out by Eleanor Rosch (1973, 1983), although this work has been significantly advanced by George Lakoff (1990). Rosch’s work consisted of a series of survey-type experiments in which subjects were offered lists of items in a particular category, say birds, and were invited to put a number next to each item indicating to what extent it was felt to belong to the category. On the face of it this experiment should be nonsensical. If we do use systems of categorization based on definitions formed out of necessary and sufficient conditions then we should simply compare each item on the list to our definition and either say it meets the conditions and is, in this case, a bird, or say that the conditions are not met and it isn’t. The idea of placing different birds along a numerical scale of how ‘birdlike’ they are should be meaningless. This is not what Rosch found however. Subjects given this task found it intuitively obvious that some birds were indeed better representatives of the category than others and were able to allocate a number to quantify this level of membership. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those examples which were given the highest ‘mark’ for birdness were blackbirds, robins, and sparrows, whilst the low scorers were penguins, ostriches, and emus. This finding has been interpreted to suggest that whilst in certain specific practices we do indeed use classical categories; in scientific avian taxonomy for example, in practice we do not classify according to definition but according to prototype. In cognitive terms, and therefore in terms of our intuitive epistemology, we form categories around central prototypical examples, with other members of that category radiating outward and becoming less and less typical the further out they go.
It might be tempting to suspect that, in choosing birds as a category, Rosch singled out a particularly difficult set to define and distinguish, and that more self-evidently logical categories would not show these effects of prototypicality. However, this experiment has been repeated with other sets including furniture (Rosch, 1983) and numbers. Sharon Lee Armstrong and colleagues (1983) found that the category EVEN NUMBERS exhibits typicality effects: participants in their experiments consistently rated certain member of the category including ‘2’, ‘4’, ‘6’, and ‘8’, as ‘better’ examples of the category than, say, ‘98’ or ’10,002’. We can say from this therefore, that the categories we use to organise our cognition significantly centre on such prototypes and have a radial structure with a fuzzy boundary.

To return to the concept of ‘object’ which began this section of writing, and to begin to apply this revised concept of what a category is, we might say that, whilst a prototypical material object might exhibit the features outlined by Stockwell above, our understanding of the general category of objects is likely to extend outward from this point to include less typical examples.  It is also inevitable that there will be no clear line dividing those experiences or perceptions which we think of as ‘objects’ from those which we do not.

A glance around the room or out of the window will confirm the truth of that inevitability.  I am looking at the chair across from where I am typing these words, and it seems to fulfill most of the criteria that Stockwell draws up.  It can be regarded as a self-contained object in its own right, and that right is asserted by the affordances that it offers as a device for sitting on.  It has well-defined edges separating it from the rest of the environment, at least from where I am sitting.  For the period of time that I am looking at it, and that it occupies the centre of my attention, it is better focused and possibly brighter than the rest of the room (although I would not say it was attractive, and now that I am no longer looking in that direction but am instead watching these words march across the screen it has merged into the background.)  Despite these intrusions of subjectivity into my individual identification of that chair I would still regard it as prototypical and undoubtedly deserving of its secure status as a card-carrying member of the category of objects, and you would probably share that regard.

Looking around I can also take in the vase of flowers on the mantelpiece, and have to admit to an uncertainty as to the status of this object, or rather, to the sense of a slight delay in my willingness to acknowledge this collection, this arrangement, this floral contrivance as a single object.  For the briefest of moments I waver between seeing each flower in its own inalienable objective right and seeing the whole kit and caboodle.  What’s more, if I allow myself I can even feel a sense of vertiginous escalation as each flower explodes into petals, sepals, stems, stamens, pistels, ovule, filaments, and anthers before a memory of holding the bunch as a totality in my hand and placing them in that vase returns their wholeness.  The hand-shaped affordance asserts itself as confirmation of the-bunch-of-flowers as a prototypical member of this basic level category ‘a bunch of flowers’, and now I am gripping them, conceptually, as an object again.  I am forced to admit, however, that as an object its self-containedness is less solid than the chair, the edges separating one part from another when there should not even be any parts at all blur and grow transparent. Parts break away, emerge to become new figures, then re-enter the gestalt.  The brightness shimmers unsteadily, growing and shrinking in space and the time of memory.  Outside my window there are clouds in the sky, and under the clouds is the rain that falls on my garden, and on the grass, and last weeks grass is in the compost heap, and next week’s is under the ground.  Each word is separate from every other word and the white space between the words is glowing from the LCD screen on my laptop.

The category of objects, then, and indeed the ontology of objects, is not (only) one of clearly delineated, unitary, stationary, permanent, and unchanging solids.  The space of objects is graduated from such prototypical solidity at its heart through increasingly fragmentary, filamentary, and fungible forms, and there is no delineated latitude at which the objective ends and that-which-is-not-the-object begins.

If this is an approximation of the cognitive ontology of objects, then I will want to argue that it is also the structure of our understanding of the metaphor in which we conceive of KNOWLEDGE AS OBJECTS.  Objects of thought may be rationally identified as involving clearly defined stable facts easily distinguishable from the ground of their context and from the space of our own looking, but the phenomenally-derived experience of it may be more complex and variable than that.  What I hope to show is that objectivity blurs imperceptibly into subjectivity and the solid nuggets of data melt and volatilise into the airy light of wisdom and spirit.  The functioning of our cognition requires that, just as there is no category of entities called ‘objects’ that can be unequivocally identified and separated from non-objects, so there is no category of knowledge which is simply ‘objective’, and which is wholly removed from contact and consanquinity with the body of the subjective.


Armstrong, S. L., L. Gleitman, et al. (1983). “What some concepts might not be.”  Cognition 13: 263-308.

Lakoff, G. (1990). Women, fire, and dangerous things : what categories reveal about the mind. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Rosch, E. H. (1973). “Natural categories.” Cognitive Psychology 4: 328-350.

Rosch, E. H. (1983). “Prototype Classification and Logical Classification: The Two Systems”.  New Trends in Conceptual Representation: Challenges to Piaget’s Theory? E. K. Scholnick. Hillsdale, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates:73-86.


Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 17, 2009

As I mentioned earlier, Mark Johnson attributes meaning and thought to ‘our capacity for perception, object manipulation and bodily movement’.    Through processes such as conceptual metaphor, the cognitive structures which have evolved to allow for these capacities then become available as means of organising purely imaginary entities; ideas, concepts, and other abstractions, or ‘meaning and thought’ as Johnson puts it.  In this section I want to consider one of these capacities, which is that of object manipulation.  Or more specifically I want to explore what we understand by this thing called ‘an object’.  Through a close analysis of the nature of real objects I hope to be able to identify what aspects of the ontology of these objects are carried over into our understanding of metaphorical objects.

Metaphorical objects might be said to include any entity which is expressed using a noun and indicated by a direct or indirect article, ‘a’ or ‘the’.   Examples of these entities might include ‘the mind’, ‘the state’, ‘the university’, ‘a thought’, ‘a feeling’, ‘a desire’, ‘a fact’, or ‘an article of knowledge’.  This last example is significant for this project as a closer understanding of how ‘knowledge’ is conceptualised will form a large part of future writing.

Samuel Beckett once stated that ‘We can only talk about nothing as if it were something, in the same way we can only talk about God as if he was a man’. He might have added that we can only talk, or indeed think, about the abstract as if it was concrete.  The kind of concrete experience we tend to use to provide analogical structure to the concept of knowledge is revealing. The various metaphors for knowledge used within Knowledge Management have shown that the dominant images are based upon the mapping that suggests that KNOWLEDGE IS STUFF. This stuff includes assets, resources, capital, substances and constructed entities (machines, ships, etc.), but by far the most common subdivision of the overall metaphor is that KNOWLEDGE IS OBJECTS, (Andriessen, 2008).   This should not be surprising, given that we routinely assign certain structures of perception and cognition to a category we refer to as ‘objective knowledge’.  The unspoken, but nevertheless active metaphor which conceptualises (some) knowledge as akin to an object is clearly at work here.  In order to flesh out this understanding it may be worthwhile considering what processes are at work in this assignation.
An object, in the material world of lived experience, typically demonstrates a number of key features.  These have some similarities to those of the ‘figure’ as outlined by Peter Stockwell in his book Cognitive Poetics,

(W)e see, hear and move in stereo three dimensions, and so the cognitive capacity for making figure and ground is clearly and literally an embodiment of this human condition…. The part of a visual field or textual field that is most likely to be seen as the figure will have one or more of the following features that make it prominent:
– it will be regarded as a self-contained object or feature in its own right, with well-defined edges separating it from the ground;
– it will be moving in relation to the static ground;
– it will precede the ground in time or space;
– it will be a part of the ground that has broken away, or emerges to become the figure;
– it will be more detailed, better focused, brighter, or more attractive than the rest of the field;
– it will be on top of, or in front of, or above, or larger than the rest of the field that is then the ground. ” (2002, p.14)

In presenting this list, Stockwell is drawing largely on a Gestalt tradition in which objects or figures are distinguished from the ‘ground’ against which they are placed.  Whilst these characteristics might indeed be typical of what we intuitively think of as an ‘object’ it is probably more accurate to say that entities which display these characteristics show ‘prototypicality’, this is something I will be coming back to later.  In addition to these features which give objects (or figures) their overall status as objects there are a large number of eidetic variables which allow for organised distinction.  Objects might vary in shape and size, be of different weights,  have interiors and exteriors, be easily decomposed into smaller objects or resist such decomposition, be stable or instable, soft or hard, distinctly bounded or fuzzy, persist over long periods of time or barely break the surface of time at all.  All of these qualities offer themselves as potential structuring metaphors for an understanding of abstract entities which draws on our cognitive engagements with objects in lived experience.


Andriessen, D. G. (2008).  Stuff or love? How metaphors direct our efforts to manage knowledge in organisations.  Knowledge Management Research & Practice 6: 5-12.

Stockwell, P. (2002). Cognitive poetics : an introduction. London, Routledge

The Poetry of Reality

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 15, 2009

The writer and comic trickster Robert Anton Wilson defined the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Physics as indicating the following: that the equations of QM do not describe the quantum world but rather describe the systems of thought we need to create in order to be able to think about that world.  What I want to explore here is the extent to which this insight about the relationship between the world and how we think about the world might be extended out of the queerness of quarks and bosons and applied to the middle-sized stuff of lived experience.  To paraphrase Wilson, I would like to claim that we do not experience the real world, but rather the systems of cognition we need to create in order to live in that world.  Systems which I think are best described as ‘poetic’.

In a lecture that Richard Dawkins presented as part of the Tedtalks series in 2005 he referred to physical matter as a ‘useful fiction’. Our experience of the apparently solid table in front of us and the apparently solid wall around us is, he claims, a product of our brains interpreting the relationship between our (middle sized) bodies and the (middle sized) objects of the world. Physics determines that the relationship between two medium sized objects is generally one of non-penetrability; we cannot routinely walk through walls or pass our hand through the surface of a table. If we wish to avoid repeatedly banging into walls and other matter then the survival imperative of an evolutionarily determined brain requires that this dangerous relationship of non-penetrability be dramatised.

As for touching, so also for seeing.  The visibly material existence of the world come to us on waves of light but ‘light’ also is simply the word we use to describe another drama staged by our brain.  The play of light is scripted by those parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that are capable of passing through the pupil of the eye and activating receptors in the retina.  Other parts of the spectrum pass by us and through us undetected, and because we have no receptors for these they do not figure in our experience.  To the extent that we talk about them at all we do so using obvious and evident metaphor (as when we talk of ‘ultra-violet light’ which is neither violet nor light as we know it), or we acknowledge our phenomenological ignorance and call them something like ‘X-rays’, signing them off with the classical pseudonym of non-identifiablility.  The light that we see, and which significantly determines what ‘seeing’ is, may not appear to be metaphorical as these invisible other lights are, but its transformation from disturbances in the electromagnetic field to the visually experienced world can, I believe, also be best understood as a ‘useful fiction’ and the stuff of poetry.  Imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown and we see the light reflected from walls and similar objects and feel these entities as ‘solid’ and as ‘hard’.  The appearance and the hardness of matter, and matter itself in this understanding, is a mythic story belonging to the physical, biological and evolutionary history of every human.  A story told to us by our brain so that we might better navigate the world of the middle-sized.  Force is understood as substance, the gravitational bending of space is understood as falling.

Roger Jones describes this process in ‘Physics as Metaphor’ in which he cites Owen Barfield who cautions us ‘not to confuse a percept with its cause’ (Barfield 1957: p.20).  Jones goes on to say that ‘what I call matter is neither what causes my sensations (presumably atoms and electric fields do that), nor equivalent to my sensations (which are a complex of tactile impressions and visual images).  Matter is something I construct mentally out of my sensations.  This conversion of pure sensation into a perceived object, Barfield calls figuration’. (Jones 1983: p.201)

This is not to say that matter or reality is an illusion or that it does not exist.  Nor is it to say that it is some kind of relativistic social construction. Rather it is an acknowledgment that the physical world is always seen through the dark glass of our own embodiment.  To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, not just science but the entirety of lived experience is the poetry of reality.   Cognition dramatises physics and turns it into matter, and experience itself is an act of poetry.


Barfield, O. (1957). Saving the Appearances. A study in idolatry.  Faber & Faber: London.

Jones, R. (1983). Physics as Metaphor. London, Abacus.

Dawkins, R. (2005) Queerer than we Suppose.  TED Lecture.  Online at

Matter, Metaphor and Mind

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 14, 2009

David Hubel,  in ‘Eye, Brain and Vision’  (1995), remarks that the brain is a machine ‘that does tasks in a way that is consonant with the laws of physics, an object that we can understand in the same way that we understand a printing press’.  Hubel is clearly making a plea for an approach to brain science which corresponds to physical naturalism and for the avoidance of any metaphysical or supernatural interpretations.   Whilst I completely support this ambition it is likely that the functioning of the brain involves processes which require forms of understanding that are radically different from those we use to understand the mechanical objects of the material world.  A printing press is, as Dawkins might put it, a ‘middle sized object moving at middle speed’; its workings are entirely explicable in terms of Newtonian physics and basic mechanics (those workings which are significant to its major function at any rate). A brain on the other hand utilises electrochemical and biochemical, and possibly also quantum mechanical processes, which are completely beyond the reach of Newtonian physics and which can only be approached using very different mathematical and scientific models. This distinction is significant because, as middle sized objects ourselves, we can apparently think and talk about processes which operate on the Newtonian scale literally and directly, but when we think and talk about processes which lie outside of that scale we enter a world outside direct experience which we can only address metaphorically, including the ultimately metaphorical constructions of mathematics.  (The case for mathematics as essentially metaphorical has been argued robustly by Nunez [1999, 2004] and Lakoff and Nunez [2000]). This means that, whilst we might one day fully ‘understand’ the brain, we will never understand it in the same way that we understand the printing press.
This is something that brain science has in common with quantum physics.  As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the mathematician JBS Haldane famously observed that ‘the universe may not only be queerer than we suppose but queerer than we can suppose’ (1927: p.286). He intended this observation to apply specifically to the more esoteric aspects of the universe encountered mainly by astronomers and particle physicists, whose equations do indeed describe a world which is inconceivable in any literal sense, and which makes no intuitive appeal to the senses of even the most highly trained. (As Richard Feynman is reputed to have said, ‘if you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t understand quantum mechanics’).  This observation could just as easily be applied to the mechanism and matter of the brain.
To return to Hubel’s comment about the brain and the printing press,  it could be argued that since we have the minds of middle sized objects, built out of the need to solve the problems facing middle sized objects, those minds are themselves, in a sense, middle sized. Joseph McIntyre and others at the European Laboratory for the Neurosciences of Action have shown that minds intuitively understand something approximating Newtonian physics (McIntyre, 2001). There is therefore a grain of truth in what Hubel says although it is more appropriately aimed at the mind and the processes of understanding and conceptualisation, not the physical brain.

An understanding of a complex entity like the human brain, the working of which is fundamentally abstract, can only be achieved through the use of analogy, metaphor, and symbol (including mathematical symbols), and what goes for the conceptualisation of the brain is also the case with most other empirical scientific data and theories.  Like all abstract objects of knowledge these empirical facts; falsifiable, robust, and independently arrived at, are ultimately poetic tropes.

In the book ‘Man a Machine’ (1928) Joseph Needham wrote that ‘Mechanism and materialism lie at the foundation of scientific thought’, (Needham, in Capra,1984). It is usually assumed that by this he meant that all science is ultimately mechanical and grossly materialistic, an archaic and vaguely quaint notion. However, it is possible that what he meant was, that whilst the phenomena of the universe may be wildly exotic and far beyond the reach of the human senses and of any mechanistic or materialist explanation constructed only from the evidence of those senses, there is nevertheless a place for this kind of thinking in even the most esoteric and counter-intuitive of scientific theories. A more positive reading of Needham’s comment may point us toward the recognition that all of our theorisation and conceptualisation is ultimately grounded in thinking which is human scale, and locked into the wonders of the mechanism and of matter.

Does this necessarily mean therefore, that the world of human being is divided into two regions, the concrete and objective world of the senses and this other abstract world that is forever beyond the reach of hand and eye?  Do we experience, along with our primate ancestors, some parts of the world neat and unmediated, the solidly factual trees and rocks, and then, as modern humans, have this other layer of reality that is equally factual but materially unavailable without the extra-sensory metaphors of modern physics?  Is there really a fault line in the universe separating that which appears on the radar of human senses and is expressible in plain language, from that which makes no sensory contact and can only be communicated through the poetry of maths?  I would say obviously not.


Capra, F. (1982). The turning point : science, society, and the rising culture. London, Wildwood House.

Haldane, J. B. S. (1927). Possible Worlds: And Other Essays. London, Chatto and Windus.

Hubel, D. H. (1995). Eye, brain, and vision. New York, Scientific American Library ; Oxford : W.H. Freeman [distributor]. Online at

McIntyre, J., M. Zago, et al. (2001). “Does the brain model Newton’s laws?” Nature Neuroscience(4): 693-694.

Nunez, R., F. Iida, et al. (2004). Do Real Numbers Really Move? Language, Thought, and Gesture: The Embodied Cognitive Foundations of Mathematics. Embodied Artificial Intelligence. Berlin:, Springer-Verlag: 54.

Nunez, R. E., L. D. Edwards, et al. (1999). “Embodied Cognition As Grounding For Situatedness And Context In Mathematics Education.” Educational Studies in Mathematics 39(1-3): 45-65.