The Poetics of Thought

Bodily Movement

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 26, 2009

“Walking return the body to its original limits again, to something supple, sensitive, and vulnerable, but walking itself extends into the world as do those tools that augment the body.  The path is an extension of walking, the places set aside for walking are monuments to that pursuit, and walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it.  Thus the waling body can be traced in the places it has made, paths, parks, and sidewalks are traces of the acting out of imagination and desire; walking sticks, shoes, maps, canteens, and backpacks are further material results of that desire. Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world” (Solnit. 2001: p.29).

The last part of the Mark Johnson quotation that I have been drawing upon for this section of the writing cites ‘bodily movement’ as one of the capacities within which meaning and thought emerge.  By this I take him to mean that moving is a coherent, organised activity involving a set of eidetic invariants which give the act of moving a schematic structure.   The structured cognition that represents the act of moving is then available for repurposing such that other kinds of conceptual content can be organised using this structure.  Later in this writing I will indicate some examples of how this might work.

Some of the particular structures that moving provides emerge from the way perception changes as the body moves through space.  A walk through a forest or through a city causes the sights before one’s eyes to change from a single static viewpoint to a seeing that is set in motion;  trees come into new alignments as one passes them and the pebble on the path up ahead grows in size as the body moves toward it.  The sounds of those birds on the fence to your left becomes the sounds of birds behind you, growing quieter and quieter as you proceed until their song is lost among the approaching sound of cars on the road up ahead.


SOLNIT, R. (2001). Wanderlust: a history of walking. London, Verso.


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.

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.

Little Mind

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 1, 2009

The place I am trying to get to by the end of this overall section is a position where it makes sense to ask questions like ‘What is knowing?’ and there are a number of conditions that have to be in place before that kind of question can be asked.  This isn’t the kind of question you can direct at a rock.  To ask whether a rock ‘knows’ anything stretches the definition of ‘knowing’ beyond viability.  Nor is it the kind of question which can be applied meaningfully to an ant, an amoeba, or a trilobite; ‘knowing’ cannot even by attributed to Fred  and Wilma Flintstone, our distant ancestors.  As I will be arguing later, when we talk about this thing we call ‘knowing’ as if it was capable of existing outside of the narrowly circumscribed domain of the bodies of homo sapiens we are indulging in anthropomorphism, applying human attributes to non-human entities.  To possess knowledge or to engage in knowing requires a very particular conceptual apparatus which seems to be uniquely associated with the tottering, chattering bipeds that wandered out of Africa and colonized the Earth around 50,000 years ago. And what goes for knowledge also goes for all of the other architectural elements of thinking that make human life so interesting; believing, hoping, desiring, wishing, dreading, doubting, but if I want to talk about these things I have to start with rocks, or at least the metabolising chemical goop that gathered on the back of rocks at the start of it all.  The causal narrative that that I will be tracing leads from the simplest of organisms to Lucy to you and I speaking and listening, reading and writing.

If I can approach this narrative by playing the tape backwards we might hear, amongst the satanic messages always found in backmasked audio, the sound of thought leaving the building, accompanied by the trailing off of a disappearing mind.  By this I mean that what we call ‘thinking’ requires the existence of something called ‘mind’, which in turn requires the existence of a brain capable not only of carrying out the usual functions of managing the body but also of supporting that mind.  A brain of this sophistication must have been preceded by a simpler brain which was equally good at organising the body but which would not support something like a mind.  This simpler brain would be an enhancement of a central nervous system solely employed to negotiate the interface between body and world, and this in turn must have grown from some elementary feedback system which allowed for an adaptive reflexivity.  The key point is that ‘mind’ is not synonymous with cognition but is the latest in a long series of upgrades to the basic operating system our single-celled ancestors evolved  for getting along in the world.

I realize this is a contestable point and that ‘mind’ is a fluid concept which has very diverse applications.  Some may well say that ‘mind’ can be meaningfully attributed to the simplest life forms or to non-living systems or even to inanimate matter, the philosopher David Chalmers flirts with this idea very eloquently in his book ‘The Consciousn Mind’ (1996, especially chapter eight), and of course it also features within some spiritual discourse.  Some mystics and panpsychists might say that mind is a constituent part of the fabric of the universe and we are simply its local instantiations, giving voice to this mind-at-large from the viewpoint of where we individually stand.  Attractive as this idea might be, this is not the position I am taking here.  Although I will be qualifying this later, for the moment I am assuming that mind is the result of a bottom up process involving something like emergence, adaptation, exaptation, or epiphenomenalism and begins with simpler entities.  Furthermore, I will be arguing that whilst cognition is commonplace among living organisms, and possibly among entities not usually considered cognate, ‘mind’ is a peculiarity of human cognition.

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Chalmers, D. (1996). The Conscious Mind. Oxford: University of Oxford Press.