Commonsense and the Embodied Mind


For too long, the Philosophy of Mind has been struggling to get out of the 17th and 19th centuries – represented by the basic mind-body dualism of Descartes and the materialist reductionism which, rooted in 18th century empiricism, flowered in the 19th century, with the growing assumption that science would eventually tell us all we need to know about everything. It was not helped by the 20th century debates about meaning and the argument put forward by the Logical Positivists that empirical verification alone constituted a valid basis for factual claims, and the more recent materialist assumption that the mind is no more than a description of brain activity, an illusion to be dispelled by neuroscience.

A commonsense view of the mind recognizes that it is not the same thing as the brain, although acknowledging that the brain is the motor of mental activity. Nor does it make any sense to try to ‘locate’ the mind elsewhere. The mind is what we know and use as we experience ourselves as embodied human individuals, dependent upon our physical bodies, but enmeshed in a social and cultural world. We know what minds are because we read biographies, make friendships and interact with other people in a way that recognizes them as separate beings but in most ways much like ourselves. We also have a fundamental sense of who we are, not just through our experience of reasoning and reflecting, but in our engagement with and acknowledgement by others.

It is therefore refreshing to see that commonsense is at last breaking into the dead ends of traditional dualism and neuro-determinism. It has been a long time coming, but exemplified by such major 20th century thinkers as Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. The key thing – emphasized by Merleau-Ponty – is that the mind is embodied. Neatly summarized by Rachel Paine (in The Philosophers Magazine, 1st quarter, 2016), it is expressed as ‘4EA’. The four ‘E’s are:

Embodied – we are living beings within the world.

Embedded – within a social as well as a biological environment

Enactive – we build up and share our ‘world’ along with others

Extended – we are not ‘in’ the brain, but our selves extend out into the world.

added to which is the ‘A’…

Affective – we feel ourselves to be within a world with others; we do not observe a world our ourselves in a detached way, simply because we are part of the world.

To me, it makes sense to think of ourselves in this way; whereas both the reductionist approach of neuroscience and the attempt to revive a rather crude form of mind-body dualism seem to be creating problems by straining after theories that simply do not match experienced reality.

At last I sense the old cognitive log-jam in the Philosophy of Mind, is starting to shift, aided of course, by the very sensible criticisms of neuroscience offered by Raymond Tallis amongst others. Commonsense might eventually prevail.

This is my second blog post on the issue of the mind and neuroscience. If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, visit my website:


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