4 Mar 2013

Andy Clark. 8.8 of Being There, “Roots”, summary

summary by
Corry Shores
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[My own commentary is in brackets. All boldface and underlining is my own.]

Andy Clark

Being There:
Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again

Being, Computing, Representing

Part 8.8
[this summary focuses on the Merleau-Ponty parts]

Brief Summary:

Merleau-Ponty’s body-world synergistic integration is like Clark’s continuous reciprocal causation, and this can be seen with Merleau-Ponty’s example of using a device to hold a captured animal: our hand motions are just as much causes of as they are reactions to the same stimuli they receive from the squirming animal.


Andy Clark has been discussing anti-representationalist and anti-computationalist ‘intuitions’ we might have with regard to cognitive systems. Clark will now discuss the recent and not-so-recent roots of these views. (170-171)

Clark begins with Heidegger’s Being and Time. Here Heidegger describes how the structure of the world, and our place in it, can be seen in terms of the functional couplings of the parts of the world, revolving around our intentional relationship with that world. (171a.b)

Thus Heidegger’s ideas would be in line with what Clark has been saying with regard to “action-oriented couplings between organism and world”. Yet Clark’s positions do not align with Heidegger in other ways. (171b.c)

Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy involves a concept of body-world integration (“whole organism-body-world synergies”)that is much like Clark’s “continuous reciprocal causation”. [for more on this notion of cuasation, see Clark’s explanation in Being There and Menary’s in his introduction to Extended Mind (specifically here )] Clark refers to Merleau-Ponty’s example of using some device to hold a captured animal. [Merleau-Ponty gave this example to show how our reactions to a stimulus are as well what helped give that stimulus its form in the first place. The motions of our hand that react to the animal’s squirming are the same motions that put our hands in the positions that allowed us to feel the squirming in that particular way. This blurs the line between us and the animal, because we together can also be seen as producing a conjoined system, since we and the animal are reacting so immediately and directly to one another simultaneously, like parts in a larger machine.]

Closer in spirit and execution to the present project is the work of the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who was concerned to depict everyday intelligent activity as the playing out of whole organism-body-world synergies. In particular, Merleau-Ponty stressed the importance of what I have called "continuous reciprocal causation"—viz., the idea that we must go beyond the passive image of the organism perceiving the world and recognize the way our actions may be continuously responsive to worldly events which are at the same time being continuously responsive to our actions. Consider a lovely example, which I think of as "the hamster and tongs":

When my hand follows each effort of a struggling animal while holding an instrument for capturing it, it is clear that each of my movements responds to an external stimulation; but it is also clear that these stimulations could not be received | without the movements by which I expose my receptors to their influence The properties of the object and the intentions of the subject are not only intermingled; they also constitute a new whole. (Merleau-Ponty 1942, p. 13)

In this example the motions of my hands are continuously responsive to those of the struggling hamster, but the hamster's struggles are continuously molded and shaped by the motions of my hand. Here action and perception, as David Hilditch (1995) has put it, coalesce as a kind of "free form interactive dance between perceiver and perceived." It is this iterated interactive dance that, we saw, is now recognized in recent work concerning the computational foundations of animate vision. [Clark 171-172, boldface mine]

Consider also the Gibsonian notion of an affordance.

An affordance is an opportunity for use or interaction which some object or state of affairs presents to a certain kind of agent. For example, to a human a chair affords sitting, but to a woodpecker it may afford something quite different. (172b)

Merleau-Ponty’s stress on “the way perception is geared to the control of real-time, real-world behavior” is like a discover of Gibsonian affordance. (172b)

Gibson did not think that there needed to be internal representation as an additional entity that mediates between perception and action, as with the case of how certain light patterns that we see tell us there is a “flat plain affording human walking.”  If our perception system becomes attuned to these affordances, we would not need internal representations. (172c)  [Clark discusses representationalism in this part of Being There]

Finally, Varela et al.’s work [The Embodied Mind, 1991] also influences Clark’s ideas. For example they discuss reciprocal (or circular) causation. (173a)

Yet there are important differences between Clark’s and Varela et al.’s basic assumptions and conclusions. (173d)


Clark, Andy. Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again. Cambridge, Massachusetts/London: MIT, 1997.


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