An embodied contradiction: Some personal reflections on the use of 4E perspectives in the humanities

This is a guest post from James Carney. Read his review essay in ESIC 4.1: “Thinking avant la lettre: A Review of 4E Cognition.”

If the personal history behind a research article is sometimes useful to have, its value is less obvious for a review article. Reviewers, after all, should be objective, and even if this can never realistically be achieved, it still seems a little shameless to parade the deficiency. I do so here because I think that the different ways in which I have encountered 4E perspectives illustrate some tensions in the practice of 4E that are usually invisible in the academic literature. These tensions are important because they illustrate how the presentation of 4E as a radical intellectual program by humanities scholars (though not only them) can run ahead of the more prosaic reality of actual 4E research. Should my experiences not chime with those of others who have worked in 4E, I can only remind them that they have foresworn disembodied objectivity on a priori grounds, and thus have no claim against the reviewer who fails to exhibit it.

My first encounter with 4E cognition came when I was a philosophy undergraduate in University College Cork in the late 1990s. At that time, Mark Rowlands (later to be joined by Matthew Ratcliffe) was a junior member of the Philosophy Department. By dint of a peasant cunning that I have since learned to emulate, his lectures usually tracked whatever research project he was working on at the time: back then, that was his influential book, The Body in Mind (1999). I’d like to say that early exposure to what would later come to be called 4E cognition made an instant convert of me, but to my pals and me—bourgeois Kantian idealists to a man—the whole enterprise just seemed hopelessly positivist. Nevertheless, we eventually conceded that retaw was not water, that thinking did not make it so, and that the intuition that we might have bodies was not an entirely discreditable one. 

What was important for me about this encounter was that it naturalised 4E as an idea amongst other ideas. Like the categorical imperative, predicate logic, Rawls’s veil of ignorance, and St. Anselm’s proof, 4E had a claim on my attention—but no more of a claim than they did. The result was that, though I learned about 4E quite early in its wider emergence as an intellectual paradigm, I did so without feeling any particular need to go out and evangelise on its behalf. 

This nonchalance fed into my second encounter with 4E, which came in the early 2010s at Oxford after I’d changed my intellectual focus to literary studies. By dint of a late-game conversion to truth, rigour, and the empirical way—and aided by the infinite beneficence of the European Union—I took up a cross-training fellowship at Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology. My expectation was that this would be a sort of Hallmark romance, where the two cultures would tearfully renounce their differences and retire to a hotel room somewhere to conclude with other business. My expectations, however, were wrong: Robin Dunbar, my mentor at Oxford, had no room for a Bourbon princess on his staff, and started me off as he meant me to go on—which is to say, with a head-first dunking into the sheep pit of statistical methods and experimental science. Having just worked for four years in a research culture where the normality of errors was understood to be an intellectual license rather than a statistical assumption, this new immersion left me feeling more like the tick than the sheep.

Whilst at Oxford, I naturally made efforts to connect with colleagues in the humanities who were also interested in cognitive science. This was (and never ceased to be) a positive experience. What quickly became visible, however, was that theory-heavy 4E perspectives about cognition were very much in the ascendancy amongst humanities scholars. The contrast with my daily ration of “shut up and calculate!” was, I occasionally reflected, striking, but being busy with hard sums I didn’t dwell on it overmuch. When I began to take more notice was after meeting with two colleagues in literary studies for afternoon tea in one of the more salubrious colleges. My colleagues—who were and remain first-rate scholars—both gently gave me to understand that my methods were unsound: the mind, contrary to appearances, was a body, and anyone with an eye on the outcome might profit by acknowledging it. Naturally, because I seemed like a decent chap, they were happy to slip me a few E’s gratis if I needed them.

OK, that’s not how the conversation actually happened. But what did become clear to me was that the take-up of embodied perspectives by scholars in the humanities, though articulated as an effort to reconcile humanistic inquiry with contemporary approaches to cognition, seemed to be captured by only one of the contemporary approaches to cognition. This was particularly evident when it came to computationally focused alternatives like evolutionary psychology. Say what you like about evolutionary psychology—and people do, all the time—the fact remains that, on point of empirical evidence, its conjectures are vastly better supported than nearly any of the hypotheses associated with 4E. This doesn’t mean 4E is wrong (many of its claims are simply hard to evaluate), but it does make one wonder whether the partialism it stimulates has less to do with intellectual rigour than it does with a modish preoccupation with other people’s bodies.

Either way, my next encounter with 4E made it quite clear what empirical research in embodied cognition might look like when it wasn’t channelling its inner Mujahedeen. Unemployable in literary studies for reasons unclear (or perhaps very clear), I took up a position in the Embodied Cognition Lab in Department of Psychology at Lancaster University. There, I worked as a research associate on the Lancaster norms project: an ambitious undertaking that sought to map the sensorimotor associations of 40,000 concepts in English. This was unshowy, detailed work that required online participants to rate large numbers of concepts on what amounted to a production line. Amidst the daily round of herding participants, debugging code, and ensuring that Cronbach’s alphas didn’t quarrel with each other, it occurred to me that this was the kind of work needed to place 4E approaches to language and literature on a credible empirical footing. One can volunteer as many high-level hypotheses about embodiment and literature as one likes, but without coming in at the ground level and establishing how embodiment can be measured (and on what dimensions), these hypotheses can never be anything more than diverting. Fortunately, the Lancaster norms were recently published, so I await with serene confidence their transformative impact on literary scholarship.

Ultimately, I remain of the view that embodied approaches to cognition are of crucial importance in the project of understanding symbolic culture. Nothing in my experience has changed that, and as the mind is very probably embodied, I expect nothing will. All the same, we create tools so that we may solve problems, and when the problems become secondary to the tools, we are decorating the world instead of mending it. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in both the humanities and in cognitive science, and in my experience at least, 4E remains more an ornament than a tool. If there’s a fourth encounter with 4E in my future, I hope it’s one where the excitement of intellectual enterprise is leavened by a more sober appreciation of the value of practical results.

James Carney is Wellcome Fellow in the medical humanities at Brunel University London. His current research centers on how machine learning and artificial intelligence can be used to predict the impact of cultural objects on audiences suffering from depression or anxiety. He has published on a wide variety of topics across the humanities and quantitative social sciences, and maintains a particular interest in blending interpretive, experimental, and computational methodologies.