Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mellon Seminar Reflection 13: Embodiment and the Humanities

As we begin to prepare for the visit of Professor Mark Turner, a professor of Cognitive Science from Case Western Reserve, we have discussing the field of cognitive psychology. One book that particularly grabbed my attention this week is Edward Slingerland (PHOTO from his webpage HERE), What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture (2008).

I can't imagine writing a more courageous book than this, especially as a professor of ancient Chinese religion which is where Slingerland's training is. I was taken by the book for many reasons (and I am still processing it), but what struck me immediately was fact that he sees some of the same problems with postmodern theory that I do, and responds in ways similar to my own responses, responses which I have been recording on this blog, as I go about trying to develop a new sort of historical approach to the study of my texts. What I have come to realize over the course of this year is that I refuse to-throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bath-water. What is happening in my mind and through my pen (yes I still write with a pen) is a major remodeling and rebuilding of Tradition Criticism, in light of its postmodern crucifixion. I am developing an approach I am calling Transtradition Criticism. I will post more about this development later.

To return to Slingerland. He argues that postmodern theory has swept through the Academy, leaving us suspicious of any truth-claim and with "a conviction that the distinguishing mark of sophisticated scholarship is an ability to engage with a prescribed pantheon of theorists" rather than serious study of primary texts. What was fun at first "has left us with an intellectual hangover" (2008, 1), luxuriating in language for language's sake.

I couldn't agree more. In my opinion, we are stranded in a place of nowhere, immobilized by disembodied discourses, authorless and textless, outside of history. With nothing empirical, with no sameness, we are lost in a jumble of difference. We are left to describe what we see as ours, with no power to interpret beyond this. Even these meager descriptions are left in an ethical vacuum to be siphoned off and co-opted to support nefarious purposes.

The Humanities are dying and we are the ones who are responsible to save them.

The big question is HOW? Slingerland offers a solid solution. He says that we need to get our act together and learn from scientists how human beings operate, particularly as embodied cognitive beings. He demonstrates how humanists operate within outdated models of anthropology, and need to come to terms with the fact that science has discovered fundamental things about the human being. That we need to take embodiment seriously or be doomed to spinning tales inside of tales.

In Slingerland's words: "The fact that these body-minds are, have always been, and will always continue to be part of the world of things effectively short-circuits the epistemological skepticism that permeates postmodern thinking. A nondualistic approach to the person promises no privileged access to eternal, objective truths, but is based upon the belief that commonalities of human embodiment in the world can result in a stable body of shared knowledge, verified (at least provisionally) by proofs based on common perceptual access. By breaching the mind-body divide - by bringing the human mind back into contact with a rich and meaningful world of things - this approach to the humanities starts from an embodied mind that is always in touch with the world, as well as a pragmatic mode of truth or verification that takes the body and the physical world seriously" (2008, 8).


Michael Satlow said...

Ultimately, is this an endorsement that all (or at least most) truths are objective, and that reason (i.e., science) can lead to them? I should read more Slingerland than I have, but this quote reminds me of positions of Sa'adia and later Moses Mendelssohn (just to name two almost random thinkers with whom I familiar). Does this position lead beyond a critique of post-modern skeptical relativism to an actual agenda for how religious studies is to function as a field?

April DeConick said...


My answer to this is yes. Slingerland gives a full critique of postmodernism and moves us forward with an embodied cognitive model. He appeals to the advances in cognitive science which show that we think with and through our bodies. So he argues for a universalism based on the way human brains function and a creativity and cultural innovation based on the way human brains function. He uses cognitive mapping and blending in particular. I recommend taking a look. It is the first thing I have read that suggests a way for us to proceed forward in religious studies.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

>>>leaving us suspicious of any truth-claim and with "a conviction that the distinguishing mark of sophisticated scholarship is an ability to engage with a prescribed pantheon of theorists" rather than serious study of primary texts. << Didn't E.M. Forster predict this in his short story The Machine Stops?

Truths are objective and reason can lead to them? No, really? ;-)