Stressing the Flesh: In Defense of Strong Embodied Cognition


  • The standard picture of Descartes qua arch substance dualist is somewhat belied by his intense interest in what we would now call neurophysiology and his prescient recognition that almost all of what we would now call psychological phenomena—bodily and external sensation, emotion, imagination, and memory—depend on the body and brain (see, e.g., Farkas 2005; Cottingham 1985; T.H. Huxley 1874).


In a recent paper, Andy Clark (2008) has argued that the literature on embodied cognition reveals a tension between two prominent strands within this movement. On the one hand, there are those who endorse what Clark refers to as body-centrism, a view which emphasizes the special contribution made by the body to a creature’s mental life. Among other things, body centrism implies that significant differences in embodiment translate into significant differences in cognition and consciousness. On the other hand, there are those who endorse what Clark calls extended functionalism, a view which sees the mind as the joint product of the computational resources presented by (i) intracranial processing, (ii) bodily input, and (iii) environmental scaffolding. As such, extended functionalism allows for the possibility that any contribution of the body to cognition and consciousness can be compensated for by the other two contributing factors. While Clark’s sympathies lie with the latter approach, we argue in favour of the former. In particular, we focus on consciousness and argue that the unique contribution the body makes to a creature’s manifold of phenomenal experience cannot be compensated for, in the manner, and on the scale, that Clark envisages.