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Embodied Cognition and the Goethezeit

Date: 14th–15th September 2015
Place: University of Cambridge
Conception: Katharina A. Engler, Charlotte Lee, Lore Knapp

The purpose of this workshop will be to consider alignments between intellectual activity in the German-speaking world between 1750 and 1830, and the findings of modern cognitive science, which posit integration between the mental and the physical in processes of acquiring knowledge. The time around 1800 is eminently suited to an encounter of this kind. Not only did it see the rudimentary beginnings of cognitive science in fields such as phrenology and magnetism (Adler 1998), but a number of literary writers actively pursued scientific interests: Goethe is the best known and most prolific example, but many Romantic writers, from Novalis and Moritz to Hoffmann and Chamisso, were similarly engaged.

The term ‘embodied cognition’ is used here as shorthand for the claim, reinforced by modern scientific developments (especially neuroimaging), that mind, body and world are integrated in the acquisition of knowledge. German poets, scientists and philosophers around 1800 made significant contributions to modes of conceiving the mediation and/or identity of subject and object. Fundamental to their efforts was the idea that both the observer and the observed are equal partners in the activities of cognition, and that mind and matter (spirit and nature) are both involved in a mutual process of formation (Bildung). Goethe and his notion of the ‘Auge des Geistes’ (Förster 2001) was held up as a living example of this principle. Moreover, the holistic approach, encouraged by modern science, to the acquisition of knowledge resonates with developments in aesthetics in the second half of the eighteenth century, above all with explorations of the role of the senses in cognition. The workshop will isolate and explore the eighteenth-century roots of empirical and neurological aesthetics (Abicht 1789, Mellin 1797).

The intention, in opting for ‘embodied cognition’ as the leading idea, is not to elide the abundant and distinct contemporary scientific approaches to the mind-body question, but to provide a suggestive starting point. It is hoped that participants will be moved to consider the implications of other, related models – including embedded, extended and enacted cognition (see e.g. Menary 2010) – for writing between 1750 and 1830. The workshop will also need to address the question of how best to stage this encounter. It can be a red herring to discern the ‘anticipation’ of later developments in earlier discourses; but where there are resonances, they should be explored, for their implications could be profound, as scholars across the humanities have highlighted (Gross 2013; Johnson et al. 2013; Watts et al. 2013).

German Idealism, for example, the major philosophical movement of the period, might seem by its very name to privilege the realm of ideas over that of matter. Yet ‘German thinkers in this period took themselves to mean something that is precisely the opposite of anything like negative physical idealism – the philosophical view that, in its paradigm modern form, prides itself on a denial of public material objects.’ (Ameriks 2000: 8-9). This understanding of German Idealism still struggles to make headway outside specialist circles, however. Catherine Malabou’s brilliant reading of Hegel, the concept of ‘plasticity’ which she develops (Malabou, 1995/2005), resonates with the notion of cognition as distributed across mind, body and world. Could scientific models of cognition help to find further, powerful methods of articulating this aspect of Idealist thought?

This alignment would, in turn, have implications for the ongoing dialogue between philosophy and cognitive science. There is a temptation to see cognitive science as undercutting ‘the major classical philosophical views of what a person is’ (Lakoff and Johnson 1999: 5); yet the diversity of intellectual pursuits in the period around 1800ought to act as a warning against the impulse to homogenize western philosophy in this way. The workshop will ask whether there might be spaces within that philosophical heritage for conceptions of human cognition which, if they are not coextensive with, can nonetheless be allied to the insights of modern science.

Key questions for the workshop include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Where in literary writing of the period is the physical or material dimension of cognitive processes explored? Can we develop new critical methods, inspired by developments in modern cognitive science, which help us to get at these moments in literature?
  • What implications do concepts such as embodied and extended cognition have for our understanding of philosophy in the period? Could they have useful applications for German Idealism in particular? To what extent do they align (or not align) with other, related streams such as Naturphilosophie, or with the interplay between the sciences and philosophy in Early Romanticism?
  • How do other discourses in the period, such as theology and writing on aesthetics, poetics, theatre, dance and music, conceive of the relationship between mind (or spirit), body and world in cognition? How do they connect with the findings of modern cognitive science?
  • Which texts in the period thematise physical processes of writing (including medium, gesture and environment), addressing thereby the material dimension of the generation of knowledge?
  • How did the notion of ‘experience’ (Erfahrung), which was central to both the Kantian and Hegelian enterprises, come to be defined in a dialectical fashion that could mediate between subject and object, body and mind?
  • How are the premises of fields such as phrenology related to developments in modern cognitive science? How are they different?
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