The traditional definition of ideology—socially necessary false belief—exhibits an intellectualist orientation ripe for rethinking. In The Mind-Body Politic (hereafter MBP) Michelle Maiese and Robert Hanna (hereafter M&H) draw explicit political-critical consequences from their earlier work on essentially embodied cognition to argue that social institutions necessarily engage in the mind-shaping of its members, not merely doxastically but above all somatically and emotionally, instilling habitual skills and modes of comportment that perceive, respond to, and reproduce learned saliences and affordances in their environment. M&H understand social institution as any group of people whose “affective orientation” (subjective experiences, emotions, beliefs, intentional actions, etc.) is collectively organized and guided by shared principles or rules that function as norms. Such an “embodied objective spirit” (my formulation) can then be evaluated according to what M&H describe as “true human needs” such as autonomy, self-realization, empathy and solidarity, and so on. By these criteria M&H handily demonstrate that social institutions that operate according to the principles of neoliberalism—which they summarize as Hobbesian liberalism, the valorization of capitalism, and technocracy—are coercive and enslaving of its members, fundamentally thwarting human flourishing. Their two emblematic case studies are higher education and mental health practice.
Not only do M&H vivisect the deforming effects of neoliberal social institutions, they describe and advocate for specific remedies and actions in order to create, refashion, and sustain genuinely emancipatory social institutions. Anscombe famously suggested that we cannot have a proper theory of ethics until we have a proper philosophy of mind. This book tacitly takes up that challenge by presenting an emancipatory political theory grounded in a sophisticated philosophy of embodied mind and affective, enactive cognition.
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The picture of embodied mind in MBP was developed and defended by Maiese (Embodiment, Emotion and Cognition; Embodied Selves and Divided Minds ) and in her earlier collaboration with Hanna (Embodied Minds in Action ). Its key features are that human minds are dynamically emergent, irreducibly interdependent with their biologically and physically mattered bodies (no dualism or supervenience relation), and that we act by intentionally moving our bodies by means of desire-based emotions that ground mental causation in our neurophysiology as living organisms. M&H draw the social- and political-philosophical consequences that motivate their book. The result is a naturalistic, neo-Aristotelian picture of embodied minds always already existing in socially and culturally mediated and affectively situated activities responsive to similarly mediated environmental affordances: “affective scaffolding” that implicitly shape selective and value-laden, response-dependent attention and attunements (“affective framing”). In other words, Hegel’s objective spirit is naturalized for us “minded animals”: our sense-making, and hence our susceptibility to mind-shaping by social institutions, occurs primarily through the affective framing of our social, second nature, a preeminently political matter.
M&H provide eight political criteria for determining that a given social institution is pernicious in its mind-shaping of its members, that it enacts “collective sociopathy,” thwarting human flourishing: commodification (e.g., commodity fetishism, reification, capitalism’s value theory), mechanization (e.g., instrumentalism, rationalization, mini-max optimization, etc.), coercion (including governmentality, self-disciplining, etc.), divided mind (e.g., Dubois’s “double-consciousness”), reversal of affect (inversion of pro- and contra-attitudes as the subject adopts the institutional affective framing), loss of autonomy (inculcated volitional passivity and heteronomous self-perception), incentivization of desires (the subject’s motivational set becomes rigid and instrumentalist, conforming to the instrumental goals of institutions), and false consciousness (the subject’s acceptance of the institutional affective framings as a natural given).
M&H then demonstrate how neoliberalism (as state policy, as political ideology, and as individuals’ self-disciplining practices of governmentality) as expressed in two case-study institutions—higher education and mental health practice—exemplify these destructive criteria in regards to all participants. Instructors pursuing tenure/financial security become “credentialing providers” to tuition-paying customers seeking market exchange value for their degree, a structure that—as M&H presciently outline in this pre-pandemic book—is only reinforced by the recent shift to and intensification of online education. The neoliberal policies and practices of pharmacological and “managed” health care companies conceives mental disease as caused and therefore potentially cured by neurobiological intervention, thereby removing from consideration and critique the social-institutional affective framing contributing factors and the rhetoric of “responsibilization,” self-reliance, resilience, and individual entrepreneurial self-management that subserves market forces and proleptically blames the inevitable victims of those forces.
In the final chapters of the book M&H outline the contours that any constructive, enabling institution must take. Such an institution must fulfill criteria that are the negative image of those that characterize destructive and deforming institutions: an enabling institution will foster self-realization, autonomy, authenticity (including the recognition of genuine desires), an organicist understanding of individual development and social-institutional relations, promote dignity in the Kantian sense, and an integrated and critical consciousness. Unlike the overly intellectualist or cognitivist philosophies of mind that they reject, M&H hold that the right and effective affective framing will cultivate pre-reflective, embodied and enactivist (that is, complex, dynamically evolving systems of elements that yield emergent higher-order behavioral dispositions and tendencies) habits of mind such as empathy, curiosity, flexibility, imagination, and humility, which in turn, and in essential reciprocal interaction with enabling institutions, will develop into the virtues of solidarity, mutual aid, collective (democratic) decision-making, and so on. Suggestively interweaving John Dewey and Paolo Freire, they identify the primary function of a constructive, enabling institution to be enactive-transformative learning, by which these habits will be cultivated through embodied, affective (re)framing that can alter a person’s environmental attunements (what they care about), self-relation (how they care about it, hence who they take themselves to be), practical agency (how they manifest these attitudes of care in desires and volitional actions), and ultimately cognitive mindset (what they think, how they reason). The authors show how affective framing patterns can be instilled through bodily practices including participatory art forms (dance, music, interactive exhibitions), lived learning activities (experiments in modes, members, structures of pedagogy), expressive activities rather than those aiming to transfer or “bank” information, disrupting accustomed habits of attention, introducing new, affectively charged concepts; similarly, mental health practices like cognitive behavioral therapy and expressive arts therapy can reframe affective patterns and induce enactive transformation that can fulfill the criteria of a constructive, enabling institution.
In this way M&H leave traditional ideology critique to those who, according to the psychological literature they cite, will run headlong into “cognitive walls” that are impenetrable to rational persuasion among those whose affective self-identities are at stake; instead, M&H advocate a “cognitive-affective revolution” because “in addition to various modes of critical thought and self-reflection, subjects need to be prepared to have certain kinds of affective, aesthetic, and spiritual experiences that productively disrupt their existing habits of mind” (308), and therefore need institutions that will inculcate and cultivate our best embodied selves.
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Among the illustrious respondents to MBP are leading thinkers working in “4E cognition,” premised on the mind’s being embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended into its environment, and those scholars well versed in political philosophy on the other. Together they offer a wide range of observations, extensions and criticisms of the project, indicative of the provocative innovations contained in the book.
Jan Slaby faults M&H for framing their proposed remedy in problematic proximity to traditional Enlightenment and humanist motifs of individual virtues such as dignity, autonomy, authenticity, and self-realization that have themselves become conduits of neoliberal subjectivation in Foucault’s sense. Missing for Slaby is a more thoroughgoing critique of the ongoing co-variance and co-activation between institutional arrangements and minds that undermines the normative force of the notions of “true human needs” and the Western humanist idea of “subject” that animate MBP.Slaby’s remedy to the remedy entails expanding the list of foundational texts in emancipatory political philosophy proposed by M&H to include seminal works in postcolonial and critical race theory.
In his precise but far-reaching response Shaun Gallagher raises elementary questions regarding M&H’s characterization of neoliberal mind-shaping, their notion of autonomy, and their conception of institutional design. Gallagher complicates their ostensible account of hierarchical, top-down institutional authority by emphasizing that institutions exert their influence in diverse, complex, and even self-undermining ways: lateral, nested, overlapping and mutually contravening relations among institutions, and conflicting rules and communicative practices within a single institution yield a messier picture of affective scaffolding as well as opportunities for protest and reform. Likewise Gallagher claims that M&H work with two notions of autonomy—the classical humanist notion of agential autonomy and the post-classical notion of relational autonomy—yet they do not give sufficient attention to the implicit tension, to the point of potential heteronomy, between these two notions. Given the ideological distortions of mind-shaping even upon second-order volitions in a Frankfurt-style procedural autonomy, it seems that M&H must opt for a substantive notion of the good life sustained by a proper relational autonomy, that is, a thicker notion of authenticity than their Enlightenment sketch affords. Gallagher’s final comment identifies and develops a means-end ambiguity and dilemma in M&H’s account of how to design a constructive enabling institution. Either their pedagogy of enactive-transformative learning already incorporates the positive virtues and dispositions it is intended to foster institutionally, in which case it is otiose, or the pedagogy functions as means, but could in principle enact any kind of institution, virtuous or vicious. Missing for Gallagher is an explicit argument for their claim that constructive, enabling institutions are best grounded on and realized in embodied-enactive precepts. Here too, apparently, a tension obtains between thin, Kantian conceptions on the one hand, and substantive, Aristotelian ones on the other.
Gent Carrabregu also raises three fundamental questions for M&H that arise from their innovative engagement with both political philosophy and philosophy of mind. First, he finds an implicit tension between their adherence to a Kantian “dignitarian” notion of human nature from the political-philosophical tradition on the one hand, and their advocacy of a thoroughgoing environmental, if not behaviorist, conception of embodied and enactive minds on the other. Second, he strikes a cautionary note regarding the scientific status of their theory, given epistemological doubts about the extent and definiteness of knowledge of human cognition on the one hand, and about the verifiability of social-scientific methods on the other. Lastly, he raises a fundamental worry about the very cogency of the classical mind-body problem, which M&H’s “essential embodiment theory” seeks to resolve, by invoking Chomsky’s claim that with the demise of a causal-mechanistic conception of interaction we lack an intelligible concept of the body along physicalist, Cartesian lines. Unlike other respondents, who are themselves embedded within the research program of 4E, Carrabregu raises questions that address the very framing of the problems M&H tackle.
Joel Krueger presents a concise and elegant description of M&H’s conception of embodied mind within the larger context of research on 4E cognition. His presentation, however, is preface to his argument that the premier site of contestation between “constructive and enabling” and “destructive and deforming” institutions is the Internet itself, a thesis even more momentous since Covid, after MBP was already completed. The consequences of the “online institutions” thesis for the project of MBP are still coming into view, and cry out for a sequel from M&H.
Both Maiese and Hanna responded individually to each response, an act of intellectual generosity—and perhaps Internet-mediated relational autonomy—for which we are most grateful.
Neoliberalism, Autonomy, and Institutional Design
Until recently much of the energy of embodied cognition (EC) approaches has been spent in launching full-scale attacks on traditional cognitivist views of the mind, and then engaging in smaller skirmishes about some minor differences in different versions of EC. One typically thinks of EC as an approach taken in philosophy of mind and the cognitive sciences. One thing that Maiese and Hanna (2019) demonstrate is a more extensive range for EC by pointing to a large variety of issues to which it can contribute, from the basics of human development to the construction of large-scale human institutions, from questions about basic empathy to issues that concern justice. Let me first note that I’m in agreement with the broad strokes of their project, namely, showing how deep insights about embodied cognition, especially about affective processes, can be relevant to thinking about how we organize our social institutions. Having said that, I do have some questions, and instead of focusing on some of the small philosophical issues that pertain to embodied cognition per se (such as why we need to assume a strict distinction between causality and constitution in understanding relations between cognition, body and environment), I’ll focus on the larger project. Specifically, I’ll ask three questions. The first is about a hierarchical view of the neoliberal political landscape; the second is about autonomy; and the third is about institutional design.
Maiese and Hanna propose a conception of neoliberalism that, on the one hand, pervasively and implicitly infiltrates into everyday thinking and behavior, and on the other hand, manifests itself explicitly in a set of dysfunctional structures. Their analysis of the latter strikes me as somewhat top-heavy. They propose that neoliberalism forms a kind of collective sociopathy as a result of a set of systematic relations between:[NL i–iii]
- neoliberal ideology,
- a scientistic worldview, when it is specifically applied to the administrative organization and control of society, which we call socio-scientism, and
- the coercive authoritarianism of contemporary neoliberal nation-states. (2019, 103).[/NL]
These relations all seem to be superstructural (in a Marxist sense)—ideology, form of social consciousness, and the legal-political authority—all working from the top down. Maiese and Hanna link this structure to James Scott’s (1998) more nuanced fourfold set of relations that includes the authoritarian state (iii), and combines neoliberal ideology (i) and a faith in science (ii) into a concept of “high-modern ideology,” and then adds (coming down from the heights) the notion of “administrative ordering,” and the nuanced ingredient: a “prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist.” Should we trace all problems to this arrangement of factors? Authoritarian states are very real, but I question how closely they mesh with high-modern ideology. Clearly highly authoritarian regimes of the theocratic sort present their own set of problems, but certainly not because they embody high-modernist ideology. Even the authoritarian states of so-called advanced societies, however, don’t pay much heed to science, at least if the ignorant and anti-scientific leadership and legislation we see at every level of government in the US and some European countries is any evidence. There are too many examples to list in areas that involve education, the food industry, climate, pandemic management, etc.
Maiese and Hanna rightly reject reductionist and mechanistic explanations (e.g., explanations of mental health purely in terms of the brain or explaining human behavior purely in terms of market logic); at the same time, they seem to want to reduce every problem to the same mechanistic formula: specifically, problems of education and problems in mental health care are seemingly reducible to the colonization of civil society by authoritarian forces following a neoliberal ideology. On this view, individuals are zero-intelligence cogs in the machine. “Because neoliberal ideas have become so sedimented in people’s habits of mind and imagination, they lack any alternative and organized way of viewing the world that is not beholden to market norms and values” (219). Try telling that to the variety of protesters who have recently ventured out during a pandemic; the capacity to resist, of late, seems to have regained health, even as it ignores the little bit of health science that does try to constrain it. Is that really a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist?
If we admit that some form of top-down neoliberal mechanism may cause some problems, but resist the idea that this is the explanation of all problems, then where else can we look? Maiese and Hanna don’t ignore complexity, but they see this too as falling under the same top-down power arrangement (even granted their endorsement of Foucault’s notion of subjectivation). But complexity is more complicated. With respect to how institutions work, complexity in and of itself (without any direct superstructural influence) can cause significant problems. These problems, rather than being imposed top down by hierarchical structure are generated laterally. Some are due to the fact that institutions are always related to or embedded in other institutions (Slaby & Gallagher 2017) or that there exist what one might call complexly nested institutions. Consider, for example, the issue of international trade justice. Although the overarching World Trade Organization (WTO) rules on services, investment, intellectual property, and specific areas of, for example, agriculture and textiles, and supports nondiscriminatory practices and principles of reciprocity, regional free trade agreements, custom unions and common markets, fair trade organizations, and cartels replace or compete with WTO rules. In addition, there are international organizations designed to foster multilateral trade cooperation, for example, the International Monetary Fund, the International Labor Organization, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the UN Development Program, the UN Economic Commissions, the Bank for International Settlements, the World Customs Organization, the International Telecommunications Union, the International Organization for Standardization, and the World International Property Organization. There are a number of issues that one could consider in this situation, but one of them is simply the constraints imposed by the complexity of conflicting rules. If one subtracts what one might consider top-down effects of these different regimes (and I don’t mean to deny such top-down effects), the complexity itself can distort or undermine trade justice (see Risse & Wollner 2019). Problems arise because overlapping institutions just get in each other’s way. Likewise, on more local levels, the complexity, and specifically, the lack of adequate communication systems to deal with the complexity, within some institutions can lead to unjust results. A large bank can agree to an amicable resolution with a particular customer one day, and send out a notice of foreclosure to the same customer the next simply because one department is not communicating with another. Similar problems exist within large hospital systems. Even in bottom-up grass roots organizations complexity can always derail good intentions.
An Impossible Autonomy?
Aside from basic autonomy understood as a characteristic of autopoietic systems (16), Maiese and Hanna discuss two forms of autonomy. The first is a relatively standard Kantian self-legislation view, which they call agential autonomy; the second is relational autonomy which they find developed in feminist authors. As I understand relational autonomy it includes the idea that in real social and pragmatic situations, autonomy, as a matter of degree, is either enabled or constrained through my interactions with others, or within the various structures of social practices and institutions (Gallagher 2017). Maiese and Hanna characterize it more formally as “the coordinated practical agency of each of the members of a group of people, according to shared principles of their own choosing, aka multiply self-legislated principles” (2019, 6; see 69–70). Generally speaking, the notion of autonomy involves some difficult ambiguities.
On the one hand one might think that an individual’s ability to self-monitor and make choices is just what agentive autonomy is. Not infrequently, for example, Harry Frankfurt’s analysis of second-order volitions is used as a model of agentive autonomy and critical reflection. On the other hand, as reflected in Foucault’s notion of subjectivation, self-monitoring and self-governing is suspect since subjects are primed to do such processes through a subtle coercion and their subjection to larger powers (Maiese and Hanna, 196). Here Maiese and Hanna reference Frankfurt’s analysis to suggest that second-order volitions may not be autonomous. Such second-order volitions may be “culturally influenced and emerge partly as a result of the literal mind-shaping influence of social-institutional forces and structures. More generally, in a social-institutional context, precisely which desires are granted preference, and precisely which are rejected as unworthy of satisfaction, will be partially determined by what other people in that social-institutional context find desirable” (197). It is certainly possible that we get a form of heteronomy emerging in such cases—but then what should we think of relational autonomy, which seems to suggest that to some degree autonomy depends on interacting with others and with social forces, and that since we are always social creatures, our critical reflective decisions are always socially enhanced or constrained.
There are important debates about this issue, nicely summarized by Mackenzie and Stoljar (2000), in the distinction between content-neutral procedural (which includes Frankfurt’s approach) versus substantive forms of autonomy. Maiese and Hanna, it seems to me, would have to defend a substantive form of autonomy. This means that it is not enough that someone simply has the ability to critically reflect, Frankfurt style, to make their life decisions, since, as Gary Watson (1975) has pointed out, critical reflection (or second-order volitions) may not be autonomous but rather already constrained by external power structures. Given that we are all raised in a particular culture and are members of various social institutions, how precisely are we to tell whether our second-order volitions are critical enough? Clearly, if when living in a consumption-oriented, market-driven society we have “freely” bought into the “false” neoliberal way of over-consumption, etc., then our second-order volitions have already succumbed to the system. We can’t make that choice and be considered agentively autonomous. Accordingly, it seems that the measure of autonomy (or an autonomy-promoting lifestyle) can only be that the person has chosen the right way to live, which is to say, not life as her neoliberal culture defines it. Isn’t it the case, however, that we need to address this issue in terms of relational autonomy rather than in terms of the “in-the-head” individual decision types of processes described by Frankfurt? Maiese and Hanna often mention the limits of individual responsibility and the importance of collective responsibility. At the same time, the ambiguity involved in thinking about autonomy seems to be reinforced by their concept of “deep responsibility,” where the decision “flows from the agent herself, that is, from the real person she is” (233). At this point one strategy would be to provide a developed concept of authenticity, a concept which Maiese and Hanna mention only once in passing (25).
Maiese and Hanna address the issue of “How to Design a Constructive, Enabling Institution” in chapter 7. In earlier chapters they develop a description of basic and human-realizing needs, the fulfillment of which would define a constructive enabling institution. At the beginning of chapter 7 Maiese and Hanna defend a reverse social engineering that “starts out with a concept of a way of human life that actually satisfies true human needs, especially humanity-realizing needs, and then, bottom-up, one designs social institutions whose structure and dynamics are such that they do in fact bring about the satisfaction of those needs” (2019, 246). One would think, then, that they would start with their list of basic and human-realizing needs, and reverse engineer to them. Instead they “propose that the best way to design a constructive, enabling institution is to reverse social engineer it from the concept of enactive-transformative learning” (246). There are three possibilities that we have to consider in this regard. Either (1) what they describe as the pedagogy of enactive-transformative learning is already front-loaded with just the goods they are trying to engineer, in which case there is some question begging going on; or (2) there are some different elements in the pedagogy that will productively lead us to a design that will deliver the goods; or (3) the described pedagogy is actually such that it could support any kind of institution. Ideally we would want it to be the second case, and specifically, the elements found in the pedagogy would be just the embodied-enactive elements we need for our successful engineering project. After all, the central claim of their book, as I understand it, is that constructive enabling institutions are grounded on these embodied-enactive principles. Instead, the worry is that what we find is a combination of (1) and (3). In the first instance the pedagogy is described in general terms as democratic, with “less emphasis on hierarchical authority and more on participatory decision-making,” such that it involves “the elimination of corporate culture and the nourishing of self-government,” with due emphasis given to social analysis, critical reflection, and social justice (2019, 246). None of this is bad, but isn’t it already what we’re looking for? If the claim is that we can reverse engineer to a democratic society by starting with democracy, or to a society that places less emphasis on hierarchical authority by starting with less emphasis on hierarchical authority, then what is reverse engineering adding? If we set such goods aside and look at what else the pedagogy offers, we find, again, something good: an emphasis on embodied-enactive-affective processes—and perhaps these are just the elements we want to plug into our reverse engineering project. But I think this leads us to the third option. Specifically, it seems to me that one could reverse social engineer, starting with these elements of the pedagogy, to design any functioning institution, not just a constructive enabling one. That is, these pedagogical principles could equally be stated in a training manual for clever white supremacists, who are no less embodied and strongly affective agents than anyone else. It’s not clear, for example, why white supremacists would object to forming radically new habits of mind if such habits could equally serve white supremacist goals. Solidarity can serve the white supremacist in-group as much as any other group. Affective-reframing, which is central to this pedagogy, can equally serve love or hate. If that is the case, then the following claims do not follow:
Transformative learning environments can serve as a model for the reverse engineering of constructive, enabling institutions more generally. . . . Gaining a better understanding of how social institutions can scaffold positive self-transformation and affective reframing puts us in a better position to reverse engineer constructive and enabling institutions that meet people’s true human needs. (259)
Consider, for example, the virtue of flexibility. I don’t think white supremacists would object to developing flexible ways of thinking or problem-solving. Isn’t flexibility just as good for the white supremacist as it is for participants in a constructive enabling institution? “By developing flexible habits of mind via affective reframing, subjects become capable of critical self-awareness and autonomous agency” (299). Who wouldn’t value the kind of flexibility on offer here? But that implies that we can’t reverse engineer flexibility to create a model of a good institution. Aristotle made this point a long time ago. He distinguished between cleverness (which seems close to flexibility) and phronesis (practical wisdom). A criminal or terrorist can be clever; but neither of them have phronesis. Phronesis involves knowledge of the good, which may be just what the criminal or terrorist lacks no matter how clever they are. This would lead us back to option (1). That is, we would have to add specification about the good—which Maiese and Hanna think involve democracy, the elimination of corporate culture, etc. But then are these goods necessarily tied to embodied-enactive principles, or are they simply assumed to be what we want, in which case no reverse engineering is necessary.
At one point Maiese and Hanna admit that transformative education could lead in any direction: “the enactive-transformative principle tells us simply that changing social institutions literally changes the globally dominant structures of the essentially embodied minds of the people inside them. Of course, this change could be either in the direction of destructive, deforming social institutions, or in the direction of constructive, enabling institutions; hence, it could be change either for the worse or for the better” (2019, 306) Yet, they immediately (in the very next sentence) conclude: “A transformative process of essentially embodied critical self-education, via reverse social engineering, therefore, is precisely that application of the enactive-transformative principle which specifically guides it towards the better and the best.” I’m not sure what justifies this conclusion.
Again, this is worrying if Maiese and Hanna’s central claim is that constructive, enabling institutions are best grounded on embodied-enactive principles (in contrast to Cartesian or computational models). We would want arguments for that rather than a manifesto. Let me also say again that I’m in agreement with the broad strokes of their project, namely, the idea of showing how deep insights about embodied cognition, especially about affective processes, can be relevant to thinking about how we organize our social institutions. I think it makes sense, for example, to look closely at what enactivist approaches say about how social interaction develops in infancy, how it gets organized in social practices and institutions, how such processes relate to questions about recognition, autonomy, and justice (see Gallagher 2020 for this kind of analysis). On this basis one can ask how such processes sometimes lead to social pathologies, alienation, reification, and injustice, and what we can do about it. In this regard Maiese and Hanna’s endorsement of enactive-transformative learning is an important move, and their analysis sets a good direction for showing how enactivism can be relevant to what they call a political philosophy of mind.
Frankfurt, Harry G. The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Gallagher, S. Action and Interaction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.
———. “Social Interaction, Autonomy and Recognition.” In Body/Self/Other: The Phenomenology of Social Encounters, edited by L. Dolezal and D. Petherbridge, 133–60. London: Routledge, 2017.
Mackenzie, C., and N. Stoljar. Introduction to Relational Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self, 3–33. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Maiese, M., and R. Hanna, R. The Mind-Body Politic. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2019.
Risse, M., and G. Wollner. On Trade Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Scott, J. C. Seeing Like a State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.
Slaby J., and S. Gallagher. “Critical Neuroscience and the Socially Extended Mind.” Theory, Culture & Society 32.1 (2015): 33–59.
Watson, G. “Free Agency.” Journal of Philosophy 72 (1975): 205–20.
A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body Politic
The Mind-Body Politic is an ambitious book. The number of topics it touches upon, as well as the breadth of philosophical and scientific references it makes, distinguish it from the conventional academic monograph. The advantages that follow from this bold and ambitious intellectual trespassing are evident: new and exciting paths of interdisciplinary inquiry that conventional monographs tend to block are suddenly opened up. On the other hand, the disadvantages are also quite clear: breadth comes at the cost of depth. Aware of the typical pitfalls associated with the approach they have chosen, Michelle Maiese and Robert Hanna nevertheless do a commendable job at making the most of the gains while minimizing the drawbacks.
I find their book especially meritorious in those aspects of its overall programmatic orientation that tend to refute two predominant views in modern and contemporary ethical thought. The first of these is especially prevalent among so-called Kantian constructivists (e.g., Rawls, Habermas, and their followers). According to such thinkers, the question of the human good is not to be elucidated philosophically at all. We should instead treat it as a matter of idiosyncratic decision-making on the part of each individual, about which virtually nothing of philosophical significance may be said. Philosophy may deal only with the question of the right, which admits of objective standards that may be philosophically clarified. The study by Maiese and Hanna shows why this is neither a defensible philosophical position nor a plausible interpretation of Kant’s thought.
The second widespread view that is successfully challenged by Maiese and Hanna is one that has been traditionally popular among humanists. According to this popular opinion, any attempt to elucidate human nature by means of natural-scientific inquiry is bound to undermine what is unique about human beings, namely, their freedom, creativity, and morality. In the opinion of these traditional humanists, this follows from the reductive materialism of the natural-scientific method. Such a method tends to reduce unique human capacities to mere effects of physiological or neurological phenomena, thereby robbing them of their significance to our lives and self-understanding. Following in the footsteps of Peter Kropotkin, Maiese and Hanna show why this need not be the case. Indeed, their book is a powerful plea for ridding ourselves of this deeply rooted humanist prejudice. Contrary to this widespread prejudice, the authors remind us that natural-scientific inquiry into human nature may actually serve to corroborate our self-understanding as free, creative, and altruistic beings by finding evidence in its favor.1
In addition, and from a substantive viewpoint, I am also inclined to agree with most of the authors’ observations on the ills of contemporary neoliberal institutions and the political ethics that could help us think of adequate remedies. Even though other critics of neoliberalism might have voiced criticism similar to theirs, Maiese and Hanna make an original contribution in both the diagnostic and the remedial part of their critique. Their original contribution consists in “the political philosophy of mind” that articulates the background theory of human flourishing, which in turn provides them with both the yardstick by which to measure the performance of contemporary neoliberal institutions and the blueprint for their reformation. While other critics of neoliberalism might have also had some such theory in the back of their minds, rarely have they thematized it explicitly or made a case for it as persuasively as Maiese and Hanna have done in this book.
The basic finding of The Mind-Body Politic, namely, that neoliberal institutions are life-corroding and as such pose a significant threat to our overall well-being as “essentially embodied minds” is well-taken. The two institutions that the authors offer as case studies to illustrate their basic finding are quite aptly chosen: the university as the institution trusted with the cultivation of young minds (chapter 4), on the one hand, and the mental health institution, responsible for helping people recover from mental illnesses, on the other (chapter 5). The first serves to illustrate what happens to us as essentially embodied minds when an institution that is supposed to foster free, creative thinking and solidarity turns into one that promotes the opposite of those virtues, that is, conformity and silly competition. The second illustrates what happens when those who have fallen ill, often due to having spent their lives inside a sociopathic neoliberal institution, will have to turn to yet another such institution to seek help with their recovery. The results are predictable: young healthy minds are atrophied; mentally struggling minds are further incapacitated. To deal with the problems caused by contemporary neoliberal institutions, the authors propose a return to some basic ethical-political insights common to radical Enlightenment liberalism, Romanticism, the young Marx, anarcho-syndicalism, and twentieth-century critical social theory; they find such insights to have been corroborated not only by mankind’s historical experience but also by recent work in the sciences of human nature (e.g., neuroscience, cognitive psychology). The shared political ethics of these different strands of Western thought states that human beings are free and creative creatures whose flourishing depends on freely self-undertaken work in solidarity with others. It follows for Maiese and Hanna that the social institutions fostering these characteristics of human beings may be considered “constructive, enabling institutions” (chapters 6 and 7); those obstructing them, “destructive, deforming institutions” (chapter 3). I find all of this discussion to be quite plausible, both from a philosophical and an ethical-political viewpoint.
My agreement with much of the authors’ methodological orientation and substantive discussion notwithstanding, I remain somewhat skeptical on three key issues that I shall try to elaborate below.
Radical Environmentalism about Human Nature
Radical environmentalism about human nature holds that human beings are indefinitely malleable creatures who lack a fixed natural endowment, whose minds are pretty much a blank slate (tabula rasa) when they are born, and whose nature is almost entirely determined by their environment. That the environment is crucial for stimulating the growth and development of all organic creatures, human beings included, is beyond dispute. However, the radical environmentalist goes beyond this: he denies that there is anything else to human nature except environmental influences. This view on human nature has been traditionally popular with progressive thinkers and movements. John Locke famously upheld a variant of such a view, as did many Marxists, including unorthodox ones, such as Antonio Gramsci. This curious fact of intellectual history might be partially explained by reference to the views of powerful groups or oppressive institutions that Locke and Gramsci were struggling against. Such institutions (e.g., the church, the absolutist state) would argue that human beings are by nature servile and obedient, and that this was an unchangeable fact about them. Locke’s or Gramsci’s radical environmentalism may then make sense as a reaction to such views. In opposition to such oppressive institutions, they were seeking to affirm the possibility of a different kind of society; hence, they were inclined to underline the indefinite perfectibility of human nature under different environmental conditions. While this may explain what pushed these thinkers in a radical environmentalist direction, it is undeniable that their outlook on human nature overshot its target.
Now, Maiese and Hanna claim to be Kantian “dignitarians” about human nature (24), and they occasionally affirm the capacity of human individuals to break free from pathological sociopolitical environments (40, 254). This might indicate that they are opposed to a strong version of the environmentalist thesis. Yet for the most part their book reads like an implicit defense of some sort of environmentalism about human nature. Constantly recurring themes throughout the book are the idea of the radical dependence of our well-being and dignity on the social institutions with which we interact and the fundamental role of culture in shaping our nature (45–60). In addition, the whole book is suffused with behaviorist language (e.g., feedback loops, habits, affordances), suggesting that the authors endorse another idea typically associated with radical environmentalism, namely, the one that considers the study of behavior—as opposed to the innate internal mechanisms of the mind—to be the royal path to understanding human nature. What is not so clear is how far the environmentalism of Maiese and Hanna actually goes, which is something I would be interested to hear more about. On the one hand, the authors claim that our minds are “partially determined” and “literally shaped” by the social institutions within which we spend our lives (8-9, 37–38). On the other hand, they also claim that because of the “spontaneity of consciousness,” social institutions may not fully determine “either the phenomenal characters or the intentional contents of our conscious minds, or our intentional actions” (39); indeed, as they put it, “each conscious subject has the potential to resist these [i.e., institutional] influences and to act so as to reshape that social institution and its corresponding ‘rules,’ and thus each subject’s behavior over time is not fully determined by the social institution” (40). Stated in such general terms, this sounds like a truism. However, and especially in these fine matters about which we understand so little, the devil is in the detail. So, where do Maiese and Hanna stand then? Is their position close to the radical environmentalist thesis I have described above or not?
If it is as close as I suspect it to be, then I would say that it stands in tension with their commitment to “emancipatory political theory,” radical environmentalism’s historical association with progressive or liberal currents of thought notwithstanding. It seems to me that an emancipatory political theory ought to insist in a robust philosophical anthropology that ascribes to human beings a fixed species-invariant biological endowment that distinguishes them from the rest of the organic world. It is such an endowment that makes the members of our species free and creative, and therefore ends in themselves. Moreover, it better be the case that that these features are grounded at a deeper, pre- or non-conscious biological level; for only that would put them not only beyond the reach of manipulative others, but also beyond one’s own capacity for self-deception. It seems to me that only such a philosophical anthropology can ground something like the classical liberal idea of inalienable rights, defined as those rights whose alienation is not possible even with the consent of their bearer. By contrast, a behaviorist anthropology such as that of Maiese and Hanna, which locates the distinctive features of the human species at the superficial level of “phenomenal characters or the intentional contents of our conscious minds” may not be able to provide the foundation for such an ambitious idea. That is because the contents of our conscious minds are quite manipulable, by others as well as by ourselves. It might be that what pushes Maiese and Hanna in this particular direction is the influence of the long-standing Western philosophical practice of treating accessibility to consciousness or introspection as the criterion of the mental. But I see no reason why we should abide by such a tradition. As research in modern cognitive science has shown over and over again, much of what goes on in our mind is as open to introspection as the workings of our liver.
On the Possibility of a Political Philosophy of Mind
Maiese and Hanna seem to believe that it is meaningful to talk about “political philosophy of mind” as a field of study (7, 63, 266). In their view, we already know enough about the nature of the human mind and the nature of sociopolitical orders to be able to unify these two fields of inquiry (i.e., philosophy of mind and political philosophy) into one single discipline, namely, political philosophy of mind. However, it seems to me that this is an unwarranted assumption. Researchers in the various fields of cognitive science admit that we still know very little about the nature of the human mind by way of verifiable and organized knowledge. Even less is known by way of such knowledge in the social sciences, which never underwent a Galilean revolution. While I agree that proposals for social and political reform ought to be informed by our knowledge of human nature, I think we are still quite far from being able to establish any kind of meaningful connection between the two fields. Hence, all talk of a “political philosophy of mind” strikes me as premature, though this is not the only problem I have with it. A still greater problem is that it sometimes tempts the authors to give a veneer of scientific or philosophical respectability to highly speculative propositions, mere stipulations, and truisms by treating them as well-established results of “political philosophy of mind” or couching them in philosophical jargon. Though I have nothing against the occasional indulgence in hopeful speculation, I think that intellectual responsibility requires that scholars and scientists help the public distinguish what is speculative in their discourse from what is scientifically well established.
On the Mind-Body Problem
The mind-body problem is a classical topic of philosophical inquiry. As political philosophers of mind, Maiese and Hanna feel the pressure to articulate their own position on it. They dub their own take on such a problem “the essential embodiment theory” (10–18). However, in what follows this is not what I want to take issue with; rather, I am more interested in questioning the very intelligibility of the mind-body problem. My views on this matter have been influenced by Noam Chomsky’s take on it. Admittedly, Chomsky’s view on this topic is not widely shared among contemporary philosophers; quite the contrary, his seems to be a minority view. Nevertheless, it strikes me as quite plausible. I offer it below out of curiosity for hearing what Maiese and Hanna would have to say about it, especially given the radical challenge it poses to their own view on this matter.
In Chomsky’s view, we may no longer talk of a mind-body problem simply because we no longer possess an intelligible concept of the body. This has been our predicament since Newton’s discovery of gravity, which demolished the only intelligible concept of the body modern science has ever had, namely, the Cartesian one. In Chomsky’s reading, Descartes’s concept of the body was not a metaphysical construct. It should rather be understood as a respectable scientific hypothesis that turned out to be wrong. The hypothesis stated that certain things in the world called bodies were machine-like: that is, they worked on the principles of contact mechanics, through the shifting of gears and levers. Another substance, namely, the mind, or as Gilbert Ryle liked to call it, “the ghost in the machine,” was postulated by Descartes with the intention of marking those entities whose functioning could not be accounted for by the principles of contact mechanics. In Descartes’s view, as Chomsky interprets it, key capacities of those entities that could not be thus explained included such human faculties as freedom of the will, action appropriate to circumstances (that is, neither completely determined by them nor random), and the creative use of language.2 To demarcate this domain from the rest of the body (below the neck), he called it mind. Within such a framework, it made sense to speak of a mind-body problem. However, Chomsky argues (and I agree) that ever since Newton’s discovery of the “mysterious” property of bodies, namely, action at a distance, which refuted the Cartesian concept of the body, we no longer have an intelligible concept of the body. Accordingly, all talk of a mind-body problem is incoherent.
Far from questioning its achievements, these critical remarks only go to show the richness and complexity of The Mind-Body Politic. Maiese and Hanna have offered us a thought-provoking study that is going to generate much needed discussions across many different fields. Philosophers of mind, political philosophers, as well as students of such great movements of thought as the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Marxism, and twentieth-century critical social theory, will all stand to benefit from grappling with the arguments made in this book.
Chomsky, Noam. Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 .
——. “Science, Mind, and the Limits of Understanding.” Transcript of talk given at the Science and Faith Foundation (STOQ), The Vatican, January 2014. https://chomsky.info/201401__/.
Chomsky, Noam, and Michel Foucault. The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature. New York: New Press, 2006 .
Maiese, Michelle, and Robert Hanna. The Mind-Body Politic. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2019.
A contemporary scientist who has made a strong case for this view is Noam Chomsky, though Maiese and Hanna do not mention him in this respect. As Chomsky has argued, our ability to master a human language under the conditions of “poverty of stimulus” reveals an elementary creativity that is intrinsic to human nature as such. Chomsky has made this argument in many of his works, but for a concise and informal statement, see Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature (New York: New Press, 2006).↩
See Noam Chomsky, “Science, Mind, and the Limits of Understanding,” transcript of talk given at the Science and Faith Foundation (STOQ), The Vatican, January 2014, accessible at https://chomsky.info/201401__/. See also Chomsky’s Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 ).↩
The Mind-Body Politic and Affective Institutions Online
Michelle Maiese and Robert Hanna’s The Mind-Body Politic is ambitious, thoughtful, and wide-ranging. They develop a groundbreaking program for politicizing philosophy of mind. Their contribution to the field is twofold: first, they reinvigorate familiar debates in situated cognition with a new sense of freshness and urgency by situating these debates in the context of our current social and political landscape. Second, they offer a roadmap for further lines of research that will help ensure philosophy of mind remains a vital—and vitally engaged—area of philosophical inquiry for the foreseeable future.
I am broadly in agreement with their main arguments. Moreover, I endorse the authors’ push to politicize contemporary philosophy of mind. Accordingly, in what follows, I will not critically engage with specific claims or arguments. Instead, I will first reconstruct what I take to be the main argument and some key concepts in order to highlight the originality of the book. I will then follow Maiese and Hanna’s horizon-expanding lead by broadening the purview of their analysis to indicate how their framework might be applied to some additional (and currently under-explored) topics—potentially rich and relevant areas of future work that will, I hope, help further expand their discussion and emphasize its theoretical potency.
The general orientation of The Mind-Body Politic is continuous with a flurry of recent work in philosophy and cognitive science advocating a kind of externalism. For these externalist approaches, minds are more than brains. Our psychological capacities are realized not just by neural activity alone but also by the rest of our body, as well as by the complex ways our bodies interact with their material and social environments. Many of these externalist approaches fall under the heading of “4E” cognition. Proponents of 4E cognition argue that our psychological capacities are essentially embodied, embedded, enacted, and maybe even extended into the surrounding environment. 4E cognition is not a neatly unified framework; these “Es” differ in the strength and scope of their respective commitments. Nevertheless, they are united in their rejection of a brain-centric model of the mental. They urge us to instead adopt a more holistic perspective that sees minds as belonging to embodied subjects continually affecting, and being affected by, the social and material contexts that organize our lifeworld.
Work in 4E cognition has primarily focused on traditional topics in philosophy of mind. For example, the recent Oxford Handbook of 4E Cognition (Newen, De Bruin, and Gallagher 2018)—a massive book that provides the most comprehensive overview of 4E approaches to date—is full of articles on topics like cognition and rationality; language, learning, and memory; action and perception; mental representations; evolution and culture; and emotions, social cognition, and aesthetics. This is an important volume that shows how 4E approaches offer powerful resources for highlighting explanatory deficiencies of brain-centric theories of cognition. It also makes a strong case for broadening the scope of inquiry within philosophy of mind to include topics like psychopathology, animal cognition, robotics design, and legal reasoning.
However—to return to Maiese and Hanna—a surprising omission from this volume and 4E debates more generally is a consideration of the political mind, that is, a careful look at the interdependence between our psychological capacities and the social and political institutions within which these capacities arise and acquire their distinctive shape and character.1 The Mind-Body Politic fills in this lacuna. It does so in a theoretically rich and integrative way. In addition to drawing upon the resources of 4E cognition, Maiese and Hanna also incorporate work from other sources including classic and contemporary political and social theory, Frankfurt School critical theory, Marx, Kropotkin, Thoreau, Mill, and Foucault.
As I read it, the core argument of The Mind-Body Politic is this: as (essentially) embodied and embedded subjects, we are also (essentially) social subjects. And as essentially social subjects, we use social institutions—collections of evaluative standards, ideals, codes of conduct, imperatives, and shared rules; norm-governed practices, rituals, and artifacts, etc.—to regulate our emotions, attention, and behavior. Crucially, however, social institutions do more than exert a top-down influence over these things—for example, by limiting behavioral possibilities in different contexts (e.g., social norms that discourage dancing on tables during business meetings or laughing loudly during funerals). Over time, they also exert a more subtle and pervasive bottom-up influence. In other words, they become concretely embodied in “habits of mind”—our characteristic ways of attending to, interpreting, and engaging with the world—that determine both what we think and feel and how we think and feel it. This is, Maiese and Hanna tell us, the “mind-shaping” power of social institutions. In virtue of their vast mind-shaping power, social institutions can promote or hinder human development and wellbeing. The novelty of Maiese and Hanna’s proposal comes from the application of their 4E-inspired framework to specific case studies such as higher education and mental health treatment in the United States. Via a critical look at the contemporary neoliberal context informing these mind-shaping institutions—followed by a prescriptive vision of how to build more effective alternatives—we are given a rich and compelling political philosophy of mind: a 4EP approach.
This argument rests on several key ideas. Two of them are “affective scaffolding” and “affective framing.” The former has received much attention in recent 4E treatments of affectivity (e.g., Colombetti and Roberts 2015; Krueger 2014; Krueger and Szanto 2016; Stephan et al. 2014; Saarinen 2020; Tate 2019). What is new in The Mind-Body Politic is a consideration of its political significance. “Affective scaffolding” refers to the way that our moods and emotions are synchronically and diachronically driven, shaped, and regulated—scaffolded—by social and material resources within our environment. Some of these resources reflect our own choices and values such as designing the spaces of our home or office, or gravitating toward certain social groups, because they make us feel a certain way. However, as Maiese and Hanna demonstrate, other affect-regulating resources—including those at the heart of many everyday neoliberal institutions—reflect choices and values beyond our control.
This leads to a second key concept: “affective framing.” This concept picks out the interrelation between feeling and selective attention. Its theoretical significance is to show us that subjects do not merely manipulate their environmental scaffolding to manipulate their emotions; the latter, in fact, often manipulates us. The idea here is that discriminating, filtering, and selecting information in our environment—deciding what to pay attention to and how to pay attention to it—is not a “cold” or purely rational process. It is, rather, a process infused with feeling. Embodied subjects always experience and evaluate their world in affectively nuanced ways; the people and things we notice, remember, or take an interest are salient because they have a felt existential significance for us (Colombetti 2014). In short, when it comes to mind and self, it’s feeling all the way down. And the affective frames at the heart of mind and self—affective frames articulated and sustained by our habits of mind—are socially acquired insofar as they are nurtured and shaped by environmental scaffolding, including the mind-shaping scaffolding provided by neoliberal institutions.
These interrelated concepts together support what Maiese and Hanna term “the enactive-transformative principle” (ETP):
Enacting salient or even radical changes in the structure and complex dynamics of a social institution produces corresponding salient or even radical changes in the structure and complex dynamics of the essentially embodied minds of the people belonging to, and participating in, or falling under the jurisdiction of, that institution, thereby fundamentally affecting their lives, for worse or for better. (9)
ETP can be seen as a good thing if subjects routinely inhabit social institutions that scaffold habits of mind like empathy, imagination, curiosity, and humility. For Maiese and Hannah, such institutions are “constructive and enabling.” They ought to be encouraged and emulated. Examples include what Mezirow (2009) terms “transformative and emancipatory learning environments” for adult education. Transformative learning environments conceive of learning not primarily in terms of acquiring new information, such as memorizing historical facts, but rather as a process of personal transformation: an existential and affective reorientation that alters an individual’s perspectives, interpretations, and habitual responses to the world, thereby rendering them more open and receptive to the interests and needs of others.
However, our present social and political landscape is not, alas, quite so constructive and enabling. Maiese and Hanna offer a more dystopian vision of our current predicament, one in which constructive and enabling institutions are the exception rather than the rule. They argue that we are routinely caught up in neoliberal institutions—whether at work, play, or rest—that nurture very different kinds of habits of mind. These are “destructive and deforming” institutions. Destructive and deforming institutions make it difficult or even impossible for those who inhabit them to satisfy “true human needs,” as Maiese and Hanna refer to them, such as intimate personal relationships, social and political solidarity, creative self-expression, free thought, and meaningful work.
Again, the key point—and by my lights, one of the most important theoretical contributions of the book—is that destructive and deforming institutions do not simply have a top-down constraining effect. As Maiese and Hanna continually remind us, they also drive the bottom-up cultivation—often without our full awareness or consent—of pernicious habits of mind that distort our capacities for self-development and self-understanding and breed a “collective sociopathy” enslaving us (both individually and as groups) in webs of inauthentic values, desires, and affective frames that undermine our mental health and wellbeing. These pernicious habits of mind take many forms and operate at multiple levels and timescales. They include, among other things, alienation from our true needs and desires; loss of autonomy and a diminished sense of creativity, experimentation, and exploration; and forms of false consciousness impeding our ability to see the destructive and deforming framing effects such institutions have on us.
With this background in place, I now want to indicate how some of these ideas relate to a topic Maiese and Hanna do not discuss: the Internet and online institutions. This is a somewhat curious oversight. No one book can address everything relevant to its main theme, of course—not even one as rich as The Mind-Body Politic. Nevertheless, this omission feels like a lost opportunity. For one thing, many of us now spend much of our lives moving through online spaces like social media spaces (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok); communication spaces (WhatsApp, Snapchat; Google Meet, Zoom); streaming entertainment spaces (Netflix, YouTube, Spotify); and real-time collaborative spaces (Slack, Google Docs). We work, play, learn, and connect with others within these spaces. COVID-19 has only accelerated this trend. More of our relationships and activities than ever before are moving online—perhaps permanently—including educational practices at all levels and mental health treatments.
Additionally, despite the increasingly important role the Internet plays in everyday life, online spaces are undertheorized in philosophy of mind—including 4E cognition—and are therefore ripe for the 4EP approach Maiese and Hanna advocate. Existing treatments mainly focus on the informational nature of the Internet and how it might augment decision-making and memory (see Smart et al. 2017 for an overview). But the Internet is now more than an informational resource. It has evolved into a rich and complex environment—or rather, many environments composed of many different spaces—that function as norm-governed institutions, each with distinctive mind-shaping powers.
I want to develop these thoughts further by first observing that The Mind-Body Politic never answers what might appear to be a crucial foundational question: what are mind-shaping social institutions, exactly? This reluctance seems to be an intentional—and ultimately useful—move; Maiese and Hanna are content to work with a “maximally broad” (5) definition. What seems to matter for them is not so much the ontological status of social institutions but rather the manner by which they are formed and maintained. For Maiese and Hanna, social institutions are collective practices that are governed by norms. Social institutions arise wherever groups of people use different practices to regulate the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of their members in ways that reflect that group’s values, ideals, and standards. Consequently, social institutions potentially range from local institutions like families, religious organizations, sports teams, schools, and workplace environments, all the way to large-scale institutions like legal systems, economic systems, and military and political organizations (including government and nation-states).
This maximally broad definition acknowledges that social institutions can form in new and hitherto unexpected domains and spaces. This is true of online spaces. To see how so, first consider how the Internet and Internet-enabled technologies function as affective scaffolding (Krueger and Osler 2019).2 We routinely use the Internet for the synchronic and diachronic regulation of moods and emotions; it is now so ubiquitous, portable, and readily accessible via a range of different devices (smartphones, digital assistants, wearable devices, smart appliances, etc.) that it can be reliably incorporated into our repertoire of everyday emotion regulation practices. Additionally, these same properties mean that the Internet—as a kind of affective scaffolding—is deeply embedded within the contours of our lifeworld. The ease and regularity with which we move between online and offline spaces—and often inhabit both simultaneously—is making this distinction increasingly untenable (Miller 2012; Osler 2020; Valentini, Lorusso, and Stephan 2020). Finally, the hyper-portable and, crucially, hyper-social nature of the Internet means that others are often intensely present with the real-time dynamics of our emotion-regulative practices; and our practices, in turn, directly feed back onto the regulative practices of others.
By functioning as persistent affective scaffolding, online spaces shape the development of norm-governed habits of mind and the affective frames behind them—habits that we take with us into our offline encounters. Some of these habits reflect time spent in constructive and enabling online spaces. For example, online spaces can be empathic spaces: they may facilitate intense forms of shared experience and social connection that make us more attuned and responsive to others (Osler 2020). By participating in blogs, discussion forums, and social media spaces to manage and share intense experiences—publicly mourning the loss of a child, for instance—we may not only use these spaces to scaffold the contours of our own experience but also to develop a deeper sensitivity for the ways that others negotiate their unique experiences and lifeworlds.
However, online spaces can also be destructive and deforming. They can persistently scaffold users into the development of affective frames that disrupt or impede their relationships and wellbeing. Let me close my discussion by giving an example that lends itself well to the 4EP framework Maiese and Hanna give us.
Consider Snapchat, a popular instant-messaging app primarily used by individuals aged eighteen to twenty-four (roughly 70 percent of users are female). Snapchat was initially a person-to-person communication app that allowed users to create and share multimedia messages (“snaps”). But it quickly evolved into a richer and more interactive social media space. Users—including brands, influencers, and celebrities posting ad-supported content—can still privately share photos with one another. However, they can also create public “stories” (photo narratives and short videos) that disappear after a set amount of time.
A particular draw of Snapchat is that it encourages users to manipulate the images and videos users share with filters, virtual stickers, and augmented reality objects. One such filter is a popular “beautifying” filter. These filters allow users to manipulate their image by removing “imperfections”: they can remove blemishes, wrinkles, or discoloration; change or soften skin tone; and even manipulate the physical structure of their face by slimming cheeks, nose, or forehead or increasing eye size. This technology allows users to experiment with unrealistic ideals of beauty and thinness—manipulating their cheekbones or eye size to anatomically impossible configurations—in order to make themselves feel better and receive mood-elevating affirmation from others.
However, these practices can also have a deleterious mind-shaping effect. They can scaffold affective dysregulation and nurture habits of negative self-evaluation (i.e., destructive and deforming affective frames). For example, there is evidence that these manipulated images can “take a toll on one’s self-esteem, make one feel inadequate for not looking a certain way in the real world, and even act as a trigger and lead to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD),” an obsessive-compulsive preoccupation with a perceived flaw in one’s appearance (Rajanala et al. 2018, 443). These online practices have significant offline affective consequences. A new phenomenon dubbed “Snapchat dysmorphia” refers to an increasing number of patients seeking out cosmetic surgery to look like a filtered version of themselves (Ramphul and Mejias 2018).
These observations are continuous with other work indicating that the kinds of social media posts users are exposed to influences their affective states (Kramer et al. 2014); the hyper-social nature of the Internet means that the significance and impact of our online practices are rarely confined to a single user. Snapchat makes it easy to share our manipulated images and, in so doing, rapidly propagate harmful representations of beauty and thinness that can nurture destructive and deforming affective frames in others. These filters are fun to use and clearly serve Snapchat’s moneymaking interests in driving user engagement and creating an addictive online space users want to return to repeatedly. However, they also feed into much larger networks of technosocial scaffolding that reinforce unhealthy narratives of femininity and beauty that, along with a sea of other gendered content in media and online spaces, nudge users toward forming unhealthy narratives and practices of disordered eating in order to embody these narratives (Krueger and Osler 2020). By inhabiting these sorts of online spaces, users are, in this way, potentially opening themselves up to being manipulated—affectively invaded (Slaby 2016)—by norm-governed institutions that do not necessarily reflect their authentic values and needs.
To conclude, Maiese and Hanna’s 4EP approach is well equipped to analyze the development and dynamics of affective institutions online—an emerging area of research that will continue to demand more attention. With its theoretical power and range of potential application, The Mind-Body Politic is a welcome gift to the philosophical community.
Cash, Mason. “Cognition without Borders: ‘Third Wave’ Socially Distributed Cognition and Relational Autonomy.” Cognitive Systems Research 25–26 (December 2013): 61–71.
Colombetti, Giovanna. The Feeling Body: Affective Science Meets the Enactive Mind. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014.
Colombetti, Giovanna, and Tom Roberts. “Extending the Extended Mind: The Case for Extended Affectivity.” Philosophical Studies 172.5 (2015): 1243–63.
De Jaegher, Hanne. “Rigid and Fluid Interactions with Institutions.” Cognitive Systems Research 25–26 (December 2013): 19–25.
Gallagher, Shaun, and Anthony Crisafi. “Mental Institutions.” Topoi. An International Review of Philosophy 28.1 (2009): 45–51.
Kramer, A. D. I., et al. “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.24 (2014): 8788–90.
Krueger, Joel. “Varieties of Extended Emotions.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 13.4 (2014): 533–55.
Krueger, Joel, and Michelle Maiese. “Mental Institutions, Habits of Mind, and an Extended Approach to Autism.” Thaumàzein 6 (2018): 10–41.
Krueger, Joel, and Lucy Osler. “Engineering Affect: Emotion Regulation and the Techno-Social Niche.” Philosophical Topics 47.2 (2019): 1–53.
———. “Commentary on ‘Levels of Embodiment: A Husserlian Analysis of Gender and the Development of Eating Disorders.’” In Time and Body: Phenomenological and Psychopathological Approaches, 256–62. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.
Krueger, Joel, and Thomas Szanto. “Extended Emotions.” Philosophy Compass 11.12 (2016): 863–78.
Merritt, Michele. “Instituting Impairment: Extended Cognition and the Construction of Female Sexual Dysfunction.” Cognitive Systems Research 25–26 (December 2013): 47–53.
Mezirow, Jack. “An Overview on Transformative Learning.” In Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists . . . in Their Own Words, edited by K. Illeris, 90–105. New York: Routledge, 2009.
Miller, Vincent. “A Crisis of Presence: On-Line Culture and Being in the World.” Space and Polity 16.3 (2012): 265–85.
Newen, Albert, et al., eds. The Oxford Handbook of 4E Cognition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Osler, Lucy. “Feeling Togetherness Online: A Phenomenological Sketch of Online Communal Experiences.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 19.3 (2020): 569–88.
———. “Taking Empathy Online.” Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy. (2021). https://philpapers.org/rec/OSLTEO.
Protevi, John. Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic. Posthumanities Series. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
Rajanala, Susruthi, et al. “Selfies: Living in the Era of Filtered Photographs.” JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery 20.6 (2018): 443–44.
Ramphul, Kamleshun, and Stephanie G. Mejias. “Is ‘Snapchat Dysmorphia’ a Real Issue?” Cureus 10.3 (2018): e2263.
Saarinen, Jussi A. “What Can the Concept of Affective Scaffolding Do for Us?” Philosophical Psychology 33.6 (2020): 820–39.
Slaby, Jan. “Mind Invasion: Situated Affectivity and the Corporate Life Hack.” Frontiers in Psychology 7.266 (2016): 1–13.
Smart, Paul, et al. “The Cognitive Ecology of the Internet.” In Cognition Beyond the Brain: Computation, Interactivity and Human Artifice, edited by Stephen J. Cowley and Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau, 251–82. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2017.
Stephan, Achim, et al. “Emotions beyond Brain and Body.” Philosophical Psychology 27.1 (2014): 65–81.
Tate, Alexander James Miller. “Anhedonia and the Affectively Scaffolded Mind.” Ergo, an Open Access Journal of Philosophy 6.20191108 (2019): 647–80.
Valentini, Daniele, et al. “Onlife Extremism: Dynamic Integration of Digital and Physical Spaces in Radicalization.” Frontiers in Psychology 11.524 (2020): 1–15.
There are some few exceptions. See, e.g., Cash (2013), De Jaegher (2013), Gallagher and Crisafi (2009), Krueger and Maiese (2018), Merritt (2013), Protevi (2009), and Slaby (2016).↩
When I speak of “the Internet” here, I mean this as a catch-all term for the Internet (the global network of interconnected servers, computer, and other information-sharing hardware), the Web (applications built on top of the Internet like browsers and email programs), and technologies that grant access to the Web (smartphones, digital assistants, etc.).↩
Philosophy of Mind for Dystopic Times
If philosophy “is its own time, apprehended in thoughts,” as Hegel said, then Maiese’s and Hanna’s The Mind-Body Politic is doubly philosophical. First, the book is reflective—in both tone and content—of the downward spiral that has befallen the United States in the last two or so decades, as the country has been ravaged by neoliberal deregulation, massive inequality, declining middle classes, racial violence, and a general eroding and dismantling of the institutions and mindsets of the mid-twentieth-century social democratic era. In this key, the book rhymes with works such as George Packer’s The Unwinding (2013), Henry Giroux’s America at War with Itself (2016), or, on a slightly broader plane, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (2007), Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (2009), and David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs (2018)—to name just a few entries from a growing stack of recent Untergang literature. Second, Hegel’s catchphrase resonates through the book even more acutely when one reads it during the long summer of 2020, a time at which the Covid-19 pandemic wreaks havoc across the globe and in the United States quite especially. Those who found the authors’ readiness to call many staple institutions of late-liberal Western societies “dystopic” a little exaggerated will no longer think so. In fact, you might find the word too weak given the devastation and dereliction that has befallen large swathes of the land of the free. Uncanny echoes come back from recent magazine articles with titles like “Death at the Dollar Store” or “Back to the Jungle” (New Yorker).1 In view of these texts that read like dispatches from a nearly failed state, The Mind-Body Politic feels eminently like a philosophy of our very present moment.
I offer this prelude to convey why I am a staunch advocate of the broader project that Maiese and Hanna pursue in their book. It is high time that philosophy of mind catches up to the madness out there, to the collective political funk that gnaws at our sanity. The classical riddles of the field have paled next to conspiracy theories, populist affect and neo-authoritarian modes of governance. Musing abstractly over “consciousness’ place in nature” in 2020 seems beside the point when consciousness’s place in public life has become most questionable. Ours is a time in which a TV show entitled BrainDead, mocking congressional Republicans, has inadvertently changed genre from satire to forensic documentary in just a couple of years.2
The sad urgency of our current moment contributes to my reasons for cheering on Maiese’s and Hanna’s program of a “political philosophy of mind” and I congratulate them on their convincing elaboration of key components of this endeavor. The book clears a path for others to follow, showing how the philosophical study of mental capacities can catch up with the mind-forming and deforming powers of the current social and political landscape. But I also have reservations about the authors’ too simplistic and optimistic framing of an alternative to our mind-deforming and soul-crushing status quo. The well-known enlightenment mold to which the authors want us to return in the later chapters of the book—perhaps Hanna a tad more than Maiese—is too much of a piece with what the authors so convincingly criticize. The list of “mandatory readings” they provide towards the end not only skews decidedly old, white, and male, but also rather canon-confirming. Accordingly, in the second half of this commentary, I provide a different take on the present dialectical situation, one that is more complicated, more critical of enlightenment humanism and less hopeful than the positive narrative Maiese and Hanna leave us with. And, to be sure, I will offer several additions to that reading list, so stay tuned.
The chief merit of The Mind-Body Politic is that it powerfully reorients philosophy of mind towards a study of the formative nexus of social institutions and mental capacities. It sheds a lot of light on prevalent political economies of the mind, both in a developmental perspective and with regard to the actualization and expression of mental capacities in various socio-material settings. The book’s central concept is that of a mind-shaping institution. This is a purposefully designed social arrangement that exerts massive formative influence on the mental makeup of institutional agents, where “institutional agents” are both, an institution’s authorized operatives and the institution’s designated addressees or clients, who often have little choice but to enter the institution’s mind-molding fray. Drawing competently on more than three decades of work on 4E situated cognition, in particular approaches to the embodied mind and enactivism, on philosophy of emotion and the affective sciences, and on empirical as well as phenomenological work on social interaction, the authors continue and invigorate a legacy begun by authors such as Francisco Varela, Shaun Gallagher, and John Protevi to effect a political turn in the study of mind, as they bring all this work into fruitful connection with both old and new studies in social and political theory, Frankfurt school critical theory, including its forerunners in Marx and Kropotkin, and, a bit less centrally, Foucault-inspired studies of power and governmentality and recent works in critical pedagogy.
Among the many analytical forays the book has to offer, two things strike me as particularly convincing. First, the authors chart a fascinating inventory of mental capacities very different from what has been in the center of attention of previous philosophers of mind. This array of capacities and their explication in terms of development and expression is an excellent first go at a catalogue of subtasks for a political philosophy of mind. The place of context-free qualia and arid debates about intentional states is now taken by the likes of participatory sense-making, situated normativity and “affective framing.” There is ample emphasis on affective resonance at the earliest levels of ontogenetic development, and a lot of detailed engagement with work on social affordances and situated normativity, affective niche construction and institutional “mind hacking.” Philosophy of mind gets showcased in a fresh guise as not only an exciting interdisciplinary endeavor but also as a sociopolitical battleground. The message is clear: The human mind, in its present iteration and rampaged as it is by a freakishly deformed institutional landscape, needs to be safeguarded and nourished as much as it needs to be understood and theoretically elucidated.
Second, while not explicitly stated in these terms, I think the book drives towards a powerful thesis concerning the fulcrum of the mental, what one might call the “affective core” thesis. This is the claim that a bundle of affective capacities—capacities to affect and be affected, in Spinoza’s words—form the backbone of an individual’s self-conscious perspective on the world. Maiese and Hanna suggest the notion of “affective framing,” hinting at the notorious frame problem in classical AI and cognitive science. Affect, they contend, is what effectively precludes a frame problem from arising in the case of sentient animals, as affect always already orients the organism—and the human subject in particular—towards matters of existential significance. Embodied affectivity is the corporeal-cum-mental backdrop through which agents process reality from their unique vantage points. Part of the point is that whatever else you might consider noteworthy among human mental capacities, affective framing is already in place, embedding and enabling all other mental feats. Overlook this dimension, or even only underestimate its importance, and your attempt to understand the human mind is imperiled from the start. By foregrounding the affective core of the politically shaped mind, the authors put their cards on the table: Not only do they consider the mind, and most everything “in” or about it, as essentially affective, but they consider the formative powers of social arrangements likewise to operate mainly through the mediating and motivating powers of affect.
Drawing in part on my own work on relational affect and affective mind invasion, Maiese and Hanna show how the contemporary mind might be affectively “framed” also in the not so flattering sense of the word. The affective arrangements of institutions lure individuals into modes of attachment, patterns of interaction and mental habits quite detrimental, in the longer run, to the well-being, flourishing and social relatedness of the agents in question. Institutions become affective traps and machines of extraction, hacking the minds of those who dwell in their spaces. Such institutions showcase outward appeal—the thrill of connection, the pleasures of being “on the inside” of an exciting endeavor, a marked sense of belonging—while their arrangements in the longer run both exploit their adherents and habituate them in ways contrary to their own self-avowed purposes and orientations.3 Such institutional “framing” is so tough to notice and so hard to shake exactly because it works via the affective connectedness to social and material environments that people cannot help but seek out and, at least initially, often enjoy. In virtue of the various affective channels that connect an institutional milieu with the embodied comportment of its target subjects, all sorts of contents and modes of conduct can be “uploaded” into the mindset and habitual demeanor of institutional agents. This is so because embodied affective relatedness originates in earliest ontogenetic stages and thus unfolds at a mostly pre-conscious level that is hard to bring into critical focus. The two authors do an excellent job in conveying how this affective manufacturing of institutional buy-in works in detail. Particularly—and also sadly—convincing in this regard are their two case studies on the neoliberal university and on the mental health sector in the United States, respectively.
Given that these case studies circle in on the ongoing entanglement of institution and mental makeup, I found it a little disappointing that this dimension received relatively short shrift in the last two chapters of the book. There, considerably more space is devoted to the individual mind at the point where affective frames have already been firmly and finally deposited within it. By focusing mostly on individual minds in these outlook chapters, the authors stay on a well-trodden mainstream track in describing mental habits and virtues. Billed as a part about the deliberate design of “constructive, enabling institutions,” chapter 7 in particular devotes little attention to the insidious entre-deux between institutional structures and individual minds. While the authors wisely steer clear of the more radical positions in the extended mind spectrum, one would think that what they drive at is more than a developmental view. Their point must be that institutional arrangements make and break minds also in processes of continued synchronic co-variance and co-activation. Alleviating interventions accordingly need to happen on the side of the institutional arrangements, including the broader discursive surround in which these institutions are set, whereas the authors work mostly in the mold of classical “protestant” anglophone philosophy with its emphasis on the education or entrainment of individual virtues and traits of character (not to mention the all too bourgeois dance and drama exercises, of all things, among their favored means to do so). The book’s theoretical starting point thus struck me as more forward-looking and radical than its later chapters. But I do not want to dwell on this at length, because this problematic is related to a larger worry that applies at the level of the overall intellectual positioning of The Mind-Body Politic.
Convinced as I am by Maiese’s and Hanna’s programmatic and critical interventions, why am I less on board with what they offer as a progressive move forward? The authors’ blueprint for what they call “constructive, enabling institutions” built from “collective wisdom” stems from the classical Enlightenment canon. The central chapter 6 is a box-ticking exercise in Enlightenment feel-good notions such as dignity, autonomy, authenticity, self-realization, and the like, problematically grounded in the authors’ confident assertion of a universal list of “true human values.” As a philosopher fondly cognizant of an intellectual upbringing in the vicinity of Critical Theory and Post-Marxism, I cannot help to greet much of this with warm fellow-feelings, at least initially. But is this a learning history we can unreservedly be proud of? Foucault, who figures among the authors’ sources but fades from attention rather rapidly, should have made us cautious. For him, the figure of the subject and much of enlightenment philosophical discourse are ruses for power to operate and invade the innermost citadel of the modern self. On a more superficial plane, it surely didn’t escape the authors’ notice that many of the core values from their wish list have long been hijacked by the spin doctors of Post-Fordist capitalism. Self-expression, authenticity, autonomous choice, process-oriented participation instead of coercive top-down governance, organic integration instead of mechanical fragmentation, are fixtures in the neoliberal arsenal of soft power. While we have reason to assume that the authors are aware of this, they inexplicably skate beneath the dialectical bar set by Boltanski and Chiapello in their study on the—by now not so—New Spirit of Capitalism.4
But these are all just preludes to my central worry. The humanist fray that Maiese and Hanna try to refresh has a problematic legacy that much predates the sense-twisting newspeak of Post-Fordism. One way to bring this out is to probe the notion of the subject in the double sense of locus of accountability (“subject” in the active sense of responsible agent) and entity primed for being governed (“subject” in the passive sense of being subjected to power). The dialectic between subjection to authority, on the one hand, and self-assertive empowerment, on the other, has been construed rather one-sidedly by the enlightenment mainstream. For the bourgeois philosophers of the early modern period this was surely much in evidence. The philosophical elaboration of the autonomous subject coincided with the unprecedented rise of the European bourgeoisie to economic power, moral authority, and cultural hegemony. The reservoir of ideas, aesthetic energies, and political visions laid down in that period can seem both inescapable and inexhaustible. The picture changes drastically, however, once the dark undertow—literally!—of the European enlightenment is brought adequately into view. From the perspective of the colonized, the violently displaced and enslaved, the modern figuration of the human subject is doubly pernicious, to say the very least: At first, their subject-status was withheld on the grounds of alleged natural inferiority, and later, after that status had been reluctantly granted, it was itself used as an instrument of oppression. Devoid of property and without bearings in the dominant social order, les damnes’ newly won legal status as “free” agents and autonomous, responsible subjects imposed heavy burdens upon them. Being a subject, for these individuals, became an imposition of responsibility for their own plight. Being “free” for them amounted, in the memorable double sense of the word pointed out by Marx, to being free to sell their labor-power while being free of material resources.5 Under the guise of the Enlightenment conception of the subject, an objective lack of options could conveniently be read as a habit of poor choices. At any rate, this was the narrative pushed by those who held firm in their possession of propertied privilege. The “burdened individuality of freedom,” to use Saidiya Hartman’s searing phrase, is the flip side to the noble-sounding humanist discourse of the emancipated subject.6
I cannot go into the kind of detail required to bring out the full dialectic; what I want to point to here is merely the extent to which the Western humanist idea of “the subject” itself would merit a critical analysis as an institution with pervasive mind-molding powers, and that its legacy is, mildly put, decidedly ambivalent. This is why the full story is much more complicated than the neatly organized positive/negative framing—dystopic versus enabling institutions—that Maiese and Hanna often fall back upon. The enabling, nourishing, solidarity- and empathy-fostering qualities of social institutions have by no means been distributed equally. The insidious backside, the ruses, the small-printed exclusions in the text of the European enlightenment are well-studied by now. Besides Saidiya Hartman’s pathbreaking work on the continued subjection of the formerly enslaved in the name of freedom, I especially recommend Sylvia Wynter’s genealogical critique of the macro patterns of Western sociocultural intelligibility.7 Wynter brings into focus the historical roots of a racial order centered on the white liberal norm subject in its two main iterations, renaissance humanist (“rational man”) and biocentric-Darwinian (“homo oeconomicus”). In Wynter’s broad optic appears a decisive rift between these successive hegemonic elaborations of the Western figure of “man,” mostly exclusionary and repressive, and the broader humanist fray, whose autopoietic potentials are still largely untapped. While such a macro-critique of the Western order would be by and large in accord with Maiese’s and Hanna’s critique of the prevailing late-liberal status quo, it breaks company with their project at the point where “rational man” again sets out to monopolize the domain of the human. This “overrepresentation of man,” in Wynter’s parlance, crowds out the truly emancipatory potentials that the human symbolic species possesses in virtue of its auto-instituting powers.8 My point is not so much that Maiese’s and Hanna’s forward-looking proposal falls short in this regard (although it likely does), but that this broader framing of the issues does not nearly figure in their narrative. By refusing to distinguish at all between “human” and “man,” and by all too confidently and imposingly speaking of “true human needs” (when what is in fact at issue is a parochial Western list of hollowed-out values at best), the authors inadvertently, and despite their best intentions, return us to a mode of thinking that is of a piece with what they have set out to critique.
What alternative would I recommend given this broader, more complicated dialectical picture? Most importantly, I think we should refrain from offering facile visions, let alone blueprints of a “better world,” and instead stay with the thorough and detailed critique of the dystopic status quo. This would much aid the urgent task of performing a rigorous deconstructive critique of the Western order and its deep history; it would help it by bringing out, gripping analysis after gripping analysis, this order’s utter unbearableness. In this endeavor, those of us who have just recently arrived in the barren lands of “progressive dystopia”9 can learn quite a bit from the ones who have been forced to reside in ravaged, hostile, and utterly derelict territories for so much longer.
In this spirit, I would like to add the following recommendations to the list of “mandatory readings” offered by Maiese and Hanna: Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism (1950); Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952); Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” (1987); Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection (1997); Charles Mills, The Racial Contract (1997); Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom” (2003), Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons (2013). This body of texts—and many more I cannot list here—brings us closer to a place from which central issues of the Western intellectual heritage will appear in a clearer, if much less favorable, light. Maiese’ and Hanna’s energetic reorientation of the philosophy of mind is already thrusting in this direction. Given these promising beginnings, it is all the more important not to stop at the half-way point and instead push on further into a discursive realm that prepares us to confront our present dystopic moment head-on.
Boltanski, Luc, and Eve Chiapello. The New Spirit of Capitalism. London: Verso, 2006.
Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. New York: New York University Press, 2000 (1950).
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skins, White Masks. New York: Pluto, 2008 (1952).
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester, UK: Zero, 2009.
Giroux, Henry A. America at War with Itself. San Francisco: City Lights, 2016.
Graeber, David. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.
Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions, 2013.
Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2007.
MacGillis, Alec. “Death at the Dollar Store.” New Yorker, July 6 & 13, 2020.
Marx, Karl. Capital. Vol. 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 1977 (1867).
Mayer, Jane. “Back to the Jungle: A Meat-Processing Company Puts Its Workers at Risk.” New Yorker, July 20, 2020.
Mills, Charles. The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.
Packer, George. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.
Shange, Savannah. Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019.
Slaby, Jan. “Mind Invasion: Situated Affectivity and the Corporate Life-Hack.” Frontiers in Psychology 7 (2016). https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00266/full.
Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 64–81.
Wynter, Sylvia. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, after Man, Its Overrepresentation—an Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3.3 (2003): 257–337.
Alec MacGillis, “Death at the Dollar Store,” New Yorker, July 6 & 13, 2020; Jane Mayer, “Back to the Jungle: A Meat-Processing Company Puts Its Workers at Risk,” New Yorker, July 20, 2020, 28–39.↩
BrainDead, TV show on CBS, https://www.cbs.com/shows/braindead/.↩
See Jan Slaby, “Mind Invasion: Situated Affectivity and the Corporate Life-Hack,” Frontiers in Psychology 7 (2016), https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00266/full.↩
Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso 2006).↩
Marx verbatim: “The owner of money must meet in the market with the free labourer, free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power” (Capital, vol. 1, book 1, ch. 6, available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch06.htm).↩
Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 115–24.↩
Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, after Man, Its Overrepresentation—an Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3.3 (2003): 257–337.↩
See Wynter, “Unsettling,” 260.↩
See Savannah Shange, Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019).↩
9.28.22 | Robert Hanna
The Mind-Body Politic and Beyond: A Response to Jan Slaby
I’m very grateful to have Jan Slaby’s broadly supportive, and yet also critically challenging, comments on The Mind-Body Politic (henceforth MBP), for the opportunity they give me to elaborate and extend my/our views1 on (i) the synchronic and contextually-embedded social-institutional dynamics of essentially embodied minds in processes of mind-shaping, (ii) the critical contrast and opposition between, on the one hand, the classical Enlightenment, and on the other, the project of radical enlightenment, (iii) the critical contrast and opposition between, on the one hand, a permanent process of post-colonialist/multiculturalist/neo-neo-marxist social critique, and on the other hand, a radically enlightened process of social-institutional design and creation, as the be-all and the end-all of political philosophy of mind.
Re (i), the synchronic and contextually-embedded social-institutional dynamics of essentially embodied minds in processes of mind-shaping.
JS writes that
One small and half-serious point: if I were able to rewrite MBP, I’d specifically recommended engaging in Dionysian dancing exercises, which is an altogether different and not-so-very bourgeois thing. But more generally, constructively, and fully seriously, I want now to present an outline of what I call a radically enlightened, realistically optimistic dignitarian humanist, or anarcho-socialist2 theory of the synchronic and contextually-embedded social-institutional dynamics of essentially embodied minds in processes of mind-shaping.
This theory of social-institutional dynamics has six sources of philosophical inspiration:
(i) Plato’s Socratic dialogues,
(ii) Kant’s ethics and theory of radical enlightenment,
(iii) Bertrand Russell’s little-known 1918 book, Proposed Roads to Freedom (Cornwall Press, 1918),
(iv) the Brazilian neo-Marxist philosopher of education Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (trans. M. Ramos; Continuum, 2007),
(v) Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant 2009 book on disaster communities and social anarchism, A Paradise Built in Hell (Penguin, 2009), and
(vi) a series of classic books on facilitation, principled negotiation, and participatory decision-making, including Roger Fisher’s and William Ury’s Getting to YES (1981; 3rd ed., Penguin, 2011); Samuel Kaner’s “What Can Organizational Design Professionals Learn from Grassroots Political Activists?” (Vision/Action ); Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge University Press, 1990); Allan Kaplan’s Development Practitioners and Social Process: Artists of the Invisible (Pluto, 2002); Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (2nd ed., Wiley, 2007); and Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging (Berrett-Koehler, 2008).[/footnote]
In part 2 of Proposed Roads to Freedom, Russell discusses many concrete social and political issues, and proposes a number of concrete solutions, in line with his favored doctrine, “Guild Socialism,” which is a federalist development of Kropotkin-style social anarchism. And in the last chapter, “The World as It Could Be Made,” he quite lyrically describes a normative vision of a categorically politically better world: as it were, John Lennon’s “Imagine” for 1918. In fact, it turns out that Lennon’s political views were actually strongly influenced by Russell’s views, via Paul McCartney.3 One thing that’s very striking about Russell’s arguments in this 1918 political book is his consistent avoidance of a priori reasoning, abstraction, and even minimal formalization. It is as if, in this book, he found great intellectual relief from the relentless abstractions and formal-logical reasoning patterns of Principles of Mathematics (1903), Principia Mathematica (1910), Problems of Philosophy (1912), the aborted Theory of Knowledge project (1913), Our Knowledge of the External World (1914), and even An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (1918), written in Brixton Prison, about which he later wrote in his Autobiography:
As a consequence, however, Russell’s political solutions in Proposed Roads to Freedom are in fact too concrete—too much embedded in a certain historical-social context: Europe and England, circa 1918, at the end of the Great War. This fact makes Russell’s excellent ideas less generalizable, less directly applicable, and less relevant to the United States and the rest of the world, one hundred years later, circa 2018, not to mention the future world, than they should be. But here I can help Russell out with a basic procedural principle of social-institutional design, as follows:
Or, in other words, an institutional structure is a social network of ethical principles designed to further some collective aim.
Second, by oppression, I mean this:
Third, by oppression with respect to X, I mean this:
So, for example, as the Black Lives Matter movement clearly demonstrates, young Black men in the United States have been and still are being oppressed with respect to treatment by the police: the police historically and systematically have been and still are treating young Black men violently in ways that fall substantially below what would be minimally sufficient to meet the moral demands of their human dignity with respect to police treatment.5
Fourth, Federalism says:
Fifth, Quasi-Federalism says:
Sixth, Quasi-Federalism operates according to a recursive6 basic procedural principle that I call the principle of Devolutionary and Dynamic Anti-Oppression, aka DDAO:
According to DDAO, in a normative sense, each new institutional structure simultaneously represents a definite “left to right” decrease in big-capitalist alienation, commodification, and economic oppression more generally, and in Statist and State-like institutional coercion and authoritarian oppression more generally, and also a definite “right to left” increase in individual and collective non-alienation, non-commodification, non-coercion, and overall non-oppression. So each new structure is dual and enantiomorphic (mirror-reflected) in a categorically normative sense. More generally, we should always be looking to design and create new institutional structures that have this normatively dual, enantiomorphic character, namely, they satisfy DDAO.
Here’s a brief example of how DDAO can be applied, also partially inspired by Alex Vitale’s breakthrough book, The End of Policing (Verso, 2017). For each armed police force in the United States, we create a new devolutionary/dynamic Police Force Regime 1 in which no police officers normally carry guns or ever use other violent solutions to policing problems (left to right devolution of the State) and all police officers consistently practice nonviolent solutions to policing problems, although they still carry nightsticks and have some training in the martial arts (right to left construction of a non-oppressive condition for young black men, and others, in a post-big-capitalist, post-State, post-State-like social-institutional world). Then, as soon as it can be implemented, for each armed police force in the United States, starting with Police Force Regime 1, we create should be a new devolutionary/dynamic Police Force Regime 2 in which no police officers normally carry nightsticks or ever use other violent solutions to policing problems (left to right devolution of the State) and consistently practice nonviolent solutions to policing problems, although they still have some training in the martial arts (right to left construction of a non-oppressive condition for young black men, and others, in a post-big-capitalist, post-State, post-State-like social-institutional world). And so-on, set-by-step, until Police Regime Null is reached, in which there is, in effect, the end of policing in the United States, because whatever social-institutional structure remains in place, fully meets or exceeds the minimal demands of sufficient respect for human dignity, in a post-big-capitalist, post-State, post-State-like social-institutional world.
And here are two crucial further points about real-world applications of DDAO. First, in applying DDAO, we are always drawing directly on fully embedded social know-how about the actual operations of the relevant institutional structures,7 to guide us in knowing how each new institutional structure simultaneously represents a definite decrease in Statist and State-like institutional coercion and also a definite increase in individual and collective non-oppression.
Second, obviously, no change in institutional structures occurs independently of simultaneous changes in other institutional structures, since there are multiple dependency relations not only within institutional structures but also between and among institutional structures. So, for example, in the police oppression example, obviously, in order to make each recursive change in the institutional structures constituting police forces, until, in effect, we reach the end of policing in the United States, we would also simultaneously have to make corresponding, relevant changes in other institutional structures, for example, in the local government administration regimes that control police forces.
A few paragraphs above, I defined “institutions” in terms of shared ordered sets of ethical principles and collective aims. What is a collective aim? By that, I mean an essentially embodied, action-oriented, desire-based emotive8 shared set of basic ideals and values, or what the Brazilians call concordar: a shared heart. It is also what Samuel Alexander calls “sociality” and what JS calls “relational affect.”9 The basic idea is that once we realize that, from the standpoint of the philosophy of mind, emotions are neither merely “in the head” nor inherently passive, but on the contrary are essentially embodied, first-person experiences of desiderative caring, directly expressed as dispositions spontaneously and creatively to move one’s body intentionally in various ways, then we can also clearly see that all emotions are immediately manifest in the world and fully shareable with others. Concordar is vividly obvious in the deeply important yet still everyday human phenomena of sexuality and love, religious rituals, revivalist meetings, team sports, rock music concerts, and all kinds of dancing, for example, dionysian dancing. In all of these group activities, concordar exists not only among and between active participants or performers, but also among and between audiences or viewers, and also among and between active participants or performers and audiences or viewers. These phenomena clearly show that concordar can be the source of tremendous personal and social liberation, intense bodily and spiritual enjoyment, and morally authentic happiness—as well, of course, as considerable amounts of shallow or morally trivial happiness, “just having fun.” Concordar is equally vividly obvious, however, in the bonding rituals of business corporations, cults, and terrorist oganizations, in angry political demonstrations and protests, in jingoistic political spectacles, in military rituals and spectacles, in mob hysteria, and in mob violence. The latter phenomena all clearly show that concordar can also be the source of tremendous psychological and social oppression, and evil. This is why concordar must be nurtured and sustained only in accordance with DDAO.
Re (ii), the critical contrast and opposition between, on the one hand, the classical Enlightenment, and on the other, the project of radical enlightenment.
JS writes that
As I’ve indicated above, I’m fully committed to a radically enlightened, realistically optimistic dignitarian humanist, or anarcho-socialist, morality and politics, as the source of our guiding normative principles in political philosophy of mind. Therefore, I also fully reject the classical Enlightenment, broadly in accordance with the well-known Horkheimer/Adorno critique of classical Enlightenment in The Dialectic of Enlightenment,10 and instead defend what I and others have called radical enlightenment.11 As I construe radical enlightenment, according to that view we owe it to ourselves and to all others, in order to respect their human dignity sufficiently, to screw up our moral courage, and try our wholehearted best to grow out of our personal immaturity and inauthenticity, and to change our lives for the better, by criticizing, rejecting, and exiting the State and all other State-like institutions alike, in order to create and sustain a radically better world in which there are no States or other State-like institutions, hence no destructive, deforming social institutions. Radical enlightenment in this sense is a maximalist version of enlightenment, motivated by what I call “Left Kantian” ideas,12 that sharply contrasts with other everyday, familiar “minimalist” versions of enlightenment, whether Kantian13 or non-Kantian.
Re (iii), the critical contrast and opposition between, on the one hand, a permanent process of post-colonialist/multiculturalist/neo-neo-marxist social critique, and on the other, a radically enlightened process of social-institutional design and creation, as the be-all and end-all of political philosophy of mind.
JS writes that
I’m fully on board with pessimistic post-colonialist/multiculturalist/neo-neo-marxist social critiques of the sort that JS describes, in order to identify and glaringly to spotlight the sources and mechanisms of human oppression, but only as a necessary precursor to radically enlightened, realistically optimistic dignitarian humanist, aka anarcho-socialist, social-institutional design and creation. And here’s why. I believe that if it were pursued permanently, and not merely as a necessary precursor to designing and creating social institutions that sufficiently respect human dignity, then pessimistic post-colonialist/multiculturalist/neo-neo-marxist social critique would become nothing but an endless exploration of victimhood and dystopia, that’s explicitly or implicitly deterministic, and either (i) cynically quietist and morally/politically passive or else (ii) inherently prone to “internalize the oppressor” and turn into a monster of counter-oppression. Pursued permanently, then, it itself becomes a destructive, deforming social institution—the very thing it set out to criticize, reject, and take down—and therefore it’s existentially, morally, and politically self-defeating. Far better a so-called “facile” and “simplistic” activist neo-Utopianism, that ends at least some forms of oppression and radically improves at least some people’s lives, than a tragically inert or tragically terrorist social-institutional snake that ends no forms of oppression, radically improves no one’s lives, and ultimately immolates itself by swallowing its own tail. Or to switch metaphors, from self-immolating snakes to ladders, I think that post-colonialist/multiculturalist/neo-neo-marxist critique is only a necessary ladder that’s meant to be kicked away after we’ve climbed up out of the sewer and into the bright light of day, where there’s endless constructive, enabling social-institutional work still to do, and not the be-all and end-all of political philosophy of mind.
As coauthors, Michelle and I of course agree about what we published in the book, but as anyone who has done coauthored work knows, there’s always a certain amount of compromise, negotiation, and fusion or synthesis in the finished product. So it’s possible that our views might differ slightly in our replies to these comments. In order to accommodate that possibility, I’ll use the following protocol: (i) I’ll use the first-person plural form whenever I can be pretty confident that we’ll agree, (ii) I’ll use the first-person singular form whenever I think it’s likely that our views will differ somewhat, and (iii) I’ll use the neologism “my/our” when I’m not sure whether our views will be essentially the same or somewhat different.↩
See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Radical Enlightenment: Existential Kantian Cosmopolitan Anarchism, with a Concluding Quasi-Federalist Postscript,” in D. Heidemann and K. Stoppenbrink, eds., Join, or Die: Philosophical Foundations of Federalism (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2016), 63–90; R. Hanna, Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise, Rational Human Condition 4 (New York: Nova Science, 2018); R. Hanna and O. Paans, “On the Permissible Use of Force in a Kantian Dignitarian Moral and Political Setting, or, Seven Kantian Samurai,” Journal of Philosophical Investigations 13 (2019): 75–93, available online at https://philosophy.tabrizu.ac.ir/article_9431.html; and R. Hanna, “On Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: Optimism for Realists, or, Neither Hobbes Nor Rousseau” (unpublished manuscript, September 2020 version), available online at https://www.academia.edu/43631182/On_Rutger_Bregmans_Humankind_Minor_revisions_22_September_2020_.↩
See S. Michaels, “Sir Paul McCartney: I Politicised The Beatles,” Guardian, December 15, 2008, available online at https://www.theguardian.com/music/2008/dec/15/paulmccartney-thebeatles, and also this interview with McCartney, available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3m2r0Ln0rU.↩
Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, ch. 8.↩
Sadly and tragically, as is well-known, this is only the tip of the iceberg of “structural racist” oppression of Black people in the United States. See, e.g., C. Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016).↩
A recursive principle is a principle that, starting with a “ground level” or “zero” case as input, is successively applied to the result of each prior application until a certain desired output is constructed. So, for example, the arithmetic principle that determines counting to ten in the natural number series is a recursive principle.↩
This is also what J. C. Scott, borrowing the Greek term for Odysseus’s non-discursive social and political insight in the Odyssey and the Iliad, calls “metis” in Seeing Like a State (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).↩
See R. Hanna and M. Maiese, Embodied Minds in Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), ch. 5; and M. Maiese, Embodiment, Emotion, and Cognition (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).↩
See S. Alexander, Space, Time, and Deity (2 vols., London: Macmillan, 1920), 2:31–37, available online at https://brocku.ca/MeadProject/Alexander/Alexander_toc.html; and J. Slaby, “Relational Affect,” Academia.edu, available online at https://www.academia.edu/25728787/Relational_Affect.↩
M. Horkheimer and T. Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. E. Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).↩
In his excellent but also highly controversial Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650–1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), and its two sequel volumes, Jonathan Israel traces the origins of the very idea of a radical enlightenment project back to Spinoza, pantheism, and metaphysical monism. I certainly agree with Israel that Spinozism is at least one important source of the radical enlightenment tradition, but am also strongly inclined to think that Kant’s role is actually greater and more profound. See, e.g., F. Beiser, The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).↩
See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Exiting the State and Debunking the State of Nature,” Con-Textos Kantianos 5 (2017), available online at https://www.con-textoskantianos.net/index.php/revista/article/view/228; and R. Hanna, “Kant, Adorno, and Autonomy,” Critique (2017), available online at https://virtualcritique.wordpress.com/2017/07/05/robert-hanna-on-martin-shusters-autonomy-after-auschwitz/.↩
I borrow the helpful label “maximalist” from S. Fleischacker, What Is Enlightenment? (London: Routledge, 2013), 7. Fleischacker himself defends a “minimalist” version of Kantian enlightenment; see What Is Enlightenment?, 169–93.↩