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.