“Finding out how much of cognition can be understood as embodied”

An interview with Julian Kiverstein

1 April 2016

Julian Kiverstein is Assistant Professor of Neurophilosophy at the University of Amsterdam, where he is developing phenomenologically informed answers to a number of questions in cognitive science, including, consciousness and the self, agency, intersubjectivity and temporality. Before his appointment at Amsterdam in 2011, he was teaching fellow at Edinburgh University, where he played a lead role in developing and designing the Mind, Language and Embodied Cognition Masters Programme, of which he also became director. His contract at the UvA will end in May 2016, and he will move to the AMC to work with Erik Rietveld.

“I did not really know what philosophy was until I started doing it. I was always interested in ideas in politics and literature, so I had always imagined that I would do something that was related to that in some way. I was interested in psychology as well, so I thought I would maybe study to be an analyst or a counselor. But then philosophy got its teeth into me, and I fell in love with doing that. It is a fun thing to argue about philosophical puzzles with people for a living.”

“I did my undergraduate work in London, first at King’s College, and then at Birkbeck College. I moved to Edinburgh to do my PhD, and stayed there for a post-doc in a project about consciousness. After the post-doc I was a teaching assistant there, and I worked as a director and founder of their master’s program within philosophy concerned with embodied cognition. During that time I heard about the position here in Amsterdam, as assistant professor in Neurophilosophy. I knew Erik Rietveld already, because we were working together on some projects, so I decided to apply for the position, and I moved to Amsterdam in April 2011.”

“My position was created through an initiative that was taken by Martin Stokhof and Patricia Pisters, with the aim of establishing neurophilosophy as a field of research within the ILLC. The idea, I think, was that my position would be a way of having the philosophy department make contact with the research priority area Brain and Cognition. This would happen not just through engagement with cognitive research concerned with logic and language, which were already internationally recognized key strengths of philosophy in Amsterdam. The idea was rather that the ILLC would expand its focus to include the philosophy of cognitive science and neuroscience. Of course, there have been people in the ILLC working on this as well. Michiel van Lambalgen for example has always been working on philosophy of cognitive science, but not really with an eye on the brain. His interest has been making the connection between philosophy of logic and cognitive science. But I do not think that anyone else in the ILLC has oriented their teaching and research to building the bridge from philosophy to brain and cognition. The idea of my appointment was that I would be somebody that would perform this function of providing an interface between all of these different groups, between the philosophers, the cognitive modelers, and the cognitive neuroscientists. That is what I have been doing, and it has been – as I see it – a success, certainly with the students, perhaps less so with regards to breaking down entrenched institutional structures. ”

“In philosophy, it seems to me there has been some suspicion about the need to engage with research in the brain sciences. There is strong support for this outside of philosophy, for example in media studies and in Brain and Cognition but no support (and occasionally outright hostility) from within philosophy. Without wanting to get too political, I think you see this quite clearly in the lack of response to a letter and article published in Folia (March 9th, 2016, link) that was initiated by supporters of neurophilosophy in the student community. In this letter, they had philosophers from around the world, many of whom are known to everyone, writing about the importance of teaching neurophilosophy within the university today. So far there has been no response at all from anybody in philosophy to this article. I think that speaks loudly for the future direction of philosophical research at the UvA. I find it surprising at a time when the humanities are under threat that philosophy is deciding to build walls that isolate philosophy from other related disciplines. I have tried to make these arguments but I am powerless to change anything, and there is not anyone in the management structures either within philosophy or the ILLC who has been prepared to make the case for neurophilosophy at the UvA in this climate of cuts.”

“Although my contract will end in May, I will continue to offer at least one course at the UvA titled ‘Current Debates in the Philosophy of the Brain and Cognition’. This will be co-taught with Machiel Keestra as part of the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Research Master’s. I hope that the importance of the brain sciences for philosophy will be soon acknowledged. People in the brain sciences clearly recognize the value and importance of philosophy for what they do. It is pity that just now at the UvA there is no recognition yet of the importance of the brain sciences for philosophy.”

“After April, I will move over to the AMC to work on a research project with Erik Rietveld and Damiaan Denys. Erik (together with his former student Sanneke de Haan) has been investigating the effects of Deep Brain Stimulation on the lived, first-person experience of patients undergoing treatment for severe obsessive compulsive disorder. We are interested in how treatment with deep-brain stimulation changes the everyday experiences of acting and of being in the world of this patient group. We want to combine insights we gain from asking patients about changes in their experience with what we know about how deep brain stimulation changes patterns of connectivity in the brain, in particular by stimulating (so-called) connectivity hubs that are known to play a crucial role in action control. There are now increasingly sophisticated computational models of psychiatric disorders that are helping us to understand more deeply an idea that Norbert Wiener first had in 1948 that mental disorders may have their basis in disorders of circulating information in the brain. However this leave open how these models of disorder in the brain relate to the everyday behavior of patients and to their first-person experiences. This is where we think philosophy can help, by integrating the different levels of explanation from which disorders can be investigated from the neural all the way up to the embodied agent in its familiar surroundings.”

“In addition to the work on DBS, we will also be investigating how embodied cognition scales-up to higher cognitive functions, such as imagination, planning and language. These are domains where it has been thought that Embodied Cognitive Science will not really help us to understand what is going on. Erik and I have been working on ideas from ecological psychology, about the concept of affordances, and how the affordances of the human environment need to be understood within a socio-cultural context. We will explore in more detail how skills for responding to affordances might help us to understand some aspects of linguistic communication. We will also look at how it might apply to thinking about possible but not actual situations – the kind of thinking that is necessary for planning, and imagining things that not yet exist. Because we situate affordances in the context of practices, the idea is to look for practices, for tools and techniques that people might employ for these types of cognition.”

“We conceive of language as a tool. Following Andy Clark we think of language as “the ultimate artefact”. We borrow ideas from Wittgenstein about linguistic meaning – that it comes about through use of words in specific contexts. Consequently we have to look at language games, at the activities that people engage in with language if we are to understand how people use language to communicate. How do people coordinate with each other by using language? Studying language as an activity means paying close attention to the pragmatics of language use. Herbert Clark describes language as a type of joint action but how do people succeed in coordinating with each other in conversation?”

“The other working assumption we adopt is that language is something that is a part of the human socio-cultural environment. It is an aspect of the human form of life. We know that the patterns of activity that unfold over time in the brain do not have a linguistic structure. Indeed whether the brain represents at all is a controversial issue. The patterns of activity in the brain certainly carry information about the world, but this information has very different properties from the type of meaning we find in language. We take language to be a part of the human cognitive ecology, which is fundamentally social and cultural. Linguistic forms of communication and understanding come about through the coupling of human agents with an ecology rich with linguistic practices. This raises fascinating and important questions (that it should be noted are problems for everyone working on language today). How did language come to a part of human ecology? How did humans evolve to construct the kinds of symbolic forms of communication we find in the different language systems of the world? And the answer to these difficult questions will make reference not just to human biology, but also to culture and to the way in which biology and culture followed some co evolutionary path.”

“The overarching aim of my work with Erik Rietveld and his group is to see how much of cognition can be understood as embodied and situated in an ecology of affordances. We want to see how far we can push the framework. Maybe there are going to be cases where it looks less plausible, or where you cannot really say anything meaningful about how those cognitive functions work, using affordances. But we think the tools of embodied cognitive science, which consist of combining the explanatory tools of dynamical systems theory, neurodynamics and ecological psychology might provide us with news ways of thinking about human cognition and language functions. In other words we are working on a general framework for understanding what cognition is. That is one of the things you can do in the humanities. Cognitive scientists say they are studying cognition, but they do not really know what cognition is, or they do not even ask themselves this question. What philosophers can do is go back to the concepts (in this case the concept of “cognition”) and ask what we mean by them. How does our concept of cognition relate to other functions like perception and action and emotion for instance? In this project, we are saying that we need to understand cognition using ideas from embodiment, from ecological psychology, from dynamical systems theory, and also from phenomenology: we think that these will be useful resources for answering these foundational questions about what we mean by these concepts.”

“Right now, I am trying to finish up a book, called ‘4e Cognition: the embodied, embedded, extended, enactive mind’. It will be published with Palgrave Macmillan, and it is about how the different E terms relate to each other. Although embodied cognition is a movement within cognitive science, it is not a unified movement; there are different theories within the movement about how to understand what cognition is. My book is arguing for a particular position that makes use of affordances, the importance of looking at the dynamics of the agent-environment system, and the importance of socio-cultural practices for explaining cognitive processes. I develop a particular account of what cognition is, based on these ideas, and show how that account relates to debates that are happening in the field about what we mean by embodiment, the extended mind, and enaction.”

“Like all academics, I do not have that much free time, because I am always trying to finish writing projects that are overdue, and I have children with whom I try to spend lots of time. We live near the dunes, so we bike through the dunes in the spring and the summer. We also have a volkstuin, were we grow some vegetables and we have some grass where the children can play, so we spend quite a lot of time there. That is also why I want to stay in the Netherlands: it is a good life style that we have here, and it is good for the children. I also love music and books and arts, all of the things that SMART is about. I used to be a d.j., so I still like to listen to electronic music, and jazz.”

“I think one of the key contributions of the humanities is that they can keep us in touch with big questions about things like subjectivity, sociality, meaning, belonging to a social group, and about what it means to be human. We have to have a method for approaching these questions, and I find the phenomenological method useful, because it takes us back to something concrete: people’s everyday lived experience. When people think about phenomenology, they think that it must mean that we are doing some kind of introspection. So if we are trying to include that into cognitive sciences, they see that as going back to things that were abandoned in the 19th century because they did not work. But I do not think this is what phenomenology is doing; it is rather giving us ways of thinking about foundational questions that we forget about when we are doing science. Cognitive science investigates how people think and act in everyday situations. Phenomenology gives us a way of describing that, before we start to try to operationalize it and turn our questions into questions that can be answered in the lab. This can be very important if we want to understand disorders for instance, and how people’s experiences of the world change in very fundamental ways as a consequence of mental illness. Phenomenology is also important because we have this idea that cognition is mostly unconscious. Most of what happens in the mind, people now think, is unconscious; it is something that people do not really know anything about. The only way we can investigate it is by trying to find out what is causing our behavior, what kinds of representational processing might be behind that behavior. This has been an assumption that has been dominant in most of cognitive science, and that has led to the neglect of consciousness for a long time. But I think that there are certain mistakes that are being made in the way that we understand cognition so long as we abstract away from the embodied experiences of people. In cognitive science we really need to think more carefully about that relationship between cognition and experience. Once we do, we can begin to see why phenomenology might be important for cognitive science: it might not be so obvious that we can make the split between cognition and experience that researchers have taken for granted.”

by Gisela Govaart, April 2016

Published by  SMART Cognitive Science