Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Promising Research Area: Asian Philosophy and Embodied Cognition

One key to successful comparative philosophical research is locating an area in where there is sufficient overlap between different traditions’ approaches that each can see the other as generating relevant challenges or questions, stimulating new ways of framing issues, and so on. I would argue that the “virtue ethics” paradigm has been successful in just this way, bringing together an increasing number of Anglophone and Sinophone philosophers and philosophical projects in fruitful fashion, as judged by the interesting, explicitly work that is being generated by Anglophone scholars (including those with little prior background in Chinese and Chinese philosophy) and some Sinophone thinkers (including those with little prior background in Western philosophy).

Another possible area of overlap and mutual stimulus — though it remains to be seen whether it will generate a similar level of fruitfulness — is virtue epistemology; Michael Chien-kuo Mi and colleagues at Soochow University in Taiwan have been collaborating with Ernie Sosa of Rutgers University and some other Western-trained philosophers in this endeavor.

What I mainly wanted to call attention to here, though, is a third area. The recent APA conference featured a panel (sponsored by the APA Committee on the Status of Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies) on “Asian/Comparative Views of the Embodied and Enactive Mind.” Drawing on Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, as well as on various streams of philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and phenomenology, the panelists (Bongrae Seok, Matthew MacKenzie, and Bradley Park) made it eminently clear that there is a major area of overlap and many opportunities for mutual stimulus and learning. I was also struck by the fact that a successful NEH Summer Institute was held last summer on this topic; looking at the range of participants and faculty, it is again clear that there is a lot of room for exciting growth in this area of comparative philosophy.

January 3rd, 2013 Posted by | Buddhism, Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Epistemology, Philosophy of Mind, Virtue | 5 comments

5 Responses to Promising Research Area: Asian Philosophy and Embodied Cognition

  1. And it’s about time, too. For several months I’ve been researching a book on Buddhism as a recovery program from craving-driven and aversion-driven behavior. Most of my Buddhist sources are rooted in the Theravada Pali Canon, particularly the Sutta Pitaka and the Abhidhamma Pitaka. Every time I found an edge or a still- unexplored frontier here, I also found the next step very nearby in cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, REBT and emergentism, requiring me also to continue with an equal amount of research into these fields. What was most surprising is that almost none of the authors in these fields seem aware that Buddha laid their original groundwork, and was the first to express a number of their key concepts. This is indeed a fertile area for further exploration.

    • James says:

      Embodied Cognition is a growing research program in cognitive science that emphasizes the formative role the environment plays in the development of cognitive processes. The general theory contends that cognitive processes develop when a tightly coupled system emerges from real-time, goal-directed interactions between organisms and their environment; the nature of these interactions influences the formation and further specifies the nature of the developing cognitive capacities. Since embodied accounts of cognition have been formulated in a variety of different ways in each of the sub-fields comprising cognitive science (that is, developmental psychology, artificial life/robotics, linguistics, and philosophy of mind), a rich interdisciplinary research program continues to emerge. Yet, all of these different conceptions do maintain that one necessary condition for cognition is embodiment, where the basic notion of embodiment is broadly understood as the unique way an organism’s sensorimotor capacities enable it to successfully interact with its environmental niche. In addition, all of the different formulations of the general embodied cognition thesis share a common goal of developing cognitive explanations that capture the manner in which mind, body, and world mutually interact and influence one another to promote an organism’s adaptive success.

  2. Edward Slingerland has been working this field for years. He is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition, and Associate Member in the Depts. of Philosophy and Psychology. He has also written about virtue ethics and Chinese thought. A forthcoming book is “Trying Not to Try: Chinese Philosophy, Embodied Cognition and the Paradox of Spontaneity.”


    • Steve Angle says:

      Good point, Scott — in fact, the same conference included a panel celebrating Ted’s having won the journal Dao’s prize for the best essay of 2011, Metaphor and Meaning in Early China, which discusses a wide range of relevant literature.

  3. Apologies if the following “goes without saying”,
    but a google site-search here and at Slingerland’s 2 sites
    finds few or no instances of related terms.

    (I find the mainstream of “Embodied Cognition” studies
    likewise insufficiently aware of the ideas below.)

    What’s missing are terms (and perspectives and tools)
    like Semiotics, Bio-Semiotics, Pan-Semiotics, and Eco-Semiotics.

    Modern Western science and philosophy is finally accepting
    the importance of context (as complementary to specialization,
    isolation, and reductionist analysis).

    But too often, “Semiotics” is still conflated with unscientific
    mumbo-jumbo spouted by intellectually-deficient-and-dishonest
    Postmodernist literary critics.
    [ ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18365164 ]

    Co-Evolution is now accepted as a fact of “hard science”.
    But the Western scientific mainstream remains largely ignorant
    of Dependent Co-Arising and Bio-Semiotics / Autopoiesis.

    Likewise, the logical rigor of the Madhyamaka notion of
    “Conventional Reality” remains unlinked with the Bio-Semiotic
    empirical evidence that:

    “evolution took place by two distinct mechanisms,
    i.e., by natural selection (based on copying) and
    by NATURAL CONVENTIONS (based on [Semiotic] coding).”

    [ link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-1-4020-6340-4/p… ]
    [ link.springer.com/content/pdf/bfm%3A978-1-4020-634… ]

    Why no linkage, no intellectual synergy, between ideas of
    “soft science” Cultural Convention and
    “hard science” DNA-coding Convention?

    Besides synergies between Buddhism/Taoism and Semiotics,
    there is also a link from Semiotics to Western theology.

    The paper below notes:

    “In medieval thelology, the pansemiotic view of human ecology
    is part of the doctrine of the spiritual senses. According to
    Thomas of Aquinas … ‘things [res] have their meaning in other things’.”

    [ ut.ee/SOSE/sss/pdf/noth26.pdf ]

    Both East and West have recognized the problematic relations
    between words and meanings (Confucius, Thucydides, Orwell, Sartre).

    Relevant to both “Rectification of Names”, and Western concerns
    with how thought and embodied habits can undergo “capture”,
    manipulation, and “semantic drift” via language,
    we find this from Roger Bacon:

    “[We] all day long impose names without being conscious of when and how.”

    [ plato.stanford.edu/entries/semiotics-medieval/#4.2 ]

    See also:



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