Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (1994) Corporeal Representation and Corporeal Sense-making. Psycoloquy: 5(53) Evolution Thinking (6)

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Psycoloquy 5(53): Corporeal Representation and Corporeal Sense-making

Reply to Webster on Evolution-Thinking

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone
Department of Philosophy
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403



This Reply takes issue with two points in Webster's (1994) extrapolation of corporeal representation to the realm of concept formation in highly disadvantaged infants: his argument from the pathological to the normal and his claim that cognition is socially constructed. A normal infant's everyday tactile-kinesthetic experience is both cognitively rich in and of itself and other-independent, that is, a personal affair.


analogical thinking, animate form, concepts, evolution, tactile-kinesthetic body.
1. Webster's (1994) review of THE ROOTS OF THINKING (Sheets-Johnstone 1990, 1994, henceforth ROOTS) takes communication and the notion of corporeal representation (ROOTS, 1990, chapter 5; 1994, par. 11) as its point of departure. In his descriptive summary of the way people at the Zagorsk school (near Moscow) teach blind, deaf, and dumb children to care for themselves and to progress cognitively to the point of being able to attend "university and beyond" (par. 3), Webster clearly demonstrates the tactile-kinesthetic basis of concept formation in sensorily disadvantaged infants/children. The children are taught to represent corporeally: first iconically, in "primary gestures" (par. 6), then in "abstract symbolic form" (par. 5). The dactylic patterning that constitutes symbolization establishes a system of "gesture equivalents" (par. 7), these gesture equivalents functioning as words. Arrival at the "purely arbitrary" "takes place with the learning of speech" (par. 8), that is, when the children learn to copy the position of teeth, lips, and tongue and the movement of the larynx of the teacher.

2. Webster describes the teaching as "symbol grounding with a vengeance," saying that "[it] shows clearly what can be achieved on the basis of socio-tactile/tactile-kinesthetic action alone" (par. 9). He immediately follows this observation with the statement, "But the most important point is that there can be no thought, thinking, or abstract concepts without a certain form or matrix of joint engagement with others... It is the nature of social activity that holds the key to the cognitive development of Homo sapiens, for it was another Australopithecine (or Homo habilis) that produced the first technological means and relations." I am puzzled in the extreme by Webster's "most important point" and by his sweeping conclusion: I find both unwarranted by the evidence he presents.

3. To begin with, there is the problem of arguing from the pathological to the normal. In conjunction with my critique of Merleau-Ponty in ROOTS, I showed how a "pathological body" yields something other than understandings of the normal insofar as pathology can add something, for example, rather than subtract. I illustrated the point further by recalling brain neuroanatomists Walle Nauta and Michael Feirtag's cautionary words with respect to destruction of the subthalamic nucleus. The latter, they wrote, "leads to the motor dysfunction known as hemiballism, in which the patient uncontrollably makes motions that resemble the throwing of a ball." They ask, "Is the normal function of the intact subthalamic nucleus therefore the suppression of motions resembling the throwing of a ball," and they answer, "Of course not; the condition represents only the action of a central nervous system unbalanced by the absence of a subthalamic nucleus" (Nauta and Feirtag, 1979, p. 88). There is no question but that pathology is not the basic stepping stone to cognitive origins. To deny that the pathological explains the normal is not to imply that pathology has no relation to the normal, but that this relationship must be ascertained. In this respect, microgenetic theory and related studies (e.g., Brown, 1988, 1991) are instructive. Microgenetic theory urges that we consider pathology as a window on a process rather than as a state of affairs, a state of affairs that, most often on the basis of a simplistic functional arithmetic relationship -- subtraction and addition -- is assumed to explain another state of affairs, namely, the normal.

4. A further and intimately related source of puzzlement concerns Webster's theoretical jump to the social construction of cognition. Clearly, communication is social. But just as clearly, cognition is not necessarily a phenomenon grounded in sociality. What Webster recognizes as the basis of "symbol grounding with a vengeance" may perhaps indicate in advance where his priorities lie. An infant who is wholly other-dependent and who is at the same time sensorily locked into a world that is for all practical purposes devoid of others is first and foremost a "socio-tactile" (par. 9) infant; that is, its "tactile-kinesthetic action" (par. 9), its production of meaningful gestures, is wholly other-dependent. "Socio-tactile" infants cannot make sense of the world through tactility and kinesthesia in the way infants who are not sensorily disadvantaged make sense of their own bodies and of the world -- in babbling, for example, or in studying the movement and visual form of their fingers, or in exploring their crib, the face of their parent, a toy, and so on. Granted that human infants (more generally, hominid infants from their evolutionary inception) are dependent initially and for several years on others for food, shelter, and the like, there is no good reason to think that they are devoid of "thought, thinking, or abstract concepts without a certain form or matrix of joint engagement with others" (par. 9). Making sense of one's own body is not other-dependent. Neither is making sense of one's crib or a rattle. Granted that crib and rattle are cultural artifacts, hence products of a social world, there is no good reason to think that an infant -- all on its own -- would not equally well make sense of tree leaves, a wad of dirt, or a cluster of stones if it were living in wholly natural surroundings.

5. The infant psychiatrist and developmental psychologist Daniel Stern, in his writings on the interpersonal world of the infant (1985; see also Stern 1990), speaks directly to Webster's "most important point" and sweeping conclusion: is a normal infant a cognizing subject or does it live in an undifferentiated state of oneness with its mother? Cognitively speaking, is it something by itself, or is it nothing by itself? On the basis of Stern's clinical and experimental work, one would have to affirm the former. Stern lays out in detail the structure of a "core self," which is the basis of relations with others, and which has as its constituents self-agency, self-coherence, self-affectivity, self-history. As a succinct and pertinent illustration of what these aspects of a core self identify, consider self-agency. An infant is aware of itself not only as the author of its actions -- "your arm moves when you want it to" -- but as a subject expecting certain consequences -- "when you shut your eyes it gets dark" (Stern 1985, p. 71). In neither case is the infant cognitively dependent on others. Making sense of one's body is a personal affair. Where this corporeal sense-making is not a personal affair is in extreme pathological cases. Why this is so is a question needing exploration from the viewpoint of developmental intermodalities. One might justifiably claim, for example, that to be a personal affair, making sense of one's body necessitates at minimum two sensory modalities, either the tactile-kinesthetic and visual modalities or the tactile-kinesthetic and auditory modalities. Where neither secondary modality is available, other persons are necessary; that is, other people must stand in or substitute for the second modality if a deaf, dumb, and blind infant/child is to make sense of its body, learn the ways and artifacts of the cultural world into which it is born, and communicate with others.

6. In sum, with respect to communication as a social phenomenon and cognition as an entailment of communication, "no language can be spoken for which the body is unprepared" (ROOTS 1990, p. 135); in positive terms, the particular language(s) one learns to speak conform with the body one is.


Brown, Jason W. (1988) The Life of the Mind. New Jersey: Erlbaum.

Brown, Jason W. (1991) Self and Process: Brain States and the Conscious Present. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Nauta, Walle and Michael Feirtag. (1979) The Organization of the Brain. Scientific American 241.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. (1990) The Roots of Thinking. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. (1994) Precis of The Roots of Thinking. PSYCOLOQUY 5(8) evolution-thinking.1.sheets-johnstone.

Stern, Daniel N. (1985) The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books.

Stern, Daniel N. (1990) Diary of a Baby. New York: Basic Books.

Webster, David S. (1994) Sensory Modalities and Concept Formation. PSYCOLOQUY 5(31) evolution-thinking.4.webster.

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