Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The meaning of body – book by Mark Johnson

While away last week facilitating workshops for vocational educators in the North Island, I managed to complete close reading of Professor Mark Johnson's book -
Johnson, M. (2007). The meaning of body: Aesthetics of human understanding. Chicago, Ill; London, UK: University of Chicago Press.
This book argues for the recognition of a more diverse perspective on how humans make meaning. The book wends through key philosophical questions like: what is meaning? Where does it come from? How do individuals, groups and societies make meaning? In particular, the focus is on the bodily sources of meaning making and contributions of forms of embodiment to how imagination and reasoning take place.
The book has 12 chapters organised into 3 sections with a preface introducing the precepts and rationale for the book’s argument. There is also an introductory chapter called ‘meaning is more than words and deeper than concepts’ which is very apt.

The introductory chapter argues that the historical (and westernised) philosophical of the divide between mind and body as being unproductive in bringing forward thinking and our attempts to understand how we actually make meaning. The mind body dualism needs to be surmounted and a concept of embodied mind adopted to encompass a holistic approach.

In section 1, bodily meaning and felt sense, 5 chapters discuss the ontogenetical origins of feeling and sensing and the contributions these make to how we see, hear, feel the world and make meaning from these senses. For instance, he uses metaphors as examples of how the body contributes to visualising something like ‘feelings of warmth to others’. Conceptual metaphors being one way we make sense of the world we live and interact in.

The second section, embodied meaning the and sciences of mind, provides 4 chapters to present, rationalise and discuss the corporeal roots of symbolic meaning, the brains role in making meaning and the interconnection between meaning and abstract thought. Examples sprinkled throughout to help make sense of the philosophical arguments underlying the need to bring both the mind and body together when studying how people learn.

The last section is more esoteric, discussing in 3 chapters, the concepts of embodied meaning, aesthetics and art. These chapters use art appreciation and the derivation of meaning from music as examples and application of the way in which the body attains meaning form these art forms.

The final chapter, the meaning of the body, closes the book by completing the argument for how human life can only be relevant and meaningful if grounded in the bodily dimensions of human meaning and value. Divorcing the body from the mind, does not lead to how humans become better people. Being is a holistic experience requiring the entire being to be involved as a concerted whole. Therefore, the implications for studying how people be what they are include understanding that the: mind and body are not two things; human beings are embodied; understanding and reasoning are also embodied; there is no absolute truth, but many human truths; human freedom is modest ; a person cannot survive the death of their body; embodied spiritually is possible as faith, hope, grace and love transcends the finite human experience; and philosophy is an on-going search for meaning.

The concepts discussed in the book are complex and profound and open to discussion and re-interpretation. There is a youtube video (recorded 2007) with Professor Johnson explaining some of the concepts in the book. The presentation is about 50 minutes long with questions taking the entire video up to 84 minutes. The presentation does provide an attempt to clarify the ideas proposed in the book, using philosophical argument techniques to show how each contention in the book is backed by strong reasoning. Probably best to watch the video after a skim read of the book and then after processing the concepts presented on the video, review the chapters of the book that have relevance to one’s own research.

I will re-read the book when I next have a sequence of days away from the office. Mainly to try to derive application for some of the principles introduced and argued through the book to inform my current understanding of learning trades skills.

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