Ontology as Embodied Cognitive Action?

NeuroIn the comment section of a previous post I made the following claim:

I’m a little worried about making a strong distinction between ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’. Knowing and communicating are also embodied actions – activities with worldly consequences. Our values and ontologies do influence our perception and our intentions/motivations.

And Dirk responded by asking the following:

I still don’t know what it would literally mean to have an “ontology?” or how such a thing(?) would actually work in/to our actual doings/projects (can someone give me a thickish example of what they mean by this, i.e. where/how would I find an ontology and how would I track its effects?)

I think Dirk’s apprehension with the terminology is well-placed. He is asking us to be more specific and to pay attention to the details. And I can certainly appreciate that and would like to make attempt at ‘thickening’ my version of what I think is going on in this regard. I never want to suggest that ideas and imaginings are somehow independent of the bodies that generate them. Ideas are not objects. Human phantasy and ideation is what knowing and expressing bodies do. We generate, project and communicate symbolically via a capacity for individualized neuronal coding and recall (memory) and social exchange. Ideation is an enacted and embodied cognitive activity always in-process, and only ever relatively stabilized and concretized in external material codes (writing). Whereas writting and symbolic artifacts are objects in the strict sense – and thus capable of affecting and being affected, and so become part of the general ecology (within which we must cope – ideation is a living sublte and imaginative human activity.

So, to begin, I think it would be useful to make a distinction between ‘ontologies’ as 1) external linguistic codes/theories (texts) and 2) as internal or embodied habits of recall (codes) and interpretive semantic association. Of course the interaction between 1 (texts) and 2 (imaginative bodies/brains) is complex and dynamic but if we can agree on the empirical basis for making such a distinction – between texts and humans – then I think we are well on our way to thickening out the details of how non-theoretic onto-logic cognition works.   

First, ontologies as textual narratives are fairly uncontroversial. We can pick up Graham Harman’s book The Quadruple Object, for example, and follow his statements and tenants far enough we begin to get a sense of a generally explicated onto-story (as Bennett calls it). Harman tells the reader a story about how the world works using particular words, sentences and sequential references. Which is to say, all texts are ‘structured’ in a particular way via the syntax, grammar and conventions of the language in which it is written in order to convey meaning. And we know from linguistics that meaning is structured by a series of differences and linkages. And so the text itself is a relatively autonomous artifact with specific codes and material characteristics capable of being transported to different locales and entering into or exiting different networks of readers. And ontology texts are assemblages/objects with particular and meaning-full narrative structures.  

Now the issue of ontological thinking is a bit more messy. When I say “our ontologies influence our perception and our intentions/motivations” what I am really saying is that our habits of thinking (both fast and slow) influence the kinds of information we pay attention to. Habits of thought flow from and recursively re-condition complex formations of neuro-circuitry that generate dispositional feelings, cognitive patterns and generalized but often obscure motivations.[1] In brief, an individual’s ‘ontology’ is the sum total of those habitual neuro-semantic associations which lead to routine assumptions and anticipations about the world. We accumulate and accommodate our experiences in memory through symbolic coding/self-organizing and differential participation in public codes/language/narratives. These neuronal instantiations and habits (potentialized memories) form neuro-cognitive-dispositions (NCDs) then generate/manifest particular behaviors, attractions, aversions, and communicative and deliberational patterns. NCDs allow us to organize our experience and make-sense of the world in order to navigate, anticipate, cope and generally adapt. And it is when external codes (texts) interact with internal codes (NCDs) through memory, recall and lived communicative action (reading, discourse, conversation, etc) that all sorts of adjustments, rationalizations, rejections, adoptions, and re-codings become possible. So when people talk about ‘worldviews’ or cognitive ‘frameworks’ they are loosely referring to these socially acquired, personally adapted and ultimately affording but limited NCDs for organizing attention, memory/coding and recall.

But why use the short-hand of ‘ontology’ to refer to these widely dispersed living neuro-cognitive-dispositions? Because I think it is useful to sort out different dispositional sub-routines within general NCDs. A person’s ‘ontology’, then, would refer to that particular set of deeply instantiated neuro-cognitive-dispositions (NCDs) which organize our experience and behavior viz. the particular symbolic contents (knowledge) guiding our assumptions about the nature of things. The specific neuro-semantic content we code/memorize characterizes the different patterns and potentials generates by NCDs. NCDs are never strictly composed or explicit ‘theories’ but rather loosely connected neural habits/networks capable of activating low grade image-associations and decision-making routines. And certain NCD modes and sub-routines lead to particular sensitivities, reactions and actions in different contexts/situations.

So to tie it all back to Dirk’s original request for clarity, I would say that ontologies influence us as both tangible artifacts and neuro-cognitive-dispositions enacted in the ecological interplay between bodies, languages, texts, and media in-action. Moreover, the human use of informal and formal conventions as coherence across strata and systems exhibits a type of temporal continuity (or basin of attraction) in exchanges and relations between cognitive function (NCDs), public language (with its syntax and grammar) and social recognition (collective memory). This systemically accessible continuity is a type of dynamic assemblage, or ‘regime of attraction’ enacted as specific bodies, materials and energies interact, impact, express and exchange information – a more or less choreograph-able ‘dance of agency’ (cf. Pickering) between things with a systemic relatedness or “structureality”.


[1] For example recent neuroimaging studies of conditioned fear, attention to threat and interpretation of emotionally ambiguous stimuli indicate common amygdala–prefrontal circuitry underlying these processes, and suggest that the balance of activity within this circuitry is altered in anxiety, creating a bias towards threat-related responses. Anxious individuals show increased attentional capture by potential signs of danger, and interpret expressions, comments and events in a negative manner. The biological mechanisms and neural circuitry underlying the acquisition and extinction of conditioned fear-based cognitive biases have been widely explored: http://bishoplab.berkeley.edu/bishoptics.pdf

6 responses to “Ontology as Embodied Cognitive Action?

  1. thanks M, will come back to this soon but to note that I’m not sure (given the history/associations) that the shorthand of “ontology” doesn’t put us in the same realm of knotty confusions that say talk of minds and or concepts tends to do. And what about say our developmental response-abilities like object-permanence which come very early but are vital ‘building-blocks’ if you will to how we relate to objects? I’ll have to go back and take a look at “umwelt” again.

  2. This is so fantastic. My humanities computing class this week had a discussion about ontology and how it influences our motives, in terms of a stand point regarding our work. Especially because our discussions have been grounded by the “building” and “theory”. This post brought so much light to the discussion I’m aim to do about the accelerate manifesto and the cosmopolitics.

    • Good stuff Lori. Do you have anything to add that I missed or got wrong? I would love to get your thoughts on these issues..

      And please do share that work acceleration and Stengers! I would love to have you guest blog here on that topic!

    • hey fl, good of you to pitch in we (well i anyway) could use a concrete example of how ontology functions as “a stand point”, could you give me a working definition in yer case of what a stand point is and how ontology can be one? thanks!

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