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Book review

Embodiment and cognitive science

Gibbs, Raymond W. 2006. Embodiment and cognitive science. New York: Cambridge University Press

Reviewed by Antoine Gautier, Paris-Sorbonne University

The concept of embodiment "refers to understanding the role of an agent's own body in its everyday, situated cognition" (p. 1). On that basis, Gibbs distances himself from the assumption in cognitive science that "the building materials that shape the contents of mental life simply do not matter" (p. 3).

Embodiment and cognitive science consists of nine chapters, including an introduction and a conclusion. The introduction briefly adresses the main issues and discusses the origins of the 'disembodied' approach to cognition. It shows how the platonic dualism of mind and body has been continually renewed through the ages, from Augustine, Descartes and Kant to Turing's idealization of the mind. It also examines how neuroscience reduces the body to its representation in the mind, and ultimately to a neural phenomenon. It appears that such reductions are inherent to the procedures of empirical science, especially given the fact that experimental settings are by definition controlled or closed environments. However, according to Gibbs, a current trend in psychology and linguistics is to give up this kind of reductionism in favor of an embodied approach to mind and language. In the author's own perspective, embodiment refers not only to neural events but also to the cognitive unconscious and to phenomenological experience (p. 10). More specifically, Gibbs promotes a dynamic framework that differs from more traditional static and modular models of cognition.

Chapter 2 discusses the relationship between body and consciousness from various viewpoints: it touches upon the epistemological opposition between realism and idealism and suggests a constructivist approach as a valuable third option. Gibbs also examines the role of body activity in the perception of the self and of others. Despite cultural divergences about the very apprehension of the body or even the physical world itself, personhood is ultimately constructed as a whole, "as an emergent property of interactions of the brain, body and world" (p. 41).

In the third chapter, the author questions two generally accepted ideas: first, the reduction of perception to brain activity, and second, the traditional objectivist theory of perception, which postulates that the mind merely processes objective data that it receives from the world. Gibbs suggests instead that "perception involves bodily movements () and the anticipation of action when adapting to environmental situations" (p. 77). In various situations, body movements are closely associated with perception itself - such as recognizing people from their postures, listening to a piece of music that oneself can perform, or understanding a force-dynamic situation.

Chapter 4 explores the links between embodied experience and concepts. The author selects some problems about the traditional view of concepts and prototypes: the common model of concepts as decontextualized mental representations nested in pre-existing static structures is confronted with the wide range of prototype effects that are found with concepts. On that basis, the author relies on conceptual metaphor theory (Lakoff and Johnson 1980) and discusses various examples that show the metaphorical - embodied - nature of many abstract concepts.

In chapter 5, Gibbs shows that higher-order cognitive activities also seem to be embodied. Memory, for instance, may be defined as embodied action, since memorizing and remembering often involve environmental information or, concerning language, vocalization. It is suggested that "computational processing on symbolic representations" is not restricted to the brain but rather it is "distributed as a 'cognitive web' across brains, bodies and worlds" (p. 157).

The sixth chapter is devoted the question of language and embodiment. As before, Gibbs criticizes the traditional decontextualized view of meaning and language, and he argues the case for a global influence of embodied activity over language use, be it speech perception, word processing or discourse comprehension. Not surprisingly, an important part of the section is devoted to gesture, supporting the idea that speech and gesture "constitute a tightly coupled cognitive system" (p. 168). According to Gibbs, embodiment plays a part in many tasks that involve language, whether during effective communication or while accessing "off-line knowledge".

In the case of cognitive development (chapter 7), the concept of embodiment owes much to the pioneering work of Jean Piaget, who emphasized the role of sensorimotor activity in cognitive growth. Since the 1950's, much experimental work has refined the theory behind this approach to cognitive development. Considering the question of physical reasoning (i.e. handling physical objects in order to understand their properties), Gibbs mentions recent experiments and deplores the fact that scientists seldom acknowledge embodiment.

Chapter 8 focuses on the relationships between body, emotions and consciousness. At first, Gibbs reminds us that not only bodily sensations are tightly associated with conscious experiences and emotions, but also they are connected with the world itself. Therefore, the view of consciousness as isolated and separated from the body is rejected by the author, who claims that emotions and consciousness "emerge from interactions of brain, body and world" (p. 273).

The book under review is important in several ways: it offers the first full picture of a question that has been frequently but only partially examined in various areas of cognitive science. Considering the amount of studies on the subject, Embodiment and Cognitive Science provides a coherent and well-documented synthesis. Although it does not offer a general model of embodiment, it puts forward a large body of evidence to support the "embodiment premise". Finally, from the perspective of philosophy of science, Gibbs' book clearly delineates the limits of generalization in science, since embodiment takes part in a global trend towards (re-) contextualized theories.


  • Ray Gibb's homepage

  • Embodiment and Cognitive Science at Cambridge University Press.

    Final version submitted July 2007

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