Barrett, Semiotics, Descartes

Having encountered theories of the extended mind in a class on Rhetorical Ecologies last semester, I found Barrett’s “The Archaeology of Mind: It’s Not What You Think” to be one of the most provocative of the readings for this week. Not only does Barrett’s article provide a brief overview of several evolutionary theories of cognitive development, as well as semiotics, Actor Network Theory, and what I believe to be a (dismissive) nod to Baudrilliard (in 15 pages, no less!), he also attempts to subvert almost all theories of mind that came before him, and I suppose I’m a sucker for subversive theory. Despite the admiration he might deserve for taking on such a huge project in the course of a short article, I found some of his dismissals a bit too hasty and it seems to me that his own theory of “mind” might also fall back into the Cartesian hole in which he perceives most of the current theories to reside.

Early in the article, Barrett writes, “The rejection of a Cartesian dualism is basic to materialist philosophies but, in archaeology at least, this has not resulted in the widespread questioning of the assumption that the mechanism basic to human cognition involves the mind’s ability to interpret experiences that are manifestations of an external reality, even if we have no idea as to what mechanism provides for that interpretation” (2), thus setting up his main criticism of the wide variety of theories that follow, namely that they rely on a split between mind and body, and inner self and external environment. However, the application of this criticism seems more apt with regard to some theories than others. For instance, his criticism of mind-as-brain theories seems spot on—in order to locate the mind solely in the brain, one would have to reinforce the distinctions between mind/body and self/environment. But when Barrett takes a detour through semiotics, things get weird. First, he appears to mis-define Saussure’s signifier and signified as conceptual category and public expression, respectively. But isn’t it the other way around—that is, signified as concept and signifier as public expression (7)? (Public expression might also not exactly match up with “sound image,” as it retains many additional connotations, e.g. public-ness.) He then connects this dyadic theory of semiotics to the Cartesian split between mind and body based on this potential mis-interpretation. Although I think this accusation is not entirely off, Barrett’s claim that it sets up “a relationship between external things and an ‘inner’ mind in which the body appears to play no part” (7) doesn’t seem like the best criticism. Indeed, from what I’ve read, Saussure’s theory seems almost unconcerned with how the sign relates to external reality, therefore I’m not sure where Barrett is finding this “relationship between exterior things and an ‘inner’ mind.” He might be onto something with regard to the lack of references to the body in Saussure, but it seems like a criticism that could be leveled against every philosophy that does not explicitly and regularly reference the body. Similarly, his claim that Peircean semiotics accounts for the body through the interpretant (“it follows that we must treat the interpretant as an agent requiring the motivation, physical faculties, and energy required to do the work […]” (7)) appears very generous to Peircean semiotics, and I suspect that he might be imposing the body into this theory. However, I am not familiar enough with Peirce to dispute this claim. But, from my standpoint, it appears that he prefers Peirce to Saussure, and so Peirce gets the body and Saussure gets the mind.

Which brings me to my final question: does Barrett’s theory of cognitive development fully displace the Cartesian split? As a good materialist, his theory certainly appears to rid the division between inner self and external environment through his emphasis on the body and it’s being in/of the world. However, I’m not so sure if Barrett’s theory succeeds in displacing Descartes’ mind/body binary; is it a displacement or merely an inversion through which Barrett exalts the body above the conventionally valorized mind? In the latter third of his article, Barrett sets up a distinction between the conceptual and sensual recognitions of things with common or contrasting qualities, and he overwhelming affirms the latter (i.e. the sensual) as “primary” (11). “The response of one body to a material quality was recognized empathetically by another,” “full bipedalism, the hand with opposable thumb articulation and a forefinger capable of pointing, complex facial musculature, and eye colouration,” “bodily decoration […] is more likely to have enhanced those enactments before others than to have the representation of some abstractly conceived concept of status,” “the world of qualities sensually encountered” (11), etc.: all of these passages privilege the body over the mind in the development of the symbolic. Does Barrett focus too heavily on the body? Does his cognitive development theory entirely displace the mind/body binary by making everything fully body, or is there still room left for the mind in the “representation of some abstractly conceived concept of status” or the slightly earlier mention of (without fully discrediting) metaphorical associations? More broadly, is Barrett’s theory merely an inversion of the Cartesian dichotomy, or does it succeed in avoidance of the lapse into the division between mind and body?