How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement, by Lambros Malafouris, is a maddening but also fascinating book that is seriously helping me to think through some of the issues that concern me. Malafouris wants to argue that the human mind is “embodied, extended, enacted, and distributed” — extensive rather than intensive in its fundamental character.

He starts his exploration wonderfully: by considering a thought-experiment that Maurice Merleau-Ponty first posited in his Phenomenology of Perception. Merleau-Ponty asks us to imagine a blind man navigating a city street with a cane. What is the relationship between that cane and the man’s perceptual apparatus? Or, as Gregory Bateson put it in Steps to an Ecology of Mind,

Consider a blind man with a stick. Where does the blind man’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick? These questions are nonsense, because the stick is a pathway along which differences are transmitted under transformation, so that to draw a delimiting line across this pathway is to cut off a part of the systemic circuit which determines the blind man’s locomotion.

(Bateson does not mention and probably was not aware of Merleau-Ponty.) For Malafouris the example of the blind man’s cane suggests that “what is outside the head may not necessarily be outside the mind…. I see no compelling reason why the study of the mind should stop at the skin or at the skull. It would, I suggest, be more productive to explore the hypothesis that human intelligence ‘spreads out’ beyond the skin into culture and the material world.” Moreover, things in the material world embody intentions and purposes — Malafouris thinks they actually have intentions and purposes, a view I think is misleading and sloppy — and these come to be part of the mind: they don’t just influence it, they help constitute it.

I believe this example provides one of the best diachronic exemplars of what I call the gray zone of material engagement, i.e., the zone in which brains, bodies, and things conflate, mutually catalyzing and constituting one another. Mind, as the anthropologist Gregory Bateson pointed out, “is not limited by the skin,” and that is why Bateson was able to recognize the stick as a “pathway” instead of a boundary. Differentiating between “inside” and “outside” makes no real sense for the blind man. As Bateson notes, “the mental characteristics of the system are immanent, not in some part, but in the system as a whole.”

If we were to take this model seriously, then we would need to narrate the rise of modernity differently than we’ve been narrating it — proceeding in a wholly different manner than the three major stories I mentioned in my previous post. Among other things, we’d need to be ready to see the Oppenheimer Principle as having a far stronger motive role in history than is typical.

When I talk this way, some people tell me that they think I’m falling into technological determinism. Not so. Rather, it’s a matter of taking with proper seriousness the power that some technologies have to shape culture. And that’s not because they think or want, nor because we are their slaves. Rather, people make them for certain purposes, and either those makers themselves have socio-political power or the technologies fall into the hands of people who have socio-political power, so that the technologies are put to work in society. We then have the option to accept the defaults or undertake the difficult challenge of hacking the inherited tools — bending them in a direction unanticipated and unwanted by those who deployed them.

To write the technological history of modernity is to investigate how our predecessors have received the technologies handed to them, or used upon them, by the powerful; and also, perhaps, to investigate how countercultural tech has risen up from below to break up the one-way flow of power. These are things worth knowing for anyone who is uncomfortable with the dominant paradigm we live under now.

Text Patterns

July 3, 2015


  1. These are indeed fascinating insights for better understanding the material influence on cultural worldviews. From what I can see of the book online, it looks like Malafouris also takes into account Michael Polanyi's concept of "indwelling" in relation to tacit knowing, which is nice. A better understanding of the origins of modernity will have to grapple with the prevalent assumption today of there being 'objective' and 'subjective' ways of knowing, and reveal said dichotomy as being quite artificial.

  2. This does sound like a natural extension of Polanyi's "indwelling". Taking this a step further, I submit that the mind gets back into the immaterial when you start dealing with computers. That is, if you consider a cursor as a fictitious tool, then you can think of it as something the mind indwells similarly to a material tool. This is basically a premise of my thesis, where I used Polanyi to help illuminate a player's relationship to a video game avatar (and evidently scout a lot of the same territory as Malafouris). Maybe there's helpful overlap with the more recent history of modernity.

  3. My favorite example: when you do a bad job hitting a nail with a hammer, you feel the hammer's handle buzz in your hand. When you do it right, you feel the steel of the nail *with* the hammer. And when you do it just right, you feel the grain of the wood split, *with* the nail.

  4. De Motu 702a30ff:

    "Now if the forearm were the living animal, somewhere in its elbow-joint would be the movement-imparting origin of the soul. Since, however, it is possible for a lifeless thing to be so related to the hand as the forearm is to the upper (for example when a man moves a stick in his hand), it is evident that the soul could not lie in either of the two extreme points…"

    In other words, the stick is to the man just as the arm is to the man, but (modus tollens!) that just means that the soul is not in the arm any more than it is in the stick. (I think.) It would be interesting to know if MP was thinking of Aristotle with his example.

  5. I'm finding Matthew B. Crawford's new book to be a somewhat frustrating experience, in part because of a lot of squishiness on his part along these lines.

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