Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine:
THE ROOTS OF THINKING (Temple Univ Press, 1990)

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By studying the archeological and anthropological record, American philosopher Maxine Sheets-Johnstone tries to reconstruct how concepts evolved. The general clue to this analysis is obvious: concepts evolved, the body evolved. Concepts are grounded in our bodily (sensory) experience: "the living body served as a semantic template". Concepts developed as the body lived (breathed, urinated, chewed, etc). Thus thinking is modeled on the body.

The book analyzes a few of the earliest manifestations of human "intelligence": tool-making, counting, upright locomotion, language, fear of death, engraving and painting. The idea is to explain not just how these concepts arose, but also how the enabling concepts arose: the concept of counting requires the concept of number, and the concept of language requires the concept of a sound maker. The book is all about explaining how these fundamental concepts are grounded in bodily features.

Sheets-Johnstone contrasts the tactile-kinesthetic experience, which is dynamic and totally immersed in the world, versus the visual-cognitive experience, which is static and more of an "observer" kind of role.

For example, the author imagines how tools could be the result of one of the simplest bodily concepts: teeth.

The idea that counting originated in upright locomotion and that upright locomotion originated in the binary aspect of the body (two eyes, two nostrils, etc) or, worse, as an analogy to an erected penis, sounds a bit far fetched, though.

Using Husserl's phenomenology to explain the origin of the concept of death does not help either.

The theory that the origin of language lies in the tactility of the tongue is a bit more credible, because the tongue is the "first organ" (or at least one of the first) and it is indeed both tactile and sound-making.

The theory that cave art derives from pictorial thinking is not only credible but a bit trivial.
The general theory that tactile-kinesthetic experience generates primal concepts is appealing, but the various cases that the book investigates leave much to be desired.
The author blames lack of progress in this field on the misleading practices and dogmas of cultural relativism and metaphysical dualism. I blame it on this odd (and a bit antiquated) mixture of Freud, Piaget and Sartre.

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