Persons and Neurological Embodiment, Part 1

Persons and Human Neurological Embodiment. Part 1

 N. Kirsch, A. Putman, J. Jeffrey, and P. Zeiger

The last post reviewed Cause-Effect descriptions as a type of description that is derived from the Intentional Action Formula (IA, Ossorio, 1995, Persons; Ossorio, 2006, Behavior of Persons, and others). Our plan, over several posts, is to now “skip ahead” to a consideration of the conceptual relationship between Persons and Human Neurological Embodiment (HNE), using as the basis for this discussion Ossorio’s work in Persons (1995) and What Actually Happens (2005). The point of this specific post will be to discuss ways of describing embodiment that recognize the conceptual primacy of Persons.

As a jumping off point, let’s start with a quote from Ossorio that at first may seem daunting (perhaps even impenetrable!). In order to get a better sense of how the relationship between Persons and embodiment can be considered in different ways, Ossorio asks us to consider two contrasting descriptions:

 “(1) [one that] present[s] formulations of the relevance of genetics to human behavior as a case of ‘accounting for K percent of the variance’ of a particular class of behaviors with [a second that presents] (2) the formulation of person-descriptive individual difference parameters as discrete, identifiable loci of genetically ‘determined’ variability…” (Ossorio, 1966/1995, Persons, pp. 37-38).

What is Ossorio saying in this quote?

He is asking us to consider the difference between, on one hand, a description that is a common example of “how people talk” when talking about research findings and, on the other, an alternative way of talking that more effectively appeals to the conceptual primacy of Persons.

Let’s examine these two examples more closely.

The first example is specifically and unabashedly a Cause-Effect description that attributes Cause to genetics and Effect to behavior. Ossorio points this out by referring to the standard statistical technique of accounting for the proportion of the variance (that is, essentially, the proportion of a statistical correlation) in a dependent variable (behavior) that can attributed directly to the systematic variability of a predictor variable (genetic variation). In the world of research, these correlations do not technically imply “causality”, but they are still taken to be compelling as indicators of the causal primacy of the variable that is observed to (or forced to) vary systematically. In Ossorio’s example, that “causal” variable is genetics. The implication of this example (that is, this way of talking) is that the biological level of analysis is conceptually and temporally primary. Genetics precedes behavior, and behavior is merely an outcome of genetic variation.

In contrast, the second example turns this conceptual relationship on its head. Quite interestingly, this alternative does not dismiss the significance of embodiment – after all, Ossorio still notes “identifiable loci of genetically ‘determined’ variability’. However, the conceptual starting point in the second example is “person-descriptive individual difference parameters.” That is, the understanding of genetic “mechanisms” is guided first by a description of a human behavior.

The implication of these contrasting examples is that biological mechanisms can only be identified and understood to be what they are because we, as observers, first identify and describe behaviors that, in turn, can be demonstrated to be associated with biological capacities (i.e., mechanisms). The appealing aspects of this conceptual reversal (the second way of talking) are that: (a) it continues to maintain an important place for biological descriptions, while (b) reminding us that those mechanisms have meaning only because people engage in behavior, (c) that these behaviors are observed, and that (d) researchers are guided in their investigation of genetics by the fact that those observed behaviors are recognized as being of systematic interest – that is, they are considered important enough or central enough to be considered good candidates for guiding genetic research. To say this in another way, biological mechanisms have “meaning” or significance because we understand them as providing for what people do.

However, this is not the whole story. Which description someone might choose is deeply dependent on pragmatics, as discussed in the last post – but we’ll defer these extended arguments to later, including further consideration of the daunting quote.

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One Response to Persons and Neurological Embodiment, Part 1

  1. tonyputman says:

    Ned wrote every word of this post, articulating conversations we had over the past several months and an email exchange including Joe and Paul that contributed much to the content. The conversation is underway and continuing; your comments are welcome.

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