Persons and Embodied Mechanisms

N.L. Kirsch, J. Jeffrey, A. Putman, & P. Zeiger

(with an acknowledgement to C.J. Stone, for editing above and beyond the call of duty)

In several places, including Ossorio (2006/2013), Behavior of Persons, pp. 83-89, Ossorio asks, how can the acquisition of person characteristics (PC) be conceptualized? He is not asking what the specific learning histories are that may lead to one PC or another, or what the state-of-affairs may be at any time that describes a person’s capacity to acquire some PC. Instead, he is asking whether or not there is a straightforward way to represent the development of persons over time and, in doing so, provide a logical reminder about the relationship between the potential to acquire a PC and having that characteristic. In other words, Ossorio presents a conceptual tool that serves as a reminder about what must be the case for someone to have become a specific person.

The relationship between capacity and having a specific PC is presented in Behavior of Persons, p. 84, “Figure 2. Recursive PC Formula,” as follows1 (with an added footnote):

Original Capacity2 + History ⇒ PC
                                Capacity + history ⇒ PC
                                                      Capacity + history ⇒ PC

What does this formula ask us to keep in mind? It reminds us of a simple relationship. At any point in time, having a PC is to have had, at some earlier time, the capacity to have acquired that PC, given the relevant intervening history.

It should be noted that there is a tautological component to this representation. For that reason, it is a powerful reminder. To acquire a PC is to have the capacity to acquire it, and to have a PC is to have the capacity to retain it. Given the deliberate construction of this formula, logically it can’t be otherwise. It makes no sense to say that a person has acquired an ability without having the capacity to acquire it. As Ossorio (2006/2013) notes, “The capacity for acquiring a given person characteristic is the potential for acquiring that person characteristic, p. 83.”

However, it is certainly possible to have the potential to acquire a PC, but never acquire it. For that circumstance, an observer might say, “It’s possible she had the capacity to be a great tennis star, but I guess we’ll never know.” At any specific time, “a person’s PC’s facilitate or hinder the acquisition of other PC’s and set some limits to the histories whereby the latter may be acquired (Ossorio, 2006/2013, p. 84).”

A PC, for example, an ability, can also be lost that had been acquired earlier. When this happens, there may be uncertainty about whether: (a) the ability was lost because of further intervening behavioral history (e.g., disuse); or (b) the capacity necessary to retain that ability was compromised (e.g., disease, trauma). The latter possibility is a consideration of particular importance when questions about the integrity of neurological embodiment arise.

For example, let’s say a star tennis player stopped practicing for three months. Her ability to play tennis at an internationally-competitive level may no longer be evident. If she were to practice again, and regain her competitive edge, we would say she had never lost the capacity to acquire the ability to play at that level. We would be conceptually confident in making that statement, because of our observation that she had regained that ability.

In comparison, let’s say that same tennis player, who was 16 when she won the US Open, is now 60 – an example specifically chosen because it entails embodiment change. Although she may then engage in a rigorous training program, regardless of effort, technique, and determination, it is unlikely that she will ever regain the ability to compete like she did at 16. Would we be willing to say in that circumstance that she had lost the embodied provision for acquiring the ability to play tennis at an international level?

As suggested by Tony Putman, we might say “there is no known learning history that can result in her attaining that ability now.” This is an extremely felicitous locution, (noted by Ossorio, 1998/2012, in Maxim D1a, p. 63), because it indicates that we never observe capacity directly, only abilities. There is always the possibility that our aging tennis star may, in fact, still retain the capacity to acquire the ability to play at the level she did when she was 16, if only the right learning history could be found.

However, as we’ve discussed in earlier posts, embodiment provides for the acquisition of PC’s. As such, embodiment may change in ways that restrict the acquisition or retention of an ability.

For the young tennis star, we might be willing to say that neglecting her workouts resulted in physical changes that limited her ability (i.e., her embodiment no longer provides for the retention of that ability), but subsequent history might demonstrate that those embodied restrictions were reversible. Abilities often need to be maintained through practice.

For the aging tennis star we might not be willing to make the same sorts of statements. As pragmatic observers, we might say instead that our tennis star’s aging embodiment no longer provides for re-acquiring an ability she once had. There are circumstances (states-of-affairs) an observer might describe as “losing ability because of intervening history.” However, there are circumstances that an observer might describe as “losing ability because of altered embodiment.”

This is clearly the case for human neurological embodiment (HNE). If the young tennis star acquires the ability to play at an international level, it is at least in part an expression of her embodiment3. Not everyone can play tennis at an international level, regardless of the training regimen they adopt. Some set of embodied provisions is necessary for those abilities to be acquired as an expression of history.

It is also the case that the embodied provisions for acquiring such exceptional ability can be compromised by any insult to which the HNE may be subjected, such as aging, stroke, degenerative disease, or infection. We would then say that certain alterations in the embodied mechanisms that provide for acquisition of an ability have been compromised. Having sustained a stroke would certainly be an element of the star tennis player’s intervening history, but it is an historical element of a very specific kind.

In the world of rehabilitation, these kinds of impairments are fairly well understood. At least they are understood as the basis for intervention. For example, clinically it is sometimes the case that through a rigorous training program a person who has lost the ability to recognize and read visually (typically observed in association with a specific neurological lesion pattern, referred to as “Pure Alexia” or “Alexia without Agraphia”) can sometimes be taught to use a finger to trace letters and then “read” by recognizing the spatial characteristics of the letters they’ve traced.

In this case, embodied mechanisms have been compromised that would otherwise provide for having abilities that are components of reading. We would not want to say that the ability to read has changed (at least in the sense of comprehending written material) but that the ability to read in a certain way has changed. Much of cognitively oriented rehabilitation (actually, much of all rehabilitation) relies on the expertise of therapists to find alternative ways to accomplish tasks. By capitalizing on alternative embodied mechanisms or mechanism systems, a new compensatory ability, provided for by the alternate mechanisms, can be acquired.

It now makes sense to ask a bit more formally how embodiment “fits” with Ossorio’s Developmental Schema. As we discussed in an earlier post (“Persons and Embodiment, Part 3”), human embodiment, which includes embodied neurological mechanisms, provides for being a Person. What are those mechanisms? In some ways, this is a trick question. The tautological answer is that embodied mechanisms are whatever they must be for individuals to acquire and retain the characteristics of Persons. However, if as suggested in Ossorio (1980/1982), human embodiment is represented as a Paradigm Case Formulation (PCF) that includes HNE, then the specific characteristics that any person can acquire (or lose) can be represented: (a) not only as expressions of their history; but (b) as expressions of their available embodied mechanisms that provide for acquiring those characteristics. At any point in time and for any characteristic, to have acquired that characteristic is to have the capacity to have acquired that characteristic. In the world of neuroscience, that includes the embodied mechanisms that provide for acquiring that characteristic, to retain that characteristic, and to lose that characteristic when embodied mechanisms degenerate.


1The formula as presented in Behavior of Persons is notationally abbreviated from an earlier more elaborated version (Ossorio, 1970/1981, p. 7), available at:

in which it is referred to as the “Developmental Schema”, as well as more recently in   Ossorio (1998/2012, p. 167). A narrative equivalent of this formula can also be found in Ossorio (1998/2012, pp 62 – 65).

2The concept of “Original Capacity”, is intended by Ossorio only as a formal “place keeper” – that is, a capacity that is necessary for all other capacities to be acquired later, given whatever theoretical perspective has been adopted by some describer. Original Capacity is specifically not a substantive capacity of any other kind.

3This is not a statement referring only to movement. It is a statement referring to all the person characteristics that must be provided for to permit the acquisition of the ability to play tennis in that way. This might include, as examples, exquisitely sensitive spatial perceptual reasoning, the ability to formulate strategies, the ability to “read” the other player, the ability to respond with exceptional quickness, the ability to adopt a certain “attitude” or perspective in regard to winning or defeat, in addition to strength, coordination and agility.


Ossorio, P. G. (1970/1981). Outline of Descriptive Psychology for personality theory and clinical applications. In K. E. Davis (Ed.), Advances in Descriptive Psychology, Vol. 1, pp. 57-82. Greenwich, CN: JAI Press. (Original work published 1970 as LRI Report No. 4d. Whittier, CA & Boulder, CO: Linguistic Research Institute.)

Ossorio, P. G. (1980/1982). Embodiment. In K. E. Davis & T. O. Mitchell (Eds.), Advances in Descriptive Psychology, Vol. 2, pp. 11-32. Greenwich, CN: JAI Press. (Original work published 1980 as LRI Report No. 23. Boulder, CO: Linguistic Research Institute.)

Ossorio, P.G. (1998/2012). Place. The collected works of Peter G. Ossorio, Vol. III. Ann Arbor, MI: Descriptive Psychology Press.

Ossorio, P. G. (2006/2013). The Behavior of Persons. The collected works of Peter G. Ossorio, Vol. V. Ann Arbor, MI: Descriptive Psychology Press.

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One Response to Persons and Embodied Mechanisms

  1. Pat Aucoin says:

    Here are some (minor) suggestions.
    Paragraph 5: How about ‘capacity’ instead of ‘potential’.
    Paragraph 7: You might mean ‘never lost the means to restore her capacity’. If she had gained 40 pounds, then her capacity would be reduced, but she can restore it by losing 40 pounds.
    Paragraph 9: We can observe training sessions as well as abilities. Training modalities can be changed on behalf of an individual’s ability.
    Paragraph 10: Embodiment can also change so as to enhance the acquisition of an ability – vision aids, even prosthetics.
    Paragraph 11: Perhaps ‘usually’ rather than ‘often’.

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