Cognition and Embodiment: An Ongoing Conversation with Jamie Smith

Here are a few brief thoughts on Jamie Smith’s recent reply to “Irreducibly Embodied”—the Books and Culture review essay of Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works that I co-authored with Maurice Lee, Sarah Skripsky, and Lesa Stern.  I will note at the outset I am grateful for the charitable spirit with which Smith frames his reply.  If in some way our “push back” against aspects of his argument can help him advance a project that I have found so beneficial, I’m grateful to be included in such an ongoing conversation.  In that spirit, here are a few thoughts upon reading Smith’s reply. (I should also note that while the review essay was co-authored, I speak for myself in these reflections.)

First, Smith points out at the outset of his reply that his intent in ITK is not to critique dualism, focusing instead on the good aspects of maintaining dualities. While I’m with him on the relevance of maintaining helpful dualities, I’m inclined to stand by reading him as speaking to dualism. In his reply he describes dualism as “roughly, a hierarchical distinction that devalues one of the terms of the distinction.” This, I take it, is indeed one of the main thrusts of his larger project—critiquing the hierarchical prioritization of mind over body, especially in Christian educational institutions (hence the concern with cognitivist, “bobbleheaded” universities in Desiring the Kingdom). To the extent that ITK develops this argument and articulates further the import of the body, it does appear that dualism, thus construed, remains squarely in view.

Second, Smith avers that we have misread him as promoting too rigid of a distinction (dualism?) between mind and body, rather than the complex “betweenness” he means to communicate. However, I suspect we have heard and appreciated this argument more than Smith acknowledges. Despite this appreciation, we see his articulation of “betweenness” operating hierarchically (like a dualism) and we wish to explore extending his account of “betweenness” to a more robust dialectic between body and mind in which the body does not always take priority. To the extent that we see thought and action “neatly distinguished and ordered,” my sense is that we see this in the single-directionality that he articulates, ordering bodily perception first and reflection second. Yes, the intellect is embodied, but we’re not sure that Smith’s move away from “bobbleheaded” Christian thinking doesn’t risk simply reversing the hierarchy, making the body take priority over the mind. To be sure, as we note in the review and as Smith notes in his reply, he doesn’t practice such a reversal himself. He clearly sees reflection as essential for reshaping bodily practices (this is, after all, the endeavor of the book!). His theory just seems to give priority to the body in a manner that smacks of dualism rather than the sort of dialectic we might hope for. (As an aside, I’ll note that Smith wonders whether we have appreciated the nuances of Merleau-Ponty’s account of the body-mind relationship. For my own part, I am more than ready to own this: I am sure I have not! My hope has been that we could do Smith some justice without aspiring to his expertise in Merleau-Ponty’s thought; where this hasn’t worked out well, I can only express my regret.)

Third, I fear Smith may have misconstrued the section of the review essay on the relation of the university and the church. Rather than accusing Smith of de-valuing the mind or collapsing the church and the university, here we sought to make two closely-related points. On the one hand, we meant to highlight the potential breadth of practices that might be described as “worship” and the need for careful thought about how these might be worked out in different contexts—including educational institutions. On the other hand, we intended to point out an apparent ambiguity in the implications of Smith’s argument for the relations of church and university. In probing these areas, we certainly explore aspects of Smith’s arguments that seem to point in competing directions (both towards a body-centered dualism focusing on church-worship practices as primary and towards a more helpful dialectical construction), and we illustrate potential problems by pointing out where aspects of Smith’s arguments might lead, if extended. But our call is for ongoing thinking and clarity and we do not accuse Smith of anti-intellectualism or church-college conflation. Indeed, we state: “Smith does not move powerfully in either of these directions—i.e., either to collapse or to define the distinctions between Church and college.”  I’m certainly open to the potential for the sort of “robust connection” to which he alludes in his reply and I am by no means ready to say that all of the church’s liturgies are “inappropriate” to the Christian university. Rather, I am eager to see this conversation spell things out further in this area.

Smith describes our review as operating from within the “intellectualist paradigm” that he has been at pains to challenge. This claim may well have some merit; we may be operating within something of an intellectualist paradigm. This claim does not, however, adequately reflect my appreciation for Smith’s project, nor my hope that the reflections in our review essay are pulling in much the same direction as is Smith: seeking rightly-related understanding and practices working in tandem with each other for Kingdom purposes.

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