Jan 4, 2017
rip edith ackermann
Everyone knows 2016 was just one big heartbreak of loss after another—so many brilliant and creative people who died in those 12 months. These days I’m thinking a lot about John Berger, who I first encountered in college twenty-some years ago with Ways of Seeing (more on that in other Notes), but today I’m recalling the vibrancy and generosity of Edith Ackermann, research affiliate across departments at MIT, scholar and consultant, beloved at design crits for her sharp eye and unfailingly earnest curiosity about all ideas and artifacts. She died on 12/14, and she’ll be missed by so many people I know and respect. I couldn’t call her friend, but I watched her closely at design reviews and around town.
Here’s an excerpt from an interview she did with Urs Hirschberg in GAM architecture magazine back in 2014: on embodied learning, design education, thinking and making, and more. Packed with a good bibliography.
UH: You said that we need to “give our mind a hand.” Don Norman talks about external aids, about “things that make us smart.” Architects repeatedly make use of external aids in the form of sketches, models, diagrams, etc. Are these architectural tools also examples of what you referred to as “embodied cognition”?
EA: Both “situated” learning and “embodied” cognition emphasize the importance of being-in-the world, being in touch with things—literally touching things—as a lever to thinking. And no one puts it more eloquently than Francis Bacon in his famous quote: “Neither the bare hand nor the unaided intellect has much power; the work is done by tools and assistance, and the intellect needs them as much as the hand.” Giving the mind a hand suggests that much of the knowledge we have gained is knowledge-in-action: we think and act at the same time! Giving the hand a tool further suggests that the materials we explore, and the tools we use, are instrumental in helping expand and mediate our action in the world.
I like to reserve “embodied” cognition (verkörpert in German) to the notion that our body has its own intelligence (it “thinks” as much as our mind), and that our insights and know-hows are so deeply engrained in our sensori-motor experience that we literally live by them. “Embedded” cognition (eingebettet in German), on the other hand, speaks to the ways intelligent beings (body/minds in-situ) shape and furbish the world in which they live.