Drawing as thinking : an enquiry into the act of drawing as embodied extension of mind.
Wasserman, Marlene Louise.
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This thesis opposes the theory of ‘drawing as expression’ - the idea that a drawing is nothing but a post hoc exteriorisation of a prior mental process. A counter-hypothesis is investigated instead - that the physical act of sketching is itself a thought process and that the new thought processes which it facilitates would be impossible or severely impaired if it were absent. The conceptual framework for this investigation and the evidence for its hypothesis derive from three fields: firstly theories of the extended mind and embodied thinking from philosophy and cognitive science, secondly theories of drawing practice, and thirdly practitioners’ critical reflection on the significance of drawing in their own practice. The fluidity, multidimensionality and indeterminacy of the cognitive processes typical for openended domains like planning, design and the arts tend to flummox the dominant – computational – approach in cognitive science. Theories of the extended mind and embodied thinking present an alternative which can handle these features comfortably. Theories of embodied thinking, which hail from diverse disciplines – including philosophy, cognitive science and artificial intelligence – argue that cognition is not independent of the body, but enabled by embodied activity embedded in the environment. Extended mind theory suggests that certain active features of the environment actually constitute integral parts of human cognition. In such cases, the human organism is inextricably linked with an external entity in a two way interaction, creating a coupled system of which each part counts as fully cognitive. Clark uses the term ‘scaffolding’ to denote a broad class of cases in which such external structure is co-opted, annexed and exploited, thereby allowing us to achieve some goal which would otherwise be beyond us. This leads to the central question of this thesis: can the act of drawing be understood with the help of theories of embodied thinking and the extended mind, and if so, how? A second, related question is how the example of drawing helps extend these theories. From this perspective design thinking and reasoning is to a large extent embedded in the act of drawing. Drawing, as a form of scaffolding, filters or guides perceptual, affective and cognitive attention and behaviour in ways only available to brains coupled with pencils and other drawing materials. (External representations can for instance be extended in space, rotated, manipulated, rearranged and interacted with in ways that internal representations cannot). The theories of drawing practice studied for this research came mainly from art theory, design theory and empirical studies of how drawing contributes to the cognitive process. Clark and Karmiloff- Smith suggest that knowledge stored in some proprietary representational format often needs to be redescribed in some other, more suitable format to become accessible to other types of representations and processes. A key role that drawing is found to play in multiple contexts (design, fine art, mathematics, etc.) is to draw to the surface implicit, previously unarticulated information for use by other procedures and the whole cognitive system. Sketching plays many other roles in promoting the cognitive operations needed to tackle design problems, which are often so complex that individual reason would quickly be overwhelmed in the absence of environmental offloading. Sketching can compensate for limitations in human memory and information processing capacity, can help identify aspects of concern, relationships and patterns, as well as help maintain focus and generate new knowledge. The South African artist William Kentridge’s critical reflections on the significance of drawing in his own practice support extended mind theory. His reflections alert us to the materiality of the creative process and dovetail with recent attempts by philosophers and other theorists to explain creativity. In drawing cognition appears as a dynamic, multidimensional phenomenon in which explicit, implicit and tacit information all work together in an ensemble distributed across brain, body and world while utilising variable physical, technological and social resources. Because drawing is an activity which emphasises ‘generic’ aspects of creativity, studying it sheds light on many other forms of problem solving by humans. This echoes Kentridge’s suggestion that drawing, as a slow motion form of thinking, offers a paradigm for illuminating thinking in general. Drawing proves to be a good context for exploring questions about where cognitive processes reside. By extending cognition beyond the brain and into the world, we come to appreciate that external drawing processes in a cognitive system are at least as important as ‘internal’ ones, and that the marks on paper form an integral part of the apparatus responsible for the shape and flow of thoughts and ideas.