THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE FUTURE, #35–The Cognitive Dynamics of Thought-Shapers.

By Robert Hanna

“FUTUREWORLD,” by A. Lee/Unsplash


This book, THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE FUTURE: Uniscience and the Modern World, by Robert Hanna, presents and defends a critical philosophy of science and digital technology, and a new and prescient philosophy of nature and human thinking.

It is being made available here in serial format, but you can also download and read or share a .pdf of the complete text–including the BIBLIOGRAPHY–of THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE FUTURE HERE.

This thirty-fifth installment contains section 3.2.


We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has nothing to do with it, tries in vain to refute them. (Pascal, 1995: #110, p. 28)

If there is any science humankind really needs, it is the one I teach, of how to occupy properly that place in [the world] that is assigned to humankind, and how to learn from it what one must be in order to be human. (Rem 20: 45)

Natural science will one day incorporate the science of humankind, just as the science of humankind will incorporate natural science; there will be a single science. (Marx, 1964: p. 70, translation modified slightly)





0. Introduction: Science, The Four Horsemen of The New Apocalypse, and The Uniscience

0.0 How Uncritical and Unreformed Science Is Literally Killing The Modern World

0.1 My Aim In This Book

0.2 The Uniscience and Pascal’s Dictum

Chapter 1. Natural Piety: A Kantian Critique of Science

1.0 Kantian Heavy-Duty Enlightenment and The Uniscience

1.1 Kant’s Neo-Aristotelian Natural Power Grid

1.2 Kant, Natural Piety, and The Limits of Science

1.3 From Kant’s Anti-Mechanism to Kantian Anti-Mechanism

1.4 In Defense of Natural Piety

1.5 Scientific Pietism and Scientific Naturalism

1.6 How to Ground Natural Science on Sensibility

1.7 Sensible Science 1: Natural Science Without Natural Mechanism

1.8 Sensible Science 2: Natural Science Without Materialism/Physicalism

1.9 Sensible Science 3: Natural Science Without Scientism

1.10 Frankenscience, the Future of Humanity, and the Future of Science

Chapter 2. This is the Way the World Ends: A Philosophy of Civilization Since 1900, The Rise of Mechanism, and The Emergence of Neo-Organicism

2.0 Introduction

2.1 Wrestling with Modernity: 1900–1940

2.1.1 Six Sociocultural or Sociopolitical Developments

2.1.2 Two Philosophical Developments: Classical Analytic Philosophy and First Wave Organicism

2.1.3 Architectural and Artistic Trends

2.2 The Historical Black Hole, The Mechanistic Mindset, and The Mechanistic Worldview: 1940–1980

2.2.1 Formal and Natural Science After 1945, The Mechanistic Mindset, and The Rise of The Mechanistic Worldview

2.2 The Emergence of Post-Classical Analytic Philosophy

2.2.3 The Two Images Problem and its Consequences

2.2.4 Modernism and Countercurrents in the Arts and Design

2.3 The Philosophical Great Divide, Post-Modernist Cultural Nihilism, and Other Apocalyptic Developments: 1980–2022

2.3.1 The Rise of Po-Mo Philosophy

2.3.2 Po-Mo Architecture: Unconstrained Hybridity

2.3.3 Other Apocalyptic Developments: Crises in Physics and Big Science, and The One-Two Punch

2.4 From The Mechanistic Worldview to Neo-Organicism

2.4.0 Against The Mechanistic Worldview

2.4.1 Seven Arguments Against The Mechanistic Worldview Logical and Mathematical Arguments Physical and Metaphysical Arguments Mentalistic and Agential Arguments

2.4.2 Beyond The Mechanistic Worldview: The Neo-Organicist Worldview The Neo-Organist Thesis 1: Solving The Mind-Body Problem Dynamic Systems Theory and The Dynamic World Picture The Neo-Organicist Thesis 2: Solving The Free Will Problem Dynamic Emergence, Life, Consciousness, and Free Agency How The Mechanical Comes To Be From The Organic

2.5 Neo-Organicism Unbound

2.6 Conclusion

Chapter 3. Thought-Shapers

3.0 Introduction

3.1 A Dual-Content Nonideal Cognitive Semantics for Thought-Shapers

3.2 The Cognitive Dynamics of Thought-Shapers

Chapter 4. How To Complete Physics

Chapter 5. Digital Technology Only Within The Limits of Human Dignity

00. Conclusion: The Point Is To Shape The World


Appendix 1. A Neo-Organicist Turn in Formal Science: The Case of Mathematical Logic

Appendix 2. A Neo-Organicist Note on The Löwenheim-Skolem Theorem and “Skolem’s Paradox”

Appendix 3. A Neo-Organicist Approach to The Nature of Motion

Appendix 4. Sensible Set Theory

Appendix 5. Neo-Organicism and The Rubber Sheet Cosmos



3.2 The Cognitive Dynamics of Thought-Shapers

In view of the dual-content nonideal cognitive semantics for thought-shapers I spelled out in section 3.1, [The Theory of Thought-Shapers, aka TTS] naturally focuses on the cognitive dynamics of human conceptual thinking and conceptual thought-content, insofar as it’s partially determined, formed, and guided by essentially non-conceptual mental representations of allegories, analogies, blueprints, catechisms, diagrams, displays, icons, images, lay-outs, metaphors, mnemonics, models, outlines, parables, pictures, scenarios, schemata, sketches, spreadsheets, stereotypes, symbols, tableaux, and templates,[i] featuring egocentrically-centered, action-poised temporal representations and spatial representations as fundamental, in a way that’s not only causal but also irreducibly normative, and inherently external-context-sensitive or indexical, for better or worse.

As the metaphorical term “shapers” itself implies, all thought-shapers are characterized by temporal dynamics and spatial dynamics. The temporal dynamics of thought-shapers is captured by formal or material representations of processes of various kinds, for example, either the classical, non-complex, entropic, time-reversible, equilibrium, linear thermodynamics of mechanical motion through space or in place (for example, rotation, vibration, etc.), or the non-classical, complex, dissipative/ negentropic, time-irreversible, non-equilibrium, self-organizing thermodynamics of non-mechanical motion (for example, weather systems and organisms). In turn, the spatial dynamics of thought-shapers is captured by formal or material representations in topology, the mathematical theory of the continuous deformation and transformation of shapes, surfaces, etc., in a multi-dimensional (for example, two-dimensional, three-dimensional, four-dimensional, and so-on) framework, and of their universal interconnectedness, with a special focus on egocentrically-centered (i.e., first-person perspectival), orientable (i.e., inherently directional), three-dimensional spaces in which our own minded living rational human animal bodies, and human or non-human organisms more generally, are embedded, and in which we and they all live, move, and have our being. Hence, all thought-shapers have processual and/or topological properties that are represented by formal or material essentially non-conceptual cognition and essentially non-conceptual content, to which formal or material conceptual thinking and conceptual content naturally adheres or attaches itself, and by which they are inherently causally and irreducibly normatively partially determined, formed, and guided, in an inherently external-context-sensitive or indexical way, for better or worse. Given this inherently causal, normative, action-poised, context-sensitive/indexical, processual, and topological profile, as I’ve mentioned, essentially non-conceptual thought-shapers play a pre-reflectively conscious and almost invisible role in human thinking, yet they also and perhaps above all create a necessary cognitive substrate for conceptual capacities and conceptualization that contributes diachronic and synchronic applicability, articulation, concreteness, depth, friction, thickness, scope, traction, and torque to human thought, for better or worse.

I can illustrate this point by means of an example taken from a seminal book on diagramming by the architects Ben van Berkel and C. Bos, Move, based on work done at their office UNStudio. If we simply replace the word “diagram” and its variants with “thought-shaper” and its variants, we end up with a surprisingly accurate account of thought-shapers more generally:

[Thought-shaping] practices relate to time and duration in two ways: [thought-shaping] time is understood as a structure informing the design and as an internal measurement punctuating the design process. (…) [T]he [thought-shaper] presents itself as a trajectory, which is the sediment of the simultaneous duration of movement and time, run within rigid structural situation. (van Berkel and Bos, 2008: p. 374)

The [thought-shaper] or abstract machine …. does not represent an existing object or situation, but it is instrumental in the production of new ones. (van Berkel and Bos, 2008: p. 325)

There is much packed into these remarks, so I’ll gloss them as follows. First, the diagram or thought-shaper condenses time — in the form of accumulated cognitive insights — into its structure and can be smoothly applied to a variety of domains of content. This is manifestly an advantage from a designer’s point of view. Second, nevertheless, we must also keep in mind that a cognitive instrument, whenever it’s effectively applied to a certain specific domain of content, then typically also shapes many other domains of content. It’s an instance of the saying, “when you have only a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” So, when applying the same set of cognitive equipment to new domains of content, then it’s no wonder that these domains start to look very similar. Third, the phrase “production of new situations” in the second quotation is therefore relative, not absolute. It’s relative with regard to the diagram or thought-shaper that’s applied to it. The “abstract machine” is still a cognitive machine, a cognitive mechanical invention that operates according to the same logic as a typewriter or printing press, even if it presents itself as more flexible and open-textured than the latter.

As I’ve asserted, thought-shapers are inherently dual-content entities: they inherently combine the essentially non-conceptual and the conceptual. At the same time, however, they’re also inherently action-poised and enacted (Ammon and R. Capdevila-Werning, 2017), and, like the architectural diagrams, they’re also inherently dynamically and practically implemented (Nigianni, 2007). The application of projection techniques is an excellent example of this, as per the following illustration:

Architectural projection from isometric view to elevations. [Diagram by Otto Paans, 2021]

The process of projection is rule-bound, but each resulting representation contains a new network of conceptual and essentially non-conceptual properties. Once we transpose the outline of a plan into section, elevations, and/or isometric projections, the processes of transposing an image from 2D into 3D or conversely are bound by certain rules and laws. The rule-bound act of translating the image not only includes a conceptual grasp of the object, but also it simultaneously opens out into the essentially non-conceptual domain. This is why designers routinely “switch perspectives” in dealing with the objects they envision (Knorr-Cetina, 2006; Krämer, 2016: pp. 296–298, and 312; Paans and Pasel, 2020). While the process of projection is inherently conceptual and rule-bound, essentially non-conceptual thought-shapers contribute new processual and topological properties in the process of translation. It’s not only that things are lost in translation: they’re also added.

The resulting dual-content mental representations — shaped thoughts — as action-poised, are always used with some explicit/self-conscious or implicit/pre-reflectively conscious purpose in mind (Krämer, 2016: p. 298). And this brings me to another general point about thought-shapers: the purposes for which they are used are an integral part of their cognitively dynamic nature. Indeed, the pervasive influence of thought-shapers stems from the fact that they’re templates for the spatial and temporal cognitive dynamics of human intentional action (Hanna and Maiese, 2009: chs. 3–8; Hanna, 2018b). Template-guided intentional action makes rational sense only when the template for performance in a given actual-world context bears some meaningful relation to that context (Scholz, 2009: p. 156). The mechanical, uncritical, and narrowly-focused (see sections 3.4 and 3.5 below) — and usually only pre-reflectively conscious — application of a template is an automated or habituated response, or what I’ll call a thought-drill in Gilbert Ryle’s sense of the term (Ryle, 1945: pp. 41–44). It has little or nothing to do with the actual-world situation in which and to which the thought-shaper is originally applied. A drill is the rote application of a routine in a situation that seems appropriate to it. By a diametric contrast, a thought-skill is the application of a routine that’s naturally required by the actual-world situation, and yields a close “fit” to it.

Yet another way that illuminates how thought-shapers function is by way of a short detour into image theory. In an informative and influential article, W.J.T. Mitchell describes a model that has been used for thinking about visual perception for centuries: a model according to which somewhere in our brains an image is formed that’s a veridical representation of what is being perceived (Mitchell, 1984: pp. 508–509). From Aristotle onwards — and with a respectable pedigree in the development of perspective — this idea divides the world into an inner and outer domain. Correspondingly, the inner domain “mirrors” the outer domain in all respects but one, namely its physicality. I’ll call this view naïve realism about conceptualized perception.[ii] Contrariwise, thought-shapers operate via the construction of essentially non-conceptual contents — which Mitchell calls “images” — as mental representations, and they do so by enactively representing topological and/or processual properties, and subsequently exaggerating or diminishing their presence. Here’s a simple diagram depicting the fundamental difference between naïve realism about conceptualized perception and thought-shaping, which self-evidently shows how the theory that we have “pictures in our heads” is a profoundly mistaken theory, and should be replaced by the theory of thought-shapers, which enactively represent processual and/or topological properties:

Naive realism about conceptualized perception vs. thought-shaping. [Diagram by Otto Paans, 2021]

Suppose that the concept of an object A, via spatial or temporal representational properties, is converted into a shaped conceptual representation A1. A1 is then applied to all cases such that an object A or anything resembling A is perceived, and it likewise inherently inflects the shaped thoughts and beliefs that are formed and asserted about them. In view of TTS’s commitment to the first 3 Es of the 4E approach to cognition, it follows that the so-called “image in the head” is in itself a fiction, and it gives rise to a deeply naïve account of how we judge the world around us. Therefore, we must resist the temptation to slip into some or another version of internalism or Cartesian dualism. Instead, we should always be critically vigilant when it comes to our most familiar or trusted habits of thought.

Mitchell correctly notes that the seeds of “naïve realism” about conceptualized sense perception were sown during the Renaissance and the early development of perspective drawing:

The best index to the hegemony of artificial perspective is the way it denies its own artificiality and lays claims to being a “natural” representation of “the way things look,” “the way we see,” [and] “the way things really are.” Aided by the political and economic ascendance of Western Europe, artificial perspective conquered the world of representation under the banner of reason, science, and objectivity. (Mitchell, 1984: p. 524; see also Mitchell, 1980: esp. ch. 3; and Suwa and Tversky, 2003)

Mitchell’s “natural representation,” when combined with the 17th-century Cartesian idea of an objective space that we can represent by means of coordinates, together with various contemporary 17th century social-institutional facts about Western Europe, contributed significantly to the emergence of the mechanistic worldview. Indeed, every cultural and scientific framework is partially causally determined, formed, and normatively guided by its own special repertoire of thought-shapers, Correspondingly, the idea that the favored experimental measuring devices of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries — e.g., microscopes and telescopes — were the final answer to the problem of representation proved to be a remarkably persistent myth (see also Wilson, 1995). And precisely the same point goes, as we’ll see in section 4.2 below, for the favored experimental measuring devices of the early 20th century Great Leap Forward in physics (see also Galison, 1997). And this point so naturally repeats itself, that one is constantly tempted not to put the burden of proof on the individuals or communities of people advancing their favored thought-shapers and correspondingly favored shaped thoughts. Thus the dangerously slippery potential of thought-shapers is that their cognitive dynamics can disappear behind the myth of “natural representation.” After all, if the world is presented to me in exactly the way I represent it by means of concepts, then the thought-shaper itself cannot really exist! Where would it be located if the world is, as it were, “nakedly” causally directly delivered to my thinking in all its manifest reality?

Summarizing so far, I’ve made the following seven claims about thought-shapers.

First, human cognition and intentionality are equally top-down (i.e., formally, non-empirically, or a priori, and non-contextually) and bottom-up (i.e., materially, empirically, or a posteriori, and inherently externally-contextually or indexically) constituted and structured; essentially non-conceptual capacities are shared by human and non-human, rational or non-rational animals alike; and conceptual capacities are grounded on this essentially non-conceptual foundation, although conceptual content is categorically different from essentially non-conceptual content.

Second, since conceptual content generally presupposes and is grounded on essentially non-conceptual content, and since thought-shapers are essentially non-conceptual contents, then thought-shapers necessarily constitute, inflect, structure, and guide all human conceptualization and propositional thinking (including belief, judgment, statement-making, and inference) in a causal, partially-determining, and also irreducibly normative, action-poised way, that’s external-context-sensitive or indexical, for better or worse; and normally, the essentially non-conceptual part pre-reflectively, non-self-consciously, and almost invisibly governs conceptualization and thinking.

Third, in the shaped thought (whether type-1, i.e., ideally logico-semantically formed, or type-2, i.e., not ideally logico-semantically formed) that’s the product of the process of thought-shaping, there’s a mutual interpenetration, mutual co-determination, and fusion of conceptual content and essentially non-conceptual content into holistically configured or patterned mental representations (roughly, Gestalten); indeed, it’s precisely this feature makes thought-shapers so cognitively compelling and powerful: they continuously establish links between the essentially non-conceptual and conceptual contents, but do so normally only in pre-reflectively conscious, non-self-conscious mode, whereby it’s almost impossible to catch them “at work,” insofar as they almost invisibly bridge the sensible and discursive domains; indeed, Wittgenstein’s insight that

[o]ne thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing around the frame through which we look at it,

and his incisive remark that

[e]ven if [an exclamation] gives no information, still, it is a picture; and why should we not want to call up such a picture before our mind? Imagine an allegorical painting taking the place of those words (Wittgenstein, 1953: , §295, p. 107e),

aptly capture this feature of thought-shapers.

Fourth, thought-shapers inherently contain action-poised temporal dynamics and spatial dynamics, and therefore enact inherently processual and topological properties in all shaped thoughts.

Fifth, the action-poised purposiveness with which thought-shapers are used is an integral part of their cognitive dynamics.

Sixth, thought-shapers are templates for intentional action, but template-led acting makes rational sense only when a template for action in a given actual-world external situation bears some meaningful relation to that situation.

Seventh and finally, although thought-shaping is a necessary feature of all human thinking, what makes thought-shapers especially difficult to identify and recognize self-consciously is the twofold fact (i) that as per the second and third points above, the partially constituting, inflecting, and structuring activity of thought-shapers normally takes place in a pre-reflectively conscious and therefore non-self-conscious mode, and (ii) that as per the fourth, fifth, and sixth points above, in relation to the holistically patterned or configured shaped thought and its external-context-sensitive/indexical action-poised purposiveness, due to its categorically distinct essentially non-conceptual processual and topological content-properties, which as it were pre-install human thinking in a rich cognitive substrate so that it runs along specific grooves, the thought-shaper, on its own, appears to provide a justification for various beliefs. Indeed, it’s precisely this characteristically “pre-installed” and “grooved” cognitive dynamics of shaped thoughts, for better or worse, via essentially non-conceptual thought-shaping, as per (ii), that’s my focus in the next section.


[i] [This list isn’t intended to be complete, but instead only to be a working list of paradigm cases I’m aiming to connect in an essential way to the nature of human thinking, and more generally, to explain. [Now that] I’ve provided a more precise characterization of thought-shapers in sections 3. 1 and 3.2, the list could in principle be extended according to those criteria. Moreover, allegories, catechisms, and parables differ slightly from the other items on the list, in a way that [I’ve briefly described in section 3.1].]

[ii] It’s important to distinguish (i) naïve realism with respect to conceptualized perception, from (ii) naïve realism with respect to essentially non-conceptual sense perception. Indeed, it’s perfectly consistent and plausible to reject the former, and also affirm the latter. See, e.g., (Hanna, 2015a: ch. 3).


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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.