Rethinking Practice as Research and the Cognitive Turn

The last 15 years has seen an explosion of studies that use cognitive science to understand theatre, what McConachie and Hart (2006) called ‘the cognitive turn’ in theatre studies, whilst at the same time theatre-makers are using their artistic practice to interrogate research questions. Although these two areas might seem distinct, perhaps even opposed, in this book Shaun May suggests that there is a great deal to be gained from analysing them together and carefully attending to their conceptual foundations. After arguing that much of the work in the cognitive turn is conceptually flawed, May draws on the work of Gilbert Ryle and Ludwig Wittgenstein to suggest a rethinking of the concept of mind, and moreover, argues that this should form the foundation for our understanding of the kind of ‘doing-thinking’ that is characteristic of practice as research.

Review of Rethinking Practice as Research and the Cognitive Turn

Prof. Robin Nelson, Studies in Theatre and Performance (link)

In the course of a PhD viva two decades back, the candidate, under discursive scrutiny of her conceptual influences, sighed heavily saying, ‘nobody told me when I embarked on a thesis in theatre Studies that I’d need also to undertake a degree in Philosophy’. In the years since, the interrelation between Philosophy and Theatre and Performance Studies has been more positively engaged, but philosophical perspectives are perhaps still more o en drawn upon than fully explored. It is in this context that Shaun May’s analytic philosopher’s perspective on Practice as Research (PaR) and the Cognitive Turn proves useful. New circumstances pose challenges to monocultures to the point where the very bases of disciplinary knowledge are called in question and it is timely to revisit some fundamentals of clear thought.

Whilst interdisciplinary approaches have proved broadly fruitful, crossovers can have unfortunate consequences. When research grounded in one disciplinary field draws only partially upon another, there is a danger of terminological misunderstandings, conceptual misapplication and, at worst, error and confusion. May acknowledges that different publications serve different purposes and there is not always scope, even in extensive studies, for full exploration of core principles. With this situation clearly in view, May helpfully reviews research and literature in two relatively recent and related aspects: arts research at the Cognitive Turn, notably neuroscientific approaches, and PaR. His aim, following Wittgenstein, is to ‘untangle conceptual knots’ (2) and to set these sub-disciplines on even more solid foundations.

Though the book addresses logical error in the tradition of analytic Philosophy, it is specialist only in this sense and is accessible to anybody interested in sound argument and research. Indeed, May’s ultimate objective is to encourage further work in Performance-Neuroscience inquiries as well as PaR and, at the end of the book, he points some interesting ways forward. His critique by way of conceptual clarification is aimed positively at avoiding the construction of elaborate edifices on shaky foundations. In dealing discretely with problems of, first, the Cognitive Turn and, secondly PaR, May helpfully keeps the reader posted in respect of the direction of travel, indicating how arguments made in one section might relate to, or be illuminated by, those in another. e relation between mind and body and various modes of knowing are guiding threads throughout, along with a disposition to avoid the logically inappropriate mistaking of one thing for another.

With regard to the Cognitive Turn, May reviews Popper’s seminal concepts of ‘falsi ability’ and ‘demarcation’. He proceeds to critique more recent work in performance-neurological studies and Bruce McConachie’s ‘suggestion that falsifiable theories should form the foundation for a new paradigm in performance studies’ (20). Drawing on established positions in analytic Philosophy, May addresses three fallacies: ‘conflating correlation with causation’; ‘confusing necessary and sufficient conditions’; and ‘the homunculus, or mereological, fallacy’ (22). He cites a number of instances in published works where one, or more, of these fallacies is evident, not with a view to scoring cheap points from the lo y heights of philosophical critique but with a collegial commitment to the proper development of a sub-discipline by way of sound research. One of his concerns is ‘a danger that wrapping an obvious truism in neurological specificity makes it seem like much more is being asserted or explained than actually is’ (26).

In respect of PaR, May critiques ‘intellectualism’ (the notion that only ‘know that’ – self-con- scious knowledge articulable in propositional discourse – is valid). Drawing on Ryle and Wittgenstein, he advocates ‘know how’ as a distinct category of ‘procedural knowledge’ manifested in the intelligent use of a skill. It is in the painstaking unpicking of arguments and explication of positions, an activity sometimes overlooked in the cited literature, that May achieves his aims. In respect of my own understanding of PaR, for example, May’s implicit connection of the need in complementary writing for ‘thick description’ with Wittgenstein’s bedrock notion of ‘ is is simply what I do’ (56) is clarifying. Similarly, the concept of ‘epistemic action’ and its distinction from ‘pragmatic action’ (59) and May’s unpacking of them in relation to PaR (60) illuminates something I have been teasing at for years but had not fully grasped. Furthermore, I had not realised that I was hovering between a strong and a weak anti-intellectualist position and though, like May, I remain somewhat undecided, I am now clearer about the issues. May concludes that ‘there’s a good reason to distrust both reduction of know-how to know-that and reduction of know-that to know-how’ (74) and consequently I now better understand why I speak of them as being in dialogical inter-engagement, resonating with each other. May also helpfully clari es when PaR is research and when it is not, and the function of complementary writing in academic contexts (63).

But, above all, this book is useful in its we of arguments affirming a variety of modes of knowing and the need to apply appropriate criteria to each. Whilst a scientific methodology and Popper’s falsifiability might be apt in empirical research contexts, there can be no privileged discourse or methodology for research in today’s sceptical and interdisciplinary environment. Rather than asserting a singular ‘truth’ language, the process of extended knowing is better served by keeping different modes and methodologies in play and respecting how each might contribute. May reiterates that the key criterion for sound research is rigour but convincingly argues that, given a range of language games, it is inappropriate – a category mistake – to attempt to apply falsifiability to PaR as much as to metaphysics (41). Having demonstrated that doing-thinking is as valid as abstract propositional discourse, he concludes, following Wittgenstein, that ‘the bedrock of our knowledge is our practices’ (68). I am now more convinced not only that, but how, this is the case.