Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science

, 42:233

Human Cognition in Context: On the Biologic, Cognitive and Social Reconsideration of Meaning as Making Sense of Action


  • Diego Cosmelli
    • Escuela de PsicologíaP. Universidad Católica de Chile
    • Centro de Estudios NeurobiológicosP. Universidad Católica de Chile
    • Neuroscience LaboratoryUniversidad Diego Portales
    • Department of Geriatric PsychiatryHeidelberg University
Target Article

DOI: 10.1007/s12124-008-9060-0

Cite this article as:
Cosmelli, D. & Ibáñez, A. Integr. psych. behav. (2008) 42: 233. doi:10.1007/s12124-008-9060-0


The aim of this special issue of IPBS has been to explore concrete and explicit alternatives to cognitivism. Indeed, in our editorial introduction we set out to give a brief survey of the numerous criticisms that have been made of understanding the mind this way (Ibáñez and Cosmelli, Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Sciences, 2008). Thus in what sense do the contributions here presented succeed in providing novel alternatives, moving into original and potentially generative domains of inquiry? While much remains to be done, we believe that they make significant headway in more than one sense. We do believe, however, that there is one locus that furnishes a convergence ground that is worth considering seriously: the problem of meaning. Meaning as making sense of contextualized action seems to cross the domains of intentionality, intersubjectivity and ecology of mind. The development of multilevel approaches, as the authors here exemplify, argues for a novel research agenda.


MeaningActionMaking senseNeuroscienceMultilevel approachesCognitionSocial sciences


The aim of this special issue of IPBS has been to explore concrete and explicit alternatives to the cognitivist paradigm in the study of the mind and human cognition. Here, we will begin by introducing a sketch of a conceptual background we believe provides one possible unifying perspective on the different contributions of this special issue: “Social Minds in Action” (Ibáñez and Cosmelli 2008; Freeman 2008; Haye 2008; Cornejo 2008; Flores-Gonzalez 2008; Mascareno 2008; Faiciuc 2008; Commentators: Märtsin 2008; Cunha and Salgado 2008; Smorti 2008; Leitao 2008). This we will do by claiming that the three post-cognitive topics of cognition mentioned in the issue, explicitly or implicitly share one assumption: that meaning can be understood as making sense of contextual action (non excludingly conceptualized as intentional, intersubjective or ecological). Finally, we briefly discuss the role of co-construction of multilevel approaches in the development of new facts1 in cognitive sciences.

Meaning Extends Through Intention, Intersubjectivity and the Ecological Mind

Despite its multiple connotations, intentionality is a concept that can help in better comprehending what making sense of action might be at different description levels. Intentionality as aboutness, in the most classic sense of cognitive sciences, refers to how different cognitive processes are orchestrated towards an action with a specific purpose (in relation to something real or imagined). Intentionality, in the Thomist tradition, emphasizes the active creation of perception based on intention. Accordingly, at the organismic level, intentional action is the establishment of a—dynamical—coordination between the sensorial and motor processes (viable for a given organism-world pair). Under this interpretation, meaning of specific sensorial, motor and cognitive dynamic that unfolds in a given situation can only be understood in reference to the contextual, coordinated behavior produced through ongoing intentional action.

On the other hand, this ordering of sense in terms of human cognition is not restricted to the intentionality as aboutness or will, but rather implies a simultaneous dialogical nature. The multiplicity of intentional actions in terms of voiced positions engaged in dialogue, being external or private, is a high level cognitive processes of human cognition, that suggest the continuous interplay of self and other in the constitution of the social contextualized action. Intentional action is here a co-construction of sense (of the action, of oneself, of the other, of the world). This co-construction is based on the immanent possibility of dialogue with a fundamental alterity (Zahavi 2001), which is always either subjectively present or intersubjectively available. Intentionality in its extreme sense implies semiosis and intersubjectivity. As we hinted above, the subjective nature of intention (as a private act) is not an antonym of its intersubjective constitution. Empathy, co-phenomenology, the co-feeling (Cornejo 2008) and communication transmitted by language between one person and another (whether real or imagined) is based on the interaction of intentions. In this case, the sense of the action implies the possibility of dialogical intentions. It is in experience that we find our own and the other’s intimate intentions intertwined from the very beginning (Thompson 2001; Zahavi 2005; Depraz and Cosmelli 2004).

Finally, the sense of the action not only extends through intentionality and intersubjectivity, but occurs in a specific context. Ecology of the mind implies that not only is mind not an abstract or ethereal property, but that the “unit of sense” for mind is a situated phenomenon, an emerging coordination from a specific historical and ecological context. Indeed, the radical view of the ecology of mind supposes that the terms like language, culture or communication that permeate the sense of action, do not have to be understood as parameters modulating individual conduct. On the contrary, socio-contextual and individual action are intertwined in a global dynamics of bidirectional (up-ward and downward) causal processes.

Intentionality, intersubjectivity and the ecology of mind are three dynamic aspects entwined by a common factor: the making sense of contextual action. This continuity of sense that goes through sensorial, motor, cognitive, speech (public or private) processes and social (individual or macro-social) somehow refers to a gestalt, [in the German tradition of totality as Ganzheit (Leipzig)]. Independently of the term’s many meanings, it refers to a cognitive event taken as a whole, whereby its properties are not completely separable2. This wholeness represents an “organic” structure; that is to say, it is a totality of sense, of a telos only describable at the level of the phenomenon’s complete organization. This is not a new idea, and has been present throughout the history of science in different holistic approaches; in biology at the turn of last century, as a result of emergentist-vitalist explanations; in Kant’s (1790) concept of organism; in Lamark’s definition of Biology, referring to the organization and complexity of the living ; in Merleau-Ponty’s vision of neurophysiology and psychology; in the descriptive psychology of Dilthey; in the comprehensive psychology of Spranger; in the German Ganzheitspsychologie and its opposition to the Assoziationpsychologie and the Elementenpsychologie of Wundt; in coordinative synergies of Nikolai Bernstein; in Lewin’s field theory; in the topological conceptualization of Köhler and in the holism of Gestalt; and in the ecological psychology of Gibson, and so on. What is proposed here is a holism of the phenomenon of meaning, not based on any extra-physical nor extra-scientific principle. It implies conceiving a cognitive event as an essentially unitary phenomenon, not only as non-separable, but rather, as a unit of sense. This implies also reconsidering the way of understanding cognition. It suggests considering the plausibility of an self-ordering processes (based on a sense) of multiple coordinated events, that would underlie most aspects of intentionality, intersubjectivity and the ecology of cognition. This continuity of sense—or sense making—is nothing more than “meaning”. But not “meaning” understood as semantics reducible to syntactic aspects, on the contrary, referring not only to the sense present in language, but also in action, perception, and the semiotic processes.

The Crucial Question of Meaning

From different perspectives, and drawing from the three main themes we outlined in our introduction—intentionality, intersubjectivity and ecology of mind—all the contributions here presented touch one way or another upon one what we have been discussing in the previous paragraphs: the problem of meaning. It is notorious that, being one of the core aspects of cognition and mind, this problem has systematically been a stumbling block of cognitivism. Indeed, from the more biologically inclined as in Freeman’s contribution, to the more social, as in Mascareño, understanding what meaning is and how it may come to be, is crucial if we are to have a valid theory of human mind.

The contributions reassembled here show a consistent trend but also reveal some novel approaches: on the one side, there is a general agreement that meaning cannot be understood purely in terms of symbolic representational relations between something “in the mind” and something “out there”. This is a common critique to the cognitivistic paradigm. What is more interesting, on the other hand, are the alternatives that are put forth by our contributors. Freeman defends the claim that it is through the active—predictive—thrust of the brain and its body into action in the world that a kinesthetically significant intentional cycle comes to be. This is already a radical departure from the internally localized notion of representational meaning and a stress on the importance of circular causality and ecological consistency in the construction of meaning. Consistent with this more ecologically rooted notion of meaning, Faiciuc wants to move beyond the computational metaphor of deductive reasoning. By analyzing the limits of the classical conceptualization of this paradigmatic cognitive process, she proposes that a pertinent way to move forward would be by recognizing the dynamical nature of pattern recognition, taking place in lower level perceptual processes, as a plausible template for understanding the former. Here again we see the call for concrete models that can transcend the traditional internal-symbolic logic based on dynamic system approaches. In a complementary and highly innovative way Smorti’s commentary of Faiciuc’s paper puts forth the notable concepts of possible worlds, everyday reasoning and abductive logic in shared situations as the way human beings actually deal with problems that allegedly would call for some form of deductive (logic) reasoning. The stress here is again in the hypothetical nature of contextualized action, which is in sound agreement with the predictive nature of the nervous system Freeman so consistently has argued for.

It is precisely at this point that we find the following step in the multilayered approach that is evident in the contributions to this special issue. In Smorti already, but most clearly in the contributions by Mascareño, Haye, Flores and Cornejo, as well as in the commentary by Märtsin, the intersubjective and social dimensions recuperate their foundational nature in the ontology of meaning. While Mascareño and Haye focus—in very different ways—on the nature of communicative actions, Cornejo and Flores dive into the phenomenological depths of how meaning is co-constituted in relation with the other. In highly original approaches these authors convincingly argue for the need to bring meaning out of its enclosure in the “processing mind” into a shared world of the socially and intersubjectively “acting mind”. This is a concrete prescription that is open to refutation from experimental approaches.

Co-Construction and Multilevel Approaches in the Study of Meaning

The study of this continuity of sense making and meaning across intentionality, intersubjectivity and the ecology of mind does not have to be understood as a unitary research program, much less as a theory. Embodied, situated, dynamical and ecological cognition are approaches that have touched upon the three previous topics. The existence of common—or at least not-incompatible—assumptions promotes the inter-theoretical development between these programs. Yet there is no unitary core in these approaches, or a unique guiding metaphor of universal cognition, as was set forth in the metaphor of the mind as a computer. It is neither possible nor desirable to raise a unique and abstract language for all possible perspectives. The construction of a fixed, unitary model, integrating biological, cognitive and social language games of cognition is not necessarily the best way out. The holistic nature of the continuity of sense is a property of the cognitive phenomena, and not of the language of theory3. Theories under this framework do not have to construct a new mind in the way abovementioned, but offer predictions and explanations for the individual level which are compatible with the model of the continuity of sense making across intentionality, intersubjectivity and the ecological mind. Therefore, the methodological answer to the holism of meaning does not consist in a unitary theory, but of the convergence of theories from different approach levels.

Cognition can be considered as a multi-level phenomenon which must be approached simultaneously from neurological, psychological and social points of view. A specific cognitive event can simultaneously be a set of processes at different levels of description, but cannot be exhaustively mastered by any hegemonic explanans (of mathematical, neurological, psychological or of social type). More specifically, if the mind is a multi-level phenomenon (having neurological, psychological and social properties) it will require multiple tools, which will individually only offer a partial understanding relative to their own level of description. At the same time, the very definition of the phenomenon depends on the tools available. Thus, the complexity of this concept is based on the relation between the phenomenon and the tool: the mental phenomena cannot be reduced to a specific tool (neurological, psychological or social).

If indeed the mind is simultaneously a biological, psychological and social phenomenon it implies that developing a unitary language for all its domains is probably not a fruitful strategy. Yet this has been set forth in the most orthodox form of the computationalism perspective: trying to reduce the cerebral, cognitive and social phenomena to a unique computational or neurophysiologic language. In the words of Bem (2001, p. 791), to understand the sense of action is not only irrelevant but absurd under this perspective: the question “Why did the Serbians fight the Kosovars” cannot be properly responded in terms of neurological (or formal computing) causal chains. On the contrary the convergence and co-construction of the theories avoids this caveat by allowing the development of interlevel theorization as well. In this line, an example of convergence between neurophysiology, cognitive and social sciences is the study of the neurophysiologic dynamics of the anterior cingulate cortex that sheds light on individual differences in political ideology (conservatives versus liberals) and its cognitive styles (Amodio et al. 2007)

Multilevel approaches offer a pragmatic approximation to the holism or continuity of sense without falling into a unitary theory, respecting the limits of each descriptive level, while profiting from potentially enriching cross-talk. Thus, intentionality, intersubjectivity, or the ecology of mind can be studied from inter-level approaches, with methodologies either closer to the neurosciences, psychological sciences or social sciences.

New Facts and a New Research Agenda in Cognitive Sciences

It is important to state that the approximation to the making sense of action present in intentionality, intersubjectivity and the ecology of mind does not represent a unitarily constituted theory—or a unique scientific language game—itself. On the one hand the relative novelty of the three topics for the cognitive sciences makes implausible considering this approach as a clearly constituted research program. On the other hand, a characteristic of the multilevel approach is the development of explanations at different application levels, with no need of a unified language game. Nevertheless, these reasons do not prevent pointing at the emergence of new facts, different from those of classic computationalism, in these three conceptual fields. We believe that important empirical development is under way in the cognitive sciences, encompassing the three proposed fundamental characteristics of cognition (see Table 1 below). Regarding intentionality, its neurophysiologic correlates, their roll in the sensory motor coordination or in cognition, and the unfolding of intentional behavior in social contexts are currently being investigated. Intersubjectivity is intensely being studied in the neurosciences (i.e., mirror systems; simulation theory) as well as in cognitive and development sciences, and in social sciences, (i.e., effects of the semiotic processes and persuasion). Finally, with respect to the ecology of mind, neurosciences have demonstrated the effect of the context (general and social) in brain dynamics and development; psychological sciences have shown that the effects of cultural context shape and filter perception, emotion and cognition, and finally, social studies of everyday cognition and ecological/bounded rationality show the importance of situation and context in cognitive processes.
Table 1

Research studies of intentionality, intersubjectivity and ecology of mind (rows); from different methodological approaches, more related to neurosciences, psychological sciences or social sciences (columns)



Psychological sciences

Social sciences


Neural Systems Related to Intentionality (Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia 2007; Hall et al. 2008; Snyder et al. 2000)

Intentionality in Sensory-Motor Coordination (Metzinger 2007; Engbert et al. 2008; Kelso et al. 2001)

Collective Intentionality Research (Rakoczy 2007, Tollefsen 2002)

Coupling of Sensory-Motor Brain Areas Based on Action (Hesse et al. 2006; Swinnen 2002)

Dynamic Approaches to Intentionality (Baldwin and Baird 2001; Verheul and Geuze 2004)

Activity Theory Research on Intentionality (Kostogriz 2000; Uden et al. 2007; Rukab et al. 2004)

Neurodynamics of Intentionality (Freeman 2003, 2007)

Effects of Intentional Behavior on Cognition (Dweck et al. 2004; Hommel 2005; Fuchs 2007)

Activity Theory Research on Goal Directed Tasks (Engeström 2000; Turner et al. 1981)


Mirror Neuron System (Rizzolatti and Craighero 2004)

Psychological Experiments on Simulation Theory (Meltzoff and Decety 2003; Farrant et al. 2006)

Social Semiotic Effects on Intersubjectivity (Cowley et al. 2004; Hodge 2005)

Neural Basis of Simulation Theory (Gallese 2007; Fadiga et al. 2005; Paz et al. 2004)

Intersubjective Effects on Development (Field et al. 2004; Hawkley and Cacioppo 2003)

The Other’s Expectations Affects Perception and Self-perception (Raz et al. 2007; Simons-Morton 2004)

Neural Correlates for Empathy and Human Social Coordination (Lamm et al. 2007; Miller 2006; Tognoli et al. 2007)

Shared Intentionality Studies (Tomasello and Carpenter 2007; Tomasello et al. 2005)

Activity Theory Research on Intersubjectivity (Hofmann and Rainio 2007; Ligorio et al. 2005; Engeström et al. 1999)

Ecology of mind

Context-Dependent Processing in the Brain (Jantzen et al. 2007; van Berkum et al. 2008)

Cognition, Perception and Emotion Shaped and Filtered by Cultural Context (Choi et al. 1999; Heine et al. 1999; Markus and Kitayama 1991; Nisbett et al. 2001; Norenzayan et al. 2002)

Ecological/Bounded Rationality Research program (Camerer and Fehr 2006; Hutchinson and Gigerentzer 2005)

Brain Development Affected by Social and Cultural Experience (Eisenberg 1999; Schlaug et al. 2005; Broad et al. 2006)

The Primacy of Action in Context (Costall et al. 2004; Tremoulet and Feldman 2006; Wilson 2002)

Everyday Cognition Studies (Hazlehurst et al. 2007; Margrett and Willis 2006; Rogoff and Lave 1984)

Social Neuroscience: Social Effects on Brain (Adolphs 2003; Todorov et al. 2006 ; Olsson and Phelps 2007)

Contextual Effects on Cognition (Rieger et al. 2008; Hagoort and van Berkum 2007)

Situated/Distributed/Embodied social cognition (Nardi 1996; Niedenthal et al. 2005)

In each cell, three representative examples of the specific research agenda are detailed

Although it is not our aim in this paper (nor would it be possible) to present a detailed discussion of the empirical advances in these three areas, Table 1 shows some representative examples of each domain, from the perspective of the neurosciences, psychological sciences and social sciences. This emerging framework allows placing the topics of the intentionality, intersubjectivity and the ecology of mind as an area of research in cognitive sciences with remarkable scientific potential, from multi-level methodological and theoretical perspectives, that manifestly are out of reach of the old limits of orthodox computationalism.


In closing we wish to highlight one of the main conclusions that stands out from the debate that has been portrayed in this special issue: the contributors and commentators are indeed putting forth the radical claim that meaning cannot be understood in the framework of computational cognitivism, because it is not where cognitivism focuses its efforts. The constitution of meaning, as Cornejo’s discusses, cuts across Subject and the Other in a shared understanding of common reality, thus building on a true—communicative and generative—co-phenomenology that is rooted in biology, but is fulfilled in the intersubjective domain. By focusing on the internal mind of sequential symbolic manipulation, as these authors show, cognitivism is simply missing the point. Within the different approaches to intentionality, intersubjectivity or ecology of mind, considering meaning as making sense of contextual action, allows a new approach to cognition. The convergence from multilevel approaches represents a privileged methodological access to this reconsideration of meaning.


We use here the word “fact” as is usual in philosophy of science, as when new theories or new methodological tools make a given fact available for scrutiny as a matter of being pointed at (Lakatos 1978). For example, the neuron as a unit was not a fact until Ramon and Cajal, using Golgi’s stain redefined them so; or inversely: phlogiston in combustion, ether in light propagation or epicycles in the Ptolomean system ceased to be “facts” when the underlying theory was abandoned.


This is not incompatible with a given functional description that distinguishes internal hierarchies, as seen by an (also contextualized) observer.


Cf. Note no. 2.



This paper was partially supported by Grant PKZ:A/07/71171 from DAAD to Agustin Ibanez. AI thanks Drs. Alvaro Moya and Phil Baker for their helpful criticism on an earlier version of this manuscript. Diego Cosmelli acknowledges partial support by FONDECYT project 3060094 and the PBCT-CONICYT Sensory Neuroscience Ring ACT-45.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008