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Action, affordances, and anorexia: body representation and basic cognition


We evaluate a growing trend towards anti-representationalism in cognitive science in the context of recent research into the development and maintenance of anorexia nervosa in cognitive neuropsychiatry. We argue two things: first, that this research relies on an explanatorily robust concept of representation—the concept of a long-term body schema; second, that this body representation underlies our most basic environmental interactions and affordance perception—the psychological phenomena supposed to be most hospitable to a non-representationalist treatment.

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  1. 1.

    An unstated corollary of this assumption that we will take for granted is that the contents of cognitive representations must be an objective property of the representations, and not derived from the interpretation of the theorist.

  2. 2.

    An anonymous reviewer pointed out the possibility that these computations might rely on “hard-coded” values, which presumably don’t count as representations as they don’t track the body. However, this possibility is at odds with knowledge of movement dynamics. Our motor commands are consistently body size appropriate: as we transition from childhood to adulthood and our bodies grow, our motor commands reflect this change in size. Similarly so for more sudden changes in body size (fat and muscle fluctuation, loss of limbs, etc). And, of course, motor commands are altered when the dimensions of tools are incorporated into the spatial content of the body schema (Gadsby 2017c, pp. 22–23). This evidence discounts the possibility that motor command computation relies on “hard-coded” size values, rather than a body schema representation which tracks the size of the body (and other action-relevant effectors such as tools).

  3. 3.

    As an anonymous reviewer points out, given that our argument is one of abduction—i.e. that the best explanation of the evidence posits satisfaction conditions—in order to counter this argument anti-representationalists would need to provide not just an alternative non-representational explanation but a better one, relative to some standards of explanatory power (e.g. simplicity, coherence, predictive power, consilience with other scientific research, etc.).

  4. 4.

    Whilst different groups of anti-representationalists emphasize different activities, basic cognition is generally characterized as consisting of our capacities for “online” sensorimotor engagement with the environment e.g. learning, skilled action, environmental interaction, action-oriented perception (Dreyfus 2002; Gallagher 2017; Hutto and Myin 2013). This contrasts against “higher-order” capacities—such as language, thought, memory, planning etc.—which are generally regarded as “representation-hungry” (Clark and Toribio 1994).


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We would like to thank the Cognition and Philosophy Lab at Monash University and two anonymous reviewers for their feedback. This research was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarship (S.G.) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (D.W).

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Correspondence to Stephen Gadsby.

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Gadsby, S., Williams, D. Action, affordances, and anorexia: body representation and basic cognition. Synthese 195, 5297–5317 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1843-3

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  • Representation
  • Anorexia
  • Affordances
  • Content
  • Basic cognition
  • Enactivism
  • Action
  • Action-oriented
  • Embodied
  • Hard problem of content
  • Radical