Cognitive Processing

, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp 307–319 | Cite as

Identifying and individuating cognitive systems: a task-based distributed cognition alternative to agent-based extended cognition

  • Jim DaviesEmail author
  • Kourken Michaelian
Research Report


This article argues for a task-based approach to identifying and individuating cognitive systems. The agent-based extended cognition approach faces a problem of cognitive bloat and has difficulty accommodating both sub-individual cognitive systems (“scaling down”) and some supra-individual cognitive systems (“scaling up”). The standard distributed cognition approach can accommodate a wider variety of supra-individual systems but likewise has difficulties with sub-individual systems and faces the problem of cognitive bloat. We develop a task-based variant of distributed cognition designed to scale up and down smoothly while providing a principled means of avoiding cognitive bloat. The advantages of the task-based approach are illustrated by means of two parallel case studies: re-representation in the human visual system and in a biomedical engineering laboratory.


Distributed cognition Extended cognition Cognitive systems Visual re-representation Philosophy of mind 



Thanks to Andrew Brook, Anthony J. Francis, Jeanette Bicknell, Eros Corazza, Wendy Newstetter, Elke Kurz-Milcke, Etienne Pelaprat, and especially Nancy J. Nersessian. The ethnographic research discussed in “Re-representation in a biomedical engineering laboratory” section was part of a project in which the first author was involved; the project was supported by a National Science Foundation ROLE Grant (REC0106773) to Nancy J. Nersessian (PI) and Wendy Newstetter (co-PI).


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Copyright information

© Marta Olivetti Belardinelli and Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Cognitive ScienceCarleton UniversityOttawaCanada
  2. 2.Philosophy DepartmentUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand

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