In this article, we investigate the merits of an enactive view of cognition for the contemporary debate about social cognition. If enactivism is to be a genuine alternative to classic cognitivism, it should be able to bridge the “cognitive gap”, i.e. provide us with a convincing account of those higher forms of cognition that have traditionally been the focus of its cognitivist opponents. We show that, when it comes to social cognition, current articulations of enactivism are—despite their celebrated successes in explaining some cases of social interaction—not yet up to the task. This is because they (1) do not pay sufficient attention to the role of offline processing or “decoupling”, and (2) obscure the cognitive gap by overemphasizing the role of phenomenology. We argue that the main challenge for the enactive view will be to acknowledge the importance of both coupled (online) and decoupled (offline) processes for basic and advanced forms of (social) cognition. To meet this challenge, we articulate a dynamic embodied view of cognition. We illustrate the fruitfulness of this approach by recourse to recent findings on false belief understanding.
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For the lack of a better definition, we talk about cognition mainly as a kind of information processing. We do not require this process to involve symbolic representations per se, however. Also, we use “cognition” and “cognitive processing” interchangeably. We assume that whatever does cognitive processing is reasonably called a cognitive system or cognitive agent and that cognitive systems (or agents) are capable of cognition.
In “Dynamic Embodied Cognition” section we provide a more detailed discussion of the terms “offline processing”, “representation” and “decoupled”.
DST provides a mathematical model using mathematical vocabulary, and can be used to model various processes in brain, body, and environment using a unified vocabulary. Since this makes DST attractive for proponents of extended cognition, it is often appealed to when cognition is thought to go beyond cranial boundaries. We will take advantage of this feature of DST when spelling out our own position (“Dynamic Embodied Cognition” section) as its unified vocabulary allows to capture immediate presentations, (sub-)symbolic representations, as well as intermediate kinds of stand-ins.
Note that the principal problem is not limited to social cognition but generalizes to other cognitive processes: “What, in general, is the relation between the strategies used to solve basic problems of perception and action and those used to solve more abstract or higher level problems?” (Clark 2001, p. 135).
This is not to say, however, that any kind of offline processing requires the kind of (sub-)symbolic representationalism advocated by COG. Rather, as we argue in the “Dynamical system theory” section, when talking about internal representations being recruited for offline processing we think of any kind of internal stand-in for something currently not present in the environment. Such stand-ins, we suggest, are best conceptualized as primarily grounded in enaction but then taken offline.
This is not to say representations can only be formed through direct contact with their referent, however. An agent may acquire representations of abstract entities and things she never got in touch with, e.g., by use of imagination or drawing analogies to things she did encounter (cf. Lakoff and Johnston 1980).
The terms ‘decoupling’ and ‘autonomy’ are used in a similar sense by Barandiaran and Moreno (2008) in modeling adaptive autonomous agents.
De Jaegher and Di Paolo (2007) seem to share this intuition: they propose that the autonomy of agents involved in participatory sense-making can be “augmented or reduced” (p. 493) under particular circumstances.
COG proponents tend to have a rather strong reading of “representation”, according to which representations are either symbolic (in the case of GOFAI) stand-ins that map, in a one-to-one fashion, onto external objects or (in the case of Connectionism) sub-symbolic structures mapping onto external items. In a nutshell, sub-symbolic structures are composed of multiple components whereof any one component can, but does not have to, figure in multiple other representations, which in turn may include additional components.
This does not mean that DEC should simply be seen as an extended version of ENACn. The primary difference is that DEC emphasizes the importance of decoupled cognition, something that is largely ignored (if not denied) by ENACn. Nevertheless, it is probably true that DEC comes closer to reconciling ENACn and COG than ENACb and COG.
The fact that ENAC and DEC agree that DST provides a convenient model of cognitive processing does not entail the two views collapse; for, as we see it, DST is not an account of cognition in its own right but a mathematical model of cognitive systems and cognitive processing. There is an important difference between the dynamic models of cognition on both views: while ENAC appeals to DST only to build highly dynamic models, DEC appeals to DST as a framework able to model both dynamic and more static processes with fewer variables.
Note that although trajectories through state space may be said to represent the state of the system as a whole, this does not entail anything about the kinds of representations (or presentations) featuring in the cognitive processes being modeled by a dynamical system.
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We are grateful to Nico Möller, Sander Voerman, and Anna Welpinghus as well as three anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier draft. We would also like to thank the audience of the workshop “Systematicity and the post-connectionist era: taking stock of the architecture of cognition” in San José, Spain, for their feedback on a related talk.
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de Bruin, L.C., Kästner, L. Dynamic Embodied Cognition. Phenom Cogn Sci 11, 541–563 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-011-9223-1
- Social cognition
- Embodied cognition
- Cognitive gap
- False belief understanding