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Situated Cognition: A Field Guide to Some Open Conceptual and Ontological Issues

Abstract

This paper provides an overview over the debate about so-called “situated approaches to cognition” that depart from the intracranialism associated with traditional cognitivism insofar as they stress the importance of body, world, and interaction for cognitive processing. It sketches the outlines of an overarching framework that reveals the differences, commonalities, and interdependencies between the various claims and positions of second-generation cognitive science, and identifies a number of apparently unresolved conceptual and ontological issues.

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Notes

  1. If computation is defined as the processing of representations, then there can of course be “no computation without representation” (Fodor 1975, p. 34)—which famously allowed Fodor to argue that every psychologically plausible model of the mind must posit internal representations. However, in contrast to this “semantic approach” to computation (Piccinini 2012), the notion of computation employed in many areas of cognitive science does not presuppose the notion of representation (see, e.g., Milkowski 2013, ch. 4; Piccinini 2008).

  2. “Situated cognition” is used here as an umbrella term for any departure from traditional approaches that stresses the role of body, environment, and/or the interaction of brain, body, and environment (e.g., Robbins and Aydede 2009). Others use the term “situated” as a label for what is called “embedded” (e.g., Shapiro 2010) or “extended” (e.g., Wilson and Clark 2009) below, and instead “embodied” as the more general term (e.g., Shapiro 2011, 2012; Wilson 2002). Nothing of philosophical substance hinges on this terminological decision.

  3. The idea that cognition is embodied (see note 2), it has recently been said, is the “most exciting idea in cognitive science right now” (Wilson and Golonka 2013, p. 1) and “has become an industry” (Alsmith and de Vignemont 2012, p. 1), making it “the new paradigm” (Davis et al. 2012, p. 786) and the “mainstream” (Stapleton 2013, p. 2) in cognitive science.

  4. One limitation of the existing discussions, for instance, is that enactivism and its relation to other situated approaches are usually not taken into account (e.g., Shapiro 2011, 2012). Another problem is that the focus is too often on a single approach (e.g., Alsmith and de Vignemont 2012; Wilson and Foglia 2011; Wilson and Golonka 2013) or the comparison of two approaches (e.g., Clark 2008a; Kiverstein and Clark 2009; Rowlands 2009a; Wheeler 2011), but no attempt at developing an overarching framework is made. Moreover, little or no attention is usually paid to the fact that the debate between computationalists/representationalists and anti-computationalists/anti-representationalists about the what-question on the one hand and the debate between intracranialists and the various kinds of extracranialists about the where-question on the other are largely orthogonal.

  5. After all, if cognition is computation over mental representations, then where could cognitive processing take place, if not in the brain? In fact, it seems that the idea that cognition is computation over representations, together with the conviction that the relevant representations are only neuronally implemented (see, e.g., Adams and Aizawa 2008), is the only plausible reason for intracranialism. It is thus hardly surprising that extracranialism became popular precisely when people started to argue that cognition is not computation at all (e.g., van Gelder 1995) or at least a kind of wide (Wilson 1994) or distributed (Hutchins 1995) computation not restricted to internal representations.

  6. I have offered an earlier version of the account below in Walter (2010), Rowlands (2010) develops a similar taxonomy.

  7. The appeal to mere causal dependence is far more widespread; for the evolutionary view see for instance Rowlands (2010, p. 55). See also Sterelny (2010) and Schulz (2013).

  8. Strictly speaking, constitution is of course also a kind of dependence. For ease of exposition, however, it is customary to stick to the constitution/dependence-distinction, keeping in mind that “dependence” is understood in the narrow sense of a diachronous non-constitutional relationship between objects, processes etc. not related as parts and wholes.

  9. As Shapiro (2013, p. 84) aptly puts it: “if anything might be said to capture the spirit of Embodied Cognition, it would be the slogan that brains ain’t enough.”

  10. Prinz adds that a mental capacity can also be embodied in the sense that it “depend[s] on mental representations or processes that relate to the body” (2009, p. 420). As said above, the mere fact that abstract cognitive processes depend upon sensory-motor representations does not seem to make them embodied in any interesting sense. However, if, as Alsmith and de Vignemont (2012) suggest, at least some bodily format representations turn out to be so closely dependent upon the extracranial body that their involvement in a cognitive processes means that the extracranial body itself is involved (so that a brain in vat could not have the representations in question), then the “reuse” approaches to embodiment may fall into this category as well.

  11. While Noë’s work on visual perception is often associated with enactivism (see below), it eventually boils down to an embodied and embedded sensory-motor account of perceptual content; it is neither intended as an account of cognition per se, as enactivism is, nor does it subscribe to the more radical metaphysical claims of enactivism sketched below (see Rowlands 2010, pp. 70–82).

  12. See also Wheeler’s (2010) distinction between “vital materiality” (the claim that the body makes a special and non-substitutable contribution to cognition) and “implementational materiality” (the claim that the body is merely one implementation among others).

  13. For the view that the “cultural-cognitive ecosystems” within which human cognition is embedded have no center from which cognition can extend, see also Hutchins (2014).

    Wilson’s (2004, 2005) social manifestation thesis maintains that although some cognitive processes require that their bearer be a member of appropriately organized and technologically equipped social collectives, collectives themselves are not bearers of cognitive processes. However, a bill is not passed by one senator embedded in a collective of senators, but by the senate as whole, and while it is true that the blind rage of a lynch mob or a mass riot is possible only in the context of the mob or the mass, the rage itself, emerging as it does from the dynamical, top-down influenced interplay among the members, is not a feature of any single member, but of the collective.

  14. Enactivism is a broad church indeed (e.g., Stewart et al. 2010; Torrance 2005), and the label “enactivism” is sometimes also used for approaches that do not subscribe to the more radical metaphysical claims of Varela-style enactivism, for instance for sensory-motor accounts of perception (e.g., Noë 2004; see note 11), neurophenomenological approaches (e.g., Lutz and Thompson 2003) or certain accounts of emotions (e.g., Colombetti 2013).

  15. As in the case of distributed cognition, it is not clear whether the enactivist intends to make a constitution- or a dependence-claim. Yet, her rejection of the locational question as misleading or senseless (see below) seems to rule out a constitution-claim, given that arguably a macroentity (object, process etc.) is located wherever its microconstituents are located.

  16. For a detailed discussion of the relationship between enactivism and extended approaches, see Rowlands (2009a) and Wheeler (2010).

  17. See, for instance, Merleau-Ponty, on whose work enactivism builds: “My body is the common texture of all objects and is, at least with regard to the perceived world, the general instrument of my ‘understanding.’ … My body gives a sense not only to the natural object, but moreover to cultural objects such as words” (1945/2012, p. 244).

  18. The “locational” delineation problem is a problem of compatibility and incompatibility, not one of mere incommensurability, i.e., the threat is that dependence-based situated approaches turn out to be compatible with (cognitivist) intracranialism, not just not incompatible.

  19. By way of illustration, consider a similar phenomenon from the philosophy of emotions: Some accounts of emotions regard neurophysiological and motor aspects as components, i.e., parts, of emotions (e.g., Scherer 2005). In contrast, others insist that one’s blushing and one’s grinding one’s teeth are caused by one’s shame and anger, respectively, but not a part of them. This dispute is also not going to be settled on temporal grounds because neither party is going to accept an operationalization of emotions incompatible with its prior ontological commitments.

  20. Of course, situated approaches can always ensure an incompatibility with traditional cognitivism tout court by adopting an anti-computational/anti-representational stance.

  21. Of course, if we had independent grounds for accepting a certain “mark of the cognitive” (e.g., Adams and Aizawa 2001, 2008), then the temporal and locational bounds of cognitive processes could be settled (e.g., Rowlands 2009b). This is correct, but it merely shifts the problem, for the different parties will of course not agree on a common mark of the cognitive.

  22. My hunch is that if a criterion along these lines turns out to be viable, it will favor the dependence, not the constitution positions, but this question cannot be settled in this paper.

  23. Recall (see section 2) that Clark (2008a, p. 43) takes “embodiment” to mean that “the presence of a humanlike mind depends quite directly upon the possession of a humanlike body” (emphasis S.W.). Unfortunately, he does not say what the directness in question consists in, but it may be that it is the reason for the supposed incompatibility with intracranialism.

  24. For a discussion of such environmentally structured remedies for procrastination, as well as the idea of “extended will” related to it, see Heath and Anderson (2010).

  25. See Clark’s “Principle of Ecological Assembly” according to which an agent “tends to recruit, on the spot, whatever mix of problem-solving resources will yield an acceptable result with a minimum effort” (2008b, p. 13). Note that within a concrete situation novel cases may also involve an active structuring; the point is that the agent did not have to (and could not) actively structure the situation beforehand—which is exactly why novel cases require creativity.

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Walter, S. Situated Cognition: A Field Guide to Some Open Conceptual and Ontological Issues. Rev.Phil.Psych. 5, 241–263 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-013-0167-y

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Keywords

  • Cognitive Process
  • Cognitive Processing
  • Ontological Commitment
  • Situate Cognition
  • Causal Dependence