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Where and how does thinking happen? Not -- the authors of this book want to tell us -- in some ghostly realm of pure mind communing with Platonic forms, but in our flesh and blood brains and bodies, shaped by evolution, history and culture to navigate the practicalities of survival in a complex social and material world.
What the editors have chosen to call 'situated' cognition is in fact a large family of ideas many of which will be familiar to readers by names such as embodiment, distributed cognition, enactivism, externalism and the extended mind. Insofar as anything unites these views, it is the idea that at least some mental activity fundamentally depends upon and can only be understood through its relations with aspects of the thinker's 'situation'. Situation in this sense needs to be understood in both spatial and temporal terms, with adherents differing not only in terms of whether they link mentality to brain, body or environment, but also in terms of whether the linking of interest is an evolutionary, historical or real time processes.
Spanning this huge and exceptionally interdisciplinary terrain, the Cambridge Handbook of Situated Cognition is a welcome and timely guide to current scholarship. The book consists of 26 specially written chapters by some of the leading thinkers in the field, each surveying a different aspect of its most important influences, theories, debates and empirical grounding.
The first two sections of the book essentially address the 'where' question, dealing with the origins and foundations of the situated perspective. For those new to the subject the editors' opening chapter is likely to prove invaluable. Three theses are highlighted here as characteristic of the situated perspective, albeit not all three are accepted by all the thinkers in this tradition and those that do accept them do not always do so in the same way or to the same extent.
The first thesis -- embodiment -- is the idea that cognition depends not only on the brain, but on other parts of the body as well, particularly those involved in sensation, movement and physical orientation in space. Embodiment challenges the traditional view of thought as a relatively self-contained process taking input from the senses and producing action as its output. In place of this it offers a rival account in which perception, thought and action are closely tied together -- so closely, strong adherents claim, that they are co-constituted: cognition cannot occur without sensorimotor processing being part of the picture.
According to the second thesis -- embedded mind -- cognizers make use of the environment to reduce demands on their internal memory and processing capabilities. This is hardly revolutionary -- who doesn't make lists or keep things in the same place so they can find them again? -- but it is more far-reaching than one might think. Not only can large chunks of social behavior as well as artifacts and designed environments be seen as aids to complex cognitive tasks, but aspects of cognition extending all the way to phenomenal consciousness itself have been claimed to have an ecological dimension.
The third thesis -- extended mind -- is the most radical and controversial. This is the idea that we do not just use the environment to think with, but that the coupling between mind and world is in at least some cases so close that the two are best thought of as elements in a single cognitive system. In such cases, adherents argue, it is simple prejudice to accord the 'cognitive' label only to the internal components of the system: 'skull and skin' is just not a functionally important distinction and a laptop may have just as much right as biological memory to be considered a cognitive entity. Those interested in this debate are well rewarded, with a chapter each devoted to proponents and opponents.
So much for 'where'; what about 'how'? If these are scientific theses situationists need to work at uncovering the mechanisms and processes which tie psychology to brain, body and world. This material -- much of it still in early and suggestive stages rather than fully developed -- is the subject of the third and largest section of the book. The 16 chapters here outline the state of play in relation to a variety of cognitive domains from perception, memory and conceptual knowledge to problem solving, language, consciousness and cultural cognition. Here we start to see what kinds of explanations situated cognition might be able to deliver -- and also the many challenges ahead.
It is perhaps far too soon to wonder about the disciplinary future of situated cognition and whether or how the work being done in so many different fields might ever be connected. Could we imagine a unified situated cognitive science? What would it encompass and what would it exclude? How would it relate to cognitive psychology as currently practiced? Is any aspect of cognition not 'situated' in some sense? Is this even a scientific question, or does situatedness itself pose a challenge to the very notion of science? The Handbook is silent on such questions but having it on our shelves places us in a much better position to start thinking about them.
© 2009 Justine Johnstone
Justine Johnstone, PhD, Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Sussex, UK.
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