A History of Distributed Cognition (2013-14)

In philosophy of mind and cognitive science a number of overlapping and competing models are emerging that challenge the standard models that view the body and the environment  as peripheral to understanding the nature of cognition. One major strand, on which there has recently been an extensive amount of empirical research, is the ‘Embodied Mind’; this is the view that the form and processes of the body significantly contribute to cognitive processes and states (McNeill; Noë; Damasio; Lakoff and Johnson; Johnson, Shapiro). In some cases these models overlap with ‘Enactivism’; enactivist accounts draw on phenomenology in their emphasis on the sense-making interaction between the active living body and the world in which it is the situated (Varela, Thompson and Rosch, Thompson). Meanwhile the ‘Extended Mind’ hypothesis argues that bodily and non-biological resources can play an equivalent role to neural resources in constituting cognition. Although non-biological resources work differently to neural resources, they may play complementary roles; so, for example, although a computer does not work like a brain, it can nonetheless perform calculations and store information in ways that merge with our neural activities and so become literally part of our thinking and reasoning (Clark & Chalmers; Clark; Hutchins; Wheeler). ‘Distributed Cognition’ is the term chosen for this project as tensions have emerged between some scholars working on embodied and extended accounts about whether or not the body plays a special role; whereas distributed cognition more expansively describes the role of brain, body and world in constituting cognition and acts as an umbrella term that enables us to draw on these various interrelated strands most richly. 

A project of this nature must also focus on the role of the emotions as one of the key mechanisms though which cognition is distributed across, and informed by, body and environment. The case for a somatic basis for emotion is widely reflected in both folk and scientific models, and more recent neurophysiological studies which trace connections between body and brain (as reflected in LeDoux; Damasio). Cognitive-evaluative, and especially social-constructionist approaches to the sociality of emotion from Aristotle to the present day, however, emphasize the extent to which the elements that are constitutive of emotion are to be found in the world (Elster; Gross). Yet scope for rapprochement between emotions as subjective experiences and as social phenomena exists in the communicative force of the face and the body; in the role of language; in the dynamic interaction between others’ emotions and our own; and via the supposed role of mirror neurons in action-understanding, empathy, and theory of mind (Rizzolatti; Iacoboni; Coplan and Goldie). Complementary resources play a role in affective and cognitive states and in their conceptualization. For instance, through the ways that metaphors and metonymies, drawn from phenomenology and from the embodied human being’s interaction with physical and social environments, can construct as well as reflect emotional and cognitive experience (Lakoff and Johnson; Lakoff and Kövecses; Cairns). Or another instance of this is the ways in which fictional simulations in literature extend one’s cognitive and emotional repertoire, and develop the very capacities for simulation and imagination that complex affective and cognitive faculties require (Oatley; Zunshine). 

This project aims to demonstrate the benefits for the humanities of extending their knowledge about current research in cognitive science on the distributed nature of cognition. Scholars in the humanities are beginning to tackle the pressing issue of what cognitive science has to offer. Yet in recent decades trends in literary, historical and cultural criticism have predominantly focused on various kinds of social constructivism in which bodies are presented as cultural constructs (notably in new historicism, cultural materialism, and feminist, queer and globalisation studies). While a few first-wave thinkers, such as Carroll, Boyd, and Gottschall, through employing evolutionary psychology or embodied cognitive approaches, highlighted instead the continuity of the roles played in cognition by human beings’ evolved nature, they remained in the minority and on the peripheries of mainstream literary and cultural methodologies, against which they initially tended to situate themselves. This means that what remains more challenging for the predominant postmodern accounts are the embodied nature of cognition and emotion rather than their sociocultural nature, or that their sociocultural nature is not simply a matter of unconstrained cultural determinism. 

Second-wave thinkers in the cognitive humanities have begun instead to consider a more diverse range of approaches. Emerging scientific research suggests another perspective, one that takes account of our embodiment, since it is our biological nature that enables us to incorporate sociocultural and technological resources into our cognitive systems. This enables a reassessment of polar representations of the mind either as autonomous and universal, or as only socially constructed and culturally relative: representations which have constrained understandings of historical, as well as modern, concepts of the mind. Whilst humans’ capacity to exist within cognitive niches, with on-going reciprocal interactions between niches and organism, is shared across generations, these niches also exhibit particularity in relation to technological and sociocultural factors; ultimately rather than either universalism or postmodern relativism this implies that we will find a rich combination of shared features and particular divergences across history and cultures. Conversely, historical studies have the potential to add to, and interrogate, our current understanding of how cognition may be distributed across the body and world. The historical lineage of non-brain-bound concepts of cognition demonstrates that such ideas are not merely a product of our own age: distributed cognition is a paradigm which takes on different forms in relation to different cultures. 

A number of scholars have begun to explore how notions of distributed cognition might work in historical terms. A few examples of this are: Ruth Evans’ and John Sutton’s exploration of the cognitive role of the memory arts in the medieval and early modern periods respectively; Evelyn Tribble’s work on Renaissance performance;  Miranda Anderson’s research on embodied and extended cognition in Renaissance scientific, philosophical and literary texts; Peter Garratt’s papers on Victorian literary and scientific notions of ‘thinking with things’; and Andrew Robert’s and Patricia Waugh’s papers on parallels to the ‘extended mind’ hypothesis in modernist texts. These thinkers have recognised that analysis of cognition needs to take into account not only the findings of cognitive science, but also the imagery and narratives that are used in scientific and cultural discourses, both contemporary and historical. This recognition invites the exploration of how innovative work in cognitive science can help us to explore anew the concepts of cognition as conceived in various chronological settings and to explore how these historical accounts have shaped, or are distinguished from, the still incomplete understandings that we have today. 


Project Events:
An exploratory workshop for this pilot project was held in Edinburgh on Tuesday May 14th 2013. Contact Dr Mark Sprevak for more details.


Project Outcome:
This pilot project successfully led to AHRC funding, and the funded project is now a major collaborative project hosted by Eidyn. See here for more details.


Project team: 
  • Eidyn Pilot Contact: Dr Mark Sprevak

  • Project Team: Dr Miranda Anderson (Project Initiator and CI, English, Edinburgh); Prof Douglas Cairns (PI, Classics, Edinburgh); Dr Mark Sprevak (CI, Philosophy, Edinburgh); Prof Michael Wheeler (CI, Philosophy, Stirling) 

  • Interdisciplinary Network: Prof Terence Cave (Oxford University); Prof Andy Clark (University of Edinburgh); Dr Giovanna Colombetti (University of Exeter); Prof Tim Crane (Cambridge University); Dr Peter Garratt (Durham University); Prof Christopher Gill (University of Exeter); Prof David Konstan (NYU); Prof Duncan Pritchard (University of Edinburgh); Prof Andrew Roberts (University of Dundee); Prof George Rousseau (University of Oxford); Prof Patricia Waugh (Durham University); Prof John Bintliff (University of Edinburgh/ University of Leiden); Dr Marius Kwint (University of Portsmouth); Dr Karin Kukkonen (University of Turku)


Funded by Eidyn/PPLS