Day 4: Extended and Embodied Cognition

June 7th, 2010 § 0 comments

This is course guide for Day 4 of the Summer School: Extended and Embodied Cognition, it includes summary, schedule, abstracts and reading material for “Day 4: Extended and Embodied Cognition”


One of the main possible challenges to the idea of autonomy at the cognitive level is the thesis of the extended mind which can even confer the status of ‘mental property’ to processes occurring in the environment. The sessions of this day will be dedicated to discuss the “extended mind” thesis, including work done on prosthesis and the importance of social interactions for the cognitive phenomena.

Session Schedule

Coordinator and Chairperson: Xabier Barandiaran


9h30-10h30: Michael Wheeler (Philosophy, University of Stirling, UK)

10h30-11h30: Ezequiel Di Paolo (Cognitive Science, EHU/UPV)

11h30-11h45: Pause

11h45-12h45: Charles Lenay (Cognitive Science, Université Technologique de Compiègne, France)

13h00-14h30: Lunch


14h30-16h00: Group workshops

16h00-16h15: Pause

16h15: 17h30: General discussion

Lecture Abstracts

Michael Wheeler: “Ways of Mattering: Embodiment and Cognitive Extension”

According to the thesis of embodied cognition, bodily acts and environmental manipulations are often central aspects of an intelligent agent’s problem-solving strategies. According to the thesis of extended cognition, there are actual (in this world) cases of intelligent action in which thinking and thoughts are distributed over brain, body and world, in such a way that the external (beyond-the-skin) factors concerned are rightly accorded cognitive status. Having introduced and distinguished these two positions, I shall navigate the transition from embodied cognition to cognitive extension, via some reflections on the character of embodiment. Having described some empirical research from cognitive science which illuminates the embodied cognition hypothesis, I shall suggest that once one has accepted the resulting picture of intelligent action, there remains a philosophical choice to be made over precisely how to conceptualize the role of the body in the action-generation process. One way of understanding embodiment (in line with a newly interpreted functionalism about the mind) opens the door to extended cognition, the other (according to which the body makes a special, non-substitutable contribution to cognition) shuts that door. Having resolved this choice in the manner that favours extended cognition, I shall argue that it is precisely by thinking through embodiment in this way that the extended cognition hypothesis may be defended against some recent and seemingly powerful criticisms.

Ezequiel Di Paolo: “Extended Life”

In this talk I discuss some incompatibilities between the extended mind hypothesis and the enactive approach to cognition (Varela, Thompson style), both of which embrace embodiment but in quite different senses. These incompatibilities have been initially raised from the perspective of extended functionalism. Accordingly,  because of its reliance on concepts such as autopoiesis, the enactive approach could be deemed internalist and thus incompatible with the extended mind hypothesis. This talk addresses this criticism by showing (1) that the relation between organism and cogniser is not one of co-extension, (2) that cognition is a relational phenomenon and thereby has no location, and (3) that the individuality of a cogniser is inevitably linked with the question of its autonomy, a question ignored by the extended mind hypothesis but for which the enactive approach provides a precise, operational, albeit non-functionalist answer.

In this way, the enactive approach is able to make progress in questions that remain outside the discourse of extended functionalism, such as what is the mark of the cognitive, what constitutes an agent, and so on. This is achieved through a deeper concept for embodiment in which precarious materiality plays a key role. In addressing these issues, this talk raises a perspective of embedded and intersecting forms of autonomous identities, some of which correspond to the canonical cases discussed in the extended mind literature, but on the whole of wider generality. This enables the proposal of unbiased, non-species specific definitions of cognition, agency and mediation, thus filling in gaps in the extended mind debates that have led to paradoxical situations and a problematic over-reliance on intuitions about what counts as cognitive.

Charles Lenay: “Space of action and perception for cognitive technologies”

Our individual or collective cognitive activity is supported by an immense variety of cognitive technologies, in particular the technologies of writing which allow a spatialisation of information (in general on a two-dimensional medium). We do not think with our bare bodies. All the sciences, all collective organisations and social rules, even our dreams, projects and memories, only exist by means of techniques that our parents have bequeathed to us and that we will pass on to our children. But how can objects in the “external” space participate in our thought-activity? Take the example of a table of data. How is it that the spatial structure of the squares obliges me to fill in those that are empty?

If one adopts a naively realist perspective according to which space pre-exists, and that cognition takes place in the brain of a localized organism, one is lead to suppose that cognition functions on the basis of internal representations of external entities. In this perspective, the table of data could only be effective if it is first represented inside the organism. But in this case it becomes difficult to understand how external media could transform our thought, since in the last resort everything has to be recomposed internally.

By contrast, in an enactive perspective, if the lived world (Umwelt) and the lived body (Leib) mutually define each other, there is a way out of this difficulty. For this, it is necessary to show that space is concretely constituted by the bodily engagement according to the motor capacities of the organism. One can then understand how it can be that consciousness is co-extensive with the actual space of perception and action. We will show how this is possible, by referring to situations of minimalist prosthetic perception which are put into a relation of dialogue with phenomenological descriptions.

Read Full Abstract

Questions to guide the session

  • Is there any principled criterium to distinguish between cognitive-subject and environment? Which are the bounds of cognition (if any)?
  • Is there any fundamental difference between extended-living process and extended-cognitive processes? Are the bound of cognition co-extensive with the bounds of consciousness? And the bounds of life?
  • Is “the social” just a different environment for cognitive processes, a specific set of cognitive skills or a new level of cognitive constitution?
  • Are tools cognitive-modules, extensions of our bodies or just constraints of our environment? Or something else?

Reading Material

Links to the papers/chapters are provided.

One-shot Introduction

Classics and context

Advanced, specialized reading (Speakers Publications)

Additional online resources

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