Distributed Cognition and Extended Mind Theory

The superb Rob Rupert contribution to the superb Byron Kaldis edited volume.


It may seem natural to think of the mind as a stream of conscious experience occurring squarely behind the eyes, or perhaps as some single, persisting subject of these experiences, hovering in the center of the skull. The past hundred years of scientific thinking about the mind have challenged this view in a variety of ways. The most recent challenge, and the most striking to date, rests partly on the distributed nature of cognition – the fact that intelligent behavior emerges from the interaction of a variety of elements, some of which may be spatially removed from the locus of behavior. From such distributed models of cognition, many authors have inferred the extended-mind thesis, the claim that the mind itself spreads into the world beyond the boundary of the human organism. Distributed cognitive models have had direct impact on, and to some extent have been inspired by, research in the social sciences. Studies of insect behavior, for instance, form a bridge between the interests of cognitive scientists and matters to do with group-level behavior: large numbers of social insects, each of which “mindlessly” follows such simple information-processing rules as “drop my ball of mud where the pheromonal concentration is the strongest,” design elaborate nests. This illustrates both how intelligent-looking results can arise from a distributed – and one might think fairly unintelligent – process and also how their emergence might be social in nature: environmental conditions induce various sub-populations to play different roles in the life of the insect colony. Some robustly cognitive, human social processes also seem amenable to distributed theorizing: contemporary scientific results, in particle physics, for 2 example, often involve the contribution of hundreds, or even thousands, of individuals and instruments; here, each individual exercises a rich set of her own cognitive resources while playing a role in a much larger, highly structured enterprise. An intermediate case might be the modeling of traffic patterns: individual humans can reason in flexible and complex ways about driving and routes of travel, but, constrained by the presence of other automobiles and surrounding infrastructure, drivers’ contributions to traffic flow, and the resulting traffic patterns, have much in common with large-scale behavioral patterns of social insects. The remainder of this entry consists of three sections. Section II describes distributed cognitive modeling and the extended-mind thesis in more detail. Section III reviews critical reactions to the extended-mind thesis. Finally, Section IV briefly discusses fruitful areas of ongoing research on distributed cognition and the extended mind.


Oakeshott as Conservative

Rob Devigne (or maybe it’s really Jack Nicholson) looks at Oakeshott’s ostensibly conservative stance – as several in this volume point out, this is very tricky territory indeed. Oakeshott is not a conservative that even most self-avowed conservatives would typically recognise.

The identification of Michael Oakeshott with conservatism is fraught with debate. To be sure, some analysts consider Oakeshott to be the modern incarnation of Burke. Moreover, during the closing decades of the twentieth century, conservative thinkers in the United Kingdom made the greatest claims to Oakeshott. Yet, different features of Oakeshott’s thought have made it possible for him to be read as a liberal, pragmatist, historicist, existentialist, postmodernist, as well as, a conservative.  What, then, is conservative in Oakeshott’s political philosophy?


Is Behavioral Economics Doomed?

Here is a skeptical take on the insights supposedly offered by the rise of behavioral economics as represented by Daniel Kahneman and others. Since I’m in the process of reviewing Kahneman it will be interesting to see if Levine’s take on behavioral economics jibes with my take on Kahneman in particular and behavioral economics in general – I have a strong sense that is unlikely to be the case.


Discount on Oakeshott Companion

In anticipation of the publication date (October) Penn State University Press are offering a 20% discount off the cover price of A Companion to Michael Oakeshott – download form here.


Knowing How: Essays on Knowledge, Mind, and Action

Glowing review of Bengson and Moffett’s edited book: edited works are very difficult to assess and often suffer from being uneven in quality. But as the reviewer says: “The wealth of its perspectives and accounts is not merely a blessing but also a nightmare for the reviewer.” So, nice one Marc!


The Spatial Market Process

My chum David Emanuel Andersson has just had this edited collection published. Here is an excerpt from his intro:

In what is perhaps the best-known article in the history of the Austrian school, Friedrich Hayek (1945) asserts that market prices distill and thus reflect the unique local knowledge of a multitude of individuals, each of whom resides and works in a particular place. Because only an autonomously acting individual can take advantage of her unique creativity, skills, and personal connections to others, centralization of economic decisionmaking guarantees that much useful local knowledge is irretrievably lost. It is impossible to communicate the totality of all local entrepreneurial ideas and tacit knowledge to a small group of top-down planners; their cognitive limitations guarantee substandard economic performance (Hayek, 1952). We should therefore not be surprised that it is valuable to possess ‘‘knowledge of people, of local conditions, and special circumstances’’ (Hayek, 1945, p. 522). Given the great number of citations to Hayek (1945) in the general economics literature, it would require no great stretch of the imagination to imagine that Hayek – and by extension the Austrian school – had set in motion a way of theorizing about economic phenomena that later gave rise to theories about knowledge spillovers, urbanization economies, and local social networks. But this was not to be. There are virtually no references to Hayek or any other Austrian economist in the spatial economics literature prior to the year 2000. The lack of interest in Austrian economics among spatial economists was reciprocated by a similar lack of interest in spatial economics among self-professed Austrians. To my knowledge, Pierre Desrochers (1998) wrote the first explicitly Austrian contribution that deals exclusively with spatial economic phenomena. In spite of this historical disconnect, Austrian ideas have entered the spatial economics, economic geography, and urban planning literatures because of the close parallels between the influential ideas of the urbanist Jane Jacobs and Austrian market process theory. While Jacobs (1961) does not refer to Hayek or any other Austrian, her Death and Life of Great American Cities at times reads like an Austrian theory of urban planning: [N]obody, including the planning commission, is capable of comprehending places within the city other than in either generalized or fragmented fashion. They do not even have the means of gathering and comprehending the intimate, many-sided information required, partly because of their own unsuitable structural inadequacies in other departments. Here is an interesting thing about coordination both of information and of action in cities, and it is the crux of the matter: The principal coordination needed comes down to coordination among different services within localized places. This is at once the most difficult kind of coordination, and the most necessary. (Jacobs, 1961, quoted in Ikeda, 2006, p. 22) With her emphases on (implicit) methodological individualism, the importance of local knowledge, and complex evolving orders, Jacobs provides a rich source of insights for those who wish to combine Austrian economic theory with a dynamic approach to agglomeration economies. Such a dynamic approach focuses on entrepreneurial processes rather than on idealized equilibrium states. Unsurprisingly, both Hayek and Jacobs figure prominently in this volume. But they are far from the only influences. This book is a collection of 13 essays that address spatial aspects of the market process from refreshingly diverse approaches. They range from the extension of Austrian theory to spatial phenomena over hybrid combinations of ideas from distinct traditions to state-of-the-art spatial models that integrate Austrian concepts such as ‘‘roundaboutness’’ or entrepreneurial innovation.