Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds without Content

Check out this recently released book by Dan Hutto and Erik Myin. The book will be reviewed by the very excellent Tom Froese for The Journal of Mind & Behavior. Stay tuned.

Speaking of enactivism see this special issue of Constructivist Foundations dedicated to Neurophenomenology.

Constructivist Foundations must rate as one of the best open access journals I have come across.



Oakeshott and Hayek: Situating the Mind

Below are some excerpts from my paper – the excerpts chosen with a view to addressing the criticisms leveled by John Kekes.

1) Kekes writes:

The third deficient essay is by Leslie Marsh, one of the editors of this volume. He compares Oakeshott and Hayek from the point of view of cognitive science. I find this more than a little odd. Oakeshott and Hayek were strongly opposed to a scientific approach to understanding human beings. Cognitive science is the most recent approach of this kind. To try to understand either Oakeshott’s or Hayek’s work through it is absurd. There is no reason for inserting a discussion of Hayek and cognitive science in the assessment of Oakeshott’s philosophical contribution.

Kekes’ notion of science is characteristic of a philosophy of science that held sway between ’30s and the late ’50s. The cognitive science that I’m concerned with is non-reductionist and non-Cartesian which itself constitutes an acknowledgment about levels of description and bridging laws, not to mention the idea that mind is co-evolved with sociality – i. e. mind is “situated” and knowledge is “distributed.” These notions are fully validated by Hayek and Oakeshott, respectively via the Austrian emphasis on the subjectivity of experience and the Diltheyean hermeneutical tradition, both legitimatly labelled geisteswissenschaft or the human sciences. (Hayek by the way was keenly interested in the “sciences” of the mind – The Sensory Order – an interest that in no way could be deemed scientistic). (Oakeshott himself maintained an interest in philosophical psychology – see his favorable review of Ryle’s The Concept of Mind).

2) Kekes also writes:

The aim of the volume is not mere exegesis, but also critical appraisal, which includes examining reasons for and against Oakeshott’s philosophical views on particular subjects.

Kekes completely overlooks the highly critical and substantial chunk of my paper that deals with MO’s infamous swipe at Hayek, an aspect that surely deserved mention since it is so well-known and is typically uncritically perpetuated.

3) Concluding: Kekes seems to come to my paper as a deer caught in the headlights of the word “science” and a particularly dated conception of it. I’m very much in accord with notion that none of the modes or in Hayek’s case “spontaneous orders” should be imperialistic or be subsumed under science or anything else (the market for one) and there is nothing in my invocation of science that transgresses this. There is no reason why Kekes would be au fait with current non-Cartesian cognitive science (a very loose coalition of research programs I might add) – all the more reason why he should have desisted from making such a bald ascription of scientism to my enterprise.

The doyen of situated theorists to whom I refer to below (highlighted) is Evan Thompson from his Mind in Lifethe “absurd” mind behind this quote, has as his AOS – cognitive science, embodied cognition, cognitive neuroscience of consciousness, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of mind, phenomenology and more besides. Even on territory where Kekes should be sure footed there is no consideration of the cognitive dimension to conservatism. Note especially the complete passing over of Oakeshott’s so-called “dispositional conservatism.” The notion of dispositions is very much a part of philosophical psychology whether Kekes likes it or not. Both Hayek and Oakeshott had the sophistication to factor mind into the mind-sociality equation, as does the cognitive science of which I speak, and so should Kekes.


It’s a hazardous enterprise contrasting two figures such as Friedrich August von Hayek (1899–1992) and Michael Joseph Oakeshott (1901–1990)––similarities are often superficially drawn; divisions tend to be overstated. But if one understands both men to be centrally concerned with the social nature of mind and with the distributed nature of knowledge, then this confluence of interest dissolves the somewhat rigid ideological lines that both followers and uninformed critics attribute to these two thinkers. Admittedly, these divisions are engendered by the misunderstandings and terminological confusion that the two thinkers themselves generate. Oakeshott and Hayek were both in the business of “situating the mind,” that is, both understood rationality to be culturally saturated and modulated. For both Oakeshott and Hayek, customs, practices, and traditions are the fundamentum and the residua of practical reasoning. Oakeshott was inspired by the Diltheyan hermeneutic tradition; Hayek was schooled within the Austrian hermeneutic tradition emphasizing the lived subjectivity of experience. Both traditions take individuals to draw their self-understanding from what is conceptually to hand, a preexisting and dynamic web of linguistic, technological, social, political, and institutional constraints. The embedded mind does not merely respond to a given world; it is enacted through a particularized history of socioenvironmental coupling. This dynamic conception of cognition is manifest as the exercise of skillful know-how. This externalist view of mind is in sharp contrast to the Cartesian tradition that both Oakeshott and Hayek took to task—a chauvinistic and imperialist apriorism they diagnosed as corrosive of sociopolitical and ultimately moral freedom. It may appear eccentric to approach Oakeshott and Hayek from the perspective of cognitive science and the philosophy of mind, given that their reputations were established as social theorists. This said, if one is to do justice to their explicitly anti-Cartesian stance, then mind and sociality—Janus-like— cannot be pried apart. The situated stance subscribes to the proposition that mind can coherently exist only at the nexus of the embodied, the social, and the artifactual. With this firmly in place, my motivation is to show that Oakeshott and Hayek:

1. Offer a more sophisticated account of sociality than traditional sociology. They do not dispense with the vital methodological principle that retains the individual as a locus of cognition within a wider system—unlike a tradition of sociological theorizing that posits an inflated social ontology that makes no concessions to the mechanics of the mind and individualized learning patterns.

2. Have a great deal of relevance beyond their usual sociopolitical constituencies— indeed, they are right at home in the non-Cartesian wing of cognitive science. As heretical as it might first sound, Oakeshott’s and Hayek’s hermeneutical stance is compatible with a nonreductive naturalism as espoused by non-Cartesian cognitive science.

3. And that (1) and (2) jointly inform their notion of epistemic modesty: that is, the recognition that the individual is necessarily subject to cognitive—and therefore epistemic—constraint, which manifests itself as their critique of rationalism in matters of sociality. Therein lies their distinctive brand of liberalism, a liberalism that tends to get lost in the intellectual crosscurrents that can be found in Oakeshott and Hayek.

Consider this extract from the doyen of situated theorists—it expresses the very insights that Hayek and Oakeshott demand of theorizing sociality:

This power of culture and language to shape human subjectivity and experience belongs not simply to the genetic constitution of the individual, but to the generative constitution of the intersubjective community. Individual subjectivity is from the outset intersubjectivity, as a result of the communally handed down norms, conventions, artifacts, and cultural traditions in which the individual is always already embedded. Thus the internalization of joint attention into symbolic representations is not simply an ontogenetic phenomenon, but a historical and cultural one.

A situated cognitive science is not trying to sideline what has been disparagingly termed as folk psychology by reducing all experience to the level of physics. On the contrary, it accepts that a theory of mind has to accommodate our perceptual, conceptual, and emotional experiences—and as a nonreductive science it acknowledges that there are different levels of description appropriate for differing subject matter.

Elsewhere I argued that there is a tension in Oakeshott: he accepts all of the philosophical preconditions of constructivism, yet he cannot accept its natural conclusion. The problem is that writers in the social constructivist tradition by their own admission tend to be reformist and would thus qualify as rationalistic in Oakeshott’s (and Hayek’s) terms.

Quite how Oakeshott came to view Hayek as such a caricature is puzzling: even the most charitable of interpretations of The Road to Serfdom doesn’t support his famous swipe at Hayek.

Assuming it was in the version of The Constitution of Liberty that Oakeshott first came by, it is most odd that Oakeshott did not pick up on Hayek’s explicit acknowledgment of the “rationalistic laissez faire doctrine” if taken literally and pushed to its logical conclusion. Clearly, there is no attribution of the fetishism that Oakeshott earlier ascribed to Hayek.


Eroding the Boundaries of Cognition: Implications of Embodiment

Abstract of article to be found here. Also check out Mog Stapleton’s paper.

To accept that cognition is embodied is to question many of the beliefs traditionally held by cognitive scientists. One key question regards the localization of cognitive faculties. Here we argue that for cognition to be embodied and sometimes embedded, means that the cognitive faculty cannot be localized in a brain area alone. We review recent research on neural reuse, the 1/f structure of human activity, tool use, group cognition, and social coordination dynamics that we believe demonstrates how the boundary between the different areas of the brain, the brain and body, and the body and environment is not only blurred but indeterminate. In turn, we propose that cognition is supported by a nested structure of task-specific synergies, which are softly assembled from a variety of neural, bodily, and environmental components (including other individuals), and exhibit interaction dominant dynamics.

From long before psychology became a separate scientific discipline, it has seemed useful to think of the mind as a collection of separate faculties. For example, in the late 18th century, Thomas Reid separated out judgment, reason, memory, and conception, among other intellectual faculties, to go alongside a suite of other faculties, including moral faculties and the will. Later, most famously in the hands of Franz Gall in the 19th century, each of these faculties was associated with a specific brain area, as can be seen in the phrenological diagrams produced at the time. In the intervening 200 or so years, these ideas have gone in and out of fashion several times. Both are decidedly in fashion at the moment. In cognitive science, it has long been fashionable to take cognitive abilities to be separable from one another and to take experiments to be about, for example, attention, but not also about conception or memory. This is the case because most cognitive psychologists take the cognitive faculties to be separable modules (see, e.g., Fodor, 1983; Uttal, 2003). Evolutionary psychologists take this even farther and posit “massive modularity” (Cosmides & Tooby, 1992), according to which there are far, far more faculties than Reid ever dreamed of, each with its own evolutionary history. Advances in neuroimaging have led cognitive neuroscientists to identify the brain areas that are especially active in the exercise of these faculties.

This is the scientific state of the art in which recent research on embodiment in cognitive science is set. The cornerstone of that research is the notion that behavior, bodily structure, and environmental resources are far more deeply implicated in an adequate explanation of cognition than the outline above would suggest. The variety of research investigating this very general claim includes such things as work on the role that neural resources involved in motor-control might play in supporting higher order cognitive processes like language understanding (Glenberg & Kaschak, 2002; Pulvermüller, 2005); investigations into the influence that metaphorical mappings from elements of our embodied experience like moving around or standing upright might have on the way we think about abstract things like planning or morality (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999); experiments documenting the influence of bodily sensations like weight and warmth (Ackerman, Nocera, & Bargh, 2010; Williams & Bargh, 2008) or bodily actions like extending one’s finger (Chandler & Schwarz, 2009) on cognitive processes like interpersonal judgment; considerations of the circumstances under which the manipulations of external resources must be considered to be part (and not just a causal side effect) of cognitive processing (Clark & Chalmers, 1998); and demonstrations of the influence of coordination dynamics on perception, action, and cognition (Chemero, 2009; Kelso, 1995).

We will discuss many of these research programs below, but our aim in this paper is not simply to catalog the array of interesting findings implicating body and environment as part and parcel of cognitive processing. Instead, we will argue that embodiment research questions some of the most deeply held beliefs in the cognitive sciences. First, it makes the localization of the cognitive faculties in specific brain areas problematic. It is not hard to see why this is the case: If the exercise of cognitive faculties happens in the body and, sometimes, the local environment, along with portions of the brain, one cannot localize the cognitive faculty in a brain area alone. Perhaps more surprisingly, recent research on embodiment also makes the identification of separate cognitive faculties problematic. Or, to put the matter differently, we will argue that one effect of research on embodiment is to undermine the architectonic principle of this special issue. One cannot isolate “cognitive” psychology from the study of perception, action, and social interaction. This essay, then, will not be about research on embodiment as pursued within cognitive psychology but about the nature of the cognitive system in light of research on embodiment.

To argue that research on embodiment has these effects, we will rely on four related concepts that might be unfamiliar to some readers: soft assembly, interaction dominance, synergy, and 1/f scaling. For convenience, we define these concepts here.

Certain systems, such as an automobile or a laptop computer, are composed of a series of parts, each of which has a particular role that it fulfills. Other systems, such as flocks of birds, are more fluidly put together. In the latter case, it doesn’t matter which particular birds are part of the flock—any old bird will do—and each bird is capable of taking up each position in the flock. Indeed, during flight each bird will take up multiple positions in the flock. The flock is softly assembled, in that it is composed of a temporary coalition of entities, engaged in collaborative task. Some softly assembled systems exhibit interaction-dominant dynamics, as opposed to component-dominant dynamics. In component-dominant dynamics, behavior is the product of a rigidly delineated architecture of modules, each with predetermined functions; in interaction-dominant dynamics, on the other hand, coordinated processes alter one another’s dynamics and it is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to assign particular roles to particular components. Sometimes softly assembled systems exhibiting interaction-dominant dynamics are called synergies. A synergy is a functional grouping of structural elements (molecules, genes, neurons, muscles, limbs, individuals, etc.) that are temporarily constrained to act as a single coherent unit (Kelso, 2009).

Work this decade has shown that 1/f scaling (a.k.a., 1/f noise or pink noise or long memory) is ubiquitous in smooth cognitive activity. 1/f scaling is temporal long-range dependencies in the fluctuations of a repeatedly measured behavior or activity. Analogous to spatial fractals, 1/f scaling denotes a fractal or self-similar structure in the fluctuations that occur over time (within a time-series of measurements). That is, higher frequency, lower amplitude fluctuations are nested within lower frequency, higher amplitude fluctuations as one moves from finer to courser grains of analysis (see, e.g., Holden, 2005; Kello & van Orden, 2009 for a more detailed description). 1/f scaling indicates that the connections among the cognitive system’s components are highly nonlinear (Ding, Chen, & Kelso, 2002; Holden, Van Orden, & Turvey, 2009; Kello et al., 2010; Riley & Turvey, 2002; Van Orden, Holden, & Turvey, 2003; van Orden, Holden, & Turvey, 2005). This nonlinearity indicates that cognitive systems are not modular. When systems are nonlinear, operations are not easily localizable to a relatively small spatial or temporal region of the system but rather are distributed throughout the system. Therefore, the “parts” of the system cannot be treated as truly structurally or functionally separate for the purpose of localization. The systems are synergies.

In the remainder of this paper, we will present a series of cases in which embodied cognitive science (ECS) provides evidence that the systems responsible for cognition are synergies, softly assembled systems which exhibit interaction-dominant dynamics. This, we will argue, plays havoc with attempts to localize cognitive faculties in circumscribed locations and, even, to understand the cognitive faculties as separate from one another.


Embodying the Mind and Representing the Body

Two papers of note from the special issue “The Body Represented/Embodied Representation” of Review of Philosophy and Psychology and one from the current issue:

A Moderate Approach to Embodied Cognitive Science – Alvin Goldman

Embodying the Mind and Representing the Body - Adrian John Tetteh Alsmith and Frédérique de Vignemont

In Defense of Phenomenological Approaches to Social Cognition: Interacting with the Critics - Shaun Gallagher


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.


The Extended Mind and Religious Thought Revisted

Here’s plug for a collection of EM papers from about three years ago

The Extended Mind by Mark Rowlands

Persons and the Extended-Mind Thesis by Lynne Rudder Baker

Minds, Intrinsic Properties, and Madhyamaka Buddhism by Teed Rockwell

Empathy and the Extended Mind by Joel W. Krueger

Quintuple Extension: Mind, Body, Humanism, Religion, Secularism by Leonard Angel

Constructing Religion without The Social: Durkheim, Latour, and Extended Cognition by Matthew Day


Hayek and Behavioral Economics: Mindscapes and Landscapes: Hayek and Simon on Cognitive Extension

I see that the publisher now has a fully detailed page up for a volume that I’ve been privileged to be a part of. The Foreword is by a very nice chappie going by the name of V.Smith and includes luminaries such as McCloskey, Boettke, Gintis, Steel and others. My abstract:

Mindscapes and Landscapes: Hayek and Simon on Cognitive Extension

Hayek’s and Simon’s social externalism runs on a shared presupposition: mind is constrained in its computational capacity to detect, harvest, and assimilate “data” generated by the infinitely fine-grained and perpetually dynamic characteristic of experience in complex social environments. For Hayek, mind and sociality are co-evolved spontaneous orders, allowing little or no prospect of comprehensive explanation, trapped in a hermeneutically sealed, i.e. inescapably context bound, eco-system. For Simon, it is the simplicity of mind that is the bottleneck, overwhelmed by the ambient complexity of the environmental. Since on Simon’s account complexity is unidirectional, Simon is far more ebullient about the prospects of explanation. Hayek’s social externalism functions as a kind of distributed “extra-neural” memory store manifest as dynamic spontaneous orders. Simon’s organizational rule-governed externalism negotiates the “inner” world (the mind) with the “outer” world through a homeostatic interface that offloads the cognitive burden into the environment. Their respective externalisms may differ in detail but not in spirit in that it ameliorates their shared presupposition of cognitive constraint. Even though any “optimization talk” for Hayek and Simon is objectionable, knowledge acquisition can be represented by a contextualized stigmergic swarm optimization algorithm that gives due emphasis to both the individual and the environment. The key insight is that “perfect” knowledge is unnecessary, impracticable and indeed irrelevant if one understands the mechanism at work in complex sociality, a stigmergic sociality that in effect augments or scaffolds cognition.


Whatever Next? Predictive Brains, Situated Agents, and the Future of Cognitive Science

Coming soon in Behavioral and Brain Sciences - a target article by Andy Clark:

Abstract: Brains, it has recently been argued, are essentially prediction machines. They are bundles of cells that support perception and action by constantly attempting to match incoming sensory inputs with top-down expectations or predictions. This is achieved using a hierarchical generative model that aims to minimize prediction error within a bidirectional cascade of cortical processing. Such accounts offer a unifying model of perception and action, illuminate the functional role of attention, and may neatly capture the special contribution of cortical processing to adaptive success. The paper critically examines this ‘hierarchical prediction machine’ approach, concluding that it offers the best clue yet to the shape of a unified science of mind and action. Sections 1 and 2 lay out the key elements and implications of the approach. Section 3 explores a variety of pitfalls and challenges, spanning the evidential, the methodological, and the more properly conceptual. The paper ends (sections 4 and 5) by asking how such approaches might impact our more general vision of mind, experience, and agency.

Keywords: Action, attention, Bayesian brain, expectation, generative model, hierarchy, perception, precision, predictive coding, prediction, prediction error, top-down.