A Response to Ken Aizawa: An Explanation of Extended Cognition

In his reply to Justin Fisher’s critical review of Ken Aizawa and Fred Adams’ book The Bounds of Cognition, Aizawa has this to say:

A familiar claim in the extended cognition literature is that much of the history of psychology has been marked by prejudice.  This is the prejudice—a remnant of Descartes’ enduring legacy—that cognitive processes occur only in the brain.  Cognitive psychologists simply assume that the mind is realized by the brain.  We find one or another version of this charge in Clark and  Chalmers (1998), Haugeland (1998), Rowlands (1999, 2003), and elsewhere.  Rather than supposing that cognitive processes occur only within the brain, the advocates of extended cognition propose that there are good grounds for thinking that cognitive processes span the brain, body, and environment.  The extended cognition movement should, therefore, be seen as a liberating revolution.

In this post, I want to clear up some misconceptions about what is being claimed by extended cognition (EC) theorists. Ultimately, I can only speak for myself but I want to offer my own explanation of EC’s internal theoretical commitments. Aizawa seems to imply that by denying “the mind is realized by the brain”, EC theorists are committed to the claim that cognitive processes literally occur somewhere else than in the brain. Thus, when EC theorists claim that cognitive processes “span the brain, body, and environment”, Aizawa takes this to mean that EC theorists are literally saying that there are cognitive processes going on over here (in the brain) and also over there (in the world), and not just in the brain.

Frankly, I think that there has been a great confusion on what exactly 4EA ontology is committed to in regards to the “location” of cognition, largely due to the EC theorists not making their underlying ontology and epistemological assumptions fully explicit. What has been missing in these discussions of the mind “spanning” or “extending into” the environment is the epistemological theory of direct realism. Direct realism is a counter-theory to the Cartesian idea that the primordial mind is ontological split from the objective world by means of a subject-object model, the Lockean idea that primordial cognition is the manipulation of mental Ideas which re-present sense-data to a spectorial consciousness, and the Kantian idea that the mind is always directed to “mere phenomenal appearances” rather than the objective in-itself.

Descartes simply assumed that the primordial mind is ontological separate from the objective world. Locke took up this assumption and “naturalized it” by turning the Mind Substance into the Mind Process (operating over re-presentations). Berkeley simply assumed that the stimulus available for perception was poor and inadequate for specifying the world. Kant borrowed from all these assumptions and supposed that consciousness was never directed to the in-self, but rather, to the mere phenomenal appearances or representations of the world. Gibson undercuts all these assumptions with one fell swoop by redefining the nature of perception. Indeed, he says:

Perceiving is an achievement of the individual, not an appearance in the theater of his consciousness. It is a keeping-in-touch with the world, an experiencing of things rather than having of experiences. It involves awareness-of instead of just awareness. It may be awareness of something in the environment or something in the observer or both at once, but there is no content of awareness independent of that of which one is aware.

It is in this paragraph that we can find the meaning of the EC thesis that cognition “aint just about the brain (alone)”. On my reading, EC theory isn’t committed to the claim that brain cognition literally leaks into the world. Leaking, spanning, extending, spreading, etc. are all just metaphors for the thesis of Gibsonian direct realism, which is a general theory of intentionality, that is, a theory about how the mind relates to reality. So when Alva Noe claims that “Consciousness is not something that happens inside us…it is something we achieve”, we should understand this exactly in terms of Gibson’s claim that “perception is an achievement of the individual, not an appearance in the theater of his consciousness.” This is no radical claim. What is radical is to continue buying into the same worn-out assumptions of Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and Kant! As Noe says,

Human experience is a dance that unfolds in the world and with others. You are not your brain. We are not locked up in a prison of our own ideas and sensations. The phenomenon of consciousness, like that of life itself, is a world-involving dynamic process. We are already at home in the environment. We are out of our heads.



Filed under Phenomenology, Philosophy

12 responses to “A Response to Ken Aizawa: An Explanation of Extended Cognition

  1. Ken Aizawa


    I think that one needs to distinguish Clark’s position from Haugeland’s. Clark is not, I think, Gibsonian on a number of points. First of all, Clark thinks that cognition involves information processing. Note, for example, his conditions of “trust and glue” that make reference to information. Gibson rejects cognition as information processing, right? Or he wants to use the term in a different way than does Marrians and Fodorians. Second, Clark is happy to say that there is cognitive processing in the brain. After all, he thinks Inga’s processing is just like Otto’s, only her’s is in her head, where Otto’s is spread out. Moreover, he is happy with mental representations. Haugeland, by contrast, rejects mental representations and denies that there is cognition in the head.

  2. Ken Aizawa

    Incidentally, you might check out the 2009 special issue of Topoi, edited by Kiverstein and Clark. It articulates some of the differences they see between EC and enactivism. There is a lot of diversity, it seems to me, in the embodied, embedded, enactive, extended literature. Folks are moving past the “love-in” phase, as I think Mike Wheeler called it, to a more critical examination of the diversity of EEEE.

  3. Gary Williams

    Hi Ken, thanks for the comment. In regards to Gibson, I don’t think he necessarily rejects the idea of information processing, but rather, he wants to clarify the nature of information and how it is processed. For one, his notion of stimulus information differs radically from Shannon’s conception (which is really a physical theory of information rather than an ecological one). Moreover, Gibson’s fundamental idea was that there is not a poverty of information in the perceptual stimulus available to perceivers. Accordingly, Gibson’s problem with “cognitivism” and “information processing” was not the idea of processing information itself, but rather, with what he considered to be superfluous information processing. For instance, he didn’t think that the brain processes meaningless or valueless stimuli and computationally infers spatial-distance because he thought all the information necessary for the specification of space was already contained within the given stimulus. For Gibson, the stimulus is already impregnated with meaningful information relevant to organisms. Accordingly, all the animal needs to do is “pick up” that information or “resonate” to it. While Gibson did famously claiming that “picking up” information was not the same as “processing” information, I think this was largely a matter of him trying to distance himself from classic theories of information processing, which assumed a poverty of meaningful information in the stimulus. In my opinion, his notion of “information pickup” is committed to a kind of information processing but his theory differs from orthodoxy insofar as he thought that affordances were being processed, not valueless sense-data. Thus, we can read information pick up in terms of the processing of action-oriented representations or something to a similar effect. Gibson didn’t like the term “processing” because it implied that the brain was a Helmholtz inference machine that is continually “guessing” about the environmental layout. For Gibson, Helmholtzian inferences are unnecessary because he didn’t think that visual perception starts with a flat retinal projection, but rather, the ambient optic array (which contains redundant information).

    For this reason, I am very comfortable with talking about information processing provided we understand it in terms of discriminating the redundant information available in the environment rather than enriching an impoverished stimulus. Accordingly, I think Gibsonian psychology requires a rethinking of information processing rather than abandoning it altogether.

  4. I think this is a pretty important distinction to make. (Even though I’ve not read enough Gibson to have too much of an opinion there: just one book)

    While some philosophers have tried to keep the objects of cognition (intentionality) separate from processing I think it’s not surprising to see the one entailing the other. If only because of the causal issue of some relation being between the objects and the mind. The empiricists might overstate that issue but I’d note that externalists like Davidson still place it quite central. If the processing of the object via causation is important then where one draws that line might be arbitrary and at best determined by what is useful for the analysis one is doing rather than a “natural kind” of a sort.

    Consider vision. The causal path light takes from the object, going through all sorts of absorptions and reemissions on the path towards the light is just as much a kind of informaiton processing as what happens after the light is refracted onto a nerve. While there is a reason to talk about what is going on in the brain as special as opposed to what is outside, in terms of cognition it’s all a giant holistic process once you are focused on the objects themselves. It’s all about how the objects give themselves to consciousness and in that analysis what happens outside the brain is nearly as important as what happens inside.

    The other place it becomes tricky is once you examine the art of memory. External signs such as mnemonic devices versus internal processes blur pretty quickly.

  5. Just to follow up on what Ken has said,

    I think direct realism is orthogonal to the seminal Clark and Chalmers paper. Their new rephrasing (you can almost picture a lawyer in the room, nodding at them as they say it) is that in the Otto and Inga case, the supervenience base of Otto’s dispositional belief includes extra-organismic vehicles. To introduce something like direct realism, as if Otto ‘sees’ the affordances in the notebook, is just to introduce what Clark and Chalmer’s call ‘the Otto two-step’, a strategy which they ultimately debunk.

    I do think the Clark of ‘Being-There’ does make some steps towards something like direct realism when he discusses epistemic actions (through the famous Kirsch and Maglio Tetris example) – physical actions that move us towards a goal in a problem space. But, of course, this is nothing like fully fledged affordance theory. But I think (just going from memory, and having left my copy at Uni) that this is as close as Clark gets in Being-There to endorsing anything like direct realism as I understand it.

    If you aren’t like me, having a never-ending pile of papers and books, Andy has a great little article called Spreading the Joy in which he discusses extended theories of consciousness (like Hurley and Noe’s) in contrast to his own extended theory of mind, which might be worth a read. Also, I should say, without putting words in his mouth, that I think the Clark of the future might surprise you as to what he has to say on the nature of the mind…

    • Gary Williams

      Whereas you might be right about the case of Otto and Inga, I think what grounds the plausibility of such thought experiments is a kind of direct realist behaviorism underlying conscious memory strategies. For example, in Natural Born Cyborgs, Clark has this to say:

      [What change blindness experiments suggest] is that the visual brain may have hit upon a very potent problem-solving strategy, one that we have already encountered in other areas of human thoughts and reason. It is the strategy of preferring meta-knowledge over baseline knowledge. Meta-knowledge is knowledge about how to acquire and exploit information, rather than basic knowledge about the world. It is not knowing so much as knowing how to find out. The distinction is real, but the effect is often identical. Having a super-rich, stable inner model of the scene could enable you to answer certain questions rapidly and fluently, but so could knowing how to rapidly retrieve the very same information as soon as the question is posed. The latter route may at times be preferable since it reduces the load on biological memory itself.

      So whereas the parity principle is committed to the kind of “external” supervenience base you mention, the underlying theory to ground this principle is the critique of internal world modeling for perception. It is precisely because the brain isn’t involved with internal world modeling that the parity principle is able to take hold. And this rejection of internal world modeling is exactly the kind of direct realism that I see underlying the theses of extended cognition.

  6. Gary,

    This is a bit late, but I think there it’s at least plausible that Kant is the exception to the group of thinkers that you listed as paradigms of representational thinking. There are enormous complications relating to the notion of the “in-itself” (which I personally think has been overinterpreted and inflated as a concept in the Kantian and Post-Kantian tradition), but it’s important to emphasize that the thesis that “perception is an achievement” is very congenial to Kant, who always put great weight to the active aspect of our cognition (for example, through the doctrine of synthesis). In the Paralogisms of the first Critique, he also constructed a battery of arguments against the idea that the mind is a thing or substance, arguing rather that it is a function, in terms not dissimilar to the ones you continually defend in this blog. Finally, he also made a case for the necessity of our own body as a point of reference in order to mediate between us and the environment (think of something like Evans egological space) in the Refutation of Idealism, a case that has been unfortunately neglected in most of the literature. In short, I think Kant is a much more interesting fellow than he is generally taken to be!

    As an aside, congratulations on the great blog. Although I disagree with many of your positions, it has been a pleasure to read your well thought posts — not to mention that it’s a relief to see a Heideggerean who don’t indulge in the esoteric game of murdering our language…

    • Gary Williams

      Daniel, thanks for the nice comment! What you say about Kant is really interesting. I have a hard time imagining Kant being an exception to the paradigm of representationalism, especially when he says things like this:

      things are given to us as objects of our senses situated outside us, but of what they may be in themselves we know nothing; we only know their appearances, i.e. the representations which they bring about in us when they affect our senses

      So whereas you are right to point out that for Kant the mind is a function (and in this sense he must be applauded), he still seems trapped within the representationalist paradigm insofar as he says that what we know directly are representations “in” us rather than the things themselves. For me, this is the very definition of internalism. However, I am not a Kant scholar by any means and you probably know much more about the technical intricacies of his position, so I would be very interested in seeing a defense of Kant that downplays (or solves) the problems with his representationalism.

      • Gary, as I said, interpreting this “in itself” is tricky. On the one hand, it’s true that, for Kant, cognition is, in a sense, mediated by sensation. On the other hand, one should also take into account Kant’s investigation into the structure of the object (considering that “cognition” is simply object-directed consciousness; I don’t know from where the quotation you gave is, but my bet is that “know” there is “Erkenntnis”, which is a technical term for Kant). Very briefly, Kant considers that an object is distinct from a thing, in that through the concept of an object we think an autonomous and determinate unity (i.e. we think of something as possesing a set of characteristics that distinguishes it from others and unifies it). This unity, in its turn, is structured by logical acts (judgments) which compare these objects and subsume them in a system of relations that he calls “experience”. What this means is that an object can only be cognized, for Kant, against this background system, as its very unity is in a sense derived from it. Thus, at least as he conceives it, cognition of a thing “in itself”, i.e. in isolation from this system, is a contradiction in terms. Or, at least, this is how I would go for a deflationist account of the “in itself”.

        Further, it’s interesting to note the ambiguity with the term “representation”. It can mean the represent*ed*, the content of the representation, but it can also mean the represent*ing*, the act of representation. It seems to me that the last sense is the most important for Kant.

      • Gary Williams

        Thanks for the explanation Daniel, but I still have a hard time understanding Kant’s conception of perception and how it fits into contemporary discussions of representationalism (the so called “only game in town” as Fodor said) versus nonrepresentationalism. Would you say that Kant is a “top-down” thinker when it comes to perception? From your description of his account, it sounds like Kant is committed to the idea that all “meaning”, “value”, or “significance” that we achieve when perceiving an object comes from the mental conceptualization of the thing-in-itself. Let’s take the example of coming across a cave as a cave. From what I understand, Kant would say that the perception of the cave “as a cave” would come from a top-down conceptualization process that bestows “unity”, “meaning”, or “caveness” upon the raw, meaningless sense data given by our receptivity towards the cave itself. In other words, the thing-in-itself is meaningless, and we therefore need to “conceptualize” or “value” the thing-in-itself such that meaningful object-unities can be experienced.

        Now, if this account captures Kant’s model of perception, here is how I would respond from a Gibsonian/Heideggerian position. For Gibson, when we come across the cave as a cave, the primordial meaning of “caveness” is not to be found as something generated inside our heads by a conceptualization-function, but rather, the meaning is already embedded into the physical structure of the cave-in-itself. By virtue of how the physical cave is hollowed out, the light reflecting off it is structured so as to specify the property of “hollowed out”. Furthermore, Gibson would say that the hollowed out property of the cave-in-itself specifies an opportunity or affordance for behavior insofar as visual animals know through learning that hollow recesses signify “shelter”. So if the Gibsonian animal comes across the cave-in-itself, the meaning of “caveness” (i.e. shelter, something-over-our-heads, protection-from-elements) is specified by the structure of the thing-in-itself. So in order to perceive the “autonomous and determinate unity” of the cave, it is not necessary to “conceptualize” the object through a transcendental synthesis. The meaning of “cave-for-shelter” is directly embedded into the spatiotemporal structure of the thing-in-itself (that which exists independently of us). In order to perceive that meaning, we only need the ability to differentiate or attend to different aspects of the thing-in-itself insofar as they afford possibilities for behavior.

        Now, it seems possible that Gibson and Kant are talking about the same phenomena but from different perspectives. Maybe “conceptualization of the thing-in-itself” for Kant really means “perception of an affordance”, in which case, Gibsonion direct realism is just a twist on an old idea already foreshadowed by Kant. But this would be a difficult position to defend given that Kant seems committed to some kind of cognitivism and Gibson seems committed to some kind of behaviorism. While yes they are talking about the same phenomenon (perception of caveness by an animal), their competing models of perception are incommensurable in respect to the underlying assumptions about the meaning of the given. Here, we get into issues surrounds the so-called “Myth of the Given”.

  7. Gary, I would like first of all to make a disclaimer: I don’t think it’s useful to take Kant as a cognitive scientist avant la lettre, as some scholars are fond of doing. Kant was working with a very strict late scholastic background (something that is evident is heavy vocabulary), and we should take that into full acount when analysing his work. Nevertheless, his discoveries did put a lot of pressure into that heritage, resulting in many tensions within his system. In my opinion, that’s the main source both of the obscurity and the interest of his philosophy.

    That being said, I agree that Kant’s account of perception is rather complicated, specially since he’s attacking it from different angles, and it’s hard to keep track of all the dimensions he’s specifying and the ways they interact (I think a similar difficult afflicts contemporary Kantian accounts, such as McDowell’s). Indeed, much of the problem stems from the fact that, in the first Critique, Kant is pursuing his analyses from the human point of view, which means that he’s analysing all those different levels with respect to their contribution to cognition (i.e. to reference to an object via judgment). In other words, when Kant analyses perception in the first Critique, he does so from a point of view where this perception is already integrated into an inferential system, that is, from a point of view where conceptual capacities are already at work. For example, when analysing the workings of reproductive imagination in the first version of the Deduction, he does so considering the way it contributes to the active recognition of an object; in this sense, he considers it as “inextricably bound” with this recognitional capacity. That does not mean, however, that we only reproduce (i.e. remember) if we have already recognized something — Kant is not ignorant to the fact that the greater part of our imaginative associations is in some sense non-conceptual, nor he deprives animals of this function. Rather, he emphasizes the fact that in human perception, imaginative reproduction (memory) is oriented towards a conceptual goal (so to speak).

    So, how does this relates to Gibson? I think Kant would say that it’s certainly possible for animals, rational or not, to learn the “meaning” of “caveness” (i.e. shelter) through a certain, let us say, coherence of “behaviorial opportunities” which result in empirical associations. In fact, I think he would even grant that the larger part of our everyday achievements are of this sort. Nevertheless, he would also insist that in our, rational case there is also a conceptual dimension that is always in play, and that, to use a metaphor from one of your recent posts, enriches this low-level achievement. So, instead of merely perceiving the spatiotemporal structure of the thing, we also integrate it into a projected spatiotemporal unity, i.e. we integrate it in a system of reciprocal spatiotemporal determinations. And we further think our own “subjective route” (to use Strawson’s useful way of framing it) as one route through an objective spatiotemporal world, which can serve as the ground of our achievements and which allows us to strive for intersubjective agreement. Hence, we strive to surpass our own limited point of view towards the point of view of our peers, that is, the human point of view.

  8. Pingback: A Response to Ken Aizawa: An Explanation of Extended Cognition | Minds and Brains | Mensoma-Resources

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