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.