Publication 5563

Kiverstein J. D. & Rietveld E. (2018) Reconceiving representation-hungry cognition: An ecological-enactive proposal. Adaptive Behavior 26(4): 147–163. Fulltext at
Enactive approaches to cognitive science aim to explain human cognitive processes across the board without making any appeal to internal, content-carrying representational states. A challenge to such a research programme in cognitive science that immediately arises is how to explain cognition in so-called ‘representation-hungry’ domains. Examples of representation-hungry domains include imagination, memory, planning and language use in which the agent is engaged in thinking about something that may be absent, possible or abstract. The challenge is to explain how someone could think about things that are not concretely present in their environment other than by means of an internal mental representation. We call this the ‘Representation-Hungry Challenge’ (RHC). The challenge we take up in this article is to show how hunger for representations could possibly be satisfied by means other than the construction and manipulation of internal representational states. We meet this challenge by developing a theoretical framework that integrates key ideas drawn from enactive cognitive science and ecological psychology. One of our main aims is thus to show how ecological and enactive theories as non-representational and non-computational approaches to cognitive science might work together. From enactive cognitive science, we borrow the thesis of the strict continuity of lower and higher cognition. We develop this thesis to argue against any sharp conceptual distinction between higher and lower cognition based on representation-hunger. From ecological psychology, we draw upon our earlier work on the rich landscape of affordances. We propose thinking of so-called representation-hungry cognition in terms of temporally extended activities in which the agent skilfully coordinates to a richly structured landscape of affordances. In our framework, putative cases of representation-hungry cognition are explained by abilities to coordinate nested activities to an environment structured by interrelated socio-material practices. The RHC has often figured in arguments for the limitations of non-representational approaches to cognitive science. We showcase the theoretical resources available to an integrated ecological-enactive approach for addressing this type of sceptical challenge.

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