Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wilson, Robert A. Review of Robert D. Rupert, COGNITIVE SYSTEMS AND THE EXTENDED MIND. NDPR (March 2010).

Rupert, Robert D. Cognitive Systems and the Extended Mind. Oxford: OUP, 2009. Once upon a time, empirically-informed, philosophical work on the mind was pretty straightforward. Mental activity went on inside the head, and we were pretty sure that it, along with all the good stuff associated with it -- consciousness, intentionality, mental representation, computation -- could be most readily understood without having to crease our brows too much about how minds were situated vis-à-vis bodies, or vis-à-vis environments. To be sure, the cognitive sciences had renegade, pluralistic strands running through them, and particular disciplinary itches that needed scratching. But there was a sufficiently articulated paradigm in place that at least made designing jacket covers for books in the field relatively easy. Find a picture of a head, such as a representation of a brain, ideally an image a bit attuned to the title or theme of the book, and you're at least well on your way. I failed to understand this simple point during what were politely called "ongoing discussions" over the cover of The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences a dozen years ago. "No, I'm sorry, Professor Wilson", I was informed by way of a solemn conclusion delivered by an exasperated senior editor at the Press, someone whom I imagined had to avert his gaze in embarrassment on my behalf as he typed back curtly, "I am afraid that it has to be a head". Designing jacket covers for books in this neck of the woods is no longer so easy. Heads are not exactly out, but they are no longer strictly required. Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi's The Phenomenological Mind (2008) has a person half-way through exit mode on its cover. Fred Adams and Ken Aizawa's The Bounds of Cognition (2008), for crying out loud, has a cube of green cubes on the cover. Not even a thing that thinks, so far as we know. Rob Rupert's stimulating book continues down this path with quite a beautiful black and white photograph of a grove of aspens in the wilds of Colorado plonked right on the cover. It's enough to start me worrying that in order to understand the field that I work in, I can no longer simply look at jacket covers. In order to write this review in my current state of existential confusion, I have thus had to resort to an old trick of the trade, something I learned in grad school but like most things so learnt, haven't had to use much since. Read. And, somewhat to my initial surprise, especially given the total absence of pictures once one gets beyond the cover of Cognitive Systems and the Extended Mind, and the distinct dearth of bad jokes between the sheets, I'm glad I did. Rupert's book is a good read. It is a sustained, systematic, critical examination of the idea that minds are not simply ensconced inside heads, but extend into both bodies and the world beyond the body. As his title suggests, Rupert is focused primarily on the latter of these, the extended mind thesis, a thesis articulated neatly by Andy Clark and David Chalmers a dozen years ago in a paper that, had it been a movie, would have been an instant blockbuster, then a classic, and now be competing with Seinfeld re-runs on cable tv. . . . Read the rest here:

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