Thursday, July 8, 2010

Methodological Implications of EC

Malafouris & Renfrew repeat a relatively familiar claim about EC:
The methodological implication of this is that cognition can be studied independently of any consideration of the external environment, the body, or the material world.  (Malafouris & Renfrew, 2010, p. 10).
I have a tough time putting a favorable interpretation on this.  Think about the experimental study of vision over the last 40 years.  Maybe there are parts of it, such as some computational modeling tasks, such as finding lines in scenes, that can be done with little consideration of the body or environment.  But, there are vast tracts of research in vision science dedicated to controlled experiments that tweak minor parameters of the visual stimulus in order to try to determine various properties of the visual system.  Gibsonians will dislike much of this, but the problem for them is not that it works independently of any consideration of the external environment, the body, or the material world.  It is that this work looks at the wrong features of the environment, or looks at them in the wrong way.

Moreover, vision science includes a lot of work on the structure of the eye, structures such as the lens and the macular pigment.  These are features of the non-neural body.

And the study of hearing is much the same.  In the sensation and perception text I use, Blake and Sekuler's Perception, for example, there is ample discussion of the role of the head and the ears.  My favorite line in the book is when they describe the head as a dense barrier.  (Many people have told me that my head is a dense barrier, but not in the context of the study of audition.)

And think of Chomsky's poverty of the stimulus argument.  Whether or not you think this is a good argument, it is not an argument that ignores the environment.  It is one that makes a claim about the environment, namely, that it does not contain enough information to enable normal infants to acquire language in a reliable manner.

Malafouris, L., & Renfrew, C. (Eds.). (2010). The cognitive life of things: Recasting the boundaries of the mind. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Monographs.

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