Saturday, January 29, 2011

Michele Merritt Joins the Fray

Enacted Cognition, Mental Institutions, and Socio-Functionally Extended Minds

Michele Merritt, Ph.D.
University of South Carolina

Critics of the Hypothesis of Extended Cognition have argued that „extended minds‟ fail to be genuinely cognitive for various reasons. As Adams and Aizawa (2008), e.g., have suggested, cognitive processes trade in non-derived content and a couple system of the sort Clark and Chalmers (1998) envision could never be characterized in this manner. One way to respond to such concerns is to retreat into a more moderate position, as is exemplified by Clark‟s (2008) recent Hypothesis of Organism-Centered Cognition, which still places the intrinsic nature of intentional states „inside‟ the organism, but allows that cognitive processes are often constituted by more than mere biological brains. On the other hand, we might suppose that the claims made by Adams and Aizawa as to what cognition must be are misguided – that indeed, cognition need not be marked by non-derived content and furthermore, that the proper response to such criticism is not a retreat, but an even more liberal account of extended cognition. We find this suggestion made by Gallagher (2008), who argues that certain social structures – what he calls “Mental Institutions” – are genuine cases of cognitive extension. In this paper, it is my aim to defend the idea that the mind can and often is “socially extended” and that if this is so, there turns out to be no reason to suppose that all cognitive processes must trade in non-derived content. To add to Gallagher‟s original insights, I will use the phenomenon of dance (cf. Noё, 2009) as a model for the way a socially extended mind might work, and in particular, how conceiving of cognition like a dance bolsters the idea that much of what we do in the act of thinking can best be understood as “Participatory Sense Making.” (cf. DeJaeger & DiPaolo, 2007). While it may be the case that certain types of cognitive processing can be argued to operate with intrinsic content, I will argue that this is only by virtue of these processes first being marked by a more primary mode of cognition – namely, social cognition. As a way to practically apply this idea of Mental Institutions as a mechanism that socially extends the mind, I will examine gender as an „institution,‟ one that fulfills the requirements laid out by Gallagher insofar as it includes cognitive practices that are produced in specific times and places and it is activated in ways that extend our cognitive processes when we interact with or are coupled to it in the right way. As a final component to the paper, I argue that although this more liberal account of extended cognition dispenses with the need to preserve non-derived content as the sole marker of „the mind,‟ it does not imply that we ought to stop thinking of the mind in functional terms, an implication Gallagher himself draws from his own argument. I propose instead that we adopt a revised functionalist account – what I term “Socio-Functionalism” – in order to take stock of socially extended systems like the mind.

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