Integrating and extending the distributed approach in cognitive science

Interaction Studies 13 (1):125-138 (2012)
Abstract
This special issue is a refreshing contrast to the intuitively influential notion of language as an internal system. This internal approach to language is going strong in some segments of the cognitive sciences. As an assumption, internalism drives much empirical work on language, and it is the basis of prominent theories of language – its nature (e.g. an internalised computational system), its evolution (e.g. a single still-unknown mutation), and its function (e.g. thinking, not communication). Radical fundamentalist versions of these theories are no longer in the main stream, however, despite the attention they may garner by forceful exposition (e.g. Chomsky 2011a). A fuller canvassing of the cognitive sciences – obviously outside the scope of the current presentation – would probably reveal that most researchers, even those who study aspects of language isolated in individual participants, would allow for an intrinsic social characteristic to language. I would go so far as to guess that they would place this social character on explanatory par with other structural or information-processing features that are studied in the lab. And despite what is averred by Chomsky (2011a), this social character in human cognition has been proposed in many domains, from vision (Balcetis & Lassiter 2010) to memory (Barnier et al. 2008). Humans are intrinsically social in a way that distinguishes them from any other primate species, and this sociality seems to be weaved into many cognitive processes (Castiello et al. 2010; Tomasello 2009). But “social” is not the same thing as “distributed,” by the content of this issue. The latter may subsume the former. The distributed approach discussed in this special issue is not “simply” social – it does not just propose an added static feature of any synchronic language context (as noted in Jennings & Thompson this issue). The approach instead regards this social characteristic as just one part of a broader dynamic distributed process that constitutes language, through different kinds of inter-individual coordination at many levels of spatial and temporal scale (Cowley this issue; Fusaroli & Tylén this issue)
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