Onwards and Upwards with the Extended Mind: From Individual to Collective Epistemic Action

In Linnda Caporael, James Griesemer & William Wimsatt (eds.), Developing Scaffolds. MIT Press. pp. 191-208 (2013)

Georg Theiner
Villanova University
In recent years, philosophical developments of the notion of distributed and/or scaffolded cognition have given rise to the “extended mind” thesis. Against the popular belief that the mind resides solely in the brain, advocates of the extended mind thesis defend the claim that a significant portion of human cognition literally extends beyond the brain into the body and a heterogeneous array of physical props, tools, and cultural techniques that are reliably present in the environment in which people grow, think, and act (Clark and Chalmers 1998; Clark 1997, 2003, 2008; Wilson 2004; Rowlands 1999, 2012; Menary 2007; Theiner 2011). However, as commentators who are friendly to the idea of distributed cognition have pointed out, the philosophical debate over extended cognition has predominantly focused on the impact of tools on our thinking while somewhat neglecting the distinctively social and cultural dimensions of cognitive scaffolding (Sterelny 2004, 2010; Caporael 1997a, 1997b; Smith and Semin 2004; Wilson 2005; Barnier et al. 2008; Sutton et al. 2010; Theiner, Allen, and Goldstone 2010). To reorient the reigning paradigm, Hutchins (2010, 445) has recently proposed the “hypothesis of enculturated cognition” (HEnC) as an alternative to Clark’s (2003, 2008) largely individualistic vision of the extended mind. According to the HEnC, the “ecological assemblies of human cognition make pervasive use of cultural products” and are typically “assembled … in ongoing cultural practices” (ibid.). Cultural practices, for Hutchins, are essentially “the things people do in interaction with one another” (ibid., 440). My goal in this chapter is to follow up on Hutchins’s call to “spur the program forward” (ibid., 445), by generalizing Kirsh and Maglio’s (1994) distinction between pragmatic and epistemic actions from the level of individuals to the level of groups. The concept of a collective epistemic action refers to the ways in which groups of people actively change the structure of their social organization, with the epistemic goal of reshaping and augmenting their cognitive performance as integrated collectivities. By placing a renewed emphasis on the interactions between people, rather than between people and their tools, I hope to reconnect the cognitive-scientifically-driven “extended mind” thesis with complementary areas of social-scientific research in which groups are analyzed as the seats of action and cognition in their own right. In particular, the literature to which I aim to build a bridge in this paper is, on the one hand, certain segments of social and organizational psychology (Larson and Christensen 1993; Hinsz et al. 1997; Mohammed and Dumville 2001), and, on the other hand, theories of collective and institutional action (Ostrom 1990; List and Pettit 2011).
Keywords extended mind  group mind  group cognition  epistemic action  collective intentionality  distributed cognition  collective rationality
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