A History of Distributed Cognition

"…by means of mind, we shall ourselves have the power of creating mind…I may perhaps have created, in a night’s work, a mind of this kind, by means of mind; and this mind I would now introduce among you in order that you yourselves…may at some time bring forth an offspring…"
                      Marsilio Ficino, Five Questions Concerning the Mind, 1495

"Neither the bare hand nor the unaided intellect has much power; the work is done by tools and assistance, and the intellect needs them as much as the hand."
                                       Francis Bacon, The New Organon, 1620

It is not only in current cognitive scientific models that cognition is seen as distributed across brain, body and world.

In the words quoted above, Ficino evokes the textually and socially extended nature of the mind, while Bacon describes the reliance of the mind, as well as the body, on tools and assistance. Renaissance thinkers were themselves influenced by earlier manifestations of these ideas in classical and medieval texts, and from these combined roots various weak or strong models of distributed cognition have emerged in the centuries that follow.

This 3-year research programme aims to chart the history of models of cognition as a process that extends from brain to body to world. It will offer for the first time a systematic exploration of the ways in which recent cognitive scientific research requires a reappraisal of certain historical concepts of cognition. It will then build on this systematic exploration to demonstrate how the historicity of these concepts can in turn foster new approaches to understanding current definitions and debates. 


Research Questions 

The project is structured around five overarching research questions, which emerge from the research context in the cognitive sciences and the humanities as outlined below:

  • What can the recent insights of cognitive science on the distributed nature of cognitive systems bring to our reading of Western European texts in the fields of history of ideas, history of science and medicine, material culture and literary studies? 
  • How do such models stimulate a re-evaluation of what is understood to constitute cognition in the explicit and implicit conceptual models in use between classical antiquity and the mid-twentieth century?
  • How do the various notions of distributed cognition interrelate within their own period and across historical periods? 
  • What sociocultural and environmental contexts lead to the manifestation, within a particular historical period, of particular forms of these paradigms or to their suppression? 
  • How can recent work in cognitive science be informed by an understanding of historically situated models of distributed cognition?

Research Context

In philosophy of mind and cognitive science a number of overlapping and competing models are emerging that challenge the standard models that view the body and the environment as peripheral to understanding the nature of cognition. One major strand, on which there has recently been an extensive amount of empirical research, is the ‘Embodied Mind’; this is the view that the form and processes of the body significantly contribute to the nature of cognitive processes and states (McNeill 2005; Noë 2004; Damasio 1994; Shapiro 2011). In some cases these models overlap with ‘Enactivism’; enactivist accounts draw on phenomenology in their emphasis on the sense-making relationship between the active living body and the world in which it is situated (Varela, Thompson and Rosch 1993; Thompson 2010). Meanwhile the ‘Extended Mind’ hypothesis argues that bodily and non-biological resources can play an equivalent role to neural resources in constituting cognition (Clark & Chalmers 1998; Clark 2008; Hutchins 1995; Wheeler 2005). While tensions have emerged between some embodied and extended mind accounts about whether or not the body plays a special role, the notion of ‘distributed cognition’ provides a more expansive characterization of the ways in which brain, body and world may work together in subtle partnerships that constitute and/or structure cognition, thus acting as an umbrella term that enables us to draw on these various interrelated strands most fruitfully. 

A project of this nature must also focus on the role of the emotions as one of the key mechanisms through which cognition is distributed across body and environment. The case for a somatic basis for emotion is reflected in both folk and scientific models, including recent neurophysiological studies which trace connections between body and brain (LeDoux 1997; Damasio 1994). Cognitive-evaluative approaches to the sociality of emotion, from Aristotle to the present day, emphasize the extent to which the elements that are constitutive of emotion are to be found in the world, especially the social world (Elster 1999; Gross 2006). Yet scope for rapprochement between emotions as subjective psychophysical experiences and as social phenomena exists if one pays due attention to the communicative force of the face and the body; to the role of language, not only in labelling emotion-concepts but in encapsulating their intersubjective phenomenology; and to the dynamic interaction between others’ emotions and our own. The conceptualization of mental and affective states may be a function of mind and language, but it draws fundamentally on the phenomenology of those states as experiences of embodied beings in the world. Metaphors and metonymies based on the embodied human being’s interaction with its natural and social environments construct as well as reflect emotional and cognitive experience (Cochrane 2008; Lakoff and Johnson 1980). Considered as conceptual blends or forms of cognitive integration (Fauconnier and Turner 2002), such mechanisms also bear comparison with the fictional simulations that abound in stories, drama and literature and serve to expand one’s cognitive and emotional repertoire, developing the very capacities for simulation and imagination that complex affective and cognitive faculties require (Oatley 2011; Zunshine 2010). 

This project aims to demonstrate the benefits for the humanities of extending their knowledge about current research in cognitive science on the distributed nature of cognition. Scholars in the humanities are beginning to tackle the pressing issue of what cognitive science has to offer. Yet in recent decades trends in literary, historical and cultural criticism have often focused on various kinds of social constructivism in which bodies are presented as cultural constructs (notably in new historicism, cultural materialism and feminist, queer and globalisation studies). Therefore the embodied nature of cognition presents a greater challenge for postmodern accounts than does its extended nature; but equally important is the recognition that its extended nature is not simply a matter of unconstrained cultural determinism. A few first-wave thinkers in the humanities adopted notions from evolutionary psychology or from cognitive linguistics that emphasized the continuity of humans’ cognitive and physical characteristics (Carroll 2011; Boyd 2010; Gottschall 2008). Yet these thinkers remained in the minority and on the peripheries of mainstream literary and cultural methodologies, against which they initially tended to situate themselves. 

Second-wave thinkers have begun instead to consider a more diverse range of approaches. Emerging scientific research suggests another perspective, one that takes account of both our extended and our embodied nature, since it is our biological nature that enables us to incorporate sociocultural and technological resources into our cognitive systems. This enables a reassessment of polar representations of the mind either as fixed and universal, or as only socially constructed and culturally relative – representations which have constrained understandings of historical, as well as modern, concepts of the mind. While humans’ capacity to exist within cognitive niches, with on-going reciprocal interactions between niches and organism, is shared across generations, these niches also reflect technological and sociocultural developments; ultimately, rather than either universalism or postmodern relativism, this implies that we will find a rich combination of shared features and particular divergences across history and cultures. 

In return, historical studies have the potential to supplement and interrogate our current understanding of how cognition may be distributed across the body and the world. The historical lineage of non-brain-bound concepts of cognition demonstrates that such ideas are not merely a product of our own age: distributed cognition is a paradigm which takes on different forms in relation to different cultures. A number of scholars have begun to explore distributed cognition in its historical dimension, e.g. John Sutton’s exploration of the cognitive role of the memory arts in the medieval and early modern periods; Evelyn Tribble’s work on Renaissance performance; Peter Garratt’s papers on Victorian literary and scientific notions of ‘thinking with things’; and Patricia Waugh’s papers on parallels to the ‘extended mind’ hypothesis in modernist texts. 

The present project arises directly out of the current and continuing research of its PI and RA. Cairns’s work on the role of metaphor in the construction of ancient Greek concepts of emotion has led him to reject the widespread disjunction between emotions as cultural and linguistic categories and their biological, physical and expressive components and has fostered an incipient focus on the extent to which performance, ritual, narrative and fiction provide external resources with the power to scaffold and transform individuals’ affective capacities. Completion of a monograph on these subjects, entitled Mind, Body and Metaphor in Ancient Greek Concepts of Emotion, will be part of his contribution to the project. Anderson has a long-standing engagement with exploring relations between literary and cognitive scientific methodologies, and has previously focussed on demonstrating evidence of embodied and extended mind ideas in Renaissance texts. In her new research, Anderson will produce a related volume, entitled Figuring the Mind, examining six literary works from the later periods covered by the project. The six essays will be completed in tandem with the relevant scoping workshops, and the completed work will offer an integrated overview of what the examination of the six works collectively reveal, as a means to highlight the ways in which the structure and interpretation of literary forms relate to ideas about the mind. This research will add a specific focus on the figurative language used to describe the mind, and to engage the mind of the reader, through the examination of period-specific rhetorical works and literary theory alongside scientific concepts of the mind. Through this focus on figurative language as indicative and constitutive of the distributed nature of cognition, the development of these research strands will be at the heart of the proposed project. The wider project, in turn, will provide an essential collaborative and complementary context that will directly inform and extend these research agendas in ways that would not otherwise be possible.

The project also builds on recent research projects and networks in the UK which have established the foundations and the feasibility of its general approach: the ‘Thinking with Feeling’ workshops, which examined the role of emotion in cognition; the ‘Cognitive Futures in the Humanities’ AHRC Research Network, with its series of conferences designed to explore relations between cognitive science and the humanities; and the ‘Balzan Project’ (working title ‘Thinking with Literature’), which has explored cognitive historical approaches to literary studies. All of these have included the presentation of a number of papers on the themes of the embodied or extended mind. However, it has also become evident through these that a firmer underpinning in the philosophical and cognitive scientific discourses on this topic is necessary in order to enable a less partial and fragmentary coverage of the history of distributed cognition. Our project brings together a range of scholars from these projects in order to enable this particularly fertile strand in this emerging field to be tackled more comprehensively. Participants from these projects will be invited to participate in the workshops and our project structure already actively includes: Cave and Anderson from the ‘Balzan Project’; Garratt, Wheeler and Waugh from the ‘Cognitive Futures’ network, with Waugh also the organiser of the ‘Thinking with Feeling’ events. Cairns provides a link to research at the ‘Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature’ at the University of Oslo, where he is a member of the project team on ‘Feeling an Obligation: the Emergence of Normativity’. The aim of the present project is to bring these strands of research into productive contact in order to scaffold and enrich the future development of research on distributed cognition.


Project team: 
  • Eidyn Contact: Dr Mark Sprevak

  • Project Team: Prof Douglas Cairns (PI, Classics, University of Edinburgh), Dr Mark Sprevak (CI1, Philosophy, University of Edinburgh), Prof Michael Wheeler (CI2, Philosophy, University of Stirling), Prof George Rousseau (Consultant, History, Oxford University), Dr Peter Garratt (CI3, English, Durham University), Dr Miranda Anderson (RF, English, University of Edinburgh), Dr Francesca Micol Rossi (Project Facilitator, University of Edinburgh)

  • Project Auditors: Prof Terence Cave (Oxford University), Prof Tim Crane (Cambridge University) 

  • Project Advisory Board: Prof Andy Clark (University of Edinburgh), Prof Giovanna Colombetti (University of Exeter), Prof Christopher Gill (University of Exeter), Prof David Konstan (NYU), Prof Duncan Pritchard (University of Edinburgh), Prof Andrew Roberts (University of Dundee), Prof Patricia Waugh (Durham University), Dr Karin Kukkonen (University of Turku)

Project duration: 
4 years
Funded by the AHRC (c. £600K)