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Situatedness without mind?

abril 4th, 2011 Posted by blog, concepts, dynamic systems, mind, on second thoughts, situatedness No Comment yet

The most radically dynamic approaches to cognition depict it as a series of embodied, situated processes closely intertwined with action and environment. Some advocates of these approaches claim, for example, that robots designed without representationalist programming techniques —which do not manipulate internal representations like symbols— can behave intelligently (Brooks 1991). Others explain early human cognitive development in terms of dynamic systems

theory (Thelen & Smith 1996). These scopes do not seem very interested in things such as minds, thoughts or mental representations. That is why they have been criticized as a return to behaviorism. After all, we have internal representations, don’t we? I can imagine the sea, and I can see the waves dancing before my mental eye. So, what is the point of denying it?

Perhaps it is our own way of speaking what confounds us. Most of our words about cognitive processes are count nouns. We understand minds, meanings and thoughts as things or, at least, as states, but not as processes or actions. There are reasons for it. An analysis of the metaphors we use to speak about some kinds of things, such as minds and their contents, hints that we intuitively find it easier to think about cognition artifacts as everyday objects in a tridimensional space rather than in terms of complex, dynamical and intertwined processes. At least, for everyday purposes. But what about our scientific concepts?

This state of affairs does not seem very different in academic speech: Perhaps it is easy for us to see that minds are not containers with thoughts and memories inside them, or that words are not packages of meaning. But seeing beyond metaphors becomes more difficult when we talk about frames, mental images, idealized cognitive models or even just concepts. We tend to reify these notions, to think about them as ready-made schemes that can be retrieved from memory and applied to each situation. Once again, thinking of states or objects is simply much easier than attempting to envision dynamic processes or actions.

In translatology, functionalist theories have made us grow used to think in terms of actions. In cognitive translatology, in contrast with traditional linguistics, we conceive of language from the very beginning as part of a situated communicative activity. However, we are not immune to the tendency to reify concepts. Perhaps the most notorious example of this tendency is the very concept of meaning. It is very difficult not to think about meaning as something somehow there, ambushed in the text, waiting to be deciphered. And yet, we know that meaning is not to be found within texts. It is not archived in our minds either. Meaning is always created anew in dynamic processes of interaction between text, embodied mind and situation.

However, this does not mean that we cannot agree to some extent about the meaning of a text, nor that translators do not create mental representations at all. As a matter of fact, when we study what goes on in the translator's hands, in her computer and her interactions (Risku 2010), we are also trying to find out what is going on in her mind, even though we do not think about that mind as an isolated (black) box, but as a series of processes that are, so to speak, open to the world.

A possible way to escape the dichotomy of behaviorism vs mentalism might be to try and think about mental processes—such as remembering, imagining, thinking or dreaming—not only as part of situated action, but as actions themselves. Instead of asking What is going on in the translator’s mind? we could ask What is the translator mentally doing? The problem with this strategy is that not all mental processes can be depicted as intentional, goal-directed actions, that most of them are unconscious and/or uncontrolled. After all, we are not inclined to speak about digestive processes as actions either. And yet, mental processes can only be explained in relation with action and social interaction. Our most elaborated constructions, like language or the self, can only emerge within a highly sophisticated sociocultural world which affords us the necessary stability to act in it.

Thinking in terms of dynamic processes does not mean that we have to give up the very notion of mental representation; it just means that we must rethink it. We can’t step into the same river twice, but we conceive of it as the same river we forded yesterday. In fact, we cannot construct the same concept twice (Barsalou 1993). Nevertheless, we construct ourselves as being the same as yesterday, and this construction allows us to interact in a meaningful way with our environment.

Barsalou, Lawrence D. 1993. Challenging assumptions about concepts. Cognitive Development 8/2: 169-180.
Brooks, Rodney A. 1991. Intelligence Without Representation. Artificial Intelligence 47: 139-159.
Risku, Hanna. 2010. A cognitive scientific view on technical communication and translate. Do embodiment and situatedness really make a difference? Target 22/1, 94-111.
Thelen, Esther & Linda B. Smith. 1994. A dynamic systems approach to the development of cognition and action. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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