CFP: Embodied Social Cognition

Below is a CFP that may be of interest to Brains readers.





Embodied Cognition (EC) is a research program that challenges the basic tenets of Cognitivism, the standard position in philosophy of mind and psychology. EC rejects the view that cognition consists in computational, representational symbol manipulation. EC’s account of cognition emphasizes the embodiment of organisms as opposed to abstract symbol manipulation. Of particular interest here is the domain of social cognition, our ability to understand and interact with others. EC accounts of social cognition aim to explicate how our embodiment shapes our knowledge of others, and in what this knowledge of others consists. Although numerous diverse accounts fly under the EC banner, common to these accounts is the idea that our normal everyday interactions consist in non-mentalistic embodied engagements.

In recent years, several EC theorists have developed and defended innovative and controversial accounts of social cognition. These accounts challenge, and offer deflationary alternatives to, the standard cognitivist accounts of social cognition. As embodied social cognition accounts grow in number and prominence, the time has come for a dedicated, sustained debate on the contentious elements of EC accounts of social cognition.

The goal of this special issue is to host such a debate with the aim of bringing clarity to the discussion of social cognition. We welcome papers that explicate and evaluate embodied cognition’s innovative and controversial claims about social cognition. Topics of interest include (but are not limited to) phenomenology-inspired accounts of social cognition, non-mentalistic accounts of intersubjectivity, the role of narratives in coming to understand others, and the claim that natural language is necessary for thinking about others’ mental states. We encourage both critical and favorable papers on any of the above topics, or other related topics.

All submissions should be made directly to the journal’s online submission website at   Authors will be asked to indicate type of submission; they should indicate Special Issue – Embodied Social Cognition
Practical information:

•    Word limit: 8,000 words (about 25 doubled-spaced pages)
•    Deadline for submissions: March 1, 2011
•    Publication: early 2012


  1. gualtiero

    Can someone explain to me why it is that “EC rejects the view that cognition consists in computational, representational symbol manipulation”? Why do these people perceive an opposition between embodiment and “abstract” (whatever that means) symbol manipulation? It strikes me as a false contrast.

  2. Shannon

    Hi Gualtiero,

    The rejection of CRTM stems from J. J. Gibson’s account of ecological psychology. I think the main idea is that explaining our interactions does not require appeal to representational mental states. We don’t need to posit representations to explain how we navigate the world. This idea is adopted by embodied social cognition theorists. We don’t need to posit representations to explain how we navigate the *social* world. That’s the main idea. There are also other considerations: the symbol grounding problem, the hopelessness of the LOT (their words, not mine), and CRTM’s failure to appreciate the embodiment of organisms and how this affects cognition. These additional considerations lead theorists to argue: CRTM is unnecessary and hopelessly problematic.

    That’s the gist of the argument.

  3. Ken

    I think it is logically possible for cognition to be treated as computation and as implemented in the whole of the body, but Shannon is right that this is not how it usually goes. It seems to me to be a kind of deeply rooted part of the intellectual traditions of those who go for embodied cognition. So, if you read a lot of Descartes, Locke, Fodor, you think mental representations are fine. You read Dewey or some Phenomenologists you get anti-representationalism, hence (probably) anti-computationalism.

  4. gualtiero

    Thanks! If this is all there is to the opposition between EC and representationalism/computationalism, I have to insist that it’s a false contrast. These objections to cognitivism are logically independent of the view that cognition is embodied, and they are inconclusive. It would behoove EC theorists to stop claiming to stand in opposition to computationalism and representationalism, especially since computationalism and representationalism, at least in certain fairly weak versions, are empirically well supported and so are going to remain part of mainstream psychology and neuroscience.

  5. kenneth aizawa

    But, Gualtiero, this is a fight the Gibsonians want.  And, they know they are fighting the establishment.  I don’t really understand what is driving their anti-representationalism and their anti-establishment approach, but they are a committed lot.  And the Gibsonian approach is so different and so involved, I at least, am having a very difficult time getting any place to get traction against it.  So, in addition to their anti-representationalism, there appears to be resistance to the idea that vision begins with photon capture.  They seem to be resistant to mechanistic explanation.  I guess they hate about everything you love.  I’ve been arguing with some Gibsonians for a couple of weeks over at my blog and it’s really hard to find any common ground.

  6. Eric Thomson

    Their weird devotion to Gibson is almost Wittgensteinian in proportion. I typically don’t bother with them. I just produce a list of phenomena: dreams, hallucinations, bistable perception and other illusions, phantom limbs, people having experiences even during total muscular paralysis. I produce that list, and tell them when they have an account for such phenomena that is remotely plausible, then I’ll start talking to them again. Until then, I take them about as seriously as a philosophical behaviorist, probably their closest relative in the conceptual space of philosophical psychology.

  7. So, this is a research program that depends on false contrasts (Gualtiero), which offers no real proposals regarding the explanation of many phenomena (Eric), and seems focused on being anti-establishment (Aizawa).

    Now I am wondering: in what sense is this a research program, if it relies on false dichotomies, does not offer serious explanations of mental phenomena and is motivated primarily by sociological rather than empirical or theoretical considerations?

  8. As I see it, the real disagreement between EC and cognitivism is over how to explain the characteristic flexibility of intelligent behaviour, such as its stimulus-independence and its context-sensitivity.
    Cognitivism combines the Cartesian idea that such flexibility is the product of general-purpose reasoning with the assumption that computation is the only way to model such reasoning mechanistically. And because the reasoning in question is general-purpose, the representational states computed over are assumed to be context-independent, multiply-deployable, combinable, etc. – concepts, if you like.
    EC, on the other hand, begins by rejecting the Cartesian assumption: EC argues instead that stimulus-independent and context-sensitive behaviour can be accounted for in terms of interactions between the brain, body and environment of the cognizer, where the internal processes involved are special-purpose links between sensory input and motor output.
    The problem seems to arise when proponents of EC assume that because they don’t posit general-purpose reasoning, they can therefore reject computation and representation – when the most they’re entitled to claim is that they don’t have the same need to posit central processors and concept-like representations as traditional cognitivists do.

  9. kenneth aizawa

    Yes, there is a peculiar devotion to Gibson.

    I’ve sent them a relatively short paper on perception during neuromuscular blockade.  I’ve been working a simple amodal completion of a circle behind a square.  It seems to me that these are relatively simple and well-known phenomena, so that they should have something to say, but they do not seem to.  I get a lot of recitation of the party line.  There really is a lot of “philosophizing” rather than “psychologizing” it seems to me.

    I try to give them the benefit of the doubt.  I know it took me a long time to get what Chomsky was saying, which was never all that clear.  I think I had to read some actual linguistics.

  10. kenneth aizawa

    Zoe, I am not sure what examples you have of them discussing stimulus-independent things.  Stuff like catching a fly ball, jumping over fences, birds using optical flow, all seem to me to be pretty stimulus driven.  So, my comment is more in the spirit of a question, rather than a denial.

  11. kenneth aizawa

    Well, I do think that have some stuff going with stimulus-driven tasks, such as the “outfielder problem”.  There you don’t apparently need a model of the environment that you use to predict where to run to catch the ball.  And it’s true that you can get information by movement.  But, it seems to me they push these kinds of cases way too far. 

    I’m trying to come to grips with this stuff since it seems to drive a lot of the extended cognition stuff.  I don’t see that Andy Clark or maybe Dave Chalmers is much influenced by this, but Alva Noe seems to be.  Haugeland seems to have liked it.  Tony Chemero is really into it.  But, I just don’t get what they are up to. 

  12. kenneth aizawa

    Here is the depth of the difficulty.  They want to resist saying that the little piece of wood I am holding could either be a circular thing or a pac-man shaped thing where the “bite” is occluded by my thumb.  They will sometimes admit this, but it’s surprisingly hard to make this much progress.  Philosophers disagree about a lot of things, but this? 

  13. kenneth aizawa

    I guess I should add that this is the challenge I am having over at my blog.  But, Noe, who apparently has some Gibsonian sympathies, for example, is willing to admit the ambiguity in the physics and proposes a solution (or maybe solutions) in terms of the thing to which we have access via sensorimotor knowledge.  I don’t agree with Noe’s solution, but at least we agree on the physical possibilities.

  14. kenneth aizawa

    Let me add, before I try to get back to work, that I do not mean to dismiss Shannon’s project here.  I think that there is movement in social embodied cognition and that it is going to gather more attention.  I know that Geor Theiner, Colin Allen, and Robert Goldstone have a new paper in this are that I am betting is excellent.  I wish I had more time, and more importantly energy, to work on this.

  15. Shannon

    I don’t think EC is an obviously worthless (non)research program. For cognitivists who have tried to really engage with EC ideas, you know that it’s very challenging. The ideas may be wrong, but they are not stupid. And proving that they are wrong is actually quite difficult. EC’s starting point is just so radically different from the starting point of traditional cognitive science that it takes a lot of work for each side to understand the other side’s perspective. Thus, little progress is ever made. And *that* is exactly why I’m doing the special issue. I want to make clear what the debate really is about for each side, and in doing this we can actually make some headway on the debate.

  16. I guess I’m not thinking of EC as exhausted by Gibsonian psychology. The EC program in robotics tries to show how you can get the same responses from different stimuli or different responses from the same stimuli, without having to posit central control. Gibsonian idea about perception are better at dealing with the context-sensitivity aspect of things, by suggested that context can be supplied by the inputs themselves rather than having to combine them with stored knowledge representations. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that trying to understand EC as one coherent position will yield huge insights – it’s an umbrella term covering Heideggerian philosophy, Brooksian robotics, Gibsonian perceptual psychology, etc., each of which takes issue with a different aspect of cognitivism. Seeing them all as a debate over the primary source of cognitive flexibility is the closest I’ve found to a common denominator!

  17. I sympathise, Ken – here’s a way of thinking about EC that I’ve found helpful. Cognitivism buys into the Cartesian idea that theoretical rationality is primary: if we can explain logical thought processes, then those can in turn explain practical rationality. EC reverses this, suggesting that practical rationality is primary, and that theoretical rationality is a evolutionary add-on. The debate can then be seen as a disagreement about what the explanandum of cognitive science should be.
    Does this help at all?

  18. kenneth aizawa

    Well, I have heard this line about practical rationality first, but that doesn’t tell me why they think that practical rationality is non-representational, non-computational, does not begin with photoreceptor stimulation, and is anti-mechanistic.  Practical rationality first is not a bad idea, but these last strike me as bizarre.  It’s not just that I think these things are wrong (that happens a lot); it’s that I don’t see where it’s coming from.  Why does this collection of ideas have any appeal?

    Here’s what might work for me.
    Skinner thought he could extrapolate from what happens with Skinner boxes to much of cognition.
    Chomsky thought he could extrapolate from what happens with syntax acquisition to much of cognition.
    PDP folks thought they could extrapolate from what happens with variants of three-layer back-prop nets to much of cognition.
    Dynamical systems folks think they can extrapolate from finger-wagging to large parts of cognition.

    Maybe you can add that Heidegger thought you can extrapolate from using a hammer to large parts of cognition.

    But, with Gibson, what is the ur-case that is supposed to be the basis of the extrapolation?  I don’t see the “successful case” that inspires the approach.  Instead, I get these huge mass of terminology and polemic.  Maybe this is just a matter of expository style, but I don’t get it.  Maybe I’ve just not read the right parts of Gibson, (1979).  I’ve taken several runs at it over the years, but I pretty quickly lose interest and come to the conclusion that there are other things to read that are more worthwhile.  Life is short.

    If you could tell me the Gibsonian ur-case, that might help.

  19. Eric Thomson

    Kenneth your example with the potential pac-man disc is great!

    It would be nice to have a canonical research paper from a Gibsonian perspective, one with experimental data and results, one that is taken to support his position. I presented one in grad school on haptic interactions in determining the weight of an object. It was semi-interesting, though it is natural to think that a representational story will best explain the data.

    Gibson did provide some useful ideas that have largely been incorporated into “mainstream” approaches. First, he pointed us to some sources of information available from
    environment/organism interactions that people hadn’t considered enough
    before. E.g., optic flow, haptic interactions. Second, based on such considerations, he responded to
    runaway speculative models in cognitive psychology by pointing out that
    we could trim down the number and complexity of representational states
    required to explain behavior. Ultimately, it is an empirical question how much detail the brain builds into its representations of the world (though I think many of Gibson’s followers tend to act as if it is knowable a priori, and that the answer is that the brain doesn’t build representations at all).

    (Previous para is adapted from a comment I made at a Gibson-alloyed post here.)

  20. kenneth aizawa

    Glad you like the example, Eric. 

    I, too, would love just to have a straight experimental paper on this with the theory and the explanation.  I know they say that when the “mouth” is occluded (it really is a pac-man) one gets the *Gibsonian information* that it’s a circle, but that when the “mouth” is exposed one gets the *Gibsonian information* that it’s a pac-man.  But, the problem that Fodor and Pylyshyn complained about back in 1981 (or so) was that there is no adequate account of  *Gibsonian information*.  There is an ecological psychology reply to this paper (which I’ve got ordered via Interlibrary Loan), but I’m not optimistic.  Were that reply successful, I think that the answer to the pac-man case would have been readily forthcoming.  But ,we shall see.

    And, I agree with you that Gibson probably did have some good ideas, although I probably don’t have a very good idea exactly what those good ideas were.  The problem comes in the apparently overenthusiastic extrapolation.

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