Cognitive systems and the extended mind

Cognitive systems and the extended mind by Robert D. Rupert. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. 288. ISBN 9780195379457. $55 (Hb).

Reviewed by Lucas BiettiCenter for Interdisciplinary Memory Research, Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen

Robert D. Rupert proposes a system-based theory of cognitive processes to demarcate the boundaries of mental processes and thereby argue against the extended mind theory (EMT). The EMT, which is a relatively new hypothesis about the extended nature of the mind, claims that while some mental states and experiences can be defined internally, there are many in which the meaning attribution processes are highly influenced by external factors. That is, some environmental elements can have a crucial influence on cognitive processes. According to the EMT, cognition depends on multiple connections between the brain, body, and world—both the physical and social world. That is, cognitive processes are no longer simply characterized at an abstract, brain-bound, purely information-processing level, but as sets of interacting networks that integrate and synchronize the brain, body, and world in a functional and goal-oriented way.

R’s book is divided into three main parts. The first part discusses criteria for demarcating those elements causally active in driving cognitive processes and those that may trigger these processes but are not part of such systems. The author makes a clear distinction between the biological mechanisms responsible for cognitive processes and the social and material environments that trigger their activation. This demarcation of cognitive systems leads R to undermine the extended nature of (some) cognitive processes as maintained by advocates of the EMT.

In the second part R continues his attack on the EMT. His system-based theory places cognitive processes within the boundaries of the brain. In doing so, R gives further arguments to set clear boundaries between the causally active biological processes that determine mental states and constitute cognitive systems, and the external environment, which is essential to triggering these biological processes but is not part of our cognitive systems. As the EMT does not account for this distinction, R asserts that it fails to accomplish its main goal of an integrative functionalist account of how the mind works in everyday situations.

In the third part R further explains his system-based approach. He claims that his theory of cognition contributes to the research agenda of the brain-bound approaches in cognitive psychology. R maintains that those approaches have enabled cognitive psychology to become the most progressive discipline in the cognitive sciences.

Overall, this book is a remarkable attempt at developing a system-based theory on cognition that provides solid arguments against the EMT. R’s criticisms are very well elaborated and undoubtedly make an outstanding contribution to the current debates about the embodied and extended nature of the human mind.