• embodied cognition;
  • representationalism;
  • mechanism;
  • meaningful;
  • hermeneutics;
  • participation;
  • agency


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Embodied Cognition, Representationalism, and Mechanism: A Review and Analysis
  4. Themes of Embodied Cognition
  5. Challenging Representationalism in Embodied Cognition
  6. A Hermeneutic-Phenomenological Perspective
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Embodied cognition has attracted significant attention within cognitive science and related fields in recent years. It is most noteworthy for its emphasis on the inextricable connection between mental functioning and embodied activity and thus for its departure from standard cognitive science's implicit commitment to the unembodied mind. This article offers a review of embodied cognition's recent empirical and theoretical contributions and suggests how this movement has moved beyond standard cognitive science. The article then clarifies important respects in which embodied cognition has not departed fundamentally from the standard view. A shared commitment to representationalism, and ultimately, mechanism, suggest that the standard and embodied cognition movements are more closely related than is commonly acknowledged. Arguments against representationalism and mechanism are reviewed and an alternative position that does not entail these conceptual undergirdings is offered.

Embodied Cognition, Representationalism, and Mechanism: A Review and Analysis

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Embodied Cognition, Representationalism, and Mechanism: A Review and Analysis
  4. Themes of Embodied Cognition
  5. Challenging Representationalism in Embodied Cognition
  6. A Hermeneutic-Phenomenological Perspective
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Traditional cognitive science conceives of the mind as an abstract information processor, fundamentally computational in operation. Lakoff and Johnson (1999) referred to this traditional conception as a “disembodied mind” (p. 75); that is, a mind where the “peculiarities of the body and brain contribute nothing to the nature of human concepts and reason” (p. 76). Although the computational mind attributes little theoretical importance to what is often referred to as the mind's peripheral input and output devices (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999; Wilson, 2002; Osbeck, 2009), according to Wilson (2002), “there is a growing commitment to the idea that the mind must be understood in the context of its relationship to a physical body that interacts with the world” (p. 625). This commitment, as Lakoff and Johnson (1999) frame it, involves a study of the “embodied mind” (p. 77). This shift towards embodiment is described by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch (1991, p. 149) as involving a mind “inseparable from our bodies, our language, and our social history.” Many refer to this conceptual shift as embodied cognition (Varela et al., 1991; Wilson, 2002; Barsalou, 2010; Black, Segal, Vitale, & Fadjo, 2012).

In her widely cited analysis of this movement, Wilson (2002, p. 625) described embodied cognition in terms of claims such as “cognition is situated,” “the environment is part of the cognitive system” and “off-line cognition is body based.” Wilson then argued that these diverse claims are in need of clarification and evaluation if embodied cognition is to be retained as a viable theoretical concept. While her primary goal was to bring some specificity and clarity to the ideas underlying this emerging viewpoint—and, it may be inferred, to provide some degree of unity in this area of scholarship—embodied cognition continues to be marked by multiple interpretations of these claims and a variety of perspectives and emphases in general. Thus, while the productivity of embodied cognition's varied research programs can hardly be questioned, no univocal theoretical basis has been achieved. On the other hand, it seems clear at this juncture, notwithstanding the diversity associated with this movement, that its basic commitment to embodiment in the study of human cognition has proven capable of generating a sustained field of inquiry. For researchers in this area, the physical body has been, and continues to be, a significant factor in how humans perceive, comprehend, and act in the world.

The shift toward embodied cognition makes a distinct claim about inquiry into such phenomena—that it must be willing to go beyond the disembodied mind of western epistemology and psychological inquiry associated with that tradition. Central to this shift is the conviction that perception, thinking, use of metaphor, and related phenomena are inextricably connected with the physical-temporal position occupied by the body itself, including embodied perception, motility, perspective taking, and skilled activity in a world of physical objects and events. There is, in this sense, something significant about this departure from cognitive science. From this perspective at least, no longer can “cognitive” phenomena be seen as isolated within the province of inner mental space, operating independently of the physical environment, including one's own corporeality.

As we acknowledge the unique insights of the embodied cognition movement, we also suggest that the significance of this shift has been attenuated by its simultaneous perpetuation of a core assumption of traditional cognitive theorizing—viz., representationalism—which we will discuss here. As we will suggest, this assumption obstructs progress toward a greater understanding of humans as embodied agents. In our review of embodied cognition, then, we will not only summarize empirical literature regarding what this movement has accomplished in its brief history, but also discuss important questions raised with regard to its perpetuation of this assumption. We will pursue the latter part of this analysis by highlighting theoretical developments related to, but different than, work produced in the field of embodied cognition. The purpose of this review and analysis, then, is to help build a bridge between extant embodied cognition research and more theoretically radical alternatives, with the aim being a continued shift away from the constraints and pitfalls of standard cognitive science.

Themes of Embodied Cognition

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Embodied Cognition, Representationalism, and Mechanism: A Review and Analysis
  4. Themes of Embodied Cognition
  5. Challenging Representationalism in Embodied Cognition
  6. A Hermeneutic-Phenomenological Perspective
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Our review of embodied cognition is organized according to four prominent themes that cut across this area of research. These themes are:

  1. Embodied mind is comprised of body, environment/tools, social history, and internal representations.
  2. Memory is distributed across the body, environment, and tools and is encoded situationally.
  3. Language and abstract concepts are understood through situated embodied action.
  4. Perception and action are inseparable.

Theme 1: Embodied Mind

Clark and Chalmers (1998, p. 7) asked, “Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?” Their question is answered within this body of research as follows: the embodied mind includes the body (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999; Bechara, 2004; Allman, Hakeem, Erwin, Nimchinsky, & Hof, 2001; Varela et al., 1991; Carlson & Kenny, 2005; Gibbs, 2003, 2005, 2006), the environment/technology (Borghi, 2005; Goldstone, Feng, & Rogosky, 2005; Black et al., 2012; Hollan & Hutchins, 2010; Clark, 2010), and social history (MacWhinney, 2005; Zwaan & Madden, 2005).


The activities of a disembodied mind, ignoring the brain and body, are known as functional states, mental states, or in general, functionalism (Putnam, 1967). As we have already suggested, traditional cognitive scientists have assumed that the mind (e.g. cognitive functions, concepts, representations, and reason) could be studied ignoring the brain and body (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). In other words, from this perspective, the mind could be thought of as software and the brain and body as hardware, where the hardware is largely unrelated to the functioning of the software. On the other hand, embodied cognitive scientists have found that conceptual structures and practical know-how often arise from situated embodied experience (Varela et al., 1991; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). This means that in keeping with the software/hardware metaphor, researchers have found that embodiment—the hardware—did actually influence cognitive functions—that is, the software—contrary to the beliefs of traditional cognitive science. As we will clarify, perceiving color (Varela et al., 1991), perceiving space (Carlson & Kenny, 2005), and understanding metaphors (Gibbs, 2003, 2005, 2006) illustrate how the body is involved in cognition.

According to Varela et al (1991), color is made possible through the embodied categorization of perceptual experience. That is, an embodied mind categorizes colors based on the retina's three cone cells that sense long-wave, middle-wave, and short-wave light. These visual sensors see various hues of red, green, yellow, and blue. The disembodied mind, on the other hand, could not perceive color as it is seen, as there would be no body to make this physical experience possible. For instance, a person blind from birth would not experience color sensations and would not know what it is like to see color or fully understand color (Harman, 1996) nor would a disembodied mind. Quite simply, visual perception relies heavily on physical embodiment, which offers a paradigm case of how embodiment shapes the experience of cognition.

The body's role in cognition is also illustrated by how people perceive space through the manipulation of physical objects (Carlson & Kenny, 2005). It stands to reason that a disembodied mind could not rely on the manipulation of objects to understand spatial relationships between those objects, as the very embodiment needed to perform such a manipulation would be obviously lacking; thus, a disembodied mind could only deal with abstract mental concepts such as geometry. Studies have shown, however, that spatial placement decisions of objects paired with functionally compatible objects were guided by the paired objects' combined functionality, as well as by an understanding of geometry (Carlson & Kenny, 2005). For example, when a toothbrush was placed horizontally on a table and participants were asked to place a tube of toothpaste (i.e. functionally compatible object) above the toothbrush, the toothpaste tended to be placed above the bristles with the tube lid facing the bristles more often than when participants were given the same task with a similarly shaped tube of acrylic paint (i.e. functionally non-compatible object). Thus, one's understanding and interpretation of the spatial word “above” involves that individual's past embodied experience with, and physical manipulation of, the referenced objects.

Perhaps the most well-known example of the role of embodiment in cognitive functioning, however, concerns how the body is involved in understanding metaphors and how metaphors correlate strongly to everyday embodied experience (Gibbs, 2003, 2006). For example, the act of standing up is an everyday embodied experience. The metaphor “standing up for a cause,” then, is understood because of a person's embodied experience with the act of physically standing up, perhaps to be seen, heard, or to take action. Other examples include being weighed down by an issue, being bowled over by a new idea, and thirsting for knowledge (Gibbs, 2003; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). According to Lakoff and Johnson (1999), primary metaphors (i.e. frequently used metaphor categories) all arise out of embodied functioning in the world. On the other hand, understanding metaphors would be impossible for the disembodied mind since it could make no reference to the bodily experiences that gives rise to metaphorical meaning.


In addition to the physical body, the embodied mind includes the environment and tools. As a number of studies have suggested (Black et al., 2012; Borghi, 2005; Clark, 2010; Clark & Chalmers, 1998; Goldstone et al., 2005; Hollan & Hutchins, 2010; Kirsh & Maglio, 1994; Wilson, 2002) both the naturally occurring environment and physical tools can be seen as enabling cognitive resources. Because the environment tends to have a reliable presence as it is physically sensed, studies have suggested that a person's cognitive function capacities evolve in ways that rely on the environment for cognitive short-cuts (via tools) and exploit the possibilities of the environment's reliability (Clark & Chalmers, 1998). In this sense, there is a fundamental coupling of person and environment during cognition. Additionally, tools typically offer cognitive operations that facilitate those naturally occurring in the brain (Clark, 2001); for example, some tools such as hand-held calculators solve mentally time-consuming mathematical problems and thus, become part of the embodied mind as a person engages in this cognitive labor (Clark, 2001, 2010; Kirsh & Maglio, 1994).

Social history

The embodied mind depends on social history, cultural embeddedness, and tradition (Varela et al., 1991). Much in the same way that cognitive functions are hypothesized to have evolved via a fundamental coupling with environment and tools, from this perspective, they also evolve along lines provided by social history. For example, studies in language comprehension suggest that children create “cognitive pathways” and “mental models” supported by their culture based on exposure to their culture's spoken language (MacWhinney, 2005). Another example of this reliance on social history is apparent in the act of understanding metaphors. According to Gibbs (2003), metaphors are understood through their correlation to everyday, embodied experience set against a shared, historical backdrop. For example, a person without a fishing background would have difficulty understanding phrases like the project hit a snag, bottom feeding, there are plenty of other fish in the sea, and she reeled in another customer.

Internal representations

Despite a number of divergences between embodied and standard cognitive science, both are committed to the existence and explanatory relevance of representationalism. Internal representations are typically thought of as symbols with attached properties like internal entities, and one's experience of the world occurs by way of representations qua mental replicas of one's sensory input actually “inside” the mind or body itself. Although embodied cognition researchers often draw a distinction between amodal (non-body-based) and modal (body-based) representations—rejecting the former and emphasizing the latter—they remain true to representationalism in general and, in this sense, share a fundamental commitment with standard cognitive science. As Chemero (2009) stated, speaking generally of this emerging movement, “… embodied cognitive science is still a computational theory of mind” (p. 27) and “… embodied cognitive scientists typically are not antirepresentationalists” (p. 26). Evidence of this commitment to representationalism is clear in the work of a large number of embodied cognition researchers (e.g., Adams & Aizawa, 2009; Barsalou, 2010; Gibbs, 2006; Glenberg, 1997; Keijzer, 2002; Markman & Brendl, 2005; Markman & Dietrich, 2000; Pecher & Zwaan, 2005; Prinz, 2005), perhaps spelled out most clearly in Wilson's analysis (2002), which referred to the “build up” of “robust detailed representations with repeated exposure” (p. 632) as a central theme of this approach. Thus, as a considerable volume of literature has demonstrated, embodied cognition, notwithstanding its emphasis on the body's role in cognitive functioning, explicitly theorizes the existence of internal representations.

Theme 2: Memory

The second theme of embodied cognition, following from the first, suggests that memory is distributed across the body, environment, and tools and is encoded situationally. In traditional cognitive science, encoding occurs as sensory stimuli are transformed into representations, stored in memory as mental constructs, and retrieved by being accessed and brought into conscious awareness. Embodied cognition expands the concept of memory to include the whole body as a mechanism for storage and retrieval, involving encoding processes at the sensorimotor level (Wilson, 2002) as well as “off-loading” memories even further to the environment and tools (Hollan & Hutchins, 2010; Clark, 2001; Kirsh & Maglio, 1994).

Non-mental representations are thought to be evident in studies of rehearsal loops (Gupta & MacWhinney, 1995), phonological speech processing (LeCompte, Neely, & Wilson, 1997), sign language (Wilson & Emmorey, 1998), and how a cockpit “remembers” (Hutchins, 1995). For example, according to Wilson (2001), sign language offers a form of bodily, non-mental representation in that during sign language, deaf persons' memories are encoded serially in terms of physical motion in space (e.g. hand and arm forms, relation of hands to torso, movement, etc.) rather than in terms of abstract symbols. In Wilson's study, deaf participants outperformed hearing subjects on a backward report task (i.e. retaining serial order while reversing the order). That is, deaf participants could remember the reverse order of a signed conversation more easily than hearing subjects could remember the reverse order of a spoken conversation. This finding suggested that deaf participants were retaining the memory of the signs “in some form that is amenable to the task of reversing the order” (Wilson, 2001, p. 51) and lends support for the idea of bodily, non-mental representations.

Embodied cognition research suggests that embodied memory is encoded according to situational frequency and contiguity, in that bodily “memories” are stored with links to other memories of similar experiential situations (Zwaan & Madden, 2005). Similar to Hebb's (1949) early cognitive theorizing, a “co-occurrence” mechanism is assumed to establish linkages between these stored memories. Investigations of mouth shapes connected to certain words (Bloom, 2000; McGurk & MacDonald, 1976) and objects connected to spoken sound patterns (Carey & Barlett, 1978) provide some evidence of co-occurrence encoding, as do simple relations in memory such as when experience leads one to believe that clouds are generally found in the sky, due to clouds and sky being situationally contiguous and encoded as such.

Theme 3: Language and Abstract Concepts

For embodied cognition, language is grounded in situated, embodied experience. Language becomes understandable only when it is mapped to experiences that are already understandable in a fully-embodied, rather than symbol manipulating, sense (Glenberg, Havas, Becker, & Rinck, 2005). This can be seen, for instance, when looking up words in a foreign language dictionary only to find other foreign words that lack familiarity—a hypothetical instance of what is known more generally as the symbol grounding problem; but resolution to this problem is initiated when a foreign word is grounded in something familiar to one's embodied experience (Harnad, 1990), such as being physically shown how a certain set of symbols—for example, the English word “bow”—points connotatively or denotatively to a fully-embodied way of expressing veneration and some type of corresponding representation is formed. (As we will suggest later, however, the symbol grounding problem might not be resolved so easily.) From the perspective of embodied cognition, then, it would be predicted that concrete concepts are better understood through situated, embodied experience. For example, as Borghi (2005) suggests, the fairly concrete concept of a “computer” is understood by physically interacting with a particular computer (e.g. pushing keys on the keyboard, moving the mouse, clicking, and so on). Does it then follow that more abstract concepts are less able to be understood through situated, embodied action? Standard cognitive science would say yes, given the standard view that abstract concepts are decontextualized, enduring mental representations (Gibbs, 2006). However, embodied cognition researchers would say no. Studies on context availability (Schwanenflugel, 1991), word-meaning association (Murphy & Medin, 1985), and metaphor (Gibbs, 2005) show that abstract concepts are also understood by situated, embodied actions. For example, freedom can be understood by choice among alternatives, the full payment of a debt, the release from jail, obtaining a driver's license, and voting in a democratic election, which are all situated, embodied activities. Conversely, embodied cognition studies have suggested that people generally have difficulty learning abstract concepts removed from practical contexts that involve relevant, embodied action (Barsalou & Wiemer-Hasting, 2005).

Theme 4: Perception and Action

A fourth theme of embodied cognition concerns the inseparability of perception and action. Perception is traditionally defined as the building up of mental representations of the world by processing information inputs (Gibbs, 2006; Wilson, 2002). The embodied cognitive scientist adds the idea that perception is built up through functional actions, as opposed to sensory input alone (Wilson, 2002; Gibbs, 2006; Carlson & Kenny, 2005). For example, when participants in a study were asked to place a wig “above” a curling iron, they usually placed the wig above the functional tip of the curling iron, not above the center or above the plug end (Carlson & Kenny, 2005). This study suggested that the word “above” was understood through embodied experience with the curling iron and its functional properties in physical space (i.e., the actual experience of curling hair with the hot metal part); thus, the perception of objects in space was built up through the physical act of curling hair. Stated differently, there is no completely abstract, disembodied perception of space (Gibbs, 2006). From the embodied cognition view, it might be stated that perception is inevitably coupled with embodied action, or that perception and action “co-determine” one another (Gibbs, 2006, p. 45). Color perception offers a case in point. Studies of various animals' different perceptual experiences with color show that these differences partially arise from their co-evolution with the environment in regard to the functional use of color. For example, bees have color vision that is shifted toward detecting flowers, and flowers have colors that shifted towards being seen by bees (Thompson, Palacios, & Varela, 1992).

Challenging Representationalism in Embodied Cognition

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Embodied Cognition, Representationalism, and Mechanism: A Review and Analysis
  4. Themes of Embodied Cognition
  5. Challenging Representationalism in Embodied Cognition
  6. A Hermeneutic-Phenomenological Perspective
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

As our review suggests, embodied cognition demonstrates a marked shift away from the disembodied mind of standard cognitive science to an embodied, environmentally-extended mind. This conceptual shift has yielded significant contributions to the literature, including broader, deeper, and more sophisticated understandings of cognitive phenomena such as perception and memory. With its emphasis on how thinking fundamentally entails the whole body, culture, and physical tools, it seems clear that embodied cognition has given rise to new areas of study and expanded the domain of what can be considered “cognitive.” Perhaps more fundamental than the innovative research and theorizing produced by embodied cognitive scientists, however, are the unique possibilities raised by this movement. The theoretical nature of mind presents something of a watershed issue in the field—a transition point that divides theorizing along the lines of abstract, disembodied cognizing, on the one hand, and fully-embodied, environmentally-embedded thought and action on the other. Two general lines of scholarship then follow, one continuing with standard theory and paradigms of research, another moving into the frontier of human embodiment and extended mental life.

Notwithstanding the important differences between standard and embodied cognition, we wish to suggest that some conceptual overlap between these movements remains. Indeed, as we have suggested, it appears that a good deal of scholarship within embodied cognition continues to be based on the same representationalism, or closely related varieties, as assumed in standard cognitive science and thus perpetuates the kind of theorizing that has overwhelmingly issued from psychological studies of cognition over the last sixty years. We wish to focus on representationalism because it is, in the estimation of many, the most obvious yet also the most suspect assumption if one wishes to move beyond the limitations of past theorizing (see discussion that follows). The very idea of representationalism has been discussed at length in the philosophical and psychological literatures and has generated a sizable historical record of argumentation on both sides of the debate. While we cannot review this extended historical discussion, we can present what we take to be the most relevant concerns with this assumption and offer one alternative form of theorizing in this area.

Representationalism in Embodied Cognition

Central to representationalism, at least within the literature of cognitive science, is the explicit or implicit proposition that reality is experienced indirectly through internal representations or inner replicas of an external world—that is, through schemas of various sorts based on sensory input. In this sense, representationalism suggests that one's involvement in the world is had only via an internal model of one's sensory experience, not in or with the world itself (Chemero, 2009); all one can know, then, is his or her representation of an external world. This concept of representationalism goes far back in history, perhaps starting with Aristotle's description of ideas and famously advocated in Locke's concept of the sense-datum and tabula rasa. In recent times, Fodor (1981) described mental representations as follows:

Mental representations are symbols: they have both formal and semantic properties … Mental representations have their causal roles by virtue of their formal properties … Propositional attitudes inherit their semantic properties from those of the mental representations (p. 26).

Although embodied cognition advocates have challenged the standard view by placing the experienced body at the center of their accounts, and by extending mind beyond the boundaries of the cranium, many researchers are unabashed in their commitment to representationalism of a fairly traditional sort. This commitment can be seen in the empirical literature we have reviewed here (as we suggested above), and especially in the explicit support given to representationalism by many within the embodied cognition movement (e.g., Adams & Aizawa, 2009; Barsalou, 2010; Gibbs, 2006; Wilson, 2002).

Others in the field have rejected the traditional notion of representations as contents occupying a private mental space, but retained representationalism in alternative manifestations. One leading advocate of embodied cognition in psychology, for instance, has theorized the existence of bodily forms of representation, including “body schemas” (Gibbs, 2006, p. 29) and “image schemas” (p. 90). As one might expect, body schemas are offered as explanatory structures that account for how one's body is able to continuously engage in coordinated motion, adjust its position in space, maintain a sense of balance, and so on. Likewise, image schemas are offered as explanatory structures that account for how people construct their experience of motion and spatial relations out of basic sensorimotor processes such as motor movement and perception. What is given up in such accounts is the private mind and its content that putatively map an external reality; they are replaced with an appeal to embodied representations as the means by which bodily ways of knowing are possible. Thus, a commitment to mentalism is relinquished here, but not a commitment to representationalism; representationalism of one sort is replaced by another.

In the philosophical literature, the concept of representationalism has been reworked in ways beyond mental and bodily. For example, Wheeler (2010) has championed a “minimal” representationalist view that rejects the disembodied, acontextuality of standard cognitive science, but nonetheless calls for modal representations invoked to make action possible at a given moment in a specific context. Similarly, some work associated with the extended mind hypothesis (e.g., Clark, 2011; Rowlands, 2006) evinces a modest commitment to representationlism, as it suggests that embodiment must entail some representation of how to respond to the world, even if representation of an external reality per se is not plausible. And Ramsey (2007) has argued that while many previous efforts to theorize representations have been plagued by conceptual and practical problems, the bare concept of representationalism is all that stands between a progressive cognitive science and a reversal towards behaviorism. Work in this vein seems to suggest that representationalism in some form is inevitable if human thought and action are to be viewed as anything but immediate brute motor responses to the environment without the possibility of complex cognitive functioning.

Against Representationalism

Radical embodied cognitive science

Despite the broad acceptance of internal representations within embodied cognition, a small minority has rejected this basic assumption (Chemero, 2009; Gallagher, 2008; Shapiro, 2011). To consider two prominent examples, Gallagher (2008) has persuasively challenged the view that even minimal representations are needed to explain purposive thought and action while Chemero (2009, p. 29) has advanced radical embodied cognitive science, defined as “the scientific study of perception, cognition, and action as necessarily embodied phenomenon, using explanatory tools that do not posit mental representations.” Gallagher and Chemero both argue that mental representations are unnecessary or at least not the best theoretical option for explaining human cognition.

Gallagher contends that the concept of representation is explanatorily empty and provides no real insight into the nature of human thought and action—it is a concept merely invoked to count as an explanation. As he remarked in his analysis of several leading embodied cognition models:

… a representation is not an explanans that does any work itself. It's a concept under which one still needs all the explanation to be made. Furthermore, the risk is that representational accounts lead to temptations of bestowing ontological status, i.e., that there really are discrete representations in the system and that they are something more than what a motor control system does as part of the action itself. (2008, p. 365; italics in the original)

Chemero, who has similar theoretical leanings, contends that research in this area would benefit from adoption of the “dynamical stance” (p. 67)—which holds that “one must have the dynamical story first, before one can concoct a representational story” (Chemero, 2009, p. 73) and that the “representational story could be told but … [is] not particularly relevant, because the dynamical … explanation tells us everything important about the system” (p. 72). In making this argument, Chemero (2009, p. 68) references van Gelder's (1995) use of the Watt governor as the example of such a dynamical system. A Watt governor is used to mechanically control the speed of a steam engine. The “dynamical story” of the Watt governor is mathematical. Since the Watt governor's behavior can be predicted mathematically, the dynamical explanation is a formula with variables like arm angle, change in arm angle, and engine speed. Once the formula is known, a “representational story” like a computerized version can be described, which would include a program of measuring, comparing, and calculating. However, as Chemero (2009) points out, the “representational story” is superfluous to explaining the Watt governor since the “dynamical story” pre-exists the representational one.

Chemero (2009) also finds evidence for the nonrepresentationalist view in studies of robotics. In these studies, it appears that “the robots get by not just without a set of representations constructed by their builders, but without any representations at all” (p. 74). That is, the robots “get by” via their coupling with the environment, thus constituting a dynamical system. The robot's sensors and motors respond to environmental cues no matter where the robot finds itself without the need for a representational model of the environment. By placing the robot in the environment and building it to respond appropriately to the actual environment, there was no need to pre-build a representational model or even have the robot accumulate and store the environmental data. As these theorists argued, a representational model of the environment would not have helped the robot perform its tasks any better because the robot was able to actually sense the environment directly. In other robotics research (Webb, 1996), a female robot cricket was designed to hear and identify a male robot cricket's song and then relocate to find the male robot cricket. As Clark (2001, p. 130) described:

There is no need, for example, to actively discriminate the song of your own species, because the specifics of your auditory system are structurally incapable of generating the directional response to other sounds. Nor, of course, do you bother to build a model of your local surroundings so as to plan a route. Instead, you (the cricket) exploit neat tricks, heuristics, and features of your body and world. Moreover you … seem to succeed without relying on anything really worth calling internal representations.

Chemero's (2009) thesis that mental representations are unnecessary as explanatory tools gains support in robot-environment coupling and other findings (e.g., Clark, 2001). Although we do not wish to equate humans with robots, these studies suggest that if robots get by without representations, then perhaps humans do also, or perhaps a new human cognition paradigm is at least possible. In any event, the analyses of these authors suggest that possibilities beyond representationalism have considerable potential for taking account of embodied human action. From this perspective, it seems that if representationalism is explanatorily empty, then a good deal of its allure is lost and nonrepresentationalist approaches should be taken seriously as alternative ways of conceptualizing cognitive phenomena.

Ecological psychology

Arguments from ecological psychology have similarly called representationalism into question. As Greeno (1994) has argued, from this perspective, the practice of using mental representations as explanatory tools is scientifically unproductive; more particularly, representationalism is too simple a theoretical concept for making sense of complex human cognition. Perhaps the most fundamental problem concerns the representationalist commitment to factoring—that is, the joining of the external-physical world with the internal-mental world and the encoding of experiences with external reality into mental representations. Although Greeno has not offered a detailed articulation of his concerns with factoring and related issues, he seemed to struggle with the same problem as others in the history of western science and philosophy, namely, understanding how sense impressions are encoded into coherent perceptions and organized into accessible representations for later use; and how one can know that any internal representation is an accurate depiction of a separate, external reality. Given the complexity of human perception, thought, and action in physical space, developing a defensible representationalist theory is no trivial task. As philosophical history has suggested, factoring offers no adequate solution to this problem (Heidegger, 1962; Merleau-Ponty, 1962) and thus, in the estimation of many who reject epistemic dualism, factoring fails to offer a convincing account of mind and world. Given the importance of factoring to representationalist views of cognition, the failure of factoring is tantamount to a failure of representationalism itself.

Also opposed to representationalism, Gibson (1966, 1972; see also Costall, 2011; Heft, 2003) found that perception was better explained by an unmediated organism-environment connection than by appeals to mental representations, factoring, and related concepts from mainstream cognitive science. Gibson's studies suggested that perception of the world was not a function of isolated anatomical structures (e.g., eyes, optic nerve, brain) in combination with internal representational systems, operating on information inputted from an external reality; rather, perception was the function of a fully-embodied, active organism in immediate contact with the world around it. From this perspective, it might be said that brains do not perceive and process information; rather, whole animals experience and act on the physical world in which they are situated. His was a theory of direct perception, then, in that no representations were hypothesized to mediate between organism and reality. Gibson's theory of affordance fits with his account of perception in that affordances are congruently and directly available in the ecology to the organism, given that organism's physical features and forms of motility. Gibson's research efforts demonstrated that a representational view was not required to make sense of data regarding visual perception and related phenomena. Gibson's legacy, then, is a theory of direct perception buttressed with a body of research that runs counter to representationalist theorizing.

The “bodily turn” in anthropology and sociology

An important shift away from classic western dualism and representationalism, outside of psychology, concerns what has been termed the “bodily turn” (Ignatow, 2007, p. 116) in anthropology and sociology. Led chiefly by theoretical work that treats the human body as much more than a “marginal social fact” (Van Wolputte, 2004)—that is, as something more than a vehicle of communication or a repository of internal representations—work in this area has highlighted the ways in which skillful human participation in everyday life is inextricably tied to corporeality, with the fully-embodied, cultural self-viewed as an agent of social practice, reproduction, demarcation, and transformation (for examples of this theorizing, see Bourdieu, 1977; Comaroff, 1985; Csordas, 1994, 1999; Ignatow, 2012; Ingold, 2000, 2001; Mauss, 1979; Van Wolputte, 2004; Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992). From this perspective, there is a fundamental relationship between embodiment and cultural life, in that one's bodily involvement in the world might be thematically described as the “existential condition in which culture and self are grounded” (Csordas, 1993, p. 136). As a turn away from classic western dualism and representationslism, these theorists have put to use well-known concepts such as Bourdieu's (1977) habitus, Merleau-Ponty's (1962) pre-reflective consciousness, and a fundamental holism (Bourdieu, 1977; Ingold, 2000; Ignatow, 2007, 2012; see also essays in Csordas, 1994) that treats the embodied agent as an ontologically unitary participant, engaged, coping, and becoming skillful in cultural forms of life via one's fully-embodied practical involvement.

While embodied cognition and work within the “bodily turn” overlap in several important respects, due to their simultaneous interest in the body's role in social life and cognition, it also seems clear that embodied cognition has not fully embraced the more holistic thrust of “bodily turn” theorizing. As Ignatow (2007, 2012) has argued, experimental work within embodied cognition has offered growing evidence for what both they and embodiment-oriented theorists in anthropology and sociology have emphasized. At the same time, embodied cognition research and theorizing—taking place mostly within psychology and cognitive science research programs—have not identified with or assimilated many of the non-representationalist arguments of “bodily turn” anthropologists and sociologists and continue to treat cognitive phenomena in ways that presuppose the necessity of representations in some form. Thus, the gap between these movements has much to do with the core concept of representationalism, which scholars in the “bodily turn” of anthropology and sociology have explicitly or implicitly rejected, whereas those working in embodied cognition have not.

Representationalism and Mechanism

To reject representationalism is to reject a core concept of cognitive science and would seem to have significant implications for theory and research. On one construal, rejecting mental representations is, ipso facto, a reinstatement of behaviorism, which for most cognitive scientists would count as a retrograde step (Ramsey, 2007). While representationalism has been theorized in a number of ways (e.g., Gallagher, 2005; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999; Ramsey, 2007; Rowland, 2006; Wheeler, 2005), the notion that “the most important explanatory posit today in cognitive research is the concept of representation” (Ramsey, 2007, p. xi) seems to capture much of the theoretical spirit in any form of cognitive science. It is implied, if not explicitly stated, by many that representations of some kind are the defining feature of a cognitive system (e.g., Adams & Aizawa, 2009; Gibbs, 2006; Keijzer, 2002; Ramsey, 2007), and thus a system without genuine representations is not genuinely cognitive. Fears of a behaviorist renaissance may then take on a kind of urgency as representationalism is either rejected outright or redefined in ways that seem to eradicate its cognitivist character.

Concerns about a behaviorist renaissance are surely understandable from this perspective. If one assumes the traditional mechanistic picture of psychology and related disciplines, then behaviorism—as the mechanistic fallback position—offers relatively little with which to take account of complex mental phenomena that are the hallmark of cognitive science. It seems fairly obvious, at this juncture, that behaviorism leaves the field with a relatively impoverished set of conceptual resources for making progress beyond what has been accomplished in both cognitive science and ecological psychology over the past several decades.

This observation about behaviorism is telling; it suggests that the appeal of representationalism is at least partly a consequence of a rather firm commitment to the philosophical assumption of mechanism in both embodied and standard cognitive science. As different as these two movements may be, both are mechanistic in that each takes explanation to occur via the identification of causal variables or processes, ideally subsumed under covering laws and fitting into a machine-like deterministic order. To be sure, this underlying commitment to mechanism is nearly ubiquitous in the history of psychology (see historical analyses by Leahey, 2003; Rychlak, 1988; Slife & Williams, 1995) and has been explicitly endorsed as a unifying framework for explanation in the field (e.g., Bechtel & Wright, 2009). Moreover, this commitment is not difficult to identify in the work of both standard and embodied cognitive scientists, as they both appeal to models that posit causal variables organized into machine-like models of human mental phenomena. Even some positions within embodied cognition that explicitly reject representationalism, such as that of Chemero (2009), are essentially mechanistic in nature. Indeed, historical metaphors such as serial and parallel processing computers, feature detection, networks, and even centripetal governors offer evidence of the mechanistic thrust of scholarship in this area. For our purposes, however, most important is the observation that, given a commitment to mechanism, representationalism is viewed as the key concept with which to mount one's stand against behaviorism, and without it, the only viable (or nearly viable) mechanistic alternative—besides the anti-psychological doctrine of biological reductionism—is some form of behaviorist theorizing.

We suggest another direction. If a commitment to mechanism requires choosing between representationalism and behaviorism, and if neither offers a satisfactory account of human action and experience, then it seems reasonable to consider possibilities that obviate this choice altogether. While we acknowledge the near ubiquity of mechanistic theorizing in the history of psychology and related fields, we suggest that theoretical alternatives are compelling and closer to the spirit of the embodied cognition movement than may be commonly recognized. Attempts to move beyond the representationalism and mechanism of cognitive science—provided by Gibson, other ecological psychologists, and the bodily turn theorists of sociology and anthropology—have done much to show richer possibilities when taking account of human cognition and learning in context. In this same vein, we will suggest how a hermeneutic-phenomenological perspective provides additional conceptual resources for the development of non-mechanistic, non-representational approaches.

A Hermeneutic-Phenomenological Perspective

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Embodied Cognition, Representationalism, and Mechanism: A Review and Analysis
  4. Themes of Embodied Cognition
  5. Challenging Representationalism in Embodied Cognition
  6. A Hermeneutic-Phenomenological Perspective
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

A Hermeneutic Analysis of Representationalism

Our attempt to go beyond representationalism and mechanism emphasizes the hermeneutic-phenomenological work of Martin Heidegger (1962), Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962), and others of a similar stripe (e.g., Guignon, 2002; Dreyfus, 1992, 2002; Taylor, 1985, 1995), which not only offers helpful resources for reconceptualizing traditional accounts of meaningful human phenomena—as seen in the “bodily turn” and in hermeneutic theorizing—but also has been cited by some embodied cognition theorists as a source of their thinking with respect to the body's role in cognitive processes (e.g., Anderson, 2003; Gallagher, 2005; Gibbs, 2006; Varela et al., 1991). While appeals to the work of Merleau-Ponty in particular are evident in the embodied cognition literature, it is not clear that work in this area reflects the direct influence of his theorizing. To be sure, some have adopted Merleau-Ponty's emphasis on embodiment as a central aspect of human existence, but, as we have argued, that emphasis has often been mixed with a form of mechanism that is far from harmonious with the broader hermeneutic-phenomenological project of which Merleau-Ponty's work was a major contribution (e.g., Gibbs, 2006).

Most significant for our purposes is the hermeneutic-phenomenological rejection of representationalism, on the grounds that it presupposes an ontological divide between the person and the world he or she inhabits (see analyses by Guignon, 2002; Heidegger, 1962; Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Taylor, 1995). As should be clear, this implicit dualism brings with it historically-noted problems, especially concerning how an inner realm of experience and an outer realm of physical objects come into contact with one another, how mind and body as separate ontological substances interact, how one can know that internal representations faithfully correspond to an outer reality, and so on. Arguments along these lines usually oppose the idea of mind as a separate, internal realm and the representationalist view which conceptualizes the person as a spectator “who reflects on the world from a distance” (Westerman & Steen 2007, p. 326).

More germane to theories of embodied cognition, however, is the observation that representationalism entails what might be referred to as an indexing problem (see also the symbol grounding problem; Harnad, 1990). As Merleau-Ponty (1962) and Dreyfus (2002) have pointed out, if internal representations are what enable one to sensibly perceive, understand, and act in the world, then there must be some mechanism by which incoming information can be indexed or connected with the appropriate internal representations such as schemas—a challenging prospect when one considers that any perceived situation entails a virtually unlimited number of features that may be attended to, depending on one's prior experiences, purposes, or perspective. Such a process logically presupposes that the incoming information has already been “processed” in some way—that is, organized and understood—in order to be correctly indexed, which of course begs the question of how that incoming information was processed prior to being connected with the representation theorized to perform this organizing and understanding function. Also problematic from this perspective is the formation of representations. If internal representations are required to process information, then it remains unclear as to how initial representations in an information processing system could be encoded from the initial, unorganized information (Ingold, 2001; Slife, 1995). On the other hand, if incoming information can be processed independent of representations en route to being encoded, for example, in the case of initial representations, then it remains unclear why a model of human thought or action requires representation at all.

Prospects for embodied cognitive science fair no better under behaviorism, as we have already suggested, given that behaviorism offers little in the way of theoretical resources for making sense of complex cognitive phenomena. From a hermeneutic perspective, the primary task under these circumstances is not deciding between some form of representationalism and some form of behaviorism—both outgrowths of a mechanistic worldview—but reconsidering the commitment to mechanism that gives rise to this kind of decision in the first place. Although arguments against mechanism are implicit in the work of early hermeneutic-phenomenologists such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, they are explicit in the writings of later hermeneutic philosophers such as Dreyfus (1992), Taylor (1985), and Guignon (2002) as well as in the work of hermeneutic-oriented psychologists such as Fuller (1990); Martin, Sugarman, & Thompson (2003); Richardson, Fowers, & Guignon, 1999; Slife and Williams (1995); and Yanchar (2011). According to these writers, mechanism fails as a fundamental assumption of the human sciences in that it leads to theories which ignore or distort a good deal of what is central to a meaning-based account of human life and experience. From this perspective, what is fundamental about human life is missed by traditional theorizing that emphasizes the subject/object split, the postulation of determinant variables, and related concepts; indeed, a more primordial understanding of human existence cannot be grasped from this mechanistic viewpoint. And that more primordial understanding is characterized chiefly by meaningful engagement in the world—the very phenomenon, writ large, that mechanism fails to adequately grasp. Indeed, mechanism was historically employed to avoid accounts that emphasize meaning and purpose as an integral part of natural phenomena. The mechanical universe of the modern period, for instance, was expressly theorized to operate according to impersonal forces—such as universal gravitation, electromagnetism, and laws of motion—that possess no intrinsic purpose or meaningfulness and that offer no space for meaning to be invoked. Human sciences following this pattern then provide theoretical accounts of psychological and sociological phenomena that fit within this mechanistic world picture and thus make little connection with the more fundamental meaning and purpose of human life as actually lived. The problematic consequences of this pattern, such as a distorted view of human existence, the loss of personal responsibility, and nihilism, have been explored at length elsewhere (e.g., Bernstein, 1983; Danziger, 1997; Gantt, 2001; Richardson, Fowers, & Guignon, 1999; Rychlak, 1988; Slife, Reber, & Richardson, 2005; Slife & Williams, 1995; Taylor, 1985).

Participational Agency

But arguments against representationalism and mechanism say little, except by implication, regarding how human action may be more productively theorized. As we have suggested, the work of hermeneutic-phenomenological philosophers such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty offers a coherent, and we think compelling, alternative basis for conceptualizing human action and experience. Thorough coverage of these ideas lies beyond the scope of this discussion; interested readers are directed to their major writings (Heidegger, 1962, 1968, 1977; Merleau-Ponty, 1962, 1963, 1968) and interpretations by others (e.g., Carman & Hansen, 2005; Dillon, 1988; Dreyfus, 1991; Gelven, 1989; Johnson & Smith, 1990; Polt, 1999). We can, however, provide a general idea of what a hermeneutic-phenomenological turn would imply for theory and research in this area.

We wish to do so first, at the broadest level of conceptualization, by drawing a distinction between two conceptions of humanity. One is mechanistic, which we have already addressed. This view of the world, while taken to be axiomatic in the enlightenment period and extending forward in the basic assumptions of some scholarly fields, presupposes a view of human existence devoid of genuine meaningfulness and possibility; it is a fixed, closed world of endless actuality. In this conception, explanation is the ultimate aim of inquiry and must be of the mechanistic type we have already alluded to: the identification of natural causal factors within a closed, deterministic order. As with all phenomena from this perspective, cognitive functioning is explicitly or implicitly viewed as the necessary result of those natural causes.

According to the hermeneutic-phenomenological view we advocate, the world is not an amalgamation of natural objects or variables within a mechanistic (efficient-causal) order, but meaningful and filled with possibility. Under this conception, the world is the dwelling place of people purposively engaged in the activities of everyday cultural life. The Heidegerrian notion of “being-in-the-world” and related concepts such as “being-in,” “dwelling, and “facticity” are highly relevant here, as they distinguish humans from objects that neither dwell anywhere (e.g., a table would not be said to dwell in a room) nor engage meaningfully in cultural, practical activities. Indeed, from this hermeneutic-phenomenological perspective, human existence is fundamentally agentic, characterized by meaningful participation in context rather than by brute physical motion per se or the disengaged ego of the western tradition, thus giving rise to the basic hermeneutic claim that one's manner of comportment in context is fundamental to his or her psychological makeup rather than forces hypothesized to reside within private mental space. From this perspective, there is no deeper reality that gives rise to the outward “appearances” of contextual participation; there is no causal inner essence. Given this ontological commitment, what people are is expressed through what they do—that is, their meaningful engagement in the world. As Guignon (1989, pp. 107–108) stated: “To say that for the most part we are what we do is to say that our identity as agents only comes to be realized and given content in our concrete ways of being manifest in the world.”

In arguing for this ontology, Guignon's (2002) has further suggested that the allure of representationalism comes from a particular academic perspective that prioritizes detached reflection and abstract theorizing over everyday participation in context. According to Guignon, taking up this detached way of studying phenomena in the world places theorists in an odd position—one where they must attempt to ignore the everyday, pre-reflective ways of knowing and doing that enable them to engage meaningfully within cultures and assume an objectivist stance that positions humans in a continued state of reflection and deliberation, treating them essentially as detached minds (e.g., means-end processors) that happen to reside inside of bodies. As Guignon (p. 326) stated:

On the phenomenological view, forming intentions and making decisions to act are ways of relating to things that are first made possible by a prior background of skillful coping or absorbed involvement which cannot itself be grasped in terms of the traditional representational model … [this] background of pre-understanding or know-how provides the basis on which any higher-level, explicit forms of awareness and cognition can appear.

It has been argued that while social scientists cannot actually ignore or extricate themselves from this tacit, pre-reflective background—because it provides the basis for any intelligibility or sense-making in the first place—attempts to do so have resulted in flawed accounts of meaningful human phenomena (Guignon, 2002; Westerman, 2006). Inquiry that aspires to a richer, more meaningful rendering of human existence requires a different conceptual starting point. Our attempt to start elsewhere begins with the ontology we have advocated here. Given our commitment to this non-mechanistic, non-representationalist point of departure, we have advanced the concept of participational agency (Yanchar, 2011; Yanchar, Spackman, & Faulconer, in press)—defined as concernful involvement in the world1 and conceptualized according to four themes that emphasize humans as fundamentally situated, fully-embodied participants. We will briefly summarize this position and suggest what it implies for inquiries into human learning and cognition.

As one might expect, the fundamental theme of participational agency is holistic, situated, and immediate human action—what we refer to as situated participation. The most basic state of human existence, from this perspective, is practical involvement including tacit, pre-reflective awareness. Detached reflection and deliberation, on the other hand, is a specialized mode of engagement that while useful in some situations, hardly characterizes the manner in which humans are engaged in the world much of the time. Detached reflection is surely encompassed within agency, from our viewpoint, and counts as an agentic way of being involved in the world; but it is, from this perspective, derivative of people's more basic mode of engagement, namely, practical activity understood as absorbed involvement and skillful coping with equipment in the contexts of everyday life (Dreyfus, 2002). Theoretical views that limit agency to acts of detached reflection and deliberation, from this perspective, leave out a good deal of ordinary activity and offer a relatively narrow account of what it means to be human.

Situated participation covers a good deal of what we associate with agency, and it might be said, from our perspective, that this theme goes a long way towards differentiating our starting point from those of more traditional approaches to cognition. Theorizing human agents as always already engaged in this fundamentally situated manner offers a clear divergence from views that invoke reified constructs as explanatory, and moreover, from traditional libertarian views of agency that presuppose some form of dualism or “extra factor” (Kane, 2005, p. 40) that gives rise to agentic powers. However, situated participation alone underspecifies agency, as even machines may be thought of as situated in a context and even non-human animals may, at least in some sense, be thought of as participants in the world. The second theme of participational agency—existential concern—clarifies situated participation by emphasizing the vague and often unexamined sense in which people are aware of and concerned about the general facts of their existence—that they are alive, engaging in certain activities, involved with others in certain ways, and so on. This theme points to people's general concern with what matters to them, such as the meaning of their lives, the purpose of existence, how to live a good life, how to spend time, and how to allocate resources. This hallmark feature of human existence demarcates an ontological space apart from machines and non-human animals, as humans are the only beings capable of pondering such issues and asking such questions (see also Heidegger, 1962; Taylor, 1985). In speaking of concern this way, however, we wish to emphasize more than considerate or helpful conduct, though it certainly might involve physically and emotionally caring for another. The general concept of concern, as it pertains to participational agency, refers to the basic insight that the projects, events, and relationships of life entail a kind of significance—that is, they matter to agents—irrespective of their moral thrust.

Existential concern, often vaguely recognized, manifests concretely in people's lives by way of participational agency's third theme, dispositional action, defined as purposive, situation-specific forms of involvement in everyday settings. As an extension of existential concern, dispositional action suggests that human experience is marked not only by a tacit sense of significance regarding the actualities and possibilities of existence (i.e., existential concern), but also more directly in one's way of being involved in concrete situations (i.e., dispositional thrust). Thus, one's dispositional action might show up in how one treats others and uses resources, for specific ends, and so on. Using a more explicitly Heidegerrian language, dispositional action has to do with one's “concernful dealings” (1962, p. 96) in a world shared with others.

A fourth and final theme of participational agency holds that concernful involvement is situated within a developing life storyline and thus has a fundamentally narrative orientation. What agents are concerned about—that is, what matters to them—matters within the personally and culturally formed context of one's prior life experiences, present situation, and future possibilities. Concernful involvement can thus be thought of as situated, concernful involvement occurring within an unfinished life narrative (Heidegger, 1962; Ricoeur, 1984, 1992). From a Heideggerian perspective, this suggests that narrative, meaning, and possibility consist intrinsically in what Gelven (1989, p. 90) has termed the basic “existence-structure” of agents-in-the-world and exist ontologically prior to any particular experience. Agents may not consciously perceive themselves as living out a life journey with an intrinsically narrative structure, especially while absorbed in the activities of everyday life, but theorizing and research from numerous quarters have persuasively suggested that human life is best conceptualized in this way (see Yanchar & Faulconer, 2011, for a brief review).

Standard vs. narrative-oriented explanation

One implication of participational agency is a particular way of taking account of human phenomena. In traditional social science, including standard cognitive science and embodied cognition, a good deal of scholarship is designed to explain one's target subject matter, with explanation consisting of necessary relations among constructs. In this tradition, the constructs of interest are assumed, perhaps implicitly, to exist in a way that resembles physical things—that is, constructs are granted a thing-like status and theorized to exist within a deterministic causal order much like physical matter in motion as conceptualized in Newtonian era science (Williams, 1995). The practice of treating internal representations as actually existing and exerting a causal role in psychological processes offers a relevant instance of this attempt at explanation. As we have already suggested, theory and research informed by this ontological commitment obviate human agency and thus fail to do justice to the meaning and purpose of actual human lives. Moreover, invoking constructs to explain human phenomena fails to offer any real explanatory insight, as those constructs are merely terms endowed with causal status—that is, reifications assumed to play a genuinely causal role in the lived world of human agents (for more on the problem of reification, see Heft, 2003; Quine, 1953; Slife & Williams, 1995; Thomas, 1999; Yanchar, 2011).

In place of mechanism and reification, we offer the contextually situated, fully-embodied, participational agent always already involved in a world of meaningful activities. Conceptualized this way, phenomena of cognitive science such as perceiving, remembering, and thinking are understood as participational rather than representational—that is, as aspects of whole people doing things rather than internal, reality-mapping (or enacting) constructs and processes. In this sense, explanations given to phenomena from this perspective would be strikingly different than explanations given within a deterministic natural order. If theorists are committed to a nonrepresentationalist and nonmechanistic understanding of human thought and action, then there is no need to pursue explanations in the sense of causally efficacious abstractions residing within an internal, mental space or in the lived body itself. There is no need to invoke such abstractions, from this alternative perspective, because there is no attempt to produce mechanistic explanations patterned after Newtonian era science.

Under this hermeneutic-phenomenological construal, human action exists most fundamentally in its verb form, where no thing-like or noun-like constructs are required to provide an explanatory function. Concernful human involvement of all sorts, including subject matter typically studied in embodied cognition research, are surely of scientific interest from this perspective; but the aim of inquiry is not the postulation of constructs taken to be determinative of the manifest phenomena of interest. For example, engaging in the act of remembering would clearly be relevant from this perspective, but no construct such as a literal “memory” compartment would be required to offer explanation. Participational agents simply engage in acts of remembering as part of their concernful involvement in the world and no reification—that is, no theoretical reality that lies behind and gives impetus these acts—is required.

The aim of inquiry in this alternative conception, then, is not explanation, at least of the traditional mechanistic sort, but interpretation of the meaningful ways by which people live their lives, experience the world, make choices, and engage in practical activities including those associated with the phenomena of embodied cognition. If the term “explanation” can be granted a wider range of meaning and applicability, however, then agentic human phenomena may be explainable after all. To consider just one possibility, explanation along narrative lines offers a viable way of understanding action in context, as a narrative typically proceeds through a series of meaningful events that constitute the context and lived dynamics of the phenomena in question. If, as Parrish (2009) suggests, narratives have beginnings, middles, and endings, then any meaningful episode in the life of an agent can be viewed as situated within that narrative flow: emerging out of enabling antecedents—that is, emerging out of a meaningful set of prior circumstances—and moving toward an open-ended future. With beginnings qua enabling antecedents in place, current activity within the storyline has purpose and meaning; without such antecedents, there would be no “beginning” out of which agentic action could flow (see also Williams, 2005). Endings or resolutions, on the other hand, are simultaneously beginnings as a new episode seamlessly follows on the heels of another. For any individual, these episodes—taken all together—constitute what Heidegger (1962) conceptualized as the life of a person; that is, an overall event that occurs between birth and death. An agent's concernful involvement, then, might be accounted for—that is, narratively explained—in terms of his or her purposes and ways of being involved in the world, situated within an unfolding storyline that includes relevant historical events, cultural practices, and the goals and conduct of other agents. Through a narrative-oriented approach to explanation, then, sense can be made of agentic action that does not follow the mechanistic explanatory pattern of the social sciences.

Moreover, narrative-oriented explanation, particularly as espoused within the hermeneutic tradition (Heidegger, 1962; Ricoeur, 1984, 1992), does not pursue the creation of full or final accounts of meaningful human phenomena (Taylor, 1964; Westerman, 2004). Rather, these accounts are contextual, incomplete, and tentative; they are attempts to make sense of concernful involvement that never break out of the “circle of interpretations” (Taylor, 1985, p. 121), primarily because human beings qua participational agents are always already engaged in practices, having a perspective or taking a stand based on pre-reflective consciousness that cannot be made totally transparent. As Westerman argued:

We cannot explain the world, ourselves, or practical activity in this complete way. We could aspire to this kind of understanding of an object of inquiry, if we were able to examine it from the outside as a removed spectator, but, as noted earlier, according to the hermeneutic perspective, investigators (including researchers and theorists in psychology) are situated agents. … Not only in psychology but in everyday life too, we have practices for explaining things, just as we do for describing them … [these kinds of] explanations are of a different sort from what traditional philosophical perspectives urge us to pursue. They tell us how things work given the background of our prior familiarity with the world. (2004, pp. 125–126, italics in the original)

In this sense, narrative-oriented explanation is fundamentally interpretive, with interpretation construed as an attempt to explicate what is concealed, overlooked, or only vaguely understood. What has been explicated, then, gets contextualized within the meaningful narrative of which it is a part, as the inquirer seeks to render an account based on his or her prior familiarity, purposes, and sensitivity to certain aspects of the phenomenon in question. As the inquirer's prior familiarity and perspective shift through experience, what can be revealed about the phenomenon also shifts, rendering the process of interpretation intrinsically limitless. Clearly there are at least two levels of interpretation here—that of the social scientist and that of the person being studied—but this two-layered interpretation or “double hermeneutic” (Giddens, 1993, p. 86) is unavoidable as long as the target phenomena concern aspects of lived human action and experience. It is for this reason that some qualitative researchers see their results as a form of co-interpretation, with both researcher and participant making significant contributions to the account offered (e.g., Fleming, Gaidys, & Robb, 2003; Mishler, 1986).

As an example of what is suggested, consider a narrative-oriented explanation of learning as concernful involvement in the midst of an encounter with the unfamiliar. As one might expect, the kinds of questions that may reasonably be asked from this perspective and the kinds of accounts produced would differ from those within a mechanistic program of research. Perhaps most importantly, given a narrative perspective, research questions would not concern lawful relationships in an efficient causal sense, but the meaning of learning experiences in a human context, which might entail an explication and analysis of the background context of the learning episode, its significance in the life of the agents involved, the learner's ways of being involved in the world, his or her purposes, the actual events that transpired within the episode, and their significance in the life of the learner. As a narrative-oriented inquiry, the episode might be usefully analyzed via narrative concepts such as lead character, supporting characters, theme, setting, and plot (see, for example, Spackman, 2013). Adopting such a theoretical lens would allow for the meaning of the episode to be viewed from a distinctly and irreducibly human standpoint. This kind of explanation could clarify the episode—with an emphasis on meaning and purpose—and reveal useful insight about the phenomena under investigation, but not through an attempt to present a full or final rendering of the “internal workings” of learning and not through an effort to suspend the pre-reflective consciousness of either the researcher or the participant. Rather, its usefulness, from this perspective, would come from its ability to clarify meaningful aspects of concernful involvement in a meaningful way; that is, without invoking reified constructs in a mechanistic natural order. As Westerman (2006) has argued (see also Wittgenstein, 1958), all explanation stops somewhere; with narrative-oriented explanation, it ends as well as begins in the realm of concernful human involvement.

Clearly, what we have described here runs counter to traditional cognitive science and may very well evoke a type of explanation anxiety in some social scientists—the feeling that serious theorizing demands some reified abstraction that putatively “lies beneath” and “explains” cognitive phenomena (see also Westerman, 2006; Williams, 1987; Yanchar, 2011). There must, from this traditional perspective, be some causal source that enables perception and other cognitive phenomena, and what could that source be if it isn't internal constructs such as representations? As long as the only other option appears to be some form of behaviorism, representationalism remains secure. From our perspective, on the other hand, there is nothing lost by avoiding explanation of the mechanistic type, as careful analysis suggests that it offers empty explanations and creates significant conceptual difficulties.

Reconceptualizing embodied cognition?

We present no specific direction regarding embodied cognition inquiry from the standpoint of participational agency, as this position implies many possible methods and research agendas. Moreover, embodied cognition research programs have, to this point, generated a number of important insights, suggesting that further work along currently accepted lines would prove beneficial. But we suggest that the breadth and depth of work in this area can be increased by way of alternative perspectives and methodological options; and that some perspectives, such as what we advocated, have the potential to generate significant insight, perhaps beyond what has been produced in extant embodied cognition research. Thus, we are optimistic that work in this area will become increasingly fruitful over time, and that a significant contribution can be made by inquiry informed by participational agency or other instances of hermeneutic-phenomenological theorizing.

Generally speaking, embodied cognition research along participational lines would not pursue explanation in terms of the mechanism and representationalism we have already rejected. As we have suggested, an alternative form of explanation that emphasizes narrative-oriented, concernful involvement in everyday contexts holds significant promise for interpreting human experience. From this perspective, researchers would not seek to understand the nature and dynamics of memory by tracing an efficient causal path through internal constructs, as if the meaningful act of remembering were a fundamentally mechanistic process. In this regard, our position does not necessarily rule out embodied cognition research of the sort typically produced; but it does rule out the representationalist-mechanist formulations by which its data are typically interpreted. Indeed, we see no reason why embodied cognition research demands a representationalist-mechanist form of interpretation, as much of their data—even that data produced in relatively artificial laboratory studies—can be interpreted in other ways without diminishing their relevance. We ask, rhetorically, what extant line of empirical research would be rendered inoperable if internal representations were not assumed in the interpretation of data?

As some emerging scholarship has suggested, the traditional subject matter of learning and cognition research can be studied from alternative perspectives similar to what we have called for here. For example, consider Nemirovsky's (2011) hermeneutic case study and reconceptualization of learning transfer. Contrary to traditional cognitive investigations of this phenomenon, which emphasize the extension of knowledge and skill from one context to another through internal representations, Nemirovsky offers a more fully-embodied account that emphasizes the ways in which learners experience feelings of “episodic” similarity between two contexts through bodily activity. In such cases, a past learning episode is re-experienced bodily in one's current situation. Nemirovsky describes this experience in various ways, but summarizes his view of transfer as a form of “remembering” that derives from the “awakening of past episodic feelings, partially and bodily (i.e., perceptuo-motor) overlapping with current ones.” In describing transfer this way, Nemirovsky does not suggest memory as a type of representation (mental or bodily), but as vicariously re-lived, embodied experiences. From this perspective, learners do not access representations in the process of transfer; rather, they engage in fully-embodied activity that physically approximates prior motion in another learning episode, which enables an embodied sense of how to do engage in the current situation in body-familiar ways.

Furthermore, inquiry along these lines could expand beyond laboratory studies and encompass multiple approaches across fields. As we have already suggested, some work of this sort has been produced by those associated with the bodily turn in anthropology and sociology. The anthropological studies of Tim Ingold, for instance, suggest how certain kinds of ethnography can facilitate the innovative exploration of perception, attention, and related phenomena. Ingold's (2000, 2001) theorizing assumes something very much like the participational position we have described and extends this conceptual starting pointing to considerations of how people perceive their lived environments and come to dwell effectively in them. Ingold marshals a variety of ethnographic data, some from his own research and some produced by others, to build a case that people act directly in and with their surroundings and that the practical activity involved in perception, attention, and skill development is fundamentally situated and meaningful in nature. As he states, “meaning is immanent in the relational contexts of people's practical engagement with their lived-in environments” (2000, p. 168). With regard to perception, his work converges on a Gibsonian theme:

We learn to perceive not by taking on board mental representations or schemata for organizing the raw data of bodily sensation, but by a fine-tuning or sensitization of the entire perceptual system … to particular features of the environment. (2001, p. 142)

As distinct from modal or amodal representationalism, then, Ingold's position takes the person-environment unity as fundamental, and human action as responsive to one's surroundings without mediation, thus having no reason to invoke representations as explanatory constructs. Indeed, on Ingold's analysis, representations cannot logically or ontologically make sense of the complex ways in which people engage in the world of their experience. Having taken this perspective, Ingold offers insightful accounts of the practical ways in which humans as fully-embodied agents perceive and learn in their ecologies. For instance, he offers a phenomenological analysis of the scientific concepts of visual perception and light, theorizing how to make sense of them when fully-embodied, culturally situated agency is assumed rather than the traditional subject-object distinction. In brief, he suggests that perception is the activity of a whole organism and that bodily modalities of perception work as a unity in active engagement in the environment. Perception is not for the sake of inner representation, from this perspective, but for opening up the world and being involved in it in particular ways. Similar to embodied cognition research, then, this approach seeks to offer an account of experience as conceptualized in and through the body. In its rejection of representationalism and mechanism, however, it emphasizes embodied action in the lived contexts of the world rather than inner repositories ontologically separated from those contexts.

A generally participational viewpoint thus broadens the field of inquiry by drawing attention away from the isolated study of purely “cognitive” phenomena (i.e., self-contained psychological variables) within a deterministic order, and toward fully-embodied agents meaningfully doing things in the lived world. With this emphasis on humans doing things, embodied cognition researchers would not treat phenomena such as perception or attention as representational abilities to be studied in a neutral, universal state, but as lived aspects of attention, perception, and activity in continual adjustment to situations and becoming refined over time. From the perspective of scholars such as Gibson and Ingold, this continual adjustment and refinement can be construed as a type of learning, or what they referred to as the “education of attention” (Ingold, 2001, p. 139).

As a related concern, then, we suggest that participational studies of cognition be pursued in conjunction with the closely related topic of everyday, real-world learning. As scholars across disciplines have begun to demonstrate, learning-related phenomena can be fruitfully understood along participational lines, offering a significant departure from more traditional views produced in the history of psychology (e.g., Dreyfus, 2002; Jarvis, 2005; Lave, 1988; Yanchar, Spackman, & Faulconer, in press). An account of learning with clear similarities to the work of Gibson and of Ingold can be found in the theorizing of Dreyfus (2002, Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986; see also “embodied familiarization” as presented in Yanchar, Spackman, & Faulconer, in press) who has emphasized the development of increasingly effective ability to perceive, act, and exercise judgment via practical involvement in a given domain. According to Dreyfus, one acts in the world not on the basis of representations but on how the unmediated world presents itself, which is a function of one's prior involvement and tacit understanding. Making use of Merleau-Ponty's (1962) concepts of the lived body, intentional arc, and maximal grip, Dreyfus described how a learner is able to achieve optimal physical positioning and skillful activity in a given situation through repeated attempts to achieve such an optimum, which over time allows for the development of expert performance in a given domain. As Dreyfus stated:

According to Merleau-Ponty, in absorbed skillful coping, I don't need a mental representation of my goal. Rather, acting is experienced as a steady flow of skillful activity in response to one's sense of the situation. Part of that experience is a sense that when one's situation deviates from some optimal body-environment relationship, one's activity takes one closer to that optimum and thereby relieves the “tension” of the deviation … All one can say is that in order to improve one's skill, one must be involved, and get lots of practice. The body takes over and does the rest outside the range of conscious representation. (2002, pp. 378–379)

Claiming that one's “body takes over and does the rest outside the range of conscious representation” clearly suggests a shift away from explanation via reification and representationalism. From Dreyfus' perspective, this shift is quite defensible in that it offers a way around problems such as indexing and symbol grounding by rejecting the explanation premise upon which they are based. Moreover, Dreyfus's emphasis on situated action signals a clear shift away from mechanism and a mode of theorizing that offers little if any opportunity for meaningful human action and experience to be interpreted in a meaningful way.

The work of Nemirovsky, Ingold, Dreyfus and others suggests that significant contributions to the study of human phenomena such as transfer, perception, and attention can issue from outside of the accepted canons of cognitive science writ large. While the work of these scholars does not specifically make use of narrative in the manner we have suggested, it does offer a good example of how rigorous scholarship may move in this non-traditional direction. Rather than ignoring alternatives of this kind, or using them to fully replace embodied cognition efforts to this point, we suggest that bridges may be built between these related but theoretically distinct areas of scholarship to augment the body of insight already produced. This is not to trivialize the genuine differences that exist between these diverse areas of inquiry, but to suggest that they may facilitate one another's development through the creative tension that ensues from a greater degree of intellectual openness and dialogue. As research programs evolve, then, their evolution may be at least partly informed by the work of others who view matters differently; and modifications to their theorizing and inquiry practices may be fruitfully pursued.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Embodied Cognition, Representationalism, and Mechanism: A Review and Analysis
  4. Themes of Embodied Cognition
  5. Challenging Representationalism in Embodied Cognition
  6. A Hermeneutic-Phenomenological Perspective
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

We have reviewed the major contours of the embodied cognition movement to this point and offered an analysis of its underpinnings and primary style of theorizing. We contend that, notwithstanding the many contributions of this approach, its representationalist and mechanistic commitments have perpetuated conceptual problems and limited its ability to make needed theoretical and empirical advances. We have, in turn, advocated participational agency as an alternative position that offers potential for further advances in the field. If the move from standard cognitive science to embodied cognition represents a significant shift in emphasis, and if the move from representation-oriented embodied cognition to a non-representation-oriented version represents a second shift, then what we have suggested here might be viewed as a third shift—that is, a conceptual move toward a nonmechanistic, nonrepresentational viewpoint rooted in hermeneutic-phenomenological thought. We do not foresee a radical transformation of the field of embodied cognition in the near future, but we do suggest that work along the lines of this third shift can clear a theoretical space for further innovation and deeper understandings of meaningful human involvement, including the activities ordinarily associated with cognitive science.

  1. 1

    We have elsewhere defined participational agency as “meaningful engagement in the world” (Yanchar, 2011, p. 279; Yanchar, Spackman, & Faulconer, in press). We use the phrase concernful involvement in the same sense, but in an effort to clarify how our conception of meaningful engagement is rooted in the hermeneutic concept of care or mattering. For more on this concept in the hermeneutic literature see Heidegger (1962) and Taylor (1985).


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Embodied Cognition, Representationalism, and Mechanism: A Review and Analysis
  4. Themes of Embodied Cognition
  5. Challenging Representationalism in Embodied Cognition
  6. A Hermeneutic-Phenomenological Perspective
  7. Conclusion
  8. References
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