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).
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.