Lichtenberg Professur

Situated Cognition. Perceiving the World and Understanding other Minds (2014-2019)


The notion of situated cognition comprises several ideas that together challenge and force us to reconsider the classical notion of cognition as used in philosophy and cognitive science. While the traditional view conceives of cognition as constituted by formal operations on abstract symbols, i.e. mental representations, taking place in the brain, the situated approach, in contrast, conceives of cognition as an embedded and (sometimes) extended activity carried out by an embodied agent. Cognitive activities are not confined to an individual's brain, but essentially extend into the agent's body, and even into the agent's physical and social environment. Since bodily and environmental factors then partly constitute cognition, explanations of cognitive activities have to go beyond neural activity and take into account the dynamics of brain/mind, body and world. In this project, these ideas shall be investigated and evaluated in closer detail with regard to two cognitive domains, namely (1) perception of the outside world, and (2) understanding of other minds.


1 Perception

Implicated in this view is the assumption that perception and action cannot be considered as separate cognitive faculties, but instead have to be understood in terms of one complex perception-action-system, challenging the 'sandwich conception' of cognition, according to which cognitive operations are segregated from sensory inputs and motor outputs. This has theoretical as well as empirical ramifications for the investigation of cognitive capacities and raises many issues, some of which will be explored in more detail, e.g.: (a) what is the role of the body in the active achieve-ment of perception?, (b) can insights from situated cogni-tion be peacefully integrated into the traditional represen-tationalist framework of perception, and (c) given these investigations, what is the role of the brain in the active achievement of perception?

2 Social Cognition

Situated cognition also forces us to reconsider the nature of social cognition, i.e. our under-standing of other minds, against the background of traditional approaches, and of the methods used in social neuroscience to investigate the mechanisms enabling social cognition. Emphasizing the reciprocity of social interactions and the active role of the embodied agent in such situations against the passivity of a mere observer presupposed in traditional views, it is often suggested that direct interaction and emotional engagement with others constitute our primary ways of understanding what others feel, intend or desire. In the back and forth of interaction, our sensorimotor embodied social know how (employed e.g. in gestures) plays an important role in our attempts to make us comprehen-sible to others and to comprehend others. Important questions regarding this cognitive domain are, e.g. (a) how should we characterize the know how that is bodily executed?, (b) how does this capacity relate to the more sophisticated capacities of acquiring and possessing a theory of mind?, (c) by what neural mechanisms is this know how realized/enabled in the brain?, (d) what role does the mirror neuron network play in constituting social cognition?

The goal of this project is to develop an integrative (interdisciplinary) account of our perception of the world and our capacity to understand other minds on the basis of situated and embodied cognition.