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Thinking with things

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How can objects in a museum help us understand the limits of the human mind? Philosophy lecturer Mark Sprevak explains

It is common nowadays to say one’s memory is ‘on’ one’s smartphone. ‘Distributed cognition’ is an umbrella term for the idea that external objects, like smartphones, are more than mere inputs to our minds. They are, in some sense, part of our minds. It is hard to make this idea more precise.

But the good news is that excellent work in philosophy has been done on this. Today, we are in a pretty good position. As one might expect, that position is complex. There are many – sometimes clashing – ways fleshing out the basic idea of distributed cognition.

A historical perspective

Here is a different thought. Most examples of distributed cognition come from current-day technology (iPhones, computers, and so on). But the fundamental idea – that an object may do mental work – is an old one. How did human cognition get distributed in different historical periods? How did folks in those periods think about their cognition and the boundaries of their minds? What might have caused them to assume their minds were inside their heads or distributed into their surroundings?

Douglas Cairns (University of Edinburgh, Classics), Miranda Anderson (University of Edinburgh, English Literature), Mike Wheeler (Stirling, Philosophy) and I are trying to answer these questions. We are working on a large grant funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, looking into the history of distributed cognition.

History of Distributed Cognition project site

Interdisciplinary partnerships

What is exciting about this project is the potential for a two-way exchange between the humanities and sciences with philosophy acting as a mediator. Scientists stand to gain access to new and otherwise unexpected examples of distributed cognition. Furthermore, scientists can gain an appreciation of how their ideas about the mind have been historically conditioned. Researchers in the humanities stand to gain a set of theoretical tools that will enable them to see old episodes in a new light.

Our major outputs so far include a set of eight online seminars that provide an introduction to distributed cognition. If you are curious about the topic, I recommend starting with these seminars:

Introduction to History of Distributed Cognition: seminars

Our next big output is even more ambitious: a set of four books (A History of Distributed Cognition). Here we are aiming to answer the questions outlined above, involving a large number of leading scholars across the humanities.

As part of this project, we’re hosting a series of events with the National Museum of Scotland, entitled Thinking with Things. The National Museum of Scotland has a fantastic collection of objects that humans used to think with before the iPhone, including astrolabes, the Jacquard loom, and robot arms. During the events, curators from the Museum and some of our best researchers on the project will introduce members of the public and school groups to the ideas of the project, exploring them through the Museum’s collection. The idea is to give people a new way to appreciate the Museum’s wonderful collection. And it might just change the way we see the wider world!

About Mark Sprevak

Mark Sprevak is a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and he is affiliated with the EIDYN research centre.

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