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The Cambridge handbook of situated cognition
Robbins P., Aydede M., Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 2009. 532 pp. Type: Book (978-0-521848-32-9)
Date Reviewed: Sep 24 2010

From the dawn of the computing age, it has been popular to think of the computer as an electronic brain and, a short step from there, to consider parallels between computation and thought. The development of artificial intelligence (AI) fostered the view that cognition is something that happens in a specialized reasoning engine, hand-fed with data from the real world and issuing pronouncements that direct actions to be taken in that world.

Those who focus on robotics rather than just AI have long suspected that the boundaries among sensing, thought, and action are not so clear-cut. Some of the most powerful robotic techniques rely on incorporating the external environment as part of the machine’s reasoning (for example, Rodney Brooks’ insistence that “the world is its own best model” [1]). As cognitive science has emerged from the intersection of computer science and psychology, the branch known as “situated cognition” has developed this holistic robotics perspective and considered how human cognition involves the external environment. This rich collection of essays, by leading researchers in cognitive science, explores the situated perspective on cognition.

The first three chapters provide an introduction to the theme. The editors begin with a primer on the main ideas, which they distinguish as the embodied mind (“how the body shapes the mind”), the embedded mind (how the mind uses the environment in reasoning), and the extended mind (that includes other minds in the overall cognitive system). In chapter 2, Clancy reviews the scientific antecedents of the theme (including both psychological and engineering foundations), while Gallagher reviews the place of the concept in the broader philosophical tradition, in chapter 3.

The next seven chapters develop the conceptual foundations. Remarkably, these chapters include not only ardent defenses of the notion that cognition is situated, but also some sophisticated challenges to the idea. Adams and Aizawa insist that “the mind is still in the head,” Rupert offers a critique of the most extreme situated claim--that of the extended mind--and Bechtel insists that, once one moves outside of the mind, one is dealing with something beyond cognition. Other chapters in this section affirm the model, beginning with Wilson and Clark’s methodological outline of how to think about situated cognition, and then dealing with specific issues of representation (Rowlands), dynamics and control (Eliasmith), and rationality (Millikan). Most volumes of collected essays are written by those who support a single perspective; editors Robbins and Aydede, however, wisely and courageously offer readers who are new to the field a rich and fascinating snapshot of the state of the debate.

Part 3 comprises 16 chapters--about 60 percent of the book. It focuses on empirical analysis of various aspects of cognition from the situated perspective. In this section, the advocates of the theory leave the debate behind. The chapters include discussions on how the environment interacts with vision and other senses, reasoning about spatial relations, the constructive nature of memory, the notion of concepts as simulations, a critique of the Newell and Simon approach to problem solving, the role of situations in decision making, learning, language as an essentially situated phenomenon based on mental simulation, semantics, consciousness, emotions, and the social and cultural aspects of cognition. The last chapter, on neuroethology, engages the machinery of cognition at the most basic level of the neural system.

This volume is a rich source of ideas and references for further exploration, covering every aspect of cognitive activity and engaging the full range of supporters and opponents of the basic ideas. References are listed separately for each chapter, but there is an integrated index. The work will be essential background for any course in cognitive science, and it can also serve as a convenient desk reference for researchers in AI, robotics, and other systems that require careful consideration of the relation between thinking and the world.

Reviewer:  H. Van Dyke Parunak Review #: CR138406 (1102-0159)
1) Brooks, R.A. Elephants don’t play chess. Robotics and Autonomous Systems 6, (1990), 3–15.
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