A History of Distributed Cognition, University of Edinburgh

The research project, A History of Distributed Cognition (HDC), a  Funded Research Project under the auspices of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC),  explores the expression and suppression of notions of distributed cognition between classical antiquity and the early twentieth century. Distributed Cognition is the most comprehensive term for the wide range of recent approaches that reveal that cognition is not merely brain-bound, but involves the body and world. By creating a series of eight E-seminars with philosophers at the forefront of the various approaches, our project tracks current definitions of, and debates about, the various weak or strong approaches that fall under this heading. These recent approaches draw evidence from, and are an influence on, philosophy, psychology, linguistics, cognitive science and neuroscience. Our project aims to bring the notion of distributed cognition as it now stands into conversation with the humanities though examining the parallels and divergences the recent approaches hold with notions in cultural, theological, philosophical, scientific and literary works from classical antiquity to the early-twentieth century. This aim will be facilitated through a series of four workshops, which will bring together period specialists from across the humanities to discuss the particular manifestation of these notions in their own period and area of study. The project will culminate in a four-volume series of essays, public lectures and a collaboration with the National Museum of Scotland to explore the project themes through employing their artefacts.

Narratology has offered a particularly promising and path-breaking strand of cognitive approaches in the humanities. Cognitive narratology has brought into question the very nature of the way in which narratology has traditionally been defined as an area of study. Instead of focusing on formal features, such as the narrator’s role in prose fiction or on structural equivalents in other media, such as prologues in plays, the emphasis in a number of works has recently fallen on cognitive and phenomenological features as contributing to or constituent of narratives. In several works, including Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology (1996), Monika Fludernik innovatively put forward a cognitive and embodied approach that challenged the deconstructionist and postmodernist discourses in critical domination in the 1990s. Fludernik’s constructivist framework set out to redefine narrativity in terms of experientiality, with the only requirement being ‘a human (anthropomorphic) experiencer at some narrative level’. Alan Palmer’s pioneering work Fictional Minds (2004) and its successor Social Minds in the Novel (2010) draw on cognitive scientific notions, particularly Daniel Dennett’s notion of humans as adopting an ‘intentional stance’, i.e. our tendency to ascribe mental properties to ourselves and to others on the basis of  behaviour. Palmer argues that the reading process similarly involves the attribution of minds to characters, which then act as an ‘embedded narrative’. He also highlights that when the analysis of categories of thought are not restricted only to those which fit speech category forms it becomes apparent just how much of our thought, and even of our identity, is social and distributed. David Herman’s Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind (2011) argues that our propensity to ascribe intentions to others is a helpful and necessary part of literary reading and that this propensity to ascription of mental states on the basis of textual corpora applies to the authors of, as well as the characters in, stories. This, he argues, suggests that the decades of anti-intentionalism, borne first from the formalism of Wimsatt and Beardsley’s The Intentional Fallacy (1946), which has since then been sustained by postmodernism, is counterintuitive to humans’ propensity to employ theory of mind. Herman argues that investigating narrative as both a target and instrument of interpretation invites a transdisciplinary approach that draws on the concepts and methods of the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities (2011).

Yet so far the emphasis in cognitive narrative studies has remained primarily on works dating from the Victorian period or later, with most works focussed on a relatively small number of modernist or postmodernist works. Even such exceptional studies as Herman’s edited collection The Emergence of Mind, with essays chronologically spanning studies of works from 700 on, only becomes more expansive in its exploration of the variety of forms of representation of mind in narrative in the essays on works dating from the later periods.

The History of Distributed Cognition project offers the possibility to expand the diachronic range of the study of narrative from this perspective, starting with the dawn of Western storytelling in ancient Greece and moving up to the present day. In turn, the new methods and concepts in narrative studies promise to contribute to understandings of texts’ historically situated notions of distributed cognition.

A number of scholars working on, or with an interest in, narratological approaches will be joining us for the four workshops: 1) From Early Greece to Late Antiquity; 2) From Medieval to Renaissance Culture; 3) From the Enlightenment to Romanticism; 4) From Victorian Culture to Modernism. In addition, the following e-seminars are now openly available online on our website along with learning resources:
1. ‘Distributed Cognition in the Continental & Analytical Traditions’, Prof Michael Wheeler
2. ‘Embodied Cognition’, Prof Shaun Gallagher
3. ‘The Extended Mind’, Prof Andy Clark
4. ‘Enactivism’, Dr Dave Ward
5. ‘Memory as a Test Case for Distributed Cognition’, Prof John Sutton
6. ‘Emotions in the Body and World’, Prof Giovanna Colombetti
7. ‘The Phenomenological We’, Prof Dan Zahavi
8: ‘Group Minds’, Prof Deborah Tollefsen
For updates of other events, you can find us on Twitter @HDCProject 
or send queries to Miranda.Anderson(at)ed.ac.uk

A History of Distributed Cognition
Home page: www.hdc.ed.ac.uk

About us

ENN is the European Narratology Network, an association of individual narratologists and narratological institutions. ENN aims to foster the study of narrative representation in literature, film, digital media, etc. across all European languages and cultures.