A radical rethink

Bodies and Other Objects: The Sensorimotor Foundations of Cognition by Rob Ellis (Cambridge University Press; £85); reviewed by Tom Dickins.

The historically dominant view in Psychology has been that sensory input leads to motor outputs, strings of which amount to behaviour, and all is predicated upon neuronal functioning. As Hebb noted, behaviour is not quite under full environmental control, and something must happen inbetween to account for this. The middle term became the quest and since the 1970s models relying on mental representations have dominated. The basic idea was that for an organism to act on the world it must have an internal model of that world, something that coordinates inputs and produces relevant outputs.

Representational models put all the causally relevant data into the representation, privileging the internal economy of the mind. But what if the outside world was a sufficient model of itself from which organisms simply needed to sample data in order to produce statistically patterned responses? It is this idea that is at the heart of radical enactivist or embodied cognition approaches, and Ellis lays out the evidence for this position eloquently and elegantly in this new book.

Ellis argues that we are sensorimotor creatures that actively explore the world, dynamically entraining our nervous systems to deliver appropriate motor behaviour, where appropriate is cashed out as immediate task demand but also with a teleonomic eye to an umwelt. At its ethical root this is pure Hebbian neurophysiology. Tool-use is a key feature of the thesis, with tool-space extended beyond the initial biological design of Homo sapiens, but as a result of developments in manual dexterity and its control. As a highly social species, tool-use soon became a social practice enabling complex problems in tool-space to be solved essentially through mass exploration and sharing of results. The greatest tool to emerge was symbolic language, which Ellis clearly sees a cultural product bolted on to our dexterity, perhaps initially through manual signing, but then sophisticated vocal control. Whilst Ellis does not quite state it, it is clear that for him it was an error for the discipline to internalise the external properties of tool-use and symbolic language: they were delivering human agency from without just fine.

This book will challenge cherished philosophical positions. Not just commitment to representational cognition, but also prior conceptions of agency. As you read it you will begin to realise that perhaps the greatest challenge to our discipline is not the replication crisis, but instead a collective failure to inspect our core theoretical assumptions.

Reviewed by Tom Dickins, Professor of Behavioural Science at Middlesex University

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