How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. By Lambros Malafouris, 2013. Hardback, 304pp. ISBN: 9780262019194.
Lambros Malafouris’s book sets out to exposit what he calls “Material Engagement Theory”. Reading the effusive foreword leaves the reader in no doubt that this proposition is firmly rooted in Colin Renfrew’s cognitive archaeology, inaugurated by Towards an Archaeology of Mind (1982). But clearly the author wants to go beyond the cognitivist programme of mental models and information-processing which has dominated psychology and cognate disciplines for the last 40–50 years (Costall and Still 1990), and a swift reading of his bibliography suggests that he has assembled many of the right components in the works of James Gibson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gilbert Ryle and L. S. Vygotskii. Yet somehow he never manages to put the pieces together coherently.
Malafouris’s approach draws on recent developments that are epitomised by Andy Clark’s Being There (1997) and a growing body of literature arguing for “extended cognition”, or what the author himself calls the “extended mind hypothesis”. In brief, this is an attempt to circumvent Cartesian mind:body dualism by co-opting concepts of embodiment borrowed from (among other sources) phenomenology. However, it is tempting to the sceptic to see this as simply Cognitivism 2.0; that rather than abandon the notion that the mind is all about “modelling” the world, the representational tropes of cognitive science are simply expanded out, first into the body and ultimately into the world. Rather than acknowledge that there is a world out there, cognitivists have simply incorporated the world into the mind.
To see how this plays out, I am going to borrow the metaphor of “the blind man’s stick”, which Malafouris uses extensively in the book (and which he in turn borrows from Merleau-Ponty and Bateson). Devotees of McLuhan (whom the author cites tangentially) will know that the subtitle of Understanding Media (1964) is The Extensions of Man (sic), and the stick seems to epitomise such an extension. Thus, rather than cognition taking place solely in the mind, things, such as the stick, become part of cognition. Malafouris specifically endorses Rodney Brooks’s contention that mental representation is unnecessary since the world itself is a structured source of information (echoing Gibson’s concept of affordance). But here, from the start, there is a problem, since the blind person’s stick is not so much an extension as a substitution; a means to overcome the potential solipsism of living in a world without vision. And we can be certain that the stick constructs a quite different umweldt from that of the sighted. In other words, the blind person is already cast as a proto-cognitivist condemned to live in the mind, and the stick, rather than opening up the world, serves to incorporate it into the mind. To labour the point; the eyes are, neurologically, part of the brain, and the stick, in a very limited way, is a posed as a substitute for this.
Obviously, a better solution for the blind person is to have a guide dog. But is the canine companion also an extension of cognition? Here Malafouris seems ambivalent about the claims for non-humans made by Actor Network Theory. On the one hand he says (I think quite rightly) “Speaking about things as agents seems to imply a personification of the inanimate and thus an illegitimate ascription of human form and attributes to the non-human”. Yet he also seems to endorse the material agency implicit in Latour’s notion of networks of actants. Here it is curious that the author repeatedly cites Ryle’s (1947) The Concept of Mind, but fails to heed his injunction against looking for a “ghost in the machine”. Indeed, one might suggest that, along with the disciples of ANT, Malafouris and exponents of extended cognition are happy to simply extend that ghost to inhabit the entire network of action. Fortunately the dog rescues us from this, since it is an agent in its own right; unlike the stick it substitutes an active pair of eyes and its own intelligence for the blind person’s disability. This, then, is not so much extended cognition as shared cognition where, unlike the stick, the dog’s harness is a passive bridge between two beings, rather than an extension of one of them.
In his foreword, Renfrew opines that this book has “significant implications” for understanding the “roots of sociality”. Yet it may be argued that Malafouris’s account of material culture is profoundly asocial. In this he is not alone, given that both cognitivists and some of their most vociferous opponents, especially Gibson, succumb to the same failing (Costall 1995). Returning to the stick, it is clear that this object is not simply conjured out of the blind person’s mind, but has been made by someone. Moreover, in 1921 the Bristol photographer James Biggs apocryphally painted his stick, and since 1931 they have been canonically coloured white. This in itself is a complex turn; firstly we can conclude that someone must have made the white paint, but further, assuming Mr Biggs to have been profoundly blind, we must infer that someone also told him that the paint was white. In painting the stick it comes to “represent” blindness; indeed, there is something called an identification or symbol cane (or stick) whose sole purpose is to indicate the blindness of the bearer. But is the stick a representation of blindness, or do we, to paraphrase Merleau-Ponty, act according to its whiteness? This point might seem trivial, but underlines the importance of the locus of cognition. To proponents of the “extended mind”, that locus is still the mind, but from a pragmatist point of view (see Graves-Brown 2013) it is in action. As Merleau-Ponty (1962: 137) says: “Consciousness is in the first place not a matter of ‘I think that’ but of ‘I can’,” and similarly Ryle (1947: 27) remarks that “intelligent practice is not the step-child of theory”.
Frankly, it’s not very surprising that cognitivism is a trope conceived by academics, who, notoriously, live a life almost exclusively of the mind. What is surprising is that Malafouris frequently cites the Soviet activity theory pioneered by Lev Vygotskii in the 1920s and early 1930s. I can only conclude that this is because he misunderstands Vygotskii and other activity theorists, a conclusion that seems supported by the author’s description of such theories as “mediated cognition”. Returning again to the blind person’s stick, we can assume that he/she is not simply given the implement and left to get on with it. As A.N. Leont’ev, a student of Vygotskii’s, says: “The individual […] is not simply thrown into the human world, it is introduced into this world by the people around it, and they guide it into that world” (Leont’ev 1981 : 135). As such, the locus of cognition is not just action but joint action, and the inanimate objects around us are the literal and metaphorical “scaffolding” of shared action and knowledge (Costall and Leudar 1998).
One of the canon of theorists you won’t find in Malafouris’s bibliography is Ludwig Wittgenstein, despite his close association with Ryle in developing ordinary language philosophy. Wittgenstein, like Michael Polanyi (whom the author does cite), believed that there is an irreducibly tacit dimension to knowledge; that of necessity, actions must always speak louder than words (Gill 1974). This leads us to the final and most telling omission in extended cognition or material engagement theory; that any such engagement must be dialectical. The world is not a nice place, especially for those with disabilities; it is potentially full of open manholes and empty lift shafts (see Costall 1995). To see that world in any sense as an extension of cognition or the mind is to ignore the fact that the things in it are owned, often accidentally or deliberately uncooperative, and in many respects unknowable. Whilst society may support and scaffold our encounter with the world, it does not mediate it to the extent of somehow buffering us from materiality.
Relations between people and things, and between people, are more than just interactions; they are, as Dewey and Bentley (1949) insist, transactions, in that something is always exchanged whether it has a positive or negative dialectical valence. For things to shape the mind they must possess a duality, whereby in as much as they extend us they are only connected to us through a transaction. The blind person’s stick is never a part of the self to the same extent as the hand that holds it. Malafouris is to be applauded for rejecting the dualism of mind and body, but by then extending his concept of mind beyond the body he is simply re-inventing cognitivism in another guise.
Clark, A. 1997. Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Costall, A. 1995. “Socialising Affordances.” Theory & Psychology 5(4): 467-481.
____. and I. Leudar. 1998. “On How We Can Act.” Theory & Psychology 8(2): 165-171.
____. and A. Still. 1990. Against Cognitivism: Alternative Foundations for Cognitive Psychology. Brighton, UK: Harvester.
Dewey, J. and A. Bentley. 1949. Knowing and the Known. Boston, MA: The Beacon Press.
Gill, J.H. 1974. “Saying and Showing: Radical Themes in Wittgenstein’s On Certainty.” Religious Studies 10: 279–290.
Graves-Brown, P. 2013. “Inside is Out: An Epistemology of Surfaces and Substances.” In Reclaiming Archaeology, edited by A. González-Ruibal, 298–310 Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
Leont’ev, A.N. 1981 . Problems of the Development of the Mind. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Institute of Archaeology
University College London