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Record Type: Review   ID: 341

Cognition in the Wild

Hutchins, Edwin

 This is a groundbreaking book. The author is a cognitive psychologist who criticizes the core assumptions of that field. He insists that history, context, and culture "are fundamental aspects of human cognition and cannot be comfortably integrated into a perspective that privileges abstract properties of isolated individual minds" (p. 354) and that makes "too much of the inside/outside boundary" or even assumes "the primacy of their boundary" (p. 355). These are the same reasons that exceptional human experiences, especially those of the psychical and death-related kind, cannot be integrated into our view of cognition or culture but are perpetually relegated to the boundary, if they are given any place at all. He attempts to show the utility of "moving the boundaries of the unit of cognitive analysis out and beyond the skin," which brings "other sources of cognitive accomplishment" into play" (p. 355) that under the reigning paradigm appear to be "mysterious" in his view are seen as "effects that are not entirely internal to the individual" (p. 355). Hutchins reverses the "logic" of cognitive science, holding that "symbols are in the world first, and only later in the head" (p. 370). He proposes a new discipline called cognitive ethnography in which cognition is studied in the "wild" (outside the laboratory, in daily life), in context and with the echoes of history resounding and with the situated lore of the species to be called upon. Both behaviorism and cognitive science have ignored the organization of the environment. He calls for the study of "a whole human being in a culturally constituted activity" (p. 372). I am reviewing this book because I think it provides the grounding for any of the activities I call a project of transcendence. These activities draw equally on inside and outside, and tap the consciousness of the species, for they are aimed at pushing back the envelope. Theoretically, in a given activity, if skill does not stop developing, such projects result in "firsts" for the species as well. In this book Hutchins uses navigation as the project. Each project has a cultural history often embodied in especially skillful people. Engaging in the project places one in context, history, and culture, and through participation, the individual may alter or add to that context, culture, and history. As Hutchins says, "all this happens simultaneously in cognition in the wild" (p. 374). It is not an act of disembodied symbol manipulation but a knowing, being, and doing that can involve the universe coming to know itself in the midst of this ever-renewing process.
Publisher Information:Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995. xviii + 381p. Auth. Ind: 375-378; 74 figs; 4 photos; Subj. Ind: 379-381; 2 tables
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