Thinking through tools: what can tool-use tell us about Distributed Cognition?

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In this paper, I question the notion that tool-use must be driven by an internal representation which specifies the “motor program” enacted in the behaviour of the tool-user. Rather, it makes more sense to define tool-use in terms of characteristics of the dynamics of this behaviour. As the behaviour needs to be adjusted to suit changes in context, so there is unlikely to be a one-to-one, linear mapping between an action and its effect. Thus, tool-use can best be described using concepts from Nonlinear Dynamics. Such an approach can be used to create a sort of cybernetic model of tool-use. However, there is a danger that such a model can either lead us back to internal representations (in that the comparator used to evaluate feedback during behaviour could be assumed to be pre-defined) or could fail to capture cognitive aspects of behaviour. In particular, the question of how the craftworker’s intent can be enacted in the use of tools to produce a specific object seems to be lost in the cybernetic account. My solution is two-fold. First, the “model” is created on-the-fly and adapted through moment-by-moment interactions in the system of tool-user–tool–material–environment. This means that, rather than assuming a pre-defined internal representation that drives behaviour, I propose that cognition involves the selection of salient parameters that characterize the behaviour and the continued monitoring and management of behaviour in terms of these parameters. Second, intent is only loosely defined a priori but crystallizes through the continued interactions between craftworker and object through a process in which the affordances of the object become apparent to, and responded to by, the craftworker.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-40
Number of pages16
JournalStudies in Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2015


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