Situated Cognition and Phenomenology

Today I am going to examine the ties between a philosophical branch (phenomenology) and a recent psychology theory (situated cognition).  I am going to start by briefly explaining generally what the two ideas are, and then I am going to get into the relations between the two.


One of the newest theories of cognition is situated cognition.  The proposal of situated cognition, at its core, is that you cannot understand cognition without understanding the circumstance in which that cognition takes place.  On the face of it, this seems like a fairly banal claim – of course our circumstance is important to how we think.  If we see a tree, we think about the tree, if we’re talking to a friend we act differently then if we are talking to a stranger.  The divergence of this theory is more radical though.  Classical cognition has tended to conceptualize the human mind as a unit – a single unified thing that takes in information and generates outputs.  It conceives, if I may be so daring, as the mind almost as a soul, or essence.  Situated cognition, on the other hand, splits the person into a collection of tools which are brought on line by different circumstances.  The tool that is applied depends on the circumstance in which we find ourselves.  One of the most researched phenomena that may support situated cognition is how people react to problems of the following form:


     “You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side and   a colored patch on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show 3, 8, red and brown. Which card(s) must you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if a card shows an even number on one face, then its opposite face is red?” (thanks Wikipedia)


People have difficulty with this problem, but if you change the presentation by swapping numbers for ages and colours for “is or is not drinking”, and ask people to identify who they should check for ID, they have no trouble at all.  What this suggests to the situated cognition theorist is that we have a very finely tuned social cheating detection tool, but our abstract logic tool is not as effective (and, specifically, that the situation makes us apply different tools).


The branch of philosophy that I want to tie into this discussion is phenomenology.  Phenomenology is a tricky subject.  Its essence (at least as I understand it) is the observation that the world is to us as an experience.  It is something seen and touched and tasted and thought about.  It is, broadly speaking, an attempt to ground the world in consciousness, as opposed to an objectively existent physical.  Phenomenology toes the line on idealism (the idea that the world’s existence is dependent on the observer).  However (again by my understanding) phenomenology is not neccesarily idealism.  For example, a phenomenological could conceive of the world as experience that is waiting to happen.  This is all somewhat of an aside though – the essential point that I want to bring out is that phenomenology tries to understand everything in terms of experience.


I like phenomenology.  I will state it plainly, I buy it.  I think that everything that we know of the world is experiential.  Though I hesitate from saying that existence is dependent on us, I am willing to say that the world as an experience only exists in us (and I would also be willing to say that ‘knowledge’ is inherently experiential).  Situated cognition and phenomenology have some interesting repercussions for each other.  The thing that I note if I consider situated cognition phenomenologically is that the situation that brings out different thought processes would itself be dependent on our previous state.  Situated cognition at first seems to demand a real world to prompt our toolkit, but what it really requires is just a preceding experience to prompt the next experience.  This suggests, to me, that an interesting avenue of study for situated cognition would be toolkit chain reactions – if an experience triggers a certain toolkit, that will shape our next experience, which may result in predictable toolkit patterns (put in plain language, perhaps if someone starts to get nervous this seems like it may often result in a chain reaction which leads to panic, or suchlike).  On the phenomenological side, situated cognition significantly broadens the realm of potential phenomena (not only the tree as experience from the left side or the right, but also the experience of the tree when happy, or sad, or in a social gathering).


Thank you for reading, feel free to send me requests if you have a subject you’d like me to talk about.


Ryan Workman


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