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Metaplasticity and the boundaries of social cognition: exploring scalar transformations in social interaction and intersubjectivity

  • Aston, Alexander1
  • 1 University of Oxford, Keble College, Parks Road, Oxfordshire, OX1 3PG, UK , Oxfordshire (United Kingdom)
Published Article
Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences
Springer Netherlands
Publication Date
Nov 07, 2018
DOI: 10.1007/s11097-018-9601-z
Springer Nature


Through the application of Material Engagement Theory (MET) to enactivist analyses of social cognition, this paper seeks to examine the role of material culture in shaping the development of intersubjectivity and long-term scalar transformations in social interaction. The deep history of human sociality reveals a capacity for communities to self-organise at radically emergent scales across a variety of temporal and spatial ranges. This ability to generate and participate in heterogenous, multiscalar relationships and identities demonstrates the developmental plasticity of human intersubjectivity. Perhaps human sociality’s most unique feature is this intersubjective plasticity, that is, the ability for diverse collectivities of individuals and groups to adopt and transition between numerous social identities and behaviours with profound rapidity and flexibility. However, the most influential models in the study of social cognition, the Social Intelligence Hypothesis and Theory of Mind, promote a view of intersubjectivity that is rooted in methodological individualism and primarily understood as a capacity for observation and prediction. This approach leads to significant issues when confronted with the diversity and plasticity of hominin social organisation, particularly in regards to the computational burdens and information processing bottlenecks such scalar changes imply for cognitivist models. This paper examines the metaphysical assumptions in computational models of the mind that result in representational apriorism and an epiphenomenal treatment of material culture that hinder our understanding of the evolution and development of social cognition. Specifically, this article critiques the logics of computation, information processing, representationalism, and content within Neo-Darwinian frameworks that obscure and distort the interrelationships of evolutionary, developmental, ecological and cultural processes. Through a synthesis of material engagement and enactivist approaches to social cognition, this article argues that it is possible to explain the emergent and multiscalar dynamics of hominin sociality in terms of ecologically distributed and developmentally plastic interactions between brains, bodies and material culture.

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