Somogy Varga's Scaffolded Minds: Integration and Disintegration motivates and defends the actively scaffolded cognition (ASC) framework, considering cognition as inseparable from the body and possibly resources beyond the body. Scaffolded Minds, part of the philosophical psychopathology series, makes no claim to be a disability studies text, being classified variously under neuroscience, neuropsychiatry, philosophy of mind, and cognitive psychology, and it does not appear to be connected to Disabled, Neurodivergent, or disability studies work on embodiment. It instead considers some forms of neurodivergence, including depression, schizophrenia, and autism as "a valuable resource for testing theories, offering real-life cases instead of the hypothetical ones that feature in philosophical thought experiments" (Varga, 2019, p. vii-viii). In this fashion, Varga draws on neuroscientific and psychological results along with academic philosophy to make arguments that may be of interest to people considering embodiment and embodied cognition in disability studies.

The first chapter sets up the book as a whole, discussing philosophy in and of cognitive science, providing some background for embodied (and specifically scaffolded) cognition, and explaining the structure of the book.

The second through fifth chapters examine the theoretical commitments of embodied cognition. In the second chapter, Varga discusses the history of philosophy of mind, beginning with trained introspection, continuing through behaviorism and cognitivism, and showing how cognitivism can lead to embodied cognition. In this chapter, Varga defines both ontological and epistemological inseparability, which he holds as key theses for an embodied cognition framework. In the third chapter, these two forms of inseparability are discussed in more detail, and active scaffolding is defined. Varga defines active scaffolding to require that the scaffolded cognitive process' nature depends on the nature of the scaffold, such that the cognitive process can be changed by changing the scaffold.

The fourth chapter digs more deeply into what counts (or does not count) as cognition, examining both necessary and sufficient conditions. In this chapter, Varga discusses a "stuck" debate between fine-grained definitions requiring more detailed alignment on how things are done, which lines up with weaker embodied cognition statements, and coarser, more functional definitions which allow for much stronger embodied cognition statements. Varga expresses concern about conflicting intuitions between trained philosophers on this topic. At this point I am reminded of Faw's suggestion that conflicting intuitions on mental imagery is due to variation in mental imagery between people (2009). If, as Faw suggests, conflicting intuitions may arise from the incorrect assumption that others think in much the same way as ourselves, then Varga's support for pluralistic definitions of cognition could be strengthened by considering neurodivergent theorists as neurodivergent theorists. The fifth chapter is primarily of interest to those who wish to explore rigorous philosophical distinctions between bidirectional causation and constitution and the effects of these distinctions on precise interventions.

The sixth through eighth chapters are more devoted to applications of the actively scaffolded cognition framework. Chapter six discusses behavioral and neuroscientific research relevant to scaffolding, drawing on metaphors in presumed neurotypical populations, such as the overlap between warmth and empathy or inclusion, or coldness with exclusion. Varga also discusses psychomotor slowing as it relates to cognitive scaffolding and symptoms of depression.

In chapter seven, Varga shows concrete examples of cognitive strategies related to scaffolding, both internal and external, and notes that they have the same function regardless of whether or not resources external to the body are used. He discusses synchronization between people as a potential form of scaffolded cognition where another person is part of the scaffold. I would be interested to know how a schizophrenic theorist, or a theorist with schizophrenia, interprets the findings Varga discusses while using schizophrenia research suggesting impaired synchronization in schizophrenia.

Chapter eight investigates social cognition in autism. Varga does not seem to engage the significant body Autistic work on embodiment, nor does he engage Autistic criticisms of theory of mind or mirror neuron explanations of autism. He does, however, discuss his own issues with theory of mind and mirror neuron explanations of autism, and he considers the ways autistic sensorimotor differences could impact social cognition that is scaffolded onto the sensorimotor system. His discussion of these impacts trends towards autistic impairment, but I believe alternative interpretations, perhaps involving double empathy (Milton, Heasman, & Sheppard, 2018) are possible.

Readers should be clear that Scaffolded Minds treats neurodivergent people as test cases for theories and is not itself a disability studies text. However, Scaffolded Minds can have productive conversations with Disabled and Neurodivergent work on embodiment, so long as readers make the connections.

Works Cited

  • Faw, B. (2009). Conflicting intuitions may be based on differing abilities: Evidence from mental imaging research. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 16(4), 45-68.
  • Milton, D., Heasman, B., & Sheppard, E. (2018). Double empathy. Encyclopedia of autism spectrum disorders.
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