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mediated cognition


Mediating cognition

(theses on Vygotsky)

last semester

Perspectives: Boland, Bakhtin

Cognition in context

 (large triangle diagram)

knowledge building in the broader perspective

The phenomenology of mind and its alienation

cognition as social product & product of mediation

Mediated cognition

Principles of a Theory of Mediated Cognition: Theses from Hegel, Marx & Vygotsky

1.     Human cognition has a material basis in instinctual animal behavior, but undergoes qualitative transformations (mediations) which make it essentially and almost entirely different, although elements of the earlier stages still play a role.

2.     The mediation of human cognition is an historical process that takes place as the cultural history of the human species (phylogeny) and as the psychological development of the individual child (ontogeny).

3.     The mediation of individual cognition is a social process in which:

       Interpersonal relations are internalized as intrapersonal skills.

       Relations to objects are mediated by other people.

       Relations to objects, people and oneself are mediated by cultural symbols.

       The world is constructed out of socio-cultural meanings.

       The mediation of cognition is a form of socialization; the structure of cultural practices reproduces itself.

       Mediations are conditioned by their environment of social structures.

4.     The mediation of cognition takes place externally, "outside the head," through the involvement of cultural objects, other people and linguistic signs.

5.     In the process of development, numerous mediations build upon and transform each other. A logic can be seen in how the result of one mediation forms the prerequisite for another. An individual is always at a particular stage or zone of development, and is therefore capable of new forms of mediation building upon that stage.

6.     If an individual is in the presence of someone at a higher developmental stage (a mentor), then that mentor may be able to guide the individual through new mediations by example. If no one is at a higher stage, then a group of people may be able to mediate their collective cognition through a gradual process of transformative social praxis through which they create interpersonal relations that can later be internalized.

7.     Mediated cognition bursts forth in and is preserved (aufgehoben) by cultural artifacts and linguistic signs that are available interpersonally and externally, but that require interpretation by active people. We can call these artifacts "dead labor" and these signs "dead thoughts" products of past human activity that preserve their meaning and can be brought to life under normal social conditions. Culture is the graveyard full of these monuments to past cognition.

8.     As cognitive mediations, artifact interpretations and symbolic meanings build up on each other, layer after sedimented layer, their history gets covered over. The dynamic process of their evolution can then appear as (fetishized) "second nature." Cognitive capabilities appear as innate faculties; interpretations appear as natural properties of artifacts; and meanings appear as definitions of symbols. Social relations that have resulted from countless negotiations in human history and personal biographies appear as the result of "human nature" and necessity. Fetishes of cognitive science include: internal symbolic representations, the human mind, long-term memory, planning, attention, temporality, self-consciousness, consciousness.

9.     A difficult, highly speculative process of deconstruction is necessary to retrospectively uncover and piece together the developmental process that produced the present appearances: the archeology of mediated cognition.

10.  The mediation of cognition does not end with the modern mind. In fact, having now created a rich basis of mediations both cognitive and technological upon which to grow, the mediation of the mind races along generally unnoticed at a doubly exponential rate of growth. As lifelong learners, we develop new skills and literacies in manifold communities and disciplines. If we can analyze and explicitly understand the mediation process we may be able to guide and support further development of collaborative cognition with "designer mediations."

11.  Cognitive scientists have only interpreted the mind; the point (of WebGuide) is to transform it.

Focal Points of a Theory of Mediated Cognition: From Readings in Cognitive Science

Hegel :

At the moment when the servant imposes intentional form on an object of nature in recognition of the master and in fear for himself, the servant recognizes himself in that external form. Not only does true self-consciousness first arise in this context of interpersonal recognition of another and externalization of oneself in an object, but the imposition of intentional meaning on the object marks the birth of culture embodied in shared artifacts. Internal self-consciousness and external culture are inseparably and dialectically bound together from their very first moment on.

Marx :

However, the artifact created by the laborer, as a commodity made to meet the needs of another, is not the laborer's own. Alienated from the product in which he hoped to find himself, he is alienated from his self-consciousness, from nature as the objects of his intentions, and from his world of cultural meaning. The mediation of consciousness by commodity society obscures the relations among people producing products to meet the needs of each other, and this focuses their consciousness instead on the relations among the commodities as embodiments of value.


The human mind is the product of socio-cultural mediations that essentially transform its capabilities far beyond those that can be understood in terms of its biological substrate. These mediations can be studied empirically when understood within the framework of a theory that sees cognition as the product of this dynamic process involving other people, external objects and linguistic signs which then hides itself, internalized in the form of psychological functions of individual organisms.

Figure 2. The hexagon of cognitive mediation.


Learning is the process by which one internalizes the skills and practices of ones community. It can be gauged by ones increasingly skilled participation in the community's practices. Learning is a social process, embedded in cultural practices, meaningful artifacts and other people.


Support for collaborative construction of knowledge (Scardamalia) should provide a structure for making and taking perspectives (Boland) to support the interplay of the individual and group roles (Caron) that define the social functioning of a collaborative community. It should preserve narratives (Bruner) and discussions as external artifacts (Cole) so participants can view, annotate and reorganize each other's ideas and their own earlier ideas. To do this effectively, WebGuide should be part of a socio-cultural world with shared community practices. It should act as a medium in which people can create cultural artifacts and linguistic expressions that the user community can process into a shared product of collaborative learning.

The idea of a KBE to support mediation of cognition

technological medium

see stages in AI & Society paper: DODE -> KBE

mediator of cognition

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