Scaling-up skilled intentionality to linguistic thought

Julian Kiverstein*, Erik Rietveld

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)
92 Downloads (Pure)


Cognition has traditionally been understood in terms of internal mental representations, and computational operations carried out on internal mental representations. Radical approaches propose to reconceive cognition in terms of agent-environment dynamics. An outstanding challenge for such a philosophical project is how to scale-up from perception and action to cases of what is typically called ‘higher-order’ cognition such as linguistic thought, the case we focus on in this paper. Perception and action are naturally described in terms of agent-environment dynamics, but can a person’s thoughts about absent, abstract or counterfactual states of affairs also be accounted for in such terms? We argue such a question will seem pressing so long as one fails to appreciate how richly resourceful the human ecological niche is in terms of the affordances it provides. The explanatory work that is supposedly done by mental representations in a philosophical analysis of cognition, can instead be done by looking outside of the head to the environment structured by sociomaterial practices, and the affordances it makes available. Once one recognizes how much of the human ecological niche has become structured by activities of talking and writing, this should take away at least some of the motivation for understanding linguistic thinking in terms of content-bearing internal representations. We’ll argue that people can think about absent, abstract or counterfactual because of their skills for engaging with what we will call “enlanguaged affordances”. We make use of the phenomenological analysis of speech in Merleau-Ponty to show how the multiple affordances an individual is ready to engage with in a particular situation will typically include enlanguaged affordances.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)175-194
Number of pages20
Early online date7 Feb 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2021


  • Ecological psychology
  • Enactive cognitive science
  • Expressive theory of linguistic meaning
  • Gibson
  • Linguistic thought
  • Merleau-Ponty
  • Radical theories of cognition
  • Skilled intentionality
  • Speech
  • Affordances


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