Encountering the World: Toward An Ecological Psychology

By Edward S. Reed | Go to book overview

like knowledge may turn out to be nonsense. One way to avoid too much nonsense is to be as open as possible with one's ideas and to share them as widely as possible, so that everyone can test the representations of word and picture against his or her own direct experience in the world. Ecological psychology will succeed not by providing a final, complete picture of the human world or mind but by getting more and more people involved in trying to understand how the human mind works in the world.


Conclusion

From an ecological point of view, the study of cognition begins with an analysis of information and exploratory activity. The cognitive psychologists are right that cognition is not "just" a form of behavior: it is a special kind of activity and awareness, one dependent upon the pickup and use of information. But the behavorists are also right in claiming that cognition is not a purely mental affair, for it takes effort and activity to find and use information.

Cognition, as the term is used here, refers to an animal's knowledge of the world as it is, was, and may come to be. (Little has been said here about noncognitive forms of awarness, such as imagination and fantasy, which are nevertheless of considerable importance.) Special emphasis has been placed on prospectivity, which is the detection and use of information about imminent changes and possibilities in one's environment. This is the most utilitarian mode of cognition. Much of what we call planning or thought has its roots in the perception of imminent changes in the environment. However, language can be brought in as a virtual substitute for ecological information, and this has given rise to narrative and other symbolic modes of thinking.

Prospective control, like all forms of human action, typically occurs in a populated environment, in the context of collective efforts after meaning and value. In this context, socially selected norms of action--what I call proprieties--play a major role in the development of each individual's thinking. Humans do not think solely instrumentally about themselves, others, or the world around them; they necessarily think in terms of standards, norms, and even taboos. Indeed, many humans seem quite capable of thinking in terms of two or more set of proprieties, even when the norms they embody may be inconsistent with each other, as when a woman plans to act in a specific way and then stops, deciding that that mode of action is "too masculine" for her (see Gaines & Reed, 1995 and Reed, 1996b, for further discussion of such "dualities").

Because humans think and act in populated environments, it is often the case that developing persons (especially, but not only, children) find themselves in situations where they cannot function adequately on their own. In particular, they may find themselves unable to identify or use the available information to deal with the task at hand. Yet, with the aid of others or of socially generated technology, these novices do appreciate that it is possible to succeed in the situation, and that information and resources are abailable within that context, even though it is as yet unclear to the novice how to get the relevant meanings and values. These cases of "unfilled meanings" are apparently unique to the human environment, and are of especial importance in our environment. These unfilled meanings are symptoms of the fact that human cognition is always part of a collective act of appropriating meaning and value.

-183-

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