Ecological Approaches to Cognition: Essays in Honor of Ulric Neisser

By Eugene Winograd; Robyn Fivush et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
The Cultural Ecology of Young Children's Interactions With Objects and Artifacts

Michael Tomasello

Emory University

Man . . . knows neither how he moves, nor how he remembers; and he has no need to know in order to move or remember, nor does he need to know before doing so. But if he . . . forges a tool . . . a design must first act upon him an idea must coordinate what he desires, what he can do, what he knows.

-- Paul Valéry, Man and the Sea Shell

In the 1970s, Ulric Neisser became a Gibsonian ecological psychologist (e.g., Neisser, 1976). This led him inevitably to be concerned with basic processes of perception, but it did not eliminate his longstanding concern with higher mental processes. Indeed, it could be argued that Neisser's major goal in the 1980s was to account for complex cognitive processes within the theoretical framework of Gibsonian direct perception (e.g., Neisser, 1984, 1987). My central thesis in this chapter is that Neisser's goal cannot be reached without an enrichment of ecological theory, specifically an enrichment in which the social and cultural dimensions of human cognition are taken seriously.

My argument centers on a central phenomenon in the ecological approach to perceptual and cognitive ontogeny: young children's interactions with objects and artifacts. Eleanor Gibson (e.g., 1982, 1991), for instance, has been centrally concerned with infants' and young children's exploration of objects and their properties, as have a number of other Gibsonian developmentalists (e.g., Rochat, 1985; Ruff, 1984). Among the Gibsonians,

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