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How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement

An account of the different ways in which things have become cognitive extensions of the human body, from prehistory to the present

By: Lambros Malafouris(Author), Colin Renfrew(Foreword By)

304 pages, 31 b/w photos and b/w illustrations

MIT Press

Hardback | Aug 2013 | #224085 | ISBN-13: 9780262019194
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NHBS Price: £37.95 $49/€42 approx

About this book

An increasingly influential school of thought in cognitive science views the mind as embodied, extended, and distributed, rather than brain-bound, "all in the head." This shift in perspective raises important questions about the relationship between cognition and material culture, posing major challenges for philosophy, cognitive science, archaeology, and anthropology. In How Things Shape the Mind, Lambros Malafouris proposes a cross-disciplinary analytical framework for investigating the different ways in which things have become cognitive extensions of the human body. Using a variety of examples and case studies, he considers how those ways might have changed from earliest prehistory to the present.

Malafouris's Material Engagement Theory adds materiality – the world of things, artifacts, and material signs – into the cognitive equation definitively. His account not only questions conventional intuitions about the boundaries and location of the human mind but also suggests that we rethink classical archaeological assumptions about human cognitive evolution. Arguing that the understanding of human cognition is essentially interlocked with the study of the technical mediations that constitute the central nodes of a materially extended and distributed human mind, Malafouris offers a series of archaeological and anthropological case studies – from Stone Age tools to the modern potter's wheel – to test his theory. How do things shape the mind? Considering the implications of the seemingly uniquely human predisposition to reconfigure our bodies and our senses by using tools and material culture, Malafouris adds a fresh perspective on a foundational issue in the study of human cognition.

"Is the mind imprisoned in the brain? In this mix of neuroscience and philosophy, Lambros Malafouris suggests that mind and materiality are allied in ways that defy reductive world views. Engrossing."

"How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement is a lucid and well presented account of the state-of-the-art in connecting an archaeology of mind with the study of material culture to develop a deeper understanding of relational ontology and the importance of mediation for human thinking and cognition more generally [...] a compelling ally to further challenge the orthodox models of representation as already developed in the philosophies of among other Bergson or Whitehead and further on by Deleuze and Guattari [...] "
– Martha Blassnigg, Leonardo Reviews

"This is a noble, if possibly premature, attempt to apply the theoretical underpinnings of philosophical and cognitive science to the gut understanding of craftsmen that their craft involves an active interrelationship between their brains, their bodies, and their materials [...] this book is strongly recommended to cognitive scientists, philosophers, and cognitive anthropologists/archaeologists."

"How Things Shape the Mind is an important book. Not since Human Evolution, Language, and Mind: A Psychological and Archaeological Inquiry (Noble and Davidson 1996) has an authored book taken a significant critical view of the epistemology grounding cognitive archaeology. Its challenge will not be easy to meet – our Cartesian view of mind is just so very comfortable – but it may well provide a means for making true progress in the archaeology of mind."
– Thomas Wynn, Current Anthropology

"This book has a coherent structure, a lucid narrative and an interesting though risky theoretical argument. These elements serve to captivate the reader with provocative questions and suggestive answers."
Minds and Machines

"In this beautifully written and cogently argued book, Lambros Malafouris draws on recent developments in cognitive science and philosophy of mind to construct Material Engagement Theory (MET), a framework that sees action as a form of cognition. He shows how this theory has surprising implications not just for cognitive archaeology, but for the rest of cognitive science as well. This is a 'must read' book for everyone who is interested in how the particularly human way of thinking came into existence."
– Edwin Hutchins, Professor of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego

"In this book, Malafouris engages critically with a broad sweep of contemporary theories regarding material culture, evolution, and mind. He takes a radical view of human being, in which mind is continuous with the material world with which it is engaged. This is a viewpoint that gives archaeology a solid role within the social and human sciences, and that challenges many of our everyday assumptions about how we think our minds work."
– Ian Hodder, Dunlevie Family Professor, Department of Anthropology, Stanford University

"Lambros Malafouris has conjured up a gripping detective story, piecing together evidence to unravel the workings of today's human mind. He reveals how it has been manipulated and affected by the world around it from prehistory to the modern day. As well as its historical importance in cognitive archaeology, How Things Shape the Mind alerts our attention to the mind's future evolution."
– Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics, University of Reading

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Lambros Malafouris is Johnson Research Fellow in Creativity, Cognition, and Material Culture at Keble College and theInstitute of Archaeology, University of Oxford.

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