‘The adding of artificial organs to the natural’: Extended and Distributed Cognition in Robert Hooke’s Methodology
‘The adding of artificial organs to the natural’: Extended and Distributed Cognition in Robert Hooke’s Methodology
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter compares Robert Hooke’s views on the use of writing as an external memory with contemporary notions of extended and distributed cognition. The aim is not to portray Hooke as a proponent of these views avant la lettre, but to highlight certain interesting structural similarities and differences. Hooke believed that cognition could be externalised through the use of an external ‘repository’. In this case, cognition takes place through the manipulation of written material. This externalisation of memory makes it possible for other people to access, supplement, and organise the same ‘repository’, which allows for a cognitive division of labour. It is further shown how the Royal Society, of which Hooke was a member, is presented by Thomas Sprat as an enterprise aimed precisely at this kind of cognitive division of labour. The chapter concludes with a concrete example of an ‘external repository’ designed by Hooke, analysing the way it puts into practice Hooke’s ideas on individually and socially extended cognition.
Robert Hooke (1635–1703) is mostly known for his work as assistant and technician for Robert Boyle, for whom he constructed and operated the well-known air-pump, and as ‘Curator of Experiments’ of the Royal Society.2 Hooke has, however, also left behind texts expressing his methodological views, which were intricately entwined with his views on the nature and improvement of human cognition.
In this chapter, I will read Hooke’s views through the lens of the contemporary theories of extended and distributed cognition, showing how Hooke conceptualised the role of external media in cognition.3 Although the idea arguably has older roots, the notion of extended cognition is mainly associated with Andy Clark and David Chalmers’ by now canonical paper ‘The extended mind’. There, Clark and Chalmers argue that human cognition is not bound by the body and the skull but can ‘extend’ into the environment. In the case of doing complex calculations with the help of pen and paper, for example, the manipulation of these external media should be seen as part of the cognitive process of calculating. The brain still plays a role, but some cognitive operations are ‘delegated to manipulations of external media’ (Clark and Chalmers 1998: 7–8). As a further illustration, Clark and Chalmers refer to a study done by David Kirsh and Paul Maglio (1994) on Tetris players. To determine if the falling shape fits a slot, a player can perform a mental rotation of the shape or she can physically rotate the shape by pressing the rotation (p.287) button. In the latter case she can visually check whether shape and slot are compatible. Kirsh and Maglio calculated that the use of physical rotations to determine shape-slot compatibility takes 700 milliseconds less than doing it by mental rotation. The use of physical rotations in this process is an example of what Kirsh and Maglio call epistemic actions, actions that, in Clark and Chalmers’ (1998: 8) words, ‘alter the world so as to aid and augment cognitive processes such as recognition and search’. In the first part of the chapter, I will discuss Hooke’s calls for the use of an external memory, precisely to allow for such epistemic actions.
In the second part of the chapter, I show how this external memory made it possible for the Royal Society to work as a distributed cognitive system. Edwin Hutchins’s Cognition in the Wild (1995) is often viewed as the foundational text for applied research in distributed cognition. Like Clark and Chalmers after him, Hutchins wants to move beyond the view that cognition is something which only happens inside the human skull. Unlike Clark and Chalmers, however, Hutchins does not focus on individually extended cognition, but rather analyses the way in which a system comprising people and artefacts can be seen as a cognitive system. He does this by analysing the way navigating a navy ship is performed by a distributed cognitive system comprising people, instruments, artefacts, external representations and the structures provided by the environment in which the navigation team works. The external representations on board, such as the alidade, the record log and naval charts, play a crucial role in this process. Rather than seeing these external representations as merely inputs and outputs of human cognition, Hutchins sees the transfer and manipulation of these external artefacts as part of the broader cognitive process carried out by the distributed system. Through a reading of Hooke and Thomas Sprat’s The History of the Royal Society of London, I will show how written materials were conceptualised as making it possible for the Royal Society to work together as a socially distributed mind.
The aim of this chapter is not to present Hooke and Sprat as proponents of extended or distributed cognition avant la lettre, but to show how they tried in their own terms to conceptualise the cognitive nature of external artefacts and the distributed nature of scientific cognition.
Robert Hooke’s ‘Universal Cure of the Mind’: Extending Cognition
Now though by what I have been saying, I have endeavour’d to shew that the soul has by its radiation a more than ordinary and commanding power over all the ideas placed within the repository; yet I would not be understood so to limit its sphere of radiation, and thereby may extend it, not only to all and every point of the body inlivened and preserved by it; but possibly it may extend even out of the body, and that to some considerable distance, and thereby not only influence other bodies, but be influenc’d by them also.4
(p.288) Although most of Hooke’s views on cognition were expounded in the context of his methodological writings, in his posthumous works we find a lecture which is exclusively devoted to the presentation of a model of memory and its workings. According to Waller, who edited and published Hooke’s posthumous works, the lecture on memory was delivered in 1681/2 (Hooke 1705: xxiv). I will not go into all the details of Hooke’s model, but will only highlight the aspects that are relevant for the current discussion.5
Hooke starts by emphasising the material character of the memory faculty. It is, says Hooke (1705: 139), ‘as much an organ, as the eye, ear or nose’. The ‘organical’ nature of memory is inferred from its being susceptible to both improvement and impairment. Fever, a blow on the head, or heavy drinking, for example, can inhibit the working of memory. The soul, however, is, according to Hooke, not affected in these instances, as it is the ‘first principle of life’ and ‘an incorporeal being’ (140). Despite its incorporeal character, ‘in performing its actions, [the soul] makes use of corporeal organs, and without them cannot effect what it wills’ (140). Cognitive actions for Hooke are therefore always actions involving material entities. Hooke goes on to show how the actions of the soul, such as ‘apprehending, remembring and reasoning’ can be explained as material operations (141).
Hooke calls the memory a ‘repository of ideas’ and he describes it as seated in the brain. These ideas are distinct material entities formed by the soul out of the material of the brain. They originate either from sensory impressions or from reasoning. In the case of sensory impressions, however, ideas cannot be formed without ‘the concurrent act of the soul’, leading Hooke to specify that in those cases we should say that the ideas are formed ‘partly by the senses, but chiefly by the soul itself’ (140). The latter Hooke imagines to be located somewhere specifically in the brain, although he does not pinpoint an exact location (140). As for the location of the ideas, Hooke says
that there is as it were a continued chain of ideas coyled up in the repository of the brain, the first end of which is farthest removed from the center or seat of the soul where the ideas are formed; and the other end is always at the center, being the last idea formed, which is always the moment present when considered. (140)
Each idea is characterised by certain ‘determinate motions’ (142). These correspond to the motions that impacted the senses in the act of sensation. Each sense has its own type of brain matter, capable of storing the related motions (140–2).
Comparing the soul to the sun sitting at the centre of the solar system, Hooke posits that the soul is sensible of the ideas stored in the repository by propagating a ‘radiation’, feeling the ideas, as it were, ‘by their lying in the way of the radiation, and partly also by their reacting and repercussing a radiation back upon the soul’ (p.289) (144). Every action of the soul produces a new idea, so every time the soul remembers something, and thus ‘senses’ an idea in the repository, a duplicate of the idea is produced (145). Reasoning, for Hooke, consists in the formation of a more complex idea, combining the motions of several ideas already stored in the repository:
Another and more compleat action of the soul, is the forming new ideas from the comparing re-actions from several ideas placed here and there in the repository, and its [that is, the soul’s] being sensible of the harmony or discord of them one with another, which does produce an idea wherein all those various respects are in some means united and impressed upon one and the same idea. This is an idea of greater perfection, and according to the attention of the soul in being sensible of more and more variety of former ideas, and the regularity and order of its proceeding in that action, and the more steddy and distinct manner in the course and progress of it, so is the idea more compleat, as well as more compou[n]ded: and this I conceive to be that action of the soul which is commonly called reasoning. (146)
Both remembering and reasoning consist in the soul using material stored in the repository of the brain and producing a new idea which is then also stored in the repository. Since reasoning always involves work on and with the material stored in the repository, care for the content and organisation of this material will be crucial for the natural philosopher (146).6 As I will now show in the next section, in Hooke’s methodological writings, this will indeed be one of the main concerns. Hooke’s care for the mind will, however, go beyond the confines of the skull. In order to circumvent the shortcomings of internal memory, Hooke will propose the use of writing as a way for the soul to reason on paper.
In the preface to his celebrated Micrographia (1665), Hooke gives an account of his methodology, which he describes as a ‘universal cure of the mind’ (preface, b2). In presenting his methodology in this way, Hooke was using the vocabulary of an existing literary tradition. Sorana Corneanu (2011) has argued that the methodological writings of Hooke and other Royal Society virtuosi should be seen as part of a broader tradition in early modern culture which concerned itself with the ‘cure’ or ‘cultivation’ of the mind. This so-called cultura animi or medicina animi tradition had brought forth an elaborate literature traversing different disciplines and genres.
What the works of the cultura animi tradition had in common were ‘analyses of the faculties and distempers of the whole mind and prescriptions of remedies and cultivating regimens envisioned as life programs’ (Corneanu 2011: 5). These were deemed necessary to remedy the ‘distempers’ and ‘diseases’ which had plagued the human mind ever since the Fall. It was hoped that through these regimens, one would be able to reattain some of the perfections (both cognitive and moral) that (p.290) Adam enjoyed before the Fall.7 In line with this tradition, Hooke (1665) presents his own cure of the mind as a way ‘to recover some degree of those former perfections’ (preface, a1). This will be done by ‘rectifying the operations of the sense, the memory, and reason’, the faculties that together make up our cognitive apparatus (preface, a1). The contextualisation of Hooke’s work in the context of the cultura animi tradition makes clear why discussions of scientific method in his work are inextricably connected to discussions of the workings of the human cognitive apparatus.8
The first thing that should be done is to ensure ‘the right correspondence’ between these faculties. In order to generate reliable knowledge, the faculties have to be internally organised in a very specific way. Both memory and the senses are to be subordinated to reason. Hooke (1665), however, emphasises that the latter is to order the other faculties ‘only as a lawful master, and not as a tyrant’ (preface, b3). With regard to the senses, reason ‘must watch [their] irregularities’ (preface, b3). With regard to the memory faculty, reason has to perform a kind of quality check on the information stored there and order it:
It must examine, range, and dispose of the bank which is laid up in the memory: but it must be sure to make distinction between the sober and well collected heap, and the extravagant idea’s, and mistaken images, which there it may sometimes light upon.
Both of reason’s regulatory functions are interrelated, and in performing these functions, the reasoning faculty is in fact dependent on the other faculties. New information from the senses helps in the assessment and organisation of memory, while old information stored in memory can help in watching the irregularities of the senses. Hooke therefore speaks of a ‘continual passage’:
[The true philosophy] is to begin with the hands and eyes, and to proceed on through the memory, [it is] to be continued by the reason; nor is it to stop there, but to come about to the hands and eyes again, and so, by a continual passage round from one faculty to another, it is to be maintained in life and strength.
Restoring the right correspondence between the faculties is not enough, however. Memory and the senses are both individually plagued by ‘infirmities’, ‘imperfections’ and ‘frailties’. Our senses are prone to errors, and incapable of observing the (p.291) very small or large. Our memory, in turn, is incapable of retaining all particulars, and even when they are retained, it is often difficult to recollect them when necessary. Given that these faculties, which form the basis for the functioning of reason, are in such a sorry state, it is not surprising that our judgements and reasoning are so imperfect. As a faculty, reason itself, however, does not have a particular imperfection: ‘the errors of the understanding are answerable to the two other [faculties]’ (preface, a2). Hooke’s cure of the mind will therefore focus on the senses and the memory, on the one hand aiming at ‘the right ordering of them all, and the making them serviceable to each other’, and on the other hand remedying their imperfections (preface, a3).
In addition, the imperfections of the senses can be remedied by the use of instruments, which for Hooke is, ‘as it were, the adding of artificial organs to the natural’ (preface, a3).9 The memory faculty is not without its own kind of external aids:
[W]e may be sufficiently instructed from the written histories of civil actions, what great assistance may be afforded the memory, in committing to writing things observable in natural operations. If a physitian be therefore accounted the more able in his faculty, because he has had long experience and practice, the remembrance of which, though very imperfect, does regulate all his after actions: What ought to be thought of that man, that has not only a perfect register of his own experience, but is grown old with the experience of many hundreds of years, and many thousands of men.
In the same way that instruments are artificial organs added to the natural, writings provide us with an artificial memory resource. This external memory allows one to have ‘the experience of many hundreds of years, and many thousands of men’. By using artificial organs to enhance the scope of our senses and memory, the reasoning faculty is therefore provided with more materials to aid its work. In the lecture on memory discussed above, Hooke conceived memories to be material entities and construed reasoning as an operation upon these material entities, using them as material to produce new ideas. As ‘thinking is partly memory, and partly an operation of the soul in forming new ideas’ (Hooke 1705: 146), our thinking can be greatly enhanced through the use of an external memory:
What may not be expected from the rational or deductive faculty that is furnisht with such materials, and those so readily adapted, and rang’d for use, that in a moment, as ’twere, thousands of instances, serving for the illustration, (p.292) determination, or invention, of almost any inquiry, may be represented even to the sight?
(Hooke 1665: preface, d1)
Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) itself is designed to serve this function. In a rhetorical move of modesty, Hooke describes the observations recorded in the book as ‘some materials, which [the great philosophers of this age] may afterwards order and manage with better skill’ (preface, b2). In the same way as the soul reasons by the formation of complex ideas out of simple ones, books filled with ‘particulars’ can provide material for the soul for reasoning and ‘the raising of axioms and theories’ (preface, b2).
In another posthumously published treatise, Hooke further elaborates on the methodology presented in the preface of Micrographia. The treatise itself again proposes specific ‘remedies’ for the frailties of the senses and the memory, but focuses mostly on ‘a method of collecting a philosophical history, which shall be as the repository of materials, out of which a new and sound body of philosophy may be raised’ (1705: 18).10 Hooke here refers to written histories in the same terms as to the stock of internal memories in the brain, namely as a ‘repository’. In the same way the soul uses ideas already stored in the memory for its reasoning, and stores newly made ideas in the same repository, the external repository functions both as a store of old information and as a receptacle for new information. Hooke gives his readers concrete instructions on how to organise their external repositories, emphasising the need to be able to continuously reorder, reorganise and revise its contents:
Now these histories being writ in brief, on a small piece of very fine paper, ’twill be very convenient to have a large book bound after the manner of those that are very usual for keeping prints, pictures, drawings, &c. in … On the sides of which … it would be convenient to stick on with mouth glew, or some such substance … the several small schedules containing the abbreviated and complicated histories of observations or experiments, as they are last written on fine paper, for by the contrivance of this book, which for brevity’s sake I will call a repository, not only all the histories belonging to any one Inquiry may be placed so as to appear all at one view … but they may at any time, upon occasion, be presently remov’d or alter’d in their position or order. (1705: 64)
The information already written down serves as material for rereading and further synthesising, the result of which is again put down on paper, preferably in short-hand or abbreviation, ‘whereby the whole history may be contracted into as little space as is possible’ (1705: 64). We here see an externalised version of the ‘continual passage’ between the faculties that Hooke deemed necessary for the pursuit of (p.293) true philosophy, and an externalised reasoning process, analogous to the process that occurs within the brain. Just as the soul compares different ideas stored in the internal repository and produces a more complex idea which synthesises the information contained in those different ideas, the external repository is meant to be taken up in a continual process of revision, comparison and synthesising.
Commenting on the use of external aids, Hooke explicitly states that reasoning with and on external means is not essentially different from internal reasoning:
And tho’ indeed this process of reasoning and inquiry may seem nothing else but what every man would do, and does indeed continually practise in all kinds of inquiry: yet [it] has this vast advantage above the common way, where the bare powers of the senses, memory and understanding are relied upon, that it perfects these faculties to the highest pitch they are capable of, and that is indeed as much as can be hoped for from art. (1705: 34)
The process of cognition involving the use of external means is thus not essentially different from ‘what every man would do, and does indeed continually practise in all kinds of inquiry’. The relevant difference lies in the fact that external aids allow one to ameliorate this process by bringing the ‘faculties to the highest pitch they are capable of’. In the discussion of the cure of the mind presented by Hooke in the preface to his Micrographia, we saw how he conceived this cure as the remediation of the defects of the senses and the memory by external instruments. The text following the passage quoted above makes clear that Hooke indeed has this in mind:
from whereas in the common ways of ratiocination, examination and inquiry, all things are trusted to the immediate power of the faculties of the soul, viz. the bare senses, memory and reason; in this they are none of them left, without their armour, engines, and assistants, the senses are helped by instruments, experiments, and comparative collections, the memory by writing and entering all things, ranged in the best and most natural order; so as not only to make them material and sensible, but impossible to be lost, forgot, or omitted, the ratiocination is helped first, by being left alone and undisturbed to it self, having all the intention of the mind bent wholly to its work, without being any other ways at the same time imployed in the drudgery and slavery of the memory. (1705: 34)
Hooke’s assertion that ‘the ratiocination is helped first, by being left alone and undisturbed to it self, having all the intention of the mind bent wholly to its work’ seems odd at first sight.11 Had he not defended the view in the lecture on memory that cognitive actions always involve material entities? There, he had explicitly stated that ‘in performing its actions, [the soul] makes use of corporeal organs, and without them cannot effect what it wills’ (Hooke 1705: 140). Moreover, we have seen how internal cognition for Hooke always involved work on and with material (p.294) memories stored in the repository of the brain. Rather than helping the cognitive process, leaving the ratiocination to itself seems to make the cognitive process impossible. To understand Hooke, we should however remember that in his presentation of his cure of the mind he made clear that the reasoning faculty does not have a particular imperfection. Rather, ‘the errors of the understanding are answerable to the two other [faculties, i.e. the senses and memory]’ (1665: preface, a2). As the senses and the memory are the organs used by reason in cognition, the imperfections of these faculties cannot but lead to an imperfect cognitive process. Conversely, by ‘perfect[ing] these faculties to the highest pitch they are capable of’, one automatically perfects the cognitive process.
In the lecture on memory, Hooke had used his model to explain the imperfections of internal memory. Recall that Hooke conceived of the soul as being posited in the centre of the brain, with the memories stored around it. New ideas were produced in the centre, pushing the other ones outwards in a spiral fashion. In this way, however, ideas ‘being protruded farther and farther from the center or seat of the Soul, and crouded into orbs, though further off, yet closer stuffed and crouded together [can] be in time alter’d, and sometimes quite lost’ (1705: 144). In the discussion of the lecture, we also saw how Hooke compared the soul to the sun sitting at the centre of the solar system. Through a kind of radiation, the soul was able to sense the ideas stored in the repository. As in the solar system, however, ideas might stand in the way of this radiation, eclipsing other memories. In this way, recollection might be temporarily hampered (1705: 144). These are the imperfections that Hooke has in mind when he speaks of the ratiocination being ‘imployed in the drudgery and slavery of the memory’. Memory should here be understood as internal memory. By curing the mind through the use of writings as an external memory, the ratiocination is ‘left alone and undisturbed to it self’ in the sense that it can rely on the more perfect form of memory provided by writings, rather than having to struggle with the imperfections of internal memory. This is made clear by a further passage, where Hooke describes the nature and advantage of an external repository:
for first all things are set down in their order … [N]or will the mind be much troubled to run over all the particular instances and heads of inquiry, they are all presented at once to the view: their order, congruity, disagreement, similitude, &c. are all manifest to the eye, quickly to be examined, recollected, reviewed, otherwise placed, blotted out, or the like, according to occasion. (1705: 34)
Here, Hooke uses the same words as in his discussion of the internal repository. As the mind is able to sense the order and the congruity or disagreement between ideas stored in the internal repository, the same operations can be done with the external repository. And as internal cognition results in the addition of a new idea to the repository, the external repository also allows one to add new material resulting from the examination of the writing. Both processes, internal and external, have a structural similarity. But whereas internal memory is characterised by imperfections, external memory is not. When using internal memory, the ratiocination (p.295) is subject to ‘the drudgery and slavery of the memory’. However, when it uses an external memory ‘all [instances are] manifest to the eye, quickly to be examined, recollected, reviewed, otherwise placed, blotted out, or the like, according to occasion’.
To summarise, according to Hooke, the use of artificial aids ‘perfects [our] faculties to the highest pitch they are capable of’, but reasoning with these aids ‘may seem nothing else but what every man would do, and does indeed continually practise in all kinds of inquiry’. In the discussion of Hooke’s model of memory, we have seen that Hooke describes reasoning as a process in which the soul compares several ideas in the repository, becomes ‘sensible of the harmony or discord of them one with another’, and ‘produce[s] an idea wherein all those various respects are in some means united and impressed upon one and the same idea’. The external repository Hooke describes in the quotation above enables one to perform this same reasoning process on paper. Just as the soul can see and compare the ideas stored in the internal repository, in the external repository ‘[the instances] are all presented at once to the view: their order, congruity, disagreement, similitude, &c. are all manifest to the eye’. This enables one to perform the same kind of activities as the kind of activities performed by the soul on internal ideas, the product of which can be again put down on paper, just as ideas which are the product of internal reasoning are again stored up in the internal repository. Thinking being defined by Hooke as being ‘partly memory, and partly an operation of the soul in forming new ideas’, the external repository envisaged by Hooke enables one to think on paper, by manipulating entries in the external repository in the same way as the soul manipulates ideas in the internal repository (1705: 146). Hooke’s ‘universal cure of the mind’, which he himself described as consisting of ‘the adding of artificial organs to the natural’, can therefore be seen as a regimen involving the extension of cognition through the development of artificial organs which the soul can use in its operations.
Before turning to the discussion of the conceptualisation of the Royal Society as a socially distributed mind, it is important to briefly address the issue of Hooke’s dualism.12 The fact that Hooke emphasises the soul’s incorporeal nature might at first glance seem to be at odds with the notion of extended cognition, given the fact that some of the proponents of extended cognition explicitly present their approach in contrast to so-called ‘Cartesian’ classical cognitive science, which assumes a problematic distinction between mind and body or mind and world.13
To begin with, it might be interesting to consider the reaction of some of Hooke’s contemporaries to the model presented in the lecture on memory. The editor of Hooke’s posthumous works felt obliged to add the following disclaimer:
[T]hough possibly some persons may imagine that the foregoing explication of these abstruse actings of the soul is too mechanical, and tends to the making the soul a material being, yet I hope the candid reader, perusing it without prejudice, will not find the least cause for such an imputation.
(Hooke 1705: 148)
This, however, was just the concern that was voiced by some members in the audience after Hooke’s lecture was given (Singer 1976: 117). According to Oldroyd (1980: 25), Boyle might even have been reacting to Hooke’s model of memory when in his Christian virtuoso he ‘expressed amazement at the thought that such a multitude of ideas might be accommodated in such a restricted space’.
Although, as Oldroyd (1980: 21) notes, Hooke’s theory ‘was essentially a form of Cartesian dualism’, and his contemporaries were wrong in thinking that he made the soul a material being, he does make cognition a material process. As I have shown in the discussion of Hooke’s model of memory, cognition for Hooke always involves material entities. Every cognitive activity is therefore also a material activity, where the soul uses an instrument, be it internal or external. We can compare this to Andy Clark’s ‘hypothesis of cognitive impartiality’:
Our problem-solving performances take shape according to some cost function or functions that, in the typical course of events, accord no special status or privilege to specific types of operations (motoric, perceptual, introspective) or modes of encoding (in the head or in the world).
(Clark 2008: 121)
Applied to Hooke’s view on the workings of the understanding: the immaterial soul accords no privilege to internal or external memories, but in the context of natural philosophy, there are a lot of benefits to be gained by using external memories. According to Clark, the hypothesis of cognitive impartiality poses a (solvable) puzzle to the proponent of extended cognition:
For it threatens, unless delicately handled, to undermine the image of cognitive extension in quite a novel fashion. Thus, suppose we now ask: Just what is it that is so potently impartial concerning its sources of order and information? The answer looks to be ‘the biological brain’. So haven’t we (rather deliciously) ended up firmly privileging the biological brain in the very act of affirming its own impartiality?
(Clark 2008: 122)
To solve this puzzle, Clark makes a distinction between two different explanatory targets. On the one hand we have the recruitment of the extended organisation (p.297) itself and on the other ‘the flow of information and processing in the newly soft-assembled extended device’ (122). This leads Clark to the dictum: ‘Individual cognizing, then, is organism centered even if it is not organism bound’ (123, emphasis in original). In the process of assembly, the brain plays a very special and central role. However, once the extended system, comprising both organism and external media, is in place, ‘it is the flow and transformation of information in (what is often) an extended, distributed system that provide the machinery of ongoing thought and reason’ (122). This discussion by Clark can help alleviate the worry that Hooke’s immaterial soul, safely tucked in its seat in the brain, sits uneasily with the notion of cognition being extended. In Hooke’s case, cognition is centred around the soul, but the flow and transformation of information takes place in an extended system comprising immaterial soul and material memory, both internal and external.
‘A Union of Hands and Eyes’: Socially Distributed Cognition in the Royal Society
For, let the wittiest, and most eloquent men think as largely as they can, on any subject in private; yet, when they come into the publick; and especially, when they have heard others speak before them, their argument appears quite another thing to them; their former expressions seem too flat, and cold for their present thoughts; their minds swell, and are enlightned, as if at that time they were possess’d with the souls of the whole multitude, before whom they stand.
(Sprat 1667: 98–9)
In the previous section, I have shown how the external memory envisaged by Hooke made possible an extended version of the ‘continual passage’ between the faculties (senses, memory and reason) on which the ‘life and strength’ of the ‘true philosophy’ depended. Another advantage provided by the externalisation of memory is that it allows for the emergence of a communal variety of this continual passage. In the previous section we have seen how, according to Hooke, the understanding had to ‘examine, range, and dispose of the bank which is laid up in the memory’. Externalising these memories makes it possible to perform on paper the kind of operations normally performed on internal memories: comparing, ordering and synthesising. But the external nature of this written memory also allows it to be continuously checked and improved by several different people, whereas internal memory is only accessible to one soul. In this way, a higher degree of certainty can be attained in natural philosophy:
How neer the nature of axioms must all those propositions be which are examin’d before so many witnesses? And how difficult will it be for any, though never so subtil an error in philosophy, to scape from being discover’d, after it has indur’d the touch, and so many other tryals?
(Hooke 1665: preface, d1)
(p.298) There are other ways in which the use of externalised memories allows for the communalisation of the continual passage between the faculties. Other observers can function as extended senses providing input for the common repository. This allows for division of cognitive labour. Whereas a natural philosopher working entirely alone has to proceed in his natural philosophical labour by using his own senses, memory and reason, a natural philosopher who is part of a scientific community is no longer troubled to make the observations himself. He can now employ himself to the ‘nobler’ work of philosophising:
As for my part, I have obtained my end, if these my small labours shall be thought fit to take up some place in the large stock of natural observations, which so many hands are busie in providing. If I have contributed the meanest foundations whereon others may raise nobler superstructures, I am abundantly satisfied; and all my ambition is, that I may serve to the great philosophers of this age, as the makers and the grinders of my glasses did to me; that I may prepare and furnish them with some materials, which they may afterwards order and manage with better skill, and to far greater advantage.
(Hooke 1665: preface, b1–2)
In The History of the Royal Society of London (1667), an apologetic work intended to present and defend the activities of the Society against its critics, Thomas Sprat also discusses this cognitive division of labour within the Society. Lesser minds can contribute by ‘[bringing] their hands, and their eyes’ to the aid of the Society, ‘[assisting] in the examining, and registring what the others represent to their view’ (Sprat 1667: 72–3, emphasis in original).14 In this way, the Society becomes a ‘union of eyes, and hands’ (Sprat 1667: 85), making possible a socially extended version of the ‘continual passage’ envisioned by Hooke. Before an experiment is conducted, the Society consults its memory ‘either from the observations of others, or from books, or from their own experience, or even from common fame it self’ (Sprat 1667: 95). In the same way as individual memory helps reason to watch the irregularities of the senses, the common knowledge of the Society can help guide its further inquiries. Here, also, the cognitive division of labour comes in handy. As ‘those who have the best faculty of experimenting, are commonly most averse from reading books’, the construction of this ‘general collection’ of information is done ‘by the joint labours of the whole society’ (Sprat 1667: 97). The experimenter appointed by the Society who is confronted with this information,
having so good an opportunity, of comparing so many other mens conceptions with his own, and with the thing it self; must needs have his thoughts more (p.299) enlarg’d, his judgment confirm’d, his eyes open’d to discern, what most compendious helps may be provided; what part of it is more or less useful; and upon what side it may be best attempted: the truths, which he learns this way, will be his pattern; the errors will be his seamarks, to teach to avoid the same dangers; the very falshoods themselves will serve to enlarge, though they do not inform his understanding.
(Sprat 1667: 98)
With this ‘enlarged’ understanding, the experimenter can go forth and proceed with his investigations. And in the same way as the information provided by the senses should again be brought to the judgement of reason, the experimenter should provide an account of his experiments to the counsel of the Society, allowing the latter to judge the information brought forth:
Those, to whom the conduct of the experiment is committed, being dismiss’d with these advantages, do (as it were) carry the eyes, and the imaginations of the whole company into the laboratory with them. And after they have perform’d the trial, they bring all the history of this process back again to the test. Then comes in the second great work of the assembly; which is to judg and to resolve upon the matter of fact.
(Sprat 1667: 99)
In the ‘continual passage’ between the faculties of this socially extended ‘union of eyes, and hands’, writings play a crucial role. In the abstract of the Society’s statutes, provided by Sprat, separate mention is made of ‘[t]he books that concern the affairs of the society’, being ‘the charter book, statute book, journal books, letter books, and register books, for the entring of philosophical observations, histories, discourses, experiments, inventions’ (Sprat 1667: 148).
Later in the work, Sprat reports on the Society’s ‘repository and library’. Echoing Hooke’s term for both the internal and external written memory, the ‘repository’ of the Society contained the material artefacts and instruments it had collected, considered ‘a general collection of all the effects of arts, and the common, or monstrous works of nature’ (Sprat 1667: 251).15 The person mentioned as in charge of this repository is Robert Hooke. True to his word, Hooke ‘has begun to reduce [this repository] under its several heads’ (Sprat 1667: 251). This same synthesising activity was also taking place in the library of the Society:
[T]hey have also (amongst others) appointed a committee, whose chief employment shall be to read over whatever books have been written on such subjects. By this means they hope speedily to observe, and digest into manuscript volumes, all that has been hitherto try’d, or propounded in such studies. This is the only help that an experimenter can receive from books: which he may still use, as his guides, though not as his masters.
(Sprat 1667: 252)
(p.300) The Society not only relied on information stored in its own archives, but had ‘begun to settle a correspondence through all contreys’ (Sprat 1667: 86). The correspondence of the Royal Society was in the hands of Henry Oldenburg, who even before the birth of the Society was the central node in a vast network of scholarly communication. From 1665 onwards, the observations sent to the Society were edited and printed in the Philosophical Transactions, the official journal of the Society.16 Here also, writing enables a continuous flow of information. The eyes and hands spread across the world send their observations to Oldenburg, who then presents them to the Society to be judged by the assembly. After that they are put to print, stored as a collective memory, and sent back to the eyes and hands across the world.
In his book on early modern note keeping, Richard Yeo has shown how early modern endeavours of constructing a communal archive were indebted to the widespread practice of keeping commonplace books, notebooks and journals, and the related practice of sharing notes (Yeo 2014: 220–4). The fact, however, that different individuals had different ways of organising and using notes stood in the way of constructing ‘stable records of information that could be communicated, combined, and analyzed’ (Yeo 2014: 220). The Royal Society actively tried to address these challenges, and the publication and dissemination of its own collected and edited information played a crucial role therein. By disseminating printed versions of its condensations of information, the Society provided its observers with exemplars showing how to organise and communicate relevant information. This in turn facilitated the Society’s work of collecting and organising information coming from its sources.
In Sprat’s work we find a contribution written by Hooke, containing proposals ‘for the better making a history of the weather’ (Sprat 1667: 173). Hooke describes in detail the way weather observations should be written down in a table. He meticulously determines the sizes the columns should have and the units of measurement that should be used (Sprat 1667: 175–9). At the end of the text he gives an example of such a table, which bears the title ‘A Scheme At one View representing to the Eye the Observations of the Weather for a Month’. This title clearly echoes the already quoted passage in the preface of Micrographia in which Hooke talks about ‘such materials, and those so readily adapted, and rang’d for use, that in a moment, as ’twere, thousands of instances … may be represented even to the sight’ (Hooke 1665: preface, d1).
The table has two interrelated functions. On the one hand it makes possible the condensation of the information obtained from different observations into a form that makes it possible ‘[that] thousands of instances … may be represented even to the sight’.17 Hooke was not the only one with such a view on the use of tables. Lorraine Daston (2015: 189) has shown how the ambition to synthesise information (p.301) ‘at one view’ was a common theme in the early modern period. J. Andrew Mendelsohn (2011) has further shown how in the late eighteenth century tables were used to make ‘general observations’ (as opposed to ‘particular’ ones) possible. Further work needs to be done on the views of other Royal Society virtuosi on the cognitive role of tables, and their relation to the views of Francis Bacon. Referring to the contemporary theory of the ‘extended mind’, in the introduction to his work on early modern notebooks, Yeo (2014: 33–4) gives John Wilkins as an example of a member of the Royal Society who saw tables as a potential external memory which could aid in reasoning. In The New Organon Bacon ( 2000: 109) calls for the making of tables ‘in such a way and with such organisation that the mind may be able to act upon them’.
The second function of the table is that of disciplining potential observers: it tells them what to observe, how to observe it and how to communicate their observations.18 The two functions are interrelated: it is only because the table disciplines the observer and provides a format in which he must imbed his observations that different observations made by several observers can be condensed in one table that can present a lot of information at once to the eye. Once this has been done, the table can function as an external memory which the rational faculty can use:
Now that these and some other, hereafter to be mentioned, may be registred so as to be most convenient for the making of comparisons, requisite for the raising axioms, whereby the cause or laws of weather may be found out; it will be desirable to order them so, that the scheme of a whole moneth, may at one view be presented to the eye.
(Sprat 1667: 175)
The ‘scheme’ presented by Hooke provides an illustration of both extended individual ratiocination and the use of writing in a socially extended ‘continual passage’ between the different faculties. For the individual natural philosopher the ‘scheme’ works as an externalised memory, functioning in the exact way Hooke (1705: 34) described in his methodological works: ‘[the particular instances] are all presented at once to the view: their order, congruity, disagreement, similitude, &c. are all manifest to the eye’. No longer troubled to consult his internal memory, the natural philosopher can have ‘all the intention of the mind bent wholly to its work, without being any other ways at the same time imployed in the drudgery and slavery of the memory’ (34). By allowing for the condensation of a multitude of observations in the same format, the table therefore not only contains his own memories, but allows the natural philosopher, to use Hooke’s (1665: preface, d1) own words, to consult ‘the experience of many hundreds of years, and many thousands of men’. Once he has ‘raised axioms’ from this material, they can be disseminated in print, allowing them to ‘[indure] the touch, and so many other (p.302) tryals’ (preface, d1) by the ‘union of hands, and eyes’ that is the Royal Society. This view on the use of tables resonates with the discussion of the cognitive advantages of tables and their use provided by Andrew Riggsby’s chapter in volume 1 of this series (2018). In Riggsby’s terms, Hooke’s publication of an example of a table can be seen as an attempt to install a ‘virtuous circle’, where exposure to tables makes them more intelligible, which leads more individuals to use them, which in turn exposes more individuals to tables. Likewise, Hooke conceives of the use of tables as a positive feedback loop: tables discipline observers, who in turn are able to check the information contained in the table and contribute more material to it. Through this circulation philosophy ‘is to be maintained in life and strength, as much as the body of man is by the circulation of the blood through the several parts of the body’ (Hooke 1665: preface, b3).
In this chapter I have given a reading of Hooke’s methodological views through the lens of the theories of extended and distributed cognition. More specifically, I have focused on Hooke’s call for the use of ‘artificial organs’, which could ‘cure’ the infirmities of our cognitive faculties. I have shown how in the case of memory, Hooke called for the use of writings as an external memory and the designing of this so-called ‘repository’ in such a way as to allow for it to be used for what Kirsh and Maglio would call ‘epistemic actions’. Hooke described the use of these external materials in cognition analogously to the way the soul used internally stored memories: ideas are viewed, compared and synthesised into compounded ideas. The use of writing therefore allowed for an extended version of the ‘continual passage’ of information between the faculties envisioned by Hooke: things already stored can help in ‘watching the irregularities of the senses’; new information provided by the senses can help to further organise and synthesise information already stored in the repository. In the second half of the chapter, I have shown how Sprat described the workings of the Royal Society as a socially extended version of this continual passage, wherein writings again played a crucial role. This socially extended continual passage provided further epistemic benefits. Whereas internal memory can only be organised and checked by the individual’s soul, an externalised memory makes it possible for the content of the repository to be checked and organised by different people. In the last part of the chapter, I have discussed Hooke’s proposals for the use of tables as a way to streamline this socially extended ‘continual passage’, allowing the Society to work together as a veritable ‘union of hands, and eyes’.
Several authors have recently pointed at the potential fruitfulness of applying distributed cognition to science studies (M. J. Brown 2011; Giere and Moffatt 2003). A field of science studies putting this call into action and incorporating insights from distributed cognition is beginning to emerge (Nersessian 2008; Giere 2006). I hope to have shown in this chapter not only that it is possible to study scientific practices past and present from a distributed cognitive perspective, but (p.303) that – in the case of Hooke and the Royal Society at least – some scientific actors have tried to conceptualise the extended nature of scientific cognition in their own terms.19
(1) I would like to thank Sorana Corneanu, Boris Demarest, Steffen Ducheyne, John Sutton and the anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier versions of this chapter. Special thanks to Maarten Van Dyck and Charles T. Wolfe for their guidance and continuous support during my research on this topic.
(3) Due to the shortness of this chapter, and due to my focus on presenting Hooke’s views in his own terms, I will not treat the discussions between proponents of different approaches to extended cognition, for example the so-called ‘first wave’ and ‘second wave’ approaches. An overview of these positions, and of the most important criticisms on extended cognition, can be found in Menary 2010b. A discussion of the relation (and differences) between the approaches of extended and distributed cognition is given by one of the leading authors on distributed cognition in Hutchins 2014.
(5) A discussion (and visual representation) of Hooke’s model can be found in Oldroyd 1980. A discussion of Hooke’s model from a contemporary psychological perspective is given by Hintzman 2003. For a further contextualisation of this specific lecture, see Singer 1976.
(8) Lotte Mulligan (1992: 54) has remarked that ‘Hooke presented the operation of memory as an analogue of Baconian scientific method’. Using the term ‘analogue’ here could, however, be misleading, given the nature of the cultura animi tradition. Hooke’s presentation of the operation of memory and his Baconian scientific method are part of the same project, rather than the one being constructed in analogy to the other.
(9) For a further discussion of Hooke’s views on scientific instruments and their role in his experimental and natural philosophy, see Bennett 1980. The notion of providing technological aids to the human faculties is already present in the work of Francis Bacon, the main source for Hooke’s methodological views. Miranda Anderson compares Bacon’s view that human beings are ‘necessarily comprised of physical, mental, technological and sociocultural factors’ with the extended mind hypothesis (Anderson 2015b: 71). A further assessment of the relation between Bacon’s and Hooke’s views, however, lies beyond the scope of this chapter.
(10) This clearly echoes Francis Bacon’s call for the collection of ‘natural histories’. For a further discussion of Bacon’s view on ‘natural history’ and the use of notebooks, and its impact on the views and practices of several Royal Society virtuosi (including Hooke), see Yeo 2007 and 2014.
(11) I would like to thank Miranda Anderson and Michael Wheeler for pointing out this ambiguity.
(12) I thank one of the anonymous reviewers for pressing me on this issue.
(13) An example of this can be found in Rowlands 2010. Defining one’s own position in contrast to Cartesianism is an old move, leading Richard Bernstein to the observation that ‘[m]ost contemporary philosophers have been in revolt against the Cartesian framework’ (Bernstein 1972: 5). Bernstein is quick to add that he speaks ‘of the “Cartesian framework” rather than “Descartes” because there is a serious question whether what is being attacked is really the historical Descartes’ (Bernstein 1972: 5). A more subtle reading of Descartes’s own views on cognition (and especially memory) and the role of the body therein can be found in Sutton 1998. Sutton also provides a reading of Hooke’s model of memory as part of a series of English responses to Descartes’s theory of memory (Sutton 1998: 129–48).
(14) The fact that these lesser minds are uneducated provides further benefit according to Sprat (1667: 72), as there is no possibility that ‘their brains [are] infected by false images’. Because they are unaware of existing philosophical theories, they will not be inclined to comply their judgement in favour of a certain theory.
(19) As one reviewer helpfully pointed out, given Hooke’s reflections on collective memory and the use of writing, links can be made to the literature on literacy, cultural memory and media. Especially relevant in this context, given Hooke’s own celebratory remarks on the possibilities offered by writing and printed media, are the works of Walter Ong (1958), Marshall McLuhan (1962) and Elizabeth Eisenstein (1979). Though pre-dating the emergence of the notion of distributed cognition, these works already point at the cognitive impact of the introduction of printed media. Due to the focus on the notion of distributed cognition, and space limits, I have not been able to engage with this literature in this chapter.