Situated Action: A Symbolic Interpretation

The congeries of theoretical views collectively referred to as “situated action” (SA) claim that humans and their interactions with the world cannot be understood using symbol-system models and methodology, but only by observing them within real-world contexts or building nonsymbolic models of them. SA claims also that rapid, real-time interaction with a dynamically changing environment is not amenable to symbolic interpretation of the sort espoused by the cognitive science of recent decades. Planning and representation, central to symbolic theories, are claimed to be irrelevant in everyday human activity. We will contest these claims, as well as their proponents' characterizations of the symbol-system viewpoint. We will show that a number of existing symbolic systems perform well in temporally demanding tasks embedded in complex environments, whereas the systems usually regarded as exemplifying SA are thoroughly symbolic (and representational), and, to the extent that they are limited in these respects, have doubtful prospects for extension to complex tasks. As our title suggests, we propose that the goals set forth by the proponents of SA can be attained only within the framework of symbolic systems. The main body of empirical evidence supporting our view resides in the numerous symbol systems constructed in the past 35 years that have successfully simulated broad areas of human cognition.

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