Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

The Role of Cognitive Scaffolding in Embodied Explanations of Thought: How Thought Emerges from Action and Cultural Artifacts

Monica R. Cowart.

External scaffolding is broadly defined as an external prop that enables a person to perform a behavior that they would not normally be able to perform alone. Classic examples tend to focus on developmentally sensitive periods in childhood, such as when parents assist infants in walking behavior. Due to the prevalence of these examples, the crucial role that scaffolding plays in developing higher cognitive processes, such as thinking, is primarily overlooked. Yet, recent research (Clark 1997, Dennett 1996, Kirsh and Maglio 1994, 1995) is beginning to focus on how individuals manipulate objects in their environment to reduce their computational load on a daily basis. These environmental manipulations differ from simplistic cases of external scaffolding, since the agent changes the environment so that a cognitive task can be performed. For instance, individuals might physically rearrange their scrabble tiles in hopes that viewing these new letter combinations will aid in word formation.

I argue that an explanation of scaffolding is crucial to an understanding of the interplay between thought and action. Yet one reason why a comprehensive explanation of scaffolding does not exist in the literature is that the term is being used in a variety of ways. Building upon Clark’s (1997) analysis, I will identify the different types of scaffolding and discuss how they build upon one another to facilitate abstract thought. The relational analysis that emerges will serve as a first step towards providing a comprehensive understanding of how external, socio-cultural scaffolding can lead to forms of cognitive scaffolding. Finally, I will explain why a relational analysis of scaffolding provides more explanatory power than classicist planning models.


Monica R. Cowart  (United States)
Philosophy Professor
Department of Philosophy
Merrimack College

M.A. & Ph. D., University of Wisconsin - Madison

  • Scaffolding
  • Philosophy of Psychology
  • Emergence
  • Thought
  • Action
Person as Subject
  • Clark, Andy Dennett, Daniel Vygotsky, Lev Kirsch and Maglio

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)