pp 1–32 | Cite as

Cognitive confinement: theoretical considerations on the construction of a cognitive niche, and on how it can go wrong

  • Konrad WernerEmail author
Knowing the Unknown
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Knowing the Unknown: Philosophical Perspectives on Ignorance


This paper aims to elucidate a kind of ignorance that is more fundamental than a momentary lack of information, but also not a kind of ignorance that is built into the subject’s cognitive apparatus such that the subject can’t do anything about it (e.g. color blindness). The paper sets forth the notion of cognitive confinement, which is a contingent, yet relatively stable state of being structurally or systematically unable to gain information from an environment, determined by patterns of interaction between the subject and the world. In order to unpack the idea of cognitive confinement the paper discusses niche construction theory, and then, in greater detail, the notion of cognitive niche once proposed by John Tooby and Irven DeVore. Cognitive confinement is here imagined as a pathologized form of cognitive niche. This posit is substantiated by referring to a case that has come to the fore in recent years and raised debate around the world: the rise of so-called filter bubbles. They turn out to be instantiations of a more general phenomenon of cognitive confinement.


Niche construction Cognitive niche Filter bubble Echo chamber Cognition Enactivism Embodied cognition Ignorance 



  1. Adriaans, P. (2018). Information. In E. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition). Retrieved October 07, 2019 from
  2. Appelbaum, A. (2003). Gulag: A history. New York: Doubleday.Google Scholar
  3. Arfini, S., Bertolotti, T., & Magnani, L. (2017). Online communities as virtual cognitive niches. Synthese. Scholar
  4. Beitz, Ch R. (2018). How is partisan gerrymandering unfair? Philosophy and Public Affairs,46(3), 323–358.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bertolotti, T., & Magnani, L. (2015). Contemporary finance as a critical cognitive niche. Mind and Society,14(2), 273–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bertolotti, T., & Magnani, L. (2017). Theoretical considerations on cognitive niche construction. Synthese,194, 4757–4779.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brooks, R. A. (1991). Intelligence without representation. Artificial Intelligence,47(1–3), 139–159.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Casati, R., & Varzi, A. (1999). Parts and places: The structures of spatial representation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  9. Chemero, A. (2009). Radical embodied cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Clark, A. (2005). Word, niche and super-niche: How language makes minds matter more. Theoria,54, 255–268.Google Scholar
  11. Clark, A. (2006). Language, embodiment, and the cognitive niche. Trends in Cognitive Science,10(8), 370–374.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. De Jesus, P. (2015). Autopoietic enactivism, phenomenology and the deep continuity between life and mind. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences,15, 265–289.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Elton, Ch S. (1927). Animal ecology. New York: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  14. Feinberg, T. E., & Mallatt, J. M. (2016). The ancient origins of consciousness: How the brain created experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fitch, W. T. (2008). Nano-intentionality: A defense of intrinsic intentionality. Biology and Philosophy,23, 157–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Flaxman, S., Goel, S., & Rao, J. M. (2016). Filter bubbles, echo chambers, and online news consumption. Public Opinion Quarterly,80, 298–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Floridi, L. (2006). The logic of being informed. Logique et Analyse,49(196), 433–460.Google Scholar
  18. Floridi, L. (2011). The philosophy of information. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fodor, J. (1975). The language of thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  21. Gładziejewski, P., & Miłkowski, M. (2017). Structural representations: Causally relevant and different from detectors. Biology and Philosophy,32, 337–355.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Godfrey-Smith, P. (2016). Individuality, subjectivity, and minimal cognition. Biology and Philosophy,31, 775–796.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Grinnell, J., & Swarth, H. S. (1913). An account of the birds and mammals of the San Jacinto area of southern California with remarks upon the behavior of geographic races on the margins of their habitats. Berkeley: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Herling, G. (1996). A world apart. New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  25. Husserl, E. (1989). Ideas pertaining to a pure phenomenology and to a phenomenological philosophy. Second book: Studies in the phenomenology of constitution. Dordrecht: Kluwer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hutchinson, G. E. (1957). Concluding remarks. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology,22, 415–427.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hutto, D., & Myin, E. (2013). Radicalizing enactivism: Basic minds without content. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  28. Jablonka, E. (2011). The entangled (and constructed) human bank. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B,366, 784.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kauffman, S. A. (1993). The origins of order: Self-organization and selection in evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Keijzer, F., & Arnellos, A. (2017). The animal sensorimotor organization: A challenge for the environmental complexity thesis. Biology and Philosophy,32(3), 421–441.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kubovy, M., & Volkenburg, D. (2001). Auditory and visual objects. Cognition,80(1–2), 97–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Kurzweil, R. (2006). The singularity is near: When humans transcend biology. New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  33. Laland, K. N., & O’Brien, M. J. (2011). Cultural niche construction: An introduction. Biological Theory,6, 191–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Laland, K. N., Odling-Smee, J., & Feldman, M. W. (1999). Evolutionary consequences of niche construction and their implications for ecology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,96, 10242–10247.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Laland, K. N., Odling-Smee, F. J., & Feldman, M. W. (2000). Niche construction, biological evolution and cultural change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences,23(1), 131–175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Laland, K. N., & Sterelny, K. (2006). Seven reasons (not) to neglect niche construction. Evolution,60, 1751–1762.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Lettvin, J. Y., Maturana, H., McCulloch, W. S., & Pitts, W. H. (1959). What the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain. Proceedings of the IRE,47(11), 1940–1951.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lewontin, R. (2000). The triple helix: Gene, organism, and environment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Livini, E. (2017). A Stanford psycholotgist says internet culture isn’t as toxic as it feels. Quartz. Retrieved October 07, 2019 from
  40. Matz, S. C., Kosinski, M., Nave, G., & Stillwell, D. J. (2017). Psychological targeting as an effective approach to digital mass persuasion. PNAS. Scholar
  41. Miller, B., & Record, I. (2013). Justified belief in digital age: on the epistemic implications of secret internet technologies. Episteme,10(2), 117–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Mitchell, M. (2009). Complexity: A guided tour. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Noë, A. (2004). Action in perception. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  44. Noë, A. (2009). Out of our heads: Why you are not your brain and other lessons from the biology of consciousness. New York: Hill and Wang.Google Scholar
  45. Odling-Smee, J. (1988). Niche constructing phenotypes. In H. C. Plotkin (Ed.), The role of behavior in evolution (pp. 73–132). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  46. Odling-Smee, F. J., Laland, K. N., & Feldman, M. W. (2003). Niche construction: The neglected process in evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Pariser, E. (2011). The filter bubble: What the Internet is hiding from you. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  48. Pinker, S. (2003). Language as an adaptation to the cognitive niche. In M. H. Christiansen & S. Kirby (Eds.), Language evolution (pp. 16–37). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Pinker, S. (2010). The cognitive niche: Coevolution of intelligence, sociality, and language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA,17(Suppl. 2), 8993–8999.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Ramsey, W. M. (2007). Representation reconsidered. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Rowlands, M. (1999). The body in mind: Understanding cognitive processes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Schwarz, R. (1992). Causality in distributed systems. In Proceedings of the 5th workshop on ACM SIGOPS European workshop: Models and paradigms for distributed systems structuring, EW 5 (pp. 1–5). New York: Association for Computing Machinery.Google Scholar
  53. Shannon, C. (1948). A mathematical theory of communication. Bell System Technical Journal,27(379–423), 623–656.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Smith, B., & Varzi, A. (1999). The niche. Noûs,33(2), 214–238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Solzhenitsyn, A. I. (1973). The gulag archipelago. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  56. Sterelny, K. (2003). Thought in a hostile world: The evolution of human cognition. Oxford: Wiley.Google Scholar
  57. Sterelny, K. (2012). The evolved apprentice: How evolution made humans unique. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Stewart, J., Gapenne, O., & Di Paolo, E. A. (Eds.). (2010). Enaction: Toward a new paradigm for cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  59. Stoffregen, T. A. (2003). Affordances are properties of the animal-environment system. Ecological Psychology,15, 115–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Stotz, K. (2010). Human nature and cognitive-developmental niche construction. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences,9, 483–501.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Strevens, M. (2017). Ontology, complexity, and compositionality. In M. H. Slater & Z. Yudell (Eds.), Metaphysics and the philosophy of science (pp. 41–54). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Taraborelli, D., & Mossio, M. (2008). On the relation between the enactive and the sensorimotor approach to perception. Consciousness and Cognition,17(4), 1343–1344.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Tate, S. A., & Page, D. (2018). Whiteliness and institutional racism: Hiding behind (un)conscious bias. Ethics and Education,13(1), 141–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Thi Nguyen, C. (2018). Cognitive islands and runaway echo chambers: Problems for epistemic dependence on experts. Synthese. Scholar
  65. Tooby, J., & DeVore, I. (1987). The reconstruction of hominid behavioral evolution through strategic modeling. In W. G. Kinzey (Ed.), Primate models of hominid behavior (pp. 183–237). Albany: Suny Press.Google Scholar
  66. Trilling, D., Van Klingeren, M., & Tsfati, Y. (2016). Selective exposure, political polarization, and possible mediators: Evidence from the Netherlands. International Journal of Public Opinion Research. Scholar
  67. Van Duijn, M., Keijzer, F., & Franken, D. (2006). Principles of minimal cognition: Casting cognition as sensorimotor coordination. Adaptive Behavior,14, 157–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. van Os, J., Kenis, G., & Rutten, B. P. F. (2010). The environment and schizophrenia. Nature,468, 203–212. Scholar
  69. van Ryn, M., Burgess, D. J., Dovidio, J. F., Phelan, S. M., Saha, S., Malat, J., et al. (2011). The impact of racism on clinician cognition, behavior, and clinical decision making. Du Bois Review,8(1), 199–218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Varela, F., Thompson, E., & Rosh, E. (1991). The embodied mind. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Varzi, A. (2007). Spatial reasoning and ontology: Parts, wholes, and locations. In M. Aiello, I. Pratt-Hartmann, & J. van Benthem (Eds.), Handbook of spatial logics (pp. 945–1038). Berlin: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Velligan, D. I., Mueller, J., Wang, M., Dicocco, M., Diamond, P. M., Maples, N. J., et al. (2006). Use of environmental supports among patients with schizophrenia. Psychiatric Services,57(2), 219–224.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Viķe-Freiberga, V., Däubler-Gmelin, H., Hammersley, B., & Pessoa Maduro, L. M. P. (2013). A free and pluralistic media to sustain European democracy. Retrieved November 08, 2019 from
  74. von Foerster, H. (2003). Cybernetics and epistemology. In H. von Foerster (Ed.), Understanding understanding: Essays on cybernetics and cognition (pp. 229–246). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. von Uexküll, J. (1926). Theoretical biology. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.Google Scholar
  76. Wallach, E. (2015). Niche construction theory as an explanatory framework for human phenomena. Synthese. Scholar
  77. Werner, K. (2017). Coordination produces cognitive niches, not just experiences: A formal constructivist ontology based on von Foerster. Constructivist Foundations,12(3), 301–308.Google Scholar
  78. Werner, K. (2018). Enactivism and construction of the cognitive niche. Synthese. Scholar
  79. Withagen, R., & von Wermeskerken, M. (2010). The role of affordances in the evolutionary process reconsidered. Theory and Psychology,20(4), 489–510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Young, R. W. (2003). Evolution of the human hand: The role of throwing and clubbing. Journal of Anatomy,202, 165–174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Zuiderveen Borgesius, F., Trilling, D., Möller, J., Bodó, B., de Vreese, C., & Helberger, N. (2016). Should we worry about filter bubbles? Internet Policy Review,5(1), 10. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of PhilosophyUniversity of WarsawWarsawPoland

Personalised recommendations