The Bactra Review   Cognition in the Wild
Hutchins's enthusiasm for culture and society goes so far that he revives an old speculation of Lev Vygotsky's, quoting Thought and Language second hand:
Any higher mental function necessarily goes through an external stage in its development because it is initially a social function. This is the center of the whole problem of internal and external behavior.... When we speak of a process, ``external'' means ``social.'' Any higher mental function was external because it was social at some point before becoming an internal, truly mental function. It was first a social relation between two people. [quotation on p. 283 of Cognition in the Wild, ellipses in Hutchins]

Now, one of the duties of a pious intellectual posterity is to pass over the really flagrant goofs of our ancestors in decorous silence. Hutchins has signally failed in this duty here: the passage is one of those which make one want to ask, ``Lev Semenovich, what on Earth were you thinking?'' It's a mere unsupported, if heartfelt, assertion; nothing backs it up. It conflates ``external'' with ``social.'' Marking a trail with peebles, or counting on one's fingers, is (if you will) external cognition; but not social. There are things which Vygotsky certainly regarded as ``higher mental functions'' (for instance, face recognition, and object recognition more generally) but which don't even make senses as ``external'' processes, let alone ``social relations between two people.'' (Why just two?) Most basically, one needs a good many internal cognitive widgets just to enter into a ``social relation'' with another person, and these cannot, on pain of infinite and most un-Darwinian regress, have originated from internalizing yet another social process.

Nonetheless, Hutchins's enthusiasm for this notion of Vygotsky's is so great that he merely ``wonders'' whether ``there might be intrapsychological processes that could not be transformations of processes that occured in social interaction. Finding such a process would be a challenge to Vygotsky's position, but unless there are constraints on the possible transformations there is no way to identify such a process'' (p. 285). Just so: there is no way to tell that any internal process ever was an external one, let alone a social one, except by historical evidence that it originated as an external process. Needless to say, Hutchins doesn't examine the historical record of navigation to establish this even for position-fixing, much less ``higher mental functions'' in general, and Vygotsky, on this score, offered no more than hand-waving. (One suspect it's things like this which drove Vygotsky's best students to study brain damage.)