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This collection of essays has been put together with the aim of considering cognitivism (p. 1): 'what it is (was?), how it originated, and whether or not it is now desirable to look for ways to go beyond it'. The authors are philosophers, cognitive scientists, and psychologists and they write within these genres. Their contributions are divided into three sections on theory, language, and practice respectively, sections framed by an introduction and conclusion from the editors.
The result is something of a curate's egg. Whilst some authors write with style, address well-defined issues, introduce their technical vocabulary with clear definitions, and remain pertinent to the critical investigation of cognitivism, others do not. Different meanings of key terms, and radically different valuations of key concepts - 'representation', 'information processing', 'cognition', 'cognitivism' – are presented throughout the desultory text. The editors miss the opportunity to hold the authors to common standards or meaning, to request that they address one another's work, or to map out the upshot of their diverse contributions in the conclusion (which instead simply recapitulates the preface). Further, some of the contributors also made frequent use of irritating rhetorical devices akin to what a friend of mine called Hume's 'tis obvious' indicator: using a phrase like ''tis obvious' or 'of course' or 'as X noted' when 'tis obvious that what is really wanted is not an observation but an argument for something that is, well, not at all obvious.
A few of these chapters will now be considered in a little more detail, and the core concerns will be noted and numbered. Brendan Wallace's introduction traces a historical narrative of the antecedents of cognitivism, moving forward from Plato to Descartes to Shannon, Turing and Chomsky. The principle metaphysical confusion unearthed by Wallace is (1) the belief that the normativity of everyday judgment (for example my holding, correctly or incorrectly, that John's behavior is pious) is a function of my knowledge (perhaps tacit) of rules or principles of a sort which could be appealed to in a justification of the judgment. This is traced to Plato (reporting Socrates), as is (2) the metaphysical propensity to treat non-material phenomena (numbers, mentality) as if they enjoy the categorical character of entities – thereby creating either dualistic ontologies of the human being as made up not only of material, but also of mental, stuff, or materialist ontologies in which it is assumed that putative 'mind stuff' is after all 'identical' with the physical stuff of the brain.
Wallace goes on to note the significance of two ideas he traces to Descartes: (3) the idea of mind as an inner domain sharply distinguished from a world which is 'external' to it, and (4) the idea that the mind or brain relates to this 'external' world by representing it. As with his discussion of Plato, the principle problems with Wallace's argument are: his lack of textual evidence for his readings, his (these days all-too-prevalent) use of terms like 'Cartesian' in a catch-all and historically un-nuanced manner, and most importantly, his apparent view that historical precedent in philosophical matters can without further textual and historical evidence be considered evidence of intellectual influence. As the anti-cognitivist argument of (1) would have it, just because normative practices may sometimes be described using principles does not mean that the practice of these normative practitioners has been brought about or governed by principles of which they supposedly have implicit knowledge. So, by analogy, when Wallace tells us (p. 6) that 'many (perhaps most) of the philosophical antecedents of 'cognitivism' can (implicitly) trace their intellectual roots back to Descartes, and that behind Descartes lies the Platonic view of cognition as being rule-following', we must ask whether the '(implicit) trace' is a genuine influence, or a coincidence caused by our human disposition to make and perpetrate the same assumptions and conceptual confusions again and again. If the former, then we need the evidence; if the latter, then the tracing of historical precedent would appear less relevant than Wallace seems to believe.
Much of the rest of the introduction is concerned with (5) distinguishing a minimal notion of 'information' and 'information processing' as used (by Shannon) in engineering concepts, from an everyday notion of 'information' which bears essential conceptual connections to notions of meaning, message, purport, etc. Wallace recapitulates the often-noted (by P M S Hacker, Jeff Coulter, Stuart Shanker et al.) observation that tacit and illicit switches between the two meanings of 'information' in many cognitive science texts gives rise to the appearance that an engineering or computational paradigm has far greater explanatory significance for psychological sciences than it could ever possibly sustain.
Claim (2) is articulated further by Mark Johnson in his chapter 'The Embodied Mind & the Illusion of Disembodied Thoughts'. Johnson provides a fairly convincing account (which is, in fact, just the account he has provided us many times before) of how abstract reasoning is grounded in our embodied dispositions, and uses this to make the (to this reader) less convincing argument against the very ideas of 'pure abstract concepts', 'absolutist thinking' and 'Being'. In the process he appears to risk falling foul of the illusions exposed in (1).
Johnson provides some nice illustrations of the way in which our thinking about abstract matters follows paths laid down for it in our sensorimotor engagements with the world. His talent lies in bringing to the surface aspects of our thought that are so reflexive and intuitive we typically fail to notice they obtain. Consider what he calls the 'SOURCE-PATH-GOAL schema' and the way it constrains and guides thought about purposes via the 'PURPOSES ARE DESTINATIONS primary metaphor'. Here the metaphor of goals as destinations shapes the way we think about goals which are not literally destinations. Accordingly we understand it perfectly well when we are told (p. 39) 'Paul is just getting going on his research project. We have a long way to go until we finish this report. Mary stopped short of her goal of balancing her budget. I can't see what's around the corner in our attempt to win the campaign.'
Whilst this is compelling, and whilst his later thoughts on the bodily basis of absolutist thinking about abstract universals are intriguing if underdeveloped, Johnson's claim that such metaphors are psychologically realized (p. 43) in 'thinking [which] goes on beneath the conscious level' is less so. He tells us (p. 44) that 'the bodily basis of meaning tends to recede into non-conscious processes of meaning-making, leaving us only with a consciousness of the final products and contents of our thinking.' Yet why should we assume, in accord with what is apparently analogical to that which has been exposed in (1), that the constraining of my inference-making by bodily schemata amounts to its being a product of subconscious cognition? We theorists may describe or map the character of our conscious thought regarding abstract concerns (rights, purposes, infinity, etc.) onto a more basic bodily grammar (destinations, balance, containment, etc.). But this provides no license for the inference that when in our everyday speech we are simply using such metaphors we are engaged in any processes of subconscious mapping. It is not obvious, and no evidence has been provided, that more thinking is going on under the surface when we reason about an abstract concerns according to an image schema (purposes as destinations), than is going on when we reason about the concrete matters (destinations) themselves.
A different trajectory is taken by Xabier E Barandian in his long chapter on Mental Life: Conceptual Models and Synthetic Methodologies for Post-Cognitivist Psychology. Barandian first sets out and defines the 'epistemological constraints' he will work within (universalism, naturalism, and minimalism) before drawing a series of lessons from protocell biology and applying them to psychological concerns. The chapter shows considerable promise and creativity whilst also revealing the volume's weak editing: I sometimes felt that if I already knew about and understood the wide range of phenomena (e.g. 'Braitenburg vehicles') with which acquaintance is presupposed, it is likely that I would gain little in addition from reading the chapter. And whilst Barandian is explicit in aiming to ask questions about phenomena which cannot be tackled by mainstream cognitivist approaches which must take them for granted (for example: what makes possible the subject-object dichotomy in terms of which cognitivism's representational hypotheses are framed?), his lack of attention to conceptual confusions immanent within cognitivist approaches results in their finding their way into his text.
Barandian's chapter is worthy of expansion into a monograph in its own right, and is therefore difficult to summarize here. In brief, the aim is to make use of ideas familiar in theoretical biology – such as the ways in which order can spontaneously emerge within autopoetic (i.e. self-organizing and boundary-maintaining) systems – within the psychological domain. The difficulties arise when, as critics of cognitivism have often noted (analogously to (1) above), the metaphorical, derivative, character of normative and intentional notions, when applied to merely biological systems – however autopoetic these systems may be - goes unnoticed. Thus (p. 62) Barandian tells us that, because autopoietic systems must perform certain operations in order to maintain their own internal equilbria, 'a sense of good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, adaptive or maladaptive, emerges from the very organization of the system, and is not externally defined by a designer or observer that projects a desired functionality on it.' Yet this way of talking presupposes, rather than demonstrates, (the intelligibility of suggesting) that the system has its own survival as its goal. It is in fact Barandian who projects the desired outcome – survival – onto the biological system as a goal it strives towards, thereby smuggling in the normative and (p. 63) agential vocabulary in by the back door. Whilst this certainly does not vitiate the larger project – of (p. 83) developing a 'conceptual model of Mental Life as an organized system consisting of sensorimotor (neuro)dynamic structures which are nested through internal stability dependencies and dependent on the behavioral interactions they sustain, where the preservation of such stability dependencies becomes the main organizational principle' – it does sometimes suggest that conceptual passage from, say, subpersonal cell membrane boundaries to personal self/world boundaries can be made more safely than is possible.
In the next, poorly argued, chapter Alexander Riegler presents a 'radical constructivist' view of cognition. Riegler describes various problems which bedevil cognitivist approaches, including (6) the 'frame problem', the (7) flimsiness and poverty of inductive knowledge, (8) the impossibility, for a mind which can only manipulate internal representations, of comparing these representations with reality to check their veridicality (contrast our comparing a portrait against the sitter to see how well it represents her), (9) the difference between quality and quantity and the fact that only the latter is neurologically 'encoded', (10), the non-linguistic character of much knowledge.
As an example of the poor argumentation, consider Riegler's case for (10). He is considering the tendency of hungry young birds to open their beaks if adult birds or dummies approach the nest. 'From the perspective of conventional philosophy, however, the young birds do not know anything although they may believe that they are approached by the parenting bird, and this belief is certainly justified by the fact that hungry young birds usually get food. But then, given the evolutionary success of their behavior, what else if not knowledge has been transmitted from generation to generation?' First we may ask what 'conventional philosophy' is supposed to be. After all there are surely many non-avant-garde philosophers who would be inclined to withhold attributions of genuine belief, as well as knowledge, to the chicks. Second, the obvious answer to the question he raises is that what is transmitted is precisely not knowledge but a reflex or a habit or an innate disposition.
Riegler's own 'constructivist' theory, which cognitivistically identifies mind and brain, suggests that we (or perhaps our brains) are (p.104) 'basically dreaming machines that construct virtual models'. To understand the theory, consider first the problem (8) posed by Wittgenstein for representationalism – that 'in order to tell whether a picture is true or false we must compare it with reality' – but that a representationalist seems to be stuck within a domain of inner representations, unable to access reality in the required independent way. The Wittgensteinian answer – as Alan Costall notes in a later chapter – is of course to abandon representationalism. Thought, understanding and knowledge are not to be considered grounded in, but are rather presupposed by, representations. Representations possess an intentionality derivative of our relationship with them, and so cannot ground our intentional relation to the world. Riegler, however, bites the bullet, accepting that the mind is representational and information containing ('producing' if not 'processing'), accepting that it remains within a self-contained inner domain, and that contact with reality is an unnecessary luxury.
The contrasts used to motivate this idea of the mind as an 'information producer' rather than an 'information processor' tend, however, to subtly undermine the constructivist position. For example, Riegler notes (p. 106) how we may take ourselves to see faces in visual static, especially if we have been encouraged to expect them. This is somehow put forward as empirical evidence for the epistemological doctrines of constructivism. Yet the condition clearly contrasts with cases in which we don't merely take ourselves to see faces that we imagine, but see faces that are really there: it is from this contrast that the visual static scenario gains its meaning and interest. As with 'representations' (e.g. portraits), 'dreaming machines', so too for 'seeing faces in static': these are all cases which contrast with rather than exemplify our ordinary perceptual and genuinely cognitive relationship with reality, a contrast which casts serious doubts on their use as material to construct a (constructivist) framework which does justice to our idea of what it is to be a cognitive, knowledge-possessing, being.
The book contains many other chapters of varying quality. To pick just two others: Michael Wheeler provides one of the best-written, and best-argued pieces, developing and subtly critiquing Andy Clark's view that language is a 'cognitive tool'. It is a shame that Andy Clark did not contribute a reply to this piece for this volume, since there certainly appears to be scope for one. Alan Costall contributes an interesting chapter on how the problem with representationalism, which is sometimes (8) thought to constitute the principle problem of cognitivism, is really just a symptom of a range of deeper dualisms (of subjective and objective, matter and mind, body and mind, and meaning and materiality) which tend to be taken for granted within cognitivist approaches. His demonstration that trite cognitivist analogies (computer hardware is the brain, software is the mind) exemplify rather than undermine dualistic ontologies is convincing, although the chapter as a whole would have benefitted from an explanation of just what is wrong with being a dualist.
There are today several recent critiques of cognitivism on the market, including Hacker and Bennett (2003) and Coulter & Sharrock (2007). There are also several new works on theoretical models for cognitive science – including those in the recent embedded, enactive, embodied, extended tradition – such as Thompson (2007). The work under review had the distinctive quality of bringing together both critique of the old and presentations of the new. A question that remained for this reader at the end of the book was how many of the new approaches presented remain futile attempts to answer questions which are themselves in thrall to cognitivist assumptions, and how many are viable and valid new frameworks for understanding the relationship between the form of our embodiment and the powers of our minds.
Coulter, J. & Sharrock, W. (2007). Brain, Mind and Human Behavior in Contemporary Cognitive Science: Critical Assessments of the Philosophy of Psychology. Edwin Mellen Press.
Hacker, P. & Bennett, M. (2003), Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Blackwell Publishers.
Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. Harvard University Press.
© 2008 Richard Gipps
Richard Gipps gained his PhD from the University of Warwick, UK, for a dissertation on the philosophical foundations of cognitivist theories of schizophrenia. He is currently finishing a doctoral training in clinical psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University, UK, and is affiliated with the Institute for Philosophy, Diversity and Mental Health at the University of Lancashire, UK.
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