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date: 25 June 2022

Introduction: Philosophy and Cognitive Science

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter offers a high-level overview of the philosophy of cognitive science and an introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Cognitive Science. The philosophy of cognitive science emerged out of a set of common and overlapping interests among philosophers and scientists who study the mind. We identify five categories of issues that illustrate the best work in this broad field: (1) traditional philosophical issues about the mind that have been invigorated by research in cognitive science, (2) issues regarding the practice of cognitive science and its foundational assumptions, (3) issues regarding the explication and clarification of core concepts in cognitive science, (4) first-order empirical issues where philosophers participate in the interdisciplinary investigation of particular psychological phenomena, (5) traditional philosophical issues that aren’t about the mind but that can be informed by a better understanding of how the mind works.

Keywords: philosophy of cognitive science, metaphilosophical issues, rationality, culture and cognition, theory of mind

The past few decades have witnessed dramatic growth in the cognitive sciences. New experimental techniques have given us unprecedented access to the inner workings of the mind and brain, and this has led to a massive expansion in theorizing, covering everything from the mechanisms of memory and attention to the cultural processes that shape moral reasoning. This same period has also witnessed a significant shift in philosophy in that many philosophers have become substantially more attuned to developments in the cognitive sciences. This change is reflected in both the issues that philosophers study and the intellectual tools upon which they draw. Moreover, philosophers influenced by the development of cognitive science very typically view their work as having an inherently interdisciplinary dimension, and consider research emanating from such fields as linguistics, neuropsychology, and cognitive anthropology as having genuine philosophical significance. What is more, these changes in cognitive science and philosophy are not unrelated. The influence has been mutual, and the intersection between the two—what philosophers sometimes call the philosophy of cognitive science—has become an extraordinarily active area of enquiry.

This handbook focuses on topics in the philosophy of cognitive science and brings together a range of chapters that represent the state of the art in this active field. But our aim is not to be comprehensive. There are simply too many topics in the philosophy of cognitive science—too much fruitful ongoing research—for any (p. 4) single volume to encompass it in satisfactory fashion. Instead, we have organized the volume around a representative sample of important topics. Some of these have been central to cognitive science since its inception; others, though vital to our understanding of the mind, have only recently gained the attention they deserve. Each chapter focuses on one such topic and provides an introduction to—and an illustration of—research on that topic.

We are inclined to think that the best way to learn about the philosophy of cognitive science is to work through a number of case studies. It is here that we encounter the issues that have fascinated philosophers and scientists alike—in some cases, for centuries or even millennia. Still, a preliminary overview of the field may be helpful. Though there are no doubt many ways to carve up the terrain, we think that the following five broad categories of issues cover much of what is usually taken to fall within the domain of the philosophy of cognitive science:

  • Traditional philosophical issues about the mind: Long-standing philosophical problems that concern the nature of the mind.

  • Meta-theoretic issues: Issue concerning the practice of cognitive science and its foundational assumptions.

  • Conceptual issues: Issues concerning the explication and clarification of the core concepts of cognitive science.

  • First-order empirical issues: Issues about mental phenomena and behavior of the sort that comprise the primary focus of psychology, linguistics, and allied disciplines.

  • Traditional philosophical issues that are not ostensibly about the mind: Long-standing issues that are most naturally construed as falling within areas of philosophy other than the philosophy of mind (e.g., ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, philosophy of religion, and metaphilosophy).

We do not suppose that these categories are mutually exclusive or that, in practice, they are easy to delineate. Rather they are often intimately intertwined in the research of philosophers of cognitive science. Nevertheless, it is useful in the first instance to separate them out and to look at each in turn. And this is exactly what we propose to do in the rest of this chapter, in each case, illustrating the broad category with examples from this volume.

1. Traditional Philosophical Issues about the Mind

There are many issues of long-standing interest to philosophers that also fall within the purview of cognitive science. The most obvious of these concern fundamental questions about the mind. Indeed, the hope that cognitive science might facilitate (p. 5) progress on these perennial questions is perhaps the central historical reason for philosophical interest in the cognitive sciences. In our view, this hope has not been a forlorn one. On the contrary, the bridge between the philosophy of mind and the cognitive sciences has invigorated traditional philosophical debates about the mind and has resulted in considerable progress and insight. In many ways, this is one of the great success stories of contemporary philosophy. Some examples are in order.

1.1. Cognition in a Physical World

One primary objective of cognitive science has been to articulate detailed, empirically plausible answers to a range of questions that fall within the orbit of perhaps the most venerable of all philosophical issues about the mind: the mind-body problem. In most general terms, the mind-body problem is that of characterizing the relationship between mental phenomena on the one hand, and physical phenomena on the other. A critical aspect of this general problem is how minds such as ours—with their rich suite of cognitive capacities—fit into a world whose fundamental laws and entities are entirely physical (Fodor 1975; Newell 1980; Pylyshyn 1984; Anderson 2007). Human beings perceive, reason, and make decisions, and, as a consequence of such mental activities, produce behaviors that exert an influence on the world. But how this could be—how mere physical beings could exhibit such cognitive capacities—has seemed to many theorists to be a source of profound puzzlement.

One response to the mind-body problem is to maintain, as Descartes did, that a human being's mental life depends on the existence of an immaterial entity that is not subject to physical law. But such a position is implausible in the light of scientific developments over the past three hundred years or so. Whatever the explanation for our cognitive and behavioral capacities, many now suppose that it cannot be one that requires a special immaterial component—something akin to the traditional notion of a soul. Here is where cognitive science enters the picture. Because cognitive scientists seek to specify mechanistic explanations of psychological phenomena, cognitive science offers the prospect of an empirically informed approach to addressing issues about how such mental capacities as perception, reasoning, and memory could result from the activity of mere physical systems. The successes and failures of research programs within cognitive science can thus be seen as informing our assessment of different answers to the question of how minds like ours manage to exist in a world whose ultimate constituents are physical.

Over the past few decades, a number of different research programs have emerged from the cognitive sciences that explore divergent proposals about the fundamental nature of the mind. Many of these are discussed in the following chapters. For example, Gualtiero Piccinini focuses on perhaps the most enduring proposal of this sort—computationalism. As Piccinini makes clear, all computationalists endorse the general claim that certain mental capacities can be explained computationally. What they disagree about is how to construe the nature (p. 6) of computation and how to characterize the type of computation that is most relevant to the explanation of our cognitive capacities. Some, for example, maintain that cognition depends on classical symbol manipulation, while others advocate connectionist computation. In addition to providing a survey of these options, Piccinini looks at the difficult questions of what it means to say that a physical system is a computational system, and how the distinction between digital and analog computation should be drawn.

Although computationalism of some sort is the most prominent view of cognition among cognitive scientists, it is not the only one. Another family of views, often subsumed under the general heading of embodied or embedded accounts of the mind, is the focus of Larry Shapiro's contribution to the present volume. Shapiro clarifies the historical roots of the embodied cognition approach and notes the influence of Gibsonian theories of perception on its development. In addition, he explicates the various respects in which such views diverge from more traditional computational accounts of cognition and provides an overview of some of the evidence that has been marshaled in support of embodiment.

One point of disagreement between traditional computationalism and alternative views, such as those often advocated by embodiment theorists, concerns the nature and role of mental representation. According to most computationalists, representations have an essential role to play in cognition. In contrast, many embodiment theorists urge that much of cognition can be explained in nonrepresentational terms. This point of divergence forms a focal point for Shapiro's chapter. But issues about representation also figure prominently elsewhere in this volume. For example, Frances Egan's chapter on representationalism reviews the various senses in which the human mind may be understood to be an information-processing system, and examines whether the best way to reconstruct this idea requires the postulation of mental representations. Though mental representations play an important role in much theorizing about the physical basis of cognition, as Egan and Shapiro both point out, there are lively debates in the philosophy of cognitive science concerning whether mental representations are truly needed to serve this role.

1.2. The Problem(s) of Consciousness

The primary focus of cognitive science has been the explanation of cognitive capacities. As a consequence, the aspects of the mind-body problem about which cognitive science has had most to say concern the physical realization of cognitive capacities. Yet as Thomas Nagel and others have noted, the biggest mystery associated with the mind-body problem—what seems to make it especially bewildering—is consciousness. More specifically, the problem of consciousness is to explain how a physical system could exhibit what philosophers have variously called phenomenal consciousness, the “what it is like” feature of experience or qualia (Nagel 1974; Chalmers 1996). Here it is rather less clear what, if anything, cognitive science has to offer.

(p. 7) Until quite recently consciousness had been, at most, a topic of only fringe interest for scientists generally and cognitive scientists in particular. But in the past decade or so, there has been a resurgence of interest in consciousness, and a number of new philosophical theories have emerged that explicitly draw upon developments in the cognitive sciences. In his chapter, Robert Van Gulick provides a field guide to this exciting area of enquiry, distinguishing among the heterogeneous phenomena subsumed by the word consciousness, setting out the main empirically informed theories of consciousness, and describing some of the more interesting scientific results that may also be of interest to philosophers.

1.3. The Nature of Thought

Another class of philosophical issues about the mind that has been revitalized by research in cognitive science concerns the nature and preconditions for thought. A number of the chapters in this volume are concerned with aspects of this issue.

Language and Thought. Peter Carruthers's chapter addressees the relationship between language and cognition. This relationship has been for many centuries a focal point of philosophical debate. Philosophers have been interested in the extent to which thought depends on the possession of a natural language (or vice versa). According to one prominent family of views, widespread in twentieth century philosophy, the possession of a natural language is a necessary condition for thought of any sort (Davidson 1975; Dummett 1993). In contrast, other philosophers maintain either that the dependency goes the other way, from thought to natural language (Fodor 1975), or that the two are on par with each other (Brandom 1994).

Of course, philosophers are not the only ones with interests in the relationship between thought and language. At least since the time of Whorf and Vygotsky, psychologists and anthropologists have also had a deep interest in this relationship, and in recent decades there has been a concerted effort to assess the extent to which our cognitive capacities depend on the prior possession of natural language. Carruthers explores the implications of some of this research and argues that it supports the conclusion that natural language is implicated in some of the most distinctively human of our cognitive capacities, including the capacity to perform exact arithmetic calculations and to engage in sophisticated executive tasks that involve the manipulation of goals and attention.

Thought and Concepts. Another philosophical issue concerning the preconditions for thought arises in the study of concepts. If we assume that thoughts are composed of concepts, concept possession is clearly essential to having thoughts. But what concepts themselves are and what is required for concept possession are enormously controversial matters. For example, different proposals vary in the claims they make about the ontological status of concepts (whether concepts are abstract entities or mental representation), the structural properties of concepts (including whether word-size concepts have any structure at all), and the acquisition of concepts (whether there are any innate concepts and how concepts can be learned).

(p. 8) In their chapter, Laurence and Margolis focus on an aspect of the controversy about concept possession that they dub the problem of the scope of the conceptual. Many philosophers routinely distinguish between two types of states or content—conceptual and nonconceptual—and also maintain a sharp divide between creatures that are supposed to have concepts and those that do not. Laurence and Margolis survey the main arguments that have been marshaled by philosophers to support these distinctions and argue that they turn on a surprisingly large number of different ways of delimiting the scope of the conceptual, and that few of the arguments that are meant to support one way or another of drawing this distinction stand up to scrutiny.

Evidence that bears on the nature of concepts has come from a variety of different regions of cognitive science—linguistics, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience, among others. But one area of enquiry that has proven especially valuable to the study of concepts is developmental psychology. In their chapter, Gelman and Ware focus on the view known as psychological essentialism, which owes a great deal to work in developmental psychology. This is the view that much of cognition depends on concepts that function like natural kind terms in that they partition the world into categories whose members are represented as sharing an underlying essence that both determines category membership and explains the surface commonalities between members. Gelman and Ware argue that, in some cognitive domains—for example, folk biology—a satisfactory account of development requires that we adopt such a view of concepts.

1.4. More Specific Mental Phenomena

So far we have focused on traditional philosophical questions about the mind that have quite a broad scope—questions that concern thought, cognition, or consciousness per se. But in addition to these very general issues, philosophers have long been interested in a range of relatively specific mental phenomena such as attention, memory, and perception. Clearly, such phenomena are also of interest to cognitive scientists, and many of the chapters in the present volume seek to integrate—and draw out the philosophical implications of—recent empirical research on these topics.

An illustration of this approach to the philosophy of cognitive science can be found in Casey O’Callaghan's chapter on perception and multimodality. For a host of different reasons, including its centrality to our knowledge of the world, philosophers have always been interested in the nature of perception. But as O’Callaghan observes, philosophical discussions of perception have tended to be highly vision-centric, focusing on vision to the near complete exclusion of other perceptual modalities. Moreover, even when other perceptual modalities do receive attention, there is a widespread tendency to treat each modality (olfaction, audition, etc.) as if it were largely isolated from the others. O’Callaghan maintains that this unimodalism is a mistake. Contrary to widespread opinion, the connections between distinct perceptual modalities are rich and complex, and an account (p. 9) of perception that ignores this fact will, at best, be incomplete and, at worst, seriously misrepresent the nature of perception.

Another chapter that considers a specific mental phenomenon of traditional interest to philosophers is Jesse Prinz's chapter on the emotions. Though Prinz focuses primarily on issues about the individuation (or counting) of emotions, he does so with an eye to assessing competing theories of what emotions are. More specifically, he argues that many accounts of the emotions yield exceedingly implausible answers to the question of how many emotions we have, either implying that we have far fewer than is in fact plausible or far too many. Prinz then goes on to argue that his preferred account of the emotions—the somatic appraisal theory—yields a vague though plausible answer to the “how many” question.

A final example of a chapter that focuses on a specific mental phenomenon is Christopher Mole's on attention. Philosophers have seldom studied attention for its own sake. Rather, what interest it has garnered has, in large measure, been motivated by a concern to understand other phenomena (e.g., free will or consciousness). As Mole notes, however, attention has had a rather more central place within cognitive science than it has had in the history of philosophy, and largely as result of Donald Broadbent's influence has been the subject of intensive empirical enquiry. Mole argues that the best accounts of attention to have emerged from this research tradition—the so-called biased competition models—promise to have important implications for both the methodology of cognitive psychology and the metaphysics of attention.

2. Meta-Theoretic Issues

The philosophy of cognitive science is not just empirically informed philosophy of mind; it is also part of the philosophy of science. Like the philosophy of biology or the philosophy of physics, it takes a region of science as an object of enquiry and addresses issues about its nature and practices. In the present case, the object of enquiry is the confederation of disciplines that make up cognitive science (cognitive psychology, linguistics, cognitive neuroscience, artificial intelligence, etc.) considered separately and in toto. Sometimes the goal of enquiry is largely descriptive—to articulate aspects of the scientific practices that are typical of cognitive science. But more commonly the goals are at least partially normative. Philosophers of cognitive science seek an understanding of how the science ought to be done. Again, some illustrations are in order.

2.1. Foundational Assumptions

One class of meta-theoretic questions that has figured prominently in the philosophy of cognitive science concern how best to characterize the foundational (p. 10) assumptions of the cognitive sciences. Such issues arise throughout the present volume, and some of them have already been mentioned. One very widely held view, for example, is that the information processing that goes on in the brain depends on the presence of mental representations, and that cognitive processes are, in some sense, computational processes. As noted earlier, both of these ideas receive extended treatment in the chapters by Egan and Piccinini.

Another example of a foundational assumption that has received considerable attention in the philosophy of cognitive science is what we might call the mechanistic assumption. According to this very widely held view, the mind is indeed a mechanism of some sort—roughly speaking, a physical device decomposable into functionally specifiable subparts. Moreover, given this assumption, a central goal for cognitive science is to characterize the nature of this mechanism, or to provide an account of our cognitive architecture. A huge amount of cognitive science is concerned in one way or another with the attainment of this goal. Issues that flow from the mechanistic assumption recur throughout this volume. For example, much debate about the nature of cognitive mechanisms has occurred in the context of debates over modularity. In his chapter, Samuels clarifies the notion of a module as it figures in recent disputes about whether the mind is massively modular. In the course of this discussion, he considers a variety of issues about the individuation of cognitive mechanisms as well as the relative plausibility of different accounts of the sorts of mechanisms that comprise the human mind.

2.2. Relationships between Disciplines

A second kind of meta-theoretic issue of widespread interest to philosophers of cognitive science concerns the relationships between, and potential contributions of, the various disciplines that comprise cognitive science. Cognitive science is, of course, a multidisciplinary field of research, but there remains enormous disagreement regarding the relevance and precise role of these various disciplines within the overarching program of cognitive science. Again, such issues are well represented in the present volume.

One issue that has been the focus of much heated debate concerns the role of evolutionary biology in the development of a science of cognition. At one extreme, some highly influential theorists maintain that evolutionary biology is of little or no value to the project of cognitive science (Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini 2010). At the other extreme, there are researchers, especially evolutionary psychologists, who maintain that cognitive science is a branch of biology, and that evolutionary considerations furnish us with both a unified methodology for the study of cognition and the means to generate plausible hypotheses about the structure of the mind (Tooby and Cosmides 1992; Pinker 1997; Carruthers 2006). These are issues that Jeffares and Sterelny take up in their chapter on evolutionary psychology. In doing so, they reject both of these two extremes and set out a pluralistic conception of how evolutionary considerations can inform research in cognitive science that draws on a variety of evolutionary sciences, including behavioral ecology, physical anthropology, and population genetics.

(p. 11) Evolutionary biology is not the only discipline whose role within cognitive science has been a source of dispute. Another such discipline, one that Copeland and Proudfoot discuss in their chapter, is the area of computer science known as artificial intelligence (AI). Historically, AI has been hugely influential in the development of cognitive science. Indeed, on the conception of cognition that emerges from the seminal work of Alan Turing, Allen Newell, Herbert Simon, and David Marr, the goals of cognitive science and of AI are virtually identical: to provide computational accounts of cognitive phenomena, such as reasoning, problem solving, and vision (Marr 1982; Newell and Simon 1976; Turing 1951). Yet the significance of AI to the study of mind has also been the subject of concerted criticism, both on the basis of empirical considerations and on broadly a priori grounds. In their chapter on AI, Copeland and Proudfoot clarify the foundational assumptions of AI and consider some of the more prominent objections that have been leveled against it. In addition, they take a look at recent arguments that purport to show the technological inevitability of AI.

A final (and surprising) example of a discipline whose significance to the study of cognition has been much disputed is neuroscience. On its face, this seems very surprising indeed. After all, few would deny that brains have a central role to play in cognition! Nonetheless, as Grush and Damm make clear in their chapter on cognition and the brain, there has been a widespread tendency within cognitive science to argue that brain science has little to tell us about cognition per se. Moreover, even those cognitive scientists who do not accept such arguments have tended until relatively recently to make little use of neuroscientific results in the construction of their theories. Grush and Damm explore some of reasons for this tendency, and argue that cognitive science has been dominated by overly simplistic models of cognition, neural function, and their interrelation. For all that, they conclude by sounding a note of cautious optimism: we may be, as they say, finally on the verge of rendering tractable the mystery of how brains give rise to cognition.

3. Conceptual Issues

A third broad class of issues in the philosophy of cognitive science concerns the clarification and explication of core theoretical concepts. Cognitive scientists certainly make heavy use of a number of concepts that generate knotty theoretical and philosophical problems. Some of these have already been touched on in Section 2. For example, the notions of cognition, computation, representation, and consciousness have all been the subject of efforts at conceptual clarification, and the chapters in this volume that make central use of these concepts all engage in efforts to clarify them. In matters philosophical, issues about the meanings of our concepts are seldom far from the surface.

(p. 12) It is perhaps worth giving a more extended example of a concept that has received its share of attention from philosophers of cognitive science: innateness. Of course, innateness has been a source of bafflement since well before the inception of cognitive science. As far back as the eighteenth century, David Hume complained that the concept permitted those incautious enough to use it to “draw out their disputes to a tedious length, without ever touching the point in question” (Hume 1975, 18). Yet despite the frequent pronouncements of its demise, innateness continues to play a central role in much of cognitive science, especially when it comes to developmental issues. Largely for this reason, philosophers of cognitive science have expended considerable effort trying to clarify the concept and its role in scientific theorizing. In their chapter, Gross and Rey provide a survey of this research. They consider the main attempts to explicate innateness and argue that all are subject to serious problems. Even so, Gross and Rey maintain that the lack of a good analysis of this concept does not pose an insurmountable problem for its continued use in cognitive science, and with this idea in hand they discuss ongoing disputes concerning the extent to which aspects of the human conceptual system are innate.

We have briefly mentioned some issues in the philosophy of cognitive science that are readily subsumed under the general rubric of conceptual issues. But in case it is not already obvious, we should stress that most philosophers of cognitive science think that there is much more for philosophers to do than just clarify concepts. They thus assign a markedly different significance to conceptual issues than that proscribed by some very influential views of philosophical methodology, such as those associated with the so-called linguistic turn (see, e.g., Dummett 1996; Grice 1987; Jackson 1998; Moore 1966). According to these views, the central goals of philosophy in general—and the philosophy of special sciences in particular—are conceptual in character. In one familiar view of this kind, philosophy is in the business of providing classical definitions, that is, sets of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions, which capture the meanings of our words or the concepts they express. In a related view widely associated with the work of Wittgenstein, the analysis of our concepts is viewed as a means by which to expose the chimerical character of philosophical problems and show that they are not genuine problems about the nature of the world, but just pseudo-problems that result from linguistic or conceptual confusion.

Though there remains considerable disagreement about the nature and goals of philosophical enquiry—issues that we cannot begin to address here—the above sorts of views are not widespread among philosophers of cognitive science. For one thing, it has proven extraordinarily hard to provide sets of necessary and sufficient conditions that adequately track pretheoretic intuitions about the application of words, and indeed much research in cognitive science appears to cast doubt on such projects (Fodor et al. 1980). Moreover, efforts to show that problems about the mind are the product of linguistic confusion have not met with much success. On the contrary, what the development of cognitive science appears to suggest is that many of the most enduring philosophical issues about the mind—the kinds of issues (p. 13) discussed earlier in this Introduction—are genuine ones that can be the subject of fruitful, empirically informed research.

Of course, this does not mean that careful attention to psychological concepts has no role to play in the philosophy of cognitive science. How we understand the ways of framing our intellectual projects has genuine implications for how research proceeds. (What could be more obvious?) And clarifying such notions as consciousness, representation, and innateness can be helpful, if for no other reason than because their uses are multifarious, and failures to draw the right distinctions can lead to confusion. As such, many of the activities that one might label as “conceptual analysis” may still have a role to play in the philosophy of cognitive science. Nonetheless, all this would typically be viewed as a preliminary step to addressing substantive issues about mental phenomena themselves.

4. First-Order Empirical Issues

One consequence of rejecting the view of philosophy as an exercise in conceptual clarification is to also reject a sharp distinction between philosophy and workaday scientific research. If philosophical questions are intimately concerned with substantive empirical issues, then the boundary between philosophy and science is unlikely to be a clear one. This attitude is very much reflected in the recent work of philosophers of cognitive science, where contributions have been made—sometimes in collaboration with scientists—to a range of ongoing empirical debates about the mind that are largely alien to traditional philosophy of mind. Such research is well represented in the present volume.

4.1. Theory of Mind

Some of the empirical issues on which philosophers of cognitive science have focused concern quite specific mental capacities. For instance, philosophers have been very active in research regarding what is often called theory of mind—our ordinary yet remarkable ability to interpret one another as psychological agents whose behavior can be predicted in terms of our beliefs, desires, and other mental states. Initial philosophical interest in this topic was motivated by its prima facie connections to debates in mainstream philosophy of mind (e.g., those concerning eliminativism and commonsense functionalism) (e.g., Lewis 1972; Churchland 1981). But recent attention has focused more on empirical issues about the cognitive mechanisms that are responsible for our theory of mind capacities. Alvin Goldman's contribution to the present volume provides an overview of research in this vein and defends a strong version of one particular approach to theory of mind abilities—the so-called simulation theory.

(p. 14) 4.2. Language

Another empirical issue that has been of great interest to philosophers concerns the structures and mechanisms underlying our linguistic capacities. Of course, issues about language have occupied philosophers since antiquity, and the philosophy of language remains an active area of research. But the study of language has also played a pivotal role in both cognitive science and the philosophy of cognitive science. This is, in part, due to the profound influence of Noam Chomsky's early work—for example, his critique of behaviorism and the development of the generative linguistics—on the development of cognitive science (Chomsky 1957, 1959). But in addition, linguistics has proven to be an enormously fertile region of enquiry, and research within this field has often provided models for the pursuit of research on other, nonlinguistic domains of cognition.

Though debates over the nature and role of language recur throughout this volume, they receive their most concerted treatment in Pietroski and Crain's chapter on the language faculty. Pietroski and Crain focus on facts about how children acquire languages as a way of gaining insight in the domain of language. In doing so, they argue for a broadly Chomskyan conception of language according to which humans possess a language-specific system—a language faculty—that is governed by innate, though logically contingent principles that are unique to natural language.

4.3. Culture and Cognition

A third example of an issue that has become a focus for research among philosophers of cognitive science concerns the relationship between cognition and culture. Though philosophers have long been interested in culture, early philosophical interest in cognitive science tended not to assign a central role to cultural transmission in mental life. As a consequence, issues about the psychological mechanisms responsible for culture—and the concomitant influence of cultural factors on cognition—were not ones that received significant attention. In recent years, however, the relationship between culture and cognition has increasingly become a focus for research in cognitive science. No doubt, there are many reasons for this development, but one is simply the recognition that social learning and cultural transmission are pivotal to many of the most distinctive cognitive feats of our species, such as the development of science and technology. There is also increasing awareness of the significance of cumulative cultural evolution (Richerson and Boyd 2005). It is thus the burden of any satisfactory account of the human mind to characterize the processes and mechanisms that figure in the cultural transmission of knowledge. This burden is equally shared by theorists whether they endorse more nativist or more empiricist conceptions of cognitive development.

In their chapter on culture and cognition, Daniel Fessler and Edouard Machery provide an overview of recent work on the relationship between culture and cognition. They begin with a body of research that has a long tradition: the investigation (p. 15) of features of the mind that are universal, and of features of mind that vary across cultures. Underlying these features, they argue, are a mix of mechanisms of cultural transmission, including quite a few that may be domain-specific. Finally, Fessler and Machery note the effects of features of cognition on culture, that is, the influence that the structure of our minds has on how cultural information is retained and transmitted. Though the investigation of such issues is still fairly new, there is every indication that issues about the cognitive basis of culture will have increasing influence on theorizing in the philosophy of cognitive science—and rightly so.

5. Traditional Philosophical Issues That Do Not Ostensibly Concern Mental Phenomena

The kinds of issues we have considered so far are all ones that are either ostensibly about mental phenomena or about the nature and practices of cognitive science. This is how one would expect things to be. But there is a further kind of topic of interest to philosophers of cognitive science that does not readily fall within either of these categories. This last general category in our taxonomy concerns traditional philosophical issues that are most naturally construed as belonging to areas of philosophy that are not, in the first instance, about the mind at all, but where research from cognitive science may nonetheless be brought to bear.

5.1. Rationality

One family of such issues concerns the nature of rationality. On the face of it, such issues are normative ones. Some of these issues—roughly, the ones that concern how we ought to revise our beliefs—are traditionally viewed as the proper subject matter of epistemology. In contrast, those issues about rationality that concern how we ought to act are traditionally viewed as the proper subject matter of ethics. Yet in recent years there has been an increasing appreciation of the fact that empirical research in cognitive science may have implications for traditional normative philosophical issues.

Two contributions to the present volume follow this trajectory. The first—Allen, Todd, and Weinberg's chapter on the topic of reasoning and rationality—argues that a range of deeply entrenched assumptions about the mind underwrite a pervasive “Residual Cartesianism” about rationality that treats internal, individualistically characterizable mental states as the primary targets of normative assessment. Though they do not purport to show that this view is wrong, the authors of this chapter do maintain that research from cognitive science—on judgment and decision making in particular—suggest an alternative and more plausible ecological (p. 16) approach to rationality in which environmental and social factors are essential to an adequate characterization of rationality.

A second contribution to the present volume that focuses on issues of rationality is Doris and Nichols's chapter on moral psychology. The conclusions they reach are largely consonant with those of Allen, Todd, and Weinberg. In particular, they maintain on broadly empirical grounds that an individualistic “Cartesian” conception of practical rationality—as something that cognizers do best in isolation from peers and other social influences—is misguided. In its stead, they propose that an empirically defensible philosophical account of practical rationality will be more collaborativist than individualist.

5.2. Metaphilosophical Issues

Philosophers are inveterate navel-gazers, and the nature of philosophy itself quite often becomes an object of enquiry for them. Thus another kind of topic not ostensibly about the mind, but very much of interest to philosophers of cognitive science, is metaphilosophical issues about the nature of philosophy itself. In particular, philosophers have been greatly concerned with characterizing its proper domain of enquiry and the methods that ought to be used in theorizing about this domain.

There is a sense in which much philosophical attention to cognitive science has, since its inception, been built on contentious metaphilosophical commitments. Most obviously, the very idea that empirical research is important to the resolution of long-standing philosophical matters involves a departure from one traditional view of philosophy as a purely a priori discipline. Rather, the philosophy of cognitive science is invested with a commitment to a version of methodological naturalism, or the view that (many) philosophical issues ought to be addressed by methods that render philosophy continuous with the scientific enterprise. But in recent years there has emerged from the philosophy of cognitive science a more radical critique of certain metaphilosophical traditions in philosophy. In particular, there is a family of views, often associated with experimental philosophy, which recruits the empirical methods of cognitive psychology in order to show that commonplace philosophical reliance on intuition is fundamentally misguided. In the present volume, Joshua Knobe provides a survey of some of the empirical studies to have emerged from experimental philosophy, as well as a discussion of the metaphilosophical implications of this work.

6. Conclusion

In the forgoing sections we have sought to provide an overview of the kinds of topics that comprise the philosophy of cognitive science. The conception of philosophy more or less implicit in this field of enquiry is, we think, one that exhibits (p. 17) a number of important commitments. First, it is naturalistic in its methods, at least in the sense that empirical research of the kind produced within the sciences is taken to be of direct relevance to the resolution of issues within philosophy. Second, the kind of research that is pursued is pluralistic in a variety of respects. The kinds of issues that comprise its subject matter are, as we have seen, multifarious. But also—perhaps in part because of this—there is pluralism with respect to methods. The traditional philosophical project of clarifying concepts is very much in evidence. But so too is the invocation of empirical results, the widespread use of inferences to the best explanation, and an openness to empirical speculation. The philosophy of cognitive science even has its share of philosophers who directly engage in designing and implementing their own experiments when the need arises. Of course, the philosophy of cognitive science as represented in this volume is built on the methodological assumption that the deliverances of cognitive science can shed considerable light on issues about the nature of the mind, and perhaps even on a broader range of philosophical questions, including how philosophy itself should be practiced. As with most methodological commitments, there is no guarantee that this one will prove fruitful. But we think that the sorts of research presented in this volume provide ample grounds for optimism. We hope you agree.


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