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Cognitivism

In psychology, cognitivism is a psychological concept of theoretical approach to understanding the mind, which argues that mental function can be understood by quantitative, positivist and scientific methods, and that such functions can be described as information processing models.

Theoretical approach

Cognitivism has two major components, one methodological, the other theoretical. Methodologically, cognitivism adopts a positivist approach and the belief that psychology can be (in principle) fully explained by the use of experiment, measurement and the scientific method. This is also largely a reductionist goal, with the belief that individual components of mental function (the 'cognitive architecture') can be identified and meaningfully understood. The second is the belief that cognition consists of discrete, internal mental states (representations or symbols) whose manipulation can be described in terms of rules or algorithms.

Cognitivism has become the dominant force in post-1960s psychology, replacing behaviorism as the most popular paradigm for understanding mental function.

It is important to understand that cognitive psychology has not disproved the methods of behaviorism (in fact conditioning theories are still widely applied) but only that it has replaced it as the guiding theory by which all mental function can supposedly be understood.

This was due to the increasing criticism towards the end of the 1950s of behaviorist models. For example Chomsky argued that language could not be acquired purely through conditioning, and must be at least partly explained by the existence of internal mental states.

  • Criticisms of psychological cognitivism
  • Cognitivism has been criticised in a number of ways.

Phenomenologist and hermeneutic philosophers have criticised the positivist approach of cognitivism for reducing individual meaning to what they perceive as measurements stripped of all significance. They argue that by representing experiences and mental functions as measurements, cognitivism is ignoring the context (cf contextualism) and, therefore, the meaning of these measurements. They believe that it is this personal meaning of experience gained from the phenomenon as it is experienced by a person (what Heidegger called being in the world) which is the fundamental aspect of our psychology that needs to be understood: therefore they argue that a context free psychology is a contradiction in terms. They also argue in favour of holism: that positivist methods cannot be meaningfully used on something which is inherently irreducible to component parts. Hubert Dreyfus has been the most notable critic of cognitivism from this point of view. Humanistic psychology draws heavily on this philosophy, and practitioners have been among the most critical of cognitivism.

In the 1990s, various new theories emerged that challenged cognitivism and the idea that thought was best described as computation. Some of these new approaches, often influenced by phenomenological and post-modernist philosophy, include situated cognition, distributed cognition, dynamicism, embodied cognition, ecological psychology and critical psychology. Some thinkers working in the field of artificial life (for example Rodney Brooks) have also produced non-cognitivist models of cognition.

The idea that mental functions can be described as information processing models has been criticised by philosopher John Searle and mathematician Roger Penrose who both argue that computation has some inherent shortcomings which cannot capture the fundamentals of mental processes.

  1. Penrose uses Gödel's incompleteness theorem (which states that there are mathematical truths which can never be proven in a sufficiently strong mathematical system; any sufficiently strong system of axioms will also be incomplete) and Turing's halting problem (which states that there are some things which are inherently non-computable) as evidence for his position.
  2. Searle has developed two arguments, the first (well known through his Chinese Room thought experiment) is the 'syntax is not semantics' argument - that a program is just syntax, understanding requires semantics, therefore programs (hence cognitivism) cannot explain understanding. The second, which he now prefers but is less well known, is his 'syntax is not physics' argument - nothing in the world is intrinsically a computer program except as applied, described or interpreted by an observer, so either everything can be described as a computer and trivially a brain can but then this does not explain any specific mental processes, or there is nothing intrinsic in a brain that makes it a computer (program) - both points, he claims, refute cognitivism.

Finally it is not clear to what extent cognitivists can respond to the problems of Ryle's Regress or the homunculus fallacy.

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