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.
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
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.
- 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.
- 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.