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Philosophy of Cognition: Topic1

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A Brief Intro[edit]

This course is about philosophy of cognition. So, the first thing to do is to understand what we talk about when we talk about cognition, and then how philosophy can contribute to the study of cognition.

Let’s get started with the first issue: what is that thing called cognition? To me cognition deals with solving problems - whatever problem. Generally speaking, a problem is a situation which an agent feels “uncomfortable” with, so that he or she has to do something to change it. For instance, if one gets thirsty, he or she feels the urge to get something to drink. Cognition is that thing helping somebody change her or his situation. For cognition is a kind of transformative device enabling us to change the environment we live in (including ourselves and other people). Now, cognitive scientists - those who are interested in how cognition works - study the way agents solve problems. Agents can be humans but also animals and other plants (yes, also plants have a kind of cognition). During this course, we will mainly be focusing on how humans solve problems.

The way humans solve problems can be studied from different perspective. That’s why the study of cognition is a interdisciplinary enterprise involving several disciplines, which actively cooperate. Traditionally, the cognitive sciences are: philosophy, neuroscience, linguistics, artificial intelligence, psychology, anthropology, and education sciences. During this course we will look at cognition from a particular viewpoint, the one of philosophy. How may philosophy contribute to the study of cognition? What is its peculiarity, if any? Why do we need philosophy? There is no single answer to these questions. As far as we are concerned here, the contribution of philosophy is NOT related to: 1) providing foundations for the study of cognition. That means we will not address any particular metaphysical questions about the nature of cognition. For instance, we will not deal with issues like “how do we know that we have thoughts?” or “do other minds really exist?”; 2) generating a priori truths. That means we will take seriously empirical results coming from other disciplines, like, for instance, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, sociology, computer science. Any claim about cognition should be empirically supported; 3) clearing up conceptual confusions about the study of cognition. That means we will not play with words.

We will adopt a different approach that has two major pillars: generality and normativity. What does that mean? That means that in our view philosophy may contribute to the study of cognition, because of its peculiar commitment to generality and normativity. Generality is about the kind of questions philosophy can address. That is, questions that are general and that cross multiple areas of investigation. For instance, all other disciplines related to the study of cognition have a specific focus. Linguistics studies cognition with relation to language - how we solve problems by means of language. Psychology focuses more on what is going on in our mind. Artificial intelligence deals with reproducing cognitive activities outside the human brain. And so on. Conversely, philosophy can tackle down various issues concerning all the branches of cognitive science. Here we have a list of philosophical issues: “does the human mind work like a computer?”, “does culture complete our biological brain?”, “what makes us unique?”; “what is the relationship between brain and mind?”. Even though all these questions require knowledge and results specific to certain disciplines, philosophy has the advantage to pose them first. Philosophy also has a strong commitment to normativity, that is, saying not just what things are, but also how they should be studied. It seems that philosophy - also given its commitment to generality - is particularly concerned about the epistemological standards of our scientific practices. That is, philosophy may question how some discipline look into certain cognitive phenomena. We will see during the course how this peculiarity of philosophy will play an important role with relation to the models of cognition and its evolution.


After you read Thagard's article, find a topic of interest - not necessarily related to those we are going to treat in this course - and try to describe how philosophy (or a philosophical approach) can contribute to shedding light on it.


After you read the compulsory texts, please answer to these questions:

1) What is a cognitive theory?

2) What are the relations among cognitive science disciplines? Make an example.

Compulsory readings[edit]

P. Thagard, Why Cognitive Science Needs Philosophy and Vice Versa, Topics in Cognitive Science 1 (2009) 237–254. Available here: http://cogsci.uwaterloo.ca/Articles/whycogsci.2009.pdf

Cognitive Science, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cognitive-science/

Recommended readings[edit]

P. Thagard, Mind. Introduction to Cognitive Science. MIT Press, Cambridge (MA), 2005. http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=10527

D.C. Dennett, The Part of Cognitive Science That Is Philosophy, Topics in Cognitive Science 1 (2009) 231–236. Available here: http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/tops_1015.pdf