Philosophy of Cognition: Topic2

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A Brief Intro[edit]

When it comes to study human cognition, one might think that there is something magical surrounding the matter. Can we really study our cognition? After all the only means by which we can study cognition is..cognition itself. Cognition is about how people solve problems, and studying how people solve problems is a problem itself. How can we get out of this kind of paradox? We would call this the “black box problem”.
A black box is by definition something that cannot be accessed from the outside. In a way, human cognition is a kind of black box. In fact, we cannot open up our head and see what is going on in there. Unless we really attribute something magical or divine to human cognition, then we are somehow committed to provide a tentative answer. But how?

In the first part of the last century, a gang of psychologists called behaviorists found a quite simple solution to the problem of the black box. They claimed that it is not possible to look into something we cannot have access to. However, there is a part that is visible and that part is the stimuli the black box receives and how it responds to them. So, if we see that given a certain set of stimuli, our cognition responds a certain way, then, regardless what is going in the black box, we may argue that a given set of stimuli produces a certain response. What happens in between is simply irrelevant, because what is emphasized is the outward behavioral aspects of cognition, whereas the inward experiential ones are just dismissed. The solution behaviorists came up with was quite canny, but in a way also dramatically incomplete. For instance, there are a number of “things” that are not immediately visible or reducible to their behavioral counterparts. It seems that in a way or in the other we need to try to look into what happens in the black box. But how? A metaphor can help us examine the problem.

Suppose that we are walking on a beach and we see some footprints left on the sand. Even though we just arrived at the beach, depending on their size and shape, we may get to know about something we’ve never directly seen or witnessed. For instance, we may guess that a family was walking on the same path some minutes before. Or that it was a couple or a dog and its owner. The morale of this story is that no matter if we have direct access to certain event or not, we can always say something about it by looking for clues the event has left in our environment.

The study of cognition has the same “logic”: what are those clues left by cognition? Behaviorists reduced all the clues left by cognition to a stimuli-response model. The way the black box work is simply clueless. We do not have any idea about what is going in there. But are we sure that this radical approach is correct? This topic is devoted to brainstorming about possible alternatives.


Watch this clip: and describe how a behaviorist cognitive scientist would explain the way we play scrabble.


1) What is behaviorism?

2) Expose one of the main arguments against behaviorism that you find the most compelling one.

Compulsory readings[edit]

Payal Naik, Behaviorism as a Theory of Personality: A Critical Look. Available here:

Recommended readings[edit]

N. Chomsky, A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior. Available here:——.htm

Behaviorism. In IEP. Available here