What if there had never been a Cognitive Revolution?

What_ifIn a previous post, I questioned the relevance of the label “Cognition and Culture” for our institute. Why not ‘Cognition and Society’ instead? Choosing ‘culture’ over ‘society’, I argued, is not arbitrary and implicate that some questions (religion, transmission) are preferred over some others (cooperation, institutions). The same remark holds for the term cognition. Why not cognition and not simply psychology? Why aren’t we part of an International Psychology and Culture Institute? Arguably, we use the term ‘cognition’ because we reckon that we are the heirs of the Cognitive Revolution. But is it really the case? Would the field of ‘Cognition and Culture’ be different if the Cognitive Revolution never happened? My guess is: not so much.

Let’s imagine an uchronia, a different version of our world in which history diverged from the actual history of the world. But this time, it is not about the Nazis winning World War II, the Spanish Armada successfully invading England or the Black Death of the 14th century killing 99% of Europe. It is about the Cognitive Revolution.Yes, that’s not the most funky uchronia ever (although some writers have imagined some cognitive related uchronia, the most famous being probably The difference engine by Gibson and Sterling in which Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine takes on the roles of modern computers a century in advance). Still, the question remains interesting: What if the Cognitive revolution had never happened?



What would this uchronia look like? Of course, one can imagine that some events never happened: there was no conference at Darthmouth on artificial intelligence, Marvin Minksy was killed during World War II or Noam Chomsky decided to become a full-time political activist. Arguably though, these divergences would not change anything since science rarely needs a particular person to progress. So let’s use a trick. Let’s say that, somehow, the arch-enemy of the cognitive revolution – behaviourism – remains in place until the 80s’ (another –and more spectacular – way is to imagine an alternate history in which a nuclear war devastate North America in the 50’s killing, among other things, the Cognitive Revolution). Would that change anything for us folks in Cognition and Culture? Again, I am not so sure.



Another consequence of a nuclear war in the 50's?

I guess that this position might appear a bit heterodox. But let’s have a try. In his book The Blank Slate (2002), psychologist Steven Pinker identified five key ideas that made up the cognitive revolution:

"The mental world can be grounded in the physical world by the concepts of information, computation, and feedback." "The mind cannot be a blank slate because blank slates don't do anything." "An infinite range of behavior can be generated by finite combinatorial programs in the mind." "Universal mental mechanisms can underlie superficial variation across cultures." "The mind is a complex system composed of many interacting parts."

My point here is that these key ideas would have emerged even without a Cognitive Revolution. Take for instance the idea that the mind cannot be a blank slate. This idea is totally natural to evolutionary biologists. What about the mind as “a complex system composed of many interacting parts”? Without going back to La Mettrie, Hutcheson or Descartes, one can argue that the idea of modularity is at the core of the research program of neuropsychology since its beginning (the same is true, albeit at a lesser degree, for evolutionary biology). We should not forget as well that, with or without the Cognitive Revolution, brain imaging techniques would have emerged and would have joined neuropsychology and evolutionary biology in decomposing the mind. Add the methodological advances of developmental psychology or social psychology – which were not part of the Cognitive revolution – and you get a pretty big part of today’s ‘Cognition and Culture’.

Note that I'm not saying that cognitive scientists did not bring anything new in psychology, nor that they were wrong in their criticism of behaviourism for instance. Rather, my point is that there was probably other way to arrive at today's state of knowledge in Cognition and Culture.

I might be biased of course. I am a junior researcher and I might not see the specific heritage of the Cognitive Revolution in the current trends in cognitive science. I might also be biased by the fact that I have worked on morality that is mostly influenced by evolutionary biology, rational choice theory, moral philosophy and social psychology, not very much by cognitive psychology. Arguably, all these fields were independent until cognitive psychology brought them together. However, the very concept that allows this interdisciplinary integration – the concept of ‘moral sense’ – was proposed at least three hundred years ago by philosophers like Shaftesbury or Hutcheson (the latter even coined the term ‘moral organ’).

Things might different, though, for the study of, say, folk biology or linguistics. Or it might not (see for instance my previous post on language). What do you think? Am I totally wrong? Am I just an ungrateful heir of the Cognitive Revolution?


  • comment-avatar
    Olivier Morin 3 July 2010 (14:19)

    What if Chomsky’s political trajectory had taken a different turn? [img]http://lh6.ggpht.com/_isFhStANNkw/TEmIjOV8WiI/AAAAAAAAACk/dSjqERl8n2s/s576/uchronie2.jpg[/img]

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    Bill Benzon 25 July 2010 (05:29)

    Even the critics who have been explicitly influenced by cognitive science and evolutionary psychology tend to do practical criticism that reads like mid-20th-century criticism that’s been poured into new bottles. The style of engagement with texts is much the same. But I’m not sure you give sufficient credit to points 1 and 3 the Pinker mentions. Computation, as a metaphor and a model, was key to the cognitive revolution. Basically, the cognitive revolution is what happened when computation over-took linguistics, psychology, and philosophy. But hardcore computational insights have been glossed over and downplayed in the last 20 years. But the thinking that glosses over computation probably wouldn’t have happened without it. And evolutionary biology is heavily indebted to game theory, which is computational at the core. In fact, it came from the same mind that gave us a big chunk of computation, John von Neumann.

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    Christophe Heintz 28 July 2010 (13:56)

    What I take to be legacies of the cognitive revolution to contemporary work on culture and cognition include: – The idea that one could talk about mental representations and mental computations (the representational theory of the mind), and still comply with the criteria of scientificity set by the behaviourists. Without this appeal to mental content and processes, human behavioural ecology would not lead to hypotheses about mental mechanisms (evolutionary psychology), brain science data would not be interpreted in terms of cognitive functions, vison science would be very different, …. , and the cognition and culture would probably be strongly restricted by some behaviourist methodology. – A second legacy of the cognitive revolution that may be of significance to us is its commitment to interdisciplinarity. Although it proves to be difficult in practice, the explicit commitment certainly does not hurt interdisciplinary research program such as as “Cognition and Culture”. Hutchins’ distributed cognition and cultural epidemiology have both made fruitful use of the computational theoretical framework and the opportunities for doing interdisciplinary research.

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    Bill Benzon 29 July 2010 (03:31)

    The idea that one could talk about mental representations and mental computations (the representational theory of the mind), and still comply with the criteria of scientificity set by the behaviourists. Yes yes yes! Even in places where the computational origins of the cognitive revolution are forgotten, people speculate freely about representations and such. Early cognitivism made that possible.

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    Olivier Morin 30 July 2010 (16:50)

    To me, the most perceptive analysis of the cognitive “revolution” was given by George Miller in [url=http://www.google.fr/url?sa=t&source=webcd=1&ved=0CCEQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.cs.princeton.edu%2F~rit%2Fgeo%2FMiller.pdf&ei=INNSTNflNsr24AaCvLjiAw&usg=AFQjCNGuSATBV32YSFtKNW_ydtkZ2B_rPg&sig2=o_TupcaEnm2opjp6HJtVeA]this article[/url]. I share Miller’s view that… [i]”The cognitive revolution in psychology was a counterrevolution. The first revolution occurred much earlier when a group of experimental psychologists, influenced by Pavlov and other physiologists, proposed to redefinepsychology as the science of behavior. They argued that mental events are not publicly observable. The only objective evidence available is, and must be, behavioral.”[/i] Viewed in this light, the main achievement of the Cognitive Restoration consisted in bringing psychology back to itself, without jettisoning the methodological gains of the Behaviorist Revolution – invite representations back in, without giving up the search for experimental and behavioral evidence. Many characteristics of cognitive science, that could pass as innovations in 1950, would have been no surprise at all to people who lived in the days of William James, Sigmund Freud, or James Mark Baldwin : the attempts to link psychology with philosophy, anthropology, neuroscience and the theory of evolution; what Bill Benzon calls “free speculation about representation”; the desire to open black boxes; varied and liberal positions on innateness. The Restoration merely made these old features of psychology respectable again (and we should be grateful that it did). Now, it seems to me that the Restoration also brought two ambitious and entirely new proposals to the table: Artificial intelligence, and a new linguistics that would be more than a historical science. Those were truly revolutionary endeavours. But what’s left of them today? I think everyone would agree that AI, if we judge it by the ambitions that the fathers of the Restoration had for it, failed dismally. Linguistics is, of course, in much better shape. Yet it too did not quite live up to the Founder’s expectations, or so it seems to me (I share Nicolas’ reservations on this topic). This is probably a weird and dubious opinion, but I see a parallel between the Cognitive Restoration that took place in the last century in psychology, and the Naturalistic Restoration that is taking place right now in anthropology, around evolutionary theory and cognitive science (or, as it should be called, Restored Psychology). That movement shares some counter-revolutionary aspects with the Cognitive Restoration; for example it rehabilitates the search for ambitious, integrative theories of human nature, so popular in Victorian times, but banned in the XXth century by a series of revolutions culminating with the post-modern upheaval. While I’m at it, the neo-Darwinian synthesis was clearly a Restoration of XIXth century biology against the Mendelian revolution. Of course, being grand-children of the Restoration is much less glorious than being children of the Revolution. Yet – it might be me getting old – I find scientific counter-revolutions more exciting than the revolutions they counter. After all, Restauration too [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princess_Caroline_of_Naples_and_Sicily]had its glamour[/url].

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    Bill Benzon 31 July 2010 (00:49)

    of the 19th century. With respect to the project of having an integrated science of man, the current intellectual scene is pretty much of an intellectual disaster. Everyone’s got their own approach to this or that. Is this an intellectual necessity or simply an institutional possibility?

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    Paul Thiem 10 September 2010 (21:11)

    It’s been a while since I was here, and have a few thoughts to share. @Bill; Computation was a product of the CogRev, not the cause of it. The underlying issue was that Behaviorism was proving more and more to be theoretically bankrupt. More and more results were cropping up that in order to be explained simply ran counter to the explanations of behavior proposed by Behaviorism. The only realistic way to explain some of the behaviors that were being seen in the study of psychology/cognition was to appeal to an internal and unseen process. This trend goes as far back as the work of E. C. Tolman and his proposal of “cognitive maps” at a time when such ideas were considered heresy. The work of people like Von Neumann came about as a way to try to explain such unseen internal processes through algorithmic mechanistic systems. It was work such as this, Chomsky’s attack on Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior”, Miller’s “Magic Number Seven Plus or Minus Two”, and other similar ideas that were the harbinger of the CogRev. Game theory has been heavily criticized because it fails at the level of the social group; it really applies best only to interactions between two individuals and for only a few interactions. An example of how this broke down was the “Tit for Tat” program winning the Rappaport and Axelrod computational game theory tournament where their program actually ran counter to the typical assumptions of game theory (prisoner’s dilemma) at the time. Further, then as now, computation is highly limited in terms of its ability to explain behavior on a larger scale. At the risk of starting a fight, the Chinese Room showed that computation by itself is not sufficient to explain behavior. Searle has also refuted the “systems level” attacks on the Chinese Room as well. @Olivier; I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the “contributions” of “cognitive science” to psychology. At its inception, and even before, psychology was an interdisciplinary endeavor. Back in the days of Ebbinghaus, Helmholtz, Donders, etc. there were no “psychologists”; there were only physicists, physiologists, philosophers, etc. The claim that “cognitive science” is an “interdisciplinary” science while psychology is not is at best uninformed, at worst simply disingenuous and a way to justify one’s existence in academia separately from others who are already working on the same topics but to make it look like their work is unique rather than rehash. An excellent article by a professor of my during my doctoral study at UC Santa Cruz discusses this relationship between cognitive science and psychology very nicely. (Psychology as a Cognitive Science; in Psychological Science, v2, no. 5, 1991.) From what I’ve seen, the only real difference between psychology and “cognitive science” is that “cognitive science” relies more heavily on a computational and neurophysiological approach, not much more. Other aspects of “cognitive science” such as linguistics, philosophy, and neurophysiology have been part of psychological study since the time of the forbearers, and is particularly evidenced in works such as Helmholt’s “Physiological Optics”.