February 16, 2006

Non-Cartesian Cognitive Science

Traditional Cognitive Science is Cartesian in the sense that it takes as fundamental the distinction between the mental and the physical, the mind and the world, the subject and the object. It is this Cartesianism which leads to such claims as that cognition must be representational and that what sets cognizers apart is the fact that they exhibit "aboutness".
It is the aim of this page to bring together non-Cartesian approaches to the study of cognition. That means that the main point which holds this page together is the idea that mind and body form a unity, not a union. Guttorm Floistad (1983) speaks of Spinozism to allude to non-Cartesian approaches to the mental. Under that heading, there is room for many different themes. Here's a short overview:
  • Conscious Experience and Phenomenology Cartesianism, in its materialist guise, leads to the view that consciousness is an epiphenomenon, that qualia have no causal efficacy. Such a counterintuitive claim does not have to be held by the Spinozist, so she will be interested in the actual content of experiences.
  • Body A direct implication of the claim that mind and body form a unity is that when there is talk of the mind, there must be talk of the body as well. Experiential content is rooted in bodily structure.
  • Action The mind is not seen as some inner entity, but as one with the body, hence knowledge is not something which lies behind the behaviour, meaning does not ly behind the gesture, but it is immanent in it. The expressed and the expression are inseparable.
  • Biology and Ethology Spinozism opposes the Cartesian/reductionist tendencies to try and explain cognition as what happens in the brain. Instead, it analyses cognition and meaning in terms of relations between cognizer and environment. The relationship between the cognizer and its phenomenal world is very much like the relationship between an organism and its Umwelt. Moreover, it is natural for the Spinozist to see cognition as an outgrowth or extension of life.
  • Artificial Life It is typical for the ALife approach to cognition to oppose to the standard perception-plan-action cycle which comes with the view of the mind as some kind of inner entity. It also takes embodiment seriously.
  • Culture Although the structure of the mental is rooted in the structure of the bodily, there clearly are different ways for the mind to develop. The particular way that is taken up by a particular individual will depend on the kind of environment in which it finds itself, a major part of which is its social environment. Hence an interest in not only the body, but also culture (including language) as a shaping force.
  • Pragmatism William James was a pragmatist, but also a forerunner of phenomenology. And John Dewey has surprisingly much in common with Merleau-Ponty.
  • Emotion Since we understand content as what is available in experience, it is easy for us to acknowledge the affective component of content. This in strak contrast to the Cartesian who is forced to treat cognition as rational, and therefore non-emotional. Back to Ronald's Home Page or the COGS Home Page

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