Cognitivism and the Problem of Explaining Human Intelligence

Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 170)

The explanation of intelligent behavior is an issue of the greatest strategic importance in any attempt to understand the conceptual features of the psychological, social, and cultural sciences. It is, however, too global an issue to be usefully confronted without substantial constraints. For example, a sensible beginning suggests that analysis should be at least initially restricted to the linguistically informed behavior of human beings, avoiding generalizations ranging over nonlanguage-using animals. In any case, it may be argued that the study of animal intelligence is conceptually dependent on the use of categories paradigmatically provided for the study of human intelligence. This, of course, is not to say that only humans describe animal intelligence. It is to say (rather) that animal intelligence is modeled on the human, in the sense that intelligence entails the ascription of propositional attitudes and that the structure of the propositional content of such attitudes is, and must be, modeled on sentences. Similarly, the issue may be fairly freed from the question of physicalistic reduction, in the plain sense that, should reductionism obtain, the phenomena of human intelligence would remain psychologically real, and the very success of any reductive effort would initially concede the apparent distinction of the phenomena thus reduced. The prospect of similar economies invites us to attempt to isolate what, regarding the explanation of human intelligence, may most decisively affect our assessment of the methodological import of the question.

Certainly, one particularly strategic aspect of the issue concerns whether, in explaining intelligent behavior, it is either necessarily true, or at least tenable to hold, that relevant and adequate explanations may be formulated entirely in terms of internal, sub-molar processes that are themselves at least provisionally characterized as cognitive or rational or intelligent — that is, as involving homuncular processes of some sort — or as molar processes not accessible or not fully accessible at the conscious level. Such a program of explanation is what is generally termed cognitivism.1 Homuncular cognitivism is perhaps most explicitly championed by Daniel Dennett;2 and molar cognitivism — in at least one extreme and memorable form — by Jerry Fodor.3 But Polanyi probably offers an informal version of molar cognitivism, at least with respect to his doctrine of “tacit knowledge”,4 with which Merleau-Ponty's views noticeably converge.5 And both Chomsky and Piaget, who rather strenuously oppose one another,6 are at least partially attracted to forms of molar cognitivism; they demur (in different ways) because they are also attracted to doctrines regarding the biological development of cognitive abilities that preclude explanation of such development in terms of exercising cognitive powers already in place.7 In general, cognitivism postulates infra-psychological computational powers that explain intelligent behavior (or “output”) as the result of the internal processing of contingent data (or “input”).8 In principle, cognitivism need not be restricted to linguistic behavior — need not even be restricted to behavior that is linguistically informed. It may be applied to sensory perception among animals, for instance.


Natural Language Human Intelligence Intelligent Behavior Waggle Dance Universal Grammar 
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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2009

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