Barsalou, Glenberg, Prinz, Damasio and other neo-empiricists have theoretically and experimentally challenged the once dominant view that representations in higher cognitive processes are amodal (eg, Fodor, Pylyshyn). They have renewed a century-old perspective on the mind, according to which representations in perceptual processes and representations in higher cognitive processes are, if not identical, at least qualitatively similar. Additionally, they have proposed empirical evidence for their views.
In my mind, neo-empiricism is a positive development, if only because it invites skeptics and proponents of amodal theories of the mind to specify their views and to provide evidence for them.
However, I have criticized at length neo-empiricism in two recent papers (also available on my site):
Machery. 2006 Two dogmas of neo-empiricism. Philosophy Compass 1:398-412.
Machery. In press Neo-empiricism: A methodological critique. Cognition (Barsalou is supposed to reply to this paper).
I think that there are at least three problems with neo-empiricism:
– First, there is a theoretical question of distinguishing amodal representations from modal representations.
– Second, there are several methodological issues in neo-empiricists’ experimental work (see particularly my Cognition paper). I have identified three main issues. In brief,
1. It is impossible to sort out the predictions made by neo-empiricism in general and the predictions made by amodal theories in general; Rather, specific amodal and specific neo-empiricist models of cognitive processes make specific predictions;
2. It is necessary to find some tasks that are not obviously best solved by using perceptual representations; Neo-empiricist psychologists have too often focused on tasks that are maybe best solved by means of perceptual representations;
3. Psychologists must be cautious in generalizing some findings about some processes in some domains to other processes and other domains; the issue might not be whether representations are amodal or perceptual, but which processes in which domains in which contexts use amodal/perceptual representations.
– Third, there is a large body of evidence for amodal representations used in higher cognitive processes (eg, the representations of cardinality).
I think that issues of this kind are fruitfully dealt with by philosophers. Philosophers who are interested in these theoretical and methodological issues can have a real impact on the development of psychology.