Teaching the philosophy of cognitive science

I am getting ready for my Fall graduate seminar at Pitt–Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science. The class is  a survey of the main issues in the current philosophy of cognitive science (broadly conceived). To my own surprise, it has become clear that the class I will teach will be very different from the class I would have taught a few years ago or from the class I would have taken when I was a graduate student.

Many topics, that were very controversial at the end of the 90s, have become more marginal, if not disappeared altogether (unfortunately or not). Among the victims:
– connectionism vs. language of thought
– content
– the individuation of concepts (e.g., the debate between Fodor and Peacocke)
– compositionality

At the last SPP, I noticed that these topics were entirely absent.

Have other topics  become marginal? And, most interesting, what are the controverisal topics that any student interested in the philosophy of cog science/psychology/neuropsychology should be familiar with?


  1. As to hot topics, I’m partial to debates about computation (how to understand it, how it relates to neuroscience, how it explains), and using introspective reports as evidence.

    I also wouldn’t ignore discussions of content. There are some interesting efforts in the directions of a “neurosemantics”, e.g., by Rick Grush, Paul Churchland, and Dan Ryder.

    Oh, and do I need to mention splitting concepts? 🙂

  2. Okay, let’s play ‘trendspotting’. I’d say that hot topics worth looking at include:

    * Embodied/embedded cognition
    * Conceptions of realization, including debates about mechanisms and levels
    * Cross-cultural psychology vs. universalism
    * Emotions
    * Social cognition
    * Language and thought (Neo-Whorfianism)

    Traditional topics that still have a lot of life in them:

    * Nativism
    * Modularity, cognitive architecture, and the frame problem(s)
    * Mental imagery

    Obviously, trends aren’t always the best basis for choosing content in survey courses–even those focused on contemporary issues. The things Edouard mentions as being displaced, for instance, all strike me as endlessly fascinating, and still pretty important.

  3. Ken

    I think Dan is right about embodied/extended cognition. Seven books on the topic have come out in favor of it since 2004. Three more should be coming out in 2007.

    There is also a lot happening in realization these days. Some of it has hit the journals already, but more is on the way.


  4. Studies on three-way interaction between sensory modalities, touch,audition and vision, or what is termed, crossmodal attentional capture or multisensory processes is becoming a hot topic nowadays with strong ties with concept formation, individuation,systems development etc.
    And I predict that in not so distant future a “philosophy of olfaction” will growth because vision, and recently audition and haptic perception, are more or less classic topics but not yet olfaction; although it shares, according to experts (Richard Axel), some amodal characteristics with other senses creating “stereo maps” similar to the images or “representations” in vision, and because during our philogenetic history took a predominant role exerting influences in cognitive operations and behaviors still present today not only in non-humans animals but in humans as well.
    To know what issues get impact or not in the mainstream, could be the topic of another philosophical field of study “the sociology of philosophy” (not philosophy of sociology), focusing in how trends within philosophy consolidate supported by organizations, collectivities, tools such as blogsphere, journals, charisma of authors… What are the issues to be familiar with? is very difficult to know, only the role of a good professor can shed light on this.

  5. I agree with most of the proposed “hot” topics.

    I would add:
    – imagination
    – moral psychology

    I also agree with Dan that some of the topics that have recently fallen out of favor are fascinating.

    Dan seems to believe that students have to be familiar with these topics, despite their fading importance in the field. I agree that students have to be familiar with them, but I am not sure that these topics will find a place in my survey class. There are several reasons for this.

    First, I expect several students to be familiar with some of the issues raised by content, ocncept individuation etc. from their undergrad studies. Not so with the current hot topics.

    Second, one important role of a survey class is to help students find interesting and promising research topics. I am afraid that most of the previously hot topics, however interesting, are not promising topics. For the possible moves and countermoves have been thoroughly explored by the previous generation of philosophers of mind. (Which explains to a large extent why these topics are not hot anymore). This would be a strategic mistake for a student (or at least for most students) to work on a topic whose geography has been very well mapped.

    What do you think about this?

  6. gualtiero piccinini

    I agree it might be a strategic mistake to work on a topic if the result is some reiteration of some previously known position. But if someone can find an edge, a breakthrough, on a stagnant topic, so as to revitalize it, then the payoff may be great (greater than that of contributing some wrinkle to some current fashion).

  7. To clarify, Edouard, I agree that it’s fine to teach hot topics in a survey course–particularly if it’s titled Survey of Hot Topics! So much the better if you can assume familiarity with debates over content and classicism vs. connectionism.

    As for whether hot topics are more likely to be promising thesis topics,
    it depends. Old topics lack excitement, but you at least know the logical neighborhoods that aren’t totally crazy to inhabit.

    Hot topics have novelty, which gets people excited (for good reason). The odds that you’re going to put your flag down in what will come to be regarded as a non-crazy neighborhood may not be very good, of course. But
    since no one knows that yet, you’ve at least got excitement going for you.
    (A wrinkle here is that some of the things that are now hot may not be when the student finishes the thesis.)

    On a related note, there was a good discussion of originality as an epistemic virtue over at Certain Doubts a while ago.

  8. edouard machery

    I think we all agree that it is important to have some knowledge of the classic issues in philosophy of psychology in order to understand some of the current debates. The relevant question is of how much emphasis should be put on thinking about the details of classic debates (and reading the huge literature these debates engendered) and thinking about current controversies and, better, emerging controversies.

    Dan rightly pointed out some risks with focusing on current controversies.

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