Good Old Fashioned–and Insighful–Cognitive Science

I’ve recently completed a short scientific biography of Allen Newell, for the forthcoming new volumes of Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Newell (d. 1992) is one of the giants of computer science and cognitive science.  His work still amply repays its study.  He was a champion of so called classical, or symbolic, computationalism (classical computational theory of mind).  Lately, classical computationalism seems to have fallen into disfavor among philosophers. 

But if you read Newell’s work, especially his great book, Unified Theories of Cognition, you will see that his work is more impressive and sophisticated than that of most of his critics, and that many criticisms of classical computationalism are misplaced.

For instance, classical computationalism is criticized for being “disembodied” or indifferent to the real time constraints on cognition.  On the contrary, Newell insists from beginning to end that cognition must be understood together with the brain and in relation to the environment, with all their real time constraints.

This is not to say that classical computationalism, or Newell in particular, are completely correct, or that they have found the best way of understanding the mind.  But it is to say that following fashions, important as it may be for a successful career does not always lead to deep understanding. 

(Just to avoid misunderstanding:  I am not trying to criticize those who teach hot topics in their courses.  I do think, though, that many fashionable criticisms of classical computationalism are shallow.)


  1. I share Gualtiero’s enthusiasm for the writings of the heroes of classical computationalism. Certainly, Simon’s, Newell’s, McCarthy’s, Marr’s and others’ writings are very interesting.

    Reading these authors shows how naive some of the criticisms made by the proponents of embodied cognition are.

  2. Not a comment, it’s a question – sorry for posting it wrongly.
    Here’s the question: What is cognitive economy? Sometimes philosophers and psychologists evaluate proposals on the graounds that they fare well/bad at cognitive economy (e.g. on-the-fly concept views, like Barsalou’s, would avoid the storage cost of concepts in semantic memory, etc.).

    Any suggestion about what to look at to see whether cognitive economy is a myth or not?

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