In a previous post, I briefly discussed the relationship between connectionism and associationism. Thanks in part to the helpful feedback I received, I have now revised the relevant section of the paper I am working on. I’d be interested in any additional comments or references that anyone might have. The text of the paper reads as follows:
The relationship between neurocomputational approaches and associationism is more complex than many suppose. We should distinguish between strong and weak associationism. Strong associationism maintains that association is the only legitimate explanatory construct in a theory of cognition [cf. Fodor 1983, p. 27]. Weak associationism maintains that association is a legitimate explanatory construct along with others such as the innate structure of neural systems. (We should also note that there are different associative mechanisms, some of which are more powerful than others; comparing associative mechanisms goes beyond the scope of this paper.)
To be sure, some connectionists profess strong associationism [e.g., Rosenblatt 1958, p. 387]. But that is beside the point, because connectionism per se is consistent with weak associationism or even the complete rejection of associationism. Some connectionist models do not rely on association at all—a prominent example being the work of McCulloch and Pitts . And weak associationism is consistent with many theories of cognition including classicism. A vivid illustration is Alan Turing’s early proposal to train associative neural networks to acquire the architectural structure of universal Turing machines [Turing 1948, Copeland and Proudfood 1996]. In Turing’s proposal, association may explain how a network acquires the capacity for universal computation (or an approximation thereof), while the capacity for universal computation may explain any number of other cognitive phenomena.
Although many of today’s connectionists and computational neuroscientists emphasize the explanatory role of association, many of them combine association with other explanatory constructs (weak associationism) [cf. Smolensky and Legendre 2006, p. 479; Trehub 1991, pp. 243-5; Marcus 2001, pp. xii, 30]. What remain to be determined are which neural networks, organized in what way, actually explain cognition and which role association and other explanatory constructs should play in a theory of cognition.