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9.2: Towards a Cognitive Dialectic

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    A dialectic involves conflict which generates tension and is driven by this tension to a state of conflict resolution (McNeill, 2005). According to philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1931), ideas evolve through three phases: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Different approaches to the study of cognition can be cast as illustrating a dialectic (Sternberg, 1999).

    Dialectical progression depends upon having a critical tradition that allows current beliefs (theses) to be challenged by alternative, contrasting, and sometimes even radically divergent views (antitheses), which may then lead to the origination of new ideas based on the old (syntheses). (Sternberg, 1999, p. 52)

    The first two aspects of a dialectic, thesis and antithesis, are easily found throughout the history of cognitive science. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 present in turn the elements of classical, connectionist, and embodied cognitive science. I have assigned both connectionist and embodied approaches with the role of antitheses to the classical thesis that defined the earliest version of cognitive science. One consequence of antitheses arising against existing theses is that putative inadequacies of the older tradition are highlighted, and the differences between the new and the old approaches are emphasized (Norman, 1993). Unsurprisingly, it is easy to find differences between the various cognitive sciences and to support the position that cognitive science is fracturing in the same way that psychology did in the early twentieth century. The challenge to completing the dialectic is exploring a synthesis of the different cognitive sciences.

    One kind of tool that is becoming popular for depicting and organizing large amounts of information, particularly for various Internet sites, is the tag cloud or word cloud (Dubinko et al., 2007). A word cloud is created from a body of text; it summarizes that text visually by using size, colour, and font. Typically, the more frequently a term appears in a text, the larger is its depiction in a word cloud. The goal of a word cloud is to summarize a document in a glance. As a way to illustrate contrasts between classical, connectionist, and embodied cognitive sciences, I compare word clouds created for each of chapters 3, 4, and 5. Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) presents the word cloud generated for Chapter 3 on classical cognitive science. Note that it highlights words that are prototypically classical, such as physical, symbol, system, language, grammar, information, expression, as well as key names like Turing and Newell.

    word cloud 1.JPG
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\). Word cloud generated from the text of Chapter 3 on classical cognitive science.

    An alternative word cloud emerges from Chapter 4 on connectionist cognitive science, as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\). This word cloud picks out key connectionist elements such as network, input, hidden, output, units, connections, activity, learning, weights, and neural; names found within the cloud are McCulloch, Berkeley, Rescorla-Wagner, and Rumelhart. Interestingly, the words connectionist and classical are equally important in this cloud, probably reflecting the fact that connectionist properties are typically introduced by contrasting them with (problematic) classical characteristics. The word clouds in Figures \(\PageIndex{1}\) and \(\PageIndex{2}\) differ strikingly from one another.

    A third word cloud that is very different from the previous two is provided in Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\), which was compiled from Chapter 5 on embodied cognitive science. The words that it highlights include behavior, world, environment, control, agent, robot, body, nature, extended, and mind; names captured include Grey Walter, Clark, and Ashby. Once again, embodied and classical are both important terms in the chapter, reflecting that the embodied approach is an antithesis to the classical thesis, and is often presented in direct contrast to classical cognitive science.

    word cloud 2.JPG
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\). Word cloud generated from the text of Chapter 4 on connectionist cognitive science.
    word cloud 3.JPG
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\). Word cloud generated from the text of Chapter 4 on embodied cognitive science.

    Another way to illustrate the differences between the different approaches to cognitive science is to consider a set of possible dimensions or features and to characterize each approach to cognitive science in terms of each dimension. Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) presents one example of this manoeuvre. The dimensions used in this table—core ideas, preferred formalism, tacit assumption, and so on—were selected because I viewed them as being important, but the list of these features could be extended.

    Classical Cognitive Science Connectionist Cognitive Science Embodied Cognitive Science

    Core Ideas

    Mind as a physical symbol system

    Mind as a digital computer

    Mind as a planner

    Mind as creator and manipulator of models of the world

    Mind as sense-think-act processing

    Mind as information processor, but not as a digital computer

    Mind as a parallel computer

    Mind as pattern recognizer

    Mind as a statistical engine

    Mind as biologically plausible mechanism

    Mind as controller of action

    Mind emerging from situation and embodiment, or being-in-the-world

    Mind as extending beyond skull into world

    Mind as sense-act processing

    Preferred Formalism Symbolic logic Nonlinear optimization Dynamical systems theory
    Tacit Assumption Nativism, naive realism Empiricism Embodied interaction
    Type of Processing Symbol manipulation Pattern recognition Acting on the world
    Prototypical Architecture Production system (Newell, 1973) Multilayer perceptron (Rumelhart et al., 1986b) Behavior-based robot (Brooks, 1989)

    Prototypical Domain

    Language Problem solving

    Discrimination learning

    Perceptual categorization

    Locomotion Social interaction

    Philosophical Roots













    Some Key Modern Theorists





    J.A. Anderson








    Some Pioneering Works

    Plans And The Structure Of Behavior (Miller et al., 1960)

    Aspects Of The Theory Of Syntax (Chomsky, 1965)

    Human Problem Solving (Newell & Simon, 1972)

    Principles Of Neurodynamics (Rosenblatt, 1962)

    Parallel Models Of Associative Memory (Hinton & Anderson, 1981)

    Parallel Distributed Processing (McClelland & Rumelhart, 1986; Rumelhart & McClelland, 1986c)

    Cognition And Reality (Neisser, 1976)

    The Ecological Approach To Visual Perception (Gibson, 1979)

    Understanding Computers And Cognition (Winograd & Flores, 1987b)

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\). Contrasts between the three schools of thought in cognitive science.

    An examination of Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) once again reveals marked differences between the three approaches as described in this volume. Other features could be added to this table, but I suspect that they too would reveal striking differences between the three views of cognitive science, and would be less likely to reveal striking similarities.

    The illustrations so far—with the word clouds and with the table—definitely point towards the existence of theses and antitheses. An obvious tension exists within cognitive science. How might a synthesis be achieved to alleviate this tension? One approach to achieving synthesis in the cognitive dialectic may involve considering why the differences highlighted in Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) have arisen.

    One context for considering Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) is the Indian fable of the six blind men and the elephant, the subject of a famous nineteenth-century poem by John Godfrey Saxe (Saxe, 1868). Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant, and comes away with a very different sense of the animal. The one who touched the tusk likens an elephant to a spear, the one who felt the knee compares the animal to a tree, the one who grabbed the tail likens it to a rope, and so on. After each has explored their part of the elephant, they reconvene to discuss its nature, and find that each has a dramatically different concept of the animal. The result is a heated, and ultimately unresolved, dispute: “And so these men of Indostan / Disputed loud and long, / Each in his own opinion / Exceeding stiff and strong, / Though each was partly in the right, / And all were in the wrong!” (p. 260).

    To apply the moral of this story to the differences highlighted in Table \(\PageIndex{1}\), it is possible that the different approaches to cognitive science reflect differences that arise because each pays attention to different aspects of cognition, and none directs its attention to the complete picture. This view is consistent with one characterization of cognitive science that appeared at the cusp of the connectionist revolution (Norman, 1980).

    Norman (1980) characterized a mature classical cognitive science that had decomposed human cognition into numerous information processing subsystems that defined what Norman called the pure cognitive system. The core of the pure cognitive system was a physical symbol system.

    Norman’s (1980) concern, though, was that the classical study of the pure cognitive system was doomed to fail because it, like one of the blind men, was paying attention to only one component of human cognition. Norman, prior to the rise of either connectionist or embodied cognitive science, felt that more attention had to be paid to the biological mechanisms and the surrounding environments of cognitive agents.

    The human is a physical symbol system, yes, with a component of pure cognition describable by mechanisms. . . . But the human is more: the human is an animate organism, with a biological basis and an evolutionary and cultural history. Moreover, the human is a social animal, interacting with others, with the environment, and with itself. The core disciplines of cognitive science have tended to ignore these aspects of behavior. (Norman, 1980, pp. 2–4)

    Norman (1980) called for cognitive scientists to study a variety of issues that would extend their focus beyond the study of purely classical cognition. This included returning to a key idea of cybernetics, feedback between agents and their environments. “The concept has been lost from most of cognitive studies, in part because of the lack of study of output and of performance” (p. 6). For Norman, cognitive science had to consider “different aspects of the entire system, including the parts that are both internal and external to the cognizer” (p. 9).

    Norman’s (1980) position points out one perspective for unifying the diversity illustrated in Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): recognize that each school of cognitive science is, like each blind man in the fable, investigating an incomplete aspect of cognition and take advantage of this by combining these different perspectives. “I believe in the value of multiple philosophies, multiple viewpoints, multiple approaches to common issues. I believe a virtue of Cognitive Science is that it brings together heretofore disparate disciplines to work on common themes” (pp. 12–14).

    One illustration of the virtue of exploring multiple viewpoints in the study of single topics is Norman’s own work on design (Norman, 1998, 2002, 2004). Another illustration is the hybrid theory of seeing and visualizing (Pylyshyn, 2003c, 2007) described in Chapter 8, which draws on all three approaches to cognitive science in an attempt to arrive at a more complete account of a broad and diverse topic. The key to such successful examples is the acknowledgment that there is much to be gained from a co-operative view of different approaches; there is no need to view each approach to cognitive science as being mutually exclusive competitors.

    This page titled 9.2: Towards a Cognitive Dialectic is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Michael R. W. Dawson (Athabasca University Press) .

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