Upon this rock I take my seat

I’ve always suspected ‘Cognitive Science’ to be something of a fraud *, perpetuated on the Academy by philosophers who sought to strengthen their claim on their turf through reference to the developing AI research and to neurosciences (which, despite all claims, remain in their infancy). It hinges on such notions as, that when we interact with the world we are computationally running through concepts that somehow have neurological analogues. (X set of brain functions equals Y set of concepts, leading to Z set of behaviors.) (I see an object, the neurons fire into a concept, e.g., ‘chair,’ and I behave accordingly – ‘sit down.’)

When chairs were handcrafted, the concept ‘chair’ would necessarily intersect the concept ‘carpentry,’ so that when one wanted a chair, one would need to think of either one’s own carpentry skills, or the skills of another one would need to ask, pay, or bargain with in order to have the chair constructed. (This would not be true in cultures where mats were preferred in use for resting one’s legs.) When assembly line production was developed, this necessary intersection with carpentry disappeared, which means that, without notice, the very idea of ‘chair’ had been redefined.

Imagine that I’m on a hike, and find a rock on which to sit when needing rest. Finding it comfortable, and having the resources to do so, I have the rock moved into my home. I grow so fond of it that I remove all recognizable chairs from my home, and even go out for another rock just as comfortable, which I also move into my home. So a friend visits, and I say, ‘take a seat,’ indicating the rocks. At first my friend may be confused, but recognizing that the rocks are of the height to provide rest on the legs when seated upon, and finding the rocks comfortable, we sit together and carry on the visit without much further remarks on the matter.

As my friend, and other guests, visit repeatedly, I continue offering the rocks as objects for use in sitting restfully, sometimes referring to them as ‘seats’ but sometimes, with increasing frequency, as ‘chairs.’ Eventually, my repeated guests understand that, in the context of my house, the word ‘chair’ refers to the rocks.

Something like this did occur with the dissemination of the ‘beanbag chair.’ Some of us still remain uncomfortable with this translation, others don’t think much about it one way or another. What happened is that the concept ‘chair’ has been either driven into total abstraction (‘any object upon which to rest’) – or revealed as always a matter of shared usage signifying particular instruments contingent upon given contexts.

For centuries, the concept ‘atom’ included the understanding ‘smallest unit of matter.’ Eventually, scientists discovered an entity that seemed smaller than any other, and that, through combinative interactions, formed all larger material entities, so called it ‘atom.’ Then it was discovered that this entity was composed of other entities – but since the word ‘atom’ was in play, scientists dubbed these newly discovered entities ‘sub-atomic,’ perhaps in order to preserve the history of the word ‘atom.’ Then even smaller particles were discovered, until the word ‘atomic’ now only signifies the initially discovered entity and the uses we can make of it; the original usage is of only historical interest; and the understanding ‘smallest unit of matter’ is only of use in constructing hypothesis within given research enterprises.

The kind of schematic of representationalism ‘cognitive scientists’ work with can’t really account for such continual modifications of signification in play as usage; and neuroscience won’t really reveal the social dynamic of it.


*The Latinate ‘cognitive science’ translates into Greek as: ‘epistemology.’

It is notable that many of the earlier ‘Cognitive Science’ advocates later went on to do traditional logical analysis of language (e.g., Lakoff or Fodor), or turned their backs on philosophy to go into AI or neuroscience research directly.


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