Philosophical arguments about methodology

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From Anthony Chemero, Radical Embodied Cognitive Science:

Imagine the scene: An academic conference. Two cognitive scientists, casual but friendly acquaintances, are chatting in a hotel bar.'

"So, what are you working on now?"

"I've been doing some stuff with [insert one of: ecological psychology, connectionist networks, dynamical modeling, embodied cognition, situated robotics, etc.]."

"But [insert name(s) here] already showed that that approach is hopeless. The paper was published in …"

"Yeah, yeah. I've read that one. I don't buy it at all. [Reinsert name(s) here] doesn't really get it. You see …"

If you're reading this, you've probably taken part in a conversation like this. In fact, nearly everyone working in cognitive science is working on an approach that someone else has shown to be hopeless, usually by an argument that is more or less purely philosophical. This is especially true of the not quite mainstream approaches listed above, the approaches that constitute the core of radical embodied cognitive science, the view I will describe and defend in this book. But it is also true for more mainstream computational cognitive science (e.g., Miller, Galanter, and Pribram 1960). We all know about the arguments that purport to show that our research can never succeed; indeed, nearly every book written by a philosopher begins with an argument that the competing approaches are hopeless. Yet, for some reason, we persist. Somehow we're only convinced by the philosophical arguments that everyone else's approaches are hopeless.

Chemero starts his introduction this way:

Jerry Fodor is my favorite philosopher.

I think that Jerry Fodor is wrong about nearly everything.

Knowing these two facts about me should be helpful for those who wish to understand what this book is all about. 

This reminded me of the first time I ever encountered Jerry Fodor.

It was the summer of 1966. I was seventeen years old, between high school and college, and I had lucked into a summer job running subjects for Jim Jenkins, who was spending a year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Arthur Koestler was there at the same time, and he organized a series of presentations, a couple of which I got to attend if I happened to be around delivering results to my boss. At one of these, Roman Jakobson (then 68 years old) gave a talk about something or another.

It might have been about oral traditions of epic poetry, but one reason that I've forgotten the subject matter of the talk is that I so vividly remember the exchange that took place afterwards.

Jerry Fodor (then 30 years old) was also at the center that year, and in the audience for this talk. After Jakobson finished, Fodor stood up and raised his hand, and on being recognized, he asked a question that began, as academic questions sometimes do, with a long statement.

Jakobson, he observed, was well known to be a leading exponent of structuralist linguistics. Structuralism, as was also well known, was methodologically committed to procedures of segmentation and classification applied recursively to sequences of sounds, and the resulting strings of phonemes, morphemes, words, and phrases. These procedures could be shown to be nothing but a formally less rigorous implementation of a context-free grammar. And Noam Chomsky had clearly demonstrated that context-free grammars were incapable in principle of modeling human language, failing for example to capture the regularities of the English respectively construction.

So, Fodor asked somewhat angrily, why was Jakobson still going around giving talks, as an exponent of an approach that had been demonstrated to be hopelessly inadequate?

In responding, Jakobson began by noting that perhaps these issues were not critically relevant to the analysis of the meter of Serbo-Croatian folk epics (or whatever he had been talking about). But really, he continued, the questioner was in his opinion exaggerating the extent of the differences between his own approach and what he called "my friends the generative linguists".

"For example," he continued, "there is a young man at M.I.T. whose ideas about semantic primitives I find very interesting. His name is Fodor — perhaps you know him?"

It's possible that this was an ironic exchange between two people who knew one another well, having overlapped in Cambridge academia for two or three years at that point. But it didn't seem so to me at the time, since Fodor hadn't greeted Jakobson or given any other indication of previous acquaintance; and if Jakobson knew who Fodor was, he did a good job of pretending otherwise.

In any case, it was the only time that I've ever seen Jerry Fodor at a loss for words.




  1. Eric P Smith said,

    May 7, 2014 @ 9:52 am

    In fact, nearly everyone working in cognitive science is working on an approach that someone else has shown to be hopeless, usually by an argument that is more or less purely philosophical.

    I wonder if this is because mind is (or appears to be) so full of paradox that every approach appears to be hopeless. Each researcher overlooks the hopelessness of his own pet theory but can quite see the hopelessness of all the others.

    [(myl) "More or less purely philosophical" arguments that a given research methodology is hopeless can be found in many areas that don't generally count as "cognitive science". I've seen arguments of this kind about fields as diverse as ethnography and genome-wide association studies.]

  2. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 7, 2014 @ 5:06 pm

    I'm trying to understand Chemero's seemingly paradoxical remark and whether it is intended ironically. (We lack both tone of voice cues and perhaps some context.) Does he like Fodor despite his wrongness because he is an amiable fellow when not saying wrong things? (One could parse the sentence perhaps as meaning "my favorite person qua person whose day job coincidentally happens to be 'philosopher,' which is not to say I recommend anyone read any of that junk he writes at his day job.") Does he think that Fodor has a knack for saying distinctive and functionally useful sorts of wrong things that somehow inspire others to figure out correct things that they might not have stumbled into without Fodor's error to react against? (Like the point in a prior thread that it is possible that Paul de Man might himself have been talking sheer nonsense but something about exposure to that particular nonsense in a particular environment was still causally responsible for leading other literary scholars to do non-nonsensical work.) Does he have such a low opinion of modern academic philosophy (and/or the prior millenia of self-deluding handwaving all the way back to whichever pre-Socratic dude thought Everything Is Water) as a sterile dead end, such that being-right-about-things is simply not something one reasonably expects from a philosopher, so one must pick a favorite philosopher qua philosopher by reference to some other criterion/a?

  3. John Coleman said,

    May 7, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

    In re. Brewer :


    (Maybe this illustrates why I don't get on well with a lot of philosophy.)

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 7, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

    MYL: "one reason that I've forgotten the subject matter of the talk is that I so vividly remember the exchange that took place afterwards."

    I would also have believed you if you'd said that was one reason you remembered the subject matter of the talk. This may be a non-philosophical argument that cognitive science is impossible (or almost impossible).

    J. W. Brewer: I don't know what Chemero meant either, but I see a very long distance between "I think that Jerry Fodor is wrong about nearly everything" and your phrases "junk", "self-deluding handwaving", and "sterile dead dend".

    Though not a philosopher, I have some sympathy with the idea that being right is a lot to expect from them. Also with the idea that one reads the best philosophers to be in contact with great minds, not to learn the truth.

    A particular sort of "distinctive and functionally useful" thing in philosophy is clarifying the issues, even if one picks the wrong side.

    Finally, there's a sense in which Newton was wrong about nearly everything in physics, but he's still a giant whose shoulders we can stand on.

  5. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 7, 2014 @ 5:54 pm

    Well, there's the rub. Do we have progress in philosophy the way we have progress in physics, or even in (let us hope) linguistics? And Newton is still, you might say, approximately right in the sense that straight-up Newtonian physics will get you close enough to the "right" answer for practical purposes in many workaday contexts. Can you say the same of (to pick a rough contemporary) Leibniz qua philosopher?

    My own take can perhaps be seen from the fact that it was attempting to read Hegel as a college sophomore 30 years ago this fall that drove me to major in linguistics rather than philosophy, but I am more interested in figuring out Chemero's take, and I don't claim that my three proposed readings exhaust the possibilities.

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 7, 2014 @ 6:03 pm

    Also, when I want to be in contact with great minds with no particular concern for learning the truth about anything, I usually just read poetry. Some people seem to read e.g. Nietzsche for a certain aesthetic pleasure, as if he were a poet. Perhaps other people read Fodor in that fashion. Most poets of Fodor's generation are not to my personal taste, but de gustibus etc.

  7. James said,

    May 7, 2014 @ 7:05 pm

    I thought it was pretty clear what he was saying about Fodor: brilliant and interesting, stimulating and exciting, but not correct. That doesn't seem paradoxical to me at all.

    I think J. W. Brewer is right that philosophy does not make progress in the way that physics does. But I think we understand many things better now because of philosophy. For example (one that I have been thinking about recently), Angelika Kratzer's work on modals and conditionals was inspired by David Lewis's work.

    What puzzles me is the bizarre claim that "nearly every book written by a philosopher begins with an argument that the competing approaches are hopeless." This is obviously not true, and doesn't even seem to me to be a good exaggeration (any more than it would be a good exaggeration to say the same of books of linguistics, say).

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 7, 2014 @ 7:25 pm

    @James: I think in context he may mean "nearly every book written by a philosopher _about cognitive science_ begins with an argument" etc etc. I haven't read enough books of that particular subgenre to know how sound or bizarre that claim is as an empirical matter. The first chapter (from which that sentence is taken) is titled "Hegel, Behe, Chomsky, Fodor," so if those strike you as four of a kind (or you're at least interested in the claim that they might be), you might want to read on.

    The end of the intro claims that if you buy into his view of how to do cognitive science, a certain set of traditional problems that philosophers have wrestled with for a long time are "solved or dissolved" with "comparative ease." This is at least consistent with the notion of philosophy as a sort of pre-scientific fumbling around that may at best serve a valuable historical role (sort of a praeparatio evangelica concept) until the right sort of science for the particular set of problems is developed. But it may also be consistent (limited free preview of the book obviously limits the ability to put snippets into their context etc.) with a more generous view.

  9. James said,

    May 7, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

    You may be right (about the quantifier restriction).
    I have not read a large sample of philosophy books about cognitive science. Neither David Chalmers' nor Ned Block's books on consciousness fit the bill.

    My guess is that what Hegel, Behe, Chomsky, and Fodor have in common is some idea that evolution can't explain some interesting feature of human thought — is that it? But in my experience people claiming to be able to solve or dissolve profound questions with comparative ease generally turn out to be confused, so I doubt I'll read it.

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 7, 2014 @ 8:21 pm

    The contention as to H, B, and C is that they all claim(ed) on a priori grounds that perhaps seem dubious upon closer inspection that empirical inquiry into a particular area could not possibly contradict a suspiciously empirical-sounding claim about reality (or confirm a rival claim about reality), so why bother trying to do the research since it's an inevitable waste of time. My attention drifted before I got to how he fit Fodor into this pattern. To the extent he uses "Hegelian" as a pejorative, my sympathies are with him, but I suppose there are many potential anti-Hegelianisms out there (perhaps in principle infinitely many?) and they probably can't all be right, or even interesting.

  11. James said,

    May 7, 2014 @ 8:53 pm

    Fodor has an odd argument that natural selection cannot possibly explain many things it is supposed to explain, on the grounds that explanation creates a kind of intensional context, whereas selection can't distinguish coextensive properties. (That is an oversimplification, but it's the basic idea.) What Darwin Got Wrong It's a conceptual point about explanation and not an empirical claim, but he does belong in the group. Now I think Chomsky might be the odd man out, actually.

  12. leoboiko said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 9:48 am

    Apparently MIT Press is selling excerpts now; for $3 we can purchase 56 virtual pages of Radical Embodied Cognitive Science and the first couple chapters online, including the part on "Hegelian arguments" discussed here. On the other hand, the full book costs just $10 digitally and $12 on paperback, so I'm not sure the "bit" is such a good deal.

  13. Jeff W said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

    Now I think Chomsky might be the odd man out, actually.

    Well, here’s how psychologist Andrew D.Wilson, who is in the same radical embodied cognitive camp (“anti-representationalist”) as Anthony Chemero, describes Chemero’s grouping of Hegel, Behe, Chomsky and Fodor:

    We are often told our programme of research in cognitive science are doomed to failure if it doesn't include something someone thinks is essential to cognition (such as representations). We also tend to simply ignore the argument, however, or at least not find it compelling, because our approach might not think representations (for example) are indeed necessary features of a cognitive system; not having them is therefore not a problem.

    These arguments do not ever hinge on empirical results; they are rationalist. They also don't even tend to show up in other sciences but are rampant (although still unconvincing) in cognitive science. Why are these two things true?

    Chemero lays out four examples of these arguments:
    •Hegel's argument that there couldn't be a planet between Mars and Jupiter, because that would violate a specific mathematical progression he thought dictated the location of the planets;
    •Behe's creationist argument that biological systems are irreducibly complex, and thus couldn't have evolved;
    •Chomsky's argument that children acquire a grammar without enough reinforcement or information (the poverty of stimulus argument);
    •Fodor & Pylyshyn rejecting connectionist networks as models of cognitive systems because these networks are neither systematic nor representational in the manner of human cognition

    These arguments all have the same basic flavour: on the basis of some claims for which there might not be any evidence (e.g. Hegel's claim that the distance between planets must follow an a priori mathematical progression) you simply rule out a competing hypothesis. These are not empirical claims; they aren't based on data, but on a theoretical assumption. Astronomy ignored Hegel and found asteroids; biology ignores Behe and continues the job of collecting empirical evidence for evolution. But cognitive science gives these sorts of arguments (Hegelian arguments) a lot of weight.

    [emphasis in the original]
    which is pretty close to what J. W. Brewer said.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 5:15 pm

    Well, Chomsky's still the odd man out insofar as Wilson's last paragraph didn't have a clause on the order of "linguistics ignored/ignores Chomsky and thus continues to progress as an empirical science" . . .

  15. leoboiko said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 8:55 pm

    Well Chemero's beef is with a priori philosophical criticism condemning an entire method of investigation as hopeless before they even start. And he thinks that being affected by Hegelian arguments is a sign of an immature field (in the Kuhnian sense), which is his own self-evaluation of cognitive science. So this would put Chomsky & Fodor in one camp (immature fields, philosophical criticism has impact and starts cliques) versus Hegel and Behe in the other (mature fields, gave no heed to Hegelian admonitions and just carried on with their empirical research).

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