Saturday, 30 May 2015

Why Brandom Thinks Analytic Philosophy Has Failed Cognitive Science

In anticipation for UCD's upcoming Summer Institute in American Philosophy entitled "The Reaches of Pragmatism," here is a piece by Robert Brandom called "How Analytic Philosophy Has Failed Cognitive Science."  Spoiler alert: the reason analytic philosophy has failed cognitive science is because, according to Brandom, "we have failed to communicate some of the most basic ideas, failed to explain their significance, failed to make them available in forms useable by those working in allied disciplines who are also professionally concerned to understand the nature of thought, minds, and reason" (Brandom, 2009, p. 121).  In this way, it reminded me of Abi's question related to the possibility/extent of interdisciplinary accounts of consciousness, cognition, etc.

This text is somewhat analytical, but I thought it captured the complexity of concepts, which is perhaps partly what we were referring to in our last class when utilizing the folk notion of 'thoughts'.  After all, we don't always think with mental imagery, right?  I found it interesting that Fred mentioned the novelist when discussing imagination, but we must also be careful there - many layers exist in such a domain, and indeed, in most domains in which we 'think'.  For example, in the case of reading a book, one can have the experience of interacting with the text whereby, in a very sensorimotor fashion, the eyes (and body as a whole) move and interact with the page in front of them with the appropriate sensorimotor contingencies.  There could also be a mouthing of the words, perhaps similar to when one moves upon orienting themselves through mental imagery of some sort (e.g. Kale's example of thinking of a gate code and actually moving one's fingers).  But these interactions seem of a different kind than the inspiration of thought that occurs in reading - the comprehension of the story as it unfolds, the interpretation of meaning from words on a page.  Thus, the phenomenal experience of reading a book is more than simply the phenomenal experience of interacting with that physical object (an example of which might be 'reading' a book in a language you do not know).  It may still be possible to mouth the words (assuming you ascribed some level of correlation between certain sounds and certain letters or characters), but such an activity might be more properly described as labelling in the Brandom-described sense or would be perhaps reminiscent of Searle's Chinese room.

In this article, Brandom draws on Frege to outline a conceptual hierarchy (this is a pun because it is both hierarchial as a concept and a hierarchy of concepts - I know, try to contain your laughter).  This structure includes:
1) "concepts that only label and concepts that describe,"
2) "the content of concepts and the force of applying them,"
3) "concepts expressible already by simple predicates and concepts expressible only by complex predicates" (Brandom, 2009, p. 121-122).

In other words, this article highlights the differences between concepts at the classificatory level, concepts at the descriptive level, and ingredient content, constructed through discriminatory/rational, synthetic logical, and analytic concept formation, respectively.

The reason Brandom thinks such information is invaluable to cognitive science is because he believes cognitive science (and other such disciplines: psychology, linguistics, computer science, etc.) focuses on concepts at the empirical level, whereas analytic philosophy conducted according to Brandom/Frege is not based on empiricism but on the '(meta)conceptual' and 'normative' logical and semantic analysis of what a concept fundamentally is.  In Brandom's words, "Failure to appreciate the distinctions and relations among fundamentally different kinds of concepts has led, I think, to a standing tendency systematically to overestimate the extent to which one has constructed (in AI) or discerned in development (whether by human children or non-human primates) or reverse-engineered (in psychology) what we users of the fanciest sorts of concepts do" (Brandom, 2009, p. 133).  Please don't kill me - I'm just the messenger.  However, I also think that it is important to address the various ways in which we use terms such as 'concept' or 'thought' or 'idea' in cognitive science.  The elitism shown here I would shy away from, but in my opinion, I do think this article is ultimately worth a read to help us flesh out the concept of...concepts.

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