Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Cognitivism: Whose Party Is It Anyway?

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Cognitivism: Whose Party Is It Anyway?

Article excerpt

Craik has asked the question, "Will cognitivism bury experimental psychology?" His answer was that, rather than being buried by cognitivism, experimental psychology has been abandoned by what he perceived to be the rationalists of cognitive science. Ultimately, however, he argued that cognitive science will have to come back to experimental psychology because psychological questions are empirical and cannot be answered by rationalist means. Using his comments as a point of departure, it is argued in this paper that this belief is based upon a misapprehension about cognitive science. Cognitive science is not rationalist. It is scientific, but redresses an imbalance in the relative regard with which theory and data are typically held by experimental psychologists. It is argued that rather than being buried by, or abandoned by, cognitive science, experimental psychology should merge with the new theoretical renaissance represented by the cognitive scientific movement.

In a recent article in Canadian Psychology, F.I.M. Craik (1991) offered the following observation on the last few decades of development in cognitive science:

At first, psychologists seemed delighted that philosophers, linguists, computer scientists and others were increasing their interest in cognitive phenomena. These feelings were enhanced when neuroscientists also evinced a growing interest in the underlying mechanisms of cognition during the 1980's. As the decade wore on, however, traditional experimental psychologists increasingly found themselves in the position of hosts who have organized a wonderful party only to discover that the many new friends they have invited get on rather too well with each other. So well in fact that they start drifting off in groups, talking animatedly among themselves, and quite forgetting their hosts. By this view, then, cognitivism has not so much 'buried' experimental psychology, but abandoned it; declared it boring, old - hat, and irrelevant.

I agree with Craik that this is the impression many experimental psychologists have of cognitive science. I have heard similar sentiments in seminars, at conferences, and in the halls of the department. I believe however that they are based upon a number of misapprehensions psychologists typically harbour about the histories of the relevant disciplines, and about the relation of theory to data, philosophy to psychology, and rationalism to empiricism.

The aim of this paper is not to respond to Craik specifically, although his comments constitute my point of departure. The aim is to address generally what I take to be traditional psychologists' misapprehensions concerning cognitive science. I will begin by examining the histories of philosophy and computer science with regard to interest in cognitive phenomena. Then I will discuss the place of experimental psychology in the current cognitivist Zeitgeist. What I intend to demonstrate is that cognitivism was never really psychology's "party" to begin with, and that whatever feelings of resentment there have been are misplaced. I will argue that experimental psychology is not, in principle, "boring, old - hat, and irrelevant", nor does anyone really believe it to be. The problem is a practical one: experimental psychology is often carried out without reference to current cognitive theorizing in philosophy and computer science. The work of experimental psychologists is, thus, often found to be of little importance to cognitive scientists. Since experimental psychology, the institution,(f.1) holds no exclusive claims on cognitive psychology, the topic, cognitive science continues its work without much reference to traditional experimental psychology.

1. Recent History of the Component Disciplines of Cognitive Science

First, let us look at the histories of the disciplines most central to cognitive science. Among the most proud and confident proclamations one reads in histories of psychology are those beginning with the words, "When psychology parted ways with philosophy and became an experimental science. …

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