Symbols, Computation, and Intentionality: A Critique of the Computational Theory of Mind

By Black, John | The Review of Metaphysics, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Symbols, Computation, and Intentionality: A Critique of the Computational Theory of Mind


Black, John, The Review of Metaphysics


HORST, Steven W. Symbols, Computation, and Intentionality: A Critique of the Computational Theory of Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. xix + 427 pp. Cloth, $45.00--One cannot summarize the intent of this insightful and engaging book better than the author himself: "The thesis ... is that CTM [the Computational Theory of Mind] does not provide a solution to the philosophical problems that it is heralded as solving--indeed, it involves some deep confusions about computers, symbols, and meaning--but that this does not undercut the possibility that the computer paradigm may provide an important resource ... for the development of a mature science of cognition" (p. 3).

The main argument against the philosophical pretensions of CTM, as espoused by Fodor and Pylyshyn, is that its attempt to explain the intentionality of mental states by representing them as relations to a special class of symbols--mental representations, tokens of the Language of Thought--is circular. According to Horst's "Semiotic Analysis," there are many ways to be a symbol, but each involves either the intentions of a symbol-user, or the understanding of a symbol-interpreter, and a set of conventions governing symbol-use and interpretation whose existence depends upon that of intentional mental states, namely those possessed by the members of the community for whom the symbol is a symbol. If what it is to be a symbol depends upon the intentionality of mental states, then the notion of a symbol cannot be used to explain what it is for a mental state to be intentional.

The legitimate role which Horst assigns to CTM is not in philosophy of mind but in empirical research. Exploiting functional isomorphisms between machines and minds, computational models, he thinks, can furnish valuable concepts for what he calls the mathematization of cognitive science. That is, they "might provide a rigorous language for characterizing the system of causal interrelations between psychological phenomena, and at the same time ... assurance that this characterization can be realized in a physical mechanism ... " (p. 323). What's more, the achievement by cognitive science of these two requirements of scientific maturity might occur in such a way as to incorporate intentional states into its theoretical paradigm. …

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