Cognitive Perspectives on Communication: Interpretive and Critical Responses
Robert D. McPhee University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
The field of cognitive science is vast. It encompasses most of psychology, plus sizable chunks of other disciplines, and includes a growing segment of communication. By comparison, the number of interpretive scholars who have done work relevant to cognitive communication research is small indeed. But I think it is important to note the range of complementary work, too extensive to be cited here, from other disciplines, including philosophy (e.g., Searle, 1984), neurophysiology ( Edelman, 1989, 1992), linguistics ( Lakoff, 1987), physics ( Penrose, 1989), general postmodern studies ( Coward & Ellis, 1977; Henriques, Holloway, Urwin, Venn, & Walkerdine, 1984), and psychology (e.g., Bruner, 1990; Harre, 1984). Hence, this chapter does not represent the "opposition view" to the cognitive perspective, but a few rival streams of theory and research criticism. I have tried to formulate these in a way that has maximum pragmatic significance for cognitive communication research as well as theorizing. I not only believe that the cognitive perspective is founded on dubitable philosophical assumptions, but that those assumptions have also led to blind spots in the formulation of research questions and procedures.
Before beginning the substantive argument of this chapter, I need to explain what I mean by cognitive communication theory or research. The most commonsense meaning would be those theories that assume that people think about the interactions they are involved in, and that their thoughts lead to interactional differences. Frankly, I have no problems with that kind of theory involving thought, and I doubt that anyone else does. The "cognitive positions" I argue against in this chapter go farther than traditional common sense, to make three assumptions. First, they assume that "the cognitive system" has integrity as a distinct system with its own structure and processes, which should be studied as